The works of R. A. Lafferty (1914-2002) are not too far out be reviewed by an ordinary human being. However, one must reach into an awkwardly positioned dimension to lay hold of them. So, I will not attempt much interpretation of this little novel. What I will do is display some representative chunks of it. I will also add some explanatory matter, for form's sake.
“The Flame Is Green” is about the adventures of a young Irishman named Dana Coscuin, who sets out from Bantry Bay in 1845, just as the potato blight is settling onto Ireland and Europe is preparing for the Revolutions of 1848. He makes the tour of the greater and lesser scenes of unrest and pre-unrest, with special attention to Carlist Spain, Paris, and Krakow. The potato blight and the revolutions are not unrelated. On the prosaic level, the author reminds us that the potato harvests also failed in much of Europe in those years: not so disastrously as in Ireland, perhaps, but enough to help foment unrest. On the level of high symbol, however, we also are reminded that the blight caused a red mist of corruption to settle over the green fields. Coscuin and his friends are in the service of the Green Revolution, which at that point in history is largely coincident with the nationalist uprisings. Their task is to protect it from the Red Revolution, which did not yet have much to do with socialism, and which in any case is a primordial thing of no particular politics.
“The Flame Is Green” was published over 30 years ago, the first book of a tetrology that also includes “Half a Sky,” “Sardinian Summer,” and “First and Last Island.” I came across “The Flame Is Green” recently and by accident, not long after I finished Adam Zamoyski's Holy Madness, another book I had no business reading. That book is a sort of symphonic poem (to use John Lukacs's phrase) about the pre-Marxist revolutionary tradition, and its author imagined it to be the only treatment of its subject. Now I know better, though whether Lafferty knows better than Zamoyski remains to be seen.
One does not read Lafferty books for quite the reasons one reads other fiction.
Lafferty stories do have plots and characters. In this book, in addition to Dana, there is Elena Prado, the “Muerte de Boscaje,” so-called because of her demonical proclivity for gingering up the Carlist guerrillas to attack main-force Spanish columns, thereby getting all the guerrillas killed. There is Ifreann Chortovitch, a son of the devil in a not particularly metaphorical sense, whom Dana almost certainly fails to kill at the end of the book. There is Catherine Dembinska, Dana's soon-lost Polish wife. The followers of the Green Revolution act at the behest of Count Cyril, sometimes called Charles, whom no one will ever admit to seeing, but whose agents are so ubiquitous that the Green Revolutionaries need only hold up the bill in a tavern for the Count to cover the expense.
All the characters, male and female, Irish and Polish, human and otherwise, speak exactly the same way. This is typical of Lafferty books. So is the relaxed attitude toward time. The characters often allude to events that have not happened yet, and indeed sing about them. This temporal insouciance sometimes leaks out of the text. The Carlist chaplain and pillar of orthodoxy is a Polish priest known as “The Black Pope,” this in a book published a mystical seven years before the election of John Paul II.
None of these playful features hurt. Neither does the prescience, in small doses. However, a greater merit of Lafferty's books may be his easy way with philology, which dovetails nicely with a weirdly immediate sense of history. Consider this description of Dana's encounter with the first of Count Cyril's emissaries:
“They hadn't any full language in common. They spoke in mixed scraps of Spanish and Irish and English and French. Spanish men and Irish men had always been able to understand each other on Bantry Bay, which was also called Spanish Bay. They had understood each other back when they spoke in scraps of Norman and Irish and Navarrone, back when they used Old Norse and Middle Irish and Dog Latin, back when they used Arabic and Gothic and Celtic, even back when they used Phoenician and Milesian.”
Let no one say that Lafferty is without ordinary narrative skills. His description of the overthrow of the Orleanist monarchy, for instance, is of a lucidity in every way superior to the events themselves. Much of the action takes place in the Paris of the Hundred Persons, the brief period in the 1840s when Paris was the fulcrum of world history, and the mission of the Green Revolutionaries was to influence the small group of people who really mattered. Still, though Lafferty can handle action, he is better at description. He is best of all at describing things that don't quite not exist. We see this in an encounter involving Dana, a friend from the Constituent Assembly, and one of Count Cyril's late ancestors:
“That man talked to them a very long time, or so it seemed. Much of it went directly to the substrata of their mind and memories; only hazy bits of it remained on the surface. Brume and Dana both became very sleepy, not from lack of interest, from some humorous trick that the man was playing on them. It was as if there was something here too rich to be understood at one sitting. After a long while of it, there was something about the man rising to go (he had some signs of great age about him, the backs of his hands, the sunkenness of his cheeks; and some signs of quick youth, his full throat, his eyes, his easy movements); there was something about him saying that he would let himself out, that Brume and Dana could rest easy (they were not hosts, he was the host); there was something about the man being gone then.”
There are features of Lafferty stories that make them neither better nor worse; they are just always there. Among them are the snakes, anthropomorphic and otherwise, and this book is at least up to quota. Far more interesting to me, however, are this book's spiders, which Lafferty puts to better use. Consider, for instance, this memorable description of the untrustworthy Spanish queen, Isabella II:
“Who will father the Queen's children? Nobody. She says that she will do it all by herself. Many insects do this, and Isabella is very like an insect in her waspishness, in her spiderishness, in her ever immaturity coming always mask-faced, cotton-faced, old-young out of the cocoon. And with such divergent and parthenogenetic insects the offspring is always female, so I see a long line of female children of the Queen.”
Among the most memorable spiders are the ones in a great room in the Italian villa of Ashley, the Un-Englishman. (Lafferty describes the fellow in a way that sheds new light on the garden landscapes of Fragonard, but let us not digress.) The spiders, which make their webs over a pit of rotting corpses, have all been named after famous people in the world. As Ashely explains, the weaving of their webs incorporates the future:
“That is Chancellor Metternich of Austria who rehearses his fall from power again and again and again. He is in love with his own drama. He considers it from every possible aspect. He obliterates sections of it that do not satisfy him, and he substitutes other more dramatic scenes in the topography of his weaves. What is the present year? I myself become confused when I am among my spiders. Oh no, the fall of Metternich has not happened yet, but it will be done when he is done.”
Not unusually for a Lafferty novel, “The Flame Is Green” sets out a model of history. One might find sources for it, from Augustine to Newman to Isaac Asimov (even Nietzsche, if you look at the second paragraph below). In any case, several characters give voice to it (as I said, all the characters talk the same, so it makes little difference who said what):
“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. A bridge does not abandon its first shore when it grows out in spans towards the further one”
“In this growing there are no really new things or new situation. There are only things growing out right, or things growing out deformed or shriveled. There is nothing new about railways or foundries or lathes or steel furnaces. They also are green-growing things. There is nothing new about organizations of men or of money. All these growing things are good, if they grow towards the final answers that were given in the beginning.”
What we have here is an assertion of the compatibility of political and technological progress with tradition, especially tradition in its Roman Catholic manifestation. This kind of progress, however, is teleological; historical change is going somewhere, and so is not open-ended. Lafferty was outraged during the second half of his long life by the use of the principle of “development of doctrine” to discard the substance of the faith and replace it with contemporary fashions. The internal problems of the Church during his lifetime, however, simply mirrored a general feature of history:
“Or let us say that we have a green thing growing forever. Everything that is done is done by it. And on it we also have the red parasite crunching forever: and everything that is undone is undone by that. The parasite will present itself as a modern thing. It will call itself the Great Change. Less often, and warily, it will call itself the Great Renewal. But it can never be another thing than the Red Failure returned. It is a disease, it is a scarlet fever, a typhoid, a diphtheria; it is the Africa disease, it is the red leprosy, it is the crab-cancer. It is the death of the individual and of the corporate soul. And incidentally, but very often, it is also the death of the individual and of the corporate body. We are asked to swear fealty to the parasite disease which the enemy sowed from the beginning. I will not do it, and I hope that you will not.”
Though the Red Disease is a chronic phenomenon, it becomes acute only to prevent or distort the advent of some great good. Lafferty obviously thought that the romantic, democratic nationalism of the 19th century was, on the whole, just such a good thing (though Pius IX might have thought otherwise):
“[T]he devils stroll the earth again and infect with the red sickness. They must, at all cost to themselves, destroy the growing tendrils before such can touch the other side. For, whenever one least growing creeper touches across the interval, that means the extinction of a devil. It is a thing to be tested. Notice it that whenever there is the special shrilling, when there is the wild flinging out of catchwords to catch you in, when there are the weird exceptions and inclusions, when there are specious arguments and the murderous defamations, when all the volubility of the voltairians and the cuteness of the queers has been assembled to confound you, then one green growth has almost reached across to the other side, one devil is in danger of extinction. Oh, they will defend against that!”
One might conclude from this that the later revolutionary tradition was just the devil's way of frustrating the good work of Whiggish, democratic liberalism. This leaves us to speculate about the origins of postmodernism, which sprouted in the West just as the Whig Tradition was about to defeat its Marxist rival.
As is the way of curmudgeons, Lafferty had a disdain, rising to the point of affectation, for conventional political categories:
“[T]he opposite of radical is superficial, the opposite of liberal is stingy; the opposite of conservative is destructive.”
Predictably, his books provide little specific guidance for those sympathetic to his views. Lafferty's program for the Paris of a Hundred Persons sounds threatening, even when it is actually irenic:
“Listen now to a series of sayings that always come hard to brave people. Our task is to extirpate by prevention. Our own great movement will grow with its own impetus wherever it is not blighted. We will break up persons of blight and centers of blight. But often, and this will be the hard part for all of you to understand, we will warn and advise before we kill. And quite often we will not kill at all. Try to understand this.”
If you remove the implicit threat of mayhem, that's still sound advice.
Your reviewer would be gratified, however,
if you gave special consideration to these books.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly