« December 2010 | Main | February 2011 »

January 14, 2011


Paul Krugman

the lavishness of a conference and its intellectual quality are almost perfectly negatively correlated.

A Sociology of Jack Vance IV - The Old Tradition of the Perdusz Region

The discussion, in Cugel's Saga between Cugel and the sinister magician Faucelme is classic Vancean baroque. Forewarned by inscriptions, Cugel takes the precaution of tying Faucelme up with a rope before entering his manse.

"And the ropes?" Faucelme looked down at the web of strands which bound him into the chair.

"I would not care to offend you with the explanation," said Cugel.

"Would the explanation offend me more than the ropes?"

Cugel frowned and tapped his chin. "Your question is more profound than it might seem, and verges into the ancient analyses of the Ideal versus the Real."

Faucelme sighed. "Tonight I have no zest for philosophy. You may answer my question in terms which proximate the Real."

"In all candour, I have forgotten the question," said Cugel.

"I will re-phrase it in words of simple structure. Why have you tied me to my chair, rather than entering by the door?"

"At your urging then, I will reveal an unpleasant truth. Your reputation is that of a sly and unpredictable villain with a penchant for morbid tricks."

Later, after Faucelme has freed himself, and an uneasy equilibrium has been established, the conversation turns on the power of social norms.

Faucelme stood back and held up his hands in the manner of one who dissembles nothing. "Is this the conduct of a 'sly and unpredictable villain?'"

"Decidedly so, if the villain, for the purposes of his joke, thinks to simulate the altruist."

"Then how will you know villain from altruist?"

Cugel shrugged. "It is not an important distinction."

Faucelme seemed to pay no heed; his mercurial intellect was already exploring a new topic. "I was trained in the old tradition! We found our strength in the basic verities, to which you, as a patrician, must surely subscribe. Am I right in this?"

"Absolutely, and in all respects" declared Cugel. "Recognizing, of course, that these fundamental verities vary from region to region, and even from person to person."

The sociological point about the malleability of purportedly universal norms is so obvious as scarcely merit further elaboration. What are interesting (and entirely typical of Vance) are the guiding assumptions of Faucelme and Cugel's discourse. Neither is at all interested in the other's actual motivations - Cugel admits his indifference as to whether Faucelme is an actual altruist or merely a villain simulating one. Instead, each seeks to rhetorically entrap the other while preserving an optimum of flexibility for himself. This logic of discourse is familiar - it is the strategic approach of the Breakness wizards, as presented in The Languages of Pao. What was depicted there as a pathology here becomes the guiding philosophy of Cugel and nearly everyone whom he comes into contact with. "Fundamental verities" - like everything else - become a way of seeking to constrain others while remaining free oneself.

Many of the rococo elaborations of Vance's prime work are prefigured in his early novels. The somewhat crudely depicted society of people seeking distinction so as to avoid early death in To Live Forever is a toy model of his baroque civilizations of strivers in novels such as Night Lamp, with its ludicrously entitled collectivities. However, The Languages of Pao is more than that - it openly reveals and discusses the machineries of conversation that Vance is at pains to conceal in his later, better novels. When Cugel and Faucelme vie to trap each other into conversational dead ends, they each carry out a version of Palafox's program. It is the interplay between these undercurrents of discourse, and the ornate sentences through which they are made flow that make Vance's dialogues so entertaining.