Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Having Fun

Reading Half a Sky, the second book of the Coscuin Chronicles, the other day, I stumbled upon this passage that struck me as Lafferty just having fun:

          Down coastal desert spine, through spumy white
          To green, below the mountains fired and iced,
          There came the quick encounter, where stood bright
          Bernardo’s ghost, and sharp the thorn of Christ.

Now to elucidate these lines (as John of the Cross always wrote of his own short stanzas when he expanded their elucidations into whole books), the spine and the thorn are counterpoint and pun, and they stand in apposition to the ghost. But the spine and the thorn are not quite the same thing. The spine and the thorn are both stiff, sharp-pointed processes, but the thorn has vascular tissue and the spine lacks it. The thorn of Christ (which does have vascular tissue) is both the difficulty and the hope of the world, and is of especial importance to the world with only half a sky over it. 

But the spine has other meanings; one is that of determination, of back-bone or spirit. This meaning impinges on another definition of spine, that of the notochord of primitive creatures and of the embryos of higher creatures which then becomes the true bony spinal column. 

In another sense the spine is the same as the spirit (the ghost). The bones of the spine (the cervical and thoracic and lumbar vertebrae, the sacrum, and the coccyx or tail) form the hollow sheath for the spinal cord of nerves and tissue; this cord, as well as the bones that sheathe it, is the spine. “The spinal marrow, which is but the braine prolonged,” old Sir Thomas Browne wrote, but he was wrong. The spinal cord is not a prolongation of the brain. The cord was first; it was the main thing in primitive creatures. Then the brain appeared, as a prolongation or appendage of the cord, as a button or nodule on top of it. The cord is the older, its memory is the longer. It was the original location of the spirit, the ghost. It survives as a ghost, and as the seat of the deep unconscious which is of the whole long body and not only of the button which is the head. 

R. A. Lafferty 
Half a Sky 
pages 128 - 129

I suspect that what we have here is Lafferty having fun. This is not a throw-away passage, it is important to the plot, and he returns to the metaphor of spine several times in the following chapter, but it is self-referential and written with a sense of fun. He is using the idea of a spine to introduce the nation of Chile--especially because it is long and narrow and has a line of mountains running down its length. The world with half a sky over it refers to South America.

I accuse him of having fun with these paragraphs because they contain so many of the elements he appeared to revel in in his writing, religion, historical references, the history of the meanings of words, and wild, loose play with metaphor:

First, there is religion. Lafferty's Catholic faith was deeply important to him and strongly influenced everything he wrote. However, for him, it was a joyous, exuberant faith. In Fourth Mansion  he described the population of one city disparagingly as "Those who did not have the faith, and would not have the fun." Here he indulges in wordplay with deliberately religious meaning. The thorn of Crist plant is a very thorny flowering vine that in legend is what Christ's crown of thorns was made from. I do not understand the reference to vascular tissue here. He does refer to it metaphorically as the "both the difficulty and the hope of the world," and "of especial importance to the world with only half a sky over it." Here he was writing about revolutionary movements in South America, which by the 1850s was strongly and almost universally Catholic.

Secondly, there is the glee in using historical reference. He introduces two writers who I should have known much more about, and mentions them both accurately and humorously. John of the Cross (1542 – 1591), according to Wikipedia, "was a major figure of the Counter-Reformation, a Spanish mystic, Catholic saint, Carmelite friar and priest.”Sir Thomas Browne (1605 – 1682) according to Wikipedia "was an English author of varied works which reveal his wide learning in diverse fields including medicine, religion, science and the esoteric” (thank you again Wikipedia). Wikipedia is my frequent companion when reading Lafferty. He will often throw out historical references that appear to be made up on the spot to lend a specious air of authority to the narrative. When I look them up, more often than not, they are real (though often obscure) historical figures whose lives throw greater light and perspective on the narrative. In this example, John of the Cross is a counter-reformationist, a point of view parallel to that of the Green Revolution that is at the heart of the Dana Coscuin novels.

Thirdly there is play with the meanings and histories of words. He examines the word spine: In the first line of the poem at the beginning, the desert spine refers to the spine of mountains running down the length of the nation Chile. Then he examines the difference between a spine and a thorn--referring to the thorn of Christ in contrast to the spine. Then he spends a paragraph exploring the history of the development of the spinal cord--calling it the seat of the unconscious and of the spirit. Whenever Lafferty refers to spirit, he is referring to it not only in terms of the human spirit but also in terms of the Holy Spirit or the Holy Ghost.

Lastly he ties all of this into a series of metaphors  for racial memory, the Holy Spirit, and both the nation of Chile and the dilemmas (thorny choices) it faced at the eve of the revolution in 1851.

These paragraphs, I believe, are an example of what Lafferty must have considered pure, unadulterated fun. The joy nearly leaps off the page and overwhelms the reader willing to meet it half way (heck even half a percent of the way). If humorous paragraphs about religion, history, etymology, and metaphors for human spirit are amusing to you, you may have what it takes to be a Lafferty fan.

I am reminded of a story from my teenage years. When my friends and I were around 16 years old, a kid had moved to Santa Fe from Chicago for the summer with his parents, and we invited him to come hang out with us. On one typical evening we met at one of my friends houses, ostensibly to play Dungeons and Dragons, but we got too caught up in conversation and music and pizza and one friend had just picked up a new set of SF books (I think the complete Amber series by Zelazny--we weren’t hip enough for Lafferty yet), and the D&D never got around to happening. After several hours of that we started to head for home, and the kid from Chicago turned to me and asked, “But what do you do for fun?”

This is what Lafferty did for fun. Fortunately for the rest of us, it is a fun that can be easily shared. To say his writing is good is like saying water is wet. The real joy is finding out just how wet the water is.


  1. It's wetter the deeper you immerse yourself in it. Dip a toe in, take it out and shake it--that'll dry off pretty quick. You remember the hypnagogic state the divers entered into in Serpent's Egg, so that they could submerge themselves in the computer made ocean to its depths without diving equipment? Draw your own conclusions.

  2. And while you're down there, keep an eye peeled for piranhas and sea-serpents. Lafferty's waters may be fascinating, but they are by no means safe!