For three years now, Julian Assange has ridden the global imagination as the pale and persecuted information knight of our times.
Assange's latest target is The Fifth Estate, the movie about WikiLeaks in which he is played by a frumious Benedict Cumberbatch. He has denounced it as a "massive propaganda attack," for, among other things, lying about him dying his hair.
Despite all the coverage he's received, Assange remains an enigma. Who is this Australian hacker with skin as smooth as monumental alabaster -- just that one shade short of transparent? On the one hand he has exposed war crimes, creepy government surveillance, corruption, and torture, but on the other, he has simply refused to show up in a Swedish court to answer to two charges of sexual assault.
Assange has been compared to all kinds of characters from history and fiction. To someone from a Stieg Larsson thriller and to the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. To Neo from The Matrix and -- Great Snakes! -- Tintin. To a tech-enabled Osama and the Joker in The Dark Knight. To Robert McNamara for his empiricism and Ahab for his monomania. To Robert Ludlum's hero Jason Bourne and Ron L. Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology -- the last two comparisons made by his one-time ally Jemima Khan who, like many others, has traveled the arc from admiration to disenchantment.
If none of these analogies do the 42-year-old WikiLeaks editor-in-chief justice it's probably because they chase narrowly after an ideological twin whilst completely ignoring his spectral physicality and complex personality that lend so much to the myth-making around him.
It's hard to find a fit, but guess what? There is an uncannily apt one -- given to us by a woman writing in a Yorkshire parsonage over a hundred years ago.
I'm talking about St. John Rivers, the cold, handsome, and "inexorable as death" clergyman from Charlotte Bronte's Victorian romance, Jane Eyre. While the novel's glowering hero Mr. Rochester gets all the press (and the governess), in the austere St. John Bronte created a character hewn from fire and ice.
Readers will recall that it is St. John who saves Jane Eyre's life by taking her in on a winter's night, after she has fled Mr. Rochester's mansion on learning that he is already wed to a wife locked away in the attic. Over the months that follow, St. John and Jane discover they are cousins. Although he doesn't love Jane, nor she him, St John recognizes the value of her moral and mental caliber, and asks her to marry him in order for her to accompany him to India where he wants to spend the rest of his life evangelizing to the followers of "Brahma and Juggernaut." To his great shock, because he is a man used to being obeyed, Jane turns down his loveless proposal.
Tall, blond, single-minded, lividly pale, charismatic, relentless, and driven to burn-out point by the grand desire to change the world, St. John Rivers is Julian Assange's Victorian doppelganger.
Let's start with the striking physical resemblance. Jane is struck by Rivers' "high forehead, colorless as ivory" and "partially streaked over by careless locks of fair hair." There is a certain "heroic grandeur" to his aspect. His brow is "still and pale as a white stone" and he has "well-cut lips." His eyes are "bright and deep and searching, but never soft." And he seems to use them "rather as instruments to search other people's thoughts, than as agents to reveal his own." Jane could easily have been describing Assange.
Both men are spurred on by a moral vision. One is a Calvinist who wants to save souls by spreading the word, his one faithful companion his Bible. The other is a Hacktivist who wants to save lives by spreading the word, his one faithful companion his laptop. The zeitgeists differ, the zeal is the same.
If Assange dresses in skinny suits and speaks in a measured and toneless baritone, Rivers "dresses well," has a "slow, deep voice" and even in his most impassioned sermon is "compressed, condensed, controlled." Both are highly intelligent autodidacts -- home-schooled Assange cites Solzhenitsyn, Hemingway and Orwell while St. John is an "accomplished and profound scholar." For both, domesticity and personal wealth hold little appeal.
Both are workaholics and taskmasters. St. John "would never rest, nor approve of others resting around him." He is a devoted pastor, who gets out his old horse to visit the sick and poor of his parish even in the most punishing weather, although as Jane remarks, it's unclear whether he's driven by "love or duty." At the height of WikiLeaks drop in 2010, Assange was said to have been chained to his computer, with little time to sleep, eat, bathe, change his clothes or get a haircut.
St. John is manipulative and a bully. He tricks Jane into learning Hindostanee and tries his best to browbeat her into accepting his proposal: "I want a wife: the sole helpmeet I can influence efficiently in life, and retain absolutely till death." More than one of Assange's associates has described him as imperious, manipulative and demanding of unquestioning obedience. Though admired for his commitment to political justice, he has been charged with not being concerned about redacting names from the WikiLeaks data, despite being cautioned that such exposure could endanger lives.
"And yet St. John is a good man," said (his sister) Diana.
To which Jane replies, "He is a good and a great man; but he forgets, pitilessly, the feelings and claims of little people, in pursuing his own large views."