Jews and Degenerates in the Secret Agent

By Watts, Cedric | The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.), Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Jews and Degenerates in the Secret Agent


Watts, Cedric, The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)


Sometimes a phrenologist ... would follow on with a brief phrenological séance, and nothing afforded the comrades more satisfaction than to be informed that their bumps showed undoubted criminal propensities.

Meredith, A Girl Among the Anarchists (1903: rpt. 1993: 153)

Menachem Begin, Yassir Arafat, and Nelson Mandela, all once labeled as terrorists, have been rehabilitated as statesmen and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Scanlan, Plotting Terror (2001: 6)

ADAM GILLON FOUND "only two" Jews in Conrad's fiction (1994:41).1 There may, however, be at least nine. In Conrad's The Secret Agent, the word "Jew" is not used. Nevertheless, the nomenclature deployed in this novel suggests that, while three Jews are explicitly revolutionary or anarchistic, they are being opposed by two other Jews whose actions bring about the death of innocent Stevie. One political function of this narrative feature is to deflect attention from the historical Irish threat of the 1880s to a threat involving Semitic immigrants. By means of the partly-ironic use of Lombroso's theories, these Jews are also (although not exclusively) associated with criminal degeneracy. In contrast to a probable literary source, the novel A Girl Among the Anarchists, however, The Secret Agent eschews overt anti-Semitic comments.

Elsewhere, Conrad's attitude to Jews has an ambivalence not unusual in the period. His letters include occasional anti-Semitic phrases. Some are directed against the publishers T. Fisher Unwin (not Jewish) and William Heinemann (an Anglican of Anglo-German descent): the former being termed "The Patron Jew," the latter "That Israelite" (CL1 406, 395). The mission of the magazine The Outlook is, Conrad declares, "to make money for a Jew" (CL2 34). The crucified Impenitent Thief, admired by both Conrad and Cunninghame Graham, was "no Jew, since he had no eye for the shent-per-shent business the other fellow spotted at once" (CL2 5).2 In The Inheritors, of which Conrad claimed joint authorship with Ford Madox Hueffer, a Jewish journalist is regarded with mixed feelings that include patronizing distaste. The journalist is a "good little man," but the hero remarks: "I was not yet so humble in spirit as to relish being called Granger by a stranger of his stamp. I tried to freeze him politely." The "sleek little man" evinces "a pathos that is always present in the type" (105, 102). Granger notes that he frequents a newspaper kiosk "kept by a fellow-Israelite - a snuffy little old woman," "bent nearly double," whose "nose touched her wares as often as not," and comments: "I liked him the better for his solicitude for this forlorn piece of flotsam of his own race" (103, 104).3

In "Prince Roman," the "dignified" Jewish innkeeper Yankel is "a Polish patriot," and, by virtue of that patriotism, becomes "one of us," so to speak, like Yankiel in Mickiewicz's Pan Tadeusz.4 In Nostromo, Hirsch, though set in a demeaning stereotype (mercenary, complaining, cowardly), breaks free from it when spitting defiantly in the face of his brutal and anti-Semitic captor. Razumov, the gloomy protagonist of Under Western Eyes, remarks that his own name "is not Gugenheimer": "I am not a democratic Jew" (208).5 Later, he spits "violently" at Julius Laspara and mutters "Cursed Jew!" (287). The narrator comments caustically that, although Laspara "might have been a Transylvanian, a Turk, an Andalusian," this is how Razumov (as a Russian Gentile) expresses his "hate and contempt" (287). (The comment is historically apt, anti-Semitism being rife in Russia.) Frank Harris once called Conrad a Jew. Conrad replied in a letter which The New Republic published in part under the title "Mr. Conrad is Not a Jew" (1918: 109). In that letter, which specified in detail his noble Polish and Catholic ancestry, Conrad diplomatically stated: "Had I been an Israelite I would never have denied being a member of a race occupying such a unique place in the religious history of mankind" (CL6 216). …

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