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  • “Do You Remember Tomorrow?”: Modernism and its Second War in Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano

Time present and time past Are both perhaps present in time future And time future contained in time past. If all time is eternally present All time is unredeemable.

—T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”

[N]o, it wasn’t the volcano, the world itself was bursting, bursting into black spouts of villages, catapulted into space, with himself falling through it all, through the inconceivable pandemonium of a million tanks, through the blazing of ten million burning bodies, falling. . . .

—Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano

And so we begin, in Lowryan fashion, with an ending, with a title and an epigraph lifted from the final pages of what biographer Douglas [End Page 767] Day has dubbed Lowry’s “stunning and final evocation of hell on earth” (409). Such an inversion is appropriate to Under the Volcano (1947) not only because, in its first chapter, Lowry offers what amounts to an epilogue to his tale, but also because, as I will argue, just such retrospection is at the very heart of this time-obsessed novel. Yet, as my title would suggest, this retrospection in Lowry is of a peculiarly proleptic sort. Opening with a 1939 observance of the anniversary of the main action which will occupy the remaining eleven chapters, Lowry’s novel itself looks back into history, and on its own narrative, while it reaches forward to a narrative future which is our readerly past. In other words, it asks us, as readers, to remember the text’s future. And this future that the tale of Geoffrey Firmin’s last day constantly evokes, this readerly past on which the text, as tragedy, relies, is none other than the years of the Second World War that intervene between the setting of the novel’s first chapter and the date of its first publication. Indeed, it is precisely because the fate of the Consul can, by these means, effectively presage and reflect the horrors of this genocidal war that this story can hold that status of not one man’s, but an entire culture’s, tragedy which Lowry’s text persistently ascribes to it. Further, by way of Lowry’s Janus-like historical perspective, the cataclysm of the war comes to figure not as a singular catastrophe, but as the inevitable rehearsal of a cyclical, indeed unredeemable, Western violence. Thus it operates in the novel as merely one of the innumerable repeated atrocities which, as I will argue, constitute Lowry’s specifically modernist sense of history.

Yet this last claim needs to be addressed first. For while such formulations of Western history as a kind of criminal continuum are common enough in postwar thought, this is not the vision of history generally attributed to English-language modernism. Theodor Adorno, in his wartime reflections on “damaged life,” would declare that “[t]he logic of history is as destructive as the people that it brings to prominence: wherever its momentum carries it, it reproduces equivalents of past calamity” (56). Recent theorists of the modern and the postmodern like Jean-François Lyotard echo such sentiments. For Lyotard, Western modernity’s faith in its ability to transcend and to improve upon its past is a fatal illusion which only “liquidates” itself in the death camps of the Second World War (78): “We now suspect that [modernity’s] ‘rupture’ [with the past] is in fact a way of forgetting or repressing [End Page 768] the past, that is, of repeating it and not surpassing it” (76). 1 But for Lyotard, this diagnosis is precisely what inaugurates a sense of the postmodern and undermines what he sees as a modernist nostalgia with regard to Western history (14).

This charge of nostalgia is hardly unique to Lyotard. Indeed, when it does not define modernism as a formalist aesthetic that insists “on the autonomy of art, as a self-sustaining realm” (Berman 30), 2 more conventional literary criticism agrees that modernism, insofar as it may be read as a meditation on history, is one which recoils from a degraded present to celebrate and to pine for a forfeited past...

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pp. 767-791
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