Grant Spencer

About Grant Spencer

Grant Spencer is a psychologist in private practice who wanted to be a writer who wanted to be a rock singer. He has a BA in Creative Writing and Literature, and continues to write poetry intermittently in order to avoid the panic over running his own business.

Self-destruction: The artists’ curse

Grant Spencer takes us deep into the void, trying to make sense of the self-destruction that has claimed great artists in the past.


Try crossing your eyes. Put the room out of focus. Do it as if you were staring at something just beyond an arbitrary point in front of you. I wonder if this little experiment reminds you in the smallest way of being out-of-your-mind drunk. Do you at all remember a time where the bouncer looked at you and said, “Sorry mate, time to go”? Your goal was just there behind him, the bar, the dance floor, the flashing lights. Unfortunately the inability to make eye contact is exactly the reason that 100 kilograms of alpha male would step between you and more alcohol. No matter how drunk you are, immediate physical submission is a deterrent you can comprehend. No need for him to draw a diagram, it’s time to go home.

There are a select few, who will not be put off, who possess some strange inner reserve of determination for the self-destructive. The bouncer is an obstacle to fate and is dealt with as such. Determined that the story will continue, regardless if it means ending up in prison after throwing punches like a drunken octopus. They will swerve through a collapsing narrative like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel where they know every ending is a blank page. Perhaps that’s part of the drive, the longer you’re writing they are writing this story the longer they put off the inevitable fail.

It’s this kind of determination and Wolverine-like metabolism that I imagine is the destruction of artists the world over. Guesses at the motivation of such nihilism differ; crippling depression, childhood abuse, acute knowledge of the hopelessness of existence, mania or self-medication for any of these burdens.

To try and get some kind of answer, I read letters and interviews which ended with my neck in the noose of Wikipedia. So consider this article my repentance. If you were looking for science, you won’t find much of it here. If you read on then feel free to call bullshit. Keep in mind however that the theme that underlies this article is the fact that many artists that do pine for self-destruction may do so as a way of calling bullshit on themselves as much as the world which they try to capture.

I was introduced to the work of Hunter S Thompson relatively late in life. Thompson is the novelist/journalist who is legendary for articulating the lessons to be milked from the American way of life, a country whose values he clearly considered as absurd to him as the adventures he would describe, of which most were fuelled by drugs and alcohol. He eventually killed himself; according to his suicide note he was becoming too old and too grumpy to milk any more fun out of life. At the funeral, as per his wishes, Johnny Depp then shot his ashes out of a cannon. There is a man whose art had become life, particularly in the way he wished it to end.

The reason I won’t ever end up like Hunter S Thompson (besides my lack of talent) is my lack of commitment to self-destruction. If I drink too much two days in a row, my whole body is wracked with nausea and loathing. The memory of a glorious day, clear-headed and floating on my back in the sea, is enough subconscious motivation to pull me back from pursuing some horrible, career-ending bender.

Maybe my liver is inefficient, my upbringing too kind, my moods too balanced.

Thompson spent a good deal of his life three sheets to the wind. He had a Cadillac and a suitcase of drugs and he used the powers of the internal combustion engine to hurtle him into the heart of Bat Country. If I can be of any use to the analysis of what happens to artists who burrow toward the bleeding heart of self-destruction, I assume he started telling himself that his was an urban interpretation of an ageless tradition; getting fucked up to understand the world beyond himself. Hippies often pursue this tradition and emerge seeing the world as an interconnected kaleidoscope of natural balance. Those rock stars and artists that pushed the journey a little too far ended up discovering that the void, into which they looked, stared back. Maybe it also gave them the bird, spat at them a little and went off jabbering to itself. Absurdity at its most acute.

The famous have the greatest advantage on this journey.

Be it Jim Morrison of the Doors, Elvis Presley, Charles Bukowski or Jimi Hendrix. Hopelessly addicted individuals that were possibly enabled by managers or record company executives that would cope with an unpredictable, dangerous artist in order to have a compliant one. Unfortunately, this conspiracy doesn’t explain Thompson who was his own artist and one of fairly low output. This conspiracy doesn’t explain away a pursuit in self-destruction that was merely amplified by the industry that adopted them.

The explanation that I wish to get at, which says as much about my own stumbling path, lays outside the conspiracy of an art-hungry capitalism. It includes the desire to become an ourobouros (the snake that eats its own tail) of intellect and feeling. At first to quiet the constant analysis and acute experience of ideas and urges respectively. But then you are captivated and intoxicated by the kaleidoscope of both as they smear into a holy abstract that exists beyond articulation. In regards to the call of this desire, I am lucky. Give me a piece of music or literature that exists beyond my capacity to articulate and I reach a state of elation that trumps all else, including the taste for booze.

I entirely imagine that none of these geniuses had such a calming saviour.

I am guessing that these artists are never able to quite feel the content that I am able to feel when reading Thompson or watching a wild, hardcore punk band skating the brink of intricate musicianship and terrifying chaos. These artists’ voices must be so alone and unique and without equal that regardless of drugs taken or alcohol consumed they speak loudly.

That there is no solace from the inner voice that is in constant need of being heard; in the end, I imagine it is this incessant drive that leads them to cultivate a talent that eventually finds its audience.

Unfortunately, if that voice never quiets, I can very clearly see how in the end it would drive you mad.


Share via