Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Say Nevermore to the Edgar Allan Poe Complex

Today is the birthday of Edgar Allan Poe. Ah, Edgar Allan Poe. Without him, would so many of us still believe that the only way to be an artist is to consume massive quantities of brain altering substances and die in a gutter? In one of her books, Julia Cameron goes so far as to call this belief the Edgar Allan Poe complex. I might have doubted her and accused her of overgeneralizing had I not met so many artists, young and old, who cling to this myth, who refuse to believe that one can be sane and sober and still make great art.

Some of us sneer and want to dismiss Poe, who did, after all, do much to destroy his own reputation. Choose your favorite reputation destroyer: marry your cousin! who's only 14! live in dire poverty! consume massive quantities of alcohol! blow numerous second chances!

In some ways, it's amazing that Poe managed to create as many wonderful works as he did. We sometimes forget about his true accomplishments, so overbearing is his biography. Those of us who love detective novels owe a tremendous debt to Poe. Those of us who love short stories owe a tremendous debt to Poe. Those of us who love the horror genre in all its permutations owe a tremendous debt to Poe.

I've even met many more students than I would have thought possible who adore Poe's poetry. I find his meter wrecks his poetry for me; it's very much from an older century. But would I sell my soul to produce something like "The Raven," which has a staying power which seems beyond explanation?

Well, maybe not my soul. But I have yet to meet an artist in any genre who doesn't have that particular daydream. Of course we all long to create that amazing work that grips generation after generation. And perhaps that's what drives us to consume those quantities of soothing substances as we deal with the overwhelming anxiety that our desire for timelessness creates.

But as Julia Cameron and many others remind us, those substances will undo our creativity in the end, and in some cases, destroy our very lives. Poe's life is the ultimate cautionary tale for artists who flirt with substance abuse.

The only cure for the anxiety of the artist is to keep creating.

1 comment:

Undine said...

To be fair to poor old Poe, this image of him as this perennially drunken, drug-using mess who destroyed his life and died in the gutter is largely a cliche. His story is much more complicated than that.

While he indeed had occasional bouts of heavy drinking, they were much rarer than most people think, and it's arguable how much of an impact they had on his career. His difficulties as a writer largely came from other causes--causes, in my opinion, which were not usually his fault. It is not now believed he was a drug abuser at all.

Incidentally, during his own time, marrying his 14-year-old cousin went unremarked, as hard as it may be for us now to believe.