Daggers in Deptford
“Thought is a dagger,” quips one of the assassins of Christopher Marlowe, moments before a dagger is driven into the organ of thought of the eponymous hero of A Dead Man in Deptford, a book that raises the idea that thinking for oneself—thinking against the grain of cant, prejudice, dogma, and the virtual ubiquity of the unexamined life—is a dangerously unpopular, even potentially fatal business. Thought is a dagger in one’s enemy’s hands, in other words: individualism of intellect or lifestyle turns itself into a target. If this thesis seems a bit novel or anachronistic to a reader in a 21st-century democracy, writers like Solshenitzyn or Pasternak would wonder why. So would Noam Chomsky, Thomas Pynchon, and other American dissidents who doubt the received wisdom of the “free” world. So would have George Orwell, author of essays like “The Prevention of Literature,” in which he said that “literature is doomed if liberty of thought perishes.” “George Orwell” is in fact a minor figure in Dead Man—and the insertion of the name, Burgess notes in the novel’s Afterword, is perfectly historically accurate, even while it is thematically convenient. (Eric Blair versus Tony Blair, George Orwell versus George Bush—see the teasing implications invited by mere harmless combinations of names?)
“Let us for God’s sake go back to our fighting, for, fighting, a man is freed of the burden of thought,” advises a tavern habitué to Marlowe at one point. Later: “Let us drown thought in another jug,” says an intimate friend. Again: “You think too much. Is it not enough to enlace bare bodies and do what is done….” Over and over—almost as if an elaborate conspiracy were encouraging it—Marlowe is cautioned against “the deadliness of thinking.” Numerous alternatives to thought are offered: drinking and fighting and fucking and making money and kowtowing to the official positions of Church and State, as alluded to above; but if none of these please, there is also the additional disincentive of governmental terror (the preferred method of police states, early-modern and postmodern). Hence, the hangings and quarterings of the enemies of the State and the Church, the tortures of innocents like Thomas Kyd and the imprisonments of political high-rollers like Sir Walter Raleigh who make bad gambles, are more than just local colour added to spice up the historical tale: they’re teaching the reader the same subconscious lesson that Marlowe was meant to learn, that thought and free inquiry are unwelcome and that the powers that be want them curtailed at their source, through self-censorship. The more threats there are to “national security”—whether from Catholic Spain or WMD-wielding Islamic Wherever or "Russian aggression in the Ukraine"—the more one should shut up, trust the authorities, and toe the line. Don’t grow unwise, unpatriotic or irreligious over your ale by second -guessing your society’s shibboleths, because you never know who might be listening. A Dead Man in Deptford is a political thriller more than it is a Künstlerroman, closer in spirit to Darkness at Noon than A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man—or Nothing Like the Sun. It teaches political, more than aesthetic, lessons: although the point about bad art being in the service of bad ideas, or of no ideas, is personified nicely in the figures of Kyd and Greene, both spineless soulless hacks whose work resonates with none of the spirit of the works of Marlowe, who, if he doesn’t literally have Christ on his back, has other divinities—the Muses—at his side inspiring him. And they only visit the thoughtful.
The last words of A Dead Man in Deptford—Burgess stepping forward at the end of his last Act to address the audience directly—are now two decades old: “I put off the ill-made disguise and, four hundred years after that death at Deptford, mourn as if it all happened yesterday. The disguise is ill-made not out of incompetence but of necessity, since the earnestness of the past becomes the joke of the present, a once living language turns into the stiff archaism of puppets. Only the continuity of a name rides above a grumbling compromise. But, as the dagger pierces the optic nerve, blinding light is seen not to be the monopoly of the sun. That dagger continues to pierce, and it will never be blunted.”
The dagger of a mind that thought and wrote A Dead Man in Deptford will never be blunted, either, and decades after that death in London Hospital, I mourn as if it happened yesterday.