“Nothing in the world was more terrible than an empty bottle! Unless it was an empty glass.”
One of the worst transformations undergone in the publishing industry over the last generation has been the elevation of the personal memoir. Self-centered celebrity tell-all books notwithstanding, it is the testimony of former addicts, alcoholics, sinners and the apologetic like whose personal anecdotes of shame and redemption that tend to be very popular with an inquisitive public. These stories of decadence share a typical trope: wanton excesses are laid out for our prurient (and natural) curiosities, which are then incontrovertibly condemned by a puritanical (and programmed) morality. Other than refuting Blake, Huxley and Jim Morrison’s cause-and-effect advocacy regarding excess and wisdom, these books do not reveal the reason why some of us are destroyed by substance abuse while for others drugs and alcohol remain an indulgence, if not an occasional delight.
If you’ve read one 12-steps recovery tale of self-aggrandisement, you’ve read them all and, yet, you’re still no closer to understanding what was the point of all this embarrassing solipsism. Generally, it is understood that addiction is a terribly personal affair, a lonely misadventure so desolate that for the addict lost in lostness, “sunlight could not share his burden of conscience of sourceless sorrow.”
You will never find the above quote— so exacting in its prognosis of alienation—in any contemporary memoir. It belongs to literature, specifically Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, published in 1947, during a time when alcoholic and drug fiends—if they wanted to be published— transubstantiated their brutal experience into an exquisite poetry that demanded from the reader a severe attention if he or she decided to go along for the ride. For Lowry, an alcoholic who never beat his demons but exorcised them in this literary masterpiece, the devil doubled as the muse.
Under the Volcano is the story of Geoffrey Fermin, an ex-British consul drinking himself into oblivion in Quauhnahuac, Mexico. The story, like Joyce’s Ulysseus, comprises a single, eventful day, the Dia de Las Muertes, November 1st, 1938, a day that begins with his estranged wife, Yvonne, an American B-actress past her sell-by date, returning from California after a year’s estrangement. Along with the Consul’s half-brother, Hugh, they decide to travel to the nearby town of Parain. En route, they witness a crime that has later tragic repercussions.
The setting and time are important, related as they are to the major global event at the time, the Spanish Civil War, which, ideologically, had been a contest between anarchy and communism against fascism and, industrially, a testing ground for the weapons of mass destruction that would follow within a year, once Hitler’s Germany invaded Poland. The progressive ideas coming out of communism, particularly that of nationalization of resources, was a testy subject in Mexico, beset with its repressive Catholic heritage as well as its own Revolution’s legacy and the State’s very recent takeover of its oil reserves.
The best novels feature an interconnectedness between the greater world and the interior one and this complex relationship is evoked within the characters in different ways. Hugh, a failed commercial troubadour and utopian-minded drifter-dreamer, feels guilty that in spite of his convictions and the knowledge that the Spanish Republic’s defeat is a fait accompli, wonders if he has missed the one opportunity to do something honorable and meaningful in life. Of course, he disagrees with the Consul’s self-destructive apathy, yet he is not unaware of man’s survival instinct to let well enough alone what is not his battle to fight. This is eloquently expressed following the incident of the crime and his witnessing of the other passengers’ reaction: “Death they knew, better than the law, and their memories were long… in these old women it was as if, through the various tragedies of Mexican history, pity, the impulse to approach and terror, the impulse to escape, having replaced it, had finally been reconciled by prudence, the conviction it is better to stay where you are.”
The Consul, well aware of the benefits of isolationism, has his own contentions. His alcoholism is not a pleasure nor is it a form of escapism. It is a sickness, and the drinking is necessary for him to reach a physical and psychological equilibrium. The DTs strike whenever he attempts to empower himself any degree of free will over his disease. Just as bad is the sense of doom that pervades sobriety, liable to wipe out any sunshine or cheer. Sitting at a café, in view of a fair celebrating the holiday, the setting “had suddenly become transcendentally awful and tragic, distant, transmuted, as it were some final impression on the senses of what the earth was like, carried over into an obscure region of death, a gathering thunder of immedicable sorrow; the Consul needed a drink…”
Mexico, which Lowry once wrote in a letter to friend was "the most Christ-awful place in the world in which to be in any form of distress, a sort of Moloch that feasts on suffering souls," is a grandiose theater from which this tragedy plays out: Mexico and its ruined palaces, Gothic churches, hideous ravines, pullulating flowers, clandestine scorpions, and canvas-like skies where "high overhead sailed white sculpturings of clouds, like billowing concepts in the brain of Michelangelo." There is also its tequila and its mescal, the sad-eyed drunks and the corrupt police. In the turning point of the novel, when the Consul, Yvonne and Hugh encounter a brutalized Indian lying injured on the side of the road, one of the other passengers not only pockets the man's money and pays his fare with it but shamelessly keeps the pelf on his lap conspicuously for all to view. Was it any wonder then, that Europe was rushing headlong and heedless into another great war and that for those who knew better, the human race would not be worth dying for?
But in the end this is a love story and it is the Consul's tumultuous relationship with Yvonne that is the real source of his despair. Yvonne, having come to rescue him from Mexico and its addictions, has agrarian dreams, one in which they withdraw from the world onto their own farm, in the country, a place where Geoffrey would be able to write (he is working on a book on Mayan ritual, the Kabbalah, and other occult matters) while she tends their living space, looking after him, being his friend, his housewife, his lover. It doesn't matter that she knows nothing of the day-to-day affairs of such an endeavor, for after all, it is but a dream and one that can be easily discredited by reality. Though they never discuss it outright, Geoffrey suspects it's on her mind and though he loves the novelty of such an enterprise, he believes more in futility than fruition. Early in their reunion, he hints at the hopelessness of her schemes, his query, “What’s the use of escaping from ourselves?” quickly forgotten. There was not even real regret that this inevitable failure was something to feel bad about: “the past was irrevocably past. And conscience had been given man to regret it only so far as that might change the future.”
That the Consul may be pessimistic about his predestined perdition doesn’t make the reader any less sympathetic to Yvonne’s cause—her imagining of the farm comes as a contrast to a brutal sporting event—since the marriage, in spite of its flaws and blemished disgrace seems worth saving, as these two people, for all their mistakes, need each other desperately. The novel's greatest substance comes from the construction of the small details communicated between a man and a woman with a long tragic history, beautifully evoked in Lowry’s prose: “…as he approached she turned this hand palm upward…like an unconscious gesture of appeal: it was more: it seemed to epitomize, suddenly, all the old supplication, the whole queer secret dumbshow of incommunicable tendernesses and loyalties and eternal hopes of their marriage.”
Yvonne is no innocent: her affair with M. Laurelle, a childhood friend of the Consul is what makes it so hard for them to reconcile. It is not clear whether his alcoholism was responsible for the affair or the affair responsible for the alcoholism. This chicken-or-the-egg argument has no bearing for Geoffrey and Yvonne in their current predicament. They are doomed lovers, a Romeo and Juliet denied any future union of consummation not due to external parties but from deep within themselves. Being responsible for so much unintentional pain upon the other, is it any surprise “how alike are the groans of love to those of the dying…?”
The Consul understood the inarticulateness of his debilitation and that though every drunk’s tragedy might be as mass-produced as the liquor he drank, his very real pain was personal in its broken-tongued head-spinning downfall, a sui generis descent into a forgettable void. People might help you, they might care for you, but in the end, you were on your own: “In the final analysis there was no one you could trust to drink with you to the bottom of the bowl.”
This may be true. But as an old barkeep consoles Geoffrey on his long day’s journey to the end, there can always be a sense of companionship among the lost nevertheless, for “I have no house only a shadow. But whenever you are in need of a shadow, my shadow is yours.”