Security and the Sneak

Events over the last eight or nine years at my old place of work, Providence College, as well as events that have recently broken out in a new rash of the disease, have caused me to try to understand what makes someone a sneak, and what that might have to do with mob politics—with losing yourself in a crowd.

At first glance it might appear that they have nothing to do with one another. Mobs march in the open while the petty little sneak works behind the scenes. One professorial sneak writes a scurrilous letter to the student newspaper to attack a colleague, but he hides behind a pseudonym. A different professorial sneak whispers backroom slander against a new hire, causing her to lose her job. A third professorial sneak coordinates efforts with an alumna, secretly, to try to get a colleague fired over the supposed offensiveness of the teachings of John Paul II. A fourth professorial sneak, caught doing it by the secretary, stuffs departmental mailboxes with slander. And it goes on, wearily now, year after year. Cowardice, backstabbing, hypocrisy, tale-bearing (plus tale-inventing and tale-twisting), secret dealing, all things underhand, indirect, two-faced, unmanly, and sly. Such is political life in academe. Mobs are not like that, are they?

Well, yes, they are. I find one key in Alberto Moravia’s novel, The Conformist (1951), set in Fascist Italy. Marcello is a boy, an only child, burdened with dreadful parents. He has a cold, unloving father, ever on the verge of madness, and a much younger mother who neglects her husband and son to pursue adulterous delights. Marcello kills lizards for the cruelty of it, and yet he longs for his mother to condemn him in sure terms and punish him, though he feels no remorse. She does not hear what he is saying. He kills a cat with his slingshot, thinking in the heat of the moment that it was the neighbor boy who would not join him in killing lizards; again there is no condemnation, no punishment, and no remorse. He is an extraordinarily pretty boy, too pretty for his own good, and his schoolmates ambush him one day on his way home, beat him up, and put a skirt over his head, calling him “Marcellina.” Still he longs to be one of them, to be accepted. What would impress them?

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A revolver might. One day, a chauffeur, who noticed how the boys treated him, invites Marcello to get into his car. He promises to give him a revolver, like the one in his glove compartment, if he can earn it. The boy has no idea what the chauffeur is talking about, but he does want the revolver very much. He wants it in order to belong, to be normal, to disappear into normality. The man takes him up to his female employer’s empty villa on top of a mountain, pushes him into the bedroom, and throws him and the revolver onto the bed. He wants to rape him. But Marcello gets out of his grasp and snatches at the gun. The man—a defrocked priest—does feel pangs of remorse, and he cries out, “Shoot, Marcello . . . kill me . . . yes, kill me like a dog.”

Marcello fires a bullet into the man’s chest.

It is thus that Moravia’s account of the boyhood of Marcello ends. Now a grown man, Marcello has two principal motivations. They are bound together. One is somehow to expiate the crime that has shadowed him all his days and that has formed who he is. The other is to be normal, to feel what other people feel, to think what other people think, and to do what they do. Normal people sin and repent and take their punishment, but he cannot do that, not even when he goes to confession (for the first since he was eight years old) as a requirement for the conventional Catholic marriage that his wife wants. She wants it not because she is pious, but because it is what everybody does.

Marcello becomes the Conformist that is the novel’s title. He works for the Fascist government as a secret service agent—that is, as a sneak. One of his colleagues, an assassin ironically named Orlando (think of the bold, bright Roland of the chivalric songs), has the slogan “For Family and Fatherland” always on his lips, even as he takes his ease at a whorehouse. Marcello does not utter those slogans. He does not feel those feelings. He is a Fascist because that is what individuals do to be absorbed in a movement. He wants to flow with the great tide of history.


Moravia was certainly no Catholic moralist, and I do not want to suggest that the sensitive plants in our midst—ever quick to take offense—are numb in the way that Marcello appears to be. But perhaps touchiness in one regard is numbness in another. They who feel every criticism as a slight upon their dignity very rarely know themselves, much less the hearts of other people. That is the vice of an individual. How does it become fascist?

Every man is laden with guilt. Apart from the grace of God, it is ineradicable from the human condition. Yet each man feels his guilt as his and his alone. I am the one who on such a day did such a thing to such a person. Shut your eyes, reader, and see the sin in your mind. The sin demands expiation. But imagine that you are cut off from the Church. I do not mean simply that you are not Catholic or Christian. I mean that you do not fully believe that Christ has paid the dreadful penalty for your sin, and so you remain unsettled, even if you try to put the sin out of your mind, or you excuse it as no great deal.

The guilt remains. It is an objective fact, with subjective effect. It is like a cancer, growing and gnawing at your vitals. You must expiate the guilt. How is this possible?

Man’s usual method is to cast the guilt upon others. Because he is bad, but he cannot bear knowing that he is bad, he must look upon other people as worse, and punish them for it. It does not matter then that in his attacks upon others he is doing things that he knows are shameful and treacherous. The need for expiation is transformed into a desire to punish a scapegoat, a subhuman creature on whose back he loads his own sins and guilt. In this way, man thinks, he may at last conform to a conventional standard of normality.

It does not work. The fix is temporary. Guilt returns. So, the conformist, as Moravia saw, must do more and more, ever restless unto death. The self-styled progressive of our time is a restless conformist of this sort. There must always be some next attack upon ordinary persons going about their daily business; always some next goat to be heaped with sin. And in these attacks he does not stand forth alone. He does not go up to his brother in person, and say, “Fellow, you are wrong here.” To do so would be to invite the counter, “And you, my friend, have done wrong here.”

The Fascist needs numbers and secrecy, as the mob works by numbers and anonymity. Theirs is nothing like the intimate secrecy and publicity of the confessional, when you and no other say to a priest, a fellow human being, “Father, I did this, and there was no excuse for it.” Theirs is not a true communion, wherein each person senses the unique goodness of the other, rejoicing in his health, and suffering when he suffers or goes wrong. We can tell it is not so by how quickly the member of the mob—the person with the soul of a Fascist—turns snarling upon any comrade who begins to think his own thoughts.

The particulars of what the Fascist wants are secondary to who and what the Fascist is. Those particulars are largely accidental. In one place, they may be what Mussolini wants. In another place, they may be what a cabal of college faculty want, what Chairman Mao wants, or what the leaders of Black Lives Matter want. Nor should we pretend that there is all justice in one instance and all wickedness in another. The muddle of human affairs rules it out, and in any case even if you are a scoundrel in a good cause, you are still a scoundrel. Or perhaps I should say a mediocrity, angry that anyone should dare to stand apart from you and see you as you are.

  • Anthony Esolen

    Anthony Esolen, a contributing editor at Crisis, is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts. He is the author, most recently, of Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius Press, 2020).

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