Erudition, knavery & tupperware: A new book on cunning hails the attribute as our greatest means of self-preservation, a starting point for human ingenuity and a very useful tool for selling plastic food containers
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 28 February 2006)

Don Herzog, an imaginative law professor at the University of Michigan, states the purpose of his sparkling new book with clarity and ambition: "I want to sharpen our grasp of cunning, to reckon with its twists and turns, allures and horrors, insights and blindnesses." He's written Cunning (Princeton University Press) as a walk around his subject, poking it here and there to see what it reveals. After all, it's sinful, some might say, but it's also necessary.

In 1990, Henry Petroski's The Pencil introduced the era of the one-word title. It was followed by, among others, Richard Wolkomir's Cod, Larry Zuckerman's The Potato, and (my favourite) Simon Garfield's Mauve: How One Man Invented a Colour that Changed the World.

Herzog doesn't say his subject changed the world, though it would be hard to imagine the world without it. He lets cunning lead us toward a broadened idea of human behaviour. He casts a wide net, from Odysseus and Machiavelli to the unconscious cunning of jazz solos by John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. He discovers Charles Darwin exclaiming over the almost incredible cunning of fur-bearing animals in avoiding traps. He finds Dashiell Hammett writing a love letter to Lillian Hellman in a cunning form of surrealistic prose.

The evolution of the word "cunning" suggests that a history could be written through changing word-meanings. In the 14th century, "cunning" meant erudition, and in the 16th Sir Thomas More described virtues such as "chastity, liberality, temperance, cunning." But perhaps English speakers noticed that wisdom could be put to corrupt ends. They shifted the adjective from the Positive column to the Negative.

By the 18th century it clearly meant knavery. The sentimental 19th century added a new meaning -- appealing, sweet. Dickens in Martin Chuzzlewit tells us of tea served with "cunning teacakes." By 1887 it described a child who was "piquantly interesting." Today, a more blatant use emerges: A British ad agency called Cunning promises "guerrilla marketing," boasting British Airways and Levi's as clients.

Cunning is essential to some. A poker player lacking it would be comically inept. A politician who presented the same face to all his followers would be unique in history as well as unsuccessful. And then there's law, an industry grounded in cunning. This worried James Boswell, a lawyer, so he asked his idol, Samuel Johnson, about legal ethics. Boswell feared that simulating strong feelings or stating something you don't believe might distort the moral sense, making a lawyer immoral in his private life. Johnson replied: "Why no, Sir. Everybody knows you are paid for affecting warmth for your client; and it is, therefore, properly no dissimulation." Artifice used in law needn't be carried into private life. An acrobat paid for walking on his hands won't therefore walk on his hands when he's expected to walk on his feet.

The urge to be cunning creates duplicity among the adroit and the stupid alike. How many of us have the wit to be sure we are cunning? The people who organized Paul Martin's calamitous takeover of the Liberal Party all considered themselves cunning. La Rochefoucauld wrote in 17th-century France that the best way to be deceived is to consider yourself more cunning than your neighbours. But Herzog points out that Tupperware succeeded by appeals so obvious that he doesn't know whether to laugh or cry. "People need to express themselves," its brochures announced. "And one of the best ways is by putting on a Tupperware party."

Cunning is the art that reaches perfection only in secret. The true virtuoso, like the perfect bank robber, will never be recognized for his skill. Instead they will give his name to university buildings.

As Herzog says, the cunning learn how to mimic the virtuous. And the clever mimic the dull ("Do you suppose you fellows could teach me a bit about this game of poker you're playing?") That creates layers of ambiguous identities, like the mirrored personalities of double agents. Groucho Marx, as Rufus T. Firefly in Duck Soup, offers reassurance: "Gentlemen, Chicolini here may talk like an idiot, and look like an idiot, but don't let that fool you. He really is an idiot." To what extent, Herzog asks, does Tammy Faye Bakker's elaborately contrived make-up define her? Would she still be Tammy if her face were unadorned?

Popular culture wants us to think we can identify liars by facial characteristics, tone of voice, etc. Every era reinvents this mistake. Today you can read nonsense about TV "seeing through" artifice and displaying someone's true nature, a theory never to my knowledge supported by experience.

Herzog directs our attention to similarly wrong-headed moments in the work of 19th-century novelists, notably Dickens and Trollope, whose prose suggests they thought you could identify an evil man by his looks. They and their contemporaries (like some movie directors today) felt the lingering effects of the ersatz science of physiognomy, whose platoons of bogus experts claimed that character and even destiny could be read in a face. It was an ancient idea: Aristotle, after all, thought good men spoke with a deep voice.

Had no one bothered to kill these notions before the end of the 20th century, the case of genial, chubby, avuncular Charles Kuralt would have done the job.

He appeared spectacularly honest, a boy from a North Carolina tobacco farm who worked his way up to CBS television and became famous for his folksy On the Road essays. Alas, his reputation for probity collapsed after his death in 1997, when a Montana woman named Patricia Shannon came forth to claim, successfully, a piece of his estate, a property in Montana worth US$600,000. She was his great secret, a common-law wife. For 29 years Kuralt had supported her and her children, an arrangement of which his legal wife in New York was ignorant. Herzog asks, "Would you have suspected that cherubic teddy bear?"

Of course not, but think of the cunning! Imagine the odd silences, the not-quite-explained trips, unlikely absences during family holidays. Think of how carefully he must have hidden his money from his wife -- over nearly three decades. Bear in mind, too, that years of broadcasting on CBS made him a celebrity in Montana as much as anywhere. How did he deflect the suspicions of neighbours? How did he, in his mind, keep two lives apart? His agile cunning reached Olympic levels.

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