Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Quest for Acceptable World Metaphor

Article from the Wall Street Journal Special Eighth Day Overseas Edition (‘another of the very few papers in the world that actually published an Eighth Day paper’):

“It was once said that with the coming of the World of Computers, the World of Mythology would disappear completely and the World of Fact would have arrived. Was ever any notion more mistaken? The clear fact is that the World of Computers is entirely a world of Metaphor and Mythology. That is the whole purpose of it. We already had the World of Fact. Oh, the poor, dingy, hopeless, small-minded World of Fact! It didn’t deserve much, but it deserved at least to have its nakedness clothed with metaphor and mythology. The World of Computers is bearable. The old World of Fact was ceasing to be.

“Even the Quest for Reality of the talented but diminishing Group of Twelve has now changed (without their knowing it) into the Quest for Acceptable World Metaphor.”

-R. A. Lafferty, East of Laughter (1988), p. 167


Kevin Cheek said...

Given the nature of most of the alleged "facts" found on the Internet, I would say this quote is more true than Lafferty could have imagined.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Ah, now that's interesting. It sounds like you're taking his satire and sarcasm as directed at vapid, subjective make-believe taking over from solid, observable facts.

I was taking him rather oppositely: as arguing against reductionistic, modernistic approaches to 'objectivity' where supposedly the facts are just the facts without need of interpretation from out of a whole worldview (i.e. 'mythology' or 'metaphor').

I'm not taking mythology here as signifying something false per se but as an imaginative 'picture' of how to grasp the world as a whole. I think C. S. Lewis used it in something of this way, thus talking about the 'mythic resonance' resting on our Christian faith, and not being ashamed of that but rather embracing it as a good, God-given thing. Whilst fully accepting that the Incarnation was a solid historical event, he said it nevertheless was mythopoeic - it speaks to us on an imaginative, aesthetic level as well as intellectual and 'dryly factual'. Similarly, Tolkien said the Gospel was a fairy tale come *true* in the 'primary world' (real history, not never, never land).

Without the full drama and magic that can come from a good and true worldview and 'Big Story', even (or especially) in a technological age, mere facts are a 'poor, dingy, hopeless, small-minded' world. Something like that is what I'm hearing.

But maybe I've misunderstood Lafferty here?

Kevin Cheek said...

Truth be told, I was taking the quote out of context as the basis for making a smart-alec remark. However, I need to find a copy of _East of Laughter_, so I can read the context.

Hmmm. I'm insufficiently literate in many ways. The talk of Atrox Fabulinius, and Lafferty's quote in _The Fall of Rome_ calling him the "Roman Rabelais" led me finally to look up Rabelais. I did not know about his five-novel tale of the two giants Gargantua and Pantagruel. From the little I've gleaned from online synopses and reviews, It appears that _East of Laughter_ is a response to (or perhaps refutation of) Rabelais, especially his fictional Abbey of Thélème with its one commandment of "Do what thou wilt." The connection of the tales of the giants cannot be unintended--Lafferty was too literate for that. Time to reserve the library's copy of _Pantagruel_.

Oh, and back to your fist sentence, I believe Lafferty also waged war against the forces of vapidity with full gusto! However, I believe you are primarily right--the world of fact deserved to be clothed in metaphor. I'll borrow a quote from the opening chapter of Barry Hughart's beyond brilliant novel _Bridge of Birds_:

"Fable has strong shoulders that carry more truth than fact can."

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Wow, great quote. Never heard of Hughart. But, yes, I just picked up a second-hand copy of Pantagruel this summer and look forward to getting it into the reading list soon! *East of Laughter* is definitely very explicitly interacting with it on some level - but I'm not sure how in-depth and in which direction. Andrew Ferguson's dissertation has very helpful comments on Rabelais and Lafferty, starting on page 25.

Kevin Cheek said...

Hughart was a very different author from Lafferty, however I think his three books appeal to the same audience for a few reasons: They are simultaneously exuberantly joyful and exuberantly bloody--_Bridge of Birds_ has a death toll of thousands, yet the story is so light and joyful that you don't notice until you look back after reading it. It is written on a level that mixes myth and facts (events of the narrative) so thoroughly that they blend (deliberately). Above all, there is far more going on than is readily apparent at first glance. Hughart ties his narrative up in a much neater bow at the end than Lafferty typically does, but until the last chapter, you don't realize how much has been going on in the story. Also like Lafferty, it rewards re-reading. I can't recommend the book highly enough. It is my 2nd favorite book of all time, behind my absolute favorite, _Fourth Mansions_, and ahead of my 3rd favorite book, _The Dispossessed, an Ambiguous Utopia_ by LeGuin.

Hey, here's a topic for a thesis: Compare the opposite reactions to Rabelais in _East of Laughter_ and _The Dispossessed_! (just drank some very good coffee!)

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Sounds like I'll have to check it out! We're reading the Dispossessed in Eng Lit this semester ('Writing and Ideology'). So if I can just get Pantagruel in there, maybe I can attempt that comparison!

Kevin Cheek said...

Do check out the Hughart. It's a very worthwhile read, though not overtly (or subversively either) Christian.

I'd love to hear your take on The Dispossessed. In some ways I see see Le Guin's Odonianism as the exact reverse of what Lafferty was advocating, an attempt to create a utopia via a deliberately disordered, de-institutionalized society. Don't let my interpretation prejudice you, however. It is still a brilliant novel and a masterful meditation on the the role of individualism and the role of society.

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