Philosophy and Critical Theory

Abstract only

William Kennedy, Ironweed (1983)

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.

Abstract only

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.

Abstract only

Steven Earnshaw

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.

Abstract only

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.

Abstract only

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.

Abstract only

Steven Earnshaw

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.

Abstract only

Steven Earnshaw

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.

Abstract only

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.

Abstract only

Steven Earnshaw

This chapter places a lesser-known text into the Existential drinker canon. Written whilst in a Nazi criminal asylum by the once highly popular author Hans Fallada, the protagonist Erwin Sommer takes to drinking for reasons which never seem to fully explain his course of self-destructive behaviour. While not given to much overt philosophical contemplation The Drinker does nevertheless have many characteristics of the Existential-drinker text, in particular its expression of absurdity, the belief that we find ourselves born into a world not of our making and which has no intrinsic meaning or purpose. The novel indicates that being a good citizen – the good businessman, the good husband – is meant to provide Sommer with a reason for living, but ultimately these appear futile and Sommer remains alienated. The chapter places the novel in its historical context, with some consideration given to how we might interpret it with its semi-autobiographical origins and knowing the circumstances of its creation.

Abstract only

Habitual drunkards and metaphysics

Case studies from the Victorian period

Steven Earnshaw

Through four ‘case studies’ this chapter identifies behaviours, attitudes, and representations which hint at the emergence of a new figure, and suggest significant moments in the transition from the nineteenth-century’s stereotyping of the habitual drunkard to the twentieth-century’s Existential drinker. Mary Thompson was a habitual drunkard discussed in a Parliamentary Report who rejected all attempts to make her respectable, preferring to live the life of a drunkard; George Eliot’s tale ‘Janet’s Repentance’ provides an unusually sympathetic religious/philosophical apprehension of somebody determined to drink; Zola’s novel L’Assommoir describes the drinker’s response to the modern, alienating city; van Gogh’s painting Night Café at Arles, along with a letter he wrote to his brother, introduces a self which is perched dangerously close to ruin, transformation, or oblivion. The figures encountered here, both real and fictional, are largely ‘ordinary’ people, rather than (Romantic) ‘others’ or self-avowed ‘philosopher-drinkers’, and offer glimpses of the themes and representations which in the twentieth century contribute to the figure of the Existential drinker that is discussed in the following chapters.