[ilds] Alcoholism

James Gifford james.d.gifford at gmail.com
Thu Nov 26 08:02:52 PST 2015


Hi Bruce,

> I’m not sure what you mean by “an ethical issue.”

I'm writing a small piece on Malcolm Lowry at the moment, and that's 
probably shaping my thoughts.  He was, by all accounts, an alcoholic of 
the first order, and this shapes the works in many ways (much of it 
deliberate on his part).  However, in the critical work, there's still 
often a tendency to look on his drinking as if it were a moral failing 
-- a failing, certainly, but I'm skeptical of the ethical or moral tone 
that comes up, even if it prompted other ethical issues.  The last time 
I taught /Under the Volcano/ I looked through a handful of books on 
alcoholism and literature, and this seemed widespread.  There might be 
more recent work that defies this high proof "puritan" spirit {sorry}, 
but I haven't looked carefully enough to really say (I like booze, but 
not that much!).

> That is not what I’m
> talking about, rather /what/ drove Durrell to alcoholism.

That is, indeed, a different matter.  I tend to hesitate over those 
speculations since it's all too easy to say "an unhappy childhood, and 
Durrell didn't undergo psychoanalysis or other ways of interrogating 
those personal demons.  He did write of the fracture between "mother" 
India and "father" England as motivating some of his concerns, but as 
David points out, the drinking was also very much a part of his time and 
place.  There are the geo-political and personal stresses too of his 
life from 1939 through 1957 that I'd suspect anyone would struggle 
under, and later Claude's death, failed relationships, Sappho's death, 
etc...  There are an abundance of reasons.

We might look to Durrell's biggest "toper" though: Pursewarden.  Durrell 
gives him personal and professional reasons to drink, but I'd tend to 
resist easy biographical essentialisms there too.

> That is, a kind of
> “manliness.”

The issue of masculinity hasn't really been explored in Durrell, but 
like Hemingway or Henry Miller, I tend to see it as ironical.  Durrell 
makes his alter ego in /Pied Piper of Lovers/ tall (and racially 
Anglo-Indian, a term he applied culturally to himself).  There's also a 
masculine economy at work with women as currency of exchange between men 
(Darley - Nessim [via Melissa & Justine]), but at the same time there 
are the disruptions of that masculine heteronormativity with Melissa 
cast as the bee carrying pollen, Justine as the active agent in the 
first book of the Quartet (not Nessim), and so forth.

In contrast, what of "manliness" and the most manly fellows in Durrell's 
works?  Keats comes to mind, but not in relation to drink.  Most of the 
others, much like Hemingway in some respects, prove to be deeply wounded 
in their masculine identity and out to recuperate themselves in ways 
that just don't work well.

> Drink in Hemingway is excess, to wit....

I'm thinking of things like Jake in /The Sun Also Rises/ or alcohol 
across /in our time/.  Getting "tight" stands in for what's unspoken. 
"Have a drink" fairly explicitly displaces "tell me what you're 
feeling."  Jake drinks rather than talk about his war wound, and Brett 
does the same rather than discuss her sexual desires, yet both say they 
don't want to drink anymore (meaning they want a resolution that isn't 
possible).  I think of drink in the "Ag" story of /In Our Time/ (chapter 
10 of the 1924 edition) where "it was understood" but not discussed, and 
where the young man so much like Hemingway restores his wounded 
masculinity by proving himself on a "shop girl," and in doing so 
contracts gonorrhea.  The point, I think, for Hemingway is that such 
"manliness" doesn't do manly men any good nor the women they're with... 
  After all, not all men in patriarchy get to be patriarchs, and even 
then such a position limits the subject position in important ways.  But 
how to talk about that in his time and place?  I see Durrell subverting 
the same norms in similar ways, but maybe with more anxiety.

I think Said suggests in one of his lectures that readers would want to 
see themselves as inhabiting the exciting sexual adventures of Durrell's 
Alexandrian colonials (or am I thinking of Vassanji's lecture in 
Ottawa?).  I must admit I simply don't see it that way and have never 
felt the desire to be like Darley -- he seems to be doing rather poorly 
in many respects...  I certainly don't see him or Nessim as "manly" in 
any way that calls out as desirable.

A close reading of a poem like "Elegy on the Closing of the French 
Brothels" might be productive for this.

All best,
James


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