Friday, 25 October 2013

David Mitchell and Kurt Vonnegut on Addiction

We all have our addictions, some more persistent than others. Mine is an endless string of "complete works of..."s. Luckily though, authors die leaving me with serious withdrawal symptoms and the methadon of mediocre spin-offs and copycats.

One of this addictions is the writings of Kurt Vonnegut. (To be fair, it's really the narration of Kurt Vonnegut: one so compelling you find yourself nodding while reading). Sadly, though, Kurt Vonnegut died. He was planning to use his addiction to tobacco as a "classy way to commit suicide", but fell down his stairs before his addiction could get the better of him. 

Before this though, he had a collection of his essays published in A Man Without a Country. This is one of the few books I've consumed in under a day, in a secluded, vacant room on a slow cruise to which I was considerably less partial than to Vonnegut's laconic tone. In it, he presents an alternative understanding of addiction.

This little text was what caused a exquisite relapse in my literary five step program of recovery. I was suffering in silence, struggling through the nonentity Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon, an author whose prowess had been extolled to me by a patently misguided Canadian girl in a Paris café, when in an effort to end the doldrums I read an article by David Mitchell in the Guardian. 

In it, he commented on revelations that an actress had tried drugs in the 70s, arguing that while this shouldn't really surprise anyone, the fact that she clearly didn't sustain any lasting addiction or harm from it caused some issues for anti-drugs campaigns. Lamenting never having been offered cocaine himself (so that he could vehemently refuse), Mitchell reached the nub of his argument, that most anti-drug campaigns, including those against tobacco and alcohol, focus on the wrong thing. 

This was when Mitchell and Vonnegut's shared trait of narrative persuasiveness and topic made a rereading of A Man Without a Country reappear to this listless reader as a beacon of light, an oasis in the desert or some such thing. 

Hopefully, the intellectual gymnastics in these excerpts will allow you to think about communication, addiction and yourself in a new way. Also, if you, like me, appreciate the wit of these two, you would read both Vonnegut's essay and Mitchell's article in full, or even read through A Man Without a Country and watch the episodes of David Mitchell's Soap Box.

But not until you have enjoyed these excerpts:


Kurt Vonnegut,
army portrait

I'm going to tell you some news.
No, I am not running for President, although I do know that a sentence, if it is to be complete, must have both a subject and a verb.
Nor will I confess that I sleep with children. I will say this, though: My wife is by far the oldest person I ever slept with.
Here's the news: I am going to sue the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company, manufacturers of Pall Mall cigarettes, for a billion bucks! Starting when I was only 12 years old, I have never chain-smoked anything but unfiltered Pall Malls. And for many years now, right on the package, Brown and Williamson have promised to kill me.
But I am now 82. Thanks a lot, you dirty rats. The last thing I ever wanted was to be alive when the three most powerful people on the whole planet would be named Bush, Dick and Colon.
Our government's got a war on drugs. That's certainly a lot better than no drugs at all. That's what was said about prohibition. Do you realise that from 1919 to 1933 it was absolutely against the law to manufacture, transport, or sell alcoholic beverages, and the Indiana newspaper humourist Ken Hubbard said: "Prohibition is better than no liquor at all."
But get this: The two most widely abused and addictive and destructive of all substances are both perfectly legal.
One, of course, is ethyl alcohol. And President George W Bush, no less, and by his own admission, was smashed, or tiddley-poo, or four sheets to the wind a good deal of the time from when he was 16 until he was 40. When he was 41, he says, Jesus appeared to him and made him knock off the sauce, stop gargling nose paint.
Other drunks have seen pink elephants.
About my own history of foreign substance abuse, I've been a coward about heroin and cocaine, LSD and so on, afraid they might put me over the edge. I did smoke a joint of marijuana one time with Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, just to be sociable. It didn't seem to do anything to me one way or the other, so I never did it again. And by the grace of God, or whatever, I am not an alcoholic, largely a matter of genes. I take a couple of drinks now and then and will do it again tonight. But two is my limit. No problem.
I am, of course, notoriously hooked on cigarettes. I keep hoping the things will kill me. A fire at one end and a fool at the other.
But I'll tell you one thing: I once had a high that not even crack cocaine could match. That was when I got my first driver's licence ­ look out, world, here comes Kurt Vonnegut!
And my car back then, a Studebaker as I recall, was powered, as are almost all means of transportation and other machinery today, and electric power plants and furnaces, by the most abused, addictive, and destructive drugs of all: fossil fuels.
When you got here, even when I got here, the industrialised world was already hopelessly hooked on fossil fuels, and very soon now there won't be any left. Cold turkey.
Can I tell you the truth? I mean this isn't the TV news is it? Here's what I think the truth is: We are all addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial. And like so many addicts about to face cold turkey, our leaders are now committing violent crimes to get what little is left of what we're hooked on.


David Mitchell

If I tried cocaine, the worst outcome would be that I liked it and the best that I didn't. When not liking something is the most you can hope for from consuming it, that's a good reason to abstain. 

Do you like my logic? I was pleased with it and looked forward to delivering it to the twat I imagined offering me a 'line' (I lack the confidence to type that without inverted commas) at a party. But not once have I been given the chance! Clearly, I come across as too square even to be worth attempting to corrupt. I'm just not cool.

'Cool' is the key to all this. That's why the celebs are happy to make their admissions. They're boasting that they were the kind of people who were cool enough to be approached, to get involved, to try stuff. They were creative and experimental and dangerously unwise and there's no one alive who, at some point, didn't want to seem like that. Except maybe Ann Widdecombe. 

This is also the problem with anti-smoking campaigns. They persist in trying to persuade kids that smoking isn't cool. Come off it. Look at Sean Connery as James Bond or Béatrice Dalle in Betty Blue. We're trying to stop millions of young people from doing something that may kill them and we kick off with a demonstrable lie.

Smoking is cool. Addiction isn't (people huddling outside offices in the rain don't look cool so much as cold) and cancer certainly isn't, but smoking when isolated from these things obviously is. No, there's a harder but ultimately more persuasive message we need to find some way to convey: being cool doesn't really matter. We shouldn't let 'cool' become a direct synonym of 'good'.

The problem is that to the marketing and advertising companies this is heresy. Invoking 'cool' is how you make people do things they otherwise wouldn't: buy electric shavers that jizz moisturiser, endlessly drink mini-yogurts, douse themselves in a smell Kate Moss has reportedly made. Cool is why they're smoking, so it must be why they'll stop.

We'll never stop the young from wanting to be cool and it's worth promoting uncarcinogenic ways they can do this. But we might as well spend some time trying to undermine being cool as an aim, rather than pretending we know better than them what constitutes it.

It irritates me when teenagers in bad dramas or adverts say things such as: 'Your mum's cool' to mean: 'I like your mum.' The correct response should be: 'No, my mum is not cool - she doesn't wear sunglasses indoors or weird clothes. She is a middle-aged woman who is nice and good and wise and worrying about what's cool is beneath her.'

Unfortunately the reply to this would inevitably be: 'Cool!'


What do you think?

Is David Mitchell right in indicating that anti-smoking campaigns target the wrong problem, smoking and not addiction? Is this the position he is arguing? Does his attention to the word "cool" sit well with you in this context?

Vonnegut's argument can in some way be seen as contrary to that of Mitchell. Where Mitchell claims out understanding of addiction is too vague and covers too much, Vonnegut claims it's too definite and restrictive. Is he right when he points out that fossil fuels are our most threatening addiction? Are there other, more dagerous ones he does not mention?

Comments on The Tale of Sir Bob are always welcome! 

Sources: Text1Text2, Pic1, Pic2Pic3

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