'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

From the Archives: You're an Educated Sort of a Swine 

Over the last several days, with my wife and son away visting relatives, I took the opportunity to watch one of my favorite television mini-series again, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, produced in the late 1970s. Based upon the novel by John Le Carre, it relates the story of how the protagonist, George Smiley, conducts an investigation of the British Secret Service, the Circus, in the late 1960s that results in the discovery and arrest of a Soviet mole.

For those of you who revere the work of the late Alec Guinness, his performance as Smiley is certainly one of his great ones, perhaps, as some have said, his signature one, one that put an exclamation mark on a brilliant career. If you are only familiar with him because of his role as Obi Wan Kenobi in the initial Star Wars trilogy, please consider watching this six part series to discover what he was truly capable of doing with a more serious, multifaceted character.

Upon watching the series again, I was struck by a number of things. First, the plot is centered around the reflections of older men about their lives, personally and professionally. Needless to say, this is not a common subject for contemporary film and television, given its emphasis upon the travails of young people. Despite, in the words of one Internet Movie Database user comment, a strong, uncompromising narrative drive, there is a contemplative mood of regret, a recognition among the characters that they had, by accepting the ideological boundaries of the Cold War, subjected themselves to a determinism that rendered their lives cold, sterile, and ultimately, irrelevant to the people in the world outside the Circus.

Second, adrift in the pigs and clover society of British consumerism, Smiley and his generation of Circus operatives can only mechanistically do, day by day, what they have always done, practice their tradecraft. It is striking feature of the series that many of the seminal cultural features of the 1960s in Britain, such as rock music, the drug culture, opposition to the Vietnam War and the rebellions of 1968, are not mentioned. Smiley, his field agents and the Circus suspects operate within a containerized world of their own making, as the need for secrecy and circumspection, along with a shared ideological mission, has isolated them. Smiley navigates a journey of self discovery wherein he is exposed as the only one who still believes in it, with the possible exception of his protege, Peter Guillam. The events of the 1960s may go unremarked, but, even at a distance, they have cracked the foundations of the Circus. In this respect, the mole merely anticipated the future when he agreed to spy for the Russians, starting in the late 1940s.

Third, the series highlights this crisis of faith to indict the notion of ideological certainty more generally. One of the most compelling scenes is Smiley's recollection of a conversation between himself and another high level Circus figure, Roy Bland, before Smiley's mentor, the mysterious Control, lost his authority and Smiley left the service. While obstensibly talking about how Smiley can ensure that Bland will support Control in political power struggle, they actually engage in a philosophical discussion of the validity of defining oneself through the prism of the Cold War.

Bland served many years in Eastern Europe and Russia at great personal cost, in places like Poznan, Kiev and Budapest, and explains to an appalled Smiley that as a good socialist, I'm in it for the money, as a good capitalist, I'm for the revolution, because if you can't beat it, spy on it. Bland is now merely a mercenary who expects to be compensated for his years of sacrifice, and doubts that Control can do it. He needs the coin required to pay the price of admission into the pigs and clover society. Provoked, Smiley acknowledges that liberal democracy is compromised by the excesses of the acquisitive instinct, but that it is superior to the deprivation of the East. Bland brings the conversation to an abrupt end: Tell me about it, George. Poznan, Kiev, Budapest. The actor who played Bland so masterfully, Terence Rigby, died about a week and a half ago.

Bland exposes the falsity of the capitalist vision that motivated Smiley and his Circus colleagues to perceive their work as utopian. As another one, Toby Esterhase, told Smiley: I like the Circus. I may be sentimental about it, but I want to stay in it. Unlike Bland, Esterhase wants to have his cake and eat it, too. He craves a promotion, so that he can make more money, even as he clings to the ideals that Smiley used to recruit him. A firm, consistent emphasis upon understatement, professionalism and bureaucratic behaviour throughout prompts the question as to the extent one can maintain one's individuality as one ages. Spontaneity has been drained out of everyone in the story.

Alienation, isn't that what the Marxist sociologists, call it? The Freudians? Through an accumulation of detail and personal experience, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy brings this troubling problem to the surface. Are the characters demoralized, going through the motions, because they have aged, or because it is a nearly unavoidable consequence of living in such a society? Such an inquiry may be more relevant to the participants in the current "war on terror" than we might think. Upon its conclusion, everyone appears awaiting the arrival of an alternative that will invest their lives with meaning once again. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy can be construed as an allegory about managerial capitalism and its limitations, a foreshadowing of Le Carre's subsequent, more explicit condemnation of neoliberalism.

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