Dostoevsky’s nihilists are thus a motley bunch: fools manipulated by a psychopath for his own grisly and fantastic ends, misguided souls who might have done good in this world were it not for their seduction by revolutionary thought. They’re all pitiful – all except Pyotor Verkovhensky who remains a blank in personality terms till the end, bringing to mind the voice of the possessed child in William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist: ‘I am no one… I am no one!’
Dostoevsky is not an apologist for his society, the Tsarist Russia of the late nineteenth century, and he makes no claims for its perfection. His concern in Demons is only with the type of people who seek to undermine the stability of the nation state through bloodshed. He is clearly not impressed.
This sentiment is echoed by Conrad in The Secret Agent, set some thirty years after the period described in Demons, in London at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. If anything, Conrad’s anarchists are even less impressive than Dostoevsky’s nihilists. There is Karl Yundt, a self-proclaimed terrorist, in reality a decrepit old man in declining health. There is Michaelis, the ‘ticket-of-leave apostle’, released from prison after his part in a jailbreak that left a policeman dead. We are told that he has ‘lost the power of consecutive thinking’ while in prison and is now grossly overweight. There is Comrade Ossipon, the medical school dropout who, in the denouement of the story, reveals himself to be nothing more than a coward and a cad. (Some comrade!)
The only dangerous member of the anarchists is the Professor, a demented loner whose main aim in life is the development of ‘the perfect detonator’. Devoid of emotional attachments and inured to poverty and solitude, he is absolutely committed to his dreams of destruction. Conrad portrays him as a man aggrieved at a society that has failed to recognize his gifts, an injured ego seeking compensation through his role outside regular life.
‘By exercising his agency with ruthless defiance he procured for himself the appearances of power and personal prestige. That was undeniable to his vengeful bitterness. It pacified its unrest; and in their own way the most ardent of revolutionaries are perhaps doing no more than seeking for peace in common with the rest of mankind – the peace of soothed vanity, of satisfied appetites… Lost in the crowd, miserable and undersized, he meditated confidently on his power…’ (p.74, Vintage Classics)
It is the Professor who supplies the material for the central action in the story, the explosion at Greenwich Observatory. It turns out to be a botched job by the secret agent of the novel’s title (a waste of space called Mr Verloc), and sets in train a series of tragic events. These tragic events mostly concern people who have nothing to do with anarchism – or with any other brand of politics, for that matter.
Like Dostoevsky, Conrad emphasizes the human dimension over the political. The Secret Agent is essentially a domestic drama about Mr Verloc, his wife Winnie and her intellectually disabled brother Stevie, and what happens to them when Mr Verloc is ordered by a foreign embassy official to carry out an act of terrorism. For years, he has been in the pay of this unnamed central European embassy; a regime change means that reports on his anarchist contacts will no longer suffice: he must now do something concrete to justify his role of agent provocateur. What he must do is blow up Greenwich Observatory.
Unlike the Professor from whom he obtains the explosive device, Mr Verloc has no aspirations to being any sort of man of action.
‘Born of industrious parents, he had embraced indolence from an impulse as profound, as inexplicable and as imperious as the impulse which directs a man’s preference for one particular woman in a given thousand. He was too lazy even for a mere demagogue… It was too much trouble.’ (P.10, ibid.)
He doesn’t appear to have much aptitude for the task in hand either, as he enlists his brother-in-law Stevie as his hapless accomplice. How intelligent and courageous: giving a bomb to a young man with a learning disability. Unsurprisingly, poor Stevie trips and blows himself up in Greenwich Park before he gets anywhere near the observatory.
From there, the sorry saga plays itself out: the rage of Winnie against her husband, avenging her brother’s death with a carving knife; Winnie’s escape with her husband’s money and her enlisting the aid of Comrade Ossipon; Ossipon’s betrayal of Winnie and theft of her cash; finally Winnie’s suicide.
Conrad paints a thoroughly convincing picture of the ordinary, non-political characters in his story. They are real people with real lives, with a heartfelt bond to one another. No reader could fail to sympathize with them. Winnie and her brother (and their mother, too) have known so much hardship and pain in their lives. All they want is security, yet even this most basic desire is denied them thanks to Mr Verloc’s involvement in international espionage. And that perhaps is Conrad’s point: it’s ordinary people who have their lives ruined by subversive activity; governments and state machinery roll on regardless.
At the end of The Secret Agent, Comrade Ossipon is in despair at his dastardly conduct, intent on drinking himself into the gutter. The Professor alone remains free from any qualms of conscience. In the Christopher Hampton’s 1996 film version of the novel, Robin Williams stars as the little man on the quest of the perfect detonator. Reinterpreting the books’ final paragraph, Robin Williams’ character exits the beer cellar, smiles the grimmest of grim smiles and squeezes the trigger for the explosives in his coat pocket – thereby becoming the world’s first suicide bomber.
‘He had no future. He disdained it. He was a force. His thoughts caressed the images of ruin and destruction. He walked frail, insignificant, shabby, miserable – and terrible in the simplicity of his idea, calling madness and despair to the regeneration of the world. Nobody looked at him. He passed on unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in the street full of men.’ (P.283, ibid.)