We’ve all obsessed over someone who isn’t there: fictional characters, an absent lover, the dead. The verb “obsess” means to haunt, harass, or torment, as an evil spirit. But we are usually the conjurors of our own ghosts. Andrew O’Hagan is different. The British journalist’s third work of nonfiction, The Secret Life, collects three previously published essays on persons who, like Charles Dickens’s Nemo, do and do not exist: Julian Assange, WikiLeaks founder and international persona non grata; Ronald Pinn, a real dead man whom O’Hagan revives, perversely, into fictitious online life; and Craig Wright, aka Satoshi Nakamoto (maybe), the creator (if he is) of the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. O’Hagan, though, is the one who does the haunting.
The thread running through these three essays is virtuality, in practices of ghostwriting and inventing fake online personas. Such acts of necromancy invite the question: what makes a person? O’Hagan’s thinking on this score is both insightfully cyborgian and decidedly humanist.
It is also very male. None of the men at the center of these stories is likeable. In “Ghosting,” the braggadocious Assange, whose girlfriend calls his womanizing “sleazy,” is so grotesque as to be nearly unpersonlike. Visionary and vulgarian, he eats lasagna with his hands, insults his friends, and fixates on his own appearance in person and print. “Isn’t this one a bit baggy on the arse?” he asks about a pair of expensive trousers, a gift from the billionaire Matthew Mellon, who misspells the word “tailor” in an accompanying note.
At once larger-than-life and decidedly small, a bringer-down of governments lowered by his own raging misogyny and narcissism, “Julian didn’t appear to see how unattractive he could seem.” Exile makes him an unreal citizen of nowhere, but so do his petty, self-diminishing habits.
So sad. But rare? First published in the London Review of Books, in 2014, this account of a man’s belligerent pomposity, his petty demands for total loyalty, “turf wars [and] tweets,” and rapey sexual bravado can’t help now evoking a different demagogue. Exemplary of what happens when an “online self and a real self [are] constantly … at war with each other,” Assange is Charles Foster Kane, “abusive and monstrous in his pursuit of the truth that interests him, and a man … motivated all the while not by high principles but by a deep sentimental wound”: someone with “both too much self and not enough.”
In O’Hagan’s book the digital only amplifies features of an old, gloomy story.
Foreshadowing Trump, O’Hagan’s Assange also conjures up Dickens. O’Hagan’s plea that Assange “not make himself the hero of every anecdote” echoes David Copperfield’s uncertainty “whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else.”1 Like Dickens, O’Hagan understands one’s life to be peopled perpetually by others. Where does Julian end and WikiLeaks—that sprawling, centerless, disembodied network of spies, whistleblowers, hackers, code names—begin? Bitcoin and its platforms—nCrypt, nTrust—are similarly headless, anarchic things, though for twitchy, ambitious men like Assange and Wright they also represent freedom: the freedom “to be someone other than who [you] were.”
Mentioning Dickens may seem out of place for a book so fixated on the virtuality of the internet. O’Hagan himself, however, regularly alludes to the great, long fictions of the 19th century: from Anna Karenina to Joseph Conrad, to “that very Jane Austen kind of house” in which Assange & Co. hole up in Norfolk, UK, to descriptions of gothic assassins and of Assange’s lawyer as “an ebullient, red-faced mucker straight out of Dickens, saturated in media savvy,” to the comparison of writers to “superfluous … characters in nineteenth-century Russian novels.” In a letter from someone in prison, Assange becomes “Mr WikiLeaks,” a come-to-life personification of masses of (virtual) paper, 250,000 cables that, in their Chancery-like, disordered vastness, nobody has actually been able to read.
Dickens again: the book’s short middle essay, on Ronnie Pinn, does the police in different voices. Saying he got the idea from investigators taking on the names of dead children, first as aliases, for undercover work, and then, sometimes, taking on alternate lives, even fathering children, O’Hagan tells a creepy reanimation story in which he creates an elaborate digital life for a man whose name he happens by on a tombstone. Despite its focus on the ghosted authorship of Wikipedia, the “new ether” of the web, and the “miasma of social media,” the story is one of old graveyards and Romantic-era questions about the identity of documents and the persons represented therein.
A discussion of Assange’s publishing contract becomes a debate about the nature of contracts, about the kind of book O’Hagan has contracted to write: an autobiography—a life story, complete with childhood detail—or a “philosophy,” or a “manifesto.” Assange is Byronic, “a little mad, sad, and bad,” but also “a figure out of James Hogg” or Dostoevsky, “Mr. Kurtz.” No less Ronnie Pinn: a hybrid creature, half journalist’s discovery, half literary invention—one of J. M. Barrie’s Lost Boys, Oliver Twist, Mr. Hyde—but recast as a “digividual,” a “personality-based social-web robot,” buying guns and shipping heroin to an Islington apartment, paid for in Bitcoins.
O’Hagan sometimes draws between fact and fakery a line too solid for his purpose, arguing that our idea of personhood is now “very different from former notions of reality and privacy.” No doubt the rules of the Dark Web aren’t the same as those of the gothic novel. But in this book the digital only amplifies features of an old, gloomy story. James Hogg indeed.
It is harder to get rid of Ronnie Pinn’s online existence than it was to invent it. Wright cannot prove himself the digividual he claims to be. O’Hagan writes that Facebook, at the time of this writing, estimated that more people were also second and third people than comprised the entire population of the UK. Who among us, he asks, isn’t inventing, inhabiting others, living, with “the ghost’s prerogative,” borrowed lives in houses not our own? A haunting sentiment, to be sure. But the book’s preoccupation with men large and small, real and not, made me wonder: is this prerogative decidedly men’s?
This article was commissioned by Leah Price.
- Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850; Oxford World’s Classics, 2008), p. 2. ↩