The absence of a significant tradition of public clandestinity – and the fantasy of clandestinity


Explaining some of the thought behind their study of spy fiction, John G. Cawelti and Bruce A. Rosenberg (1987) write:

Clandestinity poses a particular problem for American culture because, in developing our version of democracy with its strong emphasis on publicity and openness, we have not created over the years a significant tradition of public clandestinity. …The short, incredible history of the CIA makes it quite clear, however, that when Americans settle down to the creation of clandestine establishments, they do so on the same monumental scale at which they generate other kinds of organizations. If the nature of international relations makes espionage and counterespionage vital necessities on certain occasions, the lack of a continuous tradition of public clandestinity means that we must face over and over again the same kind of irresponsible – indeed lunatic – proliferation of clandestine groups which developed throughout the [-p.30] Cold War era. …If we are to avert the Watergates of the future, and even to bring the CIA of today under responsible political control, we must develop a fuller understanding of the psychological and cultural processes that are invoked by the choice of clandestinity. It is our hope that this study of the evolution of the fantasy of clandestinity in the popular genre of the spy story will make an indirect contribution to this understanding.” (pp.29-30)

Is_this_tomorrow“Though archetypal themes appear to play an important role in the perennial fascination of clandestine activity, the question of why the spy story has become a primary genre in the twentieth century still remains. In one sense, this question can only be answered by acknowledging the contributions of many individual writers and filmmakers to the creation, the broadening, and the increasing sophistication of the spy story as a literary and cinematic genre. In particular, the accomplishments of John Buchan, Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, I an Fleming, and John le Carré have shaped the evolution of the spy story from romantic adventure to many-sided literary and cinematic genre. Therefore, the analysis of these writers and an interpretation of their significance in the tradition of the spy story constitutes a major portion of this book.
The interests that impelled these writers to become part of the espionage tradition and that motivated twentieth-century readers and filmgoers to make the spy story one of their favorite genres clearly go beyond the sum of individual accomplishments. For many reasons, the spy and clandestine activity have come to be central symbols of the human condition in the twentieth century. Because this has been a century of total war and totalitarian societies, espionage, both international and domestic, has become an increasing part of all of our lives. Even in democratic societies, national intelligence organizations like the CIA and the British Secret Service grew to unprecedented [-p.31] size and influence in the aftermath of World War II. In addition, the protracted Cold War and the fear of imminent nuclear catastrophe have made espionage and counterespionage seem activities of the highest importance. Americans widely believed that ‘the enemy within,’ that is, Russian spies and their American agents, were responsible for giving vital scientific secrets to the Soviets, enabling them to become a nuclear power and a serious competitor for the conquest of space. During the McCarthy period [late 1940s to late 1950s], clandestinity became an obsession, for Americans were bombarded with claims that a large number of important government officials were Communist spies. Though these claims turned out to be largely groundless, cases like those of the Rosenbergs and Alger hiss continued to feed fears of widespread subversion in America. These fears were intensified by the prolonged stalemate of the Korean War. The even greater tragedy of the Vietnam war led to an increasing concern with the role of clandestinity on the world scene. In this case, however, the concern was critical, stimulated by a growing fear of the uncontrolled power of the CIA on the international scene and the FBI within the country. Today [i.e., back in the late 80s], facing the bleak prospect of the annihilation of humanity, the public’s attitude toward espionage can probably be characterized as profoundly ambiguous. On the one hand, there is a conviction that a strong intelligence community is necessary to prevent our national adversaries from gaining any political, military, or technological advantage that might threaten man’s future. But there is also an increasing awareness of the way in which organizations like the CIA abuse their authority by fomenting problems that threaten the peace more than they work to preserve it. the development of the spy story during the Cold War period certainly reflects this ambiguity: one group of writers continues the heroic tradition of Ian Fleming and another presents stories of clandestine operators betrayed by their own organizations, as in many of the novels of Len Deighton and John le Carré.” (p.30)

“Finally,” Cawelti and Rosenberg continue, “though the increasing importance of espionage on the international scene has made the spy one of the central symbols of twentieth-century man, there is another important [-p.32] reason why the clandestine protagonist has become an everyman figure. The situation of the spy ‘out in the cold’ seems to express the way many people feel about the basic patterns of their lives.” (pp.31-32)

“…we have come to think that there is a definite connection between the clandestine protagonist as a symbol of everyman in the twentieth century and an aspect of modern culture which has often been discussed in contemporary works of sociology, both popular and academic: the alienation of the individual from the large organizations – corporations, bureaucracies, professions – which dominate our lives. We think it is this sense of alienation and the deep feeling of conflict between individual self and social role which it engenders that makes the figure of the spy so compelling as a contemporary everyman hero. Into the figure of the spy trying to carry out his secret mission in a territory dominated by the enemy or, even better, threatened by betrayal from his own organization, the individual can project the frustrations he feels toward the limitations imposed on his actions by his corporate employer, by bureaucratic regulations, or by the conventions of his profession.” (p.32)

“Thus, the spy story has become a primary twentieth-century genre by drawing on the archetypal power of the patterns of clandestinity to express a compelling vision of contemporary life into which readers can project their own fears and frustrations. [-p.33] This vision relates to the sense of anxiety the public feels about international conflict and to the possibility of nuclear catastrophe, as well as to the sense of alienation so many individuals feel.” (pp.32-33)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold, mine) John G. Cawelti and Bruce A. Rosenberg (1987) The Spy Story. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London

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