The War on Terror

THE PRESCIENCE OF JOSEPH CONRAD

Tom Reiss’s article on Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes (1911) in the New York Times Book Review (“The True Classic of Terrorism,” September 11) criticizes the stock figures and cartoon characters of Conrad’s earlier novel, The Secret Agent (1907), and claims that it is “not especially prescient about terrorism.” But Reiss also concedes that the “tightly constructed” earlier novel “seems stunningly up-to-date” and “remains the most brilliant novelistic study of terrorism as viewed from the blood-splattered outside.” In fact, the more ambitious Under Western Eyes builds on and complements The Secret Agent.

In his first novel on terrorism Conrad describes seedy London neighborhoods; a cell of refugees and immigrants who plot revolution behind a dingy storefront; a fanatical expert in explosives who rides the bus clutching his detonator and threatening to blow himself up; an explosion that terrifies the public and makes quite ordinary people seem sinister and menacing; a wife who knows nothing about her husband’s activities and a shocking event that reveals the truth; a secret agent in the pay of a foreign government that tries to create social and political chaos; policemen who have all the terrorists under surveillance, yet are taken by surprise. All these ingredients sound like the recent events in London, or a future scenario in New York, but are eerily familiar to readers of The Secret Agent.

George Orwell noted that since Conrad was “a member of an oppressed race, he understood just why people throw bombs even if he disapproved of such activities.” Conrad was born in 1857 in a tripartite Poland, oppressively ruled by Russia, Prussia, and Austria. When he was four years old his father was arrested for revolutionary activity and exiled, with his wife and child, to Vologda, 250 miles north of Moscow. Conrad’s mother died of tuberculosis in that harsh, remote region, and he watched his father turn into a bitter and broken man. Conrad’s childhood experiences made him passionately conservative, hostile to revolution and fiercely anti-Russian. He had a deep-rooted fear of social disorder, was sensitive to political movements and perceptive about the pathology of terrorists. People asked the same questions about terrorists then as they do now: What sort of people are they? Who organizes them? What are their motives? Though Conrad’s novel is based on the anarchist bomb plots of the turn of the century, his political insights apply with equal force to our situation today.

Conrad’s foreign anarchists (whom we’d now call terrorists) are all foolishly ordinary. Too lazy to work, they live for dreams of power. Verloc, an apparently respectable married shopkeeper, has for years been a secret agent of the Russians. He passes on information that protects visiting royalty and saves the London police from embarrassment. He prides himself on protecting his clients, but is actually manipulated by his Russian paymasters and by Chief Inspector Heat, the London policeman who uses him to keep track of the anarchists. The only truly sinister and dangerous figure is the fanatical Professor, a frail little man who’s obsessed with explosives. Crazy and suicidal, he despises the others for their fanciful political goals and belief in a better way of life. He has the means to commit violent acts, and for him only death has real meaning.

Verloc’s mundane existence is shattered when his old boss at the embassy is replaced by Vladimir, a sophisticated Russian diplomat who aims to undermine the stability of Edwardian England. He demands that Verloc, his agent provocateur, incite his anarchists to blow up the astronomical observatory at Greenwich, which measures time throughout the world. “Blowing up the first meridian,” says Vladimir, “is bound to raise a howl of execration.” The purpose of the Greenwich bomb plot—engineered by the Russians but blamed on the anarchists—is to stimulate the vigilance of the police and to drive the anarchists, who are planning a revolution in Russia, out of their safe refuge in England. Vladimir intends to give the British “a jolly-good scare” and make them enact repressive laws in the interest of security. Yet he does not really know who the anarchists are or what motivates them. In a passage strikingly reminiscent of official statements about recent suicide bombers, he wonders if they are “a perfectly disciplined army, where the word of chiefs was supreme” or “the loosest association of desperate brigands that ever camped in a mountain gorge.”

Verloc knows that he can’t rely on any of his terrorists to risk their lives. Too cowardly to do it himself, he tricks his backward stepson, Stevie, into carrying the bomb. But Stevie blows himself up instead of the observatory. In what seems like a contemporary news story, Conrad writes that the effects of the explosion left a great hole in the ground as well as “fragments of a man’s body blown to pieces.” The boy is transformed into a mere “heap of rags, scorched and bloodstained, half concealing what might have been an accumulation of raw material for a cannibal feast.”

Vladimir, who represents a despotic regime, insists that England “is absurd with its sentimental regard for individual liberty.” The chancellor of the embassy agrees that “the general leniency of the judicial procedure here, and the utter absence of all repressive measures, are a scandal to Europe.” Ironically, the diplomats’ contempt for British idealism and legality is the same as the Professor’s, who exclaims: “To break up the superstition and worship of legality should be our aim. 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.” The terrorists want to provoke the authorities to abolish habeas corpus and just trials and encourage the public to support police brutality. By destroying traditional moral values, the terrorists would begin to turn England into Russia and make it ripe for revolution. A society lady at a party, sitting next to Vladimir, the true perpetrator of the crime, expresses exactly the attitude he’d hoped to create by exclaiming: “We all ought to quake in our shoes at what’s coming if those people are not suppressed all over the world.”

The Secret Agent, a family tragedy set in a political context, was written nearly a century ago, yet it illuminates contemporary conditions. In our time, terrorists have actually forced fearful governments, supported by an anxious population, to become more repressive and to deviate from the rule of law. Conrad wanted to inspire indignation and contempt for the terrorists’ ideological pretenses, cowardly nihilism, and absurd cruelty. His novel shows how the rivalry of police organizations compromises their effectiveness; and how policemen, politicians, and diplomats have failed to stop terrorists. He hated repressive government as much as social disorder. He saw acts of terrorism in terms of individual human lives, of illusions both “noble and vile” that inspire men and women to kill both themselves and their innocent victims.

Published in the 2005-10-21 issue: 
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Thirty-two of Jeffrey Meyers’s books have been translated into fourteen languages and seven alphabets. He’s recently published Remembering Iris Murdoch (2013), Thomas Mann’s Artist-Heroes (2014), Robert Lowell in Love and The Mystery of the Real: Correspondence with Alex Colville (2016).

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