The power of suggestion: Conrad, Professor Grasset, and French medical occultism.
Conrad had numerous doctors, many of whom were highly esteemed in their profession, and some became close friends. John Hackney, Conrad's first physician at the Pent, became vice president of the balneological section of the Royal Society of Medicine. Rayner Derry Batten, who attended the Conrads in London in 1904-5, would become a leading specialist in diseases of the eye and vice president of the Ophthalmological Society. Sir Robert Jones, who performed numerous surgeries on Jessie's knee, was the president of both British and international societies of orthopedic surgery and an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons. Distinguished as these friends and physicians were in their respective fields, they
did not address the full range of Conrad's medical needs, for each was trained in a medical era when British medicine assumed that most, if not all, forms of disease were caused by an underlying organic pathology. Like many other modern writers, Conrad suffered from a variety of vague nervous disorders that were viewed with great skepticism by the medical establishment in England in the 1890s and early twentieth century; as a result, he turned either to the odd English physician who recognized male neurasthenia or to European physicians who accepted the plausibility of functional nervous disorders--that is, nervous disorders with no apparent organic cause. It is for this reason, I think, that Conrad often chose to retire to the continent for travel and therapy.
Conrad received medical treatment in England from the European-trained physicians at the German Hospital in North London and care from Italian physicians on the Isle of Capri, but Conrad and his family were most intensely attended to by French physicians--Dr. Grasset and Dr. Paul Glatz--who were both students of the renowned Parisian psychologist, Jean Martin Charcot, an expert on hysteria. While the study of hysteria dates back to the Greco-Roman world, resurfaced during the Renaissance and again in the middle of the nineteenth century with the work of Pierre Briquet, hysteria studies were brought into medical prominence in the 1880s and 1890s by the flamboyant Charcot and his followers (Micale 41, 50, 88). Charcot's theories on hysteria and his treatment regime with hypnosis attained respectability due to his scientific methodology. Michael Micale surmises that "everything in Charcot's disease model had its place: a uniform etiology, a clear hierarchy of symptoms, and a paroxysm that followed a prescribed developmental sequence" (93). Charcot was also a captivating teacher and adept at staging astonishing clinical demonstrations, one of which was attended by George M. Robertson, a respected mental scientist in England and senior assistant physician of the Royal Edinburgh Asylum. In 1892, a skeptical Robertson visited the Salpetriere, one of the main insane asylums in Paris, and was captivated by Charcot. Robertson confesses that he began his visit
with feelings of great distrust and reluctance, as it was notorious that for years unprincipled persons had imposed on the public by pretending to all manner of occult powers as mesmerists. They had so offended by these means the feelings of right-minded people, and had produced such disgust of these phenomena, that many felt it was impossible to investigate hypnotism without contamination. ("Hypnotism" 494)
Robertson returned to England and published his "notes" on the visit in the prestigious Journal of Mental Science, which was edited by Dr. George Savage, the physician who repeatedly forced rest cures on Virginia Woolf and who misdiagnosed Thobie Stephens's fatal typhoid. Savage was no friend to either those afflicted with hysteria--whom he faulted with "the tendency to laziness, want of will, and getting into bad habits"--or to their physicians who treated the disorder with hypnotic suggestion (91). In fairness to Savage, he published George Robertson's prediction that hypnosis would prove "of the very utmost value" to experimental psychology ("Hypnotism" 530). In a subsequent companion article published the year of Charcot's death, Robertson conceded that hypnosis might generally be an effective therapeutic agent in cases of insomnia, an alternative to sedation of excitable patients, and means to "'Dispel Fleeting Delusional States and Minor Psychoses" ("Use" 11). Robertson also concluded that hypnosis was useful in overcoming a patient's "Morbid Resistence" to beneficial treatment and as a substitute for mechanical restraint ("Use" 11).
The legitimacy of Charcot's theories on hysteria and the use of hypnotism to treat hysteria did not long survive their master, who died in 1893. Charcot's brief legacy in the twentieth century was to reside in his students: four of his proteges would write the first histories of hysteria; and Sigmund Freud, who studied under Charcot at the Salpetriere, would quickly eclipse his teacher as the leading theorist on hysteria (Micale 33-36). But two other students of Charcot may interest Conradians, Paul Glatz and Joseph Grasset, two of Conrad's European physicians who attended Conrad and his family. Dr. Glatz treated Conrad in 1891, 1894, and 1895 at Bains de Champel where he was medical director. He apparently practiced some of Charcot's hydrotherapy techniques--what Conrad called the "active firehose" was also called "la douche de Charcot'--but it is unlikely that Conrad would have endured or witnessed hypnotism at Champel (CL 1:212). Notwithstanding his training by Charcot, Glatz was reticent about the efficacy of hypnotic suggestion in the psychological treatment of the neurotic and neurasthenic patients who dominated Champel. In his published work, Glatz admits that hypnotic suggestion can be effective in particular cases but these are very rare: "la suggestion hypnotique", he concludes, "reste bein en arriere des procedes classiques, et des methodes rationnelles et scientifiques de traitement" [hypnotic suggestion remains well behind the classical procedures, and the rational and scientific methods of treatment of the neurotic and nervous patient] (322).
Nor is it likely, when Professor Grasset was examining and treating Borys in 1907 at Montpellier, that Conrad and Grasset talked about hypnotism, the power of suggestion, or any of Grasset's occult interests. Conrad's letters of the time indicate that their conversations centered on their patient, Borys (CL 3:418). But Conrad's varied references to Grasset are telling and hint at what Conrad knew of the specialist treating Borys. To his friend John Galsworthy, as he describes the health of Borys, Conrad calls Grasset "a French celebrity," but a few days later, in a letter to J. B. Pinker, Conrad identifies him as "a distinguished professor" (CL 3:417, 420). The contextual reason for the shift is obvious, since his letter to Pinker makes the case that his agent should bankroll an extended stay on the continent for a course in hydrotherapy--for both Borys and his father--at the reputable, if modest, Champel. But what does Conrad's reference to Grasset not as "a celebrated professor" but as "a French celebrity" suggest? His fame is here disengaged from his academic or professional status and becomes a thing in itself. His celebrity status in French society probably extended from the fact that he was both a professor and an occultist (not one or the other). Conrad's various phrases thus imply that he knew of Grasset's longstanding reputation as a published expert on diseases of the nervous system, but also his recent, contemporary notoriety as a published authority on spiritualism, hypnotism, and paranormal psychology. (2) Since Conrad had been working in January 1907 at the Montpellier Town Library, reading about Napoleon on Elba for "The Duel," it is possible that Conrad was exposed to some of the Glasset's work there (CL 3:409). While Grasset's major work on the occult--L'Occultisme Hier et Aujourd'hui: Le Merveilleux prescientifique--would probably not have been in print at the time, an early version had been published in the November 1906 number of La Revue des Deux Mondes, a journal that Conrad once thought a possible outlet for French translations of his work, and to which he certainly had access in Montpellier if not in England. (3) So too, Grasset's work on Demifous et Demiresponsables, which touches upon some issues that may have interested Conrad, was published in Revue in February 1906, just at the time Conrad began drafting his story "Verloc" in Montpellier a year before he met Grasset. The question I wish to raise here is twofold: First, what ideas, theories, or phenomena in Grasset's work might have appealed to Conrad, if he had exposure to them? And second, are there revisions and additions made to the serialized version of The Secret Agent that show plausible traces of Grasset's occultist interests?
Earlier in his life and career, Conrad, like other moderns, was known to be interested in the intersection of the phenomenal and spiritual worlds, in the cutting edge of science and the marvellous. In a well-known 1898 letter to Edward Garnett, Conrad describes his fascination with the Rontgen or X-ray machine, a fascination Conrad scholars suggest was the impetus for the writing of The Inheritors (Watts 107-8; Jones 116). Visiting the "scientific swell," Dr. John McIntyre, in Glasgow, Conrad was seemingly excited by his experience of talking with McIntyre and others about "the secret of the universe and the nonexistence of, so called, matter. The secret of the universe is the existence of horizontal waves whose varied vibrations are at the bottom of all states of consciousness. If the waves were vertical the universe would be different. This is a truism" (CL 2:94-95). Conrad is here, I think, a bit skeptical. Though Conrad seems genuinely fascinated by the theories of waves, sensation, perception, and the physical universe, the fact that he ends his discourse on theoretical physics with the rhetorical question--"Is that so?"--and alludes to the quantity of whiskey consumed with the dinner further suggests Conrad's tongue-in-cheek ambivalence about such speculative matters where the spiritual and scientific intersect. It is this fascinated skepticism that Conrad would have brought to any reading of Grasset's or other occultists' work.
Grasset's published works of 1906-7 would, nonetheless, have interested Conrad, for reasons I will explain. Grasset's "Demifous et Demiresponsables" essentially classifies various permutations of people who were then labeled the borderland insane and the relation of such cases to their culture and to the social order (including the law). The relevance of these issues to the general psychological, political, and social themes of The Secret Agent hardly needs discussion. But one example of the various "clinical proof[s] of the existence" of the semi-insane is particularly telling and may help us understand the paradox of Stevie (Semi-Sane 79-179). One class of the borderland insane is what Grasset calls, in the 1907 English translation, the "Superior degenerate," who exhibits an unbalanced character of "contradictory qualities" (Semi-Sane 156). While sometimes showing precociousness, superior degenerates "At the time of puberty [...] often show passing attacks of excitement or depression with exaggeration of certain psychic or passional tendencies" (Semi-Sane 157). Stevie, of course, is highly sensitive and excitable but also mopes before the clock. He is the moral center of the novel but is blown to pieces by his own ineptitude. The life of such "demifous" (according to Emile Faguet's theories that Grasset summarizes in the early 1906 version) exhibits a "contradiction entre l'apparente richesse des moyens et la pauvrete des resultats. Ce sont des utopistes, de theoriciens, de reveurs, qui s'eprennent des plus belles choses et he font rein" ("Demi-fous" 914) ["contradiction between an apparent richness of means and poverty of results. They are the utopians, the theorists, and the dreamers who are taken up with beautiful ideas, but who never accomplish anything" (Semi-Sane 158)]. This description sheds light on Stevie and perhaps other "anarchists," who exhibit further traits of the superior degenerate:
These people are what the public would describe as "a little off" on some one subject; they either have some peculiar habit, or wear some odd style of clothes, or have a queer manner of wearing their hair, or of walking or writing or speaking [...] a form of speech, a tic, or a grimace. The eccentricity is often shown by an imperious or obsessional tendency which drives the subject along some intellectual or moral line of action to the total exclusion of any useful or practical occupation. (Semi-Sane 159)
Stevie's obsession with circles and the professor's search for the perfect detonator are the preoccupations of the superior degenerate: Stevie's drawings are a symbolic rendering of what the professor seeks--"cosmic chaos"--and Stevie himself becomes the perfect detonator. As I will argue later, the corruscating circles also suggest some sort of psychic emanation (Secret 40).
Grasset's L'Occultisme Hier et Aujourd'hui: Le Merveilleux prescientifique begins with a disclaimer of sorts; he is quick to discern the difference between occultism of the past, which he associates with mesmerism and spiritualism, and the occult, which he associates with the "marvelous": "Je limite l'occultisme a l'etude des phenomenes qui, 1[degrees] n'appartiennent pas encore a la science, 2[degrees] peuvent sans contradiction logique en faire partie plus tard (L'Occultisme 118) ["I limit occultism to the investigation of phenomena that, first, does not belong to science, second, that may without logical hindrance belong to it later on. In a word, it is the prescientific Wonders" (Marvels 28)]. (4) He thus happily admits that the world of the spiritualist, with its seances and mediums, is full of intentional and unintentional fraud. Conversely, in discussing the history of occultism, he not surprisingly uses the example of Charcot and hypnotism, suggesting that Charcot "entered into the investigation of hypnotism in a scientific way," thus "disocculting" the prescientific notion of "animal magnatism" and, in effect, legitimizing it (Marvels 58-60). In the later sections of L'Occultisme, which elaborates on the 1906 article in La Revue des Deux Mondes, Grasset focuses on the prescientific marvels of psychic radiations, telepathy, and materializations, phenomena that may have shaped the revisions of The Secret Agent.
Pinpointing the extent to which Grasset's work may have stimulated Conrad's imagination while he was writing and revising The Secret Agent is problematic for a number of reasons. First, it is unwise to speculate about much of the complex composition and revision process of the early chapters, since at least two intermediate typescripts that predate the Ridgway's publication are lost; second, for the serial version that began running in October 1906, Ridgway's editors altered the manuscript in ways that irritated Conrad, who called the magazine a "rag" (CL 3:369). Thus, some materials in the early chapters of the novel version may be either early passages restored by Conrad or may be new, expanded materials written for the novel version in the spring and early summer of 1907. Some of the most tantalizing, suggestive echoes of Grasset--if they are indeed echoes--were composed in this textual never-never land. One such passage, here quoted from the Ridgway's serial version, offers Verloc's reflections on science:
Of late the merest derivative even of the word science (a term in itself inoffensive and of indefinite meaning) had the curious power of evoking a definitely offensive mental vision of Mr. Vladimir, in his body as he lived, with an almost supernatural clearness. And this phenomenon, deserving justly to be classed amongst the miracles of science, induced in Mr. Verloc an emotional state of dread and exasperation. (5)
The discussion of science, the power of evocation, mental visions, and the supernatural all resonate with the introductory materials of Grasset's work. But the 1906 Revue article "Occultism" was presumably appearing at the same time as the Ridgway's serial, which began its run 6 October 1906. And the changes Conrad made to the Ridgway's version are mostly incidental: "Mr." in Ridgway's becomes "Mr" in the novel version; "the merest derivative even of the word" in Ridgway's is corrected in the novel version to read "even the merest derivative of the word." (6) But one change is significantly tantalizing: "miracles of science" becomes "marvels of science" in the novel version, a slight change that echoes both the first page of Grasset's 1906 article "Occultisme" and the title of his expanded 1907 book version (Secret 41).
What can be examined with more confidence are the later chapters that were much expanded in the spring of 1907, by almost half as much as the Ridgway's serialized version, as Harkness and Reid have shown (259). Of special interest are the murder scene and the events leading up to it, which occupy four columns (including advertisements for Goodyear Tires and The Peoples Savings Bank) in the Ridgway's version, but are expanded to eighteen pages in the current Cambridge edition. Conrad's state of mind as he approached the revision task is illuminating. Writing from Montpellier in 15 February 1907, Conrad informed Pinker that he would be posting him a finished copy of "A Duel" on 18 February and remarks "The prospect of revising the Secret Agent is not pleasant. It will have to be done however. [...] I reckon that working at the Secret Agent will take six weeks at least of my time" (CL 3:411). Eleven days later he again writes to Pinker, saying he is shortening The Duel for journal publication. Then he notes a review essay on his fiction in Le Mercure de France that refers to him as "un puissant visionnaire," as Conrad translates it "a powerful seer of visions" (CL 3:413). Conrad continues to Pinker, "This on the strength of Karain alone. A boon in France may have a good effect (by reverberation) at home" (CL 3:413n2, 413). Thus, Conrad approached the revision of The Secret Agent thinking of the career benefits, in France and in England, in being a "seer of visions." And meeting Dr. Grasset--the French celebrity, physician, and occultist--probably reinforced his interest in such visions.
The 1907 expansion of materials in chapter 11--beginning at the moment when Winnie Verloc and Mr. Verloc appear to "struggle for the possession of a chair'--reveals an interest in clairvoyance, foreseeing the future, in states of trance or hypnotic "somnambulism," in ghostly materializations, and telepathy (Secret 178). Mr. Verloc, for instance, envisions his future, should the bomb outrage fail, a vision that fictionally comes to pass and testifies to Verloc's "occult efficiency" (Secret 178). Verloc's occult powers are manifest more concretely in his conjuring the ghost of Mr. Vladimir as Verloc tries to make Winnie "see" how difficult his position was at the embassy: "a notion grows in the mind sometimes till it acquires an outward existence, an independent power of its own, and even a suggestive voice[.] He could not inform her that a man may be haunted by a fat, witty, clean-shaved face" (Secret 180; emphasis added). The narrator suggests that the threats of Vladimir are transformed by the psyche of Verloc into a being with an external existence and autonomous will.
For her part, Winnie hears but little of his self-aggrandizement and is absorbed in other visionary thoughts--absorbed at and by the kitchen table, the domestic locale most intimately associated with her dead brother: "Mrs Verloc was sitting in the place where poor Stevie usually established himself of an evening with paper and pencil for the pastime of drawing these coruscation of innumerable circles suggesting chaos and eternity. Her arms were folded on the table, and her head was lying on her arms" (Secret 179). Tongue in cheek, Conrad knows rapped or levitated deal tables are the stock-in-trade of the spiritualist, where many a ghost has been conjured. We are here, I think, in the presence of a domestic seance. In The Invention of Telepathy, Roger Luckhurst presents ample evidence of a "persistent association of occult and telepathic sensitivity with femininity" (214). The "quasi-maternal" Winnie thus becomes a medium, conjuring visions on the kitchen wall with a visual stare that is hypnotic, trancelike: "It was not a wild stare, and it was not inattentive, but its attention was peculiar and not satisfactory, inasmuch that it seemed concentrated upon some point beyond Mr Verloc's person. The impression was so strong that Mr Verloc glanced over his shoulder. There was nothing behind him: there was just the whitewashed wall" (Secret 181). As Verloc talks on, Winnie has a series of at least nine visions of Stevie, culminating in the dilation of her pupils, in a kind of trancelike state as she stares fixedly "at the vision of her husband and poor Stevie walking up Brett Street side by side away from the shop" (Secret 184). The final vision, the last time she has seen her beloved brother as he disappears, takes on material form, described in a present-tense clause to give it more immediacy:
And this last vision has such plastic relief, such nearness of form, such fidelity of suggestive detail, that it wrung from Mrs Verloc an anguished and faint murmur [...] "Might have been father and son." (Secret 184)
During her trancelike "visions," Winnie's face "preserved a statuesque immobility," the pupils of her eyes are "enlarged, [...] dilated," and her visual contacts with Verloc are described as "[h]er black glance," the "blackness of his wife's eyes," the "fixity of her black gaze" (Secret 185, 187-88, 189, 195). In her hypnotic state, she obeys the power of suggestion: when Verloc enjoins her to go upstairs for a rest, she "obeyed the suggestion with rigid steadiness," and even when she does not apparently hear him, she nonetheless "obey[s] the suggestion of the touch" (Secret 190, 192). And with Verloc's mention of Greenwich Park, the sounds in the room take on a preternatural aura:
The veiled sound filled the small room with its moderate volume. [...] The waves of air of the proper length, propagated in accordance with correct mathematical formulas, flowed around all the inanimate things in the room, lapped against Mrs Verloc's head as if it had been a head of stone. And incredible as it may appear, the eyes of Mrs Verloc seemed to grow still larger. (Secret 195)
This is the moment in the text when Stevie's soul will telepathically command, or even materialize and take over, the physical body of Winnie.
In the Ridgway's serial version, the events leading up to the fatal blow are described in rather clipped fashion: "Mr. Verloc, raising his eyelids languidly, saw his wife turning towards him a face with bared teeth and big inert eyes, a face resembling the face of his brother-in-law, but fascinating like the face of a gorgon." (7) The revised version, in one of Conrad's most memorable similes, is overtly occultist:
Mrs Verloc was coming. As if the homeless soul of Stevie had flown for shelter straight to the breast of his sister, guardian and protector, the resemblance of her face with that of her brother grew at every step, even to the droop of the lower lip, even to the slight divergence of the eyes. (Secret 197)
In occult parlance, Winnie becomes a hysterical medium who receives the thought transference of the dead Stevie. We must recall that Winnie began the scene at Stevie's place at the table where he drew his "innumerable circles, concentric, eccentric; a coruscating whirl of circles" (Secret 40). Stevie's circles are a linear representation of the kind of metaphor that occultists, like Grasset and others, use to describe "Psychical Radiations":
The psychical being is not confined within the limits of the body; it is capable of eccentric moving and being released. [...] The vibrations of thought may be diffused throughout space, such as light or sound, and impress another organism congenial to the experimentalist's organism. (Grasset, Marvels 220)
Congenial to Stevie's vibes, Winnie ends the scene enacting his revenge, sticking Verloc "like a pig" with the same carving knife that might earlier have been his instrument of violence against the German officer (Secret 50-51). When Winnie lets go of the knife, the transference is broken: "Mrs Verloc had let go the knife, and her extraordinary resemblance to her late brother had faded, had become very ordinary now" (Secret 197). The psychic energy subsides; the domestic seance is finished. So is Verloc.
In the years immediately following the publication of The Secret Agent, Conrad would continue to exploit the occult when he occasionally needed to turn a profit during the arduous composition of Under Western Eyes. The results were artistically uneven. In the winter of 1908, he briefly suspended his efforts on "Razumov" (the working title of Under Western Eyes) to pen "The Black Mate" for London Magazine. Conrad, having apparently written 3,500 words of the story in a twenty-four-hour period, enjoins Pinker not to let "them think its anything second hand--inferior stuff" (CL 4:26). And, within a month of completing the story, he planned to exclude it from his next volume of published stories, A Set of Six (CL 4:43). Whether or not the story was originally composed in 1886--his first efforts at fiction writing for a Tit-Bits competition--or whether it was written in 1908 at the suggestion of Jessie, (8) the story about a fraud who fakes a spiritualist event to keep his job seems a kind of professional apology or confession, or perhaps a performative authorial feat.
Conrad would again turn to spiritualist themes when he felt the need, as he admitted to Pinker, to "secure my 'keep'" (CL 4:298). He penned "The Secret Sharer," a story he estimated at 12,000 words in a period of only ten days in 1909, and in so doing he depended heavily on occultist formulae (CL 4:296). Leggatt's entrance is really a materialization, his "being appearing as if he had risen from the bottom of the sea," body part by body part: "a pair of feet, the long legs, a broad livid back immersed right up the neck in a greenish cadaverous glow. [...] He has complete but for the head" ("Secret" 98, 97). The verbal repetition of "ghastly" and "ghostly," and the inaugural description of the two as "double[s]" again emphasizes the supernatural ("Secret" 98, 101, 103). Anyone who might witness the captain and Leggatt "would think he was seeing double, or imagine himself come upon a scene of weird witchcraft; the strange captain having a quiet confabulation by the wheel with his own grey ghost" ("Secret" 103). The "phantasm" or "apparition" of the double may have been more to Conrad than a literary convention; it was an occult phenomenon and the subject of a chapter in Lombroso's After Death-What? (1909), a work Conrad may have read with disdain. One of the characteristic activities of the double in "The Secret Sharer" is a spiritualist phenomenon: uncanny forms of communication. When Leggatt and the captain first meet and have exchanged only a dozen sentences, the narrator remarks "A mysterious communication was established already between us two--in the face of that silent, darkened tropical sea" ("Secret" 99). In the remainder of the story, this mysterious communication becomes multifaceted: they anticipate each other's thoughts and speech--"'Fit of temper,' I suggested confidently"; they seem to exhibit foreknowledge of each other--"'And then you speaking to me so quietly--as if you expected me'"; they have attached mental visions--"I had become so connected in thoughts and impressions with the secret sharer of my cabin"; they often communicate silently--"he made a gesture--somewhat vague--a little mysterious, accompanied by a faint smile, as if of regret"; and they understand each other perfectly--"'but what's the use in telling you? You know!'" and "'The rest [...] I only hope I have understood, too.'" Leggatt responds "'You have. From first to last'" ("Secret" 101, 110, 119, 125, 124, 136). Although neither was ever to "hear each other's natural voice," they enjoy a supernatural communication akin to thought transference or telepathy ("Secret" 137). This is nowhere more apparent than when they read each other's minds as they take their leave:
'Take it,' I urged him, whispering desperately. 'No one can tell what--' He smiled and slapped meaningly the only pocket of the sleeping-jacket. It was not safe, certainly. But I produced a large old silk handkerchief of mine, and tying the three pieces of gold in a corner, pressed it on him. He was touched, I suppose, because he took it at last. [...] Our eyes met; several seconds elapsed, till, our glances still mingled, I extended my hand and turned the lamp out. [...] A sudden thought struck me. I saw myself wandering barefooted, bareheaded, the sun beating on my dark poll. I snatched off my floppy hat and tried hurriedly in the dark to ram it on my other self. He dodged and fended off silently. I wonder what he thought had come to me before he understood and suddenly desisted. Our hands met gropingly, lingered united in a steady, motionless clasp for a second. [...] No word was breathed by either of us when they separated. ("Secret" 137-38)
The perfect, silent communication with Leggatt will be replaced by "the perfect communion of a seaman with his first command" ("Secret" 143). The connection between the supernatural events of the tale and its narrator, who, like the Black mate, saves his career, creates an intriguing comparison between these oddly different stories. It has been noted by Conrad scholars such as Karl that "The Secret Sharer" may be an allegory of Conrad's estrangement from his collaborator, Ford Madox Ford, and that Leggatt's departure is a ritual severing of that relationship (683-85). If that is the case, then Conrad may have been using spiritualist materials in "The Secret Sharer" to write a commercially viable short story that would fill the financial void created by his estrangement from the editor of the English Review, which had become a literary cash cow for Conrad. No doubt the scorpion drowned in the ink well is somehow involved--is the tale a conscious or unconscious poison-pen letter?--as is the "L" shape of the Captain's cabin. It is not generally acknowledged by Conrad scholars that the editorial offices of the English Review were likewise a "long L-shaped room" (Goldring 16).
Conrad wrote "The Secret Sharer" as he was edging toward the completion in 1910 of Under Western Eyes, the novel he distinguishes as his "most deeply meditated novel" (CL 5:695). It is fair to assume, given the seriousness with which Conrad described this work, that while he might pander to the mass public with occultist formulae in his commercial short stories, he would not do so in this, his most serious fiction. Indeed, his unvarnished attitude toward the occult emerges in his depiction of two characters in the novel that Conrad seems to genuinely despise. As he admits in the author's note, "Peter Ivanovich and Madame de S. are fair game. They are the apes of a sinister jungle and are treated as their grimaces deserve" (Under ix). They are the exponents of mystical, revolutionary politics, and are consistently linked to the occult and the fraudulent world of the spiritualist. The history of Madame de S--is recounted by the Teacher of Languages, who reflects on her account of the assassination of Alexander II: "readers may remember a little book from her pen, published in Paris, a mystically bad-tempered, declamatory, and frightfully disconnected piece of writing, in which she all but admits the foreknowledge, more than hints at its supernatural origin, and plainly suggests in venomous innuendoes that the guilt of the act was not with the terrorists, but with a palace intrigue" (Under 163). Her life is characterized--"with its unofficial diplomacy, its intrigues, lawsuits, favours, disgrace, expulsions, its atmosphere of scandal, occultism, and charlatanism"--as "really dangerous" (Under 163). While it is perhaps risky to associate too closely the Teacher of Languages with Conrad himself, the rest of the novel seems to confirm clearly the author's hostility. Madame de S--is a genuine grotesque, with the "death-like immobility" of her face to the "white gleam of the big eyeballs setting off the black, fathomless stare of the enlarged pupils" (Under 214-15). She talks with a "rasping voice," extends a "claw-like hand" and devours cakes, "displaying her big false teeth ghoulishly" (Under 215, 217). She affirms, with her "death's-head smile," that "'In matters of politics I am a supernaturalist'" (Under 224, 222). Without the motive of appeal to a mass audience, Conrad here voices his real contempt for the occult, the world of the spiritualist, and the dangerous recklessness of the mystical revolutionary.
Madame de S--conjures in the mind that other "famous clairvoyante," Eliot's Madame Sosostris. And in some ways, Conrad was a bit like Eliot in this regard, who would use, with a straight poetic face, the allusion of the tarot pack in The Waste Land, but who would also ridicule Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyant, who has a bad cold. In 1906-7, Conrad saw a professional advantage in playing the role of the clairvoyant seer of visions--he rubbed shoulders with a celebrated occultist, who, by the power of suggestion, I suspect, shaped the motifs during the revisions of The Secret Agent. Conrad returned to issues of the occult in tales he wrote quickly, for a wide reading audience and for cash. No doubt he thought that such popular, if ridiculous ideas, might improve sales. Using occultism in his stinging condemnation of the politics of Madame de S--, Conrad reserves for Under Western Eyes the revelation of his true attitude toward spiritualist materials exploited in his earlier works. Nonetheless, this exploitation of, or perhaps flirtation with, occultism marks Conrad as an early modernist, whose search for meaning explores the interstices between science and the marvelous.
A version of this paper was presented in September 2004 at an international conference at Kamien Slaski, Poland, sponsored by the Joseph Conrad Society of Poland. The conference was themed "Joseph Conrad and Europe."
Carabine, Keith. "'The Black Mate': June-July 1886; January 1908." The Conradian 13 (1988): 128-48.
Chapman, Chris. "Across the Atlantic: Impressions of England, Ireland, and Anne Yeats." The South Carolina Review (1999): 202-211.
Conrad, Joseph. "The Black Mate." Tales of Hearsay. New York: Doubleday, Page, 1925.85-120.
--. Collected Letters. Ed. Laurence Davies et al. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983-. Cited as CL.
--. Notes on Lift" and Letters. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
--. A Personal Record. Vol. 6. Complete Works of Joseph Conrad. 24 vols. New York: Doubleday, Page, 1924.
--. The Secret Agent. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
--. "The Secret Agent." Ridgway's: A Militant Weekly for God and Country (6 October 1906, 12-15, 63; 13 October 1906, 49-52; 20 October 1906, 15-18, 63-64; 27 October 1906, 48-52, 63-64; 3 November 1906, 21-24, 61; 10 November 1906, 21-24, 61; 17 November 1906, 49-52, 61-64; 24 November 1906, 42M8; 1 December 1906, 41-47; 8 December 1906, 41-46; 15 December 1906, 41-47). [This list quoted in Secret 249n28.]
--. "The Secret Sharer." "Twixt Land and Sea. Vol. 19. Complete Works of Joseph Conrad. 24 vols. New York: Doubleday, Page, 1924.91-143.
Glatz, Paul. Dyspepsies Nerveuses et Neurasthenie. Bale and Geneve: Georg, 1898.
Goldring, Douglas. South Lodge: Reminiscences of Violet Hunt, Ford Madox Ford and the English Review Circle. London: Constable, 1943.
Grasset, Joseph. "Demi-fous et Demi-Responsbales." La Revue des Deux Mondes (February 1906): 887-921.
--. L'hypnotisme et la suggestion. Paris: Doin, 1903.
--. The Marvels Beyond Science. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1910.
--. "L'Occultisme." La Revue des Deux Mondes (November 1906): 115-52.
--. L'Occultisme Aujourd'hui: Le Merveilleux prescientifique. Montpellier: Coulet, 1907.
--. The Semi-Sane and the Semi-Responsible. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1907.
--. Le spiritualisme devan t la science Montpellier: Coulet, 1904.
--, with Georges Rauzier. Traite pratiques de maladies du systeme nerveux. 2 vols. Montpellier: C. Coulet, 1894.
Harkness, Bruce, and S. W. Reid, eds. "The Texts: An Essay." The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990: 235-327.
Jones, Susan. "Creatures of Our Light Literature: The Problem of Genre in The Inheritors and Marie Corelli's A Romance of Two Worlds." Conradiana 34.1-2 (2002): 107-21.
Karl, Frederick. Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1979.
Lombroso, Cesare. After Death-What? Researches into Hypnotic and Spiritualistic Phenomena. Trans. William Sloane Kennedy. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1909.
Luckhurst, Roger. The Invention of Telepathy: 1870-1901. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Micale, Michael. Approaching Histeria: Disease and Its Interpretations. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.
Najder, Zladislaw. Joseph Conrad: A Chronology. New Brunswick, NY: Rutgers University Press, 1984.
Robertson, George. "Hypnotism at Paris and Nancy. Notes on a Visit." Journal of Mental Science 38 (1892): 494-531.
--. "The Use of Hypnotism among the Insane." Journal of Mental Science 39 (1893): 1-12.
Savage, George, with Edwin Goodall. Insanity and Allied Neuroses. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1910.
Watts, C. T, ed. Joseph Conrad's Letters to R. B. Cunningham Graham. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1969.
(1.) Perhaps Conrad read Lombroso's After Death-What? Researches into Hypnotic and Spiritualistic Phenomena, which details the unwitting Lombroso's experiments with Eusapia Paladino. Some the occult events were later revealed by one of Lombroso's colleagues to be a set-up.
(2.) Joseph Grasset, Maladies du systeme nerveux (1878). Grasset's work was republished in a fourth edition with Georges Rauzier as Traite pratiques de maladies du systeme nerveux (1894). His occultist work included L'hypnotisme et la suggestion (1903) and Le spiritualisme devant la science (1904).
(3.) Grasset's author's preface to his work is dated 25 March 1907. Unless Grasset pre-dated the preface to reflect a projected publication date of his work, Conrad may well have departed from Montpellier for Champel before the book appeared. (The Conrads left Montpellier for Geneva 15 May 1907, almost two months after Grasset apparently penned the preface [CL 3:xxi].) Whenever possible, I will quote evidence from the 1906 Revue articles and follow it with my own or the 1907 and 1910 published English translations. Conrad had hoped to publish Marguerite Poradowska's translation of "An Outpost of Progress" in La Revue des Deux Mondes, a journal that published her own fiction.
(4.) Grasset apparently adds the last sentence when he expands the 1906 article into book form in 1910.
(5.) 27 October 1906: 48.
(6.) These changes appear in Ridgway's, 27 October 1906, p. 48; the small change of dropping the period from Mr. may well have been a compositor's change.
(7.) 15 December 1906: 44.
(8.) For a discussion of this issue, see Karl, 234-36; Najder, 338-39; Davies (CL 4:26, n2); and Carabine 128M8.
UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA DULUTH
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|Title Annotation:||Joseph Conrad, Joseph Grasset|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2007|
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