Saturday, June 6, 2015

Short Story Review # 3: Through Other Eyes (1960)


I'm starting to see that Lafferty may have had two mega-themes throughout his work, from early to late:  Creating and Seeing.  Lafferty's critical-theory interpreter and biographer, Andrew Ferguson, is doing yeoman's work on the Creating front, performing ongoing in-depth analysis of Lafferty's creative world-building and how his works metafictionally invite readers to participate in that world-building, especially given our world's present conceptual non-status.  I guess my essays in the first two issues of Feast of Laughter have been taking first stabs at the Seeing theme, especially as regards Lafferty's ability to widen and deepen our gaze to take in the non-human environment, and maybe that's going to be the bulk of the contribution I make to Lafferty studies.  I guess there are probably other major, central themes in Lafferty's body of work, but these seem to be two of them.  (Any ideas on others? If I kept on the present-tense verb terminology, I might call his emphasis on 'ghostliness', i.e. spirituality, his mega-theme of Being, which, of course, is ontological and undergirds his themes of Seeing and Creating.)

I've also begun to notice that Lafferty signals most of his major themes right from the earliest part of his career, sometimes with stories that are as accomplished and profound and groundbreaking as any he would write in his mid and late career.  We are put on notice that Creating will be a mega-theme from the outset by his chilling but somehow also invigorating story 'Snuffles' (1960).  So also, in the same year, he sets out for us his mega-theme of Seeing in the story 'Through Other Eyes'.

I think in the past this story has not been one of my top personal favourites because I got a little put off by the introduction, or first panel, of the tale.  I typically don't love it when stories or novels start off with dialogue - I'm a sot for description and that's how I prefer any piece of fiction get going. Immerse me in either action, or, even better, setting, and I'm a very willing reader.  Start me in the middle of a conversation, with little or no imagery, and I'm just enduring it to get through to whenever the description of this world I've entered will finally begin.  I'm sure some readers are opposite, or appreciate both.  (And, of course, I know dialogue does tons of the work of building the setting and telling the story.)  Having said all that, the first line of this story is a cracker:  '"I don't think I can stand the dawn of another Great Day," said Smirnov.'

But the characters' subsequent discussion of time travel experiments feels like a very clunky way to get started. (I think discursively top-heavy intros are often the case with the Institute of Impure Sciences cycle of stories, of which this is the earliest.)  It is very, very erudite and witty - if you are familiar enough with the references.  First of all, I'm not a general history buff, so I'm just not that interested, even if I know the references, but secondly, I had to look several of them up, some of which research yielded a smile or chuckle at Lafferty's handling of the historical material (especially Nell Guinn).  The take on Tristram and Isolde (a reference I did readily recognise) was amusing, and the portrait of Lancelot was the best of the lot to my mind: that he 'spent more time on the rubbing table than any athlete I ever heard of', like a 'high-priced quarterback who was never ready to play'.  (Incidentally, Gene Wolfe compares medieval knights to American football players in his novel The Knight.)  And the reference to Aristotle's treatises on the Beard in Essential and Beard in Existential (pretend treatises, as far as I can tell, though A. did apparently write something or other about beards in some work or other) was funny, a joke whose relevance has come round again with our present bewhiskered hipster-mania.  As I say, as clever and amusing as all this is, it is a slow start to the tale for me and a seemingly irrelevant one to boot given that it is not a setup to a yarn about time travel! Yet I did 'get it' this time round.  This opening gambit supplies an instance of how our successes at peering into unknowns can sometimes shrink rather than expand our world.  The past didn't look as glorious as our handed down accounts when you could actually be there and witness it. And that's the setup:  a foreshadowing of the results of the real experiment at hand in this story (which will be complexly fulfilled, as the subsequent experience will end up being too successful and overly expanding).

Now, I will say that catching this structural element this time round made something else click for me about Lafferty's works.  I'm noticing more and more that his structures can be very, very odd, often in this kind of asymmetric triptych, or otherwise 'panelled' sort of way, where the movements or sections are each quite different from one another in mode or some other aspect of presentation or performance or content.  In some ways it's almost like the stories change styles as they change scenes or sections.  I'm not going to try to analyse it right now, but 'Land of the Great Horses' and 'Thieving Bear Planet' are an early and late story that strike me as instances of this structural phenomenon (the former without the numbered parts and the latter a numbered asymmetric diptych).  A lot of Lafferty's structures are actually beginning to put me in mind of the ornate stories of Jorge Luis Borges.  More consciously recognising the tripartite structure of 'Through Other Eyes' this time round enriched the reading for me.  Even though I don't love the first panel of this particular tale, I do appreciate how it adds to the structural elegance.

At the end of this opening, Smirnov proffers the opinion that 'One pair of eyes is enough.  I do not see any advantage at all except the novelty.'  This is the view Lafferty will never tire of knocking down for the rest of his career.  (Cf. the notion that 'A man misses so much if he uses only one set of eyes' in his 1969 novel Fourth Mansions.)  And this statement from Smirnov allows Cogsworth to state the thesis of the whole short story:  'I believe that what we regard as one may actually be several billion different universes, each made only for the eyes of the one who sees it.'

For me, even though section or panel 2 is where this story really starts to pay gigantic dividends, we still have to get through another page or so of story-stalling theory-speak before it does so. Nevertheless, having just read William James's seminal paper 'What is an Emotion?' (1884), and its subsequent responses in the philosophy of emotion, for a course this past semester, I found Lafferty's little discussion of brains and perception quite neatly fitting into that discourse.  So that was a bonus and something probably worth digging more into.

But it's when Cogsworth's initial thesis is elaborated upon that this tale blows up for me and goes full Laffertian.  He experiences the age-old subjective perception question as a boy, with a fairly commonplace example:  'It may be that I am the only one who sees the sky black at night and the stars white [...] and everybody else sees the sky white and the stars shining black. And I say the sky is black, and they say the sky is black; but when they say black they mean white.'  But, as Harlan Ellison recently noted, Lafferty 'could take a simple idea and say, well, wait a minute, look at it this way.'  True to this propensity, Cogsworth then delightfully and freakishly stacks up weirder and weirder examples, starting with wondering whether others see cows inside out and finishing with wondering whether, when a bird eats a worm, does the worm think 'that his outside is his inside, and that the bird's inside is his outside? And that he has eaten the bird instead of the bird eating him?' (See the whole wonderful passage here.)  We are notified here that when Lafferty talks about every single person seeing the world differently than every other, he really means it, radically.  The amazing thing is that he pays this out in the rest of the story.  Incredible stuff.

After an entertaining wee wander through the eyes of a great man, a wide man, a mathematical man, a fastidiously detailed man, an already-looking-back-at-you man, and a radically sceptical man, there is nothing left but to look through the eyes of a woman.  She is an exceptional woman to Charles Cogsworth (he's in love with her as becomes clear), but Gregory will later tell Cogsworth she's a pretty average gal. Apparently, however, looking at the world through the eyes of even an average woman is wilder, fuller, and more challenging than looking through the eyes of any or all of those diverse kinds of men combined.  Cogsworth says he has seen the world through the eyes 'of a giant, of a king, of a blind hermit, of a general, of a peeping tom, of a fool' and now he will see it through the eyes 'of an angel'.  The narrator has this to say about that:  'Valery Mok may or may not have been an angel. She was a beautiful woman, and angels, in the older and more authentic iconography, were rather stern men with shaggy pinions.'  The implication is that even if Cogsworth saw through the eyes of an angel, he might see a much shaggier world than he was expecting.  At any rate, he is utterly shell-shocked by seeing through Valery's eyes, so much so that he has to spend six weeks in a sanatorium.

Now comes the third and final panel of the story.  Cogsworth eventually chats with his friend Smirnov some more and is challenged that perhaps he just doesn't understand girls!  I won't go much into this final panel of the story as I dealt with it somewhat extensively at the close of my essay for Feast of Laughter issue 2.  Suffice it to say, the view of the world just gets beautifully weirder as we're treated to a description of Valery's universe, imaginatively sensual and mythically literal to a genuinely 'ecomonstrous' degree.  What I do want to note here is how this story contrasts with C. S. Lewis's similarly themed tale 'The Shoddy Lands' (first published in the February 1956 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction).  The male protagonist of Lewis's tale also sees the world through the eyes of a woman, but he sees not a wildly hyper-sensuous world but a 'shoddy land' full of vague, shoddy flora and people and objects, with a few frivolous and vain exceptions.  I've always really liked Lewis's story for its imaginative premise rendered quite evocatively.  And I don't think it's necessarily damning that the protag of 'The Shoddy Lands' happens to look at the world through a particularly vapid and boring young lady's eyes, especially as Lewis published a whole novel that same year, Till We Have Faces, which is narrated by the fiercely intelligent and fascinating voice of a highly admirable female protagonist.  Nevertheless, it's fascinating and instructive that, in contrast to 'The Shoddy Lands', in 'Through Other Eyes' Lafferty's view through female eyes is gobsmacking, challenging, expanding - the polar opposite of 'shoddy'.  Indeed, it's Lafferty's male protag that comes in for criticism from Valery for his view of the world being too shoddy:
She burst in on him furiously one day.
“You are a stick. You are a stick with no blood in it. You are a pig made out of sticks. You live with dead people Charles. You make everything dead. You are abominable.”
After a bit of half-hearted argument from Charles Cogsworth, he is duly humbled (as is, to be fair, Lewis's protagonist at the end of 'The Shoddy Lands' when he shrinks from the thought that someone might well look at the world through his eyes and see a similarly shoddy landscape, just differently distributed based on his own parochial inclusions and exclusions).  This is a story of being shattered by being too-suddenly immersed in the viewpoint of the Other, and then slowly put back together by further humbled engagement with that same viewpoint (and other POVs as well - it's not unimportant that Cogsworth builds back up to understanding Valery by first seeing the world through other people and even various animals, all of these views surprising, challenging, and enlightening).

One last thing I noticed this time round, which was a delightful surprise, is that this is really a 'cute' romantic love story buried in philosophical rumination.  Charles and Valery are married by the time of the one novel in the Institute cycle, Arrive At Easterwine (1971).  As a man married to a woman whose visual and sensual view of the world is generally far greater than my own, and who must lovingly remonstrate with me about my 'dead stick' view from time to time, and whom I can't help but love for it, 'Especially when it becomes beautiful when angry', I can really resonate with the love story aspect of this tale.

* Discussion of 'Through Other Eyes' on Facebook

* 'Through Other Eyes' entry on Continued On Next Rock blog

* 'Through Other Eyes' comments on 

No comments:

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