The role of politics is paramount in the novel, as the main character, Verloc, works for a quasi-political organisation. The role of politics is seen in several places in the novel: in the revolutionary ideas of the F.P.; in the characters’ personal beliefs; and in Verloc’s own private life. Conrad’s depiction of anarchism has an “enduring political relevance”, although the focus is now largely concerned with the terrorist aspects that this entails. The discussions of the F.P. are expositions on the role of anarchism and its relation to contemporary life. The threat of these thoughts is evident, as Chief Inspector Heat knows F.P. members because of their anarchist views. Moreover, Michaelis’ actions are monitored by the police to such an extent that he must notify the police station that he is moving to the country.

The plot to destroy Greenwich is in itself anarchistic. Vladimir asserts that the bombing “must be purely destructive” and that the anarchists who will be implicated as the architects of the explosion “should make it clear that [they] are perfectly determined to make a clean sweep of the whole social creation.” However, the political form of anarchism is ultimately controlled in the novel: the only supposed politically motivated act is orchestrated by a secret government agency.

Some critics, such as Fredrick R. Karl, think that the main political phenomenon in this novel is the modern age, as symbolised by the teeming, pullulating foggy streets of London (most notably in the cab ride taken by Winnie and Stevie Verloc). This modern age distorts everything, including politics (Verloc is motivated by the need to keep his remunerative position, the Professor to some extent by pride), the family (symbolised by the Verloc household, in which all roles are distorted, with the husband being like a father to the wife, who is like a mother to her brother), even the human body (Michaelis and Verloc are hugely obese, while the Professor and Yundt are preternaturally thin). This extended metaphor, using London as a center of darkness much like Kurtz’s headquarters in Heart of Darkness, presents “a dark vision of moral and spiritual inertia” and a condemnation of those who, like Mrs Verloc, think it a mistake to think too deeply.

Anarchism, along with several major political ideologies – “conservatism, liberalism and socialism in recognizably their modem form” – can, according to David Miller, be traced to the aftermath of the French Revolution, although he also acknowledges that its philosophical roots, perhaps like those of any radical rebellion, lie much deeper (1984: 3-4).

With the French Revolution, the Myth of Revolution was born; it showed that a government, a social order, and even a belief system could fall and rise up fundamentally altered. This underlying idea inspires the anarchists of Conrad’s mid-period fiction in general and his London novel in particular. Miller in his history and analysis is quick to point out that anarchism itself is hard to pin down and broaches the possibility that it is, perhaps, not an ideology per se but “rather the point of intersection of several ideologies” that coincide in their opposition to authority and capitalism {1934: 3). The sense of anarchism as a sub-set of other more dominant ideologies, like socialism or communism, is a fairly Common Conflation in commentary about the political left (not always as neutrally as Miller presents the idea, and sometimes disingenuously). It is even there in Vladirnir`s estimation of Verloc`s pose:

“You – a member of a starving proletariat – never! You – a desperate socialist or anarchist – which is it?” (22)

Vladirnir’s question is posed without any real investment in the response, since any reply Verloc might proffer would be roundly ridiculed, and there is some echo of it in the critical discussions that range over Conrad’s minor characters in The Secret Agent.

Many commentators on the novel tend to disregard or belittle its revolutionaries, prompted, it must be said, by Conrad’s own ostensible estimation.

The “domestic drama” that the Assistant Commissioner identifies in Chapter X in part to reflect the weight of the plot’ s domestic element but in part to deflect Howe’s criticism of Conrad’s political acuity or honesty. Recent commentary, like that by Anthony Fothergill (2005), also discusses The Secret Agent at length, pointing to the enduring political relevance of Conrad`s depiction of anarchism, although, of course, current interest in the text pivots around its treatment of terror and terrorism. Fothergill remarks that Conrad “does look into anarchy and the culture within which, for a while, it flourished. He has a much better informed insiderly knowledge of the cultural and political complexities of the anarchist movement than his evasive prefatory comments on The Secret Agent and A Set of Six would imply” (2005: 140).

Even a cursory analysis of Conrad’s novel reveals as much, and perhaps one can press further by saying that not only does Conrad exhibit a keen awareness of the subtleties of the anarchist movement but also that that awareness is essential to his creative endeavour and the fundamental mechanisms of plot and character. In fact, the framework of anarchist ideas as expressed in the pantheon of revolutionaries is the key to understand the novel, both in terms of its major themes and in the hinging of the plot. Still the weight of commentary on the anarchists tends to disregard them as individuals, to shy away from labelling them as anarchists, or to suggest that their treatment reveals Conrad’s contempt for anarchist ideology. The consensus seems to be that Michaelis, Yundt, and Ossipon, and to a degree even The Professor serve little purpose except as fearful grotesques – broad evidence of conservative reaction perhaps but hardly legitimate insights into the world of revolt and terror. Thus many observers regard their presence in the scheme of the novel as merely enforcing a condemnation of anarchist ideology through the gross caricatutal representation and conflacion of anarchist types.

It is delightful that Conrad chooses to stage  his anarchists in an evidently domestic space, rather than in a secret backroom, a Continental café, or a filthy tavern.

The philosophical shift marked a distinct evolution of perspective, so that the Italian anarchist Carlo Cafiero when he advocated, in 1880, the urgent need to generate and propagate ideas “by permanent revolt, by spokenand written words, by the dagger, the gun, dynamite,” was catching and conveying the mood of the time (Ibid, 13).3 That broader movement in anarchist ideas is manifested by the task set for Verloc who may no longer remain “Vox et [praetera nihil]“, a voice and nothing else. Attempts to assert his voice during his interview with Vladimir come to nothing. Though his “lips quivered before they came widely open [and] he boomed out in his great, clear, oratorical bass,” Vladimir curtly silences him:

“Don’t roar like this” (23)

Subsequently Verloc narrates the value of his own disembodied voice:

“His voice, famous for years at open air meetings and at workmen’s assemblies in large halls, had contributed, he said, to his reputation of a good and trustworthy comrade. It was, therefore, a part of his usefulness. lt had inspired confidence in his principles. “l was always put up to speak by die leaders at a critical moment,” Mr Verloc declared, with obvious satisfaction. There was no uproar above which he could not make himself heard, he added; and suddenly he made a demonstration.” (23-24)

The “demonstration“ is telling, not least for the damningly complacent description of the policeman in the square, which represents Verloc’s (and perhaps the contemporary reader’s) actual perspective:

“watching idly the gorgeous perambulator of a wealthy baby being wheeled in state” (24)

As for the startling effect of Verloc’s effortless voice on the constable who spun round:

“as if prodded by a sharp instrurnent” (24)

One might draw all sorts of conclusions about Verloc’s effectiveness as a police agent and provocateur, or indeed of die police as responsive agents of VerIoc’s insinuations and intelligence. Indeed, Verloc’s contention, which Vladimir, who wants deeds, mocks, is that his voice is a valuable instrument – perhaps sharp – but certairily of use for whichever cause controls it.

The ideas canvassed by Michaelis, Karl Yundt, and Ossipon, are clearly derived from the concerns of anarchist theorists; these three types (suggesting Conrad’s intention perhaps) also encompass in their ideologies, different stages in the progression or development of anarchist positions. Hay moves some way towards this when she argues that the revolutionaries are pathetic “in the way each contradicts himself while promoting the theories of the ‘supermen’ – Nietzsche, Nechaev, and Marx,” and she equally distinguishes between them comfortably observing Conrad’s “communist, anarchist, nihilist, and police spy” {1981:250, 242). Those distinctions are perhaps a little arbitrary and artificial; the kind of conflation of approaches mentioned earlier. Moreover, while this is not meant to be a discussion of sources, Conrad’s figures often echo figures from key stages in anarchist thought.

The Anarchist in the house: The Politics of Conrad’s The Secret Agent (David Mulry)

Longview Community College, Lee’s Summit, Missouri

Once we have seen some examples of what is anarchy localized in the text and also the groups that were created and the simplicity and quotidianity of them, we can finally say that The secret agent is a highly politized book because anarchism and state and country conflicts.

As I said before, the novel talks about terrorism in its pure and “good” way. The terrorists are those who fight against capitalism, politics, govern and state. Here is an example of what was the mentality and thinkings of terrorists extracted from the film “The Secret Agent”:

The perfect detonator.

Academic year 2013/2014
© a.r.e.a./Dr.Vicente Forés López
© Aitor Bori Ibáñez

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