A Brief Examination of Malcolm Lowry's Volcano: Myth, Symbol, Meaning by David Markson

I've been going through a lot of non-fiction introductions recently because I got a slew of titles in "Barnes & Noble's Rediscoveries" series over the Holidays in their bargain bins for $2.48 each.  Woo hoo!  They are: A Barthes Reader, edited by Susan Sontag; Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, by Ted Hughes;

On Moral Fiction by John Gardner; and lastly, a pretty rare find I about fainted upon seeing (I couldn't believe it was sitting all alone in a freaking B&N bargain bin:) Malcolm Lowry's Volcano: Myth, Symbol, Meaning by David Markson. 

In 1951, Markson, of eventual Wittgenstein's Mistress fame -- a short novel of two or three line observations made by a mysterious (has she lost her marbles or is she just lost?) character whom we're never quite sure is sane or not, as she believes she's the last person alive on the planet -- wrote his 30,000 word master's thesis on Under the Volcano.  Nothing substantive at that time, only four years removed from Under The Volcano's publication, had been written on it, except for, well, Markson's thesis.  Lowry liked what Markson wrote.  And the two became fast friends the final years of Lowry's life, and Malcolm, when he was sober enough, mentored Markson's then burgeoning literary/academic career. 

In 1978, Markson went back to his old thesis, saw what was lacking therein, saw how much more he still had to say about the Volcano, and turned that long post-grad essay of his into a book of very specific and insightful criticism upon it.

Sven Birkerts writes a perceptive and incisive introduction to Malcolm Lowry's Volcano that gets to the real meat and bones of the Volcano's doomed protagonist, the Consul -- Geoffrey Firmin -- and his cracked, alcoholic psyche. Birkerts cites a question in an excerpt from a letter The Consul has composed, that not only sums up the Consul's philosophy, but undoubtedly Malcolm Lowry's philosophy too:

"Is there any ultimate reality, external, conscious and ever-present etc. etc. that can be realized by any such means that may be acceptable to all creeds and religions and suitable to all climes and countries?

Birkert then responds to The Consul (to Lowry), with the following:

"It is the great question. What lies behind the phantasmic shimmer of the here and now? Are there larger meanings to be found? Can a mind haunted by intimations of connection survive the endless abrasion of living without that connection?"

Let me repeat Birkert's response.  I think it's vital and needs repeating for this discussion: "Can a mind haunted by intimations of connection survive the endless abrasion of living without that connection".

I guess the answer depends on how whomever responds to the question defines "survive". I'd say that "haunted mind," quoted above, can survive, but "survive" by definition doesn't necessitate "living well".  And that's the psychological, inter-relational crux of Under the Volcano: it's poignant portrayal of a sad and squandered and profoundly disconnected life not lived well.  How do we, who've read the book, answer it's core cosmic question, "Can a mind haunted by intimations of connection survive the endless abrasion of living without that connection?"  Can we live well alone?  Can we live well alone when we're surrounded by so many people; when there's so many people and yet so much loneliness and addiction?  When we're, quoting Neil Peart's (of Rush) lyrics, "Alone and yet together like two passing ships?" 

I have read the book entire, but now I think I'd like to return to it again with David Markson's help guiding me through the labyrinthine mythology and allusions underpinning it, because I know I missed a ton of those deeper meanings and layers, the story's substrata that Lowry so painstakingly applied to his narrative like the subtle strokes of an impressionist.  Markson deconstructs each stroke he can find out of Under the Volcano, as he encyclopedically implements his talents at linguistic, literary archaeology, exploring the Volcano's hidden chambers.

Markson claims that next to Ulysses, Under the Volcano is the most myth and symbolic laden novel of the twentieth century.  It's not just a book about a doomed drunk, though cynical or superficial readers, I suppose, could "read" it that way.  It's not because our doomed drunk anti-hero, in Lowry's hands, has an uncanny knack for offering a tweaked -- yet prescient -- perspective of local Day of the Dead events, as he's able to eyewitness, watching the world through his mystic, alcoholic lenses, an hallucinatory kaleidoscope of culture and sense perceptions swarming all around him, invisible to his cantina mates and ex-wife, brimming with (granted) outright psychosis, but also eerie enlightenment and even spirituality, his last day alive in Mexico.

What Stuart Gilbert first did for Ulysses; David Markson did for Under the Volcano.  And neither are small feats in the history of literary criticism.