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The Prophet Conrad

How ‘The Secret Agent’ anticipates the perils of today.

Mar 28, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 27 • By ELIZABETH POWERS
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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:

Mr. Verloc loved his wife as a wife should be loved—that is, maritally, with the regard one has for one’s chief possession. This head arranged for the night, those ample shoulders, had an aspect of familiar sacredness—the sacredness of domestic peace.

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:

Lost in the crowd, miserable and undersized, he meditated confidently on his power, keeping his hand in the left pocket of his trousers, grasping lightly the india-rubber ball, the supreme guarantee of his sinister freedom; but after a while he became disagreeably affected by the sight of the roadway thronged with vehicles and of the pavement crowded with men and women. He was in a long, straight street, peopled by a mere fraction of an immense multitude; but all round him, on and on, even to the limits of the horizon hidden by the enormous piles of bricks, he felt the mass of mankind mighty in its numbers. They swarmed numerous like locusts, industrious like ants, thoughtless like a natural force, pushing on blind and orderly and absorbed, impervious to sentiment, to logic, to terror, too, perhaps.

That was the form of doubt he feared most. Impervious to fear! Often while walking abroad, when he happened also to come out of himself, he had such moments of dreadful and sane mistrust of mankind. What if nothing could move them?

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.

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