2016 Jul 20, 9:06pm
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The Wall Street Journal
By JEFFREY MEYERS
July 19, 2016 6:26 p.m. ET
In â€œThe Secret Agentâ€ (1907), his novel about terrorism, Joseph 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 husbandâ€™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. The recent events in Orlando, Brussels, Paris and Nice, France, are eerily familiar to readers of â€œThe Secret Agent.â€
Conrad 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 Conradâ€™s novel is based on the anarchist bomb plots of the turn of the 20th century, his political insights apply with equal force to our situation today. An adaptation of the novel is now airing on BBC One and the series will likely appear in America.
Conradâ€™s foreign anarchists (whom we now call terrorists) are all foolishly ordinary. Too lazy to work, they live for dreams of power. Adolf Verloc, an apparently respectable married shopkeeper, has for years been a secret agent of the Russians. He passes on information that defends 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 whoâ€™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.
Verlocâ€™s mundane existence is shattered when his old boss at the embassy is succeeded by Vladimir, a sophisticated Russian diplomat who aims to undermine the stability of Edwardian England. He demands that Verloc, his agent provocateur, incite a group of anarchists to blow up the astronomical observatory at Greenwich, which measures time throughout the world. â€œBlowing up the first meridian,â€ says Vladimir, â€œis bound to raise a howl of execration.â€ The purpose of the Greenwich bomb plotâ€”engineered by the Russians but blamed on the anarchistsâ€”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. In a passage strikingly reminiscent of official statements about recent suicide bombers, he wonders if they are â€œa perfectly disciplined army, where the word of chiefs was supremeâ€ or â€œthe loosest association of desperate brigands that ever camped in a mountain gorge.â€
Verloc knows that he canâ€™t rely on any of his terrorists to risk their lives. Too cowardly to do it himself, he tricks his backward brother-in-law, 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 â€œfragments of a manâ€™s body blown to pieces.â€ The boy is transformed into a mere â€œheap of rags, scorched and bloodstained, half concealing what might have been an accumulation of raw material for a cannibal feast.â€
The Professor, contemptuous of British idealism and justice, exclaims, â€œTo 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.â€ The terrorists want to provoke the authorities to abolish habeas corpus and fair 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.
â€œThe Secret Agent,â€ a family tragedy set in a political context, was written more than a century ago yet illuminates contemporary conditions. Conrad wanted to inspire indignation and contempt for the terroristsâ€™ 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 â€œnoble and vileâ€ that inspire men and women to kill both themselves and their innocent victims.
Mr. Meyers published â€œJoseph Conrad: A Biographyâ€ (Scribners) in 1991 and â€œ Robert Lowell in Loveâ€ (University of Massachusetts Press) in 2016.
Interesting how things from 109 years ago sound just like today except human nature has never changed.