Drinking to excess has been a striking problem for industrial and post-industrial societies – who is responsible when a ‘free’ individual opts for a slow suicide? The causes of such drinking have often been blamed on heredity, moral weakness, ‘disease’ (addiction), hedonism, and Romantic illusion. Yet there is another reason which may be more fundamental and which has been overlooked or dismissed, and it is that the drinker may act with sincere philosophical intent. The Existential Drinker looks at the convergence of a new kind of excessive, habitual drinking, beginning in the nineteenth century, and a new way of thinking about the self which in the twentieth century comes to be labelled ‘Existential’. A substantial introduction covers questions of self, will, consciousness, authenticity, and ethics in relation to drinking, while introducing aspects of Existential thought pertinent to the discussion. The Existential-drinker canon is anchored in Jack London’s ‘alcoholic memoir’ John Barleycorn (1913), where London claims he can get at the truth of existence only through the insights afforded by excessive and repeated alcohol use. The book then covers drinker-texts such as Jean Rhys’s interwar novels, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, Charles Jackson’s The Lost Weekend and John O’Brien’s Leaving Las Vegas, along with less well-known works such as Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, Venedikt Yerofeev’s Moscow–Petushki, and A. L. Kennedy’s Paradise. The book will appeal to anybody with an interest in drinking and literature, as well as those with more specialised concerns in drinking studies, Existentialism, twentieth-century literature, and medical humanities.
I suspect that most gatekeepers have an intense dislike for frontiers, if not necessarily their role on the frontier. Their priority is to keep out the unwanted ‘Other’, and they are the first line of defence, internally, to keep things in order. Frontiers are unsettling, not least because of those individuals or groups who trouble them. This may account for the preference for looking towards modernity and ‘civilisation’, and the avoidance of the wild and wilderness. This unwillingness to look, however, does not mean that the wild has gone away. This work has suggested that, like those old perennials – taxation and death – the wild has remained very much with us in the Caribbean. This text has identified various kinds of ‘boundary troublers’ or ‘boundary objects’ at both the individual and the collective levels.1 I am thinking here of the St Vincent ganja growers, the isolated surgeon, ganja bar owner, schoolteacher and woodsman.2 I have suggested also that the ‘wild’ has found a way to reinvent itself, most recently by seeking protection in the form of TCMP in the Grenadines. So it appears that the ‘wild’ and ‘civilised’ relationship that I have navigated through these pages has been around for some time and is likely to be around for some time further. The question, then, is what is the value of reinterpreting the Caribbean through the lens of frontier? What might it offer in helping to understand SVG and the Caribbean region in relation to the world?
There are in principle two long-established alternative ways of looking at the world. One is to look for differences and the other is to search for common ground. Theorists of the Caribbean have for the most part made a plea for regional specificity and distinctiveness. I have in mind the early observations of Las Casas and his identification of the specificity of the region’s way of dancing, Benitez-Rojo’s observation of the Caribbean’s syncopated way of walking, Lloyd Best’s discussion of the specificity of Caribbean plantation society and culture, Kamau Brathwaite’s historically based discussion of the Caribbean as the creole society par excellence, and Colin Wilson’s teasing out the twin influences of ‘reputation’ and ‘respectability’ in Providentiales. These eminent thinkers about the Caribbean have unearthed identifiable and distinct trends that run through the region’s culture.
Frontier analysis, on the other hand, falls within the perspective that searches for common ground. One of the uses of frontier analysis is, for example, in overcoming the intellectual impasse that has developed in the interdisciplinary field of ‘island studies’. Lisa Fletcher has identified how this field has been undermined by an untheorised distinction between the relative values of ‘geography’ and ‘literature’; island studies, she suggests, lacks a ‘meta-discourse’ about its scope and objects. She detects among island scholars a world view that suggests studying the real world is more meaningful than studying the imagined world. She states boldly: ‘I am convinced that much of the anxiety I detect in debates about the best way to think and write about islands stems from an underlying distrust of literature’ (Fletcher, 2011: 23). Certainly in the Caribbean there is limited crossover between those who study the ‘hard’ behavioural sciences and those in humanities. As Fletcher points out, this divide impedes interdisciplinary research and inhibits dialogue with related fields, for example postcolonial studies.
Beyond the boundary observed by Fletcher, frontier analysis is one way to circumvent this problem. Essentially it challenges the conventional boundaries within Caribbean humanities study at a fundamental level – those demarcating the sacrosanct disciplinary territories of literature and the so-called postcolonial canon, cultural studies, politics, history and so on. Such an analysis also extends well beyond the now somewhat tired cultural and nationalist island paradigm. The aim is not merely to critique from within, say, the world of Caribbean literary studies as it has traditionally been practised, as does a recent collection that – in critiquing the privileging of a specific group of postwar male writers, the ignoring of prewar writing, the marginalisation of writing by women, the prioritization of the ‘folk’ and the exclusion of the middle class and LGBT voices – extends rather than troubles the boundaries around canon formation.3 It leaves untouched the question of literary boundaries between the official and unofficial, with regard, for example, to the status of popular fiction: ‘The choice to be “popular” and therefore remain ‘outside’ rather than belonging to the circle of the elite is always partly an ideological one, an identification otherwise than with formal culture. Outsider fiction is a harbinger of change in Caribbean writing’ (Bryce, 2014: 162). Early signs of this change began with Victor Headley’s Yardie4 and were manifested more recently in Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, which consciously challenges conventional notions of ‘postcolonial’ writing, and introduces all kinds of boundary crossing.5 The winning of the 2015 Man Booker Prize by James for this novel might suggest canonisation, but if so, what canon? James’s achievement transcends the boundary of Caribbean writing. The fact that it has been taken up by HBO to be made into a TV series arguably suggests its contiguity with other popular forms. Among his influences James cites William Faulkner, Roberto Bolano and comic books. ‘A lot of what shaped my literary sensibilities were things like comics … The sort of cheap pulp fiction’ (Farley, 2016). The novel is described by James as: ‘Post-post-colonial’, signifying ‘a new generation of, well, new-ish generation of writers, where we’re not driven by our dialogue with the former mother country. The hovering power for us when growing up in the ’70s and ’80s was not the UK. It was the States, it was America. And it wasn’t an imperialistic power, it was just a cultural influence’ (Mayer, 2015). My use of frontier theory, by significantly altering and enlarging the frame of analysis to take account of such ‘cultural influences’, enables a clearer understanding of the process to which James lays claim.
I should admit directly that in the chapters above I have become a sort of boundary troubler myself. For example, in Chapters 5 and 6I specifically offer a frontier analysis that brings together different genres of writing, namely historical travel writing, politics, the novel, monologue, poetry and autobiography. This approach incorporates both the ‘real’ and ‘invented’ worlds of one island’s political imaginary, opening up the scope of analysis rather than closing it down. It says, indirectly, and thus politely: to hell with any canon – if the frontier frame in use can bear it, why can’t the writing of a nineteenth-century colonial magistrate be compared and contrasted with that of a living female Canadian canonical author, or a political novel with two hack political autobiographies? A frontier analysis thus both opens up the range of possible objects for examination and changes the frame, enabling a process of compare-and-contrast that extends beyond the insular and restricted geography of regional writing.
Frontier analysis starts from the common ground that the region shares with the rest of the world – notions of ‘boundaries’, ‘civilisation’ and ‘wilderness’, however defined. Awareness of the way these notions are applied enables a dialogue, not only among individual island states in the Caribbean, but with anywhere else globally that has a frontier, and thus affords the opportunity to participate more fully in the world-wide debate on globalisation – one that defines our times and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. A frontier perspective that alters and enlarges the frame of analysis to include history, literature and culture extends the ground of the debate and increases the visibility of otherwise relatively insignificant island states. Speaking across boundaries, the Caribbean emerges as a powerful metaphor of globalisation itself. As my friend said in the preface, we roar.