Spyography: Modernism, Espionage, and the Militant Aesthetic State
While recent studies of the intelligence community’s forays into the world of arts and letters have focused on the writer as propagandist or subject of surveillance—particularly in the context of the Cold War—my research reveals that modernism played a more complex role in the rise of the national security state in the first half of the twentieth century. During World War I, the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) initiated the practice of recruiting authors as spies under the assumption that literary sensibility could be weaponized in the interests of national defense. As I demonstrate, this attempt to bring about a militant aesthetic state had both legal and artistic repercussions. Put simply, the problem with hiring a writer to spy is that he or she will most likely want to write about it afterwards. Two of the most high-profile recruits, W. Somerset Maugham and Compton Mackenzie, disclosed their experiences in spyographies that not only violated the UK Official Secrets Act, but called into question the draconian ideology of secrecy itself. Merging historicist and formalist perspectives, I argue that writers as diverse as W. H. Auden and Virginia Woolf could then take advantage of the demystified space of secrecy, occupying and redirecting the tropes of the thriller for the purposes of challenging what they saw as the authoritarian underpinnings of liberal democracy in the interwar years. Ultimately, these literary intrigues force a reconsideration of the topic of “modernism and law” through the condition of literature as leakage.
In my first two chapters, I read the spy novel against the dominant critical perspective that characterizes the genre as hopelessly reactionary, emphasizing instead its subversive critique of the state’s attempt to mobilize the humanities. Chapter One, “Loose Ends: Recruiting Cosmopolitanism in W. Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden,” problematizes the cultivation of “literary agents” by characterizing literariness itself as an excess that overflows, or leaks through, the recruitment transaction. Winston Churchill’s warning that Maugham’s Ashenden (1928) constituted an infringement of the Official Secrets Act seems to trouble rather than confirm the politician’s famous assertion that the reality of spying is consistent with the codes of “romance and melodrama,” forms of storytelling that reinforce a reductive and patriotic worldview. Indeed, Ashenden’s experiences suggest that the operative mode of espionage is less heroic than avant-garde, a fragmented and indeterminate experience that the writer associates, disparagingly, with “modern novels.” Even when events happen to play out in a melodramatic fashion, they do so in such a way as to confound the well-traveled and highly-cultured Ashenden, whose literary sophistication renders him oddly overqualified for the job. The agent’s failure, I contend, occasions a critical cosmopolitanism that is also a critique of cosmopolitanism, a by-product of the paradoxical conscription of humanistic “worldliness” into the service of nationalism.
Chapter Two, “A Gross Breach: Secrecy and Farce in Compton Mackenzie’s Greek Memories and Water on the Brain,” takes a closer look at security legislation and its enforcement through the case of the Scottish novelist Compton Mackenzie, who was tried for contravening the Official Secrets Act in his 1932 war memoir. I argue that the former agent’s most scandalous disclosure—his revelation of the mysterious letter “C” used as a cipher for the late Sir Mansfield Cumming, the first chief of MI6—reveals how bureaucracy works to project an aura of sacred secrecy that ultimately founders on its own rigid formalism. Taking revenge on officialdom in his comical spy novel, Water on the Brain (1933), Mackenzie transposes the conventions of farce to the level of the signifier as a means of foregrounding the security state’s investment in radical secrecy, or secrecy without content. In both the trial and the novel, the overcrowding of cryptonymic space betrays the materiality of the law itself, the “dead letter” that underwrites and undermines the intelligence community’s ability to intelligently defend the realm.
Illuminating a world of show-trials and censorship, Maugham and Mackenzie bear witness to a totalitarian kernel at the heart of democracy. In the next two chapters, I explore how this unsettling revelation inspires the adversary culture of the 1930s to carry out a reverse appropriation of the “secret agent” as a means of resisting authoritarianism. In Chapter Three, “Better Burn This: Playing Spy in W. H. Auden’s The Orators,” I read the poet’s 1932 prose-poem as a mock-spyography, an ironic investigation of what he elsewhere refers to as “liberal fascism.” Highlighting the poem’s depiction of childhood as a training regime for hero-worshipers, saboteurs, and informants, I suggest that the Scouting Movement serves as a key context for understanding how “playing spy” is simultaneously normative and potentially subversive. For the Freudian-minded Auden, the youth movement’s concern with purity “in thought, word, and deed” engenders a neurotic state in which the always-already guilty subject engages in forms of unauthorized behavior that are also discursive. In The Orators, leaky sexualities correlate with leaky documents, disclosures, and diaries. As a result, Auden’s mock-spyography becomes, in its own way, a compromising text that demands its own destruction.
While Auden’s experimental work primarily concerns a figurative form of spying, Virginia Woolf advocates a literal program of domestic espionage in response to what she describes as the “subconscious Hitlerism” of the British establishment. In my fourth chapter, “True Lies: Virginia Woolf, Fictional Spyography, and Feminist Agency,” I argue that Woolf’s Three Guineas (1938) treats feminism as a veritable spy ring, an “Outsider’s Society” whose plot against patriarchy, nationalism, and jingoism constitutes a form of what we would today refer to as “whistleblowing.” My point-of-entry into this topic is the existence of two contemporary spy novels in which Woolf herself serves as the heroic protagonist: Ellen Hawkes and Peter Manso’s The Shadow of the Moth (1983) and Stephanie Barron’s The White Garden (2009). In spite of their fantastic premises, I read these pulp fictions as counterfactual or “subjunctive” narratives that explore the relations between art and action, artist and agent, by imagining Woolf as if she were involved in wartime intrigues. In doing so, these novels draw out and allegorize a spy-function that not only characterizes Woolf’s late work, but gestures back to her involvement in the infamous Dreadnought Hoax of 1910, Bloomsbury’s undercover infiltration of the British navy’s flagship—an event which I have reason to believe cast a shadow over the drafting of the 1911 Official Secrets Act itself.
Finally, as I examine the way in which modernism both informs and informs against the national security state, I invite consideration of the politics, ethics, and aesthetics of secrecy in the twenty-first century. While the age of WikiLeaks has seen a renewed interest in “unveiling” as a form of protest, literary criticism has, conversely, begun to question similar impulses in the academy, denouncing so-called “paranoid” reading practices that have dominated the humanities since the Cold War. Modernism’s intrigues, I argue, offer a means of re-contextualizing, both historically and formalistically, modes of interpretation that privilege such terms as agency, surveillance, and interrogation—theoretical perspectives that allow one to “play spy” by turning novels and poems into codes and ciphers waiting to be exposed. In a final twist worthy of a spy novel, the Official Secrets Act may prove to be the progenitor of the hermeneutics of suspicion, making literary criticism itself a species of thriller.
Please follow the links for more information about my publications and future research projects.