May 9, 2002


A target for destructive ferocity : Joseph Conrad's world, where terrorists plotted to blow up the Royal Observatory, speaks to our own. Look no further for a great contemporary novelist (John Gray, 29th April 2002, New Statesman)
"The sacrosanct fetish of today is science." Mr Vladimir, first secretary at the Russian embassy in Joseph Conrad's novel The Secret Agent, believes
that if terrorism is to be truly effective, it must be directed against the spirit of the age. In order to have any real impact, a bomb outrage must be purely destructive--an attack on society's most deeply cherished beliefs. Believing it to be "in some mysterious way at the source of their material prosperity", both bourgeois public opinion and society's most radical critics regard science with deep reverence. Accordingly, Mr Vladimir instructs his agent provocateur, Adolf Verloc, to blow up the Royal Observatory at Greenwich: "Go for the first meridian. You don't know the middle classes as well as I do. Their sensibilities are jaded. The first meridian. Nothing better, and nothing easier, I should think." Attacking a building dedicated to the science of astronomy would be "an act of destructive ferocity so absurd as to be incomprehensible, inexplicable, almost unthinkable", but it would be effective for that very reason: "Madness alone is truly terrifying, inasmuch as you cannot placate it either by threats, persuasion or bribes."

In The Secret Agent, Conrad makes use of an actual terrorist attempt on the Royal Observatory in 1894, when a French anarchist accidentally blew himself up in Greenwich Park before reaching his target. At the start of the 21st century, science remains a sacrosanct fetish. We believe the internet is the source of our prosperity, linking up economic life everywhere in a network of beneficial exchange. At the same time, in a development that attests to the power of Conrad's darkly ironic vision, the symbols of trade and new technology have come under terrorist attack. On 11 September 2001, the suicide-warriors of al-Qaeda carried off a terrifying assault on the spirit of the age of precisely the kind that Mr Vladimir recommended.

Extending the metaphor, to the degree that Islamic fundamentalism has adopted the philosophy of Mr. Vladimir it seems likely to provoke the West into adopting that of Mr. Kurtz. Posted by Orrin Judd at May 9, 2002 7:23 AM
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