Monday, April 9, 2012

Conrad, The Secret Agent I

[Posted by John C.]

During our small group session we all seemed to agree that Conrad viewed anarchy as ineffective and seemed to look down on those who adhered to it. One of the things which we mentioned to support this theory was the fact that the idea for the terrorist attack spawned at the embassy, which the anarchists then could not carry out effectively. Do you believe that the reason behind this is Conrad's belief that anarchy by nature leads to inaction or if pressured ineffective action, or do you think that Conrad was indicating that the true danger of anarchy is that it can be exploited by people with bad intentions?


  1. Joseph Conrad’s depiction of anarchists shows that anarchism put into action, specifically through violence, is exploitive. The catalyst for the bombing is Mr. Vladimir, whose aim is to destroy the fabric of British society by attacking the idea of science and learning, logic in a very broad sense. Mr. Vladimir tells Verloc, “The demonstration must be against learning-science. But not every science will do. The attack must have all the shocking senselessness of gratuitous blasphemy” (Conrad, 28). Vladimir’s intentions seem more nihilistic then anarchistic, as he wants to put fear into the hearts of the people, not to inspire them to a better way of living. So, Vladimir’s agenda is to destroy learning and progresses in society, thus his actions are meant to hinder growth in society. If he had had his way, English society in the novel may have become more repressive, which is the complete opposite of anarchistic ideals. Vladimir then represents how the ideas of anarchism can be used to harm people rather than set them free.
    Mr. Verloc also shows how anarchism can be used to exploit people. It is telling that the bomber in the novel is the mentally challenged brother in law, Stevie. In the logic of the text, Stevie is supposed to be metonymic for anarchists, because he carries out the bombing at the command of someone else. Mr. Verloc shows how anarchism is easily used for the wrong reasons, especially in his treatment of Stevie: “Mr. Verloc, strolling along the streets of London, had modified Stevie’s view of the police by conversations full of subtle reasonings. Never had a sage a more attentive and admiring disciple” (Conrad, 189). Stevie can also be illustrative of how people in power can affect the minds of younger people, and incite them into violent action. Mr. Verloc takes advantage of Stevie’s loyalty so that he will be a pawn in Mr. Vladimir’s scheme. This shows how anarchism can be used to indoctrinate impressionable and desperate people to commit violent acts.
    Conrad said that Winnie was the most anarchistic character, and her fate in the novel is just as bad as Verloc and Stevie. After killing her husband, Winnie latches on to Comrade Ossipon, and he quickly comes to detest her. Ossipon “saw the woman twined round him like a snake, not to be shaken off. She was not deadly. She was death itself-the companion of life” (Conrad, 237). In this allusion to the snake in the garden of evil, Satan, then Winnie shows the dark side of anarchism to Conrad; anarchism may sound like a tempting idea, but it leads to death and destruction. Conrad’s text is very critical of anarchism, as it shows that it is a philosophy easily exploited for violent means.

  2. I feel that Conrad believes both of these assertions—that anarchy leads to either ineffective action or no action, and that anarchy can be exploited by people with bad intentions. In fact, I think that these two assertions are not mutually exclusive, but intertwined with each other. Conrad shows the poor organization of anarchy through several different characters and events in his book. The most stereotypically anarchic characters, such as Ossipon and “the professor,” do not actually do anything, but merely talk, thus showing the inaction of anarchy. The stupidity of anarchy is portrayed through the identity of the one who ultimately sets off the bomb—a mentally impaired child—and the fact that the simple task was botched. So Conrad clearly wants his reader to leave with the impression that anarchy is useless as a political ideology and as a means for change. In regards to the potential for exploitation, the bomb is planted not by anarchists but by government officials with twisted motives. They wish to use violence and shock to persuade the people to rally behind them. The government officials are able to do this because anarchy is incapable of standing against the government. Indeed, the anarchists do not even know about the government’s plans. So, Conrad expresses the belief that anarchy is dangerous because it has a potential to be manipulated. Yet more than that, Conrad believes that anarchy has the potential to be manipulated because it cannot organize itself. The government wants to create public outrage against anarchy, but it would not need to do so if anarchy was able to organize itself into action. Instead, the real anarchists sit back while the government takes action. If anarchy was effective, it would take its own action. If it was able to take its own action, the government would not be able to so effectively exploit it. So, Conrad believes that anarchy is dangerous for both of the reasons mentioned above. Overall, in Conrad’s view, it is an invalid and ineffective political position that presents a danger to the community purely because of its ineffectiveness

  3. After reading Conrad's novel, I believe that the "Secret Agent" comments on both of the assertions above. His novel exists as critique on the barbarity and futility of Anarchism. Anarchism only illuminates the most inhuman aspects of life. It only brings to the surface that which is the most violent and depraved aspects of the human mind which are inherently unpardonable. Conrad comments on the nature of anarchy as both destructive and inhumane, as well as ineffective. He cannot fathom the reason for a man to bomb the observatory. For bombing, in Conrad's eyes, is both ludicrous and pointless. In the authors note of the novel, Conrad claims: "But that outrage could not be laid hold of mentally in any sort of way, so that one remained faced by the fact of a man blown to bits for nothing even most remotely resembling an idea, anarchistic or other. As to the outer wall of the Observatory it did not show as much as the faintest crack." (xxxv). I found this excerpt, as discussed in class, to be of particular interest in understanding the focal point of Conrad's argument. There exists an opposition between Stevie--the man blown to bits-- and the the observatory. The action which he set out to accomplish--to blow up the observatory—was useless. It is both ludicrous and pointless, for he wasted his life to bring down a structure that ultimately did not collapse. If he could not put anarchist ideals into action and bring down a simple building, then there is no way that architecture of the British empire could be possibly challenged by Anarchist action. His sacrifice, although accidental, was pointless. The bombing of the observatory was an attempt to overthrow, dismantle, or disrupt the foundations of industrial capitalism, however, it was rendered ineffective. Thus, Conrad is suggesting that not only is the ideal of anarchy dangerous and without reason, but it is also ineffective and pointless when put into action. The only possible outcome of Anarchy is death to the depraved.

  4. It seems as though Conrad holds the belief that anarchy is dangerous because it is exploited by people with evil intentions. In Chapter 2, readers learn about Verloc’s past as a secret agent and how he has not done much in this capacity besides writing a few reports. As the chapter continues, we see the interaction between Verloc and Vladimir, the first secretary in a foreign country. Numerous times, Vladimir insults both the intellect and the physicality of Verloc, calling him stupid and corpulent. When Vladimir suggests launching “‘a series of outrages,’” readers see the discomfort that fills Verloc. “His heart failed him, and he said nothing.” This suggests that acting in this manner is not something Verloc agrees with or feels is right. When Vladimir later reveals his intentions to destroy an institution of science, the Greenwich Observatory, Verloc seems to have a negative reaction. His immobility “resembled a state of collapsed coma – a sort of passive insensibility interrupted by slight convulsive starts, such as may be observed in the domestic dog having a nightmare on the hearthrug.” Verloc doesn’t know how to react because this is not the kind of attack he had in mind. Thus, agreeing to do this deed is at odds with his nature, which shows that he is being manipulated by Vladimir. Verloc feels that the “only safe thing to say” is that it is a “‘difficult business.’” His lack of opinion reveals the true discomfort he feels with regards to the plan. He is not out-spoken and opinionated like Vladimir, so there is no hope for him to turn down any proposals. Vladimir is in such a high position of power that Verloc feels he cannot say what is truly on his mind. He fears what would happen if he opposed someone with so much control. “‘Think over my philosophy, Mr – Mr – Verloc, [Vladimir] said, with a soft of chaffing condescension, waving his hand towards the door. ‘… You don’t know the middle classes as well as I do.’” In this exchange, readers see Vladimir talking down to Verloc. His condescension propels Verloc to do whatever he is told because he wants to please this man no matter what it takes, no matter if it goes against his beliefs.

    1. Ironically, Verloc, who is exploited by Vladimir, ends up exploiting his brother-in-law, Stevie. It is so easy for Verloc to convince Stevie to do whatever he wants because the boy is in awe of Verloc. He is described as giving “glances of reverential compassion to his brother-in-law,” which explains his willingness to do anything for Verloc. Winnie even tells Verloc that “‘that boy just worships you.’” When Winnie asks Verloc to take Stevie with him one day, Verloc agrees rather reluctantly. Soon though, Verloc uses this time spent with Stevie to deceive him. “Now, when ready to go out for his walk, Mr. Verloc called aloud to the boy, in the spirit, no doubt, in which a man invites the attendance of the household dog…” Stevie was always eager to go and Verloc used Stevie’s desire to please to his advantage. Although Verloc used Stevie as his pawn, he did not intend for the boy to get killed. Conrad writes, “Mr. Verloc never meant Stevie to perish with such abrupt violence. He did not mean him to perish at all.” Even though Verloc did not seem to have malicious intentions, the fact was that he knew about Stevie’s lack of mental capacity. Knowing that Stevie could get easily confused, Verloc still used the boy in the course of the events. Verloc believed that the plan would succeed because of Stevie’s “blind docility and on the blind devotion of the boy.” The phrases Conrad uses, “blind docility” and “blind devotion,” emphasize how much trust and respect Stevie had for Verloc. By involving Stevie in the plan at all, Verloc used him in an exploitative manner. Conrad continues to characterize Stevie as in utter adoration of Verloc. He writes, “[Verloc] had foreseen Stevie arrested, and was not afraid, because Mr. Verloc had a great opinion of Stevie’s loyalty, which had been carefully indoctrinated with the necessity of silence in the course of many walks. Like a peripatetic philosopher, Mr. Verloc, strolling along the streets of London, had modified Stevie’s view of the police by conversations full of subtle reasonings. Never had a sage a more attentive and admiring disciple. The submission and worship were so apparent…” During their walks, Stevie thinks that he and Verloc are becoming friends, but Verloc has other intentions. He convinces Stevie to think about things in a certain way (“modified [his] view of the police”) and to act in a certain manner (“silence”). Stevie is willing to do these things because of his devotion to Verloc. Thus, through Vladimir’s manipulation of Verloc and Verloc’s exploitation of Stevie, readers can assume that Conrad saw anarchy as a way for people with malicious intentions to manipulate others.

  5. I think that Conrad is using The Secret Agent to express his concerns about anarchy and how when used by the wrong people it can be a true danger to society and others. Conrad shows that anarchy does lead to action but that this action tends to be malicious and detrimental to society. This novel can be looked at as a cautionary tale that shows the reader that anarchy is dangerous to society especially when used by people who have violent or evil intentions. This idea can be seen expressed through the different physical descriptions of the anarchist characters in the novel. Some examples of this are: Mr. Verloc, who is described “with a firm, steady-eyed impudence, which seemed to hold back the threat of some abominable menace” (Conrad, 11), Karl Yundt or “the terrorist” (Conrad, 42) who is described “with a faint black grimace of a toothless mouth…and an extraordinary expression of underhand malevolence survived in his extinguished eyes” (Conrad, 42), and Comrade Ossipon who is described with “almond-shaped eyes that leered languidly over the high cheek-bones” (Conrad, 43). Conrad uses ominous and dark adjectives to describe the anarchists in the novel which help to create and support his idea that anarchy draws in the wrong kind of people. These men are described as evil, vile beings whose physical appearances cannot even hide their horribleness. Through these descriptions Conrad is showing the reader the kind of people anarchy attracts and how when given the opportunity these people will use anarchy as a reason to perform chaotic and violent acts on society.

  6. Conrad’s depiction of anarchy shows a philosophy that can easily be manipulated and exploited by powerful people. Verloc has worked for years at the Embassy and nothing extraordinarily dangerous has occurred. Although Verloc claims to have stopped a handful of anarchic activities, the readers are not presented with any of these events. These anarchic groups did little to negatively affect England until they were pushed into action by someone else.

    Verloc is pushed into creating action by his superiors. He is told that “the state of affairs you expose there is assumed to exist…what is required at present is not writing” (15). It is Mr. Vladimir who forces Verloc to push the anarchic groups into action. Mr. Vladimir is presented as the catalyst for action. Mr. Vladimir is described in an ironic tone; his intelligence is characterized by a “wit consisted in discovering droll connections between congruous ideas” (16). He is not a nice man, apparent in the lack of “merriment or perplexity in the way he looked at Mr.Verloc”(17). Mr. Vladimir’s idea was created “with scorn and condescension, displaying at the same time an amount of ignorance…assumed organization where in the nature of things it could not exist; spoke of the social revolutionary party one moment as of a perfectly disciplined army, where the word of chiefs was supreme, and at another as if it had been the loosest association of desperate brigands” (25). Not only did he misunderstand anarchy, but he also used it for evil gains. The idea of anarchy is not attacked as openly in The Secret Agent as the its vulnerability to being exploited.

  7. I think Conrad definitely believes the anarchist could not carry out the bombing effectively because anarchy leads to inaction, and when forced to act the action is ineffective.

    It is very interesting the way Conrad has Mr. Verloc be a double agent. He is an agent of a foreign power and part of the anarchist movement but also gives information to the police. But how can anything get done if he is on both sides? If one doesn’t devote themselves to either side no effective action can occur. But Mr. Vladimir’s unwavering devotion to the anarchist cause is not supported by Conrad either. He is without morals and uses power to manipulate and ultimately achieve nothing.

    But while Conrad is against the crazy, ineffective actions of anarchists, he also is against idleness, not only the idleness of Mr. Verloc before he was called to act but also the idleness and deliberate ignorance of Mrs. Verloc which is evident by Stevie’s dealth which acts as a punishment for Mrs. Verloc as a result of her ignorance.

    At the end I think the Professor gets an important point across for Conrad when he says: "There are no such things. All passion is lost now. The world is mediocre, limp, without force. And madness and despair are a force. And force is a crime in the eyes of the fools, the weak and the silly who rule the roost. You are mediocre. Verloc, whose affair the police has managed to smother so nicely, was mediocre. And the police murdered him. He was mediocre. Everybody is mediocre. Madness and despair! Give me that for a lever, and I'll move the world. Ossipon, you have my cordial scorn. You are incapable of conceiving even what the fat-fed citizen would call a crime. You have no force" (252). After everything that’s happened these men are so discourage, the professors feels himself and everyone are ‘mediocre’ and they have ‘no force,’ and as Conrad’s narration tells us, the Professor has “no future” (253). This seems to be Conrad’s opinion on anarchism, that it is mediocre in its inaction and idleness, it is without force when it is forced to act and therefore those who devote themselves to it or those who are lukewarm anarchist like Mr. Verloc achieve nothing and have no future, their actions are meaningless and their lives are meaningless. There is no future in anarchy as displayed through Ossipon and the Professor; there are only “act[s] of madness and despair.”

  8. I think that the fact that the embassy was responsible for the planning reveals Conrad’s belief that anarchy is in a way just a redistribution of power. Anarchy appears to need leadership. This leadership is usually allotted to a select few, who already have a claim to power. Thus, it seems as if there is no complete upheaval in structure, but rather a redistribution of power amongst a select few.

    The common man, like Verloc, are essentially inactive in the role. I also think it is important to pay attention to the fact that as we discussed in class, the action was not even carried out by Verloc, but his mentally challenged brother in law. Stevie is actually the one that ignites (trips) the bomb, causing the explosion. It is not Vladimir, or even Verloc, but someone who is not even intelligent enough to fully understand his action, and follows other (Verloc) blindly.

    Thus, Vladimir, the one responsible for planning the assault, is far removed from the action but wreaks the benefits. He exploits Verloc and Stevie, in having them carry out a mission they would otherwise not have executed. This creates a power structure with Vladimir at the top, and Stevie at the bottom. The few at the top of this fictional pyramidal structure plan and receive the benefits at the expense of those at the bottom with relatively no power.

  9. In response to John's question, I believe that Conrad is not making just one of those claims, but rather making both. He depicts anarchism to be a form of thinking that only those who are not truly educated will agree with and act upon, but that is lead by thinkers that will never act on their ideas. For example, Verloc and Vladimir plan the attacks, but they are eventually carried out by Stevie, when Verloc cannot find anyone else to do it.

    I believe that this shows that Conrad believes that anarchy, by nature, leads to inaction, because those who were creating these plans would never actually act on them themselves. However, it also shows that anarchy can be exploited by people with bad intentions, because it kind of presents the message that the anarchists got the gears turning in the minds of people who do not fully understand the course their actions will take, which lead to their destructive measures. People with bad intentions could find those looking for a cause, and easily sway their beliefs in order to bring them to the side of the anarchists.

    What was most obvious to me throughout The Secret Agent was that Conrad really did not have much respect for the anarchists, but rather just saw them as somewhat of a nuisance.