Friday, January 7, 2011

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

Conrad began writing The Secret Agent in 1906, quickly finishing it by the fall and published it serially in the American magazine Ridgway's: A Militant Weekly for God and Country. Subsequently, he expanded the work before its publication in book form in 1907. The immediate historical backdrop which inspired Conrad's work was a particular incident on February 15, 1894, when a Frenchman by the name of Martial Bourdin blew himself up while walking towards the Greenwich Observatory. Three days earlier, an Anarchist named Emile Henry bombed a crowded cafe, injuring twenty and killing one. The incidents drew much of the public's attention, though many questions as to whether or not Bourdin was carrying his bomb to London, or if he meant to blow up the Greenwich Observatory, or if the two incidents were related at all, were never answered. More generally, the 1890s to the first decade of the twentieth-century was a time of fear with respect to anarchist violence--revolutionaries in both America and Europe were experimenting with bombings and assassinations to awaken people's sensibilities to the vulnerability of the modern state.

Conrad's work is explicit about the big role that journalism played in constructing fears of anarchist violence. For example, Blackwood's Magazine (for which Conrad frequently wrote) included a number of serious consideratins on the topic of the rise of anarchistic behavior. Conrad's own engagement of Anarchism was complex (even sometimes to the point of seeming contradiction: he was at once outspoken against Socialist politics, yet friends with many political radicals). Through a literary form shot through with irony (rather than journalistic form) Conrad was perhaps able to articulate some of these views more accurately.

The first two chapters introduce the Verlocs: Mr. Verloc is a long time secret agent with a stationary shop as a front business. In general, he is an indolent character, who has complacently adjusted to the uneventfulness of his role in recent years. He lives with his wife Winnie, her idiot brother Stevie and Winnie's mother. Verloc is called to the (Russian) embassy, and there he receives instructions to bomb the Greenwich Observatory by one Mr. Vladimir. The revolutionarily minded Vladimir claims that the "fetish of the middle classes" is now science, and thus a symbol of scientific endeavor needed to be destroyed in order to  shock them out of their complacency.

Soon after this encounter with Vladimir, Verloc has his old associates over to his place: Michaelis, an ex-convict who philosophizes on how everything comes about because of economic forces, Karl Yundt, an unpleasant "old terrorist," and Comrade Ossipon, an ex-medical student. Verloc feels they are not up to the task. That night, in bed, Winnie speaks to Verloc of her annoyance that the men's talk had upset Stevie.

The narrative then skips to after an explosion near the Greenwich observatory has happened. The newspapers report that a bomb has gone off and that one person was killed. Curious, Ossipon talks to a man known as "the Professor" who makes bombs and detonators and who identifies himself as a total anarchist who would like to do away with any and all conventions and institutions. He carries with him dynamite and an India rubber ball detonator so that he can detonate at any point. He imagines this to be some kind of irrevocable power. The Professor tells Ossipon it is Verloc, since Verloc came to him for the bomb. In the street after his encounter with Ossipon, the Professor encounters the paragon of institutional success and achievement, Chief Inspector Heat. Heat has examined the remains of the bomber; he and the Professor have an unpleasant exchange in which it is revealed that the Professor feels the sting of being rejected by society. Later, Heat talks to the Assistant Comissioner, implying from what he has found out that Michaelis was involved because he had recently moved to a cottage near a railway station where the two men involved with the bombing had gotten off. Heat wants to pin it on Michaelis and be done with the case.

It turns out, however, that the Assistant Commissioner wants to protect Michaelis because Michaelis's "lady patroness" is a friend of his wife's. The narrative breaks here and tells of the Assistant Commissioner's past: he had worked in the colonies, but returned to a boring administrative job because his wife refused to live abroad. Heat speaks to the Assistant Commissioner about his private agreements with Verloc and how he doesn't want to get Verloc involved, despite having found Verloc's address on the coat belonging to the dead bomber. Because of their disagreements, relations are strained between Heat and the Assistant Commissioner. The latter goes to talk to the Private Secretary to secure permission to investigate the case himself. Having obtained this permission, the Assistant Commissioner goes to Verloc's house.

Here, the narrative breaks again and tells retrospectively of what has been occuring in the Verloc household prior to the bombing. Winnie's mother decides to move out and live in an almshouse, thinking that her absence might compel Winnie to take sole responsibility for Stevie and that this gradual absence might make the eventuality of her death to be easier on both Stevie and the Verlocs. When Stevie accompanies his mother to the almshouse, an incident with their cab driver reveals that Stevie feels compassionately for the poor and for the horses. His compassion leads to him being violently upset when he realizes that he can do nothing about it.

Mr. Verloc makes a brief trip to the Continent, and upon his return, Winnie sends Stevie out with Verloc on his errands, arranging one time for Verloc to bring Stevie to Michaelis's cottage. It was Winnie's hope that these walks would calm Stevie and besides, improve the relationship between Verloc and Stevie. On the day of the bombing, the Assistant Commissioner visits Verloc after he has returned home; it is assumed that Stevie was safe at Michaelis. At this point however, it is clear to the reader that it is Stevie who has been blown to bits. Offstage, Verloc confesses what has happened to the Assistant Commissioner. Meanwhile, Mrs. Verloc gets a visit from Heat, who shows her the piece of fabric from Stevie's coat which contains their address. Mrs. Verloc explains that the address was sewn in so that Stevie would not get lost.  Heat doesn't reveal to her what has happened for the time being, but when Verloc returns and talks to Heat behind closed doors, Winnie overhears and learns the truth. Meanwhile, the Assistant Commissioner tells the Private Secretary about Verloc's confession and goes to his wife at the lady patroness's house. There, he sees Vladimir, and they have an exchange in the street. Smugly, the Assistant Commissioner tells Vladimir that the English police have got everything under control.

Verloc tries to justify his life and actions to Winnie, but she doesn't hear because all she has lived for has been Stevie. Winnie's past is revealed: she had giving up her lover for Stevie, marrying Verloc for his money. Pushed to the limits, Winnie takes a carving knife and kills Verloc. In a trance, Winnie goes out and resolves to jump off of a bridge, but meets Ossipon on her way. Ossipon says he loves her, thinking Verloc dead from the blast. He finds out soon that she has killed him and the full truth, and then he becomes terrified of her. He sends her on a train to Paris, and later ditches her. It is revealed finally through a newspaper that Winnie has committed suicide. The journalistic phrase which describes her suicide ("an impenetrable mystery will hang for ever over this act") continues to haunt Ossipon to the end. The narrative ends with the Professor walking the streets of London.

I want to consider The Secret Agent in light of its being shot throughout with references to journalistic text and more specifically, newspapers. Peter Mallios offers the following reading, as summarized in the following paragraph:

The increasing power of the press in the 1890s was related to some important historical changes. The lowering or repeal of a number of duties pertaining to the economics of print in the mid to late nineteenth centuries led to a boom in newspapers geared more towards the lower classes; hence, the establishment began to fear the increasing numbers of labor-identified papers and more generally, the threat of anarchism which the new voices of the working class brought. The response of the establishment was in part to develop a new aesthetics of informational reporting which positioned newspapers as simply reporting neutral "fact"; the logic was that none could challenge a "regime of 'information'." Mallios argues that The Secret Agent resists the totalizing control of the late-nineteenth-century press which, under such the guise of information, was actually increasingly good at "simulation" as defined by Baudrillard as "a generation of models of a real without origin or reality." In Mallios's paraphrase, "the elements of representation and of a differentiated, autonomous reality drop out entirely, the world instead being scripted, constituted, supplanted by the media." This, Mallios contends, is the extraordinarily generative power of the press beginning in the 1890s, the power to "make facts" through the simple act of declaring items to be news (a symptom of this generative power, Mallios suggests, are new forms like the "celebrity interview" in journalism, which is essentially an event made in order to be reported).  

Mallios's consideration of The Secret Agent as a novel which critiques the mechanical acceptance, by nearly every character in the story, of what newspapers produce as fact and lived reality oddly links it to Doyle's The Lost World. My own reading of Edward Malone's function is that he is a new kind of journalist who manages to "shock" (through the final revelation of the pterodactyl) his audiences out of the blunted sensibilities created by the (drab) stylistics of information reporting by importing stylistics of fiction writing into his journalism. Mr. Vladimir in The Secret Agent wants to manufacture an event, the Greenwich bombing, which will similarly "shock" audiences out of their drab, bourgeois existence manufactured by their everyday newspaper reading. Unlike Malone's "shock," Vladimir's is botched: as Mallios points out, the public does not experience an imaginative revival and the whole incident is easily absorbed into the blunted indifference of everyday reporting. Indeed, no one in Conrad's novel (with the exception of the Professor, perhaps), escapes the control that the newspapers have on their subjectivities: Stevie gets red in the face reading stories in newspapers, Winnie is "free" for a moment before realizing, through accounts from newspapers, the gallows, Heat wants to pin the crime on Michaelis in order to produce an orderly account in the papers, Ossipon is haunted at the end by a journalistic phrase. Yet the Professor, the true anarchist who rejects all institutions and conventions of thought is hardly a hero. Conrad's narrative makes clear that he is in a position to reject because society has rejected him first. As the final lines of the novel give, "He walked frail, insignificant, shabby, miserable--and therrible in the simplicity of his idea calling madness and despair to the regeneration of the world." It is because he is "miserable" and "insignificant" that he reaches a sense of radical freedom. But this freedom, perhaps akin to Winnie's momentary freedom before killing Verloc and after learning of Stevie's death, seems rather undesirable. It's very far from the imaginative freedom which Malone in The Lost World shocks his audience into, rather it's a radical, terroristic freedom which in its (limited) achievement actually becomes deeply undesirable. Conrad's vision thus seems presents an unresolved problem: it reveals the "unreality" of newspaperly ways of seeing the world, yet rejects the radical freedom which might dismantle such unreality. 

No comments: