Monday, September 19, 2011

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.

Now, it’s not too hard to see across the body of Lafferty’s work that this ‘cosmic laughter’ comes ultimately from God (as both a divine attribute as well as a divine action). It seems to me that it is Lafferty’s way of describing (and perhaps correcting to some degree) the conception of deity in classical theism as possessing both infinitude and personality (whereas many theologies outside the Judeao-Christian tradition include only one or the other in the divine). The God that suffuses (not to say haunts) Lafferty’s fiction is the transcendent Creator, and no doubt holy, but he is not the sternly passive, aloof, uninvolved deity of Deism, nor the pedantic, humourless tyrant of some religious notions. No. For Lafferty, the Most High is also the Most Humorous.

"For Lafferty, the Most High
is also the Most Humorous

Breaking the Forbidden Phrase Law
Having unapologetically mentioned the ‘G’ word, I must pause here for an apologetic note: I know it’s not always comfortable, for some, to hear forthrightly of ‘God’ like this in an attempt at literary analysis, but Lafferty’s fiction really is intricately infused with theology and thus at some point we have to grapple with it directly. Even Lafferty himself recognised that some folks were prickly about the mere mention of God. In his essay ‘More Worlds Than One?’, having just made an offhanded comment about God’s omniscience, he writes: ‘“You’d better keep that guy out of this,” say the knife-whetting Establishment Types very pointedly’. Or again, when the character Aurelia speaks publicly of the ‘Father of Lights’, he admits she has broken the ‘Forbidden Phrase Law’ and thereby aroused ‘murderous anger’ (Aurelia, p. 136).

Nevertheless, I myself read analyses of the likes of H. P. Lovecraft or Lord Dunsany all the time that bring out their implicit or explicit atheism and the total worldview that involves—because it’s utterly relevant to their art—and I’m totally fine with that as a Christian. So I’m only ‘doing unto others as I would have them do unto me’. Please hang with me! (The theology in Lafferty is by no means the only thing I write about on this blog, but it is a recurring area of interest.)

Punctuated Eucatastrophe
Through this consistent note of Cosmic Laughter Lafferty is able to constantly do two things to us in his stories: one is that he can surprise, shock, awe, and inspire us with truly unprecedented marvels of space and time and perspective and personhood and so on. And this comes across not merely in the usual way speculative fiction may achieve this, but in truly fresh and surprising moves of narrative and invention and imagination that make wild but nimble leaps and bounds into territories we would not have thought we could legitimately or effectively go, even in fantastic fiction. Hence, the constant gob-smacked awe and delight and bewilderment at Lafferty’s fiction from even the most experimental and innovative of the genres practitioners as well as from the genres most seasoned and knowledgeable critics and editors.

Indeed, the ‘sudden joyous turn’ that Tolkien famously said comes from fairytale can, interestingly, happen at any moment in a Lafferty story: beginning, middle, or end—and sometimes more than once in a story. Lafferty’s tales are replete with ‘eucatastrophe’. (This was Tolkien’s coined phrase for the Good Catastrophe or Happy Ending.) The ‘eucatastrophic’ quality in Lafferty often makes us giddy with glee, shuddering at the touch of that ‘joy from beyond the walls of the world’ that ‘passes outside the frame’, that ‘rends the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through’ (to again borrow from Tolkien). Its pervasiveness in the very storytelling itself is why it can be strongly present even in one of Lafferty’s tales that ends ambiguously or grotesquely (as they usually do).

Lafferty 'shocks us more fully awake than we are for most of our lives'
The invading joy of Lafferty’s stories is not usually reassuring, but rather is at once both mischievous and mythopoeic, disconcerting us even as it astounds us and makes us laugh. Lafferty’s stories have the potential to make us really question our current mental construct of reality and experience an honest moment of reflection in which we can ask: is the world WAY bigger and weirder than I thought?

Surely Lafferty’s writing fulfils to a unique depth and degree what C. S. Lewis said is the effect of the mythopoeic on the reader or hearer:

‘It goes beyond the expression of things we have already felt. It arouses in us sensations we have never had before, never anticipated having, as though we had broken out of our normal mode of consciousness and “possessed joys not promised to our birth.” It gets under our skin, hits us at a level deeper than our thoughts or even our passions, troubles oldest certainties till all questions are reopened, and in general shocks us more fully awake than we are for most of our lives.’

-George MacDonald: an Anthology (1947)

Thudding Hearts, Expanding Minds, Aching Sides
These qualities are what make Lafferty’s wild invention not merely ‘comic fantasy’, but true ‘sub-creation’ of a sort (to yet again borrow one of Tolkien’s coined terms)—though it also inevitably makes us laugh, mostly with heart-jumping joy. And, make no mistake, this is a deep, musky, wild joy with teeth and tusks and woolly hide!

This, of course, readily and redly bleeds into the other thing Lafferty’s stories can do to us: tickle us pink with all the comedy and jokery: low humour, high humour, wry humour, dry humour, sly humour, bad humour, dad humour, farce, carnivalesque, comedic grotesquery, clowning around, puns, punch-lines, slapstick, satire, sarcasm, irony, absurdity—at which we, by turns: giggle or guffaw; chuckle or knee-slap; snigger or roar; snort or cackle; feel-the-ghost-of-a-smile-play-at-the-corners-of-our-mouths or hold-our-sides-and-shake-with-laughter-to-the-point-of-tears; ‘heh heh’ or ‘HAW HAW’.

Unprecedented Awe and Stratified Hilarity
This combination of unprecedented awe and stratified hilarity—coming as it does out of a rich historical tradition of metaphysics and meaning, expressed in actually original reconfigurations of literary and oral forms, peppered with cameos from a wide variety of historical and ethnic characters, embodying genuine philosophical-cultural experimentations and calls to action—this truly extraordinary and intoxicating brew is (at least a meaty cross-section of) what makes Lafferty’s body of work so uncategorisably unique and effective and lasting.

You see, Lafferty really believed these two primal qualities are central and ineradicable to existence itself. And his faith in them is not a dead faith without any works which spring from it, as St James speaks of in his New Testament letter to the church. On the contrary, Lafferty’s faith is the heroic kind of faith that achieves wonders, which the letter to the Hebrews talks about. Seemingly effortless and effervescent, Lafferty spins out tall tales resplendent with unlimited colour and dimension because he believes in the infinite Creator whose Word in the beginning spoke the tallest tale of all—creation, the cosmos. He crafts yarns heaving with high humour and huge hilarity, lurching with low laughter and light-hearted lunacy, because he believes the Creator and his creation are good and that goodness has both the First and Last Laugh.

Furthermore, his stories are a mad mix of the miraculous and magical and gory and grotesque and gracious and darkly comical and crude and lyrical because he actually believes the Creator, incredibly, came into his own creation to get his hands dirty, laughingly and bloodily redeeming it (‘And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire’ is the main story I’ve seen so far that brings this Incarnational element out rather explicitly). Even in all the fun, hilarity, wonder, and marvel there can be a fair amount of gruesome bloodshed, for Lafferty is also carnivalesque in his faith, believing death must precede rebirth, destruction before resurrection, that things have to get a bit gory before there is glory, that we have to ‘dis-member’ to ‘re-member’ (as Andrew Ferguson phrases it in his dissertation ‘Lafferty and His World’, p. 42). But even here, there is so often a certain joy in the bloodiness.

See Part 2 – ‘There is nothing like the black melancholy of giants’; When We Un-Weird the Truth, We Become Dehumanised; Let Us Make Common Cause in the High Hilarity!

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