www.jackvance-fr.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jacques Goimard , (c) photographie Fabienne Rose - 2002             Postface to Maske: Thaery by Jacques Goimard (1981)
 
(Translated from the French by Patrick Dusoulier, Sept. 2002)

BEHIND THE FETISH, NOTHINGNESS

Maske: Thaery is the story of a quest. From his initial concept, Jack Vance could have easily built a mystery novel: there is nothing missing, from the character of the 'inspector' down to the final explanatory chapter. Besides, we know that this author has also written several mystery novels (in particular the superb Bad Ronald) under his real name: John Holbrook Vance.

He has chosen instead, for Thaery, to give a free rein to the full luxuriance of his imagination. The vocabulary, the events, all things are streaming with the unexpected, everything progresses by seisms, all is part of the author's programme as defined by Jacques Chambon: "The evocation of the most disconcerting 'possibles'.1"

The contrast is so absolute between the theme and its treatment that one is led to think of a question asked by the same Jacques Chambon: "How can you immerse yourself in the shimmerings of imagination without losing yourself in them?2" Vance has recognised the danger, especially in the past ten years, and some of his more recent novels-Emphyrio for instance-introduce the return of realism at the heart of the dream.

This is no minor issue being raised here. Can you penetrate deeper into the real as you move farther away from it? Can you express the contrary of what you seem to be saying? Can you be what you are not? It is clear that Chambon has read Parmenides and that, contrary to so many modern critics, he is not obsessed by the surface of the texts.

Such dialectical boldness filled us with a noble desire to emulate. To cross the vast expanses of formal logic from the east to the west, and from yes to no, what a cavalcade! Carried away by a warlike fervour, we have dashed off to his pursuit. And when the time came to read again Thaery, we did it in a new light.

Naturally, we do not intend to plagiarise Chambon, and since we have stepped into his territory, we make it a point of honour to explore it backwards. He shows us how the real invades the imaginary? Very well, we will show how the imaginary sets fire to the real. This is war, sir, war!

It must be said that Thaery happens to be a recent novel (1976) and that it seems to have been written for the very purposes of our demonstration. So many ornaments, and in particular dress ornaments-festoons and astragals galore-evoke fetishism, and the interpretation that Freud gave for it in his time. Those multicoloured frills are here not to represent elements of reality, but elements that are lacking in reality.  What is actually wrapped up in the imaginary-with such luxury and extravagance-is nothingness. And the fetishist reacts as Jubal in Thaery: when Sune tells him that one can do nothing, that one must bow to reality, he replies that it is not his style, he prefers denial, whatever the cost (chapter IX).

I can hear the objection that fetishists are generally obsessed by a specific object, and that Vance, on the contrary, is a virtuoso when it comes to changes of scenery. Diversity is his drug. This means that the trinkets he uses for embellishment appear to him in their futility the very moment he produces them; occasionally, he plays at enhancing them with "authenticating" details, the better to show their artifice through a captious re-enforcement of their consistency, but this never lasts very long; soon he abandons them in search of new ones; he is condemned to invent. In short, he is an intelligent fetishist, who is aware of the hollowness of his enterprise, but still a fetishist-at least in his texts, since we make no judgement, needless to say, about Mr. Vance's sexual life.

The original title of the book-Maske: Thaery3-is a story in itself. A first reading tells us that Maske is a planet and Thaery a country on this planet; those two points are classic with Vance, and denote the link between the title of a series (Maske) and that of a novel in the series (Thaery). But a second reading is strongly urged by the author, who has barely disguised the words. Maske requires no comment; let us dwell a bit on Thaery.

We know that Edmund Spenser, an English author of the 16th century, earned fame with a poem entitled "The Faerie Queene". Thaery is primarily 'faerie', and the colon is meant to establish an equivalence: the masks-the fetishes-have as first objective to produce wonder and pleasure in the text. But thaery is also the theory, that is to say, in Greek, the vision, the spectacle, the procession (we suspect that Vance is not quite ignorant of Greek) and from there, the intellectual's outlook on the things of this world, the triumph over the world through vast syntheses and globalising vistas, the certainty that is not exempt of contempt, or at least not without some distance from objects and people. Finally, how can we omit theatre and theatricality, a word used in this novel to pillory a rejected woman in love (chapter XX)? It is true that the unfortunate girl has fallen into this state of dereliction because her lover has passed into a full state of immobility, which unsurprisingly drives her into a state of hysteria.

All in all, Thaery is a portmanteau word, and we are not confident that we have given it full justice in our translation to French: 'Thaérie', necessarily devoid of its Anglo-Saxon connotations. It is a fact that Vance does not make it easy for us: as soon as he has brought a fetish to bay, he immediately rushes forth to flush another one out. A cursive reading enabled us to spot a young girl named Theodel, whose name evokes-among other things-faithfulness, and a religious reformer answering to the name of Eus Thario, which conjures up rather clearly the concept of austerity.

We wouldn't need to go much further to add to this constellation several dozens, even hundreds of additional words echoing this mysterious proper noun, and Vance's joy is precisely in this game that he plays with words, as far as the eye, and conscience, can see: this explains, of course, the resistance that this author opposes to reductionist interpretations, and his current lack of recognition due to the fact that he is not well identified. Inventor of non-stop fetishes, Vance has not succeeded in applying to his face one that would be stable enough to satisfy some literary critics. He feels comfortable in a fancy-dress ball, less so in the 14th of July military parade.

Let us go back to the colon in the title, and the equivalence relation (or inclusion) that it creates: behind the mask, there is the variable aspect-or if you like, the portmanteau aspect-of Thaery. If we looked closer at it, we would see nothing. But do we want to look closer? Do we want to confront nonsense face to face? Of course not. Not Jack Vance (nor any other, with the notable exception of madmen). He prefers to look elsewhere, and to believe that others in his place will see sense-like those Waels "all watching something beyond Jubal's range of vision." (chapter XVII). Best, after all, is not to see anything: to step too close to a masked man is to run the risk of being blinded (chapter XIII). The principal function of the fetish is not to show, but to hide.

It is easy then to understand that Maske is rife with masks. The story begins-almost-with a man tugging down the brim of his hat to hide his identity; later, it is a woman who will pull her hood up to shadow her face; many characters act like Ramus, who "is taking pains not to be recognised" (chapter XIV), like Nai the Hever, who makes himself inaccessible, or his daughter, who is unapproachable and as if absent from inside her own body. Those who hide in shadows are traitors, as is normal, or aristocrats, as we will see later (is the haughty Mieltrude; once disguised as a ship's apprentice, still recognisable by her peers? one wonders about that in chapter XV), but the hero himself skips from identity to identity, renting a wig (chapter XII) or rubbing himself with mud and soot to darken his skin (chapter XVII).

The proper noun is no exception to the rule: is it not a mask by itself? While the grandees travel "incognito" (chapter IX), Jubal is an "anonymous hero" (chapter XII) and uses a wide variety of pseudonyms, the first of which was not of his own choice, at least. It is a fact that he is only the second son: he has almost no chance of becoming the Droad of Droad House as Nai is the Hever, and he will not cry over the dead of his family with profuse demonstrations as required by custom. But he is not a bastard like Cadmus-off-Droad4, who has no other course of action, to gain possession of the proper name and other fetishes, than murder and deceit-after which no one can meet anything but failure. In short, Jubal is an 'in-between' character, typical younger son doomed to sit below the salt and pick up the crumbs: a task he accomplishes with a lot of determination and conviction. Identity is not his as a given, he can have it only on a precarious basis and it will always be left open to doubt. In chapter XIV appears a nameless character, but when he looks at himself in the mirror, no doubt can remain: this is Jubal.

How can a society operate, where individuals find it so difficult to position themselves? It is mentioned that the masks drive the primitive Djan mad (chapter XIII) and that, even for the Thariots, there are war masks (chapter XIII), which underlines the relationship between aggressiveness and the inability to think of oneself as subject, the need to destroy and the inability to form a group. Still, this insufficiency is at the basis of many social rules; it may well be a foundation of society's cohesion. We learn that "truth offends worse than falsehood" (chapter VI) and that a good investigator "abandons a line of inquiry rather than expose himself." (chapter IX); the prosaic Eisels, haunted by a passion for money, and the wise Waels, who communicate with the beyond, have a point in common: they never tell the truth (chapter XVI). The problem is not to be sincere and a man of integrity, but to introduce oneself to strangers with a music called "Sincere Integrity" (chapter XII). In short, fetishism is not a Vance sickness, it is a historical sickness.

This is the moment to wonder whether the 'real' is coming back to Thaery; we rather feel that it has never stopped being there, that it has been freshly daubed with paint to make it invisible, and that all Vance's efforts, all his writing work, all that makes Thaery a book, consisted in this camouflage.

What to say about the Thaery country? From the beginning, Vance lays his cards on the table: its founders were immigrants with religious motivations. They rooted themselves in a long and narrow land by the ocean, separated by a mountain range from the back country, where primitives, the Djan, live (some of whom were used, in the first days of the colonisation, as perrupters in the internecine fights of the Thariots, and some still survive in Thaery, confined to reserves). They established thirteen States, initially independent, then united, although their socio-religious plan tends to reproduce the ideal of the twelve tribes of Israel, which casts a shadow upon the metaphysical legitimacy of the Thirteenth State. They began as farmers, then some of them, in the far North, became pirates, and soon merchants. In their main harbour, one still sees shops that are three of four hundred years old, which seems to correspond to the first period of colonisation (chapter IV).

The paragraph that you have just read had no other purpose than to describe Thaery; still, it can be applied, word for word, to 18th century America. The analogy is of course not so detailed (we have to render unto the imaginary what belongs to imagination), but the name of the main harbour, Wysrod, matches 'New-York' on four letters, and we also come upon magnates' names (chapter III) with a somewhat Dutch consonance: Hever mentions Hoover, Setrevant and Istvant (chapter VII) evoke Stuyvesant. As for the currency, the toldeck, it combines dollar and kopeck with a secret wink (as always with Vance).

If Thaery looks so much like America, the book that is dedicated to it might very well address-tangentially, of course-some of the central problems that America has always had to deal with. All societies are xenophobic, even the wise Waels who proclaim that "An outsider is pain to us all" (chapter XVII). All societies have their 'inside outsiders', identified as such by ambient paranoia and who, in this capacity, eventually have to choose between death and flight. Emigration, we are reminded, is a "tragic and irreversible process" (Prologue); it leads to a land where there are only immigrants, former scapegoats who want to forget (and have others forget) the past nightmare. This explains the extreme politeness which characterises Thariots as well as Americans, even if Vance adds to it a ceremonial dimension borrowed from Japan, which has no other effect than to re-enforce the fetishism that is inherent to all rituals; more generally, immigrants do everything in reverse from their country of origin, which becomes "an exemplar of everything to be avoided" (Prologue); if they have kept an inferiority complex, they vigorously deny it ("We are sadly provincial here in Thaery, probably to our great advantage" chapter VI).

But what has been repressed soon comes back to the surface, and the Thariots re-invent scapegoats: first the Djan, the Indians ("They follow. They never lead" chapter XII); then the Glints, too easily recognisable and despised; finally, the underprivileged social classes ("The brain is a remarkable organ which junior and assistant grades never use to best capacity" chapter VIII). Will those unfortunates ever be able at least to get on the road again? Impossible; Thaery is by definition the land of scapegoats, and its own scapegoats have no business elsewhere. Elsewhere is "outward" (not even worthy of a capital initial), and "The Alien Influences Act [...]proscribes the return of emigrants." (chapter I). It is rather easy to see that there is something political underneath; emigration is a crime, full stop.

Thus does the Thariot society set some of its members on the fringes, members who are granted neither the right to be within, or to be without. This society has solidified into castes; the grandees are naturally quietly ensconced in their privileges, and opposed to any change. Of their contempt for others, Vance draws his own rather contemptuous portrait: "Nothing anyone says can be taken at face value" (chapter III), "Each of us must, so to speak, play a dozen instruments together, in this magnificent concert which is our contemporary life" (chapter III); " Are not [...]intricacy or elaboration [...] our first line of defence against low-caste parvenus?" (chapter III); one cannot talk to them: "Expostulation, irony, any sort of vehemence: all were equally pointless" (chapter V); one cannot even blame them for being wrong: "Her errors have taught her wisdom" (chapter VIII). Such a society might have been described by Frank Herbert (who is, incidentally, a friend of Jack). There are laws, but the essence of power belongs to justice-as in the United States-and its procedural nature barely conceals its arbitrariness: law is here to accommodate people's desires, especially when they are powerful. Vance gives us a few examples of the purest water (chapter VII).

This arthrosis of the social body coincides with overpopulation; it is now impossible for the young people to become heroes through the old virtues, will, "energy, forthrightness, and candor" (chapter II). They manage with utmost difficulty to get an ill-paid job (chapter VI) and bitterly realise that their time "is of the least possible value" (chapter VII): "Already I feel an old man" moans Jubal (chapter VI), even if Vance adds humorous quote marks to indicate that he does not really believe what his character is telling him. This illness seems general even if it is little mentioned in the text, and the strollers in Wysrod appear as "dark shapes, musing upon their private affairs" (chapter VI) behind the masks, Narcissus-like. Those who, like Jubal, want to be allowed to "work out [their] rage" (chapter II) seem to be in better health than the others, even if it is likely that trouble is awaiting them.

Where to find an exit door? The book suggests several, all outside of Thaery. Jubal's trip among the Eisels suggests an analogy. A blazing sun, palm trees, blinds, a life turned to music, sex and good food, an economy centred upon tourism, fleecing the passing guest being turned into an art, a dedication to selling souvenirs and sports cars (sorry: space yachts!), all this reminds of Italy. Jubal arrives in a ship after a stopover at Frinsse (France?); he stays at the Hotel Gandolfo which looks like Castelgandolfo, and which incidentally is a " seven-smiles hotel", the most luxurious in the Galaxy; there, he looks for a certain Ramus, evocative of Rome, and who has many affinities with Eiselbar, even if he is not native to the planet.

Still, we know that Italy, from the American point of view, is not only reminiscent of tourism, but also evokes the American Italians, and particularly some of them, the highly mythical ones. Some of the "mechanical game-rooms" (chapter X) remind us of Las Vegas, and therefore the Mafia and Sicily, which evokes also the name of the inhabitants: the Eisels. We notice their gregarious character and their attachment to the patriarchal family: "A child born into an Eisel family incurs a birth-debt, which eventually must be paid to his parents" (chapter IX). They are in love with money: according to them, a stranger's quality is gauged "only by the depth of his pocketbook" (chapter XII) and their capital city is built around a "Boulevard of Mercantic Visions" (chapter XI), visions that we could call both mercantic and ecstatic. Vance also specifies that they have replaced handicraft with industrial processes (chapter XII), which does not match our idea of Italy, but goes well with the Mafia evolution since 1950. Their alienation, less novel than it seems, can be summed up with one statement: " Property is life" (chapter IX). Their methods to industrialise tourism remind us of Las Vegas, indeed, but also of Disneyland and the whole American concept of organised leisure. Eiselbar is one of the provinces of an ideal America, less complete than Thaery but as similar, whatever Vance may think. A real fetishist like him cannot be insensitive to the theatrical sense that is being displayed there; nevertheless, he criticises fairly clearly the Eisels for alienating people in their leisure time, that is to say in whatever remains of their freedom, and for standardising art to make it contribute to this alienation. Such an escapism is in fact hard labour.

Second journey, second exit door: Wellas. We don't really know where the Waels come from: they might originate from an ancient crossbreeding between Thariots and Djan, but those are distinct species and all known couplings have been sterile; some even say that a crossbreeding of men and trees is at the root of their existence. We may well think that those mysterious Waels will be explored in a more methodical fashion in a future novel. In the meanwhile, they despise worldly goods and spend their time growing jin trees and dancing in the groves. What for? "To assert Now, and work it into the same substance as Then"5 (chapter XVII). It is not unlikely that the most advanced among them may acquire the power to change themselves into trees, to attain a sort of nirvana: such would be the characteristic of those that Jack calls the Sen, a name that echoes Zen Buddhism. The whole is evocative of Asian spirituality, more specifically the Indian one, but the undersigned has not found as obvious and solid a network of correspondences as that found for America and Italy. Another province of ideal America, perhaps, located in South California, may have been intended. In any case, the message is clear: the exit through Wellas is not possible because the Waels do not want you. They could not care less about your agitation and your desires. If you go and disturb them, they throw you out quick and proper, and if you have really exceeded the limits, they will inflict upon you an apotheosis that will be a torture for you.

The third exit is the journey itself. Shrack, the old sailor, reminds us of a certain Jack Vance, who was a sailor before his marriage. Maske's sailors are exclusively traders; each one lives alone aboard his ship, torn between a feeling of "futility" and the certainty that "trade is profitable" (chapter XV). On Maske, the current flows in one direction only, and the sailor can only leave: when he feels tired of Wysrod, he heads south and sails around the world. Nothing to do with the rigidity of life in Thaery: "variety is the more typical situation" (chapter XV). This programme is precisely that of Jack Vance's œuvre; it does not prevent the journey from ending, since Maske is round and we find Wysrod at the end of the "Long Ocean". There is a sort of stability in the unstable: life at sea is a real life, and the sailors form a sort of nation-they are called the Nationals-which claims a monopoly of the sea, with Taery's tacit agreement. These "Nationals" are at the same time inside and outside; they may well be the staunchest support of an imperial aspiration, to which no one else but them subscribes. We also see here an aspect of ideal America, well known since Melville and familiar to Vance. The sailors are Nationals without a nation, who take their nothingness out on a boundless fetish: the sea. Ramus uses them as a means of transport without realising that the transport is more than a means-let us say: the medium is the message. Vance will inflict upon Ramus what is to him the utmost punishment: immobility (chapter XX). It is true that you cannot really be mobile until you have achieved perpetual motion, by sailing round the Long Ocean.

In summary, Vance takes us across a dual imaginary geography: Earth and America. At the same time, he takes us through political and geographical 'possibles'. He never stops digging further and further into the painful secret that makes America languish. He is so unpretentious that he mentions, in passing, about two-thirds of the book, and without coming back to it later, what seems to be his personal solution. But are there personal solutions to a historical issue? In this domain, we all look like this Ramus whose "desires exceed his capabilities" (chapter XI) because what he desires, as a good fetishist, is to give existence to nothingness. The only true solution is yet to dream of fetishes, and write about them. Ramus' first punishment is to be unmasked and to remain silent (chapter XVIII). Let us hope that this situation, which is that of death, may long be spared to Vance. As to his books, we have no concern whatsoever: they are not likely to fall silent for a very long time.  

1 Le Livre d'Or de !a Science-fiction: Jack Vance. Presses Pocket, 1981, p. 13

2 Ibid., p. 29

3 The French title is not an exact translation, which explains this remark by Jacques Goimard. The French title is "Un Tour en Thaérie", which literally means "A Trip around Thaery." (Translator's Note)

4 This bastard happens to be the cousin of a genealogist, Zochrey Cargus. With Vance, humour is ever present-a humour based on contradiction and which thereby reflects the author's position: genealogies are always a fetish of bastardy.

5 This declaration of faith is in complete opposition to that of the Thariots: "The past is never real, [...] the flux of events is the present" (chapter XIII)


red24_up.gif    I Home I Forum I Site Map I


© Jacques Garin 1998-2002