Jobless dragon slayer in a dragonless world

THE ARGUMENT

March 19, 1995|By Christopher Caldwell | Christopher Caldwell,Special to The Sun

We had (and have) a moral and religious need to be distracted by the evil of Communism, which is not at all to say that that evil has not been real.

It is easy to see what the Italian novelist and anti-Communist Ignazio Silone meant when he wrote, " The last great battle will be between the Communists and the ex-Communists." The Cold War was a battle of nerves in which only those of deep ideological commitment would prevail.

Even Whittaker Chambers, the century's anti-Communist archetype (and perhaps its greatest explicitly anti-Communist writer), could say that there was no task more " intellectually barren" than fighting Communism. What is was, Chambers thought, was morally fruitful. Of Communists, Chambers said: " Their power, whose nature baffles the rest of the world, because in a large measure the rest of the world has lost that power, is the power to hold convictions and act on them."

Today, the whole institutional apparatus of holding the anti-Communist convictions -- of keeping that faith -- is in disarray, and no part of it is in more wretched shape than the spy services of the West. In the last few years, the CIA has faced exposure of its embarrassing failures in evaluating the Soviet economy and Saddam Hussein's designs on Kuwait, the Aldrich Ames revelations, and now its humiliating involvement in industrial espionage in France. Coming soon: an investigation of how the CIA misjudged Mexico's economic crisis.

Early next year a presidential commission led by former defense secretary Les Aspin will issue recommendations on whether to reform the agency, ending spycraft as we know it, or to just take the CIA out behind the shed and kill the thing.

Yet any attempt to dismantle the CIA will be a battleground of fundamental beliefs and core values -- that is, it will quickly turn into a religious crusade. There is bureaucratic support for this way of looking at it: spying operations take up, by best estimates, no more than $100 million of the CIA's $3 billion budget. That is, we spend on spying about half of what we spend on the National Endowment for the Arts.

Not the endowment, not Aid to Families with Dependent Children, not even abortion subsidies provoke a fealty (or fascination, or furor) so disproportionate to the amount we shell out on them. There is metaphorical evidence, too: an institution that turns from toppling evil governments to stealing trade secrets from Parisians is farcical in exactly the same way as a church that turns from praising the awesome might of God to holding Love-One-Another basement sing-alongs.

Yet the best evidence of semi-religious nature of espionage is to be found in the great Cold War novelists, particularly John Le Carre. His latest novel, " Our Game" (Knopf. 320 pages. $24), plunges into the newly reawakened ethnic conflicts in the Caucasus -- granted, with a look back at the rubble of superpower rivalry out of which they rose. A few years ago, Le Carre was accused of being a " genre writer, " Yes," Le Carre claims he replied. " But the Cold War was a genre war."

The yearning Le Carre's books satisfy goes far deeper than who dun what. What distinguished him from other Cold War writers was not just the depth of his characters.

There was a kind of literary subversion about Le Carre's books: at their best, they were high literature smuggled across the borders of consciousness by being swaddled in plot. But Le Carre also has ambitions as a public philosopher, and in that he finds himself both given an unrivaled platform and limited by his very genre.

Eric Hobsbawm notes, in his new history of the 20th century (" The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991," Pantheon. 627 pages. $30), that both the detective novel and its successor the spy thriller were conservative, even profoundly reactionary, genres, in which " not (alas) many leftists have flourished." That is because both promise -- and deliver -- a defense of the status quo against its enemies.

Critics as disparate as Umberto Eco and Kingsley Amis concur that James Bond is a modern equivalent of a dragon slayer or grail seeker: a restorer of order in a world in which order is a moral absolute. The quality detective novel is the last genre in which it's OK to be moralistic.

Le Carre seems to understand this " reactionary" aspect of the genre and here, too, he has fought to subvert it. Certain of his books end with the dragon unslain, the grail ungarnered, others with St. George slain in the bargain. Like all the greats who come to be identified with a genre, Le Carre has broken all its rules. He has broken with the whole genre of anti-Communist public philosophy.

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