The Prophet Conrad
How ‘The Secret Agent’ anticipates the perils of today.
Mar 28, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 27 • By ELIZABETH POWERS
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.”
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