An ideal state

Amgueddfa Cymru, Caerdydd

Inverted Commas 10: Ideal City

1. Steal Nothing, whether it be an abstract idea or another life.
2. Examine Everything.
3. Pay a Fair Price.

These are the laws of the city state in the Valley of the Golden Cloud, from Michael Moorcock’s fantasy The War Hound and the World’s Pain (1981). The city guard who announces this adds,

“And remember, to lie is to steal another soul’s freedom of action, or some fragment of it. Here a liar and a thief are the same thing.”

As Captain Ulrich von Bek suggests, these laws sound excellent, even ideal, to which his companion Sedenko adds, “And simple.”

Yet, as the guard rejoins, they sometimes require complex interpretation. Which then leads von Bek to muse that it had been many years since he’d been able to believe in absolute justice, and some weeks since he’d believed in justice of any kind. He’s been living through the Thirty Years War after all — and we seem to be living through an equally tumultuous period of modern history, with similar concerns about justice.

Underneath its layers of sword-and-sorcery Moorcock’s fantasy is a novel of ideas, however superficially expressed. In this apparently ideal city in the Mittelmarch the protagonist finds it hard to subscribe to idealism. He is sceptical when the fifteen year old Queen Xiombarg XXV tells the travellers

Here we believe neither in Heaven nor in Hell. We worship no gods or devils. We believe only in moderation. We are satisfied with this state of things. Reason is not subsumed by sentiment here. The two are balanced.

Ulrich retorts that he has always found balance “a nostalgic dream”, and that in reality it can be very dull. Despite the existence here of music, painting and plays, he asserts that such ideas of moderation require no true struggle: “Thus they defeat human aspiration.”

Though young people from the state go outside to learn of human misery, of pain and of defeat, the Queen patiently explains that “they bring their experience back. Here, in tranquillity, it is considered and forms the basis of our philosophy.”

Captain von Bek’s final thoughts are that the inhabitants “possess the complacency of the privileged.” It is a damning judgement; doubly damning because the irony is that the Valley of the Golden Cloud exists in the Mittelmarch, a borderland which is neither of this world, nor yet of Heaven or Hell, so that the inhabitants are neither damned nor not-damned.

In early medieval Europe lands which bordered established states were termed marches, ruled in what was in time to become a united Germany by marcher lords called margraves. Von Bek’s travels through Mittelmarch (which came close to some of these fluctuating borderlands of history) therefore was a journey through debatable lands.

The Valley of the Golden Valley turns out to be a kind of European Shangri-la (in what we assume are the Alps instead of the Himalayas) but, as a mountain-locked Utopian Neverland, is it too idealised to ever be true? And does it have drawbacks that are not at first evident?

Let’s have another quick glance at those laws:

1. Steal Nothing, whether it be an abstract idea or another life.
Surely there’s nothing controversial here? Though it does imply ownership, and maybe — as the state is ruled by a young unelected queen — it’s more capitalist constitutional monarchy than communitarian polity.

2. Examine Everything.
This suggests a level of personal and societal critique, does it not, and probably scientific curiosity: no bad thing I would imagine, unless it leads only to navel-gazing.

3. Pay a Fair Price.
This implies that profiteering is frowned on, and is perhaps a reinforcement of the first law. But it’s hard to imagine that human greed, along with intellectual laziness, has no presence in this Valley.

Which may be where the guard’s admission of complex interpretation being necessary comes in.

Ulrich’s scepticism regarding this state’s ideal of balance between Reason and Sentiment centres on what he calls a nostalgic dream becoming very dull. From their clothes Ulrich guesses that the inhabitants are literally living in the past because fashions are from two or three centuries earlier. The Myth of a Golden Age, a Land of Cockaigne or Eden before the Fall doesn’t take into account human aspiration, he suggests.

I’d go further: it doesn’t take account of the primitive limbic system of human beings, and principally the amygdala, seat of emotions. When it comes to the crunch, basic emotions take precedence over rational thought, meaning that the balance sought by Queen Xiombarg’s citizens will always be precarious.

No wonder the simple laws of the Valley state require complex interpretation. Especially when the penalty for law-breaking is either banishment — or death.

I wrote about the significance of liminal spaces such as marches in this post. My review of this novel was posted here.

20 thoughts on “An ideal state

  1. Hmm, I’ve not read any Moorcock, I’m not sure why. You’ve tempted me to this – good job we’re not living in the Valley of the Golden Cloud. I do like utopia and/or dystopian tales.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s hard to categorise this novel, Cath, as you may have noticed! Just as it’s fantasy not SF, magic realism not historical, pastiche but not parody, faintly philosophical but not outright sword-and-sorcery, it too is a bit of dystopia (17th-century Europe) while not utopian (the Valley). That standing astride several genres is what appealed to me, I suppose, and what may appeal to you too. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve noted recommended books in past diaries too, but the trouble I’ve not checked them since! However, I not so recently started a list in a notebook app on my phone, and have already deleted a couple of titles because they’ve now been read.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. earthbalm

    I’ve tried to read Moorcock several times but failed and I don’t know why. Currently I’m reading the rather good “The Difference Engine” one of the prototypal Steam Punk novels. I didn’t enjoy “Neuromancer” but I’m loving this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The name The Difference Engine rings bells, or is that because I’ve heard of Charles Babbage? I’ve not found Moorcock an easy read in the past but this was quite accessible, worth a bit more than a glance if you come across it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. earthbalm

        Was enjoying “The Difference Engine” loads and it is loosely based on the ideas of Babbage. But, I arrived at the middle of the book and found some rather gratuitous ‘adult’ content. I suspect (and hope) that it’s integral to the plot! Have read past it now and I’m enjoying the book again.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’m always curious why gratuitous and detailed sex is thrown into a novel: would an author gratuitously throw in the minutiae of other bodily functions like blowing one’s nose, going to the toilet or worse if it wasn’t integral to the plot? If Martin Luther’s constipation was instrumental in kick starting the Reformation (as many argue) I might want to hear about it, but not otherwise…

          Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it is. I have a memory of a James Blish novel about the medieval thinker Roger Bacon, but haven’t managed to get my hands on a copy to reread it (I think it was a library copy I read) but that certainly was like this, speculative fiction rooted in some kind of historical reality and fizzing with ideas.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Haven’t read Blish in a while, and certainly not seen his reissued works in bookshops or on lending library shelves. But will look out for the title you mentioned, sure to appear in a charity or secondhand bookshop!

          By the way, somehow to-ing and fro-ing daughter hasn’t yet got us remembering the book pile you kindly proffered—sometime soon, hopefully!

          Liked by 1 person

  3. To be eternally satisfied with the state of things seems contradictory to human nature, as it limits imagination, aspirations, and any visions of improvement. But then, moderation is not the same as satisfaction with how things are; I’d suggest a bit of confusion in regards to the tenets of stoicism somehow creeped into the realm of Mittlemarch, or, possibly, Middleground 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m glad to have been of some help, Sandra. I’m reminded of the lines from The Tempest:
      “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.”
      Life itself is liminal, the march lands between pre-existence and annihilation, a dream within a sleep in which we remember nothing.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Well, my friend, you got my noggin a’rockin’ in this early morning hour. 🙂 Excellent post!

    The beauty of simplicity is nigh unattainable because *we* are so rarely simple. We are not of a hive-mind; therefore, complex interpretations are inevitable–complex, *conflicting* interpretations…which, I suppose, comes into play in these novels, as such situations often do–the simple, elegant system disrupted by human nature…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We all know there are no ideal systems, political or otherwise, because there are always at least a couple of Jokers in every deck, and every court card or suit hoping to play the Joker”s role at some stage or another. Communism, free market, despotism, universal suffrage — there are downsides to each and every one and they often come in the shape of a rogue player. Glad this post chimed in with your thoughts, Jean, you know that in an increasingly polarised world it gets harder to find agreement!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh indeed. It only takes one stone to make ripples on the entire pond…
        I’ve always thought the world would be pretty boring if everyone felt the same on everything. Besides, I like talking to you! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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