domingo, março 15, 1981

Buddhist Monk: "Under the Volcano" by Malcolm Lowry



(Original Review, 1981-03-15)

“The Consul reached forward and absentmindedly managed a sip of whisky; the voice might have been either of his familiars or - Hullo, good morning. The instant the Consul saw the thing he knew it an hallucination and he sat, quite calmly now, waiting for the object shaped like a dead man and which seemed to be lying flat on its back by his swimming pool, with a large sombrero over its face, to go away. So the 'other' had come again. And now gone, he thought: but no, not quite, for there was still something there, in some way connected with it, or here, at his elbow, or behind his back, in front of him now; no, that too, wherever it was, was going: perhaps it had only been the coppery-tailed trogon stirring in the bushes, his 'ambiguous bird' that was now departed quickly on creaking wings, like a pigeon once it was in flight, heading for its solitary home in the Canyon of the Wolves, away from the people with ideas.”

"They were all plodding downhill towards a river - even the dog, lulled in a woolly soliloquy, was plodding - and now they were in it (...) The dog swam ahead, fatuously important; the foals, nodding solemnly, swayed along behind up to their necks: sunlight sparkled on the calm water, which further downstream where the river narrowed broke into furious little waves, swirling and eddying close inshore against black rocks, giving an effect of wildness, almost of rapids; low over their heads an ecstatic lightening of strange birds maneuvered, looping-the-loop and immelmaning at unbelievable speed, aerobatic as new-born dragon-flies."

"He lay back in his chair. Ixtaccihuad and Popocateped, that image of the perfect marriage, lay now clear and beautiful on the horizon under an almost pure morning sky. Far above him a few white clouds were racing windily after a pale gibbous moon. Drink all morning, they said to him, drink all day. This is life! Enormously high too, he noted some vultures waiting, more graceful than eagles as they hovered there like burnt papers floating from a fire which suddenly are seen to blowing swiftly upward, rocking. The shadow of an immense weariness stole over him..."

"Nothing in the world was more terrible than an empty bottle! Unless it was an empty glass."

"What is man but a little soul holding up a corpse?"

"God, how pointless and empty the world is! Days filled with cheap and tarnished moments succeed each other, restless and haunted nights follow in bitter routine: the sun shines without brightness, and the moon rises without light."

All quotes above taken from “Under the Volcano” by Malcolm Lowry

Warning: there are nearly 400 pages of this sort of thing...

I'm with everyone on the importance of reading, but we must also consider writing. While one must read a book, someone had to spend much more time writing it, and that writing is a process which I believe is fundamentally different than how we read, although another writer might read it quite differently, using a different process.

Whatever we do, our subconscious is always doing it with us since it is part of 'us'. It's not true human beings are all the same, but it's statistically true enough for us to all live mass consensual hallucinations which even, in some measure, across cultures. The book I am reading on Byronic Heroes for instance addresses the author's and other writer's response to certain kinds of reading from the days of Milton's Satan on. And I find the REPORT of his reading to accord with some of my own, and then I can comment on it and have it make sense to someone else (although not necessarily), even if that person disagrees. I don't worry though if my readings are idiosyncratic, or in what degree. I hope I am open minded enough to abandon ship, or change course, if I can be shown to be wrong or there's is a bigger picture involved I don't seeing, or just a strong alternative.
I am at an age, probably past the age, where devout household Buddhists, leave the world to become monks or nuns. They have raised the kids, and arranged their affairs and do a Flitcraft, with the exception of actually changing their lives. Me, I am religious. I see the world, and the human Being as a geography which has produced some deep caves and some high mountains. For some it is religion, others have seemed to penetrate into the most astounding complexities and depths of science or math, and a few more. I feel like I have my own mountain/caves in Literature. I mean LITERALLY that I have available to me one of the mightiest of those domains and I mean/hope to take as much advantage of it as I possibly can. Like the ageing Buddhist Monk I do it because I believe LITERALLY and PRACTICALLY that. That is the best thing I can possibly do, and that I can do, to make the absolute best of being human with the rest of my little lifetime. I wish I could do it better. That leads me too, to read all kinds of lateral texts, like Genesis, Plotinus, “Under the Volcano”, and so much the better. I know I get enthusiastic about texts, and one can always be bashful about one's enthusiasms or one’s ability to articulate them, but if one is as old as I am, feeling enthusiasm (look up the etymology) is just fine, and if I don't do it now when I am going to. In my view there is the bonus that age, before it eats your mind, can actually enrich your literary understanding. It's not the only way to read, not even the only way I read, and it sometimes puts people off, but it's my end of MY life and I'll do what I see fit with it.

This is probably my favourite book of all. I've read it 4 times: each time discovering much more, and will read it again. I don't think you need to know the other works that are alluded too in the story. They certainly don't intrude and the Consul's accelerating and willful descent carries you, or carried me, along regardless. Certain language ambiguities are worth considering as the Consul stumbles along. The cigarettes called "Alas" - "wings" in Spanish - which appear at odd moments crying "Alas!" I agree that the Consul becomes a heroic figure, rejecting all help as he embraces the dark. And Lowry was pretty heroic in his dedication to this novel. One of the things I like about Lowry is the way he notes and records the wild juxtapositions and incongruities of life in Mexico without comment generally. In other words he accepts all that and uses it symbolically without remarking on the exoticism.

I am reminded of Andre Breton visiting Frida Kahlo and co. and saying something like "Mexico is the most surrealist country in the world." Not to Mexicans, I want to reply. Somehow Lowry completely avoids being patronising...

[2018 EDIT: Thinking about this novel now, one thing that bothers me, and that didn't bother me when I re-read it all those years ago, is the almost complete absence of Mexican characters, apart from the odd pantomime walk-on part. This is really an ex-pat novel, with almost no engagement with the contemporary Mexican culture, life and politics. A few sound bites in Spanish, the backdrop of Popocatapetl and, the interiors of cantinas provide an exotic backdrop for an English upper middle class love triangle and a drink problem beyond control. The Festival of the Day of the Dead is of course central to the novel, but more as symbolism than as an expression of South American belief systems. So in light of the above, I would say, I’ll have at “Under the Volcano” for another 20 years to see whether I’m able to understand it.]


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