What would we think of Dante had he paid someone to go into hell for him? Such a scenario is, in fact, the exact figurative version of a creative individual funding their creativity with substance use. ‘Here’s half the ducats I have. Go; collect as much stuff on the failings of the human spirit in action and temptation as you can see. Oh, and fetch Beatrice back too if you can. See you soon!’

Whoever first married the creative and the illicit substance, history forgot. But, my God, what a match they made. Ever since that day, the created work and the bottle/blunt/line/syringe have been the It couple, arousing substantial interest and speculation wherever they venture, apart too but especially when together. Their chemical romance set new examples for measuring the love (or, for that matter, the hate) of a young creator’s life. And when the romance broke down in acrimony (as it always did)? That was our favourite part. What a match. What a mess.

Long after Ovid decided there was no poetry among the water drinkers, and after concluding many obituaries with ‘What an idiot, and what a life they led’, the juice remains. To paraphrase Socrates, who himself deserved a drink, an unexamined addiction is not worth kicking. So let’s pry: just what is the relationship like between the consumption of drugs and creative production?

To understand the popularity of the juice, we must first come to understand what suffering these creative types have to endure that so compels them to seek out-of-pharmacy medical help. Never mind that Rushton, Batey, Furnham and the good folks at the Karolinska institute have all found correlations between creativity and chequered mental health: artists are subject to many of the most abstracted types of fear and trepidation day-to-day. Even a penniless writer scribing in a squat will feel that in the blank page, in their lack of an audience, they have an all-purpose examiner, judge, lover and stalker. There is no purer terror, nor an easier way to confront the extent of our perceived inadequacies, than that of facing the blank page. History has been made upon it. You cannot handle it. The blank page must be sated or the lover will leave; its vast whiteness carries a burden of empty endeavour; its blankness values its writer; its endurance will grade the writer before it.

A similar fear holds musicians too, but it’s not so nearly methylated as the page because their medium, the air, is too abstract to inspire much literal fear. But its limits are its point of worry: what combination can we possibly make with just twelve notes that has not been done better, or before? Not only this, but an artist’s afternoon (always the longest part of the day) is composed of assessing the limits of themselves and of human nature, and most artists these days don’t have religious scripture as the necessary tonic. No, they need to harvest their transcendent relief from elsewhere, and from where? From the poppy field or from the potted hemp, of course.

What, then, do the artists themselves think? Are there those who believe that the acid tab and the spliff are the creative Virgil’s figures of guidance? Unlike the onlooker, particularly unlike the drug enthusiast, who will probably invest the drug with responsibility for all of an artist’s strangest moments, the artists themselves often view the drug in a utilitarian light. John Lennon, who is not archetypal as a creative who used drugs but whose instance is still notable (not least because of the extent and variety of his intake), when asked to pharmaceutically contextualise his mid-60s creativity with the Beatles, had this to say:

‘It’s like saying, “did Dylan Thomas write Under Milk Wood on beer?” What does that have to do with it? The beer is to prevent the rest of the world from crowding in on you. The drugs are to prevent the rest of the world from crowding in on you. I never wrote any better stuff because I was on acid’.

Likewise, Bob Dylan: critic Piero Scaruffi called his great single work ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ ‘the first ode to drugs’. Dylan himself was more of the view that he was ‘on drugs…just to keep going’.

Why people overestimate the role of drugs in facilitating the creative output of people like John Lennon is simple: because the achievement is so foreign and seems so great. We incorrectly assign the values of drugs and the value of effort and dedication and other itches of reality to ease our shame at our own perceived normality. It contextualises achievement both cosily and off-puttingly: ‘frazzle my mind and risk loss of ego to write “Quinn the Eskimo”? No thanks. I mean, I could, but no’. It is interesting, though, that musicians are far keener to debunk the effects of narcotics on their process than writers, and that artists rarely even have to make such debunkings. The secret must then lie somewhere in the process, the degree to which a given artist’s method is founded on craft or on anarchy.

Of course, it isn’t really as simple as all this. It’s not just the question of whether the creative mind could do with a kick or is perfectly fine without medical assistance. Whether they enable greater creativity or not, drugs hurt. Drugs scar, drugs do not leave you as you were once, only as you are after them, creative type or not. As much as one poet might feel emboldened to face the blank page having emptied his flask, the whiskey he has just drunk may well have nullified his powers to express or numbed his hand so that he may not write a single word. The novelist might write some decent prose while trolleyed but might waste a night writing deliquescent nonsense. Dante is practically synonymous with braving the inferno for righteous gain, a braving made easier with the drug, but Dante is also the titular acronym for a preventative initiative begun by the US’ National Drug Strategy. It all bears down to that exchange between MacDuff and the pissed-up Porter in Macbeth: ‘[Drink] provokes the desire but takes away the performance…it makes him and it mars him…makes him stand to and not stand to’.

Did Shelley’s affinity for opium write ‘Adonais’? Perhaps, but it most certainly aggravated the precarious teetering of a mind that was not satisfied with one suicide attempt. Did the whiskey in reach guide Hemingway’s hand? Maybe, but there is nothing to say that already potent works could not have been improved through measures of sober editing. All creatives seek the spring, art as pure as the blank page on which it began. Some assume that substances can help them get there; perhaps the substances create the illusion of the spring itself. For all those who lived to tell us that tale of inscrutable nature, many others did not, because they were trying too hard, too hastily to grasp that fullest potential. Too much juice and what art there could’ve been is simply gone.



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