Author: Steven Earnshaw

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.

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Series: Beginnings
Author: Steven Earnshaw

Terms used to describe artistic practices have different meanings from their common usage, but 'realism' as an aesthetic idea cannot be too far removed from the way we would talk about something 'real'. This book explores the artistry and aesthetics of realist literature, along with the assumptions of realist literature. It examines the different ways in which theorists, critics and philosophers conceptualise 'realism'. The book argues that a 'realist' sensibility is the ground on which other modes of literature often exist. It considers verisimilitude that is associated with the complexity of realism, describing the use of realism in two ways: capital 'R' and small 'r'. A set of realist novels is used to explore preliminary definition of realism. The STOP and THINK section lists some points to consider when thinking about realist works. The book looks at the characteristics of the Realist novel. It deals with the objections raised in discussions of Realism, from the Realist period and twentieth- and twenty-first century criticisms. The book provides information on the novel genre, language that characterises Realism, and selection of novel material. It looks at crucial elements such as stage design, and a technical feature often overlooked, the aside, something which seems non-realistic, and which might offer another view on Realism. The book talks about some writers who straddled both periods from the 1880s and 1890s onwards, until the 1920s/1930s, gradually moved away from Realism to modernism. Literary realism, and Aristotle's and Plato's works in relation to realism are also discussed.

Abandonment
Steven Earnshaw

Brian Moore’s novel The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is set in a boarding-house in early 1950s Belfast, but it is quite a few pages before Judith Hearne’s drinking habit is revealed. The novel then portrays the effect on an individual when belief in God disappears. Alienated through ostensibly social causes such as her ‘odd duck’ physical appearance and family responsibility, the character’s dulling of reality through drink is also her response to the kind of bleak truth that Jack London identifies in John Barleycorn. Hearne’s society, family, and upbringing are powerfully infused with Catholicism, and as her experience of apostasy becomes stronger so does her recognition that she is completely free to behave how she wishes, which includes more socially unacceptable drinking. The chapter places the novel’s thematic concerns within the wider context of Existentialism’s focus on how to respond to a world which is now deemed to have been abandoned by a God who, nevertheless, cannot be entirely shaken off. These difficulties are partly filtered through the secular and religious meanings of ‘passion’.

in The Existential drinker
Authenticity
Steven Earnshaw

Fred Ex is the committed drinking protagonist of Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, in thrall to the career of the New York Giants footballer Frank Gifford. He realises he will never have fame of his own, and over time discovers himself to be alienated from all aspects of modern life and the American dream. The chapter analyses how these elements relate to Existential authenticity, including the novel’s play around the idea of ‘fictional memoir’ and autofiction. There are periods of depression for Fred Ex which lead to being committed to a mental asylum, and the chapter covers the philosophical issues around agency in relation to drinking and mental well-being. This chapter also looks at the protagonist as a developing writer since the novel is partly a Künstlerroman, and how this in turn is entangled with drinking.

in The Existential drinker
Self and others
Steven Earnshaw

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
Steven Earnshaw

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
Suicide
Steven Earnshaw

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
Steven Earnshaw

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
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Steven Earnshaw

This chapter considers the decline of representations of the Existential drinker figure, partly a consequence of Existentialism’s fading from view as its ideas became assimilated, diluted, or discredited, and its major proponents faded away. It also notes an increasing antagonism towards the writer-drinker, once a staple of twentieth-century literature. The change in the philosophical, literary, and cultural landscape is seen in a number of texts where the protagonist is a committed drinker: Ivan Gold’s Sams in a Dry Season (1990), John O’Brien’s Better (2009, published posthumously), and Patrick de Witt’s Ablutions (2009). The acceptance of a neo-liberal world devoid not just of meaning but the search for meaning often characterises the nihilistic and hedonistic impulses of these novels.

in The Existential drinker
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Steven Earnshaw

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