Butterflies and Lizards: Revisiting “Under the Volcano”
In the back of my copy of Under the Volcano, I found an essay by Sherrill Grace, which cites a letter written by the book’s author, Malcolm Lowry, explaining that Volcano “was so designed, counterdesigned and interwelded that it could be read an indefinite number of times and still not have yielded all its meanings or its drama or its poetry.” This summation may sound arrogant or cocky, but I don’t think Lowry intended it as such; it merely states a fact — closer to an apology than a boast. And it corresponds exactly to my experience in writing just about chapter 4 of the book.
I went back and read the rest of Grace’s essay, “The Legacy of Under the Volcano,” and realized that I’d forgotten a particularly appropriate part of the book (having not read it in over six years). I’ll quote from her essay:
“In the early 1930s and late 1940s, when Lowry was writing Volcano, he could not have guessed the extent of the environmental damage first world countries would cause by the end of the twentieth century; he had not heard the term ‘global warming.’ Nevertheless, in Volcano, he speaks to our time by warning us, prophetically, of impending disaster. In this sense, Volcano is an apocalyptic vision and a reminder of the writing on the wall: No se puede vivir sin amar — one cannot live without loving . . . one’s neighbor as one’s self, and the earthly paradise of this earth as the garden of one’s soul, which we must not destroy.”
Some of this poetically-charged environmentalism takes place in chapter 5, which Grace calls “a sheer delight and very funny.” She also suggests reading it aloud, which I did.
The fifth chapter picks up where the one before it left off (where I had left off as well), in Hugh’s imagination. Before long, though, we’re back with the Consul, waking up from a “horripilating” hangover, becoming “aware that in the horrid event of his being observed by his neighbors it could hardly be supposed he was just sauntering down his garden with some innocent horticultural object in view.” He does, however, end up in his garden, which does not “strike him as being nearly so ‘ruined’ as it had earlier appeared.” In fact, he likes the “exuberance of the unclipped growth at hand.” I happened to read this passage while sitting in front of a garden in Vermont in November, almost everything in it dead.
The chapter continues to touch on a variety of topics. The Consul sees a sign in Spanish in the public garden which he translates to: “You like this garden? Why is it yours? We evict those who destroy!” He then wanders dangerously close to the unguarded ravine — a simple metaphor for the depths of despair which I had mentioned in the post on chapter 4. He imagines his neighbor as the all-seeing God, which Lowry takes in a humorous direction: “’What’s that?’ Mr. Quincey said, frowning in a manner that might have meant: And God never drinks before breakfast either.”
The Consul takes his (and Lowry’s) biblical approach to Quincey a step further in sharing with his neighbor his strange theories on the story of Adam and the Garden of Eden, including the idea “that the original sin was to be an owner of property . . . .” Finally, he mentions William Blackstone, but gets him confused with William Blaxton, then gets Blaxton confused in history, believing that he eventually disappeared among the Native Americans. Current history calls this fact inaccurate, but the concept itself proves very interesting . . . .
In fact, much of chapter 5’s dialogue, references, allusions, plots, characters, etc. — of which I’ve just scratched the surface in the above three paragraphs — prove very interesting, especially when thrown together over the course of a 30-page hungover morning. But these names and ideas really serve as details and examples of the bigger picture, one that gets fleshed out magnificently in the middle of the chapter:
“Beyond the house, where now the problems awaiting him seemed already on the point of energetic solution, the day before him stretched out like an illimitable rolling wonderful desert in which one was going, through in a delightful way, to be lost […]. He became conscious, for the first time, of the extraordinary activity which everywhere surrounded him in his garden: a lizard going up a tree, another kind of lizard coming down another tree, a bottle-green hummingbird exploring a flower; huge butterflies, whose precise stitched markings reminded one of the blouses in the market, flopping about with indolent gymnastic grace (much as Yvonne had described them greeting her in Acapulco Bay yesterday, a storm of torn-up multi-colored love-letters, tossing to windward past the saloons on the promenade deck); ants with petals or scarlet blossoms tacking hither an thither along the paths; while from above, below, from the sky, and, it might be, from under the earth, came a continual sound of whistling, gnawing, rattling, even trumpeting.”
In those two epic sentences, Lowry touches on an experience of the world often ascribed to religions. And the language itself seems to elevate the picture painted to that of a religious experience. This application applies to the entire book – one that deserves a hearty read, by anyone interested — and I would add to that recommendation a little bit of outdoor reading, in the garden, or wherever the butterflies flop about . . . .
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