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  • Face Values:Optics as Ethics in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent
  • Rochelle L. Rives (bio)

In a sense the face is equipped to lie the most and leak the most, and thus can be a very confusing source of information during deception.

—Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen, “Nonverbal Leakage and Clues to Deception” (1969)1

He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his finger-tips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore. And thus the task of making conscious the most hidden recesses of the mind is one which it is quite possible to accomplish.

—Sigmund Freud, Dora: An Analysis of a case of Hysteria (1905)2

“What are you making that face for? You see, you can’t even bear the mention of something conclusive?” “I am not making a face.”

—Joseph Conrad, The secret Agent (1907)3

For Freud, secrets are destined to leak, if not from mismanaged bodily conduct, then from inevitable slips of the tongue. Prior to this conception of unintentional self-disclosure, Charles Darwin, writing in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), identified the face as the primary vehicle of self-expression, both intentional and otherwise, arguing that our faces, while responsive to our control, inevitably betray our [End Page 89] wills.4 Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen, drawing from this physiognomic tradition, termed such unguarded disclosures “micro leakage[s],” clues that thwart the liar’s attempt to “perpetuate deception through his face.”5 Admittedly, Ekman and Friesen are writing here about telling lies, and Freud is writing about keeping secrets, two acts that carry ostensibly different moral valences, since lying is almost always unethical, and secret keeping is more ambiguous. Despite this difference, both theories of leakage posit an observer who reads these bodily and facial surfaces as a means of “making conscious” the subject’s interior.

This confidence in the ability to determine the meaning or intent behind presumably unintentional acts of disclosure stands in contrast to the third epigraph, taken from Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel, The Secret Agent. In a scene that foregrounds the thematic importance of legibility in the novel, along with the epistemological uncertainty of the face, Comrade Ossipon, a member of a secret anarchist cell, meets with the explosive-wielding anarchist known only as the Professor. The former hopes to “know the inside of this confounded affair,” a bombing in Greenwich Park, in which a man has died (SA, 52). The Professor chastises Ossipon for believing that any such knowledge could be a “matter of inquiry” to others, and this profound skepticism regarding the ability to “know” continues into the conversation when he accuses Ossipon of “making a face” (SA, 53, 58). Ossipon misunderstands the charge, contradictorily suggesting that he can intentionally control his face because his face is not something he is intentionally making. Suggesting that there is something to know about his face, he subscribes to physiognomic logic, defensively declaring that he has nothing to hide.

Ironically, the very notion of concealment runs counter to the Professor’s entire philosophy; the distinction on which concealment turns—between intention and action, the interior and its expression—is, according to the Professor, characteristic of “conventional morality,” which “governs your thought, and your action too, and thus neither your thought or action can ever be conclusive” (SA, 59). According to this logic, a face does not offer its reader an inside to be known. It thus cannot function (as conventional morality and physiognomic logic would have it) as a potential arbiter of trust, transparency, and mutual accountability or, alternatively, as a mask or tool of concealment. Having a face does not give one an interior, a psychology, or depth capable of being explained, read, discussed, analyzed, or even hidden. Rather than corroborating the Professor’s moral nihilism, this failure of the face to mean in the novel, as I suggest here, is the source of its ethical potential. In refusing to locate being behind (or in) a face, The Secret Agent examines the possibilities for ethics within a modernist [End Page 90...


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pp. 89-117
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