Writers and Alcohol

by | Mar 14, 2007 | Approaches to Writing, Literature

I’m currently engrossed in Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, one of those important books that I’ve somehow managed to miss up until now.  It is certainly a work of genius, and just as unmistakably the work of an alcoholic.  The Wikipedia entry for Lowry, pulling no punches, includes the following pithy sentence: “By the time he graduated in 1931, the twin obsessions which would dominate his life—alcohol and literature—were firmly in place.”

Do other sorts of artists have the same sort of moth-and-candle attraction for Betaübungsmitteln, means of deadening oneself, that writers so often do?  Someone should do a comparative study, choose a representative hundred or so artists in different fields and see how many drank to excess, how many were hooked on heroin, and so on.  My guess is you’d uncover some interesting patterns.  For example, I can think of any number of rock ‘n’ roll musicians (Janice Joplin, Jimi Hendrix) who produced fabulous work while riding the horse (jazz players, too, by the dozen) until it killed them, but very few writers.  Lyrics aside, music is a much more abstract art than writing.  A C-sharp does not ‘mean’ anything, whereas even the most abstract writing depends on words, even made-up ones, being able to conjure up some sort of meaning in the reader’s mind.  Okay, there’s stuff like Kerouac’s attempt to write the sound of the surf at Big Sur, but at that point he’s trying to use words as substitutes for musical instruments, and frankly not doing a very convincing job of it.

Heroin, I’ve been told by people who ought to know, takes you to a place where meaning, logic, sense, no longer seem important and may even cease to exist entirely.  A very ‘clean’ high, someone once explained, undisturbed by very much at all in the way of thought.

Without thought, a writer is dead in the water.  My own problem, as a writer, with thought, and I don’t think I’m a unique case, is that there are so many thoughts going through my head that the trick is to sort them out, choose one and follow it and catch it and hold on in the midst of the maelstrom.  There, you see, is that pesky ADD again, which I suspect an awful lot of writers (and artists in general, for that matter) suffer from, and which many of them, I suspect, attempt to keep in check with alcohol.  Which works to some extent though, fortunately, for me it doesn’t work as well as a good bicycle ride.

Winston Churchill, an artist in his own way, drank his first Scotch of the day before getting out of bed, and seems never to have been both awake and perfectly sober at the same time.  Despite this, or possibly because of it, he was arguably the single most important factor in the defeat of Hitler’s Germany, so there is something to be said for his method.  Geoffrey Firmin, the protagonist of Under the Volcano, requires rather more alcohol than Churchill did, but still spends the entire novel attempting to steer a course between sobriety and actual drunkenness.  He reminds me of Jack London, a highly over-rated writer who produced an entire book (John Barleycorn) about the evils of alcohol, a strange piece of self-delusional autobiography in which he protests ad nauseum that he is not an alcoholic while explaining, for example, that he switched from cocktails to straight whiskey because he did not have time to drink enough cocktails before lunch to reach a state in which he could make it though the meal without biting people’s heads off.