Many of my girlfriends have been part of a conversation where they were suddenly ambushed by their male peers who have asked them “Why are you getting so aggressive?”, and the same men have occasionally afforded themselves the luxury of throwing a fit of anger. After being a firsthand victim of such incidents I started gravitating towards women who stand outside of being ‘likeable’ by the society. They are, in my experience, more real and I have had some of the best, funniest, self-deprecating and most intelligent conversations with them.
Just as the feisty opinionated persona of a woman has been off-putting, for society, women writers and alcohol was rather an unpalatable topic. When writer Jane Bowles went to see her neurologist to cope with her alcohol addiction she was told to ‘go back to your pots and pans and try to cope’. Rather than validating their temperament and choice of lifestyle, even a little acknowledgement by the society, unadulterated by sexist views and stereotypes would have gone a long way. In a moment of ignorance, the neurologist dismissed Jane Bowles, a person, a writer and reduced her to just another undomesticated woman who wasn’t domesticated enough.
I have always worshipped literary geniuses like Ernest Hemingway, Woody Allen, Hunter Thompson, Van Gogh, F. Scott Fitzgerald and admired their struggle as much as their work, but the struggles and stories of women artists seemed to be airbrushed from history. Their struggles are often times dismissed as weakness in character. Although, of late, we have started recognising many female artists for their wonderful artistic and literary creations, their struggles and journey have not been as well-celebrated as that of men.
The relationship between art and drinking has been quite significant. Although some of the most successful artists are ones who have always been much disciplined, there are those who have struggled with addictions. The reality of alcoholism is ugly and there is nothing glorifying, artistically or otherwise, about vomiting and being a painful mess. There is no escaping the brutality of such an addiction.
But what is most astonishing is the unsettling aspect of society’s acceptance towards the art and literature produced by troubled artists, but a total disregard for the tortured mental anguish from where it is birthed. It’s the case of the golden egg and the goose where the world loves the beautiful creations which is equivalent to the golden egg, but would rather detach itself from the unruly, disagreeable aspects of the personalities of the golden goose that birthed such brilliance. “Something is always born of excess: great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them” said Anaïs Nin, a French novelist.
When it comes to women writers and their drinking patterns the level of hypocrisy they are faced with is just surprising. Society has always condemned and shunned women that are fierce, savage, and opinionated, and rather seeks to mould women into docile little doves that they could tame to their liking. It is disturbing how the society is completely blind about these women’s work and talent, and rather focuses on the negative aspects of their personalities.
Jean Rhys, a Caribbean novelist, wrote in her diary that drinking helped her “see the truth, the simplicity and the primitive emotions once more”. Frida Kahlo, whose style and art will never be forgotten, downed Tequila straight from the bottle. “I drank to drown my sorrows, but the damned things learned how to swim.”
Elizabeth Bishop, who was a poet and a Pulitzer winner, heavily reclined towards the bottle and in her poem, A Drunkard, she tried to word the emotions an alcoholic gets caught into, “I have suffered from abnormal thirst – I swear it’s true – and by the age of twenty and twenty-one I had begun to drink and drink – I can’t get enough, and as much as you have noticed I’m half-drunk now”.
Sylvia Plath, the queen of confessional poetry, wrote, “I began to think vodka was my drink at last. It didn’t taste like anything, but it went straight down into my stomach like a sword swallowers’ sword and made me feel powerful and godlike”.
Leah Odze Epstein and her partner started the Drinking Diaries blog in 2009 exploring why female writers like to drink. She compiled some brilliant answers through her project.
Having shared these wonderful bites what remains to be said is that for every talented intoxicated artist there have been many delusional, mediocre, intoxicated failures. It is stupid to romanticize the drug/alcohol-addled, narcissistic, self-glorifying addictions of the artistic world while the majority of great artists try hard to stay healthy so they can do what they love doing the most, for a long time – CREATE.