It always intrigues me how the number of comments left on a blog bears no relation to viewer statistics, That mystery has to do with Google search engines, RSS Feeds and/or the randomness of how regular readers pop in five times on one day and then not again for two days. Mulling over this, I’m happiest when I don’t have to think about being read except as the precursor to a conversation, an exchange of views. Often I refrain from saying anything controversial because it may not discourage regular readers but attracts too many viewers. Low profile works for me.
A paragraph gone here because the tow-headed bumbling electrician came around to check the intercom system for the security gate and whimsically switched off the mains without warning. I sat in the unlit kitchen and read a long LRB article about Kim Philby the spy living in Beirut in the late 1950s, propped up by the copious drinking he called his ‘snakebite’, that would eventually be part of his ruin in political exile.
Now I’m online again and unable to remember what I was writing about before the crash — except that we’re hovering around All Souls’ Day and the Day of the Dead, Halloween, moving towards Guy Fawkes. Spooky party games, fireworks, bonfires and ghost stories. When I think of the Mexican Day of the Dead, I think of the Tagetes marigolds displayed at this festival, so common out here, bright orange and with a pungent odour. And then I think of the symbolism woven around the Day of the Dead in Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, another of those fictional Day in the Life of a Drunkard novels, in this case a British consul drinking himself to death in 1930s Mexico. Lowry the novelist was doing the same thing (he referred to his life as an ‘alcoholocaust’) and the novel is a difficult, clotted, jejeune and dense novel. I liked it very much when I was in my 20s and taken up with the idea of creative artist as suffering alcoholic. These days I could do with more balance and perspective and less sturm und drang. The fraught self-mythologising of the heavy drinker has lost its appeal. Since I didn’t see the John Huston film of Under the Volcano, I have no idea how durable the work may be. Scenes to do with the Aztec Day of the Dead rituals struck me a gothic Elizabethan, akin to the theatrical but moving imagery of Ben Johnson or Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, perhaps less about Mexico than Lowry the fabulist’s love of Shakespearean drama.
But how hard it is to talk about alcoholism in another era, so much commonality but no self-help groups outside of church-based temperance movements and reliance on will power. For centuries, addiction was thought of as moral weakness, sign of a dissolute personality, or as a kind of demon-possession. This description of Malcolm Lowry in the 1940s after the success of Under the Volcano:
But for Lowry the trip was a horror. He had begun drinking again, and, when literary celebrities crowded to congratulate him at a party in his honor, he was too inebriated to respond. Dawn Powell, who was there, noted his distress in her diary. “He is the original Consul in the book,” she wrote, “a curious kind of person—handsome, vigorous, drunk—with an aura of genius about him and a personal electricity almost dangerous, sense of demon-possessed.”
There was little sense of sympathy, no idea that an alcoholic might be ill or unable to control his or her drinking, that they might need help rather than disapproval or confrontations. And by the 1940s, many active alcoholics were taking phenobarbital and other sleeping pills or tranquillizers mixed with bourbon or vodka. Most of the medical profession, along with their clients, had not yet heard of Alcoholics Anonymous or had no idea what might be different, what fellowship amongst recovering alcoholics might achieve. It would take two more decades before AA became a household word. The treatment of alcoholism and drug addiction was medieval, often relying on a crude aversion therapy:
Lowry, in turn, was persuaded by friends to see a doctor for his alcoholism. At a hospital in Wimbledon, in November, 1955, he met a psychiatrist named Michael Raymond, whom he grew to trust. Raymond gave Lowry a course of “aversion therapy,” which consisted of an injection of apomorphine followed by heavy drinking. The goal was for the patient to associate alcohol with the nausea brought on by the medicine.
Sedation followed by stimulants: barbiturates, sodium amytal, phenobarbital, Benzedrine, Allonal, Nembutal, Soneryl. Locked psychiatric wards. Sleep therapy with increased sedation. Will power. Aversion therapy. Religious conversion. More will power. Vigilance on the part of family members to prevent drinking. Locked asylum wards, padded cells, lobotomies. Repentance and more religion.A course of the new vitamin pills. Psychiatric treatment for depressive-paranoid types. Geographical changes, a sea cruise or a few weeks in the countryside. More sedatives.
It would be good to think all this has changed and that treatment now is more enlightened and effective. We’re not there yet. For many in the medical and psychiatric fields there is less faith in fellowship and sober support, than in the intensified pharmaceutical management of addictions and emotional illness. Quo vadis?