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Where Have All the Artist-Addicts Gone?

THE QUESTION OF whether artists are more prone to abuse, or whether we’ve historically just liked to think they are, reverberated throughout the 20th century. The drinking and drug habits of various writers became a subject of morbid curiosity for their public, who continue to collect anecdotal evidence of addiction as if it were the key to understanding genius. When asked by “stupid psychiatrists” why he used heroin, the narrator in William S. Burroughs’s autobiographical first novel, “Junky” (1953), responded, “I need it to stay alive.”

The chest-thumping, romantic notions of writer-addicts are not exclusive to white men, though there is, of course, a double standard. For white men, intoxication has long been a kind of social currency, an interesting quirk of the mind, whereas women and minorities who enjoy themselves too much are breaking one of our last remaining cultural taboos. Americans don’t seem to experience the same curiosity regarding a Black or brown writer’s addictions but something closer to fear — indeed, the toxic myth of the Black drug user as a menacing criminal has fueled decades of racist laws that have overwhelmingly targeted and incarcerated anyone who isn’t white. Female addicts, too, are seen as not heroic but mentally ill. Heather Clark, early in her 2020 biography of Sylvia Plath, quotes the literary biographer Hermione Lee as writing, “Women writers whose lives involved abuse, mental illness, self-harm, suicide, have often been treated, biographically, as victims or psychological case histories first and as professional writers second.” For women artists, substance use is generally grouped under the larger umbrella of madness, historically a kind of ratline to institutionalization, often against their will, for women ranging from Zelda Fitzgerald to Britney Spears.

Which brings us to Papa. It would be impossible to discuss addiction among artists without mentioning the immense privilege Ernest Hemingway continues to enjoy as a standard-bearer of virile masculinity and genius, despite the fact that alcohol caused him enormous pain. In the 2020 Danish comedy “Another Round,” a group of friends experiment with spending most of their waking lives slightly drunk, citing a debunked idea that a constant, low level of intoxication — the equivalent of being perpetually under the influence of one to two glasses of wine — is the optimal state for human beings. (“You’re more relaxed, and poised and musical and open,” one of the friends says. “More courageous in general.”) They test this theory by holding themselves to what they claim, however dubiously, to be Hemingway’s own standard: Stop drinking each day by 8 in the evening in order to be fresh in the morning. The plan, like many involving drugs or alcohol, works well until it doesn’t.

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