The centathlete’s temperament is not so serious and his attention span not so vast. He’s content to buzz and flit from sill to counter, from crumb to pane. Hopefully this stop on the centathlon will only appear haphazard, as a fly’s life-journey does to an irritated occupant of a one-bedroom apartment but not to itself.
In The Secret Agent TV lovers might be surprised to find an autopsy critical to a police investigation’s advancement. The book anticipates the “CSI effect” by revealing clues on a corpse almost too quickly and easily.
Punk-rock moshers might be surprised to read about their anarchistic forebears. There are different types of anarchists and subversives in this book; Conrad’s blending of labels serves his own artistic ends rather than political accuracy. The most formidable is The Professor, described as “the perfect anarchist” and “the perfect detonator,” who disparages the goals and commitment of his anti-establishment comrades by equating them with the society they attack:
“The terrorist and the policeman both come from the same basket. Revolution, legality—counter moves in the same game, forms of idleness at bottom identical…I’ve got the grit to work alone, quite alone, absolutely alone.”The centathlete thinks of another lone wolf, a more recent, now elder “anarchist,” John Lydon, a.k.a. Johnny Rotten of The Sex Pistols. He refuses to be lumped into a political movement and to this day insists on being “an original”:
“Well, it's like this: Look, a true Anarchist doesn't need a uniform. In fact, a uniform would be a contradiction. And a lot of people who think of themselves as being Anarchistic are really anachronistic. Because they're still wearing the punk cliché outfit. Times move on. Situations change. And you've always got to keep ahead of the herd.”In dramatizing terrorism and its consequences, Conrad was certainly ahead of the herd. The Secret Agent meditates on the necessary symbolism of terrorists’ targets, in this case the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, location of the Prime Meridian and the acknowledged center of measured time. An actual failed bombing of the building in 1894 may have inspired this fictitious account.
The centathlete recalls a concert by Billy Bragg in 2000 in Battery Park, Manhattan’s “prow.” During one of his habitual, verbose monologues between songs, the singer-activist looked up at The World Trade Center and remarked wryly about playing in the shadows of Global Corporate-Capitalism (his exact words have been forgotten.) The next year the towers were attacked for their symbolism. There is an enormous gap between calling attention to the publicly acknowledged import of a building and attacking it with the intention to perpetrate mass murder—and this distinction is played out and argued on several levels on several occasions in The Secret Agent. After that concert, standing next to his tour bus, Bragg chatted with fans, took out his wallet, and proudly displayed photos of his family. A genuine man of the people…
Conrad’s anarchists and terrorists despise the people. They uphold destruction as a moral force. The Professor says, “First the great multitude of the weak must go, then the only relatively strong.” This statement exemplifies Martin Seymour-Smith’s argument that:
“The Professor's Nietzscheanism, if it is that—and there is every reason to suppose that to many of Conrad's readers in 1907 it was—is perverse, a distortion of Nietzsche's writings about the 'master and the slave morality'; but Conrad employs it as an evidently sincere, if terrible, example of extremism.”In another introduction to The Secret Agent, Frederick Karl points out the philosophical differences between Conrad, who had, “a distaste for radical political action and [a] recognition that politics, whatever else it does, ravages,” and Friedrich Nietzsche, who advocated a radical revision of morality and society (among many other things, with a breadth and complexity beyond the centathlete’s faculty) which had made modern man weak:
“Instead of man creating his own valuations of "good" and "evil," the "herd" gives them to him, denying man of his individuality. Therefore, man becomes a function of the herd.’”There’s that “herd” mentality John Lydon so despises.
Nietzsche (boy, it stinks typing that name) was famous and infamous for his concept of the Übermensch, or “Overman.” American comic books have thrust this ideal into our current mythology through superheroes like Batman. In reexamining 2005’s Batman Begins, the centathlete finds many echoes of Nietzsche—and Conrad.
The flick’s arch villain, Ra’s al Ghul, mentors Bruce Wayne with Nietzschean exhortations such as:
“You must have the will to act.”Director Christopher Nolan (a fan of Nietzsche?) and screenwriter David Goyer have, as Seymour-Smith said of Conrad, reduced and distorted the philosophy for artistic purposes. Nolan himself said about Ghul:
“You fear your own power. You fear your anger, the drive to do great or terrible things.”
“Well, in the comic books, Ra's al Ghul is often described as a terrorist. I would put him down as an extremist. What was important to me in creating an incredible frightening villain is that everything he says is true and at some level reasonable that also makes sense. The extremes to which he is prepared to go; to achieve what he believes is very threatening and very frightening.”What Ghul and The League of Shadows believe is that modern life, as demonstrated in Gotham City, is corrupt and worthless, as he says, “…only a cynical man would call what these people have, lives… Crime, despair—this is not how man was supposed to live.” This assessment is comparable to Conrad’s bleak portrayal of London, as well as The Professor’s view that, “The world is limp, mediocre, without force.”
In The Antichrist (Johnny Rotten “rhymed” antichrist with anarchist), Nietzsche elaborated on his indictment of modernity:
“…I understand rottenness in the sense of decadence: my argument is that all the values on which mankind now fixes its highest aspirations are decadence-values.”In parallel, Ghul explains his reason for destroying Gotham City, “Every time a civilization reaches its pinnacle of decadence, we return to restore the balance.” Balance (ex. Between the Apollonian and Dionysian) is another Nietzschean concept, visible here in, again, reduced, perverted form.
As Ghul believes that his army of the few, the truly strong, must inflict itself on the world out of duty, “Nietzsche believed himself the only person of the new nobility in the age of decadence,” according to John Muraski Jr.
Ghul schemes to end decadence by unleashing hysteria-causing neurotoxin and make the world, “…watch Gotham tear itself apart through fear.” He also says, “When a forest grows too wild, a purging fire is inevitable and natural.” His evil plan recalls the ultimate depiction of The Professor as, “… terrible in the simplicity of his idea calling madness and despair to the regeneration of the world.”
In The Secret Agent and Batman Begins, one distortedly Nietzschean anarchist belongs to London; the other to Gotham City. Inspector Heat combats The Professor while tolerating his freedom, within limits. Batman combats Ghul while sharing his drive for extremely delivered justice. Conrad’s ironic view of the symbiosis between such opposing forces still packs a punch.
In both works the conflict between “revolution” and “legality,” between “terrorist” and “policeman,” are contained in one city in the Western World. Today, the conflict is not so culturally contained, though Hollywood is reluctant to express this reality, as articulated by Bridget Johnson of The Wall Street Journal. The artificiality, the non-reality of comic books will prove ever fertile ground for Really Bad Guys in the movies.
In confronting his own adopted city and culture, Conrad was prophetic in many respects. The Professor may not resemble a jihadist but he does resemble (and may even have influenced) the Unabomber.
The Secret Agent actually condemns terrorism. The characters of Winnie Verloc and Inspector Heat attempt to battle enveloping destructive forces, the way Batman fights corruption, crime by crime. How Conrad would have dramatized this subject in this millennium we’ll never know, but we can guess he would have been solemn about it.
Having flown as a bat, the centathlete metamorphoses back into a fly and thinks of a bovine herd beset by winged pests. In the pasture most flies are tolerated; some are tail-swatted. Buzzzzz.
Centathlon vs. Centathlon
# 64 The Catcher in the Rye