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The Perjured Saint

Cold Friday

by Whittaker Chambers
Random House, 327 pp., $5.95

This collection of posthumous fragments—notes, letters, articles—is of little importance in itself. The main themes—Communism, God, Whittaker Chambers—have already been thoroughly ruminated in the copious pages of Witness, and Cold Friday offers us no new revelations of any great importance about any of them. What the book does, however, is to raise again the interesting question of the liar as saint: the question of why this veteran liar should have become a saint in the eyes of so many intelligent people who dislike lies, or say they do. That is the question I propose to discuss.

In a piece of Cold Friday called “The Third Rome,” Chambers, who loved to educate his readers, especially about Russia, imparts some information about the Russian feeling for Constantinople:

On that strange horizon, the Russian eye sees, flaring in imagination, the domes and minarets of the Second Rome—Byzantium (Constantinope, now Istanbul), by which Christendom and culture reached the steppes. It is a legendary vision, and the Russian does not call it Byzantium. He has his own special word for it: Tsargrad—the Imperial City, city of the Tsar (Tsar, the Russian form of Caesar). The depth of the special Russian feeling for Byzantium is perhaps suggested by the fact that Tsargrad alone, or almost alone, among the names of foreign cities is declined through all nine of the inflections of the Russian noun; is treated as a Russian word.

One can imagine the confrontation before the House Committee:

Mr. Nixon: Mr. Chambers, do you know the Russian noun?

Mr. Chambers: I do.

Mr. Nixon: How many inflections does it have?

Mr. Chambers: Nine.

Mr. Mundt: Thank you, Mr. Chambers, for that frank testimony, very different from some of the witnesses we have had here today.

Mr. Nixon: Mr. Noun, does Mr. Chambers know you?

Russian Noun: It depends what mean by “know.”

Mr. Nixon: That’s not a very sattory answer. How many inflection you have?

Russian Noun: Six—you could call it seven if you include the archaic vocative

Mr. Stripling: Make up your mind. is it? Six or Seven?

Russian Noun: It depends whether count the vocative. You see…

Mr. Mundt: We’re wasting our I’ve had enough of these evasions. you a relative called Tsargrad?

Russian Noun: Yes—as a matter of he’s considered rather unusual in our family—he’s declined fully in both components. Rather jolly, really.

Mr. Nixon: You say Mr. Chambers doesn’t know you. Yet he has already—quite spontaneously—testified to this Committee about this little detail, which could hardly be known to someone not on intimate terms with your family. How do you account for that, Mr. Noun?

Russian Noun: Well, you see, I didn’t exactly say he didn’t know me. We have met on a couple of occasions…

Mr. Mundi: Now we’re beginning to get somewhere. Can you still not remember how many inflections you have?

The Committee would undoubtedly have concluded that Chambers had told the truth, and that the Russian noun had nine inflections.

It would remain the fact, universally recognized by grammarians, that the Russian noun has six or (counting the fossil vocative) seven inflections: not nine.

Most didactic mortals find it painful to have discrepancies of this kind brought to their attention. Chambers, for whom this was a frequent experience, never seemed abashed. When one of his stories, in the Hiss Case—an alleged trip with the Hisses to New Hampshire—broke down for lack of confirmatory evidence (hotel guest-list signatures) which should have been there if the story had been true, Chambers, in Witness, shrugged the matter off in masterly style. “Obviously,” he wrote, “if I had been lying, I would have taken care to contrive a better story, since there was no need to invent any story at all.”

It would be hard to think of a better all-purpose stretcher for carting away broken-down lies, than “obviously if I had been lying I would have taken care to contrive a better story.” Titus Oates could have used that. As for the “no need to invent any story at all.” that was a lie in itself. What Chambers needed—very badly at the time in question, which was well “pre-pumpkin”—was evidence to support his story of a very close association with Hiss. The New Hampshire trip would have been useful as evidence if it had proved “a better story.”

The “nine inflections of the Russian noun” are of course a mistake, not a lie, but the mistake is, I think a revealing one because—like the New Hampshire story—there was a “need,” a motive, for it. In this case—and, I suspect, often though not always elsewhere in Chambers’s writings and testimony—the pressure to distort is a rhetorical pressure. “All nine of the inflections of the Russian noun” gives just the reverberation Chambers needed at this point in his boomy incantation. “Nine” is good, both as sound and number. As sound it gives a solemn chime, sonorous corroboration of all those domes and minarets. As number it is mystic and appropriately large; ordinary languages do not have as many as nine inflections of the noun; the number, in its solemn excess, corresponds to the vastness of the Russian land, the ceremonious endurance of the Russian soul (“You too can write like Whittaker Chambers”). “All nine inflections of the Russian noun” is, in its context and to suckers for this kind of thing, impressive, even awesome. (“Fair makes your flesh creep, don’t it? Shows you what we’re up against!”) Six, on the other hand, will hardly do. “Six,” as sound, is miserable, thin, and unhelpful; as number it is inadequate, too much like other languages, fails to evoke Slavonic mystery. As for “six” or (if you count the archaic vocative) “seven” that is altogether out of the question; if one were to burden oneself to that degree with tedious accuracy one would have to give up rhetoric altogether.

So Whittaker Chambers looked out and saw, flaring in imagination, a legendary vision: the Nine Inflections of the Russian Noun.

On points of grammar it is always possible to get the facts; on historical episodes this is often less easy, and it was to history rather than to grammar that Chambers’s imagination usually drew him. He tells us in this same section—“The Third Rome”—which contained the Russian lesson, a blood-curdling story about Russian spies. He heard this story from a man whom he knew as “Herbert” or “Otto” or “Karl” and who was “in fact the tank commander of the Leningrad military district”; he does not explain why this man was spinning yarns in New York instead of commanding tanks around Leningrad; perhaps he was on a reconnaissance. On one of the two “conversations of length” he had with this person—one for each pseudonym-and-a-half—he learned how Russian spies in Paris killed an old White Russian General, took the body to the Russian Embassy, dismembered it there, and dispatched “his head and hands,” per diplomatic bag to the Kremlin, as proof that the old party had indeed passed away. I happened to have a thermometer in my mouth when I was reading this affecting narrative, and I noted that the point where my blood ran coldest was where I realized the dread implications, in the context, of the words “and hands.” The object of the unusually composed despatch was to convince the Kremlin that the general (whose name appropriately enough was Kutepov) was well and truly dead. In most Western diplomatic bags, in such circumstances, it is usually considered enough (as far as my own experience goes) to include the head; the effete unprofessional minds that rule our chancelleries are then apt to jump to the conclusion that the man concerned is dead. But the cold and crafty minds which are planning our destruction in the Kremlin are not satisfied with literally prima facie evidence. “This is his head all right,” they are to be thought of as saying, “but how do we know he is not still typing counter-revolutionary manifestos? The hands too, please. Both of them.” (Professor William Empson, with whom I have discussed this question, thinks the inclusion of the hands a sensible routine precaution, but points out that ambiguities would arise should the face not correspond to the fingerprints or should the hands not be a true pair.)

One may think that those who believe Chambers’s gory tale show themselves considerably less exigent, in the matter of evidence, than the Kremlin is supposed to have been on this picturesque occasion.

We have to remind ourselves at this point that Chambers has to be taken seriously—very seriously indeed. Largely on his testimony a respected public figure, who denied and still denies his charges, was sentenced to several years in prison—for, of all things, perjury. Well-known writers have taken Chambers at his own valuation; that is to say as a saint, who heard voices like Joan of Arc and was crucified like Christ. (I shall concede the validity of the latter comparison if I am present for his resurrection; in matters of evidence I incline to a Kremlin-like caution.) Miss Rebecca West sees in him “a Christian mystic of the pantheist school, a spiritual descendent of Eckhard and Boehme and Angelus Silesius. Mr. Arthur Koestler (according to the jacket of Cold Friday) thinks his act of “moral suicide” in the Hiss case was an atonement for the guilt of our generation. His former employers at Time see him as the publican in the parable, with Hiss cast of course for the pharisee; an analogy which would be a mite stronger if the publican had been smart enough to get the pharisee put in clink, and to write a best-seller about how he did it. In any case all concerned, beginning with Chambers, have spread a thick fog of religiosity over his person and actions.

Everything hinges on our judgment of the nature of Chambers’s “witness.” What was the act of “moral suicide” remarked by Koestler? Surely not Chambers’s admission of his own past career as a traitor and spy. The admission (as distinct from the career) is generally regarded as creditable; and a public confession, if true, cannot possibly be thought of as “moral suicide.” Nor can his denunciation of his “friend”—if true, and patriotically motivated, as he claimed—be moral suicide. If he made his disclosures to save his country and the world from the clutches of “absolute evil”—which is what he says he thought communism was—then his act of denunciation, painful though it is supposed to have been, would have been clearly justified, brave and virtuous; no question of suicide.

Matters, of course, were not as clear as that, and that is why God has to be called in, always a bad sign. The fact has to be accounted for, that this splendid and useful fellow Chambers indubitably and inescapably committed perjury. His most meritorious action in the eyes of his admirers was the production of the Baltimore Documents, with the charge that Hiss had given them to him: a charge of espionage. But Chambers had, up till then consistently denied, and denied under oath, that he and Hiss had been engaged in espionage. So, if he was not lying when he produced the documents, he must have been lying earlier. “But,” to adapt a phrase of the late Stalin’s, “we do not want him to have been lying when he produced the documents. No, comrades, we do not want that.” So he was lying earlier, perjuring himself earlier. No way out of it; the most sympathetic and anti-communist people, those who could at worst suspend judgment about other parts of his testimony, which looked on the bare evidence remarkably like perjury, had to insist that he did in fact commit perjury on the occasions when he swore Hiss had not been involved in espionage.

Pity. How could this just man swear falsely? The answer suggested is: pity. The biggest set-piece in Witness asks us to believe that Chambers’s affection for Hiss was so compounded that, while he could bear to accuse his friend of traitorous conspiracy and subversion—“messing up policy,” to help Joe Stalin and scupper Uncle Sam—he just could not bring himself to accuse him of espionage, although that is what Hiss had really been at. Chambers felt so badly about this that when he was about to make the charge—with maximum publicity, and the pumpkin in the wings—he tried, he says, to commit suicide (like Scobie, the classic “pity-and-guilt” man), with the aid of a strange and inefficient contraption which he describes in his book. He survived to ram his new charge home and put Hiss in jail.

There are those who find this story convincing and moving; these are good ouls and will inherit the kingdom of Heaven; on earth they are a little lacking, intellectually speaking, and in point of information. Well-informed anti-communist intellectuals, people like Miss West, who are not mugs and do not want to be taken for mugs, cannot been to fall for this kind of thing, or much of Chambers’s testimony. Miss West, in her Atlantic Monthly review (June, 1952) refers, with cautious regret, to “the encouragement he gave is non-Communist opponents to believe that he was a liar.” He gave this encouragement in the most effective possible way: to wit, by telling lies. Apart from the lie which his admirers have to admit and even insist on—“no espionage”—there are many contradictions in his testimony, for which by far the simplest and most probable explanation is that he was lying. Perhaps the most flagrant example is that of his original charge against Hiss’s brother, Donald Hiss, whom he said he knew as a Communist and from whom he said he collected communist dues. Donald Hiss flatly denied that he had ever met Chambers, and no attempt at all was made to prove that he had; the thing was simply dropped. In his book Chambers, while not withdrawing the charge, coolly remarks that Donald Hiss’s answers to the charge were forthright” and reflected badly on—Alger Hiss, who by comparison had seemed to hedge. Yet, if Donald Hiss was telling the truth—as seems to be recognized in the adjective “forthright” as well as in the dropping of the charge—it was Chambers who had been guilty of a most odious lie: a lie, also, by no means explicable by the excessively merciful disposition, brought in to account for the admitted act of perjury. About the Donald Hiss charges Lord Jowitt has written, in measured words;

This, at any rate, seems clear, and must leave a most damaging impression of the truth of Chambers’ evidence as a whole: that the allegations were demonstrated, so far as human testimony can demonstrate, to be entirely without foundation. There was, as it seems to me, no scope for explaining away the discrepancies as mere differences of recollection.

Similarly when Chambers made the charge—subsequently demonstrated to be altogether false—that Alger Hiss had swindled his step-son Timothy for the benefit of the Communist Party, it can hardly be contended that this lie—again it cannot be just a legitimate mistake—is accounted for by his overflowing affection for his dear old friend.

Chambers testified that Thayer Hobson (the boy’s father) was paying for his education, but the Hisses had told him, Chambers, that “they were diverting a large part of the money to the Communist party…and they took him out of a more expensive school and put him in a less expensive school for that purpose.” This was actually the reverse of the truth. Thayer Hobson has recalled that “When Timothy was transferred to a far more expensive school, he protested…and the Hisses paid the additional money out of their own pockets.” (Fred Cook, The Unfinished Story of Alger Hiss.) “The accuser,” says Mr. Cook, “was the same man who was later to justify his own radical shifts of testimony by picturing himself as nobly protecting a former friend.”

If we are to love and admire this particular anti-communist hero, divine aid is urgently necessary, and down it comes. “This is an act,” says Miss West, speaking of the admitted perjury, “which is explicable only by reference to the egotism of the mystic. In the light of that clue it is quite comprehensible. Without that clue, it is troubling and enigmatic.” Mysticism also covers, presumably, other “troubling and enigmatic” business, like the false charge against Donald Hiss, and the false charge about Hiss’s step-son. It is a serviceable attribute, even in this world’s affairs. In the Hiss case the non-mystic was indicted for perjury, found guilty, and sent to jail. The mystic, admittedly guilty of the same offense, was never even indicted. He was secure in the Cloud of Unknowing, safe in the bosom of the God of Dostoevsky and Graham Greene—a God who bears a marked resemblance to the Father of Lies.

Much in the Hiss case remains puzzling, and anyone who says a word against Chambers is likely to be hit on the head with that Woodstock. The fact remains that it was Chambers’s testimony, plus the documents accepted as typed on the Woodstock, that convicted Hiss—the documents alone, whatever we may think of them, would not have sufficed. Yet it is clear to any rational person—exception made of temporary mystics like Miss West—that Chambers was an inveterate liar. He was, however, a successful one and in a patriotic cause, and that is why he is admired. “Your unlucky forgery,” wrote Charles Maurras about Colonel Henry—exposed as the framer of Dreyfus—“will be acclaimed as one of your finest deeds of war.” “Your lucky perjuries,” an American Maurras might aptly say of Chambers, “were your most effective prose.” All those who, while considering Communism “absolute evil,” also believe in fighting it with its own weapons, are forced to concur. Chambers himself was one of these.

When Richard Pigott—the key witness in the “Parnellism and Crime” case of the ‘Eighties—was first exposed as having committed perjury and forgery, the judge asked him incredulously whether he thought certain of his admitted acts compatible with the behavior of an honorable man? He replied: “No my lord; I have never claimed to be an honorable man.”

The response has a certain bleak dignity, compared with the current style. In our day, a successor to Pigott replies: “I am something more than a mere ‘honorable man,’ my lord. I am a saint and mystic, engaged in a suicidal struggle against Absolute Evil. If you seem to trip me up in an odd lie here and there it is either because of some extreme, and pertinent, virtue of mine (like mercy) or because, at the time I was on the stand, I was in communion with God and didn’t pay attention to what I was saying.” And that, in the view of some respected commentators, would be the “clue” to the “troubling and enigmatic” business of perjury.

I prefer Pigott.

Letters

Russian Grammar January 28, 1965

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