Ann Bauer has a powerful essay up on Beyond the Margins: Heroin Tales. It’s about the history of heroin (the drug, we learn, was invented by a pharmaceutical company) and the crushing, awful experience of loving an addict. It’s clearly topical at the present moment, with the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, but that’s not Bauer’s focus.
To speak personally, I have very little experience of illegal addictive substances. A large part of this avoidance comes from terror. I can see, even from the most banal and everyday “addictions”–things like playing a computer game or checking email too much–that I have almost no willpower, at least in any meaningful sense. I get more than enough encouragement about my writing: the logical thing, six days a week, would be to do the things that I know help me write: avoid early reading of email and news blogs, for instance. And yet.
Something I read on Andrew Sullivan’s blog is that in addiction, like and want become separated. In normal situations, as such eating a grilled cheese sandwich, I simultaneously want to eat and enjoy eating the sandwich. But in addictive situations, need has little to do with pleasure. There is something utterly mechanical about playing another level of a computer game you’ve already completed, or checking your inbox five minutes after the last check. Perhaps, if scanned while doing so, one’s brain would reveal duller, more repetitive patterns, less the achievement of desire than the sating of an impatient memory.
William Blake suggests that each person has two different willpowers. Opposing and self-contradictory, pulling in opposite directions: the selfhood, towards trivial reinforcement of the ego, and the imagination, what Blake called “Los,” the engendering forge that desires to create new forms. Life, especially the artistic life, in Blake’s mind, is to a large extent determined by this struggle–to what extent one of those wills ruled the day.
The habits of the artist and the routines of the addict have a certain resemblance, one perhaps being the angelic counterpart of the other. Daily, the artist attempts to do the same thing in the same way, week after week demanding the same pens, the same brand of unlined notebook, using one particular computer program to type rough drafts–then using a different one to do the edits.
Out of those arbitrary, semi-neurotic habits, we hope, grand countries will one day emerge.
Free will? What’s that?