CONRAD'S SECRET AGENT HAS MEANING TODAY
by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Corresponden
SEATTLE, WASH. -- The other week I wrote in this space about Camus' nove= l "The Plague," a fiction with obvious relevance to our current fears of ma= ss infection.
Joseph Conrad's 1907 novel "The Secret Agent," about a bomb outrage in L= ondon, is another book that you might re-read if you are interested in the = psychology of terrorism.
The foreground character is Mr. Verloc, the secret agent of an unnamed f= oreign power, who, to make plausible his presence in the Britishcapital, is= the keeper of what would be called today an "adult books"shop in Soho.
= He is married to Winnie, whose first concern in life is the well-beingof he= r idiot younger brother, Stevie. Verloc, hardly her, or anyone's,ideal man= , is chiefly important to her as the furnisher of a roof andfood for Stevie= .
Though Verloc is the foreground character, it will soon become cleart= hat Winnie is the true moral center of the novel.
The plot has all the el= ements of a thriller. To summarize in thisspace the twists, reversals, sh= ocking disclosures, and the startlingoutcome, would be unfair not only to C= onrad but also to all who willexperience the good old satisfactions of a gr= eat story by reading it.
What interests me most, in the light of our rece= nt experience, is thesymbolic nature of Mr. Verloc's attack on the British = Empire, at whoseheart he lives.
The target of the September 11th terroris= ts was also symbolic, if onemay use the term without disrespect for the tho= usands of individualtragedies involved. But the twin towers of the World T= rade Center were,for the terrorists, symbols of American arrogance and hege= mony.
Mr. Verloc goes to the foreign embassy whose catspaw he is only to = beinsulted for his fatness and his inaction. Mr. Vladimir (guess whichfore= ign power) urges him to do something, to provoke, to disrupt, todest= roy something.
And what, he asks, do the imperialists most admire,= even worship? Science. Where does science begin? With mensuration. What = is theultimate example of measuring on a truly world scale? It is the mapp= ingof the terrestrial globe.
And the Royal Observatory, located in Greenw= ich, one of the outerboroughs of Greater London, was the marker of none oth= er than zero degreelongitude, the Prime Meridian, from which all other meri= dians begin. Greenwich Mean Time, measured at the Prime Meridian, has long = been thestandard of civil time for most of the world.
Verloc intends noth= ing less than to blow up the first meridian, and,by implication, all the ot= her lines on the globe that depend upon it. Itis like trying to abolish th= e laws of physics. To establish asDostoevsky's madmen sought to do, that t= wo plus two is NOT four. To sayhow he goes about this will entail, I regr= et to say, a painful disclosureof one element of the plot.
He astonishes = and delights Winnie by agreeing to take Stevie along onhis mysterious walks= . Stevie has been trained to obey Mr. Verloc, hisonly hope of survival, = without question.
Mr. Verloc gives Stevie the bomb, tells him where he is= to plant it atthe Observatory, and sends him on his way. But Stevie stumb= les, blowinghimself -- and not much else, unless you count the future of Mr= .Verloc -- to pieces.
His charred name tag survives and is brought to t= he house by apoliceman, to drive his sister not mad, but into a homicidal f= ury.
To find out how she settles the matter, please open your copy of "T= heSecret Agent" and read on... .
Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, write= r, and Professor Emeritus ofComparative Literature at Princeton University.=