The new year is almost upon us, and we all know what that means: it’s time to renounce our indulgences, thwart our addictions, and give up our hedonistic tendencies — if only for a week or two. But don’t feel too bad if you fail — some of the most brilliant figures in literary history have been hopeless addicts, hooked on everything from coffee to sex to opium, exhibiting varying degrees of shame about it. It is the human condition, after all, and we can only hope that more garden-variety addicts turn their habits into great literature. Click through to check out our list of famous authors’ famous addictions, and let’s all agree to be (a little bit) better in the new year.
Honoré de Balzac
Substance of choice: Coffee
Relevant musings: “Many people claim coffee inspires them, but, as everybody knows, coffee only makes boring people even more boring.”
Balzac fueled his prolific writing by drinking something like 50 cups of coffee a day — until that failed to be enough for him, and he began eating dry coffee grounds straight, a tactic that he describes as “a horrible, rather brutal method that I recommend only to men of excessive vigor, men with thick black hair and skin covered with liver spots, men with big square hands and legs shaped like bowling pins.” The coffee, he writes, “brutalizes these beautiful stomach linings as a wagon master abuses ponies; the plexus becomes inflamed; sparks shoot all the way up to the brain. From that moment on, everything becomes agitated. Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes up with clattering wagons and cartridges; on imagination’s orders, sharpshooters sight and fire; forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink – for the nightly labor begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder.”
Substance of choice: Sex
Relevant musings: “Alas, the love of women! it is known/ To be a lovely and a fearful thing.” (from Don Juan)
Lord Byron, it seems, was obsessed with sex. Not only did he reportedly sleep with over 250 women in Venice in a single year (not to mention the men), he also bedded Lady Caroline Lamb (who called him “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”), her cousin Anne, who he later married, and his own half-sister. Sure, 250 women in one year could just be the work of a particularly voracious lothario, but it was Byron’s habit of memorializing his lovers that makes us certain of his addiction: for each conquest, he took a clipping of his partner’s pubic hair and saved it in an envelope neatly marked with his or her name. As recently as the ’80s, these envelopes were on file at Byron’s publishing house. Say it with us: yuck.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Substance of choice: Opium
Relevant musings: “Opium – opium – night after night!”
Elizabeth Browning began using opium when she was just 15, to treat a spinal injury. In her 30s, she was afflicted with another illness of the heart and lungs, and by 1845 was imbibing 40 drops of laudanum a day, an enormous dose. She wrote to her worried brother, “My opium comes in to keep the pulse from fluttering and fainting… to give the right composure and point of balance to the nervous system. I don’t take it for ‘my spirits’ in the usual sense; you must not think such a thing.” Questionable, Mrs. Browning! Questionable.
Substance of choice: Absinthe
Relevant musings: “I take sugar with it!” (as a greeting)
Well, it was clearly the thing to do — who can blame him? Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Rimbaud were all devotees of la fée verte, but Verlaine was particularly devoted. When he and Rimbaud broke off their love affair, Verlaine flew into an absinthe-fueled fury and shot his ex-lover in the arm, winding up in jail for two years as a result. By the end of his life, poor and alone, Verlaine had given up all his vices — all except absinthe, of course. Legend has it he sipped it even on his deathbed.
Substance of choice: Gambling
Relevant musings: “Even as I approach the gambling hall, as soon as I hear, two rooms away, the jingle of money poured out on the table, I almost go into convulsions.” (from The Gambler)
In the mid-1860s, Dostoevsky hit a rough patch — his wife and then his brother passed away, and he was left with a crippling depression as well as a heap of personal and family debts. He became addicted to gambling, particularly roulette, which, needless to say, did not help his fortunes much. Supposedly, he rushed the ending of Crime and Punishment because he was in dire need of an advance from his publisher, and simultaneously cranked out the novella The Gambler (imagine that) in order to pay off gambling debts.
Substance of choice: Amphetamines
Relevant musings: “Is there any doubt that drug addiction is an escape from an unbearable inner state, from a reality one cannot deal with, from an atrophying mind one can never fully destroy?”
While she was writing The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand’s doctor prescribed the amphetamine Benzedrine as an anti-fatigue drug. From then on, she took amphetamines — branching out into Dexedrine and Dexamyl — at least once a day for 30-odd years, claiming sometimes that they were for weight control. Many close to her blamed the drugs for her erratic moods, entreating her to stop, but perhaps unsurprisingly, that didn’t seem to faze her much.
Substance of choice: Flatulence
Relevant musings: “I think I would know Nora’s fart anywhere. I think I could pick hers out in a roomful of farting women. It is a rather girlish noise not like the wet windy fart which I imagine fat wives have. It is sudden and dry and dirty like what a bold girl would let off in fun in a school dormitory at night. I hope Nora will let off no end of her farts in my face so that I may know their smell also.”
It may seem like a stretch to designate Joyce as being truly addicted to his wife’s flatulence, but if you’ve read his (very, very dirty) letters, you know he had more than a passing interest in them. He was, at the very least, obsessed, but we think the artful, if filthy, phrases of yearning in many of his missives denotes a man more than just obsessed — a man addicted.
William S. Burroughs
Substance of choice: Heroin
Relevant musings: “Whether you sniff it smoke it eat it or shove it up your ass the result is the same: addiction.”
Burroughs’s heroin addiction is no great secret. He was on and off the stuff for practically his entire life, and many of his best known works are in large part semi-autobiographical musings on his own experiences with the drug. Burroughs even sold heroin in Greenwich Village in the ’40s. At the time of his death he was on a methadone maintenance program.
Substance of choice: The morgue
Relevant musings: “I am dragged by invisible force to the morgue.”
Apparently, Dickens could not stay out of the morgue. He would spend days there, watching the bodies come in, be checked, prepared and stored. It’s not like Dickens is the first artist to have a weird fascination with dead bodies, but generally it’s the visual artists who feel the need to sneakily examine the human form. Dickens described the force that drove him to the morgue as “the attraction of repulsion,” which we suppose it would have to be. As long as it wasn’t the attraction of anything else, we’re comfortable with it.
Substance of choice: Alcohol
Relevant musings: “Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.”
Though of course there are scores of notable writers who were addicted to alcohol (Dorothy Parker, John Cheever, F. Scott Fitzgerald, the list goes on), the leader of the pack must be our Papa. A functioning alcoholic for most of his life, he began drinking even more heavily in the ’50s to combat injuries sustained in a series of accidents. His drinking habits have become such the stuff of legend that he is credited with inventing several beverages, including the daiquiri and the mojito. This seems unlikely, but we we can say with certainty that he created the Papa Doble.