Malcolm Lowry, secret hero of these blog posts, fell into a deep depression after the publication of Charles Jackson’s The Lost Weekend in 1944. Lowry’s then-in-progress masterpiece, Under the Volcano, had been intended as the first serious, literary and intellectual exploration of alcoholism, of 20th-century addiction more generally. Like The Lost Weekend, Lowry’s novel was to be deeply autobiographical, like The Lost Weekend, it was set about a decade earlier, like The Lost Weekend, it was a deeply psychological, modernist text that truly sought to explore the effects (on the self and the other) of severe addiction to alcohol. And Lowry was livid because The Lost Weekend did what he had been trying to do for years, did it well (to great popular and critical acclaim, even spawning a FOUR Oscar-winning film adaptation in 1945), and did it FIRST. Lowry’s best unfinished novel (in my opinion) is Dark as the grave wherein my friend is laid, which fictionalises Lowry’s return trip to Mexico in 1946(?), meant as an escape from the crushing success of this rival novel, but utterly unable to avoid it. Under the Volcano was published in 1947 and, unlike The Lost Weekend, is still in print today. It is still seem as a literary masterpiece (not just as a significant work of addiction-fiction) and is still lauded and widely read. The Lost Weekend, which I’ve intended to read for a couple of years, is very difficult to find, because – as Lowry would be ecstatic to know – it’s not as good a novel. Lowry’s offers a wide perspective of a class and type of person, of a particular period of time, and people choosing to ignore history by running away to the middle of nowhere in Oaxaca, where there is no happiness to be found. Lowry won, essentially, but that does not mean The Lost Weekend isn’t a stunning, depressing and incredibly arresting read.
The Lost Weekend is written in a very close third person, heavily tied (in true modernist style) to the personality of the protagonist, who is simultaneously his own antagonist. Don Birnam is an unemployed alcoholic, living with and off his brother, Wick, in a small apartment in Manhattan. His brother, seeing Don close to another decline, arranges for the two of them to get out of the city for a long weekend, but when it comes to the moment of departure, Don whines his way out, angering Wick enough to go anyway, away that his brother is helpless. Thence follows a five day bender, but far from being the glamourous “out on the razzle in Manhattan” that one might expect after all those delicious novels from the ’80s, it is instead a dark, stark and deeply depressing novel about desperation and unquenchable thirst.
“One drink is too many and a hundred’s not enough” is a mantra cited at one point, and this is the way for Don. He lies in order to borrow money from shopkeepers he knows his brother will have to pay back, he pawns objects of value that belong to other people, he tries (and fails) to steal a stranger’s handbag, he ends up in the alcoholic’s ward of a hospital (see Lowry’s Lunar Caustic for a very similar scene) which he runs away from, he sits and he stews and he thinks, but all the while he drinks, he drinks, he drinks.
The way Jackson writes about addiction is powerful and possessing – the way he writes about the thought processes of the drunk, veering from memories of happy days in childhood to intense cravings for booze to reminiscences of moments of life ruined by intoxication and then shame, shame, shame, that can only be eroded or ignored by rushing to a bottle and burning the throat and the mind. Birnam is a self-denying homosexual, who though he was thrown out of university for a gay affair he had with an older student, he is not comfortable with his desires. This expulsion – and particularly the fact that the elder boy was forgiven by the student body and the college, Don labelled the demonised, effete, tempter – seems to be one of the significant points in Birnam’s life, as too was his father leaving the familial home when Don was a child. It’s facile, really, to try to pinpoint single moments that caused the forming of an addictive personality, and it is in trying to do this that Jackson’s novel dates itself. The novel can be simplified to these notions – Birnam was raised by a single mother, thus became gay and because that is not allowed in society, he became a drunk. You see what I mean, that’s not very contemporary, is it?
If you ignore this Freudian search for a cause, though, Jackson does fully dramatise the alcoholic type and the alcoholic mind. Many things he write are familiar to me* and the friends of mine who also fuck themselves over with their levels of intoxication – people who had high expectations from others, people who have high expectations of themselves, who feel that life is always just about to begin, who see the future as something sure to be great, who elevate their past, who refuse to live in the present and prevent themselves from engaging with it due to intoxication**. The idea, too, that once started, drinking is difficult to stop. This is the thing that needs to be learnt – the ability to stop after two, three, five, not the inability to stop until you have to crawl/can’t remember getting to where you woke up.
The memory lapses, the self-hatred, the loss of money, the inappropriate flirtations, the sense of omnipotence, the bleakness and the idea that a desperate and incredible change is the only way to stop. It’s all familiar, painfully familiar, and that was how the drunks of the 1940s found it. The other alcoholic novelists and critics found it painful to read, painful because it’s true, painful because it takes the lowest moments of a person’s life and extends them over 300 relentless pages. Vomiting, not eating, not having money, collecting pennies to pay for booze, falling over and getting injured in stupid ways due to drunken exuberance, causing serious physical damage but not caring, not feeling, not caring, not engaging. Denying the parts of the self that one intrinsically knows are wiser because the parts that want booze are louder. They are always there, aren’t they, those urges to drink? The urge that pricks up immediately in every moment of stress, every moment of tension, in every social situation and whenever at a loss for something to do: drink, drink, drink. It recurs in the mind because it is, alas, a far more pleasant thought than all the others that are in there and never stop. If you’re thinking about drinking, you don’t have to think about the holes in your existence, and once you’re drunk you can engage in those thoughts in a deeply overwhelming way, or feel detached enough to pretend they don’t exist. With booze you can wallow or forget, you can live in memories, in the past, playing music you used to love and smiling because of the good times it gave you, or you can sit in a corner and cry knowing that nothing good is ever going to happen to you ever again, except for the moments when you pretend that you’re young enough to still have a future. Hope is gone, but with alcohol you can recapture it, you can find it deep within by recalling the times it existed. Alcohol can wake up those parts of the self that you thought were lost, but it also stops you (you know it!) from moving past them.
With alcohol, one is with alcohol. No matter how much booze you can handle without adverse effects, you are still drinking, you are still drunk, you are still numbing and distracting yourself from reality. And if reality makes you need to drink, you need help, and you need to escape the bottle.
Alcohol is a distraction, but the question is from what? If life is lived without purpose, everything is window dressing. Even if that purpose is ridiculous, that purpose needs to be there. That’s why some people live tiny lives caring about their children at the expense of their own happiness, why some people commit atrocities in the name of a god, why some people do absolutely nothing because they can’t decide what to do.
People need a purpose, and there isn’t an intrinsic one, there isn’t a purpose we are meant to have, or one that is better than others. But alcohol is the perfect way to both pretend that everything is fine and to acknowledge that it isn’t.
Drink. Drink. Drink.
Because everything, including the bottle, is dark.
I went a bit off the boil there, but it was fun. That, I suppose, is what Jackson did, is what all these writers about addiction do. The fact is, most of us are fine. It’s easy to medicalise ones problems because it makes them into an excuse.
“I’m a failure because I’m an alcoholic.” “I’m unhealthy because I drink too much.” “I can’t get a job because I’m a drunk.”
Yeah, maybe these things are true for some people.
But it’s self-indulgent.
It’s self-indulgent to drink too much in the first place, then to pity the self because of the lack of control. Anyone with half a brain and a little nugget of disappointment can pour out first person addiction fiction with a little bit of sober energy. Look at the paragraphs, a few hundred words and it cost me nothing, and I’m not even that unhappy.
And this is the key difference between The Lost Weekend and Under the Volcano – self-indulgence. Whilst Lowry shows his ability to evoke multiple characters with various lives and desires, Jackson can only do one. And that one is a dysfunctional and uncharming dipsomaniac. Wick, the local bartenders, Helen (Don’s former fiancee), none are very real – now, in part this is because Don doesn’t see them as people with minds and personalities as developed as his own, but this does mean that the novel isn’t as rounded. We don’t see how the people affected by Don feel about his drinking, we see how he thinks the people around him feel about it. It is supposition, self-involved and self-important. And that is what addiction is, I suppose, something overly-personal and something that denies the existence of others.
Happiness comes from other people and pets, that’s a commonly-held social idea. Happiness doesn’t come from the bottom of a bottle, or the bottom of whatever container the substance you’re addicted to is distributed in. Happiness doesn’t arrive from nowhere. No one can drink themselves into happiness.
Anti-depressants, yes, have the ability to do remove the pain, but they cut off a lot simultaneously, exactly like a lobotomy. Would you rather have your mind, your intelligence, your ability to emote, to feel, to live, to desire, to laugh, to hunger, to feel excitement and fear, regret and despair, joy and pain – would you rather have these, or would you rather feel a base level of satisfaction in your existence, an existence that is severely limited from what it once was and what it should be? It’s a Faustian pact, where you trade full cognisance for partial satisfaction. Who values their own mind so little as to agree to that long term? It’s very pessimistic.
Feeling, thinking and engaging are the key points of life. And all of these things are easier when sober, be that sober from booze, sober from drugs or sober from medication. That doesn’t mean that booze isn’t delicious and that intoxication isn’t fun, but there are limits, there is living for alcohol and there is living with alcohol.
The Lost Weekend is a great read, poignant and explorative for anyone with any history of even gentle mental health issues, and painfully relevant for anyone who knows they use the bottle a little unhealthily. I’d recommend it, but as an interesting companion piece to Under the Volcano, not as something anyone should read before or instead of it.
NB: I think this may be the longest blog I’ve ever written. I need to be writing a novel. Just like Don Birnam, I know that a novel would make everything better…
* Who, yes, I must admit, does drink too much, and though I am highly-functioning, I’m highly functioning in the worlds of hospitality and blogging, neither of which are much to brag about. Though, then again, what are the options with two English degrees, education or charity/public sector work? No thanks, I’ll stick to this. In fact, I’m quite satisfied. I’m being melodramatic, which is fun. I’m now about to go even further.
** In my case, also with books and mini-breaks. If I was ultimately happy with my life, I wouldn’t spend every moment I wasn’t at work reading, drinking or out of London, would I? Then again, I think all three together is a pretty standard holiday for middle-class types like myself, so what’s the problem?