The Anarchism of Joseph Conrad

In his 1961 novel, Mother Night, author Kurt Vonnegut famously paraphrased Nietszche, writing: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.”

Vonnegut’s American protagonist, Howard W. Campbell, Jr., opens Mother Night by describing himself as a Nazi “by reputation.” During World War II, he has served two master, acting as a propagandist for the Germans and a spy for the Allies. The pretense, he ultimately concludes, is virtually indistinguishable from truth.

Does the same formulation apply to books? Is the substance of a book distinct from how it appears to readers? More to the point, is The Secret Agent a book about the anarchism and terrorism or is it a book that appears to be about anarchism and terrorism? Is there a difference?

Conrad himself, at the time of the book’s publication, declared that he “had no idea to consider Anarchism politically; or to treat it seriously in its philosophical aspect.” And yet, his biographer Zdzislaw Najder wonders, “[T]he political substance of the book appears quite obvious. So why did Conrad protest?” His answer:

One may only speculate that he did not want “The Secret Agent” to be taken as a roman à thèse or as a topical report on the contemporary anarchists. Such an approach would obscure the more general significance of the book, the contrast between order and anarchy…Claiming that his novel was not a satire on the anarchists, Conrad may have wanted to hint at something he dared not say publicly: that the Russian embassy, the English police, and the Home Office were objects of no less ridicule…

The issue gains more complex and fascinating dimension when one takes into account the author’s note that Conrad appended to the 1920 edition of The Secret Agent. Early in the piece, he conjectures that his efforts to justify the “moral squalor” of his tale will come to naught because the reading public is largely concerned with “the obvious”:

…the world generally is not interested in the motives of any overt act but in its consequences. Man may smile and smile but he is not an investigating animal. He loves the obvious. He shrinks from explanations.

Something else entirely, however, seemed obvious to Conrad once the genesis for the novel crystalized: “…one remained faced by the fact of a man blown to bits for nothing even most remotely resembling an idea, anarchistic or other.”

This line gains further resonance when juxtaposed with author Tom Reiss’s contention that the “real evil of the novel emerges from the exigencies of counterterrorism, not the anarchist plotting itself.” Writing in The New York Times in 2005, he also makes plain how the “exigencies of counterterrorism” blighted Conrad’s own life:

Conrad’s attitude toward terrorism was deeply influenced by the fact that in 1861, when he was barely 5 years old, his father, Apollo Korzeniowski, was arrested as a revolutionary. A poet and playwright, he had joined a group with ties to the anarchist Bakunin. Deported along with his parents to northern Russia, Conrad watched as his mother sickened with tuberculosis and died; his father died four years later.

People “blown to bits.” For what?

Yet, even as Conrad points to futility and “absurd cruelty” as key themes, taking the book far beyond its alluring topicality, he professes his pleasure on hearing reports that “all sorts of revolutionary refugees in New York would have it that the book was written by somebody who knew a lot about them.” Conrad continues:

This seemed to me a very high compliment, considering that, as a matter of hard fact, I had seen even less of their kind than the omniscient friend who gave me the first suggestion for the novel. I have no doubt, however, that there had been moments during the writing of the book when I was an extreme revolutionist, I won’t say [one] more convinced than they but certainly cherishing a more concentrated purpose than any of them had ever done in the whole course of his life.

I don’t say this to boast. I was simply attending to my business. In the matter of all my books I have always attended to my business. I have attended to it with complete self-surrender. And this statement, too, is not a boast. I could not have done otherwise. It would have bored me too much to make-believe.

Regardless of Conrad’s murky intentions, the book has consistently been (mis)taken for an exposé of anarchism, made all the more credible by its author’s established reputation for authenticity and authority. In a letter of praise, Henry James wrote: “No one has known – for intellectual use – the things you know, and you have, as the artist of the whole matter, an authority that no one has approached.”

James wrote these words after reading Conrad’s autobiographical essays The Mirror of the Sea published in 1906, but it is almost self-evident that the reputation of one or more respected works often becomes the author’s own reputation. Appearance, by definition, envelops reality.

Fervent admirers of the The Secret Agent have since gone on to write political thrillers and, at least one has committed acts of terroristic violence. The latter, Ted Kaczynski, reportedly identified himself with Conrad’s bomb-making professor, but he also used “Conrad” as an alias several times. In the mirror of the character, perhaps he saw reflected the intentions of the author.

In both cases, one might say readers care less about Conrad’s true meaning and more about what they see in The Secret Agent. Then again, isn’t that an essential, if morally neutral, element of the reading experience? What we take from the books we love is less the measure of what they are than of who we are.

Image: One innovative adaptation of the famed Obama poster.


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