I've mentioned elsewhere Conrad's masterwork of urban terror, political agitation, anarchism and authority, The Secret Agent. His portrait of the the shabby. monstrous Professor, the essential suicide bomber, is both relevant and terrifyingly familiar to us today. But The Secret Agent is also a domestic tragedy played out as a bitter farce, with deep insights that continue to cut against contemporary conditions.
One phrase, among many, struck me as notable: "Barefaced audacity amounting to childishness of a particular sort". Anyone who has had to witness the absurd contortions about the Ukraine scandal, the unforgivable betrayal of the Kurds, or the pointless provocation of Iran, will recognize this phrase as eerily applicable. On one level it means that malice and folly are never far apart – "Oft evil will shall evil mar" as Tolkien would have it – and there is, in our current discourse, a dangerous tendency to ascribe deeper motives or at least clarity of purpose to what is in fact mere lying, blundering, and cruelty when the liars have the power to frighten and appall us.
But beyond that, every character in The Secret Agent is locked into a form of childishness. For like Stevie, the man-child and first victim of the misguided terror-attack, every character is trapped in their own perceptions, their own circle of thoughts and fears and illusions, and none of them, not even the policeman, has the clear insight to regard another human being with accuracy. This is, of course, the basis of the novel's dramatic irony — we are all secret agents, operating only to ourselves, opaque to others.