The understanding has sunk in slowly that the 1950s, far from being a bland decade of picket-fence complacence, were a time of intense social and artistic ferment: In literature alone, you have Invisible Man, Waiting for Godot, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” and Goodbye, Columbus. (You also have Howl, but no decade is perfect.)
No matter how artful her prophecies, nobody ever listens to Cassandra until the catastrophe has comeso it shouldn’t be surprising that one of the most prescient, thorough, and hilarious satires of postmodernity fell into obscurity shortly after its publication in 1955. But it’s time we rediscovered that book, for Nigel Dennis’ Cards of Identity was written with so much foresight that it almost reads like this week’s edition of The Onion.
Dennis may have been prepared to see the ways that postmodernity unsettles identity by his own culture-clash background: Born in 1912, he grew up in British Africa, was educated partly in Austria, and spent the Second World War in the United States. Although he wrote a few other plays and novels, and a good deal of literary and theater criticism, Cards of Identity was his best work.
The novel opens on a foggy morning in postwar England, when a professional sponger notices that a family has moved into the local manor house. Thinking he’s spotted a new mark, he heads over to the house, planning to make himself indispensable by pretending to be whoever the new neighbors would like best. But the three people at the manor house completely turn the tables on him: By the next morning, he’s been brainwashed, forgetting his old life and believing himself to be the family’s loyal servant.
And so we meet the “Identity Club,” a sort of academic conference crossed with a nightmare carnival, which travels the country finding people whose old identities are shaky (or simply not useful) and giving them new ones. The club’s members have noticed that everyone must have a theory, and their theory is that all contemporary lives are centered on the need for the illusion of a fixed and certain identity. So they turn doctors into gardeners and spinsters into widows; no one is immune, as even a salt-of-the-earth con man, who seemed to have a firm and unreflective sense of himself, is transformed into the club’s most ardent member.
The dislocations of postwar British life were a common enough themeAgatha Christie wrote about them frequently. But Cards of Identity goes further, turning social disruption into dark existential fantasy. The rock of self has melted out from under the characters; or more accurately and more distressingly, they’ve finally realized it was never solid ground in the first place.
The book has several parts: an introduction of the club, three papers presented at its annual meeting, and a play performed by the newly minted club servants (with a quick coda). The play, in a perfect twist, is a Shakespeare pastiche, with Dennis borrowing the identity of a writer whose characters themselves constantly shift in and out of role and genre. But the center of the book is the three papers, all of which will resonate with readers today.
First, we have the strange tale of the Co-Warden of the Badgeries, who maintains English national identity by taking on responsibility for all the country’s badgers . . . none of which he ever sees in the furry flesh. He has an elaborate, outdated costume and a symbolicor is it emblematic? Or token?stuffed badger who is only brought out on the occasion of the death of the Lord Royal. He is paid one symbolic dog-rose per annum for performance of this duty to his nation. It’s The Wind in the Willows-meets-Kwanzaa, at once heartfelt and ersatz, nostalgic and irrelevant, honey-soaked and self-comforting. If you happened to catch a St. Patrick’s Day parade this year, you saw a whole pack of emblematic badgers painted green.
The second paper concernsof coursegender and sexual identity. Its star is either an effeminate man or a mannish woman, no one’s quite sure which. A chaotic kiss-chase game unfolds around this ambiguous person. There’s no campiness in this section, where it might have been expected; the novel is too unstintingly satirical for camp. All of Dennis’ hilarious exaggerations have been pressed into service to deflate or demolish ideals and pretensions, which does make this part a bit less fun than it could have been. Oddly, the transgression-and-transvestitism section may be the mustiest, since we’ve gone so far in that particular direction since Cards of Identity was written.
The third paperpresented by a whiskey priest who has traded a communist cell for a monk’s cellis probably the best. (To be truly contemporary, I suppose, an updating of this novel would have to combine this paper and the previous one, since sex is the new politics.) The description of a certain approach to Christianity is terrifically scathing:
The world of today is one in which religion, if it is to mean anything at all, must seem to have been invented by Bunyan and had teeth put into it by Dostoyevsky. This means that only those who have been indescribably wicked in the past can hope to be religious in the future: indeed, I would go further, and say that the only road to Rome nowadays is via Moscow. There are alternative by-ways: many intellectuals, for example, have a soft place in their hearts for drunkenness, moral cowardice, sexual quiddities, and other non-political vices, which, if practiced frantically enough, serve, they say, as adequate preliminaries to the religious state. Some of them even argue that the two states are inseparable and that the man most likely to succeed is he who carries prayer in one holster and a really good vice in the other, firing each according to whim. Be that as it may, the fact remains that the old-fashioned notion of religion as a sort of everyday affair in which everyone can join has quite gone out: the only devout ones today are those who really have something to be devout about.
From Graham Greene to Bill Clinton and beyond, this dynamicwhereby religious devotion is only comprehensible or interesting insofar as it’s double-minded and contradictoryshould be immediately recognizable. We all do it, and Walt Whitman is our catechism: Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large; I contain multitudes. And if this is self-indulgent (selves-indulgent?), no one can deny that it makes for fascinating novels and tabloid headlines.
There’s no respite in Cards of Identity. The characters don’t relapse into their true identities; instead, after the three papers, the play beginsand the Shakespeare pastiche gives them a whole new array of masks and ploys, layer on layer of shifting and clashing identities until the whole situation collapses into absurdity.
Although the play turns out to be the stage for a real murder, it omits some essential truths about the participants, in the way that, say, “The Mousetrap” functions in Hamlet, or Hal and Falstaff’s playacting works in Henry IV. In Dennis’ novel, there is no true identity to recover. Perhaps, therefore, it should be unsurprising that there is no love story.
The only woman in the Identity Club does allude to love as recognition of the beloved: “Why, if one day Beau disappeared, how I would take on! I would search for him in every house in England; whenever I saw a man I would go up as close as possible to him and stare into his eyes, listen to his voice, study his walk and ways! I would sound alarms all through the country, and never rest until I found the man in whom Beau was hidden.”
For this brief moment, she gets it: Lovers desire a paradoxical union in which the beloved still remains distinct, “other”; this dance of two identities requires both lover and beloved to have recognizable selves. They need to know who they love; otherwise what they call “love” is merely the projection of a kaleidoscope of shifting wants and preferences. And love makes promises, persists across time, requires a form of loyalty and therefore an identity that won’t slide out from under one. Devotion is an anchor for the self, and so it’s entirely appropriate that devotion of any kind is not depicted in the novel. (There are many words to describe the ex-Red priest’s religious life, but devotion isn’t one of them.) Instead, there are, as the postmoderns continually remind us, only relations of power: In this case, the power of the intelligent, charismatic, manipulative, and duped show runners of the Identity Club.
And so Nigel Dennis proves his foresight even in what he leaves out: We’re now trying to figure out what postmodern religious life and postmodern marriage can look likewe’re trying to figure out what to do in the two most obvious arenas of devotion. Cards of Identity, by avoiding this question, signals how difficult it has become.
Eve Tushnet is a freelance journalist in Washington, D.C., and blogs at EveTushnet.com.
Cards of Identity by Nigel Dennis