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Economies of the gaze in The Secret Agent

From: Conradiana
Volume 42, Number 3, Fall 2010
pp. 1-16 | 10.1353/cnd.2010.0017

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One of the most interesting contradictions in The Secret Agent is that it should revolve around a female character, and that it should be dedicated "not so much as to her psychology as to her humanity" ("Author's" xiii, emphasis added). In his essay on "Reflexivity and the thrust of the feminine," Claude Maisonnat has outlined the affinities between anarchy, the feminine and the position of an artist who often compared writing with struggling against the paralyzing forces of chaos. My argument here will be twofold: a) if Conrad did not mean to deal with anarchist ideas, he was certainly concerned with the energy of anarchism rooted in the culture of death; b) the notion of the gaze is essential to grasp how the general paralysis which is truly the symptom of this novel, is transformed into a creative energy called the sinthom, a linguistic-textual formation which Jacques Lacan named after his reading of James Joyce. The sinthom as it were recuperates the energy, without the destructiveness: its resonances are not deadly, but by a kind of transfer, they awaken us "to some elementary matrix [. . .] of excessive enjoyment"—definitely on the side of the feminine (Žižek, Enjoy 199, emphasis added). Slavoj Žižek takes the example of Sergei Eisenstein's films which produce in the surrounding air "an intermediate spectral domain, a 'spir it ual corporeality' radiating jouissance, enjoy-meant" (199): this reference to the visual arts may be helpful in the case of Conrad's poetics focused on the desire to make us see, through the power of the written word.

Hugh Epstein has recently drawn a significant set of analogies between Conrad's London in The Secret Agent, a city "slumbering monstrously on a carpet of mud under a veil of raw mist," the "cruel devourer of the world's light," and a series of London paintings by John Virtue (Secret 224; "Author's" xiii; Epstein 117). Such late Victorian/ early modernist works do not offer well-built perspectives around one or more vanishing points. Rather, they try to invent new forms able both to materialize and keep at bay the dark amorphous substance of the real beneath reality—often by means of the materiality of paint. Another example which comes to mind is James A. M. Whistler's Nocturne in Black: the Falling Rocket which takes the color black as its primordial element where blobs of light and color create a sort of jerky rhythm: as your eye grows accustomed to the dissolving darkness, it begins to discern the spectral lines of the Houses of Parliament, then a female figure strolling on the edge of the water, watching the dying fall of a fireworks— which is not without relevance to the pyrotechnics of Conrad's novel.

From Evanescent Punctum to Reified Gaze

Let us begin with a reference to another famous painting, Hans Holbein's Ambassadors, a Vanity built upon the technique of anamorphosis. The picture of knowledge and power represented by the scientific instruments and the ambassadors who look at you with an eye of mutual understanding, gravitates around a shapeless spot in the forefront: a kind of cuttlefish bone which, if you look awry, turns out to be a skull whose hollow gaze also seems to look at you—but without seeing you: this "traumatic disharmonious blot" is a perfect example of the Lacanian object gaze, the "vanishing point" whose subtraction from the image is necessary for the field of symbolic reality with its human relations to be constructed (Žižek, "Hear" 91). Thus the gaze, distinct from the viewing subject, is an object, something that cannot itself be present, although the whole notion of presence is constituted around and can be established only by its elision. It is both within and without, the picture's extimate point contained—localized, and tamed—by the painter's art, and the point of contact where reality as it were passes over into the unseen: a blind spot and a soft spot pointing to a universal truth which we had rather forget—like death, our ultimate Other. In photography, Roland Barthes gave this little surplus the name of punctum, an insignificant detail sticking out of the...

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