Back in April 2014 we posted a piece about Andrew O’Hagan’s attempt to ghostwrite an autobiography of Julian Assange. Given the part Assange is playing in the American presidential campaign, and the way public opinion of him has shifted, we thought it was time to remind you of this wonderful piece of journalism, published in the LRB in March 2014
In the French film Mensonges et Trahisons a ghostwriter is hired to write the autobiography of a famous soccer star. The jaded ghostwriter, used to the boring egos of models and sports stars, is horrified to discover that the soccer star has advanced and contradictory literary and philosophical ideas that must, he insists, be woven into the book – just like Julian Assange, who wanted his memoir to be like Hemingway, like Ayn Rand, and like Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man.
Assange (whose conversation O’Hagan describes as standard grade Voltaire with a smattering of Chomsky) has a high opinion of himself (he spends hours googling himself) and a low opinion of almost everyone else. People who oppose or criticise him are instant and permanent enemies. Wiki-employees were threatened with a £12 million lawsuit if they disclosed anything about the organisation. Assange doesn’t seem to see the inconsistency of this in an organisation whose raison d’être is breaking up the secrecy of our public institutions. He seems to have no capacity at all to reflect on the logic of his own positions or the value of his ideas.
He had a strange, on-the-spectrum inability to see when he was becoming boring or demanding. He talked as if the world needed him to talk and never to stop. Oddly for a dissident, he had no questions. The left-wingers I have known are always full of questions, but Assange, from the first, seemed like a manifestation of the hyperventilating chatroom.
Unlike the soccer star, Assange didn’t really want the book to be written at all, even though he had taken an advance of half a million pounds. The man who put himself in charge of disclosing the world’s secrets simply couldn’t bear his own. The story of his life mortified him and sent him scurrying for excuses, says O’Hagan. Assange strung him along for months with time-wasting, avoidance, tantrums and conspiracy theories, trying to manipulate him into a friend, a sympathiser, a father-figure or a ‘quietly ineffectual follower. But O’Hagan is a very astute observer:
He manages people so poorly, and is such a slave to what he’s not good at, that he forgets he might be making bombs set to explode in his own face. I am sure this is what happens in many of his scrapes: he runs on a high-octane belief in his own rectitude and wisdom, only to find later that other people had their own views – of what is sound journalism or agreeable sex – and the idea that he might be complicit in his own mess baffles him. Fact is, he was not in control of himself and most of what his former colleagues said about him just might be true. He is thin-skinned, conspiratorial, untruthful, narcissistic, and he thinks he owns the material he conduits. It may turn out that Julian is not Daniel Ellsberg or John Wilkes, but Charles Foster Kane, abusive and monstrous in his pursuit of the truth that interests him, and a man who, it turns out, was motivated all the while not by high principles but by a deep sentimental wound. Perhaps we won’t know until the final frames of the movie.
Who knows how this particular movie will end? Assange has now been in the Ecuadorian embassy for more than 4 years – if you read O’Hagan’s account you’ll have a lot of sympathy for the Ecuadorians. Where to from here?