Cuban Myths

OurManInHavana-Opening Screen

In the Havana of the late 50s, Jim Wormold, a Phastkleaners vacuum cleaners salesman, lives a quaint life. Regularly, he meets with Dr Hasselbacher, a German expatriate, at the Wonder Bar, drinking Daiquiries. His daughter Milly is courted by Captain Segura, the chief of police in Havana. Segura is a dangerous man, feared and hated among the local population for his arbitrary abuse of power.

When Mr Hawthorne arrives in Cuba in order to recruit an agent, he sets his eyes on Wormold. With the inconspicuous cover of a tradesman, he seems a perfectly suitable candidate for the job. Wormold, unconcerned by politics or secrets, understands the chance to better his finances and so agrees to work for the British Secret Service. His first task then is to recruit more agents. Despite his serious attempts, he fails at this. Upon Dr Hasselbacher's recommendation, Wormold starts to invent sub-agents as well as their reports. The MI6 pays well for his fictional work.

by Carl Pierer

Myths, according to Barthes, follow a complex structure. There are two levels to be distinguished: The linguistic from the mythological one. On the linguistic level, we have Saussurean signs. The myth is a second order sign, made up of a Saussurean or linguistic sign as its signifier and a concept as its signified. To distinguish the sign as such from its use in the myth, Barthes introduces the two terms meaning and form. Meaning picks out the sign as an independent entity (3. Sign). When this sign or meaning is used as a signifier in the myth, it is called form (I. SIGNIFIER). Tumblr_mcdj21sCND1qelazoo1_1280
The important contrast is that meaning is rich, while form is impoverished. Meaning, according to Barthes, has a history. Form then empties meaning of its history and content, in order to use it as a signifier. The concept here, then, is the mythological signified (II. SIGNIFIED). The correlation of form and concept is called signification or myth (III SIGN).

One example given by Barthes is the following:

“I am a pupil in the second form in a French lycée. I open my Latin grammar, and I read a sentence, borrowed from Aesop or Phaedrus: quia ego nominor leo. I stop and think. There is something ambiguous about this statement: on the one hand, the words in it do have a simple meaning: because my name is lion. And on the other hand, the sentence is evidently there in order to signify something else to me. Inasmuch as it is addressed to me, a pupil in the second form, it tells me clearly: I am a grammatical example meant to illustrate the rule about the agreement of the predicate. I am even forced to realize that the sentence in no way signifies its meaning to me, that it tries very little to tell me something about the lion and what sort of name he has; its true and fundamental signification is to impose itself on me as the presence of a certain agreement of the predicate. I conclude that I am faced with a particular, greater, semiological system, since it is co-extensive with the language: there is, indeed, a signifier, but this signifier is itself formed by a sum of signs, it is in itself a first semiological system (my name is lion). Thereafter, the formal pattern is correctly unfolded: there is a signified (I am a grammatical example) and there is a global signification, which is none other than the correlation of the signifier and the signified; for neither the naming of the lion nor the grammatical example are given separately.”

This example illustrates that the myth is highly context dependent. Barthes points out that the myth is appropriated, that it fits the audience it addresses. What is signified by the form (I. SIGNIFIER) is not always the same. The myth is created by taking any given sign and using it to signify something different. In the creation, however, the sign is emptied of its former content. For instance, quia ego nominor leo is not part of the Fable anymore, the original meaning is pushed to the back. It now serves a very different purpose. No longer does the sentence justify the lion's bigger share, neither does it tell the story of the lion. Instead, its grammatical characteristics are examined. Yet, it is important to notice that the meaning is not suppressed, the form feeds on it. It lingers there, passively, and can be brought to the fore if need be. The second part of the myth is the signified, which Barthes calls the concept. In many aspects, it is antithetical to the form. For one, it is highly motivated. In fact, it is the very reason for the formation of the myth, because the concept wants to be transmitted. Furthermore, it is historical. This ensures the appropriateness of the myth, the concept talks to the audience. Barthes mentions: “Truth to tell, what is invested in the concept is less reality than a certain knowledge of reality”. The combination of concept and form constitutes signification, the myth itself. Signification is deformation. Form, the emptied meaning, gets infused with the concept to transport the message of the myth. The intricate workings of the myth make sure that the meaning remains present, but only distorted.

This, indeed, is the central aspect of the myth. The myth's purpose is to naturalise the concept by inserting it into the empty shell of the form. Only because there is a ‘natural' meaning behind the form does the concept appear natural. When there is no interplay between empty form and full meaning (as in the case of the symbol) the myth brakes down, it fails to naturalise the concept. In Barthes' example, the sentence “quia ego nominor leo”, in the pupil's context, invokes the fable and the entire corpus of Latin literature. It gives the pupil the impression that there is a natural connection between the historical background of the sentence and the rule of the agreement of the predicate. There are two ways in which the required interplay can fail to occur and in both it is the historical meaning that is missing.

First, contrast this with a sentence that has been constructed by the writers of the textbook, a sentence that lacks the history of the Aesop quotation. Such a sentence can illustrate the concept, but it is no more than a symbol. The taste of an imposed artificial structure remains. Second, the pupil could be unfamiliar with the fable. Then, the sentence could just as well be artificially constructed. To the pupil, it appears detached from the ‘natural' realm of the Latin language. In the second case, the pupil is not part of the audience of the myth. The myth only talks to people that share the same context.

Now, in the case the myth is at work, the mythologist (i.e. Barthes) can denaturalise the myth. The myth is at work, this means: there seems to be a natural connection between the concept, e.g. the rule of the agreement of the predicate, and the historically immerged signifier, e.g. “quia ego nominor leo”. The mythologist points out that in order for the connection to be made, the signifier is taken out of its historical context, stripped from it. Once this is made evident, the ‘natural' appearance of the connection breaks down. Indeed, because the signifier is stripped of its historical context, it could be used to signify anything whatsoever.

To sum up, the creator of the myth uses an existing linguistic sign, strips it of its historical context and uses it to signify a concept of his or her choice. The audience of the myth, familiar with the original historical context, comes to believe in a natural connection between the linguistic sign and the concept. The mythologist can unmask this myth by pointing out that for the connection to be made, the linguistic sign was taken out of context. Based off Barthes analysis of myths, we will now take a closer look at what happens to “Our man in Havana”.

The MI6 gladly receives Wormold's bogus reports. To make them more interesting, Wormold sends sketches of parts of his vacuum cleaner to London, pretending that these were vast installations discovered by one of his agents, the pilot Raul. Indeed, this is one of the turning points in the plot. The MI6 falls for these drawings and decides to take Wormold more seriously. Suddenly, Wormold finds himself one of the most important spies working for the secret service. London sends a secretary (Beatrice) and a radio operator to Havana. At this point Wormold's web starts a life of its own. Wormold tries his best to conceal his deception. When Beatrice wishes to meet Raul, it is a lucky coincidence that a pilot of this name is killed in a car crash. Dr Hasselbacher, who had been blackmailed into spying on Wormold but changed his mind, is shot by an enemy agent in the Wonder Bar. The MI6 discovers that “they” sent Carter, the enemy agent, to kill Wormold during a trade association meeting. Wormold, unmasking Carter in the last moment, deliberately spills his poisoned drink. With Captain Segura drunk after a game of checkers with miniature whisky bottles, Wormold is able to steal the Captain's gun and kills Carter. Wormold decides to leave Havana for London and to uncover the fraud. Yet, instead of admitting that they had fallen for this fraud, the MI6 awards Wormold a job and recommends him for an OBE.

With brilliant wit, Graham Greene not only humorously portrays the creation of a myth but also describes the effects of the naturalised myth. Wormold, seizing the chance of earning some extra money on the side, invents agents and reports. The MI6 then takes this ‘linguistic' sign and turns it into a myth, of which “they” are the audience. In his subtlety, Greene never states who “they” are. In a dialogue between Wormold and Dr Hasselbacher, “they” are no more than a vague other:

‘These people don't like our friendship, Hasselbacher. They want me to stay away from you. They are tracing you. How do you suppose they trace a man?'

‘I don't know. Be careful, Mr Wormold. Take their money, but don't give them anything in return. You are vulnerable to the Seguras. Just lie and keep your freedom. They don't deserve the truth.'

‘Whom do you mean by they?'

‘Kingdoms, republics, powers.'

Halfway through the dialogue, Wormold loses track of the “they” he invoked earlier. Neither he nor Hasselbacher actually knows about what entity they are talking. “They” is an empty signifier, signifying any of the following: the Cuban government (the Seguras), the MI6 (who disapproves of their friendship), the enemy (who sent Carter). The “they”, the audience of the myth, is united by their knowledge of the context. All of “them” closely observe what is happening on Cuba, “they” try to get ahead of each other by obtaining intelligence. Simultaneously, “they” observe each other. This proves to be fertile soil for the creation of the myth.

The meaning of the linguistic sign Wormold creates is fictional, until the reports are received by the MI6. Then, the MI6 strips the linguistic sign of its historical background. The MI6 infuses the empty form, the pure reports, with reality. The once fictional reports now refer to actual happenings. The audience of the myth, the “they”, takes this connection to be natural. “They” believe Wormold's reports are true. But the “they” also contains the MI6 itself. This means the MI6 falls for its own myth, so it starts acting on it. Thus, the MI6 catalyse the naturalisation process to the point that “they” are entirely convinced. Towards the end of the book, when Wormold lays open his fraud, the MI6 changes roles. It is no longer part of the audience but turns to maintain the myth. It is now aware of the arbitrary connection between signifier and signified, so it does not believe the connection natural anymore. Yet, instead of publicly unmasking the myth, the MI6 holds it up, without being a victim to the myth.

It is possible to discern a different myth: Wormold, in the creation of the linguistic sign, manufactures a myth. This is to say, the linguistic sign is itself a myth. Wormold takes vacuum cleaner parts, strips them of their vacuum-cleaner-context and uses them as a signifier to signify vast installations in the Cuban mountains. The audience of the myth is, again, the MI6. The MI6, on a first level, naturalises the connection between drawings of vacuum cleaner parts and vast installations. On a second level, it naturalises the connection between vast installations and reality. So we are faced with a “first-order” myth, Wormold's reports, and a “second-order” myth, the MI6 acting on these reports. The audience of the “first-order” myth is the MI6, the audience of the “second-order” myth are “they”.

This accumulation of myths echoes the Poststructuralist critique. Poststructuralists attack the idea of signs deriving meaning from one another. There is no sign, they say, that is not itself derived from other signs. This implies that the chain of signification is infinite, so ultimately none of the signs has meaning independent of other signs. So, no matter which way we go, we will encounter a new myth. In the direction of the “first-order” myth, we can dig deeper. The parts of the vacuum cleaner are themselves another myth. We think their ‘natural' connection is in the context of vacuum cleaner, but this is an arbitrary connection. They could just as well be parts of a vast installation. There is no rock-bottom, no basic unit of meaning. In the direction of the “second-order” myth, we can use this myth – and it is very probable that “they” are indeed doing this to justify “their” actions to “their” superiors – to signify a new concept, thus creating “third-order” myth. This implies that, in fact, there is no order of myths, the chain of signification going to infinity on both sides.

However, not all is lost. We are not inevitably victims to myths of our own making. It is beyond the scope of this essay to do any more than to hint at Deconstruction, which seems to promise the unmasking of at least some of the myths we live by.

Dr Hasselbacher sighed. He said, ‘You are a lucky man, Mr Wormold. That information is always easy to give.'


‘If it is secret enough, you alone know it. All you need is a little imagination, Mr Wormold.'

‘They want me to recruit agents. How does one recruit an agent, Hasselbacher?'

‘You could invent them too, Mr Wormold.'

‘You sound as though you had experience.'

‘Medicine is my experience, Mr Wormold. Have you never read the advertisement for secret remedies? A hair tonic confided by the dying Chief of a Red Indian tribe. With a secret remedy, you don't have to print the formula. And there is something about a secret which makes people believe…'