Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano : the books under the book, the Book under the books
Credits : Lucas Jackson (Reuters).
“So huge is God’s despair In the wild cactus plain I heard Him weeping there That I might venture where The peon had been slain So huge is God’s despair On the polluted air Twixt noonday and the rain I heard Him weeping there And felt His anguish tear For refuge in my brain So huge is God’s despair That it could find a lair In one so small and vain I heard him weeping there. Oh vaster than our share Than deserts in New Spain So huge is God’s despair I heard him weeping there.”
Malcolm Lowry, “Death of an Oaxaqueñian” in The Collected Poetry of Malcolm Lowry, edited and introduced by Kathleen Dorothy Scherf (Vancouver : UBC Press, 1992), pp. 127–128. “When the two sides squared off against each other, Dr. Faust took a pointed knife and cut a vein in his left hand. And it is most reliably reported that on this hand was seen an inscription carved in letters of blood : O homo, fuge ! In other words, “Oh, man, fly from him, and follow the right path, etc.” The History of Dr. Faust  (French translation, notes, and glossary by Joël Lefebvre, Les Belles Lettres, Bibliothèque de la Faculté des Lettres de Lyon, XVII, 1970), p. 79. “What is a lost soul ? It is one that has turned from its true path and is groping in the darkness of remembered ways.” Letter from Yvonne to Geoffrey Firmin, Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano. “There are a thousand writers who can draw adequate characters till all is blue for one who can tell you anything new about hell fire. And I am telling you something new about hell fire.” Malcolm Lowry to his publisher, Jonathan Cape in The Voyage that Never Ends : Malcolm Lowry in His Own Words. Fictions, Poems, Fragments, Letters, edited by Michael Hofmann (New York : New York Review Books, 2007), p. 416. There are many paths that let us into Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano : “One goes so far as to ask oneself”, wrote Maurice Nadeau, who made the writer known to the French reading public, “whether behind the various books that constitute this single book there is not hidden yet another book, one that is indecipherable in the way of a modern kabala.” (1) There are many ways, too, of discovering a great book, if it is true that all, or virtually all, paths lead to it, if it is certain that there are no such things as unknown masterpieces, but that, on the other hand, the work of genius, animated by a sort of perverse will, will do everything in its power to elude us and, once it has been discovered, rid itself of the illusory bridle with which we have managed to tame only those books that were never free. Greatness resists; smallness gives itself, or, rather, sells itself. For a long time and in a manner that one might term especially shrewd, greatness resisted Lowry himself, whose turbulent story of the creation (and destruction) of the manuscript of Under the Volcano would on its own constitute a splendid epic of the misery and grandeur of literary creation. Be that as it may, I hereby present myself as a member of that brotherhood of passionate admirers who, according to Nadeau, constitute the circle of readers of this very beautiful novel, which I had foolishly kept at arm’s length for years, ever since a young dandy with whom I have fortunately lost touch, H. V., had warmly (truth to tell, alcoholically) recommended it to me during one of our visits to a bar situated near the University of Lyon 3, during a period when this selfsame Hugues bore a striking resemblance not so much to the Consul as to his brother, a certain aptly-named Hugh (there manifestly can be no such thing as chance where literature is concerned), an idealistic seducer who spoke much more than he needed to, and who therefore never got to the end, if memory serves me, of telling me about the odyssey of Geoffrey Firmin, the Consul wrested from his post, called by the author himself “the Quixote of speech.” Another friend, Marie-Axelle Frey, seemed to me positively to worship this turgid and brilliant novel that she had confused with some totemic idol, a sort of cult requiring the most bizarre verbal sacrifices. Are not women, especially when they pride themselves on their literary knowledge, infinitely strange and even, quite often, no less touching than unreflective in their passionate expression of their tastes ? Occasionally, even often, the Consul seems to distance himself from the precious, intelligent, fragile, but — in his eyes — ridiculous Yvonne : is she not an invincible chatterbox who has written him letters that he has not even read ? What is one to do with the conversation of a woman other than bring a halt to it in one way or another ? A new act of procrastination on my part : people said that Under the Volcano was destined to rob me of the high summits of distant and azure-tinted mountains, the gulfs that consumed its characters, a postponement of reading that was not forestalled even by the fact that one of the most remarkable French writers of the past century, Paul Gadenne, who found a measure of peace in the presence of his last female companion, a certain… Yvonne, had written some beautiful pages on Lowry’s labyrinthine opus (in a text entitled Alcool et Spiritualité, Cahiers du Sud, No. 304, 1952). Malcolm Lowry, a writer whose work I had, however, sampled in the form of the bizarre (and, as I recall it, ghostly) Ultramarine, regarded in a very harsh light even by its author (cf. pp. 438–9 of the Darras/Cahiers Rouge edition of Under the Volcano), well before I had ever become interested in Joseph Conrad, or read a certain fatuous sentence mentioning Lowry’s name alongside that of Conrad in the category of “sea writers” (Good Lord !, this was in 1988 or 1989) and for all that imparting to me the desire to read the novels of the master after reading those of his disciple. Discovering Lowry before Conrad, Bernanos before Bloy, Péguy, Barby, or even Hello, I was obliged to nurse an enduring passion for literary archeology, the relentless, chimerical, vain, and romantic quest for an origin that quite obviously does not exist, inasmuch as every great book has laid waste the sacred truths in advance and constitutes an absolute beginning, whatever one may say of the influences that have patiently woven its fabric. A great novel is a singularity, in the astrophysical sense of the term, which designates a point of maximal concentration of matter and energy, where the forces that govern the universe, at least to the extent that we are aware of them, are no longer valid. But it is this very characteristic of the great novel that ends, sooner or later, by drawing us into its disk of accretion. And I have fallen into this disk. The great novels are resistant, naturally, to wear and tear, but even more so to our hasty interpretations, eager to pounce on the latest appearance on the scene of some unknown praised to the skies as a literary genius, goaded on as we are by the pathological fervor of a literary-critical press that, in France, no longer exists in any form anywhere but on the Web. But the resistance lasts only a short while; a work always touches its readers via a sort of destinal affinity, and I was therefore obliged to finish up reading, with a staggering gait, my head teeming with words and images, Lowry’s great work, to which contemporary academic criticism, in great dollops of intertextuality and mises en abyme, devotes a propitiatory cult, placing the tortured offering that is Lowry at the feet of that unlocatable goddess whom they call Modernity. An epic centering on a drunkard whose mind is opened up by alcoholism as Prince Myshkin’s is opened up by epilepsy, a personification of an act of writing that has completely foundered in alcoholic delirium, a sardonic and ironic apocalypse, an inspired nightmare, a “spiritual adventure,” a “drama of human combat between powers of light and of darkness,” according to Lowry himself, who adds that his novel is a formidably efficacious “mechanism,” a modern tragedy wherein “the life of the individual [has] a meaning and [is not] a mere typographical error in a communiqué,” a freakish transposition of Dante’s Divine Comedy (“A drunken Divine Comedy,” writes Lowry) of a certain monologue of Joyce’s Leopold Bloom but also an updating of the myth of Faust, as Max-Pol Fouchet has quite rightly perceived, an acerbic critique of activist and revolutionary idealism, of all brighter futures, a novel hidden beneath the novel recounting the banal story of a love-affair and its failure, a crepuscular novel of loss and reconquest, whether of the original Garden of Paradise (2), or of woman, and of so many other dimensions that quite obviously cannot be exhausted within the scope of this commentary. It is this last dimension, however, that seemed to hold the attention of Paul Gadenne, haunted by the theme of the Kierkegaardian reprise, if one recalls that the author of L’Avenue read Lowry’s novel and appreciated it, perhaps transformed the alcoholized odyssey of the Consul into one of fatigue (see the notebook entitled Le Rescapé, covering the years 1949–1951, Sequences, 1993, p. 57) and especially of the misery into which the principal character of his Hauts-Quartiers descended very deeply, to the point of embracing it completely and dying. It was in any case unnecessary for him to do anything but once again follow the example of Lowry, whose Consul asks the Virgin Mary to let him sink even lower than he has already sunk, that he may learn how to love again. Let us imagine, moreover, that Gadenne likewise reinvested the theme of the Garden of Eden — an explicit one in Lowry’s novel — and that we are asked not to destroy, on pain of death and a mysterious biblical sanction, the only scrap of earth that Didier possesses and that a disquieting blonde she-beast of barbaric strength is striving to lay waste under his very eyes. Neither Gadenne’s interpretation, nor mine, nor that of so many others, by any means exhausts Lowry’s opus, a banality that one must not flinch from repeating at a moment when, under cover of interpretations that style themselves polyphonic, a new systematicity in literary criticism claims to reduce the work to a knot — a knot that is complex but not impossible to untangle, and certainly not mysterious — of significances rather than of significations. Paradoxically, this novel which acts like ghoul possesses a force that we might term centrifugal, so powerfully does everything within it seem impelled to depart from our lives, to escape from the nets that the author desperately casts in the hope of holding on to a creation that is going under, that hurls its shards of light into space as if it were the enormous Ferris wheel described in its pages, but now become uncontrollable, the hub of a world that is mad and that, as in William Butler Yeats’s poem The Second Coming, is in the midst of dissolving. There is not a trace of revelation in Lowry’s opus, and still less of the apocalyptic return of Christ, which is precisely what would be required for the actualization of any palliative centripetal force, of return and reassembly. If the world is collapsing, it is not, in the author’s eyes, for want of his having attempted to hold it together and even to consolidate it, for example, by structuring the space and time of the novel with great precision, as an attentive reading of the book will fairly quickly prove to us : a multitude of details, of repetitions, a gem-setting of motifs and microstructures fashions this masterly architecture. But the force of entropy seems to me one of a sovereign power : everything slips through our fingers. Hence we are traversing the wasteland whose ephemeral and dazzling beauty, if it betrays an elsewhere, renders perfectly impenetrable the means of returning to it and yet again condemns us to bite the dust. We are set down on the shore, abandoned to the embrace of dolorous reality. Is not this movement one of concentration, the opposite of that which seems to swell Under the Volcano, as if its subject were the entire universe, in a manner no less immeasurable than infinite ? In the general dissolution described by Lowry, there remains, however, an islet of permanence, of impenetrability, a character who could have been named, like Bernanos’s creation, Cenabre, in such abundance does he seem to accumulate (but for what explosion that may never happen ?) elemental powers that hunger for withdrawal. He is a ball of extreme density that, perhaps, is the black hole of the novel, into which it is falling. This could explain the double movement, of dismemberment and concentration, that threatens at every moment to bring about the disintegration of Lowry’s book. The ruination of the other, the beloved, Yvonne, who has left and then returned to the unsurpassable and hopeless Geoffrey Firmin, one of the most human creations in the history of the novel, who asserts that he has the impression of seeing, “between mescals,” a “path, and beyond it strange vistas, like visions of a new life” that he could lead with Yvonne (p. 36). The ruination of a chimerical paradise of which the magnificent and disturbing scenery seems to vouchsafe a glimpse, on very rare occasions, to the characters, all the while repelling this paradise by replacing it with one of an extreme nature, rent asunder by a long fault line, the barranca, into which the Consul’s corpse will be thrown, together with that of a dog. An even more radical ruination : in the syncopes, the brusque interruptions, the use of parentheses, the mixture of voices (the tower of Babel is mentioned, p. 366), the temporal distortions (the first chapter begins, for example, after the deaths of Geoffery Firmin and Yvonne), the references sometimes so thoroughly encrusted in the flesh of the novel that they become abstruse, sharp-edged, black diamonds of a sort set in the text and shooting off sparkles towards Shelley, Tolstoy, Brooke, De Quincey, Shakespeare, and so many others. Lowry’s difficult and sumptuous novel, which the author quite usefully recommends reading a second and even, if necessary, a third time, attempts to say what can be said about a universe that man decidedly can no longer embrace in its totality, that he perhaps cannot even manage to decipher, despite the hermeneutic reinforcement that Geoffrey Firmin receives from his reading of cabbalistic texts (at least one supposes as much, for we are never sure of anything having to do with the whimsical character that he is). Here Lowry is reinterpreting the fundamental aspirations of the grand myth of Faust, condemned by the anonymous author of the Faustbuch published in 1587 because he wished, with the self-interested help of Mephostophiles (who was not yet Mephistopheles) to become acquainted with the ultimate foundations of the universe. Barely two years after the publication of this text, which would come to enjoy such an incredible literary fortune courtesy of the pens of Marlowe, Goethe, Lenau, Mann, Pessoa and so many other writers, we can discover in one of the texts (Liber de nymphis, sylphis, etc., published in 1566) in the complete works of Paracelsus, this crucial sentence, the very antithesis of the religious condemnation pronounced against the impassive and dissolute scholar, which pays homage in its own way to the dignity of the man glorified by Pico de la Mirandole : “Nothing is created that is not explorable by man,” “Nichts ist beschaffen das nit dem menschen zu ergründe sey.” If Geoffrey Firmin, too, contemplates a great work, to be sure, a strictly literary work, that aims at an acquaintance with the arcana of the world, Satan no longer bothers to open to him the gates of unexplored territories, let alone to make the cabbalistic alcoholic and failed writer sign the tenebrous pact. There is no personification of the Devil in Under the Volcano, even if the Rebel Angel irrigates the Consul’s veins with a truly ancient poison, in this case, eminently Faustian, in preparation for the refusal to surrender oneself to divine grace, the temptation to believe that he remains chained to his fate, in effect, to put it more simply, the boredom of modern man : “[The Consul] imagined himself drinking it yet had not the will to stretch out his hand to take it, as if it were something once long and tediously desired but which, an overflowing cup suddenly within reach, had lost all meaning” (p. 228). In this essential withdrawal, Geoffrey Firmin summons ironically the tutelary shadow William Blackstone who left to live among the Indians, of Faust too, but only in order to send it back to its hell that is none too convincing, inasmuch as it is far from being hermetically sealed. The Consul dreams of soaring upwards, of leaving, of breaking his chains, and never manages to do so. Faust soars ever upwards, like Icarus. The Consul never seems happier than when, courtesy of alcohol that he gulps down by the liter, he can set in motion the grimacing characters of his internal theater, characters whose obedience to his direction is by no means certain. He shuts himself up within himself whereas Faust never aspires to anything but to sit astride the steeds of passion furnished to him by his sinister ally, a fact that in my opinion has not been adequately commented on by Jacques Darras, who writes in his preface to Lowry’s novel, “In virtue of his pact with the Devil, the Faustian confirms the only reality of which he is certain, the reality of openings and divisions. The philosopher Descartes, a Faustian in his own way, shored up the solipsism of human thought by way of his ironic contract with the ‘evil demon.’ The Faustian reformist Luther divorcing himself from the Church of Rome and the Spanish-cum-Austrian Charles V on the occasion of a memorable confrontation before the Diet of Worms. Faustian modern astronomy overturning with the Polish Copernicus’s telescope the old axis of heaven, chasing the earth through its peripheral night after the doctor of theology from Wittenberg will have banished man to eccentricity” (pp. 12–3). How Faustian indeed is this temptation. But then how is one to describe the temptation that leads the protagonist of Lowry’s novel into his own spiritual regions haunted by specters, even though the novel itself seems to dislocate itself as an [inlandsis] heated by a destructive sun ? As Ouinian, perhaps ? “[M]y secrets are of the grave and must be kept. And this is how I sometimes think of myself, as a great explorer who has discovered some extraordinary land from which he can never return to give his knowledge of the world : but the name of this land is hell” (p. 36). And hell, as is well known but as Jean-Luc Marion has reminded us, is closed… It is moreover one of hell’s emissaries who can enlighten us on the nature of the torments that wrack the Consul. Mephistopheles responds thus to one of the questions of his master Faust :
“Hell is without limits; it is not circumscribed Within a precise spot; it is where we are And wherever there is hell we must remain for ever. In a word, on the day when the universe disintegrates And when each creature is purified Hell will be everywhere where there is no heaven.” (3)
This is to affirm, in short, that the consul will never be able to liberate himself from his chains because he is his own hell; it is his own infernal will that condemns him to his endless tête-à-tête. Let us additionally remark that it is the creation that seems to be folded back on itself, a refugee perhaps in this silent sadness that Walter Benjamin supposes is the gilded prison of nature flouted by man’s original sin, which consists not at all in naming beings and things but in giving them false names, in “superdenominating” them : “And yet nothing can ever take the place of the unity we once knew and which Christ alone knows must still exist somewhere” (p. 40). The Faustian temptation, which Stanislas Fumet has beautifully termed “impatience with limits,” is illustrated in Lowry’s novel, in an entirely different way by the Consul’s lapses of will. This desire to reconquer original purity, perhaps his only chimerical dream, this demonical will to decipher the book of the world, a cliché which has perpetuated itself at least since medieval Latin with Alain de Lille, can become criminal inasmuch as it is the source, according to Lowry, of the massacre of millions of European Jews by the Nazi executioners : “Hugh, himself somewhat aware of his drinks, was listening in a dream to the Consul’s voice rambling on — Hitler […] merely wished to annihilate the Jews in order to obtain just such arcana as could be found behind them in his bookshelves” (p. 186). Purity (of race, of conscience, of soul, of art) is a bad dream that no death seems obliged to satisfy, especially if it is fed in abundance by that infernal potation that is mescal. Purity returns and inverts itself, as if it were actually the black hole into which Lowry’s novel precipitates itself wholesale, like the dream of purity ultimately become destroyer in Nordahl Grieg’s Le navire poursuit sa route, which influenced Malcolm Lowry profoundly. Ruination and rupture are not only inscribed in this novel like an immense arc, the entire book being in consequence interpretable as the relentless effort of a character to reconquer the ancestral peace broken by some forgotten prevarication : “Was she doomed to an endless succession of tragedies that Yvonne Griffaton could not believe either formed part of any mysterious expiation for the obscure sins of others long since dead and damned, but were just frankly meaningless ?” (p. 267). Lowry informs us moreover that Under the Volcano was originally intended to be the first volume of a trilogy entitled The Never-ending Journey, the first volume representing hell, Lunar Caustic the second or Purgatorial volume, and finally Ballast for the White Sea, a manuscript that burned along with Lowry’s house, Paradise. Ruination and rupture are in fact inscribed in each of the twelve chapters comprised by Lowry’s opus (Yvonne says to herself, “Oh, but why — by some fanciful geologic thaumaturgy, couldn’t the pieces be welded together again! She longed to heal the cleft rock. She was one of the rocks and she yearned to save the other, that both might be saved” p. 55), as we see for example in the fourth chapter, the consciousness of Hugh Firmin mimicking several times the movement of anguished constriction (etymologically, angustia is itself constriction) and expansion : the figure of Judas is invoked in a superb passage, wherein Lowry imagines the felonious apostle as being conscious of his betrayal and, a few hours before going to hang himself, enjoying a strange, indeed a miraculous, peace : “Christ, how marvelous this was, or rather Christ, how he wanted to be deceived about it, as must have Judas, he thought […] if ever Judas had a horse, or borrowed, stole one more likely, after that Madrugada of all Madrugadas, regretting then that he had given the thirty pieces of silver back — what is that to us, see thou to that, the bastardos had said — when now he probably wanted a drink, thirty drinks […], and perhaps even so he had managed a few on credit, smelling the good smells of leather and sweat, listening to the pleasant clopping of the horse’s hooves and thinking, how joyous all this could be, riding on like this under the dazzling sky of Jerusalem — and forgetting for an instant, so that it really was joyous — how splendid it all might be had I only not betrayed that man last night, even though I knew perfectly well I was going to, how good indeed, if only it had not happened though, if only it were not so absolutely necessary to go and hang oneself — ” Rounding out this magnificent passage, Lowry writes that “Judas had forgotten; nay, Judas had been, somehow, redeemed” (p. 122), in the same manner as Hugh, at least, he has some obscure, doubtless ridiculously idealistic presentiment of it, wishes to do good to those around him, to throw himself into action, rule the world, in any case, the free world which is the world of the future : “There was something in the wild strength of this landscape, once a battlefield, that seemed to be shouting at him, a presence born of that strength whose cry his whole being recognized as familiar, caught and threw back into the wind, some youthful password of courage and pride — the passionate, yet so nearly always hypocritical, affirmation of one’s soul perhaps, he thought, of the desire to be, to do, good, what was right. It was as though he were gazing now beyond this expanse of plains and beyond the volcanoes out to the wide rolling blue ocean itself, feeling it in his heart still, the boundless impatience, the immeasurable longing” (124). Hugh thus comes close here to being a kind of idealistic Faust who would never have signed a pact with some romantic version of Satan but rather with a truly small-time demon who will never manage to make him live intensely except through the act of defying a bull, perhaps for sole sake of impressing Yvonne. He seems in any case to be incapable of escaping from himself and still less of coming to the aid of his own brother. But in all truth, which of this novel’s characters would be up to doing so ? : “[…] oh Geoffrey, why can’t you turn back ? Must you go on forever into this stupid darkness, seeking it, even now, where I cannot reach you, ever on into the darkness of the sundering, of the severance!” (p. 50). An imaginary beginning and a very real ending, a flux and reflux of the will doubtless more than the obsessive metaphor of drunkenness which, in the holes that it induces in the perpetual flow of our thoughts, seems likewise destined to castrate every firm resolution (4), a flux and reflux indicated elsewhere by the mention of De Quincey’s astonishing essay devoted to the darkest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, namely and of course, Macbeth. Lowry writes : “Of course, he should have known it, these were the final moments of the retiring of the human heart, and of the final entrance of the fiendish, the night insulated — just as the real De Quincey [the name seems to have been brought to mind merely by the fact that one of the Consul’s neighbors is named Quincy] imagined the murder of Duncan and the others insulated, self-withdrawn into a deep syncope and suspension of earthly passion…” (p. 136). For Lowry the demonic is of such exquisite subtlety, contradicting as it does some of its own intentions, that it loses its traditional tawdry trappings : it is less horror laid bare than man’s incapacity to take make up his mind, to decide, in short, to act. A syncope. Even less than that : the imperceptible whiff of a breeze that changes, in a bucolic setting, some minuscule detail that will make the hard-bitten observer realize that he has been duped, in that nothing is any longer as it was before : “But look here, suppose for the sake of argument you abandon a besieged town to the enemy and then somehow or other not very long afterwards you go back to it — there’s something about my analogy I don’t like, but never mind, suppose you do it — then you can’t very well expect to invite your soul into quite the same green graces, with quite the same dear old welcome here and there, can you, eh ?” (p. 74). Geoffrey Firmin does not succeed in loving anew the woman who has left him and who has nevertheless sent him half-scores of passionate letters that the Consul has lost without even having read them and that he will end up rediscovering a few hours before his death. An excess of suffering, an excess of keen suffering and wandering as a sequel to the departure of his wife, could this be the burden that prevents the Consul from attempting to restore substance and spiritual harmony to his couple ? A more profound reason seems to point to a more secret source, a mysterious fault in the conscience of modern man, who knows nothing more of the star-studded heavens than Yvonne deciphers like a piece of parchment : “ah, who knows why man, however beset his chance by lies, has been offered love ?” (p. 361). Perhaps precisely in order to attempt to teach him to raise his head and fix his gaze on the infinite, on the face of the beloved, which is sometimes not less horribly distant than the light of a star that has been dead for eons. But it is no use, the horizon seen by nobody but the Consul seems systematically to distance itself from him, in accordance with a law that seems not merely optical but rather metaphysical : “As if there were ships on the horizon, under a black lateral abstract sky, the occasion for desperate celebration (it didn’t matter he might be the only one to celebrate it) receding, while at the same time, coming closer what could only be what was — Good God! — his salvation…” (p. 83). The consul’s drama is one of voluntary imprisonment. Geoffrey Firmin’s torment is one of seeming to be shut up in the dungeon of hermeticism as defined by Kierkegaard. He alone, perhaps, is the center, radiant with blackness, that keeps Under the Volcano — this novel constituting a new example of the purely poetic theory that I have expounded in Maudit soit Andreas Werckmeister! (http://stalker.hautetfort.com/archive/2008/09/20/maudit-soit-andreas-werckmeister-dans-la-vraie-zone-d-effond.html) — in a fragile state of equilibrium. A prodigious will, an infernal desire, explicable by a sordid and criminal act in which the Consul has taken part or dreamed that he has taken part (6), to be one’s own source, in contradiction of Lowry, who magnificently writes : “but there is always a door left open in the mind–as men have been known in great thunderstorms to leave their real doors open for Jesus to walk in — for the entrance and the reception of the unprecedented, the fearful acceptance of the thunderbolt that never falls on oneself, for the lightning that always hits the next street, for the disaster that so rarely strikes at the disastrous likely hour” (p. 334). The Consul, a hieratic block filled nonetheless with swirling visions of a Sabbath, a fickle mass of flesh actuated by an ocean of mescal and spirits, a prodigious mind seeming to draw together all forms of knowledge and intellectual audacity, refuses the unthinkable, the return of his wife, who has cheated on him with one of his friends, a Frenchman by the name of Jacques Laruelle. Thus, as we have seen, the imprisonment to which Geoffrey Firmin condemns himself is the opposite movement of the remarkable thirst for discoveries which animates Faust and, more broadly, the spirit of the thinkers of the Renaissance, as Alexandre Koyré has perfectly demonstrated in his classic work Du monde clos à l’univers infini (1962). The Faustian temptation whose essence Oswald Spengler characterized in his classic Decline of the West as a perpetual movement towards an end, the marmoreal law of permanent combat and of adaptation to the world, in reversing itself in Lowry’s novel, seems to have acquired a degree of malificence much more profound than the single, unbelievable appetite for knowledge : the demonic, such as Kierkegaard has magisterially analyzed it, is the rage for cutting oneself off from reality and the human community, ultimately for cutting one’s bridges to the rest of humanity, for denying even the possibility that a St. Christopher can, by perching you on his shoulders, make you cross the raging sea, as we see it in Lowry’s novel, where the end of Chapter 9 which allows us to glimpse the breach, one which is quickly closed up again, for a flight for the Consul and his wife, shows us an old Indian carrying on his back another, older and more decrepit, Indian, or again : “They were all plodding downhill toward a river […] and now they were in it, the first cautious heavy step forward, then the hesitation, then the surging onward, the lurching surefootedness below one that was yet so delicate there derived a certain sensation of lightness, as if the mare were swimming, or floating through the air, bearing one across with the divine surety of a Cristoferus […]” (p. 109). However much Malcolm Lowry may emphasize the fragility of man, it is man’s prodigious inconstancy, his dread in the face of his own power and misery (7), that is signified by the fact that the author evokes the secret powers of this man around whom, unbeknownst to itself, the world perhaps revolves : (8) : “this urgent desire to hurt, to provoke, at a time when forgiveness alone could have saved the day” ([p. 205]), perhaps because the unspeakable feebleness of man, the source of all evils and for a start the greatest of all of them, his terrifying incapability of doing or wanting to do good, of offering hospitality to, for example, Christ (p. 65, p. 147), Lowry’s discreet references to whom merit a dedicated study, of responding to the call of being loved at the desired moment (9), an incapability or, rather refusal (10) that will lead him, like the Consul, to hell (11), is relieved by that of the world that surrounds him, where the spectacle of the loveliest fair can suddenly be transformed into a sardonic parody and induce vertigo, cause a frisson of fear to run along one’s spine : “[T]he aspect of the fair had completely altered for him. The merry grinding of the roller skates, the cheerful if ironic music, the cries of the little children on their goose-necked steeds, the procession of queer pictures — all this 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 […]” (p. 215). A radical cut, once again, if it is true that Lowry’s masterpiece never ceases multiplying images of separation, the world that surrounds us appearing to be, in many respects, condemned under the weight of an immemorial fault, cursed even though, up there, we may suspect, or at least hope for, the existence of a sea where the soul ploughs its invisible wake (p. 163). Notes (1) See the preface to the Gallimard Folio edition, p. 14. (2) The thematic topos of the Garden of Eden, and more broadly that of a definitively abolished age of gold, are especially prevalent in Lowry’s novel (see pp. 39, 56, 131, 153, 160, etc.). The translation used in this essay is Jacques Darras’s often very clumsy and even obscure (see p. 187) version (Grasset, 1987, from the Cahiers Rouges series). All parenthetical page references, unless otherwise specified, are to this version. [Translator’s note : All parenthetical page references, unless otherwise specified, are to the 1947 Reynal & Hitchcock edition of Under the Volcano.] This version, stripped of the author’s preface included in the Gallimard edition (coll. Folio, in the Lowry-authorized translation by Stephen Spriel and Clarisse Francillon, with a foreword by Maurice Nadeau and an afterword by Max-Pol Fouchet, an edition that, to be frank, has yet to be purged of a host of typographical errors…), is accompanied by a magnificent letter (see pp. 412–448; it should be noted that in the preface to his book, Lowry merely summarized this long letter) addressed by Lowry to his publisher (Jonathan Cape) in defense of his novel against the apparently severe criticisms of its two first readers, who also happened to be products of the English publishing house. (3) Le Docteur Faust [Doctor Faustus, 1604] (Flammarion, coll. GF, traduction par François Laroque et Jean-Pierre Villquin, présentation par F. Laroque, 1997), II, 1, v. 123–128, p. 99. (4) According to André Dabezies, the fundamental nucleus or mytheme of the Faust legend is “the most profound drama of human freedom faced with the most decisive choices,” in Visages de Faust au XXesiècle. Littérature, idéologie et mythe (1967), p. 16. (5) “It was ridiculous, but still — had anyone ever given a good reason why good and evil should not be thus simply delimited ?” (p. 199), a thought born at the moment when the Consul is contemplating a painting (to be frank, a daub) entitled Los Borrachones that depicts, via an idealistic division between the top half of the composition and the bottom, the just, who do not drink, and the damned, who do. (6) “So, the Consul had not received his decorations without first being court-martialled He was acquitted. It was not at all clear to Mr. Larulle why he and no one else should have been tried. Yet it was easy to think of the Consul as a kind of more lachrymose ‘Lord Jim’ living in a self-imposed exile, brooding, despite his award, over his lost honour, his secret, and imagining that a stigma would cling to him because of it throughout his whole life” (p. 33). (7) “This novel is then concerned principally, in Edmund Wilson’s words (speaking of Gogol) with the forces in man which cause him to be terrified of himself” (The Voyage that Never Ends, p. 397). (8) “The Consul wouldn’t have needed a practised eye to detect on this wall, or any other, a Mene-Tekel-Peres for the world, compared to which mere insanity was a drop in the bucket. Yet who would ever have believed that some obscure man, sitting at the centre of the world in a bathroom, say, thinking solitary miserable thoughts, was authoring their doom, that even while he was thinking, it was as if behind the scenes certain strings were pulled, and whole continents burst into flame, and calamity moved nearer–just as now, at this moment perhaps, with a sudden jolt and grind, calamity had moved nearer […]” (p. 145–146). (9) See this remarkable passage : “Christ, oh pharos of the world, how and with what blind faith, could one find one’s way back, fight one’s way back, now, through the tumultuous horrors of the five thousand shattering awakenings, each more frightful than the last, from a place where even love could not penetrate, and save in the thickest flames there was not courage ?” (p. 201). (10) “Ah, to have a horse, and gallop away, singing, away to someone you loved perhaps, into the heart of all the simplicity and peace in the world; was not that like the opportunity afforded man by life itself ? Of course not. Still, just for a moment, it had seemed [to the Consul] that it was” (p. 213). Note the similarity of this passage to the one quoted in Note 7. (11) The very last lines of Lowry’s novel, which seem to seal Geoffrey Firmin’s fate, imagine an apocalypse that is doubtless not alien to the very dark period lived through by the author, to say nothing of its resonances with the condition of tens of millions of people, civilians and soldiers alike, at the end of the Second World War : “It was crumbling too, whatever it was, collapsing, while he was falling, falling into the volcano, he must have climbed it after all, though now there was this noise of foisting lava into his ears, horribly, it was in eruption, yet no, it wasn’t the volcano, the world itself was bursting, bursting into black spouts of villages catapulted into space, with himself falling through it all, through the inconceivable pandemonium of a million tanks, through the blazing of ten million burning bodies, falling, into a forest […]” (p. 375).
Originally published at www.juanasensio.com on December 22, 2010.