I Led Two or Three Lives

John Haber
in New York City

Miranda Carter: Anthony Blunt: His Lives

Motive-less Malignancy. Samuel Taylor Coleridge's phrase, jotted casually in the margins of his Shakespeare, dares one to explain Iago—or to explain away his terror. I have only one problem: Iago himself comes out talking. He offers up one motive after another for his betrayals, starting with the play's opening lines.

They speak of his public role, in Othello's service. They boast of private lusts and envy. Do they fly by too quickly? Do they ever add up? As Benjamin Saunders puts it, "Shakespeare found himself violating one of the most basic expectations of his idiom: the dramatic convention that the soliloquy is always reliable, that it offers the truth of the character's motivations." Or did he? Nicolas Poussin's Achilles and Daughters of Lycomede (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1656)

In the movies, or in politics, one can settle for a tale of good and evil to make Coleridge proud. In real life, one is hard pressed to keep it all straight, much less to see through the lies and to reconcile the public and private truths. The puzzle shows no sign of going away, too, in the lives of Anthony Blunt.

"A positive self-effacement"

Blunt offers a chilly mystery. The "fourth man" in the Cambridge spy ring, he provoked England by his impenetrable surface. Worse, that surface combined the silence of a traitor, the reticence of a gay male in a homophobic culture, and the veneer of a privileged insider. Margaret Thatcher did the outing under pressure from the press. I bet she relished, however, how it fed her politics and her prejudices.

I myself could hardly have guessed at a secret life. Blunt's writings taught me Artistic Theory in Italy. As a frequent if stuffy critic, he proved that one can move between contemporary art and art history. As curator of the King's pictures and director of London's Courtauld Institute, home of my favorite Edouard Manet, he built up a serious center for teaching and research, while also helping to bring great art historians out of Nazi Germany. Sir Anthony Blunt, as the title page proclaimed, introduced me to Nicolas Poussin and his Holy Families. In fact, he turned Poussin's reputation around, with his image of the French artist as a philosopher-painter—as a Stoic like himself.

Blunt has a way of pulling one up short, as if to live up to his name. Those other spies—Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, and Guy Burgess—stand easily for greed and debauchery. Blunt had another life entirely, as the magisterial art historian and advisor to the Queen. While others were defecting to Moscow, he asked his Soviet contacts, scornfully, how they could then guarantee access to the Louvre. He kept high standards for himself as well as others, but what could they have been, and what they hide?

"Even to his friends," notes Miranda Carter in her superb biography, "he was an enigma." And for most people, an enigma is but one step away from evil. One imagines it as a surface with nothing at all behind—The Mask of Treachery, as one potboiler had it. Toss in homosexuality or the British class system, and one has it made. "Lies, Spies, Buggery, and Betrayal" ran headlines. "After his exposure," Carter adds, "Blunt became a kind of screen on which fiction and fantasy were projected."

So which is it? Does a hidden private life explain it all—or explain it all away? Or must one settle for a total disconnect, a mask of secrecy that could never crack, because the very divide lay central to his personality? Carter often suggests as much. In reviewing William Coldstream, the English artist, she writes, Blunt described himself:

"a holding back, a positive self-effacement, a refusal to impose himself on his work." . . . Those exact qualities were becoming, and would be, the hallmark of Blunt's own work, his writing, and ultimately his identity.

At the same time, Carter supplies many motives for both the historian and the spy. With the aid of growing cracks in the British and Russian archives, she allows one to draw connections between a public and a private life. Although I lack the expertise to evaluate her sources, I take encouragement from her obvious skepticism. She firmly rejects, for example, accusations that Blunt sent men to their death. She will not settle for a cardboard villain or a simple answer. As her subtitle hints, she has a tale of at least two lives—and perhaps no end to their number.

Making friends

Blunt achieved lasting fame for his lack of penitence and his worst equivocations. In Carter's words:

When he tried to explain his spying in 1979, Blunt invoked as an explanation E. M. Forster's statement that, if he had ever to choose between betraying his friend and his country, he hoped he would have the guts to betray his country.

But which friends, especially in a nation at war? Blunt, it turns out, began taking sides as a child.

Son of a poor churchman, he spent a happy childhood in Paris, where he first fell in love with French art. "The Blunts were pious, austere, fiercely teetotal," Carter observes, and Blunt never got over their sense of right and wrong—or his hatred of their values. In his politics as in his claims for Poussin's Stoicism, he was to have no room for the authority of religion. He also ended up, years later, going through half a bottle of whiskey a day.

Back in England, boarding school alienated and terrified him. "It was a perfectly bestial place," he remembered, with regular beatings. "It is quite likely," Carter writes," that Blunt did not have a hot bath for five years; in adulthood he would have two a day." He found his sexual orientation in those years—and Poussin, who happens to paint more jars for ceremonial cleanings than any artist I know. Blunt also had his first encounters with modern art and Louis MacNeice, the budding poet who became his fast friend. He fell in as well with John Betjeman's aptly titled magazine, The Heretick.

University did little more to welcome an unathletic, introspective young man into proper respect for his British heritage. It did not even offer art history as an independent field of study, so the cosmopolitan idealist began with mathematics before moving to languages. Meanwhile he made it into the Bloomsbury circle. It helped him develop his intellect and his connections, along with his leftism, his idealism, and his belief in art.

Further studies exposed him to German art history, with its more rigorous methodology. He turned against Clive Bell's abstract notion of significant form, and he grew more receptive to social and historical causes. He also had a chance to experience some of the causes first hand. A trip to Berlin made clear what happened to homosexuals and to modern art under the Nazis—as if they did not have enough trouble in England. For gay or straight, however, for moderns or old-school alike, social causes and an ideology of history were everywhere.

For a generation, Marxism summed up the anger of workers at home and the fight against Fascism abroad. When England abandoned Spain, it seemed that the line was drawn once and for all. "We felt we were the only people who took the threat of Fascism seriously," Blunt explained. "The time of not taking sides was past." Still, he had his priorities, and they may have insulated him from disillusionment with Stalinism after the Spanish Civil War. Unlike George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway, Blunt passed his jaunt to Madrid largely in the Prado.

"Where are his eyes?"

One should see a pattern already, I hope: one cannot keep Blunt's lives apart after all. The many causes that drew him to Communism immersed him in art as well. They also shaped a vision of art that gives equal weight to the theorist and the connoisseur—at the expense of mere emotions.

"Picasso's heart," Blunt had complained, "is in the right place. But the question remains: Where is his brain? and where are his eyes?" Thinking against the current and seeing—he could almost be punning on the word spy.

Brain and eye sound fine, but spying finally came about thanks to a mere person. If a life in art had started to make sense, "into this idyll crashed Guy Burgess." As Carter has it, "He was Blunt's antithesis—hot, wild, emotional—and in a more insistent way than MacNeice had he dragged Blunt from burying himself entirely in his work." First Blunt worked as a recruiter, his circle very possibly helping the Soviets win at Kursk, which Carter calls one of the war's turning points. In time, he was passing information himself.

While a multitude of motives forged connections between his lives, they also taught him to keep his lives apart. I think of the consistent rationalism he so admired. It had to subordinate his own desires, too. "Blunt was far from unaware," Carter puts it, "that there was a gulf between what he thought he should think and what his personal preferences were."

He came to his books, as to spying, as to an obligation. Ever the rationalist, he made his career on artistic theory. In much the same way, his Soviet recruiter observed that "Communism for him is based on theory," much as it was for early Soviet photography.

He adopted a mask as icy as Iago's was hot. With Guernica and its tale of good and evil, Blunt at last came around to Pablo Picasso. Still, one student recalls, "It gave me the chills. The lecture was brilliant but the iciness of the delivery frightened me." The institute director buried himself in his public role. "He lived," Carter observes, "only for his art and for the company of a very restricted circle of friends who really understood it."

Even the quote from Forster, so seemingly evasive, makes perfect sense in the context of public and private lives. For gays, Carter insists, "friends" demanded an unbreachable surface:

One should remember, however, that for Blunt's generation of homosexual men, as for George Tooker in America, friends in innumerable ways provided a support network in a hostile world, and defended the individual against the state. They kept one's secrets. Against the vitality of love, of friendship, of honesty . . . was opposed the dead hand of the state.

As a gay Etonian puts it, "They take to their careers as fugitives take to the hills."

Shining armor and a dress

Of the making of many connections there is no end. People want to believe otherwise. It gives comfort to think of motiveless malignancy, of sheer evil. The demon absolves killer and victim alike of reasons. From bin Laden or the Middle East to the inner city, an unspeakable Other bears responsibility.

Alternatively, one can find another kind of comfort, the comfort of explaining it all away, the nice coherence of personal identity. The choice leaves nothing in between. Martin Heidegger backed the Nazis, and so one has no respect for him as a philosopher. Or philosophy is above it all, and interpretation must stop before it gets out of hand. Dead white males created Modernism as a sexist, capitalist institution. Or art transcends any thought of the personal and the political.

Criticism can do better, and so, at her best, does Carter's eloquent biography. There is no way to keep personal identity, ideas, and actions apart—or to align them once and for all. Ironically, that is a lesson of Marxism. Ironically, too, however, Carter may show the connections, but in her commentary she stresses Blunt's reserve. Conversely, she personalizes the issues herself. I found her weakest when it comes to the topic I most wanted to understand, Blunt's views on art. When it comes to Poussin, she focuses on art-world rivalries.

Art and theory do connect to life, just as they describe and represent it. They also come to life as an addition, a disruptive complication. Jacques Derrida coined the term supplement for that extra reflection that keeps life from closing into a tidy whole. Iago never makes sense, and the gap opens up a dark drama at the heart of Othello. In Blunt's life, art, status, sexuality, and emotions supplemented one another all too well. As a last irony, they return me to Poussin.

On more than one occasion, the artist paints The Finding of Achilles, an example of Poussin's "Arcadian Visions" in landscape. One sees the warrior hiding in women's garments, to avoid his prophesied death in battle. However, true to his nature, he heads straight (in more ways than one) for armor that Odysseus has brought to trick him. The women, meanwhile, go for jewelry. A real man, the lesson runs, stands out. Instinct and action line up, identity asserts itself, hierarchies resume their sway, and the future comes to be.

Yet Achilles has fallen for appearance, an adolescent on hormones, fixated on shining armor and shiny weapons. Blunt's Stoic would know better, but my story cannot end there either. The rationalist, Odysseus, is but one slimy trickster deceiving another. Achilles, dressed in drag as he unsheathes in a slow, pleasurable stroke his long sword, would fit rather well in a certain British university circle. Poussin himself, with the Baroque's lushest blues and golden yellows sets out the tricks. Anthony Blunt was to use up his life in resisting.

BACK to John's arts home page


Miranda Carter's Anthony Blunt: His Lives was published in 2001 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. The Chronicle of Higher Education for August 2, 2002, asked Benjamin Saunders and five other scholars for a "short list"—each one's favorite character in Shakespeare.


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