“A procession of thought like little elderly animals filed through the Consul’s mind …”
LANGUAGE IS THE MEDIUM — especially academic (the learned discourse that masks emotional arousal, or what a professor of mine once scorned as “enthusiasm”) — through which terror is made commonplace, acceptable, even benign. Consider the reasons why a writer like Melville — to the manor born, we might say — would sacrifice the norms of style and expectations of clarity, even civility, to the task at hand: inventing a prose that could contain and, in a sense, replicate his rage. In so doing, he risked his writing (and his chance of being read) to a surfeit of sounds, the noises of birds, the scraping of tortoises, or the crying of dogs — to the terrain of the rough-hewn and the lost, where a particular chaos reigns. His task was nothing other than to bring before his readers the bleeding and mutilated bodies, both human and non-human — the wretchedness masked by the acceptable scripts of a smug, market-driven civilization. He pushed prose to the limit, and delivered terror through language, upending taste and propriety along the way.
Good taste. Propriety. Detachment. Such are the terms behind which the corporate university hides its machinations for silencing risk-taking and dissent, all for the sake of academic — and later, corporate — success. I therefore decided to teach a course titled “Writers at the Edge,” focusing on novels that took guts to write, that courted popular disdain or professional disaster — especially with taboo subjects such as racism and political guile. If writing at the edge means that for certain writers you must refuse the safe bookends of polemic — or what Edgar Allan Poe mocked as “cant” — then something else is called for. And so, I often pushed my students to consider: What is that something else? Is there cruelty too harsh to be borne? Are there novels that should not be taught?
After reading William Faulkner’s The Hamlet, which some Northern reviewers considered an unseemly tallying with the “subhuman,” we turned to Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. I was not prepared for how difficult it would be. Lowry’s affront to the reasonable and the secure, manifested not only in the downing of Mezcal but in the way a story must be told, matters now perhaps more than ever. Student reactions to the novel, crafted like Faulkner’s in the 1930s — that terrible time of impoverishment and catastrophe, set in Mexico, not the American South — made me wonder about the limits of what can be taught in today’s climate of reasonable consensus. Horses, peasants, and extirpation of all that was known and loved by men either greedy or vile, are things the two novels share.
How far can one expect students to dive or sink into a textual world that is adamantly unreasonable and, to a great extent, indecent? What is the real, if somewhat vague, role of the academy, particularly its requirement of detachment?
Consensus and civility often mask the ultimate foundations of authority — political and otherwise. Gramsci warned that we are all “experts in legitimation.” I’ve long been haunted by the insight of Bourdieu and Passeron in Reproduction in Education, Society, and Culture that we teachers — no matter what we intend — can never shed the ermine robe of authority, an authority honed through years of training to say the right thing — the tasteful, distinctive, assuring thing. Teaching Under the Volcano has been a sinking experience. How difficult it is to get students to follow Dr. Vigil’s call, “Throw away your mind.” In the face of the casual slaughter and commonplace cruelty that define our contemporary moment, how do we, through Lowry, move beyond the human, all-too-human frames of knowledge (political, intellectual, academic, theological)? While packing his pages full of arcane, occult, and learned references, he demands that his readers question the classical categories of “natural” and “supernatural,” even “cultural.”
Throw away your mind. Throw away the acquisition of knowledge, the tempting ballast of academic learning, the heavy quoting of past literary masters, the pile-up of clever echoes. Can a wanton leave-taking of self and an ultra-attentive look at the abhorrent be tolerated in the liberal compact of the university?
Under the Volcano demands — there is no other way to read it — that we enter into the writing itself, just as the British Consul Geoffrey Firmin surrenders to the dominion of drink, so that we feel more abundantly than we normally feel. Animality — the sense of viscera and flesh, the cost of attentiveness — is what matters, not humanity. So we must feel our way through Lowry’s landscape, the “indescribable confusion of briars,” in sight of “the frightful cleft,” the ever-present barranca, that place of the “breaking heart,” the “sundering” and the “severance.”
Not only is Under the Volcano sad unto death, it also befouls the pedestal of authority. Read as it must be read, it prohibits status or assurance. The gorgeous if rotting paradise that is Cuernavaca and its invented surround is what matters most. It is an earthbound place that forces its foreign inhabitants — and readers — into what we might call a phenomenal sublime. It is terrible. It is beautiful. It is sensual and sensational. But, most of all, that terrain is ultimately nothing more than the words on the page: how they are chosen and laid out so that readers can’t see the forest for the trees. They make us viscerally uneasy, as if changing us physically — disallowing any recourse to theme or plot or character.
Lowry’s every image and metaphor — his glut of similes or the lineaments and rhythm of his prose — might just reconstitute our universe, given the chance. In this recovery lies the opportunity to reshuffle what and how we know or how we come to know anything at all. As one of my more intrepid students wrote, Lowry’s language “recreates the optical tremor of extreme heat: nothing is quite in focus. And the sober reader will not find solid footing.”
A severe Calvinism is at work.
Events are told and re-told on the Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos), celebrated in Mexico to honor the spirits of the dead on November 2. Under the Volcano opens in 1939, with Dr. Arturo Diaz Vigil and M. Jacques Laruelle looking back to that other Day of the Dead a year earlier, after President Lázaro Cárdenas nationalized oil companies, England broke diplomatic relations with Mexico, and the Consul’s official duties were suspended. But the sense of grim fatality overcomes us most assuredly in the way the novel works. Words, entire phrases repeat themselves from the beginning through to the end. The text seems to doom itself, unable to forget the past. Words are destiny, incarnated in repetition, the way words wind in and out of the narrative, stopping time, making stagnant any possible journey through time. As readers, we cannot move forward. Progress or human perfectibility is an illusion; personal property or possession a curse.
How, we must ask, can we understand such indecision — of the Consul, especially — in a text that over-determines itself? Words act upon us like spells, as if in incanting pre-determination, but failing miserably to tell a story that can be easily grasped. Characters move back and forth between disillusion and belief, disdain and enchantment, indifference and empathy. But Lowry’s long drawn-out plot of words appears like a jinx. While the Consul and Yvonne remain caught in ambivalence — willfully, deliberately indecisive — the text clamps down and encloses them, condemning them to their fate.
But that is too general. What condemns them — and their romance? Not something above, a malevolent deity, nor even something within, a psychological compulsion. No. They are damned not because of the words they use or recall, but by whatever they see. Human will makes no difference, but not because of any transcendent force. Whatever is seen darts into the characters’ minds in such a way that they can never be rid of it. The haunt is palpable, too real to be cordoned off somewhere in the beyond.
The Consul, especially, is condemned to perceive intently, and that leads to feeling with no room for sentimentality. The sight of a dying turtle, the dragonfly fluttering in a cat’s mouth, the pariah dog at his heel, the long-suffering bull that wants nothing more than some kind of dignity — these are the kinds of moments that matter most. There is nothing in the mind that is not first in the senses. The knowledge that preoccupies Lowry lies in this intensity of perception — the look that seizes the self and takes it into whatever lies outside the comfort of human bonds.
These passages contain the meaning and reach of fatality. It is not religious; it is not institutional. In the end, it is something like walking down the street, riding a horse, having a drink, watching a fly, writing a letter, recognizing the pariah dog. Everything we do becomes part of our destiny. What remains most depressing or unsettling about this novel, then, is that there is no escape from the shroud hanging over us all.
Somewhere there must be life worth living. Out of the piecemeal, the random, or contingent details that pile up and threaten to bury us, come some things that make us feel in a way that remains unattached to sentiment or possession. If human love fails, something else comes before us, ever so inconspicuously but nevertheless unmistakable and strong.
What if fiction could be recast as rigorous ethnographic critique? Here we might recall the anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s daring invocation of “determined indetermination” as a clue to teaching “ontologies that defy our hierarchies and customary classifications and that force us to abandon various conceptual automatisms.” The meaning of the novel resides in passages that make us founder in the desolate, ultimately indeterminate terrain of Mexico, along with all manner of creatures that take on more than human significance. It is as if everything that has nothing to do with anything so grand as Western modernity or civil life — even sociability — matters most.
Are you willing to surrender to searing wonderment, despair, or outrage? Can we, with W.G. Sebald in The Rings of Saturn, shed our preconceptions long enough to doubt “whether writing renders one more perceptive or more insane?” That is what Lowry wants of his readers. Are you willing? Do you dare?
On the Day of the Dead, not only the ancestors return to life, but also animals, spirits, plants, astral or atmospheric phenomena. Sometimes a disquieting assemblage of artifacts and objects acquire intentionality: “tools, unusual tools, a murderous machete, an oddly shaped fork, somehow nakedly impaling the mind, with its twisted tines glittering in the sunlight, were leaning against the fence, as also was something else, a sign uprooted or new, whose oblong pallid face stared through the wire at him.” What Lowry demonstrates through his prose, its repetitions and compulsions, is that nothing dies, everything is always ready to return, to haunt, to threaten. Every particle in the universe, every word we utter lives on. He shows us that everything, all the human and non-human subjectivities in the novel, proliferates wildly, too dense to be curtailed. In order to overturn the demons of modernity and the Enlightenment ideals that sustain that modernity, Lowry contrives a natural supernaturalism — to recall the American literary critic M.H. Abrams — that triggers something like magic.
But then there is the bullfight. The killing of a bull apparently too “bored” or too “merry” to resist— and how could he, anyway — encompasses and frames Yvonne’s story. All that happens in the ring, terrible and relentless, circumscribes her remembrance of the past, her knowledge of the present, and hopes for a future with the Consul.
Lowry invites us into the Arena Tomalín. More than the cruel death and disregard of the dying Indian in the previous chapter, the bull holds our attention. First moving round “at a slightly increased, though still steadily measured, gait,” he then sits down in a corner of the ring, roped by one foot. Then, a few horsemen (charros), try to “drag the miserable bull to its feet.”
The poor old creature seemed now indeed like someone being drawn, lured, into events of which he has no real comprehension, by people with whom he wishes to be friendly, even to play, who entice him by encouraging that wish and by whom, because they really despise and desire to humiliate him, he is finally entangled.
An entire history of colonization and extermination is captured in this passage. Lowry responds to the callous indifference to the bull’s (and Yvonne’s) suffering with an entanglement free of narcissistic projection. We simply cannot know how much the sighting — and there are many in the novel — of abused or cursed non-human animals contributed to the Consul’s — and to Lowry’s — despair. But I like to think that the bullfight described so intensely in these pages led him to some rock-bottom truth about humans.
Moving somewhat drowsily under the shock of a strike, the bull paws the earth with his legs, not quite digging up the dust, but perhaps kicking back in a stretch too graceful for the choreographed assault that spills blood and sows death. Which is crueler, the Consul’s abandonment of Yvonne, or the game of gore in “the bloody arena,” where men abuse the bull to the elated and raucous cries of the crowd?
Lowry makes certain that we know the answer, even if we choose not to say it. The cruelty to the bull brings the Consul to the only awareness possible of his longing for Yvonne. But he can never make amends. Especially not after such defilement, the “disgusting performance” described in such detail, entangling readers in what is “heart-stricken”: “See the old unhappy bull in the plaza beautiful,” he writes. And later, he trembles, not because of fear (as Yvonne assumes) but because of empathy: a feeling for, into, and with the bull’s suffering, humiliation, and, yes, trembling.
The bull is “bored.” The bull is “merry […] at heart.” Then the bull is tortured, a game given to us in excruciating detail:
He was being poked with sticks in what remained of his testicles, tickled with switches, a machete, and, after getting clear and re-entangled, a garden rake; dust too and dung were thrown in his red eyes; and now there seemed no end to their childish cruelty.
Yvonne reflects, no doubt recalling all that has remained unspoken between her and Geoffrey — until this scene: “This whole business of the bull […] was like a life.” The off-handed sacrifice of the bull, “persecuted beyond measure,” stands in for star-crossed love, Mexican history, her father’s failure, the old night terrors, letters that never arrive, and promises unfulfilled: the complete catastrophe.
In unleashing something intelligible that lies beyond human, Lowry delivers insights that skirt and evade communication. With drink he could take leave of himself and inhabit a pre-linguistic place of attachment to and with whatever was not human. He could also write the dickens out of English, bending it to whatever defied the disease of human reasoning — an illusion that perpetuated barbarism masquerading as sport or performance. As baffled as his bull, like one enduring endless suffering, he wrote against the supposed inferiority that could qualify creatures as deserving of annihilation.
I asked my students during our next to last class on Under the Volcano: “How does Lowry find words that no longer act like words?” They remained silent, and I thought for just a moment, recalcitrant. I should have known that they could not answer such a question. Nor could I. But isn’t that the point? To ask such a question is to turn the classroom into a ritual surround, where nothing is easy or assured, where human language fails and critical analysis falls flat. Such an encounter promises a revitalized and mutual inhabitation reducible to no moral code or doctrinal purity.
If only my teaching could somehow consecrate the empathy so pervasive in Lowry’s portrayal of this bull doomed to suffer inconsequentially in the arena, but so significantly in the novel. Instead, discomfort won out. Teetering on the brink of what lies beyond words, students became uncomfortable. Unease took the place of identification with Lowry’s feeling for and with the bull. So we lost the chance to be initiated into an awareness of harm and injury, the opportunity to change our relation to the cruelty of our time, to substitute empathy for the brute indifference to whatever is outside or beyond our obvious pale of concern.
There are languages beyond us — the shuffle of the bull, its annoyance, its circling and final crumpling to the ground — that could fight against the academic caution that defangs thought. Responding passionately to the unspeakable — with feeling, not sentiment — might renew our sense of the political, and guard against our too easy disavowal of evils committed in our name. To become sensitive to the affliction that demands our concern is to dare to read against the grain, against the self-serving humanism that inoculates the privileged against whatever is too powerless or insignificant to count.
Colin Dayan’s new book, With dogs at the edge of life, will publish on December 1 (Columbia University Press).