action movie principalities

LI urges our readers to pick up the 11/28 issue of the New Yorker and read Tom Reiss’ quite instructive essay on the literature of invasion, “IMAGINING THE WORST.”

What we found most interesting about the essay was the knitting together of literature and surveillance. At the same time that Yeats’ was worried about choosing life or art, much lesser writers in England were worried about the lack of a security state, and they set about destroying the liberal English nonchalance that was decried, in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, by the Russian attaché who frightens Verloc.

Reiss’ essay begins with the first modern invasion fantasy, “The Battle of Dorking”, by a military man writing for Blackwood’s Magazine – that most tory and clubbable of Victorian magazines. The military man, Lieutenant-Colonel George Tomkyns Chesney, had recently returned from India (ah, the imperial effect – see my little read and apparently tedious posts about which) in May, 1871, when the story was published. Just about the time that James Fitzjames Stephen was returning from India, too. A year after the battle of Dorking, Stephen’s Liberty, Equality, Fraternity – his plea for a combination of laissez faire economics and a coercive, militarist state – was serialized in the Pall Mall Gazette. Indeed, conservatism in the modern sense was hatching in the 1870s.

Reiss claims that Chesney was worried that the Prussian victory over France foreshadowed the end of British supremacy if the state did not wake up, smell the coffee, organize its people and spy on them in the huts and mansions to the fullest extent.

“The story's author, Lieutenant-Colonel George Tomkyns Chesney, a British officer who had recently returned from India, was not motivated by literary ambition. Like many British observers, he was alarmed by Prussia's successful invasion of France in 1870-the French Army, Europe's largest, had been taken prisoner en masse in less than two months--and he worried that his country could suffer a similar fate. Blackwood's was read by many government officials, and Chesney, who had previously contributed articles on military matters, suggested to the editor, John Blackwood, that "a useful way of bringing home to the country the necessity for thorough reorganization [of the army] might be a tale." "The Battle of Dorking" was intended not to entertain but to shock, yet reaction to it showed that to the reading public the two sensations were intertwined. Chesney had accidentally invented the thriller.
Blackwood's reprinted its May issue six times. Then it published Chesney's story as an expensive pamphlet, which sold even faster: a hundred and ten thousand copies by July, continuing at a rate of approximately twenty thousand copies a week through the rest of the summer. Soon "The Battle of Dorking" was available throughout the British Empire, and in most European languages.”

Chesney’s literary inheritors have gone on to imagine attacks and fantastic salvation from the muscular, the wise, the espionage agent, the submarine captain, and the paranoid jack in the corridors of the Pentagon ever since. We found it rather fascinating that the two British secret services, MI5 and MI6, were prepared for by much literary softening up by the ineffable William Le Queux, a sort of Michael Ledeen of the Edwardian era. Le Queux was used by Lord Northcliffe, the press baron, to both pump up papers and to move the British polity away from its regard for privacy and its distaste for standing armies. In much the way James Bond functioned, for JFK, as a wet dream figure joining absolute power to the swinger (that ultimate rentier of sex), so, too, Le Queux used his sinister power to create, in literary patriots and unbelievably evil traitors, a desire for surveillance that had to find its institutional form, a symbol in search of matter. Le Queux’s Spies of the Kaiser in 1909 led to an outcry, as Le Queux claimed, under the coy disguise of fiction, that there was a vast fifth column working to undermine Britain for Germany’s benefit.

“That March, the Secretary of State for War, R. B. Haldane, convened a subcommittee of the Committee of Imperial Defence to investigate the problem of foreign spies on English soil. What was known about the sixty-six thousand German agents scattered in the Home Counties? Was it true that they maintained a secret arms dump near Charing Cross Station? What about the strangers who had been seen sketching the neighborhood of Epping for the past two years? These rumors had originated with Le Queux. The subcommittee's chief witness was James Edmonds, a British Army colonel and friend of Le Queux, who oversaw a small "counter-espionage" effort in the War Office devoted to collecting news about spies and invasion plots, most of which came from novels and newspaper reports-and, of course, from his lunches with Le Queux. The novelist supplied Edmonds with the "information" he needed to argue before the subcommittee about the need for a domestic intelligence service. (Many of the alleged encounters with spies described in the subcommittee's notes are attributed to "a well-known author.") Three months later, the subcommittee authorized the creation of the British Secret Service.

The Army was given responsibility for domestic intelligence, which became MI5; the Navy was put in charge of a new foreign espionage service, which became MI6. (This is why James Bond is sometimes referred to as Commander Bond and occasionally wears a naval uniform.) However, the new Secret Service devoted its resources not to pursuing spies but, rather, to establishing a vast, J. Edgar Hoover-like card-file register of "suspicious reports"--essentially the institutionalization of Le Queux's publicity stunts. Over the next several years, Scotland Yard's Special Branch investigated more than eight thousand suspicious aliens, but in September, 1914, the agency issued a report declaring that it had found no evidence of bomb plots or "of any kind of military organization" in Britain. By 1917, MI5 held dossiers on more than thirty-eight thousand individuals, and at the end of the war it employed a staff of three hundred and twenty-five clerks, simply to maintain the card-filing system.”

It is funny how the thriller and it cousin, the Action movie, have legitimized the militarization and coercion dreamt of by Stephen and other of the bureaucrats who managed India. With an action movie figure as the governor of California and a man whose only military experience is playing a soldier in the Mission Accomplished Infomercial pretending to be our commander in chief, art has joined with life all too well. Politics has turned into an action movie which each of us dreams in a different way – which is partly why it is so disgusting. Of course, this isn’t quite the art Yeats meant. In Ego Dominus Tuum, there is a nice (elitist) passage about art and life, and I’ll close with it:

“For those that love the world serve it in action,
Grow rich, popular, and full of influence;
And should they paint or write still is it action,
The struggle of the fly in marmalade.
The rhetorician would deceive his neighbours,
The sentimentalist himself; while art
Is but a vision of reality.
What portion in the world can the artist have,
Who has awakened from the common dream,
But dissipation and despair?”


Patrick J. Mullins said…
Roger--responding more to the previous spammed post. I was curious if you had hated newspaper reporting; I think I remember you did some. This is because it seems you would be especially good at it. Although I know the feeling well, if my hunch is right. What is usually considered my best skill, and for which I received elaborate training, I have refused to commit to except when it suits some personal intellectual program. Therefore, I haven't tended toward thoughts of the future until relatively recently. Anyway, I would guess newspaper reporting is a hateful way of life unless you really like noise and crowding
roger said…
Patrick, newspaper reporting and feature stuff are fun things, up to a point. What I grew to really hate is the dumbing down process. I am not totally against it -- I've learned a lot from editing -- but at a certain point I decided that it wasn't dumbing down, but enforcing dumbness as a standard. In my view, newspapers are often staffed with bright people and good writers, but they are managed by highly dumb people who -- as in many businesses -- don't understand that turning people off of reading (for instance, emphasizing restaurant reviews over, say, book reviews, or reporting on Matt Damon's wedding with more enthusiasm and length than on the Climate treaty in Montreal) is cutting their own throat. The world in which restaurants and tv celebrities are the big news items is one that can dispense entirely with newspapers. This is why I am an enthusiast of business pages -- for that is where reporters are actually allowed to write as mature adults to other mature adults.
roger said…
PS -- I should say, celebrity reporting per se doesn't get my goat. It is the way it is done. The reporter's hands are so tied that it is more like being dropped by the Mafia into the drink than reporting a "story." There is no room to produce anything more than product placement. The story of Hollywood movies for the past twenty years, for instance, has been the systematic replacement of the actor with the fx (with the actor reconfigured as a site for fx, actually) but of course, the review is always actor centered, as are the inevitable, tedious interviews. Nobody looks at the weirdness of it -- and the American action movie must surely be, in terms of narrative, the oddest thing ever produced by a semi-civilized culture to entrance an audience, down to an including the inevitable slo-mo. Yet it is hard to read anything that actually looks at the mass of what Americans look at and pay money to look at and buy videos of -- they all think it is still some vague derivative of theater.
The only time that celebrity reporting is actually semi-truthful is when the celeb murders somebody, or fucks an eight year old.
I think the lies and sheer illiteracy bleed into every other sphere of information.