- “The Commerce of Shady Wares”: Politics and Pornography in Conrad’s The Secret Agent
I. Revolutionary Politics as Pornography in 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 [End Page 443] 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...