You Can't Spell Wormold Without...
The more I look at the world, the more I think Graham Greene more prescient than any of us would have dared imagine. No, I don't want to make Greene sound like some sort of prophet old-inspir'd, and nor do I want to put him in the same category of social visionary that rather invariably tends to include the likes of William Blake, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and Philip K. Dick. But sometimes it helps to remember that, no matter how times change, the more things remain the same-- that to understand things most fully very often have to remember that what we face in our 'contemporary reality' is not too far removed from what we've already seen, known, or at least imagined. Call it a reality check a la Ecclesiastes: there is nothing new under the sun.
Ah, so what brings this to mind?, I'm sure many of you are asking. Alas, it's the endless chitter-chatter about those nefarious weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein supposedly possessed, weapons that seem to exist in our collective mentality in some kind of Derridean trace. (Or perhaps 'erasure' is the better word.) Yes, the bevy of political columnists and social prognosticators are realizing that, shock of shocks, the great subject of military investment has been in a tract of swamp land in Florida, probably not too far from Catherine Harris' district. It is to laugh, especially as any sane person dared say not too long ago, that the project of a war in Iraq didn't have a whit to do with WMD, and that, whatever the real reasons may or may not have been for the incursion into Iraq, WMD was nothing more than a smokescreen.
Or was it?
Aha, perhaps here we're wise to remember Greene, particularly an "entertainment" of his that now seems so cleverer now that the Western world has enacted its comic scenario without realizing it. The novel to which I refer is Greene's (very light) comedy Our Man In Havana, an airy book about Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman in Havana who is drafted by British intelligence to gather information on Castro's military movements. Greene's Wormold, though is more clown than spy, and his primary reason for accepting the assignment is to gather the cash to raise his daughter in a wealthy social clime. So, what does he do? He hires non-existent informants, and passes off information that he, certainly, never expects to be taken seriously; when pushed for 'results,' he provides them with exactly what his superiors want to see, details and blueprints on Castro's supposed project for a dangerous new weapon. Such information, of course, ends up necessitating action, and from there poor Wormold eventually finds himself in a real world of espionage, conspiracy and assassination (and, by the way, a game of draughts for the truly stout-hearted).
No one, however, seems to realize one basic fact, the preposterous joke that underlies this Cold War version of Much Ado About Nothing: that the designs for Castro's weapon are nothing more than blueprints for a new model of vacuum cleaner. That it takes British Intelligence so long to figure things out is the laughable result of the preoposterous proposition. It's not too far removed from that game one plays with a child, in which one touches the child's face, puts one's thumb through one's fingers, and then claims that one's stolen the child's nose; the child, of course, knows this isn't true, that this can't possibly be the case, but no amount of common sense will keep the child from eventually touching its nose just to be sure. In Greene's world of hypchondriacal paranoia, there's nothing worse, and nothing better, than having your own worst suspicions "confirmed," which sets in motion a series of deadly events, but which have at their genesis the desperate desire to be proven right, that dastardly stuff is indeed in the mix, and that, yes, indeed Chicken Little, the sky is falling.
The funniest part about Our Man in Havana is not Wormold or his exploits, but the reaction of the British Intelligence community. This exchange, between Wormold's recruiter and handler Hawthorne and "the Chief," is a doozy of light irony, as the Chief insists on photographs of this new weapon:
"We have got to get them. At any risk. Do you know what Savage said to me? I can tell you, it gave me a very nasty nightmare. He said that one of the drawings reminded him of a giant vacuum cleaner."
"A vacuum cleaner!" Hawthorne bent down and examined the drawing, and the cold struck him once more.
"Makes you shiver doesn't it?"
"But that's impossible, sir." He felt as though he was pleading for his own career, "It couldn't be a vacuum cleaner, sir. Not a vacuum cleaner."
"Fiendish, isn't it?" the Chief said. "The ingenuity, the simplicity, the devilish imagination of the thing!" He removed his black monocle and his baby-blue eye caught the light and made it jig on the wall over the radiator. "See this one here six times the height of a man. Like a gigantic spray. And this-- what does this remind you of?"
Hawthorne said unhappily, "A two-way nozzle."
"What's a two-way nozzle?"
"You sometimes find them with a vacuum cleaner."
"Vacuum cleaner again. Hawthorne, I believe we may be on to something so big that the H-bomb will become a conventional weapon."
"Is that desirable, sir?"
"Of course it's desirable. Nobody worries about conventional weapons."
If you can hear me snickering through cyberspace, you probably know exactly why I'm snickering, and it's not just because of the comic eerieness (or eerie comedy?) of recalling such a passage in the wake of Hans Blix, David Kay, and company, and the relentless back-pedalling of Bush XLIII's administration. No, it's the irony that such absurd paranoia is in fact genuine, and that the fear of the worst-case (imagined) scenario overrides even the basic pulls to common sense. Greene's Chief, and so many in Bush XLIII's company, are of a stunningly self-delusion ilk, a crazed cross between Polonius and Kubrick's General Ripper.
It's also worth recalling that in Greene's novel, when everything is said and done and Wormold's deceptions are discovered, there is no reprimand, only punishment by promotion. The Chief says in judgment of Wormold:
"We thought the best thing for you under the circumstances would be to stay at home-- on our training staff. Lecturing. How to run a station abroad. That kind of thing." He seemed to be swallowing something disagreeable. He added, "Of course, as we always do when a man retires from a post abroad, we'll recommend you for a decoration. I think in your case-- you were not there very long-- we can hardly suggest anything higher than an O.B.E."
It's enough even to make even the non-spectacled among us massage our brains as if we'd been wearing pince-nez glasses for too long. And, yes, it should go without saying, all of this feels just a little too damned familiar, a little too damned close to the bone. It also inclines me to recall the old saying about that giant sucking sound you're probably now hearing.
It really is a shame that Greene's not alive (he died in 1991) to witness this fiasco, though I'm sure the scenario is sending poor John le Carre's eyes a-rolling in disbelief. All of the politicians and politicos in the United States who now stand righteously pointing their fingers at Dubya and his entourage are little more than fools who've discovered that the used car they just purchased wasn't just driven by a little ole lady from Pasadena. "You lied! You rigged the intelligence! You should have known better! You weren't honest with us!" seem to be the dominant charges, even though most of the rest of the intelligent world has been saying for sometime that the hoodwink was in, as Republicans and Democrats alike in the U.S. bought with sincerely devilish imagination the myth of the vacuum cleaner. Sometimes, we need to remember, a little healthy skepticism and an ounce or two of common sense are worth more than all the intelligence in the world, intelligence which seems generally bent on dismissing common sense as all-too-common.
Ah, again, the more things the change, the more things remain the same. We're now living through the concluding chapter of Our Man In Baghdad, a farce with deadly repercussions to it, even though we, like the British populace in Greene's novel, will have no idea what Wormolds, if any, helped get us in this fine mess. This isn't to defend Saddam, nor is to take the indignant-left position of negating entirely the war entirely; the "no war for oil" mantra was just as absurd as the WMD one. It's more that the Iraq debacle (would that be 'the Iracle'?) is now swaddled in buffoonery, and we'll no doubt be living with the ramifications of such silliness (international distrust, unintelligble intelligence, political hollowness) for some time to come. At least Greene's novel ends; we've not got such an easy way out matters, and we'll be shaking our collective heads for years.
That all of this happened on the watch of a man who professes rather unabashedly his abstinence of reading only serves to underscore the snicker-inducing irony of this whole situation. Heads will not roll, answers will not come, the people responsible will try to pretend none of this has happened. One can picture Donald Rumsfeld and Condy Rice singing "La de da de da, I can't hear you!" while they dart about the West Wing with their ears covered. Maybe they'll ask the Queen to award Dubya, who's not been there very long, an O.B.E. Oh, wait, he already has one, doesn't he? Gulp. Never mind.
With all this said and done, I just have one question for Bush XLIII: "D'ya wanna buy a vacuum cleaner?"
Oh, Graham, it really is a shame you had to miss this. I imagine you'd be laughing to the point of tears.