Monday, October 27, 2014

'There were also - hold it, hold it!': R. A. Lafferty's Object-Opulent Ontology

One of the things I'll be looking at in my dissertation on Lafferty is how he evinces a wide-angle and deeply layered view of physical existence similar to that advocated by a recent philosophical movement known as 'object-oriented ontology' (OOO).  Graham Harman's writings on OOO, for example, are often replete with rhapsodic lists of non-human objects, a vivid reminder of the physical surfaces and entities that surround, uphold, and impinge on every one of us during every single second of every single day.  Lafferty's writing has a habit of frequently and lavishly enumerating such layered lists as well.  His story 'And Read the Flesh Between the Lines' (1974) contains the longest instance of this I have encountered so far.  The passage lasts for over two pages and it is one of my favourites.  It's too long to quote in totality in my dissertation, so I want to share it here. 

As the tale opens, there is a rumble in a room over Barnaby Sheen's garages, at Sheen's residence in Lafferty's native Oklahoma.  But before we get to the source of that rumble, Lafferty dishes out a historical feast of artifacts, and even the smells of previously occupying artifacts, with his characteristic erudition.  (And he slips in a line about something 'almost-ape', which will become the subject of the story.) 

The sense of deep (even though relatively recent) history Lafferty induces is poignantly nostalgic, quirky, and full of wonder.  It puts me in touch with my own boyhood moments spent overwhelmed and delighted in time-cluttered garages, rooms, attics, and the like, and of times with boyhood pals reading comic books and pursuing our hobbies.  And it reminds all of us what an endless array of overlapping objects and their 'remnants' accompany our human life.  Indeed, I suspect Lafferty would say that so-called 'inanimate' objects are a lot more animate than we think.  See, for example, his story 'Symposium' (1973).  And this would be in some measure of agreement with OOO theory.  To Lafferty, we are not alone - in this object-opulent sense as in others.  Life is full, even of 'non-living' things. 

Let’s hear a little about this room, then.

            In the time of Barnaby Sheen’s grandfather, who came out here from Pennsylvania at the first rumor of oil and who bought an anomalous “mansion,” this was not a room over the garages, but over the stable and carriage house.

            It was a hayloft, that’s what it was; an oatloft, a fodderloft.  And a little corner of it had been a harness room with brads and hammers and knives and needles as big as sailmakers’ needles, and a cobbler’s bench, and spokeshaves (for forming and trimming singletrees), and neat’s-foot oil, and all such.  The room, even in its later decades, had not lost any of its old smells.  There would always be the perfume of timothy hay, of sweet clover, of little bluestem grass and of prairie grass, of alfalfa, of Sudan grass, of sorghum cane, of hammered oats and of ground oats, of rock salt, of apples.  Yes, there was an old barrel there that would remember its apples for a hundred years.  Why had it been there?  Do not horses love apples for a treat?

            There was the smell of shorts and of bran, the smell of old field tobacco (it must have been cured up there in the jungle of rafters), the smell of seventy-five-year-old sparks (and the grindstone that had produced them was there, operable yet), the smell of buffalo robes (they used them for lap robes in wagons and buggies).  There was a forge there and other farrier’s tools (but they had been brought up from downstairs no more than sixty years ago, so their smell was not really ancient there).

            Then there were a few tokens of the automobile era, heavily built parts, cabinets, tools, old plugs, old oil smell.  There were backseats of very old cars to serve as sofas and benches, horns and spotlights and old battery cases, even very old carbide and kerosene headlights.  But these were in the minority:  there was not so much room for a room over the garages as for a room over the stables.

            There was another and later odor that was yet very evocative:  it could only be called the smell of almost-ape.

            And then there were our own remnants somewhat before this latter thing.  This had been a sort of club room for us when we were schoolboys and when we were summer boys.  There were trunks full of old funny papers.  They were from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis Globe, The Kansas City Star, the Chicago Tribune—those were the big-city papers that were hawked in our town, and our own World and Tribune.  There were a few New York and Boston and Philadelphia funny papers also.  And the funnies of the different papers were not nearly so uniform as they later became.

            There were the comparatively more recent comic books.  We had been older then, almost too old for such things.  Yet there were a few thousand of them, mostly the original property of Cris Benedetti and John Penandrew.

            There was the taxidermy of George Drakos:  stuffed owls, snakes, barn swallows, water puppies, mountain boomers, flying squirrels, even foxes and wildcats.  And there were the dissections (also by Drakos) of frogs, of cat brains, of fish, of cow eyes, and many other specimens.  The best of these (those still maintaining themselves in good state) were preserved in formaldehyde in Pluto Water bottles.  Pluto Water bottles, with their bevel-fitted glass corks and wire-clamped holders, will contain formaldehyde forever:  this is a fact too little known.  (Is Pluto Water still in proper history, or has it been relegated out?)

            There were the Lepidoptera (the butterfly and night-moth collections) of Harry O’Donovan, and my own aggregations of rocks and rock fossils.  And there were all the homemade radios, gamma-ray machines, electrical gadgets generally, coils, magnet wire, resistors, tubes, of Barnaby Sheen.
            There were also—hold it, hold it!  If everything in that room were listed, there would not be books enough in the world to contain it all (there were even quite a few books in there).  There would be no limit to the remnants, not even to the remnants of a single day.


Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Also, you should google image search 'Pluto Water' - it's fun. I'd never heard of it. Cool little piece of history Laff preserved there.

Kevin Cheek said...

It makes sense: Java is an object-oriented programming language, and with my caffeine addiction, there can be no being without a cup of java. So of course ontology is object-oriented.

Kevin Cheek said...

And what would you give for a Pluto Water bottle filled with iron tears?

Kevin Cheek said...

"And Read the Flesh Between the Lines" gives you almost a layered ontology, with more objects than fit the container. Perfect use of this story--makes me appreciate it in a whole new light. Thanks!

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

'more objects than fit the container' - so true of so much of his fiction! Glad this was useful, Kevin, thanks for the feedback.

trawlerman said...

I thought of your object-opulent thesis last night while re-reading "Mad Man."


It is a legend that humans have an affinity for mechanical things. But normal humans have an innate hatred for machinery, and the accommodation that has grown up between them is a nervous one. The damned stuff just doesn't work right. You hate it, and it hates you. That's the old basic of it.

Swift, a wise old mad man, once wrote a piece on the “Perversity of Inanimate Objects.” And they are perverse, particularly to a sick, ugly, ignorant, incompetent, poor man who fights them in a frenzy — and they fight back.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Ha! As per, Laff is complex about these things. He seems to have a great affinity for objects, including machinery and its component parts. Yet here we have a character in enmity with them. Is Laff sympathetic to this character's view about this, or does the character serve to caution against this attitude? (It's been years since I read 'Mad Man' - need to reread it.)

Relatedly, Laff casts robots/computers as both very bad (e.g. Programmed People in Past Master) and very good (e.g. Epiktistes in Arrive At Easterwine) characters.

I need to read this Swift piece. Lafferty references it (to opposite effect of the quote from 'Mad Man' you've provided) in his doggerel verse that opens his story 'Symposium' (which consists wholly of a philosophical discussion between a child's A.I. alphabet blocks). Years ago, I had read the first stanza over so many times, savouring it, that I had accidentally memorised it and would just walk around absent-mindedly declaiming it. I almost included the whole poem in my essay for Feast of Laughter, but it was already overlong. Here it is:

"Perversity," cried ancient Swift,
"Of lifeless things," and cursed a skewer.
But some of them, with lilt and lift,
Were fuller up with life than you are.

Be there a jug devoid of juice?
A stick or stone with no life in it?
A shoe that has no sense of use?
Then name such. Begin, begin it!

The wisdom of old furniture,
The panniers' passioned cerebration...
"They cannot be!" (But are you sure?)
...The Artifacts' cool speculation...

As reft of life as children's blocks,
The Things arise to balk and bait us.
Be it a chance such ricks and rocks,
Inanimate, could animate us?


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