Writers and Drugs

The other day I mentioned in conversation that we often romanticize jazz musicians, thinking that they’re usually best enjoyed once they are destroyed by some kind of awful oppression: Billie Holiday and the way her husband used heroin as a leash on her, for example, or the way Charlie Parker was pretty much controlled by his additions. Even Coltrane after he went clean had an air of a man who’d “seen the air of other planets” (to crib a line from the German poet Stefan Georg).

It seems the same is true of writers… the romanticization, I mean. From Arts & Letters Daily, a link to an article about writers and whether they need drugs more than other people

Constant sobriety is not a natural or pleasant condition, and intoxicants are an essential part of life and literature. “Life is an incurable disease,” Abraham Cowley wrote in 1656, and until the 20th century there was little shame attached to using drugs as a crutch to help with life’s emotional strains or as an aid to productivity in work. Sir Clifford Allbutt, the great Victorian physician on whom George Eliot modelled Dr Lydgate in Middlemarch, believed that all human beings required drugs “to soothe the nervous system, to restore it after fatigue”. Even opium, he wrote, could be used “not as an idle or vicious indulgence, but as a reasonable aid in the work of life”.

The article is mostly a litany of cases of writers using drugs, but interesting to read. The author’s definition of “drug” seems curiously narrow, though: interestingly, I cannot remember in all my years at creative writing school, ever meeting a writer who refused to drink alcohol. If one includes liquor, I think every writer in the world uses drugs.

I love the conclusion of the article, anyway, where it’s found that writers are “pretty much like everyone else”.

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