Addiction and the Meaning of Life

"For who would bear the whips and scorns of time ..."

Point two: not all addicts are junkies.

Take Paul Giamatti’s character in Sideways. He’s a classic failed-writer-with-an-addictive-personality. Unlike heroin users, however, all of his habits are legal, socially acceptable, and even expected from a single, middle-aged man whose life has fallen apart. There’s nothing a junkie can say to someone that justifies his/her addiction to heroin, no explanation beyond the main one: that heroin is their lifeblood. But what makes Miles so brilliant is his literary ability to justify his addictions and paint them not as outgrowths of his failure as a writer but as minor, even poetic, indulgences of the intellectual class.

He deflects questions about his alcoholism by assuming the role of the pompous wine connoisseur; he justifies his self-obsession by painting himself as a grand, tragic figure in the Hemingway mold (even going so far as to crib Hemingway’s words when describing himself); he sees his romantic failures not as a manifestation of his fear and self-loathing but as cruel punishment administered by fickle Gods out to destroy him.

What I’m saying is that there’s a whole wide world of self-destructive behavior that is born out of chemical dependency. And whereas you argue that movies about addicted writers inevitably result in blockish single-mindedness and narrative paralysis, I think the opposite is true. Writer’s block just speaks to writer’s block. It’s self-referential. No matter how grandiose one’s responses to writer’s block might get (and you’re absolutely right when you say that Barton Fink’s descent into dark absurdity is the greatest cinematic depiction of stymied literary ambition on film; though I’d argue Woody Allen’s more scabrous, more erotic take in Deconstructing Harry is a close second), blocked writers are still only interested in one thing: getting unblocked. And that’s a concern for writers and writers only. Which is why it makes sense that there are so many movies on the subject: every screenwriter has stared at a computer screen and felt the all-consuming dread of creative vacancy (every alternative-weekly newspaper writer has as well, for that matter). But that doesn’t mean that their audience has. There’s a fundamental disconnect between the mind of the writer – as written by a writer – and your average movie-goer. Writing and writer’s block are very particular kinds of experiences, and not necessarily ones that translate to the human experience.

Substance abusers, on the other hand, are all too human, thrashing about in this ridiculous world of ours, grasping blindly for something to give their lives a little meaning, a little hope, a little poetry, and finding, inevitably, that their search has been and will always be in vain, that this meaningless universe is the grandest of all practical jokes, a pointless exercise, a lonely descent into madness and decay, punctuated occasionally by flashes of gaiety, joy, wonder, and lust (mainly lust) but ultimately adding up to nothing.

And who can't identify with that?

Then again, maybe you’re right. Maybe writer’s block is an incomparably fertile source of dramatic depth and sophisticated psychological investigation:

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