Last night, I sort of saw the movie Ray, which is based on the life of Ray Charles. I was also doing some things on the computer while the movie was on, so it didn't have my full attention, and therefore I won't comment on its artistic merits here, except to say that it appeared to be well done.

However, the film did prompt me to meditate on drug use and artists. (Ray Charles apparently had a serious heroin habit, which was a major element in the plot.) For one thing, the movie did not present the role of heroin in Charles's life in purely black-and-white terms. That is vital for any depiction of drug usage that seeks to be anything other than drug war propoganda. Regarding drug taking as an entirely negative activity makes it a mystery as to why anyone would use drugs. The ignored and obvious solution to the mystery is that certain aspects of taking drugs are quite enjoyable, and for many people the pleasure gained seems to be worth the (also obvious) costs involved. The film acknowledges that Charles did most of his best work during the time he was a steady heroin user, and that he was able to achieve tremendous business success and reliably meet his professional obligations while using. (His love life was somewhat of a mess, but heroin use does not seem to have any inherent connection to extra-marital affairs -- a regular user could also be a faithful partner in a romantic relationship, and many people who do not use drugs have affairs.)

The film also led me to consider the relationship of drug use and the pursuit of art. I believe that many people working in creative fields run into difficulties with drugs because they grow attached to the aesthetic space they enter when under the influence. Mundane concerns fade away, and they are captured by a vision of pure artistic form. If a creator attracts a significant audience that is also captivated by his vision, his situation becomes doubly difficult. Even if he may be willing to give up his ready access to that aesthetic realm as the cost of his continuing drug use rises, he can feel obligated to keep going because of the expectations of his fans. As a case in point, I suspect that Jerry Garcia eventually succumbed due to just such an attachment. As "Captain Trips" and the de facto leader of the Grateful Dead, there was enormous pressure on him to keep exploring "deep space" with his music. He might have preferred to relax and play more of the folk and bluegrass material he performed with David Grisman, but not only did he have the huge population of "Dead Heads" expecting otherwise, he also felt responsible for supporting the quite large "family" of people who depended on the Dead for their livelihood -- office workers, roadies, sound men, marketers, and so forth.

I regard the trap he failed to avoid as a serious problem for any person who has gained renown for her creative output, not just for one who happens to take drugs. A public intellectual readily can become locked into continually recycling an idea (or a cluster of ideas) for which she became famous, because that is what her book-buying public and those who fund her work expect from her. If that happens, her thought ceases to develop, and the excitement she once felt for her vocation dies, replaced by the uninspired re-hashing of the ideas that attract steady pay.

My conclusion? To maintain their integrity and their passion, creative people must be willing to lose their audience and face financial uncertainty, in order to follow their muse along whatever path she leads them.


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