Oxford World’s Classics Book Club: The Secret Agent
To kick-off our discussion of The Secret Agent John Lyon, editor of the OUP volume, and Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Bristol, has reflected on what it was like to introduce this book right after the events of September 11, 2001.
I began work on the Oxford World’s Classics edition of The Secret Agent while spending a very enjoyable academic year, 2000-2001, in the United States. I was back in the UK by the summer of 2001 and was at work on Conrad, when on September 11th, I looked up from the computer screen to check the television news. Like many others, I watched the ghastly events unfolding as they happened. No more work on the Conrad text was done that day.
For some time afterwards, it seemed impossible to write an Introduction to Conrad’s novel about terrorism, published in 1907, without some explicit reference to September 11th 2001. There were many similarities but also many differences between Conrad’s fictional or fictionalised account (based as it was to a degree on historical events) and the situation which had arisen at the start of the twenty first century. Conrad’s terrorists were concerned with political and economic matters; more recent terrorists at least seemed to be motivated in part by matters of religion and nationality. In contrast to the sheer scale and accuracy of the impacts we witnessed in 2001, Conrad’s depiction was perhaps too complacently sure of the ineptitude of terrorists, although Conrad’s account too shows terrorism’s destructiveness. Moreover, Conrad was sharp-eyed in showing how legitimate governments might have mixed motives in their relation to terrorism and might manipulate hostile terrorist activities for political ends just as recent events suggest that governments’ relations to terrorism are rarely straightforward. So the comparison might proceed and I’m sure many readers will wish to read Conrad and September 11th against each other.
The Introduction to the World’s Classic Edition of The Secret Agent makes no mention of September 11th. I still think that that was the right approach, though I’ll be interested to know what readers think. My reasoning is that we misread great works of the past if we tie them too closely to our own concerns and our own historical moment. It remains important to me that, rather than seeking, Narcissus-like, for our own image in the writings of other people and of other times, we experience too something of the strangeness of such writings and of their remoteness from us. Too close a linking would do a disservice both to Conrad and to the huge particularity of those awful recent historical events. As I say, I’ll be interested to know what other readers think.