Martin Sheen is a wise man. As his son, Charlie, proceeds to publicly immolate himself in a blaze of addiction, Sheen says: “We lift him up and we ask everyone who cares about him to lift him up, and lift up all those who are in the grip of drug and alcohol abuse, because they are looking for transcendence.”
As Sheen said, in the character of Captain Willard in the film Apocalypse Now: “absolutely goddam right.” Transcendence is indeed what it’s all about. Charlie Sheen himself knows that, though he doesn’t yet know that he knows it, when he says, of performing his craft before the camera: “When I step between the lines, that’s the time I get to be free.”
Free. The zone. The thing itself. Transcendence. What we all want. A substance can seem an effective and even friendly route to such a place—”a dance in the street.” Keep going there, though, too often, and, generally, in the end, you find “it is bought with the price of all that a man hath—his house, his wife, his children.” Substanceless transcendence, meanwhile, is “sold in the desolate marketplace where none come to buy.”
Alcohol as an avenue to transcendence is so embedded in our culture that it is rarely clearly recognized as such. Martin Sheen, himself an alcoholic in recovery, in 2006 returned, at age 66, to school, intent on receiving a college degree. He attended the National University of Ireland, Galway. There his fellow students could not comprehend that, when things on campus got rough for him, as they inevitably would, he would not be joining them for a pint.
“When it’s raining and he’s not doing well in philosophy, he’s going to get depressed,” observed Jonathan Clarke, 19. And the unspoken second half of that thought: and what do you do when you get depressed? Why, you drink. To transcend the depression, chase the dance in the street.
Whoopi Goldberg got herself in some trouble with some folks when discussing Charlie Sheen’s struggle with addiction . . . and her own.
I was a functioning drug addict. I went to work because I knew if I didn’t show up, a lot of people would be out of work and I wouldn’t get a check and wouldn’t have had the lifestyle that I needed to buy my drugs.
I ended up sitting on a bed for three or four days scared there was something under the bed. Yes. Okay? I wet the bed. I pooped the bed. I did all kinds of stuff. And my roommate came back and said, “what is going on?” I said, “there’s something under the bed.”
I was so scared and that’s when I knew. But you know, you have to get to that place. Not only did I hit bottom, but it was like, “is that me”? I was a grown woman, and look at what I did to myself. I did films during that time.
This is Charlie’s responsibility. And until Charlie makes a decision that he is ready and willing to stop doing what he’s doing, because he can’t do it anymore, he will do that. But he’s not there yet.
Some people did not like that when one of her View co-hosts asked, “If you have to choose one, ‘I need to get help,’ or go back to work,” Goldberg observed: “You can do both.” The message that one can be deep in substance abuse and yet produce quality work is not one that is supposed to go out there. But it’s true. Goldberg knows it to be true, from her own life. And she’s hardly the only one. Charlie Sheen’s father, Martin, delivered the best work of his career—Badlands, The Execution of Private Slovik, Apocalypse Now—while awash in alcohol. Hunter S. Thompson, himself an infamous polysubstance-abuser, wrote this of the poet Samuel Coleridge:
[H]e got into opium for a few years and wallowed crazily in the Behavioral Sink—but while he was down there he also wrote the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan”:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea
How’s that for a lead, Jack? Yeah. A lot of sober people will move instinctively to the back of the bus, to make room for whatever dope fiend wrote that one. Ronald Reagan could live another 200 years and never even dream lines like that. There are some jobs you can’t hire out.
What Thompson doesn’t mention is that “Kubla Khan” is of course an unfinished poem. Finished work, generally, is not an attribute of opium.
Coleridge later related, writing in the third person, that in the summer of 1797 he fell into a three-hour opium reverie, during which he composed, in his head, some two to three hundred lines. “On awaking, he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved [the unfinished ‘Kubla Khan’].”
Coleridge was then, however, interrupted by the dread “man from Porlock,” that malefic phantom familiar to anyone who has ever engaged in creative work, an emissary from Mr. Ha-Ha who takes many forms, but is always intent on disturbing the flow, wrenching the artist from the thing itself. In this case, the “man from Porlock” subjected Coleridge to an hour of meaningless talk about business. Coleridge, “on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!”
The gifts presented through substances are slippery. They’re easily lost. And, generally, eventually they stop arriving altogether.
But by that time the imbiber can’t stop going to the well. Even though it’s run dry. Because that is where s/he has concluded the gold comes from.
So sorry. No gold here. Fool’s gold, that’s all that’s available today. Try again. On the next drink.
Back in the day, LSD, and the other psychedelics, were employed as the door to transcendence. Ken Kesey, a gifted writer who had envisioned portions of his novels One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes A Great Notion while under the influence of psychedelics, left off the pen to become a prophet of this path to the thing itself. In the process, he became something of a famous person.
Then, in the course of things, Kesey came to understand that a person who enters the world of psychedelics must needs always return to the world without psychedelics. He was therefore moved to announce his “Acid Test Graduation.” When his acolytes arrived for this event, they were puzzled to learn that, instead of everyone entering the world of psychedelics by ingesting en masse LSD, as had previously been the norm at Kesey’s Acid Tests, they would now be asked to take what they had learned in the world of psychedelics, and apply it to the world in the raw. Transcendence transcending substances.
This was not a popular message. People drifted away. Kesey’s fame went into eclipse. He didn’t mind. He returned to Oregon, and after a few years pronounced himself a “retired writer.” He churned something out now and again, but mostly he raised his family, tended his farm, contributed to his community. Sometimes he’d slosh around in the wine too much. Always he kept his door open to passing pilgrims, who arrived at his farm still thinking he could provide them with some sort of guidance, some key, to the thing itself. He could, but it usually wasn’t what they were prepared to accept. In his last years, Kesey put up a blog. His last post, before liver cancer took him, was a wide-eyed and wondering exultation about some strange insects he’d found in some trees on his property. He didn’t know what they were, or what they were about. He uploaded some photos, and asked if anyone could help him.
The Grateful Dead, which began as the Acid Test “house band,” often played some of its best sets during shows connected in some way with Kesey. And so it was on August 27, 1972, when the Dead performed a benefit concert in Veneta, Oregon, for the folks at the nearby Springfield Creamery.
There is an unreleased—perhaps unreleasable—film documenting this show, Sunshine Daydream. Most of it has made its way to YouTube. A 15-minute chunk of it is embedded below. After the initial babbling, the Dead gift us with an easy flowing sublime “China Cat Sunflower =>I Know You Rider.”
“Rider” is one of my favorite songs, period, but I particularly cycle back to it every March, drawn by these lines:
the sun will shine
in my back door someday
the sun will shine
in my back door someday
march winds will blow
all my troubles away
That actually happened to me once. March blew in, and all my troubles really did blow right away. Transcendence.
I want that to happen every March. Because I’m greedy. Because I’m a human being. And we’re just that way.