- Conrad’s Secrets by Robert Hampson
“mentre nel suo segreto il cor piagato”
On September 16, 2001, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney spoke on the NBC television program Meet the Press:
we also have to work, though, [sic] sort of the dark side, if you will. we’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we’re going to be successful. That’s the world these folks operate in, and so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective [ . . . ]. It is a mean, nasty, dangerous dirty business out there, and we have to operate in that arena. I’m convinced we can do it; we can do it successfully. But we need to make certain that we have not tied the hands, if you will, of our intelligence communities in terms of accomplishing their mission.(Cheney)
This is a style of discourse which might have appeared almost verbatim in the mouth of the governmental authority in Conrad’s The Secret Agent, or one of his [End Page 218] colonial administrators in the Malay region or Africa. Robert Hampson modestly suggests that Conrad’s Secrets is mostly meant to fill in some of our readerly gaps by publicizing the local and particular knowledge with which Conrad’s first audiences would have read but to which we have lost ready access (25). However, in writing from one era of secrets back to another a century ago, Hampson uncovers an uncomfortable number of contemporary correspondences, from an illegal trade in enslaved persons and arms (Chapter 1), to the policing of terrorism and heightened political surveillance “on a regular and permanent basis” in cities (Chapter 3), cover-ups of military misdeeds (Chapter 7), corporate and governmental non-disclosure agreements (Chapter 2), and creative financial products producing “the spectre of an empire founded on debt” (127). Some of the windfallen fruits of Hampson’s carefully-argued study are its many reverberations within our contemporary moment, which has become a plenum of dark activities, governmental and organizational secrets, and violated personal privacies: warrantless communications surveillance, mysteriously compiled no-fly and no-visa lists, corporate customer data mining and archiving, and so on. In the process, Hampson develops a large poetics of secrecy and detection which compels attention to historicism, formal narratology and cultural studies together, while he revises critical perceptions of Conrad’s role in augmenting modernism’s imagined geographies.
Though one gratefully expects from a Conrad scholar of Hampson’s international stature an encyclopedic knowledge of primary texts and prior scholarship, it was also startling to find an utterly fresh bravura turn that so deeply rethinks well-known texts. Hampson’s close readings of Marlow’s deflections from public to private lies and silences in “Heart of Darkness” are ably connected to non-disclosure agreements that bound Conrad himself when dealing with the Belgian Congo. These shed a new light on Conrad’s textual treatment of conditions there and draw geopolitical implications about Leopold, the capitalist king, succeeding “in a re-invention of monarchy for an age of ‘modern trust capitalism’” (58). Hampson finds the original of the The Secret Agent’s Assistant Commissioner in a former agent for Dublin Castle, called to London to manage a system of informers and police surveillance with an aim to suppress activities promoting Irish Home Rule. Hampson also shows how a hysterical journalistic “‘anti-alienist’ campaign” achieved legislation restricting immigration and constrained the radicalization of the working class: “Tit Bits (March 1894), for example, reported that ‘anarchists had already begun to use typhus and yellow fever bacilli as alternative weapons’” (99–100). One notes unhappy present-day echoes in contemporary reported speculations that [End Page 219] terrorists might self-infect or infect dupes with the ebola virus and have them cross into the U.S. (Rosch).