Boredom in spy novels


Writing about the heroes of spy stories, Cawelti and Rosenberg once declared:

Whatever stirs the hero from his lethargy at the beginning of the adventure, commitment to a cause, patriotism, or simply ‘the right,’ impels him once the action is underway.” (p.104)

I find it quite a provocative statement – and I wonder how it applies to other spy fictions.

Slightly further on, they add: “Ambler’s Kenton plays a more modest role [than Hannay in Buchan;s The Thirty-Nine Steps], seldom being more than an interested bystander while the Zaleshoffs and their agents recapture their crucial documents: Kenton’s role remains minor, though he gradually becomes deeply committed in the spook war around him. It is a scenario which tells us that though we readers are not professionals, such adventures are possible in the most routine of lives, and it enables us to see what events motivate men, from ennui to engagement. It is the pattern Ian Fleming will use again and again to show us how his jaded superagent psyches himself up for yet another mission. It is the condition of Childer’s Caruthers, suffering through “the dismal but dignified routine of office, club, and chambers’ (The Riddle of the Sands, p.16), who will shortly risk his life to discover the riddle of the sands. By these means does an author signal the reader that the forthcoming adventure will be compelling. This movement, from boredom to involvement, is so prevalent and so natural a thrust for this genre, that we need not worry about direct attribution; it is simply one of the best ways to tell and adventure story. It prepares the reader for the exciting adventure to come, signaling that the author is about to exit the everyday-life world into the dark and dangerous universe of spy wars.” (p.104)

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

Heroes of spy fiction – some comments on Ambler and Greene


According to Cawelti and Rosenberg, “Eric Ambler and Graham Greene transformed the spy novel irretrievably. In tone, in characterization, in theme as well as in the episodes and plots used to express all of these features, the genre changed from the naive to the sinister, from a story of adventure to one of treachery and betrayal. These important novelists, whose writing careers span World War II, were themselves altered by that cataclysm, but also helped bring about those changes that now characterize the genre. Ambler’s early novels, those written before England’s active entry into World War II, are modeled on the plots and for the most part  the characters of his predecessors.” (p.101)

Writing of Ambler’s politics – and particularly the novels, Passage of Arms (1960); Doctor Frigo (1974); The Levanter (1972); State of Siege (1956); Dirty Story (1967); The Light of Day [aka Topkapi] (1963) – Cawelti and Rosenberg observe: “The partisan politics of the real world are absent from all of these novels; Ambler has always placed his character in the borderlands of danger, the natural habitat of the spy and international intrigue. In these marginal areas the law is weak and order is shaky. Everything is in flux, and nearly everything is possible. This vision of liminal regions owes its debt, ultimately, to Cooper’s The Spy. Before World War II the Balkans was the area of greatest intrigue, the Mediterranean in general a close second. After the war, the non-man’s-land fraught with danger and the lawlessness that inspired intrigue and duplicity had shifted: for Ambler, as for so many other spy novelists, it was the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.” (p.110)

Ambler’s postwar phase makes few concessions to the directions taken by other spy story writers. He lacks le Carré’s deep questioning of clandestine agencies per se, Len Deighton’s [-p.124] glibness and fast-moving action, Trevanian’s sadistic cruelty, and Fleming’s and Hall’s fascination with technology. Ambler and Greene brought the spy novel a long way toward respectability. Ambler has disciplined himself in telling an engaging story of intrigue and suspense. …Greene has from the first seen the deeper implications raised by the existence of spies and their trade in an open society. He has explored the role of clandestinity in our world and has, perhaps deepest of all, scrutinized the values of loyalty and patriotism, obligation and commitment. More than any spy novelist (in his case especially, a writer who has written spy novels), Greene has returned the spy novel to the mainstream of contemporary fiction. It began as a story of adventure, moved to become a genre in its own right, and by the excellence of some of its most accomplished practitioners is moving back into the main currents of what is simply good fiction.” (pp.123-124)

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

Heroes of spy fiction – some comments on Buchan


Cawelti and Rosenberg write:

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the secret agent adventure had begun to assume a definite shape in the work of writers like Kipling, Stevenson, and Conrad. A number of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories came close to being accounts of counterespionage activity, and on the eve of World War I, in ‘His Last Bow,’ Holmes came out of retirement in order to foil the plots of a German agent. But it was the generation which came of age in the early twentieth century that made the spy story a major literary archetype by producing masses of formulaic spy adventures (e.g., Rohmer’s Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, LeQueux’s Secret Service, Wallace’s Four Just men) as well as a number of more complex fictions involving espionage as a theme (e.g., Childer’s Riddle of the Sands, Kipling’s Kim, and Conrad’s Secret Agent). The Richard Hannay stories of John Buchan span the distance between the popular spy adventure and the novel of espionage. Like the popular stories, Buchan’s tales are deeply romantic; his hero is a gentleman amateur, definitely one of that breed later labeled “clubland [-p.80] heroes.” His enemies are supervillains who represent the threat of non-British races and cultures to the English hegemony. Their complex criminal organizations, like the international criminal syndicate of Doyle’s Professor Moriarty, threaten the very heart of the homeland. With the help of a few other gentleman friends, however Buchan’s dauntless hero is invariably able to uncover and defeat the supervillain’s plots, saving the empire for the time being. Though his hero antagonists sometimes lapse into the manichean simplicities of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchy and Sir Dennis Nayland Smyth, Buchan’s moral earnestness, his sense of humor, and his concern for literary values make his Hannay stories the very model of the early twentieth-century spy story.” (pp.79-80)

Buchan, more than any other writer, assembled the formula for the modern secret agent story.” (p.80)

If Richard Hannay were only a typical clubland hero defending British social tradition with the help of higher powers, Buchan’s work would doubtless have faded into the oblivion that has swallowed up most of his contemporaries and followers like Dornford Yates and Sapper. However, Buchan also responded in his fantasies to a more contemporary sense of ambivalence about the social and religious tradition. While he worked to resolve this ambivalence through characters like Sandy Arbuthnot, who remains a cool British aristocrat despite his total involvement in Eastern ways of life, the fascination with the new forces unleashed in the world remains an important undercurrent of Buchan’s fantasy. Though his works of adventure are optimistic on the surface and he imagines a revitalized Christian social tradition able to overcome the threats of the twentieth century, his stories also reflect on a deeper level a sense of the critical failure of modern civilization and a yearning for a more glorious, simpler, and more mystical way of life. On this level, he still speaks to some of the major currents in the fantasy life of men in the twentieth century. The modern spy story, even in the cynical and despairing [-p.100] intrigues of John le Carré and Len Deighton, has come to express this kind of feeling still more strongly. Thus Buchan was instrumental in giving both a model of form and an inner spirit to the story of espionage, giving it through his vision of the world a capacity to express in terms of contemporary international politics and intrigue the yearning for a lost world of fullness and heroism.” (pp.99-100)

Buchan’s heroes were very much in control of their destinies, so it seemed, for despite the danger that continually threatened him, Hannay always extricated himself with relative [-p.114] ease: with a cunning disguise, the lucky discovery of an explosive carelessly stored in the barn in which he was imprisoned, that glib and oily art which enabled him to pass himself off as a political orator with almost no preparation. And his supreme confidence in himself is shared by those around him, even staff officers of the admiralty, who incredibly permit Hannay to take command of the operation to crush the Black Stone. Ambler’s and Greene’s early heroes are rather ordinary, far less than heroic amateurs, undistinguished people caught up in intrigues in which they need professional help either from the police or from friendly agents. And they are more believable for that.” (pp.113-114)

Those characters who seem most real to us, who seem to have lives quite independent of their fictional plots, have been invested with complexities and ambiguities that lift them out of the formulaic plots where we found them. Thus does the writer of formula fiction charge his characters with life.” (p.114)

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

Unemotional characters of genre fiction


When everyone around him is a potential (or real) enemy, the secret agent must be detached, unemotional, dispassionately observant – in a word, cool. This is his legacy from the Raymond Chandler hard-boiled detective. This posture is necessary because his survival depends upon his constant [-p.76], accurate evaluation of all around him, people and events. In that respect the spy is what many of us want to be; in that respect we participate in the action of the story. Puzzle-solving, code-deciphering, and character-analyzing are the modes of his survival.” (pp.75-76)

“The secret agent may be acting out our fantasies in his sexual adventures as well. This aspect has been thoroughly discussed and needs no supplement here: most spies have a compelling way with beautiful women, at least since the 1950s. Their occupations make our fantasies complete: the agency will not allow attachments or emotional involvements of any kind, and so the spy is not only free to love and leave, he is under national security orders to do so. Le Carré has reminded us, in his fiction, that even spies can have families, though for the most part his operatives are bound to their London offices. Greene’s confidential agent was once married, but that was long ago and in another country; now, her haunting memory hinders his action. Bond tries marriage once and pays for it when the opposition murders his bride. It is much better, espionage fiction tells us, to remain detached. If you love a woman, you will get hurt.
If the fictional spy expresses (predominantly male) sexual impulses, he also is a medium for expressing our noblest aspirations. In his loneliness, his isolation, there is also the opportunity for heroism, manifested as self-possession, inner [-p.77] strength, the courage to do what he feels is right and to make such decisions while removed from societal pressures. There are no Joneses to emulate in his milieu. Thoreau would approve.” (pp.76-77)

“The spy novel also enables us, as spectators, to purge and then obliterate the worst that is in us. Movie ads often describe the spy’ls life as one of ‘cheating, lying, and stealing’: in what sphere of the psyche is that quite attractive? In what sphere of our psyches do we want to be free to break any of the rules we wish, as it is convenient, and never be held accountable? The spy can do just that because he is invisible, because he is an alien body in his host society. He moves horizontally to intrude into the lives of others, but his own life is structured vertically. We want to be a part of that life, perhaps even to live that life, but in one sense only: we realize that we cannot really lie, steal, and kill, that we are not really like that.” (p.78)

“We have always had spies, but only recently have we made them our heroes. Their time has come round at last because it is our times that see in their work a part of our own desires and our fears. The spy novel, ostensibly so restricted in its possibilities, allows us to pierce deeply into ourselves, where the possibilities are infinite.” (p.78)

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

The spy novel as genre


“While it was once said of the mystery story that it was contingent upon the profession of the detective, the same cannot be said of the spy novel. We have always had spies … but the spy novel is a genre of our time. Only in the twentieth century has its time come round at last. It is a kind of mystery/ suspense story that we are especially susceptible to, and it speaks to us today with particular cogency and effect.” (p.58)

The spy of fiction cannot operate without his own invisibility: it is the essence of his (fictional) being. Everything about him – his job, his leisure time, his genuine thoughts, his personal life, if he should be so fortunate as to have one – must be either clandestine or disguised. And, more than any other character or occupational type, the spy must have freedom of movement.  Arrest, imprisonment, capture, or even revelation of his identity render his mission inoperative and his function in life useless. Thus, the spy of fiction should always be in danger of losing that mobility or in danger of exposure. Fear felt by the empathetic reader imparts the thrill to the thriller.” (p.58)

The subject of those fictions called spy novels

The Quiller Memorandum“The nature of the work itself has expanded in recent years. Before the 1960s, it was thought by the public to be largely spying and catching spies, but recent covert activities extend well beyond those limits: arranging assassinations, financing [-p.59] revolutions and training the combatants, bribing foreign soldiers to defect with their aircraft or their tanks intact, salvaging vessels that have sunk while on classified missions. All of these activities and hundreds more are now properly the subject of those fictions called spy novels…. The genre has been proven successful, the action of the surface suggests an excitement that is missing from most of our urban, well-regulated, bureaucratic lives, and the messages beneath the surface are compelling to our times.
The lives of real intelligence operatives, however, are frequently clerical and routine, at least as dull as our own.” (pp.58-59)

“The most natural plot for the work of the spy should be determined by the kind of adventure we would most likely expect him to have – in enemy territory – a plot we call THE SPY GOES OVER. Adam Hall’s best-selling Quiller Memorandum (1975) illustrates well many features in the narratives of this subgenre.” (p.60)

“The plot of Quiller [which the authors subject to a detailed, essentially structuralist, analysis, pp.60-66]shows how espionage fiction formulas work in context. The prime mover for the plot is the agent’s mission, which must be accomplished in secret. From this [-p.67] premise the events and episodes which comprise the bulk of the agent’s adventures are reasonably predictable. If secrecy and freedom of movement are the necessary conditions of his existence, then both must be continually threatened.” (pp.66-67)

“In THE SPY GOES OVER stories the spy does not have to go overseas on his mission. Quiller is already in Berlin. For an English agent Germany is foreign territory, but before he agrees to go on the Phoenix mission and thus change his network of secret involvements, he is on relatively safe ground. Once the mission has been accepted, however, his circumstances are  altered radically: he is still ostensibly the Red Cross representative, but now his real purpose is entirely different, and it is this deep purpose that controls his relation to his environment. Now, though he has been in a foreign city all along, Quiller is in a new sense in an alien land. The new, deeper purpose, and not a change of location, marks his GOING OVER.” (p.67)

“In a closely related structure, sympathetic characters strive throughout the narrative to achieve the BIG JOB, as in A Kind of Anger, where the JOB is selling secret papers to foreign agents…. In all of these fictions a task motivates the pivotal characters, while the others act to aid or hinder him (or her or them). Often the pivotal character attempts to prevent a major and dramatic crime, as in The Day of the Jackal.” (p.68)

“A second type of plot posits the pivotal character or hero as victim, most commonly of an agency in a spook war, though recently the agency need not be on the other side. For a good part of the time in this plot type, the hero will be ON THE RUN, even within his own land.” (p.69)

Six Days of the Condor“One’s own agency as the enemy is one of the most ominous developments in recent espionage fiction. The spy novel derives much of its appeal by striking a paranoid note: in earlier espionage fiction, such as that written before the 1970s, the secret agent had only to deal with the ostensible enemy and an occasional seeming neutral. And nearly all of those were identifiable because they were foreigners. In the past several years the secret agent of fiction may find that his own people are working against him, with lethal intent.” (p.70)

Journey into Fear“The hero is also the intended victim in a variant plot type in which he must reach a destination at a certain time or with a particular cargo intact. Often that cargo is human, and the hero functions as bodyguard. We call this plot structure, and Greene’s, after Ambler’s novel, The Journey into Fear. In the book of that title the hero is on shipboard from Turkey to Europe and the cargo he must preserve is himself. He succeeds.” (p.71)

“A third structural type, also commonly used, parallels the detective novel in its manipulation of reader sympathies and employs many of the same strategies and formulas that detective fiction does because in it, too, a criminal is sought. But in the novel of counterespionage, TO CATCH A SPY (closest in form to the detective novel), the criminal is guilty of spying. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is perhaps the best story of this kind yet written, a story in which the spy to be caught is a DOUBLE AGENT of the Kim Philby sort who schemed his way into CONTROL’s position.” (p.72)

The sphere of the fictional spy situates him alone in a potentially hostile environment in which most of the dangers are unknown to him and sometimes to the reader. His characteristic stance is ON THE RUN, the ideally expressive signifier of the man without roots, with no security, with no solace to be derived from his society because in reality he shares little with it: his occupation is a cover, he can ill afford to have friends on ‘the outside,’ and his fellow agents may well be conspiring against him. He may have no recourse to the law (“The Department will disown any knowledge of you”), and he is continually vulnerable tot he hidden, silent enemy, within and without.” (p.74)

“Motif and Type Index of the Spy Story” according to Cawelti and Rosenberg (Appendix, pp.219-220):

Plot Types

The spy goes over
The big job
The hero as victim
Jouney into fear
To catch a spy

Characteristic Episodes (motifs)

Initial ennui
Assassination (attempted assassination)
Close call
Disguised encounter/confrontation
Narrow escape
On the run [-p.220]
The drop
The plant
Planted misinformation
Doubling/turning (an agent)
Turnabout (the hunted becomes hunter)
The tag

Dramatis Personae of the Spy Novel

The Hero’s Company
The hero agent
Control (the agency director)
Control’s immediate subordinate
Control’s satellites
Heroine (often a lure, and thus a false heroine, sometimes for the other side, when the male protagonist is the hero)The Adversary’s Company
Enemy agent
Enemy control
Enemy control’s henchman

Enemy agency entourage or natives of country hostile to hero
False heroine
Ambiguous Personae
Defectors (can defect to either side) 
Double agents
Plants (whose ultimate loyalties may not be apparent)
Neutrals may initially have innocent intentions but are usually exploited by one side or the other and eventually become unwilling helpers or dupes.

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

Spy stories: a background of conflict


The setting of the secret agent adventure is quite different from the detective story or the Western. Whether the action all takes place in one country or the agent is sent on a secret mission from one country to another, the background is a conflict of international political interests. The spy story pretends to take us behind the scenes of world events as they are seen in newspapers or history books. It shows us secret conspiracies which apparently determine the fate of nations. A paranoiac aura typically tints the tale. Hidden secrets are everywhere. The innocent-looking office building is actually the headquarters of a secret society plotting to bring on another war; the respectable, seemingly harmless professor is really an enemy agent; the quaint teashop harbors a secret radio which gives instructions to a network of spies; the letter inviting Smith for a weekend in the country is a code message to assassinate the prime minister. Nothing is what it seems and everything is potentially dangerous. Only the agent knows something of the truth.” (p.55)

In addition to its background of international conspiracy, the secret agent formula usually centers around a particular military or technological secret. Alfred Hitchcock liked to refer to this element as the ‘MacGuffin.’

It’s the device, the gimmick, if you will, or the papers the spies are after. I’ll tell you about it. Most of Kipling’s stories, as you know, were set in India and they dealt with the fighting between the natives and the British forces on the Afghanistan border. many of them were spy stories, and they were concerned with the efforts to steal the secret plans out of a fortress. The theft of secret documents was the original MacGuffin. So the ‘MacGuffin’ is the term we use to cover all that sort of thing: to steal plans or documents, or discover a secret, it doesn’t matter what it is. And the logicians are wrong in trying to figure out the truth of a MacGuffin, since it’s beside the point. The only  thing that really matters is that in the picture the plans, documents, or the secrets must seem to be of vital importance to the characters. (Truffaut, Hitchcock, p.98)

Hitchcock’s insistence that the MacGuffin is an artistic device emphasizes one important point about the setting of the spy story. Although it is usually based on current historical situations, the background of the spy story is just as much a landscape of the mind as the country house of the classical detective story or the frontier town of the Western. Spying is an important activity of the modern state and contemporary espionage organizations like the Central Intelligence Agency operate in dangerously irresponsible secrecy, but espionage does not have the same world-shaking importance as the direct and open clash of national interests. The future of the world probably does not depend on real-life counterparts of Richard Hannay or James Bond. Indeed, the secret agent’s fictional milieu with its omnipresent hidden secrets and conspiracies presents a picture of the world which is probably half reality and half extension to the international scene of the gothic castle with its hidden passages, secret panels, and lurking conspirators.
Two other common elements of the spy story reveal its original connection with gothic fantasy: the innocent hero and [-p.57] the supervillain. The gothic story commonly dealt with the trials of a heroine who whether by accident or design, was involved in the plots of some devious villain. Similarly, one of the perennially favorite spy heroes is the innocent amateur who stumbles by accident into the midst of an espionage conspiracy. This figure who, like the gothic heroine, enacts the nightmare of involvement, discovery, and realization that he is trapped and must play out the game to its end was a favorite character in the thrillers of John Buchan, Graham Greene, and Eric Ambler. Although the innocent amateur today seems to have become less characteristic of the genre than the professional agent, he still plays a role in many of the most successful and popular examples of the form….” (pp.56-57)

“[Both amateur and professional agents] play out the heroic role of accepting and accomplishing a secret mission. In the case of the amateur spy, the mission is forced upon him, whereas the professional accepts it voluntarily.” (p.57)

“The tradition of the secret agent adventure has been particularly rich in colorful and exotic villains who, like their gothic grandfathers, are often more interesting than their heroic opponents and victims. [Various spy story villains] and Ian Fleming’s wonderful gallery of spectacular rogues – Goldfinger, Dr. No, Le Chiffre Sir Hugo Drax, Ernst Stavro Blofeld – contribute as much, perhaps more, to the reader’s pleasure as [the spy hero such as] James Bond. This particular emphasis on the villain seems to be a central feature of the spy thriller. In the classical detective story, the character of the villain is distinctly subordinated to his complex method of carrying out the crime. In the Western, the villain usually has a far less distinctive and colorful character than the hero. But in the secret agent story, even if the antagonist is not portrayed as an exotic master villain, the enemy organization plays a far more important role. In general, this strong treatment [-p.58] of the villain functions to give one the sense that the hero is isolated and alone in the midst of overpowering and seemingly omnipotent enemies.” (pp.57-58)

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

A history of the spy story


The spy story gradually took shape in the nineteenth century and became a widely popular narrative formula around the time of World War I. The first novel to be entitled The Spy and to have a secret agent as one of its main characters was published by James Fenimore Cooper in 1821, shortly before Cooper began his major series, ‘The Leatherstocking Tales’ with The Pioneers in 1823. Significantly, Cooper explored the possibilities of the spy in literature before he went on to develop the Western. He was apparently fascinated by characters caught in the middle between large opposing forces.” (p.34) “The Spy is not Cooper’s most honored novel; yet as the first literary exploration of liminality, it is underrated….” (p.36)

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

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

The appeal of clandestinity


Still working on The Spy StoryJohn G. Cawelti and Bruce A. Rosenberg write:

While the flourishing of the spy story as a popular genre is primarily a phenomenon of the twentieth century, fascination with clandestine operations goes back to the dawn of history and the earliest surviving narratives and folktales. That most famous of clandestine operations, the Trojan horse, comes immediately to mind, but folktales are full of magical paraphernalia which can make the possessor invisible, and almost all epics contain at least one character who betrays the heroic leader. While the impact of historical espionage is highly controversial, clandestinity has always been an important part of war, politics, and commerce. One is tempted to hazard the speculation that the very fascination of clandestine activity as much as its practical necessity makes it a significant part of our history.” (p.11)

Clandestine operations usually begin with a purpose. Either the individual is so deeply committed to some goal that he is prepared to step beyond the usual boundaries of action, or the end he pursues is by its very nature illegal. Two such purposes are revolutionary activity and the service of a foreign country. Either commitment invariably entails some kind of clandestine operation since the open practice of revolution or subversion is outlawed. There are, however, many other purposes which can lead to clandestinity. For example, when those in power feel that public opinion will resist or reject a certain course of action deemed vital to national security, or to the success of an administration, there may be a great temptation to resort to secret actions against a foreign power or against an organization that is felt to be a domestic threat.
Clandestinity is not entirely political. The pursuit of business in a capitalistic society often leads its practitioners into secret operations. Industrial espionage and defenses against it have played a significant role in modern history both between and within countries (Eells and Nehemkis, Corporate Intelligence and Espionage). Crime is another mode of clandestine operation and so are many forms of love. While there are obviously significant differences between these various forms of clandestinity, the basic patterns of a secret love affair and an espionage operation have many features in common. Like the spy, the secret lover must keep his actual commitment secret from his [-p.13] wife and family to whom he owes a legal and moral loyalty. Carrying out a love affair often requires many of the same practices as an espionage mission: secret communications, hidden rendezvus, complicated alibis, and elaborate disguises. Such lovers often experience the special closeness of people who share a dangerous bond unknown to others. Not suprisingly, poets have often noted the analogy between love and espionage. Shakespeare and Donne both use spy metaphors to express secret love, for example.
Clandestinity thus begins with a purpose requiring actions that must be kept secret because they transgress conventional, moral, or legal boundaries. But there are also innate psychological attractions in clandestinity which can give the initial involvement an added impetus. In our imaginations, the role of spy partakes of the very powerful fantasy of invisibility, a motif whose recurrence in myth, legend, and literature indicates a compelling appeal for many people in many different cultures. The spy is invisible in a number of senses: he is the secret observer who, himself unseen, watches through a peephole or, in our modern technological age, through a telescope or some electronic device; he is invisible in the sense that his commission as a spy frees him from responsibility and gives him license to do things he could not ordinarily do without serious consequences. James Bond, for example, has the ‘license to kill.’ These aspects of invisibility – voyeurism, self-concealment, and license – clearly have a powerful attraction quite apart from the purpose they are intended to serve.
Closely related to invisibility is the fascination with disguises, another fantasy connected with clandestinity. Again, folktales, myths, and stories indicate the perennial human fascination with disguise, the power of which very likely resides in the thrill of trying on other identities – social, racial, sexual, or chronological. …Disguise is one of the ways that we have of narrating or dramatizing this fantasy. Disguise is a temporary escape from one’s own identity; the role of a spy contains the possibility of a controlled but total escape from the constraints [-p.14] of self. This ties in with a third fantasy deeply connected with many forms of clandestinity, the secret exercise of power. The secret conspiracy – actual and fantasied has been ever present in human history. To imagine becoming part of a secret organization is a compelling fantasy not only in terms of the exercise of power without its responsibilities and risks, but also as a particularly strong image of belonging. To belong to a clandestine organization seems to carry with it a profound involvement, a relationship to other members of the organization deeper than that characteristic of other kinds of organizations because it requires life-and-death loyalty. This particular fantasy of clandestinity is probably especially powerful in modern industrial cultures where people feel relatively alienated from most of the organizations to which they belong. Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, with its central theme of the clandestine family, exploited this fantasy just as the contemporary spy thriller does.
Ironically, the cycle of clandestinity often moves from the profound loyalty of the initial commitment to extraordinary forms of betrayal. Though his participation in a secret relationship requires total loyalty on the part of the spy (or the lover) toward his partners in clandestinity, this relationship is also a betrayal of existing relationships and prior commitments. This theme of betrayal, possibly impelled by a deep-seated oedipal urge to throw off parental authority, constitutes, along with the fantasies of invisibility, disguise, and secret conspiracy, the repertoire of psychological attractions which, along with compelling moral or political goals, are reflected in the fantasy of espionage.
From the outset, clandestine involvements are complexly ambiguous, often combining high moral purpose with contradictory psychological needs. As the process of clandestinity develops, the psychological state of the spy tends to become even more ambiguous. After the initial commitment to secret activity, the clandestine operative becomes involved with one or more persons in pursuit of his initial purpose. This association quickly creates what might be called a clandestine [-p.15] world, based on the special view of things which the members of the secret group share. The second stage of the cycle of clandestinity is the full development of this clandestine world, which then exists side by side with the ordinary world in the mind of the spy. Participants in clandestinity believe that their secret world is more real than the ordinary world and that it is exempt from the rules that govern those who are not part of the clandestine world.” (pp.12-15)

Clandestinity generates not only a special view of the world based on shared secrets, but a different language as well as a different morality. As the clandestine worldview and the special words that manifest it proliferate, it becomes difficult for participants to receive information or feedback from the ordinary world. In effect, the clandestine world becomes increasingly shut off from the ordinary world, and its devotees find it more and more difficult to take seriously and even to understand the ordinary view of things.” (p.16)

Participants in a clandestine world live in a state of psychological tension which resembles, in some of its characteristics, the pathology of schizophrenia. This tension results from their dual views of the world. First, there is the ‘reality’ constituted by the secrets shared with other members of the clandestine group. Since these secrets commonly refer to states of affairs or events that are not known to those outside the group, the clandestine worldview seems more real. Yet, since the preservation of the clandestine group requires that these secrets remain hidden from all other persons, a clandestine participant must also live as a member of the ordinary world, pretending to share its view of reality. This double vision is difficult enough. The clandestine participant must remember the attitudes, perceptions, and words characteristic of both the clandestine world and the world outside, and he must manipulate both consciousnesses effectively enough to shift back and forth between them with ease. This slipping in and out of the ordinary world is characteristic of schizophrenic illness.” (p.17)

“…the clandestine participant’s attitude toward the ordinary world is a mixture of superiority, loneliness, and resentment. He feels that he has a better understanding of reality and therefore is not deluded by the illusions and facile pleasure-seeking of the majority. On the other hand, he feels terribly isolated by his secret and resents the innocent happiness of those who cannot share his frightening knowledge. As his participation in the clandestine world continues, the spy finds the two roles he must play increasingly difficult to relate to each other.” (p.18)

When the participant in a clandestine group reaches the point where he is obsessed with conspiracy and overcome with anxiety about his own isolation and vulnerability, he is likely to pass into the next phase of the cycle of clandestinity: the role of double or triple agent.
The double agent is a role that heroic spies in the tradition of John Buchan and Ian Fleming never accept, however much they are tempted. In the more complex tradition of secret agent adventure, which began with Maugham, Greene, and [-p.20] Ambler continues in recent writers like John le Carré, Len Deighton, and Adam Hall, double agentry is a central theme. Several different motives can impel a spy to turn double agent. There is the hope for material gain. … Another motive is the fear of being exposed. Many double agents pretend to work for both sides in order to insure their personal safety. …Also, the agent’s isolation – the anxiety of being ‘out in the cold’ alone – may impel him to some kind of negotiation with the enemy simply for the sake of human contact. The psychological complexities of this ultimate state of clandestinity are reflected not only in the number of double agents one runs across in the history of espionage, but in those many cases where one cannot ever be sure where the double agent’s real loyalty lay, if indeed it was to anyone but himself.
In the end, the double agent becomes the most isolated human being imaginable, for he must act as if every man’s hand is against him. There is no person with whom he can share his secret view of the world. He must lie to everyone. In such a state, the individual easily comes to feel that everyone is in a conspiracy against him, that no person can be trusted.” (pp.19-20)

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

The Age of Clandestinity


Introducing their book, The Spy Story, in 1987, John G. Cawelti and Bruce A. Rosenberg wrote:

We live in a time that has become deeply obsessed with espionage, conspiracy, and other forms of clandestinity. What Edward Shils called ‘the torment of secrecy’ has pervaded our national life, as the exposure of the Watergate cover-up revealed. But Watergate was only one in a series of developments in American culture that had their roots in the aftermath of World War II. That conflict thrust America into a new global position where our potential vulnerability to the economic and military strengths of other countries came to seem more threatening than ever before. With their anxieties intensified by the fear of atomic weapons, political leaders and ordinary citizens became deeply concerned about secret conspiracies, both at home and abroad. While such obsessions have often appeared in the aftermath of wars – both the Civil War and World War I left a disturbing legacy of suspicion and suspension of due process in the attempt to counter secret conspiracies – it was only after World War II that Americans institutionalized clandestinity on a large and permanent scale. Our generation has harvested the first fruits of that major cultural change.” (p.1)

Those in power and a substantial segment of the public have come to believe that clandestine operations are indispensable to the security of a modern nation. This belief, and the institutions, attitudes, and actions to which it gives rise, have had a profound cultural impact. Though we desperately need to understand the processes of clandestinity more fully, this is difficult because much of the necessary evidence remains buried in secret archives. Even if the historical data are available, to evaluate the actual impact of clandestine operations is very difficult and has become a subject of considerable controversy among historians. Some believe that such clandestine coups as British and American codebreaking during World War II made the difference between defeat and victory, while others assert that much information gleaned by espionage has been useless and largely ignored by commanders in the field. Manifold ambiguities cluster around the subject of historical espionage. What does one say about the terrible fate of those thousands who perished in agony during the destruction of Coventry because Churchill feared that to give advance warning of the bombing would reveal that the British had broken the German code? On the other hand, could the Allied invasion of Europe have succeeded without those clandestine operations designed to mislead German intelligence about the actual site of the landings?
Whatever the actual military, economic, and political importance of espionage, the twentieth century has become in many ways the Age of Clandestinity. One symptom of the pervasiveness of secret operations in our lives is the fact that the spy story has become one of the major popular genres of our time. The secret agent protagonist is now one of our favorite mythical heroes….” (p.2)

“…in spite of the long and fascinating history of spying, it was not until the twentieth century that the secret agent became the heroic protagonist of a major form of popular narrative. As the century progressed into the 1980s, the spy hero became still more important, increasingly replacing earlier popular heroic figures like the cowboy and the hardboiled detective.” (p.3)

John G. Cawelti and Bruce A. Rosenberg define the spy story “as a story whose protagonist has some primary connection with espionage. Clearly,” they elaborate, “there are many stories of which this is true which one would hesitate to call spy stories, and usually for good reasons. One example is Conrad’s The Secret Agent, which figures deservedly in almost any discussion of the spy story. However, other interests in The Secret Agent are as important as the protagonists’ involvement with espionage. Verloc is a pathetically comic figure, for one thing, and the real protagonist of the novel is the more tragic figure of his wife, Winnie. Spy thrillers, however gloomy and cynical, are not usually tragedies, as we can see if we [-p.6] compare the most glum of John le Carré’s stories of betrayal and corruption with a tragic novel involving espionage such as The Secret Agent. Though Alec Leamas, of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, is shot along with the woman he has come to love, there is a kind of moral triumph at the end. Leamas now understands the corrupt and evil nature of the forces he is involved with; he has learned how to differentiate between good and evil and to have the moral courage too reject a life of further servitude to these evil principles. Thus, his death is both a positive moral action and a symbolic stand against the perverted means used in fighting the Cold War. Leamas begins in apparent moral decay but his death at the Berlin Wall is a heroic as well as despairing rejection of the corrupt world of power politics.
In Conrad’s Secret Agent, however, there is no heroism and no meaningful conflict between good and evil. The true protagonist, Winnie Verloc, is not even involved in espionage, and her inexorable descent to murder and suicide is grimly unrelieved by any sort of spiritual triumph. The world of The Secret Agent is one in which no group of characters has a moral advantage over the others. With the sole exception of the mad anarchist professor, everyone is in pursuit of some kind of personal advantage. Even Winnie, the most selfless character in the novel, is in many ways a betrayer.” (pp.5-6)

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