“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, April 30, 2005

Blake's sweet bird

LI’s friend and neverfailing antipode, Paul Craddick, recently threw himself into a defense of Nietzsche on the Maverick Philosopher site. While Paul and Mr. MP disagreed, they both exhibited a dislike for perspectivism. At least, Paul seems to think that emphasizing perspectivism in the body of Nietzsche’s work exaggerates a feature of it:

“I'm sure we'll have occasion to clash again when you write on "perspectivism," because I'm not convinced that the weight of N's work supports the radically perspectival interpretation; or, at least, I'm not sure if one can make an ultimately satisfying case for him definitively holding to either perspectivism or some perspective-centric realism.”

Here at LI, we are ardent perspectivists. So we thought we’d wile away a Saturday post making a few comments.

….

We aren’t going to make an exhaustive survey of perspectivisms past and present. Leibniz is, famously, the inventor of the most ingenious reconciliation of rationalism and perspectivism, in the course of which he invented a sort of modal philosophy. However, this is perspectivism at the baroque end of the Christian apologetic – proving, at least, that there is nothing inherently revolutionary about all varieties of perspectivism. Or even nihilistic.

Enlightenment thinkers were almost all, by an instinctive bias, relativists. Montesquieu’s emphasis on the differences geography and climate make to fundamental features of subjectivity – and the sort of playdo subject favored by the Empiricists – were all derived from the Enlightenment project of reconciling the system of the world as they supposed it conceived by Newton with the political project of justifying the organization of liberties in the commonwealth. It was an immense straddle. One can look at its liberating effects insofar as it created, in Europe, a tolerant sensibility and a lively bourgeois public sphere – or one can look at how easily that relativism could generate apologies for slaveholding, and the attendant and ultimately poisonous pseudo-sciences of race that Lichtenberg percipiently mocked in his letter on physiognomy, when he attacks Lavater’s claim that a Newton could never be born among the “hideous” looking blacks and Moors: "What! exclaims the Physiognomist--could the soul of Newton inhabit the skull of a Negro? an angelic mind dwell in a hideous form?-Unmeaning jargon! the declamation of a child.” Interestingly, the 'science' of race tended towards an absolute pole, abjuring the materialist inclination to relativism that gave it birth. From Lavater there is only a small step towards Gobineau’s remark that the white European is “objectively” the most beautiful racial subgroup. Gobineau, like any editor of the Weekly Standard, then pours scorn on the relativists who claim that there is no objective standard of beauty.

So much for background. LI’s perspectivism is a descendent of the line that goes from Blake to Nietzsche.

In the age of Bush, the Christian right is busy trying to keep Darwin out of the hot little hands of the youth. They should, instead, concentrate on Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” Once your fourteen year old reads that, he is gone – soon he’s wearing leather pants and learning to play an electric guitar. As for the abstinence pledge – forget it.

No discussion of perspectivism should neglect Blakes’ couplet:

“How do you know but ev'ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense World of Delight, clos'd by your senses five?”

We already know that Delight is a special word for Blake. In The Voice of the Devil section, Blake writes:

“All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following Errors:--
1. That Man has two real existing principles, viz. a Body and a Soul.
2. That Energy, call'd Evil, is alone from the Body; and that Reason, call'd Good, is alone from the Soul.
3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.
But the following Contraries to these are True:--
1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul; for that call'd Body is a portion of Soul discern'd by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.
2. Energy is the only life, and is from the Body; and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.
3. Energy is Eternal Delight.”

Reason, in Blake’s terms, has a positional essence – it is a formal thing, rather as it is in Kant -- although Kant comes to that formalism much more reluctantly. As the bound of energy, or eternal delight, Reason both participates in and negates life. This, at least, in its proper place. But in the Bibles or sacred codes, Reason is set up as something more than a bound – it is set up as a separate essence, independent of energy. This is the great fiction of oppression – that Reason is life. Since it is, in fact, the bound set on energy, according to Blake, the Life of Reason is death in life, and the God that torments those who follow their energies is the God that lives off death.

Blake, of course, did not see this as the opposite of Jesus’ teachings – quite the opposite. The great renewal, the life more abundant, the life without the law (that fulfilled the law), was what Jesus was striving for. And of course, before his eyes he saw the Kingdom of Heaven in full revolt -- he saw Jesus' successors in the Jacobins, and the dance around the liberty tree.

This is the vocabulary in which Blake’s couplet is couched.

Let’s not extend this post for pages about Blake. LI wants to cite one other passage – this from the preface to Beyond Good and Evil – and then, tomorrow, we will construct our sense of perspectivism.

Nietzsche’s work, since Nehamas’s book in the eighties, has been viewed as the great exemplar of perspectival thinking. That sense of Nietzsche makes its stand on passages like the following:

Let’s not be ungrateful to them [Platonism and the Vedanta philosophy], even as it must also certainly be confessed, that the worst, most boring and dangerous of all mistakes up to now has been a Dogmatic mistake, namely, Plato’s invention of the pure mind [Geiste] and of the good in itself. But now, where it has been overcome, where Europe breathes out from this nightmare and at least enjoys a healthier … sleep – here we are, whose task is the awaking itself, the inheritance of all the force which the struggle against this error has bred [grossgezüchtet]. This meant standing Truth on its head and denying the perspectival, the fundamental condition of all life, in order to speak of minds and of the good as Plato has done; yes, one might ask, as a doctor would, how did this disease attack the most gorgeous animal [Gewächse] of antiquity, Plato? was he really corrupted by the evil Socrates? Was Socrates, in fact, a corruptor of the youth? and did he deserve his hemlock? But the struggle against Plato, or, in order to say it more intelligibly, and vulgarly, the struggle against the force of the Christian-churchly for millennia – because Christianity is Platonism for the people – has created in Europe a splendid tension of the intellect [Spannung des Geistes] as there has never before been on Earth; with such a taut bow, one can now shoot the furthest goal.”

Gratitude and struggle are the things we will be picking out of that quotation, in order to show that the mistake often made by critics of perspectivism is to presuppose that the perspective is stable, that it is pre-given, that it is perfectly defined. In fact, quantifying over perspectives is tremendously difficult – it is the same kind of difficulty encountered when quantifying over events. In our opinion, the mistake is shared by those who claim to be perspectivists, when they come out with the moral rule that one cannot judge another perspective or -- perspective's stand in - culture. They take that rule right out of their ... non-thinking quarters. It shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what Blake's bird knows.

But more on this tomorrow. It is time to get to work around here.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Good news

Notes to our readers.

First, this was up almost all day before LI noticed that Blogger had done it again. Lately, every time we put a text in Blogger, it rumbles it around like a demonic washing machine and puts holes in it. It will take out a sentence there, a paragraph elsewhere, and leave the impression, among our readers, that LI has a serious drinking problem.

Well, we do have a serious drinking problem. But not that serious.

So, this incomprehensible post was supposed to be, one, about Mexico, and two, about the ivory billed woodpecker. Let's go to two first. Here's the story in the nyt science section:

"The ivory-billed woodpecker, a magnificent bird long given up for extinct, has been sighted in the cypress and tupelo swamp of the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge here in Arkansas, scientists announced Thursday.
Bird experts, government agencies and conservation organizations involved kept the discovery secret for more than a year, while they worked to confirm the discovery and protect the bird's territory. Their announcement on Thursday brought rejoicing among birdwatchers, for whom the ivory bill has long been a holy grail - a creature that has been called the Lord God bird, apparently because that is what people exclaimed when they saw it."

That I would live to see this day. LI, Jr. -- if you can imagine such a beast -- used to dream over reproductions of Audobon prints the way Keats dreamed over Chapman's Homer. Now we are holding our breath for the Carolina Parakeet.

In other news:

Our correspondent in Mexico City, who can’t stand Vicente Fox (and reminded us, in her last email, that we consistently misspell his name as ‘Vincente’), was nevertheless impressed with the TV address in which Fox, for all intents and purposes, backed down, firing his Attorney General. Fox may well have been astonished by the controversy that ensued when he organized the desafuerta of Lopez Obrador. On the regional level, PAN-PRI cooperation to block the PRD is standard operating procedure. Fox’s own idea of democracy might well have so accepted that parameter as to feel wounded and astonished when his own support for democracy was questioned in the aftermath of implementing it on a national level. We will see how events unfold.

Okay. If blogger mangles this, I'll have somebody's guts for garters.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Gulliver's Double

There’s a tradition in the literature about Gulliver’s Travel that extracts the Lockean Gull in Gulliver. The argument goes back to a very fine essay by W. B. Carnochan entitled, Gulliver’s Travels: An Essay on the Human Understanding?

Carnochan’s argument is straightforward: “Lemuel Gulliver, like the mad projector of the Modest Proposal, appears to be a version of the Lockean man.” Carnochan is probably on solid ground in thinking that the perceptual changes on which Swift plays like a jazz xylophonist are suggested by Locke’s theory that the human mind is shaped by sensation – ideas themselves being the end product of an experience that begins
externally (mysterious as that beginning may be) with the encounter of a sense instrument and an object. As is well known, this theory leads elsewhere in the empirical tradition – that moment of non-experience hardening into a thing that can’t be, logically, experienced, meaning that the perceived object must be usurped by the philosopher and put in the mind – some mind. Berkeley suggested God’s. This is a theory that a writer like Swift is bound to squeeze all the absurdities out of. Which is why Denis Donoghue takes the Lockean suggestion one step further,
and claims that what we are seeing, in Gulliver’s Travels, is how easily the Lockean subject falls prey to the Stockholm syndrome. He is continually captured, and continually acclimated so to the point of view of his captors that he begins to adopt it. Historically, there's also warrant for this -
Swift lived in a time when English men and women were always getting captured, by Moors, Indians and other heathen, and were continually shocking their countrymen by converting to pagan or Islamic ways.
In other words, Gulliver’s typical peripeteia is that of a man who goes from one ‘brainwashing” to another – and he gets to it by going through funk, animal fear, and his own tradesman’s capacity for fawning, with the power of the mind, here, being wholly in the power of the powers that be.

Donoghue’s thesis seems to explain a larger pattern in Gulliver’s Travels, until one notices that Gulliver seems much too aware of his brainwashing to be merely one of the brainwashed. At least in the Lilliput section, where Gulliver is critical enough of thread dancing and the like. He is not, however, critical of titles – and no matter how small the Liliputians are, the emperor carries a title as big as Louis XIV’s.

To my mind, the way to get a-hold of Gulliver is to see him as the double of M.B. Drapier.

In the first Drapier letter, the narrator (who is, after all, a fiction) says this:

“I will therefore first tell you the plain story of the fact; and then I will lay before you how you ought to act in common prudence, and according to the laws of your country.”

This is in the clear as water style of Gulliver himself. And yet, Drapier’s
letters are all warnings, and the satire runs to that point. Whereas what is
Gulliver writing for? In the letter from Captain Gulliver that prefaces the
book, he does claim that the book is intended as a warning:

“I do in the next Place complain of my own great Want of Judgment, in being prevailed upon by the Intreaties and false Reasonings of you and some others, very much against mine own Opinion, to suffer my Travels to be published.

Pray bring to your Mind how often I desired you to consider, when you
insisted on the Motive of publick good; that the Yahoos were a species
of Animals utterly incapable of Amendment by Precepts or Examples: And so it hath proved; for instead of seeing a full Stop put to all Abuses and
Corruptions, at least in this little Island, as I had Reason to expect:
Behold, after above six Months Warning, I cannot learn that my Book hath
produced one single Effect according to mine Intentions: I desired you
would let me know by a Letter, when Party and Faction were extinguished;
Judges learned and upright; Pleaders honest and modest, with some Tincture of common Sense; and Smithfield blazing with Pyramids of Law-Books; the young Nobility's Education entirely changed; the Physicians banished; the female Yahoos abounding in Virtue, Honour, Truth and good Sense; Courts and Levees of great Ministers thoroughly weeded and swept; Wit, Merit and Learning rewarded; all Disgracers of the Press in Prose and Verse condemned to eat nothing but their own Cotten, and quench their Thirst with their own Ink. These, and a Thousand other Reformations, I firmly counted upon by your Encouragement; as indeed they were plainly deducible from the Precepts delivered in my Book.”

This is a mixture of the satirist’s targets since Aristophanes and Swift’s
fictitious creatures, the Yahoos and the Houyhnhnms, who are very close to making any system of virtue and vice absurd by embodying it in impossible extremities of the disgusting and ... well, it is hard to find one term to describe the Houyhnhnms, although the idea of these equine stoics is both alarming and funny. It is like the most impossibly inbred English aristocracy. And Swift adds a sentence that seems pointed at his own self: “And, it must be owned that seven Months were a sufficient Time to correct every Vice and Folly to which Yahoos are subject, if their Natures had been capable of the least Disposition to Virtue or Wisdom.”

Is this Gulliver sticking out his tongue at Mr. Drapier?
And is Mr. Drapier Jonathan Swift as tradesman?

The satirist needs a preliminary sketch, acquaintance with the primogenitive caricature. And that caricature happens to be the self.

But Mr. Drapier, too, exists – in fact, his fictiveness is oddly blurred by his entrance into the all too real exploitation of Ireland, which is forever locked in Swift’s unwavering field of vision, a thing to see, a raree show of instituted vice. He feels about it … well, as LI feels about Bush’s America. Bush’s America degrades my mockery by casting itself into forms of such pitiful tastelessness, hypocrisies that have been exposed for so long that the exposures are growing moss, bluster that wouldn’t frighten a sheep, that mockery has to seek restraint – has to seek other tangents to make indignation feel-able. If not to reform the Yahoos, at least to relieve the writer's own spleen.


Mr. Drapier’s way is simply to tell the plain story of fact.
The meta-story is that the British Prime Minister, out of every venal motive, conspires to allow William Wood the right to coin money for use
in Ireland. The contract costs Wood money, and he proposes to make up
that money and make a profit by chiseling on the composition of the coin
– in other words, creating half pence on the cheap, which could be exchanged for good coin. This was at a time when the matter of the coin
was important – a penny should contain a penny’s worth of metal. A gold coin should contain an amount of gold equal to the worth of the coin.
Of course, the coins were routinely shaved, by everybody. But to coin them
pre-shaved, so to speak, was to go one step beyond. The intro to the edition of the Drapier’s Letters on the Gutenberg site says this:

“The patent was really granted to the King's mistress, the Duchess of Kendal, who sold it to William Wood for the sum of £10,000, and (as it was reported with, probably, much truth) for a share in the profits of the coining. The job was alluded to by Swift when he wrote:

"When late a feminine magician,
Join'd with a brazen politician,
Expos'd, to blind a nation's eyes,
A parchment of prodigious size."

Coxe [a Swift commentator] endeavors to exonerate Walpole from the disgrace attached to this business, by expatiating on Carteret's opposition to Walpole, an opposition which went so far as to attempt to injure the financial minister's reputation by fomenting jealousies and using the Wood patent agitation to arouse against him the popular indignation; but this does not explain away the fact itself. He lays some blame for the agitation on Wood's indiscretion in flaunting his rights and publicly boasting of what the great minister would do for him. At the same time he takes care to censure the government for its misconduct in not consulting with the Lord Lieutenant and his Privy Council before granting the patent. His censure, however, is founded on the consideration that this want of attention was injudicious and was the cause of the spread of exaggerated rumours of the patent's evil tendency. He has nothing to say of the rights and liberties of a people which had thereby been infringed and ignored.”

One is reminded of Bush’s recent trip to West Virginia, where he flaunted
the unreliability of the notes given by Congress to Social Security in exchange for borrowing FICA money. Since the money was borrowed because Bush wanted to siphon a trillion dollar to the upper ten percent income bracket in the U.S., this is much like John Dillinger mocking the manufacturer of a safe for using cheap metal. Even Roman emperors, even
Caligula, to my knowledge, never went that supererogatory step in evil and
not only stole public funds, but then used the theft to urge even greater theft. But Bush, of course, is a conscienceless automaton, a diseased Texas
weasel who was weaned on fraud, and we know that there is nothing, not a
tumbleweed, behind the twinkle in his eye and the Jesus in his heart. In a
more rational world, or one that had a better sense of humor, he’d be featured on some real crime show, right after the serial bigamist and
the mysterious ten year old unsolved murder.

If you have not read the Drapier’s letter, go to the intro to get some
sense of the controversy, and then go to the fourth letter. That’s the hair-raising letter – a blow against the colonial system, a cry against the infamy, a rush at the system that’s truly in rare company. I suppose Martin Luther King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail is the American counterpart, except that King is never bitter. Swift’s letter begins like this:

“Having already written three letters upon so disagreeable a subject as
Mr. Wood and his halfpence; I conceived my task was at an end: But I
find, that cordials must be frequently applied to weak constitutions,
political as well as natural. A people long used to hardships, lose by
degrees the very notions of liberty, they look upon themselves as
creatures at mercy, and that all impositions laid on them by a stronger
hand, are, in the phrase of the Report, legal and obligatory. Hence
proceeds that poverty and lowness of spirit, to which a kingdom may
be subject as well as a particular person. And when Esau came fainting from the field at the point to die, it is no wonder that he sold his
birthright for a mess of pottage.”

Every blow in this letter lands. Gulliver’s Travels – with its Gull for a
mockery – plays a double game with its moral points, making them and denying them in the same gesture. One remembers that the point is the wholesale reformation of Yahoo nature in seven months time. This is Jonah waiting for the fire to consume Ninevah, and being bitterly disappointed that it never comes. Or rather, this is taking that spirit of Jonah and both inhabiting the prophet’s disgust and taking up a position outside it to observe with clinical precision the prophet’s vanity. But Drapier is a character who has been transported beyond vanity. In a passage that was considered treasonable, Swift considers that Ireland is no ‘depending kingdom’ with England, but equal in its freedoms. This casts doubt on the charnel foundation of colonialism, which is currently being implemented in Iraq on just the ground that the Iraqis are incorrigible children and the Americans are paragons to be mimicked. Ireland, after all, was the template for all English colonial ventures to follow. This is the Drapier at his most intense. One wants to say that this is the crescendo of the letter, but the rhythm, here, disallows crescendos:

“For in reason, all government without the consent of the governed is the
very definition of slavery: But in fact, eleven men well armed will certainly
subdue one single man in his shirt. But I have done. For those who have used power to cramp liberty have gone so far as to resent even the liberty
of complaining, although a man upon the rack was never known to be refused the liberty of roaring as loud as he thought fit.”

The Washington Post pities the collaborators

Anne Applebaum’s column in the Washington Post is mostly ditzy foreign policy neo-conservatism. Sometimes, however, she hits new lows. The protest against commemorating the end of the war against the Nazis is the lowest of her lows.

Here’s Applebaum’s assessment of May, 1945:

“Not every European country will be represented, however, because not everybody feels quite the same way about this particular date. In the Baltic states, for example, May 1945 marked the end of the war but also the beginning of nearly a half-century of Soviet occupation, during which one in 10 Balts were murdered or deported to concentration camps and exile villages. The thought of applauding the same Red Army veterans who helped "pacify" their countries after 1945 was too much for the Estonian and Lithuanian presidents, who have refused to attend. Although the Latvian president will attend the Moscow festivities, she's had to declare that she will use her trip to talk about the Soviet occupation. The president of Poland also has spent much of the past month justifying his decision to celebrate this particular anniversary in Moscow. By May 1945, after all, the leaders of what had been the Polish anti-Nazi resistance were already imprisoned in the Lubyanka, the KGB's most notorious Moscow prison.”

Gee, those poor Baltic states – funny that Applebaum doesn’t mention what they commemorate about the war won, apparently, by the wrong side. For instance, take poor Latvia. In September 2003, in keeping with the Applebaum spirit, the Latvian Defense Ministry helped celebrate Latvia’s contribution to the war – the Latvian SS.

The SS memorial was unveiled in the Latvian town of Lestene. The event was attended by the country’s government, religious and military officials. Three military orchestras of the Latvian Defense Ministry provided musical background for commemorating 'accomplishments and sacrifices' of the SS and its Latvian division in the name of Führer and Fatherland.”

You might think Latvia’s SS was a mere speck, but no – they managed a nice mass killing, 25,000 Jews, in the Rumbula Forest in 1942, for instance. Applebaum, who does remember the Katyn Forest, doesn’t seem to remember this negligible act of the brave Baltic state. Although we do know what the state thinks of it now, officially. The Latvian government has set up a memorial to the victims of the slaughter of the Riga ghetto, just to placate those pesky Western powers, but its heart belongs to the black shirts

Ah, Applebaum really missed her chance to expatiate on Latvia’s peculiar contribution to the great war for Lebensraum. I wonder why she missed telling the world that Latvia contributed 150,000 SS volunteers to the war effort, more than any other nation occupied by Germany? Surely she could have spared a word for the the wonders performed by Latvians in the cleansing of the Riga ghetto?

Applebaum must be pleased that the pro-stalinist left, who don’t understand the necessity of ridding Latvia of its subversive fifth column, are at least getting theirs. Protestors at Lestene have been arrested, and a Latvian court is considering fining them $14,000. While Applebaum might consider that such scum, seeking to blot the bright history of Latvia, deserve jail time, at least she can take some satisfaction in Latvia’s prompt protection of its historic sites.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

tears, gentle tears

The tears that were shed over the elections in the Ukraine, do you remember? The NPR tears, PBS tears, NYT tears. Nothing, nothing was more important than the striving of the Ukranian people to put one of two corrupt dinosaurs in office. It emerged on the front pages and we were all, here in America, holding our breath for the good, pro-American, democratic side to assume its rightful place. It was just like when Tinkerbell died in the fifties and all the kids in America wished her back into life.

And then there have been the recent Rice tears shed over the unjust jailing of a billionaire Mafioso in Russia. Here the tears might be a little more sincere – the Bush administration is pained by the fall of a single hair on a billionaire head as much or more than God is pained by the falling away of a single sinner. And then our intrepid Rice went to Belarus and spread the word about democracy to the benighted people there.

But somehow, we haven’t yet had to bring out the mops to wipe up the NPR, PBS, NYT, and Bush administration tears about Mexico. In fact, probably few American readers of this post will even know that perhaps the largest demonstration in Mexican history took place Sunday. Our man in Mexico, Fox, hid in his little presidential Fox house. Whereas the man that Fox has conspired to kick out of the upcoming presidential race for the very good and democratic reason that he has a fair chance of winning it, Lopez Obrador, made a thunderous speech which, if translated into Ukranian and given in Kiev by a man backed by dirty capitalist money, might actually have garnered some press attention.

… What am I saying? It wouldn’t, even then, since the speech dared to mention protecting the welfare of the poor. If you aren’t willing, as a democrat, to shit on the poor, America is not going to cry for you. As we all know, the poor need shock therapy and more shock therapy. They need ever freer markets in which their ever falling wages can buy ever less in order to be really, really free. Because, as Rice said, immortally, in Moscow, people just want to be free to choose things for their kids – for instance, what infested mudhole to wash their kids clothes in, or what absolutely unsafe American owned factory to send their kids to to make a whole dollar a day.

A friend who was in the demo writes:
Now,as far as the march goes, if a few words can sum it up -- it was HUGE, about 10 times bigger than the govt would admit. The official count is 120,000... now thaT's really a joke, a slap in the face, bullshit. The demonstration was about 1 million +... I was there. I now how many people it takes to fill up the zocalo and then have about 10 km worth of people backed up on Reforma... it was, by less biased calculations the biggest march in Mexican history. It will be written about in history books. And yet, most newspapers are trying to play it down by insisting Lopez Obrador has summoned his batallions... which is not true... there were lots of people there who are not exactly pro-Lopez Obrador... but they are for democracy, for being able to have a vote. The other thing that would sum it up is that it was extremely civil and witty. As you might know, it was a silent march, no shouting, chanting, screaming... which made for interesting slogans and word plays and whole architectural endeavours as means of expression. Some people made a huge Trojan horse out of crates... others dressed in red-stained white sheets, there were funny posters, etc... an abundance of Fox and Salinas masks, etc. It was very exciting and it was an amazing thing to be there surrounded by that mass of people."

Sunday, April 24, 2005

the adventures of Herbert O. Yardley

At the end of Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyers hears out Huck’s plan to free Jim. Huck's plan is plain. It is a routine escape plan. It will probably work. Huck asks if the plan wouldn’t work. This is what Tom says:

"WORK? Why, cert'nly it would work, like rats a-fighting. But it's too blame' simple; there ain't nothing TO it. What's the good of a plan that ain't no more trouble than that? It's as mild as goose-milk. Why, Huck, it wouldn't make no more talk than breaking into a soap factory."

I never said nothing, because I warn't expecting nothing different; but I knowed mighty well that whenever he got HIS plan ready it wouldn't have none of them objections to it. And it didn't. He told me what it was, and I see in a minute it wasworth fifteen of mine for style, and would make Jim just as free a man as mine would, and maybe get us all killed besides. So I was satisfied, and said we would waltz in on it. I needn't tell what it was here, because I knowed it wouldn't stay the way, it was. I knowed he would be changing it around every which way as we went along, and heaving in new bullinesses wherever he got a chance. And that is what he done.”

That about encapsulates the spirit of the CIA. It is an organization of Tom Sawyers, Tom Sawyer writ large, Tom Sawyer with a salary and pension plan.

The way a country spies says deep, deep things about the country's cultural values. One reason to keep an eye on spies. Another reason is, of course, that they are ridiculously melodramatic.

Anybody who is truly interested in the art of spying is aware of The Codebreakers. This is the decrypter’s Ars Magna – David Kahn’s masterpiece, one part encyclopedia, one part Poe. Kahn has now written another book. This one is a biography of Herbert O. Yardley. Thomas Powers (the author of one of the great 70s CIA books, Richard Helms: The Man who kept the secrets) reviews it in the NYRB. Here’s a graf:

“Yardley is one of the remarkable men in American history. He is known primarily for his summary dismissal in 1929 by incoming Secretary of State Henry Stimson, a patrician Wall Street lawyer who closed down the Ci-pher Bureau with the casual observation that "gentlemen do not read each other's mail"—a remark, interestingly, which is the only thing remembered about either man. It is often cited as marking the high-water mark of American starched-collar idealism before the downhill slide into great-power realism. But what made Yardley famous is not the thing that makes him interesting. The son of a railroad telegrapher, a man with a lively Jazz Age interest in money, good-looking women, and drinks at five, Yardley not only taught his country how to read other people's mail but wrote two of the enduring American books—the best single intelligence memoir, The American Black Chamber (1931), and perhaps the greatest book in any language on playing cards for money, The Education of a Poker Player (1957).”

The fakery about shrinking big government begins, probably, with spying – which elicits supportive hardons from the same people who don’t want big government poking its nose into, say, worker safety issues (say, there is enough poking in that sentence to create a mini-Freudian meltdown. But let us soldier on…)

Yardley is one of those impossible men who should have been fictitious – a character in a radio series, or Li’l Orphan Annie:

“But Yardley remains the great figure of American codebreaking and it was probably inevitable that David Kahn, the great historian of American codebreaking, would set out to write his biography. From the outset he was challenged by the second major barrier to writing Yardley's life—lack of materials. When Yardley speaks in his books—there is a third covering his adventures in China in the 1930s—all is illuminated, but where the books stop the life grows dim. At his death, Yardley left no papers—odd for a writer—but when intelligence figures die it is not uncommon for personable men to arrive promptly at the widow's door with an offer to help. Typically the visit ends with every scrap of paper going out the door before the sun goes down. Kahn offers no guess about the fate of Yardley's missing papers, and repaired the deficiency in the only way—by scouring every plausible archive, talking to the bare handful of survivors, and trusting to luck. His big finds were the files of Yardley's literary agent, George Bye, preserved in the library of Columbia University, and the letters Yardley sent home from China during the year and a half he worked for the legendary chief of Kuomintang intelligence, Dai Li.
The man who emerges in Kahn's briskly paced portrait is gifted, complex, resourceful, and often disappointed. Yardley's life included more periods of drinking than not, some interesting women, and many spurned efforts to resume the work he knew and liked best. He bounced back from the loss of his codebreaking job with The American Black Chamber, hung around Hollywood long enough to earn $10,000 for doing nothing, wrote some forgettable novels, did some radio work, dabbled in real estate, and finally got back into the great game, attacking Japanese codes for officials in China. During after-hours in the Chungking Hostel he taught the young reporter Theodore White two useful survival arts—how to play poker and how to ride out an air raid…”

As for my own after-hours time at the Chungking Hostel… well, that’s another story for another time.