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"The commerce of shady wares": politics and pornography in Conrad's The Secret Agent.


In a scathing review of Conrad's archly-ironic The Secret Agent, an anonymous reader for Country Life took the author to task for being "naughty" without being "at all nice." Deeming Adolf Verloc "a sort of spy and informer in the service of revolutionists," the reviewer went on to argue that "The sort of shop kept by Mr. Verloc is one where shady photographs, obscene literature and other articles of similar kind are sold. The people who keep such places are, generally speaking, the most unmitigated blackguards who hold on to the edges of civilisation."(1) This reviewer amusingly misreads the novel, believing that Conrad confers "respectability" on Verloc, making him "decent in his indecency, and honest in his dishonesty."(2) The Country Life reader nevertheless stumbled on a point repeatedly made in The Secret Agent that has not received due critical attention: the connection between a "criminal class of revolutionists" and the consumers of illicit pornography.(3)

It will be my thesis that The Secret Agent forges innumerable subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) bonds between revolutionary politics and pornography in order to tarnish the glamour of subversive politics with the smuttiness of tawdry sex. At the same time - and paradoxically - the novel represents and critiques late-Victorian England's pervasive twin-anxieties over uncontrolled sex and politics. "Indecent" and revolutionary "wares" are represented in The Secret Agent as "corrupt" ("perverse," "disreputable," "depraved," and "sordid,"), "secret" ("private," "obscure," and "confidential"), Continental in origin, infantile and solipsistic in nature, and "cannibalistic" or violent in execution. Both spheres are depicted as figuratively or literally masturbatory, and as attracting a morally dubious readership - a clientele that inhabits the same physical space in Verloc's shop. However, in the last analysis, it is the very connection between the pornographic and the revolutionary threat itself that is satirized. Despite Conrad's repeated caveats that he is not concerned in The Secret Agent with revolutionary politics but is instead taking his fiction in new generic and technical directions, the novel has been seen to offer "intense political engagement."(4) In its linking of "revolutionary propaganda" and "obscene literature," the novel's "wit" as a whole parallels Embassy Chief Vladimir's wit - which consists in "discovering droll connections between incongruous ideas" (SA, 20).(5) While it is certainly no secret that the "criminal class of revolutionists" (SA, 109) bears the brunt of The Secret Agent's all-encompassing irony, the means - metaphorical, symbolic, imagistic, and otherwise - by which these revolutionists are represented as pornographers remains in need of elaboration.

The Secret Agent begins by placing revolutionary and pornographic literature, all "doubtful" and "shady" "wares of disreputable rubbish," in the same "dim shop" situated in a "household, hidden in the shades of the sordid street seldom touched by the sun" (SA, 34). The novel's third paragraph notes that the "shopwindow" of Verloc's house on Brett Street

contained photographs of more or less undressed dancing girls, nondescript packages in wrappers like patent medicines; closed yellow paper envelopes very flimsy . . .; a few numbers of ancient French comic publications . . .; a few books with titles hinting at impropriety; a few apparently old copies of obscure newspapers, badly printed, with titles like The Torch, The Gong - rousing titles. (SA, 9)(6)

The novel opens by juxtaposing sordid, decaying, and "secret" pornographic materials with equally secret, decaying, and morally dubious revolutionary tracts. Just as revolutionary texts are given "rousing" titles, so pornographic texts possess "arousing" ones, their "promising title[s]" "hinting at impropriety" (SA, 9-10). And on the novel's second page we read that Verloc

would proceed to sell over the counter some object looking obviously and scandalously not worth the money which passed in the transaction: a small cardboard box with apparently nothing inside . . . or one of those carefully closed yellow flimsy envelopes, or a soiled volume in paper covers. (SA, 10)

By the time we read, still later in the novel, of Verloc's "wares of disreputable rubbish" (SA, 34) or of his shop front "hung with papers, gloomy with vague piles of cardboard boxes and the shapes of books" (SA, 116), it is difficult to tell whether it is the politically rousing or sexually arousing materials that are being detailed.

The two kinds of "sordid" literature are depicted as physically alike. While the "obscure [political] newspapers" in Verloc's shop are described as "badly printed" (SA, 9) - the "Future of the Proletariat" pamphlets at one point are said to contain "prophetic bosh in blunt type on . . . filthy paper" (SA, 26) - the pornographic pamphlets on sale are portrayed as cheaply printed, "flimsy," "faded," and "soiled" (SA, 9-10). That both types of literature provide Verloc with income - the first type associated with his "ostensible business" (SA, 9), the second with his "other business," which "is in a way political" (SA, 12) - is another means by which the novel exploits the connection between revolutionary politics and pornography. This point is emphasized when we learn that Verloc's home is "kept up on the wages of a secret industry eked out by the sale of more or less secret wares" (SA, 194), and when we learn that Verloc "had been guided in the selection of this peculiar line of business by an instinctive leaning towards shady transactions, where money is picked up easily" (SA, 46).

But the novel's association of revolutionary politics with pornography extends beyond physical and commercial similarities to include the ironic name Verloc chooses for himself, "agent provocateur" (SA, 25), "provocative" being a time-honored word for erotic as well as political enticements. Verloc's failure on all counts is manifest when Mr. Vladimir of the (presumably) Czarist Russian embassy chastises him for failing to "provoke" outrages against the English social order (in order to compel the police to clamp down on revolutionary activity); when Verloc's bomb attack against the Greenwich Observatory fails to provoke much of anything at all (except the slaughter of his brother-in-law Stevie); and when we learn that Verloc has failed sexually to "provoke" his wife Winnie for years. Indeed, his final abortive attempt to arouse her sexual interest (SA, 196-97) proves to be one of his last acts of all, in effect provoking her to kill him. Moreover, since few buy either the pornographic or political "wares" (SA, 50), none but the already-converted are "provoked" to any action by Verloc's subversions. Only Stevie is actually observed perusing the political papers, and his reaction to them is what it might be if he were reading the pornographic ones: "He gets a red face poring over them" (SA, 50).

The scant traffic through Verloc's shop reveals a further link between the two types of reading material on sale. The customers in the shop, we read, "were either very young men [pornographic 'amateurs'] who hung about the window for a time before slipping in suddenly; or men of a more mature age [revolutionists], but looking generally as if they were not in funds" (SA, 9). The two groups are also united in that individuals from both enter the shop stealthily, "slipping in suddenly" (SA, 9) or appearing inside with "collars turned up and soft hats rammed down" (SA, 10).

The deepest connections between Verloc's two types of "wares" relate to both being depicted as "cannibalistic" and as deriving from the Continent. France - and particularly Paris, the European "capital of vice" in the mind of Britons - is repeatedly alluded to in The Secret Agent as the source of pornographic pamphlets and revolutionary ideas alike.(7) For example, we are apprised immediately of Verloc's "French comic publications" (SA, 9), and later learn that he renews "his stock from Paris and Brussels" (SA, 138), that the "packages he gets from Paris and Brussels" stem from "a connection - friends on the Continent - amongst people who deal in such wares" (SA, 102). Even Verloc's family name and origin provide an opportunity for the novel to satirize the insular English fear of corruption by Continental influences. The Verlocs all claim to be of French descent (SA, 11, 23); Verloc is described as generally arriving "in London (like the influenza) from the Continent" (SA, 11); and the Verloc name itself suggests "a syphilitic" in French? Characters in The Secret Agent frequently invoke the Continent (and particularly France) as a place of escape from the arms of the law (SA, 147, 209, 218), and Paris is identified as a convenient place to launder money (SA, 220).

France is also represented in The Secret Agent as the source of political vice, both explicitly (Verloc is known earlier to have affiliated with the "Revolutionary Red Committee" in France [SA, 61, 101]) and implicitly (as the major source, dating back to the Revolution of 1789, of l'esprit revolutionnaire). Conrad's own disdain for this spirit is well documented. In A Personal Record, for example, he insists that such a spirit "frees one from all scruples as regards ideas," and that its "hard, absolute optimism is repulsive" because of "the menace of fanaticism and intolerance it contains."(9) That this spirit finds its source for Conrad in a "corrupted" French Revolution is equally clear. As early as 1885, for example, when the Conservative party failed to carry the English Parliament, Conrad lamented in a letter that "every disreputable ragamuffin in Europe feels that the day of universal brotherhood, despoliation and disorder is coming apace," and that "England was the only barrier to the pressure of infernal doctrines born in Continental back-slums" (1:16, emphasis added). And in his essay "Autocracy and War" (1905), published the year before he writes The Secret Agent, he deems "the glorified French Revolution" to be a "mediocre phenomenon," and condemns "the degradation of the ideas of freedom and justice" at its roots.(10)

At one particular place in the novel, however, the Continental source of both revolutionary politics and pornographic pamphlets is linked explicitly. This is when Winnie encounters the Assistant Commissioner in her shop the evening of the "bomb outrage" (SA, 144). "A complete stranger" to her, and clearly "not a customer, either," Winnie assumes that this "foreigner" before her is one of Verloc's political associates "from the Continent." "You knew Mr. Verloc before - didn't you?," she asks him, "perhaps in France?" Then she worries that he may be "one of [the revolutionist] Karl Yundt's friends." Asking him if he is considering "staying in England for good," Winnie assures him, "my husband will see you through all right. Meantime for a few days you couldn't do better than take lodgings with Mr. Giugliani. Continental Hotel it's called. Private" (SA, 150). When we learn soon after this that the Continental Hotel - which traditionally has housed Verloc's Continental revolutionary associates - is in fact "a house of bad repute" (SA, 166), the connection is complete: look to the Continent for threatening indecencies of every kind, political and sexual.(11)

The Secret Agent also links revolutionary politics and pornography by depicting them as "cannibalistic." Revolutionaries and pornographic "amateurs" feast on human flesh; as Karl Yundt characterizes the ruling classes, both nourish "their greed on the quivering flesh and the warm blood of the people" (SA, 44). This metaphoric connection is made explicit in the event and aftermath of Stevie's death. Eloise Knapp Hay has aptly noted that Winnie, who sacrifices "her love for a romantic butcher boy[,] has taken instead a man who inadvertently butchers her brother."(12) Yet there is even more that we might make of this connection between butchery and murder.(13) It is an "anarchist's bomb" (one of the Professor's "wares" [SA, 54-55], that the novel associates with Verloc's pornographic "wares") that kills Stevie, leaving a scene of carnage compared to a "cannibal feast": "a heap of rags, scorched and blood stained" (SA, 70). Moreover, Chief Inspector Heat, upon viewing Stevie's remains later that day, is described as "peering at the table with a calm face and the slightly anxious attention of an indigent customer bending over what may be called the by-products of a butcher's shop with a view to an inexpensive Sunday dinner" (SA, 71). When we then consider Verloc's willingness, only a few hours after Stevie's violent death, to eat cold meat (SA, 176) and enjoy conjugal relations with Winnie (SA, 196-97), it becomes clear that the novel associates cannibalism with "sordid" politics and sex.

This all comes to a head when Verloc contemplates a sexual encounter with Winnie soon after she has learned of her brother's death. He begins to eat "the piece of roastbeef, laid out in the likeness of funeral baked meats for Stevie's obsequies," both "ravenously" and "without restraint and decency," "cutting thick slices with the sharp carving knife, and swallowing them without bread" (SA, 190-91). Notice here that the words used to describe his "cannibalistic" feasting - "ravenously, without restraint or decency" - are the same ones that would be used to describe uncontrolled sexual indulgences, and that the carving knife Verloc wields to cut the meat (now associated with Stevie's body) is the same one Winnie soon uses to slay Verloc himself. Clearly the "squalor and sordidness" of the novel's setting that Conrad announces in his Author's Note (SA, 4) apply alike to the political and sexual "indecencies" that take place in Verloc's shop.(14)


In Conrad's Politics Avrom Fleishman touches upon the sexual-political associations pervading The Secret Agent when he writes that "Verloc's secret political profession and his secret cover-up dealings in pornography are brought together with the secret basis of his marriage" in order to show that all "human institutions" have the "hidden purpose" of preserving "the social order from its hidden tendencies toward dissolution and anarchy."(15) Fleishman's insight helps reveal a further link this novel forges between revolutionary politics and pornography: like the consumption of pornography, which appears at first to be subversive of the reigning sexual order but in fact merely reinforces it, the revolutionism of Michaelis and the rest also seems subversive of the reigning political order but finally only reinforces it. Moreover, the utopian vision elaborated in the novel of the "ticket-of-leave apostle" Michaelis, delegate to the "Revolutionary Red Committee," uncannily resembles what Steven Marcus calls the "pornotopian" one, the "ideal" pornographic conception of things.(16)

Before exploring these claims and their implications, it will be useful to look briefly at the nature of Victorian pornography. For this task Marcus's groundbreaking The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England is particularly helpful, as this quasi-Freudian study brings to light the "unofficial" Victorian sexual culture that, to the chagrin of this culture's "official" version of itself, is pervaded with pornography and sexual improprieties of every kind. While The Secret Agent was written in Edwardian England, the novel is set in late-Victorian times (specifically, 1886), and was deemed by Conrad a "Tale of the XIX Century."(17) Moreover, as Patricia Stubbs observes, "The death of Victoria did not mean the death of Victorianism"; rather, "the opening years of the century saw if anything an intensification of the struggles between moralism and sexual liberty. . . ."(18)

Indeed, the late nineteenth century witnessed the intensification of the debate over pornography, even if this phenomenon, as Marcus points out, had "its origins in the seventeenth century," came "into full meaningful existence in the latter part of the eighteenth," persisted, developed, and flourished "throughout the nineteenth century, and continues on in our own."(19) Pornographic works, he argues, do not concern themselves with verisimilitude; rather, they tend toward the elimination of reality and toward the construction of a domain where time and place measure nothing but endless sexual encounters. Like "utopia," which means at once "no place" and "good place," "pornotopia" for Marcus "may be said largely to exist at no place, and to take place in nowhere." In pornotopia sexual encounters occur "not in the world" but "behind our eyes, within our heads."(20) Pornography's indifference to place, Marcus continues, is due to the "boundless, featureless freedom that most pornographic fantasies require for their action," as "such details are regarded as restrictions, limitations, distractions, or encumbrances."(21) And so are limitations of time: in pornotopia time "is without duration; when the past is recalled, it is for the single purpose of arousing us in the present." "And the effect of pornography in this regard," Marcus asserts, "is to achieve" a condition of mind "in which all things exist in a total, simultaneous present."(22) For this reason, "although on first inspection pornography seems to be the most concrete kind of writing - concerned as it is with organs, positions, events - it is in reality very abstract." "It regularly moves," he concludes, "toward independence of time, space, [and] history. . . . "(23)

This sounds familiar when we consider Michaelis's "revolutionary" vision, which ultimately resembles pornotopia more than it does utopia. While obvious differences exist between Marcus's pornotopia and Michaelis's quasi-Marxist utopia, the former nevertheless helps reveal a hidden critique of the latter undertaken in the novel.(24) Michaelis's utopia, like Marcus's pornotopia, gestures toward concreteness while remaining abstract and unspecific with regard to place, time, and history. Like the Professor, who is said to possess "ascetic purity of thought, combined with an astounding ignorance of worldly conditions" (SA, 66), Michaelis's vision is slim on details and evokes the past and future primarily to arouse his audience "in the present." Insisting that "the future is as certain as the past - slavery, feudalism, individualism, collectivism," and that "this is the statement of a law, not an empty prophecy" (SA, 43), Michaelis betrays a "faith" in "the economic condition of the world responsible for the past and shaping the future" (SA, 40) felt and seen everywhere and at all times in general but nowhere and at no time in particular: "His optimism had begun to flow from his lips. He saw Capitalism doomed in its cradle," the "great capitalists devouring the little capitalists," and "the madness of self-aggrandizement only preparing, organising, enriching, making ready the lawful inheritance of the suffering proletariat" (SA, 43). Similar to Marcus's pornotopia, Michaelis's utopia demonstrates an austere determinism and, as Fleishman argues, entails a "rejection of time."(25)

As with pornographic literature, which typically "envisages a world in which conscience and real conflict do not exist," and which often "confuses reality and fantasy," Michaelis envisions history moving toward a single goal:(26) "a world planned out like an immense and nice hospital, with gardens and flowers, in which the strong are to devote themselves to the nursing of the weak" (SA, 225) - a domain in which all conflict (and private property) has been eradicated. And like pornographic prose, which for Marcus "consists almost entirely of cliches, dead and dying phrases, and stereotypical formulas," Michaelis's rhetoric, which confidently predicts "the complete economic ruin of the system" (SA, 88), is depicted as cliched and vague, as grandiose yet, like Sir Ethelred himself, fearful of "details":(27) "His ideas were not in the nature of convictions," we read; "they were inaccessible to reasoning" (SA, 85). And just as pornography possesses "the lure of freedom and license," allowing for "release in fantasy from the sexual restraints of reality," so Michaelis's political theory and practice are depicted as attempts to escape the political restraints of reality.(28)

The most telling connection between Michaelis's utopia and Marcus's pornotopia, however, is that these visions leave the "menaced social order" (SA, 16) completely unscathed despite their flamboyantly subversive postures. For Marcus, while pornography challenges the status quo to the extent that it reveals "the discrepancy which exists in society between openly professed ideals" and "secretly practiced vices," it can never move beyond this to "supply a vision that either transcends or transvalues what passes for current reality." "On the contrary," he writes,

pornography is perfectly and happily at home with hypocrisy, cant, injustice, and all kinds of social malevolence; it may even be regarded as dependent upon them for its existence. It is itself part of the present order of things, and one of its central unvoiced intentions is that the present order of things should continue to exist as it is, if possible more so. Its reversals are thus self-contradictions, and pornography persists in this condition because in it - as in the mind of a child - no distinction is made between thought and deed, wish and reality, between what ought to exist, what one wants to exist, and what does in fact exist.(29)

Marcus goes on to argue that pornography's protests "are muffled by the circumstances in which the utterances are heard, and the secrecy that is a condition of their existence is also the condition of their assent to the world they appear to be protesting against," a point that illuminates the critique of revolutionary politics we encounter in The Secret Agent. "It is difficult to think," Marcus continues, "of another kind of literature whose content and circumstances are more thoroughly contradictory of one another or that is, in the foundations of its existence, as self-nullifying."(30) We do, however, encounter such a literature in the vision of Michaelis and other "career revolutionists," whose political theories are nullified by the practical lives of those who "adhere" to them.(31)

To be sure, the novel suggests that revolutionary politics is dependent on the status quo for its fuel - so dependent that the revolutionists do not actually seek to threaten it for fear they will threaten their own comfortable situations.(32) For example, at one point we learn that Ossipon hopes the police will not "form an exaggerated notion of his revolutionary sympathies" (SA, 204), and at another we are informed that Michaelis "is luxuriating in the country somewhere" and that "a fashionable publisher has offered him five hundred pounds for a book" (SA, 63). At the very least, Michaelis is guilty of involving himself in a conflict of interests: he is funded by and writes against the aristocracy; he profits, ironically, from his prophecy of a revolutionary future that would deprive him of easy "profits." That the "old terrorist" Yundt, the "robust anarchist" Ossipon, the "incorruptible" Professor, and Michaelis himself make revolutionary gestures in lieu of taking more direct action is underscored not only by their indolence (the narrator at one point remarks that "the majority of revolutionists are the enemies of discipline and fatigue mostly" [SA, 45]), but by the novel's frequent references to their "posturing." At one point the Professor chastises Ossipon, "Here you talk, print, plot, and do nothing" (SA, 60), and at another accuses Karl Yundt of being a "posturing shadow all his life" (SA, 57). Elsewhere Yundt is cited as "no man of action" even if he possesses "an extraordinary force of suggestion in his posturing" - as one who has "been a great actor in his time" even if he has "never in his life raised personally as much as his little finger against the social edifice" (SA, 42). Clearly what Chief Inspector Heat holds of people in general applies to the revolutionists in particular: their reputations are "built on manner as much as on achievement" (SA, 69).

Yet there is another side to Michaelis's subversive posturing that is rooted less in gestures and deception than in solipsism and self-deception. Pornography, Marcus maintains, "is a fantasy whose special preconditioning requirement is that it deny, delay, and stave off for as long as possible the recognition that it is fantasy." "Recognition," he continues, "dispels that dream of omnipotence and returns one to oneself. . . ."(33) This accurately describes Michaelis's solipsistic vision - a vision that confuses "deed, wish and reality" in an effort to stave off for as long as possible the recognition that at bottom his worldview is a fantasy of personal omnipotence:

Michaelis pursued his idea - the idea of his solitary reclusion - the thought vouchsafed to his captivity and growing like a faith revealed in visions. He talked to himself, indifferent to the sympathy or hostility of his hearers, indifferent indeed to their presence. . . . He was no good in discussion, not because any amount of argument could shake his faith, but because the mere fact of hearing another voice disconcerted him painfully, confusing his thoughts at once - these thoughts that for so many years, in a mental solitude more barren than a waterless desert, no living voice had ever combatted, commented, or approved. (SA, 39)

Michaelis deems himself a prophet of revolution, yet he is depicted as a solipsist uncontrollably fixated on personal history, his "Autobiography of a Prisoner" meant "to be like a book of Revelation in the history of mankind" (SA, 94). Like Marcus's pornotopia, Michaelis's revolutionary utopia quietly reinforces the status quo as much as it loudly challenges it, calls for a new social order in theory as much as it insists upon the old one in practice.


Steven Marcus concludes The Other Victorians with a definition of pornography that is here germane. "Pornography," he writes, "is, after all, nothing more than a representation of the fantasies of infantile sexual life, as these fantasies are edited and reorganized in the masturbatory daydreams of adolescence."(34) While The Secret Agent nowhere explicitly articulates a connection between this conception of pornography and the thought and activity of its revolutionists, the novel implicitly suggests that both the rhetorical excesses of its anarchists and the pornographic excesses of its "amateurs" are masturbatory. This is particularly true of the Professor, the novel's "true propagandist" and "perfect anarchist" who claims to see through the motivations of the other revolutionaries (SA, 58, 67). Indeed, the Professor's "politico-amorous rhapsodies" above all suggest that revolutionary activity is every bit as figuratively masturbatory as pornographic activity is literally masturbatory.(35)

Evidence that masturbation is an issue in The Secret Agent is not limited to the repeated images of various revolutionists (like pornographic "amateurs") standing or sitting with "their hands plunged deep in the side pockets of their coats" (SA, 9-10), but includes debates then raging in the culture of which Conrad certainly would have been aware. It is well known, for example, that Victorians and Edwardians emphasized the dangers of masturbation and devoted much energy to its prevention.(36) Indeed, highly regarded and widely distributed studies of onanism all but created a popular myth about the threats its practice posed - a myth of which Conrad would not have been oblivious, even if he had no familiarity with specific texts on the subject. While Conrad may or may not have been familiar with the leading English study on onanism then in circulation - William Acton's The Function and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs, in Childhood, Youth, Adult Age, and Advanced Life, Considered in their Physiological, Social and Moral Relations, in print between 1857 and 1894, and representing for Marcus "the official view" of sexuality held by Victorian society - it is clear that The Secret Agent appropriates certain conservative truisms about the perils of masturbation as a means of commenting on the perils of anarchism.(37)

Indeed, there is compelling evidence that the Professor's political ideas are figured in terms of masturbation.(38) Notice, for example, how close Acton's description of the chronic onanist comes to the novel's portrayal of the Professor. Acton writes of the typical onanist:

The frame is stunted and weak, the muscles underdeveloped, the eye is sunken and heavy, the complexion is sallow, pasty, or covered with spots of acne, the hands are damp and cold, and the skin moist. The boy shuns the society of others, creeps about alone . . . cannot look any one in the face, and becomes careless in dress and uncleanly in person. His intellect has become sluggish and enfeebled, and if his evil habits are persisted in, he may end in becoming a drivelling idiot. . . . Such boys are to be seen in all stages of degeneration.(39)

Nearly each and every characteristic here described identifies a prominent characteristic of the Professor.(40) Not only is the Professor "miserable and undersized" (SA, 67), with a "stunted stature" (SA, 66) and "unhealthy complexion" (SA, 52), but the "unwholesome looking" (SA, 68) "pest" (SA, 231), the "dingy little man in spectacles" (SA, 52), has a "thin, sickly face" (SA, 55), poor eyesight, and "lamentable inferiority of the whole physique" (SA, 52). That the Professor is represented in a state of "degeneration" - that this "unclean" agent "shuns" the society of others and "creeps" about alone - is equally clear. All of these characteristics, the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century myths about onanism warn, are attributable to excessive masturbation, as are a number of other characteristics with which the Professor is afflicted: creeping insanity, radical alienation, and the inability to have sexual relations with women. Eloise Knapp Hay convincingly argues that the Professor "fears" life and the crowd, and therefore alienates himself from both; yet it is also worth noting that he is the only revolutionary who eschews the company of women altogether.(41) Indeed, the implication is that this "perfect anarchist" is figured as a perfect onanist who has abused himself into a state of alienation from self and others, into a condition he can justify only by declaring war on the whole "condemned social order" (SA, 59).

A closer look at the masturbatory aspect of the Professor's anarchism is now warranted. The Professor's political life centers around the "perfect detonator" (SA, 57) he seeks for the bomb he wears on his person and at all times clutches: "I walk always with my left hand closed round the india-rubber ball which I have in my trouser pocket," he boasts to Ossipon. "The pressing of this ball actuates a detonator inside the flask I carry in my pocket" (SA, 55). Conrad continues:

With a swift disclosing gesture he gave Ossipon a glimpse of an india-rubber tube, resembling a slender brown worm, issuing from the armhole of his waistcoat and plunging into the inner breast pocket of his jacket. His clothes . . . were threadbare and marked with stains. (SA, 55-56)

Explaining to Ossipon that "the detonator is partly mechanical, partly chemical," the Professor then points out that "a full twenty seconds must elapse from the moment I press the ball till the explosion takes place" (SA, 55-56). The tube resembling a worm, the ball he squeezes through his pants pocket, the stained clothing, and the explosion which takes place after he manipulates the detonator together clearly suggest a masturbatory aspect to the Professor's "anarchistic" activity. Obsessed with creating a "perfect detonator" (SA, 58), meditating "confidently on his power, keeping his hand in the left pocket of his trousers, grasping lightly the india-rubber ball, the supreme guarantee of his sinister freedom" (SA, 67), the perfect revolutionist/onanist embodies that desire which Marcus argues it is the main "purpose" of pornography to serve: the "reassurance" of a perpetual erection.(42) "To have a perpetual erection is the one way of being continually reassured that one really does have a penis, that one's penis is always there, that it has not gone or been taken away."(43) In contrast to the Professor's ever-ready detonator - which he views, like Marcus's phallus in pornographic literature, as "a magical instrument of infinite powers" - the world is for him "mediocre, limp, without force" (SA, 230).(44) Only the Professor's "perfect detonator," he clearly believes, will enable him to secure the "goal of power and prestige" (SA, 66) for which he yearns.

There is further evidence to suggest that The Secret Agent represents the Professor's revolutionary activity in the metaphors of masturbation - and hence as affecting none but himself. The then prevalent belief was that onanism physically and spiritually enervates the abuser by wasting "the life force that should have gone toward healthy physical and mental development."(45) Moreover, Marcus points out that "up until the end of the nineteenth century the chief English colloquial expression for the orgasm was 'to spend'," that this "economic" metaphor for sexual climax is significant in suggesting that the body is a "productive system with only a limited amount of material at its disposal," and that "the model on which the notion of semen is formed is clearly that of money."(46) The Professor, it will be recalled, is depicted as the poorest of the poor, sporting clothes "all but falling off him, his boots shapeless with repairs" (SA, 230), and is seen to inhabit a "single backroom" in "a small house down a shabby street, littered with straw and dirty paper . . ." (SA, 53). Spending money virtually on nothing but his explosives and "perfect detonator," the auto-erotic Professor outspends everyone yet possesses less than anyone in The Secret Agent.

That the Professor's "politico-amorous rhapsodies" have psychological roots is suggested in the novel, just as masturbatory activity commonly was thought to have its basis in this domain. Indeed, it was popularly believed that masturbation caused insanity, and that a strict religious upbringing was in some way to blame for the need to masturbate. According to Acton, the mental alienation caused by onanism often occurs "in members of families of strict religious education . . . those who from this cause have become insane have generally . . . been of strictly moral life, and recognized as persons who paid much attention to the forms of religion."(47) It is perhaps a mere coincidence that Conrad bestows upon the Professor a father described as an "enthusiast" and "an itinerant and rousing preacher of some obscure but rigid Christian sect - a man supremely confident in the privileges of his righteousness" (SA, 76), but I do not think so. It is far more likely that The Secret Agent, in hinting that the Professor's "frenzied puritanism of ambition" that he nurses "as something secularly holy" (SA, 66), relates his unfortunate upbringing to his "onanistic" political orientation.

Moreover, Marcus's sense that the creators of pornography themselves must have suffered from "extreme deprivation," and that they are men "who at some point in their lives had been starved," speaks well to the Professor's condition. "Inside of every pornographer there is an infant screaming for the breast from which he has been torn," Marcus speculates, and "pornography represents an endless and infinitely repeated effort to recapture that breast, and the bliss that it offered, as it often represents as well a revenge against the world - and the women in it - in which such cosmic injustice could occur."(48) Clearly, the Professor obsesses over his "struggles" and "privations," over the "revolting injustice" with which he has "been treated" (SA, 62), and seeks revenge on the world in general (drinking "to the destruction of what is" [SA, 228]) and on women in particular ("the weak who feed the strong" [SA, 226]). With "ruthless defiance" and "vengeful bitterness" (SA, 67) rooted in emotional and psychological privation, the Professor, more than any of the novel's other revolutionists, reveals how "the way of even the most justifiable revolutions is prepared by personal impulses disguised into creeds" (SA, 66), and how these political creeds in turn have little impact on anyone save the adherent in question.


Ian Watt is correct to point out that "Conrad's works deal much less than those of most novelists with women, love, sex, and marriage," yet The Secret Agent does engage these topics, however obliquely and ironically, in a final association between revolutionary politics and pornography, as suggested by the etymology of "pornography": "From Greek pornographos, writing about prostitutes."(49) Indeed, each of the revolutionists (save the "incorruptible Professor" [SA, 231]) parasitically attaches himself to a woman for money or sex (or both), figuratively or literally prostituting her in the process.(50) Whether it is Michaelis, "annexed by his wealthy old lady" (SA, 45), Yundt, "nursed by a blear eyed old woman, a woman he had years ago enticed away from a friend, and afterwards had tried more than once to shake off into the gutter" (SA, 45), or Comrade Ossipon, who is "sure to want for nothing as long as there" are "silly girls with savings bank books in the world" (SA, 45), and whom Schneidau correctly characterizes as a "pseudoscientific gigolo," each prostitutes himself or another in the service of his "revolutionary career" (SA, 231).(51) However, of the three anarchists it is Ossipon who stands out most in this regard, for both his "collection of women" (SA, 226) in general and Winnie Verloc in particular are meant to satisfy "the needs of his self-love, and put some material means into his hand" (SA, 229). The ironic twist to the drama between Ossipon and the recently widowed Winnie, of course, is that this formerly "respectable" and "decent" housewife - turned desperate murderer - now offers herself sexually to Ossipon and offers him money.(52)

That "the Great Social Evil" of prostitution was recognized, even in the moralistic nineteenth-century, to be the result less of profligate sexual desire than of "cruel biting poverty" is relevant to Winnie's case.(53) Winnie has often feared poverty in her life, and she even justifies marrying Verloc out of this fear, reasoning that, having cut off relations with her butcher-suitor, the alternative would be to market herself in the only way available to her: "What is a girl to do?" she rhetorically asks Ossipon, "Could I've gone on the streets?" (SA, 207). That The Secret Agent portrays Winnie in the ironic light of a woman-for-hire is clear at many points, beginning with our introduction to her in chapter one, where her eroticized description ("a young woman with a full bust, in a tight bodice, and with broad hips") invites comparison with a preceding description of a different kind of woman for sale, a pornographic picture, "one of the faded, yellow dancing-girls" that "would get sold to an amateur . . ." (SA, 10).

Ironically, it is the Professor, one who has little interest in women himself, who plants the seeds in the mind of the "robust anarchist" (S,4, 140) and principal writer of F.P. leaflets to "fasten" himself upon Winnie "for all she's worth" (SA, 64) - a violent expression with sexual as well as monetary implications. Yet it is also made clear that Ossipon has thought of Winnie in sexual terms for years, just as she has so thought of him. While Ossipon occasionally gives Winnie "a glance" with "shamelessly inviting eyes" whose "corrupt clearness" was "sufficient to enlighten any woman not absolutely imbecile" (SA, 184), Winnie is described as repressing her attraction to Ossipon, saying "nothing whatever" about him (SA, 50), even if "her mental reference to the robust anarchist" is "marked by a short pause, with the faintest possible blush" (SA, 140).(54) That both Winnie and Ossipon are "businesslike" in their dealings with members of the opposite sex (SA, 40, 203, 219) - and that Winnie is "business-like" about sex even with her own husband (SA, 48) - further suggests that the novel depicts her in prostitute-client relationships without her even being aware of it.

That Winnie "prostitutes" herself with Ossipon is suggested at a number of points. Depicted as "flinging herself at" Ossipon out of desperation (SA, 209, 214), Winnie speaks of the Verloc who has "betrayed" her as if he were a pimp, blaming him for making "me what I am" out of what was once "a respectable woman" (SA, 206). Earlier "sure of the power of her charms" (SA, 145), Winnie now promises to "work" for, "slave" for, and "love" Ossipon without ever asking him "to marry" her (SA, 216).(55) There is also the sexually suggestive exchange when the two - Conrad depicts them earlier as sharing a "loverlike" aspect (SA, 205) - fear they will be discovered by the police: "Her hands had locked themselves with an inseparable twist of fingers on his robust back. While the footsteps approached, they breathed quickly, breast to breast, with hard, laboured breaths . . ." (SA, 214). So afraid is she of the gallows, this once "respectable wife" (SA, 216) of Mr. Verloc contemplates prostituting herself to the revolutionary Ossipon. Of course, before such an opportunity arises, the "robust anarchist" abandons her to suicide, leaving her to perish, like Stevie and Verloc, in a tangled web of autocracy and subversion.


Despite the overwhelming evidence that The Secret Agent represents and critiques revolutionary politics in the metaphors of pornography, cannibalism, masturbation, and prostitution, however, these associations are not forged exclusively in order to impugn revolution at the expense of pornography, or to betray those reactionary political leanings so often attributed to the author.(56) While the text does relentlessly construct these links, I believe that divergent conclusions may be arrived at, particularly given the archly ironic tenor of the novel. Indeed, at the same time that The Secret Agent vilifies revolutionary and pornographic "wares" and activities by rendering them metaphors for each other, it paradoxically lampoons the connection between the two in order to cast the culture's anxieties about both in an ironic light. In this sense the novel satirizes both the phenomenon of "pornographic politics" and the public's fear and loathing of the "uncontrolled" and "perverse" political and sexual activity it fails to understand.

It is perhaps for this very reason that the novel met with a poor initial reception. Conrad himself would conclude in a 1908 letter to John Galsworthy that The Secret Agent "may be pronounced by now an honourable failure" (L, 4:9), just as an early reviewer of the novel would conclude that "if any embellishment of art, or service to society, is done by the concoction of such a story, clever as it may be, we confess we fail to detect either."(57) Yet it is likely that this reviewer failed to discern The Secret Agent's "service to society" precisely because it is one of society's deepest "politico-amorous" fears that the novel unmasks and savages.

Mainstream Victorian and Edwardian culture regarded sexual and political licentiousness of any kind as extremely threatening. As Marcus notes, in the "middle and later decades" of the century "pornographic writings were produced and published in unprecedented volume - it became in fact a minor industry."(58) That this state of affairs was viewed widely as a crisis is suggested by the "violent controversies about 'pornography'" that raged in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.(59) At the same time, in the wake of the Hyde Park riots of 1866, fear of a French-style Revolution in England was also pervasive. And the anxiety over revolution "was kept alive," Walter E. Houghton notes, quoting sources from the late 1880's, "by the existence of 'masses of dark, impenetrable, subterranean blackguardism' in the slums of every city," rendering English civilization "'nothing but a thin film or crust lying over a volcanic pit'" that might one day "'break up through it and destroy us all'."(60)

Moreover, these political and sexual fears were linked not only in The Secret Agent but in the popular imagination generally. As Houghton puts it, writing of the increasing "sexual license" in England, "the major reason why sex was so frightening to the Victorians" was that it "gave practical edge to the theoretical dangers of French novels and social theories."(61) Indeed, there seemed to be a reason to link these seemingly discrete threats after all, as Walter Kendrick argues so provocatively:

As far as pornography is concerned the threat was perceived principally in sexual-terms; yet "sex" itself was an image, a vivid substitute for other dangers that, barely perceived in any case, could not be so readily represented.

At bottom, the issue was and remains political, if we take the word in its broadest sense to designate all the relations of power and the lack of it that govern human beings in their living together.(62)

Beneath The Secret Agent's ironic comedy of shady and discrete professional anarchists and amateur pornographers there clearly lurks a tragic tale of "power and the lack of it" that ultimately kills Winnie, her mother, Stevie, and Verloc himself.

There is textual and contextual evidence to suggest that The Secret Agent maligns the culture's apprehensions about revolutionary politics as much as it does the phenomenon itself. While we must not take at face value Conrad's repeated claims that he did not mean to satirize "the revolutionary world" in this novel, that "all these people are not revolutionaries - they are shams" (L, 3:491), and that he had no intention of considering "anarchism politically - or to treat it seriously in its philosophical aspect" (L, 3:354), neither should we wholly discount them. After all, the "revolutionists" we encounter in The Secret Agent are portrayed as having neither the will nor the ability to alter the social reality they inhabit; their "doctrine, action, [and] mentality" is every bit as futile as Conrad insists they are in his "Author's Note" to the novel (SA, 5). The anarchists' willpower and strength are clearly exaggerated by other characters in the text, from Sir Ethelred, the English Home Secretary, to Mr. Vladimir of the Russian embassy (who, as Verloc correctly notes, overestimates the power of the revolutionists: "In the light of Mr. Vladimir's philosophy of bomb throwing," Verloc muses, the revolutionists "appeared hopelessly futile" [SA, 44]). It would certainly not have been lost on Conrad that "English anarchism," as George Woodcock observes, had "never been anything else than a chorus of voices crying in the wilderness," a cause that never had "even a remote chance of controlling the British labour movement," one that had "always been a small sect, hardly existent outside London and Glasgow."(63) Whatever influence they did have, anarchists posed no real threat to the reigning social order. That the novel's reclusive pornographic "amateurs" are every bit as incapable of altering the sexual order of things as the revolutionists are incapable of altering the political one - that both groups are as obscene as they are impotent, as self-arousing as they are self-abusive - scarcely needs observing.

One also scarcely need observe that The Secret Agent directs its acid irony at the Czarist Embassy, the police, the aristocracy, the middle class, and the English government with equal vigor; this novel spares - and suffers - no group. Like Verloc's scorn, the novel's scorn as a whole is "equally distributed over the whole field of [its] operations" (SA, 185). Such disparate readers as Thomas Mann and Terry Eagleton have noticed that The Secret Agent's levelling irony makes it difficult to say which sides, if any, the novel does endorse.(64) And certainly Conrad's own enigmatic comments that "there had been moments during the writing of the book when I was an extreme revolutionist" (SA, 8), and that the "millionaire" is the "true anarchist" (L, 3:491) invalidate readings of this novel that conclude that Conrad here slanders only revolutionists.(65)

It is in this paradoxical fashion, then, that The Secret Agent treats revolutionary politics and pornographic literature, representing and critiquing both the "commerce" and the "fear" of "shady wares." And while the novel neither mentions "pornography" explicitly nor portrays the revolutionists as having any genuine impact on the political culture at large, both nevertheless govern the novel at every step: there is virtually nothing that evades a "politico-amorous" figuration in Conrad's tale of "half a dozen anarchists, two women, and an idiot" (L, 3:372). Conrad believed that it is the job of fiction to discover, interpret, comment on, criticize, and expose the world's realities; and in the case of The Secret Agent certain sensitive "politico-amorous" realities are discovered, interpreted, commented on, criticized, and exposed in ways that have kept this "provocative" novel controversial and misunderstood since its publication.(66)

Rhodes College


1 Conrad: The Critical Heritage, ed. Norman Sherry (London: Routledge, 1973), 186-87.

2 Sherry (note 1), 186. Clearly, Conrad's own assessment of Verloc and the other revolutionists as "imbeciles" is closer to the mark. See The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad, 8 vols., ed. Frederick R. Karl and Laurence Davies (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1983-1990), 3:372-73. All future references to Conrad's letters are to this edition, and are cited parenthetically in text by L.

3 The sole exceptions are Herbert N. Schneidau in Waking Giants: The Presence of the Past in Modernism (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1991), and Aaron Fogel in Coercion to Speak: Conrad's Poetics of Dialogue (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1985), both of whom, in brilliant readings, mention it in passing. Schneidau writes, for example, that "revolutionary propaganda is a particularly loathsome variety of pornography [in this novel], pandering to deprived and idle minds, offering a voyeurism of lurid revanchist fantasies" (108; also see 120 and 132). But while Schneidau's essay is concerned with the novel's "ambiguous intertwining of violence and sex" (114), with the "way in which the erotic potential of violence and the aggression implicit in sexuality become interinvolved, or even indistinct from each other" (115), and while it urges a recognition of the unseen "primal scene" at the novel's heart, an event threatening to children because they "cannot distinguish sexual acts from aggressive ones" (121), my essay focuses on the manifold and complex revolutionary politics/illicit pornography connections in the novel, and reconstructs the cultural and historical contexts that provide the backdrop for the novel's representation and critique of this connection. And Aaron Fogel remarks that "Conrad very skillfully employs the art . . . of combining sexuality and politics in personal gesture" (161).

4 See, for example, The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad (note 2), 3:354-55, and 491. Also see Conrad's Author's Note to The Secret Agent in Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent, ed. Bruce Harkness and S.W. Reid (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990), 8. All future references to this novel and to the Author's Note, are cited parenthetically in text as SA. For a discussion of Conrad's "political engagement," see Graham McMaster, "Some Other Secrets in The Secret Agent," Literature and History 12 (1986): 241.

5 While I disagree with McMaster's conclusions, I find his discussion of the critical depoliticization of this novel accurate and useful. In fact, as Eloise Knapp Hay notes in The Political Novels of Joseph Conrad (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1981), The Secret Agent expresses Conrad's "fundamental political convictions with greater clarity and simplicity than any other novel he wrote" (241).

6 Walter Kendrick in The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture (New York: Viking, 1987) cites William Sangers's 1858 history of prostitution, in which the author describes pornographic "trash" as "cheap pamphlets, or 'yellow-covered' literature . . ." (79). Herbert Schneidau (note 3), 108, 132 and Robert L. Caserio (Plot, Story, and the Novel: From Dickens and Poe to the Modern Period [Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1979], 270) provocatively speculate that Verloc's shop proffers condoms for sale. And Christine W. Sizemore notes in "'The Small Cardboard Box': A Symbol of The City and Winnie Verloc in Conrad's The Secret Agent," Modern Fiction Studies 24 (1978), that in the earlier serial version of The Secret Agent a small cardboard box for sale in Verloc's shopwindow is labeled "Superfine India Rubber" (28).

7 See Russell M. Goldfarb, Sexual Repression and Victorian England (Lewisburg: Bucknell Univ. Press, 1970), 46, and Walter E. Houghton, The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870 (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1957), 359, for a sense of the degree to which pornographic literature and the "literature of prostitution" were associated with France and the French in Victorian England.

8 Hay (note 5), 237.

9 Joseph Conrad, A Personal Record (Marlboro, VT: Marlboro Press, 1982), 14.

10 Joseph Conrad, Notes on Life and Letters (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1921), 86. The notion that Continental anarchism spread to England was not exclusively a fear of Conrad's. "Anarchism as a movement began in Britain during the 1880s," George Woodcock explains in Anarchism (Hammondsworth: Penguin, 1962), "under the influence of foreign rather than native models" (415).

11 Amusingly enough, the Assistant Commissioner spends "some forty minutes" "closeted in a room" with Verloc at this brothel, and later decides to take this same room "for the night" (SA, 166).

12 Hay (note 5), 257-58.

13 Ironically, Winnie marries Verloc so that he can protect her brother Stevie from the memory of his father's beatings (183), yet the violence Verloc wreaks upon Stevie is clearly of a magnitude his abusive father would never have imagined.

14 For more on this, see Jerome Zuckerman, "The Motif of Cannibalism in The Secret Agent," Texas Studies in Literature and Language 10 (1968): 295-99.

15 Avrom Fleishman, Conrad's Politics: Community and Anarchy in the Fiction of Joseph Conrad (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1967), 191.

16 Steven Marcus, The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England (New York: Basic Books, 1966), chapter seven.

17 Fleishman (note 15), 205; see the author's dedication page of the novel.

18 Patricia Stubbs, Women and Fiction: Feminism and the Novel, 1880-1920 (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1979), 175.

19 Marcus (note 16), 282.

20 Marcus, 268.

21 Marcus, 269.

22 Marcus, 270.

23 Marcus, 44-45. Marcus goes on to write that pornography is comprised of "sets of abstractions." "Although the events and organs they refer to are supposed to be concrete, one may observe how little concrete detail, how few real particularities, these passages contain." "Persons in them," Marcus concludes, "are transformed into literal objects; these objects finally coalesce into one object - oneself" (277). For more on the nature and function of Victorian pornography, see George N. Gordon, Erotic Communications: Studies in Sex, Sin and Censorship (New York: Hastings House, 1980); Walter Kendrick (note 6); Morse Peckham, Art and Pornography: An Experiment in Explanation (New York: Basic Books, 1969); and Donald Thomas, A Long Time Burning: The History of Literary Censorship in England (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1969).

24 Fleishman (note 15) is correct to point out that Conrad's portrayal of Michaelis betrays the author's misunderstanding of Marxist thought (210). For more on Conrad's reception of progressivistic thinking generally see Brian W. Shaffer, "'Rebarbarizing Civilization': Conrad's African Fiction and Spencerian Sociology," PMLA 108 (1993): 45-58.

25 Fleishman, 210.

26 Marcus (note 16), 209; Goldfarb (note 7), 48.

27 Marcus, 279.

28 Goldfarb (note 7), 52.

29 Marcus (note 16), 230; emphasis added.

30 Marcus, 247.

31 Michaelis's sole attempt at practical action - to "rescue some prisoners from a police van" (SA, 84) - not surprisingly proves to be a failure.

32 In other words, without a "normal," stable world, the political and sexual "subversives" would lose most of their appeal. For this reason they are hypocritically dependent on conditions they aim to abolish, for in abolishing these conditions they would abolish themselves. As the narrator at one point puts it of revolutionists: "For obviously one does not revolt against the advantages and opportunities of that [social] state, but against the price which must be paid for the same in the coin of accepted morality, selfrestraint, and toil" (SA, 45).

33 Marcus (note 16), 230.

34 Marcus, 286.

35 I borrow the phrase, "politico-amorous rhapsodies," from Joseph Conrad, "The Informer," one of Conrad's two short stories of anarchistic intrigue, in Joseph Conrad, A Set of Six (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1925), 100. Fogel (note 3), makes a point similar to mine when he argues that in The Secret Agent "anarchism . . . leads logically to a kind of masturbation, because it is based on a principle of extreme individuation." However, Fogel's overarching point is that "the comic and crass connection between sympathetic affect, secret action, and masturbation may be easiest to see": all "are imagined as similar forms of solitary secret activity" (161).

36 Even a "Victorian" as enlightened about sexuality as Freud is known to have found masturbation (like prostitution) a "baneful" practice. See Richard Wolheim, Freud (London: Fontana, 1971), 223.

37 Another influential work on the subject was the Frenchman Tissot's study translated as "Onanism: Essay on the Ailments Produced by Masturbation." This work was in print between 1758 and the mid-nineteenth century, and was "cited as definitive as late as 1870." Conrad may have been aware of it indirectly to the extent that it "set the tone for discussions of [its] subject well into the modern era." See Kendrick (note 6), 88, 90.

38 Following Joseph I. Fradin and Jean W. Creighton, "The Language of The Secret Agent: The Art of Non-Life," Conradiana 1 (1968): 23-35, Schneidau (note 3) notes in passing that the Professor "has taken dynamite as a substitute phallus to masturbate and display" (114), but does not elaborate, either with textual details or with contextual evidence, upon this phenomenon in the novel. Similarly, Fogel (note 3) remarks that "the Professor defines himself entirely by the 'ball' in his pocket, the detonator he'll press if the police try to arrest him" (161).

39 Quoted in Marcus (note 16), 19.

40 On a different level, of course, this also describes Stevie, the sole genuine adolescent in The Secret Agent - and one who, like the curious Professor, appears uninterested in women. According to Acton (quoted in Marcus, 21), "Apathy, loss of memory, abeyance of concentrative power and manifestation of mind generally, combined with loss of self-reliance, and indisposition for or impulsiveness of action, irritability of temper, and incoherence of language, are the most characteristic mental phenomena of chronic dementia resulting from masturbation in young men." This describes Stevie accurately, tempting us to lump Stevie and the Professor together. Nevertheless, many factors render Stevie the diametric opposite of the revolutionists. For more on this issue see Brian W. Shaffer, The Blinding Torch: Modern British Fiction and the Discourse of Civilization (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1993), 75-76.

41 Hay (note 5), 261-62.

42 In the manuscript and serial version of this passage, the Professor's masturbatory fixation is even more evident: "Lost in the crowd, miserable and undersized, he mediated confidently, with his right hand in his trousers pocket, grasping at the material expression of his power and prestige." See Fradin and Creighton (note 38), 23.

43 Marcus (note 16), 234.

44 Marcus, 212.

45 See Kendrick (note 6), 88-89.

46 Marcus (note 16), 22.

47 Quoted in Marcus, 21.

48 Marcus, 273-74.

49 lan Watt, Conrad in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1979), 69; Greek quoted from Kendrick (note 6), 1.

50 Schneidau (note 3), also makes this point, but takes his argument in a different direction (113).

51 Schneidau, 110. Yundt's nursing clearly presages Ossipon's treatment of Winnie, as does Verloc's earlier abandonment by his female "attachment" who "got hold of the money, and then sold [him] to the police" (SA, 22).

52 Notice that Ossipon "plunge[s]" this money "deep somewhere into his very breast," just as Winnie has recently plunged the carving knife deep into Verloc's breast. And, like a prostitute, she carries her "pigskin pocket book" under her "bodice" (SA, 219).

53 Acton quoted in Marcus (note 16), 7.

54 The fact that Winnie does not like to "look too deeply into things," an aspect of her personality emphasized throughout the novel, might have less to do with her constitutional shallowness than with her detrimental proclivity to censor from her own scrutiny painful truths about sensitive subjects.

55 Whereas Winnie earlier pronounces her great faith in the institution of English democracy, arguing that "we ain't downtrodden slaves here" (SA, 155), she is now desperate enough to be a sex-slave to the "robust anarchist."

56 Graham Holderness, for example, accuses Conrad in this novel of adopting the perspective of the "contemporary government and of the conservative press," a perspective at once "simple, crude, unenlightened and containing all the elements of popular prejudice." See "Anarchism and Fiction," The Rise of Socialist Fiction, 1880-1914, ed. Gustav Klaus (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987), 129. I believe that one could arrive at this position only by missing The Secret Agent's all-encompassing irony, which lashes out at conservative forces in the novel as much as it does at radical ones.

57 Sherry (note 1), 202.

58 Marcus (note 16), 283.

59 Kendrick (note 6), 80.

60 Houghton (note 7), 58. For more on England's "Fear of Revolution," see Houghton, 54-58.

61 Houghton, 364-65; emphasis added.

62 Kendrick (note 6), 91.

63 Woodcock (note 10), 414.

64 Terry Eagleton, "Form, Ideology and The Secret Agent," Against the Grain: Selected Essays (London: Verso, 1986), 23-32; and Thomas Mann, "Conrad's 'The Secret Agent'," Past Masters and Other Papers (New York: Knopf, 1933), 231-47.

65 In a letter of 1899, Conrad goes as far as to express his "respect" for "the extreme anarchists" (L, 2:160). Indeed, Conrad here may be revealing his own sense of the novelist's subversive, yet marginal and hence ineffectual position, in mainstream society - his fear, as Vladimir mockingly puts it, that artists are "people of no account. Nobody minds what they say" (30). Conrad may well have worried that the fate of his novel would be that of the pornographic and revolutionary tracts he depicts: the meat of the few and wholly lacking in impact.

66 Joseph Conrad, "John Galsworthy," Last Essays (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1926), 127.

I would like to thank Rhodes College for providing me with a Summer 1992 Faculty Development Endowment Grant to write this essay, and the National Endowment for the Humanities for providing me with the time to edit it for publication during Ralph Rader's 1993 Summer Seminar for College Teachers, at the University of California, Berkeley. Thanks are also due Jennifer Brady, Catherine Civello, Vanessa Dickerson, Robert Entzminger, Eloise Hay, Madeleine Kahn, Cynthia Marshall, Sandra McEntire, Aaron Shaffer, and Garrett Stewart for commenting on earlier drafts of this essay.
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Title Annotation:Joseph Conrad
Author:Shaffer, Brian W.
Date:Jun 22, 1995
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