Read an Excerpt
From Steven Marcus’s Introduction to The Secret Agent
Ever since the terrorist destruction of the World Trade Center in September 2001, Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent has figured prominently as an object of exemplary reference. In the incessant stream of published commentary, analysis, opinion, and moralizing reflection that such a devastating event inevitably brings forth, Conrad’s novel has been repeatedly annexed as both illustration and in support of a wide range of interpretative perspectives. For the most part, journalistic commentary has focused upon the figure of the Professor, and has included incidental references to the more bloodthirsty utterances of the other anarchist characters. In 1906–1907, so this line of discussion goes, Conrad had clairvoyantly perceived the catastrophic consequences that the European traditions of radical and revolutionary political theory, ideology, and practice were to bring about, and The Secret Agent is to be understood by us today as in this sense both prophetic and minatory.
Other readings of a more “centrist” persuasion stress the symbiotic relation between the police and the terrorists, that they often “come from the same basket.” The elaborate “game” in which continuous surveillance by the police authorities and toleration of radical political dissent are simultaneously played off against one another creates a situation of stress and conflict in which government, imperfect enough as it is, tends to over-respond on the side of security. In doing so the state violates the liberties of freedom of opinion and expression that it has also been mandated to sustain and that the radical dissenters claim as rights belonging to them as equal members of a democratic, liberal society. Encroachment on or invasion of such rights serves chiefly to expose the substantial elements of untruth and hypocrisy in liberal ideology, reinforces dissident and radical fixed opinion as to the wholesale illegitimacy of prevailing political and social institutions, and prompts those already in opposition to further measures of “resistance.”
A bit further along on the spectrum of interpretation is the contention that the political society attacked and wounded by the terrorists is itself in considerable part responsible for the destruction brought down on its head—this may be called the chickens have come home to roost hypothesis. Finally, there are a number of far-out or advanced readings. There is, first, the inference that the entire scenario was masterminded by the host-victim itself or by one of its surrogates. Just as the scheme against the Greenwich Observatory is the brainchild of the First Secretary of the Russian Embassy, so too the “non-appearance” of Jewish employees at the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11 clearly points to . . . etc. And in addition, exactly as the scenario in Conrad was deliberately cooked up to inspire repressive official action against the anarchists, so too in our time the subsequent administration fantasy of weapons of mass destruction was part of a concerted authoritarian effort to bamboozle the public and justify aggressive military intervention in Iraq.
Such diverse readings—most of them containing at least a few granules of insight—suggest both the force and complexity of Conrad’s imaginative vision along with the force and complexity of the events of recent history, as well as the urgency that actuates our responses to both. In point of fact, ever since its first appearance The Secret Agent has acted as a special screen for the projection by readers of varying interpretations of the modern world. As culture and society change, and the minds and sensibilities of readers change in some inexact but correlated dimension, so too, apparently, do great works of art. That is one crude and incomplete way of describing how it is that such works both require and sustain continuous and repeated new interpretations.
But of course terrorism, being as it is a form of political behavior and not an ideology or political theory or set of doctrines, can occur almost anywhere—wherever or whenever a group of conditions that include both personal and transpersonal (that is, social, cultural, political, economic, religious) components, circumstances, and motives coincide. Here in the United States, one recalls such disparate and relatively recent phenomena as the Weathermen, the Symbionese Liberation Army, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the Unabomber. The last of these, Theodore Kaczynski, holed up in his cabin in Montana, kept a copy of The Secret Agent handy to his bedside.
Moreover, terrorism has a long history and is protean in the forms of its occurrence. The historian Walter Laqueur regards it as an “insurrectional strategy that can be used by people of very different political convictions,” and at the same time asserts that “a comprehensive definition of terrorism” does not exist and is not, at least for the foreseeable future, likely to be found. He does not mean that terrorism cannot be analyzed or understood. What he implies is that terrorism exists in too many shapes and occurs in too many dissimilar contexts for it to be adequately or usefully captured in a single universal description. It follows from this consideration that apart from certain very general features, it tends to be characterized by particular and changing constellations of causal influences and intricate, unstable correlations of circumstances and motives.
The kind of terrorism that Conrad dramatizes in The Secret Agent was affiliated with the anarchist movement in European and American political life and thought. This movement found its origins in the after-consequences of the French Revolution. From about 1840 and for a century thereafter, it existed as part of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century radical and revolutionary political and cultural universes. And anarchism itself, in common with other historical revolutionary tendencies, was anything but uniform or unitary. A movement that includes at one end desperate conspirators and terrorists and at the other pacifists, or at yet a third boundary extreme collectivists and communitarians and at a fourth rabid egoists and individualist libertarians seems to have found a means of stretching ideological consensus out of reasonable recognition. And indeed anarchists divided into schisms, factions, and groupuscules as readily and obsessively as other radical political sects. Like other messianic conventicles, they often dedicated as much energy and aggressiveness to internal and intramural disputes as they did in opposition to the great, oppressive arrays of capitalism and the state against which they had originally recruited themselves. In compact, concise strokes, Conrad in The Secret Agent manages distinctively to suggest the rancor and sourness of atmosphere and discourse that were frequently characteristic of such small, splintered, oppositional, and minority groups.