Drugs, domestic workers, and artists’ daily rituals

Tea tray Corydrane

I’m reading a delightful book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, by Mason Currey.  The book consists of miniature biographies of painters, writers, scientists, and architects, with a focus on how they structure their day to get things done.  Or, in some cases, don’t structure their day and get something done.  Or, in yet other cases, don’t structure their day and don’t get anything done.  Or, finally, structure their day and don’t get anything done except make themselves crazy that they didn’t get anything done…

I’ve read about three-quarters of the portraits and haven’t come across an economist yet.  It’s too bad; my memory is that John Maynard Keynes’s ritual was to work in bed all morning and then conduct his Cambridge University business in the afternoons. I’d be interested to hear about other economists and social scientists.

Two threads run through the portraits.  First, domestic servants were vital to many (perhaps most) of the writers and artists working before the 1920s.  Breakfast was served, the bed was warmed, tea was delivered… the passive voice abounds and cries out, WHO served the breakfast, WHO warmed the bed, WHO made and poured the tea?  An army of cooks, maids, and other domestic workers did these things yet get no credit.

After World War I the book alludes to more and more artists going to a diner, restaurant, bar, or pub for lunch or dinner, along with picking up their laundry. This mirrors the broader societal trend of substituting for domestic servants by using laundries, delis, and the like.

The second strand is abundant stimulant and depressant use.  Alcohol, coffee and tea abound, of course, but plenty of amphetamines and barbiturates make appearances too.  David Lynch’s daily chocolate and coffee habit (pp. 121-122) explains a lot about Agent Cooper in Twin Peaks:

For seven years I ate at Bob’s Big Boy.  I would go at 2:30, after the lunch rush. I ate a chocolate shake and four, five, six, seven cups of coffee – with lots of sugar. And there’s lots of sugar in that chocolate shake. It’s a thick shake. In a silver goblet. I would get a rush from all this sugar, and I would get so many ideas!

I can’t imagine what the crash felt like.

My favorite in terms of excess is Jean-Paul Sartre (pp. 96-97).  A couple of excerpts:

By the 1950s, too much work on too little sleep – with too much wine and cigarettes – had left Sartre exhausted and on the verge of collapse. Rather than slow down, however, he turned to Corydrane, a mix of amphetamine and aspirin then fashionable among Parisian students, intellectuals, and artists (and legal in France until 1971, when it was declared toxic and taken off the market). The prescribed dose was one or two tablets in the morning and at noon. Sartre took twenty a day, beginning with his morning coffee and slowly chewing one pill after another as he worked.

The biographer Annie Cohen-Solal reports, “His diet over a period of twenty-four hours included two packs of cigarettes and several pipes stuffed with black tobacco, more than a quart of alcohol – wine, beer, vodka, whisky, and so on – two hundred milligrams of amphetamines, fifteen grams of aspirin, several grams of barbiturates, plus coffee, tea, rich meals.

Sartre did live to 84 but, wow…

Lots of ideas here about what to do, and not do, to create a daily ritual for yourself.

Update, 7:45 pm: I was curious about the number of domestic workers in the US economy over this period; here’s a chart

Servants 2

Source: Historical Statistics of the United States, Millennial Edition Online, Series Ba1397-98