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This chapter introduces the idea of ‘the Existential drinker’, placing it in historical, literary, and philosophical contexts. It gives a clear account of Existential philosophy and issues in relation to drinking, such as questions of authenticity, freedom, self, and finitude, while also addressing wider concerns around questions of will and consciousness. A section on ‘happiness, hedonism, and illness’ analyses other possible understandings, including contemporary concerns to do with alcoholism and ethics. A canon of Existential-drinker texts is established, and the characteristic features of these are noted, paying attention to the uses of narrative and lyric selves in the novels. The Introduction also places The Existential Drinker in the context of other books on drinking and literature, noting how this is the first study to treat the material extensively in this way, often contrary to prevailing attitudes around such literature.

in The Existential drinker
Truth

This chapter places Jack London’s autobiography John Barleycorn: Alcoholic Memoirs as the key text for understanding the figure of the Existential drinker. It is one of the first all-out formulations of the writer-as-drinker, mixing the nineteenth-century temperance view of the habitual drinker who is a moral failure with the image of the writer as a drinker who can attain truths not available to the fall-in-the-gutter drunkard, nor indeed available to the run-of-the-mill sober citizen. The chapter deals with London’s idea of ‘the white logic’, that is, the attraction of alcohol as a means to enlightenment, while at the same time acknowledging that to choose this path is also to choose death. The chapter therefore covers questions of mortality, finitude, types of drinkers and drunkenness, early aspects of Existential philosophy (London partly draws on Nietzsche), as well as beginning consideration of the writer in relation to texts where drinking is central.

in The Existential drinker

Jean Rhys published four novels which have female protagonists who all drink at levels beyond those regarded as socially acceptable: Quartet (1929), After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1930), Voyage in the Dark (1934), Good Morning, Midnight (1939). These four novels present the reader with a complex of self, consciousness, and modernity, inflected by an argument that women are forced to live differently in the world from men, and therefore experience and understand the world differently from men. One of the major achievements of the novels is the way in which they render the various states of consciousness of the female protagonist in the modern capitalist world, and this chapter considers the way in which Rhys integrates questions of gender, consciousness, modernity, alcohol, and the self. Rhys’s protagonists choose their orientations as a way to define their selves and to define what is true in and about the world they inhabit. The modernist focus on alcoholic consciousness ensures a form of self-validation against a patriarchal and increasingly rationalistic society. This chapter also considers Rhys’s presentation of consciousness alongside our contemporary understanding.

in The Existential drinker
Suicide

This chapter views John O’Brien’s Leaving Las Vegas as a novel which is fully aware of the general tenets of Existentialism, and of the baggage that comes with being labelled ‘an alcoholic’, yet does not see that either of these categories are much use to him: the only way to live is to binge-drink his way to death. In taking this route the chapter views the novel as offering a response to Camus’s views in The Myth of Sisyphus around life’s meaning and the question of suicide. The chapter analyses the ways in which both ‘the alcoholic’ and ‘the prostitute’ choose their modes of existence, and how ‘love’ is ultimately not a viable source of meaning or salvation. The cultural context is very much that of an America deracinated by a hedonism for which the committed binge drinker becomes a logical endpoint, and in the face of which a philosophy like Existentialism begins to lose its purchase.

in The Existential drinker
Love

This chapter identifies A. L. Kennedy’s novel Paradise as having many of the elements of the Existential-drinker text – a protagonist, Hannah Luckraft, who commits to drinking, coupled with questions around how to exist in an essentially meaningless universe – yet also shows signs of surrendering this understanding to a hedonism that eventually becomes indistinguishable from complete oblivion. A distinctive feature of the novel is that it presents the reader with two drinkers who are in love with each other and for large portions of the novel remain committed to their drinking. Another feature of the novel is its paralleling of events with the Stations of the Cross and associated meanings, usually treated in ironic fashion. Throughout the novel, notwithstanding the potential for love and religion to provide purposefulness for Hannah, this is another novel which ultimately eschews any meaning-making framework.

in The Existential drinker
Singular experiences

Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano places the committed drinker, in the form of ex-Consul Geoffrey Firmin, in the Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ festival, so that the main character encounters ‘hell’ in physical and spiritual dimensions. The novel is technically innovative in its aim to register the subjective experience of the Existential drinker: Geoffrey Firmin’s world is constructed through a highly individualised, expressionistic symbolism, a mid-century representation of the modern, alienated self, abandoned and suffering despair in a Godless world – the latter made evident by the novel’s attention to the rise of totalitarianism, which forms the backdrop to the events here on a day close to the onset of the Second World War. There is discussion of the novel’s difficulty and form, and a comparison of some aspects of the novel with Kafka’s The Trial, and how these relate to representation of the Existential drinker.

in The Existential drinker
Self and others

In Venedikt Yerofeev’s Moscow–Petushki the character Venichka, a version of the author, takes an increasingly surreal train ride towards Petushki, a town at the end of a Moscow line which he believes to be like paradise. Unlike other drinker novels, where the committed central drinker’s behaviour is regarded as outside social norms, Venichka is surrounded by like-minded Russian souls who also drink continuously. One of the central conceits of the novel explored in this chapter is thus the role of Venichka as a Russian Everyman who is simultaneously alienated from the state, and paradoxically also from the people – drinking is his chosen vocation rather than a form of dulling self-medication. Venichka’s alienation is manifest in his ongoing argument with God, Russia, and fate. The chapter assesses how the novel refuses to privilege rationality, philosophy, or empiricism in its determination to fully exist in a country/world which lacks any kind of coherence, and offers a comparison between this novel and Exley’s A Fan’s Notes in their treatment of the individual, drink, and the nation state.

in The Existential drinker
Fugitive souls and free spirits

This chapter is the first in the final section of The Existential Drinker, and notes that while the novel has many features of an Existential-drinker text, it is also beginning to look to other ways of representing characters who commit to drinking. Although the novel is set in Depression-era America its portrayal of down-and-outs in Albany is implicitly a counterblast to the greed of the 1980s. It has identifiable Existential elements, but these compete with other responses to the puzzle of existence, including a kind of spiritual comportment to the world which overlaps with some of the religious (Catholic) aspects of the book, and an occasional deterministic outlook. As well as the central character, Francis Phelan, the chapter also gives due consideration to his sometime girlfriend Helen, who lives in an arguably more wholehearted Existential manner than Francis.

in The Existential drinker
Open Access (free)

Just as anti-racist movements often struggle to discuss 'racism' as structural oppression rather than individual prejudice, studies of the Yugoslav region struggle to thread together discussions of race. During the Anglophone academy's postcolonial and subaltern turn, which overlapped with the end of state socialism and the Yugoslav wars, the asymmetric relationship led to a decisive theoretical conjunction when scholars brought up in the region but working in the USA applied postcolonial theory to explaining postsocialism. Queer studies have injected new energy into the postsocialism-postcolonialism conjunction, in the footsteps of eastern European feminists using postcolonial theory to explain how post-Cold-War western European feminists had marginalised eastern European women's perspectives. Postcolonial thought is still closer to the centre of south-east European studies than many other fields.

in Race and the Yugoslav region

Ethnicity and migration, two central topics for studies of the Yugoslav region, have been and are intimately linked to race. Just as ethnicity has been more central than race in south-east European studies, certain migrations have been more central than others, which tell the history of majoritarian ethnicity but are integral to understanding the place of 'race'. Indeed, even the ethnopolitical violence responsible for forced migrations within and away from the region has often involved translating ethnicity and nationhood through 'race' to more effectively dehumanise the subjects of violence and harden the symbolic boundaries of ethnic difference to their extreme. The Great War is a part of the history of race and the Yugoslav region as the theme on which the explicit discussions of race in the region have turned. The racialisation of ethnonational and religious boundaries facilitated genocidal expressions of Serb and Croat ethnonationalism during the Second World War.

in Race and the Yugoslav region