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.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Triumph at Baker's Basin

According to one cynical view the two secrets of a happy life are, first, to identify genuinely modest goals and, second, to cultivate very low expectations in their pursuit. In other words, “Dream the possible dream.” From this point of view my past week must be judged a succès fou. I succeeded in having my pickup truck inspected and validated by the State of New Jersey.

The general experience of NJMVD Inspection Station at Baker’s Basin used regularly to be described as an imaginary supplement to Dante’s Inferno. Many residents of the state suspected that the system was secretly controlled by the garage owners’ and auto mechanics’ lobby—there must be one—since many people were willing to pay almost anything for a private inspection that would relieve them of the necessity of a personal visit to Baker’s Basin. My first happy

Baker's Basin (Mercer County NJ) Inspection Station before recently instituted reforms

surprise was that the place itself had shaped up measurably since I was last there four years ago. The geography is still vestigially infernal. You have to drive around three sides of the Quaker Bridge Mall to reach the station, though if you go early that mainly involves lapping empty parking lots. But once there, things weren’t so bad. In fact, they were pretty good. It used to be like a Black Friday shoe sale. You are now funneled, in single file, into an automated gate, where you pick up a ticket stamped with an accurate time of arrival: in this instance, 9:31.
Baker's Basin (Mercer County NJ) Inspection Station since Jon Corzine became governor. Note coordinated pastels, which invite the motorist to make contact with his/her own inner inspector...

There were fewer than a dozen cars distributed among no fewer than five inspection alleys. By the time I got to the head of my line there was nobody at all in either of the two left-hand lanes. An inspector in one of those alleys beckoned in my direction, but when I started to react he yelled out, “No, not you—you,” pointing to a late model Acura driven by a bejeweled matron behind me. “Your vehicle,” he said, shouting to me again, “is too old for my lane.” Snappy repartee in such a situation is not easy, but I tried. “You sure know how to hurt a guy’s feelings,” I shouted back. I thought the remark had been drowned out by the Acura sweeping around and past me, but he surprised me with a good humored answer: “Sorry about that”.

The purportedly ancient vehicle which I presented for inspection is a 1993 Ford pickup truck. Now something fifteen years-old is, generally speaking, not exactly venerable. For instance, would you really like to have a fifteen-year-old give you a colonoscopy? Would you seek the meaning of life from a fifteen-year-old metaphysician? Would you really be impressed by a firm that boasted that it has been a "purveyor of sweetmeats to the royal household since 1993"? My truck, though fifteen years old, has been driven less than 100,000 miles, and it has been scrupulously maintained from the mechanical and safety points of view. On the other hand, its exterior, especially the bed and tail-gate, naturally display the cicatrices of serious industry. This is of course entirely as it should be.

What a 1993 Ford pickup should never look like (except perhaps in 1993).

What a 1993 Ford pickup should always look like.

The commonly encountered phrase "a beat-up pickup" is a pleonasm. Every pickup should be beat-up. That is what pickups are for. Those grotesquely pristine things you find parked in front of franchise restaurants in shopping malls are not real pickups. But, alas, some folks in New Jersey, and particularly the state inspectors, simply don't get it.

For nearly two decades they have been doing their level best to get "older vehicles" off the road. They say so quite openly. This policy, executed under a bogus claim of ecological consciousness, ministered to the sloth and incompetence of Detroit and the greed of lending agencies, contributing to the results we have recently had cause to deplore. If the vehicles Detroit makes are junk, they soon end up in the junk yard; but it's an ill wind that blows no one some good, in this case the duly certified usurers who loan the motorist the dough for the next expensive piece of junk.

More than twenty-five years ago I noticed a dramatic change on America's highways: the virtual disappearance of the jalopy. The kind of vehicle that most male 'teen-agers of my generation once bought on monthly installments with their paper route money, then lovingly rebuilt, then endlessly drove around the courthouse square of a Saturday

The Joad-mobile from John Ford's version of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Soviet authorities arranged for mass showings of this movie in Russia, claiming that it gave an accurate picture of the realities of typical family life in America. They had to abandon the program quickly when the factory workers reacted with amazement and jealousy that an ordinary American family could be so prosperous as to own a car.

night--that vehicle simply no longer exists. The loss to our culture is not slight. In 1936 the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset published a famous book, The Revolt of the Masses, in which he used a now classic characterization of modernity through the image of the internal combustion engine. Throughout the western world, he wrote, millions of people have become utterly dependent upon a machine whose basic mechanisms are mysterious to them. The point is an excellent one, and truer today than then, especially when we think of the cybernetic sphere; but it was lost on me when I first read Ortega's book because of the ineptitude of the the specific example offered. When I was growing up there wasn't a fourteen-year-old boy in Baxter County who couldn't take apart and reassemble a Chevrolet of the same age. For both sexes erotic initiation involved the negotiation of the steering wheel of an old Plymouth. I was left wondering about whatever could be wrong with little Spaniards. No more. I haven't seen a kid working on his car in about twenty-five years. The video game addict is the unworthy successor to the shade-tree mechanic.

At the inspection station you have to wait in a little bullpen from which you can watch the inspectors at work on your vehicle as it moves slowly down the lane. Mine moved much slower than the others. My guy was nice enough, but he became obviously frustrated by his inability to fail me. Yes, the horn works; the lights all work; the windshield wipers are actually new. If you get a reasonably tuned Ford engine with tight cylinders and correct time, it will not emit culpable emissions whether it was made in 1939 or 2009. Brake equalization is a little tricky, but if it's really out of whack a driver will know it and have it remedied before showing up at the DMV. It just about killed the guy, but at 10:02 am he had to to plaster this on my windshield:

HOW vainly men themselves amaze
To win the palm, the oak, or bays,
While limping numbers tell the score:
Oh seven three, oh four six four.