14 February 2011


A brilliant writer, Malcolm Lowry killed himself with drink, though some have speculated that his wife put him out of her misery with an overdose.  His masterpiece Under the Volcano is about alcoholism seen not just as a spirituous but as a spiritual disease, a soul-sickness.  Its hero Geoffrey Firmin is the British Consul in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in the shadow of Mt. Popocatepetl. He awakens one morning with a hangover and the shakes, to find that his wife Yvonne, who had fled from his drinking a year ago, has returned in the hope of a reconciliation.  Over the course of the day, we see that his soul is dead to love and he will not allow it to be revived, though he goes on lying to himself that one more drink will give him the strength to quit drinking and love again.  A man of learning, he quotes Goethe: "Weary of liberty [the horse] suffered himself to be saddled and bridled and was ridden to death for his pains." A premonition.

Having avoided mescal, his special curse, into mid-afternoon by substituting it (openly) with beer and (secretly) with tequila, he finally gives in.  "But it mustn't be a serious mescal, he persuaded himself.  'No, Senor Cervantes,' he whispered, 'mescal, poquito.' ”   A few minutes later his self-delusion has a tight grip on the reins:

"Oozing alcohol from every pore, the Consul stood at the open door of the Salon Ofelia.  How sensible to have had a mescal.  How sensible!  For it was the right, the sole drink to have under the circumstances.  Moreover he had not only proved to himself he was not afraid of it, he was now fully awake, fully sober again, and well able to cope with anything that might come his way.  But for this slight continual twitching and hopping within his field of vision, as of innumerable sand fleas, he might have told himself he hadn't had a drink for months.  The only thing wrong with him, he was too hot."

Well, no, the only thing wrong is that he's too cold, and too attached to his own degradation, and no, he won't stop at one mescal.  He won't stop at all, until the book is done.  The allusion to Ophelia, who died of a broken heart, is no accident...

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