Friday, February 28, 2014

Keep Cool, Boy

That last post may have come across as angry.  I'm sure it came across as relentlessly sarcastic.  It might even be genuinely offensive.  So rather than let the blog sit on that note, I thought I would try to introduce a little perspective on the matter.

In a way, I regret writing it.  I don't claim to be a sage, but I do believe it's wiser to say nothing when all you want to do is denigrate someone.  It's not just the scatological insults that can cause collateral damage, after all.  If someone truly is a scoundrel, they'll remain so even if you refrain from pointing it out.  Unfortunately,  people do things for other reasons than careful consideration of what is and isn't wise.  Someone in my life has made a mess of things, and I wrote a mean little essay about them.  It's a little childish, but in my defense, so is the whole situation.

The sad truth is, Tara and my adventure in Korea is not going as smoothly as hoped.  You can read about all our troubles on the other blog; I'm not going to rehash them here.  Essentially, we were taken advantage of by people who ought to have known better.  We ought to have known better than to trust them.  Now we are stuck, and will probably have to do something a little crazy to get unstuck.

I'm just glad that, even with all the uncertainty in our lives today, Tara and I still have each other to rely on.  Together, we reaffirm the necessity and the practicability of trust and love, and together we are not afraid.  We'll work something out, and be better (and yes, wiser) for our troubles.

And in the meantime, I have a weekend ahead of me with not much to do.  I think I will make myself feel better by writing something good and worthwhile.  Potty-mouthed catharsis is nice, but it won't stand the test of time.  It's high time for something more sophisticated on this blog.  Something that I can look back on and smile at.  Probably something with less swearing.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

English and the Insult

*The following post contains, and indeed dwells considerably upon, profanity*

About a month ago, I had a conversation with a Korean friend of mine concerning the most effective ways to describe a disliked person in English.  Her English was pretty good, and she already had quite a handle on the basics of swearing, letting loose a series of fucks and bastards with righteous fury.  But she seemed dissatisfied with the limitations of English cursing, feeling that these words didn't really get at the heart of why the object of her ire was so detestable.  My helpful suggestions of motherfucker, asshole, and son of a bitch served only to illustrate her point.  American English at least does not have a very extensive list of devastating curses.

Recently, I too have had reason to consider the most effective way to utterly disparage the character of another human being in my native tongue.  It's not surprising really; we've all been in that sort of mood, and it's not really important to know who we're talking about today or what they've done to deserve such infamous treatment.  Trust me when I say that the bastard has earned the abuse.

As a matter of principle, I want to avoid the use of insulting language that derives its impact from racial, sexual, or gender identity, or from mental or physical disability.  I think we're all better than that.  A truly effective, devastating insult should bear on something worthy of insulting: namely, a person's lack of integrity.  I have taken the liberty to compile a short list of terms (with definitions) that I think should be considered more often by Americans in the throes of passionate rage:

Scoundrel: a dishonest or unscrupulous person.
Blackguard: a person, particularly a man, who behaves in a dishonorable or contemptible way.
Heel: an inconsiderate or untrustworthy person.
Punk: someone worthless or unimportant; a hoodlum.
Scum: a low, worthless, or evil person.
Miscreant: a vicious or depraved person.
Reprobate: a depraved, unprincipled, or wicked person.
Dastard: a mean, sneaking coward.

If you ask me, that's a nasty list!  There aren't many people I know who would enjoy being called any of these things.  But they don't really have the weight you'd expect from something as serious as an insult.  They certainly don't feel like real curses, the sort of thing that could get you sent to the principal's office, or thrown out of an especially genteel book club (maybe "scum," but not the rest).  In fact, words like "miscreant" almost sound like the opposite of an insult, the sort of thing an upper class person with delicate sensibilities might say to avoid giving offense.  That's not what I want to do here.  I want to be very offensive.

One common principle of insults seems to be that, in order to truly communicate that someone is detestable, you can't just say that they are.  You have to go beyond saying what they are and make what they are sound like something that no one will ever love, possibly because they are contaminated with some sort of contagious, weaponized germ.

There are some exceptions to this principle.  Calling someone something as simple as coward, thief, or liar can provoke a fistfight under the right conditions.  If the person I wish to insult is a liar (and they are), then it seems like I have a built-in advantage to my quest to be offensive.  The problem is, there aren't many words in English that mean "liar" but can't be spoken in polite company.  Oath breaker?  Dissembler?  Fabulist?  Deceiver?  Maybe if you throw in a good strong "fucking" to carry the load.

Nobody wants to sound unhip while delivering an insult: doing so insults oneself by implication.  I think that's why our pool of insults is so conservative, limited to a few old standbys and some unjust digs at marginalized groups.  Nobody wants to go out on a limb by committing to a word like miscreant if it will be perceived as dated or wimpy.  That's also why nobody avails themselves of classic Shakespearean skewers like "umuzzled tardy-gaited barnacle" or "fobbing whoreson coxcomb."  They may be thoroughly rude, but they're adventurous and untested.  Fucking asshole may be muted, but everyone gets the idea right away.

There is one school of insults in English that remains creative: the scatological insult.  A scatological insult does not really aim to describe its target; rather, it aims to disturb everyone in hearing range with unpleasant images, and the possibilities are positively unbounded.  If a more character-derived insult is something of a dueling sword, then a scatological insult is like some kind of radiological bomb.  My target may be a despicable heel, but I can do more damage to the surrounding environment if I call them a dribbling shitstain.  And sometimes, that's a fine thing to do.

In this case, I think it better to forgo the use of toilet imagery and stick with the descriptive, character-based insult.  In fact, I've decided to go with scoundrel, a word that doesn't get nearly enough serious use in this day and age.  Make no mistake, there are scoundrels among us.  They should be disparaged and degraded, but most of all they should be recognized for what they truly are.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Korean New Year, a little bit older

Here in South Korea, we just celebrated Seollal, or the Korean Lunar New Year.  Those of you who follow my Korea blog (I'm sure that's all of you) know that Tara and I had a fine adventure in Seoul last weekend, observing some new year's customs.  But there's one thing I didn't put down in the most recent blog post, a little custom which I'd like to talk about now.

In many east Asian countries, there is an alternative way of reckoning a person's age.  You might think that the question "how old are you" does not require much analysis, but like most things reated to counting, much depends on where you start.  Korea does have the western-style age system of counting completed years since the date of one's birth.  However, this is mostly a matter for the legal system: the traditional system is far more commonly used.

It goes like this.  On the day of your birth, you are considered to be one.  It's often said that this takes into account the preceding nine months of womb time, but I am not fully convinced that this is the reason; it may just be that the people who dreamt up this system didn't think that being less than one made sense.  So you start at one, and your age increases by one at a fixed point each year: not your own birthday, but rather the first day of the Lunar Year.

There are a couple of interesting consequences for this choice of counting.  Everyone born in the same year is the same age, of course, which is a little more convenient from an astrological point of view (and traditional astrology is by no means out of favor here).  It also means that the many babies born late in the year find themselves two years old within a few months of birth.  Koreans tend to count early childhood ages by days rather than years, but it's still a little disorienting to think of all those precocious agers out there.

And then, of course, there is the disorientation that comes into the humble western expatriate's life.  By western reckoning, I am twenty six years old (my birthday is in late February, so I am a few weeks from being twenty seven).  By Korean reckoning, however, I turned twenty eight last weekend, along with all my cohorts in the year of the Rabbit.

All of this, of course, is a very extended way of saying that I feel old and Korea is not helping.  I like being twenty six.  Rather, I don't want to be older than twenty six.  I'm still mourning the loss of twenty four.  I've spent the past year making peace with the inevitability of twenty seven.  And now all of a sudden, I'm twenty eight?  That is not cool.

Twenty eight is plenty young, I know.  And I'm out traveling the world, which is a suitably young-person-ish thing to do.  I don't really have that much cause to mourn a wasted youth (maybe a little, but certainly not "much").  But it takes you off guard, counting yourself older than usual.  It's like looking into a very scary, future-revealing mirror.  You may learn things you aren't ready to know.  You might accidentally trigger an early mid-life crisis.  Before you know it, you're riding an exploding motorcycle off an exploding dam.

Still, twenty eight isn't that bad so far.  I still have most of my hair, anyway.  But I should probably get out of here before my fellow Rabbits start turning thirty.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Girl From Ipanema Passes

I came across an unusual Microsoft Word file today, while transferring a powerpoint document to a computer at work.  Many of the files I find are "unusual", to me anyway, because they are often in Korean and I have no idea what they mean.  The English they may contain is not always enough to convey the file's true significance to me.  It may as well be nonsense.

And that's OK.  Having been here only a little more than a month, I don't expect everything to make sense.  In fact, I kind of enjoy the sensation.  It's not always convenient or unstressful, but there's a certain sense of discovery that comes with watching a scenario unfold around me, without the benefit of understanding all the words that float past my brain.  If you're not a little confused, I say, you're not really traveling.

This file, however, was unusual in a different sense.  It somehow evoked meaning for me, despite being apparently meaningless.  Perhaps its creator could explain its contents, but I doubt the explanation would be very good.  It could never be as satisfying as the glow it kindled in my mind, though I doubt there was much sense in that either.

The file was named "David", and that's my name.  It's not an especially uncommon name, but I am in South Korea and there's no other Davids around that I know of.  It was probably created by or for another David who worked here previously, perhaps years ago.  But I was curious and (as always) eager for some distraction.  So I decided to pretend the file was a message intended for me, and I opened it.

Inside I found this text, presented exactly as follows: 


Did you sleep well?
English Only
How old are you?
Tomorrow I’ll be 1 year older!
50
Who Can swim well?
Breast stroke
Front crawl = free style
Butterfly Stroke
장재우
Happy Birthday to you. (x3)
Happy Birthday dear 재우Happy Birthday to you.

Let’s do some warm up exercise before swimming


Tall and tan and young and lovely,
The girl from Ipanema goes walking
And when she passes,
each one she passes goes – ah
When she walks, she walks like a samba
That swings so cool and sways so gentle
That when she passes,
each one she passes goes – ah

(ooh) But I watch he so sadly,
how can I tell her I love her
Yes I would give her heart gladly,
But each day, she walks to the sea
She looks straight ahead, not at me

If nothing else, this should serve as a warning to the psychologically unbalanced, not to go around pretending that randomly encountered computer data are actually secret messages, improbably placed in your path.  That is crazy thinking.  I should never have entertained the mindset.  But it's far too late to stop now.

This text document, as a whole, makes absolutely no sense.  It's not a lesson plan, or even a coherent train of thought.  Whatever purpose it may have had (assuming it is not the musings of a madman) has evaporated into the mists of time.  But it has my name on it, and The Girl From Ipanema is one of my favorite songs.  So I saved it, and I started thinking.

I went about my work for the day, humming and singing the song to myself when I was alone.  I taught a class using the very same computer where I found the mysterious doc.  I even forgot about it for a little while.

And now, at the end of the day, I simply cannot shake the feeling that I have to tell everyone I know about this file.  "Guys, guys, listen!  I found a file with my name and some random nonsense inside!  And The Girl From Ipanema was there!"

How must that sound when spoken aloud?

I thought for a while I might turn it into fiction, the mysterious setup for a bit of strangeness.  But I should have known from the start that this was a bad idea.  You see, I think that about a lot of things.  I can hardly be alone with myself without thinking "this would make a good start for a story".  A brief glance at my work will bear this out.  I don't write nearly enough to satisfy my artistic urges, or to really develop the craft.  But I do write enough to develop my own reliable cliches.

So there I was, thinking the same old thoughts about solitary fiction over some empty text.  I got wise soon enough, but the thing is that it never really felt empty.  I don't know who 재우 is, or whether they're going swimming or not, but all of a sudden I had a song on my lips.  The girl from Ipanema was there, swaying her hips like a samba, and not looking at me.  It was meaningless, but it was true.

What the hell was she doing there, under my name?  I'll never know, because the David who wrote this document is long gone.  The only thing I can say for sure about him is that he doesn't really have a strong sense of what's worth saving and what isn't.  Or, maybe he does?

I don't think I'll write a story about The Girl From Ipanema.  It's been done.  It's not really where my interests lie, narrative wise.  But god, do I love that song.  And here, from the most improbable place, it's reached out and twisted my thoughts into something I don't want to forget about.  It was a sudden moment when something passed, and all I could say was - ah.


Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Poetry Jam #14

The new year is upon me, a full seventeen hours earlier than usual.  With 2013 slipping out the door, I thought, what better celebration for the turning of the calendar than another batch of poetry?

Other than Dayquil and chamomile, of course.  I have quite the sore throat, unfortunately, so I won't be reading any of it out loud.  Did you know I usually read them out loud?  Of course you didn't.

You might do the honors instead, if you're interested.  Poetry is for the ears as much as for the eyes, if not more.  These poems date from February to July of 2013, so keep that in mind for your pronunciation.

Have a happy, multi-sensory new year.


Real Strange Genes

There ought to be a song about
the way your fingers do that thing
they do sometimes, when you are trying
to impress a crowd of girls.

That thing they do is brave,
bizarre, and just a bit offensive;
"got himself some real strange genes"
they'll sing around a minor chord.

But no one ought to sing this song
in public, if they have good taste.
That thing your fingers do will get
us all arrested soon enough.


You will know me by the time I'm gone

You will know me by the time I'm gone
and you won't miss me.
You may wonder where I've gone today
but you won't wish that
you were with me:
it will already be so.


Sudoku

Sometimes I don't get sudoku.
Sometimes it seems arbitrary,
like there's no solution,
almost like the rules are changing
while I scribble in the boxes;
sometimes, it's a bother.

Other times I want to break them,
force the numbers into order;
sometimes I can do it.
Sometimes I take weeks to solve it,
then the obvious solution
kicks me in the stomach.

Sometimes I dislike my puzzles.


Law and Order

Anyone like me can see you're happy
in your little house, where
anyone who'd like to hurt you only
has to force the locks;

that's just life in human cities on the
walls of planet Earth, where
freedom and security are promises
of little talks.

Silhouettes can vanish from the window
of a little house, where
law and order keeps us happy, sleeping
in our little box.

That's just life in human houses under
stars and moonlit nights, when
anyone can soundly fall asleep in
little city blocks.


Cognitive Red

Nothing's red about red
and none of you can prove it;
keep your reds and I
will do with mine as I
see fit.
If I see fit to deny it,
I will deny,
and if I see fit to claim it
for myself,
then all the rest
will have to make do with other
reds,
hiding under every bed,
preoccupations
with what is right
and what is red
and white.


Keyhole Wisdom

Hold your own and shake your head,
before you're beaten
on the field of crimson flowers
bloomed in triumph,
blooming in the sunset,
stained with crimson
by defeat.

Don't allow your fate to flower
in these fields;
hold your own and shake your head!
That's what father
in his wisdom
said.

That is what I overheard while
listening that night
before the field was stained with red.


Glory is a Lie

Glory is a lie,
is a fiction that we tell ourselves
when other lies are stretched
beyond the breaking,

is the last resort of human minds
that must acknowledge truth
when they are murdered

by ideas - killed by politics,
immediate, abstract
and calculated,

bleeding out because of economics.
Glory is a lie,
a comfort to the ones
who face the Terror,

for the living and the dying, but
no comfort to the dead
or those who miss them,

or the ones whom Terror takes
without remorse.  The violence
is not redemption,

nor a path to everlasting lives
with noble, selfless friends
who've lost their heads and

hands and heartbeats, but retain their smiles
at their duties done.
Their death is death
and glory is a lie.


How to Talk about Scallions

How to talk about scallions
in a format that is not a cookbook,
garden magazine,
or esoteric journal?

The work of some alchemist
who wouldn't settle for less.
How to talk about scallions
in a way that

everyone would accept was worth the talking,
not a waste of alchemist's breath
or ink from inviscid pens?

How to talk about scallions
like a professional,
when what you really want to talk about is
garlic,

and its flavors and its uses
and the peculiar facts of its
etymology?

How to talk about scallions
without pausing to mention
scallawags,
without pondering the steps

by which an "a"
becomes an /i/
without anybody noticing?

Keep it focused, keep it flavored,
keep it peppered with the love
that is its due.

How to talk about scallions
in a poem about onions
that smells like a kitchen
preparing the most incredible soup
the chef has ever boiled?

How to say enough about
scallions.


Chemicals

Memory is chemicals
and everything is chemicals
and everything we know and love's
a chemical illusion,
but we love it and
we wouldn't have it any other way.

Understand the chemistry
and everything's a mystery
in spite of everything you know:
the beauty of our love is
that the mystery
persists in spite of everything we say.

Memory is wonderful
for making love, and chemicals
can turn you on, and turn you off,
before you can remember
that you love it and
you've waited for those chemicals all day.


Baseball

When I was young I learned from baseball
all I ever had to know,
that there was no sense in living fast, except
when chasing first or passing second,
rounding third or running home;

as long as there are sunny days
and summer afternoons for baseball,
standing still between the blades of grass
and hearing passing cars,
there is no sense in living faster
than the crack of bats,
no sense in speeding up.


Backyard Nature Reserve

The long grass rippling in the wind -
I will not mow the lawn.
This is where the deer have played,
and this is not my lawn,
this is no concern of mine.
Sun shines on the waving grass,
I will not cut it down
because I like to see it waving
on a blustery day;
it's no concern of mine, except
I hope the deer come back to play.


Against Solipsism

After careful thought,
consideration, and deliberation,
I've concluded that you're real;
on a leap of faith, I'd say the same
of planets, purple flowers,
atoms,
operas,
minnows,
stained-glass windows.

Their reality I cannot prove,
but yours is indisputable,
beyond a reasonable doubt:
for all my powers of imagination
and my skills of self-deception,
I could never hope to dream you
up from scratch.

You must be real,
or I must be perfect,
and, my love, we know
the latter simply isn't so.


Rockwell Court

In this old house of mine, where I was happy,
I was angry, I was sometimes just
depressed, I am spending one more night,
and I am likely never coming back.

My memories cannot do justice to
a home where I knew shame and found release,
through triumph, and through quiet maturation:
where I screamed 'til I was hoarse and learned
that screaming was against my nature, and
I lacked the time to practice.  Here I dreamed
about amazing futures in the stars
I fixed across my ceiling, and I held
her naked breasts behind closed doors, and made
ridiculous mistakes that will be haunting
me for years.  My poetry cannot
reveal the pain and comfort, or the loss
and joy of living here, of leaving in
a broken state and coming home to be
renewed.  I lack the words to say it right,
and all that I'm prepared to say before
I go is thank you, sorry, and goodbye.


The Tragedies

The truth is the way
things have been since the day
she was born, and the best
of the truth makes her ache
in her conscience and tremble
with rage in her chest.

So she prefers fiction
and speaks "revolution"
and makes life a chore
for the comfortable people
who settle for facts
that they ought to ignore.


The Last Song on the Album

With a few hours left
before I fall asleep again,
I wrote that song, you know the one.
It ends the album on a quiet note,
but gets louder in the middle
like it still remembers glories past
and doesn't want to fade away
like so much noise from little speakers
in my head.
It gets the usual chords and then,
as usual,
gets its melancholy lyrics,
then it fades against its will
before I fall asleep again.

______________________________

Commentary is brief because I'm sleepy.

The title of Real Strange Genes comes from the lyrics of a Who song, and this is not the first time that has happened to me.  The Who are just really good, ok?  As for what the fingers in this poem are doing, I'll never tell.

Law and Order is my deep and meaningful commentary on our persistent vulnerability to improbable and unpredictable violent rampages.  It is very deep and meaningful.  Honest.

Cognitive Red, Keyhole Wisdom, and Glory is a Lie all go together like a triad.  A triptych, if you will.  Or maybe just a trilogy.  A very bloody trilogy about strife and fighting and dying and all that good stuff.  Like most sets of three, the middle installment is the weakest.  I do like the metrical work on the others, though.

How to Talk about Scallions is a poem about poetry and trying to write it when you have no idea what you're doing.  I never really know what I'm doing.  But also it's about scallions.

Chemicals and Against Solipsism are both love poems for Tara, of course.  I love her so much, I just keep writing her poetry!  Here I express that love in more philosophical and scientifical (?) terms than before.

My landlords went on a long vacation last spring and neglected to arrange for the lawn to be mowed in their absence.  Hence, Backyard Nature Preserve.  I honestly liked it better that way.

I wrote Rockwell Court fully believing that I would never again set foot in the house where I spent my teenage years, as my mom was moving out soon and I was on my way back to Oregon.  It turned out that, when I returned a few months later, I had to go back two or three times to help fix something before the new owners moved in.  Life is never as clean as poetry.  Anyway, it's a poem about being a sad, weird teenager in a setting that's doomed to disappear from one's life.  Or rather, being a grown-up (?) with all kinds of feelings about being that sad, weird teenager.  It's complicated and weird.

The Tragedies is sort of my tribute to girls (and other humans) who don't take shit from the crowd that says "that's just how it is."  Rock on.

You know the songs The Last Song on the Album is about.  If you listen to albums, anyway.  Does anyone listen to albums anymore?

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas in Korea

I remember learning when I was a small child about the various ways Christmas is celebrated all around the world.  A list of peculiar customs, however, can't really get across how different the holiday can seem when you step into another culture.

Here in South Korea, nearly thirty per cent of the people subscribe to Christianity of one kind or another.  It's not the kind of cultural domination I've been steeped in for a quarter century of life in the United States, but it's a minority to be reckoned with.  Churches stick out around here (there's one not far from my apartment), and I've rarely known Christians to be shy about sharing their traditions.

And yet, the grocery stores aren't blasting Christmas music today.  They aren't festooned with decorations.  The outside world looks pretty much like it did two weeks ago, and as I expect it will continue to look until the snow melts.  Things were different when we visited the city last week; Christmas K-pop and Christmas deals were readily found in the mall.  But here in the outskirts, one would hardly know it's Christmas.

As I've had it explained to me, Christmas is simply not a huge deal here.  It's known, of course, and people tend to get the day off from work.  But rather than the pole around which the other holidays revolve, a time when everyone goes home to be with their families, it's seen as being something primarily for young couples to enjoy.  

And that's ok, I guess.  We're a young couple, and we're enjoying ourselves.  But Tara and I agree that this Christmas, for us, is definitely different.

I'm not complaining, of course.  I think the omnipresence of Christmas festivities back home can be off-putting.  But it's also something we've become accustomed to.  It's probably the strangest difference we've encountered so far.

Tara's a little under the weather today, so we didn't go out today.  Instead, we stayed in and did Christmas the best we could.  We gave each other presents and watched Christmas movies (and also, Buffy the Vampire Slayers).  We worked together to make a delicious Christmas feast.  There's little snowmen on the microwave, and a strand of lights on our wall.  Bing Crosby's singing White Christmas.  There's a bottle of wine chilling in the fridge.  There's no fire, but it still feels about right.

Addiction as a Means of Inspiration

The following is a guest post by Eve Pearce.


Origins of Addiction

Addiction is defined as a great interest in something or a need to do or have something, and the dictionary suggests that the word originated at the end of the sixteenth century. However, artists and writers for many years had been concerned with man’s addiction to certain personality traits. As such a relatable and sympathetic trait, it can be used as a fantastic tool when creating works of fiction. One of the primary traits of many classicist texts is hubris, a key example being Icarus, who flew too close to the sun: while considering his flaws, the addictive qualities of flight and adventure, coupled with the tremendous feeling of freedom must surely be considered addictive. Many such human flaws are defined by the addictive qualities of emotions, and those characters which have remained timeless are those which drive relentlessly towards fulfilling these emotions. Even as the idea of addiction seeped into the language of everyday life during the sixteenth century, the chief writers of the day could be said to have evolved the concept. Is Marlowe’s Faustus not addicted to power, redefined as a thirst for learning? Is Othello not addicted to the love of Desdemona, jealous that it might be enjoyed by another? Shakespeare’s own sonnets demonstrate a craving and a lust beyond the simple yearning of a lover. These emotions, when viewed through the prism of addiction, demonstrate how truly great characters can be utterly addicted to emotion.


Mainstream Addiction

As addiction became more quantified and understood, and especially as addictive substances entered the mainstream, humanity’s ability to cope with addictive substances is doubted. Hogarth’s 1751 painting Gin Lane depicts the evils of drink in England, enough to form part of the argument for the creation of the Gin Act, a political policy which worried about the addict qualities of alcohol and the effect this might have on an impressionable public. The characters within the painting as depicted as debauched and criminal; Hogarth’s work is a throwback to the portraits of hell painted inside medieval churches, where addiction has become the new and fashionable sin. Although only officially repealed in the Sixties, a nineteenth century amendment reduced the power of these licensing laws. By then, not only had Britain become addicted instead to newly-imported, non-alcoholic tea, but the effect of alcohol was far less threatening. In its place, authors had found new addictions. Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was a character essentially defined by his addictive personality. We are offered two key examples: Holmes, when bored, relies and feeds upon his cocaine addiction; however, when a suitably challenging case is laid before him, this is instantly replaced with an addiction to mental vigor. This is one of the first characters demonstrating a literal chemical addiction, and it seems fitting that it should be placed alongside a character renowned for their own hubristic narcissism. Holmes is the paradigm of addiction in fiction; he feeds relentlessly and tirelessly in a manner which is utterly engaging.


Addiction Redefined

Throughout the Twentieth century and beyond, art and its approach to character has become a great deal more abstract. Now, thanks to post modernism, work is not only informed by the literal contents, but by the context, the creator and the consumer. Many works now concern themselves with humanity’s growth into a society of addicts. A notable depiction would be Huxley’s A Brave New World, wherein the people are in thrall to a drug called soma, unable to imagine life without the miracle medicine. But what about addiction holds such a sway for authors? What about the flaw makes us, as an audience, so fascinated, and how can this be turned towards the advantage of those hoping to write?


Addictive Personalities

Addiction is an exercise in wish fulfillment. Feeding into so many character traits, addiction represents a maximized desperation for a familiar emotion. However a character might need to fulfill that craving, whether it be for love or money, lust or power, their journey becomes relatable to an audience. Like so many emotions in fiction, addiction is useful to the writer not because it is necessarily a realistic depiction of human emotion, but rather because it is human emotion on full volume. The character has a need, a desire and is now filled with an utter compunction to achieve their goal. When creating the arc of a character, making them desire something is simple. Give them a small taste of what they could have, and then take it away. The withdrawal and the chase then become the main concern of the text. Heavily reductionist though it might be, addiction is the perfect means by which an author can demonstrate a character’s desire for an item or an emotion. While it may not be a textbook case of addiction, characters in fiction are typically written as fiends, driving relentlessly towards their goal; Ahab is addicted to his white whale, addicted to the chase and the glory. We are not necessarily fascinated by the goal (a whale) but by the addiction itself (Ahab’s desperate pursuit).


An Additive Plot

Addiction is also incredibly useful as a plot device. As mentioned above, as society has grown to understand addiction, the properties of addiction can be used by an author as a way of structuring a plot. Consider the book and film Trainspotting. All of the characters contained within are addicts, chiefly dependent on heroin. Their journeys are defined by their successes and failures in relation to battling this addiction. We as an audience understand addiction; we know the dangers of sharing needles and the other inherent risks of drug dependence. As a plot device, the character’s relationship with addiction plays a huge part. We see them battle with, beat and lose to heroin, and many of the characters are defined in relationship to their addiction. Tommy is corrupted, Renton is the corrupter. Addiction itself is the looming overlord, dictating the paths of these characters. There individual traits are exacerbated by the properties of addiction and we view their actions through the lens of their dependence on heroin. As part of a society fascinated by addiction – drugs, drink, tobacco and consumerism – we can relate to the concept of addictive personalities. Even though we may have never tried heroin, it becomes a heightened facet of humanity; the audience’s sympathy created and embellished by their understanding of human nature.


The Chief Concern of Character

Addiction is a traditionally fertile ground for fiction. Humans are essentially built as addiction machines; instincts and chemical conditioning program us to pursue pleasures and desires often to our own detriment. With so many artists themselves victims of addiction, it should be no surprise to see properties of addiction seeping into so many works of fiction. Indeed, art not only exaggerates addiction, but exemplifies it, redefining it as compulsion and obsession. When so many people are addicted to so many little things, when culture is so intoxicated with the fascination and fixation, it should be no surprise that addiction is a core tenet of the creative process. Either as a motivation device for characters, or as a pillar around which to build a plot, the properties and nature of the addict can be the key to creating wonderfully engaging works.