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The events of September 11 have raised urgent questions about why modern societies are so susceptible to acts of terror, what drives individuals to commit such acts, and what the response of the forces of law and order tell us about the real nature of modern democracy. Although such questions seem profoundly tied to the experience of the early twenty-first century, they had already been exercising the mind of Joseph Conrad nearly a century earlier in his dark and atmospheric novel The Secret Agent. Like his masterful novella Heart of Darkness, The Secret Agent creates a menacing fictional world that has held a perennial fascination for readers inquiring into the human capacity for deception, duplicity, and destruction, Whereas Heart of Darkness looks for the truth of modern experience in the murderous frenzy of European colonialism, the fictional world of The Secret Agent is firmly rooted in the great imperial metropolis of the day, London. For Conrad, the city has become a much more sinister place than it was for his great predecessor, Dickens, who peopled London with warm-hearted eccentrics to balance out the bureaucratic anonymity and cold-heartedness of modern life. In Conrad’s metropolis, however, the unrelenting daily rhythms of urban life threaten to turn even sentiment into an agent of terror. To twenty-first century readers, the ruthless fictional world created by The Secret Agent will appear startlingly prescient, seeming to anticipate contemporary experience with uncanny foresight and an unsettling sureness of vision.
If The Secret Agent’s portrait of modern life rejects the sentimental attachments of many of Conrad’s predecessors and contemporaries, this is because Conrad himself lacked the kind of rootedness in British national life and culture that they enjoyed. Indeed, as an orphan, an exile, an atheist, and an aristocrat, Conrad went without any secure sense of belonging, tradition, or home in both the literal and spiritual sense. He was born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in Russian-occupied Poland in 1857 and was the son of the famous Polish patriot, radical, writer, and intellectual Apollo Korzeniowski. While still a boy, Conrad lost both parents as a result of the harsh conditions of their exile by the Russian authorities, leaving him with an intense and enduring hostility toward not only Russia but also the “Asiatic” world with which he associated it. The young Conrad inherited from his father an aristocratic sense of his own personal destiny and an expansive conception of the visionary role of the artist; but what was not passed on was his father’s sense of connection to the national community, in whose service and for whose sake artists were to produce their art, nor his Catholic faith, which had sustained the idea of Polish national identity in the absence of political independence. When only sixteen, Conrad left his family to become a seaman and eventually a ship’s captain, a path that he hoped would secure him citizenship in a West European country and so release him from his status as a Russian subject. Conrad’s life at sea did indeed gain him British citizenship in 1886 and also furnished him with a fund of material for his later literary career. But ultimately it could not provide the enduring sense of purpose, existential meaning, or belonging which he pursued so doggedly in his fiction since it required an apparently endless series of examinations, bureaucratic tasks, and individual compromises. The anglicized name “Joseph Conrad,” which he assumed in 1894 on launching his literary career, thus speaks as much about his alienation from family, native land, and even the sea, as it does about his newfound commitment to his adopted country and its cultural and social life.
The Secret Agent was originally published in serial form in 1906 and then as a novel in 1907, and thus belongs to the productive but crisis-ridden period when Conrad wrote what are considered his most significant and enduring works, beginning in 1899 with Heart of Darkness and ending in 1911 with the publication of Under Western Eyes. While the motifs of espionage, informers, and secret policemen are shared with the latter novel, thematically The Secret Agent is in many ways best understood as a companion piece to the earlier novella. Famously, the opening of Heart of Darkness introduces the idea of obscurity by dwelling on the “brooding gloom” of London and the River Thames that envelops the group of listeners who attend to Marlow’s story of colonial brutality on the Congo River. What Conrad seeks to render in his novel is that profound disconnect between the imperial “homeland”—where as ordinary and no doubt caring individuals we inhabit a comfortable but tightly circumscribed sphere of experience—and the overseas colonial frontier, where the economic and political forces which sustain that domestic life run riot with a ruthlessness that makes a mockery of any ostensible moral mission. Thus, the imperial project institutes a curious structure of visibility and invisibility: at home it is understood as bringing progress and civilization, while beyond the limits of the domestic viewpoint it unleashes a violence that is invisible, or which only becomes visible to the domestic audience in an ironic reversal, as the “savagery” of “primitive” peoples.
If Heart of Darkness examines how the unfolding of colonial history belies imperial ideology, The Secret Agent turns its attention to the domestic condition of obscurity and indifference. The novel’s foreign spymaster Vladimir, who despairs of making an impact on the complacent and imperturbable British public, articulates the problem that Conrad sees in modern, mass society. Vladimir, implicitly, if unambiguously, a representative of Russia, seeks to undermine the “sentimental regard for liberty” held by the British. In order to provoke an authoritarian backlash, he deploys his undercover agent Verloc—the secret agent of the novel’s title—to organize a particularly outrageous bombing. But as Vladimir explains, the challenge is how to rouse the indignation and political will of a population that has sunk into a kind of existential indifference under the weight of material comfort, physical security, emotional routine, and intellectual conformity. “An attempt upon [the life] of a crowned head or on a president,” Vladimir complains, “has entered into the general conception of the existence of all chiefs of state. It’s almost conventional…. Every newspaper has readymade phrases to explain such manifestations away.” According to Vladimir, the routinized forms of mass society are capable of absorbing any and every specific act of assault, since in some sense we have already seen them before, and thus have a convenient narrative in which to insert them. The fact that there exists a preexisting form in which to place any event, however “outrageous” it may be, means nothing can ever really make an impact, because it is never really experienced in and for itself.
Vladimir’s answer is not to seek a still bloodier death toll or a more prominent target, since these would still be made meaningful in some familiar way; rather it is to attack meaning itself. Thus, Vladimir insists, the bombing must be “an act of destructive ferocity so absurd as to be incomprehensible, inexplicable, almost unthinkable”; for, as he explains, it is “madness,” or pure irrationality, that “alone is truly terrifying, inasmuch as you cannot placate it either by threats, persuasion, or bribes.” It is according to this logic of terror that the central act of violence in the novel is conceived: namely, the attack on the Royal Observatory at Greenwich in London, the point through which the prime meridian that anchors both global navigation (as zero longitude) and the international system of Universal Coordinated Time (as Greenwich Mean Time) runs. The bombing of the Greenwich Observatory is intended as nothing less than an attack on the very human systematization of space and time. It is an attack on the virtual coordinates that stabilize and make meaningful an otherwise indifferent and meaningless universe.
If the themes of obscurity and indifference motivate the central violent act of the novel, they also permeate both the lives of its characters and its ironic style. While it is the foreign spymaster Vladimir who conceives of the attack, it is double agent Verloc, ostensibly an anarchist but in fact working for an unnamed foreign power, who arranges it. Verloc’s world, like that of the other anarchists, is depicted as solipsistic and self-regarding. Each of them inhabits a political fantasy that flatters their own sense of self-importance, moral worth, and world-historical insight, thus apparently placing them above the complacency of bourgeois society. The novel suggests their self-dramatizing rejection of that society is really just another version of its self-centeredness. Ranged against them are the forces of law and order, which are in turn subject to self-delusion and complacency. Chief Inspector Heat, the literary descendant of Dickens’ Inspector Bucket, mistakenly assures his political masters that there will be no bombing because he takes his own knowledge of the anarchists to be infallible. In his own mind, however, his error lies not in his misjudgment of the situation on the ground, but in his laxity in “allowing himself to express a conviction” before his superiors, a laxity that runs counter to what he regards as “true wisdom.” Yet as the novel’s narrator observes with undisguised irony, had Heat really possessed “true wisdom,” it “would have prevented him from attaining his present position.” According to our narrator, the strongly held convictions of both the forces of law and the forces of disorder are a self-deluding sham, since “in this world of contradictions,” true wisdom lies in “not [being] certain of anything.”
Here the obscurity of motive, action, and meaning manifested by the underground world of the anarchists, agents, and secret police is mirrored by the novel’s style. Rather than employing an individualized, embodied, and therefore limited narrator as in Heart of Darkness, Conrad deploys a depersonalized narrative voice, which relentlessly exhibits disdain for the characters and skepticism toward their motives. Thus to present a world where conviction is a sham, the novel employs a narrator who is thoroughly suspicious of all conviction. In his author’s note, Conrad claims the novel’s aesthetic justification lies precisely in its application of this “ironic method,” arguing that only such an “ironic treatment would allow me to say all I had to say in scorn as well as pity.” Yet critics such as Terry Eagleton have complained that the thoroughgoing skepticism of the narrator might itself be considered a sham, since paradoxically it holds the conviction that conviction is impossible.
Perhaps the novel’s most devastating irony lies in the narrative outcomes assigned to Verloc’s wife, Winnie, and her malleable brother Stevie, who suffers from learning difficulties and is unable to understand the meaning of events even within his own household. Winnie’s attachment to Verloc is motivated by her devotion to Stevie, and she trades her own happiness for a loveless marriage that nonetheless provides a secure home for her brother. Stevie’s sympathetic and tender nature in turn gives rise to a tragically misplaced devotion to his brother-in-law, the secret agent Verloc, whose rhetoric of universal brotherhood Stevie mistakes for real concern for the suffering of others. In each case, these isolated instances of love and loyalty are shown to have disastrous and deadly consequences. In the world of The Secret Agent, sympathy and empathy are presented as peculiarly dangerous modes of self-deception, since in blinding the pathetic soul to the harsh realities of self-interest and deceit they engender an even crueler and more brutal violence than that generated by the indifferent course of everyday life.
The Secret Agent, then, is not modern in the sense that it displays the kind of modernist narrative technique exhibited by Conrad’s contemporaries like Henry James and Ford Maddox Ford—or indeed so intriguingly by Conrad himself in Heart of Darkness. Nor does it exhibit the kind of formal self-consciousness and experimentalism pursued with such virtuosity in the interwar period by James Joyce or Virginia Woolf; in fact the novel is stylistically much closer to Émile Zola’s naturalism than to any of these. Rather, its claim to modernity lies in its systematic denial of any escape from the relentless self-deception and inauthenticity of modern social life. That is, the novel’s claim to be modern ultimately rests on its exhibiting the very nihilism it sees as the defining condition of the modern world.
Yet for all the dispassionate disdain of Conrad’s avowed “ironic method,” there are moments in the novel that are invested with a significance that rises above irony, and that invite the reader’s identification. Perhaps the most obvious occurs with Chief Inspector Heat’s visceral shock on seeing the remains of the hapless bomber, an instant where the pure physicality of the destruction of another human being cuts across the conventional patterns of self-deceiving response. A less obvious moment comes when his superior, the Assistant Commissioner, slips out of his everyday routine, bound to office, timetable, political expectations, and professional etiquette, and experiences an existential freedom in going undercover. The Assistant Commissioner “had begun [his career] in a tropical colony” where colonial police action against the natives was unencumbered by legal oversight or democratic supervision, and now he feels stifled by the restrictions and regulations of metropolitan policing. Assuming disguise and leaving behind all support and assistance, the Assistant Commissioner experiences a truly authentic moment of existence because it is truly unencumbered by others: we learn that he “felt lighthearted, as though he had been ambushed all alone in a jungle many thousands of miles away from departmental desks and office inkstands,” and experienced a “dispersion of thought [which] seem[ed] to prove that this world of ours is not such a very serious affair after all.”
This invocation of the colonial jungle signals a significant line of recent critical interest in the novel, which has sought to place its nihilism more squarely within the particular historical context that produced it. This context is only partially acknowledged in the author’s note, which rather obliquely explains that the novel’s central act is based on a historical incident—the detonation of a bomb by the anarchist Martial Bourdin in Greenwich in 1894. But as Norman Sherry has painstakingly detailed, many of the characters in The Secret Agent are based on figures associated not with anarchism but with the bombing campaigns conducted by Irish Fenians in their agitation against British rule in Ireland. According to Seamus Deane, the novel performs an “expert conflation of the Fenian and Russian anarchist stereotypes,”1 a conflation that obscures its historical connection to the anti-colonial struggle in Britain’s oldest colony, a struggle that within a decade and a half would emerge as a full-blown war of national liberation resulting in Ireland’s partial independence. The fact that the colonial roots of the novel’s nihilism are effaced opens up new perspectives on the political questions that it raises. For if The Secret Agent implies that we must understand political violence as Vladimir describes it—as “purely destructive …. and only that” —once we recall the struggle for decolonization that provides its immediate context, it is clear that such a perspective is only possible if we ignore the complex political histories that underlie each apparently spontaneous act of violence. In this light, the novel returns us to the invisibility of colonial violence explored in Heart of Darkness, although now it is Conrad’s own writing that is engaged in the work of its disappearance.
1. Seamus Deane, “Civilians and Barbarians” in Ireland’s Field Day (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1986), p. 39.
Graham MacPhee has taught at universities in Britain and the United States, and is currently Assistant Professor of English at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. He has published widely on modern literature and culture, and is the author of The Architecture of the Visible and co-editor of Empire and After: Englishness in Postcolonial Perspective.