Friday, April 19, 2013

'Ah, I will go sly! I will devise a sign so I will know me if I meet me again'

'He surely came to his happiness in grumpy fashion.

The week was gone by.  The last evening for him was come.  The Dookh-Doctor ritually set his clinic on fire, and a few minutes later his house.

He burned, he scattered, he recited the special last-time recital.  He ate holy innuin and holy ull.  He took one glob of most bitter ash on his tongue:  and he lay down to sleep his last night under the speir-sky.

He wasn't afraid to die.

"I will cross that bridge gladly, but I want there to be another side to that bridge."  He talked to himself.  "And if there is no other side of it, I want it to be me who knows that there is not.  They say 'Pray that you be happily lost forever.  Pray for blessed obliteration.'  I will not pray that I be happily lost forever.  I would rather burn in a hell forever than suffer happy obliteration!  I'll burn if it be me that burns.  I want me to be me.  I will refuse forever to surrender myself."

It was a restless night for him.  Well, perhaps he could die the easier if he were wearied and sleepless at dawn.

"Other men don't make such a fuss about it," he told himself (the self he refused to give up).  "Other men are truly happy in obliteration.  Why am I suddenly different?  Other men desire to be lost, lost, lost.  How have I lost the faith of my childhood and my manhood?  What is unique about me?"

There was no answer to that.

"Whatever is unique about me, I refuse to give it up.  I will howl and moan against that extinction for billions of centuries.  Ah, I will go sly!  I will devise a sign so I will know me if I meet me again."'

-R. A. Lafferty, 'Old Foot Forgot', first published in Orbit 7 (1970); also collected in Ringing Changes (1984) and Lafferty in Orbit (1999)


Kevin said...

A truly great story, and one of his most deeply philosophical. It is also one that my kids seemed to understand instinctively when I read it to them. There is a poetry to Lafferty's prose, and it really comes out in this story when read aloud.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Yeah, I read this one out loud to my kids as well and they really connected to it and we had a really engrossing philosophical conversation together as a result.

Kevin said...

One thing that amazes me is how many world elements he has to introduce for this story to work. He has to introduce the entire philosophy of happy oblivion and the way of life that celebrates that. The Spharikoi and their unique phisiology, the concept of a Dookh Doctor, etc. He manages all this in a few pages, so the reader can get quickly on to the main philosophical questions in the story. It's really a tour-de-force of SF writing.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

I think it's partly the sheer poetry of his succinct recital of the cultural rituals that makes it so immediately 'well built' for me.

Kevin said...

One way to view this story is as a master class in compressed worldbuilding.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Yes, good point. I'm starting to think there may be more of this sort of 'instantaneous world-building' going on in Lafferty's short 'planet stories' than is usually consciously perceived. I've long wanted to assemble all the planet names and list their characteristics - I bet such an exercise would show them to be narratologically 'thicker' than we realised.

Kevin said...

I wonder if you would find gaps, that are filled in by the reader based on Lafferty's hints that direct the reader which associations and images to pull from their own subconscious. Just by referring to the one character consistently by name and title, Lay Sister Moira P.T. de C., he implies a level of church bureaucracy that requires a build-it-yourself approach from the reader. We each have run into people with too many letters behind their names who have a certain hide-bound inflexibility about them. He doesn't have to describe it any further, he calls it up from (almost) universal experience by the way he mentions her name.

I think that when a lot of reviewers and academics say that Lafferty uses the language and techniques of folk-tales, they are referring to his method of using this kind of short-cut for his world building. He throws out a few names and descriptions, mentioned with just the right amount of rigidity and reverence, and we, the readers, supply the rest out of our experiences and associations.

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