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Vol. 13 No. 18 · 26 September 1991

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In defence of Intelligence

Phillip Knightley (LRB, 11 July) relishes the terrible career of CIA counter-intelligence chief James Jesus Angleton as proof of some of his own particular theories about spy agencies, somewhat tendentiously aired. Angleton was no more and no less ‘raw’ than many amateurs drawn into the intelligence community in World War Two. By all accounts, his work for ‘X-2’ (American counter-intelligence) in Italy was quite effective. Similarly, Knightley appears to have little knowledge of General Donovan’s ambitious plans for the OSS (the CIA’s predecessor). He indulges in British nostalgia if he thinks Donovan’s scope was restricted to a copy of the ‘Baker Street irregulars’ or SOE. Further into the review Knightley appears to forget that Angleton did indeed ‘serve in the front lines’ both during the Italian campaign and subsequently in the first post-war American covert operations, launched in Italy to defeat the efforts of the Italian Communist Party.

More generally, Knightley lacks any historiographical sense. Mangold’s book, on which he draws for his account of Angleton, is not the first, nor will it be the last book on the subject. Given the difficulties of documentary research into contemporary Intelligence, it is all the more important to weigh the findings of works largely based, as Mangold’s is, on oral interviews with other explorations. Knightley makes no reference to David Martin’s book on Angleton, Wilderness of Mirrors, nor to Robin Wink’s excellent study of the Yale intelligence generation in Cloak and Gown. He is, it appears, content with his own theories.

This confirms my own sense that Knightley simply does not know what Intelligence is about in historical terms, or what its roots are in the contemporary world. The futility of his appeal that intelligence agencies should be abolished in the democratic world does not strike him. The formula for their existence is simple, though the implications are complex. Intelligence agencies are designed, at least in the West, to provide one channel for vital information to governments about the ever-changing shape of the global political environment. The post-war need for them was understood to rest on the desirability of avoiding what one American journalist called future ‘atomic Pearl Harbors’. This is not to deny that intelligence agencies make repeated mistakes, terrible and costly ones, or that they are, in their very clandestinity, a standing infringement of ideal civil liberties, or that they employ paranoiacs. But the logical conclusion is not a desire for blindness, for intelligence agencies have stood, like it or not, as the eyes and ears of the state since Antiquity. Knightley’s dislike of such a state of affairs, revealed in the rather tasteless title of his own study, The Second Oldest Profession, does not change the reality, or in any way help in understanding or ameliorating the effects of Intelligence in the modern world.

Wesley Wark
University of Toronto

Serial Killers

Paul Seabright (Letters, 15 August) writes that ‘armies, police forces and secret services around the world employ serial killers in large numbers.’ True: and what else is new? The actions Dr Seabright writes about – ‘the bombing of Dresden or the “elimination" of terrorist suspects’ – have been usefully described as ‘crimes of obedience’. The prevalence of this type of crime has been one of the salient aspects of the 20th century, but the psychological processes involved are known, familiar ones involving the deliberate cultivation by military institutions of diminished affect and automatic obedience. Every army in the world sets out in its training procedures to produce something very like the ‘mental detachment’ Dr Seabright notices in his ‘routine and bureaucratic’ killers. (Though there is some evidence that this inculcated detachment can wear off: witness the truly astounding fact that more Vietnam veterans committed suicide after that war than GIs were killed during it.) There still seem to me to be some contentful distinctions to be made between a tail-gunner on a plane that participated in the bombing of Dresden and Geoffrey Dahmer, Milwaukee’s cannibal-murderer.

John Lanchester
London SW11

Bloom Unbound

Your readers deserve a better appraisal of Harold Bloom’s The Book of J than Donald Davie’s fear and trembling over alternatives to the King James Version (LRB, 13 June). Davie sounds like the hillbilly who didn’t see why his kids should study a foreign language: ‘If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for me!’

The fraud of David Rosenberg’s translation and Harold Bloom’s commentary has to be seen to be believed. For example, Rosenberg’s translates Genesis 3.14 (my italics):

‘Since you did this,’ said Yahweh to the snake, ‘you are bound apart from flocks, from any creature of the field, bound to the ground … I make you an enemy to woman, enmity bound between your seed and hers … ’

As an example of Rosenberg’s excellence, Bloom cites his version of the Tower of Babel:

‘If we bring ourselves together,’ they said, ‘we can build a city and tower, its top touching the sky – to arrive at fame. Without a name we’re unbound, scattered over the face of the earth.’ Yahweh came down to watch the city and tower the sons of man were bound to build. ‘They are one people, with the same tongue,’ said Yahweh. ‘They conceive this between them, and it leads until no boundary exists to what they will touch. Between us, let’s descend, baffle their tongue until each is scatterbrain to his friend.’

From there Yahweh scattered them over the whole face of the earth; the city became unbound.

Bloom comments: ‘J plays incessantly, in these passages and elsewhere, upon the Hebrew stem ’rr, which means “to restrain or bind, as by a magical spell". In J, ’rr is not quite a curse, but does constitute an antithesis to the Blessing of Yahweh, in which time loses its boundaries. My penultimate section in this book, “The Blessing: Exiles, Boundaries, Jealousies", deals in part with this complex.’

In the snake passage, the prime root ARAR does occur, but only once, not three times; God does indeed curse the snake. In the Tower of Babel passage ARAR is not the verb in any of the phrases in which Rosenberg translates ‘bound’ – the verbs in question may be transliterated PEN-NAFUTS, BANU and LIVNOT (same verb), and LO YIBBATSAR.

Amusingly, I think we can see how this sorry cheat came about. Rosenberg looked up ‘cursed’ (ARUR) in the snake passage in the great Hebrew and English Lexicon by Brown, Driver and Briggs, where ARAR (sic) is defined as ‘curse’. But, oh dear, he saw that the Hebrew is related to the Assyrian and Babylonian for ‘bind’. (The word no more means ‘bind’ in Hebrew than ‘jolly’ means ‘beautiful’ in English because it comes from Old French joli.) Bloom read Rosenberg’s ‘bound’ and knee-jerked to William Blake’s god Urizen, who is the ‘bound or outward circumference of Energy’ in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

James Hoyle
Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan


I am sorry that the words ‘patriotic German’ applied to Michael Hamburger’s father (who won the Iron Cross in World War One) should seem offensive (Letters, 12 September). Perhaps ‘good German’ would have been more acceptable, though it has a slightly canting sound I dislike.

‘An outsider’: the point is that from adolescence Hamburger was an outsider in England who wanted to become an insider – hence the charm of Soho drinking. Yet as his book makes clear, he was never, by temperament, one of the boys. This ambivalence gives his book (which is more autobiographical than he seems to think) its particular flavour and interest.

Julian Symons
Deal, Kent

Defending the indefensible

Unfortunately, Lawrence Beyer (Letters, 9 May) raises questions about his own alertness to ethical difficulties when he associates journalists who pretend sympathy to extract disclosures from those they interview with George Bush and women who are cock-teasers. For Beyer, Bush figures as the wimpy male who is monstrously feminised. He is at once the seductive female like Salome or the demon Barber of Fleet Street, ‘slinking behind a veil of verbal hair-splitting’, and the seductive male who, after ‘stimulating Iraqi rebels’ hopes for military assistance’, keeps his weapons to himself. The attack on Bush soon gives way to an attack on the woman who, ‘after knowingly arousing sexual expectations with blatant innuendo and body language, indignantly defends her refusal to meet these expectations with disingenuous assertions of innocence’.

Beyer, who asserts that Lynn Barber is being defensive in defending journalists, is himself defensive, claiming to be infallible while being at once quick to take offence and covertly aggressive. Is there really no ethical difficulty to worry about when Beyer so self-righteously assumes that interpretations of what constitutes ‘blatant innuendo and body language’ are not themselves open to question, or that the feeling of sexual arousal can so easily be correlated with seductive behaviour on the part of the person who is herself more properly the object of sexual attack? Can innuendo be blatant and remain, all the same, innuendo? Fortunately, sexual exchanges are more various than military ones, and having spoken softly ought not to prohibit a woman from defending herself against someone who thinks she ought to ‘meet’ his expectations because he carries a big stick.

Janet Gezari
Connecticut College,

Roy MacGregor-Hastie sends a postcard home

Shortly after the failed left-wing putsch in Moscow, I was married to the (Japanese) mother of my three beautiful daughters. A nervous bishop asked me what else had made my life happy, apart from not having had to live in England for long. I had no hesitation in saying: the birth and rebirth of the miniskirt, and the death of Communism. When the funeral ceremonies are over, I expect to see your list of contributors largely renewed, and an apology by them for having misled readers for so long. Perhaps another badge? Or several? ‘I faked Korean Air timetables for R.W. Johnson’; ‘I kept Tam Dalyell up to scratch about the Belgrano’; ‘Fiona gave me a blow-job in Kiev’; ‘Groucho, not Karl’. Have a nice neo-modernist, capitalist day.

Roy MacGregor-Hastie
Osaka Gakuin University, Japan

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