Nightmares of Anarchy: Language and Cultural Change, 1870-1914

By Wm. M. Phillips | Go to book overview
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6

Anarchy and Culture

JOSEPH CONRAD AND G. K. CHESTERTON, WRITERS WHO WOULD NEVER HAVE supported anarchism as a political movement, transformed the language of anarchism into a useful way of describing the modern condition. The anarchist ideal of each individual creating his or her own understanding was seized as a way of depicting the alienation, explosion of print sources, and radical social segregation of the modern world. The chaos which endures in spite of (or even because of) our attempts to regulate the world could best be described through the discourse of anarchism. These writers brought anarchist ideas and anarchist assumptions about society into the mainstream of Western thought. Conrad gives his fullest treatment to anarchism as a theme in The Secret Agent (1907). G. K. Chesterton depicts the more absurd aspects of an anarchistic carnival in The Man Who Was Thursday (1908). Chesterton's satire, contained within a larger order, brings laughter; Conrad's pessimism finds its anarchistic expression in the ultimate futility of human-imposed order, in the inability of the individual to control her or his own fate amid the social machinery.

By bringing anarchistic ideas into the broader dialogue, writers could control the associations through a broader narrative frame, or circumscribe the threat of anarchism with laughter; anarchism created fear only when no dialogue was seen as possible. The anarchist as bomber lived on in the comic strips in The Yellow Kid and later in "Spy vs. Spy” in Mad Magazine; Charlie Chaplin's tramp transformed the anarchistic fears of the poor into an expression of an Everyman, only tenuously in control of his surroundings. The transformation of anarchist into a figure of jest began in the early part of the century with the effort to defuse the fears associated with anarchism.


THE SECRET AGENT: SOCIAL DISORDER AND THE
LANGUAGE OF ANARCHISM

Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent1 comes at a time when there is a huge difference between the essentially moribund anarchist

-187-

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