Monday, September 03, 2007

Malcolm Lowry—Death by Misadventure

Since The Voyage That Never Ends, a collection of Malcolm Lowry’s writing just came out, I have to pause to pay a tribute to one of the best writers ever, and certainly the best alcoholic writer ever (Lowry’s drinking makes Fitzgerald or Hemingway seem like weekend party boys at best).

Here’s Lowry on alcoholism and writing: “With a bad hangover your thoughts are often incredibly brilliant but you can't put them down because you cannot believe yourself capable in such a state of doing a single constructive thing, least of all what your higher self wants to do. ... When you start putting your thoughts down again, that means you are getting over your hangover. But by this time the thoughts are no good.”

That’s a far cry from Fitzgerald’s insistence that he never wrote while drinking (he protested a bit too much to be believable, however).

Lowry’s quote is essentially a riff on Rimbaud’s belief that poets become seers by undergoing a complete derangement of the senses. I’ve placed a bit of belief in Lowry’s theory, or at least I did when I was younger. A hangover can be a wonderful place to write from because it can combine the elation—or the acute embarrassment—of the previous night with the abject pain and/or nervous excitement of the present. Two contradictory states exist simultaneously, which can be the perfect place to write a tragedy or comedy. A hangover jars you out of the mundane, and if conditions are perfect, you can indulge in your woozy, jabbing thoughts and make great art, full of nuance and complexity and counterpoint.

If conditions are right...I wouldn’t aspire to such a state now for anything. I prefer to write with a clear head and a good night’s sleep. Perhaps Lowry should have realized as much when he hit middle-age, but he stubbornly clung to alcohol in the most stubborn, self-destructive ways possible (read his biography for the sordid details of one of his treatments, locked into solitary confinement in a room with an endless supply of liquor and nothing else--most people beggeed to get out after a week or two, but Lowry lasted until the doctor's forced him out). Lowry’s method of writing probably limited him to one great book, but then few have more than one great book in them.

It’s so poetically perfect that Lowry’s death was ruled a “death by misadventure” by the coroner since he was unable to determine whether the lethal combination of alcohol and sleeping pills had been taken intentionally. I think Lowry would have appreciated the phrase. It has a grandiosity about it, a romanticism that he lived by and dispelled at the same time.

Consider this quote from one of his stories:

“I had been looking forward to something anxiously and I called this China, yet when I reached China I was still looking forward to it from exactly the same position. [...] Haven't you felt this too, that you know yourself so well that the ground you tread on is your ground: it is never China or Siberia or England or anywhere else ... It is always you.”

Lowry was so skillful in many ways, but since the subject is Lowry’s alcoholism, I’ll note his playful, alcoholic brilliance, as when he calls delirium tremens, “delowryum tremens.”

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