GEORGE SMILEY: LIBERAL SENTIMENT AND SKEPTICAL BALANCE
It was a peculiarity of Smiley’s character that throughout the whole of his clandestine work he never managed to reconcile the means to the end. . . . Once in the war he had been described by his superiors as possessing the cunning of Satan and the conscience of a virgin. (A Murder of Quality, 1962:9:73)1
Personal integrity drives us to make sense of our moral world, to demonstrate and feel the connection between our personal lives and deepest values and what we do." (J. Patrick Dobel, 1988:196)
Le Carré relates how he came to create George Smiley, by "putting him together from various components--either real or imagined--of my own situation, and adding the solvent of my own filial affection and admiration" (JHM, 1986:14). He suggests that he and Smiley were alike in more ways than the differences in their age and appearance might suggest. Among the qualities that he shares with Smiley are shyness, a desire for anonymity, and the fact that they were both intelligence officers and German scholars. Although le Carré had a turbulent childhood, Smiley had none. "You do not have to be a genius to guess that Smiley as a father-figure in my imagination was the very antithesis of everything that my own erratic father had been in reality" (JHM:14).2
George Smiley,3 le Carré’s most fascinating character, makes an appearance in eight of his fifteen novels published to date dealing with espionage.4 He serves as an exemplary role model for the heroic struggle to achieve a balance between conflicting ethical and political imperatives, competing loyalties, dreams and reality, ends and means, optimism and pessimism. Decency, integrity, kindness, sympathy, and compassion are Smiley’s most outstanding character traits. He is an intellectual whose chosen profession has forced him to become a man of action, thereby causing a constant struggle to maintain his personal integrity. Smiley is a humanitarian whose actions ultimately cause harm and even death to innocent people, including some for whom he greatly cares. Smiley, whom Alan Bold (1988:21) calls "one of the great creations of modern literature," has received more commentary from literary critics than any other le Carré character.5 Although a spy, Smiley remains a mensch (a very decent human being). Le Carré told George Plimpton (1997:55-6) that Smiley was modeled on Lord Clanmorris (a.k.a. John Bingham), with whom he worked in MI5, and on an Oxford don (almost certainly Vivian Green).6
Through the analysis of Smiley’s role in le Carré ‘s novels, I introduce the themes that are elucidated in the following chapters. Lars Sauerberg (1984:51) observes: "In le Carré’s stories plot structure and ethical dilemma are two sides of the same thing, provided that Smiley’s point of view (in the stories in which he appears) is accepted as the central one." Therefore, my focus here is on Smiley’s personification of key dilemmas, contradictions, and ambiguities that both frame and are expressed in the action of the novels--especially the individual’s struggle to maintain personal and professional integrity in an institutional context, which makes this mission nearly impossible. Because le Carré has admitted to speaking through Smiley, he is also key for understanding the author’s point of view.7
DESCRIPTION BY LE CARRÉ
Le Carré introduces Smiley in his first novel, Call for the Dead (1961).8 His wife, Lady Ann Sercombe Smiley, in the first sentence of the novel calls him "breathtakingly ordinary." One of her pet names for him is "toad." The narrator states: "Short, fat, and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad" (1:7). Viscount Sawley (an in-law) declares at their wedding that "‘Sercombe was mated to a bullfrog in a sou’wester.’ And Smiley, unaware of this description, had waddled down the aisle in search of the kiss that would turn him into a prince" (1:7).9 In addition to the amphibian metaphors, Smiley is also described as a mole because of his constant blinking behind his thick glasses, which he habitually cleans with the end of his neck tie.10 His secretary refers to him as "my darling teddy-bear" (13). David Caute (1980:209) calls him "a Winnie the Pooh with brains." In a later novel, he is described as tubby, hopelessly unassertive, and naturally shy. Smiley "smiled seldom, though he was by no means humourless."11 In the same novel his agent calls him an "owl."
SMILEY IS SOCIALLY NONDESCRIPT12
And so Smiley, without schools, parents, regiment or trade, without wealth or poverty, traveled without labels in the guard’s van of the social express, and soon became lost luggage, destined, when the divorce had come and gone, to remain unclaimed on the dusty shelf of yesterday’s news. (1:7)
He attended both an unimpressive school and an unimpressive Oxford College (which, for the uninitiated reader, might sound like an oxymoron) where he hoped to make an academic career. Although he married an aristocrat, Smiley belongs to an unrespectable club. In an interview with Miriam Gross (1980:62; emphasis added), le Carré revealed: "I wanted to create someone who didn’t belong to any social class but who did belong to a specific generation--the generation that believed you had to be politically committed either to one camp or the other, with no middle ground." He told James Cameron (1974:55), Smiley belongs "to the wrong time. There’s a sense that their [his and Alec Leamas’] thing is running down."
As his creator, David John Moore Cornwell,13 would be later, Smiley was recruited in 1928 through his professors to the intelligence service while contemplating pursuing advanced study of seventeenth-century German literature at Oxford. We are told that Smiley’s profession, among other things, "provided him with what he had once loved best in life: academic excursions into the mystery of human behaviour, disciplined by the practical application of his own deductions" (1:8).14 Smiley served under cover as a university lecturer in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power, an experience that made him more withdrawn and strengthened his love of England and his hatred of fascism. Leroy Panek (1987:35) points out that Smiley essentially remains a scholar and teacher throughout his intelligence career and emphasizes his teacher-student relationship with several agents and younger colleagues.
Smiley, recalled from the field in 1943, marries Lady Ann Sercombe (the secretary of his boss Steed-Asprey). Released from the Service after the war, they return to Oxford. By the time we meet him, Smiley is a cuckold who died a little inside when his wife left him after two years of marriage, and he dies each time she returns and leaves again.15 He is a solitary man.16 He is the champion of lost causes in his marital relationship (the childless marriage to an unfaithful wife) as well as in his efforts to restore lost honor to his (once loved) department and to England.17
Smiley realizes "he had entered middle-age without ever being young, and that he was--in the nicest possible way--on the shelf" (1:12). The intellectual amateur spies who had recruited Smiley and with whom he worked during the war were replaced by bureaucratic politicians ("espiocrats," in le Carré jargon) like Maston, the minister’s adviser on intelligence, described by Steed-Asprey as "the Head Eunuch."18 Smiley transferred to Counter Intelligence in 1951 and returns to Maston’s section ten years later.19 "The low morale, the internal feuding, and the red tape that ties an agent’s hands even while his chiefs are deceiving him have all killed his belief that intelligence work can influence the clash between good and evil."20 Caute (1980:209) calls him "a pro, a player, all his life yet at heart an amateur, a gentleman."
A more striking contrast to James Bond could not have been created if that had been the author’s intention. Andy East (1983:170) suggests that "le Carré’s Secret Service protagonist, George Smiley, signified a contemptuous revolt against Bond." Le Carré has denied that this was his intent. Le Carré says that the character, James Bond, as literary champion from the early period of the Cold War, "was an absolute travesty of reality; it was an absurdity and a vulgarity."21 Le Carré has written, "Bond himself would be what I would describe as the ideal defector. . . . Bond, you see, is the ultimate prostitute. He replaces love with technique."22 In an interview with Leigh Crutchley (1966:548), le Carré contrasts the tradition of escapism in the spy genre with what he calls the literature of involvement. He contrasts the Bond type of hero of the former literature, "who has developed a pretty hard-nosed cynicism towards any sense of moral obligation," with his attempt "to remake a figure who was involved in the dilemma of our time: . . . We are sacrificing the individual in our battle against the collective." Le Carré considers this moral cynicism a reflection of one of the worst aspects of contemporary western society.
ASPECTS OF SMILEY’S ROLE IN THE EARLY NOVELS
In the dramatic conclusion of his first novel, Smiley confronts his former student, agent, and friend, Dieter, a German Jew who had worked for the British against the Nazis and at the time of the novel was running an East German espionage network in England. Dieter is holding a pistol as Smiley rushes at him. They fight on a bridge and Dieter, a cripple, falls into the river and drowns.23 Smiley is overcome with guilt and remorse at having caused the death of his former friend. The worst part was that he knew: Dieter had let him do it, had not fired the gun, had remembered their friendship when Smiley had not. . . . Dieter, mercurial, absolute, had fought to build a civilization. Smiley, rationalistic, protective, had fought to prevent him. ‘Oh God,’ said Smiley aloud, ‘who was then the gentleman?’" (16:145).24
This note of moral ambiguity, which questions whether the means (killing a former friend) justified the ends (protecting British democracy from the threat of East German communist subversion), is the most consistent theme in le Carré’s work. Dieter was no angel.25 Yet despite the blood on his hands, he remained loyal to his friendship with Smiley and refrained from killing him when he had the opportunity to do so. Smiley had acted in the "national interest" but at a considerable price to his own conscience, even though he did not intend to kill him but merely to stop Dieter before he could shoot him. Le Carré asks the reader (and possibly himself) whether such costs in terms of human lives and the compromising of ethical values is worth the gains in national security.26
Smiley resigned from the Circus (le Carré’s name for the branch of the British Secret Service for which Smiley worked) rather than agree to cover up the so-called suicide of one of its employees in order to save the Foreign Office public embarrassment. David Seed (1990:144) observes a major ironic theme in le Carré: "The search for truth is usually conducted against an official insistence on secrecy which is designed to avoid administrative embarrassment." This was an act of personal and professional integrity, for Smiley resigns on a matter of principle. (He is later forced to resign twice as a result of power plays within the Circus.) Smiley also turned down an offer to rejoin the Circus after he successfully exposed the East German espionage network operating in the United Kingdom. Therefore, in le Carré’s second novel, A Murder of Quality (1962), he was officially retired when he responded to a personal request of a former colleague to go to Carne School to investigate the charge (written in a letter to an advice columnist in a church-affiliated newspaper) that her husband, a teacher at the school, planned to kill her. By the time Smiley arrived at the school, she was already dead.
For my present purpose here, the most important contribution this novel makes is to further sketch in aspects of Smiley’s character, which is most graphically illustrated by the first epigram of this chapter. Smiley’s inability to reconcile the means to the end is discussed in this chapter and is elaborated in chapter 4. His possession of the cunning of Satan is illustrated by the manner in which he solves what has become a double murder at the school. His tradecraft (professional techniques) and particularly his ability to empathize with, and put himself in the shoes of others, are well illustrated. Smiley’s virginal conscience is displayed by his concern about the likely execution of the thoroughly unsympathetic murderer. Whereas one can identify with his remorse at the death of his friend Dieter in the first novel, one finds it difficult to generate much sympathy for the demise of Terence Fielding. That he is the brother of a former colleague is sufficient to activate Smiley’s sympathetic conscience.27
Le Carré’s third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was his first major success.28 Smiley plays a limited and ambiguous role in this work. According to his ex-boss, Control, Smiley "isn’t with us any more," yet Control suggests that Leamas, the central character, look Smiley up for background on the case (2:25). Control, who meets Leamas in Smiley’s home, explains Smiley’s absence. "He doesn’t like the operation . . . [to protect a British mole in East German intelligence by throwing suspicion on his assistant who suspects his treason]. He finds it distasteful. He sees the necessity but he wants no part in it. His fever . . . is recurrent" (6:61). The fever to which he refers is Smiley’s conscience. When Leamas remarks about his cool reception by Smiley, Control again affirms: "Quite. He wants no part of it" (6:61). Control explains, "He is like the surgeon who has grown tired of blood. He is content that others should operate" (6:62).
Nonetheless, Smiley’s few appearances throughout the novel are critical to the success of the operation.29 His personal moral distaste for the means used were overcome by his concern for the welfare of Liz Gold (Leamas’s girlfriend), by his loyalty to the agency, and by his patriotism. Ironically, Smiley’s genuine feelings of concern for Leamas and Liz indirectly contributed to their deaths. Le Carré offers this as an illustration of the maxim that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Unpredicted consequences are endemic to covert actions.30
Once again, in spite of Smiley’s sincere humanitarian concerns, the price paid for success is human lives. This time, the victims included the innocent Liz, Leamas, another sympathetic character, and an entire British network in Berlin--all to protect and promote the career of a ruthless anti-Semite named Mundt, who is a British double agent in the East German secret service (the executioner in the previous novel whom the British have captured and "turned"). Le Carré makes Jens Fiedler, the East German counterintelligence officer on the trail of the double agent (a Jew, who is the primary victim of the British plot), a very sympathetic character. Liz Gold (also Jewish) is a childlike innocent who is sacrificed: "The central character in the book loves two people and both are Jews: by indulging his decent instincts, he destroys them both. I used Jewish people because I felt that after Stalin and Hitler they should particularly engage our protective instincts."31 Such literary characterizations dramatize the difficulty of the moral dilemmas and the gravity of the consequences of such covert actions.
In The Looking-Glass War (1965), Smiley has returned to the Circus. His superior, Control, enables a rival agency operating out of the British Ministry of Defense to carry out a disastrous operation in East Germany that discredits defense intelligence and costs the life of their agent in the field.32 Smiley accuses Control of complicity in the fiasco, which probably put the rival agency out of business. Feigning shock, Control cynically denies the charge: "Run along. And preserve the difference between us: your country needs you. It’s not my fault they’ve taken so long to die" (21:227).
Smiley, dutifully following orders, flies to Germany to close down the operation before defense intelligence can warn their doomed agent. Although he clearly disapproves of the role Control played in giving military intelligence sufficient rope to hang itself, as a good soldier Smiley allows himself to be used by the government to handle the mess. In this case, Smiley’s loyalty to his department causes him to become an accessory to the betrayal of a rival department. Once again, his personal morality is sacrificed to his institutional loyalty.33
SMILEY’S QUEST FOR HIS UNHOLY GRAIL: THE KARLA TRILOGY
After leaving Smiley out of A Small Town in Germany (1968), Le Carré made him the linchpin for his trilogy Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy (1974), The Honourable SchoolBoy (1977), and Smiley’s People (1979). Smiley is introduced in the first of the three novels in the trilogy as having been in forced retirement for a year in consequence of his being on the losing side of a power play.
Unlike most writers of the spy genre, who focus on direct action in an attempt to build suspense, le Carré appears to digress with subplots that introduce extraneous themes or characters. Invariably, however, the subplots contribute to the portrayal of the complexity of the characters and the moral dilemmas they confront. For example, Smiley is convinced by his solicitor not to divorce his wife (who had run off with yet another lover): "George, how can you be so vulgar? Nobody divorces Ann. Send her flowers and come to lunch" (2:19). The use of the term vulgar signifies the aristocratic disdain for divorce (as opposed to infidelity).
George’s complex relationship with Ann symbolizes (among other things) steadfast loyalty despite betrayal by the object of one’s loyalty--one’s spouse or one’s country.34 Beene (1992:25) claims, "Smiley with Ann lives, albeit in emotional collapse, but without her he wanders a no-man’s land." Holly Beth King (1987:68) suggests that while his love for Ann is his "greatest vulnerability," it is also "what preserves him as a hero in a world of ultimate betrayal." Although Smiley rebels against the hypocrisy of her class, his loyalty to her symbolizes his attachment to traditional British values and a tradition he still cherishes. Panek (1987:37) suggests that Ann also represents Smiley’s "pathetic quest for love," which he defines as "Sisyphean." Panek also contends that she (and other women for other characters) represents Smiley’s "striving for the spontaneous, human side of life" (45).
Following a particularly unpleasant encounter with an obnoxious aristocratic Foreign Office bureaucrat (whom le Carré portrays with the satiric bite of Jonathan Swift), a depressed Smiley views his loyalty as a form of weakness. "Weakness . . . and an inability to live a self-sufficient life independent of institutions . . . and emotional attachments that have long outlived their purpose. Viz., my wife; viz., the Circus [British intelligence]; viz., living in London" (3:25). With typical paradox, le Carré implies that such "weaknesses" constitute the core of Smiley’s moral strength and decency. Yet, for the sake of his loyalty, he has been forced to sacrifice other deeply held moral principles.
Ironically, Smiley, who was "retired" because he was convinced that there was a Soviet mole operating at a high level of the British Secret Service, is called back to the Circus to find the mole. In so doing, he is forced to confront many of the ghosts of his past. First and foremost is Karla, the head of Soviet intelligence.35 A reissued edition of the trilogy published in a single volume is entitled The Quest for Karla (1982), an allusion to the Arthurian legend. Indeed, Smiley refers to Karla as his unholy grail.
In chapter 23, Smiley recalls to his protégé, Peter Guillam, his first personal encounter with Karla in a hot Delhi jail. Smiley tells how Karla never said a word. He explains how, putting himself in Karla’s shoes, he conducted an interrogation with himself.36 Smiley gave Karla his favorite brand of American cigarettes, and as Karla rose to go, without having said a word to Smiley, he took Smiley’s lighter from the table. It had been a gift from Ann and was engraved with the words "To George from Ann with all my love." Smiley explains, "I thought it thoroughly appropriate that he should take her lighter; I thought it--Lord help me--expressive of the bond between us" (209; emphasis added). Smiley spends a sleepless night in a fevered delirium in which he reflected his own insecurity through his dreams of Karla.
When Smiley returned for his last visit with him, Karla was holding Ann’s lighter in his hands. "I believed, you see, that I had seen something in his face that was superior to mere dogma, not realizing that it was my own reflection"(211).37 Smiley concludes: "I behaved like a soft fool. The very archetype of a flabby Western liberal. But I would rather be my kind of fool than his, for all that. I am sure" (23:213). He tells Peter that "Karla is not fire-proof, because he’s a fanatic. And one day, if I have anything to do with it, that lack of moderation will be his downfall" (23:215). This prediction has an ironic denouement in the third and final part of the trilogy.
Smiley’s musing about self-delusional aspects of love while he waits to ensnare the mole in a trap hints at a connection between the theme of loyalty and betrayal and the theme that there is frequently a discrepancy between appearances and reality. Le Carré suggests that one type or aspect of love may be understood as a form of self-delusion. He does not say that all forms of love should be so characterized. He clearly illustrates in his work that without love, life is not worth living. By way of analogy, we might say that without the collective illusion that we all share the same cultural meanings, when in fact we interpret them differently, human sociability would be impossible.38
Smiley is torn between anger over the tragic consequences of the multiple betrayals of the mole and his humanitarian feelings. "I refuse. Nothing is worth the destruction of another human being. Somewhere the path of pain and betrayal must end" (36:345). Ann describes Smiley as "deceived in love and impotent in hate" (36:346). Yet his loyalty and inability to sustain hatred toward those who have betrayed him and his resolve to act despite serious reservations about the consequences of his actions are precisely what make Smiley a tragic, flawed, but heroic figure. Andrew Rutherford (1987:25) contrasts Smiley, who "lives in practice by a code of loyalty, of fidelity, of obligation," to the mole and suggests that they "emerge as representatives of integrity and corruption in a world of crumbling values, which can be sustained, it seems, only by bleak courage and loyalty without much faith. Yet the novel itself implies a faith--not so much in a country or political system (though le Carré ‘s preference is clear), as in man himself--in his capacity to live humbly, yet heroically and sacrificially, a life of service."
In spite of his doubts, Smiley acts characteristically and sets out to capture the mole, whom he plans to trade for British agents behind the Iron Curtain who were betrayed by the mole. Smiley grieves over all the betrayals and writes letters to Ann that he never mails. In his final interrogation of the mole, Smiley learns that Karla had put the mole (a bisexual, a characteristic that further symbolizes his duality and mythical godlike qualities) up to having an affair with Ann ("the last illusion of the illusionless man" 38:364), in order to throw Smiley off the mole’s track. This knowledge intensifies Smiley’s obsession with Karla.
In The Honourable Schoolboy, Smiley is put in charge of the demoralized and politically weakened Circus. Roddy Martindale, the effete Foreign Office wit, says: "Only Smiley . . . could have got himself appointed captain of a wrecked ship" (40). Now that Smiley is in charge, there is no Control to cajole him or behind whom his conscience can hide. He acts far more resolutely in pursuit of his goals. He separates from Ann--an act symbolizing his resolution not to be encumbered by the ties of sentimentality, which have always constrained him. Smiley relentlessly plots the downfall of Karla. As a humanitarian, Smiley is seen valiantly trying to save networks of agents and weeping at the news of their loss. But a more resolute Smiley is revealed during an interview with a field agent, Jerry Westerby, of whom Smiley asks whether he still has the will to act:
A lot of people haven’t these days. The Will. Specially in England. A lot of people doubt as a legitimate philosophical posture. They think of themselves in the middle, whereas, of course, really they’re nowhere. No battle was ever won by spectators, was it? We understand that in this service. We’re lucky. Our war began in nineteen seventeen, with the Bolshevik Revolution. It hasn’t changed yet . . . I still feel strongly that I owe. Don’t you? I’ve always been grateful to this service, that it gave me a chance to pay. Is that how you feel? I don’t think we should be afraid of . . . devoting ourselves. Is that old-fashioned of me? (5:104-5).39
The changes in Smiley in this trilogy may be rooted in his moral sense, but they also reflect his changing positions in the intelligence service, from outsider to top executive responsibility, and a consequent tilt in the direction toward institutional loyalty and justification of the means by the ends.
Smiley was probably laying it on a bit thick to motivate the unsophisticated Westerby to come out of retirement.40 Also, his new role did not allow him the luxury of playing the devil’s advocate as he had formerly done. Even so, it appears that Smiley is considerably more single-minded than previously--deliberately suppressing his inclination to doubt, question assumptions, and second-guess policies and decisions. Le Carré reveals the reason: "Beyond the expressed sense of obligation, loyalty and patriotism, however, there is also his obsession with Karla. He called it Karla, and it was true that somewhere in him, like a leftover legend, there burned the embers of hatred toward the man who had set out to destroy the temples of his private faith, whatever remained of them: the service that he loved, his friends, his country, his concept of a reasonable balance in human affairs. . . . But hatred was really not an emotion he could sustain for any length of time, unless it was the obverse side of love" (5:109; emphasis added).
To get vital information, Jerry is ordered to "burn" (blackmail) a Hong Kong banker named Frost, who is later tortured and killed for divulging information to the English. In assessing this unexpected outcome, Smiley forces his intellect to overcome his emotions, refuses to engage in self-deception, and accepts full responsibility. His colleague, Connie Sachs, moralizes, "Karla wouldn’t give two pins. . . . Not for one dead Frost, not for ten. That’s the difference, really. . . . We’re fighting for the survival of Reasonable Man. . . That’s who we are: reasonable. . . . We’re not just English. We’re reasonable" (14:322).
Peter Guillam contemplates Smiley’s Dilemma: "One day . . . one of two things will happen to George. He’ll cease to care or the paradox will kill him. If he ceases to care, he’ll be half the operator he is. If he doesn’t, that little chest will blow up from the struggle of trying to find the explanation for what we do. Smiley himself in a disastrous off-the-record chat to senior officers, had put the names to his dilemma, and Guillam with some embarrassment recalled them to this day. To be inhuman in defense of our humanity, he said, harsh in defense of compassion. To be single-minded in defense of our disparity" (19:460; emphasis added).41 Le Carré invites the reader to consider whether it is reasonable to engage in such activity in the name of Reasonable Man. One can imagine how Smiley’s "chat" would be received by senior civil servants in any department, much less an intelligence agency. No wonder Peter is embarrassed to recall it. Le Carré leaves it to the reader to decide whether he is embarrassed for Smiley (his mentor) or for the senior officials. Depending on the reader’s own values, temperament, and ideology, Smiley’s struggle to resolve such paradoxes can be viewed as either absurd, heroic, or both--that is, quixotic.42
The formulation of Smiley’s dilemma forces the reader to ask serious questions. Do not inhumane acts threaten to destroy the humanity one is defending? Can harshness protect compassion without one hardening one’s heart? Does not single-minded, not to say obsessive, anticommunism undermine the very freedoms on which liberal democracy depends? These questions underlie the creative tension of the actions of this trilogy in particular and le Carré ‘s work in general. Although le Carré appears to hold and express multiple and sometimes contradictory points of view, and subjects liberalism to a particularly severe critique, ultimately his position is rooted in a liberal disposition. As mentioned in the introduction, I follow Wilson Carey McWilliams (1995) in distinguishing between liberalism as a temperament--a disposition of the soul--and as an articulated ideology. For Beene, "Smiley is a liberal humanist who endures only as long as he can question this humanism" (1992:8).43
In his relentless pursuit of this case, Smiley becomes embroiled in interagency politics and is deceived by intrigues and an alliance between his main rival in the British Foreign Office and the CIA. The Americans end up with the Russian Chinese mole, Smiley’s rival ends up in charge of the Circus, and Smiley is back in forced retirement. In a letter to Ann, Smiley writes his own professional epitaph: "I chose the secret road because it seemed to lead straighter and furthest toward my country’s goal. The enemy in those days was someone we could point at and read about in the papers. Today, all I know is that I have learned to interpret the whole of my life in terms of conspiracy. That is the sword I have lived by, and as I look round me now I see it is the sword I shall die by as well. These people terrify me, but I am one of them. If they stab me in the back, then at least that is the judgement of my peers" (22:533). Even the reader predisposed to sympathize with Smiley can lose patience with his allowing himself to be so manipulated. Perhaps lack of concern for personal position is admirable. But, he betrayed ideals and persons loyal to him by failing to put up a fight.44
In the third and final volume of the Karla trilogy, Smiley is once again reluctantly called back from retirement as a kind of consultant, ostensibly to cover up the death of one of his former agents in order to save the government from public embarrassment. In contrast with The Looking Glass War, where Smiley reluctantly but dutifully carried out his orders, and The Honourable Schoolboy, where as chief he resolutely sets policy within the political and bureaucratic constraints of his office, in Smiley’s People he considerably exceeds his brief and takes great personal initiative in order to finally ensnare his arch rival and nemesis, Karla.
Smiley is reminded by Oliver Lacon, identified as Whitehall’s Head Prefect to the intelligence services, "We are pragmatists, George. We adapt. We are not keepers of some sacred flame. I ask you, I commend you, to remember this!" (4:56). Whether or not he remembered it, Smiley certainly did not act on this advice:
Even five years ago he would never have admitted to such sentiments. But today, peering calmly into his own heart, Smiley knew that he was unled, and perhaps unleadable; that the only restraints upon him were those of his own reason, and his own humanity. As with his marriage, so with his sense of public service. I invested my life in institutions--he thought without rancour--and all I am left with is myself. And with Karla, he thought; with my black Grail. (12:152)
Sauerberg (1984:201) suggests: "To Smiley, communism, Russia, Karla and Haydon are interchangeable names for the power in his own mind which is irreconcilable with his deep sense of human decency."
As he contemplated Karla’s absolutism, Smiley wonders: "How can I win? . . . alone, restrained by doubt and a sense of decency--how can any of us--against this remorseless fusillade?" (17:245). But Smiley discovers Karla’s weakness, the last remnant of his humanity--his love of his psychologically disturbed daughter, whom he has institutionalized in Switzerland. Smiley is described as "hunter, recluse, lover, solitary man in search of completion, shrewd player of the Great Game, avenger, doubter in search of reassurance--Smiley was by turns each one of them, and sometimes more than one" (20:277). In this sentence, le Carré compresses the contradictory impulses and traits that constitute part of Smiley’s humanity.
Le Carré presents Smiley through the eyes of others to reveal both his determination and his vulnerability. His determination motivates his action, whereas his vulnerability is due to his moral sensibility. Before springing the trap on Karla, Smiley is described by his friend Mendel, a retired policemen, as "pacing himself before his big fight"--saying "he needed movement in order to escape himself" (20:278). His landlady said he looked bereaved. A colleague observed: "George always bruised easy. . . . You see a lot--your eyes get very painful. George saw too much, maybe. . . . George has got too many heads under his hat" (20:279). We also get a rare glimpse of a self-reflective Smiley. While going through files at the Circus, Smiley encounters an old photograph of Karla, whom he sees as his mirror image: "He read into his own past as into Karla’s, and sometimes it seemed to him that the one life was merely the complement to the other; that they were causes of the same incurable malady" (20:281).
In an earlier visit (in the same novel) to Connie Sachs, an aged, ill, former colleague whom he verbally bullied to get information vital for trapping Karla, Connie remarked: "Twin cities, we used to say you were, you and Karla, two halves of the same apple" (15:205). Most uncharacteristically, Smiley lost his temper: "He was standing over her, incensed by her cheap and unjust comparison, knowing that neither Karla’s methods nor Karla’s absolutism were his own. He heard himself say "No, Connie!" and discovered that he had lifted his hands to the level of his chest, palms downward and rigid, as if he were pressing something into the ground. And he realised that his passion had scared her; that he had never betrayed so much conviction to her--or so much feeling--before" (15:206).
This is the most passion Smiley had ever displayed in any of the novels.45 His overreaction46 may have reflected an awareness that in order for his trap to work, he and Karla would have to reverse roles. Smiley was only able to blackmail Karla into defecting to the West because Karla’s compassion for his afflicted daughter gave him the opening. But in so doing, Smiley resorted to Karla’s abhorrent tactics.
Nevertheless, Smiley retains his capacity to empathize with his enemy. This characteristic prevents him from demonizing the enemy, which, as I argue later, is a primary step in moral disengagement and leads to the abuse of power. Peter Guillam knew why Smiley insisted they get to the border crossing two hours before Karla was scheduled to cross: "Because we owe, Smiley would have said if he had been in a talking mood. Because we owe the caring and the waiting, we owe this vigil over one man’s effort to escape the system he has helped create. For as long as he is trying to reach us, we are his friends. Nobody else is on his side." But when Karla began to cross, Smiley has second thoughts: "Don’t come, thought Smiley. Shoot, Smiley thought, talking to Karla’s people, not to his own. There was suddenly something terrible in his foreknowledge that this tiny creature was about to cut himself off from the black castle behind him" (27:366,370). As Karla crosses through the liminal point between East and West, the narrator describes Smiley:
an unholy vertigo seized him as the very evil he had fought against seemed to reach out and posses him and claim him despite his striving, calling him a traitor also; mocking him, yet at the same time applauding his betrayal. On Karla had descended the curse of Smiley’s compassion; on Smiley the curse of Karla’s fanaticism. I have destroyed him with the weapons I abhorred, and they are his. We have crossed each other’s frontiers, we are the no-men of this no-man’s-land. . . . he did not want these spoils, won by these methods. (27:370-1)47
But, despite his moral anguish, Smiley makes no effort to stop Karla from crossing over. Once they face each other, Karla drops the cigarette lighter that had been given to Smiley by Ann, which Karla had borrowed from Smiley the interview in a Delhi jail and which Karla had kept over the years since then. "They exchanged one more glance and perhaps each for that second did see in the other something of himself. . . . Smiley . . . stepped quickly out of the halo, passing very close to Ann’s lighter on his way. It lay at the halo’s very edge, tilted slightly, glinting like fool’s gold on the cobble. He thought of picking it up, but somehow there seemed no point and no one else appeared to have seen it" (27:373). The last line in the novel is Smiley’s response to Guillam’s statement that George had won. "‘Did I?’ said Smiley. ‘Yes. Yes, well I suppose I did.’"
This last scene, the denouement of both this novel and the trilogy is, I believe, the most moving that le Carré has written. Like a narrative laser beam, it poignantly fuses the themes in a concentrated drama. Smiley’s reply to Peter expresses his questioning of whether the means that he used to entrap Karla justified the end. Smiley’s exploitation of Karla’s love for his daughter mirrored Karla’s earlier exploitation of Smiley’s love for Ann, symbolized by the lighter that glittered like "fools gold."
Smiley’s failure to pick up the lighter after Karla dropped it is a rich, multilayered symbol. It might be interpreted as a gallant gesture in refusing a symbol of defeat (like the sword of a defeated general) or a chivalric gesture of the knight refusing to reclaim the token of his faithless lady after the successful completion of his quest.48 Yet it also (and perhaps more clearly) symbolizes Smiley’s loss of his last illusion--in refusing to be fooled (deluded) by a love in which loyalty was not reciprocated.49 In that context, his stepping out of the "halo" of light symbolizes this loss of innocence, as well as that which he lost when he resorted to emotional blackmail to ensnare Karla. It is an extremely effective scene.50
CRITICAL EVALUATIONS OF SMILEY
Smiley and Karla, who were initially portrayed as opposites, change places and are transformed into aspects of the other. Karla’s only illusion--love of his daughter--led to his betrayal of his life’s work and his country. Tom Paulin (1980:60) reminds us, however, that "Karla is saving his own skin by defecting." Brady (1985:286) suggests that Smiley and Karla are "psychic doubles . . . Jungian shadows of each other . . . one in emphatic unity." The price Smiley had to pay for "victory" made it a very bitter, if not pyrrhic one for him.51 J. Patrick Dobel (1988:206) observes that le Carré’s books "often reach a critical denouement when Smiley acknowledges the costs of his own actions without moral balances to exonerate him." He reminds us that Karla is given away initially not by love but by his fanaticism, his signature of violence in having Smiley’s former agent brutally murdered: "George Smiley does not become Karla. Smiley never kills his lover or his agents. Nor does he kill to cover his tracks. His agents are not destroyed for errors and he still abhors violence. His goals to the end remain reactive and specific. He accepts responsibility for his actions" (Dobel, 1988:210; emphasis added).
Beene (1992:109-10) suggests that the trilogy "unites Smiley’s halves and terminates him. Through eight novels Smiley professes an undying belief in the power of Western democracy, in the superiority of moral means over questionable ends, in the permanency of intellectual ideals, and in the salvation possible through love. Yet at every step he fears these decencies are illusions. . . . By succumbing to Karla’s methods, Smiley damages (if not defeats) the beliefs he seeks to ratify.52
Panek (1987:33) says that in the world of opposites portrayed by le Carré, his heroes find it is "an unbearable strain to live an uncommitted, undefined existence. . . [so] they act, they engage themselves to one of the alternatives and pass out of the world of flux. They all do it except George Smiley . . . who . . . repeatedly attempts to find a human path between clashing extremes." Le Carré implicitly compares other characters to Smiley to highlight different responses to the human condition. Although Smiley is very unusual, he is neither as unique nor as devastated as Panek implies:
Smiley . . . is the only character in le Carré who can stand between two worlds and, if not reconcile them, live with the opposites thrust upon him by life. In the last two novels [The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People] le Carré shows the dissolution of Smiley’s abbey. . . . In Smiley’s People, George moves from the multifaceted human being to the single-minded one. . . . In so doing this Smiley cuts himself off from Ann . . . He wins Karla’s defection, but loses himself. . . . Smiley in Smiley’s People, moves from between two worlds, but in so doing he loses the humanity which he possessed. All he is left is his painful consciousness. (Panek, 1987:38)
Robert Lekachman (1980:505), calling Smiley the "incorruptible instrument of corrupt politicians and solitary upright man in a universe on the take," concludes that the denouement of the trilogy represents "the disintegration of antique virtue in an unprincipled society." Abraham Rothberg (1987:50-1) defines "Smiley’s decline and fall . . . as the downfall of those virtues in British life for which he stands, and by implication demonstrates the causes of the decline and fall of British power and prestige. . . . Smiley shifts from approval or at least forgiveness of personal and political betrayal to an inability and refusal to forgive and forget such treachery; he moves from his contingent and ambiguous loyalties to institutions to a loyalty only to his own standards and ideals."
Bold (1988:22) concludes that Smiley remains a vulnerable man in a vicious world, who, though he is "contaminated by the deception that surrounds him, he is not entirely destroyed by it. He retains his essential decency. For all his faults, he seems genuine though that is another illusion, for he is a fiction, albeit an immortal one and one made in the image of a real man."53 Lewis (1985:164-5) refers to "Smiley’s triumph over his Moriarty, George defeats his dragon." Yet "Smiley’s quest ends not with simple affirmation of unambiguous, permanent truths but with a resigned acceptance of the paradoxical contradictoriness of human experience, the impossibility of certainty."54 Monaghan (1983:581) says, "Smiley is usually able to keep a delicate balance between his duty to the Circus and his obligation to be human. . . . In Smiley’s People, however, George Smiley experiences such a complete sense of betrayal in his betrayal of others that the delicate balance seems to have been finally lost." The soul-searching in which he engages leads Monaghan to conclude: "That Smiley can still think in such moral terms implies that his corruption is not absolute." Sauerberg (1984:63) suggests, "Karla becomes a symbol to confirm that Smiley’s quest, after all, has been the right one. The proof of its rightness lies not in the circumstances that Karla defects, but in the circumstance that Karla defects because he too nurses a last illusion of love. Karla paradoxically becomes the ultimate confirmation of Smiley’s beliefs."
SMILEY RETURNS REBORN (NOT BORN AGAIN)
Smiley returns (probably for the last time) in The Secret Pilgrim (1990).55 George has bought a cottage in North Cornwall--where Ann sometimes stays with him--and has a sinecure at Exeter University.56 It is most significant, particularly in light of the symbolic meanings analysts frequently attach to Smiley’s relationship with Ann, that he retains this relationship, when so many concluded after Smiley’s People that the relationship was over for good. In an ironic commentary on the post-Cold War era, Smiley is brought back from retirement once more to chair the Fishing Rights Committee, composed of officers from Moscow Centre (le Carré’s term for Soviet intelligence) and the Circus to identify intelligence targets of mutual interest to both services.
Smiley speaks to a graduating class of British spies, and his remarks spark in his protégé, Ned, memories of Ned’s thirty years of service in the Circus. Although Ned’s stories occupy the bulk of the novel, Smiley articulates the ideological motifs that constitute its core message. In the introduction, I indicate the important reasons why le Carré is such an ambiguous and elliptical writer and explain why he confronts his reader with many different and even contradictory perspectives. Like the Japanese director Kurasawa’s classic film Rashamon, le Carré’s technique creates multiple and complex realities. In Smiley’s lecture, however, he comes closer to articulating a clear ideological position than in any of his other novels. This is why "Smiley’s credo," as expressed in this novel, is so important.
The scene is set with Ned’s observation of George’s good humor and vigor. He characterizes Smiley as "reborn." When Ned introduces Smiley as "a legend of the Service," the latter replies, with characteristic self-deprecation, "I think I’m just a rather fat old man wedged between the pudding and the port" (1:7). Smiley speaks directly to Ned’s "heretical heart" as the "secret questioner," raising questions that Ned has asked himself throughout his career. Ned calls Smiley "the iconoclastic prophet of the future" (1:9).
Smiley repeatedly warns the young spies of the high price their job will cost them--the truncation of their natural feelings leading to the death of their own natures that results from the manipulation of their fellow men. These are the consequences of what he terms a life withheld: "The end may justify the means--if it wasn’t supposed to, I dare say you wouldn’t be here. But there’s a price to pay, and the price does tend to be oneself. Easy to sell one’s soul at your age. Harder later" (1:10).
Smiley disassociates himself from those who are discomfited by the dramatic changes in world affairs because his life was dedicated to bringing about these changes. He first claims, then questions--thereby qualifying--victory by the West: "We won. Not that victory matters a damn. And perhaps we didn’t win anyway. Perhaps they just lost. . . . What matters is that a long war is over. What matters is the hope" (2:12; emphasis added).
Above all, he warns them against self-deception, which, he concludes, was the greatest negative consequence of the Cold War. "If I regret anything at all, it’s the way we wasted our time and skills. . . . All the delusions we had about who we were. (2:12; emphasis added) Sometimes I think the most vulgar thing about the Cold War was the way we learned to gobble up our own propaganda . . . when our enemies lied, they lied to conceal the wretchedness of their system. Whereas when we lied, we concealed our virtues. Even from ourselves. . . And we scarcely paused to ask ourselves how much longer we could defend our society by these means and remain a society worth defending" (6:116).
Smiley insists that "it is essential in a free society that the people who do our work should remain unreconciled" (10:246; emphasis added). He decries expediency: "All I’m really saying, I suppose, is that if the temptation to humanity does assail you now and then, I hope you won’t take it as a weakness in yourselves, but give it a fair hearing" (10:247; emphasis added).
Smiley’s humanitarian liberal credo is summed up in the following passage. "I only ever cared about the man. . . . I never gave a fig for the ideologies. . . . I never saw institutions as being worthy of their parts, or policies as much other than excuses for not feeling. Man, not the mass, is what our calling is about. It was man who ended the Cold War in case you didn’t notice. . . . Not even Western man either, as it happened, but our sworn enemy in the East, who went into the streets, faced the bullets and the batons and said: we’ve had enough. It was their emperor, not ours, who had the nerve to mount the rostrum and declare he had no clothes" (12:321).
Smiley continues with a major critique of ideologies: "And the ideologies trailed after these impossible events like condemned prisoners, as ideologies do when they’ve had their day. Because they have no heart of their own. They’re the whores and angels of our striving selves" (12:321). He concludes with a blistering critique of the State: "It’s the over-mighty modern State we’ve built for ourselves as a bastion against something that isn’t there any more. We’ve given up far too many freedoms in order to be free. Now we’ve got to take them back. . . . So while you’re out there striving loyally for the State, perhaps you’ll do me a small favour and lean on its pillars from time to time. It’s got a lot too big for its boots of late. It would be nice if you would cut it down to size" (12:324; emphasis added).
Le Carré cautions us against the persistent unreliability of the artist. He warns that tomorrow he will disagree with everything he says today. Using interviews of the author and essays by him to frame my interpretations of his central fictional character, I further elucidate the relationship between le Carré ‘s style and his ideological disposition. Anthony Masters (1987:242) notes that "it is in his political views that Smiley most clearly resembles Cornwell, as he explained to The Observer in February 1980: ‘I think he stands where I stand; he feels that to pit yourself against any "ism" is to strike a posture which is itself ideological, and therefore offensive in terms of practical decency. In practice almost any political ideology invites you to set aside your humanitarian instincts.’" So, despite le Carré’s warning and the prevailing fashions in literary criticism, I shall take him at his word and interpret Smiley’s liberal temperament as expressing that of his creator. Interviews with le Carré and his nonfictional essays and editorials support this interpretation. For example, he told Thom Schwartz (1987:20): "We had a lot of the same characteristics, as well as sharing a lot of experiences in Middle Europe just after the World War II. We’d both seen the ghosts in the rubble, if you will; knew what the true cost of war was. We’d both been witnesses to the seamless transition from the hot to the cold war, and the almost unconscious realignment of political alliances. . . . Those Orwellian leaps from quite early on in my life left scars, and I put them on Smiley’s soul rather than on my own."
Beene (1992:12) claims that Smiley reflects Cornwell’s real father, Ronnie. The passages cited above appear to contradict her interpretation. But, as Richard Trahair suggests: "Idealised people often take their origins from selected aspects of one’s parents--not ALL of one’s parents."57 In this sense, I suggest that Ronnie Cornwell was primarily a negative role model for his son in the creation of Smiley’s character just as he was the direct model for Rick Pym, father of le Carré ‘s self-parodied alter ego, Magnus Pym, in A Perfect Spy. As he told Schwarz (1987:20): "I had a very mucky childhood. . . . So I made Smiley a guy with no childhood and no parents. My father’s moral concerns were nonexistent, and I heaped all of mine into Smiley. I think I made a bit of a new father out of him."
Vivian Green was chaplain at Sherborne School when David Cornwell was a student there. Later, he was Cornwell’s senior tutor at Oxford and knows him well. He is one of the two main models for Smiley. Le Carré is quoted by Miriam Gross (1980:35) as saying, "When I first invented Smiley he was based to some extent on my mentor at Oxford. . . . whom I admired very much, and partly on somebody I once worked with." He had previously mentioned that "Oxford was my salvation, and it was mainly brought about by the former Chaplain of Sherborne who became Senior Tutor at my College."58 Green (1988:38) himself suggests:
In his earlier novels le Carré had created a father figure in George Smiley, a man of impeccable integrity, shrewd, silent, at times sad, cuckolded by the world but loyal to his ideals. Yet le Carré seems to have been unable to put out of his mind his real father for whom George Smiley was merely a substitute, and basically the legacy of his inheritance from Rick [Ronnie Cornwell], in its moral subjectivism, its stress on material wealth and comfort, its egocentric objectivity. Magnus [David Cornwell a.k.a. John le Carré ] discovers in himself reflections as in a distorting mirror of Rick, not of George Smiley, and so became the Perfect Spy.
He created in Smiley a reluctant team player, the bearer of paradoxes in the interest of the greater good, a romantic who reluctantly serves established Western society, an individual whose private morality constantly confronts institutional necessity, a committed doubter, and a disgusted patriot. It is not unreasonable to assume the author shares some and perhaps many of these traits. But le Carré also questions whether they deserve our admiration. He told Schwarz (1987:20-21): "Another reason for my impatience with George Smiley is that I am no longer able to resolve his excuses. There is something specious to me now about his moral posture. . . . We Empire Babies were brought up thinking that we messed with things so that others could have clean hands. But I believe that someone who delivers up responsibility for his moral conscience is actually someone who hasn’t got one."
The author claims that his argument with Smiley was over whether what Smiley did with his life was really heroic. He questions whether the sacrifice of moral conscience was really noble. Had Smiley the right to sacrifice his individual moral conscience for a perception of the public good? One might also ask whether Smiley’s anguished soul-searching mitigated the consequences of his actions? Is it preferable to withdraw from the arena and leave unsavory activities to those who lack moral scruples and who are therefore untroubled by the ethical implications of their actions?
Le Carré argues (characteristically with himself) that rather than the dissenters, mavericks and traitors, or even the pragmatists, it is the loyal men who bring havoc to the world. He suggests: "The greatest threat to mankind comes from the renunciation of individual scruple in favor of institutional denominators. . . . Real heroism lies, as it always will, not in conformity or even patriotism, but in acts of solitary moral courage. Which, come to think of it, is what we used to admire in our Christian savior" (JHM:16; emphasis added).
Le Carré suggests that he might have shelved poor old George because he tired of his resigned attitude. "Perhaps I had reached some point of growing up, and wanted my choices to be unmediated by his owlish and increasingly elderly presence hovering over me. Perhaps age had liberated me from the stifling conventions of youth out of which Smiley had originally been born" (JHM:15). He claims that "it was only when I took leave of Smiley in my own mind that I was able to address myself to my real father" (Lelyveld: 40). Having dealt with ambivalent feelings toward his real father in A Perfect Spy, he no longer needed his surrogate fictional father.59 Le Carré told Tony Chiu (1980:30), "He [Smiley] and I have grown up a lot since the first book. I might someday go back to write about other of his experiences, but I think I have rounded off the character. Certainly, he cannot progress."
Yet Smiley "reborn" returns for his last hurrah, resurrected by his creator from the status of a secular Christ figure, who "would sacrifice his own morality on the altar of national necessity. For you and me" (JHM:15). He has been transfigured into an elderly prophet prodding young spies to become subversive Samsons by leaning on the pillars of the Philistine temple of the all-powerful modern state.
Ned observes his students’ faces "lift and relax and light to him as they gave him first their attention, then their trust and finally their support" (1:7). This is also a good description of the effect of le Carré’s style on the reader. It is also strikingly similar to Howe’s description of the effects of the successful political novel quoted in the introduction. "It is not surprising that the political novelist, even as he remains fascinated by politics, urges his claim for a moral order beyond ideology; nor that the receptive reader, even as he preserves his own commitment, assents to the novelist’s ultimate order" (Howe 1992:24).
Le Carré claims, "I never knew a writer yet who saw himself as reconciled or finite" (JHM:16). He cites Scott Fitzgerald’s suggestion that the trick was to hold two opposing opinions on any one subject and still function. Le Carré is a master at holding contradictory opinions. Like Shakespeare in Richard II as analyzed by James Boyd White (1994:77), he seems to be on both or all sides: "He seems incapable of articulating a position, or expressing a feeling, without instantly, or at the same time, expressing its counter or contrary."
Le Carré seems to work on the principle that White (1994:50) attributes to Shakespeare:60 "The truth cannot be said in any single speech or language, but lies in the recognition that against one speech or claim or language is always another one. In this sense its life is that of voice speaking against voice; this life is what ultimately holds out as authoritative; not the crown or the usurper, but its own performances." White (78; emphasis added) calls this "the principle of controlled and progressive countersaying" which he contrasts with "the principle of noncontradiction"--the doctrine of modern exposition.
The most extreme form this countersaying takes with le Carré is the paradoxical statement that appears to contradict itself. Examples of this include Smiley’s dilemma: "To be inhuman in defense of our humanity, . . . harsh in defense of compassion . . ." Such oxymoronic statements may be interpreted by the reader either literally or ironically. They may be interpreted as expressions of cynicism or idealism, naïveté or sophistication, sophistry or wisdom.61 They frame for the reader key dilemmas that confront citizens of democracies when evaluating the appropriate role of espionage and politics in general. They lead the reader to consider the alternatives and possibly even come to at least tentative conclusions--including the possible synthesis of opposites. Le Carré plays with the idea that just as apparently opposite characters can exchange places or even fuse (e.g., Smiley and Karla) so apparently may opposite phenomena merge to constitute a new reality.62 Just as quantum physics and much of the modern social sciences assume that all things are indeterminate, le Carré assumes that there are no definitive solutions to life’s perennial dilemmas.
Le Carré blames his childhood for his profound sense of displacement and paradox as well as the perception of the world through an eye "which sees around it a sense of chaos clamoring to be reconciled, or merely dramatized, but never explained away" (JHM:13). Whereas le Carré may remain unreconciled, in editorials he seems to have articulated clearer (although not necessarily final) positions. For example, he wonders "whether the 40 years of cold war have bred a silent affinity between the forces of intolerance on both sides."63 His arguments preview Smiley’s speech to the graduates of the spy school. Sounding like the reborn Smiley on that occasion, he suggests that we live in a unique moment of history in which "to be a realist it is necessary to be an idealist."64
Another essay rephrased Smiley’s speech to British spies for American lawyers: "The difficulty is realizing that we are shorn of all our old excuses for not addressing the real problems of the earth, that we can no longer put our humanity on hold in order to defend humanity."65 He argues that the fight against communism diminished us, dulled our love of dissent, and our sense of life’s adventure. He calls on us to break out of our orthodoxies. "We no longer need to clip the wings of our humanity. It is time we flew again" (Ibid.).
To paraphrase Jerry Westerby’s observation of George Smiley (when George gave him the patriotic pep talk cited above), there’s a bit of the failed priest in John le Carré. Green (1988:39) playfully suggests: "It would be too sophisticated to advance the theory that le Carré is a moralizer without a message. Yet moral his novels are." He is certainly one of the foremost, if not the foremost political moralist among contemporary writers of fiction. He has sustained an ongoing commentary on and critique of the cold war and its aftermath for more than thirty years.66
Many layers of political meaning can be drawn from le Carré ‘s depiction of conflict between personal values and public obligations, particularly in the claims the state makes on the conscience of both its servants and victims. Le Carré ‘s moral vision demystifies certain contemporary myths of state and stresses the importance of individual human agency in making difficult choices while confronting complex moral dilemmas and puzzling, problematic, political paradoxes. Stewart Crechan (1988:104) argues "that le Carré ‘s ultimate aim is not to unsettle but to reassure, and that the ‘interaction of perspective’, . . . is not open-ended and dialogic (at least not in the sense in which Bakhtin employs that concept), but moves toward a resolution; and that these perspectives are textualized with a view towards their assimilation, liberal dilemmas and internal debates notwithstanding."67
Le Carré critically dissects but simultaneously reflects the liberal dilemma. Smiley’s passionate denunciation of ideologies in the name of humanity is an expression of his liberal humanism.68 Le Carré told Pierre Assouline (1986:60; emphasis added): "All I desire is that humane values be maintained in our institutions, codes of conduct and systems of thought. It is probably nothing more than old-fashioned liberalism."69 Such a liberal temperament is characterized by a high tolerance for ambiguity.70 Judith Shklar (1984:249) concludes, "Liberalism imposes extraordinary ethical difficulties on us; to live with contradictions, unsolvable conflicts, and a balancing between public and private imperatives which are neither opposed to nor at one with another."
Le Carré’s exhaustive examination of the liberal dilemma never arrives at a satisfactory resolution because, as in the real world, it is irresolvable.71 This is essentially Monaghan’s explanation of why Smiley changes very little, although he frames it differently.72
Le Carré (1979:340) insists, "I think Smiley changes very much from book to book." Whereas critics argue over the point,73 I suggest that Smiley’s changes reflect his differing positions within and outside the Circus, maturation, and his constant pursuit of a balanced skepticism. Smiley’s skepticism, akin to what Max Weber (1946:126-27) called "trained relentlessness in viewing the realities of life and the ability to face such realities and to measure up to them inwardly" (see chapter 4).
Skeptical balance is the essence of Smiley’s humanism. As Sauerberg (1984:62) points out, Smiley’s balance is rooted in something outside himself--in Western tradition and values, in restraint and common sense. Despite all that Smiley endures, his liberal temperament remains a constant. Rather than rejecting individualism and liberal humanism, le Carré’s critical examination of their limitations in the fires of espionage, where they are most fiercely tested, appears, if anything, to have strengthened his commitment to them.74
Le Carré offers neither solutions for moral dilemmas nor resolutions of political paradoxes but attempts to heighten his reader’s awareness of the ethical dilemmas inherent in the contradictory tensions generated when democracies engage in espionage. In so doing, he hopes that we, like Smiley, will attempt to come to terms with the moral implications of the policies of our governments and the actions of their agents. Le Carré uses Smiley (and characters who play a similar role in those novels in which he does not appear) to illustrate an approach to cope with (not resolve) these dilemmas.75 This approach is characterized by the effort to achieve a skeptical balance; one that teeters between the demands of competing loyalties, between dreams and realities, between means and ends, and between idealism and realism. In sum, Smiley, the liberal hero, exemplifies the struggle to achieve a skeptical balance between competing ethical and political imperatives.