John Le Carré and the misplaced Stoicism of spies

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Alec Guinness in Smiley’s People, perhaps the finest TV series ever

RIP the great John Le Carré, one of the finest British novelists of the last 50 years. Here is an essay I wrote on his spies and their misplaced Stoicism.

The nice thing about having lived in Russia is that everyone assumes you must have been a spy. Acquaintances drop knowing hints about MI6. One relative even claims she heard me sleep-talking one night, mumbling in Russian, before shouting out: ‘Not this time, Karla!’ The truth, sadly, is that neither MI6, nor the Foreign Office, nor the KGB showed any interest in me whatsoever. The only contact I had with the British government in four years in Moscow was when a louche young diplomat from the British embassy licked my face in a club one night, permanently staining my opinion of the FCO.

Nonetheless, Moscow expats liked to play the game ‘guess who’s a spy’. And there were some among us: the bassist of my band, an American journalist, turned out to work for the CIA, which we discovered when he was forced to leave Russia overnight after being set up in an FSB sting operation while trying to secure military secrets. I also played football with a couple of spies from the British embassy, one of whom was thrown out of Russia when he was video-taped dropping secrets into a fake rock.

In general, my impression of Anglo-Russian spying was that it had fallen to a pretty low and amateur standard — fake rocks, assassins leaving a trail of radiation, sleeper agents who seem to be just as attention-seeking as any goon from X-Factor.

But I still find the world of spy-craft quite fascinating, and since I’ve come back I’ve loved reading John Le Carré’s stories of the Cold War, particularly the Smiley novels: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; and Smiley’s People . The film and TV adaptations of these books are on YouTube by the way (just click on the links above). The Alec Guinness portrayal of Smiley in particular is absolutely brilliant.

Tinker Tailor and Smiley’s People are probably my favourite TV shows ever. It’s the slow-burn plots I love, the intricate convolution, as intricate as a Swiss watch, so that even when I’ve watched Smiley’s People tens of times, I still can’t quite remember how it all plays out. And the dialogue is fabulous as well — purple, camp, a bit Damon Runyon-esque. I must know the entire dialogue of this scene off by heart. ‘George, you remember the first rule of retirement? No moonlighting. When it’s over, it’s over. We’re over George. Forget it.’

What fascinates me about spies is the incredible self-control it must to take to play a role, not for an hour or a day, but one’s entire life. Le Carré, whose father was a con-artist, writes: “A man who lives a part, not to others but alone, is exposed to obvious psychological dangers…while a confidence trickster, a play-actor or a gambler can return from his performance to the ranks of his admirers, the secret agent enjoys no such relief…He must protect himself not only from without but from within, and against the most natural of impulses”.

George Smiley, Le Carré’s greatest creation, is in some ways a saintly or Stoic figure. There’s something monastic about him — his self-effacement, his economy, the ‘iron quietness of his demeanour’. We hear that working for him “is like working for a bloody clergyman”(he was partly based on a chaplain Le Carré met at boarding school). When Smiley is preparing to bring down Karla, the head of the KGB foreign directorate, we read that he undergoes “a going in, a quietness, an economy of word and glance”, like a monk on spiritual retreat. Likewise we hear Karla has a “stoic face”, while Leamas, the hero of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, has a “frightful stillness about him…not of resignation, but self-control”.

These knights of the secret services strive to achieve “a higher order of human conduct”, so that the childlike masses can carry on their lives of self-indulgence and irresponsibility (this is the view of the secret services in The Sword and the Shield, one of Vladimir Putin’s favourite Soviet thrillers). They are the secret defenders of their nation, in “a world grown old and cold and weary”. Smiley moves wearily through a corrupt world of strip-clubs and psychic bookstores, like the last knight from a lost order of chivalry: Alec Guinness did, of course, play both Smiley and Obi Wan Kenobi, and there are some parallels between the two figures.

Just as the Stoic must free himself from all emotional attachments to external things, because attachments mean that others can exploit and enslave you, so the spy must rigorously police his own emotions and attachments, so that no one can control or blackmail him. The Cold War spy had to be cold. They must control their emotions, their appetites, their desires, must withdraw themselves from external attachments, like a turtle pulling its limbs inside its shell. And when they fail to do this, when they fall in love for example, it destroys them. Smiley is defeated by his love for his wife, Karla by his love for his daughter.

This Stoicism is, in the case of Le Carré MI6, partly a product of class, of boarding school — that expensive prison where boys and girls become experts in hiding their emotions, so successfully they forget what it’s like to feel them. Le Carré wrote:

The privately educated Englishman is the greatest dissembler on earth … Nobody will charm you so glibly, disguise his feelings from you better, cover his tracks more skilfully or find it harder to confess to you that he’s been a damn fool. Nobody acts braver when he’s frightened stiff, or happier when he’s miserable…He can have a Force Twelve nervous breakdown while he stands next to you in the bus queue and you may be his best friend but you’ll never be the wiser.

This is very true. I pretty much had a nervous breakdown all through university, and my best friends, my housemates, were none the wiser.

And yet, here is the strange thing about the spy: they ruthlessly negate their own soft humanity, while just as ruthlessly detecting and exploiting any hints of humanity in others. They are Stoic experts at resisting control, and masters at exerting it. They are trained “to find the humanity in people…[and then] to turn it like a weapon in their hands, and use it to hurt and kill”. So while there is something Stoic in their resistance to attachments, they are extremely un-Stoic in their attempts to exploit others and make them betray their own values.

And in whose service is the spy subjecting himself to this rigid asceticism? The Stoic serves the Logos, the saint serves Christ, but the spy serves the nation-state, which really means the short-term commercial and political interests of a handful of petty politicians and CEOs (Le Carré is a master at describing this pettiness in Smiley’s political masters). What you often see in Le Carre’s books is the clash between ideals and interests, the clash between a moral and a realist vision of global politics. And interests usually trump ideals. As Leamas puts it, in a fine rant in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold: “What do you think spies are: priests, saints, martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.”

Le Carré sees the Romantic allure of the secret services — he served as a spy himself in Berlin in the 1950s — and yet he also relentlessly examines and attacks this allure. In his books, we witness him “embracing an institution [the secret services], then fighting my way clear of it”, as he later wrote. Yet if one leaves the service, as Le Carré did himself, then what or who do you serve instead? Do you even exist, outside of the service? At the end of Smiley’s People, Smiley says that he and Karla have become “the no-men of this no-man’s land”. They are spies without states, saints without a church.

But perhaps, Le Carré suggests there is a greater moral code that we can serve beyond the nation-state. At the end of the Constant Gardener, his diplomat hero has left the Foreign Office, left public service, and is wandering through a desert landscape, a no-man, an exile, awaiting assassination. Yet although he has left his government, he is still serving an ideal. He is serving the greater good of humanity, rather than the limited good of the nation-state.

Written by

Fellow @ Centre for the History of the Emotions. Author of Philosophy for Life, Art of Losing Control, and new book Breaking Open

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