Monday, September 19, 2011

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

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