Affectual Perfomance via Liminal Rites in John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Disclaimer: This post was written as part of my ENGL 366: English and Anglophone Literature requirements in March 2017.


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Femininity is portrayed in John le Carré’s novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold as that which is positively affectual. This is not to say that women are portrayed as happy-go-lucky or lackadaisical, but rather that femininity is associated with a high level of interactivity and alertness with one’s surroundings. In considering masculinity to be in binarist opposition to femininity, masculinity is thus portrayed through a negative affect. Or, perhaps more accurately, as that which is inaffectual and detached. Characters are encouraged by Control(lers) to perform the affect which is most congruent with their role. In this situation a spy or operator will be required to take on a more masculine affect, for example, so as to not be affected by the circumstances of their position. Thus while there is argument for women as the root of danger in espionage operations in Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold it is rather my argument that bungled masculine affect is a more accurate expression of Carré’s danger. I will support my argument via demonstration of the affectual performances of several characters as they relate to Alec Leamas’ movement through liminal rites of passage: preliminally Leamas is “The Operative,” liminally “The Defector,” and postliminally “The Bungled Man.”

At the outset of the novel Leamas is in Germany, overseeing a group operatives. As the operation progresses his operatives are murdered by Hans-Dieter Mundt. In seeing Karl Riemeck—his last operative—killed in attempting to cross into West Germany Leamas returns to London to be debriefed. In this preliminal stage as “The Operative” Leamas sees those who partake in espionage as those who are capable of a greater level of tolerance. As the title of the novel suggests Leamas considers the best operatives those who are able to withstand “the cold” (15). In comparing himself to Control Leamas sees Control as someone who sits in London, in an office, with his space heater and his tea with “affected detachment, […] courteous according to a formula miles removed from Leamas’ experience” (14). While there are class-based differences which Leamas feels in relation to Control, this passage notes the successful masculine affective performance of Control which denotes him as an effective espionage tool if not an operative.

This delineation between feminine and masculine affects continues through the character of Liz Gold. Liz and Leamas are introduced to one another as Leamas is “put […] on the shelf” (19) and coming to work at a library (26). When Leamas is struck with a fever prior to his punching of the grocer Liz is the one who nurtures him back to relative health, and is thus shown to be a kind and compassionate woman who cares deeply for Leamas (34-37). Additionally, as a member of the communist party (32) she presents her ideological status to be one of communal growth and nurturing. This being said her role within the party is subjected to diminishing comments by male party-members (145) which speaks to one of the many ways in which feminine performance acts as a threat to masculine performances—the affect of women is deemed a threat and is thus diminished. Leamas himself falls into this trap in describing Elvira: “Elvira was dead now, and serve her right. He remembered Liz” (82). There was a danger to Elvira’s femininity and she required diminishing for it, just as Liz requires diminishing by party members. Additionally in connecting the death of Elvira to Liz Leamas also enacts a foreshadowing to the novel’s conclusion.

In considering the true threat to espionage ops to be affective performance it makes sense to call attention to a progression of ideologies with Leamas’ handlers through his liminal rites, as it also calls attention a progression of affect: “Ashe, Kiever, Peters; that was a progression in quality, in authority, which to Leamas was axiomatic of the hierarchy of an intelligence network. It was also, he suspected, a progression in ideology. Ashe, the mercenary, Kiever the fellow traveller, and now Peters for whom the end and the means were identical” (74). Ashe denotes a feminine affect as one who Leamas considers to be a “cissy” (59) or a wholly bungled masculine performance, Kiever denotes a mixed affect of one who can switch roles, and Peters denotes a wholly masculine performance of detachment.

While Ashe succeeds in his performance of the “mercenary” and calls Leamas into his role as “The Defector,” Ashe bungles a masculine performance. As the lowest mark in the intelligence hierarchy Ashe is also the one furthest from “the cold”—the one furthest from successfully performing a detached masculine affect. Much as Liz takes care of Leamas through the preliminal rites of his physical illness prior to attacking the grocer, so too does Ashe take care of Leamas in the liminal rites of Leamas’ calling into the role of defector: “‘Now, don’t fuss,’ he said soothingly; ‘let’s just take things one at a time’ […] ‘I’ve looked after you up till now, haven’t I?'” (54, 57).

In meeting Leamas—and removing Leamas from Ashe’s care—Kiever takes Leamas to a club to further discuss Leamas’ liminal path into defectorship. At the club there is a girl in the bar who appears “pitiful” with a “spindly nakedness which is embarrassing because it is not erotic” (59). As a failed feminine performance—a performance of neither masculinity nor femininity—she is deemed to not be a threat and Leamas and Kiever talk with one another as though she is not present. This girl who stands as an analogy for that which is wholly not masculine and wholly not feminine also marks a mid-point for Leamas with his handlers.

Peters is the furthest in “the cold,” and thus the least femininely affective. Leamas comments to Peters: “[…] don’t pretend like you’ve fallen in love with me,” to which Peters “observe[s] [Leamas] dispassionately” (68). This exchange marks a point of frustration for Leamas, and the final point of his liminal rites. Up to this point he has been guided or handled by those with at least a modicum of feminine affect, and to Leamas this has been a mark of unprofessionalism and impropriety. With Peters, however, there may be connections drawn to Control: where Control is “detach[ed]” (14) Peters is “dispassionat[e]” (68). Peters is thus shown to be someone who is aware of his own impact, and an operative capable of guiding Leamas through these final liminal rites.

At the end of the novel Leamas casts all those who partake in espionage as “pansies, sadists, and drunkards” (217, my emphasis), and in doing so casts a dichotomied role upon agents: the pansy may attempt to play a masculine role, but will ultimately be bungled in his attempt/s through feminine affect. As performers both Leamas and Liz are puppetted by Control: “We happened to fit the mould” (216). Although it is not until the final moments of the novel where Leamas understands the full extent to which both he and Liz are being puppetted by Control in that Liz could never have lived, and was only being brought to the wall so that Leamas would continue to the wall. In seeing Liz shot, and unable to reconcile the role of his own masculine affect of detachment in her death, Leamas allows himself to be shot attempting to traverse the Berlin Wall. With his death (225) Leamas is thus finally brought into the postliminal role of the “Bungled Man.”


Works Cited

Le Carré, John. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. 50th Anniversary ed. New York: Penguin, 2013. Print.

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Author: B

I'm a 20-something university student with a blog.

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