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What Charles Bukowski’s Glamorous Displays of Alcoholism Left Out (nytimes.com)
112 points by samclemens 26 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 76 comments

Bukowski's books glorify drinking like the movie Leaving Las Vegas glorifies drinking: the trailer may give you the impression they're about getting drunk and having fun, but sit through the whole actual thing, and having a drink is the last thing on your mind.

I saw a documentary of Bukowski (sorry, I don't remember the title) and it was clear that his life was a spectacular train wreck.

But I also think, if we look into our hearts, all of us, every one of us is winging it.

"We're all going to die, all of us. What a circus! That alone should make us love each another, but it doesn't. We are terrorized and flattened by life's trivialities. We are eaten up by nothing." - Bukowski

Agreed. It's pretty clear 10 minutes into Post Office that the protagonist is not living a glamorous life.

Ending of Fear and Loathing: https://youtu.be/jrd-sfoAv9A?t=38

Perhaps it’s like war films, in the sense that it’s very difficult to not glamorize the subject, no matter how gritty the treatment. The worse it gets the better it looks.

This is the process of eroticization, of making distasteful things appealing, seen a lot in film. Schindler's List does this with the Holocaust, Titanic sidesteps it by overlaying a love story, Irreversible confounds it by [spoiler] ending at the beginning of the story, and so on.

Yes, on one hand the filmmaker wants to do art, and naturally searches beauty in composition, story, photography... even with the gruesomest topics.

And on the other hand even if you tell the story of someone/something reprobable, it is their story, and stories are “virus” for our empathic minds - so we end up understanding and siding with the wrong ideas / actions when they are explored (because to explore them by focusing om them turns them into the protagonist of the story).

It seems quite essential to any narrative medium.

I think to a large degree eroticization is compensatory. Check out Lodge Kerrigan or Harmony Korine for (English-language) relatively-accessible movies without the kind of clarity of dramatic structure you describe.

In other words, it isn't essential at all. Spielberg could have made a movie that represented only the helplessness, misery, and horror and left it at that.

To be fair, that scene is about a period of time spent in virtually another world. Drinking was what straightened you out when it came to everything they consumed.

HST is a great subject. But really, he was documenting a madman he travelled with more than anything with a few spots of other occurrences in between.

If you haven’t before, I recommend reading the compilations of his letters. He was a much more “normal” person than his literary persona. I distinctly recall letters to his mum about being proud about having paid his credit cards off finally after his... endeavours.

Agreed. He makes it very obvious he is damaged. The quality of the life he has is as obvious as the quality of hitting yourself with a hammer on the head repeatedly.

That does not make him less attractive - but you would have to be already in a very bad shape if you felt any compulsion to emulate him.

Agreed. Even though a lot of what he describes is distasteful and some of the really gruesome stuff would probably be actual felonies in real life, he puts across the point repeatedly of how the world works for the lower classes, and their brief interaction with the upper class. Specifically, the dynamics of sexual attraction, which is a very complex topic in itself.

Its entirely possible that I found it revealing because before that all my reading/viewing had led me to believe a different reality of how Romance and Sexual Attraction work.

Along that same line, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a pretty good movie at warning that playing it fast and loose with recreational drugs beyond alcohol can have you end up with a very bad time

The last few lines are spot-on:

>Bukowski unquestionably lived a life much darker and hungrier and more desperate than that of most writers. But in his writing he paused at the black threshold and backed away. He was probably wise.

Yes, Bukowski presented a heavily edited portrait of his alcoholism, but that discretion is the only thing protecting the sick charm that makes his work so interesting. A step or two further and the light would be completely shut out.

There are enough people who like to talk about liking Bukowski the person more than (or as a result of) Bukowski the author, so I think that protection winds up being a bit thin.

Does that matter though? I guess he had the sense to not cross that line explicitly in his work even though he may have crossed it in real life (I would bet a large amount of money that he did).

David Orr has been flinging the same mud at Bukowski and Bukowski's posthumous publications for years now.

He's been using the same exact jabs and barbs for more than a dozen years.

An example, in this 2019 review he writes:

> At this point, new books by Bukowski tend to be pretty old. Bukowski’s publisher has issued something like 20 volumes from “Buk” since the writer’s death in 1994, frequently with large chunks of them scavenged from previously published writing. The many recycled poems, letters and prose fragments in “On Drinking” follow previous collections including “On Cats” and “On Love” and “On Writing,” with “On Cats Who Love Drinking and Writing” presumably waiting in the wings.

In 2006, for a humor issue of _Poetry_ [1], he wrote a review titled:

> Reviewed Work: Charles Bukowski: Drafts, Scribbles, Doodles, Signed Leases, Cancelled Checks, Drawings on Cocktail Napkins, Things He Wrote on a Nerf Football with a Green Marker, Things He Wrote on a Waitress in Tulsa with the Same Green Marker, Things He Wrote (Possibly in Blood) on an Issue of Marie Claire, Things He Wrote (Possibly in Vomit) on a Copy of X-Men vs. the Fantastic Four No. 3, and Sestinas by Charles Bukowski

in which he goes on to write:

> If you've seen the 9,473 Charles Bukowski collections currently for sale in Barnes & Noble, you probably wondered, along with the rest of the poetry world, when we'd finally be given a full picture of this major artist by his choosy publisher. Sadly, this isn't it. Missing, for example, are five poems known to have been written by "Buk" on scraps of toilet paper during a binge in Sante Fe

Repeating the same lame 'here's a long title to show my displeasure at the amount of posthumous material that is being published because for some reason it is personally irritating to me just how prolific Bukowski actually was' joke for more than a dozen years is pretty hackneyed.

It almost seems like he's just rewriting the 2006 review here and adding some concern trolling about drunk driving.

[1] sci-hub.tw/https://www.jstor.org/stable/20607525

Maybe... Because his publisher is just reprinting material? Publishing the same thing over and over again seems to work pretty well for them, why shouldn't Orr give it a try?

Dude's been dead since 1994. There's only so much you can say.

"If something bad happens you drink in an attempt to forget; if something good happens you drink in order to celebrate; and if nothing happens you drink to make something happen" - Bukowski

His writing has never glamorized drinking, to me. Quite the opposite, he revels in sharing the dregs of a depressing lifestyle. But there is some beautiful prose burried in his vulgar squalor.

Glamorous? How is fishing in the toilet bowl for your wallet glamorous? I don't think he portrayed as anything but squalid. He was certainly unapologetic about it.

The article very specifically says why it thinks the presentation, squalid though it might be, is nevertheless still glamourized and narcissistic.

Specifically Bukowski "wants to seem" a particular way, which is the essence of glamour. Virginia Postrel is very good on this expanded sense of glamour, finding it almost everywhere in professional culture (including space travel, and maybe not so surprisingly, the military).

But the basic desire to project an image of being somehow special is the key ingredient that leads to glamour. Glamour is essentially mediated charisma: always constructed, to a degree, always something artificial rather than a direct encounter with someone's real self.

Postrel's politics lead her to let glamour off lightly. IMO, though (on the other hand), manifestations of glamour (and its pursuit) are closely tied to narcissism, and something we should get tough on.

The "hacker" image, by the way, is a glamourous MacGyver kind of deal. Calling hackers "coding bums" as Dijkstra did, is the antithesis of that. The former term glamourizes what the coders are doing, the latter mocks it.

How do you get tough on the pursuit of glamour? Should we? Are you saying that we should criminalize narcissists?

Narcissists are a danger to everybody, but the consensus seems to be that narcissists themselves would be happier if they were treated. It's a pathology, so I don't think there's any problem with pathologizing it. How to treat it seems to be a largely unsolved problem, though.

A novel which accentuated the problems of alcohol would not be very entertaining.

I don't think many people who read Bukowski think "wow, that's the life for me!"

Years ago I read a book written by one of Kerouac's ex-wives, detailing the truth of their lifestyle, the willful damage the Beat Poets inflicted upon everyone around them, their incredibly poor treatment of women, their constant simplistic search for thrills, and the general sense among themselves of their fame being a giant literary scam, which they eventually died believing and simultaneously hating their own lies. The book is out of print, but it looks like another of similar vein is available here: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/12566913-one-and-only

I don't like Kerouac at all and found "On The Road" to be a poorly written bore, but that's a pretty broad stroke to paint by someone who likely has a lot of reason to paint it grotesquely.

There is a quote from his book "Women" that pretty much explains everything this article is complaining about:

"Hey baby, when I write, I'm the hero of my shit."

You either accept that conceit - or there isn't much point reading his work.

He tells that to a filmographer following him around as well who notes it after a confrontation between the two—in a documentary.

I forget which doc, though. Saw it probably ten years ago.

Something like “you’ve got your film, you do your film. ... I’m the hero of my shit.”

I can't remember the context of the quote well enough - but I wonder if he was writing about the same moment.

It was something about a guy complaining that Bukowski had misrepresented a moment between them in an earlier work to which Bukowski simply acknowledges as essentially correct, but that - he is the hero of his shit.

If you remember the doc it'd be great to know what it is. I would love to see the live action complement to that moment.

Oh possibly— I meant to write that 'he also* tells'. It was likely the same line, in a later instance—repeating what he wrote in the book.

BTW, I think the doc was "Born Into This": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h32g3g7r4Q8

Cheers! :)

All good. If you haven't seen it, the movie version of Ask The Dust by John Fante (one of Bukowskis idols) was also enlightening. There's a lot of attention being paid to the novels in this thread. His most impactful stuff was the poetry, though. Novels paid the bills, AFAIU.



It's interesting that society (especially the conservative side) frowns upon substance abuse, and often thinks of it as a moral failing. Yet so much of our cultural output has relied on substance use/abuse.

Hemingway and Bukowski with alcohol, Philip K Dick with amphetamines, Hunter S Thompson with practically every substance, practically every musician with every substance under the sun.

Art and altered states of mind seem to go hand in hand.

I was giving it some thought and was about to post something similar.

I also remember a quote— by whom I forget—but probably one of your selection: “I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, but it worked for me”.

Take that one with a grain of salt— maybe it worked for humanity.

There’s something to be said for the ones who stared into the abyss and reported back...

Hunter Thompson has said it a few times in print, though I don't know exactly where. I've definitely read it in at least one of his letters. I first found the quote in a video of him at a podium answering questions for college students. Probably on YouTube but it was a long time ago.

I think you're right about the lecture moment. I forget which doc as well, but it rings a bell for sure.

Or maybe openness to experience causes both high creativity and openness to experimenting with substances. Correlation/causation and all that.

Ah the virtuous cycle of creativity and experimentation.

You could look at the people with creative output and ask how drugs help, or you could look at 'non-creative' people and ask how drugs stop them being creative..

Or maybe artists just take/enjoy/use drugs 'because' humans take/enjoy/use drugs. You just only hear about it when it's someone famous for something.

Ayn Rand comes to mind, cigarettes and amphetamines, and it clearly displays in her personal life: paranoia, anger, rage.

Also Steve Jobs marijuana and most famous LSD habit, according to him, one of the "two or three most important things" he ever did in his life.

To call anything written by Bukowski "glamorous" is ridiculous. This article seems intentionally obtuse.

"Glamorous" was maybe a poor word choice by the author/editor, but his writing certainly romanticizes his behavior just as drug abuse has been romanticized elsewhere across the arts. For example, reading about a legendary musician's struggle with heroin addiction while they were writing the most profound music of their career does not evoke the same aesthetic as seeing a homeless addict shoot up on the sidewalk. One is mythology, the other reality.

From my own history, I know there is plenty of romance to be found within the more sordid sides of life. Not for everyone, to be sure. I've always related to Buk's writing for his ability to find beauty (and humanity) in the uglier sides of humanity.

The author of this article is being incredibly unfair at the least in his attempt to moralize a poet who died of old age a quarter century ago.

Bukowski's poetry is particularly sublime on the toilet.

How does his writing romanticize his behavior? I've read a lot of his stuff. He's often miserable. I admire his writing style and his brutal honesty about how he perceived the world. I don't think I'm alone in saying that a hungover alcoholic picking broken glass from the night before from his feet and having to go to a doctor to finish the job is not something I'm looking to emulate.

It's along the same lines as the type of romanticizing you might see when certain addicts (recovering or otherwise) discuss their experiences with one another. It occasionally becomes a game of one-upmanship where each is discussing miserable experiences with a subtext of pride as if to strengthen their appearance as hardcore or interesting or who knows. The behavior is by no means limited to or universally true of addicts, but there's certainly a type and it comes through in Bukowski's writing. This flavor of romanticizing isn't necessarily intended to inspire envy, but awe.

That's not the kind of romanticizing the parent comment described with "reading about a legendary musician's struggle with heroin addiction while they were writing the most profound music of their career does not evoke the same aesthetic as seeing a homeless addict shoot up on the sidewalk".

Bukowski is the guy who would more often write about the misery of his life as the latter. I agree your example is a lot better. One-upmanship of degeneracy was there at times no doubt and I'm sure he exaggerated some events. But I think the reason he will stand the test of time is that he had many authentic sides to show in his writing. Some of them quite vulnerable. And if memory serves me right, the theme of the dullness of life came up more than once too. If it were mostly or even too much one-upmanship, that would wear thin very quickly. There's clearly a lot more to his writing than that.

Really though it comes down to how much his lifestyle appealed to me the reader. Almost not at all. I can think of other authors who have been far better at romanticizing a degenerate lifestyle and made me feel like I wanted a part of it.

How does his writing romanticize his behavior?

Cynical me says you answered your own question right here:

I admire his writing style and his brutal honesty about how he perceived the world.

There's something romantic and intoxicating about frank, brutal honesty w/rt the inner id, the fortitude to look deep into the heart of one's own darkness without blinking that gets frequently conflated with 'romanticizing' or 'normalizing' that darkness.

I don't admire his behavior though and I don't want to emulate that behavior. He makes his alcoholism and everything that goes with it less appealing to me, unlike other authors who do romanticize a sort of rock and roll lifestyle.

Unless the behavior we are talking about is his writing style and his honesty and his ability to talk about some of our darker states of mind in a way that feels authentic to the reader.

> There's something romantic and intoxicating about frank, brutal honesty w/rt the inner id, the fortitude to look deep into the heart of one's own darkness without blinking that gets frequently conflated with 'romanticizing' or 'normalizing' that darkness.

Well yes. My point was that the parent comment got it wrong with the 'romanticizing'. Sounds like you agree.

Unless the behavior we are talking about is his writing style and his honesty and his ability to talk about some of our darker states of mind in a way that feels authentic to the reader.

Precisely this.

>One is mythology, the other reality.

Well, if the musician did write the "most profound music of their career" while on heroin, then that's also reality.

The events themselves may be reality but the subsequent written account, as with Bukowski, is a fragmented, curated snapshot with an intended purpose.

If you're not familiar with Bukowski and want a quick glimpse, the film Barfly, starring Mickey Rourke is highly entertaining


Klasky Csupo, the studio responsible for the first season of the Simpsons, did a gritty segment of animated shorts based on this.

Of course, the book is _much_ better.

Hollywood was a great look into the production of the actual film, as a nice piece after reading Barfly.

The TV show Californication is also loosely based on Bukowski.

It's been so long since I've seen this movie that I read the title as Barf-ly...

If I were a critic working for the NYT, I could see how even in his most degenerate form, Bukowski lived more deeply and experienced life more profoundly than someone with middling preoccupations could, and also, how desperately necessary it would be to fold him into some critical framework that neutered him, if only to mitigate the shame that lesser writers and the readers of criticism must live with as the price of their successes. All worth it, surely. Those seedy grapes are most certainly sour.

He was the man in the arena. Writers for newspapers, well, they write about men like him.

Yeah, the envy in that article is cringe worthy. I've been increasingly disappointed by the NY Times as the years go by but maybe they are just as "good" as they used to be and I've just developed higher standards.

You know, I've been wondering the same thing. They are a somewhat old business; they did do a great job with their digital property and the content seems good. But if you start reading other media properties (Vox is my current favorite), NYT seems less like actual journalism, or seems to portray a misleading picture of events.

Washington Post has been somewhat better, focusing on news more than opinions. I used to subscribe to both NYT and WaPo but then terminated my NYT subscription. Haven't missed it since.

“They were hesitant, uneasy, yet also somehow disinterested and bored. Finally it didn’t matter what they did. They just had to do something — anything — because to do nothing would be unprofessional.” - “Ham On Rye.”

This always stuck with me, and reminded me of a recent comment from How to Make Other Developers Hate to Work with You, https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19227371.

It's oddly refreshing to think this signaling problem Bukowski describes is so broadly applicable - in this context specifically about nurses and doctors - and not just a technical problem.

The end of Factotum is pretty sad and directly caused by the protagonist's alcoholism.

“If you're going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don't even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery--isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you'll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you're going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It's the only good fight there is.” ― Charles Bukowski, Factotum

I was always wondering what about the hangovers. We all know he was a famous drinker and we all know drinking comes with hangover.

He must have had serious nightmares. Kudos, and strength, this doesn’t shows in his writings. However I would be very interested in the darker side of his life, too.

Hangovers can be avoided entirely if an individual remains perpetually intoxicated. People existing in this havonger-free state can't stop drinking as it could cause DTs/death.

Has this author read much Bukowski? He talks about the hideousness of alcoholism routinely. Post Office, his auto-biographical debut novel, ends with him quitting the post office to write full-time after his former lover and long-time friend dies from alcoholism.

I don't think the author is trying to say Bukowski's depictions are rosy ("He is coated in vomit and/or blood with the regularity of an E.R. nurse"), just that Bukowski skews things to lead the reader to "oh, you lovable degenerate", which is hardly a realistic depiction of living with or around alcoholism.

This was essentially my own reaction. If you've read his novels (which are mostly autobiographical), it is obvious that his alcoholism is far from anything glamorous. His entire life looks like a trainwreck (especially Factotum), complete with brushes with skid row, and a lot of this can be chalked up to drink.

The eighties for some seem now like the middie ages, yet there is a vagrant lifestyle that involves sex and substances among young people today as well.

Bukowski was a 'great' influence because he highlighted the seedier side of reality, simple people living unglamorous lives who find pleasure and maybe love in a basement flat with a bottle of cheap wine and some jazz on an old radio.

The last few paragraphs remind me of a few of the conversations in the last bit of the oscar nominated doc Minding the Gap. It's on Hulu, would recommend if you find this article interesting.


> Although this incidence rate differs between countries, it is clear that the risk of developing pancreatitis increases with increasing doses of alcohol and the average of alcohol consumption vary since 80 to 150 g/d for 10-15 years.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3574589/pdf/WJG... (Alcohol consumption on pancreatic diseases | 2013)

This is also what killed Phil Katz[1], co-creator of ZIP[2] file compression.

[1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phil_Katz

[2] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zip_(file_format)

Such a sad story. RIP.

Perhaps 'romanticizing' as opposed to glamorizing his Alcoholism would be the better fit.

Maybe “glamorous” means, “makes you want to drink”.

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