Last week, in part one of Beatdom’s literary discussion series, we debated the impact of the Beats (and other writers) on “crap writing”. This week we’re looking at a more controversial topic – that of substance use and abuse, and its impact upon the world of literature.
There’s a lot known and a lot assumed about the use of substances – illegal and otherwise – by writers and artists. From Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Hunter S. Thompson, drink and drugs are often seen as a prerequisite for artistic enlightenment. Both as subject and fuel, they are frequently associated with great works of art and literature.
The writers of the Beat Generation were hardly strangers to intoxication. William S. Burroughs was a notorious heroin addicted, whose books – including Junky – were filled with references to illegal drugs of all sorts. He famously travelled to South America in search of the mysterious drug, yage. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road shocked readers with its depiction of bohemian life – replete with marijuana smoking – and was famously written with the aid of Benzedrine (or bennies, as they were then called). Allen Ginsberg was no stranger to drugs, either. He used marijuana and LSD to expand his mind.
Drugs very definitely take on a hip appearance in the context of the Beat Generation. They fueled the stories and sometimes helped shape the writing. As the Beat Generation morphed into the counter-culture of the sixties, drugs continued to play a tremendous role in the creation of art, music and literature.
However, one must question what role exactly substances take in the creation of art. Kerouac wrote about smoking pot, and did so with the aid of the Benzedrine that allowed him to embark on epic writing sessions. But to what extent did they hinder him? Booze became a tremendous issue in his later years. Did it dampen his style or hinder his creativity?
Hunter S. Thompson wrote about drugs, and it is a subject of debate whether or not he wrote on drugs. Drugs became a part of his personality and it is very possible he exaggerated his drug use for artistic and promotional effect. In the end, though, did years of substance abuse tear away at his mind and body?
I’m not trying to argue either way. Honestly, I believe drugs can open the doors of perception for some, and close them to inspiration for others. Drink can help some writers sit down and type, and blur others’ minds into a cloud of useless gibberish.
But if we are to take the approach that says drink and drugs can be of use to writers and artists as both subject and fuel, then what substances are most useful?
Benzedrine famously helped Kerouac. LSD helped numerous artists explore their minds. Alcohol is near inseparable from the works of Charles Bukowski. These days K-2 is the hip new drug.
What, dear reader, is your opinion?