Tuesday, 9 August 2016

The Secret Agent in the City

IN the light of the recent showing of the The Secret Agent on BBC, I note that the anarchist Colin Ward in his introduction to the Folio edition writes: 

'A series of journeys are evoked as a cast of characters traverse “the whole town of marvels and mud, with its maze of streets and mass of lights”... and the secret agent's walk through shadow and sunlight from Soho to the Embassy, as well as several more sinister or desperate urban voyages which an extraordinary shift in scene and mood for the chronicler of travels under exotic skies.'

Reviewers, when The Secret Agent first appeared in 1907, were surprised and commented on the Dickensian evocation of London, because hitherto the author, Joseph Conrad, had dealt with exotic places and adventurers on the high seas.  Last Saturday, in the FT Janan Ganesh wrote of a London which not only embraces the enlightenment of other European nations but that 'tips over into something else.  It  has a taste for chaos, whose ultimate expression is the physical anarchy of the city itself – the architectural incoherence, the “labyrinthine obliquity” of its layout, as Peter Ackroyd puts it, You can see it from the hill on Greenwich Park: a weird panorama of Christopher Wren and Norman Foster, the Georgians and the Brutalists.  In Conrad's time too, the city was a maze.' 

Anomie or the 'absence of social consensus' in the society of the turn of the 20th century was a big influence upon writers such as Joseph Conrad and Henry James who in the late 19th century wrote another novel about London anarchists in London called 'The Princess Casamassima' The mood music was perhaps best expressed in the poem written in 1919 by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1935):  
    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

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