Goodbye Storyteller: RIP Lucius Shepard

By Spencer Cawein Pate

Lucius Shepard was one of the most passionate individuals I have ever known. He was passionate about his writing, passionate about music and film, and passionate about political activism. With Lucius, the distinction between life, fiction, and genre collapsed entirely; he was as adept at spinning tales about his own colorful and peripatetic life as he was at telling stories–beautiful, stunning, heartbreaking stories–through the medium of literature. Lucius was, of course, a marvelous prose stylist, but I think I prefer to remember him by his outsized personality and presence, by the moral courage (indeed, moral outrage–a raging against the dying of the light) that animated much of his best work. Both his fiction and nonfiction enlarged my mind and enriched my life in so many ways. By way of belated tribute, I would like to post the moving final paragraphs of his classic story “A Spanish Lesson” (which can be found in his collections The Jaguar Hunter and The Best of Lucius Shepard). May his fiction forever “resonate beyond the measure of the page.”

“Some years ago a friend of mine, a writer and a teacher of writing, told me that my stories had a tendency to run on past the climax, and that I frequently ended them with a moral, a technique he considered outmoded. He was, in the main, correct. But it occurs to me that sometimes a moral–whether or not clearly stated by the prose–is what provides us with the real climax, the good weight that makes the story resonate beyond the measure of the page. So, in this instance, I will go contrary to my friend’s advice and tell you what I learned, because it strikes me as being particularly applicable to the American consciousness, which is insulated from much painful reality, and further because it relates to a process of indifference that puts us all at risk.

“When the tragedies of others become for us diversions, and stories with which to enthrall our friends, interesting bits of data to toss out at cocktail parties, a means of presenting a pose of political concern, or whatever…when this happens we commit the gravest of sins, condemn ourselves to ignominy, and consign the world to a dangerous course. We begin to justify our casual overview of pain and suffering by portraying ourselves as do-gooders incapacitated by the inexorable forces of poverty, famine, and war. ‘What can I do?’ we say. ‘I’m only one person, and these things are beyond my control. I care about the world’s trouble, but there are no solutions.’

“Yet no matter how accurate this assessment, most of us are relying on it to be true, using it to mask our indulgence, our deep-seated lack of concern, our pathological self-involvement. In adopting this attitude we delimit the possibilities for action by letting events progress to a point at which, indeed, action becomes impossible, at which we can righteously say that nothing can be done. And so we are born, we breed, we are happy, we are sad, we deal with consequential problems of our own, we have cancer or a car crash, and in the end our actions prove insignificant. Some will tell you that to feel guilt or remorse over the vast inaction of our society is utter foolishness; life, they insist, is patently unfair, and all anyone can do is to look out for his own interest. Perhaps they are right; perhaps we are so mired in our self-conceptions that we can change nothing. Perhaps this is the way of the world. But, for the sake of my soul and because I am no longer wish to hide my sins behind a guise of moral incapacity, I tell you it is not.”

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