Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Potion of Circe

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Daniel Ellsberg

In 1968, Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst who would later become famous for leaking the Pentagon Papers, had a meeting with Henry Kissinger. At the time, Kissinger had spent most of his career as a consultant and an academic, and he was about to enter government service—as the National Security Advisor to Richard Nixon—for the first time. (Their conversation is described in Ellsberg’s memoir Secrets, and I owe my own discovery of it to a surprisingly fine article on Ellsberg and Edward Snowden by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker.) Ellsberg, who had been brought in for a discussion about the Vietnam War, had a word of advice for Kissinger. He said:

Henry, there’s something I would like to tell you, for what it’s worth, something I wish I had been told years ago. You’ve been a consultant for a long time, and you’ve dealt a great deal with top secret information. But you’re about to receive a whole slew of special clearances, maybe fifteen or twenty of them, that are higher than top secret…I have a pretty good sense of what the effects of receiving these clearances are on a person who didn’t previously know they even existed. And the effects of reading the information that they will make available to you.

At first, Ellsberg said, Kissinger would feel “exhilarated” at having access to so much information. But he cautioned: 

Second, almost as fast, you will feel like a fool for having studied, written, talked about these subjects, criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents for years without having known of the existence of all this information, which presidents and others had and you didn’t, and which must have influenced their decisions in ways you couldn’t even guess…You will feel like a fool, and that will last for about two weeks. Then, after you’ve started reading all this daily intelligence input and become used to using what amounts to whole libraries of hidden information…you will forget there ever was a time when you didn’t have it, and you’ll be aware only of the fact that you have it now and most others don’t…and that all those other people are fools.

Over a longer period of time—not too long, but a matter of two or three years—you’ll eventually become aware of the limitations of this information…In the meantime it will have become very hard for you to learn from anybody who doesn’t have these clearances. Because you’ll be thinking as you listen to them: ‘What would this man be telling me if he knew what I know?”

Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon

After a while, Ellsberg concluded, this “mental exercise” would become so tortuous that Kissinger might cease to pay attention altogether: “The danger is, you’ll become something like a moron. You’ll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have in their particular areas that may be much greater than yours.” Ellsberg compared this sort of secret information to the potion of Circe, which turned Odysseus’s men into swine and left them incapable of working with other humans. And it’s a warning worth bearing in mind even for those of us who don’t have access to classified intelligence. Ellsberg’s admonition is really about distinguishing between raw information—which can be acquired with nothing but patience, money, or the right clearances—and the more elusive quality of insight. It applies to everyone who has ever wound up with more facts on a specific subject than anybody else he or she knows, which is just as true of writers of theses, research papers, and works of nonfiction as it is of government advisors. In researching my book Astounding, for instance, I’ve seen thousands of pages of letters and other documents that very few other living people have studied. They aren’t classified, but they’re hard to obtain and inconvenient to read, and I’m reasonably sure that I’m the only person in recent years who has tried to absorb them in their entirety. But a lot of other people could have done it. I didn’t have to be smart: I just had to be willing to reach out to the right librarians, sit in a chair for long periods, stare at a microfilm reader, and take decent notes.

There’s something to be said, of course, for being the one who actually goes out and does it. And there’s a sense in which this kind of drudgery is an indispensable precursor to insight: you’re more likely to come up with something worthwhile if you’ve mined the ore yourself, and there’s a big difference between taking the time to unearth it personally and having it handed to you. Reading a hundred grainy pages to discover the one fact you need isn’t the same thing as finding it on Wikipedia. It’s necessary, if not sufficient, and as Ellsberg notes, the “moron” stage is one that everyone needs to pass through in order to emerge on the other side. (I also suspect that we’ll start to feel nostalgic soon for the kind of government moron whom Ellsberg describes, who at least respected the information he had, rather than ignoring or dismissing any data that didn’t suit his political needs.) But it’s important to draw a line between the kind of expertise that accumulates steadily as a function of time—which any good drudge can acquire—and the kind that builds up erratically through thought and experience. It’s obvious in other people, but it can be hard to see it in ourselves. For long stretches, we’ll have acquired just enough knowledge to be dangerous, and we can only hope that we won’t do any lasting damage. And even if we’ve been warned, it’s a lesson that has to be learned firsthand. As Ellsberg ends the story: “Kissinger hadn’t interrupted this long warning…He seemed to understand that it was heartfelt, and he didn’t take it as patronizing, as I’d feared. But I knew it was too soon for him to appreciate fully what I was saying. He didn’t have the clearances yet.”

Written by nevalalee

December 29, 2016 at 8:24 am

One Response

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  1. What a wonderfully timely article! Thanks a lot!


    December 29, 2016 at 1:49 pm

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