The Addict Mystique: Part One
Addiction is the consumptive bloody handkerchief of modernity.
Content warning: discussion of active use and suicide.
My gifts are unusual, I take no credit for that, but I ought to be able to take credit for the hardest and most self-sacrificing kind of lifelong work, and certain other qualities too…when the first volume of my most important work so far appeared, many predicted that I could not continue it and others predicted I could not bring it to a close. I did both—took me thirteen years, drinking like a madman too, some of the time. So why should I skulk around like a sneak-thief or a corporate people-robber who knows he is. What about that?1
The Suffering Poets
After a lifetime of repeated hospitalizations for alcoholism, American poet and National Book Award winner John Berryman committed suicide in 1972. As Berryman himself had noted a few years earlier, deaths of despair were not unusual among the authors and artists who traveled in his circles. Reading one of his poems, one imagines God as a Cronus figure, feasting on the innards of the modern geniuses:
I’m cross with god who has wrecked this generation.
First he seized Ted, then Richard, Randall, and now Delmore.
In between he gorged on Sylvia Plath.
That was a first rate haul. He left alive
fools I could number like a kitchen knife
but Lowell he did not touch.2
Berryman unabashedly conceptualizes his social circle as great—a “first rate haul” even for God. He thinks it odd that fellow National Book Award laureate Robert Lowell was spared. From Berryman’s perspective, all brilliant poets were marked for the slaughter; Lowell got away with something by avoiding such a fate.
But though Lowell’s death may not have been desperate, his life was. The Pulitzer Prize winner and architect of the confessional poetry movement was, like Berryman, repeatedly hospitalized—in his case, for bipolar disorder rather than alcoholism. His writings scream of suffering; he does not break Berryman’s mold. Lowell’s close friend and sometime muse Elizabeth Bishop followed the pattern even better. She was an alcoholic; her partner, the architect Lota de Macedo Soares, died of a drug overdose shortly after a release from long-term hospitalization.
A 2015 Atlantic article about Berryman uses the phrase poete maudit: the archetype of the cursed creative, the genius who lives on the margins of society.3 Perhaps the best example of the poete maudit is Delmore Schwartz—the same Delmore mentioned in the Berryman excerpt above. Schwartz was great friends with Lowell, who wrote that the two were “underseas fellows,” “nobly mad.”4 (These people all knew each other!) In a review essay, Algis Valiunas writes that the “tortured, prematurely extinguished lives” of Schwartz, Plath, Berryman, and Lowell, among others, are often interpreted as metonyms for the public’s pragmatic disinterest in art. In reality, he argues, their stories “are more various and complicated than that, involving manic-depression and alcoholism, as well as a poetic tradition that exalts personal torment in the service of high art.”5
Berryman’s poem excerpted above—Dream Song 153—identifies the suffering artist as a peculiarly modern tragedy, indexed to “this generation.” But the 27 Club gains a new member at least once a decade. Nor was Berryman’s generation the first afflicted: the phenomenon predates him by at least a hundred years. Nietzsche’s public outburst in the streets of Piedmont—often contemporarily considered the beginning of his “syphilitic madness”—occurred in 1889. Baudelaire was an opioid addict; Edgar Allan Poe, an alcoholic.6 So was Paul Verlaine, who coined the term “poete maudit.”7 Verlaine meant something very different by the phrase; he was lamenting public apathy toward his work. But it was his drunken rages that gave the term the meaning it has now.
The Addict Mystique
This is Part One of a post series. There will be more; this will be long. I’ll talk about the poete maudit. I’ll write about tuberculosis. I’ll invoke Nietzsche and maybe Adorno. Get comfortable; you are going to become more familiar with the concept of the tortured genius than you’d like.
It’s nothing new to point out that this archetype—the suffering artist—exists. But I intend to explore it from a more critical lens than is usually done. I want to link it to a cultural canard that leads nonaddicts to wistfully speculate about the interior lives of addicts. You are inundated with media that tells you we are beautiful in our suffering, that we are objectively fascinating in a way you’ll never be (but at what cost?!). We are wise and have a sort of richness in our minds: access to a higher plane of existence, a soulful kind of knowing. We spend our days pondering lofty ideas. The terrible majesty of our observations spurs our drug and alcohol use and eventually drives us to our deaths. In short, addiction is cool. Or, perhaps, addiction is what the cool people do.
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It’s not universal. Not every addict becomes a celebrated Artistic Genius, and not every such creative is an addict. But the association is indisputable. It extends frequently to chronically ill and disabled people, and to Mad people in particular. I call this constructed identity, the thing I described in the previous paragraph, the addict mystique. (I’ll invoke the “Mad mystique,” which is an important variant, and discuss at some length the “consumptive mystique,” which is a precursor. But I think these things are generally best considered as mystiques of the same sort.)
Like a lot of other categories, the addict mystique is a looping kind. I mean this in the Ian Hacking sense: “Sometimes, our sciences create kinds of people that in a certain sense did not exist before.”8 Originally a speculative explanatory fiction, the mystique has become a tool that distinctly marks out a group of people. So, it isn’t strictly correct to say that its claim about addict interiority is untrue. Now that the machinery exists, addicts are going to use it to self-describe, to make sense of the way we experience the world.
But I’m writing this series in order to motivate deconstruction of the addict mystique. It’s not false, really (I’m not sure self-descriptions ever can be). But we need to dispense with it. The addict mystique is harmful in a way that a lot of other looping kinds aren’t, because it is metaphysically stronger and creates a very pernicious perverse incentive. It is framed to at once inculcate esteem and resentment toward addicts: to glorify the very people it breathes into being so that they remain uncritical of their oppression. The archetype tells us it is necessary for addicts to suffer. It provides an explanation through which addicts can make sense of their social marginalization, but at the cost of understanding their relationship to society as inextricably involving such marginalization. Addicts must be pushed to the edge of the world so that they can look over the yawning precipice and report back what they find. Their torment is precisely what makes them remarkable. It’s the price they pay for greatness; it hardens graphite to diamond. Hence the pain and suffering of marginalization are offset, a sort of consequentialist calculus. The stigmata of grave misery give the great minds access to the divine. The view produced is that disability is a wage to pay the piper, a penalty some precious few must suffer. This is the entry cost for their brilliant observations about woe, life, humanity. Crucially, it is worth it. The mystique says you should be glad that you, as an addict, exist in a social context where you are oppressed, because your pain gives rise to your creativity, and without your creativity, you would be nothing.
Theories of Disability
Basically all metaphysical theories of disability can be interpreted as responses to the question “Why are there disabled people?,” but they differ in what they interpret the question as asking. Medical theories of disability attack this interpretation: “Given our current understanding of biology, what is it about disabled people that differs from abled people?” They’re asking about generating mechanisms of disability, natural features in light of which disabled people can be cleanly demarcated as a separate group.
Social models respond to a different interpretation: “What are the ways in which people with impairments are penalized in social contexts?” They’re asking about social and structural prejudice. They agree with the medical theories, maybe, that there is something inherent to disability. But it’s not disability itself. It’s having a body or mind that can be assessed as atypical from some standpoint, and being marginalized in virtue of it. What’s interesting to those theorists is the ways in which something called impairment becomes something like disability through systematic social mechanisms.
Foucauldian theories of disability instead take as their locus the question “Why is ‘disabled people’ a category that exists in our current hermeneutics; why are these people marked out?” Such theories substantively disagree with social models. They question the heretofore uncriticized supposition that there is anything transhistorically stable about disability. As Shelley Tremain writes, much existent work in disability studies assumes that “social responses to ‘impairment’ vary between historical periods and cultural context,” such that what concerns social model theorists is why the relationship between the apparently context-independent classification of people with impairments and the context-dependent classification of people excluded from social life fluctuates. Against this view, she argues that impairment itself is a “historically specific effect of knowledge [and] power.”9 On Foucauldian theories of disability, to ask “Why are there disabled people?” is to ask how categories have been constructed, reified, and altered through inquiry and politics.
But what is especially interesting is the interpretation of “Why are there disabled people?” addressed by advocates of the moral model of disability, the school that purports that disability is morally charged in some way, or conveys moral facts about people. Here it is obvious that disability is construed as a penalty—it makes your life bad—and thus what is interesting about it is why some people are penalized in that way. Advocates of the moral model, I think, can be divided into two kinds: those who think disabled people are saintlike, and those who think disabled people are evil. On the first account, disabled people are sort of like messengers dispersed among us to convey their access to the divine. (Think, like, the prophet in that A24 movie Midsommar.) On the second, disabled people are punished by being disabled for some wrong or character defect. (Think Richard III.) In both cases, the answer to “Why are there disabled people?” is a justification of the badness of disability. We were all in an urn in Heaven before we were born, so to speak, and some of us got made disabled. Why is that? It’s a value-theoretic question: “Why are there disabled people if also things are generally good?”
Disability and Theodicies
There is a concept known in disability studies as Supercrip theory. Disability accounts’ criticism of “Supercrip” narratives uses the term in a wide variety of ways10; I’m using it specifically. I take Supercrip theories to be ones that basically say this: The good life is complex and multifaceted, involving several distinct axes of human flourishing. Disabled people are penalized along one axis, but recuperate that loss (in many cases, exceeding its magnitude) along another. Blind people have superhuman hearing; neurodivergent people are capable of supreme focus. Disability manifests as a sort of savant syndrome.
From one perspective, such a view can appear liberating. “See, being disabled can be great!” But in order for a narrative or a metaphysics of disability to count as “Supercrip,” the penalty along the one axis must be justified or explained through the benefit along the other. To just point out that many blind people have excellent hearing doesn’t establish much by itself. (Obviously there’s also a category conflation going on here: blind people are being hearing-tested in order to push this conclusion.) You might just be saying “Some of the lived experience of blindness involves auditory phenomena,” and while that may be questionable for all kinds of reasons, it’s not a Supercrip account. It’s just an observational claim.
“Blindness can be valuable because it improves your hearing,” though, is a Supercrip theory. It frames itself as a justification for why blindness exists. If the person who says that didn’t think the existence of blind people needs to be explained, then they wouldn’t have invoked hearing at all. In order for these kind of explanations to do any work, it must be presupposed that there is something to explain. They aren’t just statements. They’re replies to the unasked question “Why are there disabled people?”—in this case, interpreted, as with the moral model, as “Why are there disabled people in a world that is otherwise good?”
Both Supercrip theories and the moral model are variants of what I’m going to call theodicies of disability. I’m using “theodicy” in a technical sense. The term literally means “vindication of God,” and has historically been used to refer to theistic responses to the problem of evil: if God is all-powerful and all-good, why does unjustifiable suffering exist? Theodicies propose explanations of how the existence of evil is compatible with that of an omnibenevolent divine: for example, human suffering is a result of free will, and worlds in which free will exists are all-things-considered better than ones in which it doesn’t. When I say “theodicies of disability,” though, I don’t mean religious theodicies. I merely mean explanations of how disability can coexist with goodness, or with disabled people’s self-reports of having good lives, in light of the overwhelming general belief that disability is a terrible tragedy.
I claim that the addict mystique is, at its root, a theodicy of addiction. It explains why addicts exist. The reason we would need to explain in the first place why addicts exist is that being an addict is taken as necessarily something bad—either a moral failure or at least something that harms you in a counterfactually ineliminable way.
Thus I’m critical of the addict mystique for two reasons, mainly. One is the same reason disability studies as a bloc is critical of Supercrip theories: it is not liberating to declare that with disability comes flourishing creativity if the reason you’d be motivated to think that in the first place is the desire to justify why something as obviously natural and bad as disability exists. That doesn’t make disability beneficial; it only enshrines the idea of its necessary badness. Indeed, it must be the case that disability is a great tragedy in order for the theory of the poete maudit to make sense. The functional justification for addiction or Madness in the arc of the creative’s life is inseparable from their badness.
The second reason I contest the theodicy posed by the addict mystique is more complicated, for the mystique is not reducible to a Supercrip theory or a moral model. It is plausibly deniable about its value-theoretic baggage in a way those things aren’t. It traverses through an odd middle ground of pain and suffering that is viewed as upstream, rather than downstream, of disability. Some people are born different—kissed by the divine, with all the great and terrible beauty that entails. This grants them incredible creativity, but also drives them insane, or leads them to use drugs to cope.
Only then does the system self-perpetuate: drug use and insanity produce further creative insight. Addiction and Madness affect people already established as the Great Minds differently than they would you or me. They harm the artist, but in a way ultimately conducive to the artistic project. They grant access to the beauty of suffering; they motivate people to greatness through the urgency of numbered days; they empower people to overcome.
To make addicts’ lives easier, to combat their oppression, then frustrates their teleological purpose. To throw off their shackles is to shackle the human spirit: it collectivizes a widely understood, meaningfully individual mandate of liberation through suffering.
This is the really insidious element of the mystique: it doesn’t just explain to people who think disability is bad why disabled people exist. It’s an active mandate. It’s not just that in order to justify addicts’ existence, one must appeal to gains along some secondary axis. It’s that in order to justify our existence, society needs to make us suffer.
Berryman, John (1973). Recovery. New York, NY: Thunder’s Mouth Press. 26.
Berryman, John (1969). Dream Songs. New York, NY: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux. Accessed at https://verseando.com/blog/john-berryman-dream-song-153-im-cross-with-god-who-has-wrecked-this-generation/.
Benfey, Christopher (2015). “The genius and the excess of John Berryman.” Atlantic. url: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/03/the-genius-and-excess-of-john-berryman/384967/.
Lowell, Robert (2003). Collected Poems. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux.
Valiunas, Algis (2018). “The fellowship of the cursed poets.” Claremont Review of Books. url: https://claremontreviewofbooks.com/the-fellowship-of-the-cursed-poets/.
Patterson, Robert (1992). “Once upon a midnight dreary: the life and addictions of Edgar Allan Poe.” Journal of the Canadian Medical Association 147 (8): 1246-1248. url: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1336506/pdf/cmaj00261-0154.pdf
Hacking, Ian (2006). “Making up people.” London Review of Books 28 (16). url: https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v28/n16/ian-hacking/making-up-people.
Tremain, Shelley (2001). “On the government of disability.” Social Theory and Practice 27 (4): 617-636. url: https://www.jstor.org/stable/23559193.
Schalk, Sami (2016). “Reevaluating the Supercrip.” Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies 10 (1): 71-87. doi:10.3828/jlcds.2016.5. url: https://samischalk.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Schalk_Reevaluating-the-Supercrip_JLCDS-2016.pdf.