No Happy Ending for the Literary Lush

A review of The Road of Excess by Lynn Crosbie for The Globe and Mail that was originally published in print on January 25, 2003.

‘I don’t have a drinking problem. I get drunk, fall down, no problem.” This joke may not scintillate the sober amongst us, but for Edgar Allan Poe, who had it laminated over his Baltimore rec-room wet-bar, it was more compelling than the relentless screaming of his diabolical Raven. Next month, Lou Reed, who is no stranger to toxicity, releases a tribute to the writer and his irritating bird with The Raven, a double CD that features dramatizations of Poe’s stories, scored with unholy noises and other germane sound effects. Poe’s work still resonates strongly with artists, and stands as a template for any number of genres, including crime fiction, the contemporary gothic, and essentially everything neo-decadent and macabre. Unfortunately, his tragic life and death also exemplify what York University professor Marcus Boon, in his study of writers and substance abuse, deemed The Road of Excess. Over a century and a half ago, Poe was found in a red-light district alley, poisoned to death by alcohol and enacting the final days of Roderick Usher. Poe’s literary reputation is impeccable: He influenced a wide variety of writers, from the relatively lighter-hearted Oscar Wilde to the corpse-loving Charles Baudelaire, who could really get behind Poe’s infamous notion that “the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” His life, on the other hand, can only be summed up by what Jack London, also an alcoholic, referred to as “a long sickness,” filled with hours of “the white logic” that speaks to danger, and certain doom. When we think of writers as a community, we imagine that they are linked by shared sensibilities, like T. S. Eliot’s notion of the Metaphysical Poets; by a common interest in the great vowel shift; or by an exquisite sensitivity to the role of sibilance in poems about snakes. The truth is sadly more prosaic: Writers, in the main, are drunks, and always have been. I am surprised more AA meetings do not double as workshops or granting agencies, that entire microbreweries are not devoted to the production of “dark and stormy” beer. According to Donald W. Goodwin, author of Alcohol and the Writer, and chair of the psychiatry department at the University of Kansas Medical Center, writers are second only to bartenders in contracting, and dying from, cirrhosis of the liver. While social scientists have tried to link writers with madness, with little success (in spite of the overabundance of published lunatics), there are very few, if any, definitive scientific or statistical links between writers and the bottle. The known catalogue of alcoholic writers is virtually Homeric: Lord Byron, Dorothy Parker, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Eugene O’Neill, John Berryman, Anne Sexton, Gwendolyn MacEwen, John Steinbeck, Truman Capote, Delmore Schwartz and Jean Stafford are but a few writers who have paid closer attention to last call than to the composition of le mot juste. Critic Roy Porter, who has studied mad artists extensively, notes that it was Plato who argued “for the existence of a mystical, heaven-sent spirit or furor, through which a select few could be inspired.” It is this precise furor that the inebriate writer seeks, paradoxically, at the bottom of every glass: the inspiration that will transform a man such as The Lost Weekend’s Don Birnam from someone who is draining a bottle to someone who is hard at work on his novel The Bottle. If writers are unusually susceptible to dipsomania, it may be the nature of the enterprise. Eternally sitting at a desk feels less like the labour of an adult than the punishment of a child, who, while grounded, can only imagine the world going by. Albert Camus cited Sisyphus as classical mythology’s most potent symbol of artistic suffering and resignation. Odysseus too springs to mind: Lashed to the mast of their endeavour, most writers are not hale enough to resist the siren’s call of liquor, the call that suggests both surrender and satiation. Sadly, there is an enormous ocean between what alcohol inspires and what transpires when it is consumed. “Resignedly beneath the sky/ The melancholy waters lie,” Poe wrote in 1831, in The City in the Sea. The poem continues, to observe that “no ripples curl, alas!/ Along that wilderness of glass.” When Poe was found staggering the streets in 1849, he was not constructing rhymes or reason. He was speaking gibberish, intoxicated with a furor that is rooted in the obscene simplicity that underlies The Purloined Letter — the logic of alcoholism, the hidden condition of so many writers, lies right before their faces. It is antithetical to creativity, conjoined with tragedy: It is a “twofold luxury” that annihilates the artistry it seeks to enhance. Writers drink to lose their inhibitions, to conjure more freely and to uncork the genius believed to lie latent beneath sobriety. “Yet it is dreadful to believe in such atrocity,” in Poe’s words — words that failed him, and countless others, during their slow march toward the long sickness unto death.