Riddle-Writers of the Isthmus
R. A. Lafferty
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.’