Discarding history for mythology: Muriel Spark’s mythologizers

Beatriz Lopez explores how Muriel Spark’s foremost mythologizers employ WWII myth-making techniques to impose their delusional understandings of the world on reality.

Sefton Delmer’s second volume of autobiography Black Boomerang (1962) begins in a Frankfurt cinema in 1960. Delmer is watching a wartime thriller which shows the German army arduously fighting both the Allies and the Nazi party, implying that most Germans were really against Hitler. This myth of ‘the good upright patriotic Germans of the Wehrmacht being the bitter enemies of the Nazi Party and the Gestapo’, concocted by the PWE during the Second World War, continued to haunt post-war Germany.[1] Originally designed to destroy Hitler, the myth had been ironically transformed into a vindication of German righteousness, showing the perilous ‘boomerang’ effect resulting from plausible narratives becoming naturalized and accepted as absolute truths.

PWE’s Sefton Delmer

Although myth-making is a practice most often associated with totalitarian regimes, Delmer’s cinematic anecdote demonstrates that this was by no means the case. In fact, the PWE was instrumental in the creation of myths to further the Allied cause, some of which became enacted or tested in reality. The PWE’s black radio station Soldatensender Calais, for example, exploited the feelings of those German officers’ corps leaders who were becoming disenchanted with Hitler’s thirst for war and longed for the establishment of peace with the West: ‘We had been seeking to suggest to them that all they had to do was to overthrow Hitler for us to be ready to start peace negotiations’.[2] To Delmer’s surprise, this offer was taken up by the officers in what became known as the ‘Peace Putsch’, an unsuccessful revolt against Hitler which cost them their lives.[3] Otto John, a survivor of the operation who was later employed by Delmer, reported ‘that [their] broadcasts had indeed been heard by the conspirators, and interpreted in precisely the sense [Delmer] had hoped.’[4]

Muriel Spark

Muriel Spark was part of a generation of post-war novelists who explored the magnetic influence of myth-makers and the ways in which they can lead others to enact dangerous myths in reality. Iris Murdoch’s The Flight from the Enchanter (1956) and John Fowles’ The Magus (1965) exemplify this trend. Yet Spark’s PWE experience informs the myth-making techniques that pervades her oeuvre, particularly in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), The Abbess of Crewe (1974) and The Takeover (1976).

In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, charismatic teacher Miss Brodie embraces an aesthetic understanding of the world, illustrated by her belief that ‘Goodness, Truth and Beauty come first [than Safety]’ and that ‘Art comes first and then science.’[5] Her mythological method of ‘making patterns with facts’[6] resembles that of totalitarian leaders who ‘choose[s] those elements from existing ideologies which are best fitted to become the fundaments of another, entirely fictitious world.’[7] For example, Miss Brodie first introduces her ex-lover as a Robert Burns-like poet before endowing him with the attributes of her new love interests, the art teacher Mr. Lloyd and the music teacher Mr. Lowther: ‘Sometimes Hugh would sing, he had a rich tenor voice. At other times he fell silent and would set up his easel and paint.’[8] Miss Brodie has elected herself to grace as ‘the God of Calvin’ who ‘sees the beginning and the end’[9] and therefore pays no attention to morals when exercising her sense of predestination. Yet Sandy Stranger soon recognizes the failures of her omniscience and the problematic nature of her myth-making.

For instance, Miss Brodie’s plot of Rose sleeping with Mr. Lloyd backfires when Sandy becomes Mr. Lloyd’s lover, leading Sandy to feel ‘more affection for her in her later years […] when she thought upon Miss Brodie as silly.’[10] Miss Brodie also imposes dangerous ‘heroic futures’ on her students; trying ‘to inspire Eunice to become at least a pioneer missionary in some deadly and dangerous zone of the earth’, encouraging Rose to become Mr. Lloyd’s lover on her behalf, and, most alarmingly, ‘urging young Joyce Emily to go to Spain to fight for Franco’ with deadly consequences.[11] On realizing that the end result of Miss Brodie’s plotting is the enactment of the imagination upon reality, Sandy ends up reporting Miss Brodie’s fascism to the headmistress, thereby ‘putting a stop to Miss Brodie.’[12]

Another of Spark’s mythologizers, Sister Alexandra in The Abbess of Crewe, believes that her destiny is to become Abbess. In her attempts to persuade her fellow nuns to support her claim, she propagandistically discards history for mythology:

Here, in the Abbey of Crewe, we have discarded history. We have entered the sphere, dear Sisters, of mythology. My nuns love it. Who doesn’t yearn to be part of a myth at whatever the price in comfort? The monastic system is in revolt throughout the rest of the world, thanks to historical development. Here, within the ambience of mythology, we have consummate satisfaction, we have peace.[13]

In this mythological realm, truth is no longer subject to referential claims. In order to get elected as Abbess and direct attention away from the scandal of Sister Felicity sleeping with a Jesuit, Abbess Alexandra selects those ‘facts’ which are relevant to her point of view in order to craft plausible narratives to suit the occasion. Like Miss Brodie, Abbess Alexandra is a myth-maker who imposes her imagination on others. For example, she forces Sister Gertrude to cope with the story of her having been sent on a mission by the Abbey because ‘[s]he fits the rhetoric of the occasion’[14] and nastily misrepresents Sister Felicity’s ideas of freedom and love when arguing that Felicity ‘wants an open audit of all the dowries and she advocates indiscreet sex.’[15] In doing so, Abbess Alexandra embraces an aesthetic understanding of faith which clashes with Felicity’s down-to-each approach: ‘Felicity will never see the point of faith unless it visible benefits mankind.’[16] Her inability to face reality eventually leads to her potential excommunication by Rome. As Sister Gertrude warns her, mythological garble may suit the media, but ‘[i]n Rome, they deal with realities.’[17] In a final flight from history, Abbess Alexandra is aesthetically rendered as a tape of her selected transcripts, entitled The Abbess of Crewe. She has become ‘an object of art, the end of which is to give pleasure.’[18]

The Takeover opens with Hubert Mallindaine living in a beautiful house by Lake Nemi, property of wealthy American Maggie Radcliffe. In order to gain prestige and power, Hubert has unproblematically accepted his eccentric aunts’ claim that they are in fact the descendants of Goddess Diana of Nemi. Like Abbess Alexandra, Hubert’s belief in the subjectivity of reality leads him to manufacture it for his benefit. Reacting against the ontological realism of the Jesuit priests he encounters, Hubert claims that absolute truths do not exist and therefore ‘[a]ppearances are reality’.[19] Following this principle, Hubert uses his ancestral claim to create a religious cult of Diana and establish himself as high priest. However, when his secretary Pauline inopportunely unearths ‘evidence that his aunts, infatuated by Sir James Frazer and his Golden Bough […] had been in correspondence with the quack genealogist [and] instructed him in the plainest terms to establish their descent from the goddess Diana’, Hubert tenaciously evades this documentary evidence. In doing so, he emphasises the importance of self-confidence in the practice of deception because ‘it frequently over-rides with an orgulous scorn any small blatant contradictory facts which might lead a simple mind to feel a reasonable perplexity and a sharp mind to feel definite suspicion.’[20]

This belief mirrors Hitler’s idea of the ‘big lie’, a falsity so colossal that the masses ‘will not be able to believe in the possibility of such monstrous effrontery and infamous misrepresentation in others.’[21] Hubert’s mythological lineage is blatantly fake, yet it has such aesthetic power that it enchants not only his neighbours, many of which become members of the flock, but the myth-maker himself:

‘[H]e had got into a habit of false assumptions by the imperceptible encroachment of his new cult; so ardently had he been preaching the efficacy of prayer that he now, without thinking, silently invoked the name of Diana for every desire that passed through his head, wildly believing that her will not only existed but would certainly come to pass.’[22]

Notes

[1] Sefton Delmer, Black Boomerang: An Autobiography: Volume Two (London: Secker & Warburg, 1962), 11.

[2] Ibid., 120.

[3] Ibid., 121.

[4] Ibid., 121.

[5] Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2018), 7; 22.

[6] Ibid., 71.

[7] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Cleveland and New York: Meridian Books, 1958), 361-2.

[8] Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 71.

[9] Ibid., 121.

[10] Ibid., 112.

[11] Ibid., 61; 124.

[12] Ibid., 125.

[13] Muriel Spark, The Abbess of Crewe (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2018), 9.

[14] Ibid., 19.

[15] Ibid., 33.

[16] Ibid., 26.

[17] Ibid., 86.

[18] Ibid., 86.

[19]Muriel Spark, The Takeover (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2018), 90.

[20] Ibid., 131-2.

[21] Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf [My Struggle] (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1943), 231-2.

[22] Spark, The Takeover, 182-3.

Public Event: PWE research seminar, 27 June 2019

Readers in the North East of England (and further afield) are very welcome to attend our first research seminar, on Thursday 27 June 2019 in Durham

The Political Warfare Executive and British Culture

While ‘fake news’ is an urgent political topic at the moment, state-backed disinformation is a practice with a long and controversial history. During the Second World War, the Political Warfare Executive (PWE) was established by the British Government as a secret organisation with the mission of spreading propaganda to enemy and enemy-occupied countries. It conducted this propaganda through techniques such as rumour campaigns, broadcasts, leaflet and magazine drops, and forgeries.

To carry out its mission, the PWE recruited various well-known journalists, authors, intellectuals, artists, and actors, harnessing their publicly renowned talents towards these concealed propaganda campaigns.

In this seminar, members of ‘The Political Warfare Executive, Covert Propaganda, and British Culture’ project will discuss the research they have been conducting towards understanding the PWE’s little-known interactions with the cultural sphere.

  • James Smith will overview the structure of the PWE and its various forms of propaganda activity, and will discuss the roles some prominent authors and intellectuals came to play in the organisation.
  • Guy Woodward will discuss his research in the archives of the PWE, and look at examples of magazines, pamphlets, and rumours created by the PWE.
  • Beatriz Lopez will talk about her research on novelist and former PWE employee Muriel Spark, exploring Spark’s fascination with the use of PWE storytelling techniques to create deceptive yet plausible narratives in her novels.

The seminar is open to all and free to attend, and there will be a chance for Q&A and discussion. It is organised by Durham’s Centre for Modern Conflicts and Cultures. Contact: James.smith3@durham.ac.uk

Thursday 27 June 2019

5.15-6.45 PM

Durham University, Elvet Riverside, Room 157

‘The Political Warfare Executive, Covert Propaganda, and British Culture’ project is funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

International Women’s Day 2019

Today is International Women’s Day – at @PWEpropagandist we highlighted nine women who contributed to the work of the PWE at home and abroad during the Second World War.

 

Masters of Deceit: Introducing #SparkQuoteoftheWeek

Beatriz Lopez introduces a new series exploring Muriel Spark’s fictions of deception

Most critics have identified The Hothouse by the East River (1973) as the novel which most closely depicts Muriel Spark’s work for the Political Warfare Executive – its central character Elsa, like Spark, works for the organisation, transcribing military intelligence and taking Prisoners Of War for walks in her free time. However, activities associated with black propaganda – including forgery, blackmail, technological surveillance and postal censorship – permeate many of her other twenty-two novels as well, in subtle and highly original ways. Starting today we’ll be posting a Spark quote every Tuesday on @PWEpropagandist to highlight some of the ways in which Spark’s fictions echo the storytelling techniques deployed by the PWE.

Spark is particularly concerned with the threshold between truth and lies, as well as the historical contingency of truth, particularly in wartime. Her characters are masters of deceit, crafting plausible narratives which often become naturalized as dangerous myths (ahistorical ideologies promulgating  totalitarian understandings of the world); Jean Brodie (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie), Abbess Alexandra (The Abbess of Crewe) and Hubert Mallindaine (The Takeover) are just some examples of Spark’s mythologisers. More broadly, Spark’s fictions are repeatedly animated by the uncanny power of the media (wireless, telephone and cinema) and the supernatural (disembodied voices, demonic beings and the evil eye) which propagate misleading representations of reality. These deceptions do not simply go unchecked, and are often confronted and exposed in Spark’s investigations of how far characters can go to justify the morality of their actions.

Follow us at @PWEpropagandist for #SparkQuoteoftheWeek, where we’ll be posting some of the best deceptive writing from Spark’s literary oeuvre.

Muriel Spark and plausibility

Beatriz Lopez finds traces of Spark’s wartime service in the PWE in two novels deeply concerned with the appearance of truth

Muriel Spark’s interest in plausible truths owes much to her experience of black propaganda work. In her autobiography Curriculum Vitae (1992), she describes her role in the Political Warfare Executive which involved writing down intelligence provided by recently returned aircrews – ‘the details of the bombing, the number of planes that had gone out and those (not always all) that had returned’ – for black propaganda boss Sefton Delmer.[1] Propaganda is usually understood as biased or misleading information, but Spark’s intelligence gathering here shows that it was often based on truth (or, as I will go on to argue, the appearance of truth).

PWE agents studied German newspapers carefully to find the names and addresses of real people, building up a ‘file of personalities’ to provide the ‘characters’ to populate deceptive stories.[2] The propagandists then took pains to highlight only those details needed to infuse a deceitful story with plausible detail. Muriel Spark similarly carried out meticulous research of the historical backgrounds to her novels, and also managed to evoke plausible plots and characters with a minimal amount of detail. Both The Comforters (1957) and Loitering with Intent (1981), two novels concerning the process of novel-writing, provide a good starting point to investigate Spark’s interest in the appearance of truth.

In The Comforters, Caroline Rose hears voices and the sound of a typewriter, which leads her to believe that she is a character in a novel. She regards the ‘Typing Ghost’ as predetermination, and rebels against it in order to take over control of the narrative: ‘The narrative says we went by car; all right, we must go by train. […] It’s a matter of asserting free will.’[3] In her refusal to be subjected to this ‘phoney plot’, Caroline ridicules the novel’s bizarre mixture of literary genres and the failure of Laurence’s grandmother, Louisa Jepp, and Mrs. Hogg to adhere to their character types,  thereby questioning the plausibility of the narrative created by the disembodied author:

‘“Your grandmother being a gangster, it’s taking things too far. She’s an implausible character, don’t you see? […] So is Mrs Hogg. Is it likely that the pious old cow is a black-mailer?”’[4]

Once Louisa confesses that she is indeed the leader of a diamond gang and we learn the gang’s method of smuggling (dressing up as pilgrims intending to visit religious shrines, hiding the diamonds in plaster figures and rosary beads so as to get through customs), she notes that she ‘made Mervyn and Andrew visit the shrines properly, in case they were watched.’[5] This scene shows the importance of backing up deceptions with ‘evidence’, a common procedure in black propaganda.

For example, Delmer describes sending food packages to the families of German POWs who had been portrayed as earning high salaries in the US and Canada in order to ‘prove’ their newly-acquired wealth: ‘Enemy propaganda? Nonsense, look at the splendid parcel young Schöller had just sent his parents!’[6]

The autobiographical Loitering with Intent emphasises the novelist Fleur’s artistic ability to maintain plausibility by transforming lifeless data into a colourful narrative. In her first novel Warrender Chase, ‘she managed to make [Warrender’s war record in Burma] really credible even although [she] filled in the war bit with a few strokes, knowing in fact, so little about the war in Burma.’[7]

A plausible story, however, must go beyond stereotypes in order to be believed. As Taylor Stoehr argues, ‘the most plausible story need not seem very lifelike; that which is trivial or mundane will hardly be trusted as faithful to experience, for reality cannot be so drab as all that.’[8] This creative principle is fully embraced by Fleur in Loitering with Intent when describing the creation of a character:

‘…to make a character ring true it needs must be in some way contradictory, somewhere a paradox. […] where the self-portraits of Sir Quentin’s ten testifiers were going all wrong, where they sounded stiff and false, occurred at points where they strained themselves into a constancy and steadiness that they evidently wished to possess but didn’t. And I had thrown in my own bits of invented patchwork to cheer things up rather than make each character coherent in itself.’[9]

Fleur incorporates aspects of the French noveau roman of the 1950s into her work, and her concept of verisimilitude aligns closely with that of Alain Robbe-Grillet, who claimed that ‘[t]he little detail which “makes you think it’s true” is no longer of any interest to the novelist […] [t]he thing that strikes him […] is more likely, on the contrary, to be the little detail that strikes a false note.’[10]

Delmer’s interest in the false note is evident in his strategies for distorting information. In Black Boomerang, he refers to this when he describes incorporating ‘real’ Nazi news items the PWE received via a Hellschreiber teleprinter into the ‘black’ broadcasts:

‘Some items we used as cover to give ourselves authenticity as a German station purveying official news. To others we gave a subversive twist so that when listeners heard them on the German radio later, they quite unconsciously read our tendentious distortion as the truth “hidden between the lines”.[11]

Notes

[1] Muriel Spark, Curriculum Vitae: A Volume of Autobiography (Manchester: Carcanet, 2009; originally published 1992), p. 152.

[2] Sefton Delmer, Black Boomerang: An Autobiography: Volume Two, (London: Secker & Warburg, 1962), p. 67.

[3] Muriel Spark, The Comforters (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2018; originally published 1957), p. 101.

[4] Ibid., p. 108.

[5] Ibid., p. 187.

[6] Delmer, Black Boomerang, p. 141.

[7] Muriel Spark, Loitering with Intent (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2018; originally published 1981), p. 60.

[8] Taylor Stoehr, ‘Realism and Verisimilitude’, Texas Studies in Literature and Language 11.3 (1969), 1269-1288 (p. 1280).

[9] Spark, Loitering with Intent, p. 27.

[10] Alain Robbe-Grillet, ‘From Realism to Reality’, in For a New Novel: essays on fiction, translated by Richard Howard (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1965), 157-168 (p. 163).

[11] Delmer, Black Boomerang, p. 90.

The Political Warfare Executive – what’s in a (cover) name?

Principal Investigator James Smith on Whitehall secrecy and the names used to conceal PWE operations

One of the initial issues that this project faces is that, while a range of authors and intellectuals had some sort of connection to the Political Warfare Executive during the war, you would be hard pressed to find direct mention of the name ‘PWE’ in many of their memoirs or biographical accounts. Take, for example, the way that Muriel Spark’s autobiography Curriculum Vitae (1992) describes her service:

I played a very small part, but as a fly on the wall I took in a whole world of method and intrigue in the dark field of Black Propaganda or Psychological Warfare, and the successful and purposeful deceit of the enemy. […] The Foreign Office secret intelligence service was MI6, of which our department was Political Intelligence.

We know that Spark worked for the PWE’s black broadcasting unit in Woburn under Sefton Delmer, but her account here shows just how convoluted later descriptions of the PWE can become. For one, MI6 and Delmer’s unit were quite separate organisations, so the lines of command she lists here are unclear – is Spark simply confused, repeating her genuine understanding, or hitching her obscure secret work on to the better-known status of MI6? And the reference to the Political Intelligence Department (PID) of the Foreign Office is one of the most common ways PWE employees characterised their roles, but this was the result of a deliberate policy of obscuring the true existence of the PWE as a dedicated covert propaganda apparatus.

As a secret note circulated across Whitehall upon the founding of the PWE specified, ‘Since PWE is a secret department, the cover will continue to be the Political Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office’, with ‘all questions and communications’ with the outside world about its propaganda being routed through the cover address of ‘The Secretary, Political Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office, 2 Fitzmaurice Place, Berkeley Square, W1’.[1] This became entrenched, and many of the documents and references concerning the PWE automatically refer to the ‘PID’ – Spark’s repetition of this, decades after the war, suggests the extent to which this cover had become ingrained as the natural name for her employer.

And the same secrecy (not to mention the opaque and complex bureaucratic structures of wartime Britain) means that many of those temporary recruits involved in some aspect of the PWE’s work probably only had a tiny glimpse of the wider propaganda organ they were working within. Those authors working in the PWE’s Editorial Unit in London to develop magazines to send to liberated Europe, for example, probably had little sense of those working on the deception campaigns being developed in Woburn (‘the Country’, as it became mysteriously known to London staff), and in turn those doing broadcasts on the BBC’s European Service under PWE oversight probably had little idea about how their particular cog fitted into this broader machine.

So, untangling these different names, cover identities, and ambiguous affiliations will be a significant objective for the project – and one that will, we hope, leave us with a far clearer picture of the PWE’s cultural networks during the war.

Note

[1] This note is in FO 898/10. Ellic Howe, The Black Game (Queen Anne Press, 1988), provides some broader details about this evolution of the PWE at this time and the relationship of the PWE to the ‘real’ PID – a department concerned with composing information summaries and offering ‘genteel employment’ to ex-ambassadors that suddenly found its names being used as cover for this separate operation. See pp. 41-53.