Thursday, October 20, 2011

'It's great to be young and in danger' - Gene Wolfe introduces R. A. Lafferty

'No true reader who has read as much as a single story by Raphael Aloysius Lafferty needs to be told that he is our most original writer. In fact, he may be not just ours, but the most original in the history of literature.

'Not least in this: that while the rest of us strive (often unsuccessfully) for originality, Lafferty struggles to suppress it. To a commercial publisher, a desirable - which is to say, a highly profitable - writer is one who sees exactly what the mass of book-buyers see, and not a whit more clearly than they, but is able to enunciate his vision (if it may be called that) in a way that they cannot... These books and many other kinds by writers of the same sort, may be said in both senses to constitute the base of popular literature for adults.

'Over them are the books of writers who see the same things that others do, but see them more clearly; these are the books for which true readers search, for the most part...

'Lafferty is not like that.

'Lafferty sees what we do not see, and because we do not see it, we frequently think that it does not exist. The words every writer dreads most are "I didn't understand." And every writer of any merit at all must hear them often. It is impossible to write intelligently about anything even marginally worth writing about, without writing too obscurely for a great many readers, and particularly for those who refuse as a matter of principle to read with care and to consider what they have read...

'Think then of the wall of incomprehension a writer such as Lafferty faces, a wall as blank, as ugly, and as unyielding as concrete. Small wonder that he labors at times to shut an eye. Less wonder, even, that too often only small presses like this one will publish him when he has refused.

'For he has refused in writing "Episodes of the Argo," the novella you're about to read. It's fun, to be sure. Just about everything Lafferty writes is fun, is witty, is entertaining and playful. But it is not easy, for it is a mingling of allegory with myth, and of both with something more. Furthermore, it was intended as the final chapter of a book, More Than Melchisedech, and that book was intended as the final volume of a trilogy, of which the first two parts are The Devil Is Dead and Archipelago. "We all wake up on a battlefield," said G. K. Chesterton, talking of life, "but it often takes us a long time to realize what the fight is about or even who is fighting whom." Lafferty's books are always good practice for life, but never more so than here.

'Life is hard enough already. Why should we practice?

'That is the question (or so it seems to me) at the heart of "Episodes of the Argo." It is sketched for us in brief in the episode of the Neanderthal Eve and treated in more detail in the story of Melchisedech Duffey. And doubtless it is dealt with in greater detail still in the book called More Than Melchisedech, which I haven't read - and which no one, perhaps, will ever read. But it is encapsulated neatly in Melchisedech's song, which you will hear at the very beginning of the story: "It's great to be young and in danger."

'Lafferty, who is old as human life is mundanely measured, would be the very first to tell you that it is better - far, far better - to be twenty-three than seventy-three. But that is not what is meant in Melchisedech's song; and Lafferty himself is young in Melchisedech's sense. Nor, I should add, does Lafferty (or Melchisedech) really think it grand to fall off a glacier. Even our youthful friend Kim Stanley Robinson, who climbs such things for the comfort of it, is not eager to fall off them.

'But Lafferty is young in the unusual sense, the sense that matters far more; which is to say that he finds joy and wonder in what are called ordinary things, because he is young enough still to see that they are extraordinary things. Have you ever watched a baby discovering its feet? It is pleased and amused, delighted and astonished, all at once. Years ago I knew a man who had "earned his wings" - that is to say he had just completed the Air Force training that made him a pilot. And he was not prouder or happier with those wings (which he glanced down at when he thought I wasn't looking and admired in every mirror we passed) than a baby is with its feet when it has found them new. To be young as Lafferty is young is to realize that the baby is correct, as babies nearly always are. If my friend the pilot's wings had been a part of him (like the wings of angels), and if he had been able to fly with them with no need of a plane, they would not have been more wonderful than the baby's feet.

'Nor would they have been any less inclined to take him into danger, along the edges of cliffs and glaciers, reefs and shoals of all kinds, metaphorical as well as littoral. That, you see, is their business - the business of feet as it is the business of the fighter pilot's wings, and of the sails of every ship, very much including the Argo, whether it is Jason's or Melchisedech Duffey's. "I wish to have no Connection with any Ship that does not sail fast, for I intend to go in harm's way." So said John Paul Jones. It is not the business of ships to be wrecked; but it is not their business, either, to remain safe in harbor. No sane sailor wishes to dare the hurricane; but every sane sailor knows that his business will take him where it blows, again and again, voyage after voyage.

'We need to practice, then, because we may be hurt and hurt badly if we slip, if we fail to weather the gale or run aground. And because we will ultimately be hurt as badly if we will not climb or sail at all.

'Physical dangers, I should add, are only the most obvious of those we face. There are moral dangers as well. We will do things that we'll regret for the remainder of our lives, and it is best to do as few as possible, and to counter them with such positive good as we can contrive. We may be damned at last, by God or our consciences; and though I've met a good many people who profess to credit no God, I've never met one who believed he had no conscience - this though he could no more produce it for my inspection than I could point out the God he demanded to see.

'Most subtle and most dangerous are the storms and shoals of the intellect, of which the very first is believing that we must be Presidents or professors before the mistakes we make can harm others. Hitler was a paperhanger once, and Marx a newspaperman. No one who reads their works objectively can fail to find good in Hitler's quite genuine patriotism and Marx's real concern for the downtrodden; but their mistakes have dyed most of the twentieth century with innocent blood.

'There's a good old Irish song whose chorus goes: "So it's good-bye, Mick, an' good-bye, Pat / An' good-bye, Kate an' Mary! / The anchor's weighed 'n the gangway's up, / I'm leavin' Tipperary! / An' now the steam is risin' up, I've got no more to say. / I'm bound fer New York City, boys, three thousand miles away!" That time arrives for you and I, reader. We are about to embark in Lafferty's paper boat, both of us young and at risk, thank God!

'For we, too, have business upon the sea. If you can bear just one quotation more, let it be from that great sailor Joseph Conrad. "The ship, a fragment detached from the earth, went on lonely and swift like a small planet."'

-Gene Wolfe, Introduction for Episodes of the Argo (1990); collected in Castle of Days (1992)


Andrew said...

Lafferty generally isn't a hard sell for those who already love Gene Wolfe, but I've still turned a few heads with that quote at the top. And here's the thing: it may be true, given the qualification of "writer," as anyone more original would have been spinning tales in pre-literate societies.

Swanwick groups Lafferty in with writers like James Joyce and Amos Tutuola as ones who "invent the language of literature for themselves from the ground up"—with Joyce he obviously means Finnegans Wake, with its cascade of puns and forms suggesting a level of language still in formation, pre-verbal thought; Tutuola he connects to the forms of the still strongly-oral Yoruba folktale, touched but not bruised or broken by English literacy and media awareness.

I have written before of Lafferty's stories always being as much stories about telling that story as the events of the story itself. But it's deeper than that. Lafferty reveals that all stories are that way, and necessarily so. Story is endlessly recursive: we tell stories to maintain the possibility of telling stories, and—since our consciousnesses are essentially predicated on our capacity for narrative—the possibility of remaining conscious. Moreover: he undertakes through his stories to show how such consciousness could be constructed, or at least reconstructed; he more or less rebuilds our capacity for narrative from the ground up. (And yes, I do think that underlies his constant metaphorical use of Flatland and mountains.)

People speak of writers' writers, and they usually mean ones like Wolfe or Swanwick, etc. Ray was a writers' writers' writer, because those who work intensely with narrative and its possibilities recognize not only how difficult it was to grapple with the concepts he did, but even to recognize those concepts in the first place.

Kevin Cheek said...

You push me to a point of superlative uncertainty--"most original in the history of literature." I find it hard to make such a bold statement, but I sure can't find an example who is more original, or even close to being as original. In SF, the most original voices I've read are Stanislaw Lem and Cordwainer Smith. Like Tutuola, Smith's writing is deeply influenced by the storytelling traditions he grew up with in China, which seem strange and rich to our English inflected ears. Lem's sense of idea and play are magnificent and certainly original, but written with a deep grounding in Eastern European literature and oddly enough, academic scientific writing. Harlan Ellison's originality was strictly a reaction against whatever norms were present at the time he was writing.

When you mention the recursive nature of storytelling and how "our consciousnesses are essentially predicated on our capacity for narrative," I am reminded of something I touched on the other day. Lafferty's stories are often written with raw archetypes standing in for characters. In addition, he has the unique ability to show us an old, familiar archetype, that upon reflection is actually completely new. He has an ability to slip these in so they resonate directly with the reader's subconscious (or whatever part of the mind is responsible for such things) and push all the familiar buttons, thus introducing new archetypes as old established ones. I suspect this ability is related to his use of oral storytelling techniques in his narrative, however, I'm not sure how it works. The article on "Effective Arcanum" touches on this as well.

Thinking of Michael Swanwick, his essay on Lafferty (which you were referring to), "Despair and the Duck Lady" reminds me just how thankful we should be to Teddy Horan for republishing some of Lafferty's works! Thank you, Teddy! By hook or by crook, I will buy these books once you publish them, and I encourage everyone else (I mean EVERYONE, all 7 billion of us) to do the same!

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

@Andrew: Lafferty as a writer's writer's writer - yes! Deep stuff on the narrative/consciousness equation. That seems to be a profound passion driving Laff's art.

@Kevin: Lafferty introduces *new* archetypes? Wow. I love your hilarious qualification on 'EVERYONE', rendering it, actually, *unqualified*.

The nature, extent, and possible singularity of Lafferty's originality or genius would be a great subject for deep treatment. I am finding that the greater familiarity one has with his work and with literature in general, it actually looks more and more plausible that there's nearly no one *as* or *more so* than him.

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