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Idealizations of Apathy and Mental Illness: Charles Bukowski Today

Charles Bukowski has always been a symbol of a resistance to the rigid constructs of society, of the “fuck it” attitude coupled with self-depreciating behaviours that perpetuates itself particularly among the millennial, hipster creatives types. Recently though, Bukowski’s popularity has seeped right into the mainstream, popular culture- in particular, I refer to the book “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck“- I was struck immediately by the problematic way they were going about depicting Bukowski, and I would argue that the attitude within the book towards Bukowski is reflective of larger problems within creative society in regards to what constitutes the truly creative

Charles Bukowski was born in  Germany in 1920 and spent most of his childhood in South Central Los Angeles, the son of migrant parents. He started drinking, and drinking a lot, at a very young age. After attending a community college for two years, he moved to New York City on the brink of World War II, where he was arrested on suspicion of draft evasion, at a time when suspicion towards Germans was peaked in the United States but was ultimately deemed unfit for service due to failing a psychological evaluation. He moved back to Los Angeles in the early 1950’s and wrote, worked crappy jobs, drank, gambled, and slept around until he was eventually picked up by Black Sparrow Publishing at the age of 49, at which point he devoted himself to writing full time, and published his first novel, Post OfficeHe died at the age of 79 from leukaemia.

Although Bukowski’s work has been largely ignored by academic critics, he has enjoyed great post-mortem popularity amongst popular culture. Part of the literary movement of “dirty realism” and “transgressive fiction”, Bukowski’s poetry and prose is deeply realistic, almost painfully adherent to reality in its depictions of the reality of life for poor, lower class Americans. No fussy adjectives, no long winding sentences, Bukowski’s stylistic prowess cuts deep with it’s straightforward, blunt, repetitive and unrelenting message. Bukowski was, without a doubt, an immensely gifted and talented writer, and his place in American 20th-century fiction is as well deserved as someone like Kerouac or McCullers.

However, I would argue that this stylistic power and aptitude seems to overshadow, and indeed, entirely erase the reality of Bukowski as an individual; a living, breathing human being who has been idolized by the hipster youth to a point of sheer delusion about the reality of who Bukowski actually was. Bukowski was a writer, a creative, and probably a genius in his own right: this does not mean, however, that he wasn’t a drunk, apathetic, misogynistic deadbeat. The reality of his essence doesn’t detract from who he was as a writer, nor from what he contributed to the landscape of American fiction: his creativity may have stemmed from his pain, but this doesn’t mean that his pain should be appropriated in self-help books such as The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck   as a life mantra to be repeated to oneself. Bukowski’s work was not a result of his devil may care attitude, and perpetuating that people should adopt this same attitude is so problematic, both in the way that it erases the reality of pain in Bukowski’s life to a mere spectacle of hip apathy and self-deprecation, and in the way it advocates this same apathy and self-deprecation unto aspiring creatives. The diminishing of the mental health issues, addictions, and poverty that Bukowski struggled against down to something to be thrown on by the aspiring writer as a cloak of “creative pain” is surely something we should realize as hugely problematic.

I would stress again how much I genuinely enjoy Bukowski’s writing, especially his novels: As I mentioned earlier, Post Office was his first work. My two favourites are Ham on Rye and Pulp. Definitely worth reading if you haven’t looked into Bukowski before!




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