Tuesday, February 9, 2016

"They gave the Ghostly Thing release"

In this wonderful world, co-incidents happen often.

On the morning of February 7th, 2016, I began to read Archipelago.

Allowing for the logic of time zones and time travel, it is quite likely that I began my early morning reading at the same moment that DOJP posted his other-side-of-the-world-morning blog post, Reading the Argo Cycle - part 1. Whether or not this exact simultaneity occurred, I was more than pleased to find my own thoughts on the opening chapter echoed almost immediately in Daniel's post, as if the cavernous blogoshpere had shouted back my own words before I had shouted them out at all. Not only that, but that the infamous Indiana-Scots Goblin in the netted cave had once again shaped my unvoiced words into a finer shape and sound than I could have done.

So why bother to begin shouting at all when the suddenly pre-existent echo has already done the better job?

I don't know. Probably, because the DOJP-aspect is only one counterpart in one variant account of the Lafferty Fan Man.


What do I have to add to the conversation?

Beginnings. My most recent (recent? ha!) blog post and the brief essay that I wrote for FoL2 both attempt to recklessly (I leave the rigor for others) probe into Lafferty's attempts at (non-)endings and how his narrative strategies point past endings toward new beginnings, perhaps as a simulation of "eternal" adventure.

Daniel is right (of course he is!) that the first section of Chapter 1 of Archipelago explicitly calls attention to beginnings. "All this begins," the story begins. "In the same hour at which the world was made" at the same time as "in these latter days." Only a moment between being "in the Garden" and being "in the middle of the World." "A man and a woman" vs. "two guys in a bar." I'm sure that any readers here have already read Daniel's post. If not, go do so.

"The two versions cannot be reconciled, and I worry about it," Finnegan said.

Here is where I think that I can add to Daniel's post. Daniel, in his enthusiasm for this opening has neglected the pre-opening that has come before the opening. The novel does not begin "In a Southern City." It begins (or is preceded by) a poem. The placement of this particular poem in this particular place is surely no accident. I haven't read more than the first chapter of the book yet, but I dare say that the themes of this seemingly silly poem will resurface repeatedly in the novel. Maybe. The poem at least shapes our expectations of what is to come.

Here's the poem in its entirety. I've taken this from the not-to-be-named edition of the novel. I'd love for any of you with Manuscript editions to compare and contrast and let me know if this is all correct; I do wonder at some of the irregularities- I suspect that they are Laffertisms, but can't be sure).

Of fossils from the recent past
 Out of gigantothereous strata
 Across a triple-decade vast,
 Observe the bones! Regard the data!

 Oh dear than the Mastodont!
 They lie in ash of fading ember
 While sexton-beetles eat and hunt
 Lest flesh remain that might remember.  
 A surging gallimauferie
 Of broken reeds upon a charger,
 And something of serenity,
 And something yet a little larger.  
 They knew the evoluting crock,
 They knew a taller star than Vega,
 A firster Peter for a rock,
 Not yet so empty an Omega.  
 They gave the Ghostly Thing release
 From pink-eyed heretics who bound it.
 They sought the ancient Golden Fleece
 And, what is better yet, they found it.  
 Before ‘Triumphant’ grew a taint,
 Before (in catch-words and kerygmies)
 Falsetto Chorus raised its plaint,
 They never knew the race of pygmies;  
 Nor guessed the Situation Bit,
 Nor found the Lord so dull a lover,
 Nor used the love-as-catch-word kit
 A multitude of sins to cover.  
 And some are dead, and some are done,
 Or (fallen to heroics fever)
 Still oddly seek the All-in-One
 And some are better folks than you are. 
—R. A. Lafferty

In this microcosmic "prehistory" of the novel, we immediately have a tension between the long-ago and the present, summed up nicely as "Of fossils from the recent past," perhaps a reflection on Lafferty's own sense of out-of-placeness and out-of-timeness, that what is most immediately present to him are the events of a personally present past that the world has long since moved on from.

The first two stanzas present this notion of the bringing present of a forgotten world/time. (Observe the bones!) The third stanza re-introduces these forgotten fossils as a "surging gallimauferie/Of broken reeds upon a charger," which is a lovely image.

This surging stew of broken reeds has known the "evoluting crock," which is likely simultaneously a dig at certain evolutionary theories at the same time that it concretely presents the pre-historic pot in which these characters have been cooked up.

The rest of the poem rousingly presents these "reeds" as living large lives, as those Argonauts (a crew of broken reed heroes if ever there was one) who have sought the Golden Fleece and, better yet, found it. Whatever else, this poem is important for first introducing this Argonautic theme. I may be wrong, but I suspect that it is important that Lafferty connects the "Ghostly Thing" (which I read, maybe wrongly, as a reference to the work of the Holy Spirit) to the Golden Fleece. And as the poem nears its end, there is an implicit eschatology in Lafferty's protology.

"Before 'Triumphant' grew a taint" is a rallying cry for all to finish well, triumphantly (in basso profundo chorus) following a giant wild lover, whether dead or done or fallen to heroics fever.

*Side note: I've been thinking a lot lately about Lafferty's Romances and the way that sexuality (broadly speaking) is exhibited in and between his male and female characters. The explicit Fleece/Argo/Jason connection makes me wonder if we'll get a Medea character at any time in this book. In the Argonautica, Medea is key to obtaining the Golden Fleece. Will it be so here? As the story transitions from this high-falutin' legend-alludin' to something more mundane (moving "episodically to the events of the war buddies leaving the war and returning home, and then their lives back in the States," as Daniel puts it), will there even be a recognizable Fleece moment? Am I making too much of this Argo connection and/or straining for 1:1 correspondences while Lafferty is playing much looser? Eh, we'll see. I'm still going to be on the lookout for Medea(s).


  1. Nice! I agree that the poetic prologue is crucial and is the novel's real starting point. I just didn't want to get into it right now to be honest! Shame on me. What you've got here in this post is word for word what I've got in the Manuscript Press edition. It's actually one of the better poems by Laff for my money. Some lovely imagery, as you've pointed out. You've given a good opening analysis of it - particularly I'm struck by your insight that Lafferty is unearthing *recent* fossils - the post-WWII world that by the late 60s/70s already seemed an ancient world to so many moderns. I think Lafferty might one day be seen as one of the key modern writers to sync up pre-1950 with post-1950 in the 20th century, for Lafferty was very much on the pulse of the latter half of the century even whilst so thoroughly rooted in earlier times.

    I do think we're meant to take the Argonauts/Fleece stuff as keys to the whole long work, but I'm not sure in what ways until I finish the whole 'Devil is Dead Trilogy' (the last volume of which is tellingly titled *Argo*). I do think there are a number of Medeas throughout, certainly - or at least a number of crucial female characters. I really need to re-familiarise myself with the Argonaut myth cycle though.

    So glad you're reading this too, John! (And that you're ALIVE - and still blogging!)

  2. "fallen to heroics fever"
    fever or fewer? I merely ask because of the rhyme.

    I haven't examined why, but for some reason, this reminds me of the ending of e e cummings' "i sing of Olaf glad and big":
    Christ(of His mercy infinite)
    i pray to see;and Olaf,too

    preponderatingly because
    unless statistics lie he was
    more brave than me:more blond than you.