Le Carré’s Smiley: spy craft and psychiatry

John Le Carré (1931-2020) in the final George Smiley novel, The Secret Pilgrim explores, amongst other things, the effect of a spy’s life upon his inner life, even on his demeanour and his physical habitus. This preoccupation with the potential for moral and physical corruption was already present in the very first George Smiley novel, Call for the Dead. In Call for the Dead, Smiley says

It saddened him to witness in himself the gradual death of natural pleasure. Always withdrawn, he now found himself shrinking from the temptations of friendship and human loyalty; he guarded himself warily from spontaneous reaction. By the strength of his intellect, he forced himself to observe humanity with clinical objectivity, and because he was neither immortal nor infallible he hated and feared the falseness of his life’.

This stillness, even frozenness of his natural responses, the flow of his juices, that spontaneity of humours that both enrich and quicken, that give tenor and texture to inner life are described as restrained if not restricted.

My interest in this question is personal as well as theoretical. Like the George Smiley and Ned the protagonist of The Secret Pilgrim I am into the last furlong of my career as a psychiatrist. Hence, I am drawn to questions about how my professional life might have altered the architecture of my inner life. I will return to this later.

For Smiley, though, it is plain what drove the changes that he recognised:

He had never guessed it was possible to be frightened for so long […] He learnt what it was never to sleep, never to relax, to feel at any time of night the restless beating of his own heart, to know the extremes of solitude and self-pity, the sudden unreasoning desire for a woman, for drink, for exercise, for any drug to take away the tension of his life.

At the root of the changes was naked fear, pure and unadulterated. Alongside this too was his detached position from which he evaluated the ‘agent potential’ of a human being and the amoral attitude that this required and the consequent gradual death of natural pleasure. And Smiley, looking back and advising a group of new recruits says

 Please don’t ever imagine you’ll be unscathed by the methods you use. The end may justify the means – if it wasn’t supposed to, I dare say you wouldn’t be here. But there’s a price to pay, and the price does tend to be oneself. Easy to sell one’s soul at your age. Harder later.’

One of the wonders of reading Le Carré is his full understanding of how the inner is represented in the physical and outer. How the restrictions of the glandular juices, the freezing of emotional life has its companion in the loss of the fluidity of movement, of expressive gestures. 

And when I looked at myself in the mirror of the undertaker’s rose-tinted lavatory after my night’s vigil, I was horrified by what I saw. It was the face of a spy branded by his own deception. Have you seen it too, around you? On you? That face? In my case it was so much my everyday companion that I had ceased to notice it until the shock of death brought it home to me. We smile, but our withholding makes our smile false. When we are exhilarated, or drunk – or even, as I am told, make love – the reserve does not dissolve, the gyroscope stays vertical, the monitory voice reminds us of our calling. Until gradually our very withholding becomes so strident it is almost a security risk by itself. So that today – if I go to a reunion, say, or we have a Sarratt old-boys’ night – I can actually look round the room and see how the secret stain has come out in every one of us. I see the overbright face or the underlit one, but inside each I see the remnants of a life withheld.

Here we have, in full, the direct report of a signature loss of spontaneity, ‘the remnants of a life withheld’ that results from a life of deception. But there is another aspect to Smiley, the Smiley who is a priest-confessor, the interrogator whose frailty and vulnerability, both combine to render resistance to his questioning methods impossible. In Call for the Dead, Smiley had already revealed what is attitude to being interviewed was. He termed this the Chameleon-Armadillo system for beating the interviewer.

[…] He had long ago come to consider himself proof against them all [interviews]: disciplinary, scholastic, medical and religious. His secretive nature detested the purpose of all interviews, their oppressive intimacy, their inescapable reality […] The technique is based on the theory that the interviewer loving no one as well as himself, will be attracted by his own image. You therefore assume the exact social, temperamental, political and intellectual colour of the inquisitor […] Sometimes this method founders against the idiocy or ill-disposition of the inquisitor. If so, become an armadillo […] Place him in a position so incongruous that you are superior to him. I was prepared for confirmation by a retired bishop. I was his whole flock, and received on one half holiday sufficient guidance for a diocese. But by contemplating the bishop’s face, and imagining that under my gaze it became covered in thick fur, I maintained the ascendancy.

If this was Smiley’s method when he was under inquisition, it must have influenced his approach to interrogating others. What we know by reputation was that he was a most exceptional interviewer, an extraordinary listener

Smiley could listen with his hooded, sleepy eyes; he could listen by the very inclination of his tubby body, by his stillness and his understanding smile. He could listen because with one exception, which was Ann, his wife, he expected nothing of his fellow souls, criticised nothing, condoned the worst of you long before you had revealed it. He could listen better than a microphone because his mind lit at once upon essentials; he seemed able to spot them before he knew where they were leading.


Smiley could draw answers from you to questions he had never put, just by the sincerity of his listening.


‘And some interrogations,’ said Smiley, gazing into the dancing flames of the log fire, ‘are not interrogations at all, but communions between damaged souls.’

To return to my starting point. What are the effects of having spent over 40 years listening to and observing other human beings in extremis? There are similarities between the tradecraft of spies, and the skill set of psychiatry: the intense observation of others, the constant evaluation of circumstances and motivations, the sensitivity to what is unspoken, to what is evaded, to tempo and pacing of speech, to every nuance of gesture and always to one’s own responses. To emphasise this point, these observations of bodily gestures that go to character could just as well have been written by a conscientious psychiatrist:

When he sat, he scooped up the skirts of his jacket as if he were exposing himself from behind. Then he kicked out a plump leg like a chorus girl, before laying it suggestively over the thigh of the other.


There is an English walk these days peculiar to men of power, and it is a confection of several things at once. Self-confidence is one, lazy sportiveness another. But there is also menace in it, and impatience, and a leisured arrogance, which comes with the crablike splaying of elbows that give way to nobody, and the boxer’s slouch of the shoulders, and the playful springiness in the knees.

This kind of watchfulness, an instinctive preoccupation with how gait and stance conspire with dress and talk to reveal what is hidden or to see properly what is brazen and symbolic, is characteristics of clinical practice. Always to be attentive to the mundane and ordinary and to question what silence and style are denoting. It is the attentiveness, that initially is exhausting, that eventually comes to be automatic and constantly switched on.

There is also an intimate understanding of opacity within the clinical encounter, the veil that is drawn over the personal and the present and the distracting vector of transparency, the spell that openness casts. But there is an essential difference. For spies, I presume to think that a person is the quarry, a prey to be caught and turned, whereas in psychiatry, at its best it is objects in inner life that are calling to be understood.

What are the consequences of this life? There is little doubt that the impulse always to understand without judgment, all circumstances and situations, can conflate the borders of psychological comprehension of an action and that of condoning that action. To understand the motive for murder, for example, to fully comprehend from the inside how it is justifiable to find one’s spouse despicable and then to plan to kill. This is one of the tasks of the clinical encounter. In other words, the potential for moral corruption exists, because to understand is but a step away from condoning. And like George Smiley, the calm exterior in the midst of distress in others allied with the continuing exploration of the origins of turmoil notwithstanding the benefits, can, translate over time to restriction in the vocabulary of bodily expressive gestures. This is the meaning of aridity of the soul. There is always the risk too, that the emptier one is, the more likely it is that the inner life of the other will be projected unto the blank slate. I suppose the end result might simply be that the habit of serving others empties, denuding the flourishing of the spirit rather than enriching it. Imagine what it is like to plumb the depths of uncharted despair, to wallow too in the unchanneled rapids, the silted sorrows, sharing what is firstly unnameable and then indescribably pullulating. 

The protagonist in The Secret Pilgrim says at the end 

The rituals of retirement from the Service are probably no more harrowing than any other professional leave-taking, but they have their own poignancy. There are the ceremonies of remembering – lunches with old contacts, office parties, brave handshakes with tearful senior secretaries, courtesy visits to friendly services. And there are the ceremonies of forgetting, where snip by snip you sever yourself from the special knowledge not given to other mortals.


There’s no such thing as retirement, really. Sometimes there’s knowing too much, and not being able to do much about it, but that’s just age, I’m sure. I think a lot. I’m stepping out with my reading. I talk to people, ride on buses. I’m a newcomer to the overt world but I’m learning.

All this is in preparation for the ‘no such thing as retirement’.

Photos by Jan Oyebode

6 thoughts on “Le Carré’s Smiley: spy craft and psychiatry

  1. A life of service, not to the state, but for humanity in its distress of mind, thought, emotion, and hope. You used keen observation as your measuring stick of distress. I hope you can translate that into the joy of observing the beautiful things that life and love can offer. This was an elegy that left me in tears of recognition, because for some of us, what we do is a large part of who we are, and when the former is gone, it can be hard to recognise ourselves, or so I have found.

    1. Carolyn
      Thanks as ever.
      Like all transitions there’s a bit of negotiation to do- coming to terms with the end of something and then adjusting to the start, the opening out of something new. A combination of sorrow and exhilaration.

  2. Happy New Year Sir.
    This is a very poignant read sir.
    As you come to the last lap of your professional career sir, any piece of advice for us young ones just starting ours? Perhaps something to help us deal more easily with this trade of our youth when we come to the twilight of our lives?

    1. Ayomipo
      Thanks for your comments. I’m not really one for giving advice. It has been an extraordinary privilege to be a practising clinician for 44 years. Every encounter has been fruitful and inspiring.

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