Friday, September 30, 2011

I Wish I Could Pray and Wrestle as Wooly and Horny as the Big Ones Do

"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

Daily Lafferty # 9

"You are a double-decked, seven-stranded, copper-bottomed, four-dimension liar!" Runkis roared out that day.
"Yes, I know," Lado said. He was pleased when praised for his specialty. He was the best liar in the neighborhood, and had the most fun out of it.

-R. A. Lafferty, 'The Man Who Never Was' (1967)

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Land of the Great Horses re-issue set for 2012

Well, looks like Lafferty's short story 'Land of the Great Horses' will at least get a fresh re-issue on the 'SF MASTERWORKS' series. Apparently Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions is set to become part of that series in 2012.

Now if they'd just go the rest of the way and release Lafferty's own short story collection Nine Hundred Grandmothers (and/or Past Master? Space Chantey? a whole new configuration of short stories?), then they'd finally have done their 'Masterworks' series some justice! (Seems like they've put out just about every other author out there! How can they leave out someone so critically acclaimed by his fellow s.f. writers?)

And while they're at it, they can put out Lafferty's novel Fourth Mansions on the Fantasy Masterworks series!

Daily Lafferty # 8

'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

The Boy and the Box

As to Aloysius, I am reminded of the account of the boy and the box. This wasn't a very big box or a very pretty one. It was battered and shaggy, with those banjo eyes with the lavender circles around them, with the clay feet clear up to the eyebrows, pepper-colored, and looking older than it was. I am talking about a box? Sure, a box.

The boy opened the box and he noticed at once, though he didn't take in the full implications of it, that the box was much larger inside than outside. He began to unload things out of it, treasures, misunderstood and complicated treasures, old gold with deep incrustations of sea scum, rough maps with the lettering in Chaldee, live birds of the psittacine sort, Arabian gumtrees, clavicles of saints, kidskin scrolls, astrolabes, gnomon dials that will read correctly only at the location of Cos-Megara, the third city of Atlantis, the stones named Shamba that are found only in variant readings of the Apocalypse--all the things that are commonly found in old boxes, but in unusual profusion here.

Then the boy noticed that, however many things he unloaded out of that box, the box still stood full. The box is Aloysius Shiplap, and I am that boy.

-R. A. Lafferty, Arrive at Easterwine: The Autobiography of a Ktistec Machine (1971)

Monday, September 19, 2011

Judy Thatcher's Epistle to the Church of Omaha in Dispersal

To you who are scattered and broken, gather again and mend. Rebuild always, and again I say rebuild. Renew the face of the earth. It is a loved face, but now it is covered with the webs of tired spiders.

We are in a post-catastrophe world, and yet the catastrophes did not happen. There are worse things than catastrophes. There is the surrender of the will before even the catastrophes come. There are worse things than war. There are worse things even than unjust war: unjust peace or crooked peace is worse. To leave life by withdrawal is worse than to leave life by murder. To be bored of the world is worse than to shed all the blood in the world. There are worse things than final Armageddon. Being too tired and wobble-eyed for final combat is worse. There are things worse than lust—the sick surrogates of lust are worse. There are things worse than revolution—the half-revolution, the mere turning away, is worse.

Know that religion is a repetitious act or it is nothing. The “re” is the holy prefix, since nothing is successful the first time. It must be forever the “re,” the returning, the restructuring, the re-lexion, the reconstitution, the building back from defeat. We will rebuild in the dark and in the light; we will work without ceasing.

Even our mysterious Maker was the Re-deemer, the re-doomer who wrangles for us a second and better doom, the ransomer, the re-buyer, the re-d-emptor. We are sold and we are ransomed, we are lost and we are found. We are dead and we are re-surrected, which is to say “surged up again.”

You ask me about the Parousia, the second coming. This has been asked from the beginning. There was urgent expectation of it in the beginning. Then, in the lifetimes of those first ones, there came a curious satisfaction, as though the coming had been experienced anew, as though it were a constant and almost continuing thing. Perhaps there has been a second coming, and a third, and a three hundredth. Perhaps, as the legend has it, it comes every sabbatical, every seventh year. I do not know. I was not of the chosen at the time of the last sabbatical. We are in the days of a new one, but I know now I will not be alive for the day of it.

Be steadfast. Rebuild, restructure, reinstitute, renew.

X-Dmo. Judy Thatcher (one of the Twelve).

-R. A. Lafferty, 'And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire' (1972)

Of Cosmic Laughter and the Black Melancholy of Giants – Part 2 of 2

'There is nothing like the black melancholy of giants'

Now, I feel honesty compels me to add a downbeat note here in my paean to Lafferty’s qualities of wonder and joy (see part 1). I left off on the theme of carnival death-and-resurrection that adds a redemptively grotesque element to the ‘cosmic laughter’ that pervades Lafferty’s fiction. And it is here, in the mud and blood of the Incarnation, when the Son of God, as Milton put it:

Forsook the courts of everlasting day
And chose with us a darksome house of mortal clay

that we can feel some of Lafferty’s pain and travail as it were.

He too could say, at times, with Johnny Cash (covering a Will Oldham song): ‘and then I see a darkness’. Lafferty was perhaps sometimes overly frustrated or depressed with his world that he loved and in which he saw so much potential for real transcendence and fullness of life. It comes through in moments of some of the stories. Sure, anger is nearly always there somewhere in Lafferty’s fiction, but it is usually a ‘righteous’ sort of happy anger that we find admirable when directed from hope and compassion toward destructive forces—he is usually ‘cranky’ in an overall charitable way. But occasionally it can perhaps appear just a little ugly, a little more motivated by real contempt or loss of hope (an outlook that can come from feeling marginalised or censured among other things). Lafferty himself said: ‘The cynic is the realist who has given up hope’ (The Fall of Rome, p. 54). And who is exempt from being seized at times by such rage and despair?

A passage in East of Laughter that I found poignant comes into play here:

“The giants, like the fauns, live one thousand years, and they live much more in sorrow than in joy. The world has never understood the deep melancholy of the giants. Their melancholy makes them creative, in a rumpled way, but is it worth it to them? If they cry out at the idea of being extinguished at the end of one thousand years, they are given a second thousand years. But for their second thousand years, the balance is tilted still more to sorrow and less to joy, and their melancholy deepens. There is nothing like the black melancholy of giants in their second or even third millennium. And yet they work hard and try to write the world cheerfully. Perhaps somewhere, some day, they will have their compensation. But nobody would want to be a giant, from free choice.” (p. 137)

As Gene Wolfe points out in his essay ‘Scribbling Giant’, Lafferty himself just is one of these ‘literary giants’. For me, his bouts of near-pessimism or ‘black melancholy’ only make his otherwise ebullient writing all the more truly human, a sermon I can truly hear and relate to. I am genuinely moved by Lafferty’s persevering commitment to ‘work hard and try to write the world cheerfully’ no matter how he felt.

When We Un-Weird the Truth, We Become Dehumanised

There is one more thing to say about the very dark themes that are interwoven with the cosmic laughter throughout Lafferty’s body of fiction. Let me sneak up on it this way:

I recall that he said somewhere that he was, in his work, saying the complex and difficult things he had to say as clearly as they can be said. When I first heard that statement, I literally burst into a sharp laugh and thought: ‘You wily coyote.’ (For the full effect, pronounce that last word ‘kigh-yoat’ with the accent and a leisurely drawl on the first syllable and a crisply enunciated ‘t’, with just a hint of reverb to it, in the second syllable.) I thought he was being facetious. After reading Andrew Ferguson’s MA Dissertation on Lafferty, I now know better. Of all the weird consciousness-expanding moments one has in reading Lafferty, to come to realise that he was articulating a difficult philosophy as clearly as can be done through his wild and woolly stories—well, that is maybe the weirdest. Truth is weird.

And that’s one of Lafferty’s main points, I guess. His complaint is that we’ve tried to ‘un-weird’ truth and in the process have flattened not only truth itself, but the whole world, the entire cosmos, into a space too thin and shallow and paltry for the bristly, shaggy, thorny, horny, multi-dimensional human being to successfully occupy. The human soul knows this (post)modernly-conceived world is not its real home.

Going deeper, Lafferty is also moving us to understand that the whole Fallen world (however conceived in whatever age) is not our final destination. Humans are meant to ‘transcend’ (that’s Lafferty’s word) the merely human (the human as we currently know it). Lafferty contends that without that impetus upward, we descend and deform and degenerate. We are literally degraded from our natural category of human into unnatural categories of subhuman (e.g. ‘Ginny Wrapped In the Sun’, ‘And Name My Name’) or (worse) un-human (e.g. ‘Dream’, ‘And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire’): we become dehumanised.

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.

At the end of the day I do not believe Lafferty actually succumbed to cynicism or despair. The whole of the textual evidence leads me to conclude that the final words of his 1968 novel Past Master were his steady stance to the end and the one he would commend to all of us:

Be quiet. We hope.

Let Us Make Common Cause in the High Hilarity!

Now, the way to look at all this from the perspective of practicing artists is that we may thus see in Lafferty, if we have eyes to see it, a fresh and fruitful WAY FORWARD for culture-making. If I may speak for a moment specifically to my fellow artists who are members of the Christian church: recovering this theistic sense of awe and theistic sense of humour ('cosmic laughter') in our culture-making would go a LONG way toward renewing our presently fraught relationship with culture at large. (Certainly this is true for an ‘evangelical’ perspective such as mine – may other Christian traditions likewise look and learn).

But believer or non-believer, take note: when I call Christians who are artist’s to imitate Lafferty’s robust craft and worldview, this is for the good of the whole world, if for no other reason because Christians are going to continue to make art, good or bad. If it has to be from a Christian perspective, don’t we all want some more steep stuff along the lines of Lafferty’s artistic integrity? (It’s a rhetorical question.) I know I appreciate a good Buddhist sermon from Ursula Le Guin or a good atheist sermon from Dan Simmons, because they are skilled and gifted practitioners who give me the gift of story, who respect me enough to weave their worldview deeply into their work and creatively invite me into it with them. As Lafferty does.

Notice this also: Lafferty does often write implicitly or explicitly Christian characters who are ‘of the faith’, who will be part of renewing the world, fighting its demise. But he usually teams them up with doubters and unbelievers (think of believing Paul and doubting Thomas in Past Master; or the secular-liberal members of the Institute of Impure Science and their non-secular-liberal associates who are denied membership because they do not meet the 'minimal decency rule' in Arrive At Easterwine). This is a way forward for us all as well. We can continue to have our hot debate about Origins and Ends and the Meaning-in-the-Middle, but we can love, respect, play, joke, and creatively work together with each other all the while.

This cooperative creativity and world-construction is the only kind of response appropriate to Lafferty by anyone who has read him with any amount of depth or sensitivity. His stories move, thrill, and tickle us, yes, but merely being passively ‘entertained’ or ‘amused’ is just not a live option that these tales present to us.

Lafferty outright challenges us in East of Laughter: who are the next Literary Giants that will write the future of our world? He refuses to let us settle for interloping intellectual wraiths who, pipe-smoking and pipe-dreaming, bat-winged and bat-brained, flap about trying to write the stars right out of the night sky. No, Lafferty’s calling on nothing less than those who will, with intrepid trepidation, prayerfully presume to wield an unwieldy, gigantic, hoary, gory goose-quill pen in an attempt at an appalling and appealing scrawl across the parched parchment that is the tired face of the modern world. Lafferty is calling for nothing less than the New Writers who will, by the aid of grace, attempt, with violent vigour and charity and clarity and humour and humility, to create worlds and characters and scenarios of real power and profundity for the renewal of a full-bodied, full-blooded humanity, so that we might have a fulsome and fine and ferocious and fecund, not a faint and fey and faded and fetid, future.

Who will answer the call?

“Who are you, Atrox, and what do you do?” Leo Parisi asked.

“I am the voice of one writing in the wilderness, Make ready the future world of the
Lord, make straight its paths.

-East of Laughter, p. 86

Of Cosmic Laughter and the Black Melancholy of Giants – Part 1 of 2

Limning the Cosmic Laughter
This post follows on from Part 1 and Part 2 of my thoughts on Lafferty’s novel East of Laughter. However, you need have read neither those posts nor East of Laughter to follow this present meditation.

In that novel Lafferty avers that ‘East of Laughter’ is a way to translate ‘East of Eden’. He further described the post-Edenic, Fallen state of humans as being ‘marooned East of Reality’ (p. 26). Hence, for Lafferty, Reality = Eden = Laughter.

Andrew Ferguson has aptly encapsulated Lafferty’s metaphysics and theology as that of ‘cosmic laughter’ (see his post for this blog on the short story ‘Nine Hundred Grandmothers’ as well as his MA dissertation ‘Lafferty and His World’, especially pages 32-33). I would like to here lay out some of what I think are implications of that punchy phrase.

For Lafferty, the animus behind the world is ‘cosmic’ in that it is universal, creative, world-building, constructive, ordering, dimensional, spacious, awesome, grand, majestic, mysterious, and glorious—these are the qualities that roar through every story he writes, be they flourishing or embattled or counterfeited or… flickering uncertainly in the balance of humanity’s choices (as is the case in East of Laughter). But such qualities alone might well be cold and remote and austere and indifferent in their august magnificence. So simply to acknowledge that the world’s cause or source is cosmic, though it says a lot (it denies, after all, that the world springs ultimately from chaos), it does not say enough for Lafferty.

"For Lafferty, to create at all
was to laugh cosmically.
There was no other way."

Hence, in addition to cosmic, he also describes the animus or impetus of the world as ‘laughter’, by which he signifies that it is good, renewing, life-giving, humorous, mirthful, ornery, fun, cheeky, cheerful, mischievous, abandoned, rapturous, uproarious, joyous, rollicking, peaceful, hopeful, loving, weird, wild, winsome, surprising, humbling, consoling, and liberating—and these are equally qualities that belch and bellow through every story the man wrote. Even the very darkest and bleakest stories can’t escape the inherent joy of the very way this author formed sentences on the page. For Lafferty, to create at all was to laugh cosmically. There was no other way.

Lafferty and Eucatastrophe

'Fairy tale' is a category I've rarely if ever heard used when discussing Lafferty - tall tales and myths, yes. But not fairy tales. I, however, have been struck with a certain fairy tale quality (mixed with all theother resonances) from my earliest reading of Lafferty's stories. At any rate, I will from time to time reference the following excerpt from Tolkien's seminal essay on the fairy tale and so am posting it here. (The last sentence of the second paragraph is perhaps the most significant in direct relation to what Lafferty is doing.)

But the “consolation” of fairy-tales has another aspect than the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires. Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending. Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it. At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairystory. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite—I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality…

In such stories when the sudden “turn” comes we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart's desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through.

–J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘On Fairy Stories’ (1947) – see especially the section toward the end of the paper entitled ‘Recover, Escape, Consolation’

Creative fantasy, because it is trying to… make something new… may open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like cage-birds. The gems all turn into flowers or flames, and you will be warned that all you had (or knew) was dangerous and potent, not really effectively chained, free and wild; no more yours than they were you.


Friday, September 16, 2011

Daily Lafferty - # 6

'Oh, the faces, the faces! It's the billions of faces... staring up at me from the implicit clay, through the pavements, through the structures, through the sidewalks. Wherever I step I'm stepping on those waiting faces.'

-R. A. Lafferty, 'Smoe and the Implicit Clay'

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Riddle-Writers of the Isthmus

Riddle-Writers of the Isthmus
R. A. Lafferty

The title comes from a verse work, An Essay on Man, by Alexander Pope:

“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’.

All of them write scraps of the History of the World in riddle form. All of them spin theories of what mankind really is, what the true appearance of mankind may be, what its purpose and plight add up to, who its nearest kindred are. And all of the riddle-writers essentially agree on at least the first of the several parts of The Only True History of the World and of the Lords of the World. All of them agree (though some of them try to deny it in their less intelligent moments) that there was a Fall from a higher and more pleasant place to a lower and less pleasant.

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’!”

“Yes, ‘Religion’ is one of the taboo words that modern science fictioneers may not think nor say, unless they use it to mean something else. The selective speculation which they are allowed will not stretch far enough to allow religion itself, not far enough to see that we have passed the Isthmus and have only to take off our handcuffs and blindfolds to be free. In this, the narrowness, Science Fiction stands where much science stood a hundred years ago and where almost all pseudo-science still stands today.

But the theme of the Fall in the deep past is implicit in most of the central works of science fiction and in virtually all of the fringe works. It is the breath of life of High Fantasy. It is the ‘memory of Magic’ behind all sword-and-sorcery. The idea of a humanity both taller and deeper and more inclusive than now, of the time when animals were somehow contained in mankind, is echoed in the Tarzan stories, in the Planet-of-the-Apes pieces, in the Island-of-Doctor-Moreau pastiches. The idea of humanity still containing a spirit world, a supernatural world as well as a preternatural world, a ghostly as well as a poltergeistly world, is the theme of all the Tales-of-the-Uncanny-and-Supernatural, or all Tales-of-the-Mysterious-and-Macabre, of all Great-Tales-of-Terror-and-the-Unearthly, of all Weird Tales, of all Great-Ghost-Stories-of-the-Gas-Light-Era.

The fascination of the tales about space travel echoes the times when we really could travel through deep space effortlessly, instantly, and without vehicles.

The fascination of designing new fantasy worlds echoes the time when our own world was new for an immeasurable period of time, when it had a million different aspects and could present a different one every minute.

The fascination of new inventions echoes the time when to think was to invent, when to conceive was to construct with no interval at all in between, the time when man was given dominion over all the world.

The fascination with ecological fantasies echoes the time when the lion really did lie down with the lamb and eat straw like an ox, when it had not yet rained in the world but “…a mist rose from the earth and watered all the surface of the ground…”

Once we were a more intricate species than we are now.

Once time stood still when we ordered it to do so.

Once we had the Midas Touch, the transmuting touch.

Once we could walk through walls, or walk on water.

Once we could move mountains.

All these things remain as normal but occluded powers of mankind, as true attributes of mankind. But humankind came to an abnormal situation and place, to the narrow isthmus of the middle state where the full normal powers are inhibited.

Who are we really, we who could normally do all those things? Who we are is part of the answer to the riddle.

How did we get onto the isthmus? We fell onto it.

How do we get off of this isthmus? We solve the riddles, or we accept the solutions that stand ready and waiting. Then we discover that we are already off the isthmus.

The implausibility of almost every Science Fiction or Fantasy story lies in the answer to the riddle being readily available, and not being grasped.

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.

But even that need not be fatal. Remember that once we could turn into anything at all, and then turn back again. We have already left the uninspiring isthmus or we could not be looking back at it.

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.”

Once we could move mountains. Haven’t you heard the Good News? We can still move them.

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:

“What is your own name?”

If he can answer that last question, then he can win all the prizes there are. Why does he hesitate when it is so easy?

[March 21, 1980]

-R. A. Lafferty, It’s Down the Slippery Cellar Stairs: R. A. Lafferty Non-fiction (1984), Drumm booklet No. 14, pp. 18-21

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

Wings Not of Fire, But Weak and Feeble

'John said that a hermit saw in a rapture three monks standing on the edge of the sea and a voice came to them from the other side saying, "Take wings of fire and come to me." The first two did so and reached the other shore, but the third stayed where he was crying and weeping. Later on wings were given to him also, not of fire but weak and feeble so that he reached the other shore with great difficulty, sometimes in the water, sometimes over it. So it is with the present generation: the wings they are given are not of fire, they are weak and feeble.'

-The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (Penguin Books, 2003)

I don't know if Lafferty knew much about the Desert Fathers (at least one story features a group like them - 'And Mad Undancing Bears'), but I think this little vision resonates strongly with what Lafferty was saying and some of how he was saying it. I wonder if a reading of Lafferty would be hugely enriched by reading these and other early church sources. Certainly Teresa of Avila's The Interior Castle had a huge effect on his novel Fourth Mansions. Perhaps Catholic visionary literature is a significant source influencing Lafferty's whole vibe of life-is-bigger-than-you-think-and-here-let-me-show-you. It would make sense as yet another historic root that makes his writing so vastly weird and wonderful and devilishly irascible in a post-Enlightenment world.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

There Was a Boy Who Built a Toy

'There was a boy who built a toy. It was a clever boy, and a clever toy that he built... "Go steal apples," the boy told the toy, and the toy did so. He brought back an armload in no time at all. "Go out to my best friend in the road there and knock him down," the boy-child said, and the toy did so. He knocked down the best friend, and in return he got himself bloodied up and battered. The child was delighted with what had happened to his best friend and to his toy. "Work out my language assignments for tomorrow," the child said, and the toy worked out all the constructions and translations of the Camiroi and Puca and Neo-Spanish assignments. "Drink," the child said, and the toy went and drank from the brook that ran beside the home-house. "Eat," the child said, and the toy ate the child up, every limb and light and bone and morsel of him.'

-R. A. Lafferty, Past Master (1968)

Monday, September 12, 2011

Daily Lafferty - # 5

'Not entirely unpleasant, not so to a man with a strong and traveled nose, not really repugnant; but stark, tall, penetrating, slavering, rampant, murderous, challenging, of a grave-like putridity, of a life-terminal gagging, was the odor, the strong stench that began to pervade the climb on Giri Mountain.  There was a person here making himself known.  It was Riksino, the cave-bear, the musk-bear, the lord of this middle-mountain.  He was at home and he had his flag out.'

-R. A. Lafferty, 'Frog On the Mountain' (1970)

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Speaking of Aurelia...

Gregorio and I got a little sidetracked on the 'Nine Hundred Grandmothers' thread into talking about Lafferty's neglected (I'm tempted to say 'little masterpiece') novel, Aurelia (1982). I was saying that where so many of Lafferty's novels feel like an Apocalypse, this one felt more like an Advent. Gregorio took it one step further and wondered whether it was Lafferty's attempt at the genre of 'Gospel'.

I found the book, whilst very funny at times and full of weird and sometimes grotesque wonder, also to be rather poignant and a little sad (in a 'touching' way, though not with any sentimental sense that word might imply). It almost felt like Lafferty's last will and testament or something.
Anyway, with all that rolling round my head and heart I came across the beautifully kitschy illustration by my wife below (posted today on her blog Flannery O'Kafka) and felt it resonating strongly and strangely with this novel about a young girl from another world set down on Earth in a mountainous village - who eventually receives violent rejection.

Amusingly, in this illustration there is also a cameo by Snuffles the alien ursine from Lafferty's short story of that name (or is that King Riksino, 'the cave-bear, the musk-bear', from his short story 'Frog On the Mountain'?) as well as by St Joseph who makes an appearance in Lafferty's novel East of Laughter! (My wife has read none of these, so any real resonances are unintentional on her part.)

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Thoughts on Lafferty's East of Laughter, Part 2 of 2

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.

Saint Joseph's Great Circular Stairway Built With Only Three Nails

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).

Thoughts on Lafferty's East of Laughter, Part 1 of 2

‘All of you are marooned East of Reality, and you are questing to find your way back to Reality … I myself love to play Quests.’
-R. A. Lafferty, East of Laughter (1987), p. 63

Renewed Mythology for a Diminishing World

R. A. Lafferty’s speculative fiction novel East of Laughter is a ‘Quest for Reality’ by a special group concerned about the un-detailed nature of the modern world, right down its empty-seeming atoms. It is a quest for a new narrative or new metaphor that can give real life and meaning back to the modern world, a world that has lost its mythology and is therefore barely rasping out its existence on a thin gruel of mere ‘facts’. The novel portrays this as an urgent quest because the world is in danger of total unreality—that is, in danger of ending, and, more importantly and most of all, of not beginning again.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Daily Lafferty - # 4

“I was never an advocate of wealth and fineness. I believe fully in holy poverty. But I say that poverty is like drink: a little of it is stimulating and creative; too much of it is depraved and horrifying.”

-R. A. Lafferty, Past Master (1968)

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Daily Lafferty - # 3

'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

Daily Lafferty - # 2

'Strong passions are more easily governed than are weak passions, just as a three-foot-long steel sword can be more deftly and swordfully manipulated than can be a three-foot-long piece of spaghetti.'

-R. A. Lafferty, Aurelia (1982)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Daily Lafferty - # 1

‘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)

Monday, September 5, 2011

Thoughts on Lafferty's 'Nine Hundred Grandmothers' - by Andrew Ferguson (First ever Guest blog post!)

“Nine Hundred Grandmothers” is a tale about origins, about How It All Began, and as such serves well both as introduction to the anthology of the same name, and to our investigation of Lafferty’s short fiction.

The story is about as straightforwardly science fiction as Ray ever gets. It doesn’t blur genre boundaries. It makes no formal innovations. It doesn’t even have an apocalypse, rather something more like an epiphany in one of Joyce’s Dubliners tales.

And yet it was one of his more daring stories. In “Nine Hundred Grandmothers” Lafferty takes on the colonial SF tale, a subgenre wildly popular in the previous generation, and still with advocates among the editors of the early ’60s. This type of story, the descendant of Victorian adventure fiction, usually takes place on a commercially promising territory; here, Proavitus is “a sphere tinkling with the profit that could be shaken from it.”
'It was all strong talk with the horns and hooves still on it.'
(R. A. Lafferty, The Devil is Dead)