On Jeffrey Simser's
"Quiller and the Secret World"
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"No rewards are more generous than those given to spies." - Sun-tzu,
The Art Of War
Jeff Simser addresses four questions in his essay and provides cogent
and controversial answers to them. I will look at the first and last
of these: what drives Quiller into the secret world of covert action,
and why do we want to follow?
Most definitions of a living organism include the requirement of displaying
goal-directed behaviour, those of a human being often specifying that the
behaviour be subject to a greater or a lesser degree of choice. I
propose that people may be regarded as being more or less alive, and therefore
more or less fully human, according to the degree to which they recognise
the existence of choice over their actions and exercise that choice.
The greater the impact of the choices we make and the more important the
consequences, the more acutely we are aware of the fact that we have exercised
choice, and the more alive we feel.
Jeff hits the nail on the head when he says, "[Quiller] fears the world
of primly kept gardens and freshly washed autos." The vital word
here is "fears,", not "dislikes" or even "hates." Quiller literally
believes that the aforementioned world represents a threat to his life,
which of course it is, for a person of his vitality. The too-loud
footstep, the misjudged blocking of a blow, the failure to avoid the oncoming
car--any of these may kill him one day, but he will die knowing what it
is like to have been fully alive, to display utter mastery of himself and
as much of his environment as was humanly possible.
This is why I regard the passage quoted by Jeff from The Sinkiang
Executive, chapter 2, as anomalous. The fatalism Quiller reveals
is completely at odds with his view, exquisitely expressed to his young
fellow prisoner in Quiller Balalaika, that we create our own reality.
I believe Quiller has found that, indeed, no rewards are as generous
as those given to spies, though the rewards he receives are not the monetary
ones Sun-tzu is referring to. Freed from the shackles of society's
approval or disapproval ("civic standing," as Jeff aptly puts it), the
spy is as free an agent as it is possible to be, notwithstanding the bureaucratic
structure of his organisation. He must make decisions the outcome
of which could end his life or life on the planet. He must choose
whether to act morally by respecting private property, to use Jeff's example,
or immorally by torturing an opponent to death, and must rely on his conscience
alone as he has no father-figure, no agony-aunt, onto whom he can attempt
to push responsibility for his decisions. Quiller chooses to be a
spy because he has realised that the conventional way of living restricts
intolerably one's ability to be fully human. This is not to say that
there are no other alternative ways of living--there are--but he is either
unaware of them or has chosen to disregard them.
"Escapism" is a word that fits the mood of the times perfectly.
How often do we see a film or read a book and, when telling others about
it, smile and shrug in faint embarrassment and say, "There's nothing very
profound about it, it's just good escapist fun?" The term drips with
trendy 90s post-modern irony: "this book/film really is rather trashy,
but it's cool to be into trash these days; if it entertains us, excites
us, it excludes itself from the realm of serious consideration."
For many people, perhaps the majority, life may be toxically unhappy
and grindingly boring, to use Jeff's phrases. For others, life is
exciting, an adventure to be relished. Both groups need spiritual
fuel, so as to hold on to the realisation that one need not sink into despair,
that it is possible to gain mastery over one's circumstances. There
are few more immediate and powerful ways to come to this realisation than
by reading fiction, in which a realistic and heroic protagonist demonstrates
through action and not just in the form of a didactic sermon that the human
can make a difference.
"Escapist" fiction allows us to escape the constraints imposed by the
culture, by the political system and by our own self-doubts and fears,
and move to a higher level of awareness of the possibilities of life.
This is, I propose, what makes espionage fiction and especially that of
the Quiller variety so appealing to millions of people, whether they are
conscious of it or not. The setting, i.e., the world of espionage,
is not of the greatest importance in itself; it simply is one of the most
effective settings in which to display human virtues such as courage, intelligence,
integrity and resourcefulness.