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The Secret Agent, (1907)

By Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)

'Based His Life on Novel'

By Serge F. Kovaleski

Reprinted with permission
Guardian Weekly,
July 21, 1996.

(originally in
The Washington Post).

The publishers of this on-line edition have seen responses to this story in the UseNet news group .

It should go without saying that intelligent readers will make up their own minds about the suggestions given here, which were probably made by the FBI and the academics it consulted. We suggest you read the texts and decide for yourself if anyone has patterned or even could pattern his life after a novel!

In Joseph Conrad's novel The Secret Agent, a brilliant but mad professor abandons academia in disgust for the isolation of a tiny room, his "hermitage." There, clad in ragged, soiled clothes, he fashions a bomb used in an attempt to destroy an observatory derisively referred to as "that idol of science."

Federal authorities believe Theodore J. Kaczynski, the former mathematics professor who loved Conrad's works well enough to read them about a dozen times, may have drawn upon the 1907 novel. Even before identifying Kaczynski as a suspect in the Unabomber case, FBI agents noted the parallels between Conrad's theme of science as a false icon and the Unabomber's targeting of scientists and technological experts and his condemnation of technology in letters to news organizations.

Investigators sent The Secret Agent and other Conrad works to scholars last summer, hoping for insights into the mind of a killer who eluded them for 18 years.

With Kaczynski's April arrest, the parallels fell neatly into place. Kaczynski, a brilliant man who has been troubled most of his life, fled academia for a hermit's existence in a Montana shanty, where, grossly unkempt, he lived for a time off turnips he grew behind his cabin. One of the anarchists in the novel lived on a diet of raw carrots. Further, in his letters, Kaczynski depicted technology as evil.

Federal agents say they believe that Kaczynski, 54, used "Conrad" or "Konrad" as an alias on at least three occasions while staying at a hotel in Sacramento where he allegedly went to mail bombs. By coincidence, reference books list Conrad's birth-given name as either Teodore Jozef Konrad Korzeniowski or Jozef Teodore. Kaczynski's full name is Theodore John Kaczynski.

Kaczynski's alleged use of the initials "FC" on a number of bombs and in letters to news organizations is yet another similarity. The Unabomber's letters said the initials stood for "Freedom Club." In The Secret Agent, anarchists use the initials "FP" or "Future of the Proletariat," in their leaflets.

Kaczynski, who is charged with killing two people and injuring six others in a total of seven bombings, grew up with Conrad's complete works in his family's suburban Chicago home. During 26 years in the Montana wilderness, he pored over Conrad's writings. In a 1984 letter to his family, "Ted said he was reading Conrad's novels for about the dozenth time," said Washington attorney Anthony P. Bisceglie, counsel to Kaczynski's brother and mother.

Although Kaczynski has been an avid reader of fiction and nonfiction, his absorption with Conrad and the uncanny similarities between the Montana recluse, the Unabomber's 35,000-word manifesto and characters in The Secret Agent may provide a rare glimpse into Kaczynski's mind--and his view of himself.

Considered one of the 20th century's great authors, Conrad wrote about alienation and loneliness and portrayed science and technology as nefarious forces naively exalted by the public. In The Secret Agent, the Polish-born author created a character who wants to destroy an observatory he sees as a symbol of science, "the sacrosanct fetish of today." The Professor, a brilliant but deranged man who walks around strapped with explosives and is devoted to constructing "the perfect detonator," supplies the device.

Describing a similar character, also nicknamed the Professor, in his short story The Informer, Conrad wrote: "Explosives were his faith, his hope, his weapon and his shield."

On the Unabomber's trail, federal agents were struck by the similarity between Conrad's themes of anarchy, alienation and dehumanization and the written justifications the Unabomber gave for his deeds. In a letter to the New York Times last year, the Unabomber described "FC" as an anarchist group and said its l8-year bombing spree, which left three dead and 23 others injured, was designed "to promote instability in industrial society and give encouragement to those who hate the industrial system."

The Unabomber continued in that vein in his manifesto, published in The Washington Post in September at the urging of federal authorities. He said since it is impossible to separate technology's beneficial and destructive parts, it must be wiped out and man must return to nature.

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