Saturday, July 25, 2009

Tragic, to be Blunt

Among the last week’s news stories that most captured my attention was the announcement by the British Library that the manuscript of Anthony Blunt’s memoirs, deposited there in 1984, has been released to public availability after the twenty-five-year temporal buffer to which the library authorities had agreed at the time they received the document. Such waiting periods are not uncommonly applied to controversial materials that have the potential to cause distress or embarrassment to living persons or even cause legal difficulties for those who publish them. But such arrangements can be unfair in another way. The gossip of a dead man, after all, now beyond all power of direct interrogation, may be more dangerous than that of the living.

Most of us, I suppose, would be more in favor of virtue if we could postpone having to face virtue’s inconveniences, preferably indefinitely. Saint Augustine had famously prayed, “Make me chaste, O God, but not just yet!” Anthony Blunt and hundreds of others have said in effect, “I want to be truthful and straightforward, but of course not right now.”

Blunt was a most distinguished art historian. As director of the Courtauld Institute (the art history department of the University of London, so to speak) he greatly advanced the cause of academic art history not merely in Britain but wherever his many distinguished students extended his influence throughout the world. As the socially upper-crust conservator of the Queen’s own private collection of paintings, a function he performed so satisfactorily as to earn him a knighthood, he was a star of modest magnitude in the BBC’s night sky of television public intellectual luminaries. But Blunt was several other things as well. He was most notoriously a Soviet spy and a traitor to his country.

The Internet is already abuzz with Anthony Blunt, and I presume to add to the chatter only on account of two accidental circumstances. The first is familial, and it suggests that the "six degrees of separation" theory is far too conservative. My brother-in-law John Newman, a distinguished architectural historian and the current editor of the well-known series on The Buildings of England, was for some years Blunt’s junior colleague at the Courtauld Institute in London. He greatly admired Blunt as art historian and academic administrator and was of the view that the public rhetorical violence that followed upon Blunt’s tardy public exposure in 1979—which Blunt in the newly released memoir apparently says drove him to contemplate suicide—was in large measure sanctimonious and unreflective. John’s opinion is not one I would dismiss lightly. Furthermore, among our personal friends is a woman who (I learned many years after first meeting her) is a blood relative of Blunt's. A second circumstance tends in another direction. I happen to be in the process of publishing a book (The Anti-Communist Manifestos, with an official release date less than a month away) in which I touch upon the thought processes that led many able and accomplished western intellectuals to invest their deepest allegiance in the unspeakable tyranny of Stalinist Communism. In preparing this book I had to read literally dozens of autobiographies, confessions, apologies, explanations, or reaffirmations of an unrepentant defiance written by 1930s and 40s Communists. I have of course not yet seen Blunt’s memoir, though it is bound to be in bookshops nearly as fast as computer keyboards can clatter, but from its characterization in the press it appears likely to fall into a familiar self-serving genre.

I mention Blunt in The Anti-Communist Manifestos only in passing. What I say of him specifically comes in a discussion of the social myopia that kept American and British authorities from exposing damaging Soviet espionage in a timely manner. The Cambridge spy ring should have been shut down in 1940 if not before. “Unfortunately,” I write, “one of the spies, Anthony Blunt, a sort of British Alger Hiss, whose extraordinary distinction and public reputation made the very thought of his disloyalty impossible, was one of the foxes overseeing the operations of the MI5 henhouse.”

The parallel between Blunt and Hiss, while imperfect, is apt. Neither man was an open Communist, and Blunt was not a Party member at all. Anyone familiar with the patterns of Communist espionage and front organizations of the period will recognize the practical insignificance of this fact. Communist sympathizers and some actual Communists were often more useful to the Party if their allegiance was not explicitly known. Hiss and Blunt also shared the arts of practiced liars. Blunt lied about his espionage for as long as he could, through several incompetent security inquiries. Hiss continued to lie until his dying day, even after he had been found guilty of lying by a jury of his peers.

A point frequently encountered in histories of the Nazi regime concerns Mein Kampf, Hitler’s autobiography, which he published in his late thirties. The point is that all the horrors of the evolving regime, though European observers usually reacted to them as developments wholly unpredictable if not actually inconceivable, are clearly adumbrated in Mein Kampf. Mein Kampf was not an obscure book. On the contrary, it was a huge best seller in German-speaking countries, and widely available in translated form in the other major European languages. Hitler’s plans were quite clearly spelled out in the book, but the foreign service professionals in Whitehall and the Quai d’Orsay paid no attention to it. The author of such a book couldn't be serious.
During the research for my book I encountered a sort of minor league Mein Kampf published by Anthony Blunt in 1937. Actually, it's only a short essay; but nobody who read it and took it seriously could have possibly been surprised when Blunt turned out to be the "Fourth Man". George Orwell said that there had been more lies published about the Spanish Civil War than any other event in history. That was undoubtedly hyperbole, but it is certainly true that in the late Thirties a lot of famous people published a lot of stuff they later regretted. One well-known example is Auden's poem "Spain", which the poet later spent several years trying wish away or to revise retrospectively. In 1937 the (at that point) Communist poet C. Day Lewis edited a volume of essays entitled The Mind in Chains. The title referred to the supposed state of things under capitalism. Essays by various hands addressed the fields of education, literature, art, drama, cinema, music, and so forth. In a fascinating introduction the editor began with the mythical chains of Prometheus as developed by Shelley and ended with the metaphoric chains of the conclusion of The Communist Manifesto. "Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains. You have a world to win." The authors were not all Communists--according to Day Lewis they represented the full socialist coalition of the Popular Front--but they shared one fundamental assumption. Western capitalist society was either actually dead or near death. Hence the essays followed a roughly similar format: a description of current capitalist sterility, followed by a blueskying projection of a future socialist vitality. What "vitality" seemed to mean to all the writers was the Soviet Union--yes, the Soviet Union of 1937! "The Mind in Chains could never have been written were it not for the widespread belief of intellectual workers that the mind is really in chains to-day," wrote Day Lewis, "that these chains have been forged by a dying social system, that they can and must be broken--and in the Soviet Union have been broken..." Day Lewis seems not to have read or credited Max Eastman's Artists in Uniform: a Study of Literature and Bureaucratism (1934), in which the ex-Communist editor of the Masses had made an empirical study of the actual state of art and literature under Stalin. As for Blunt, artistic uniformity seemed to be the artistic goal.
Certain changes will inevitably take place in the forms which artists use to express the ideas of the classless society. The conception of a painting as a unique private possession will disappear....The easel painting, which was the particular art-form evolved at the time of the Renaissance when art became essentially private, will become of secondary importance, and instead mural painting will be developed in a form suitable to the decoration of the communal buildings devoted to the culture and recreation of the workers. But it will still, of course, be true that people will want something to decorate the walls of their houses, to which large scale murals are not generally appropriate. This need will probably be satisfied by the creation of what may be called publishing firms of painting, whose function it would be to commission originals in order to have them copied in large quantities by some process of colour printing....By this method the idea of the unique original with great scarcity value would be avoided, and the original itself would probably be kept in the state museum as a help in the training of other artists. In this kind of production much of the process will be mechanical and the same will probably be true of many other kinds of painting. [120-121]
It is fascinating to learn from one of the great art historians of the last century and the future Surveyor of the Queen's Paintings that the art of the socialist consummation so devoutly to be wished for would consist chiefly of post office murals and the polychrome print rack at the National Gallery souvenir shop. When Blunt turned out to be the infamous "Fourth Man" incredulity trumped consternation in the British press, but no one who had read the essay entitled "Art Under Capitalism and Socialism" need have been all that surprised.

Political belief should never be criminalized, even if that belief is invested in the benignity of the international criminal conspiracy that was the Comintern. But ideas do sometimes have consequence, and active participation in criminal conspiracy is not an exercise of a civil right. In what he came to call the greatest mistake of his life, Anthony Blunt became a criminal and a traitor. Like so many others he sought to justify his actions on the basis of high political and moral principle. The political principle was "anti-fascism," the moral principle "personal loyalty to one's friends." He apparently never pondered the incoherence of the two principles.

A certain quotation from E. M. Forster has become de rigueur in discussing the Cambridge spies. Forster was another Cantabridgian, though of one generation older than the spies, another genius, another (with Burgess and Blunt himself) tortured and furtive homosexual. In a provocative essay Forster had written: "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country." What was already an arresting apothegm later took on an aura of prophecy when it turned out that Anthony Blunt had indeed made that choice. And here was something extraordinary. The same man who in 1937 was articulating a Marxist artistic theory in which the individuality of the artist and the particularity of subject were to be made entirely subordinate to mechanical reproduction and the satisfactions of the "workers" took as his highest moral principle, one that trumped any larger social obligation, loyalty to a coterie of highly privileged personal friends. Here was a tragedy much larger than politics, one that would require a Shakespeare or a Goethe to probe.


  1. Your book sounds very interesting. What prompted you to write it?

  2. A congruence of circumstances. I am and always will be a medievalist interested in topics requiring a good deal of historical and theological study, as well as some competence in several difficult languages. These factors make them difficult of access to the intelligent general reader, as opposed to my fellow specialist scholars. Although I am continuing in my specialized writing as well, I was determined, upon retiring, to challenge myself to set off in a new direction and to attempt a “trade” book—that is, one published by one of the leading New York houses that aim at a broad general audience. In the introduction to my book, which has just become available at, I explain the serendipitous way I was led to the specific topic of anti-Communist literature. The subject of my book is a group of best sellers, some of which have now faded into oblivion, that had a big impact on the formation of public opinion in the 1940s and 50s. The books themselves are fascinating, but for each of them I was able as well to research what might be called a “back story”—that is, the history of their writing, publication, and early reception—that in each case was nearly as dramatic as the books themselves. The purpose of my book is explore some fascinating and forgotten episodes in book history rather than to impose my political opinions upon my readers; but it would be difficult to have read around the subject as deeply as I have without emerging with some quite definite ideas about Communism and those in America and elsewhere who professed and defended it.

  3. Okay, okay, I'll buy it! It really does sound interesting.

  4. Me too. I've put it in the cart at Amazon.

  5. By the way, you should set up a link to the Amazon page in your post for lazy people like me.