Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

Anarchic Appetites: Vegetarianism and the Secret Agent

Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

Anarchic Appetites: Vegetarianism and the Secret Agent

Article excerpt

Good cooking is a moral agent. By good cooking I mean the conscientious preparation of the simple food of every-day life, not the more or less skilful concoction of idle feasts and rare dishes.

Joseph Conrad, Preface to A Handbook of Cookery for a Small House (1923; 2010: 112)

THE FOCUS of this paper is Joseph Conrad's critique of capitalism in The Secret Agent through the rhetoric of vegetarianism. By taking the association between anarchy and vegetarianism in the writings of Percy Bysshe Shelley and considering the symbolic meaning of the "natural" diet, it is possible to locate the opposing forces of anarchy and capitalism within the context of Promethean mythology, employing the analogy of the raw and the cooked. In addition, the political implications of meat-eating as defined by the Romantics can be juxtaposed with Conrad's ironic portrayal of carnivorous appetites in The Secret Agent.

The philosophy of vegetarianism can be traced as far back as the sixth-century mathematician Pythagoras whose "system" of eating only plant and dairy products was later practised by Shelley.1 It formed the basis for his essay "A Vindication of Natural Diet" (1813), and Shelley also drew upon the work of key philosophical and medical writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries such as Joseph Ritson,2 Dr Thomas `Trotter, George Nicholson, and Thomas Beddoes, who all extolled the social, economic, physical, and mental benefits of following a vegetable diet. Significantly, Shelley's essay, an attack on the corrupt nature of capitalism and meat production, suggests that "disease and crime" are the result of an "unnatural diet" (1947: 5). The present essay does not claim that Conrad had read Shelley,3 or that The Secret Agent was composed with literature of the Romantic period in mind. Instead, it argues that there is a clear correspondence of thoughts and ideas between Conrad's depiction of the anarchist milieu and Shelley's use of the Promethean myth and the philosophy of vegetarianism.

Conrad was not a vegetarian - although his favourite dish was macaroni cheese and in 1907 he went through a "bout of vegetarianism" after suspecting that his gout was made worse by red meat (Stape 2007: 160) - but he, like Shelley, uses meat as an analogy for capitalist corruption. In a letter to his friend John Galsworthy of June 1906, he declares: "I feel disenchanted - dreary. Our civilisation is like the potted chicken of the U.S.A. - corrupt sir!, Corrupt" (CL3 335). Conrad uses a similar analogy in an earlier letter to Galsworthy in which he compares an anarchist bomb to the adulterated meat of the Chicago meat-packing industry as portrayed in Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle (1906). "Query:" he writes, "Which is really more criminal? - the Bomb of Madrid or the Meat of Chicago" (CL3 333). The implication is, of course, that meat processing reflects the duplicity of capitalism whereas the anarchist bomb is at least honest in its aims. There is, too, the suggestion that the bomb killed only twelve people while adulterated meat has the potential to kill thousands.4

Shelley addresses the issue of disguising corrupt meat in "A Vindication," in which Prometheus acts as an anarchic free spirit who brings the knowledge of fire to the human race. As a result, the discovery of applying fire to "culinary purposes" provides "an expedient for screening from the disgust the horrors of the shambles. After this moment" Shelley continues, "Tyranny, superstition, commerce and inequality were then first known" (1947: 6). By combining this "Romantic" angle with the irony of The Secret Agent it is possible to expose another layer of concealment, to unmask, as it were, the novel's true anarchic ambitions. Mindful of his audience when writing, Conrad verbalized such concealment in a letter to Edward Garnett of October 1907 thanking him for his understanding of The Secret Agent "You've got a fiendishly penetrating eye for one's most secret intentions" (CL3 487). …

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