Chasing After Conrad’s Secret Agent

It’s the archetypal novel about terrorists. And everyone’s getting it wrong.

Ah, the perils of relevance! In the aftermath of the attacks on Sept. 11, Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent became one of the three works of literature most frequently cited in the American media. (The other two were poems by Wystan Auden: “Sept. 1, 1939”—also the subject of a “Culturebox“—and “Musée des Beaux Arts.”) The Secret Agent, a 1907 novel that depicts a sordid netherworld of would-be terrorists of the anarchist persuasion and the twisted machinations behind a plot to bomb a national monument, London’s Greenwich Observatory, seems today like a promising piece of prophecy—a literary Nostrodamus, an early warning of the enduring evil of the nihilistic class.

But as King Oedipus learned to his dismay, and far too late, it is not enough to know of prophecies. You must be able to interpret them correctly. This is why it is partly comic, partly tragic that each of the major articles of the past two weeks to make use of the The Secret Agent gets the book completely, tellingly wrong.

The most inadvertently amusing case of Conrad-mangling is a fiercely patriotic editorial in the National Review that likens the symbolism of Arab terrorists flying into the World Trade Center to that of anarchists bombing the Observatory, and both to barbarians sacking Rome. What’s the analogy? In all three cases, “national headquarters and totems excite the fear and wrath of those in the world who feel themselves shortchanged.”

The NR thereby mischaracterizes the single most important plot twist in Conrad’s book. The Observatory bombers are not anarchists. The culprits are an agent provocateur who has infiltrated the anarchists’ ranks and his half-witted brother-in-law. The mastermind of the plot isn’t an anarchist either. He’s a Russian diplomat frustrated with the refusal of the London police to arrest the anarchists. In short, a foreign state sponsors an act of terrorism in order to provoke a crackdown on terrorists; the incident has no relation whatsoever to ressentiment. Conrad, though no fan of anarchists, was equally skeptical of the governments that demonize them and of journalists—like those at the NationalReview—who are quick to issue jingoistic judgments about complicated events. Indeed, the Greenwich Observatory not only never excites the “fear and wrath of those who feel themselves shortchanged,” it is so ludicrous a target that the agent charged with carrying out its bombing is afraid to involve any actual anarchists in the plot for fear they’ll realize he’s a fraud. Instead he entrusts the explosives to his wife’s mentally retarded little brother. Naturally, the boy bungles the job and blows himself up.

You might expect Robert Kaplan, the leading heir to Henry Kissinger’s tragic-realist approach to foreign policy, to be better read than the editors of the National Review, and he is. It’s just that his reading is overly literal. In an editorial in the Washington Post, he quotes Conrad to reinforce his thesis that regular Americans—as opposed to the media elite and liberal intellectuals—are tragic realists like him and won’t fret about the niceties of civil liberties or lofty humanist ideals as long as the state protects them. According to Kaplan, Conrad saw “ordinary citizens” as the “greatest threat to terrorism” because their desire to get on with their lives made them “willing to trust the grim details of their protection to the police and other security organs.”

Conrad does write something along these lines in the novel, but readers should be careful of taking a novelist’s statements at face value, especially this novelist’s. Among Conrad scholars, The Secret Agent is notorious for its tone of corrosive irony, and the entire thrust of the novel is to argue against placing one’s trust in government. Conrad’s police are either too corrupt or too caught up in their own petty career ambitions to be able to protect the populace against violence of this kind. There is one assistant commissioner in the London police department intelligent enough to identify the real culprit of the plot, but he is represented as an anomaly and is foiled in part by another officer’s incompetence in the end.

Was Conrad prophetic about the aims of modern terrorism? According to New York Times ideas reporter Emily Eakin, his anarchists wish to destroy modernism, a motive that makes them seem “eerily familiar.” The Secret Agent’s Professor, described by critic Edward Said as the archetypal terrorist, is described by Eakin as “a man who paces the streets of London with a bomb strapped to his chest and is obsessed with creating the perfect detonator” because he is “determined to destroy modern science.” But hatred of science couldn’t be further from the Professor’s mind. Indeed, he’s something of a frustrated scientist himself, a man of mean appearance and humble origins whose thwarted ambitions crystallize into a fixed sense of moral superiority and a desire to lay waste to everything and everyone less pure and noble than himself.

The hatred-of-science idea is the Russian diplomat’s—that is why he picks the Observatory as a target. Conrad’s diplomat is patently a caricature, a politician too full of himself to bother studying the actual motives of the anarchists he wants his secret agent to pretend to be. The anarchists view themselves as supremely rational and everyone else as deluded. But the ironic twist here is that, though Conrad mocks the diplomat, he agrees with him that the blind faith in science held by most members of British society, including its anarchists, has become absurd, a “sacro-sanct fetish.”

If you were forced to pick one thing in the book to identify with Bin Laden, you might have to choose the author. Conrad specifically compares his book to a work of terrorism—in a preface to The Secret Agent, he apologizes for its grim violence, then says, “I have not intended to commit a gratuitous outrage on the feelings of mankind” (italics mine). The idea Conrad sets out to blow up in the novel is modernism’s sin of thinking abstractly about moral and human affairs—abstractly, scientistically, impersonally, and instrumentally. The anarchists think this way; the police do, too; and so do the government officials. Conrad dismisses them all. The only person who does not think this way is the secret agent’s wife, Winnie Verloc, who when she learns that her husband has gotten her brother killed, stabs the man to death, then commits suicide. Conrad wrote in his preface that the book, for all its political content, was really the apolitical “Winnie Verloc’s story,” one driven to its “anarchistic end” by her “utter desolation, madness, and despair.” Winnie and her mother, both of whom sacrifice their lives in failed efforts to protect their retarded brother and son, are the heroines of the book because they are the only ones capable of loving another human being. Conrad distrusted governments as much as he scorned those who sought as a matter of abstract principle to overthrow them. (In this he should be distinguished from Bin Laden or any other contemporary terrorist). He neither advocated one kind of state over another nor prophesied the ongoing war against terrorism, except insofar as he saw industrialized society as forever at odds with the anarchic human heart.