In 1884, anarchists tried to blow up the Greenwich Royal Observatory outside London, then the symbol of modern scientific thought on which Britain's world empire was based. The novelist Joseph Conrad found the act "a blood-stained inanity of so fatuous a kind that it was impossible to fathom its origin by any reasonable or even unreasonable process of thought." He could not grasp why anyone would blow himself to bits "for nothing even remotely resembling an idea." Conrad, like so many writers, discovered the answer to his question by a writing a book.
The Secret Agent, published in 1907, is about a shadowy anarchist, Adolf Verloc, who owns a shop selling low-end goods in a grimy, working class district of London. He supports his wife, her retarded brother and his mother-in-law with the help of money from Russian diplomats, in return for information he provides them on his fellow radicals. Russia's reactionary regime, worried about the increasing openness of British society, which threatens to alienate London from St. Petersburg, believes that only an act of sheer madness will bring Britain's security establishment to its senses; and thus Verloc is activated to blow up the first meridian. "This country is absurd with its sentimental regard for individual liberty", complains the czarist diplomat, Mr. Vladimir, to Verloc. "The imbecile bourgeoisie of this country make themselves accomplices of the very people whose aim is to drive them out of their houses" and destroy them. Pressured by Vladimir to act soon or risk losing his stipend, Verloc recruits his retarded brother-in-law, Stevie, to plant the bomb. But it explodes too early, leaving Stevie a bloody heap whose remains have to be collected by police with a shovel. After finding out what happened, Verloc's wife, Winnie, murders her husband, and then commits suicide.
The plot of The Secret Agent does not parallel the terrorist attack on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, but Conrad's uncanny insights into individuals and their society provide an analysis of what America is now up against that is unavailable in media reports.
Conrad is helped by his mastery of atmospherics: he likens the "murky, gloomy dampness" of London streets to "a slimy aquarium." Verloc lives among the "brick houses which existed in large quantities before the era of reconstruction dawned on London." His house is "hidden in the shades of the sordid street seldom touched by the sun." Verloc and his wife, Winnie, have no friends in the neighborhood. Their only contact is with an old charwoman who occasionally cleans their store. Anonymity, a common feature of mass societies, not only provides Verloc safe cover for his activities, but it removes any sense of shame he may harbor since he is without relatives or friends nearby. Moreover, his slovenly, tenement-style surroundings contrast sharply with the affluence of the diplomatic precincts of London that he thoroughly despises. "All these people had to be protected", Verloc sneers. "Protection is the first necessity of opulence and luxury." Conrad is intimating that nations that combine prosperity with anonymity require a tremendous security apparatus.
Vladimir explains to Verloc that assassinations do not have the effect that they used to, since they have become a normal condition for heads of state. An attack on a restaurant or theater, meanwhile, might merely be considered an act of "social revenge." To truly threaten an advanced capitalist society, therefore, an act "must be purely destructive" so as "to make a clean sweep of the whole social creation." According to Conrad, "Capitalism has made socialism, and the laws made by the capitalist for the protection of property are responsible for anarchism." Ultimately, the most horrifically violent acts are begot by envy and resentment.
The most envious, most resentful character in Conrad's tale is "the professor," an associate of Verloc, who walks the streets of London with his right hand closed around an india-rubber ball in his trouser pocket that activates an explosive, ready to blow himself up along with a crowd of people at any moment. "Lost in the crowd, miserable and undersized, he meditates confidently on his power." The professor combines an icy, "almost ascetic purity" of thought with an "astounding ignorance of worldly conditions." A former assistant instructor in chemistry at a technical institute that fired him, the professor nurses psychological wounds that have developed into a complete hatred of society. Always willing to commit suicide, he tells Comrade Ossipon, another anarchist, that the character of most people is "built upon conventional morality. It leans on the social order. Mine stands free from everything artificial. They are bound in all sorts of conventions. They depend on life . . . whereas I depend on death, which knows no restraints and cannot be attacked. My superiority is evident."
Because Conrad is a great novelist, his story, perforce, centers on individuals rather than on impersonal forces. The professor hates a society that has not adequately rewarded him in his career, while Verloc is burdened by the need to support his family and find some useful work for his retarded brother-in-law. Look closely enough at any act of terrorism, the author advises, and one will find an intimate "domestic drama" lurking in the background. Conrad would assume that every one of the hijackers on September 11 has a comparable personal mystery to be fathomed: a failed career, no chance to marry and sire children, people he hates in the emerging Westernized middle class of his native Middle Eastern country. Terrorism is the little man's revenge.
Though The Secret Agent is a bleak, uninspiring tale, there are, nevertheless, hints of optimism. Let one suffice for now. Near the end of the book we read: "The thought of a mankind as numerous as the sands of the seashore, as indestructible, as difficult to handle, oppressed" the professor: there were simply too many ordinary people, intent on going about their lives, for him to vanquish.Essay Types: Essay