Books: Circles of Perdition

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(4 of 9)

"A murmur ran through the court which was horrified. ... In effect, the young man was saying, 'I insist on being hanged by the neck in three weeks' time,' and the strength of his desire to die was forcing his weak voice through his shuddering lips and ignoring his pain, which was great, for he was blasted by what he did. He was like an insect that falls on a hot stove and is withered, and what he did felt like an act of cruelty to the whole court. It rejected the life that was in all of us."

The Pit. Circle No. 4 is the pit. Here, in that ambiguous clarity which Milton called "no light but rather darkness visible," are two architects of betrayal. These men committed not the treason of the unlighted mind, like Kenneth Edward or Herbert George, nor the treason of depravity like John Amery, but the fully conscious treason of ideas. One was a Communist. One was a Fascist.

"Not guilty," pled Dr. Alan Nunn May.

He could scarcely force the plea between his chattering teeth. He was glazed with sweat. ". . . His body assumed without shame the very shape of fear. In his cringing motions, however, there were indications of an extreme fineness of intellect, unfoldings of a lacework of perceptions, of associations, of interpretations, which made the Nazi-Fascists seem like hogs rooting among the simple unimproved beech-mast of the world. No matter how he stooped and wavered, out of his head proceeded mental patterns intricate and brilliant as the etchings of frost on a winter pane. Surely the others, the Nazi-Fascists, were not fully human. But neither was he."

For Dr. Alan Nunn May had been for years a member of the Communist Party. He had been a lecturer on physics at the University of London. During World War II, he volunteered for service as the senior member of the nuclear physics division of the atomic bomb project. Then he had turned over to Russia samples of uranium 235 enriched and uranium 233. Says Miss West: "If Russia ever drops an atomic bomb on Great Britain or America, the blame for the death and the blindness and .the sores it scatters will rest largely on this fatuous and gifted man."

And yet: "The spectators were plainly appalled when the judge passed sentence [ten years' penal servitude] on Dr. Alan Nunn May, though none of them was his follower. ... It was the light about the man's head which made the thought of his imprisonment intolerable: the changing and complicated intellectual patterns proceeding from his brow and spelling out a meaning which men required."

The Voice. There was no such light about the head of Dr. May's pit-mate. "Not guilty," pled the scar-faced prisoner on trial for his life in London's Central Criminal Court. The little man who, in his self-conscious spruceness looked like a somewhat comic gangster, was Lord Haw Haw — William Joyce — the British Fascist who, during World War II, had nightly tried to sap his countrymen's will to survive by broadcasting defeatist propaganda from Germany.

At those two words, "not guilty" — the first words he had spoken — the spectators in the courtroom started. Few of them had ever seen the man before, but in all of them the sound of his voice touched a nerve of terrible memory.

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