Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent: Herald of Contemporary Terrorism? (Part 1/2)

What can a 1907 novel teach us about contemporary terrorism?

The modernist author Joseph Conrad “can be read,” British philosopher John Gray provocatively argued, “as the first great political novelist of the twenty-first century.”

The case set out for this agonistic view in his 2002 “Joseph Conrad: Our Contemporary” departs from Conrad’s 1907 novel The Secret Agent, which is based upon an “actual terrorist attempt on the Royal Observatory in 1894, when a French anarchist accidentally blew himself up in Greenwich Park before reaching his target.” This is given a “darkly ironic vision” by Conrad, “whereby the symbols of trade and new technology have come under terrorist attack.”

Whether or not one agrees with Gray, The Secret Agent surely merits revisiting in the 21st century. In fact, in the three years following the September 11attacks and their unparalleled murderousness in non-state sponsored, or asymmetric, terrorism — notes Peter Lancelot Mallios, in the revealing collection Conrad in the 21st Century The Secret Agent was “referenced over a hundred times in newspapers, magazines, and online journalistic resources across the world.”

Greenwich Bomb Outrage

In a historicizing essay from 1971, Norman Sherry convincingly established that The Secret Agent was based upon contemporaneous texts relating to what was called the Greenwich Bomb Outrage. Or, as Conrad put it in a letter of November 7, 1906, the novel “is based upon the inside knowledge of a certain event in the history of active anarchism.” This was based on the putative attack on the Greenwich Observatory by one Martial Bourdin, with a largely accurate “pattern of events and people immediately surrounding the disaster” — one unfolding in “substantially the same form in which Conrad was to present it in his novel.”

Sherry also finds that Conrad was reading several of the 25 or so anarchist publications appearing in London at the end of the 19th century — in fact, two of these, The Gong and The Torch, are mentioned on the opening page of The Secret Agent. Although given short shrift in Gray’s text, the point is that The Secret Agent is thus very much emplotted in a late 19th century act of terrorism that, both historically and in its subsequent fictional treatment by Conrad, may be construed as a strike against a symbolic target.

This would seem to chime with Conrad’s assertion in his prefatory Author’s Note:

“I really think that ‘The Secret Agent’ is a perfectly genuine piece of work. Even the purely artistic purpose, that of applying an ironic method to a subject of that kind, was formulated with deliberation and in the earnest belief that ironic treatment alone would enable me to say all I felt I would have to say in scorn as well as in pity.”

Collecting an explosive device from a “credulous and self-indulgent” anarchist named The Professor, the “secret agent” in question — a bookshop owner and pornographer named Aldolf Verloc — then manipulates his brother-in-law, “the mentally retarded and hypersensitive Stevie.” The latter is then lured into attempting to bomb the Greenwich Observatory, a failure in which the unbeknownst bomber succeeds only in killing himself. 

Gray further, and incisively, holds that “Conrad’s scorn for revolutionaries is comprehensive and unremitting,” portraying them, despite their “utopian imagination,” as “vain, deluded and inherently criminal” — not unlike the “the suicide-warriors of al-Qaeda” who on 9/11 also “carried off a terrifying assault on the spirit of the age.”

In this, Gray is perfectly in accord with Conrad’s personal take on the novel; as in a letter to his friend, R.B. Cunninghame Graham, on January 14, 1907:

“I don’t think that I’ve been satirizing the revolutionary world. All these people are not revolutionaries — they are Shams. And as regards the Professor, I did not intend to make him despicable. He is incorruptible at any rate. In making him say ‘madness and despair — give me that for a lever and I will move the world’ I wanted to give him a note of perfect sincerity. At the worst he is a megalomaniac of an extreme type.”

“Joseph Conrad: Our Contemporary” is certainly in keeping with Conrad’s “Author’s Note” preceding the novel, which confesses to fictionalizing the “blood-stained inanity” and “absurd cruelty of the Greenwich Park explosion.” For this was “an outrage [that] could not be laid hold of mentally in any sort of way,” historically undertaken in 1894 by “half an idiot” whose “sister committed suicide afterwards” — a fair, if superficial, two-clause summary of The Secret Agent’s plot.

From Anarchism to Terrorism

As this suggests, Gray was largely right; for Conrad has many prescient things to say in The Secret Agent. But, in some measure, these things are different than those advanced in “Joseph Conrad: Our Contemporary.” Many of Conrad’s insights, in fact, feed quite directly into a number of debates on terrorism — from motivation to profile to urban targets.

To be sure, Gray touches upon the symbolism of the attackers in The Secret Agent — the global meridian at Greenwich Park. Of course, symbolic targets are scarcely new to our “postmodern” age, as shown by the outrages of 9/11, the 1995 bombing of the Alfred Murrah Federal in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people, or further back, the assassination of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Terrorism is a frightening and baleful feature of the modern age.

So too in Conrad’s day — the first era of globalization — when anarchist attacks pulsed across Europe and the US. In a case championed by John Merriman as one that “arguably ignited the modern age of terrorism” — Émile Henry bombed the Café Terminus adjacent to the Gare Saint-Lazare in France on February 12, 1894, killing one and wounding 20. At his subsequent trial, the 21-year-old terrorist proclaimed:

“In the merciless war that we have declared on the bourgeoisie, we ask no mercy. We mete out death and we must face it. For that reason I await your verdict with indifference. I know that mine will not be the last head you will sever… You will add more names to the bloody roll call of our dead.”

These anarchist attacks were mainly directed against royal, bourgeois and economic targets, as with the assassination of King Umberto I of Italy in 1900. Or, 20 years later, when at least 33 people died and 200 were injured in the earliest recorded car bombing, symbolically targeting Wall Street in New York City. Yet Mario Buda, an anarchist widely seen as the most likely suspect, was never caught or tried, nor in fact ever seen again after September 16, 1920.

It bears remembering, therefore, that what is now understood as “lone wolf terrorism” — if not in the preparatory steps of what is now understood as the “Terrorist Cycle,” — was an essential feature of anarchist-inspired, urban terrorism at the turn of the 20th century.

Literary Nostradamus

On more interpretative matters, however, Gray is comparatively silent. For as literary scholars well know, a “symbol” only becomes symbolic when it is represented as such. In this sense, championing Conrad as a kind of “literary Nostradamus” (in Judith Shulevitz’s phrase) became, itself, symbolic as a kind of prophetic modernism after 9/11.

While that is telling in and of itself, Mallios draws attention to the trope of newspapers in the novel. It bears remembering that innovations in communications, printing and distribution, not to mention the rise of general literacy, at the end of the 19th century helped to create the period of so called “yellow journalism,” when sensationalist narratives — or, in Mallios’ view, hegemonic and coercive — dominated the front pages of mass-circulation newspapers.

This transformation was not lost upon Conrad, and it appears throughout The Secret Agent. The most significant of these instances occurs in the second chapter of the novel, in an exchange between the terrorist radicalizer working for a foreign government, Mr. Vladimir, and the “secret agent” in his paid employ, Mr. Verloc.

In directing Adolf Verloc to “earn his money” and “do something” — an “outrage” to be “directed against buildings, for instance” — it is notable that Vladimir’s main targets are not actually the buildings in themselves, but the terror created by mainstream newspapers via the expected, hysterical reporting of any symbolic strike. Dismissing assassinations of a head of state or bombings against religious or cultural institutions, Vladimir declares that these are:

“…no longer instructive as an object lesson in revolutionary anarchism. Every newspaper has ready-made phrases to explain such manifestations away… A bomb outrage to have any influence on public opinion now must go beyond the intention of vengeance or terrorism. It must be purely destructive.”

In giving his instructions to Verloc, Vladimir simply assumes that the press shapes public opinion. Put another way, in order to make the terrorist attack a symbolic one, it was essential for him that the nascent global media treated it as such. Hence his reason for targeting the “sacrosanct fetish” of the middle-classes, science:

“I defy the ingenuity of journalists to persuade their public that any given member of the proletariat can have a personal grievance against astronomy… And there are other advantages. The whole civilized world has heard of Greenwich… Go for the first meridian.”

The imperative to capture the mass media’s attention has only increased with time, and connects the rise of the mass media portrayed in The Secret Agent with some of the digital transformations of our day.

A recent example is the Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Brevik, who unleashed his one-man war against “cultural Marxism” on July 22, 2011. I have argued elsewhere that Breivik’s murderous actions were a form of “terrorist PR,” bent on publicizing his online film and 1,500 page-plus manifesto, 2083: A Declaration of European Independence. Both were released literally hours before his symbolic bombing of Oslo’s government district and shooting spree at the Labour youth camp at the nearby island of Utoya. For who would have taken his rantings seriously before he killed 77 innocents — the vast majority of them children — beyond the fringe of right-wing extremists with whom he already associated?

To reformulate this argument, symbolic targets and the publicity they engender were motivating factors for terrorists in The Secret Agent. It is also something that may have become even more important for terrorism and its public reception over the intervening century.

*[Read the final part here.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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