Archive | September, 2010

Education: An Introduction, and a Brief Summary of Everything Up to Now

24 Sep

“You’re an educated sort of swine,” [Bland] announced easily as he sat down again. “An artist is a bloke who can hold two fundamentally opposing views and still function: who dreamed that one up?”

“Scott Fitzgerald,” Smiley replied, thinking for a moment that Bland was proposing to say something about Bill Haydon.

–John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

In the spring of 2010, I met with my adviser and we began to discuss what I had in mind for my second junior year independent research project. Following on the heels of my fall project (carried out, as is customary, with a different adviser and concerning Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series), I knew that I wanted this second paper to have a depth of focus I had felt was lacking in the first, but I also wanted to pick novels I loved at much as the Tales of the City series, which had been a joy to write about. In trying to come up with a suitable topic, I went over, mentally, the list of my past obsessions, literary or otherwise, and landed on the Cambridge Spies.

Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, and Donald Maclean have fascinated me for such a long time that I have difficulty remembering the date of my initial discovery. Was it when my parents showed me the acclaimed Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy miniseries in junior high, or the dreadful (and dreadfully interesting) Anthony Hopkins film Blunt: The Fourth Man around the same time? Was it when I first read John Banville’s The Untouchable, a roman à clef, during my senior year of high school? No, I had been interested before then, interested enough to check out the BBC miniseries The Cambridge Spies from the library and bore my friends over lunch sophomore year with tales of Guy Burgess’ drunken shenanigans or Kim Philby’s fascist cover story.

My interest piqued anew, I began compiling a list of novels and plays I could conceivably write about. Those works are included on my list under “The Stories,” above. With my adviser’s blessing, I began to read and re-read, attempting to come up with a well-defined topic for my Spring JP. This was more difficult than I had anticipated; I had a lot to say and approximately twenty-five pages to say it in. Instead of attempting to cram in, and possibly give short shrift to, my theories on the role of confession in these narratives, the question of genre, and the problem of fictionalizing real lives, I picked one thread and promised myself that I would take up the rest of my questions in my senior thesis.

My JP, “‘I Hadn’t Realized’: Homosexuality, Espionage, Betrayal, and the Cambridge Spies,” focused, as the title indicates, on betrayal, both romantic and national, and the parallels drawn by my authors, John Banville, John Le Carré, Alan Bennett, and Julian Mitchell, between the lives of a spy and the lives of gay men in a more restrictive era. I concluded that these authors bring attention to a world in which a government asks for secrecy, and is surprised to receive it:

It is not just institutionalized ignorance, but willful institutionalized blindness that allowed Soviet agents to thrive. Le Carré and Banville, Mitchell and Bennett draw connections between homosexuality and espionage in order to put forward explanations of why such multifaceted betrayal was able to do on as long as it did. Looking to the spies for rationalizations becomes irrelevant: it was their own government, and the myth of “I hadn’t realized,” which allowed them to exist.

What am I doing now? I have begun secondary research. I am continuing to read and re-read the books I have chosen. I am constantly getting excited whenever my topic comes up in conversation, or elsewhere. Watching MI5Spooks in the UK: one character says, “It is a secret service.” The other replies, “That’s what Burgess said.” I exclaim loudly and rewind to hear it again.

Blunt: I still think the word ‘fake’ is inappropriate, Ma’am.

HMQ: If something is not what it is claimed to be, what is it?

Blunt: An enigma?

HMQ: That is, I think, the sophisticated answer.

— Alan Bennett’s “A Question of Attribution”

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