The Languages of Addiction. Jane Lilienfeld and Jeffrey Oxford, eds. 288 pp. St. Martin's Press, 1999. $45.
Mind-altering substances continue to be a linchpin of Our Way of Life. No surprise, then, that academics sail into the port of addiction studies from every direction. In departments of psychiatry, they ponder species of alcoholism. In pharmaceutical chemistry, they hunt for nerve-cell alterations bred of too much hooch. In departments of literature, they scour texts for messages about alcoholics and alcoholism and for links between authors' lives and characters.
The Languages of Addiction, edited by Jane Lilienfeld and Jeffrey Oxford, is mostly about the last of these enterprises. Its essays discuss the treatment of addiction in literary works from around the world. They are written mostly by faculty in literature departments for other such faculty. But the book also contains a few licks about theories of addiction, including an essay by a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Edward J. Khantzian.
Will the book have crossover appeal? Doubtful. I liked it, but it's an odd mix of stuff.
Khantzian's piece is a key. It provides a theoretical base from which to think about the literary works. Khantzian says that rather than seeing drugs and alcohol as doorways to pleasure- or stimulus-seeking, or as self-destructive agents, we might view them as means by which addicts self-medicate in order to control or reduce their suffering. That suffering derives from the addict's feeling nothing or too much, being hopelessly selfless or urgently demanding. At its core, addiction is about extremism of character and an inability to care for self.
The essay's sympathetic tone matches that of most in this book. (And that's a good tone, given the seasonal return of hatred of the poor and the addicted that circulates through the body politic.) Another essay, for example, "Heavy Drinking and the AA Model," attacks the moralistic assault on Alcoholic's Anonymous by Herbert Fingarette in his 1988 book Heavy Drinking: The Myth of Alcoholism as a Disease.
Striking and lively ideas appear throughout the Languages of Addiction. One essay shows how Aristotle's four conceptions of addictive behavior, set forth in the Nichomachean Ethics, is subtler than the bifurcated U.S. view that you're either a sinner or a sick'un if you booze or drug too much. Another boldly contends that Freud's defense of cocaine in his writings resulted "because as a concerned doctor he wished the jury to remain out on the subject of cocaine so that we could constantly reinvent our position and remain healthily anti-antidrug."
The defense of Freud's enthusiasm for cocaine is an outlier here. A good half of The Languages of Addiction is spent on literary criticism related to works about alcoholics and drug addicts, and in the works treated, the news about addiction runs from bad to sad.
One essay concentrates on a New Zealander, Ngaio Marsh, who writes in the classical British detective-fiction genre. Sleuth Sherlock Holmes may have been a whale of a coke-head, but Marsh has nothing but bad to say about drugs. Trouble is, as she becomes preachier, her fiction worsens, says the essayist. Another piece, on James Baldwin's story "Sonny's Blues," shows that the narrator brother of a heroin addict has to learn to listen and talk to his sick sibling—and for his own sake as well as his brother's.
Still another reveals the sometimes-blurred boundary between the alcoholic lives of Ernest Hemingway and Djuna Barnes and the characters in their books The Sun Also Rises and Nightwood, respectively.
The essays about literature aren't heavily freighted with theoretical jargon. Some of the pieces inspired a desire to read things that I have not. And that is what a scientifically trained person interested in addiction in literature can hope for as well.—Roger Martin, Center for Research, University of Kansas