Friday, 22 July 2011
Friday, 8 July 2011
By Joseph Conrad
Edited with an Introduction by Michael Newton
Penguin Books, 2007
An acute analysis of the human condition may well conclude that behind the flim-flam of philosophy, theology, metaphysics and transcendental speculation, human actions, ideals and aspirations are conditioned by, and derived from, a corrosive Fear. A fear of reality translated into a hatred of existence reified as a culturally conditioned loathing of the world. Subjected to a process of ideological sublimation, this loathing, which is self-loathing, is transformed into extreme politics, a form of politics defined here, by Michael Newton in his Introduction, as ‘the politics of feeling’. The Secret Agent delves into the political unconscious of the politics of feeling.
It is very well known that just as Dostoyevsky based his political novel The Devils (1871) on the true life Nechayev Conspiracy of 1869, so Conrad, writing in 1906, based his fictional ‘dynamite novel’ on a political outrage as reported in the newspapers. Anarchist Martial Bourdin emerged from the shadows to die, horrifically, in a failed bomb-attack on The Greenwich Observatory in 1894. In this depressingly familiar case the perpetrator was killed by his own explosives, leading Conrad to ponder the implications of – to use his words – such an act of ‘blood stained inanity’.
Newton asks if the anarchist action was planned as an attack on the Meridian Line. Was it an attempt to destroy the organisation of time itself? For those fixated on the compulsive doctrine of the attentat, the notion of propaganda by deed, such an objective may have seemed entirely valid. The action of the novel centres upon the reactions of Mrs Verloc, whose retarded younger brother Stevie is inveigled into becoming the bomb-carrier by her shady husband, a double agent – the ‘Secret Agent’ of the title. Her death at the end of the book is reported in the press as ‘Suicide of Lady Passenger from A Cross-Channel Boat – An Impenetrable Mystery Seems Destined To Hang For Ever Over This Act Of Madness And Despair’.
It is the explanation of this ‘impenetrable mystery,’ the motivation for Mrs Verloc’s acts of murder and self-destruction, of madness and despair, that forms the domestic dimension of the plot. A plot inspired by a few words uttered by a friend, Ford Maddox Ford, who, in conversation, remarked “Oh that fellow was half an idiot. His sister committed suicide afterwards.” It was Conrad who expanded the scenario to include the murder of Mr Verloc by his wife, a desolate woman for whom the tragic Stevie, almost unearthly in the intensity of his compassion, meant everything.
If the scenario of The Secret Agent retains a morbid sense of familiarity (a vulnerable youth manoeuvred into committing an atrocity, or potential atrocity, by a trusted elder) then the most lurid of extremists, the ‘incorruptible’ Professor, the Perfect Anarchist, embodies Conrad’s conception of the ultimate terrorist. Even though the epithet recalls Robespierre, this is certainly a figure more familiar than we would like.
Two key scenes of the story are conversations set in a seedy hostelry called The Silenus (‘the renowned Silenus’) where, towards the end of the book, one of the subversives, comrade Alexander Ossipon, nick-named The Doctor, is discussing the Verloc Affair and its outcome. During this discussion The Professor taps the breast pocket of his jacket, claiming “And yet I am the force.”
Ossipon announces his future Brave New World of two hundred years into the future when ‘doctors will rule the world’ for, even now, in the shadows, ‘science reigns already’. He describes his vision to counteract the misanthropy of his companion who preaches ‘utter extermination’.
Aghast, Ossipon exclaims, “you carry in your pocket enough stuff to send yourself and, say, twenty other people into eternity.”
The Professor responds by raising his glass and drinks calmly to “the destruction of what is.”
To intimidate the authorities and so deter arrest this creature of hate has turned himself into a human bomb; he declares the sole aim of his life is to develop the perfect detonator – an intelligent detonator. In several paragraphs Conrad expounds the viewpoint of The Professor who feels that he is ‘a force’. A misanthrope who loathes the weak and ‘the odious multitude’ of mankind, he anticipates the death-doctrine of fascism: “I depend on death, which knows no restraint and cannot be attacked. My superiority is self-evident.” For an irritated Ossipon this is “a transcendental way of putting it.” The adjective is pejorative.
Joseph Conrad’s approach to his subject matter is one of relentless, consistent irony and it is this all-pervasive irony that, among other factors, makes The Secret Agent such a remarkable work of fiction, or, to quote Newton, a ‘signally important work of Modernist fiction.’ It should be noted that Conrad’s sardonic view is all encompassing and no one escapes his excoriation – not the radicals, not the politicians, not the police and not the ‘ordinary’ person for there are no ordinary people in this novel of ‘radical grotesques’.
In his Author’s Note (1920), included in this volume, Conrad remarks upon the ‘criminal futility’ of the Greenwich incident. He condemns all aspects of the attack including doctrine, action and the fundamental mentality. For him the most obnoxious feature of the radical pose is that it stems from a brazen desire to exploit ‘the poignant miseries and passionate credulities of a mankind always so tragically eager for self-destruction.’ It is this radical pose with its ‘unpardonable’ philosophical pretences that is represented in various ways by the menagerie of radical grotesques comprising the anarchist underground described in the novel.
This collection of repellent types includes not only The Professor and Comrade Ossipon but also other figures like Michaelis (possibly based on Kropotkin) and Karl Yundt (known as ‘the terrorist’) whose views are somewhat similar to those of the Incorruptible Professor, even though the latter despises the former. Yundt dreams of a cadre of ‘destroyers’, a band of men (they are all men, these committed idealists) ‘absolute in their resolve to discard all scruples in the choice of means’. Devoid of all pity for anything, including themselves, these ‘destroyers’ would enact the principle of ‘death enlisted for good and all in the service of humanity’.
As a ‘dynamite novel’, an example of the newly emerging genre of espionage fiction, The Secret Agent is also an urban novel. Elsewhere critics have written much on this aspect of a book, which remains one of the great London stories with its descriptions of Westminster, Soho and Kensington set in the fin-de-siecle era. Here the city is a suffocating, hellish domain. It functions as the sordid backdrop for acts of depravity perpetrated by fragmentary beings prone to the ludicrous outcomes ‘of chance and our own natures’ as Michael Newton explains, hapless victims of ontological ambush, of ‘unexpected solutions of continuity, sudden holes in space and time’ to cite Conrad himself.
Is this ‘totally ironic artefact’ also a novel which diminishes all human agents and the human civilisation of which they claim to be part, as is stated by Fletcher and Bradbury in their essay on The Introverted Novel. Perhaps, but even if agents of destruction pass ‘unsuspected and deadly, like a pest’ through our streets, as does The Incorruptible Professor at the end of the narrative, it is also another human agent, a clear-sighted writer, who has unmasked the unpardonable ‘philosophical pretences’ articulating the megalomania of Fear. Here, laid bare, is the murky pathology of all deluded ideologues seeking to regenerate a fallen world but who, in fact, are driven by a vitriolic hatred of existence.
published in The Supplement Issue 37 Nov 2007
Illustration: Water Lane, 1980