Sunday, July 20, 2014

"Alone...isolated and proscribed"

In "Buchan's Power House" Philip Jenkins writes about one of my favorite authors. Jenkins thinks his heroes "boring upper class twits from a snobbish clubland England that was, happily, long-dead. And oh my, how badly most of them have dated, in language above all, not to mention in matters of gender, class and race." I think of them merely as representing a time and place with prejudices then common. In any event I enjoy the books and they are among the thrillers I re-read. Jenkins considers Power House (1916) which, as he says, is available online, a "strange and truly unsettling novella, The Power-House, can still force you to rethink the nature of the world you inhabit." Buchan's protagonist in this book is Edward Leithen, barrister and sportsman, who would appear in several later novels:
At first sight, The Power-House looks like familiar territory. Leithen discovers the evil plotting of Andrew Lumley, a wealthy Englishman who leads an international anarchist organization called the Power-House.... Lumley hopes and plans to destroy Western civilization. ....

Lumley believes that he can achieve his goal easily enough, because civilization is far weaker than anyone imagines. It will yield to pressure properly applied. As he asks,
“Did you ever reflect, Mr Leithen, how precarious is the tenure of the civilization we boast about?”

“I should have thought it fairly substantial,” I said, “and the foundations grow daily firmer.”

He laughed. “That is the lawyer’s view, but, believe me, you are wrong. Reflect, and you will find that the foundations are sand. You think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilization from barbarism. I tell you the division is a thread, a sheet of glass. A touch here, a push there, and you bring back the reign of Saturn.”
.... As Leithen pursues the Power-House, he is walking a respectable central London street, where everyone observes the proprieties. Stern but fatherly police officers stand ready to discipline the criminal, or to remonstrate with the ill-mannered. Nothing can go wrong.

And gradually he realizes that anyone and everyone in the crowd might be an agent of the Power-House. Everyone is against him. Everyone is an anarchist:
I was alone in that crowd, isolated and proscribed, and there was no help save in my own wits. If I spoke to a policeman he would think me drunk or mad, and yet I was on the edge of being made the victim of a far subtler crime than fell within the purview of the Metropolitan force.

Now I saw how thin is the protection of civilization. An accident and a bogus ambulance — a false charge and a bogus arrest — there were a dozen ways of spiriting me out of this gay, bustling world….

Here there were fewer people, and several queer things began to happen. A little group of workmen with their tools were standing by the kerb, and they suddenly moved towards me. A pavement artist, who looked like a cripple, scrambled to his feet and moved in the same direction. There was a policeman at the corner, and I saw a well-dressed man go up to him, say something and nod in my direction, and the policeman too began to move towards me.

I did not await them. I took to my heels and ran for my life down Grosvenor Place.
That tearing noise you hear is the rending of the fabric of all known reality. This is one of the great literary descriptions of paranoia: “I was alone in that crowd, isolated and proscribed.” .... [more]
"How thin is the protection of civilization."