Thursday, April 1, 2010

Volcanic Madness

Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano features one of the best madmen in all of literature. The Consul, whose stream-of-consciousness occupies a large part of the novel, says, "The act of a madman or a drunkard . . . or of a man laboring under violent excitement seems less free and more inevitable to the one who knows the mental condition of the man who performed the action, and more free and less inevitable to the one who does not know it."

I like this idea of "laboring under a violent excitement." Madness--at least the ecstatic or drunken kind--is a violent excitement of the mind. It reminds me of Avital Ronnel's assertion that intoxication is a form of mental labor. When I read that, it occurred to me that madness is also a form of mental labor, which explains why artists and other kinds of creators are so prone to madness. It takes a violent excitement of the mind to create--but there are occupational hazards. And these hazards are compounded by drunkenness. But the altered perception of intoxication also opens up realms of the extraordinary, and it is perception of the extraordinary that produces epiphany.

The Consul and his companions in the novel court epiphany by getting drunk on mescal, a strong hallucinogen made from cactus: "There were, in fact, rainbows. Though without them the mescal . . . would have already invested the place with magic. The magic was of Niagara Falls itself, not its elemental majesty, the honeymoon town; in a sweet, tawdry, even hoydenish sense of love that haunted this spray-blown spot. But now the mescal struck a discord, then a succession of plaintive discords to which the drifting mists all seemed to be dancing, through the elusive subtleties of ribboned light, among the detached shreds of rainbows floating. It was a phantom dance of souls, baffled by these deceptive blends, yet still seeking permanence in the midst of what was only perpetually evanescent, or eternally lost. Or it was the dance of the seeker and his goal, here pursuing the gay colors he did not know he had assumed, there striving to identify the finer scene of which he might never realize he was already a part . . ."

Drunken revery. Violent excitement. Mad, and beautiful. In vino veritas est, but along with the veritas, for Lowry's characters, as for Lowry himself, comes dissolution and a kind of spiritual suicide. My book manuscript Women, Creativity, and Madness attempts to discover how the violently excited among us can get the veritas of madness without the suicide.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. I've tried reading the book before, but always gave up. It is, of course, a classic. Also tried watching the John Huston film and once again, couldn't do it--maybe if the character were a non-alcoholic woman. It's hard for male characters to hold my attention.