- "A Wilderness of Mirrors":Writing and Reading the Cold War
I find it a freighted parcel of literary trivia that the American novelist Mary McCarthy numbered among her closest lifelong friends Carmen Angleton, whose brother, the notorious James Jesus Angleton, was a founder of the CIA, chief of Counter Intelligence operations between 1954 and 1974, and one of the great paranoiacs of postwar American life. In 1946, McCarthy's third husband, Bowden Broadwater, introduced her to Carmen Angleton; years later, after James Angleton was compelled to retire in disgrace, he consoled himself by teaching McCarthy some of the fine points of explosives, lessons she worked into her 1979 novel Cannibals and Missionaries. Late in his career, Angleton had come to believe that nearly everyone from Henry Kissinger to the prime minister of Canada, Pierre Trudeau, was a Soviet plant. But his early aspirations were literary. In 1939, Carmen and James Angleton (along with Reed Whittemore, James Angleton's Yale roommate) founded the important modernist small magazine Furioso, which published many of the major poets of the time, including Angleton's good friend from Italy, Ezra Pound. The links between literature and espionage are in fact deep. In Who Paid the Piper?, Frances Stonor Saunders has documented the extent of CIA meddling in cultural production, and in Cloak and Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, [End Page 867] 1939–1961, Robin W. Winks has demonstrated the role that Yale professors—most significantly Angleton's English instructor Norman Holmes Pearson—played in establishing the OSS and the CIA.1 Angleton himself likened the duplicitous world of intelligence to the paradoxical play of signs in modern poetry. According to one of his biographers, David C. Martin, Angleton considered the landscape of spy-craft "a wilderness of mirrors"; he lifted the line, more or less appropriately, from T. S. Eliot's "Gerontion."2
And more than one critic has traced Angleton's increasing mental instability back to its New Critical sources. If the "intentional fallacy" suggests a radical break between intent and utterance, then it is just a short, contrarian step to disbelieving everyone's account of themselves: the more reliable an agent's credentials, the more likely he was, in Angleton's mind, to be a Soviet agent. Terence Hawkes blames this paranoia on the influence of William Empson: "A sensitivity to ambiguity … becomes a crucial weapon. The improbable but undeniable impact of modern literary criticism on practical politics has no better model, and Angleton later described his work in counter-intelligence as 'the practical criticism of ambiguity.'"3
In a very real sense, then, the cold war itself (and not merely cold war culture) was a by-product of the literary imagination, just as the literature produced in the second half of the twentieth century is both obsessed with and tainted by an Angletonian cold war paranoia. All of which is to say that cultural production between the years 1947 and 1989 constituted an extensive symbolic universe which critics are only now beginning fully to disinter and unravel. Neither Angleton shows up as a character in the pages of Adam Piette's excellent and beautifully researched study, The Literary Cold War, 1945 to Vietnam, but a large section is devoted to McCarthy's writing about Vietnam. Piette's broad [End Page 868] aim is "to tease out a cluster of Cold War fantasies" (11), which hinge on a "paranoid plotline" in which writers or their characters struggle to remain "non-aligned neutral observer[s]" (11) but become either complicit in ideological terror or its victim (and often both at once). Given the ubiquitous conceits of contamination, radiation, leakage, linkage, and mutation that drive the cold war narrative, no one is able to maintain anything resembling "innocence"—which does not, however, prevent these plots from resolving themselves in sacrifices that turn out to be more or less inconsequential. As Piette elaborates, one of the primary thematic patterns and plots of the period turned on this paranoid sense of persecution by friends and enemies alike.
On her trips to Saigon and Hanoi...