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

Media Sensationalism and Terrorism in the Secret Agent

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

Media Sensationalism and Terrorism in the Secret Agent

Article excerpt

ON THE MORNING of 16 February 1894, readers of The Times awoke to news of the "Greenwich Bomb Outrage," a supposed anarchist attack that resulted only in the death of a bomber - Mardal Bourdin - who had accidentally dropped his bomb. The Times reported the grotesque body that was found in the aftermath: "one hand was blown off and the body was open" ("Explosion in Greenwich Park," 5). The article recalls the disfigured corpse once again: "His legs were shattered, one arm was blown away, and the stomach and abdomen were torn open." Shocking the reader with several descriptions of the "terribly mutilated" body, the article creates the illusion that there were multiple casualties, although the sole victim was the terrorist. The description of the victim could refer to anyone: "the man faindy besought help and then fell forward into a pool of his own blood." Since the body had not yet been identified, all the descriptions of the terrorist/victim refer to "the man" or "he." The vague language used to describe the bombing's aftermath makes it easy to forget that the terrorist and the victim were one and the same. The newspaper used this ambiguous language to manipulate. Invoking excessive grotesque descriptions of the terrorist attack, the paper confused the reader into thinking that the scale of the casualties was larger than it was.

Descriptions of Bourdin's mutilated corpse continue in a subsequent account, and the repetition of these descriptions again aims to shock. On 17 February, The Times reports that Bourdin was found "kneeling on the ground in a pool of blood, with his body slanting backward, but his head bowed forward upon his chest" ("The Explosion in Greenwich Park," 5). The description continues: "the path was soaked with blood and the railings which border it were spattered with portions of flesh." These details provide no new information, merely restating in different words that Bourdin was dismembered or fragmented and clearly lost blood. The grotesque descriptions reveal that the newspaper reader is bombarded with ready-made phrases, such as "pool of blood" and "terribly mutilated," that attempt to explain the incident.

The Times was but one of many newspapers that sensationalized the Greenwich bombing. The coverage in the Daily Graphic and the Illustrated London News encouraged spectatorship with "photographic reproductions of gawping crowds near the Greenwich Observatory," including an "X" to mark the spot where Bourdin's mangled corpse was found (Donovan 2005: 33). The prevalence of these accounts suggests contemporary readers' desires for sensational stories of dynamite outrages and the press's attempt to maximize sales.1 As Sarah Cole writes, the Victorian "sensationalist-minded press ... spread word of anarchist outrages far and wide and helpjed] to sdr public fear and interest" (2009: 116).

One reader of newspapers who almost certainly followed coverage of the Greenwich bombing was Joseph Conrad, even though he denied having done so in his letters and in his 1920 "Author's Note" to The Secret Agent. As Norman Sherry and David Mulry argue, however, Conrad almost certainly drew on popular and anarchist newspaper accounts of the bombing as sources for The Secret Agent (1907).2 These accounts of terrorism and other incidents of terrorist violence provided a two-fold catalyst for Conrad's novel set in the 1890s. Not only did these newspaper reports inspire his plot, but their sensational treatment also inspired his satirical attack on journalism and contemporary reading practices. Conrad's readers were so inundated with reports of presumed terrorist violence that they became jaded. Not even the bombing's bloody aftermath was enough to satisfy their appetite for sensationalism. Conrad suggests that by sensationalizing acts of political violence, the newspaper desensitizes the public and thereby raises the stakes of symbolic violence, such as terrorism.

In the novel, Conrad trivializes the politics of terrorism with news reports of terrorist violence that must be "so absurd as to be incomprehensible" if they are to capture readers' curiosity (30). …

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