Column: The curious case of artists and alcohol

Driving through campus the other day, I was feeling a bit generous, and I yielded to the parade that is the Summer Welcome incoming freshman, their parents and the orientation leaders. As they crossed Virginia Avenue, I watched what looked like an endless procession of baby ducks pass by with their parents. As I continued to watch them navigate their future school, I thought about how a year from now, where they walk now will have a tremendously different meaning and set of memories — some mundane and a few life-changing as well. I know my freshman year included one memory I don’t remember at all.

From what I remember, my friends and I were in University Hall making forts. We didn’t have anything planned for the night besides fort making and going to a friend’s party nearby. Sitting in our bunker, we passed around a handle of Gordon’s Vodka, and I sipped and sipped with no immediate effect. Being the inexperienced drinker, when the handle came around again, in an effort to feel the effects, I drank it like water.

The next thing I remember, I was waking up in a hospital bed with no shoes.

Needless to say, what I did was dangerous and a guaranteed way of spending the night slumped over ivory or, in my case, spending the night at the nearby hospital.

The next few phone conversations with my parents were filled with worry and apprehension about my incident. My parents were understandably worried. I don’t think they had an idea of how much I drank or if I drank at all. My dad was especially worried and discussed with me artists and writers who battled alcoholism, and he questioned how much better they might’ve been without being addicted to the bottle. Ernest Hemingway was his prime example, and my dad’s question has stuck with me ever since.

Why do so many artists turn to alcohol to incite the muse?

One notable example, F. Scott Fitzgerald, heavily depended on alcohol for an escape and was hospitalized many times in his life and arrested just as many times due to intoxication. He was definitely an alcoholic. Yet, for most, frequent intoxication and poor health would inhibit productivity, whereas Fitzgerald seemed to exemplify the opposite. He believed a short story could be written on a bottle, but writing a novel was inhibited by alcohol because one would write on a micro level and lose sight of the macro themes being expanded throughout the work. Did it help him?

He did, however, practice an art that requires an openness and vulnerability in its creation. As far as all art is concerned, writing is one of the most revealing forms of expression. If it isn’t what is being written about, how it is written can reveal more about the author than its substance. Perhaps Fitzgerald and other alcoholic writers might have been the products of an art that requires removed inhibitions. I believe lucidity can come from easing the edge, but the level Fitzgerald did begs the question of whether he and his contemporaries were in fact exceptions that thrived from intoxication. If so, these weren’t just drunks. These were real people overcoming themselves and writing about it. Alcohol was their release from and shackle to their own evils.

I’ll assume all the kids passing by my car that day can’t tolerate alcohol like Fitzgerald could, but I’ll be happy to assume a few, if not all, will share their voice with Mizzou like F. Scott Fitzgerald did with the world.

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