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.


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.


Constructions of Self and Nation in Julian Barnes’ England, England

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

Summary of “The Invention of Cultural Traditions: The Construction and Deconstruction of Englishness and Authenticity in Julian Barnes’ England, England

In the article, “The Invention of Cultural Traditions: The Construction and Deconstruction of Englishness and Authenticity in Julian Barnes’ England, England,” Vera Nünning considers the ways in which Julian Barns’ novel England, England comments upon and deconstructs notions of English identity and Englishness. By isolating several constructions of Englishness Nünning comments not only on/to the tradition of postmodern English literature to which England, England finds cohort, but also comments upon the effect such a narrative has within cultural studies at-large. Specific to Nünning’s arguments are examples of moments where England, England juxtaposes and contrasts discourses on what construes Englishness, considers the intent and effect of the “invention of traditions” (59), and deconstructs questionable notions of historical authenticity. An example of the juxtaposition of discourses Nünning describes includes a close reading and deconstruction of “the ‘primal English Myth’ of Robin Hood” (63), and the ways in which the Merrie Men are attempted to be made more palatable to England, England tourists (and the Merrie Men’s subsequent disavowal and revolt of such a reconstruction). An example of how Englishness is constructed is found in discussion of Sir Jack’s rejection of several poll responses. An example of deconstructing questionable notions of historical authenticity is in considering the analogy between the memory of the individual and a country in the “Countries of England” jigsaw puzzle (61). The provided examples are not exhaustive, and are referenced here merely to showcase several defenses of Nünning’s thesis.


Constructions of Self and Nation in Julian Barnes’ England, England

Ideologies regarding the ways in which identities may be constructed and expressed are persistently present and colour the ways in which peoples (and by extension: characters) not only interact with one another, but also interact with and within the spaces and places to which they inhabit. In Julian Barnes’ novel England, England characters are routinely either unaware of—or unwilling to admit to—the ways in which their ideologies are similar to one another. With this in mind: in considering Vera Nünning’s article “The Invention of Cultural Traditions: The Construction and Deconstruction of Englishness and Authenticity in Julian Barnes’ England, England,” I found myself caught by a phrase: “[England, England] is self-consciously concerned with exploring both the nature of national identity and the question of how established versions of Englishness have come to be invented and upheld” (62). For the purposes of this essay I will be exploring some of the ways in which Sir Jack (and by extension: those around him who are willing to submit to his vision) adhere to biased performances in the processes of personal identity creation. Subsequently I will explore how those same methods of personal identity construction are used in the construction of Englishness within both England, England and Anglia.

Early on in Part 2 The French Intellectual states that “[…] the world of the third millennium is inevitably, is ineradicably modern, and that it is our intellectual duty to submit to that modernity, and to dismiss as sentimental and inherently fraudulent all yearnings for what is dubiously termed the ‘original.’ We must demand the replica, since the reality, the truth, the authenticity of the replica is the one we can possess, colonize, reorder, find jouissance in, and, finally, if and when we decide, it is the reality which, since it is our destiny, we may meet, confront, and destroy” (Barnes, 57). While not addressing the existence of the French Intellectual explicitly, Nünning offers the following in response to considerations of ‘the authentic’: “By calling into question the existence of anything that might be called ‘authentic’, England, England also undermines the notion of historical truth” (Nünning, 72). To consider the above two quotations with reference to the construction of history void of authenticity: Sir Jack’s constructions of self and Englishness therein are here turned to for insight. Sir Jack removes the poll responses which he finds to be either of less or no use to the concept of Englishness he believes he should provide as Quality Leisure for tourists. While this may seem to be counterintuitive to the purpose of the poll, it is in fact congruent with the purpose of the England, England project in that it renders the poll responses more palatable for the general audience. By cutting away that which may cause people to be uncomfortable in their experience there is thus a higher chance that tourists will enjoy their stay on the island, and subsequently fulfill the capitalist ideal of spending more money.

This editing continues on an individual level with Paul—Sir Jack’s official “ideas catcher”—as he records and edits a series of Sir Jack’s best ideas for posterity (Barnes, 31). This record is meant to express the personal history and identity of Sir Jack, and is thus appropriately constructed to present an incredibly specific and highly stylized version of Sir Jack, which at times necessarily bends or omits information: “One for the road, eh, Paul? That you may record” (Barnes, 35). Outside of Paul Sir Jack also constructs his expression of self through the manipulation of text provided by a Times profiler: “[Sir Jack] had deleted references to his age, appearance and estimated wealth, had the whole thing pulled together by a rewrite man, and ordered the final text to be carves on a swathe of Cornish slate” (Barnes, 31). With reference to information which is omitted: Sir Jack’s personal history (obviously) does not contain information or recordings of the trappings of his age regression fetish. This creates the situation wherein Martha and Paul are able to push Sir Jack out of his position of power with three words: “Titty. Nappy. Poo” (Barnes, 180). The danger of these words is constructed by Sir Jack himself, as he does not wish such information to be included in his “authorized version” (Nünning, 67). Upon returning to his position in firing Martha, Sir Jack’s intended legacy for the above-described personal record is to construct a place of memento mori upon the isle (Barnes, 258). This, however, backfires as visitors find the area to be uncomfortable in its reminder of death, and not conducive to Quality Leisure. Though Nünning specifically references Doctor Johnson in the following quote, it is nonetheless relevant here: “Tourists are evidently less than delighted when they are actually confronted with the real thing” (Nünning, 65). In deciding to turn Sir Jack into a character of England, England Nünning’s argument that “[…] the ‘real’ thing is not as well-preserved, readily accessible and pleasing as the copy” is supported—just as tourists come to be biased toward the perceived superior accessibility of the England, England theme park so to do they become biased toward the seemingly superior accessibility of a Sir Jack who is once again alive (Nünning, 69).

The process of national identity creation closely mirrors the creation of personal identity experienced by Sir Jack as outline above. As a once-theme park, but now-nation England, England is constructed as a process of celebrating the approximation of an Old Tradition—a tradition of colonialist, capitalist gain—and repackaging said celebration as new. In creating a sense of crisis over and within the concept of English parliament the England, England project manager, Mark, is able to situate England, England as both referential—and yet simultaneously superior—to English society: “[W]e shall probably request the revoking of certain minor items of antique planning legislation, most of which have their source in the contemptible Palace of Westminster” (Barnes, 131). Nünning comments that “[a]ny attempt at finding the essence of Englishness in the past is bound to fail […] for it proceeds from the mistaken premise that an individual’s or a nation’s identity is located at some specific point in the remote past. Rather than being encapsulated in an earlier stage, a nation’s identity is shown to be constantly changing, with the nation constructing its history as it does along” (Nünning, 72-3). Though there is no actual crisis between England, England and the palace of Westminster in creating this distinction Mark is able to situate England, England as a superior capitalist force.

By contrast to England, England Anglia is shown as rather than celebrating an approximation of the Old Tradition, to be rather celebrating an approximation of the New Tradition. In “[e]xposing the processes through which marketable versions of England’s past and present are fabricated, England, England shows, albeit in a highly exaggerated fashion, that the invention of cultural traditions serves the purpose of coming to terms with the present” (Nünning, 68). In this way Anglia is able to create an identity and expression of agrarian Englishness by which people may adhere. That being said, it must be notes that this agrarian construction is yet a construction: “Showing that neither Martha nor the committee nor the inhabitants of Anglia are able to reconstruct the ‘true’ past, Barnes’ novel alerts the reader to the idea that our models of national or individual history are nothing but an intellectual construction” (Nünning, 72). The people of Anglia construct what it means to live in Anglia, and participate in Anglian culture just as much as the people living on the island.

In considering both the constructions of England, England and Anglia in comparison some questions arise: How does England, England “thematiz[e] and explor[e] the invention of cultural traditions”? “[B]y constructing and deconstructing both ‘Englishness’ and the notion of authenticity” (Nünning, 59). As per Dr. Max: considering that there is no such thing as real or authentic, there can thus be no such thing as “bogus” (Barnes, 134-5). In considering that the “[…] actual events of English history play a minor role both in England, England, and in ‘England, England’ [t]his cavalier treatment of ‘real’ historical events is in keeping with many constructions of Englishness” (Nünning, 65). While England, England and Anglia have vastly different outcomes, their constructions of Englishness follow much the same ideology in a rejection of any notion of authenticity.

The characters of England, England work not only to create specific personal performances of identity and Englishness, but also to create nationalist concepts of personhood: “[the remarkable achievement of England, England] can be located in the ways that England, England explores, parodies, and deconstructs those ‘invented traditions known as ‘Englishness'” (Nünning, 59). In constructing such detailed performances characters not only invent personally consistent traditions of expression, but when considered together also work to build notions of Englishness in the methods of their construction. In this way “[t]he […] well-known exploration of the limits of historical knowledge […] is not central to the novel, but ancillary to Barnes’ wider concerns: It highlights the impossibility of knowing what Englishness may ever have consisted of in the past, and it deconstructs the notion that there is either a continuity between past and present Englishness, or something like essential ‘Englishness'” (Nünning, 74). Both England, England and Anglia show the ways in which disparate ideals (those of capitalism versus social agrarianism) may be manifested in a very similar way: in rejecting notions of authenticity each nation is able to construct itself only as its inhabitants see fit, and nothing more.

Works Cited

Barnes, Julian . England, England. Toronto, ON, Vintage Canada, 1998.

Nünning, Vera . “The Invention of Cultural Traditions: The Construction and Deconstruction of Englishness and Authenticity in Julian Barnes’ England, England.” Anglia: Zeitschrift für Englische Philogie, vol. 119, no. 1, 2001, pp. 58–76.