Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent may have begun as “a simple tale,” words incorporated into the novel’s full title, but in less than a year it grew into something more complex and enduring, because of its Ukrainian-born, Polish author’s unusual, circuitous literary talents – English was his third language – and a topic that continues to command something like universal fascination: political terrorism.
Conrad drew inspiration for key events in the story from an 1894 failed attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory. Before its publication in book form, he described his cast of characters (in a letter to correspondent and eventual French translator Henry D. Davray) as constituting “…about half a dozen anarchists, two women and one idiot. Besides, all the others are imbeciles, including the head of the chancellory, Minister of State and the Police Inspector.” After his Secret Agent received disappointing reviews and sold poorly, he dubbed it an “honorable failure.”
In his introduction to the 2004 Everyman’s Library edition, novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux proclaims it “in effect the world’s first political thriller – spies, conspirators, wily policemen, murders, bombings, and in a London wearing a suitably gloomy expression for these misdeeds.”
We like our modern spies and spy hunters better if they demonstrate super powers, whereas Conrad’s agent provocateurs and anarchists are ordinary, weak, lazy, stupid, well-meaning, ill-fated human beings and all the more disturbing for it.
The novel’s protagonist, Mr. Verloc (a man who, as Theroux points out, bears a striking resemblance to Conrad himself), answers a summons from the Russian Embassy and learns that he will have to prove his worth and can no longer merely make a show of it. In the following excerpt, his reluctant paymaster, a certain Mr. Vladimir, makes plain that he will accept nothing less than destruction:
I am about to give you the philosophy of bomb throwing from my point of view; from the point of view you pretend to have been serving for the last eleven years. I will try not to talk above your head. The sensibilities of the class you are attacking are soon blunted. Property seems to them an indestructible thing. You can’t count upon their emotions either of pity or fear for very long.
A bomb outrage to have any influence on public opinion now must go beyond the intention of vengeance or terrorism. It must be purely destructive. It must be that, and only that, beyond the faintest suspicion of any other object. You anarchists should make it clear that you are perfectly determined to make a clean sweep of the whole social creation. But how to get that appallingly absurd notion into the heads of the middle classes so that there should be no mistake? That’s the question. By directing your blows at something outside the ordinary passions of humanity is the answer.
Mr. Vladimir goes on to explain why it is that assassinating a head of state or blowing up a theater just won’t do anymore. The target he has in mind is that phenomena which the “imbecile bourgeoisie” place at the center of their wealth and well-being:
But there is learning – science. Any imbecile that has got an income believes in that. He does not know why, but he believes it matters somehow. It is the sacrosanct fetish…And the absurd ferocity of such a demonstration will affect them more profoundly than the mangling of a whole street – or theatre – full of their own kind. To that last they can always say: ‘Oh! it’s mere class hate.’
But what is one to say to an act of destructive ferocity so absurd as to be incomprehensible, inexplicable, almost unthinkable; in fact, mad? Madness alone is truly terrifying, inasmuch as you cannot placate it either by threats, persuasion, or bribes. Moreover, I am a civilised man. I would never dream of directing you to organise a mere butchery, even if I expected the best results from it. But I wouldn’t expect from a butchery the result I want. Murder is always with us. It is almost an institution.