Monday, August 24, 2009
Hawkes, Terence. "William Empson's Influence on the CIA." TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT June 10, 2009.
Counterintelligence aims to collect and master the enemy’s intelligence in order to turn it against him. By sifting and ordering the information that the enemy’s agents transmit, it analyses the questions they are aiming to answer, obtains evidence of their plans and intentions as a result, and then tries to influence or supplant these by the answers that it carefully supplies. Rather than execute spies, counterintelligence aims to “turn” them. This proved a handy skill when Russia threatened India, the jewel in the British Empire’s crown, and Kipling’s novel Kim offers a fitting memorial to what was called the Great Game. An updated scheme called the “Double Cross” later emerged from Whitehall as a way of dealing with the subsequent threat from Hitler’s Germany. When the American allies arrived in London in 1942, they were so impressed by the massive British card index of agents that they modelled the system of their own Office of Strategic Services (OSS) on it. Norman Holmes Pearson, formerly an instructor in the English Department at Yale University before becoming a major element in the OSS, was wholly approving. As a student of literary criticism, he was naturally attracted to the subtleties of a text-based system that put a crucial emphasis on recognition of thematic and structural patterns. New Criticism, as the practice was called at Yale, concerned itself not with literary history and the personality of authors, but with the specific use poems made of language on the page. It fostered an interest in multiple levels of meaning, ambivalence, paradox, wit, puns and the peculiarities of Sprachgefühl: all devices on which cryptic codes or obscure messages might draw. In fact, when he described the whole Double Cross system, Pearson made it sound like a poem elucidated in class, its ironies nicely balanced, its contrasts wittily shaped. The power produced by this kind of close reading was intense, and as a result he was delighted to welcome as one of his new assistants in the OSS a graduate of Yale who had studied these mysteries: James Angleton. . . . Holzman’s brisk, uncluttered book offers valuable access to previously untapped material on Angleton, who became the first head of the Counter-intelligence Staff of the CIA. In particular, it makes incisive use of his years as a student of English at Yale and the influence on him of the New Critics and modernist poets of his day. Previous biographers such as Robin Winks have pointed out that at Yale he was co-editor of the literary journal Furioso. But Holzman takes a more spirited line, publishing two of Angleton’s grating undergraduate poems and a list of his correspondence with writers such as T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, I. A. Richards, William Empson, Ezra Pound and Louis MacNeice. These famous poets all “took this young man very seriously” and he, in return, was greatly impressed by their writings, particularly the book that became a crucial text of New Criticism, Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity. For Empson, ambiguity is the central aspect of language. Not a minor stylistic flourish, it is an unavoidable linguistic feature permanently in place and in effect seems to exploit the fundamental characteristics of language itself. This means that “opposite” meanings will always illuminate and invade the primary meanings of ordinary words, so that “in a sufficiently extended sense any prose statement could be called ambiguous”. Thus, Empson argues, a word may have several distinct meanings; several meanings connected with one another; several meanings which need one another to complete their meaning; or several meanings which unite together so that the word means one relation or one process . . . what often happens when a piece of writing is felt to offer hidden riches is that one phrase after another lights up and appears as the heart of it; one part after another catches fire. Given the allure of this, it seemed quite appropriate that Angleton should be sedulously practising in Ryder Street the reading arts he had learned in the Yale classroom. Of course the issue of ambiguity is insignificant when it involves intelligence data of a practical kind. The decoding of military messages is a relatively simple matter. But when counter-intelligence is at stake, when agents may be recognized as “turned”, so that what they supply either prevents access to the enemy’s spy system or actively penetrates our own, they themselves become “texts” which demand complex analysis. A sensitivity to ambiguity then 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”. His rise was swift. . . .