Tuesday 15 April 2003

Alibis and consistent lies

Last night, watching a 1999 French documentary I’d taped about the novelist John Le Carré, I was struck by the comparison he drew between writing and spying:

We shouldn’t ever forget the strong cultural and literary tradition that our Service perpetuates. I am one of lots of writers who did secret work, who were in the Service at one time or another: Grahame Greene, John Buchan, Compton McKenzie, Iris Murdoch I believe… and a whole number of writers whose imaginations were put to work. So there was a natural affinity between the creative imagination of the artist and the creative imagination that was necessary to produce good deception and intelligence work, to produce alibis and consistent lies. It’s only a very small shift from the kind of fable making in literary terms to the same kind of fable making in espionage terms.

Richard Burton as Leamas in John Le Carre's The Spy Who Came in from the ColdIn the following scene, Le Carré’s talking head was replaced by a still of Richard Burton in Martin Ritt’s movie version of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, accompanied by a brief voiceover narration of a scene from the novel. I stopped the VCR. Not that I’d lost interest, but I’d recalled the “cast of characters” in the Persons and Places section of James Agee’s and Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men:

James Agee          … . a spy, traveling as a journalist
Walker Evans       … . a counter-spy, traveling as a photographer

And the poem that starts Book Two, dedicated by Agee to Evans:

Against time and the damages of the brain
Sharpen and calibrate. Not yet in full,
Yet in some arbitrated part
Order the façade of the listless summer.

Spies, moving delicately among the enemy,
The younger sons, the fools,
Set somewhat aside the dialects and the stained skins of
          feigned madness,
Ambiguously signal, baffle, the eluded sentinel.

Edgar, weeping for pity, to the shelf of that sick bluff,
Bring your blind father, and describe a little;
Behold him, part wakened, fallen among field flowers
But undisclosed, withdraw.

Not yet that naked hour when armed,
Disguise flung flat, squarely we challenge the fiend.
Still, comrade, the running of beasts and the ruining
Still captive the old wild king.

I thought too of the discussion precipitated by Steve’s post about Liter(al)ture, which Burningbird had mentioned, a conversation that evoked in me the most profound sense of relief.

Thank God, I said to myself, someone’s started talking about this stuff that’s been on my mind for ages.

And then: Shit, they’ve started the conversation without me.

How wonderful that Steve had quoted an old (and esteemed) acquaintance, Mark Bernstein, who summed up in a couple of sentences ideas that for months I’ve been creeping up on, like a spy, and trying to startle into action:

It’s time for weblogs to grow up, to move beyond their obsession with authenticity and to get over the panic that accompanies any hint that a weblog writer might not be exactly what they say they are. Who is?

Steve figures large in this—for cranking up the conversation and for emphasizing the importance of story:

the weblog is the collection of stories, the way they’re told, the element of time (and especially change over time) introduced to narrative in ways that aren’t possible with newspapers or novels.

Liz Lawley as well, not so much for her observation about the blogging pioneers’ party line (though I have a long essay in the works about that), but more for a remark she made a while ago:

Let me start with a disclaimer. I like Jonathon Delacour — at least, I like the persona he displays to us through his weblog.

Ah, Liz, I wondered when I read those sentences, are you the only one who’s figured out I’m making a lot of this up? Or just the first to suggest it publically?

Burningbird too, in a negative yet entirely positive way. Her post, Obliquely Yours, helped me clarify my own position. By focusing on the technique of writing obliquely, of feeling and experiencing one thing, but writing about another—something that, for me, holds little fascination—she helped me formulate precisely where my own interests lie.

That’s it: where my own interests lie. In other words, hardly anything to do with telling the literal truth; and everything to do with fashioning an authentic persona from bits of alibis and consistent lies.

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"In other words, hardly anything to do with telling the literal truth; and everything to do with fashioning an authentic persona from bits of alibis and consistent lies."

Writing, or acting in any Way, obliquely is an example of the use of "triangulation". The ole "bad day at work so I'll go home and kick the dog and beat the kids" syndrome.

Most people frequently triangulate in this negative fashion... Lash out at someOne or something (including themselves) because of not being able to deal directly with a bigger problem that is not a-tall related to the person or thing being lashed out against.

But there's an esoteric point as well, in that whenever anyBody expresses something, in thought and/or words and/or actions, they are expressing who they believe themselves to be.

Sort-a like the 4 kinds-a bloggers that Mike Sanderson pointed out a while back, but the points are not a-tall confined to blogging but apply to any action...

"Each Blogger is Really Four

Did you know that each blogger is really four:

The blogger you are.
The blogger you think you are.
The blogger others think you are.
The blogger who you would like others to think you are."

And if One can be sensitive to others, yet not overly-concerned about how others think You are, then One only has-ta deal with the first two.

As far as the dichotomy between who You are vs. who You think You are:

I heard The Mahatma Ghandi quoted as saying (something close ta), "Happiness is when One's thoughts, speech and actions are one and the same." Although I would substitute the wording "Joy" for "Happiness", thus the importance of consistency... Over-consistency, however, results in rigidity in thinking.

The greater problem is that, whenever One expresses by Way of thought, speech, or action..

..the expression is necessarily partial. No wording can sum up IN TOTALITY who a person is.

So, in that sense, EVERYBody is ALWAYS acting "obliquely" (ie, in partiality) in some aspect or another about who they are. Because people CAN only express one facet of the diamond they are at a time.


Posted by jt on 15 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

To repeat here what I commented about this over at Shelley's:

1. Yes, there is a difference between "authentic" and "true." As a poet, I know that difference well. There is a place for untrue, authentic, literary writing in the blog world. BUT, my feeling is that the author needs to give some indication that what he/she is writing is fictionalized. Loren's point about the fiction of the taking down of Saddam's statue is a pefect metaphor for what happens when we perpetuate a myth that our fictions are the truth and then we're found out. I enjoy reading fiction, but I don't enjoy being manipulated by lies. At least a fictionalizing blogger ought to place in some prominent position on her/his blog some statement/question about whether it's real or Maybelline.

2. I don't like being manipulated by the untruths of one person or of a group of persons. They all lose my trust when I find out that I've been duped. Now, if I'm informed that what I'm reading might or might not be the literal truth, and if what I'm reading is written with a unique style and voice, I'll go with it. If my government had been honest about staging the symbolic take-down of Saddam, I think it would have been a statement that many of us could have more readily accepted. Honest symbolism is a legitimate way to make a powerful statement. And "truth" isn't the only thing that "will set you free." Fiction can be as enlightening as truth, but not if it lies about what it is.

Posted by Elaine of Kalilily on 16 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Yes, the main problem is consistency.
Remember how we caught GG (Gunther Guillaume)?
He was the MFS Spy who was assistant to Willy Brandt. Markus Wolf (who was head of the MFS espionage section in the GDR) relates some of the story in his autobiography.
Wolf would congratulate his agents in West Germany on their birthdays (using their cover names) in cipher. We had broken the cipher, but not the cover names at the time. 18 months later Wolf wrote to GG again , passing birthday congratulations to his wife too. Thus we knew to look for a married couple and we knew their birthdays. That gave us a hit rate of better than 1 in 100,000. A computerised scan of the civil service database narrowed that down to a point where direct observation could be used.

So you really need to be consistent over many years and not allow any inferencing to be done on apparently unrelated items which may be several years apart.

Posted by Stu Savory on 16 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Sheet...;-D "If that were a snake, I'd-a been a goner." (See corn-fusion in comments to thread above...;-)

Elaine, You bring up a lotta points which I wish I had time to respond to. Just say that weblogs are most often PURPORTED to be auto-biographical, but how many don't embellish the story "to keep it interesting" or whatever reason...? How many provide a LOTTA personal information in the background, with a foreground of an elaborate persona (and are frequently nameless)...? (NOT suggesting everyone post names and pics, because there ARE some NASTY Net stalkers in the non-virtual world.)

Weblog-as-literature is different than auto-biography. Different purposes.

Stu, yeah thaz why blogs are the ideal vehicle to craft a better presentation of self-mythology. I don't recall how many decades ago I decided that it was just easier to stick with literal truth (best as CAN be perceived).. Because it was TOO much work to try-ta keep track of WHO You told WHAT (embellishment of One's story).

Weblogs allow One to keep all One's embellishment in one place. And also, weblogs (the Net in general, not usually involving voice-to-voice or face-to-face) REALLY are, (in large part, to me) throwbacks of the 18th-century masquerade parties of the elite.

Posted by jt on 17 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Like you, I was out of town and constrained to low-bandwidth connections, so I managed to miss this post (and its reference to me) when it appeared.

I've been floating around virtual communities and computer-mediated communication spaces for a long time, and I long ago gave up any attempt to separate truth and fiction.

When I met my husband (on a FidoNet BBS "echo" back in 1991), he had begun a practice of creating multiple personas in any given forum, so that he could engage in debate (often quite heated) on topics he felt were important. By doing so, he felt he could write more effectively about the things he thought were important. I suspect that he still does the same thing on the mailing lists he frequents now, though I don't know for sure.

On some level, all we have are situation-specific personas. The persona I project in the classroom where I teach is quite different from the one I display in the classrooms where my children learn. The woman my husband knows and loves is in many ways not the same woman who goes out dancing with her girlfriends.

It's too simplistic to see it as simply onion-like layers, which can be peeled away to find a core of truth. The reality is far more complex and multi-dimensional.

I do believe that there are relationships in which we come very close to the "real" person. But even when we don't, there's plenty of room to take pleasure in the interactions. I still like the persona you display here. I don't feel betrayed by any revelation that not everything you write is literal truth...it doesn't change the fact that you're a hell of a writer, and your words bring me pleasure ever time they read them.

Interesting that so much of the conversation has revolved around the Ikuko post. I remember being quite struck by that post, myself. Like the Happy Tutor, I suspected that it was too intimate in its detail to be entirely literal--the persona that dominates your weblog is too concerned with privacy and restraint to share so much detail about another person in such a cavalier way. But that didn't change my enjoyment of the story. I wonder now if I remember it so well because of my doubt of its "truth," or my appreciation for its truth?

Posted by Liz on 20 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Damn. The real reason to use trackback rather than comments is that when you're posting on your own blog you can edit your typos and grammatical errors. :-)

Posted by Liz on 20 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

"Itís time for weblogs to grow up, to move beyond their obsession with authenticity" ... I don't think you folks are talking about Web logs at all; I think you're talking about online diaries, which is not the same thing. It's the difference between monologue, or at best an invitation-only Trimalchio's feast, and open dialogue, social networking, decentralized knowledge diffusion.

Web logs have a narrative component that's useful, maybe, to oneself ... I go back and see what I was blogging a year ago sometimes ... but when I look at my server records, I see that the contacts people make with me are not all narrative; the vast majority are by referrals or search results or other circuitous routes that bring them to disconnected passages from my commonplace book to find a link or information that they find useful.

I keep my diary and my blog at separate URLs. If you are interested in my personal narrative, read my diary. I had spicy duck salad with a bottle of red wine last night, and the cat did something odd, and maybe I told that story about breaking up with last girlfriend with a few touches here and there so's not to piss my current girlfriend off. If you're interested in my ongoing work, which involves community-building, networking, knowledge-sharing, and encountering challenging points of view from people who aren't , then follow my RSS feed, or blogroll me, or otherwise mark me as a potentially useful member of your granfalloon. If you want to evaluate the authenticity of my persona, go to. But it seems like there's more important things you could be doing with your time.

Posted by blogal villager on 25 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour