Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Flame is Green (1971)

[Cross-posted from Goodreads.]

Four and a half stars. It's probably five stars in the sense of being one of the ‘high art’ novels that Lafferty produced (along with the likes of Fourth Mansions, Okla Hannali,  The Fall of Rome, Archipelago, and others). But it didn't resonate with me quite as strongly as the novels I like best by Lafferty. It's pretty incredible though, as I would expect from his unique genius.

The first chapter is one of my favourite things I've ever read by Lafferty. It hits all the right notes of myth and marvel and history and narrative sophistication, in the way that only Lafferty can hit and combine those notes - and in the setting of 19th century Ireland, which I don't think I've run into before in Lafferty.

The rest of the book is more mixed for me. There are many more marvels of both language and event, but there are also long sections of comparatively mundane material and plot motivations that I don't fully understand (due to unfamiliarity with this era of European history generally and Lafferty's more arcane interests in it particularly). After the first chapter, the setting moves swiftly from Ireland to Spain and eventually to a few other European locations. (It’s worth comparing in this respect with his novel East of Laughter). So The Flame is Green is more of a European tale than a specifically Irish one, though the fact that the protagonist, Dana Coscuin, is Irish remains central. The cast of supporting characters are very tall and salty as you'd expect from Lafferty. The geographical descriptions, after the first chapter, are perhaps not as strong as I could have hoped, though a significant amount of the action takes place in the mountains and this setting is firmly felt. I happened to be reading this section of the novel whilst travelling through mountains in Spain for the first time, on holiday with my family, which was a very exciting coincidence. (We live in Scotland, so this trip isn't as huge as it may sound to USA readers of this review. It's kind of the equivalent of a Midwesterner taking a vacation in Florida.) But the richest fun is to be had more in the character descriptions and their darkly comic and mythopoetic interactions.

There are the usual philosophical and theological discourses and asides, which I always enjoy and find enlightening for understanding Lafferty's body of work as a whole. The novel is about some sort of freedom fighters on the eve of another European revolution. In the idiosyncratic ideological terms of the novel, it is the Green Revolution (to which Dana and his company adhere) vs. the Red Revolution (to which an equally tall and salty company adhere). Dana and Co. are ‘Carlists’, at least in their Spain setting. Brief visits to Wikipedia, together with speeches given in the novel, suggest the Green Revolution represents a sort of counter-Enlightenment movement, which opposes, among other things, the reductionism of the alleged Age of Reason. As a member of Dana's company argues:
The rational age has cracked wide open with the realization that man is not a rational apparatus. He is a stolid animal, or he is an hysterical ghost, or he is an effete avatar; but he is not a reasoning machine. But should we not respect and strive for reason? For reason in grace, yes. For reason out of grace, no. (Ch. 3/p. 49)
Or as is later urged: ‘There is no rationality at all without passion, and no logic. What would one hang them upon?’ (Ch. 5/p. 87) (This is remarkably close what Timothy Morton argues in his latest book, Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Co-Existence.) This anti-reductionist ideology is vividly portrayed as well as argued in Lafferty's novel. Take a scene involving recovery from a battle injury:
Certainly the six-inch-deep knife wound had not been healed in three days, nor had the great ragged slash on his face. But Dana had sloshed wine immediately into his wounds, and he had been blessed with curative magic when he lay atop Magdelena Brume and imbibed grace from her and covered her with his blood for a sign. Moreover, Dana had had his wounds cleaned and bound by a doctor in Isaba before he had come to Pamplona. (Ch. 3/pp. 54-55)
Folk ways and modern medicine combine here. Many scenes such as this make this novel (along with a number of other novels by Lafferty, notably Okla Hannali and Archipelago) significantly overlap with the international genre of magical realism.

The Green counter-revolutionaries are theologically motivated, of course, as can be seen by the references to ‘grace’. It is also seen in their concerns about turns the Catholic church is taking toward empowering bishops who seem to be sexually and theologically decadent in not fully fleshed out terms in the novel. They also oppose what Lafferty presciently (this was published in 1971) calls the coming ‘pornocracy’, calling it the ‘easiest way, the cheapest way, the stultifying way, the indulgent way’ (Ch. 7/p. 111).

It's not quite as reactionary as some of this may sound (though I sometimes worry ‘alt-right’ leaning readers might think, mistakenly I hope, that they have an ally in the author of this novel; that an Afro-Caribbean man, one Charley Oceaan, is included in the company of the Green Revolution counts for something one hopes). Lafferty is well-known as a self-professed conservative, sure, but one not easily pigeon-holed. The rhetoric he puts in the mouths of the Green Revolutionaries contains nuance, if also tending toward the irascible and polemic, such as this quote that has been passed around the web for some years, even though there must be very few readers of this obscure, limited-run novel:
Things are set up as contraries that are not even in the same category. Listen to me: the opposite of radical is superficial, the opposite of liberal is stingy; the opposite of conservative is destructive. Thus I will describe myself as a radical conservative liberal; but certain of the tainted red fish will swear that there can be no such fish as that. Beware of those who use words to mean their opposites. At the same time have pity on them, for usually this trick is their only stock in trade. But do not pity them overly: it is your own death and your soul's death that they work by their deception. (Ch. 5/p. 78)
There is pity, even if limited, toward ideological enemies here. More than can be said on many a social media account. That said, the rhetoric can be more strident at times, though admittedly compelling in some respects:
“There are only two possible statements that can be made about the worlds,” the Black Pope of the Carlist Hills had lectured one day. “Alpha: There is a God. Omega: there is not a God. To adhere to either of these two statements strongly is to be logical at least. Not to do so is to be in the snivelling wasteland between and to have no point of contact with logic or reason. Upon either of these two statements a total system can be built, and it can be true to itself in each of its million details. But the two systems cannot have points of contact in even the least detail.”
I can't agree with that last sentence especially (and I'm pretty sure Lafferty's work overall shows that he didn't fully agree with that idea in any strict sense as well). Nor can I agree that all those who remain undecided between these poles are ‘snivelling’. Some occupy that ‘wasteland’ quite honestly in doubt and deferral. Some do so by principled agnosticism. I sympathise with doubters and agnostics, yet I also feel the force of the alleged logical divide set up in this quote. At any rate, it makes for fiery reading.

Yet the way the details of the novel play out show a more generous and muddy view. Dana is a very compromised character, especially by his own movement's lights. He quite fleshily falls from grace by literally sleeping with the ideological enemy. And is restored by grace. And this ‘enemy’, though she is portrayed somewhat villainously, is nevertheless drawn with some complexity and sympathy. Mind you, the ‘good’ characters are of no more, or less, depth than the ‘evil’ ones - that's just the way Lafferty writes. As some have said, Lafferty's characters are more like archetypes than traditional characters; but I would add that they have many telling human details as well, so that they hover between the mythical and the ‘naturalistic’. Even the ‘son of the Devil’ in this novel (one Ifreann Chortovitch, an apparently literal offspring of the Devil, in keeping with the magical realist tone) is portrayed with some sympathy, even as a genuine friend of sorts to Dana whilst also a dangerous, corrupting enemy. Dana and other characters have a huge drinking party with the son of the Devil at one point in the novel, another falling from grace moment, from which they are again restored. Saints and sinners, as in most of Lafferty's fiction, often blend in this novel. Trajectories of good or evil may be strong in various characters, but no one is untainted by either grace or sin. It's richly human reading in that respect.

And the Green Revolution rhetoric can be downright beautiful and strange and inviting as well. A character named Catherine Dembinska, who eventually marries Dana, speaks like a St Francis or a Black Elk:
Listen, all you people, the green-growing world is not restricted to its vegetation. There is a green-growing God above, there are green-growing people on the earth, and plants and rocks and ores and machineries, and graces and dedications and ideas and arts. There are green-growing prayers arising. But the devils in Hell are not green-growing, and those on Earth are not. [...] I even say ‘Listen, all you people’ when I talk to birds in the parks or to cats sunning themselves in windows. Listen, all you people: no, I am not a pantheist, not even a green one. To be that is to confuse the bridge with the ultimate shore. It is to confuse the pot with the potter. But I am a living pot; I am a green vessel of earth; I am the perfume of a full vase. (Ch. 9/p. 157)
There are many wonderfully weird battles and visions and travels and chases and spaces in this novel as well, but I will conclude this overlong, yet under-sufficient, review with another quote from Catherine (which has also made its rounds on the web for years). It would seem a caution to anyone wanting to slap some final interpretation on Lafferty's work, much less the world. Not because of some facile catch-phrase like ‘there is no truth’, but rather because full truth will always be both prior and higher than our finitude, requiring our constant adventurous maturation from its deep roots toward its towering radiance:
Beware of those who manufacture final answers as they go along, of those who will catch you on their catch-phrases and let you perish in the traps. All the final answers were given in the beginning. They stand shining, above and beyond us, but they are always there to be seen. They may be too bright for us, they may be too clear for us. Well then, we must clarify our own eyes. Our task is to grow out until we reach them. 
We ourselves become the bridges out over the interval that is the world and time. It is a daring thing to fling ourselves out over that void that is black and scarlet below and green and gold above. And we must be rooted deeply. A bridge does not abandon its first shore when it grows out in spans towards the further one. (Ch. 9/p. 158)


Anonymous said...

Haven't read this one but isn't Ifreann Chortovitch also the name of the devil's son in Devil Is Dead? Any idea whether it's intended to be the same character?

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

I read somewhere that The Coscuin Chronicles and the Argo Cycle are in the same timeline/universe. Flame is Green reads very much like the books of the Argo Cycle, somewhere between Archipelago and Devil is Dead perhaps. Also, the son of the Devil in Flame feels very like the Devil in The Devil is dead. A search for Chortovitch in Devil is Dead on Google books shows characters talking about this. Don't have time to dig into it just now, but it looks like Papadiabolous (the Devil in Devil is Dead) is a descendant of Ifreann here in Coscuin Chronicles.

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