Hallucinations in the Eye of the Volcano
Thoughts on reading Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano in Harper Perennial edition, published 2007.
“Everything becomes disgusting when you are false to your own nature and behave in an unbecoming way.” Sophocles in Philoctetes.
Under the Volcano presented many, perhaps too many, avenues for the reader to wander or stagger through in contemplation of the historical settings and the personal psychic dilemmas encompassing the story of an exiled British Consul in Mexico. It is interesting to be reminded once again how the Spanish Civil War played an important role in motivations of characters in 20th-century literature. Margaret Atwood in Blind Assassin gave it great mention to show ideological differences of her Canadian characters. Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent reviewed for us the century’s train of miserable wars and fascist despoliation of culture, which major events figure in the historical background of Volcano, written (and rewritten) over many years from mid-1930s to the mid-1940s. (Disappointing to me, in Mazower’s Continent, the victory of Franco’s totalitarian regime was given short shrift considering the dark oppression than fell like a death pall during that pseudo-Mussolini’s 35-year reign.) Serious novelists, like Lowry in emphasizing his grim geographical-historical vision, do deliberately arouse readers toward a greater historical consciousness or remembrance, mostly about events now forgotten and so we are not moved to political action by the reminiscence. The humanities, ivory-tower stuff, often don’t seem to excite readers to participate in the present crises of war and political unrest.
Viewing Geoffrey Firmin’s despair in the Mexican pre-World War II setting made him more intriguing, his exposure to nasty Mexican prejudices against Americans and Jews (no matter his Englishness), called upon him by his unseemly, flustered, comical drunkenness. Reminded of drunks: Hemingway’s Jake Barnes, the lovely Brett, and Robert Cohn in The Sun Also Rises, to which I think Volcano gives a sideways nod, experienced their romantic dilemma in 1920s Spain, too soon to bring any new wars into the political or historical climate. The Hemingway expat trio encountered no cultural restrictions on their freedoms. In Volcano, we see Mexican authorities chose to exert the Nazis’ bully-power as control of the people and ugliness of the government police was essential for the bad-luck ending Geoffrey suffered being drunk and fucked in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now, especially in our time, we know of even greater dangers of living in Mexico. That Mexican perspective, not to mention the lavishly described woods and other flora, gave Lowry a poetic window into his story and one he could open periodically as his characters journey to other towns for bull-fight events and Day-of-the-Dead festivities. He was a fine descriptive writer.
Character and story are also important—how the hero suffers and what can be learned of human nature. I’ll spend some time in a later hallucination, focusing on this matter.
Besides the history and culture, Lowry’s style of writing was a fertile jungle for this reader to get lost in. In past months and weeks—a bit obsessive given my reluctant, slow reading of the book this second time around –I’ve gone on library searches for Edmund Wilson’s critical works of the 30s and 40s, essays of mid-century Aldous Huxley, George Steiner’s literary criticism, T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, and James Joyce’s work. And, because Geoffrey is a most sorrowful, pathetic hero, I’ve rummaged around in mythologies and treatises about the saddest heroes of past ages. Well, I’m retired. I have the time and the quixotic urge to write something fresh, to find an unusual angle from which to perceive some new understanding about the world we’re in today and how the nature of human beings might be improved. Don’t see it much, not even in myself. I like Scotch a lot, but I still want to keep a hair back from sloppy addiction until the “Great Alcoholocaust” (my friend Gerry Sperry’s term) is a necessary exit. To supply us with another type of fortitude, Lowry, by his own example or that of his protagonist, does not help much in this last regard. Sadly, I remain a pessimist who sees very little change for the better in the human condition.
History Never Changes
The slim set of essays entitled Science, Liberty and Peace, published in 1946 by Aldous Huxley, begins as follows:
If the arrangement of society is bad (as ours is), and a small number of people have power over the majority and oppress it, every victory over nature will inevitably serve only to increase that power and that oppression. This is what is actually happening.
Though true from mid-century assertions, we have seen humankind’s victories over nature continue (Lowry’s warning sign “¡Evite que sus hijos lo destruyan!”). And yet, Huxley’s passage comes not from 1946 but from 1900; it’s Tolstoy’s observation. If the view of the world was bad in 1940’s Mexico, Lowry should have lived to see the natural world today: the planet endangered by population densities and human biospheric devastation. How do we get people to change—for the good of all nations–and pity Mother Earth when we know the power-mongering leaders of industrialized nations, no matter what they say in the 2009 climate convention in Copenhagen, will go on plundering the earth for its remaining resources? We still remember Lord Acton’s dictum: “The most important lesson of history … is that nobody ever learns history’s lessons. The enormous catastrophes of recent years have left the survivors thinking very much as they thought before.” Alas, Slaughterhouse-Five Vonnegut’s: “So it goes, so it goes.”
Dream: Enjoy the Poetry While We Can.
Literarily (does that word mean anything?), beyond story or character interests, as I’ve said, much else can interest me in novels. There’s a much of muchness in Volcano. The styles of writing and exceptional or anomalous passages are what prick up my aesthetic senses. In the quite fine poetic section of the first chapter when Jacques Laruelle reads Geoffrey’s post-divorce letter left in the book of Elizabethan plays, I loved the delirious never-ending composition in Geoffrey’s vision of himself and Yvonne, once he had traversed the path of hell:
… living in some northern country, of mountains and hills and blue water; our house is built on an inlet and one evening we are standing, happy in one another, on the balcony of this house looking over the water. There are sawmills half hidden by trees beyond and under the hills on the other side of the inlet, what looks like an oil refinery, only softened and rendered beautiful by distance.
…a light blue moonless evening, but late, perhaps ten o’clock, with Venus burning hard at daylight, so we are certainly somewhere far north, and standing on this balcony when from beyond along the coast comes the gathering thunder of a long many-engined freight train, thunder because though we are separated by this wide strip of water from it, the train is rolling eastward and the changing wind veers for the moment from an easterly quarter, and we face east, like Swedenborg’s angel, under a sky clear save where far to the northeast over distant mountains whose purple had faded, lies a mass of almost pure white clouds, suddenly, as if by a light in an alabaster lamp, illumined from within by gold lighting, yet who can hear no thunder, only the roar of a great train with its engines and its wide shunting echoes as it advances from the hills into the mountains: and then all at once a fishing boat with tall gear comes running round the point like a white giraffe, very stiff and stately, leaving behind a long silver-scalloped rim of wake….” (Ch. 1, p. 38-39.)
And the poetic freight train rumbles along for as many lines as I’ve quoted before it peters out with an ellipsis. Beautiful language in motion, a dream passage to be remembered. Actually, this was, at least in part, a real vision, the bay Lowry and his wife lived on in Dollarton, North Vancouver BC. Like so much in Lowry’s work, this is his life; his education floods back in all literary references and his drinking gave him the rhetoric for Geoffrey’s meandering, barely-holding-onto-reality stream-of-consciousness.
Pity the Sad Hero
In 1948 it must have been difficult for a publisher and editor to present Malcolm Lowry’s Geoffrey Firmin, the protagonist of Under the Volcano, as a plausible heroic symbol of the age. As the drunken, demoralized British Consul in Quauhnahuac, he appears all “wibberly-wobberly” on the outside. Does his name mean that Firmin, no matter his outward appearance, was “firm (on the) in(side)”? Or does the name have a rhyme-pun on “vermin”? Such contrarieties are everywhere noticeable: one says “Pobrecito,” another says “Chingar” beholding the robbed and injured Indio dying by the roadside on the way to Tomalín. In the final Farolito scene, Geoffrey is both Consul and “spider”, meaning “spy.” He is addressed as “compañero” by the musician and “pelado” by the police. At the conclusion his corpse is rolled into a ditch and a dead pariah dog is thrown after him, human and beast together.
Under the Volcano, in 1947, after America’s victory against Hitler’s mad, nationalistic, imperialist, military debacle (the British called the victory theirs), came to the public with a weird protagonist. Vanquished from the very start, he’s not the “hero” to appeal to audiences favoring the stereotypical winner. This also is difficult storytelling when so much background development must be sketched in by historical flashbacks, and the writing is never so good as when we are in the mind of Geoffrey, a despairing hero, totally addicted, a victim of tough life and hard liquor, who labors on the border of nothingness, except for the carnival-of- life reminiscences and literary images of the Bible and Western Classics that spiral poetically on his mental ferris-wheel. The Oedipuses, Christs, Quixotes, Fausts, Werthers, and other saintly types flashing on and off in his Broca’s brain do not help the sad hero out. As prose, it is fancy and heavy writing for literati seeking the bizarre and macabre. T.S. Eliot could do it after World War I with his symbol-packed, richly footnoted long poem, The Wasteland. It took time for people to understand and rave about it. Lowry, admittedly a Joycian imitator, was decades past James Joyce, to whom much freedom of verbal and philosophical difficulty had been granted to compose in a poetic style. He presented his dour hero Stephen Dedalus (Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man) as a rebel Irish lad, abandoning family, church and country, who, at the face of the abyss, bucks up and decides to go forth into the outer world to create the uncreated conscience of his race. For Lowry to have brought forth the disreputable drunk, the sacked Consul, the divorced husband of beautiful Yvonne, the disgraced Englishman, this displaced Old Bean might well have matched the state of the collapsing British Empire in 1948, but that was a larger historical metaphor for the public to accept at a much later time. No, Lowry was working against the spirit of the times to ask forgiveness and humane sympathy for such a sorry martyr as his Geoffrey. He had to expect his audience would be small, a readership who would bask in the glory of past literatures, English scholars and their graduate students of English Lit.
Ron Boothe expresses romantic reminiscences of reading Volcano, along with other somewhat grueling writings of his college youth, enjoyed as escapades from his academic specialism. Geoffrey Firmin’s mind must have been a wonderful carnival ride for a psychologist to analyse. As a classicist, browsing Volcano, I found attractions in ships named Oedipus Tyrannus and Philoctetes playing bumper-cars at sea, one of which Hugh learned would return his fellow seamen home sooner than the other. He chose the more tragic Oedipus. In popular fiction, these symbolic names of tragic heroes are difficult to make good use of, just as the dilemmas of great tragedies are hard to interest the general public in. They present very serious crises of great sadness. To read Volcano in the 1960s or 1970s, the time of the Vietnam War, a continuation of the 20th century’s gross inhumanity, was a cerebral journey to the heart of darkness: World War I, World War II, and the Korean War presaged not the end of wars but the serialized belligerency of nation against nation that continued apace with incomparably more destructive machinery and weaponry. Did Malcolm Lowry create a learned prose-poetry, an artistic style difficult and good enough to express, through Geoffrey Firmin, the consciousness of his time? I think not; the stylistic stew is strangely spiced and too queer for the mosaic composition to make itself thought of as a coherent whole. Not only did Lowry test the daring of publishers, he also put every surprised reader to test: can one grasp the thematic clues; can one empathize deeply with the characters; can one find Geoffrey redeemable in the sorry, helpless state he has chosen for himself?
When in the 1970s I taught Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, I remember struggling to defend Willie Loman, to point to the need for us readers/hearers to notice the humanity in this sorry, outdated salesman to whose plight as a human being, Willie’s wife screamed out, attention must be paid. Albert Camus with his conscienceless anti-hero Meurseult of The Stranger was another writer testing the heart and mind of readers to have sympathy with and forgiveness for a careless murderer. Lowry takes us back to antiquity with his symbolic character names and likenesses. Among others, he brings to mind Sophocles’ Antigone, that stubborn girl, a suicidal martyr, against her uncle Creon, as one indicator of his difficult theme. Using the choral ode “Wonders are many” in his quoted frontispieces, he implies what a strange and terrible creature the human is who tames all nature to feel in control, to seek superiority. Geoffrey, in his way, may also be a wonderful, strange and terrible man, but just such a serious and strange character is difficult to like and certainly to admire. Another tragic wonder appears in the role of the stricken hero Philoctetes, the name of Hugh’s ship, along with the Oedipus, taken from two more of Sophocles’ seven extant plays. Sophocles tragic heroes must have had a deep influence on Lowry.
The Diseased Hero
You might ask, “Who is this Philoctetes?” Reading Edmund Wilson’s Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1930s and 40s (Library of America, 2007) I came upon this idea for an interpretation of Volcano. It’s far-fetched, but how often does one get a chance to revive the memory of Philoctetes? Believe me, I don’t know if I can convince any reader of the name’s importance, since it is just a ship’s name, and, like most symbols and metaphors in the novel, it doesn’t last for long in its context. Nevertheless, I think Geoffrey himself comes from the same mould of the archetypal wounded hero, though he’s a depressingly negative case study, just as Volcano might be termed a dystopian novel. The positive diseased hero inevitably finds a cure or is granted salvation, and the world is put right.
Philoctetes is an unusual mythological figure, a wounded, disabled soldier hero, abandoned for a decade by Agamemnon’s Greeks in a cave on the island of Lemnos. Hobbled though he was, he was necessary as a savior figure at Troy in the final conquest of the Greeks against the Trojan forces. His bow and arrows were the magical weapons that must be on hand and shot against Paris in order to assure the Greeks’ victory. Nevertheless, Philoctetes’ invalided condition required exceptional artistry to make him interesting and dramatic. Certain disgusting motifs had to be tolerated by the audience: bitten by a poisonous snake, Philoctetes suffered a suppurating, tumorous ankle wound, giving off an unbearable stench; the pain moved him to paroxysms of howling and wild physical gyrations. These features were essential to the illustration of heroic or saintly fortitude in this exiled soldier whom his companions would not tolerate as a comrade in camp, so bad for morale would have been his unseemly stinking, noisy presence. Sophocles felt there was tragic material in the story of such a lone, tortured martyr; however, very few other writers in all Western literature have thought to make so troubled a hero their study in virtue. Job might be imagined his biblical representative. The Fisher King of medieval folklore a later one. The modern type might be seen in Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective, a patient who suffers from horrible psoriatic arthropathy; he constantly grumbles about his and the world’s sorry state, arthritically rigid in a hospital bed, entertaining his grim mind by, among other fantasies, fictionalizing a Philip Marlow detective story, featuring some horrid Nazi badmen. In his way, psychological wounded, Geoffrey Firmin is a pariah hero–anti-hero in the commonest term–but one who exhibits the fortitude of the loser, disgusting to proper tastes, a crank, reviled and rebuked by the town and the authorities. He is one who knows the game is up. Fortitude, rather than the brave deed, is a heroic quality shown much more in the vanquished, the underdog, in the disabled and despairing person for whom the world and the human condition allow no escape. Santa Teresa of Ávila said it is much harder for an ordinary, imperfect human being to press onward along the road to perfection than it is to take martyrdom in a moment of wild mental seizure. Such a hero comes across, superficially, as ridiculous, especially using drugs, alcohol, sex, or other escapes from the maddened, debased world and barbarous, inhumane behaviors he sees around him. Very few writers attempt to give the mad, bedeviled, diseased hero stage front and center.
Considering Sophocles’ Philoctetes: in that tragic drama, the real hero is not actually the wasting sufferer with the magic bow but a newcomer, a young hero. To bring back Philoctetes to move the Trojan War toward its prophesied destiny, Neoptolemus, Achilles’ son, is sent with Odysseus to retrieve the wonder weapons by hook or by crook. Odysseus, the man of many wiles, has the ruthless strategy of distracting the tortured hermit long enough so that Neoptolemus can steal the weapons. Neoptolemus rejects the plan as cowardly and inhumane, because he claims the person of Philoctetes is just as important as the divine weaponry. The pathetic shrieking, the painful writhing, and the loathsome stench of the human state have to be accepted with the magical prowess of Philoctetes’ archery to surmount the difficulties that beset the Greek armies. So it is with Geoffrey Firmin: can we accept the decrepit state of this man and feel for his desperate human plight: we know why he suffers and that his inner life, with all his torments, though rich with learning of ages, still has not the power to save him from the injustices and hatred of malignant forces in the world. If we can understand Neoptolemus, we must take the side of the abysmally unhappy Firmin, sympathize with him in his helplessness, even to wish to have a morning Mescal drink with him, to climb in the sewer to help him out of that hell. (O, come on, Gilmour! You might be saying.) Neoptolemus, confronted with the critical dilemma, risked the anger of wiser, practical Odysseus, his superior, by accepting Philoctetes as a human being, not just as an exploitable resource for winning the war. So it happened in Sophocles’ drama that through Neoptolemus’ kindness, not in large supply among early Greeks, by tolerating and accepting the monstrous state of Philoctetes, the suffering exile consented to return with the ship, to defeat his Trojan foe, and in time his wound, with help of the physician Asclepius, began to heal. The incurable wound is cured following an initial act of compassion.
So Lowry presents a dilemma: Can I realize a human relationship with his alcoholically diseased, nightmare-haunted hero? Am I not in the same vise, tormented by my mistakes, shameful of what I haven’t done to improve the fate of the commonweal, self-hating because of my impotence to change the tragic state of man’s inhumanity to man, angry that I have been complicit at times, by acting out of hatred, to add to that inhumanity?
(I need a Scotch before I proceed to my next hallucination.)
Geoffrey, an Avatar of Philoctetes? How can I possibly think this?
Taking Geoffrey as an avatar of Philoctetes, I have pondered whether Yvonne might have taken as a failed Neoptolemus and Hugh as an Odysseus. Certainly Hugh, though he came back to Mexico to visit his ailing brother, is the principled hero who craves to return to Spain to help the anti-fascists at the battle on the River Ebro. He’s still the old-style soldier who wants to win the day. He will have to abandon his brother to further this cause. Stubborn in his pessimism, Geoffrey upbraids his brother for his foolish loyalties to some political or military leader. Yvonne, a hopeful innocent, returns to her ex-husband perhaps to see if she might turn him around from his addiction, to find him the loving man she once felt she knew. Nevertheless, she does not throw herself at Geoffrey, being reluctant to join him again in the nightmare of drunkenness, and not very friendly, choosing the companionship of Hugh and even M. Laruelle. Yvonne, the enabler who disables, mostly hopes that the Consul will turn himself around and in sobriety see what beauty and innocence he has lost by divorcing her and perhaps will rejoin her as a loving partner. This was Geoffrey’s vision in the letter I quoted above. Still, Geoffrey perseveres in his lonely, downward journey. He is resolved to suffer and retreat into alcoholic delirium. He does not (cannot?) show affection openly and generously towards Yvonne; outwardly he holds back all loving gestures, though inwardly he has intermittent feelings of regret and love. He loves and hates Yvonne, and like all frustrated lovers, though he doesn’t know why, he is tortured by this distress. He has given up on hope through literature and philosophy: to write of utopian Atlantis, that golden-age city of Platonic lore, has become an impossible dream. He has given up on religion and cannot find forgiveness anywhere within himself. He has abandoned himself, just as Philoctetes thought it was just for the Greeks to have exiled him. If Yvonne, who can’t bring herself to save Geoffrey, is not the tolerant, tragic Neoptolemus in this triangle of desperate souls, it remains for me, the reader, to redeem Geoffrey, to see humanity in him, to pity and fear him. Solving the tragic dilemma is my decision. How do I, pessimistic and despairing of humanity’s turnaround in our age, seek catharsis? I don’t feel cleansed after the conclusion of Volcano; quite the opposite. Surely I wished Geoffrey to be healed, to struggle his way out of hell, to surmount all difficulties of his life and go forward to prove to his fellow human beings that a bright, new day can be wrought out of the present darkness and ash. Instead, Lowry asks me to dig deeper to find his disgustingly pessimistic Geoffrey forgivable. It’s not at all an easy thing to do.
Do the Humanities Humanize?
Considering Volcano as literature of the Humanities, into which branch of art it must be classed, I wonder if such works, though they might be replete with multitudinous references to and allusions from the world’s great masterpieces, are able to humanize readers. And in what element of a work is the humanity expressed? Does Geoffrey Firmin’s story help us to cope with our world-gone-mad, the abyss of despair we might find ourselves in? For many of us, the 21st century holds even less hope for finding solutions to humanity’s injustices, warring, industrial plunder and waste. The Earthly Garden is showing signs of irreparable devastation. ¡Evite que sus hijos lo destruyan! What does it show of love? No se puede vivir sin amar. Do we have hope of Good Samaritans if we get caught in a big fix out in the boonies or do we hope the police will find us first?
No longer do I believe the humanities humanize. Monstrous leaders have been well educated in the humanities. All those nationalistic Germans, brought up on 19th century classics and culture, who became Nazis and SS officers under Hitler, what did they imagine they were doing for the good of humanity? We can cry over characters in books, movies, plays and poetry, whom we would overlook, walk past, in real life. George Steiner, in Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature and the Inhuman (New York: Atheneum, 1970)) felt deeply the dilemma of humanities in the 20th century: How to teach them effectively. What are they good for? I looked for Lowry in his writings but he, like Wilson, was mute on the importance of Under the Volcano. The polyglot aptitude—Spanish, Latin, German, and foreign word-play–of Lowry would have pleased him. Steiner did encourage English literature scholars to learn foreign languages and to branch out into comparative studies:
Why do we not study the history of English poetry in close comparison with that of another expansionist and colonizing tradition, say Spanish? How have the characteristics of the language in far places developed in relation to the home tradition? Are the problems of form and consciousness met by the Spanish poet in Mexico comparable to those of the Anglo-Indian; are certain languages better media of cultural exchange than others? The directions of vision are manifold. The alternative is parochialism and retrenchment from reality. The almost total lack of comparative studies in English academic circles … may in itself be a very small thing. But it may also be a symptom of a more general withdrawal, of the fist closing tight against an altered, uncomfortable world. This would be alarming because in culture, no less than in politics, chauvinism and isolation are suicidal options. (L&S, “To Civilize Our Gentlemen,” p.63.
Steiner, back in the 1960s, felt the humanities were becoming effete. Here’s the difficult part:
We do not know whether the study of the humanities, of the noblest that has been said and thought, can do very much to humanize. We do not know. And surely there is something rather terrible in our doubt whether the study and delight a man finds in Shakespeare [or Goethe] make him any less capable of organizing concentration camps. … before we can go on teaching, we must surely ask ourselves: are the humanities humane, and if so, why did they fail before the night? [meaning WW II and the Holocaust] (p. 67)
Franz Kafka, when he was twenty wrote about the impact of books on the reader:
If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering against our skull, why then do we read it? So that it makes us happy? Good God, we would also be happy if we had no books, and such books as make us happy we could, if need be, write for ourselves. But what we must have are those books which come upon us like ill-fortune, and distress us deeply, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us.
To which Steiner concludes:
Students [i.e. serious readers] of English literature, of any literature, must ask those who teach [read with] them, as they must ask themselves, whether they know, and not in their minds alone, what Kafka meant. (p. 67)
Lowry’s Geoffrey Firmin is himself the literary anti-hero who proves to us that a humanities education in great universities, all the learning of the Great Books, and his worldly experience from a privileged position in society have not helped him find sane ways to help, to strive to help, his fellow man. Nor has love, without which he chose to live, helped him to improve his wretched condition. Volcano teaches us not to act like Geoffrey. There are many other intoxicating ways than alcohol to loosen control of absurd rationalism, to give up on the practical life, and continue to live out one’s desperate existence slowly into death. In Firmin’s time, he could have tried Aldous Huxley’s approach to life’s bitter end: psychotropic drugs—mescaline, psilocybin, even peyote. The strychnine? Were Doctor Vigil and Hugh trying to help Geoffrey to a quicker death with the strychnine? Even morphine might have been preferable. Hell, after a while, if one is physically healthy, with fantasy drugs one might realize the futility of ritual ecstasy, or painlessness, and become a man of mystical wisdom, like Carlos Castaneda’s “brujo” Don Juan (The Tales of Don Juan). Alcohol is physically and mentally debilitating, totally sickening to suicide on.
So, let’s put the Scotch away till evening, bringing it out for cocktails, nightcaps and parties and let’s find a way out of this hellhole we’ve dug ourselves into as a greedy, frightened, constantly warring nation. For a start, with healthcare in mind, let’s get fit. Let’s continue to act, really strive, to affect our leaders and to change life for the better in small incremental ways, with family, friends, acquaintances, clubs, churches, etc. and let’s hope that we can each make a difference to alter the trends of inhumanity at work in this world. (“O, come on Gilmour!” you might say again. “It’s hopeless to think that.”) Sure, it might be impossible, but let’s continue to strive ever more thoughtfully and passionately to change things for the better.