Poetry and Espionage

Malcolm Gladwell recently wrote an essay on spies, looking at  Operation Mincement and whether secret intelligence can be trusted. Gladwell discusses the British spy agencies and their logical minds, comparing them to James Jesus Angleton, head of the CIA's counter-intelligence division during the cold war:

"His nickname was the Poet. He corresponded with the likes of Ezra Pound, E. E. Cummings, T. S. Eliot, Archibald MacLeish, and William Carlos Williams, and he championed William Empson’s “Seven Types of Ambiguity.” He co-founded a literary journal at Yale called Furioso. What he brought to spycraft was the intellectual model of the New Criticism… To him, the spy game was not a story that marched to a predetermined conclusion. It was, in a phrase of Eliot’s that he loved to use, “a wilderness of mirrors."

Gladwell describes intelligence information as a poem, with 'multiple interpretations'. I love the idea of applying literary theory to spycraft. It reminds me of a section in Don DeLillo's White Noise (a book I recently quoted when posting about the Taj Mahal):

"My first and fourth marriages were to Dana Breedlove … She told me very little about her intelligence work. I knew she reviewed fiction for the CIA, mainly long serious novels with coded structures. The work left her tired and irritable, rarely able to enjoy food, sex or conversation. … The long novels kept arriving in the mail."

I found a Telegraph blog post which notes that the CIA did in fact review Norman Mailer's book 'Miami and the Siege of Chicago' as part of their file on him. The New Yorker writes that "agents filed classified reports about Mailer’s appearances, talks, and lectures" and described his Miami book as "written in his usual obscene and bitter style".

If I could pick any job in the world, it would have to be reviewing literature for intelligence agencies. I suspect, though, it's not a job you can just apply for.

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One thought on “Poetry and Espionage”

  1. You might be surprised.
    Agencies advertise in the national press these days. I guess the whole “recruiting from Oxbridge or Durham” strategy was lumbering them with too many of the right sort of people.
    “We are currently recruiting”:
    I can probably give you a reference, if you need one. I’m a good referee for that sort of thing. Really…

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