Book Review: Genius and Heroin, The Illustrated Catalogue of Creativity, Obsession and Reckless Abandon by Michael Largo, Harper, New York

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

Of all the fascinating books I could have bought in the über cool Polyester Books in Fitzroy, Melbourne (which rightly calls itself the freakiest bookstore in the world), this one jumped out at me and had to be bought. Why? Because I’m fascinated by the notion that in order to be creatively great (not even genius, just great) you need to be either mad, constantly drunk or high, or suffer from some kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder. I’ve always hoped that it’s possible to have a more-or-less functional personal life and still function creatively.

I thought Genius and Heroin might shed some light on this topic. It did.

Flicking through the alphabetised list of creative types who have succumbed to their addictions – not just to heroin, but everything from obsessive work habits to booze, pills and sex – it is easy to think of this as a collection of all the significant moments in human history. There is the story of Pierre Lallement, who invented the first bicycle and spent the rest of his life obsessively trying to improve his design. The story of D.H. Lawrence and his compulsion to create, which led him to an amazingly prolific output. The story of John Lennon and his various drug addictions and how they fueled his music making. The story of Jack London whose chronic alcoholism put an end to his brilliant creativity, and who reportedly said, “I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant haze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.” There is William Inge, who wrote the screenplay for Splendor in the Grass. Ivan the Terrible, who spent his life devising ever more gruesome ways to murder thousands of his subjects. Kurt Cobain, Heath Ledger, Lewis Carrol, Louis Braille, Charles Bukowski, Lord Byron, Dante, Miles Davis, Ray Charles, John Keats, Franz Kafka, Emily Dickinson, James Dean, Sylvia Plath, Elvis Presley, Edith Piaf, Edgar Allan Poe, Sigmund Freud, Jean Harlow, Veronica Lake…hundreds and hundreds of the cultural and intellectual icons of human history.

It is possible to be left wondering if anyone ever did anything of any worth while sober.

But Largo asks an interesting question on his dust jacket: What is the price of brilliance? Is it only through madness and obsession that brilliance emerges? Why are creative geniuses so often self-destructive? Is self-destruction in fact the price of brilliance?

As I read this amazing collection – written with straightforward honesty, dry humour, wit and empathy – it became possible to see a pattern emerge. So, so many of these brilliant souls died very young. Before their time. With work left undone, as Largo eloquently points out in relation to Jack London: “Death by end-stage chronic alcoholism surely feels like dry rot and every alcoholic knows of this secret wish, the easing off the abyss when the very thing you counted on your whole life stops working. He had been finishing a novel How We Die; that an another twenty years worth of classics were never written.”

So perhaps that is the price? To live fast and die young, leaving the possibility of great work undone. Or perhaps this degree of creative brilliance can only exist in short spurts and then it is spent. What is left? A life of dullness, by comparison. Numbing inebriation. Suicide. Death.

Ring Lardner, a chronic alcoholic, is quoted as saying, “No one, ever, wrote anything as well even after one drink as he would have done without it.” But Lardner could not do without a drink. And therein lies the conundrum.

Genius and Heroin is a huge achievement in itself. Simply in terms of collecting data it is remarkable. After this extensive and meticulous research, which must have in itself been fuelled by some degree of obsession, Largo concludes that of the 500 artists examined in the book, for around 80% alcohol or drug abuse were ultimately detrimental to their creative output. What he also makes clear is that there is no glamour in these self-destructive lives. But Largo also made me feel profoundly grateful to those people for what they have given the world (with notable exceptions – Ivan the Terrible, I’m looking at you!), whether it was despite their pain or because of it.

Who would I recommend this to? Anyone interested in human achievement and human suffering.

And now, I will leave the last words to some of the geniuses quoted in Largo’s book.

“Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must live.” Charles Bukowski

“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” Jack London

“An unfulfiled vocation drains the color from a man’s entire existence.” Honore de Balzac

“I think it takes obsession, takes searching for the details for any artist to be good.” Barbra Streisand

“People who drink to drown their sorrows should be told that sorrow knows how to swim.” Ann Landers

“The greatest monarch on the proudest throne is obliged to sit upon his own arse.” Benjamin Franklin

“Madness is to think of too many things in succession too fast, or of one thing too exclusively.” Voltaire

“The meaning of life is that it stops.” Franz Kafka

And here is Michael Largo talking about Genius and Heroin.


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