Scholarship and its Affiliations

Wendy Steiner on the Blunt case

In Alan Bennett’s A Question of Attribution, Anthony Blunt instructs Her Majesty the Queen about pictures. ‘Because something is not what it is said to be, Ma’am, does not mean it is a fake.’ ‘What is it?’ she asks. Sir Anthony gingerly suggests: ‘An enigma?’ Here as in Tom Stoppard’s Hapgood, the figure of the spy illustrates the irreducibility of human and aesthetic mystery, the contradictions that all personalities enshrine, the confusion that no amount of pedantic energy can resolve.

In the Twenties, as a schoolboy at Marlborough, Blunt embodied the aesthetics of Pure Form. At Cambridge in the Thirties, he signed on as a Soviet spy, one of the ‘Homintern’ that included Guy Burgess. During the Forties he doubled as an MI5 agent and a Soviet mole, became Surveyor of the King’s Pictures, and directed the Courtauld Institute. Awarded a KCVO in 1956, betrayed in 1963 but granted immunity, he was publicly exposed in 1979, during which year the Queen revoked his knighthood and he voted for Margaret Thatcher. Blunt is the enigmatist’s enigma.

The English imagination has responded strongly to this compounding of spycraft, scholarship, homosexual intrigue and royal scandal. Blunt’s 1979 exposure and his death in 1983 occasioned books, plays and films; and he figures in virtually every item in the seemingly endless literature on British espionage. Bluntiana have already outstripped Blunt’s own prodigious oeuvre. But one constituency has remained more or less silent about Blunt: the academy. George Steiner’s searching New Yorker essay in 1980 provoked no particular response from art historians and theorists. The British Academy debated Blunt’s expulsion after his exposure, but despite rancorous arguments and the dramatic resignation of A.J.P. Taylor, their proceedings did not lead to publications, conferences, lectures, or any of the other manifestations of a scholarly cause célèbre.

One has only to compare the recent furore over Martin Heidegger and Paul de Man to see how slight the impact of the Blunt affair has been on the academic community. Mutatis mutandis, all three men had disreputable if not dishonourable commerce with totalitarian regimes, all three produced widely influential and respected scholarship, and all three kept secret or at least unacknowledged their political pasts. Victor Farias’s recent claim that Heidegger may have supported the Nazis for more than the few months of his university rectorship and Ortwin de Graef’s discovery of de Man’s youthful contributions to the collaborationist paper Le Soir have thrown the European and American academies into confusion. Opponents of deconstruction may now appeal to historical fact to establish that the approach entails a deliberate splitting of art from political events: an ‘irrationalist fatalism’, as Frank Lentricchia would have it; or, for Terry Eagleton, a covert polemic against Marxism. And scholars whose entire orientation proceeds from Heidegger’s or de Man’s writing are forced to explain how a person can be both theoretically compelling and politically unacceptable.

In both cases the assumption is the same: there must be some connection between the theories of Heidegger or de Man and their political activities. Post-Modernists, deconstructionists and Marxists alike believe in the ‘ideological subtext’, convinced, like Fredric Jameson, that ‘there is nothing that is not social and historical ... [and] “in the last analysis” political.’ Having rejected the positivist claim that scholarship can be independent of ideology, we read everything ad hominem. Moreover, we fear contagion. Have we inadvertently ingested fascist poison with our deconstructive milk?

It is the connection between ideology and scholarship that is on trial in the current academic debates: this and the belief in the consistency of identity, the self as a seamless web. Already the richly humanistic efforts of Geoffrey Hartman, Pierre Bourdieu and Christopher Norris are rescuing the work of Heidegger and de Man without endangering the principle that ideology and text are invariably (if complexly) related. But what do we do with Anthony Blunt? Here was no mere polemicist but an agent of an enemy power whose commitment lasted not for a few months but for his entire adult life. Here was a man whose influence over scholars, students and art professionals was both profound and frighteningly discrete – so discrete, in fact, that a good part of the art-historical establishment of England is content to brush him aside as a distinguished pedant with an amusingly kinky set of secrets. Yet Blunt represents the limit case for academic freedom: the respectable scholar with illegal affiliations.

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