Anthony Blunt: his lives.
Cyril Connolly once categorized Cambridge intellectuals as "cold radiator types" and those who knew Blunt affirm that he was the very coldest of radiators. Aloof, supercilious, arrogant, snobbish, priestly are among the adjectives he habitually attracted. He seemed to be consciously holding himself together, and at the same time apart. There were nevertheless people who liked him. Serious people too, drawn from the charmed circle where British public opinion forms and then congeals into dogma, for instance the poet Louis MacNeice, the art historian Ellis Waterhouse, the philosopher Stuart Hampshire, Cambridge academics like Dadie Rylands and John Hilton, and Lord and Lady Rothschild, heads of a family which needs no introduction. Smart or left-leaning people of the period, their names so many high-stake social counters, they thought they recognized Blunt as one of their own kind. Many students at the Courtauld Institute of Art--Blunt's lifelong headquarters and Parthenon--admired him, and there were aesthetic lady hangers-on there in a daze of hapless devotion and unrequited love. Nobody, it turns out, knew more than the selective aspect of himself which Blunt allowed to filter through to each one of them. Disbelief was their reaction too when they understood how they had been cheated by him.
Miranda Carter also likes him, and in her new biography (1) she would rehabilitate him if she could. She gives herself away with many a glib sneer at public schools and hearties, at the stuck-in-the-mud intelligence services with their preference for dim colonial policemen, at the "forelock-tugging days" of the past, at the Thatcher era, and especially at the media whose response to Blunt's exposure towards the end of his life in her account amounts to assault and battery. It is late in the day now, but, in common with Blunts friends and admirers, she is determined not to do anything so naively bourgeois as pass a moral judgment.
This attitude obliges her to labor long and hard, and in vain, over Blunt's supposed contradictions. Her point of departure is his "fundamental mysteriousness," which made him an "enigma" to all. She quotes much testimony to his coldness, only to go on to posit that he was "emotional, sentimental, gullible," which was how members of his family described themselves. Next moment, though, he shows "a weakness for absolutes." Later he is "holding on so tightly to a few certainties, so wary of his emotions." Then he has a "tendency to see the world in stark and obvious oppositions," and also "a fury at the older established world," as well as a fatal attraction to the dangerous, a desire to lose himself, a deliberate perversity and contrariness. Has she left out anything? Cannoning at speed into each other, these supposed traits generate with wonderful circularity that fundamental mysteriousness.
The evidence is here, though, for a much simpler and more obvious explanation. Blunt was a shit through and through. By definition, such a character takes for granted that whatever he feels like doing is quite all right, and the consequences to other people are no concern of his. Blunts homosexuality involved the life-long abuse of intellectual and social inferiors, picked up and swiftly discarded once the rough-trade encounter was over. He drove his one long-term lover, the unfortunate John Gaskin--another social inferior treated with lofty contempt--to suicide. Treason was another abuse of anonymous people whom he despised. The personal and political betrayals are consistent. He cared nothing for human beings. Under the urbane and learned manner, the exterior courtliness, was a man free from moral considerations, selfish to the point of solipsism.
At Cambridge Blunt changed from a Twenties aesthete into a Thirties Marxist. The chrysalis out of which he and a number of other well-known Communists and fellow-travellers grew was a circle of self-admiring friends known as the Apostles. Members were invited to join in an atmosphere of slightly childish, elitist secrecy. Originally this was a Bloomsbury spin-off in the university, deriving from the philosopher G. E. Moore, J. M. Keynes, the critic Desmond MacCarthy, and like-minded intellectuals who met to read each other's learned or light-hearted papers. Blunt and his generation transformed this circle into a Shits Anonymous where they talked themselves into eliminating the distinction between right and wrong. Mounting evidence of Soviet show-trials and terror passed Blunt by. Communism for him was all in the mind. Lack of political passion and remoteness from reality were the very qualities that were to make him so valuable to the Soviets.
Becoming art critic of The Spectator, then as now a conservative weekly, he was what John Pope-Hennessy--a rival art-historian, to be sure, but a man of inflexible scholarly standards--described as a "jejune Marxist journalist." Blunt's Communism was the most open of secrets. Published in 1937, Letters from Iceland by W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice contains the witty and much-read poem they called "Auden and MacNeice: Their Last Will and Testament." This includes the verse: "Item I leave my old friend Anthony Blunt/A copy of Marx and 1000 [pounds sterling] a year/And the picture of Love Locked Out by Holman Hunt." There is something hilarious about Blunts adoption of Soviet realism, his inability to know what to think about Picasso and modernism, or his admiration of hack artists of the day, like the justly forgotten Peter Peri. Blunts reputation as an art historian was overblown. His prose is a wrestling with obscurity. Even when it came to Poussin, the artist Blunt specially studied, Denis Mahon, a man proud to be considered primarily as a collector and dilettante, rang rings round him over dates and attributions.
Guy Burgess, arch-Apostle at Cambridge, recruited Blunt as a Soviet agent, and he in turn recruited Donald Maclean, John Cairncross, and the rest. His only known failures were with Michael Straight, the American millionaire who was to make a clean breast of it to the authorities in Washington and so first gave Blunt away, and Goronwy Rees, for whom the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 was too much to swallow. Rees took the initiative of exposing Blunt to Guy Liddell, a contact in British intelligence, but in that word of smoke and mirrors this official chose not to act on the information. Instead he bafflingly invited Rees to lunch with him and Blunt, and saw to it, probably at Blunts instigation, that there was no investigation.
The war gave Blunt liberty to wander at will through M15 and M16, the two British intelligence services. The absence of systematic security checks speaks volumes about England as it then was. According to Soviet Intelligence archives, he passed over 1,770 documents between 1941 and 1945, though Burgess, Maclean, and Cairncross each passed over at least three times as many. Miranda Carter writes that Blunt probably did not have blood on his hands, but this is highly unlikely, and there is no way of knowing for certain. Anyone who believes that Blunt had integrity must explain why he accepted money as payment from the Soviets. Oleg Gordievsky, the one-time KGB resident in London and the highest ranking ICGB officer ever to defect to the West, had the opportunity in the course of his duties in Moscow to read the record of these payments.
After the war Blunt was thought to have so exhausted himself with spying that his controller, Yuri Modin, recommended a good long rest. At the Courtauld and Buckingham Palace, there was nothing for Blunt to pass on. Without American intelligence, and the confession of Michael Straight in particular, Blunt might well never have been exposed. A deal was then struck with British intelligence. He would not be prosecuted if he too made a full confession. Unwisely, this left Blunt at liberty to extend the scope of his previous treason. Nobody could be sure at which point his confessions were full. In fact, he revealed only partially or falsely what he knew; he pretended that in helping the Soviets he had been merely a "premature anti-fascist" handing over details of the German order of battle, information to which he actually had had no access; he succeeded in throwing suspicion on to former colleagues in intelligence like Guy Liddell and Roger Hollis, an even more senior officer; he tipped off Burgess and Maclean, who fled to Moscow; he cherished a protective admiration of Burgess to the end; he drove Goronwy Rees to a breakdown; and long after he was supposed to be "clean" he was the channel for slipping 5,000 [pounds sterling] of KGB cash to Philby. The novelist and art historian Anita Brookner was one of his Courtauld fans, only to discover that she had been one among others manipulated by him without her knowledge to deliver a message to a KGB agent. Regrets or apologies were as alien to him as scruples.
The intelligence services struck a deal, in Miranda Carter's view, to cloak a record of unmitigated incompetence. That deal certainly consummated a disaster at least as damaging to national self-confidence in Britain as the Suez crisis, diffusing the lasting sense that the country was irretrievably in decline, the institutions of government deliquescent in the hands of people altogether unfitted to run them.
Little or none of this, needless to say, is deemed worthy of the attention of most of this biography's reviewers. Writing in The New Yorker, for instance, the novelist Julian Barnes treats Blunt's career as a jolly lark which somehow came unstuck. "Spy always rhymes with lie," he winks knowingly. Stoic as Blunt proved in disgrace, he "was always well short of nobility," but the day may come, Barnes thinks, when Blunt will appear as an idealist who backed the losing side. Jeremy Treglown went far further in The New York Times Book Review, praising Blunt as one of the most powerful figures in the art world after the Second War, retrieving little anecdotes about his looks and his friends, and underscoring his belief that "Communism was both a moral idea and a practical source for good." His relationship to Wilfrid Scawen Blunt--the nineteenth-century opponent of the British empire--homosexuality, appeasement of Hitler, the Spanish civil war, Treglown finds, "were among the more defensible reasons Blunt joined those who decided to work for the Soviets" -- itself a warm euphemism for treason. As with Carter's book, toadying of this sort can be written only by people for whom there is no longer a valid distinction between right and wrong.
The United States won the Cold War, and once again saved Europe from itself. Throughout the period, apologia for Communism was widespread among intellectuals. The brute facts about the Soviet Union were always available, but many people found many reasons to deceive themselves and others about its true nature. Some apologists, for example Philby, were after power and privilege in the Soviet future they envisaged; others, for example Burgess, were opportunists or simply corrupt. Blunt was in a category all of his own. When reality almost caught up with him, and his Soviet controller advised him to escape while he could to Moscow, he was horrified. My dear, the people, and the discomfort. Self-righteousness had enabled him to live out his life in a complete moral void. Nothing, not even public disgrace, touched him. Had the Soviet Union won the Cold War, Blunt would have helped to bring about a world with no place in it for him, and which he would have hated. That is the fundamental mystery.
(1) Anthony Blunt: his lives by Miranda Carter; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 590 pages, $30.00.
David Pryce-Jones is a senior editor of National Review. A shorter version of Mr. Pryce-Jones's essay appeared in The Spectator.
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|Date:||Mar 1, 2002|
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