Where the Palace of Wisdom is Loaded with Vice

John Lancaster’s review of The Road of Excess, Marcus Boon’s book on writing under the influence, appeared in the January 6, 2003 New Yorker, and the review provides an effective, short introduction into drug use in writing as well as the journalistic impulse to too easily categorize, stereotype, and generalize. Associating addictions with occupations simply creates a stereotype. It’s probably true to say that alcoholism travels promiscuously in sales, but this doesn’t mean that alcohol is notably absent from other occupations, nor that all who work in sales are alcoholics, so what does the adage gain us in understanding either addiction or sales? Addictions transcend occupations; we find them everywhere. We may be living in the Age of Drugs, since we also live in the Age of Anxiety. Lancaster points out that most of the drugs we associate with addictions are late 19th or 20th century inventions. But while drugs addict, not all addictions are to drugs. Boon’s title comes from William Blake’s “The Proverbs of Hell,” found in Blake’s long poem, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The complete line is “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” But Blake wasn’t talking about drugs. He was talking about contraries. When Salvador Dali was asked if he painted while on drugs, as if that might explain surrealism, he responded, no; and asked in reply, “Why should I take the drug; I am the drug.”

Lancaster attempts to level the hyperbole, claiming that beyond the classic cases frequently referenced, attempts to associate drugs with writing usually miss the train we’re actually on. Then, he adds a final paragraph, which unfortunately drags jazz and drugs into his discussion, to support his anti-climactic claim that drug use has, after all, influenced the arts, particularly popular music. “The story of dope-fiend writers is interesting, but the history of dope-fiend jazz musicians is the history of jazz,” Lancaster says. Dope is not the history of jazz, any more than alcohol is the history of any occupation. Drugs have seeped into all socio-economic demographics of our society. Should we say that steroid use is the history of baseball? In the end, the average writer is no different from the average carpenter, who rises early and starts pounding nails, not beers, while the writer is pounding keys. Of interest with regard to Lancaster’s review are the letters found in the January 27 New Yorker “Mail,” Sue Mingus emphatically insisting that her husband, the famous jazz bassist Charles Mingus, listed by Lancaster as an addict, “was not a heroin addict,” and she eloquently argues that Lancaster “perpetuates myths and clichés and reveals little of the nature of creativity.” Another reader wrote to deflate Lancaster’s reference that listening to Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue approximates the heroin experience. The reader claimed that the Kind of Blue album came after Miles’s addictions, seemingly a question of fact; but, in any case, the year we saw Mark McQuire and Jose Canseco hit back to back homers in the King Dome – did that approximate for the fan what it’s like to be on steroids?

As pervasive then as drug use, are the associations we make about its use, and so we were not surprised to hear JazzWax weighing in on jazz and popular music drug use in yesterday’s Sunday Wax Bits. Keith Richards’s recent memoir, Life, provides a fresh example of the JazzWax point that popular music’s business plan has always promoted the glamorization of drugs. But Lancaster also pointed out that writing that is about drugs is usually best when it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and is wrapped in humor. We’re not sure we can take Richards’s entire memoir seriously, for it’s a memoir meant to sell a life, and if the story of popular music is about something other than popular music, it’s about an addiction not to drugs, but to money, which reveals itself in exploitation and adulteration, a watering down of goods and needs to wants and consumptions.

Theo Jansen and Advanced “Avatar”

Caleb Crain, we learned yesterday, prefers movies that are true to nature, acoustic. He’s more interested in the Carny than the ride, while David Denby prefers the roller coaster, ignoring the Carny, and if he doesn’t have to leave the theatre for the ride, even better. Johnny Meah’s act wouldn’t make much of a movie for Denby. Yet it may not matter what the professional critics think because as their ranks dwindle thanks to the disappearance of newspapers we may find the neuroscientists filling the gap.

Jonah Lehrer, who writes from a neuroscience perspective and explains things like why we stop at red and go at green and why some of us slam the brakes at yellow while others hit the gas, suggests in his Avatar review that there might be something wrong with the prefrontal cortex that prefers the acoustic; for some reason, the brain responds negatively to the film drug. Not to worry, though, whatever your brain seems to prefer, for Jonah’s commenter number eleven, David Dobbs, also a scientist, rebuts Jonah’s scientific argument and calls Avatar “impoverished.” As it turns out, the neuroscientists, like the critics Crain and Denby, also find different values in the film and the brain.

I remember when the first Star Wars movie was released; I finally saw it a decade later. I’m sure there must be something wrong with my prefrontal cortex, judging from my taste in movies. In Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, television technology has evolved from the little toads sitting front and center of the mid-twentieth century living room to screens that fill entire walls, and the best TV for one’s home fills all four walls, and the viewer literally interacts with the TV characters, becomes part of the show. Avatar encourages viewers to imagine a time when the film technology of Avatar seems as dated as the first Star Wars movie, and to imagine that that time is now – the fix must be for increased immersion, guaranteeing a string of sequels.

In the 1960’s, during the height of the psychedelic craze, someone asked Salvador Dali if he took drugs when he painted. No, he said. Why would I take the drug; I am the drug. And when the scare was that rockers were putting secret messages in their recordings, some of which could be understood by playing the record backwards, someone asked Alice Cooper if he spiked his records with secret messages. No, he said, I don’t know how to do that, but if I did, the message would be to buy more records.

If we are to be controlled by technology, what’s the point? We still have to contend with nature, our nature, the nature of others, and mother nature. Jonah, in his “review,” argues “why the Avatar plot is so effective: it’s really a metaphor for the act of movie-watching.” Exactly, it’s consumerism about consuming, about being eaten alive by technology, and it’s yummy.

And what of acoustic technology? Is there anyone out there creating creatures more fantastic than those virtually real ones we see via 3D in Avatar? There is. Check out this video. It’s Dutch artist Theo Jansen with his creatures, and they are more fascinating than anything you will experience in Avatar because while they are virtually non-tech, they are real; they have become part of nature, and you don’t need special glasses to view them.