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Fiction and the fanatic

Illustrations in the Police News in 1884 depict explosions in London.Getty Images/Getty

In Don DeLillo’s “Mao II,” one of the characters — a reclusive novelist — observes that there’s “a curious knot that binds novelists and terrorists. In the West, we become famous effigies as our books lose the power to shape and influence. . . . Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness.”

With each new burst of terrorist violence, there inevitably follows a spasm of new articles and books. Many of these works, promising to reveal the terrorist mind, are written by sociologists, political theorists, anthropologists, psychologists, and sundry social scientists. While the best are weighty and worthy, even they fail to capture what Henry James called the “picture of the exposed and entangled state.” Novelists alone challenge not just popular stereotypes but also scholarly analyses about the world and people.

In a word, novelists make raids on human consciousness, and we would be foolish to ignore the insights they bring to the phenomenon of terrorism in our own age. This was certainly Joseph Conrad’s ambition with his novel “The Secret Agent.” First published in serial form in 1906, Conrad’s story is based on an actual event: the botched bombing in 1894 of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. The only victim was the bomber, a misled young man who seemed to be part of London’s anarchist community.

British novelist Joseph Conrad. George C. Beresford/Getty Images

In Conrad’s time, anarchists were not alone in their fascination with the so-called propaganda by deed. The Fenians who, determined to liberate Ireland, unleashed in 1881 a four-year campaign of assassinations and bombings against government, infrastructure, and military targets. In the words of one founder, the Fenian militants were “men who will fly over land and sea like invisible beings” to deliver the grim tidings of terror. Both the Fenians and anarchists exploited recent advances in weapons technology — most important, the invention of dynamite. The novel’s most terrifying character, the Professor, is modeled after a certain Professor Mezzeroff, a failed chemist who advertised bomb-making courses in Fenian newspapers.


While we know little about this shadowy figure, the Professor makes his darkness visible. Walking the streets of London, he constantly caresses a rubber ball with his hand. The slightest pressure on the ball will detonate a flask of nitroglycerin nestled inside his trouser pocket. Not only does the potential suicide bomber have the means to make himself deadly, but he also has the resolve. As the Professor smugly assures a fellow believer, people “believe in my will to use the means. . . . Therefore I am deadly.”


The Victorian media amplified these harrowing impressions, deepening the public’s sense of insecurity and intensifying the power of the terror. We recognize this cycle of reinforcement. When the Professor reminds a colleague “What happens to us as individuals is not of the least consequence,” we are jolted by the familiarity of the mind-set. So, too, when we follow the conversation between Adolf Verloc, the agent provocateur, and the foreign emissaries who give him his marching orders. It is all too easy to imagine an operative of the Islamic State telling a cell in France or Belgium what Verloc’s handlers tell him in London: “What is wished for just now is the accentuation of the unrest — of the fermentation which undoubtedly exists.”

There are, of course, differences. The most public driver of terrorism today — religious faith — is nowhere to be found among Conrad’s terrorists. Instead of drawing their inspiration from the Koran, his fanatics wallow in political tracts — seeking the blessing not of religious leaders but of theorists like Mikhail Bakunin.

Yet the theological justifications for terrorists today are no less self-serving than the ideological claims of those in fin-de-siècle Europe. True believers exist in both the theological and ideological camps. Outnumbering them, however, is a different kind of believer: one who is convinced he was dealt a bad hand by life. Conrad’s terrorists — like many in real life — flourish at the margins of society. They turn to social revolution in order to expiate their personal failures; and they fashion grand narratives to justify their revenge against the institutions and individuals held responsible for their stunted ambitions. “The most ardent of revolutionaries,” he wrote, “are perhaps doing no more but seeking for peace in common with the rest of mankind — the peace of soothed vanity, of satisfied appetites, or perhaps of appeased conscience.”


While he shared his characters’ contempt for plutocrats and politicians, Conrad was appalled by the desire for indiscriminate destruction. “I have always dreamed of men absolute in their resolve to discard all scruples in the choice of means, strong enough to give themselves frankly the name of destroyers,” one erupts at a meeting of revolutionaries. “No pity for anything on earth, including themselves, and death enlisted for good and in the service of humanity.” Replace “humanity” with “Allah” or “unborn babies,” and we find that the century dividing our time from Conrad’s is but a blink of an eye.

Like Conrad, Fyodor Dostoevsky glommed onto a grisly news item as the inspiration for

Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

his own, earlier exploration of the terrorist mind, “Possessed.” (Intriguingly, Conrad disdained what he called “the convulsed, terror-haunted Dostoevsky.”) In 1869, a group of self-proclaimed nihilists had bundled off a member who had broken with them, strangled him to death, and shoved the corpse through a hole cut into a frozen lake. They were led by Sergey Nechayev, a charismatic youth who then fled abroad to pursue a career of revolutionary agitation that lasted until his death in 1882. Author of the incendiary “Catechism of a Revolutionary,” Nechayev declared that the end — in this case, the destruction of the czarist state — justified any and all means including murder, mayhem, and madness.


Dostoevsky had once been a revolutionary. Imprisoned and sentenced to death with fellow conspirators in 1849, he underwent a mock execution before being exiled to Siberia for several years. This was the formative experience of his life, one that laid the foundations for his Russian Orthodox faith. Dostoevsky took the measure of Nechayev and his followers — the possessed of the book’s title — through the prism of his faith.

Led by Peter Verkhovensky, modeled after Nechayev, the novel’s revolutionaries murder a fellow conspirator; one of them, Kirilov, kills himself as a sign of his free will. Both acts, for Dostoevsky, amount to a revolt against God. By claiming God-like powers, Dostoevsky believed, these apprentice terrorists had sown the seeds of radical evil. No less important, for Dostoevsky, was that the Russian soil had been fertilized by the various isms imported from the West: socialism, liberalism, utilitarianism, skepticism, and, most crucially, atheism. As the novel’s revolutionaries insist, it was not they who had swallowed these ideas; instead, the ideas had swallowed them. Wrenched from their parents’ traditions and religion, handed abstractions in place of revelation, and informed they had absolute freedom to act, these young men chose to destroy.


Having devoted the last years of his life to a stage adaptation of “The Possessed,” Albert Camus died shortly after its opening in 1959. The adaptation, he insisted, was closer to him than any of his previous works — a stunning claim since those works include “The Stranger,” “The Plague,” and “The Rebel.” Yet Camus shared Dostoevsky’s fascination with the militant mind — a fascination shaped by encounters with his era’s many faces of terrorism. From the state variety exercised by Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia to the tactical form practiced by Arab nationalists and French soldiers in the Algerian civil war, Camus explored time and again terrorism’s causes and consequences in his fiction.

French writer and Nobel prize laureate Albert Camus.AFP/Getty Images

In his own play “The Just Assassins,” Camus subjects the moral calculus of terrorists to fierce pressure. He also latches onto a historical event: Ivan Kaliayev’s assassination, in 1905, of the Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia. Members of the Socialist Revolutionaries, Kaliayev and his fellow conspirators were exceptional: They agonized and argued over the very nature of terrorism. Rejecting actions that could harm civilians, these young men and women struck only at czarist officials.

Kaliayev obeys this moral limitation in his first assassination attempt, when he rushes to the door of Sergei’s carriage only to discover two children — the duke’s nephew and niece — sitting alongside him. Aborting his effort, Kaliayev returns to his comrades; one of them, Fedorov, promptly lambastes him. Thanks to this misguided effort to distinguish between the guilty and innocent, Fedorov blurts, “thousands of Russian children will go on dying of starvation for years to come.” Only when we stop sentimentalizing children, he shouts, will the revolution succeed. As Kaliayev struggles to find his words, a third comrade, Dora, turns to Fedorov: “When that day comes, the revolution will be loathed by the whole human race.”

Launching himself again at the duke’s carriage a few days later, Kaliayev finds him alone this time. He blows up the carriage and kills its rider; surrendering to the police, he is quickly executed. Did Kaliayev’s scrupulous calculus absolve him of guilt? Of course not, Camus replies. But what is exemplary, Camus suggests, was Kaliayev’s doubt whether the ends justified his means. Our task, he wrote, is to “refute legitimate murder and assign a clear limit to its demented enterprises.”

This task is as pressing for us as it was for Dostoevsky, Conrad, and Camus. These novelists lead us to see a world besieged by terrorism in new ways. Literature’s task, Conrad wrote, is to reveal what is “fundamental, what is enduring and essential . . . and by the

power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see.” This is crucial, for most of us resemble Verloc’s wife, Winnie, whose philosophy was “not to take into account the inside of facts.” Through intricate plotting and nuanced description, novelists lead us inside, enabling us to see that political or religious causes driving terrorists to kill not just us but themselves are not the sole motive. There are more base human motivations, from resentment and envy, to hatred for the world and the desire to leave one’s bloody imprint upon it.

Adolf Verloc never grasped, Conrad writes, the enormity of his act “since it was impossible for him to do so without ceasing to be himself.” This applies to the characters in all of these works, as it does to all of us: We can never cease being ourselves. Literature is no more a cure for this state of being than it is for the blight of terrorism. By virtue of its open-ended nature and invitation to interpretation, it does offer a modest lesson: Values like prudence and attentiveness, solitary reflection and civil conversation are even more critical when our enemies seek to destroy them and public figures seem to ignore them. Novelists are still raiding our consciousness; we simply need to let them in.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor at the University of Houston and is author most recently of “Boswell’s Enlightenment.”