Genius and Heroin
Michael Largo
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Buy *Genius and Heroin: The Illustrated Catalogue of Creativity, Obsession, and Reckless Abandon Through the Ages* by Michael Largo online

Genius and Heroin: The Illustrated Catalogue of Creativity, Obsession, and Reckless Abandon Through the Ages
Michael Largo
368 pages
October 2008
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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This book announces itself as The Illustrated Catalogue of Creativity, Obsession, and Reckless Abandon Through the Ages. It does not limit itself to mere heroin abuse but also includes "pills, absinthe, crack, hash, martinis, bourbon, and sex." Written by Michael Largo (author of Final Exits) it is a guaranteed wild ride. Largo is not only fascinated by death, he is a card-carrying member of the bohemian set, having founded St Mark's Bar & Grill in New York City, through whose portals have stumbled such notable burn-outs as Allen Ginsberg and Keith Richards, giving him much fodder for this bizarre collection.

With any "catalogue" or "dictionary", one has the irrepressible impulse to find one's "favorite." Who, I thought, is my own favorite creative genius loser? F. Scott Fitzgerald has to be "high" on the list. The pretty man who, with his equally rowdy wife, Zelda, gave the Twenties their roar, he died in a slump after "years of self-indulgence" in alcohol, "having been sober no more than a few days at time" his entire adult life. He and many of his friends believed he was a failure (this sense of failure seems to be a common theme among addicted artists), and arguably he was indeed a mess who blew his chance for success, but after his death his book The Great Gatsby became a classic of American literature.

Janis Joplin is another hallmark hellraiser, a woman of my generation who left the world of heroin and booze at the sad young age of 27. A big fuzzy complex of ego and inferiority, Janis was once voted "Ugliest Man on Campus." She recreated herself in song, belting out the blues to crowds of eager LSD-crazed hippies, duded up in very short skirts and very long hair. Her voice always cracked and broke and sometimes her singing was little more than screaming, though always on-key. Hers was a real old-fashioned overdose, and if anyone ever deserved the description "a wasted life," it was she.

But Genius and Heroin does not confine itself to modern exemplars but goes way back to the days of Sappho (from whom we get the word "lesbian") and Catullus, whose pornographic poetry shocked even the sybaritic Romans. Among the classic debauchers we have Baudelaire, a man who wrote his autobiography in his mid-twenties and had nothing to follow it with, since he was by then thoroughly addicted to opium and the favors of prostitutes. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who wrote Kubla Khan (you know he had to be stoned to write that!), was an opium fiend who wrote his own epitaph, declaring he found death in life and hoped to find life in death. In his day, laudanum (opium in liquid form) was a common cure-all and especially popular among women, who felt that the pallor and skeletal look that the drug engendered was attractive (some things never change).

Diane Arbus, the photographer who endeared herself to a generation of freak-seekers by snapping the grotesque and the unwholesome (she hung around circuses for her subject matter), took sleeping pills and slit her wrists after a short life of wealth and damage, never quite able to deal with any of it. James Agee was orphaned early in life, but his writing showed great promise. His two great works, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and A Death in the Family, are testament to his genius, but he was dead by 45 after years of alcohol abuse weakened his heart.

The list is long, and everyone will find a cherished creative failure in this rather sardonic compendium. The implication is that talent and sickness go together. Many highly gifted people think they're worthless and long for oblivion. Unfortunately, with enough booze, injectables and smoke, they are likely to get their wish before they have a chance to reap the rewards of their creative output. It's possible that the same elements that make a person desperate to create also contribute to his or her downfall, or that there's something inherent in the artistic process that summons forth inner demons.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Barbara Bamberger Scott, 2008

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