Today the Booby returns to his “Booby Books” series. This post features one of the most profound books on politics written in the early 20th Century (or ever): The Secret Agent is Joseph Conrad’s cold hard look at the world of radical politics in the London of his day. It’s not so much a political analysis as a psychological analysis of those drawn to political antagonism.
The overarching conflict that spawned the story is revolutionary Europe at the turn of the 20th Century. Before the Continent tore itself to shreds in the First and Second World Wars there was the omnipresence of various underground movements that frightened the ruling classes of the day. These offered varying degrees of potency and strength, ranging from the silly to the nihilistically murderous. Obviously, chief among these were the Communists, but most relevant to The Secret Agent, there were also the Anarchists.
Mr. Verloc outwardly hails from the ranks of Anarchism. And The Secret Agent tells his story, and the tales of those unfortunate enough to find themselves tied to his decisions and his fate.
Of course, the Booby’s regular readers know “Booby Books” aren’t traditional book reviews. In case you haven’t heard, they’re not about plot summaries, character development, or any other such twitticisms. Booby Books are meant to show you how you can actually use the content to your advantage, even if only as a means of seeing the world differently from your usual vantage point. So, here it goes:
In Adolph Verloc we are presented with a most sad, unattractive little man (the parallels with Dostoevsky’s underground man are impossible to miss). Yes, the main character does have something of a brain going for him, at least a brain adept at interpreting the world in ways which simultaneously cast him as both victim and hero… hmmmmm, think of all the undergrounders in today’s world who are also adept at this very sort of thing. You can find them on Western campuses everywhere.
Take a look around fellas. How many of your compatriots fit this mold… or maybe it’s even you!
Despite his self-perception of revolutionary heroism, Mr. Verloc is also quite adept at enjoying, to the best of his abilities, as many of the comforts and trimmings of bourgeois life as possible… though not by contributing to society, to be sure, but by finding more parasitic and lucrative means. Sound like anyone you know?
Mr. Verloc’s profession – if we can call it such – is secretly working for the Russian embassy in London. You see, the Tsarist regime of the day has its hands full with Communists, Anarchists, and other even more exotic radicals. The Tsar is also exasperated with Britain’s propensity to offer safe passage, even sanctuary, to this motley crew of fugitives and rogues. It is precisely within this churning cauldron of revolutionary characters that The Secret Agent shines. Conrad provides an unsavoury glimpse of the underside of the human intellect, both from London’s back alleys and inside England’s chic parlor rooms.
Aha! This final point is key, fellas. So we have learned that some things never change. The radicals of the far-left were, in Conrad’s day as now, the darlings of the fashionable avant garde.
Mr. Verloc’s job is simple: maintain his persona as a budding Anarchist, host meetings with his malcontented comrades, and when all is said and done, report on his comrades’ doings to his paymasters at the Russian embassy. Good work if you can get it.
So what else do we learn from this, fellas?
First of all, even though Mr. Verloc is unusual in the lengths he goes to, he is really not all that unusual. For example, he never actually renounces his radical beliefs, and yet he sees no contradiction in betraying them for a regular paycheque. A psychiatrist might call him a narcissist, or perhaps a sociopath, given our anti-hero’s willingness to sacrifice his comrades for a comfortable living. As we learn, the intellectual Mr. Verloc is even willing to sacrifice his family when it suits him, too.
Now, as the Booby already said, Mr. Verloc is unusual only in the lengths he goes to in the course of his life and his plans. But don’t we all know a few Adolph Verlocs in our own lives? Take a look around you, fellas. A Verloc can be found in every social clique, every family, every classroom, and every workplace… maybe it’s you? Is there a groveling little secret agent sulking within all of our psyches? Perhaps. We’d prefer to believe there isn’t, but that doesn’t make it not so.
After all, how many of us sacrifice our beliefs daily in exchange for a paycheque, or for the sake of belonging to a social circle, or to enjoy a lifestyle that a more honest existence could not provide, or… ? No, these things perhaps don’t make us sociopaths, but should we not at least consider whether our beliefs need rethinking, or whether our lifestyles need rethinking?
More importantly, The Secret Agent teaches us much about our own supposedly modern world, even though it was penned over a century ago, in an England that no longer exists, and perhaps lies thousands of miles away for many readers.
In The Secret Agent we see not only the skulking dregs of the earth – like Alexander Ossipon, Karl Yundt, or the “Professor” – but we also see the worshipful fascination which the members of the highest social classes shower upon these very people. The parlor room of the Assistant Commissioner’s wife is not so terribly different from the dinner party described by Tom Wolfe in Radical Chic. Indeed, the mere addition of some vulgar language and a little bit of (or a lot of) cocaine is all that would really distinguish a red carpet Hollywood gala from either of these masques of high moralism.
Conrad provides us with a gritty contrast between what the real world looks like and what the fashionistas of high society wish to see. How many of Hollywood’s countless Hugo Chavez groupies have had to survive amidst the desperate violence of a Venezuelan food riot? How many spoiled college kids in Che Guevera T-shirts have ever seen a Communist concentration camp up close and personal? How many pampered, suburban white kids would dare strut into an inner city ghetto sporting a Black Lives Matter T-shirt? The Booby’s guessing today’s youth are far more acquainted with the Michael Moore’s of the world than with Joseph Conrad.
Yes, we can learn a lot about the world by reading Joseph Conrad. And the author himself actually knew something of it. The son a subversive Polish aristocrat, he escaped political oppression in his Russian-occupied homeland and was forced to earn a difficult living in the West. He worked first with the French merchant marines before eventually taking employment with the English merchant navy. This kind of work and life were grueling, and took the future author to diverse corners of globe, oftentimes to troubled places, like British-occupied India and the Belgian Congo.
Eventually he settled in England where, despite English being his third language (after Polish and French), he would emerge as one of that country’s greatest writers of all time.
Granted, such a life doesn’t provide the deep insights accrued by, say, your typical women’s studies professor or a suburban Antifa demonstrator, but we can forgive Conrad his naïveté. That he was able to capture such eternally profound observations on human nature despite not possessing a sociology degree speaks much for the man… or perhaps it speaks far less flatteringly about those who actually possess degrees in sociology.
When one looks at post-1960s academia we see few men like Joseph Conrad. What we do see, by contrast, are countless manifestations of his troubling characters: The misanthropic “Professor”, a man whose brilliant mind is stunted by incurable resentment and feelings of littleness, would be right at home in any given post-revolutionary humanities department. Alexander Ossipon, who can explain every occurrence in the world using the mystique of phrenology, would doubtless find his much-craved adoration in a department of climate “science”, perhaps. Even the perennial victim, Michaelis, would fit in quite nicely in whichever faculty happened to explain away his own life failures by fawning over whichever victimhood icon of identity politics he happened to adopt.
Of course, people don’t change, as Conrad shows us again and again. Times change, sure. Regimes change; zeitgeists change; fashions change. But people? Not so much. One thing has definitely changed since the age when Conrad wrote: the embittered and incurably malcontented segments of society no longer wander back-and-forth from back alleys to the parlour rooms of wealthy ladies. Today they are professionalized, institutionalized, and wander back-and-forth from the auditoriums of academia to the parlour rooms of wealthy ladies. Yet they are still embittered and incurably malcontented, even if well-fed. Good work if you can find it.
So, fellas, look around. Do you know anyone who might fit in swimmingly with the undergrounders of your or Conrad’s day? Is it someone you know from the proverbial back alleys? Is it someone you know from the cutting edge of pop culture? Or maybe it’s you?
The process of answering these questions is critical to your self-education. Many years of unending self-education may be required before an honest answer becomes palatable. For this reason you should start today. Reading The Secret Agent is a good first step.
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