by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Corresponden
November 21, 2001
CONRAD'S SECRET AGENT HAS MEANING TODAY
SEATTLE, WASH. -- The other week I wrote in this space about Camus' novel "The Plague," a fiction with obvious relevance to our current fears of mass infection.
Joseph Conrad's 1907 novel "The Secret Agent," about a bomb outrage in London, 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 foreign power, who, to make plausible his presence in the British capital, 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-being of her idiot younger brother, Stevie. Verloc, hardly her, or anyone's, ideal man, is chiefly important to her as the furnisher of a roof and food for Stevie.
Though Verloc is the foreground character, it will soon become clear that Winnie is the true moral center of the novel.
The plot has all the elements of a thriller. To summarize in this space the twists, reversals, shocking disclosures, and the startling outcome, would be unfair not only to Conrad but also to all who will experience the good old satisfactions of a great story by reading it
What interests me most, in the light of our recent experience, is the symbolic nature of Mr. Verloc's attack on the British Empire, at whose heart he lives.
The target of the September 11th terrorists was also symbolic, if one may use the term without disrespect for the thousands of individual tragedies involved.
But the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were, for the terrorists, symbols of American arrogance and hegemony.
Mr. Verloc goes to the foreign embassy whose catspaw he is, only to be insulted for his fatness and his inaction. Mr. Vladimir (guess which foreign power) urges him to do something, to provoke, to disrupt, to destroy something.
And what, he asks, do the imperialists most admire, even worship? Science. Where does science begin? With mensuration. What is the ultimate example of measuring on a truly world scale? It is the mapping of the terrestrial globe.
And the Royal Observatory, located in Greenwich, one of the outer boroughs of Greater London, was the marker of none other than zero degree longitude, the Prime Meridian, from which all other meridians begin. Greenwich Mean Time, measured at the Prime Meridian, has long been the standard of civil time for most of the world.
Verloc intends nothing less than to blow up the first meridian, and, by implication, all the other lines on the globe that depend upon it. It is like trying to abolish the laws of physics. To establish as Dostoevsky's madmen sought to do, that two plus two is not four.
To say how he goes about this will entail, I regret to say, a painful disclosure of one element of the plot.
He astonishes and delights Winnie by agreeing to take Stevie along on his mysterious walks.
Stevie has been trained to obey Mr. Verloc, his only hope of survival, without question.
Mr. Verloc gives Stevie the bomb, tells him where he is to plant it at the Observatory, and sends him on his way. But Stevie stumbles, blowing himself - and not much else, unless you count the future of Mr. Verloc - to pieces.
His charred name tag survives and is brought to the house by a policeman, to drive his sister not mad, but into a homicidal fury.
To find out how she settles the matter, please open your copy of "The Secret Agent" and read on... .
Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Princeton University.