… but as a young man I know that he got me through the factories, past the whores, lifted me high through the night and put me down in a better place.—Charles Bukowski, Dostoevsky
It is not easy to defend Charles Bukowski. The man was quite obviously a drunk. That, in itself, isn’t necessarily an immoral thing, but Bukowski could easily turn into a mean drunk. He could be vulgar, violent, and sexist. In the 2003 documentary “Born Into This,” released nine years after his death, he can be witnessed becoming physical with his girlfriend, in a fit of drunken rage and jealousy. It wasn’t an isolated transgression. Charles Bukowski spent an entire lifetime drinking, fighting, and swearing. He was a manly man, in the most traditional, and most problematic, way. And yet, there was more to him than his flaws. Besides doing so many questionable things, Bukowski also spent a lifetime writing. Writing was as intrinsic a need to him as digestive processes—“and about as glamorous,” he would add.
And if you’re able overcome the foolish tendency to dismiss the work of art along with the heavily flawed artist, you will see that Bukowski has a lot to offer. In fact, he was the rare kind of writer who had the ability to say what many men feel but cannot express. His powerful voice seized many of the most denied, belittled, or neglected aspects of male hurt, and dragged them into the light.
One of the pillars of traditional masculinity is the notion of sucking it up. A real guy doesn’t complain. It doesn’t matter if you’re unhappy. You just go on. This is especially true in the traditional masculine realm of the workplace. The factory work, the dull office jobs, all the many hours spent doing meaningless things. If you have ever been trapped in a situation in which you hated what you had to do every day, Bukowski’s writing will have a liberating effect on you. He dared pointing out the absurdities many men face. You do what you have to do. You do it to survive, and to be a breadwinner and a provider. But that is not enough. You are expected to love doing it. And so, you go along with it. Every day, you cheat, and you lie. You smile at those sadistic supervisors whose piggish little eyes are so full of contempt. You serve those clients with the utmost servility, knowing that they barely consider you human. And while you’re whoring yourself out for a paycheck, you make sure to constantly express your deepest gratitude for the opportunity.
Some are born with this instinct to develop a liking for whatever it is that gets them ahead. Many others are not particularly bothered by it. They can accept “how things are.” But
others can never get used to it. They cannot shake the sense that a life spent on assembly lines, at desks, or on sales floors doing loathed work is a wasted life. They cannot get themselves to adapt to “how things are.” The dumb grins they deal clients and supervisors still shame them.
The disrespect they accept with a mask of indifference still enrages them. And the certainty that they are pissing their lives away still despairs them.
The nature of their unhappiness often remains in the dark. Pain isn’t recognized, unless it can be expressed. And expressing is exactly what Charles Bukowski did. Behind the drinking, behind the womanizing, behind the violence, hid a man in anguish. Bukowski suffered from years of rejection, from the petty meanness of people, and from endless hours of mind-devouring work at the post office. A man of remarkable intelligence and deep sensitivity, he had never developed the callousness that allowed so many others to cope. The world that poverty and low birth had dealt him continued to get to him. He developed a reputation for toughness, just to hide that he wasn’t hard at all. He found some solace in booze, with women, on the race track, and in literature, as his poem on Dostoevky declares. But most importantly, he created his own solace with his writing, for any suffering becomes more bearable when it is articulated. Anyone who cares enough to look beyond the badass persona can’t help but recognize his poetry and prose as screams of anguish.
And while screaming to save himself, Bukowski’s impact went far beyond himself. He became to other men what Dostoevsky was to him. He left a voice to tormented men. It may only be a voice to scream, but that is plenty. Sometimes screaming may be the only thing to keep you going.
Charles Bukowski was a flawed man. But he possessed the language to state his truth, and to have many others recognize it as their truth. And in the end, this is all any writer can hope for.
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