The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeny

The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeny is the other half of the book Apocalypses, which confuses the issue of whether this, and its companion, Where Have You Been, Sandaliotis? should be treated as novels at all. But if you accord that status to one, you must do so to both, and hence we will now look at the latter tale, without assessing it in the light of its front material. Besides, they have nothing in common except an author.
Where Sandaliotis is a tale, a story, a progression of events, The Three Armageddons is an account, an annal, a description, almost a documentary. Everything that happens in it has already happened and is being presented to us from without and afterwards. That means that this is a very static story, a very simple one, albeit almost fractal, as its details show, and given to a degree of repetition.
Enniscorthy Sweeny himself is a strange one, but can’t that be said of every Lafferty character? Outwardly, he is a composer, of musicals, plays and Operas, specifically in the latter case of the Armageddon Tryptich, three increasingly large operas, of murder, war, ruin and destruction, each one nine times more destructive than its predecessor. These Armageddons are entertainments, fictions. They show things that have not taken place, but they infect an otherwise healthy, happy, balanced world with the same poisons as if they were real, the same psychic diseases. Sweeny’s Operas are killing the world.
Because these three Armageddons are set in 1914, 1939 and 1984, and the first two of them are of course the World Wars, and the third is a total destruction that will end the world forever.
Sweeny has the power to change reality, it seems, to alter it to be as he wants it. Among the things for which he is responsible is the election of America’s first black President, Harold Standpipe, in 1900, and the election of Pope Kirol 1, not to mention turning his love and future wife, Mary Margaret into the most beautiful woman in the world and a great Opera star, despite her being unable to sing.
These things Sweeny, a skinny, red-faced, skin-peeling Irish kid, can do to change the world’s actual direction, but his greatest achievement, or perhaps his greatest sin, is his ability to absorb things of greatest destruction, the Twentieth Century’s worst events, into an innocuous form, into Opera, so that these should not affect the world itself. In addition to the Armageddon Tryptich, Sweeney also produces such entertainments as ‘Prohibition – A Farce’ and the extremely successful ‘The Great Depression’.
Just what are we reading here? That’s a question that often gets asked about a Lafferty story, whatever its length. The Three Armageddons is divided into eleven Sections, each of which takes a different part in the kaleidoscopic approach, seeing Sweeny from all angles, some of which don’t appear to conform to conventional geometry. Some of the story, a lot of the story, consists of philosophical explorations, some are letters, some almost traditional thriller material.
Sweeny is identified as the answer to some complex mathematical equations that identify him as the Twentieth Century’s most influential individual, and three mathematicians in particular, one of them dead, decide that he must be killed to stop him. At the same time, three demons, possibly with off-world connections, decide that he must go on and that he will be killed if he tries to stop. So six detectives, in two groups of three, are needed to protect Sweeny, amidst hazy plots and counterplots, until all twelve are too old and have to come live with Sweeny to keep an eye on each other.
But the story suffers from being seen in this external, achronological fashion. It constantly raises questions and resolutely fails to answer these, in part because of the old dilemma that the provision of answers to the improbable is inherently limiting and almost inevitably diminishing, and in part because the story itself consists of very few events or actions, and pretty much all of these symbolic rather than actual.
What inspires Lafferty, we conclude, is the idea of the major disasters of our century being displaced into fictions, amusements, Opera, of the world without the damage these have done, and the question of whether we really can escape the effects of these by pretending they didn’t exist. This is a book where one must decide for oneself the extent to which he succeeds in his purpose.
It’s interesting to see how Lafferty approaches the third Armageddon, the one that is due to take place in 1984 (I have no information on when The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeny was written, but the book Apocalypses was published in 1977). This Armageddon is the one that didn’t happen, hadn’t happened, that is made up out of whole cloth. Raphael Aloysius Lafferty was a deep-thinking and old-fashioned Catholic and a strongly Conservative thinker. Though he was adopted by the mostly left-oriented ‘New Wave’ of SF in the Sixties, his principles, opinions and beliefs ran counter to the counterculture and the tendencies that he depicts as leading to the Third Armageddon, the victims of its ravaging, the War that is eighty-one times worse than the First Armageddon, are drawn from the world he saw before him and did not approve of. There are clear references to abortion and euthanasia in his summary, though this is presented in a manner that reminds me now of Dave Sim and the final ‘book’ of Cerebus, the one in which he goes OTT in his extrapolation of the trends he sees around him, the so-called feminist-homosexualist agenda.
Lafferty’s not so extreme, nor so ridiculous as Sim, but there is the sense of someone letting go with his prejudices, and I with my principles, opinions nd beliefs must find myself disagreeing.
So I’d only give this story a guarded response. It has much in it that is prime Lafferty but, for me, it fails to cohere – almost inevitable in a story told in an anti-cohering manner. But what the hey? You can’t read Where Have You Been, Sandaliotis? without acquiring The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeny, and you wouldn’t be a decent and authentic reader if you didn’t start reading the back half of the book, would you?

8 thoughts on “The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeny

  1. The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeney is a very difficult novel. Lafferty was unrelenting in his approach, giving us a narrative comprised of glimpses, interviews, reflections, and reflections of reflections. Nowhere does he straight away tell us what happened. That he leaves up to us.

    A couple of takeaways for me:

    1. It is a novel about consensus reality, the idea that because enough people believe the world is as it is, it always has been that way, even if it wasn’t just as recently as last week. In this respect, it is closely related to PKD’s The Man in the High Castle, where the alternate reality of the US and the Allies winning WW 2 was the real track, even though no-one believed it, and the world reconformed to the popular belief.

    2. I vaguely remember reading an interview where Lafferty said that the people of the world acted as if they didn’t believe the atrocities of the two World Wars had happened. So he wrote a novel exploring what would happen if they did start to believe in them.

    3. I loved the bit about Harold Standpipe!

    I blogged about it some years ago:

  2. That’s a very thought-provoking interpretation, and one I admit I had never considered. I shall need to re-read Armageddons again with that in mind. Perhaps I am the naive one in thinking that after two hellish wars that ceased before I was born, yet which have made me a determined pacifist, that the people of the world think generally as I do. Yet wars are made by those who never risk fighting in them, and who have neither care nor thought for those who do, and these people control the means of propaganda and ensure their poison is all we hear. If only we did act as if enough really was enough, instead of as if War and Destruction was nothing but an entertainment, an Opera.

  3. Most definitely not a simple novel. I don’t know how many times I’ve reread it, or how many new layers have been revealed with rereading.One thing that’s clear is that the more often you read it, the more ambiguities you turn up in every episode, practically in every sentence. Is Enniscorthy Sweeney a villain or a hero? It’s hard to find a moment at which he isn’t both. Is he innocent or guilty? Incident by incident, the worst consequences of his actions can be seen as both self-chosen and imposed from without.
    If you’re familiar with Lafferty’s integrated cycle of stories, you’ll know that 1984 is described elsewhere as the year of an apparent end of the world that was more an unusually catastrophic interruption. (In fact that’s true of every end of the world in his fiction, and there are quite a few, the earliest chronologically being the fall of Rome.
    I think it’s easy to make too much of abortion and euthanasia as the nexus of the final apocalypse, which is a bloody war that has burst the usual boundaries of war–something very like the War of All Against All.

      1. I’ll have to read that. But after the amount of time I’ve lived under Tory Governments in Britain, I will admit to being a thoroughgoing cynic. Is that why?

  4. Oh no, one thing I didn’t get wrong is to suggest that this was in any way simple. If anything, the structure is a summary of an infinite number of novels, each of which exist in only fractal form. And I wholly agree that Sweeney is nowhere definable as one thing or another. It’s impossible to pin him down to one existence when he stretches across so mny and takes different forms in each.

    One thing I tried to avoid was drawing rhe obvious inference from 1984 but that was still future period when Armageddons appeared. Your reference to the War of All Against All has a lot going for it: what else might be nine times worse than World War 2, especially given the anticipated threat of Nuclear Destruction in that time? I still find some significance in that abortion and euthanasia are the only factors specified and, given my status as an atheist – and a former protestant – it is obvious that I would react to those.

    It’s curious how I so deeply love Laff’s works and have done over 45 years now, when our beliefs are so radically different.

    1. That, the radical disparity in beliefs and worldview, is at the core of a lot of Lafferty fandom. I am an ardent pacifist, generally left-leaning believer in the public good, and noncommittal atheist. And I count myself among the 200 or 300 most rabid Lafferty fans in the world, always have! I am happy to disagree with hime when he writes in such a way that invites me to think and ponder the mysteries his stories are steeped in. I am less happy when he portrays two-dimensional hippie dystopias based on a straw man portrayal of supposed liberal beliefs. But even in stories like “Ishmael Into the Barrens” I can seriously dig his craft.

      1. Point of interest: another English Lafferty fan who I used to have dealings with once told me there’s probably only about 300 of us all together (and at least 25% of them are fellow-writers, it seems to me). Any truth in that?

        And whilst I’m at it, do you know anyone who has a copy of The Back Door of History or Cranky Old Man from Tulsa they want to sell for less than a Bank balance breaking sum?

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