Tuesday, September 15, 2015


I finished The Annals of Klepsis last night.

Here's an excerpt from the last chapter:


  The Tarshish storyteller was there with us on the top of the mountain.
  "Story-man, what is a good ending for the present story?" Titus asked him.
  "I get most of my stories from my dreams, and from old legends. I have dreamed, many times and oft, everything here exactly as it has been happening. I dream it up to the point where the slave-mathematician is struck by lightning, and then my dream will stall and go no further. I only hope that the world won't stall and go no further forever. The old legends on it are pretty much the same. The endings of them are very weak and contrived. I just don't know how this episode is going to end."


Now, I wouldn't ever say that Lafferty's novel endings are "weak and contrived." They are, however, always startlingly unsatisfying and abrupt. Instead of giving closure, they announce that dangerously new beginnings have arrived.

This morning, I was reminded of Chapter 6 of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy's The Fruit of Lips. The chapter is titled "End Begets Beginning." In this entire work, Rosenstock-Huessy argues that the Gospel writers were aware of one another's work, that the Gospels were written in the canonical order in which they have been received, and that there is a very real unity amid the diversity. At the beginning of Chapter 6, Rosenstock-Huessy argues that the end of each Gospel feeds into the beginning of the next.

"Do they give evidence of mutual dependence beyond the "material" used? Yes, they do. They beget each other. Every Gospel begins exactly at the point to which the previous Gospel has progressed on its tortuous path. The last word of the one is the overture and sets the tone for the next......
  If this is so, then the Gospels continue each other, each beginning to think and to speak where the previous evangelist had ended, and turning his final word into the opening of a new drama."


Anyhow, I got to thinking again that this is true of all great literature. Certainly, the rest of the Bible has this kind of character. Often, it's more general. Reading one book is enriched by reading another and on and on until you're back to reading the first and understanding it all the better and realizing what you've missed. So there's this rich intertextuality. But it's also common for the biblical books to end on a note of pointing toward something that will happen NEXT.

Genesis ends pointing to the Exodus:
"And Joseph said unto his brethren, I die: and God will surely visit you, and bring you out of this land unto the land which he sware to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. And Joseph took an oath of the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you, and ye shall carry up my bones from hence. So Joseph died, being an hundred and ten years old: and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt."

Exodus ends with the glory of the LORD filling the tabernacle and Israel on the move:
"Then a cloud covered the tent of the congregation, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter into the tent of the congregation, because the cloud abode thereon, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And when the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the children of Israel went onward in all their journeys: But if the cloud were not taken up, then they journeyed not till the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the Lord was upon the tabernacle by day, and fire was on it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys."

And so on. I think that most of the books in the Bible do this in some way or another. Very often, even within books, there is an end which begets a new beginning.

Also, many of the biblical books end abruptly, in some way concluding its own story, but always pointing beyond itself.

The very last book of the bible, in its own way, is an extreme example of this. It does not end with the Return of the King and the "conclusion" of the story. It ends with a plea for the Return of the King and a promise of this coming. But it is still essentially open-ended. It's not quite a To Be Continued; it is most definitely an announcement of a New Heaven and New Earth because the old has passed away. That is a biblical pattern and it's one that I think that Lafferty either consciously or unconsciously adopts. I suspect the former.

I don't know if I'm up to the task, but what I'd like to eventually do is synthesize Lafferty's world destruction/renewals with Rosenstock-Huessy's insights on time and speech and James Jordan's biblical theology. The three are already in conversation in my head, but it's all intuitive grasping. I need to buckle down eventually and start taking notes on each.

Finally, while writing the above little bit and thinking about how Lafferty's non-endings relate to Biblical non-endings, I remembered N.T. Wright's 5-act play analogy. There's a similarity (and dissimilarity) between the way in which Wright describes the Bible's pushing toward reader-participants finishing the "play" and the way that Lafferty's work pushes reader-participants into finishing the "play." I think that these parallels become a bit clearer as well with a preterist understanding of the importance of the 70ad destruction of Jerusalem being a real (NOT a literary metaphor, as ERH would say, despite its beings poetic) destruction of a world, marking the end of an entire cosmos (see any treatment of temple as cosmos) as a new world becomes fully birthed IN the death of the old.


There are various ways in which stories might be thought to possess authority.  Sometimes a story is told so that the actions of its characters may be imitated.  It was because they had that impression that some early Fathers, embarrassed by the possibilities inherent in reading the Old Testament that way, insisted upon allegorical exegesis.  More subtly, a story can be told with a view to creating a generalized ethos which may then be perpetuated this way or that.  The problem with such models, popular in fact though they are within Christian reading of scripture, is that they are far too vague: they constitute a hermeneutical grab-bag or lucky dip.  Rather, I suggest that stories in general, and certainly the biblical story, has a shape and a goal that must be observed and to which appropriate response must be made.

But what might this appropriate response look like?  Let me offer you a possible model, which is not in fact simply an illustration but actually corresponds, as I shall argue, to some important features of the biblical story, which (as I have been suggesting) is that which God has given to his people as the means of his exercising his authority.  Suppose there exists a Shakespeare play whose fifth act had been lost.  The first four acts provide, let us suppose, such a wealth of characterization, such a crescendo of excitement within the plot, that it is generally agreed that the play ought to be staged.  Nevertheless, it is felt inappropriate actually to write a fifth act once and for all: it would freeze the play into one form, and commit Shakespeare as it were to being prospectively responsible for work not in fact his own.  Better, it might be felt, to give the key parts to highly trained, sensitive and experienced Shakespearian actors, who would immerse themselves in the first four acts, and in the language and culture of Shakespeare and his time, and who would then be told to work out a fifth act for themselves.

Consider the result.  The first four acts, existing as they did, would be the undoubted ‘authority’ for the task in hand.  That is, anyone could properly object to the new improvisation on the grounds that this or that character was now behaving inconsistently, or that this or that sub-plot or theme, adumbrated earlier, had not reached its proper resolution.  This ‘authority’ of the first four acts would not consist in an implicit command that the actors should repeat the earlier pans of the play over and over again.  It would consist in the fact of an as yet unfinished drama, which contained its own impetus, its own forward movement, which demanded to be concluded in the proper manner but which required of the actors a responsible entering in to the story as it stood, in order first to understand how the threads could appropriately be drawn together, and then to put that understanding into effect by speaking and acting with both innovation and consistency.

This model could and perhaps should be adapted further; it offers in fact quite a range of possibilities.  Among the detailed moves available within this model, which I shall explore and pursue elsewhere, is the possibility of seeing the five acts as follows: (1) Creation; (2) Fall; (3) Israel; (4) Jesus.  The New Testament would then form the first scene in the fifth act, giving hints as well (Rom 8; 1 Car 15; parts of the Apocalypse) of how the play is supposed to end.  The church would then live under the ‘authority’ of the extant story, being required to offer something between an improvisation and an actual performance of the final act.  Appeal could always be made to the inconsistency of what was being offered with a major theme or characterization in the earlier material.  Such an appeal—and such an offering!—would of course require sensitivity of a high order to the whole nature of the story and to the ways in which it would be (of course) inappropriate simply to repeat verbatim passages from earlier sections.  Such sensitivity (cashing out the model in terms of church life) is precisely what one would have expected to be required; did we ever imagine that the application of biblical authority ought to be something that could be done by a well-programmed computer?


Andrew F.:
"Lafferty is always seeking, through his fiction, to reach out and find those who will join him in creating and sustaining new worlds. Most of his books reach their peaks not in moments of intense action, but in moments of extreme connectivity, with two or more people coming into sudden rapport, a mutual understanding strong enough to resonate throughout the multiplicity of worlds. Thus in Archipelagothe climax comes not at the end—and how could it? As Lafferty notes in his essay, there aren’t any endings—but instead at the St. Louis Conclave, with nearly all of his characters gathered together and drawing sparks off one another."

[Sorry for any wonky formatting errors. I started this on my laptop this morning and finished it in my phone. And the usual apologies for the general rambling incoherence.]


  1. Beast of a post! So glad you're still blogging about Laff. I would definitely like to read that synthesis you proposed. You've definitely taken me a step further here in seeing just how integrally Lafferty's narrative shape is modeled on biblical narratology. The connection to Wright's famous five-act analogy is very insightful too.

    We may end up having to consider Lafferty something of a literary theologian like George MacDonald and others. I mean, I know we all know he's theologically influenced, even deeply so. But I mean he may be doing full on theology in his works, at huge structural levels. And he would be proof that theology and art aren't inherently separable, but are in fact fruitfully porous.

    Thanks, John, keep it up!

    (Oh, and DO write more about Annals of Klepsis itself! I voraciously desire to read the Owenian take on this best, to me, of all Lafferty s.f. novels.)

    1. Thanks, Daniel. It's unlikely that I'll write more about Annals right now. Next time through (whenever that is!), I'll definitely write more. I guess that I'm most interested in the history/legend angle and I'm most confused by the philosophy. There are all sorts of ideas bouncing around that I mostly failed to track with.

  2. I am *fascinated* to see James Jordan brought into the mix here. I mean, on a very basic level, of course, Lafferty and Jordan would be strongly at odds. But the fivefold covenant-suzerainty structure that Jordan, convincingly, sees imprinted throughout Scripture produces a narrative arc far closer to Lafferty's mode than the rising action / climax / denouement arc which he largely avoids. All the more so when you consider Jordan's fifth and final point is the conditions for renewing the covenant with succeeding generations—quite similar, as you note above, to the act of handing off to the audience the task of completing (or perhaps propagating) the narrative.

    I think Wright (and Northrop Frye, for that matter) sees these things, but dimly, and only through the structures to which he's already committed. The beauty of Jordan's framework (which, unfortunately, does not carry through to much of his later theology, or to the Reconstructionists' more broadly) is its flexibility, to the ways in which it can be adapted to order. It's not a final key to Lafferty; nothing is, he knows too much, no one structure could possibly contain him—you'd have to take in the Big Lie, the shaggy-dog story, the wonder tale, the Summa, and a couple dozen more non-standard, non-Freitag narrative shapes to even begin. But Jordan is an important data point, and I'd love to see how your thoughts on these connections develop.


    1. Andrew,

      I've hardly had time for a quick blog comment. It's cool that you're familiar with Jordan. I wasn't expecting that!

      Did you know that Jordan is a serious science fiction fan? He has written about Cordwainer Smith (and sold the NESFA books in his BH catalog for years!) and has been active on the Urth list discussing Gene Wolfe. I think I even heard a rumor in the past that there was almost a Wolfe contribution to the Jordan Festschrift that came out a few years ago. Anyhow, it is truly unfortunate that Jordan never caught the Lafferty bug.

      Christianity in the Science Fiction of "Cordwainer Smith"

      Wolfe Interview