The act of lust and the act of love are the same; it cannot be falsified like a sentiment.
Graham Green, Our Man in Havana
Linguistic inflation – the economic metaphor. Perhaps, linguistic erosion – a natural metaphor… Both intend the same thing.
Lately, for instance, under the pressure of great political organisations like the United Nations and The European Parliament, words vital to the political debate cannot be used seriously anymore.
Anti-Semitism – meaningless, since any critical remark about the Israeli settlements on the West Bank is taken to be a sign of anti-Semitism. Racism – useless word, completely eroded, since anti-Semitism is considered the same as racism, and race and ethnicity have completely lost their distinction. Or, for that matter, the notion of ‘gender’, which seems to have taken any biological connotation of man and woman out of the equation, as being irrelevant as such.
Just a few days ago, I read a little piece in a journal by a ‘person’ who – perhaps creating some self-importance – told her public that, forthwith, she would like to live according to ‘serendipity’. With this word, so it seemed, she meant a kind of happy go lucky existence, outside the boundaries of ‘norms’, ‘being free’ et cetera.
Now, if serendipity does mean one thing, it certainly has nothing to do with ‘existence’ or with that sort of pseudo-anarchistic, perhaps even Bataille-inspired type of O-la-la transgression.
What is funny, though, perhaps even self-referential, is the way in which I learned the meaning of that very notion of ‘serendipity’. At the time, being a student of 18th-century gardening, I was roving through some of the massive volumes of the Collected Works of Horace Walpole. Somewhere, I had read, that this man had written about the subject.
Apart from his famous essay which I had already found, I was glancing through some of these weighty tomes, hoping to find other, separate little references to gardens. Then, my eye fell on the word Serendip, used in one of his letters, this one written in 1754 to a friend – Horace Mann. Never saw the word before.
Walpole explained to his friend how he had found out something about a painting, while he was in fact researching something completely different. He then mentions a Persian fairy tale, The three Princes of Serendip, of which I am still not sure whether this is an invention of Walpole. He was a rather fanciful man, re-inventing his home as the Neo-Gothic ‘castle’ of Strawberry Hill; however, the Serendip tale may well be historical. Those Princes were “always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.” Thus, serendipity means an unplanned, fortuitous discovery. It is, to use a NASA expression, an unexpected spinoff from research that is aiming to diligently find something different.
So, serendipity has nothing to do with that woman’s freedom of wilful transgression, which in her case was the only thing she obviously ‘was after’. She has simply corrupted Walpole’s gorgeous word. Let us hope, the woman has no following; if so, erosion would set in; I could not use the word any longer. Let me hasten!
Funny all this is, because my finding the word serendipity was a perfect example of… serendipity. For a while, I lost all interest in gardens. And strangely enough – something which is also essential to the true meaning of serendipity – I could subsequently use the concept in my work on gardens.
Now for another case, one which is very recent. While I was rereading Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana – a cute little edition, given to me as a birthday present by my wife – the early spring sun shone in my eyes, and I decided to change position on my little sofa.
My new edition of Out Man in Havana
This meant that I had to rearrange books from what had been the foot-end of the couch, to what now would be the new foot-end. As I always read a book, snug amongst other books all around me, on the shelves, but also as comforting friends on the little sofa, there were quite a few lying around.
One of the smaller tomes dropped from between its larger brother and sister right on the floor. An index of my very poor memory: I had no idea I owned it or how I had acquired it; it must have been there for quite a while. Obviously, though in perfect shape and never read, it was second-hand. A name was written on the blank first page, together with some mysterious scribbling:
I opened it, and the first thing I saw was a photograph, a portrait of a serious, though friendly looking person. He turned out to be the writer: Gerrit Mannoury.
Never heard of the man. Though the text is in English, I suspected him to be French, at least by the sound of his name. Perhaps a Huguenot. He turned out to be a Dutchman, a mathematician and a philosopher. The title of this little volume: Mathesis and Mysticism, written in 1925. Being ‘into’ Greene’s Man in Havana, I would not have started reading in Mannoury’s curious volume, had my eye not fallen on this dedication:
In memory of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin)
He erred sometimes it’s true, was full of meditations which lifted out of pain the weeping generation.
He lashed with cutting words, attained much adoration
From all who long ago lost sense of veneration.
Both friend and foe impressed by what he gave
They saw his truthfulness, his serving till his grave.
Having been myself an ill-advised as well as an ill-tempered member of the Communist Party of The Netherlands [CPN], this after pondering for quite some time membership of the Trotskyite Fourth International, such lines, though perhaps not good poetry, urged me to look up Mannoury’s pedigree.
He became a member of the Communist International in 1919, opting for the Bolshevik, pacifist side of the movement, that is: after, in 1914, at the outbreak of WO I, his own social-democrats had decided to become cannon fodder for the various national Capitalist interests. In 1932 he was expelled from the Party, after defending Leon Trotsky over against the Stalin Party-line. Since then, he remained politically active, fighting amongst other things against the death penalty.
So, serendipity took over. I began to read his book, of a sudden also finding the reference to Lenin’s ‘truthfulness’ most befitting my reading of Greene’s story on his Havana fake spy. On page 73 we read, what may be considered a summa of Mannoury’s Spinozist philosophy of life, added a pinch of Nietzschean salt:
Nourishment, respiration, propagating yourself, and truth, beauty, fight; they are the most primitive and direct life-giving instincts of every adult and healthy human being, still better expressed: two sides of one and the same urge too live. Do you want to keep calling the one matter, and the other spirit? All right, but then admit that spirit is the spirit of matter.
How could I not be seduced by this, having always started my lectures with this thesis: The so-called Higher, is never anything but the Higher of the Lower. And sure enough, there she is again: Truth, and why not, her soul-sister Truthfulness.
The one thing which may be wrong in the passage quoted, after all a translation, is the word fight. Either – methinks – it should have been struggle, as the translation of the Dutch word strijd; quite possibly so. Or Mannoury may have written: angst – the Dutch for fright, or the will for flight; so perhaps an l is missing. After all, the biology from the late 19th century up till now, has tried to analyse organism’s behaviour in terms of Sex, Aggression and Flight.
Anyway, this serendipic roundabout made me decide to write this little essay on trust, on spies and on the Soul of the British Nation. I have always been quite obsessed by spies, having read through a library of spy novels. This has been a cause of wonder and puzzlement. How come, is what I asked myself time and again, that someone as obsessed with truthfulness and trust as I am, can also be obsessed and in love with the reading of spy novels, books thriving on distrust?
And, mind you, obsession is the word. Even my own wife has always told me that it is not necessary to be so American; to always tell everybody ‘the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’. Just the truth is enough. She was not interested in my confessions of not being all too faithful to her.
Now, rereading Greene – who, in his splendid novels, has often touched on the spy theme as well as on the vicissitudes of truthfulness – there came my Eureka moment. It is because I am obsessed with trust and truthfulness, that I have become obsessed with spies and, for that matter, with masks and their impenetrability and anonymity.
Of my two Songye masks the friendliest
What I have been doing, while reading about spies, is to find proof for the goodness of my obsession. Perhaps, I am one amongst many millions. After all, is what people often consider their God not precisely the ideal-typical spy: All-seeing, yet The One Unseen? Perhaps, the Spy is the atheist’s version of the Deity… Strangely enough, this first ‘Eureka’ brought forth a second one: the true source of the sorrowful break-up with my British maîtresse. I shall touch upon this drama later on. First, what concerns us here are spies.
In Our Man in Havana, Greene plays two versions of loyalty against each other: loyalty to organisations, versus loyalty to an individual. He writes about a fake spy in Havana, the man who invented his facts as well as his contacts, to get them payed for by the British secret service in order to pay for his daughter’s horse riding. At the end of the story, this counterfeit spy, Mr. Wormold, tells the reader: “Let me love or hate as an individual. I don’t care a damn about men who are loyal to the people who pay them, to organisations…”
And talking about serendipity: Greene, the master storyteller, has his protagonist Wormold invent an agent and give that man a name and a mission. When the Service in London begins to push him to get real information instead of his vague, bogus reports, he can’t deliver and would rather he had never invented this agent. Then, a pilot with the same name, a man whom Wormold does not even know, gets involved in a car accident and dies precisely in the zone of the phantasy rocket base… The luck of the Bodkins!
To be a spy – that is the real message from Greene – is to always mask oneself and to live off distrust. For Wormold, who has become a fake-spy by accident, trust always has been his normal habitus, while the love for his daughter and the real sympathy for a German friend is the lukewarm bath in which he had always been swimming. Now, of sudden, all has become a lie, and everybody has to be distrusted.
Involved in the dialectics of trust and distrust, this during a meeting where ‘they’ are planning to assassinate him, out of the pure need for at least someone to trust, he befriends the one whom he first considered to be his would-be assassin. “…and Wormold was back in the territory of trust. He felt a kind of tenderness for the neighbour he had suspected.”
We see this same pattern in the work of John le Carré, the grandmaster of the spy-novel. It cannot be coincidence that le Carré has written a ‘remake’ of Our Man in Havana, a book which is as cynical about both the spy trade, as it is about being British: The Taylor of Panama. However, it is in his novel A Perfect Spy, that Le Carré, really goes the full length of dissecting the web of trust, loyalty and betrayal. And what fine, literary scalpels he has chosen for himself!
About one thing we can be assured: A spy is no anarchist; he is a kind of petty-bourgeois bureaucrat, doing his duty as if he were Eichmann himself. The spy is wearing the robe of evil banality. Le Carré’s protagonist, Pym, tells us at the end of his career, which is also the end his life, how good it felt, “this pleasure of being well-run.” An element of the automaton is present in a true spy. Could he be Kleist’s marionette, manipulated by the puppeteer, his feet only slightly touching terra firma, thus feeling free like a bird, sinless and guiltless…? Could the spy be the symbol of what Erich Fromm so beautifully coined as “the fear of freedom”?
The hinge on which A Perfect Spy turns, is the passage at the very end of the book, where Axel, the Man from the East who has ‘turned’ Pym, and who is always addressing him as ‘Sir Magnus’, tells him this:
Sir Magnus, you have in the past betrayed me but, more important, you have betrayed yourself. Even when you are telling the truth, you lie. You have loyalty and you have affection. But to what? To whom?… Maybe you have put your love in some bad places now and then. Yet, you also have morality. What I am saying is this, Sir Magnus: for once nature has produced a perfect match. You are a perfect spy.
So, what then is this ‘nature’ Axel is speaking of, the sum of the conditions that perform the trick of producing the ‘perfect spy’?
All the junk that made you what you are: the privileges, the snobbery, the hypocrisy, the churches, the schools, the fathers, the class systems, the historical lies, the little lords of the country side, the little lords of big business, and all the greedy wars that result from them, we are sweeping that away for ever. Because we are making a society that will never produce such sad little fellows as sir Magnus.
Mind you, we are talking British spies here! Now, I do know that not all perfect spies are British, neither are all Brit spies. Though – reading this – one is very much reminded of the Boris Johnsons of this world… The masking and the lying and the distrust are world-wide traits of the trade of snooping secrets. However, what Greene merely seems to have suggested – not only in his Man in Havana, but also in his other masterpiece: The Comedians – Le Carré is putting to us rather directly: The Brit – and I would add: perhaps male and female, the Brit as ‘person’ – is the Ideal Type of the Spy. And another serious question: How come, so many of England’s famous novelists did write spy novels? How come, so many of them were indeed spies themselves, before they became writers? Greene, Le Carré, Muggeridge, Maugham, Orwell, Compton Mackenzie…
It has been my well-worn prejudice, that British society is a militarised one. Over generations, its long history as a colonial power of rather an invasive kind, has enlisted in almost all families men who ‘served their country’. Perhaps not only in England, but there very much so, people who have long since left the army are still called by their former military rank and title. Together with its long and obnoxious tradition of so-called public schools, combined with a class divide which is wider and has remained wider than on the continent, British colonial history has produced a civil culture of an intense, militarised reserve and of a stern self-discipline. Why not call it stiff upper lip?
The thing which strikes anyone who is not English – a foreigner, so to say – is the general code of non-conflictual, everyday life social intercourse on the British Isles. The accepted row is reserved for various institutionalised circles, in which one is allowed to be rude and blunt as hell – like debating societies and the House of Commons. For the rest, the Englishman always shirks from immediate conflict and even from open controversy. There is also an element of xenophobia; do not get stained, don’t get involved with what is foreign. And ‘foreign’ is everything which is not peaceful Britannia, so everything conflictual even inside British society.
This has produced a generalised culture of hypocrisy: Whatever you say or do, keep the peace! As a result, the outsiders, in particular – so it seems – the Dutch, are considered rude and blunt. The Dutch consider themselves rather as direct; their directness is robed in an element of humour, or in statements to the effect that one may very well have a civil fight amongst friends. The Brit does not understand this. Blunt is blunt as blunt comes.
The foreigner may be at an English party, leaving and thinking that the person he has been talking to agreed with him; to find out – often much later – that this is not so; even to the contrary. In most cases one does not even get the chance to really discuss things at English parties, as the guests are supposed to mingle constantly – an ideal tactics of keeping the peace.
The issue here is tact. One may be very direct and yet have the tact of making clear that a ‘conflict of opinions’ is but a conflict of opinions; and that the conflict can be friendly fun – no harm meant, merely jesting. If, however, the cultural make-up of the other is such, that he or she is over-sensitive to any disagreement, such subtle signs of tact are not registered. The Brits confuse tact with being uptight and (w)holy correct, never giving offence.
The British do indeed conform to what I quoted from Le Carré’s Perfect Spy. Their world is one that produces ‘sad little fellows like Sir Magnus’, who are perfectly able to camouflage their true feelings, if they do indeed have these feelings, somewhere hidden in their deep inside. They prefer to be ‘well-run’. In A Fish called Wanda, John Cleese summed it up, when he almost cried out to his foreign lover:
Wanda, do you have any idea what it’s like being English? Being so correct all the time, being stifled by this dread of doing the wrong thing…
Thus: not escaping the fact of what it is to be British, but merely stating it… That ‘fact’ is the source of those wonderful books on spies written by the Greenes and Le Carré’s.
In Greene’s case, an added complication is his life-long struggle with a conversion to Catholicism, once again, an index of what I am talking about. Rather comply to the wishes of your future wife and her family and become a catholic, than just stand up for your atheism or whatever. My claim would be, that the really perfect spy not only fits Axel’s description in A Perfect Spy; he must also be a British catholic. How perfect can you get? Why not reread Brideshead again…
Now back to what is a stake in the consideration of spies: Trust, loyalty, truthfulness. There is a dilemma of sorts in the making. The great Niklas Luhmann has spent a life-time analysing the essential value of trust in a society: both the trust in other persons, as well as trust in its institutions. The simple use of money is already a matter of trust: that this silly piece of paper, or even this push on the button of the credit card machine, ‘stands for’ stable economic value, is purely a matter of trust.
We may also distinguish between confidence based on past experience, and trust, which we may have in strangers whom we never met before. Confidence we have in the garage which has up till now serviced our cars well – we think; for a just price – we think. Things, however, may change… Trust has no basis in past experience, it is just there.
To bring up my own obsession with honesty once again: I have always lived according to trust, thus expecting and also demanding that same trust of others in me. The slightest indication to the contrary has always ended any relationship which I have had, pushing someone whom I trusted before, out of the inner circle, which is perhaps my soul – a small piece of territory indeed.
Actually, I may have even suffered from basic trust all my life, basic trust being the belief in the good of mankind. As the science of biology seems to have proven that such basic trust is an idiosyncratic ideology, a personal misunderstanding rather than a true state of affairs, it is not a coincidence that I have felt duped quite often.
According to Luhmann, trust is the structure of existence, not so much a characteristic of an act. In order to cope with the ever-presence of complexity, in order to reduce it we need history, which is the ordering of complexity in types. Trust, here, is an essential medium – as is a certain amount of distrust. Our Gestalt-brain is always ordering what surrounds us in a background and a foreground. Trust as well as mistrust fit in; they are both of great help.
By now, I should know that all organisms are somehow a little bit greedy and a little bit egoistic, and that some kind of cheating-game is always being played. Trust is the most we may have in an Other, with always in the background a pinch of distrust; basic trust is asking too much – it is asking for trouble.
On the other hand, I would like to claim a little respect for my basic trust, a thing at best acquired in the inner niche of a safe upbringing, which – curiously enough – I did not enjoy… If not ‘basic’, how else could we accept the goodness of strangers whom we have never met before, this implicitly so? Then again, Luhmann has argued quite succinctly, that learning to trust others can even be taught; all things of trust, then, are not just of the family. And perhaps, it is less basic than I would like it to be.
Here comes that famous definition of a dilemma in handy: The situation in which one is approached by the attacking bull; stepping to the left, one is taken by its right horn; stepping to the right by the other one. Or another fine one: A dilemma is a situation in which there are two possibilities, both of them impossible, et cetera. So, for the dilemma involved: The problem is, that all of us are always already feigning somehow.
Mencken defined conscience as “the inner voice which warns us that someone might be looking.” However, this seems to be more the description of everyday fear in a shame culture, a situation in which behaviour is determined by the attitude of onlookers and by their quality of being considered others who are relevant in that situation. People in a shame culture are other-directed people. True conscience has always been the accumulation of inner-directed norms and values; that is: past experience in capacity, which makes a person do what he morally thinks best to do – whatever others may think. That is a guilt culture thing.
However, there is always a mix of shame and guilt around. It is perhaps a good thing to consider each one of us at least a little wicked – anyways. If this is correct, it is indeed obsessive to demand 100% truthfulness of others, to just deny the also mask-like quality of each person. Persona – the Greek word for a role played; a mask. Nonetheless, the difference between a culture with a shame dominant and one with a guilt dominant stands.
British culture is one with a shame dominant. Thus, it has produced the ideal genesis and habitat for perfect spies. Theirs is an existence not of basic trust, not even of trust; worse: not even of confidence. It is one of basic suspicion and distrust. For such a society to survive itself, stern and strict institutions of rigid discipline and of hypocritical self-discipline must be in place.
Of course, we all know that this world is changing fast; nations become more alike. A shame culture is gathering at all horizons. Perhaps even the Dutch may produce perfect spies in the near future; and perhaps the Brits will lose their indifferent pacifism. These developments may also end in total disaster. Lately, the Dutch have indeed become more blunt than direct; the Brits lose all their shame, once they leave their island to support a soccer team. To just name two developments. The whole world may very well become rude and crude and blunt. Perhaps, real spies will become useless, as cyber snooping is becoming the thing.
Sierksma March 2018