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Are the heart and the mind really a battlefield?

Isaac and Isaiah by David Caute and Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan - tales of how Cold Warriors failed to capture hearts and minds - contain an important lesson for our battle against extremist Jihadis.

I’m enjoying an after-glow from two Mediterranean weeks of holiday, and it is not simply because of the physical joys of swimming in water just cool enough to cool, of simple food satisfying properly-exercised hunger, of the natural bounty of dry heat and the simple beauty of white-washed walls. It’s also that I still have in mind my holiday reading - this year, Anna Karenina. It’s a sort of ritual, reading in the Mediterranean. It’s as if I’ve been away with Tolstoy and his characters for two weeks, inhabited their worlds and their concerns, argued with Tolstoy the pro’s and con’s of a life of passion, or religion, or conservatism, or physical labour, or intervention abroad … Just as I’ve been exercised by swims and walks, so I’ve battled to argue that our existential choices can’t be reduced to that between Anna/Vronsky and Kitty/Levin.

The last we see of Vronsky, he has been shattered by passion and thinks that his redemption will come from joining a holy war against the Ottomans in Serbia. He hopes to make himself useful by his death.

What a cold wake-up it is to return to the 24h news torrent of today’s jihadis. A cartoon in the Telegraph showed a man being beheaded by an extremist, with the blade of his weapon inscribed “Made in Britain”. We feel dread at the extremists coming from the same nation as ourselves - surely we’ve done nothing wrong, even if our milieu has produced such monsters.

There is plenty of talk of the need to “capture hearts and minds” in our fight against Jihadi John. Michael Gove, borrowing a 2001 phrase from Donald Rumsfeld, refers to the problem as one of “draining the swamp” of sympathy in which the crocodiles swim. Andrew Gimson, on ConservativeHome, writes that “The hearts and minds element in this campaign is actually by far the most important one. We must not imagine there is some purely military or administrative solution to the problem.” 

“Draining a swamp”; “capturing a mind” … as if there is a practical “How To” for the engineer/officer. There isn’t a guidebook, although the Cold War produced repeated examples of the attempt to do so. It is worth looking back for lessons at some of the Cold Warriors’ attempts to drain the swamp of possible sympathy for the USSR amongst the radical youth of the day. Two books I read last year help me do so - historian David Caute's Isaac and Isaiah and Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth. Both of them offer a critical perspective on spreading Enlightenment values with the attitude of the engineer or the officer. What the Cold War should teach us is that the way you change minds is critical in defining why you change them, and ultimately will affect your chances of successfully doing so at all.

David Caute's book is an account of the Isaiah Berlin/Isaac Deutscher relationship. Many Cold Warriors - Berlin amongst them - feared that left to itself, the West’s culture would turn anti-Western. They therefore sought to plug the holes where radicalism might seep in.

Isaiah Berlin, cultural cold warrior par excellence, was determined that Isaac Deutscher, the anti-Stalinist communist, should be denied the chair of modern history that might have been his at the then new & progressive Sussex university. The book is an elaboration of a conversation Berlin had with Caute in the common room at All Souls:

[Berlin:]… but serious teaching - a protracted relationship with undergraduates, guiding them in their reading, moulding their outlook, establishing a curriculum - [...] How are young undergraduates [...] to survive [Deutscher’s] unscrupulous distortions? 

So, exposed to the corrupter of youth, the youth will turn illiberal. It is uncomfortable for Berlin to come to this conclusion - freedom of thought and speech, after all, are clear cases of Berlin’s cherished “negative liberties”, the ones that are meant to underpin the open society and that are trampled on by its enemies. But Berlin was aware in his academic politics of a truth he might not have wanted to put about in his academic writing: that pluralists are made by their social environment and practices, by the influences and ideas around them, by trusted figures.

Caute has dug up this comment by Berlin making clear the ideological enjeu of the "moulding of outlooks":

Berlin commented [...] that if one really believed Marxism to be a science, laid down by experts, it would be quite logical to have the chosen experts assume the role of spiritual dictators. The belief that the whole art of government consists in acting as engineers of human souls could, he said, be deduced from the purest Marxist doctrine…

But Berlin had himself assumed the role of master engineer of the souls of vulnerable undergraduates in protecting them from Deutscher. He was the expert of liberalism, assuming the role of spiritual dictator. And that was just what he was accusing the evil other side of doing. In a sense, the real corrupter of liberal ideals was Berlin, not Deutscher. And Berlin’s unease - the dissonance between his acts and his writing - unsurprisingly leads him, in Caute’s telling, to the hate-filled, vengeful anger against Deutscher.

That social understanding behind Berlin’s methods seems slightly crude - "take the corrupter away from the youth". It doesn't mean it's not effective, but it does suggest there's much more to understand. As well as trying to understand what goes wrong, do we understand how things go right - what is the process of making pluralists? 

Ian McEwan explores this in Sweet Tooth, his novel about Cold War cultural policy. The setting is an intelligence operation, Encounter-style, to engineer minds by having the " right sort" of culture produced. 

McEwan decries those who wanted to put culture in harness to the Cold War not because it is impossible to “engineer souls”, but because the intelligence services were so bad at it:

Who says that poetry makes nothing happen? Mincemeat [the WW2 intelligence operation dreamt up by Ian Fleming which had an elaborately crafted fiction that changed Axis beliefs about where the landing for the Italian offensive would happen] succeeded because invention, the imagination, drove intelligence. By miserable comparison, Sweet Tooth, that precursor of decay, reversed the process and failed because intelligence tried to interfere with invention [...] the project was rotten [...]

The reply to W.H.Auden is loud and clear:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper

Auden was wrong, McEwan is telling us: poetry does make things happen, and executives therefore want to tamper with it. Sweet Tooth is the story of how the practice of reading and writing novels changes minds - how the engineering of souls works - but why executives (politicians, the intelligence services) should nevertheless keep their hands off. 

Sweet Tooth explains that the novel changes the soul through the action of love. This novel contains more love stories than I could keep track of, and all of them fail, except for the love story between reader and writer.

One of the micro-stories is explicit about the role of love in the engineering of souls. It is the story of a socialist humanist with a twin who is a priest. The humanist steps in for the priest and gives a sermon on the transformation that Christianity wrought through love. “Forgiveness, kindness, tolerance, fairness, companionability and friendship [are] all bound to the love which is at the heart of Jesus’ message”.

Overwhelmed by the brilliance of the preacher, one of the congregants falls in love with the humanist and, when she finds out that he is married and godless, makes it her mission to transform him, to re-engineer him into a believer. Her private wealth and her mad single-mindedness - reminiscent of the stalker with De Clérambault's syndrome in McEwan’s Enduring Love - help the project to fruition. The humanist is entirely re-engineered by the Christian’s model of what she wants. The micro-story is a tragedy. Her love is manipulative.

McEwan is insisting that there is a difference between the love that comes from the pulpit and the love that comes from the pen. The sexy spy who honey-and-money-traps the novelist in Sweet Tooth is the daughter of a bishop, a professional of love in the service of society: “I had grown up with the ordinariness of his daily business [... I had ] a father who dabbled routinely in the supernatural, who went out to work in a beautiful stone temple late at night, house keys in his pocket, to thank or praise or beseech a god on our behalf”. Her other father figure, the Cambridge English don who recruits her, re-engineers her through reading lists and a love affair to become a good Cold Warrior. Both the don and the bishop instrumentalise love, and their love for the heroine is necessarily flawed.

So what is it that makes the relationship of the reader and the writer succeed where that of the spy and the priest fail? McEwan’s answer is eloquently given in his acceptance speech for the Jerusalem prize: 

The tradition of the novel that I work in has its roots in the secular energies of the European Enlightenment, during which the private as well as the social condition of the individual began to receive sustained attention from philosophers. A growing and relatively privileged class of readers emerged who had time to reflect not only on their society but on their intimate relationships, and they found their concerns reflected and extended in novels [...] [In its] crowning glory -- in Jane Austen, the fate of individuals were delivered through a new mode of narration, handed down to succeeding generations of novelists -- free indirect style, which allowed an objective third person account to merge with a subjective colouring -- a technique that permitted the character, the individual in the novel, more room to grow [...] 

 

[T]he victim, the stranger, the enemy and the outcast, the face in the crowd, becomes a fully realised being by the grace of fiction's magic dust -- a dust whose recipe is an open secret -- full attention to detail, empathy, respect.

 

This tradition of the novel is fundamentally secular -- coincidence or human machinations, not God, order destinies. It is a form that is plural, forgiving, profoundly curious about other minds, about what it is to be someone else. On its central characters, high or low, rich or wretched, it manages, by a sort of divine authorial attention and focus, to confer respect on the individual [...]

The religious language of the speech is remarkable: the moral force of the novel comes from a “a sort of divine authorial attention”, fiction bestows “grace” through “magic”. Free indirect style, a potion handed from novelist to novelist, performs a sort of miracle on its subject-matter.

The lesson is repeated in Sweet Tooth, where the novelist writes of the spy who has deceived him:

To recreate you on the page I had to become you and understand you (this is what novels demand), and in doing that, well, the inevitable happened. When I poured myself into your skin I should have guessed at the consequences. I still love you. No, that’s not it. I love you more.

So this, according to McEwan, is how reading and writing create pluralism: through the novel, we become others, and out of empathy comes respect, fairness and even love. All the virtues that the humanist, when posing as a priest, attributed to Jesus - "Forgiveness, kindness, tolerance, fairness, companionability and friendship" - should actually be attributed to free indirect style.

Back to my summer ritual read. Tolstoy is a master of free indirect style. The process that McEwan describes - the merging of an outsider’s perspective with a subjective account of a person - is one that Tolstoy applies to every character he touches (his virtuosity even sometimes gets the better of him, as when he applies the technique to Levin’s ever-hopeful gun dog). Alexey Alexandrovitch, the man whose lack of kindness and generosity are at the heart of Anna’s tragedy is characterised as someone lacking the ability to empathise with flesh-and-blood humans. Here is Tolstoy’s account of him with their son, Seryozha:

Seryozha’s eyes, that had been shining with gaiety and tenderness, grew dull and dropped before his father’s gaze. This was the same long-familiar tone his father always took with him, and Seryozha had learned by now to fall in with it. His father always talked to him as though he were addressing some boy of his own imagination, one of those boys that exist in books, utterly unlike himself.

Tolstoy almost seems to be defending himself against the charge that he might be addressing characters “that exist only in books”, “of his own imagination”. He, unlike the cruel Alexey, addresses characters who have a real and particular existence. And he, like the author in Sweet Tooth, cannot but love them. Even Alexey, as he succombs to a spiritual charlatan, is to be pitied more than hated.

McEwan makes it sound as if the free indirect mode is made up of two perspectives: the subjective and the objective. But I think it might better be characterised as having at least three perspectives - the author’s should be added. In Karenina, Tolstoy is mounting a complicated argument for a conservative Orthodox, Russian politics and faith. When, despite all the sympathy of the subjective, all the truth of the objective, he tells of the emptiness of Vronki’s and Anna’s “modern”, “European”, ways, it is Tolstoy’s voice we hear. In Levin’s illumination, we see Tolstoy’s paternalistic utopia: 

Under every article of faith of the church could be put the faith in the service of truth instead of one’s desires. And each doctrine did not simply leave that faith unshaken, each doctrine seemed essential to complete that great miracle, continually manifest upon earth, that made it possible for each man and millions of different sorts of men, wise men and imbeciles, old men and children - all men [...] to understand completely the same one thing, and to build up thereby that life of the soul which alone is worth living 

This is Tolstoy’s voice more than Levin’s, and it is certainly not the objective view. Here’s the oddity - despite its message of the virtues of a kind of ideological unity presided over by the church, Anna Karenina is nevertheless a monument to the kind of tolerant pluralism that McEwan celebrates. Even in that fact - that it resists its creator - the novel carries the political and moral value that McEwan identifies.

Does this offer any lessons for our tactics in resisting “Jihadi John”? Both Isaac and Isaiah and Sweet Tooth provide warnings against the instrumentalisation of culture. But Sweet Tooth at the same time insists that it is the cultural forms of the Enlightenment that carry and propagate its values. If they’re alone in doing so - and perhaps ultimately they are - the burden on art is a great one.

About the author

Tony Curzon Price was Editor-in-Chief of openDemocracy from 2007 to 2012, where he is now contributing editor and technical director. He blogs at tony.curzon.com


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