Friday, November 27, 2009

A Travelogue of the Laffertian Landscape, part 1 – How to Be a Joyously Subversive Blessing Instead of a Hackneyed Subcultural Blight

R. A. Lafferty is a truly great, largely unknown author who deserves the ‘devotion’, attention, and thoughtful reflection. That alone makes this series worth it. These are very early days indeed for Lafferty criticism, so we’re far, far from having too much written about him.

These entries are also incidentally and unavoidably autobiographical and hence at times insightful into my mind, for those interested (you sick people!). (I assume this will mainly be ‘fans’ of Blaster the Rocket Man and Voice of the Mysterons. But some friends, co-workers, neighbours, and family members may also benefit in better understanding their weird half-overbearing, half-reclusive, alternately affable and recalcitrant, bearded bespectacled acquaintance. On the other hand, it may confirm your fears and suspicions and rouse you to unite and take up your torches and pitchforks to finally rid the village of the vile fiend!)

Furthermore, and very importantly, to write about Lafferty is, for me, necessarily a socio-cultural commentary/exploration on a ‘way forward’ for Christian artists: how to be a joyously subversive blessing instead of a hackneyed subcultural blight.

Christians have a long history of being profound and provocative culture-makers: I mainly think of literary innovators like Edmund Spenser, George Herbert, John Bunyan, John Milton, George MacDonald, G. K. Chesterton, Charles Williams, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Gene Wolfe (just to name a few that spring to mind). In modern/postmodern/post-postmodern times this tradition is largely lost within huge swathes of the broad Christian church. Hearing comments (from critics who did not share Lafferty’s faith) like the below about an artist who is a self-professed ‘public’ Christian gives me conviction and hope and… ideas:

R. A. Lafferty is one of the most original writers in science fiction. He bends or breaks normal story restrictions apparently at will, pokes fun at serious matters and breaks into a kind of folk-lyricism over grotesqueries. All this, plus the most unfettered imagination we’ve enjoyed in years. [Terry Carr]

R. A. Lafferty is possessed—a madman, a wild talent… Lafferty’s world is not always comfortable, since he takes particular delight in subtly twisting the meanings of words. His world is usually delightfully absurdist, and often bristling with pins to prick the soap-bubbles of whatever you hold sacred. Lafferty is fun, sophisticated, and utterly insane. [A Reader’s Guide to SF]
Too often the label ‘Christian’ in many people’s minds cannot go in the same category as ‘original’, ‘breaking normal restrictions’, ‘fun’, ‘grotesque’, ‘unfettered imagination’, ‘mad/insane’, ‘wild’, ‘subtle’, ‘twisting’, ‘delightful’, ‘absurd’, ‘bursting sacred bubbles’, ‘sophisticated’, etc. Admittedly, a Christian embodies many of these descriptors only in certain senses and sometimes in ways that are dangerous and/or hilarious. But to fail to live out the connections between Christian history, experience, and belief and these ‘edgy’, unconventional signifiers is to sell out the true story of what this social, cultural, philosophical, ‘religious’ revolution called Christianity is all about. The faith’s origins (to say nothing of the faith’s Founder) are, historically, nothing if not in some ways well described by the adjectives above. Look into it if you doubt me.

You see, Christian Orthodoxy is frankly unorthodox. Art created from a community soaked in this tradition and trajectory simply must reflect this untameable character or else inherently deny the soil it grew in and show itself to really be the product of some more arid agriculture.

Not all my readers will readily appreciate this ‘faith and art’ element in the entries to follow. But the discussion is by no means limited to this; it is simply an inevitable component of the larger investigation into Lafferty’s work. I think anyone from any pre-commitment can enjoy and benefit from an honest assessment of the work of such a great author. (It is worth noting that we all exercise ‘faith’, not just ‘religious’ types. We all have unprovable ‘ultimate commitments’ [just name yours and then try to prove them] which we may have good or bad or no reasons for trusting, but we do trust them nevertheless. They are discussable, testable, alterable – but they are finally matters of an act of faith. I hope you can see that this is the case. Obviously, please feel free to argue to the contrary.)

Next: my personal story of discovering Lafferty.

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'It was all strong talk with the horns and hooves still on it.'
(R. A. Lafferty, The Devil is Dead)