Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Alcoholic, The Marshal, and the Process of Morals

One of the amazing things about books, is that different books can ask the exact same questions in radically different ways, bringing us a little closer, through each version, to answering, at least for ourselves, some of the intractable problems of human life. On some levels, Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry and Warlock by Oakley Hall couldn't be more different. Under the Volcano is a poetic meditation on self destruction, focusing its philosophical and emotional considerations on the ultimate deterioration of one man, Geoffrey Firmin, the alcoholic British Consul living in Mexico. Warlock is a gritty Western with rustlers, sheriffs, gamblers, and gunfights, exploring the nature of law, order, and chaos in a young society. One is about a person living with himself, the other about people living together. They're very different books, but they find their way to the same difficult question.

Geoffrey Firmin's alcoholism is debilitating. Occasionally, he drinks himself sober, but he can never sober himself sober. He starts suffering symptoms of a very dangerous withdrawal after only a few hours without a drink. At one point, his body is so incapable of control his brother needs to shave him. The novel takes place on the day when his wife, despite everything, comes back to him. Though her return would be where the Hallmark channel mini-series ends, it's just another day of spiraling in and out of coherence and brilliance for Firmin.

Though there are some hints at the kind of formative events talk therapy is supposed to reveal, the most coherent, or at least intentional explanation for Firmin's alcoholism is a willful self-destruction. Essentially, he argues that his self-destruction is not a consequence of his drinking, but the point of his drinking. He seeks a kind of self-determined salvation through the ultimate bottoming out, a wholly unique kind of heaven by conquering the depths of hell. (In a way, Under the Volcano shares themes with the work of Jean Genet, particularly Our Lady of the Flowers, but that's another essay.) To me, the important question is not, “Can one achieve salvation through degradation?” but, “How do we know if someone else succeeds in doing so?” Even if we accept that such a course to salvation is possible, as Firmin claims, and even if ultimately Firmin states he has reached this salvation, since it is such a personal, individual, self-centered cosmology, how could we verify his statement?

Warlock is a fictional mining city near the border of Mexico, about a day's ride from Bright's City, the county seat. A gang of rustlers lead by Abe McQuown is the primary, but far from only, source of conflict and lawlessness. For some reason, the authorities at Bright's City refuse to provide Warlock with a professional sheriff and so Warlock must make do with amateur deputies. Eventually, the trouble from McQuown's band is too much and the Citizens' Council (i.e. the property owners, wealthy, and other respectable folk) hire a famous gunman named Clay Blaisdale to be their marshal. A series of conflicts and confrontations lead to Blaisdale shooting and killing several members of McQuown's band, two of which he was not sure were guilty of the crimes he shot them for.

The events and conflicts of Warlock raise many questions about the nature of order in society. What is the minimum level of “law” needed for the law to actually work? What use is righteousness if it is impossible to maintain? What is the value of law when it must be enforced at gunpoint? How much law is there in Warlock? Changes every day, depending on who was paying attention. When it is right to shoot first? You only know after all the shots have been fired.

What joins the two books is the problem of moral assessment. If salvation is possible through self-destruction, what is the moral weight of the Consul's actions towards that end? Ultimately, the Consul inadvertently injures or kills Yvonne, but the Consul did everything he could to assure that he was the only one destroyed. If justice and law are so fluid and confusing, who is the most moral character in Warlock. Tom Morgan comes to be seen as the embodiment of evil in the town, but everything he did, he did to help his friend, Clay Blaisdale, marshal and hero of Warlock. Furthermore, throughout the book the Judge, a raging alcoholic asserts that to be righteous, one must always be right, and that every action after being wrong is tainted with moral compromise.

In both books, before we even get to deciding who is morally right and who is morally wrong, we have to figure out how how we are going to judge. Do we take Firmin at his word, believing that his self-destruction is truly intentional and if not, how do we determine what his true intentions are? And how do we assess his salvation if he achieves it? What is the value of order in a town like Warlock, and what risks are worth taking in pursuit of it? If people have to die to create that order, should it matter who kills them and why? What is the most important thing in these two situations?

Of course, these books are about questions not about answers, so you're not going to find real guidance in either of the books. In a way they almost act like case studies, testing our moral aptitude by presenting intractable challenges. They reveal our own moral processes to ourselves by forcing us to make difficult moral evaluations, so even if we don't ending up knowing for sure who is right and wrong, we still end up knowing more about the processes of morality, and I believe that is progress.

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