5 Classics Written Under the Influence

Many writers seek extreme experiences, including getting drunk / high / ecstatic / wasted / buzzed. And while we're not exactly advocating altered states here, it did seem to take the edge off their writer's block.

So, who says drugs and alcohol aren't useful? For one thing, they're responsible for some of the world's greatest literature. Here are 5 classics written under the influence.

1. Collected Poetry, Li Po (701 - 762)

One of the best of the T'ang dynasty poets in seventh-century China, Li Po wrote many poems about drinking. In his poems and in many poems of the classic era of Chinese poetry, alcohol has two functions. First of all, it brings friends together to sing, to reminisce, to have great little parties at which everyone gets tight and starts having poetry contests. Well, great!

Second, it acts as a muse, a way to relax and release the poet into fantasies and meditations that are good for the creation of poetry. See? Nothing new. Artists have been saying for centuries that if you take drugs, you make better art. They've often felt that the perceptual expansion offered by drugs lets them have better, more suprising insights. Or at least they think they do!

Li Po and his pals obviously felt that wine helped you be a better poet. Of course, being continuously sozzled comes with its own problems. Legend has it that Li died when, in a drunken state, he tried to embrace the reflection of the moon in a lake and fell in.

2. "Kubla Khan," Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 - 1834)

After smoking opium, Coleridge fell asleep, and when he awoke he was on fire with images. He set to writing at a white-hot pace - until he was interrupted. When he returned to the poem an hour later, the vision was gone. He'd lost the moment. The result is one of the wildest, most puzzling poems of all time.

A lot of people like the fact that it was written under the influence: it had a period of great popularity in the 1960s. And back when it was published (1816), people took it as the quintessential Romantic poem: passionate, spontaneous, beyond conscious control. They also liked how "he had it all there - and then lost it," which is a nice little fable about how fleeting inspiration is.

3. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway (1899 - 1961)

Like many famous writers, Hemingway battled alcoholism all his life. In The Sun Also Rises, one of his best novels, almost every character drinks continually. They're trying to ignore the realities of life after World War I, trying to ignore their hangovers, and, often, just having a great party.

War has torn apart the old ways, and the new ways - ways of nation building, ways of writing, ways of love, ways of being men and women - are full of pain and uncertainty. And these people, though they're adults, in many ways are incomplete, crippled. Jake Barnes, the protagonist, has suffered a war wound greatly compromising his sexual function (how's that for a delicate way to put it?), and the wound becomes a metaphor for the incompleteness that everyone's drinking to forget.

4. Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 - 1980)

Sartre apparently was a big ingester of mescaline to get him, er, up to speed. He also took downers to let him sleep. These facts create a big question for the history of philosophy, don't they?

Now, many readers have felt that despite his fame as the inventor of existentialism and despite his importance in many fields of literature, thought, and politics, he's completely unreadable.

Being and Nothingness, is supposed to be Sartre's great investigation of the experience of the absurdity and lack of intrinsic meaning in existence. When you discover nothingness, it's like a huge turning point, and there's no turning back.

Sure wish the book was better. This thing is a twisty-turny, pompous, sloppy, contradictory mess, written in a celebratedly bad prose, whether French or English. It may be a brilliant book, but it's not a good one. Maybe, applying the Li Po principle above, Sartre should have taken more drugs.

5. Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs (1914 - 1997)

Burroughs was a Beat writer and a heroin addict. His surrealistic novel influenced poets, musicians, and other addicts for the rest of the 20th century. This may be the ultimate in underground cult novels. You'll find its influence in everything from the art of Keith Haring to the poetry of Jack Kerouac to the lyrics of Steely Dan.

One thing that's very impressive (besides the amount of drugs Burroughs reputedly took while compiling Naked Lunch) is how Burroughs uses addiction as a key metaphor for human existence. Everyone is a junkie for something - and everyone is also a narc, an agent of judgment and punishment.

It's a brilliant insight, and it emerges from the jumble of this novel like a flash of drug-induced wisdom. Now, how many films have you seen that explore this theme? Naked Lunch is often called a novel, but it's really a collection of scenes and characters held together by the aforementioned methaphor. In fact, it doesn't hold together. Its existence is more important than its actual worth as literature. But its impact, which continues today in artists, writers, and filmmakers all over the world, is, well, psychedelic.

Bonus: Writers Are the Craziest People

While living in a hotel room in Brussels, Belgium, French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821 - 1867) captured a bat in a nearby graveyard, brought it back to his room, and kept it as a pet, feeding it bread and milk.
   
Russian playwright and fiction writer Anton Chekhov (1860 - 1904) didn't have long to live. His doctor bought a bottle of Champagne and poured Chekhov a glass. He drank it down with great appreciation and remarked: "It has been so long since I've had Champagne." Then he rolled over, and Chekhov checked out.
   

One of the strangest novels ever written may be Gates of Paradise by Polish writer Jerzy Andrzejewski (1909 - 1983). It is one-sentence long, unpunctuated, 40,000 words.

(Photo: Marek Wojciech Druszcz / fotopolis.pl)

   
Speaking of strange, how about Pugna Porcorum ("Battle of the Pigs"), published by the Dominican monk Léon Plaisant (Placentius) in 1530(?). The poem extends to more than 250 verses, and every word begins with the letter P! Talk about pig Latin, Playful priest produces porky poetry!
   
French poet Gérard de Nerval (1808 - 1855) had a pet lobster that he took for walks, guiding it through the parks of the Palais Royal on a pale blue ribbon.
   
Irish novelist James Joyce (1882 - 1942) wore five wristwatches on his arm, each set to a different time.

From mental_floss' book Condensed Knowledge: A deliciously Irreverent Guide to Feeling Smart Again, published in Neatorama with permission. Original article written Shane Pitts and Royce Simpson.

Be sure to visit mental_floss' extremely entertaining website and blog!


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Hemingway made a point not to EVER drink while he wrote. This was a cardinal rule for him. Although he did have quite a problem. Perhaps Hunter S. Thompson would have been a better pick for this article, as Hemingway doesn't fit the criteria.
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I don't know why but I love the poem "Kubla Khan" the images it evokes are so vivid yet understandable to those of us who don't partake in hallucinogens. I even have it printed out and stuck to my door because I just love the wording and imagery.
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