Libra by Don DeLillo
Penguin Books International, New York, 1988, republished in 2006 with a new introduction Reviewed by SCOTT HAMILTON
Rob Gilchrist likes being the centre of attention, so he may not be too upset at having recently been exposed as a long-serving police mole inside New Zealand’s left-wing activist scene. Gilchrist may have lost his job, his partner, and a decades’ worth of friends, but he has at least found his way onto the front pages of the nation’s papers, and into the serious end of news bulletins.
I met Gilchrist at the beginning of 2003, during the drawn-out prelude to George Bush’s invasion of Iraq. He had come north from Christchurch to visit his then-girlfriend, and to investigate Auckland’s burgeoning anti-war movement. Presenting himself as an ex-soldier turned full-time political activist, Gilchrist turned up to one of the meetings that our anti-war group held every Wednesday night in the dilapidated Trades Hall on Great North Road. The spy earned his money that evening: our organisation was trying to organise its contribution to a march up Queen Street, and our various factions – Catholic, Islamist, radical feminist, Trotskyist, left-Trotskyist, Buddhist-Trotskyist – argued late into the night about what slogans to paint onto the placards we were constructing. (I remember irritating my Trotskyist comrades by siding with the radical feminist demand for WAR IS MENSTRUATION ENVY. I still think it’s a fine line of poetry.)
Our Christchurch guest was nonplussed by the wrangling over slogans, and by the more fruitful discussions about which suburbs of West and South Auckland to saturate with anti-war leaflets next.
After the meeting, over a lukewarm cup of tea in the Trades Hall kitchen, the khaki-clad, crew-cut Gilchrist told me that he wouldn’t be joining any leaflet run, because he was “only interested in direct action”. Gilchrist’s attitude didn’t seem entirely unreasonable – the name of our group was, after all, Direct Anti War Action – but it did seem a little impatient. The hard man from Christchurch only shook his head when I launched into a tired speech about the need to build a mass movement against the war with connections with the union movement, and about the need for strikes and blockades to stop Helen Clark supporting Bush’s Middle Eastern adventures. Gilchrist insisted that “a couple of dozen guys with military training” would be enough to curtail New Zealand’s involvement in the War of Terror.
At a barbeque thrown by our anti-war group a few days later, in the aftermath of a noisy march up Queen Street, Gilchrist reiterated his impatience with the slow, messy work of movement-building. When I told him about our plans to hold a rally at Whenuapai Airbase, to protest the sending of an Orion chopper to the Middle East, Gilchrist told me he’d rather shoot the aircraft down.
In the couple of weeks he spent in Auckland, Gilchrist earned himself a reputation as a hothead who had to be treated with some care. He already had the same reputation amongst many Christchurch activists. Some of them had words with him. But Gilchrist never moderated his behavior. For nearly six years after his jaunt to Auckland, he was an aggressive, sometimes provocative presence on demonstrations, at meetings, and on e-mail lists.
Now the sound and fury has suddenly ceased, and Gilchrist’s old acquaintances are wryly recycling right-wing jokes about ‘professional protesters’. Gilchrist appears to have fabricated almost all of the autobiography he offered to friends and comrades, including the period of military service which gave him a certain credibility when he spoke about war and proposed direct action. Old friends are venting their anger and disbelief on half a dozen discussion threads at Aotearoa Indymedia, long the watering hole of the local activist left.
Gilchrist himself seems to share some of the confusion and disbelief. In a strange mea culpa published in the Sunday Star-Times, he claimed to have been tormented by guilt during his career as a spy, and even attempted to portray himself as a would-be double agent, who sought to undermine as much as assist the police who paid his wages. In the same breath, though, Gilchrist admitted to feeling “flattered” by the attention the police gave to him, and to having become psychologically dependent upon his handlers.
Left-wing commentators have put forward a number of explanations for Gilchrist’s activities. Overestimating their own importance, some activists have credited successive governments with micromanaging an elaborate campaign of disruption against protest groups. A more realistic analysis links Gilchrist’s antics with the expansionism of the Special Investigations Group, that collection of bureaucrats and keystone cops united by a desperate desire to justify the lavish funding they have received in the years since the 9/11 attacks. Unable to locate the ‘terrorist threat’ to New Zealand they have scare-mongered about, the leaders of the SIG have been forced to present members of groups like Greenpeace and the Save Happy Valley Coalition as incipient jihadis. In recent years, at least, Rob Gilchrist seems to have earned his keep by funneling the SIG massively distorted reports about the aims and activities of protest groups, along with the odd nude photo.
Yet there is something about Gilchrist’s career as a spy that resists rational explanation. The man was never rewarded with princely sums of money, and his remarks to the Sunday Star-Times suggests he feels genuine confusion about his feelings towards the people he befriended and betrayed.
To dismiss Gilchrist as a hypocrite motivated only by greed is to credit him with too much rationality, and perhaps also with too much certainty of purpose. And how can we explain the sheer relish Gilchrist brought to his activism, the dangerous fervour that made him appear a hothead, rather than a cynical police provocateur? Perhaps the explanations of political commentators have to be set aside: perhaps we need a novelist to describe the fictional world that Rob Gilchrist constructed and inhabited. I’ve been rereading Don De Lillo’s great novel Libra, which was reissued recently as a Penguin paperback, and I think the book’s subject and themes are relevant to the Gilchrist case.
Don De Lillo had been a critically-acclaimed writer since the early ‘70s, but it was not until the publication of Libra in 1988 that he reached a large audience. The book became a bestseller, and was even offer for purchase alongside the National Enquirer and Oprah Winfrey’s autobiography at supermarket checkout counters. Libra owed its commercial success not to De Lillo’s exquisite prose, but to its study of the assassination of John F Kennedy. By describing a fictional but credible plot against the President, De Lillo appealed to the same deep-rooted fascination that made Oliver Stone’s JFK a hit at the box office a few years later.
Yet Libra was not particularly concerned to ‘explain’ the world’s most famous assassination – what fascinated De Lillo was not the elusive truth about the event, but the personalities of Lee Harvey Oswald and some of the other characters linked in one way or another to Kennedy’s fate. Unlike the massive plot that unfolds in Stone’s paranoid film, the conspiracy in Libra is small-scale and haphazard, something improvised rather meticulously assembled. A few CIA men embittered by Kennedy’s failure to give full military backing to the Bay of Pigs adventure hatch the idea of a ‘dummy’ assassination attempt on the popular President. They will make sure a few wild shots are fired in Kennedy’s direction, and plant ‘evidence’ that the shooters were working for Fidel Castro. In the ensuing furore, Kennedy will have little choice but to invade Cuba and unseat its government. The plan quickly escapes the control of its creators, so that both Lee Harvey Oswald and a group of trigger-happy Cuban exiles end up riddling Kennedy with bullets.
Much of Libra is given over to De Lillo’s portrait of Oswald. The book’s narrative moves backwards and forwards between the assassin’s lonely childhood in the Bronx, his traumatic stint in the Marines, his temporary defection to the Soviet Union, his doomed attempts to promote solidarity with communist Cuba in America’s reactionary South, and his fast friendship with the CIA men and anti-Castro Cubans he is supposed to despise. It is one of Oswald’s CIA contacts who gives him the nickname Libra, explaining that:
[Oswald] wants to use us but we will end up using him. Not through manipulation or political conversion. He believes in his heart that he’s a dedicated leftist. But he is also a Libran. He is capable of seeing the other side. He is a man who harbours contradictions…This boy is sitting on the scales, waiting to be tilted either way.
Throughout Libra, Oswald’s opinions and behavior are not so much ambiguous or mercurial as deeply contradictory. As a teenager, for instance, he studies Marx and Trotsky and fantasises about revolution, yet at the same time hopes to serve the war machine of American imperialism:
He kept the Marxist books in his room…They altered the room, charged it with meaning…The books made him part of something. Something led up to his presence in this room, in this particular skin, and something would follow. Men in small rooms. Men reading and waiting, struggling with secret and feverish ideas. Trotsky’s name was Bronstein. He would need a secret name. He would join a cell located in old buildings near the docks…In the meantime he read his brother’s Marine Corps manual, to prepare for the day when he’d enlist.
What motivates Oswald is not anything so trivial as ideological conviction, but rather the desire to become, in his own words, a ‘man of history’. Oswald feels isolated and impotent, growing up on the margins of an America that seems to organise itself around the imagery of consumer capitalism, rather than any notion of community or shared values. The Soviet Union proves to be just as isolating and disillusioning. Oswald’s own sense of self is weak, and he dreams of performing some famous, heroic act that will move him from the margins to the centre of ‘history’. Whether he is being courted by Soviet agents, CIA operatives, or activists of the far left, he feels flattered by the attention, and obliged to impress. Oswald undertakes a series of doomed attempts to make himself famous – a book, which is frustrated by his dyslexia; a flight into Russia, which leads only to the drudgery of a factory job in Minsk; and a pro-Cuba propaganda drive on the streets of New Orleans, which leads to a beating, not popular acclaim. In Libra, Oswald’s participation in the conspiracy against Kennedy is only one more attempt at self-definition. Oswald is not interested in politics because he wants to liberate himself, or anybody else – he is trying (as odd as it might sound) to create himself.
Oswald’s condition is far from unique in Libra. Many of the men associated with the plot against Kennedy have similar qualities, and similar motives – the gun-toting Cuban exiles are driven more by a love of action than political conviction, and their CIA allies identify with the anti-Castro cause emotionally, rather than politically – Bay of Pigs was their disaster, and they want to restore their pride by putting it right and toppling Castro. Even the most zealous characters in the book are motivated by emotion rather than political analysis. For Guy Bannister, the whiskey-soaked former CIA man who funnels guns and paranoia through an office in New Orleans, the communist menace is a psychological necessity:
Bannister sat in his office after dark, the old lion head sunk in thought. Some bum was urinating in the street, drilling the wall of the building. The desk lamp was on. Guy picked up his file on the Red Chinese. It was the file he saved for quiet times of day, the nightmare file, to be brooded over slowly.
Red Chinese troops are being dropped into the Baja [a peninsula in northern Mexico] by the fucking tens of thousands. Mobilising, massing, growing. Little red stars on their caps…In fact there was nothing new in the file. The same old rumours and suspicions…He wanted to believe it was true. He did believe it was true…The thing that mattered was the rapture of believing. It confirmed everything. It justified everything. Every violence and lie, every time he’d cheated on his wife…
Men floating down in white silk. He liked to think of an unmechanised mass, silent men gathering their chutes, concealed in the pale sands…The Chinese file contained the human swarm, in padded jackets, massing near the border. A fear to savour slowly.
Another sinister but seedy character who pops up in Libra is General Edwin Walker, the firebrand politician Oswald tried and failed to assassinate early in 1963. After being thrown out of the army for giving his troops John Birch Society propaganda, Walker became a roving ambassador for the most reactionary section of the American right, giving speeches across the south on the evils of desegregation, feminism, and ‘longhaired perverts’. But some observers believed Walker felt a strange attraction to his ostensible targets. De Lillo imagines the General alone late at night, slipping into a reverie:
He put out one cigarette, lit another. He got tired early now…Think of those uncombed boys in baggy jeans, sign-carriers, who shout dirty words into the night. They are soft beneath the drifting Cuban hair. Hotels. This is where the switch takes place, where he is a stranger who mind-wanders into the midst of the other side, only following what he’s always felt.
Is it completely ridiculous to suggest that Rob Gilchrist might harbour contradictions as profound as those of Oswald, Bannister, and Walker? I doubt whether Gilchrist was being coolly Machiavellian when he noisily confronted police at protests, and when he urged his comrades to commit spectacular acts of violence. He was probably sincere in his reckless brand of hyperactivism, and also sincere in his work for the police. In their different ways, both roles were surely opportunities for him to feel a measure of self-importance. Like Oswald, Bannister and Walker, Gilchrist probably had emotional needs which over-rode considerations of political consistency and personal loyalty.
It is not only Gilchrist who resembles some of the characters in Libra. It is hard to read De Lillo’s portraits of Walker and Bannister without thinking of some of the sweaty-palmed neo-McCarthyites who turn out blog posts and newspaper columns warning of the dark forces that supposedly threaten the Western world in the twenty-first century. With their political fanaticism, their almost pornographic fascination with ‘decadent liberalism’, and their voyeuristic enjoyment of other peoples’ wars, ‘fighting keyboardists’ like Mark Steyn, Christopher Hitchens, and Melanie Philips and their countless imitators in the blogosphere actually resemble the ‘Islamofascists’ they fulminate against. Like Rob Gilchrist, and like so many of the characters in Libra, they seem enmeshed in complex, partly private games from which they derive a sense of identity and purpose. They have constructed versions of reality in which they are transformed from marginal, slightly pathetic characters to ‘men (and women) of history’.
Why does De Lillo’s discussion of the role of fantasy and self-realisation in political activism resonate so loudly today, two decades after the publication of Libra? In New Zealand and in many other Western countries, politics has been steadily emptied of intellectual substance in recent decades, as both traditionally conservative and traditionally social democratic parties have embraced versions of the same neo-liberal economic and social policies. In today’s New Zealand, no sizeable political party opposes neo-liberal shibboleths like ‘free’ trade and a floating dollar. During last year’s general election campaign many observers found it difficult to detect any major differences between the programmes of the two large parties. Even when distinctive, innovative policies existed, they were largely unsupported by detailed analysis and argument. National’s idiotic proposal for a raft of new ‘standards’ tests for schoolchildren, for instance, was ‘explained’ in a one-page press release. The hairstyle and suits of National’s leader received more attention from the media, and stimulated more public discussion.
The elevation of image and rhetoric over ideological nuance and substantive debate helps produce political ‘activists’ like Rob Gilchrist, Guy Bannister, and Lee Harvey Oswald – damaged, confused people who hope to achieve a measure of self-realisation through provocative but essentially meaningless political gesturing. After helping kill Kennedy Oswald is no nearer to defining his political beliefs, but he knows that he has performed an action which will give him a permanent identity in the eyes of the world, and allow him to consider himself a ‘man of history’:
Lee Harvey Oswald was awake in his cell. It was beginning to occur to him that he he’d found his life’s work…They will give him paper and books. He will fill his cell with books about the case…People will come to see him, the lawyers first, then psychologists, historians, biographers. His life had a single clear subject now, Lee Harvey Oswald.
His notoreity may be small in comparison to Oswald’s, but I believe that Rob Gilchrist has been feeling a similar sense of twisted satisfaction over the past few weeks, as he sees his name and face in the papers and on the evening news.
Scott Hamilton is an Auckland writer and reviewer. More of Scott’s writing can be found at the Reading the Maps Blog.