The Prophet Conrad
How ‘The Secret Agent’ anticipates the perils of today.
Mar 28, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 27 • By ELIZABETH POWERS
Liberals deny that they are unconcerned about Islamic terrorism.
Joseph Conrad, 1923
Hulton Archives / Getty Images
They insist, instead, that it is not the extraordinary threat claimed by conservatives. Thus, back in 2004, John Kerry promised to treat terrorism as one would illegal gambling or prostitution, as common criminal activity. Gordon Brown made the same case when he pronounced that “terrorism is not a cause; it is a crime.” This legalistic approach, favored by the Obama administration, is not surprising, since contemporary liberalism has gained its institutional success through the courts. Though I cannot date it precisely, but certainly since September 11, 2001, liberals have been consumed by a different vision of terror—namely, worldwide disaster caused by global warming.
At the same time, it would seem that most Americans don’t think very much about terrorism or environmental destruction at all, and conservatives, in our wish to impress on Americans the threat represented by Islamic terrorism, may seem as hyperbolic as Al Gore in his pronouncements about climate. While further attacks on the magnitude of 9/11 are not inconceivable, nearly 10 years down the road it appears that complacency reigns among Americans. And despite the continuing number of incidents around the world associated with terrorism, and the deaths of our servicemen and women in the Middle East, the danger seems far from the minds of most people.
It is difficult to know whether Americans might be more engaged had George W. Bush not chosen (in Norman Podhoretz’s words) “the path of euphemism and indirection” to describe this ideological threat. There is, however, an unwillingness—an innate inertia, even—to grapple with potential dangers until our own lives are directly affected. We call this attitude “appeasement” in our political leaders, but it is a perennial element in human character that, despite all advances in technology and living standards, is remarkably constant. People simply expect life to continue more or less as it is, without the sudden or abrupt transformations that take place in movies or novels.
Moreover, for over half a century, Western nations have eliminated many of the routine catastrophes that previous generations faced with something approaching fatalism. It is not that the West’s material achievements have made us complacent, as Marxist doctrine would have it, but that Western nations have simply institutionalized this native human tendency, allowing citizens to pursue their own good and thereby increase the wealth of nations. Some individuals, however, both within the West and outside it, enamored with an ideal, are unhappy about this state of affairs. And though it appeared over a century ago, Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) offers striking parallels to the threat such individuals pose to the West’s liberal societies, and to the complacency of ordinary people in the face of their threat.
Monitoring this threat is the task of Conrad’s Chief Inspector Heat of the Special Crimes Department, “principal expert in anarchist procedure.” Heat, unlike today’s liberals, has no illusion that these potential terrorists can be treated like criminals. In his eyes, criminals have the same mind and instincts as policemen: “Both recognize the same conventions, and have a working knowledge of each other’s methods and of the routine of their respective trades.” They are products of the same machine: “One classed as useful and the other as noxious, they take the machine for granted in different ways.” Thus, “the world of thieves—sane, without morbid ideals, working by routine, respectful of constituted authorities, free from all taint of hate and despair.” Not so the anarchist terrorists, none of whom had “half the spunk of this or that burglar he had known. Not half—not one tenth.”
Indeed, like contemporary terrorists before they explode their destructive devices, the radicals in The Secret Agent are a motley, ineffectual crew, spouting in foreign accents the mash of socialism, anarchism, materialism, and humanitarianism that can be heard today on any college campus or left-wing website. We first meet them in the parlor of Mr. Verloc, “a seller of shady wares” and a man of dubious past, who is a double agent, in the pay of a foreign government to be understood as Russia. At the start of the novel his paymaster, Mr. Vladimir, wants Verloc to commit an act that will shock Britain out of its absurd and “sentimental regard for individual liberty”—in other words, its respect for civil rights. As John Merriman points out in The Dynamite Club, his recent study of 19th-century French anarchism, draconian police measures on the continent had led to a mass immigration of radicals to England, where they could meet and publish their views with relative impunity. It is this legalized respect that keeps Inspector Heat from locking up the disgruntled individuals who would be in jail in their countries of origin had they not found a home in London. So, a century ago, the enemies of civil society had learned to manipulate the West’s institutionalized freedoms.
Mr. Verloc’s task is to set off a bomb at the Greenwich Observatory; otherwise, he will forfeit his lucrative income from the foreign embassy. The person who supplies Verloc with the explosive material is the thoroughly nihilist “Professor,” an “unwholesome-looking little moral agent of destruction,” whose aim is the total destruction of “what is.” In the Professor’s estimation, his superiority to the social order comes from its dependence “on life . . . whereas I depend on death.” Suicide bomber-like, he wears on his person a thick glass flask containing an explosive substance, which he will detonate (and thereby kill dozens of innocent Londoners who happen to be in his vicinity) if the police attempt to lay hands on him.
No doubt, it would have seemed abominable to a Western liberal like Conrad for a man to send his own son on such a dangerous mission but, in perhaps the most striking similarity with the behavior of contemporary terrorists, Verloc enlists the young brother of his wife for the task of placing the explosive device. Verloc counts on the boy escaping, but the blindly docile and devoted Stevie is of limited intelligence and sets off the device ahead of time, thus blowing himself to smithereens: “Limbs, gravel, clothing, bones, splinters—all mixed up together. I tell you they had to fetch a shovel to gather him up with.”
So far, so very familiar, despite the gas lamps and horse-drawn carriages (the time is 1886). Also familiar, despite the passage of a century, are the domestic effects of tragedy, to which Conrad devotes equal space. After all, a person killed by a terrorist, if a man, is a son or brother, perhaps a husband and father as well. Thus, Winnie Verloc, the sister of Stevie who has invested all her maternal feeling in protecting him and, indeed, sacrificed other more advantageous prospects by her marriage to Mr. Verloc.
Up until the event that ruptures the domestic tranquility, however, Mrs. Verloc has been decidedly complacent, even though the group of radicals gathers for meetings in her own parlor. The year 1886, recall, was the year of the Haymarket riot in Chicago, which gave rise to the image of the bomb-throwing anarchist. She knows that her husband is in the pay of an “embassy,” and that he makes occasional trips abroad, behavior that is surely “foreign to the standards of her class.” Nevertheless, from her first appearance in the novel, as Mrs. Verloc stands behind the counter of her husband’s shop, Conrad has stressed her resistance to noticing what is under her eyes, even as the discussions of her husband’s associates trouble her impressionable brother. She is described as “steady-eyed,” preserving an air of “unfathomable indifference” to customers, and especially to the “shamelessly inviting eyes” of Comrade Ossipon, one of the radicals, “whose glance had a corrupt clearness sufficient to enlighten any woman not absolutely imbecile.” For this woman of “unfathomable reserve,” her principle is to ignore anything affecting “the inwardness of things.” Her philosophy consists “in not taking notice of the inside of facts.” Later, Conrad says of her: “Mrs. Verloc wasted no portion of this transient life in seeking for fundamental information.”
Since the smooth and untroubled functioning of the domestic sphere (so she believes) guarantees Stevie’s security, she is alert to the peculiar frame of mind her husband displays after his visit with Mr. Vladimir: “The taciturnity of Mr. Verloc had been lying heavily upon her for a good many days.” Weighed down as he is with carrying out a task he is not up to, he is on the brink at one point, before it has occurred to him to make use of Stevie, of revealing all to his wife. In a not unusual domestic hesitation, however, he forbears:
Had Mr. Verloc been loquacious about his feelings, Stevie would have been saved. But Mrs. Verloc was no feminist avant la lettre, demanding to know what weighed on her husband’s bosom. Three times in this same chapter she is described, with only slight variation, as confirmed in her belief “that things did not stand being looked into.” And so the tragedy occurs, though not before our eyes. It is through her reaction, in the latter half of the novel, that we experience the full horror of the revelation, as Mrs. Verloc, “who always refrained from looking deep into things, was compelled to look into the very bottom of this thing.”
Conrad does not fault Mrs. Verloc for her complacency. His novelistic gaze rests impartially on the different circles of society, from high to low, along with those individuals who are constitutionally dissatisfied with the circumstances modernity has forced on us all, who are so contemptuous of the human condition that they would destroy society down to its foundations in order to erect one that conforms to their own imagination.
Even in perilous times, however, people do not expect the world to end. For Winnie Verloc, life will never be the same, but Conrad allows “the Professor”—his homemade explosive device strapped to his body—a remarkable insight concerning the futility of his nihilistic endeavor:
Such is our own complacency since the attacks of September 11, 2001. On that day, and for some time thereafter, one might have felt that life would never be the same. But the feeling has worn off, and for most of us, life is not much different. We are, after all, able to go about our lives in peace, unconcerned about threats to that peace.
There is no easy lesson in this for conservatives. By the start of the 21st century, the generational achievements that have created our way of life—our civil rights, our affluence, our ability to lead our lives without excessive interference from government—have been so absorbed into the mentality of the West that we take them for granted. So is modern democratic society threatened by such internal contradictions, so skillfully portrayed by Joseph Conrad over a century ago? At the same time, we also don’t respond well to scolds whose message is a negative one: Don’t spread our achievements throughout the world but, instead, renounce, do without. If the continuity of the human condition is what makes people conservative, it is also what keeps them from taking threats seriously. And after the apocalypse has passed them by, they will pick up where they left off.
Elizabeth Powers is editing a collection of essays on the intellectual origins of freedom of speech in the 18th century.