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Sunday, July 04, 2010

 

The next person who says 'Hur hur they must have been on drugs when they did that' gets punched

I'm serious.

For those of you who haven't had the experience, it goes like this. You're having a Saturday night in, flipping channels because you don't have to get up early tomorrow, vaguely hoping for something interesting on the media recycling plant that is Freeview. A 'Hundred Greatest...' program is playing, offering some kind of round up of cinema's hundred greatest war films, or sexy moments, or children's movies, or scary moments, or ... well, you get the picture. It looks like it might have some good stuff in it, or at least some good recommendations to add to your LoveFilm list.

Staffed by minor celebrity talking heads rather than, say, film critics, the commentary isn't wildly illuminating. But it's late and you can't really be bothered to go to bed, so you drift along, watching the clips and half-listening to the heads talk ... and after a while you notice something. About every five to ten minutes, one of them says - with the air of making a really original joke - 'Wow, that whimsical moment. Ha ha ha. I think they must all have been on drugs when they did that!'

At which point, the choices become throwing something at the screen, or stirring your stumps bedwards so you can pull the covers up and weep at the world.

It's not just that it's an incredibly boring joke that we've all heard before. It's not just that it's probably wrong in a lot of cases, because people do sometimes, y'know, make things up. It's that it's a complete degradation of the human capacity for art.

The human mind is a remarkable thing, and art is one of its most remarkable tics. When we disengage from the usual logic of the everyday world and start following an artistic thread, a different kind of logic takes over. Associative logic. Child-logic. Subconscious logic. Art logic. Images and words and incidents hang together not by linear sequence but because, like chords or colours, they're lovely side by side for reasons you can't rationally explain. This is the human imagination, where beauty happens.

'Hur hur. Must have been on drugs.'

Grr!

The assertion in that inane crack is that people would only put together something original, something fantastic and colourful and independent of ordinary reality, if they're high. That there's no coherence other than mundane coherence. That people don't actually, y'know, make things up or have talent or use their imaginations; that they aren't capable of creativity unless they've scrambled their brains with strong chemicals. That the numinous comes only in pill form.

It's often the comment of someone who really doesn't get why whatever-it-is is so charming or fresh but doesn't want to admit it, and so is expressing their discomfort in a joke that demeans it. Or the comment of someone who wants to look hip, of course. But mostly it's the comment of someone who can't think of a way of talking about something that talks in its own language - really imaginative stuff is often hard to analyse - and so shrugs that language off rather than admit that it's silenced them.

I love imaginative works. I try my best to write imaginative fiction, though it's not usually of the hur-hur-she-must-have-been-on-drugs style; I've written trippier stuff in the past but I haven't published it. I don't take drugs, and I'm absolutely not about to: other people's hobbies are their own business, but I live by my wits, the chemistry of the brain is delicate and trifling with it seems like a really unwise thing to do. Besides, I can get my wonders from art.

Some artists take drugs, because some people take drugs and artists are people. But a really strange and wondrous work of art is just as likely the work of someone stone-cold sober, going into the depths of their undrugged mind and finding a new coherence. That tired old musta-been-on-drugs gag is a denial of the very possibility; a denial, at base, of the existence of imagination itself.

The next person who says 'Hur hur they must have been on drugs' gets punched. And the one after that gets stabbed.

Comments:
I do wonder if it might be, in part, a case of solipsism--in this case, the version where one cannot believe others are capable of having different goals/desires than oneself (Ayn Rand somehow comes to mind here...). Or, to put it another way, an inability to see oneself as unusual in any area. To such ones, perhaps the very concept of imagination is a bit chimeric--they're already at the zenith, or close to it, so what's the point of diverging? (q.v. Left Behind, perhaps?) The mention of drugs, then, may not be just shrugging off, but outright rejection as unnatural. Being "independent of ordinary reality" is itself ignoble.

As an example, one of my favorite manga, Jojo's Bizarre Adventure, is often referred to as trippy et al. (not to mention violent, but that one's understandable), and wound up under the "What Do You Mean, It Wasn't Made On Drugs?" trope at TVTropes. And yet, I can't see any real trace of lunacy at all. Strangeness and arcaneness, yes. Lunacy, no. What does it take, for one to automatically assume that the strange is necessarily insane? A fear of the concept of the arcane, perhaps? A yearning for stasis?
 
When I was younger, someone once made the comment to me that as a creative person I was doing myself a disservice by NOT trying drugs because if I were to really examine my favorite authors, musicians, artists, etc. I would find out that they ALL had been on drugs that expanded their minds and made such heights of creativity possible. Apparently the un-drug affected mind is just too fenced in or something to allow True Creativity.

I think that statement did more for me not trying drugs than all the "Just Say No" and "This is your brain on drugs" ads put together.

It made me feel determined to show that my mind is plenty creative enough on its own.

(though, like you, it doesn't bother me what other people do with their time. Well, so long as they aren't hurting anyone)
 
I've also heard someone (one of the Mighty Boosh?) say that yeah, they'd taken drugs, but not when they're writing or filming because that takes lots of getting up early and sustained hard work- and the more weird and trippy the stuff that shows up on screen, the more sober you have to be, almost, because it needs to be very tightly controlled if it's going to have a flow and coherence at all.
(Blogger doesn't like my OpenID. shark_hat.livejournal.com)
 
I've just come across a similar idea in James Shapiro's book Contested Will, about the Shakespeare-didn't-write-Shakespeare crowd. One broad class of arguments used to advocate for alternate authors is the idea that Shakespeare could only have written about things that he himself had experienced. (There are actually people who think that the fact that Hamlet was captured by pirates, and the Earl of Oxford was captured by pirates, is evidence that the Earl of Oxford wrote Hamlet!)

Shapiro's argument, with which he concludes the book, is a lot like yours, here--that this idea, that all fiction is autobiography, is a denial of the power of imagination.
 
the more weird and trippy the stuff that shows up on screen, the more sober you have to be, almost, because it needs to be very tightly controlled if it's going to have a flow and coherence at all

That makes a lot of sense. Like I say, I've always steered clear of drugs, but of the people I know who've taken the more trippy kinds, it doesn't seem to me that it's increased their creativity so much as it's increased how creative they felt.

Which might be good for your confidence if it actually gets you creating - often we need some kind of encouragement to get us started - but at the same time, I'm rather suspicious of the idea that drugs make you more creative. It seems to me analagous to saying that alcohol makes you more funny. Yes, some people who are naturally funny loosen up when they're drunk and we actually get to hear the jokes they wouldn't otherwise make, but a whole lot more people just think they're funny. And we all know how that goes.
 
That's sometimes the implication I get from "they must have been can drugs" line-- not so much that the work in question is unusually creative, but that it's boring or incoherent and its creators only thought that it was worth producing because their judgment was impaired.

which still makes no sense; after all, even the most drugged-out user has to sober up occasionally, and will presumably cast a cold eye on his work before he submits it to public criticism. Not to mention the editors and publishers and producers and such who also have a say in what gets put before the public.

"Must have been on drugs" is also kind of reminiscent of the whole "mental illness makes you more creative" schtick-- and I know how you feel about that one! And then there's always the "Harry Potter was inspired by demons" crowd.

I think Skyknight's on to something here; maybe some people just can't understand a "normal" mind that's capable of original creative production.

this idea, that all fiction is autobiography, is a denial of the power of imagination.
My daughter, when she was younger, once read a biography of J.R.R. Tolkien. And after all the high adventure and intricately imaginative world-building of Lord of the Rings, she was mildly surprised to discover that "hey, he lived a really ordinary life."

I live by my wits, the chemistry of the brain is delicate and trifling with it seems like a really unwise thing to do.
I hope it's not being presumptuous to say that I'm glad (though not of course surprised) to hear it, as someone who's rather fond of the products of your unaltered wits. Artists are people too, and some of them have problems with mental illness or addictions, but it seems stupid to invite such problems out of some misguided notions about the "drinking, drugging, hard-living artist" stereotype.

Word is "exticat." An excellent cat of the tribe of tiger?
Hi, Mika!
 
it seems stupid to invite such problems out of some misguided notions about the "drinking, drugging, hard-living artist" stereotype

Well, I'm not going to argue with any artist who finds it's different for them; art's a complicated thing. But the way I personally see it, brain chemistry is pretty much a black box at the best of times, and putting firecrackers in there doesn't seem wise.

Anybody who wants to feel they're living like an artist and does it by taking drugs, drinking or doing anything else other than, y'know, making works of art is just silly.


My daughter, when she was younger, once read a biography of J.R.R. Tolkien. And after all the high adventure and intricately imaginative world-building of Lord of the Rings, she was mildly surprised to discover that "hey, he lived a really ordinary life."

I haven't read his stuff - tried a couple of times, couldn't be having with it - but my husband, who has read it, says the one thing that struck him was how similar some of the passages (I think the bit in the marshes?) were similar to passages he'd read in All Quiet On The Western Front - the same sense of surreal horror. And Tolkien did fight in the trenches. So possibly that was an influence; I mean, you do sometimes put things you've seen into your writing. You just add things you've invented and shake 'em up so it's hard to tell what's what.
 
Oh, I'm sure the war he was in, not to mention the war he saw coming, were a big influence on his fiction. But still, he came back from his war and spent the next fifty years quietly going off to Oxford to teach his classes and do his research, having a drink in the pub with his friends, and going home to quiet evenings with his family. And my daughter was only thirteen or so when she read that bio, and in the first flush of Middle-Earth discovery, all caught up in elves and orcs and hopeless quests and high romance, and I think she was expecting a bit more glitz and glamor from him.
 
You'd think "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" would be proof against the idea of the ordinary person having no sense of imagination (not to mention a portrayal of one of the many causes OF that imagination--the same humdrum experience that's alleged to interdict it!).
 
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