Genius and Heroin:
The Illustrated Catalogue of
Creativity, Obsession, and Reckless Abandon
Through the Ages

http://www.harpercollins.com/books/9780061466410/Genius_and_Heroin/index.aspx

Review by Michael Largo

 


On Creativity and Self-Ruin:

Is a whale that beaches itself an act of creative self-destruction? What of the dove that soars to great heights and then for some unknown reason makes a beeline to the ground and splatters on the ground? What of the scorpion known to turn its deadly stinger on itself and die of its own venom. In nature and in the arts, there are unexplained anomalies.

From the dawn of civilization there has always been a fine line between creativity and self-destruction. An inherent compulsiveness is often required in art to master a level of original thought and superlative skill. It requires everything, some believe, even one\s own life. In Genius and Heroin I chronicled the lives of the famously talented in all fields, including writers, artists, musicians, actors, politicians, military leaders, and even scientists that entwined their genius with one of the many paths toward self-ruin.

For many, their greatness and their pain are inseparable. The price for genius and the pursuit of creativity at all costs were steep, even if it resulted with a statue in the town square, a book on the bestseller list, or a picture hanging in a museum. Whether their downfalls were from opiates, pills, alcohol, absinthe, or the slow-motion suicide of obsession, in Genius and Heroin I examined how the notoriously creative lived and died. I was fascinated with the age-old questionódid genius create their torment, or was it their anguish that created their genius. When Samuel Johnson observed: \\A man of genius is seldom ruined but by himself,\\ he had no idea in the variety of ways this could be achieved.

The means by which artists, writers and other innovative minds used to liberate their creative powers, even when they knew it would cause their death, presents an interesting correlation to the type of work they created. The alcoholic produced work differently than a heroin addict, or a speed freak, and contrasted to an artist stuck on an idea or obsession, although all equally deadly. There is also a connection involving the style of art produced to how they died. There\s a distinction in putting a noose around the neck, a bullet in the brain, or sticking your head in a gas oven as opposed to eating or drinking oneself to death, or overdosing on drugs. Although the result is the same, we search for a reason to make sense of such endeavors at the cost of sanity and even the slight semblance to normality.

Of the 500 lives and paths to greatness and ruin examined in Genius in Heroin, I concluded that alcohol and drug abuse for nearly 80% was ultimately detrimental to their creative output, especially if they lived past the age of 50, even if many of their best works were produced in the height of their addictions before it consumed them. For a few, less than 10%, their only remembered works of creativity were produced as a direct result of some form of drug or alcohol use. For the remaining percentage it had neither benefit or affect on their workóother than that it killed them. By examining some of the more lurid details, the rise and fall of those who made a mark on history and culture reveal a surprising link between creativity and self-destruction.

For the artist and ingenious personalities portrayed in this book the passion needed to pursue a creative endeavor required the adaptation of a different set of rules. The basic instinct of self-preservation became secondary to the desire to produce original works. This seems an unexplained glitch but was nevertheless part of the human psyche from the earliest attempts at art. For example, the artist behind the famous cave paintings found in Lascaux, France created his work 40,000 years ago. We don\t know if he had to forgo food to draw, or ate hallucinating mushrooms, or drank fermented berries to persist at painting on the wall in the damp, dim and precarious cave environment. Regardless of the details, the cave paintings were not done in one day, and required a dedicated passion, perhaps thought of as madness, especially when hunting mammoths or other time consuming activities needed for survival were of the most predominate concerns.

What drives creativity, at the cost of self, is a question science has yet to answer. Today, it\s vogue to view it as a mental illness. Just as bloodletting was once a cure prescribed to alleviate the excessive desires of \\mad artists,\\ today mental disorders are the assigned diagnoses to explain a creative anomaly. Vincent Van Gogh, for example, persisted at painting without accolades or financial gain for over fifteen years, and for this unexplainable passion has no less than 30 different medical conditions to account for his genius. Was it genius, or some form of mental illness the reason Van Gogh could do nothing else but paint? Is it drugs, drink or obsession that creative minds use to alleviate their condition, and the only means to allow genius to bloom unencumbered? Now, the genius of ruin is cut into jigsaw pieces and fit the portrait of the artist as a young bipolar. To disagree with the validity of this synopsis, in the age of prescribable disorders, would be dropping a match at the foot of my own burning at the stake, much as it was for those who questioned the science of bloodletting.

However, the artist as self-sacrifice to his art is a powerful magnet. To the immortal-mindset and inherent invincibility of youth, the image of a ruined life as a price to create immortal work seems an easy enough ticket to purchase. For example, no matter what school of literature one admires, it seems striking that many of the great writers were entangled with some form of obsession and devastation. When five of the seven American Nobel Laureates in Literature were alcoholic, that becomes a coincidence hard to ignore for a young writer who sets out to create work as equally memorable. Dead poets such as Keats, Bryon and Shelley made their young deaths part of the poignancy of the work, as it was the 20th century icons including, Plath, Woolf, Sexton and Berryman. How would Sylvia Plath\ line, \\The blood jet is poetry and there is no stopping it,\\ read today, if she hadn\t committed suicide and were alive, seen endorsing a product, say a medicine for diabetes or despression?