[Online editor's note: The following copyrighted introduction to The Secret Agent is reprinted from the Penguin Twentieth-Century Classic edition, ISBN 0-14-018096-6, US$7.95, 1984, 1986, 1990. The introduction copyright (1984) is held by the editor, Martin Seymour-Smith, who has generously allowed republication of it gratis on this World Wide Web page. Please do not copy and distribute it further; for a license to reprint it, please write to Penguin Books at the address at the end of the page. You may find reading this paperback edition to be more convenient and to cost less than online connect time. You may also be interested in Mr Seymour-Smith's introduction to the Penguin Books edition of Nostromo and his other critical writings on Conrad. For the online address of a local bookseller, please see our /Search/ page.]
Conrad was speaking the plain truth when he said in his 'Author's Note', added in 1920, that The Secret Agent (serial form, 1906; book form, 1907) arose from 'a period of mental and emotional reaction' following the publication of Nostromo (1904). Nostromo was, as he said, his 'largest canvas', and, whether it is his best novel or not, it is the richest expression of his pessimistic vision. In many ways the much shorter The Secret Agent (for a large number of Conrad's readers their favourite of his books) is a kind of sardonic sequel to Nostromo. At the end of the latter Conrad made clear his view of how the state of Sulaco would 'evolve': his picture of the London of 1886--but it was really the London of 1906--is a cruel and mocking elaboration of this 'evolution'. Critics of both the left and the right have tried to claim Conrad as one of their own or, alternatively, have laid into him for being politically obtuse--usually reactionary. But The Secret Agent, of all his novels, is the one which shows both factions to be wrong: Conrad was as disillusioned with all politics as they are practised, as was his true master, Flaubert. As a British country gentleman--which Conrad as a self-conscious Polish exile knew he was not, but which he had to try to be--it suited him to take up a near-reactionary political attitude both in conversation with and in letters to some of his friends. He could sincerely despise 'progress' in any case. But this did not prevent his close friendship with R. B. Cunninghame Graham, an ex-Liberal ex-MP who became a socialist and a quasi-anarchist--a trouble-maker and an eccentric. Graham, whose work and personality have been consistently underrated, was neither a fool nor a simple-minded revolutionary. He tended to see anarchy as a more or less normal permanent ingredient in all political situations--and of course he was right, because there is something of the anarchist in everyone, even in the angriest Tory and the most stupidly doctrinaire Marxist. The anarchist streak in us simply has to be touched off by something we do not like--and none of us, in the last analysis, likes governments, as wiser governments understand.
Graham was a far more influential friend to Conrad than was Galsworthy. Conrad found Graham more intelligent and imaginative than Galsworthy, and he was more interested in him as a truly adventurous and humorous man. As a Pole he shared Graham's hatred of imperialism, and at heart he agreed with Graham's view that anarchy was 'normal': the flamboyant, red-haired Scot was an indispensable catalyst for what Conrad's biographer Frederick Karl calls his 'well-hidden anarchistic tendencies'. As a creative influence he was probably second only to Ford Madox Ford in Conrad's depressed and difficult life.
As we shall see, Conrad's 'Author's Note' is disingenuous. But there are passages in it that are truthful. He said that there were moments in the writing of the book when he was 'an extreme revolutionist', and he meant it: as he ironically wrote, not expecting to be understood, 'I was simply attending to my business'. However prejudiced Conrad's portraits of the 'anarchists' in The Secret Agent may at first sight appear to be, he had to project himself imaginatively into their personalities and understand their points of view. They are essentially comic caricatures; and one, Ossipon, is an evil man. But the book as a whole presents them as no worse than their apparent adversaries, the police and the politicians and the middle classes. As he wrote, again in his 1920 note, he was not concerned to 'legitimize' any of them; but he added that his view of 'the moral reactions as between the criminal and the police'--that they were opposite sides of the same coin--seemed to him 'at least arguable'. This, for the supposedly English Tory gentleman Conrad, was taking things rather far, especially in 1920.
The Secret Agent, in almost all respects a depiction of a corrupt society, shot through with grim irony--and the most humorous of all Conrad's novels--is also the story of Winnie Verloc, told (as he rightly asserted, again in his 1920 note) 'to its anarchistic end of utter desolation, madness and despair'. This arose from his infuriated and guilty reaction to 'family life': his own. Conrad cannot in the last analysis be said to have hated his family; but he used his involuntarily bitter feelings to add venom to a contemptuous and cynical analysis of marital 'respectability'. His wife Jessie was ill (Conrad himself seemed always to be ill, suffering from gout, depression or lack of money) and had even suffered a 'nervous breakdown of a sort': she learned in early 1906 that she was pregnant, a condition which Conrad himself, however hard he tried, could not but half resent; and she could never, of course, hope to follow him where his imagination led him. Jessie was a good wife, who, rather like Winnie Verloc, dealt with her impossible husband by seldom saying anything ('Oh, yes! I know your deaf-and-dumb trick,' Verloc tells Winnie). She was also stupid, as her memoir (1926) of Conrad, written after his death, effectively demonstrates. Yet he felt desperately guilty that he could not raise enough money to see to her needs without himself becoming 'sick with worry and overwork' (as, in more or less the same phrase, he used to say on countless occasions throughout his life). Karl is certainly right, if only at that primitive level at which works of art get their momentum: in The Secret Agent, Conrad 'eliminated his family, which consisted of a much younger wife [as Winnie is with Verloc] and their young child. By making Stevie retarded, Conrad revealed another aspect of hostility, a measure of retribution for the son who must be supported and cared for.' But Karl ought to have added that in this way Conrad made sure of sublimating his ill feelings. In the event, under an atrocious concatenation of non-recognition, severe illnesses and shortage of money, he managed to take care of them all, including the new arrival of August 1906. (The Conrads already had one son, Borys: he was desperately ill and looked likely to die throughout most of this period.)
Conrad's agent, Pinker, who supplied him with money (though never enough), liked short, saleable fiction. So Conrad, who knew all along that The Secret Agent was going to be a novel, pretended to him that it was a short story, and that it would soon be finished. It was called Verloc in its early stages, and Conrad was working at it in the New Year of 1906. But he could not work with the speed he wished, and by September had written only 45,000 words. It was due to be serialized in Ridgeway's: A Militant Weekly for God and Country towards the end of the year. (The serial version differs greatly from the book, especially the ending, which Conrad expanded considerably.) Conrad sent this section to Galsworthy, who, predictably, objected to the irony and what he considered a Zolaesque style.
That was in a sense promising, since anything as searing as this--and Conrad wanted it to be searing--would certainly have provoked the timid Galsworthy, whose imagination was so diminutive by the side of his friend's as to be impervious to any such apprehension of human chaos. Conrad told Galsworthy, significantly, that 'attacking anarchism' would have to be left to a hand 'more robust ... and perhaps more honest than mine'.
Conrad called the book 'purely a work of imagination', which it certainly is; but he was always very guarded as to his sources. In fact he wove the tale around a tissue of disparate facts, some well separated in time. The novel transcends all these facts; but Conrad required justification for the state of affairs he depicted. The Secret Agent could hardly exist without Dostoyevsky--though Thomas Mann was perhaps exaggerating when he said that Stevie was 'inconceivable' without Dostoyevsky's The Idiot--just as it could hardly exist without Dickens. It employs caricature more consistently than any other of Conrad's novels; its comic sense resembles Dostoyevsky's more closely than any other writer's. It could easily be a shortened version of The Devils by an anglicized Pole, as anyone who reads the two books in succession may see. And Stevie does owe something to Myshkin, though he is not at all like him; likewise the Professor owes something to Kirilov.
But Dostoyevsky was a Russian, and Conrad did not like Russians, or Dostoyevsky for that matter, whom he frequently insulted in the most foolish and disingenuous terms. He could never quite understand that Dostoyevsky (or any other individual Russian) was not personally responsible for the way in which Poland had been treated. So he could not admit to the influence, which was in fact strong (particularly in Under Western Eyes): both men began, if only superficially, as idealistic liberals and ended as reactionaries. Conrad was involved in gun-running, Dostoyevsky in revolutionary activism.
One of the reasons, then, why Conrad took so many facts from newspapers and recent history was simply that he felt defensive about the growing influence of Dostoyevsky, for the novel does bear many resemblances to
The other more important reason is that he felt defensive about his cynical attitude, or what he felt would be taken as such. For The Secret Agent is extraordinarily 'modern' in the jaundiced view it takes of political activists, of respectable politicians, of policemen, and even of the sacred institution of marriage. While it is an atrocious mistake to see Conrad as a disguised Marxist (as many critics insist on doing), it would be equally wrong to see him as a true reactionary, however he chose to talk to most of his friends. For he was, after all, a writer, like Flaubert a humane liberal (without a capital 'l'), and when he said he was simply attending to his 'business', he meant by 'business' the right of an author to the autonomy of his imagination. Thomas Hardy was sensitive, as a poetic and symbolic novelist, to accusations that he violated reality; he would always cast about for precedents in reality to justify his fantastic narratives. The case of the wife-sale in The Mayor of Casterbridge is characteristic--but Hardy's digging up of various such transactions does not make his story any more intrinsically likely, in realistic terms, than it would in any case be. In The Secret Agent Conrad knew from the start that he was presenting a savage and wounding account of English society. He therefore felt easier in his mind for having a set of facts behind him--even if, characteristically, he refused to be specific about the amount of research he had done.
The most detailed review of Conrad's sources for The Secret Agent is that given by Norman Sherry in Conrad's Western World (1971); I have leaned heavily on this study, as anyone writing on Conrad must. But, like other critics, I do not accept Sherry's implied verdict that The Secret Agent is 'unfair', that Conrad uses more caricature in his treatment of the anarchists than he does in his treatment of the 'respectable' characters in the book. Sophisticated and invaluable though Sherry's account is, he misses the intention: misses the implication of Conrad's ironic assertion that he was attending to his business. The anarchism, idealism and romanticism of the young Conrad were well hidden in the elder Conrad; but they did not die in him. They lived on vigorously in his fiction. They were merely covered over by depression and a world-weary cynicism. Conrad was a gloomy writer who used to complain that Hardy was just as gloomy as he, but sold better. Conversely, he never lost hope in a better world, though (again like Flaubert) he had no use whatever for politicians or political theories. He certainly shared Marx's view that men and women should not be treated like merchandise. But he did not share his historical determinism; still less could he share the 'dialectical materialism' of his followers, such as Engels and Plekhanov (who first used the term). However, had he ever entirely lost faith--even in the face of his own, his wife's and his elder son's serious illnesses, his own tendency to crippling depressions, his lack of money--in any possibility of a better world, he could not possibly have painted such a terrible picture in The Secret Agent. Satire is almost always criticism; the most effective always is. In 1906 he was at the end of his tether: the almost sacred Mrs Gould of Nostromo can only, here, be Winnie's grotesque although unselfish mother; and the corrupt materialist Gould can only be the psychotic nihilist, the Professor (who figures briefly in The Informer, a story written between Nostromo and The Secret Agent). We have a world which is reflected precisely in its own underworld: the subverters of society supported and financed by its own pillars, or by a series of stupid lower-middle-class women (Ossipon), policemen who enjoy the 'manhunt' but who regard the ordinary criminal as one of themselves. The least unattractive man in the entire story (barring the retarded Stevie) acts as he does only because he wants to defer to his whining and hypochondriacal wife, whom he hates. The pathetic heroine is party to a bargain which makes her into an unwitting, unhappy prostitute, and it is clear that this is so because she is forced to it by ignoble circumstance. Underlying the whole, and all the more powerful for hardly ever being explicitly stated, is a seamy lust: the greedy and disgusting fraud and robber, Ossipon, and his women and his treachery; the indolent Verloc who can't go 'to Europe' because, as his wife slyly reminds him, he'd 'miss her' too much; the Professor who walks the streets with his fingers round an indiarubber ball which will blow him and all around him to smithereens (just as Conrad, Karl tells us, used to grip a thick pencil when tormented by attacks of gout). It is no wonder that he felt he wanted a tissue of fact upon which to base this cruel, if sometimes grotesquely tender, satire.
The Secret Agent is set in 1886, but its central incident is based on an actual occurrence: the 'Greenwich Bomb Outrage' of 1894. It was, however, far more precisely based on it than most people would have known, or than Conrad wished to acknowledge. He was very sensitive on this point, since while he admitted it to his publisher Sir Algernon Methuen in 1906, he denied it to a correspondent in 1923: he then said that he had been out of England at the time, and 'never knew anything of what was called ... the "Greenwich Bomb Outrage"...' Actually he was in London, at 17 Gillingham Street, writing Almayer's Folly (his first novel) when it happened, and he must have taken an interest in it even then. He based this part of The Secret Agent on accounts of the affair he read in the Anarchist newspaper and on some later pamphlets written about it. Ford, who had knowledge of anarchism through his cousins, the precocious children of William Michael Rossetti (who were allowed to run an anarchist paper from their parents' basement even though Rossetti worked for the Inland Revenue--an incongruity which delighted Ford), probably told him more.
Briefly, the facts behind the so-called Greenwich Bomb Outrage were these. A young man called Martial Bourdin was found in Greenwich Park, on a hill near the Royal Observatory 'in a kneeling posture, terribly mutilated' on the evening of 15 February 1894. There had been an explosion; Bourdin had set it off, and in so doing had killed himself. He had blown off one of his hands, and his guts were spilling from his body; he died in hospital very soon afterwards.
Bourdin had a brother-in-law called H. B. Samuels, who edited an anarchist paper. Samuels was in fact, like Verloc, a police agent and, again like Verloc, he accompanied his not very intelligent dupe to the park. Bourdin did not stumble (as Stevie did), but in some way set off the explosive he was carrying, which was supplied by Samuels, acting as agent provocateur. Samuels meant his sister's husband to be arrested for carrying explosive, and probably suggested that he 'experiment' with it in Greenwich Park. Therefore Samuels is a feasible source for Verloc (he may even have been working for a foreign embassy as well as the police), though Conrad does not make Verloc resemble him personally. Anarchists were not responsible for the Greenwich Bomb incident; they were as frightened about it as they are in The Secret Agent.
The Conference of Milan to which Vladimir refers in the novel was actually held in late 1898. Nothing came of it, since (as is often mentioned in the novel) Britain resisted the notion of giving up her reputation as a haven for the oppressed; this reputation has only been renounced since the end of the Second World War, possibly because it is appropriate only to a first-class power.
For the four anarchists (Verloc is not an anarchist: he is only posing as one) Conrad had specific models in mind, though it is doubtful whether he was much interested in them as individuals. However, Sherry is wrong in asserting that in writing The Secret Agent Conrad had an 'abstract notion' of what anarchists were like 'and, what is more, kept a tight check on his material in order to prevent his "abstract notion" developing into a living character'; this implies that Conrad was intent on expressing his disapproval of revolutionary activity and revolutionaries in the novel--and that all the other characters are 'living' in some way that the revolutionaries are not. If Verloc himself is not a caricature, he is a portrait in very bold poster colour; Winnie Verloc is not a 'living character' in the sense that characters in Nostromo and other Conrad personages are. The book consistently employs a technique of caricature except in certain specific instances: Stevie, the Assistant Commissioner, Verloc, Winnie Verloc in her last hours.
Conrad drew not only on anarchist lore for his anarchists, but also on Fenian history--about which the information was more precise. It should be remembered that the Fenians were not anarchists, but violently subversive activists.
Conrad's depiction of all the anarchists but the Professor--who works all day in his room at 'the perfect detonator'--as being incorrigibly indolent derives from popular sources. But he does not offer it at all in the spirit in which it was first presented in the columns of Blackwood's (to which he was a contributor, and to which he was grateful for providing, by his standards, a fairly constant source of income), under the name of the literary critic, Charles Whibley. The anarchist is 'an indolent monster, diseased with vanity, whose first and last desire is advertisement'. Sherry says that Conrad's own insights are 'similar to those of, and perhaps derived from, Blackwood's Magazine'. This is to do Conrad an injustice. Doubtless he was struck by the crude characterization; but he would have known that it was not true of all anarchists (e.g. millionaires, whom he called 'real anarchists'). He was portraying futile anarchists, 'sham' revolutionaries as he called them to Graham--'sham' implying the recognition of 'real'. Sherry insists that Conrad 'deliberately excludes the human and intimate aspects of his historical originals in order to condemn the anarchists by a caricatural presentation'. Perhaps. But he also does this in the case of most of his other characters. It is a serious misreading of The Secret Agent to regard it as an 'anti-anarchist' polemic. It is far more than that: it is itself in its own creative way anarchist, since it is a satire on the whole of society. But Conrad would have appreciated Sherry's being taken in, too; he was ambivalent about his real intentions, even if from time to time he asserted them ironically ('simply attending to my business'). Sherry can see that Conrad is an ironic writer; he does not see the extent of his irony.
Karl Yundt, who does not play a large part in the novel, and who is simply there as a 'type' to lend credence and substance to the group with whom Verloc associates himself in order to carry out his 'duties' efficiently, is a burnt-out advocate of murder. Conrad clearly relishes his expression of Yundt's savage intentions, lust as Zola, the paradigmatic naturalist, relishes his descriptions of low life. 'Can't you smell and hear from here the hide of the people burn and sizzle?' Quite so: bank managers, Pinker, upon whom he had to depend for cash, and those who would not buy Conrad's books. There is no reason to believe that Conrad himself did not agree in principle with Yundt's last words in the book: 'They are nourishing their greed on the quivering flesh and the warm blood of the people--nothing else.' It is just that he would not have cared to put it like that in conversation, and that he regarded Yundt as degenerate, as he is. Conrad did not believe in political solutions, whereas the chief model for Yundt, the German anarchist Johann Most, did. But it is significant that Most, who was often imprisoned, never actually used dynamite--he just talked about it. When, in his 'Author's Note' of 1920, Conrad wrote of 'a brazen cheat exploiting the poignant miseries and passionate credulities of mankind always so tragically eager for self-destruction', he can hardly be accused of being unsympathetic. Nor does he exclude himself from any tragic eagerness for self-destruction. To argue, as Sherry does, that Conrad is childishly finding reasons for hatred of anarchism is to miss the point: Conrad is saying that this murderous type, usually himself not even a murderer but only a blood-curdling agitator, is a cheat.
In Michaelis, Conrad presents a much more sympathetic, albeit pathetic and even ridiculous, type. It strains one's sense of proportion to see this bloated and suffering figure as anything other than a sad innocent. Sherry makes a good deal out of the facts that Yundt has gout and that Michaelis (like one of the most famous real-life anarchists of all, Bakunin) is overweight and bloated after his twenty years in prison (for a murder with which he had little to do, and did not even know had occurred). He forgets that Conrad himself had very bad gout, and that Jessie was overweight and bloated. Conrad may have felt this to be less ridiculous than futile; but there is every reason to suppose that this depressed and sick man often felt, despite his creative integrity, that his project of seeking some shape in such dark and chaotic matters as life produced was futile.
Michaelis is not based on an anarchist but on a Fenian. In 1867 there was an attempted rescue of two Fenian prisoners from a police van. In that incident a policeman called Brett was shot. The three ringleaders were hanged. But a fourth man, Condon, whom the police could not prove to have been armed at the time, was sentenced to life imprisonment. Condon told the court that he was sorry for the death of Brett but also that he was sorry that the rescue attempt had failed. For this he was called brutal and cold. Thus far Conrad follows Condon's experience closely in his description of Michaelis. It is obvious that he wished to present Michaelis as a man who would not hurt a fly, and who had been the victim of unfortunate circumstances, as well as his own honesty.
Condon was smuggled out of England after serving eleven years of his sentence, and received no public sympathy. But another Fenian, Michael Davitt, did experience the sort of public sympathy which came Michaelis's way (nor, incidentally, is the great lady's expression of her sympathy for Michaelis, as presented by Conrad, in any way absurd: it is in its way as ordinarily humane as anything in the novel, since Michaelis is explicitly harmless and beneficent). Davitt was sentenced to fifteen years for arms smuggling in 1870, and released on ticket-of-leave in 1877. He wrote a pamphlet on prison conditions, and subsequently became famous and attracted some public sympathy. When his licence was withdrawn in 1881 and he was re-arrested, there was criticism from the press and a petition from no less than 105 MPs to the effect that he should not suffer more than was absolutely necessary. Like Michaelis, he wrote an autobiography (though his was written in prison, during his second period of confinement). And like Michaelis, he had no sense of personal vindictiveness--someone even described his life as one of 'almost shrinking purity', which might well be applied to Michaelis. His thinking is of the sort made popular by the hardly dangerous Prince Kropotkin who wrote Mutual Aid (1902), as well as William Morris and scores of other gentle reformists and socialists. If Michaelis is grotesque--and Conrad calls him a 'grotesque incarnation of humanitarian passion'--then is he more so than the imaginative writer Conrad, bitter, pressed for money, surrounded by the threat of illness, afflicted by the swellings of painful gout? But could mankind do without his absurd and idealist vision any more than it could do without the terrifying impartiality of the autonomous imagination? If Michaelis's idealism is absurd, Conrad does not poke fun at it. For are not poverty, failure to obtain recognition for a great visionary enterprise (Nostromo, which Conrad knew at the time to be a great book), a sick wife who was overweight, bloated, weak-kneed, mentally afflicted, unable to understand literature (one is reminded of Winnie's dumbly loyal attitude towards her husband's work as a purveyor of pornography and police informer)--are not these, too, absurd, futile? The level is higher, of course, than that of Michaelis's pitiful vision of the perfectibility of man; but the subject, belief in the innate goodness of people, is poignant. For all his inner fury and his convulsed guilt, Conrad obviously thought so too, or his novel would not have dealt with such evil and cortuption. The importance of evil can only be derived from a peculiarly strong sense of the human qualities which it violates. Michaelis is pitiful, but not absurd. His 'saintliness 'is no more ridiculous than Stevie's indignation.
The Professor fascinated Conrad as he fascinates us. He is incorruptible. He told Graham that while the other characters were 'shams' he had not intended to 'make him despicable'. This is surprising: such a figure would certainly have sent a righteous shudder down the spine of the milk-and-water liberal John Galsworthy, a servant (as purveyor of competent drama) of the official conscience of the middle classes, with as little imagination as was possible to obtain a Nobel Prize (which neither Conrad nor Hardy received). The Professor famously says that if he is given 'madness and despair' (in which Winnie's story, Conrad tells us, ended) then it will provide him with a lever with which to move the world. Of that Conrad told Graham: 'I wanted to give him a note of perfect sincerity.' Indeed is not the theme of all of Conrad's own major novels madness or despair, the one if not always the other?
Sherry says that the Professor was 'apparently intended by Conrad to demonstrate through his appearance and psychology the theories of two contemporary writers, Cesare Lombroso, the Italian criminologist, and Max Nordau, the author of Degeneration' (the English translation of this book by a Jewish-Hungarian physician and novelist appeared in 1898). It is true that Lombroso believed (incorrectly) that people with large ears and limited vision--such as the Professor--were typical of anarchists, whom he identified as criminals. But Sherry misses entirely the way in which writers of Conrad's imaginative depth and power transmute their raw material. For in the passage on pp. 259-60 Conrad describes how Ossipon (himself given 'Lombrosianly' 'degenerate' features) rationalizes along 'scientifically' correct lines, as given by Lombroso, his decision to rob and cheat Winnie. He cannot 'recommend his terrified soul to Lombroso' only because he cannot 'scientifically' believe in a soul. This richly comic analysis of the mental processes of a monster makes it crystal clear that Conrad himself could not for one moment have believed in the simplistic theories of Lombroso. He is making as much fun of Lombroso as he is of Ossipon, though the latter's personality is anything but funny: he is satirizing blind belief in Lombroso's obsessively over-dogmatic theory. And he must have been aware of the fact that most policemen, by 1906, believed in Lombroso's theories--just as did a large number of respectable and somewhat disturbed people with large, protruding ears and poor eyesight. Lombroso and his general theory of 'degeneracy' (from a non-existent perfection) were not discredited until some time later.
The Professor is indeed a caricature. But he has a desperate purity; he is in a certain sense a great deal purer than Gould of Nostromo, for he is incapable of any sort of rationalization. Certainly he is ill and desperate in a way in which the well-fed, complacent Gould is not. But he is, as Conrad insisted to Graham, perfectly sincere in a way that Gould could never be. He is an inevitable part of the society which Gould will generate in Sulaco. Gould, as Paul Kirschner has pointed out, is ready to use explosives: he won't allow the mine with which he is obsessed to be taken over by anyone else. In his respectable way he is as fanatical as the Professor; and he is also ready to destroy his wife. One really cannot conceive of a writer of Conrad's stature and intelligence being taken in by appearances as Norman Sherry would have us believe. At the highest level, that of creative and imaginative integrity (to which in his personal life Conrad could not attain) Gould is 'worse' than the Professor. But the price the Professor pays for his 'sincerity' and for its 'perfection' is 'despair and madness'--just what he wants as a lever to move the world. Gould buys, with his power and insincerity and lack of insight and rationalizing and destructive power, a false peace of mind: at least he is sure, though he is as neurotically and insanely obsessed as the Professor, that he is right. The Professor is not bothered about being right: he merely wants to destroy the weak, not seeing that he is himself pathetically weak. If Gould has his respectability and political pull, the Professor has his dream of the perfect detonator. Which is better--which is madder--in Conrad's world? Yet if we deny the reality of Conrad's world as we find it in his major novels, then we become a part of it: more inexorably a part of it than he became.
The Professor is not in fact an anarchist at all. It is a moot point whether any of the so-called anarchists in The Secret Agent are true anarchists. We cannot be sure how much Conrad himself really knew about the anarchist movements of his time. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-65) wanted peaceful change. Auguste Blanqui (1805-81) wanted a violent seizure of power. Mikhail Bakunin (I814-76), whose influence pervades The Secret Agent, though not in any precise manner, took the Blanqui line. But all these men and their coherent followers believed in the abolition of the state and its replacement by a system of voluntary cooperation between individuals and between small groups. Many of them were simply using the movement to express their own neuroses, or to compensate for their own inadequacies; Yundt and Ossipon are doubtless good examples of such men. (Neither Blanqui nor even Bakunin are good examples.) But Michaelis, although he ought to have been taught a lesson by the injustice he has experienced, cannot be classed with this type. Nor can the Professor. The Professor is a nihilist, who does not even believe in the possibility of cooperation. He is fuelled by rage; more than anyone he resembles one of those proto-Nazis such as Nietzsche's brother-in-law, the swindler and racist Bernhard Förster, who failed to establish a German colony in Paraguay and who killed himself before Nietzsche fell into madness. Förster's widow (Nietzsche's sister) who became a Nazi, devoted her life to the false demonstration that her brother's work was cast in the mould of the degraded Förster's set of shabby beliefs. She accomplished this by means of forgery, selective editing and lies, thus perpetrating a legend in which even Bertrand Russell half believed, and in which a host of educated people still believe. The Professor, then, is one of those who might believe in the Nietzschean 'superman' of the demented Frau Förster-Nietzsche. This superman (never Nietzsche's own übermensch, better translated as 'overman') can easily be made into a nihilist. Conrad himself was clearly influenced by Nietzsche, even though there is no direct evidence for this. But Nietzsche, of Polish ancestry himself, believed the Poles to be 'the most gifted and gallant' of the Slavs. Conrad, who probably spoke German, though he could in any case have read Nietzsche in French or English by 1900, does not seem to have misinterpreted him. (He denied knowledge of both German and Russian but it is difficult to see how such a competent linguist, having been exposed to both languages as a young man, could have failed to know something of either of them.) Rather he found in the philosopher a congenial spirit: he confirmed Conrad's 'visceral determinism', his fatalistic temperament, his anti-idealism. But he, too, like the Professor, was given to moments of desperate nihilism--if more private than the Professor's--and he would have seen how easily Nietzsche's thinking could lead one into such moods. By 1886 the Professor could hardly have heard of Nietzsche (who became famous only while he was going mad, probably from the effects of syphilis), through the lectures on him by the Danish Georg Brandes. But chronology in The Secret Agent is a formality. The Professor's Nietzscheanism, if it is that--and there is every reason to suppose that to many of Conrad's readers in 1907 it was--is perverse, a distortion of Nietzsche's writings about the 'master and the slave morality'; but Conrad employs it as an evidently sincere, if terrible, example of extremism. As to the Professor's habit of carrying about with him the means of his own and of course his captors' destruction, Conrad seems to have borrowed this from the alleged practice of a certain Luke Dillon, of whom he could have heard from an acquaintance, Roger Casement. This has no significance, apart from the extent to which it delighted Conrad.
Ossipon, the coward and apostle of 'science', has no known source, though Conrad might well have built him up from a dogmatist of any political hue; 'intellectually' Ossipon resembles quite closely any contemporary proponent of the scientistic millennium. Conrad anticipated many of the things which have become, increasingly obviously, evil and menacing to humanity since his time. For the character of Ossipon, Conrad required a parasite: one who thrived on anarchism without either giving anything to it, or even believing in it. Ossipon does not know it (he is a dab hand at theory, in conversation), but he exploits anarchism as the best means at his disposal of living off women, and probably of being a pimp (the inference is not unreasonable). Ossipon's strongest instinct is that of fear (giving rise to his cowardice, which is absolute), closely followed by a principled indolence; whether his lustfulness is as powerful as his desire for money which he has not earned is an academic question, since he obtains money by the exercise of lust. The portrait of Ossipon carries no implicit condemnation of anarchism. But in the portrait of Vladimir we see an unmistakable indictment of diplomacy. Both portraits in any case carry serious implications for the human condition itself--that it can produce such creatures. And so, more or less, does every other portrait in this novel. In The Secret Agent there is no 'saved character', as in Nostromo, where there may even be two--Monygham, as well as the more obvious figure of Mrs Gould. True, the unnamed mother of Winnie Verloc is 'saved', as Stevie is, but the reader only has to contemplate their circumstances, their intelligences, their fates, to gain a hint of Conrad's state of mind as he wrote the book. And he was not thinking of how much he hated anarchists.
As Norman Sherry writes, Conrad gave no hint in his comments on The Secret Agent of the vast complexity of sources from which he built up the novel. But these sources are just as many and various for the figures who represent 'law and order' as they are for the figures who don't. If Sherry cannot, the reader can easily see why: all the 'revolutionaries' depend in one way or another on the representatives of law and order. No one is even prepared to stop the Professor, though this might have been done without too much difficulty. But then the top stratum of society itself needs the Professor above all: he gives it something to be indignant about, to be terrified of--in the same way some contemporary columnists would go short of money if the Russian gangsters and 'psychiatric hospitals' about which they fulminate should suddenly cease to exist. The existence of misery and suffering, even of concentration camps, supplies an essential need--just as, unfortunately, wretched prison conditions in Great Britain or America provide others with a means of releasing their personal (and irrelevant) grievances. Conrad could see these things, and they grieved him; indeed, they made him seethe with rage beneath the surface of his personality, which was corrugated enough anyhow. A disappointed man, sick at his wife's stupidity (though he loved her, too), he despised all idealism; had he not once been an idealist himself? Had not his richly coloured vision of reality, his most poetic book, just failed to awaken the British readership to his genius? The reviewers had not been helpful; few readers had understood it. Was he not still being asked by Pinker to give the public what he considered to be inferior hack work (as he complained again and again)? He was in bitter mood.
The portrait of Sir Ethelred, the 'Secretary of State' (the Home Secretary), owes much to Conrad's investigations into the character of a real Home Secretary, Sir William Harcourt (1827-1904). Harcourt, Gladstone's Home Secretary 1880-85, champion of the birch and later Chancellor of the Exchequer, played a conspicuous part in attempting to suppress Fenian activity. Sir Ethelred resembles Harcourt in certain respects: he has a very old 'family tree', an aristocratic and haughty bearing, and weak eyesight. Harcourt was huge, pompous and somewhat grotesque--as Conrad makes him appear in the character of Sir Ethelred.
Sherry writes, astonishingly: 'Though there is much macabre humour in The Secret Agent, Sir Ethelred escapes it. As the supreme representative of the British Government in the novel he is treated in a delicate, chiding fashion and the humorous criticism of him ... chime with contemporary accounts of Harcourt.' This is an example of donning blinkers in the interests of a perverse interpretation. In the first place Sherry himself mentions that contemporary criticisms of Harcourt were indeed anything but delicate and chiding: 'Harcurtius of the triple chin' is one example, from Punch. Sherry also calls Harcourt a 'great man', and seems to think Sir Ethelred is, too. Harcourt, one of the last of the old-style politicians, could in fact make an effective, ironic speech and, though ridiculously opinionated, was very capable; he only missed being Prime Minister by a whisker when in 1894 the post went unexpectedly to Lord Rosebery. Conrad could not in 1907 (Harcourt having died in 1904) have with clear conscience made the real Harcourt into a pure figure of fun. But Sir Ethelred is certainly, whatever Sherry says, a figure of fun. There is nothing either 'delicate' or 'chiding' about Conrad's portrait of him. The matter of his wanting 'no details', but 'lucidity', from the Assistant Commissioner, a matter which is emphasized in a markedly Dickensian way, makes him look a fool, as does his near inability to walk; even his weak eyesight is used to make him look foolish. There is nothing respectful at all in the portrait--and one gets no sense whatever that the sheer fatuity of Toodles is unfitting: Toodles supplies the absurd context all too well. To cap it all, Sir Ethelred is represented as being preoccupied with the introduction of a Bill to 'nationalize the fisheries'. This may have been a private joke between Conrad and Graham, who might well have wanted to nationalize the fisheries. But not even he would have tried to do so at that time. The attribution of such an intention to Sir Ethelred is a deliberate piece of mischievous banter, to complete the picture of him as an elderly and impractical idiot, or, as Paul Kirschner puts it, 'little more than ... a kindly duffer'. In his conversations with the Assistant Commissioner, who is a clever if corrupt man, he is shown as being dense, neither sharp nor shrewd. No Home Secretary could really be quite so obviously foolish. Conrad told Graham in a letter that he was 'extremely flattered to have secured [your] commendation for [my] Secretary of State'. Sherry quotes this, and then goes on to say that 'since we now know Sir Ethelred to be closely based on an actual person, we might feel inclined to take issue with Conrad's further statement in the same letter, given his method of work, that "it was very easy there (for me) to go utterly wrong"'. This is extraordinary. Does Sherry understand Conrad's method of work, or his relationship with Graham, or Graham himself? Graham entered the House of Commons in 1886; the following year he was imprisoned for two months for leading an attack against the police in Trafalgar Square on 'Bloody Sunday'. He complained that the Commons gave him 'no fair show at all', he opposed capital punishment, and in 1890 founded the Scottish Labour Party (later the Labour Party) with Keir Hardy. In 1892 his career as a parliamentarian ended, though before he died he helped found the Scottish Nationalist Party.
Now Conrad was of course aware of all this; and the tone of his letter to Graham is clearly bantering. Harcourt was not Home Secretary while Graham was in Parliament--for all but a few months of this time the Prime Minister was the Tory Lord Salisbury--but he was extremely active. Nor was this gossipy and rather colourful man, who made a virtue of his prejudices, likely to have impressed Graham in the least. So Graham, delighted by what he no doubt took to be a deliciously unfair portrait of Harcourt, obviously congratulated Conrad on it; when Conrad said that it would have been easy for him to go 'utterly wrong' he was presumably thanking Graham for confirming that his caricature of Harcourt as a buffoon was at least right in spirit. But he was not seriously trying to give a full portrait of Harcourt; he was presenting what might be described as his view of the spirit of administration. This is no more flattering than his view of the anarchists.
For the Assistant Commissioner, Conrad, always anxious to have his facts about him in so severe and gloomy a satire, drew upon two previous occupants of this post: Sir Robert Anderson and Sir Howard Vincent. Anderson wrote Sidelights on the Home Rule Movement (published in 1906), and Conrad took a few details from this. Vincent received a knighthood for his work, but owed much to a subordinate named Inspector Williamson; in The Secret Agent the Assistant Commissioner takes the case into his own hands, and cuts Heat out. But Vincent was known to have disguised himself (as the Assistant Commissioner does), and to have been a meddler. As for Anderson, he had the reputation of being 'discreet', 'silent' and 'reserved': a 'mystery even to himself'. He was regarded as a particularly intuitive detective.
Conrad's Assistant Commissioner, these few details apart, is the work of his own imagination. He is one of the least unsympathetic characters in the novel; but it is notable that, for all his shrewdness, he is never moved by humanitarian impulses. As the Chief of Police in some colony (one must remember that Conrad did not like colonies) he had enjoyed the 'open air sport' of hunting criminals, and had been sorry when his nagging wife insisted on his returning to England. Heat wants to arrest Michaelis; but the Assistant Commissioner does not want to do this because his wife's wealthy and influential friend would never forgive him, and that would make his own life with her even more unpleasant and difficult. So, while it would have been amoral and unjust to take Michaelis in, the Assistant Commissioner is not at all interested in this aspect of the matter He acts against Heat (who reminds him of a certain crooked and self-interested chief whom he had found out in his old colonial days, a man who had deceived successive Governors) not for humanitarian reasons but simply to save his own skin at home. He is miserable in England, wants to avoid more trouble from his wife, and so takes the most intelligent and energetic series of actions seen in the book. But, though intelligent, he is in fact corrupt: he is looking after his own interests. Sadly for so efficient a man he lives only for a daily game of whist, and is conscious that even this is boring and unsatisfactory. His skilful handling of the stupid Heat and of the equally stupid Home Secretary, his clever move against Vladimir, and his successful approach to Verloc--all these sensible moves are in fact a waste, for they are all done simply to appease a fretful and difficult wife. So we can respect the Assistant Commissioner for his intelligence and for his refusal to allow a silly game to continue; but we are disillusioned by his petty motivation. All that skill is wasted: his motivation robs it of human depth. We know that had the arrest of Michaelis suited him he would have connived at it. All he wants is a petty peace, so that he may go on being unhappy (missing his 'open air sport') quietly and resignedly. The man is shrewd and to an extent wise; he may even have a dim view of what justice is--but he is a spiritually dead person.
Heat is portrayed as a character without conscience or feeling, the epitome of shrewd stupidity. Again, apart from a few suggestions from external sources, he is created by Conrad for the purpose of defining his view of the nature of policemen, keepers of law and order, representatives of honesty to society at large. For Heat, too, the hunting of ordinary criminals is 'open sport', with a set of rules. What rankles with him is that there are no rules for dealing with anarchists (he is peculiarly frustrated by the Professor, since it is clear that he does not want to take him in; he fears, though it is not stated, being blown up). In the matter of anarchists the Assistant Commissioner is more sophisticated than Heat. He understands the ground better, and does not ask himself awkward questions. He thinks to himself that 'the reputation of Chief Inspector Heat might possibly have been made in a great way by Secret Agent Verloc'.
Heat's personality was Conrad's invention; but he was not concerned to show the intimate side of it. He was expressing his opinion about the human qualities, or lack of them, in senior police officers. What was important to him was that the liaisons between policemen, the Assistant Commissioner (a policeman himself, but in theory desk-bound--an aspect of his work of which Conrad takes pains to emphasize his own Assistant Commissioner's hatred) and politicians actually existed, and that the Russian and other Embassies employed agents provocateurs. Sherry shows that the situation he depicts in The Secret Agent did, precisely and without doubt, exist. There was an Inspector Melville, a man of some sang froid, like Heat, who acted more or less as he does in the book. Blackwood's wrote (1901) that 'until sterner measures are taken Inspector Melville's device is not to be despised'. The anarchists of Soho, it said, enjoyed some freedom--but this was 'sternly tempered by the knowledge and control of Inspector Melville'. The Morning Leader (1894) reported Melville as saying, in words which Heat repeats, '.... we know the whereabouts and movements of all these fellows, and we can always put our hands on them when we want them'. The Greenwich Bomb Outrage was just the incident that Conrad needed for his purposes, since it took both police and anarchists by surprise: it revealed the weakness of the 'method' and it was a human tragedy inasmuch as a weak-minded man was betrayed to his painful death by a contemptible and treacherous scoundrel. The Assistant Commissioner's own view is that the method is intolerable: violent incidents may be fabricated by foreign embassies and control is undermined. Thus he destroys Vladimir just as Home Secretary Harcourt criticized, in the Commons, the police practice of laying traps for people. But Sir Robert Anderson held Heat's view: that 'ordinary law-breakers' can be dealt with, by 'the rules of the prize ring'; but anarchists cannot, and so justify the special methods that are employed against them.
When Conrad, with some irritation, insisted that The Secret Agent was the story of Winnie Verloc, he meant it. But the novel is far more uncompromisingly negative in its view of life than Nostromo, gloomy though this is. At least in Nostromo there is a rich vein of symbolism; and though she is finally defeated, the radiant personality of Mrs Gould is not corrupted. There are no such consolations in The Secret Agent, which arose from Conrad's misery at his domestic circumstances and his belief that mankind was heading for destruction; there is no more than a certain sombre beauty in the exactitude of his evocation of urban squalor, a common theme of the times, and seen in Zola and in poets such as Verhaeren and Rilke. We may wonder whether the book is too negative, too rooted in Conrad's own depression, in what some would call his own anti-progressive prejudice. But it is redeemed from extreme negativity by the accuracy of its attack on what Conrad considered to be evil. From his experiences at sea Conrad had learned about the virtues of common loyalty. Here he depicts a society in which loyalty does not exist: everyone is ruled by motives of self-interest except the idiot Stevie, Winnie's wretched mother, the pitiful Michaelis and, perhaps, Michaelis's rich patron. Evil has to be identified before it can be eradicated. Conrad had told Graham that he would like to portray the 'real anarchist, the millionaire', but that he was not up to it. The view that he had any definable political position is quite indefensible. His biographer, Karl, who recognizes this but occasionally feels that he must struggle with the problem, is at one point forced into the recondite statement that he was a 'Hegelian without the character of an Idea or an Ideal'. Since Conrad never read Hegel, the statement, though not ridiculous, does not really make sense. Conrad, though highly complex, and possessed of a complex vision in which beauty played an important part, yearned for simplicity; in his recollection of his time at sea he sometimes thought that here he had been as near to simplicity as he had ever been--even if his sea stories make it clear that communality and good-will are as threatened in that context as they are anywhere else. But one cannot emphasize too much the fact that Conrad was always very 'modern', a sort of reluctant prophet: he saw in his time what many, particularly those who take literature seriously, see more easily today than Conrad's contemporaries that politics as they are practised provide no answer to the problems assailing humanity. He wanted above all to be a simple person who could believe with conviction in the brotherhood of man. But he found the obstacles, not least in his own character, too great. Yet that vision lies at the centre of his gloomy work. So the despair registered in The Secret Agent is finally affirmative; and this is so not least because one important element in the book is his questioning of himself, both as husband and writer. Verloc and Winnie are objective correlatives for himself and Jessie; and the final verdict--the knife sticking in Verloc, with only his loathsome innocence to blame--is more against Conrad himself than against that betrayed lost soul Winnie. But of course Verloc/Winnie 'are' Conrad/Jessie only at a metaphorical level. Conrad, as well as telling a story, is asking an important question, which quite transcends his own personal unhappiness: is the role of the imaginative writer, the creative person, adequate? Does, or can, he (or she) do enough against the malignity of the 'system'? There is no question of partisanship with 'right' or 'left' in the novel. He answered the question negatively here, for there is little poetry or beauty in The Secret Agent. But we, with the benefit of hindsight, can see that by his example of courage and honesty in his attention to his 'business', he was resolute: his vision even here is a positive, a despairingly corrective one.
The Secret Agent contains no truly, no unequivocally 'saved character'; and this is deliberate. Winnie's self-sacrificing mother is crippled, literally and metaphorically. And so is the one truly compassionate person in the book, for whom she and Winnie make their sacrifice: Stevie, an idiot who has not the sense to prevent himself from being led to his death by Verloc. Stevie is not unlike the cab horse for whom he feels so much genuine compassion. The only decent, simple words uttered in the whole novel come from Stevie, and the most notable of these are, 'Poor brute, poor people!' Yet Verloc is able to persuade Stevie that in placing the bomb he will be acting in the interests of poor people and poor brutes. He does not want him to be killed; but when he is, he has no sense whatever of loss--he thinks that his wife needs no more than a 'good cry'. He is insensible to Stevie's qualities of compassion: he regards him as an idiot, and his chief feature, of compassion and care (isolated, however, from rationality), is to Verloc no more than a part of his idiocy. His wife, too, takes no real notice of his humane qualities. True, her love for him is heroic. She has sacrificed her future for him. But she is simply his protector. When she learns of Verloc's carelessness, which has led to Stevie's death, she is awakened neither to his callousness nor to the hideous nature of his work as pornographer, spy and deceiver, but she is shocked, like an animal, into murdering him. She calls Stevie innocent, harmless and loving (to Ossipon, who of course is interested only in possessing her, and then in her money); but it is Verloc's peremptory instruction to her to come to him, to satisfy his indolent lust, that has shocked her, as she makes clear to Ossipon (who, however, does not see it, or care about it). She had traded her femininity to Verloc, who smothered it, in return for security for Stevie. She had easily been able to collaborate with him in what she considered to be his main business: as satisfier of squalid masturbatory lust, keeper of a pornography shop. Her sacrifice cost her everything; so that as Verloc's wife she has been dead. Of this life, as the pornographer's wife, she tells Ossipon, 'He loved me till I sometimes wished myself--', the remark is unfinished. But she has previously exclaimed: 'You thought I loved him!' The word, then, which she does not utter is 'dead': 'He loved me till sometimes I wished myself dead.' So that, although benumbed, she has felt Verloc's selfish lusts as anguish: her femininity, what there was left of it, has ironically been awakened, made aware, only in the act of its own destruction. Explaining this, Conrad thus affirms the existence of the possibility of loving, and not merely selfish and lustful, sexual relations. But Winnie never knows any better. Awakened suddenly to her own humanity--and therefore specifically to her femininity because she is a woman--by Verloc's treachery, she denies it by killing him. It is an inevitable reaction. She is stabbing Verloc for his lusts, which have disgusted her, as much as for his failure to keep their bargain that he protect Stevie. She tells the heedless Ossipon just this. Terrified of the gallows ('the drop given was fourteen feet'), she is now ready to give herself to Ossipon, whom she really hates--as has been made crystal clear earlier on. She calls him Tom; promises him that she won't ask him to 'marry her' (the last absurd denial of her blunted sense of respectability, as false as everything else about her except the mute existence within her of a capacity to love and protect). Her reactions to her brother's death soon become as idiotic as he had been; but they are never so pure. We are presented with a creature in whom the human impulse lies so buried that she might as well never have possessed it. Yet she had denied herself her own desire (human, warm, natural) with a simple placidity. It is Conrad's half-tribute to his own stupid wife (he was simply being honest in recognizing her stupidity); and in Winnie's short breakdown after she realizes what Verloc has done, he condenses his wife's breakdown, in metaphorical terms. It is useful for us to know and understand this, because we could never deduce it from the text alone. Mrs Gould, too, had been Jessie (grotesque though that might seem to us, since Mrs Conrad is not one of the most appealing of literary wives): the womanly qualities Conrad knew and recognized in her.
Verloc is a powerful creation, all the more remarkable because he is a dull, wretched and amoral man. Conrad of course never at any time believed himself to be as low, as dull or as self-deceiving as Verloc. But it was into Verloc and the Professor that he projected himself in this novel.
Into the admittedly 'mad' ideas of the loathsome and totally unattractive Professor--'the perfect anarchist' as Heat calls him because he cannot recognize him, like his thieves, as a fellow creature--he unleashed all his own contempt for the mediocre. He makes him pitiful, yet he endows him with the power of the actual explosive which he carries about with him. He really is a starkly dangerous man, as none of the other characters are (except Winnie when she is provoked). The Professor is dreadful in every sense of the word, just because Conrad rightly distrusted his own fury (as Nietzsche, another ironist, might have done rather more thoroughly). The Professor truly disturbs Heat; neither comes off better than the other in their encounter. The Professor is temporarily put off by the 'unattackable stolidity of a great multitude', and Heat is reassured by the fact that this great multitude, thieves included, are 'behind him'. But neither the mad nihilist nor the unjust, complacent representative of law and order (who does not in fact believe in order, since he wishes to see the Assistant Commissioner 'fired out') is comfortable. Everything Heat says reflects the hypocrisy typical of the servants of the respectable, with their double standards and the fear that may so easily be manufactured in them by the likes of Vladimir or the popular press. Heat's masters are seen at their most characteristic at the gathering attended by both the Assistant Commissioner and Michaelis. Michaelis's patroness makes humane and truthful statements about him. The bloated idealist, she says, has the temperament of a saint; that he has been shut up for twenty years is shudderingly stupid--he has thought things out for himself yet somebody 'will have to look after him a little'. But the response she gets, if not from the Assistant Commissioner (who agrees with her from the depths of his uncomfortably but securely concealed conscience), is deferential and false. Conrad makes it perfectly clear that this is a set of fops and fools mindlessly satisfying their hostess's opinion, the full implications of which they have not for one moment stopped to consider: '"Quite startling," "Monstrous," "Most painful to see." The lank man, with the eyeglass on a broad ribbon, pronounced mincingly the word "Grotesque," whose justness was appreciated by those standing near him. They smiled at each other.'
Now what the Professor says is not quite as ineffectual as what Heat says. He is an absolutist. He does have explosive. He would use it. One is bound to wonder: how much more useless is he to society than the fops at the gathering? Conrad means us to so wonder. As writer and creator he was, he knew, an extreme man. That is why he is a great writer, though this judgement naturally presupposes the profundity of his imagination and his remarkable integrity. He was extreme in the neurotic manner in which Dostoyevsky, whom he pretended to hate, but really admired, was extreme. He was extreme in the manner of Dickens; but he was more intelligent, though less resourceful, than Dickens. Possibly no writer of his time suffered more personal torment--except for Ford, whom Conrad understood so well that in the end he had guiltily to rid himself of him, but whom he first exploited unmercifully.
Conrad's projection of himself into Verloc, the central figure of the novel, was more subtle. At one level Verloc is a cruelly satirical portrait of the lower-middle-class stalwart, whose sense of false values is exposed. This is most apparent in the passage describing his walk to the Russian Embassy; watching, as he walks, the 'town's opulence and luxury', he approves it. 'All these people had to be protected.' The 'source of their wealth had to be protected'. He would have rubbed his hands together, says Conrad with withering irony, had he not been too lazy to make such a gesture. He is devoted to his idleness 'with a sort of inert fanaticism'.
Now the nature of Verloc's indolence is a truly original piece of characterization. Here Conrad leaves his caricatural technique in abeyance; it is piggish (Verloc is called 'burly in a fat-pig style'), lustful indolence and complacency which leads him to his death. He is literally too lazy, too insensitive to the rage he has provoked, to protect himself in time; he is 'paralysed' by this ferocity born 'of the age of caverns, and the unbalanced nervous fury of the age of bar-rooms'. But Conrad's brilliant depiction of this indolence, in Verloc a sort of amoral complacency and complete rationalization of his life of treachery, has its creative roots in that inertia which is felt by every imaginative writer. It is as though such inertia has to precede the difficult and painful--because self-revealing, self-castigatingly objective--act of creation. It lies behind even the frenetic nervous energy of the most prolific writers. Conrad as seaman had always had to be at work on the alert, responsible. When he abandoned the sea, he found writing very hard to get on with. It was twice as difficult for him, as he had to overcome the difficulties of being a Pole--and it was as an 'Englishman' that he wanted to be a great writer. He was for ever telling his agent Pinker, and others, how he had 'done nothing', how he would not 'collapse', how he hated having to produce what he called trash in order to keep himself and his family from starving. And although, like Coleridge, his guilt about not producing enough was unjustified--he was, again like Coleridge, very prolific--he nonetheless felt it strongly. In creating Verloc he was able to sublimate this neurotic state of mind, and to portray a man driven by an actual principle of indolence.
Yet, like many a person who resolves not to work to gain his living, Verloc in fact works quite hard. This resolution not to work so often conceals a deeper neurosis, a refusal of honesty, a desire to be free but without earning freedom. Such people have in fact to work hard; and they are never free because they are perpetually at the mercy of their nerves, since their activities are usually of a criminal nature--and they are anxious not to be found out and inconvenienced. They are quasi-psychopathologically obtuse at best. Verloc's habits are indolent. He stays in bed until noon. He moves slowly. But he is efficient enough to run a pornography business, and to subsidize it and protect it from police attention by making Heat's reputation. He speaks at anarchist meetings impressively, although without belief in what he is saying, and without (he imagines) having to make much effort owing to his naturally loud voice. Yet he has served in the French army--army life is seldom convenient to the truly indolent person for any reliably long period of time; he has made the considerable effort of copying secret plans; and he has been discovered through recklessness actuated by some sort of sexual urgency--we are not told whether he had been in romantic love or was merely suffering from the pangs of an irresistible lust. That, we may infer, taught him some kind of lesson: he has determined to play it safe, to attain the respectable status of a 'married man with responsibilities'. Yet how safe? He is always at risk and, though insensitivity to decency is a key to his character, we could never believe that he would be fool enough not to know this. The useful information he gave to Heat must have taken some getting, some thought. Thus, when Vladimir suddenly threatens him with dismissal if he will not arrange for an atrocity to be committed, he is plunged into fury, fear and confusion.
So Verloc is not quite all that he seems. He works rather harder than he admits to himself. He even manages to arrange an atrocity. His devotion to indolence is a mask for an admittedly curious--and criminal--form of energy. It is at home that Verloc acts out the indolent role. He dies because of it: 'Come here.' Each time he avails himself of his wife's sexual services, happily given, in principle, as they are part of a bargain, he manages to awaken such nausea in her that she wants to be dead--only the extremity of her final situation, however, forces this admission out of her, and at just the moment when she is trading herself to a man whom she finds equally horrific. A man is not usually so repulsive because of what he looks like, or even because he is fat (Winnie herself is running to fat); he is repulsive because of his selfishness. By only ever hinting at this underlying theme of squalid and dehumanizing sexuality (it even divests the scarcely articulate Winnie of such humanity as she has managed, without knowing it, to hang on to), Conrad puts a strong emphasis upon it. It is the same with the relationship in Nostromo between the cruel materialist Gould and his exquisite wife, for whom, however, it is a more conscious horror and source of disillusion.
Conrad's transmutation of his own situation into this truly horrible one in the novel is nothing short of wonderful, in imaginative terms. For he was himself, quite unlike Verloc, a bundle of hypersensitivities and guilts. It was only his almost terrible honesty in facing up to their nature that allowed him to achieve this transmutation. Attention to 'business' is certainly an ironic understatement. For he gives us in Verloc the most negative and self-questioning self-portrait, though obviously on a metaphorical level, that it is possible for a writer to give. The writer as lazy opportunist revelling in an illusion of freedom; the writer as spy into the lives of others, as traitor to humane values, living off--because exploiting--the sexual lives of others; the writer as futile drudge, betraying the ideals he professes just as Verloc woodenly and complacently professes his desire to 'protect' opulence and luxury; the writer as destroyer of his wife's happiness and of family life (Conrad loved his children, but found them inconvenient and could not help saying so quite often), all in the name of a pointless idealism whose reality is in fact no better than Verloc's shabby, treacherous and meaningless existence.
Those are the questions Conrad raises; and in great literature they have to be raised. He did not write merely to entertain, after all. But however he may have felt--and he did not in fact feel better for some long time--The Secret Agent gives a positive answer. The effectiveness of the tragic satire was earned. The structure of an entire society was not just questioned, but exposed--and destroyed. It was shown to produce futility (as Conrad keeps saying, about its central incident, the Greenwich affair), to destroy femininity. Those who actively opposed it were equally powerless. The real hero is an idiot who trips and blows himself up. Yet the infected corpse of society dragged out into the open by Conrad is at all points shown to have been violated--by pretence, egomania, hypocrisy, lust, prostitution, greed. Any so precise guide to the processes of such violation appeals, always, to a ghost--a ghost, but a substantial one, of the elusive virtue of good will.