- A Rage for Order:Fetishism, Self-Betrayal, and Exploitation in The Secret Agent
Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon The maker's rage to order words of the sea Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred, And of ourselves and our origins, In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.—"Wallace Stevens, "The Idea of Order at Key West"
Discussing the ideological contradictions at play in The Secret Agent in terms of the novel's "metaphysical materialism," Terry Eagleton identifies its central dimension as a product of a "radical conservative sub-ensemble" distinguished by "radical skepticism about progress, change, causality and temporality" (23-32). For Eagleton, the novel's naturalist form, while endorsing the normative assumptions of the bourgeois world by conflating time and space into an eternal present, simultaneously, through the violent change, motion, and spiritual vision represented by Winnie, Verloc, and Stevie respectively, attempts to present an alternative set of humane values distinct from bourgeois ones. Although Eagleton doesn't explore it in great depth, the textual process that he describes has a clear parallel in the social and economic mechanisms that Karl Marx identifies in his theory of commodity fetishism. Even as the text works to expose the historical foundations of the subordination of human life to the imperatives of the commodity system, its metaphysical materialism presents the belief in social progress as an illusion shared by the bourgeoisie and revolutionists alike. The destructive effects of the system of commodity fetishism appear both in the novel's characterization of capitalist society as well as the psychological impoverishment of its central characters. Understood as an attempt to come to terms with the forms of social and economic domination produced by the fetishizing of social relations, the [End Page 1] overwhelming concern of the novel proves to be the status of value, or, more to the point, the moral value of bourgeois values. The social and economic contradictions that constitute the novel's central problem, that is to say, the contradiction between the moral and psychological needs of human beings and a social order that negates them, take up an invisible, haunting presence in the text, a secret agency, or, to use one of Louis Althusser's terms, "an inner darkness of exclusion, inside the visible itself [and] defined by its structure" (26). The ethical questions that remain unseen and barely articulated point not outside the text, nor outside the historical processes it depicts, but within them to those contradictions that remain unresolved despite the novel's attempted ideological solutions.
As Eagleton notes, the site of these contradictions is located in the activity of its three principal characters, Winnie, Verloc, and Stevie. Each are driven by basic needs, motives, or desires which, when they seek to articulate them, result in tragic consequences linked to social and economic circumstances. Indeed, their blindness to the true nature of these circumstances impart to their actions a shared characteristic of unwitting self-betrayal. The very social structures through which they seek to realize their needs are shown to militate against their psychological and moral well-being. Acts of betrayal and self-betrayal are represented in an intricate relationship to the social and economic forces that inform them. To the extent that it explores the hidden mechanisms that inform commercial exchange, The Secret Agent can be best understood in relation to one of Conrad's sea stories ostensibly confined to internal psychological realities but actually concerned with the sharpening social and economic contradictions endemic to late imperial British culture that have fractured the domestic sphere and called into question its ideals of order and respectability, that is to say, "Falk." Just as in "Falk," the metaphor of eating, devouring, and incorporation haunts almost every page of The Secret Agent, revealing the novel's underlying impulse to unmask a destructive social agency operating beyond appearances.
As I have argued elsewhere, "Falk" exposes the fetishizing impulse endemic to capitalism by calling attention to its dominant tendency to naturalize the forces of circulation and exchange that underwrite commerce in a way that universalizes them and inflates contingent historical processes into the expression of cosmic principles (177-93). In like manner, the narrative of The Secret Agent...