WHAT MIGHT BE called “the artistic temperament” is a subject about which many people have grandiose, romantic notions. All those biopics with people staring hard out windows at beautiful scenes, pen in hand, bearing the fruits of louche genius while maintaining excellent dental hygiene. Whoever the culprit, we clearly like our geniuses to be “consumed” by their craft, and we like them tortured—and if possible, drunk. The idea, broadly put, is that the liquor frees up creative energy. Or else, that an artist drinks to soothe the ravages of creativity on his psyche.
Artists have rarely wanted to correct the public on this point. This was especially true of writers in the middle of the twentieth century, laboring in the long interval between Prohibition—-when writing, celebrity and drink got tangled up at the Algonquin Round Table and in the lives of modernists—and the 1970s. (Hard drugs slipped in after that but began to signify a certain cynicism rather than angst in the writer.) The trite liquor-soaked romance of their craft suited these writers, it seemed; it gave them a handy excuse. However many degenerate nights were lost at a bar, however many times a person might be rushed to a hospital with a suicide attempt, it was worth it. The blackouts and bad marriages and every sordid bit of it could be explained away by art with a capital A. Who wouldn’t trade a few years of misery to write something like Gatsby? Or A Farewell to Arms? Or “The Swimmer”? Or “Fern Hill”? Put that way, the math of art and drink comes out looking attractive, glamorous, in spite of the death and in spite of the suffering.