Tuesday, December 27, 2011
'It was all very clear, for being in the middle of a mystery' - A Greeting for the Christmas Season from R. A. Lafferty
Sunday, November 27, 2011
The other spherical hemisphere was all green meadows and game-parks and cities and oceans, unoccupied, but waiting for visitation.
Ah, out of the crack again. But be careful: Don't mention that stuff.
-R. A. Lafferty, 'The Man Who Walked Through Cracks' (1978)
Saturday, November 5, 2011
'There is nobody, there has never been anybody, who writes like Lafferty' - Theodore Sturgeon introduces R. A. Lafferty
Monday, October 31, 2011
Thursday, October 20, 2011
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Saturday, October 8, 2011
Friday, September 30, 2011
"Well, there is quite a clatter in the mountains this morning, Kit," Strange Buffalo was saying in happy admiration. "The deep days, the grass days like this one, aren't come by easily. It's a wonder the mountains aren't knocked to pieces when the big prophets pray so noisily and wrestle so strong. But, as the good skin says, we must work out our salvation in fear and thundering."
"Is it not 'In fear and trembling'?" Christopher asked as he lounged on the lively bale of rags.
"No, Kit-Fox, no!" Strange Buffalo pealed at him. "That's the kind of thing they say during the straw days; not here, not now. In the Cahooche shadow-writing it says 'In fear and chuckling,' but the Cahooche words for thunder and chuckling are almost the same. On some of the Kiowa antelope-skin drawings, 'In scare-shaking and in laughter-shaking.' I like that. I wish I could pray and wrestle as wooly and horny as the big ones do. Then I'd get to be a prophet on the mountain also, and I'd bring in more days of grass. Yes, and days of mesquite also."
-R. A. Lafferty, 'Days of Grass, Days of Straw' (1973)
Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Saturday, September 24, 2011
'Consciousness is a state which no one of us has yet attained. All that anyone has are intimations of consciousness, quick glints of light that sometimes flick through the cracks of a greater room to which we aspire.'
-R. A. Lafferty, Arrive at Easterwine (1971)
Friday, September 23, 2011
Tuesday, September 20, 2011
Monday, September 19, 2011
Now, you've got to understand that behind Lafferty's damning indictment of failed humanity is actually a huge and high anthropology - the Christian anthropology is always like this. We are Fallen, yes. But that's the whole point. We are high and holy and whole creatures (made in no less than the very image of God for Christ's sake!) who have fallen from that lofty ontological height into lowness and unwholesomeness and thinness and meanness. The more you read and study Lafferty the more you really do start to get the feeling you personally actually might be a Shining Genius who is only using a fraction of what he or she could be and do. Lafferty's fiction is uplifting in that sense. Even while at the same time it is full of a creeping and sinister suspicion that we humans are selling our birthright for a mess of pottage. Lafferty thinks so highly and fondly of humanity that he crankily condemns how we sell ourselves out.
"For Lafferty, to create at all
was to laugh cosmically.
There was no other way."
Friday, September 16, 2011
Thursday, September 15, 2011
R. A. Lafferty
“Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise and rudely great…
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world.”
We aren’t really the ‘Sole judge of truth’. And we are hurled in ‘temporary’ and not in ‘endless’ error. But most of the rest of it applies to us humans accurately. We are beings darkly wise and rudely great. And even if our glory is pretty spotted, we are indeed the jest and riddle of the world. And one of the tall labors assigned to us is reading the riddle of the world and of ourselves.
One side of this riddle-solving is named ‘science’, and another side is named ‘intuition’. But it has several other sides, both brighter and darker. The riddle itself is a many-sided thing. We lack even a clear statement of the riddle, or of the story of it. There is dispute about the riddle, or of the story of it. There is dispute about its shape and appearance. But various obscure mirrors held up by riddle-writers do give a mottled view of this authentic history of the world. The riddle-writers are in every field, and they are busy in several of the areas of Science Fiction. The works of all the riddle-writers are really garbled ‘Remembrances of Great Things Past’.
The ‘After the Catastrophe’ stories of which there are so many in modern Science Fiction are really ‘After the Fall’ stories or ‘Love in the Ruins’ stories. Many of the riddle-writers place the Fall correctly near the beginning of the human affair. Others place it in the near-present or in the near or far future.
Most agree that there is an amnesia about the Fall, that it has been forced out of our conventional memory and thus has become the most enigmatic part of the life riddle. Most hint that the Fall has a certain dark grandeur and renown about it.
Some people swear that the Fall is nowhere in history, nor in clear memory, nor in vestige, and nowhere in common sense. But it is in psychology, and in clouded memory, and in inherited folk impressions.
Any competent practitioner of History will know that ‘The Fall of Man’ is there and that perhaps it is the event that divides history from pre-history. Any competent practitioner of anthropology will know that man cannot be described without stating that he is ‘The Fallen Creature’.
“Hold! Go no further!” upset people cry out. “You are coming too near to the subject named ‘religion’!”
The fascination of the tales about space travel echoes the times when we really could travel through deep space effortlessly, instantly, and without vehicles.
Once we had the Midas Touch, the transmuting touch.
Once we could walk through walls, or walk on water.
Once we could move mountains.
Who are we really, we who could normally do all those things? Who we are is part of the answer to the riddle.
The real difficulty is that we have looked back, not at the ‘first state of magic’, but at the isthmus of the middle state where magic is forbidden. And in looking back we are turned into pillars of salt.
Is this that I have just written no more than a very poor Science Fiction story in the guise of an article? Very likely it is. And yet, very poor story that it may be, it is the synopsis of ‘The Only True History of the World and of the Lords of the World’.
Once we were indeed Lords of the World because we were at one with the world.
Once time stood still when we ordered it to do so. It still does.
Once we had the transmuting touch. We have it yet.
Once we could walk through walls. We can still do it, if we disregard the caveat of the skeptic who says “When you’ve walked through one wall you’ve walked through them all.”
Who are we who can do all these things, except that we have half forgotten that we can do them?
There is one good Science Fiction story that I haven’t gotten around to writing. It’s about the hero-adventurer who answered all the ten thousand riddles except one, and each one was more difficult than the one before it. He answered all of them except the final one, which had also been the one before the first one. No wonder it sounded familiar! That question which stopped him was and remains:
[March 21, 1980]
This article is one of the pieces of which the inside cover says: these ‘essays, reviews and articles were written as columns for the Italian fanzine, Alien.’
Back cover: ‘Starting with the much-acclaimed Past Master in 1968, at least 19 books by R. A. Lafferty have been published. He has entertained a faithful band of enthusiast with his fertile imaginative gifts and his great spirit of play. These qualities are on full display in the essays, reviews and articles contained herein.’
Wednesday, September 14, 2011
Tuesday, September 13, 2011
Monday, September 12, 2011
Sunday, September 11, 2011
Saturday, September 10, 2011
Can Good Science Fiction Only Grow From the Soil of Fairy Tale or High Fantasy?
Part 1 of this essay-review may have given the impression that in this particular novel Lafferty has pulled up all dividers and is letting all fantasy break loose, indiscriminately—literally anything can and does seem to happen. But on further reflection this turns out not to be true at all. Lafferty has set definite fantastic limits and contours to East of Laughter. The beings, for example, consist of a very certain variety. There are (mostly in very brief appearance or mention): ghosts, goblins, goddesses, fairies, fauns, sprites, giants, ogres, trolls, genies-from-out-of-lamps, shape-shifting humans (e.g. a were-panther, a were-snake), sea monsters, sea-nymphs, saints, angels and so on. One can fairly easily see that the beings by and large are the beings of Old World fairy tales, fables, myths, legends and the like (yes, Lafferty would have taken saints and angels to be real, not mythical, entities, but their appearances and miracles became part of the legendry of the Old World).
The only exceptions I can think of are the utterly absurd and freakish Solomon Izzersted (a baseball-sized talking growth on the belly of another character) and the comically creepy human-faced bats, the Sussex Wraiths. But these two anomalies are seen, significantly, to be grotesquely self-important interlopers who have to be taken down a notch.
Lafferty assembles these beings out of fairy tale and juxtaposes them with certain modern entities and amenities: scientists of various sorts (biologists, nuclear physicists, and so on), intelligent personal computers, newspapers, and ‘modern world transport’ devices (instantaneous teleportation units in wealthy homes). This is the scenario Lafferty has created and he sticks to it. And whereas the world of any given story or novel by Lafferty is very often open to the presence of at least one alien entity (if not outright taking place in the deeps of space or on another planet), here no such characters or elements are allowed to intrude. Indeed, the interloping ‘neo-scribbling giants’, the Sussex Wraiths, suggest at one point that they thought the ‘writing of the world’, which is the philosophical subject of the novel, should include a scenario of extraterrestrials controlling the earth—and this is rejected out of hand. Lafferty has dealt with aliens, alien worlds, space travel and so on in many other novels and stories. This one sticks strictly to a closed-system earth that needs to clean up its own self-contained trouble (‘closed’ only in the interplanetary or intergalactic sense, obviously—not in terms of the supernatural or paranormal).
Indeed, East of Laughter may be Lafferty’s one Fairy Tale or High Fantasy novel (albeit in a modern setting – I’ve heard this called ‘mythpunk’). The rest of his novels seem to be science fiction of one sort or another (e.g. Past Master, Reefs of Earth, Space Chantey, Arrive At Easterwine, Aurelia, Annals of Klepsis) or historical fiction/fantasy (e.g. Fall of Rome, Okla Hannali, The Flame Is Green) or contemporary ‘urban fantasy’/‘magic realism’ (e.g. Fourth Mansions, Apocalypses, The Devil Is Dead). In terms of science fiction, it’s interesting that East of Laughter is about the ‘writing of the future’ and whether there will be a real future, but it finds the key to ‘futurology’ in a correct understanding of and continuity with history and fable.
Of course, Lafferty here is really just bringing to the fore the fairy tale aspects that were latent in much of his fiction all along. Think of how many stories and novels have a human character who is described as a goblin, giant, or witch, for example (Past Master, Arrive at Easterwine, The Reefs of Earth, Fourth Mansions, and The Fall of Rome all spring immediately to mind).
To some degree I think in East of Laughter Lafferty was going back and more explicitly reiterating: by the way, before we get to spaceships and aliens, we need to be sure we don’t leave behind all the wonderful and woolly myths that got us there. Indeed, in the midst of our Brave New Worlds of Artificial Intelligences and so forth, let’s keep it peopled with the whole crew we’ve had from ancient times and infused with aspects of the worldview(s) they represent. Otherwise we’ll find the whole show pretty empty, from the sketchy nations and landscapes right down to the emaciated and insipid atoms and musical notes. As Bertigrew Bagley, the Patrick of Tulsa, says in Lafferty’s novel Fourth Mansions:
‘Somehow there is the belief that people in the Dark Ages believed that the world was flat. They didn't. But it is the contemptuous ones of today who have made a really flat world that is the sad answer to everything. What is wrong with the world and why is it not worth living in? It's flat, that's what.’ (p. 59)
Don't you DARE judge this book by its cover!
The Laughing Christ Will Renew the World (Mythological Beings Included)
In connection with the Fairy Tale theme of East of Laughter it is interesting to note the Sylvan Spirit, one of the last living Fauns, who steps out of the Laughing Christ icon. This scene seems to resonate with a similar notion to what C. S. Lewis held: that the best of paganism is ‘hid in Christ’ and finds its true meaning and flourishing in him, especially at the renewal of the world.
Compare the scene in Prince Caspian where the children remark that they’d be afraid to be around Bacchus if it weren’t for the presence of Aslan—under whose rightful kingship the pagan god and his elfish crew flourish and rollick as part of Aslan’s renewal of Narnia back out from under the materialistic reign of terror it has endured. (These are themes to be found in Tolkien and Gene Wolfe as well.)
This viewpoint answers well to Lord Dunsany’s poignantly satirical tale, ‘The Development of the Rillswood Estate’, about the ignominious treatment of a satyr in the modern world, who can only survive and ‘get ahead’ if he modernises—in this case by marrying well and becoming a successful and rather fancy financier. Where the wonderful fantasist Dunsany seems to consistently find modernism repellent to his beloved paganism, Lewis, Tolkien, Lafferty, and Wolfe are in agreement. But they are not stuck with lament and lampoon and lambaste only. Lafferty and the others find (perhaps in what would be the most unexpected place to some) a certain sort of redemptive, sanctifying safe-house for mythical beings of paganism in the midst of the paltry modern world: the Church and her Lord. (See Lewis’s essay ‘Myth Become Fact’ and the Epilogue of Tolkien’s ‘On Fairy Stories’.)
Interestingly, I found this constantly recurring person-statue a rather side-note and comic figure on first reading East of Laughter. Later, I found him still creeping up on me, in a way that faintly and strangely resonated with Flannery O’Connor’s character in her novel Wise Blood who is haunted by Christ as ‘the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind’. Sure enough, when I went back and re-read the Laughing Christ passages, I realised how subtly central he was.
The marble statue was ‘the greatest of Denis Lollardy’s forgeries’ (it remains a mystery whether or not there was a 5th century original). Early on we are told that it ‘cured the melancholy of people who gazed on it’ and that its maker ‘was terrified (Oh, but there was joy mixed with the terror also) by the miracles worked by the Laughing Christ that he himself had carved’. From the start we are to associate this figure with miraculous terror-joy that heals the sickness of melancholy.
As the story progresses, the Head Scribbling Giant, Atrox, keeps intermittently accusing Denis: ‘You stole from me the thing I most prized in my life, the thing that has authorized my strange continued life. That was the statue or figure or eidolon The Laughing Christ… I believe that it is the Christ himself in the train of his second sepulture. I buried him, as he had instructed me to do, in the ground of Italy. And after three quinque-centums of years [1500 years] he was to rise out of that ground again and renew the world.’
Denis retorts: ‘You did not bury him in the ground, you buried him in your mind. And I found him there’. Then suggests: ‘we will ask the Laughing Christ just what he is and how many authors he had’. Atrox still insists: ‘The Christ was alive when I buried him, at his request’.
The significance of these strange little exchanges to the central theme of the novel—the need for new Scribbling Giants who write the future of the world, the need for a renewed mythology in a world that is languishing on mere ‘facts’—does not leap out at one right away. This is merely hint and echo: an insistent implication that the prized, authoritative source of a Scribbling Giant’s life is the Laughing Christ who will renew the world. As the obverse to mythological beings finding their life ‘hid in Christ’ so the living Laughing Christ is hid, buried, in the heart and mind of the Scribbling Giant who writes the future, an apocalyptic future of renewal (a recurring theme in many of Lafferty’s novels). If this figure is dislodged from the Giant’s possession, he feels it as a worry and ache and irritation that signals a missing element that must be restored. Thus it seems that the health-giving mythology for the naked and emaciated modern world finds its source in the Laughing Christ. (‘Mythology’ in this case does not necessarily signify something that is ‘pretend’ or ‘make-believe’, but rather that which is a vehicle of truth, a lively and fulsome and dramatic metaphor for what is really real, which can co-exist and even be rooted in actual history [see Lewis’s essay]).
When the novel later returns to this subject matter, Lafferty quotes from John Masefield’s 1911 poem ‘The Everlasting Mercy’:
‘O Christ, the plough, O Christ, the laughter
Of holy white birds flying after.’
Then Gorgonius inquires: ‘The Christ, where do you have him on display… He raises so many questions.’
Indeed. He is meant to.
When the statue is interred ‘all eleven of them (including Denis who had carved the statue) drew their breaths in sharply at the sheer beauty and joy and friendliness of the masterwork. Well, this was the most pleasant piece of statuary that any of them had ever seen, slightly larger than life-sized, and wrapped in the colored cleanliness of its own laughter. The Laughing Christ! But who was he really?
‘“No, he is not Christ. He is creature,” Laughter-Lynn said, “and he is alive. Oh, the wonderful eeriness!”’
And it is here that the Faun emerges from the statue. After that interesting episode we are reminded: ‘But the wonderful statue, the Laughing Christ of Creophylus still remained a thing of overwhelming joy.’ That night, having been re-buried, the statue is now brought up once more and the ‘flickering torch-light made it seem as if it were a live man laughing. And all ten of them… were again stunned by the sheer beauty and joy and friendliness of the masterwork.’
So, the statue is indeed merely some weird preternatural creature (in his final scene he has become a member of the questing ‘Group of Twelve’ and partakes in a Mass with them, having ashes and sackcloth put on him by the others), not the Christ himself. (Atrox is presumably just a bit muddled about this, but we might say that his heart’s in the right place.) Yet surely we are meant to think his overwhelming beauty, joy, and friendliness derive from his divine namesake, the real Renewer of the World.
The Faun who came out of the Laughing Christ dies, but the hope is expressed: ‘Maybe some other cheerful spirit will come and live in him’. The statue-creature, as representative of his namesake, will continue to host and house the remaining myth-creatures of the world until its renewal.
There is one more scene connected to this theme. At the seaside house of Oosterend, the Group of Twelve is asked: ‘Have you seen our Great Circular Stairway that possibly was not built by living hands?’
It is a strange and impossible marvel of architecture: ‘It is one of the Three Wonders of our house and one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It runs from the Monsters’ Den which is two levels below the booming ocean itself to the Sky Studio that is unsupported save by the winding stairway… I came home one evening and there was the beautiful Circular Stairway completed. And there was the Sky Studio new in the sky like a large head on the end of a long corkscrew neck. The whole thing would have taken a crew of five carpenters five weeks to do, except for the portions of it that would have been quite impossible to do at all.’
‘It was Saint Joseph who did it’ they are informed (he was initially recognised by his frugal Galilean pipe and tobacco). As a stranger passing through, he was asked to fix a step in exchange for a meal and so he brought out a small package: ‘It contained a small saw, a small hammer, three nails, a very small board of wood, and two little panes of glass, one of them clear and one of them clouded. I noticed the name on his small package, Joseph Jacobson, so then I knew for sure that he was Saint Joseph; for the father of Saint Joseph was named Jacob. ’
The man of the house who had commissioned this afternoon’s repair work relates: ‘in my sleep I heard a hammer with a melodious ring to it, very pleasant. But even in my sleep I wondered “He has only three nails, and how can he be doing so much melodious hammering with them?” When the man rose from his nap he was told: ‘Really I did a little bit more than fix the step. I built a new stairway.’
The man further recalled: ‘I saw the Circular Stairway then and was delighted almost out of my skin. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I went up to the floor above me and I went down to the floor below me. I did not notice then that it went very much further up and down. “I believe that you are the best carpenter who ever lived,” I said. “No,” he told me, “my son was a much better carpenter”.’
It is a quiet episode of strange beauty and wonder, of magic and miracle (based on an actual legend). Again, we have hints and echoes. The stairway reaches down to monstrous ocean depths (where reside not only sea monsters but ocean-ogres and ocean-nymphs) and up into creative skies (in the Sky Studio they shortly find the scribbling giant Atrox in the midst of writing a resurrection of one of the murdered human characters)—and it was built with only three nails. The discreet allusion to the three nails with which Christ was crucified crescendos into a little punch line about Joseph’s adopted son, Jesus, trained in his own profession, but ultimately capable of far greater wonders of miraculous construction and creativity and connectivity between ocean and sky, earth and heaven, fact and myth, modernity and faerie, psyche and cosmos.
Often There Will Emerge a Face
Between Joseph’s allusive three-nail wonder-carpentry and the recurring figure of the Laughing Christ, Lafferty subtly weaves in both the passion and the laughter of the Christ, the crucifixion sorrow and the resurrection merriment (and thereby, his constant note of carnival—see Andrew Ferguson’s dissertation 'Lafferty and His World', page 25ff.), suggesting that these twin achievements and qualities are what rebuild and renew the fallen world, what reconstruct and reunite all that is ancient and future. I just began reading Lafferty’s The Fall of Rome the other day and was surprised (but not really surprised) in this connection to run into the following in its prologue:
‘Near the end of the fourth century, the Mosaic-of-the-Great-Picture came into its own… The great mosaics were made up of thousands of small cubes or tesserae imbedded in a matrix of plaster or cement or clay. The colored cubes formed intricate pictures, one picture merging into another: these smaller pictures, when seen from a distance and in the right aspect, would form one great picture. Most persons could see it clearly: some could not see it at all… The smaller pictures were of people, animals, actions, furniture and handicrafts, towns, fields, banquets, worships, labours and pleasures, buildings, ships, plows, soldiers, children, courtesans, sheep, and asses. They combined in the great picture (which not everyone could see), the face of Christ… Sometimes the picture of the passion and death of the Empire will be the face of the crucified Christ: but often there will emerge the most fulfilled, the most shatteringly profound image ever, the laughing Christ of Creophylus.’ (pp. 3, 5)
Intricately knowledgeable as he is of such forms of art as the mosaic, I think Lafferty intends to foster the ability of our readerly sight to eventually put together his individual tesserae (the many beautiful, strange, and gem-like stories, as well as the equally crystalline—if frequently opaque—episodes, images, and so on in his novels) into larger pictures (the consistently recurring themes and threads) that merge into each other and eventually form a Face. A Laughing Face. Some see it clearly. Some cannot see it at all.
As the eminent s.f. critic John Clute so aptly observed of Lafferty: ‘his conservative Catholicism has been seen as permeating every word he writes (or has been ignored)’ (Encylopedia of Science Fiction). But if we care to really understand why Lafferty's work delights and moves us so, we ignore this permeation at our peril, for, as Clute also observed: 'his Roman Catholicism governed not only the surface of his work, but its deep structure as well' (obituary).
Renewed Mythology for a Diminishing World
Friday, September 9, 2011
-R. A. Lafferty, Past Master (1968)
Thursday, September 8, 2011
'A ghost in red chalk completed the brain-weave, a red wraith of disarming simplicity and shattering profundity: so young an anima that she still had not shook off the poltergeistic manifestations of her own adolescence; a numinous pink spook, lazy with summer lightning and instantaneous with blood-gaiety, shyly murderous, with a laugh like breaking crystal, eldritch and ethereal: Biddy Bencher the young red witch.'
-R. A. Lafferty, Fourth Mansions (1969)
Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Tuesday, September 6, 2011
‘You can set your own rules for being a genius, and then you can be one.’
-R. A. Lafferty, ‘The Day After the World Ended’ (1979)