Cabell, The High Place illustration, Pape

The literature of contracts with the Devil — “selling one’s soul”; making a “Faustian bargain” — is vast. The Wikipedia article on the subject does not mention, however, a seed element to this literature: dealings with Faërie. The fey folk also made dangerous dealings with common folk, old legends relate, and their stories are many if not varied.

This came to mind last night as I watched one of the later episodes of the first season of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, a terrific fantasy series to be found on Netflix. Mr. Strange inadvertently makes a deal — is tricked into a binding contract — with a powerful fairy, the Gentleman, played magnificently by Marc Warren. And he loses his wife in the bargain.

In many of these stories, one is often bound to a contract in terms very much like duress or with minimal knowledge, often of the transaction itself.

It strikes me that this oeuvre presents a major theme in not only literature but also anthropology and history. The theme resonates because of the fear of contract itself, the fear of contractual relations as distinct from familiar and tribal relations.

Now, the power of contract is in its stickiness. We are bound to the contracts we make not merely by convention, but by our very own performances. Because we consent, we have little standing to object to the enforcement of a contract’s term, no matter how opprobrious it may come to seem.

And long-term contracts — terms with a time element, in which events can go very wrong and thus be very risky — are especially dangerous. So it is no wonder that the literature of dealings with dread powers has flourished.

But isn’t it more than that? This is my bleg: Is there literary or other criticism that treats these stories as expressions of a general fear of market order, of the open society itself?

I am not aware of this kind of analysis.

Yet it makes sense. Traditional society is not dominated by exchange contracts. Or insurance contracts. Family, clan, tribe, and village all depend on looser arrangements of gift exchange, straightforward coöperation, and command hierarchies . . . with honor codes as a means of social control. These come naturally to our species. As Herbert Spencer and F. A. Hayek both argued, our primeval evolution best adapted us to these older forms of social coördination.

But we seem to be alone in the animal kingdom in making bargains of a more cognitively complicated sort, trades of differing items and services. Sure, monkeys groom one another — you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. But our reciprocal services can get elaborate and conceptually more difficult the more we opt for explicit trades — I scratch your back, you give me firewood.

And these sorts of trades can quickly take on a life of their own. They unsettle normal patterned social behavior. They seem “anti-social” from the perspective of straightforward coöperation, where we all pull together to achieve a common goal. In exchange, we work separately-but-discretely-together to obtain distinct, even divergent goals.

It is no wonder that trading, like thieving and combat, was mostly reserved for dealing with others, outside of the in-group. Trades along a time dimension — especially loans with interest — are often prohibited for in-groups: Jews, Christians and Muslims have all had to deal with these ancient prohibitions. And, on the North American continent prior to the arrival of European settlers and conquistadors, trade was mainly a lively inter-tribal affair, one of four characteristic inter-tribal dealings, the others being combat, exogamy, and gambling. Indeed, when you realize how closely associated these activities are associated, in our minds, with each other and with activities to folks one often has reasons to distrust, the common catallactophobia makes perfect sense.

Making the dealings with Darker Powers an elegant way to express and handle such fears.

As well as warn a person to Be Careful when making deals.

If you have any knowledge of the critical literature on these kinds of stories as they relate to the fear of a society of contract, please advise.

twv

N.B. The illustration at top is by Frank C. Papé, for James Branch Cabell’s classic tale of dangerous dealings, The High Place (1923; subtitled A Comedy of Disenchantment and published in 1928 in the definitive Storisende edition).

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