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Okay.  The title is only there because I love the word–and I can’t stop myself from thinking of it as an adjective, although the one place I know where it’s used (in McBeth’s speech after he’s killed Duncan), it’s used as a verb.

Incarnadine.  When you incarnadine something, you make it read.

But it’s Sunday of a long week-end, and I have nothing in particular to do, and nowhwere to go, and I’ve got Hildegarde herself playing in the background, in the guise of Anonymous 4’s album Origin of Fire.

I’ve also got a book, and it’s the book I want to make some notes about.  I’ve only started reading it, so the final verdict will have to wait.  But it’s an interesting exercise.

The book is Witness, by Whitaker Chambers. 

For those of you who are too young to remember this sort of thing, Chambers was the chief witness against a US State Department man named Alger Hiss, first in a government investigation of Hiss’s possible membership in the Communist Party and later in a criminal case against Hiss for perjury for lying under oath during that investigation.

For most of the time I was growing up–I think the Hiss case was 1954–it was a matter of settled wisdom that Hiss was never a spy even if he had been a Communist, that Chambers was mentally ill, that the perjury conviction was the best the government could do during a red scare brought on by Sen Joseph McCarthy.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, release of KGB and other documents from Russia and release of the decryption of the Verona memoes by the US made it abundantly clear that Hiss had indeed been a spy, and a rather active and destructive one. 

And memoirs of other members of the Communist Party USA and of members of the KGB and GPU that the stories ex-Comminists were telling in the Fifties about the operations of the Communist Party USA and of Russian agents in the US were–no matter how fantastic they sounded at the time–also true.

So I went into the reading of this book knowing that the things people said about it when they were published–that it was the obvious fabrication of a feverish brain with distinct tendencies to histrionics and paranoia, for instance–were not true.

The one thing I did not question, however, is that the book was an “autobiography” of Chambers.

It isn’t.  Not exactly.

What it most is is a conversion narrative, because Chambers is very probably the originator of the idea that Communism is a form of religion, and that commitments to it are religious commitments. 

And because it is that, it is a far more interesting book than I ever expected it to be.

It’s one of the ones, too, that has been sitting around on my TBR pile for years, gathering dust and being ignored for any number of other books that were not nearly so well written.

And it’s also not a small thing that the book is ferociously well written. 

And, in an odd way, it is a kind of companion to the article I posted a couple of days ago.

But I want to read more, and then I’ll report.

I will say that I find it astonishing that this book is not on more of those conservative reading lists I see up everywhere.

Why promote lightweights like Dinesh what’s his name when this is here?

Or, for that matter, when the writer of that article is here?

Never mind.

Tea and Hildegarde.

More later.

Written by janeh

September 5th, 2010 at 9:03 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'Incarnadine'

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  1. OK, you shocked me. Twice.
    I had no idea your youthful circle was so limited as only to include the leftist gullible. We were born about a year apart, and Hiss’s innocence was never “settled wisdom” anywhere else. The physical evidence alone was overwhelming.
    (Quick rehash: Chambers kept the last film he was to courier to the Soviets as a “life preserver.” Faced with slander charges from Hiss, he produced it–film made by Kodak in a limited window precisely when Chambers said he quit. The film preserved a mass of documents all of which had passed in or near Hiss’s desk, and many of which still showed Hiss’s initials. There were typed summaries of other classified information, and the typeface defects exactly matched Priscilla Hiss’s contemporary college applications. In the Hiss case, the Soviet archives and Venona were an anticlimax.)

    And Bill Buckley used to praise WITNESS (and Chambers)to the stars–regularly mentioning it as a great Conservative book. It was Chambers at NATIONAL REVIEW who wrote the critical articles on Ayn Rand, pointing out that whatever libertarianism might be, it was not conservatism.


    5 Sep 10 at 9:28 am

  2. Well, let me sort of unshock you a bit, or maybe shock you more.

    By “settled wisdom,” I meant in the schools. And that shouldn’t come as a surprise to you.

    And for what it’s worth, my father always thought Hiss was guilty.

    But the big shock may be this–I wasn’t always political in any sense of the word.

    I read National Review because Buckley used “big words,” something I was always gettting hammered for by other kids. I doubt if I “got” much of the politics.

    Even my attraction to Rand was mostly an attraction to attitude–to the ambition for high achievement, to the don’t dare get in my way kind of thing, and the fact that she (and the Beach Boys, oddly enough) “got” the fact that adolescent girls often really hated other girls if they were at all ambitious.

    But if you were paying no particular attention to politics in those years, if you’d never read much of anything about the Hiss case, what was floating in the air was that Hiss was stupid to have lied about once being a Party member but that he hadn’t actually been a spy.

    And the first time I remember the general atmosphere going the other way was with the fall of the Berlin wall and the release of the KGB documents.


    5 Sep 10 at 9:38 am

  3. Better. Yes It’s exactly what I’d expect from your schools. Reality simply has no bearing. It was your father I was thinking most of. (We do seem to breathe different air, by the way.)

    And Hiss was indeed a classic Ivy League dunderhead. By the time Chambers went public, the statute of limitations for peacetime espionage had expired. If he had shrugged and gone about his business–as everyone else Chambers named did–he couldn’t have been touched. Instead Hiss set up a situation in which someone was bound to go to prison. No matter that Chambers had overwhelming evidence, Hiss seemed unable to grasp that a jury might convict a Harvard man.


    5 Sep 10 at 11:51 am

  4. Well, to be clear again.

    I never learned a single thing about the Hiss case in any school I ever went to. Our American History courses tended to end at WWII in high school, and I never too any American History or American politics courses in college.

    I have seen textbooks from the eighties, though, and guilty of perjury was what they said.

    It’s also what all the people around me said, and what was in the movies and on television.

    It’s not an area I’ve ever been all that interested in, and not something I actually looked into–so I was probably picking up the same thing most people who were uninterested were–which means most people.


    5 Sep 10 at 2:06 pm

  5. As I said, breathing different air.


    5 Sep 10 at 2:35 pm

  6. I don’t think all that stuff made much of an impression on me – I’m perhaps slightly younger and was in a different country. The idea of a committee to determine whether Americans were ‘unamerican’ was somewhat mind-boggling even to me at the time, and I did eventually hear the idea that all that lot – Hiss, the Rosengbergs – were innocent.

    I think it’s blindingly obvious that many causes or ideas can function in people’s lives in much the same way that religion can. Some religions even warn against the possibility of worshipping false idols, which doesn’t always mean Baal and equivalent.

    It really, really offends some people if you say that their approach to politics or environmentalism or work or family resembles many people’s approach to religion – there’s the acceptance of the same set of beliefs as the others in their group or political party or family or workplace; an agreed-upon version of history (political or personal); the sacrifice of time and money to the betterment of the group or cause; the exclusion or marginalization or re-education of those who don’t fall into line….

    Nope. Can’t be possible. Because MY beliefs are right, and therefore can’t possibly be reinforced and transmitted in ways similar to those used by the dreaded religions.


    5 Sep 10 at 4:22 pm

  7. I have a vague recollection or reading a book about the USSR written by a US newspaper correspondent,

    He described a meeting of the Soviet Party Congress which started wit ha amass chorus singing party songs followed by various ceremonies. He said it seemed like a religious ceremony.


    6 Sep 10 at 6:17 am

  8. Sounds like Hedrick Smith’s “The Russians”. He was, IIRC, the NYT’s Moscow bureau chief back in the 70s or thereabouts. I found it fascinating when I read it back in the 80s.


    6 Sep 10 at 8:12 am

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