The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale (Modern Library Classics)
A book by Joseph Conrad
Edited and with Notes by Peter Lancelot Mallios Introduction by Robert D. Kaplan In reexaminingThe Secret Agentin a post-9/11 world, Robert D. Kaplan praises Joseph Conrad’s “surgical insight into the mechanics … see full wiki
The rise of anarchism, socialism, and communism (often lumped together, but seldom representing a single philosophy or movement) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the first wave of stateless terrorism in Western capitalist societies. While fingers were pointed in many ethnic and nationalistic directions, the terror from which this political force takes its name was as real then as it is today.
Conrad's "simple tale" is a fiction in which the motives, mind, and material method of this first wave of terror are central to the story and the plot. But is "The Secret Agent" really about terrorism? Conrad is a much better writer with a much different agenda than just telling a fictionalized account of a contemporary news story. As the assistant police commissioner recounts to the political authority to whom he is reporting (p. 182 of the Modern Library edition): "From a certain point of view we are here in the presence of a domestic drama." And in that aspect, The Secret Agent" is anything but simple.
But "Secret Agent" is most read and mentioned today for its almost prophetic foresight about the wave of terrorism lose in the world after September 11, 2001. Indeed this Modern Library edition was published in 2004, with an introduction and an afterward which directly reference the novel's position in relation to the events of that day. Without 9/11, it is unlikely that this edition would have appeared when it did, if at all, and many readers, myself included, would likely have bypassed earlier editions in ignorance.
How prophetic is Conrad's vision? The afterward provides a dense assessment of the post 9/11 response to Conrad's vision, which I will leave to you to decipher and decide. Here, I have included some pointed quotes from Conrad that I found strongly resonant in their enlightenment--and, in the last quote, their warning about the applicability of prophecy to terror:
The target (p. 25): "a series of outrages executed here in this country . . . Must be sufficiently startling--effective. Let them be directed against buildings, for instance."
The terrorist (p. 38): "A band of men absolute in their resolve to discard all scruples in the choice of means, strong enough to give themselves frankly the name of destroyers, and free from the taint of that resigned pessimism which rots the world. No pity for anything on earth, including themselves, and death enlisted for good and all in the service of humanity."
The futility of policing (p. 55): "I shall never be arrested. The game isn't good enough for any policeman of them all. To deal with a man like me you require sheer, naked, inglorious heroism."
The susceptibility of the United States to terrorism (p. 60-61): "They have more character over there, and their character is essentially anarchistic. Fertile ground for us, the States--very good ground. The great Republic has the root of the destructive matter in her. The collective temperament is lawless. Excellent."
The ultimate goal of terrorism (p. 61): "Nothing would please me more than to see [the police] take to shooting us down in broad daylight with the approval of the public. Half our battle would be won then; the disintegration of the old morality would have set in in its very temple. That is what you ought to aim at."
The ultimate philosophy of terrorism (p. 249): " 'My device is: No God! No master.' . . . . 'Prophecy! What's the good of thinking of what will be!' He raised his glass. 'To the destruction of what is,' he said calmly."
With that final warning from Conrad, then, I will leave off reviewing this book as a handbook of terrorism, and go back to the real meat of this story, which is, as I quoted at the beginning a domestic drama with all of Conrad's atmospheric and detailed description. The plot itself is very simple and could be summarized in a paragraph, but to do so would be at best beside the point and at worst misleading as Conrad's writing flows in and around the plot, picking up characters and settings and thoughts and examining them closely before nudging the reader on with his cinematic shift of camera angle, focus, and depth of vision.
The cinematic reference is not accidental. The Modern Library edition also includes contemporary reviews and responses to "The Secret Agent", not all of which were positive, and the criticisms seem to break down along the lines of the realism vs romanticism in the story. In that pre-cinematic era, when the concepts of camera angle and point of view were of relevance only to a small cadre of professional artists, there was an expectation of realism in a narrative thread. In our post-cinematic and post-modern world we know it is impossible for a narrative to tell the full truth of a set of events even (or especially) when such a narrative attempted. Here, indeed, Conrad was way ahead of his time in utilizing this understanding in the medium available to him, the written page.
So watch the master as he pauses to show the fine details in the picture, then shifts the camera slightly to introduce new and disorienting objects, using the visual medium of the mind to paint his story. This is a true literary classic.
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