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295. The well (IV)

In The Third Man (1949), Orson Welles, playing Harry Lime, delivers a famous monologue to justify his amoral life. Lime is a smuggler and general rogue in post-war Vienna; among the ruins, he shops diluted penicillin—a then new discovery—that, of course, kills those needy people who expect the real thing. Lime initially justifies his actions in a speech to his friend, Holly Martins, delivered on a Ferris wheel high above Vienna. Lime looks down at the people below—mere dots—and challenges Martins, who disdains Lime’s black market activities, with the assertion that he would happily accept thousands of pounds for every dot that stopped moving forever. Lime maintains that governments care nothing for the little dots below, and so—for profit, not ideology—Harry Lime should care nothing either. The phoney penicillin operation will continue, for Lime is a man without scruples or loyalties—totally amoral.

It is once the pair are on the ground that Lime delivers his famous little monologue: “You know what the fellow said—in Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love; they had five hundred years of democracy and peace—and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” This little speech, oft repeated, is a little mystery itself. It does not figure in Graham Greene’s original novel, and it was, apparently, a footnote in the script. Allegedly, it was only delivered to fill in an unintended gap in the film; hence Welles moved a footnote into the main action. Some say Welles originated the speech himself—for his part, he claimed it came from an old Hungarian play; but you should remember that Welles, whose later films included F for Fake, was an arch-illusionist and trickster.

The monologue interests on several levels, for it perfectly encapsulates several substantial intellectual ideas. Nassim Taleb has observed that Europe grew to global prominence, in part, because it was always at war; he uses the Italian Renaissance states as an example: these were anti-fragile entities because they waged constant war against each other—constant war led, as Lime observes, to constant innovation. China, by contrast, had gunpowder and printing but she was a homogenous giant empire: homogenous, peaceful, and utterly static.

Similarly, Nick Land’s idea of patchwork, a situation where polities fragment and compete in a Darwinian struggle for survival, matches the situation in Renaissance Italy. Vast continental agglomerations—the EU, the USA, and the USSR—are terrible ideas; they become sclerotic and totalitarian. Remorseless innovation only comes about when statelets engage in constant war.

Finally, Nietzsche himself lauded the Italian Renaissance states. When he spoke about the “blond beast” he had in mind not some Nordic barbarian but rather an Italian Renaissance prince: a man who knew his Machiavelli, sponsored Leonardo’s war machines, and also appreciated Michelangelo. The Renaissance man is not a technical specialist: he knows a little music, a little war-making, a little love-making, a little astronomy, and so on. It should be noted that though those dynamic Renaissance statelets were always at war, the wars were relatively small and cost few lives; it is better to fight constantly, at the “right level of conflict” as Edward Luttwak puts it, than to wage huge wars on the scale found with the USSR, the USA, and Nazi Germany. The small wars keep everything sharp, dynamic, and anti-fragile—cut off the fat in Darwinian terms—and yet do not lead to total ruination.

Harry Lime is a curious figure in The Third Man; he is definitely sulphurous: he navigates occupied Vienna via the sewers; indeed, he dies in the sewers—yet at the film’s start it is discovered that when people thought he was dead he was actually alive. His grave is opened and his body is found to be absent: his tomb is empty—a significant flourish for Greene, a very serious Catholic writer. Lime is risen.


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