Was the neoconservative ideology of global-democratic crusades first depicted in the 1951 novel The Blessing, by the English-born but French-resident Nancy Mitford?
Since 9/11, and particularly since the obvious inability of American arms to make Iraq as peace-loving as Iowa—or Libya as laid-back as Louisiana—the question “Who was the first neocon?” has acquired a renewed significance. John Gray, emeritus of the London School of Economics, argues that premonitions of the neocon psyche had already occurred in the Middle Ages.
More recently, Woodrow Wilson and Leo Strauss adumbrated much of the neocon project. Yet however great a game President Wilson talked about the “right to self-determination,” he also insisted—to the anger of young Ho Chi Minh—that for this right the Third World need not apply.
For a portrait of the neocon mentality in its purest, most globalized form, you cannot overlook The Blessing. As Minerva sprang fully armed from Jupiter’s head, so fully armed from Mitford’s head sprang The Blessing’s villain, a leather-lunged, gauche apparatchik who rejoices in the utterly apt name of Hector “Heck” Dexter.
In Paris there lies the scene. Grace de Valhubert, married to former Free French soldier Charles-Edouard de Valhubert, is dreading the advent of Dexter, with whose wife Carolyn—mercilessly teased by Charles-Edouard as “la belle lesbienne”—she once went to school. To Grace’s assumption that Americans will appreciate Charles-Edouard’s wartime loyalty, her husband sadly responds, “The Americans hate the people who were on their side in the war. It’s the one thing they can never forgive.” And that’s the quarrel.
When Dexter arrives, he exceeds all expectations for charmlessness and loquacity. His almost endless sentences are delivered in a patois so uncouth—adjectives like “chlorotic” and “morbose” abound—and so badly pronounced whenever it ventures into foreign terminology (aperçu becomes “apercoo”) that it resembles a Justice Department position paper. This sort of thing emerges every time Dexter opens his mouth:
Our visit to London was an integral success. I went to learn about the present or peace-time conditions there and to sense the present or peace-time mood of you Britishers, and I think that I fully achieved both these aims … I was in London during World War II and I will not pause now to say what I felt then about the effort which every class of you Britishers was putting forward at that time because what I felt then is expressed in my well-known and best-selling book Global Vortex.
Dexter does let it be known that he feels a decided repugnance toward homosexuality, the practitioners of which, he announces, exhibit “a political contamination that can, in every case, be traced to Moscow.” A young Englishman called Hughie, who dreams of a House of Commons career, interposes at this point: “I say, hold on, Heck. All the old queens I know are terrific old Tories.” (But in the very year The Blessing was published, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean defected.) From such perversion, Dexter assures Hughie, America has been saved: “We have no pederasts.” (This is not Grace’s impression of the American expatriates she has met.)
Nevertheless homosexuals are not, for Dexter, the only problem with Britain. In terms heard from a thousand Robert Kagans and Donald Rumsfelds since, Dexter proclaims:
I’m afraid I must be perfectly frank, and tell you that in my opinion this little island of yours is just like some little old grandfather clock that is running down, and if you ask me why is it running down I must reply because the machinery is worn out, deteriorated, degenerated and decayed, while the men who work this machinery are demoralized, vitiated and corrupt, and if you ask me why this should be so I will give you my viewpoint on the history of Britain during the past 50 years.
Mitford does not tell us what Dexter actually says about Britain during the past 50 years, except that—as could be expected from history’s first full neocon—the word “vision” occurs a lot. Dexter has completely internalized the profound dogma “Never let a crisis go to waste.” Not content with revealing or, as he would perhaps put it, “explicating” the problem, he has a solution.
Now what you need in this little old island, and what is needed in all the countries of Europe west of the so-called Iron Curtain, and even more I imagine, though I do not speak with personal experience, in all the countries of Europe east of the so-called Iron Curtain as well as in the backward lands of the Far East and the backward lands of Africa, is some greater precognition of and practice of (but practice cannot come without knowledge) our American way of living. I should like to see a bottle of Coca-Cola on every table in England, on every table in France, on every–
This liquid Morgenthau Plan is too much even for the courteous Grace, who in 1951 would have encountered the French Communists’ recent taunting neologism “Coca-colonization,” and who interrupts: “But isn’t it terribly nasty?”
Dauntless, Dexter continues:
No, ma’am, it most certainly is not. It tastes good. But that, if I may say so, is entirely beside the point which I am trying, if I can, to make. When I say a bottle of Coca-Cola I mean it metaphorically speaking, I mean it as an outward and visible sign of something inward and spiritual. I mean it as if each Coca-Cola bottle contained a djinn, as if that djinn was our great American civilization ready to spring out of each bottle and cover the whole global universe with its great wide wings. That is what I mean.
Every English reader in 1951 would have recognized Mitford’s allusion here to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer: “An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” So the religious nature of Dexter’s quest was not lost on Mitford or on her original public. But reality has a habit of outflanking even the wildest satire. By the time of Mitford’s 1973 funeral, radio stations from Biloxi to Buenos Aires resounded to the strains of the following lyric, meant in complete seriousness:
I’d like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony
I’d like to buy the world a Coke
And keep it company!
In still other ways, Mitford proved a truer prophet than she ever suspected. Not only does Dexter wish to export Coca-Cola, he also wishes, when visiting Paris, to engender there those other distinctively American contributions to the moral life: worship of youth (so unlike the pre-1968 French!) and endless tolerance for no-fault divorce. Dexter, on his third marriage, confidently expects a fourth and possibly a fifth.
I am very very happy to be able to tell you, Madame Innouïs, that the young American male is brimming over with strong and lustful, but clean desire. He is not worn out, old, and complicated before his time, no ma’am, he does not need any education sentimentarl [sic], it all comes to him naturally, as it ought to come, like some great force of nature. He dates up young, he marries young, he raises his first family young, and by the time he is ready to remarry he is still young. And I am now going to give you a little apercoo of our American outlook on sex and marriage … In the States we just worship youth, Madame Innouïs, it seems to us that human beings were put on this earth to be young; youth seems to us the most desirable of all human attributes.
But in The Blessing’s last chapter, Dexter’s neoconnerie surpasses itself. He flees, with Carolyn, to the USSR. It turns out that he has been a Soviet spy all along, passing on the most elaborate nuclear information to Uncle Joe. Moreover, his real name is Destrovich. The French ambassador to Britain observes: “He’s supposed to have gone straight off for a conference with Beria. Well, I feel awfully sorry for Beria.” As to his subsequent exploits in the workers’ paradise, those are described in Don’t Tell Alfred, The Blessing’s sequel.
Poor Nancy Mitford! She at least made a decent living from her novels and biographies, but like so many intelligent women she lost her heart to one cad after another. Cad-in-chief was Gaston Palewski, a politician—deputy speaker of the French Parliament and later de Gaulle’s minister for science—with all the rectitude of Tiger Woods on Viagra. Palewski kept telling Mitford that he could not conceivably marry her because she was a divorced Protestant. Accordingly, when his political ambitions compelled him to take a wife, he married … a different divorced Protestant. Way to go, Gaston.
Thanks in part to Palewski’s recalcitrance, Mitford’s hopes of childbearing were doomed. (When a medical procedure necessitated the removal of her ovaries, her mother—never known for membership of the reality-based community—marveled: “Ovaries? I thought one had 700, like caviar.”) The pain she endured from her fatal illness would now be illegal to inflict on a dog. Early-1970s French medicine didn’t do palliative care.
Yet even in extremis she could think of others’ sufferings before her own. News of Third World disasters preyed on her mind. “I’m tortured by the thought of Bangladesh,” she once told her servant. “Some woman in quite as much pain as I am and no bidet.” The servant retorted crossly: “They’re used to it.” On which Mitford reflected: “Whether the pain or the bidetlessness I couldn’t make out.”
She never did visit the America that she feared and, as she thought, hated. Naturally she felt genuine fondness for individual “Yanks.” But the Pax Americana sickened her. Of JFK—a distant relative, via one of her brothers-in-law—she snarled: “He does for sex what Eisenhower did for golf.” Chappaquiddick and My Lai both confirmed her in her prejudice against Uncle Sam.
A shame she never saw the real America for herself. (Noël Coward, when compelled to answer the visa-waiver question “Do you support the overthrow of the U.S. Government by violence?”, apparently wrote: “Sole purpose of visit.” Mitford would have written the same.) If her purgative earthly anguish has won her the joys of heaven, and if heaven has an eternal banquet reserved for literary ladies, then perhaps Mitford is even now learning from her fellow-diners Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Dorothy Parker, and Phyllis McGinley America’s true cultural treasures, which neither moths nor rust nor even the public schools can destroy.
Back in this vale of tears, wherever two or three are gathered together to “liberate” Islamic society—off with the burka, on with the condom—Dexter, we may be sure, will be in the midst of them. To behold Dexter is to recall the words, in a different context, of Chesterton:
There has arisen in our midst a new class that has education without breeding. … Great sociological credit is due to the man who has first clearly observed that he [the representative of this new class] has appeared. How anybody can profess for a moment to be glad that he has appeared, I do not attempt to conjecture.
Tomorrow belongs to Heck.
R.J. Stove lives in Melbourne.