The Princess Casamassima (1886)
The Secret Agent (1907)
Aristotle famously remarked that poetry is more philosophical than history. Poetry speaks of universals (what characters are likely to do), whereas history speaks of particulars (what individual characters actually did). Likewise, the great English-language novels of terrorism are great precisely because of their universality—the insights that they provide, not only into the mind of terrorists, but also into the societies that are home to them and seek to defend themselves against them. These novels, of which Henry James’s The Princess Casamassima (1886) and Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) are the quintessence, set the standard for all post-9/11 attempts at fiction with a terrorism theme.So far, alas, even the best recent effort, John Updike’s Terrorist (2006), pales beside them. More than a century ago The Princess Casamassima and The Secret Agent brilliantly illuminated two of the “universals” of terrorism and counterterrorism: the fellow traveler and the bureaucratic infighting among the counterterrorists. There’s nothing comparably insightful, or even interesting, in Terrorist.Terrorist is far from bad, I should hasten to add—particularly when compared to what else is on offer these days. Updike seems incapable of doing what so many others do so often: writing a bad novel. In an era when celebrated novelists are characterized as minimalists and solipsists, he forces his readers to consider major issues of concern to all Americans: the prospects for peaceful coexistence in multicultural America, the trade-off between government surveillance and individual freedom and, most broadly, the strengths and weaknesses of contemporary American society. Commendably, the book also devotes serious attention to religion—not only Islam, but also African-American Christianity. (Terrorist includes a lengthy scene in a black church, in which a minister, very much unlike the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, preaches the gospel of self-help to his parishioners.) And Updike takes on the forces of political correctness: Whereas even the Fox Network’s 24 ultimately shied away from depicting terrorists who were Muslims, Updike tells the story of a terrorist plot hatched by an imam in an American mosque. Although Updike is most famous for his chronicles of suburban adultery, Terrorist is less of a departure for him than one might think. His 1978 novel The Coup, an account of an anti-American, Muslim dictator of an imaginary African country, is an obvious precursor of Terrorist. Moreover, “On Not Being a Dove”, a chapter devoted to his support for the Vietnam War in his 1989 memoir Self-Consciousness, testifies to Updike’s skepticism about dominant leftist dogma. Updike observed that hisprofessional need for freedom of speech and expression prejudices me toward a government whose constitution guarantees it. . . . All I know about my political attitudes is that enough verbalized antiestablishmentism and right (that is, left) thinking . . . arouses in me a helpless itch to open the discourse to other possibilities.
As excellent a writer and as noble a patriot as Updike is, Terrorist is less good than it might have been. It is simply too thin both politically and psychologically, more of a thriller (Will the principal character blow up the Lincoln Tunnel, or won’t he?) than a serious examination of the threat of terrorism. Terrorist focuses almost exclusively on a single individual, on what leads him to terrorism and, although it does not clearly account for this, what leads him away from it. Providing us a tree rather than a forest, it lacks the social panorama that made its classical precursors great. We see little of the terrorist network the main character joins; nor do we see anything of those who sympathize with it. And we see virtually nothing of the government’s attempts to counter the network.Instead, we see the story of Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy, an 18-year-old Arab-American. He is a recent high school graduate living in New Prospect, a fictional town in northern New Jersey. Ahmad is the son of an Egyptian exchange student who married an Irish-American fellow student. Ahmad’s father abandoned his wife and child when Ahmad turned three. (Although Updike presumably did not have this comparison in mind, Ahmad’s family life—he is raised by an American mother after having been left behind by a Muslim Third World father—is at least vaguely reminiscent of the young Barack Obama’s.)Ahmad grows up revering his absent father and despising his all-too-present mother, which helps explain why he decided, at age 11, to become a devout Muslim. He takes a weekly class studying classical Arabic and the Quran with the imam of his local mosque, a Yemeni immigrant named Shaikh Rashid. At Rashid’s urging, Ahmad switches out of the college preparatory track into the vocational track in high school, so as not to have his faith weakened by the study of infidel Western humanistic texts. Ahmad trains to become a truck driver and upon graduating takes a job driving a truck for a used furniture business run by a family of Lebanese immigrants.At the urging of Rashid and Charlie, the son of one of the Lebanese founders of the business, Ahmad agrees to become a suicide bomber. He plans to kill himself and many commuters by blowing up his truck and himself in the Lincoln Tunnel. The book ends, somewhat abruptly, when Ahmad emerges from the tunnel, having decided not to set off the bomb.As it happens, Ahmad’s plot has been detected anyway, through precisely the sort of unbelievable series of coincidences one might expect to find in a thriller. Jack Levy, Ahmad’s high school guidance counselor, is married to the sister of a secretary who works for the head of the Department of Homeland Security. (Updike being Updike, suburban adultery wends its way into Terrorist in the form of Jack’s affair with Ahmad’s mother.) The secretary’s knowledge of the outline of the plot to blow up the tunnel (based on information provided by Charlie, who is actually an undercover agent working for the Feds), combined with Jack’s knowledge of Ahmad, enables Jack to waylay Ahmad as he approaches the tunnel from the New Jersey side and somehow to persuade him not to detonate the bomb.Terrorist’s major weakness is that its central character isn’t credible, because his speech is unbelievable. No American-born teenager could sound like Ahmed. Here’s a representative sample of his dialogue:There is nothing in Islam to forbid watching television and attending the cinema, though in fact it is all so saturated in despair and unbelief as to repel my interest. Nor does Islam forbid consorting with the opposite sex, if strict prohibitions are observed.
As Amitav Ghosh aptly put it in his Washington Post review: “He speaks as if he had learned English at a madrassa run by the Taliban”, not as if he were born and bred in New Jersey.There are other problems as well. Since Terrorist doesn’t provide a broad social panorama, it stands and falls as a psychological portrait of Ahmad. Updike plausibly explains Ahmad’s turn to terrorism, but it’s less successful in accounting for his last-minute decision not to set off the bomb. Jack’s arguments against his doing so aren’t very good, and they clearly don’t persuade Ahmad. Instead, Ahmad conveniently has a last-minute religious revelation (almost literally a deus ex machina, since he decides what God wants while he’s in a truck): God “does not want us to desecrate His creation by willing death. He wills life.”But even if Terrorist were a better psychological novel, it would still be defective in that it is a psychological novel as opposed to a sociological one. The focus on Ahmad does not afford Updike an opportunity to indicate that at least some aspects of the Islamist critique of America appeal to a fairly broad swath of non-Muslim Americans. Ahmad is attracted to Islam because of what he sees as the emptiness and purposelessness of American life. Thus he describes his mother asa typical American, lacking strong convictions and the courage and comfort they bring. She is a victim of the American religion of freedom, freedom above all, though freedom to do what and to what purpose is left up in the air.
America is at fault because it has “no encompassing structure of divine law that brings men rich and poor to bow down shoulder to shoulder, no code of self-sacrifice, no exalted submission such as lies at the heart of Islam.”The purposelessness of American life does not justify terrorism, in Ahmad’s view. Instead it is a left-wing critique voiced by Charlie, as an agent provocateur, that persuades Ahmad. Charlie notes that the people who died in the World Trade Center “further[ed] the interests of the American empire, the empire that sustains Israel and inflicts death every day on Palestinians and Chechnyans, Afghans and Iraqis.”In short, Ahmad is led to terrorism by his adoption of a form of contemporary Islamist discourse that has grafted Marxism onto itself. Even before he meets Charlie, Ahmad has the following reaction to the attempts to counter New Prospect’s urban decay:Some few new boxes of aluminum and blue glass have been erected among the ruins, sops from the lords of Western capitalism—branches of banks headquartered in California or North Carolina, and outposts of the Zionist-dominated federal government, attempting with welfare enrollment and army recruitment to prevent the impoverished from rioting and looting.
Clearly there are many secular leftists with whom this critique resonates, such as the people—the late Susan Sontag comes readily to mind—who think that America got what was coming to it on September 11. But recognition of the cross-over appeal of Islamist rhetoric to leftists is wholly absent from Terrorist. Updike thus understates the extent to which America is divided. It’s not the Islamists versus the rest of us; some American non-Muslims believe that the Islamists’ critique of America is just, even if few believe that it justifies the mass murder of innocents.Also missing is any detail regarding the counterterrorist activities of Charlie and his handlers. To succeed as a thriller, Terrorist ought to have been better grounded in detail. It should have offered a more granular account of Ahmad’s plotting and the workings of the police to frustrate it. Instead, we see only a little of the Homeland Security apparatus and a little of Charlie—though only as a purported terrorist, not as the undercover counterrorism agent he turns out to be. We see nothing at all of the workings of the complex bureaucracy that has many additional layers linking the two of them. By contrast, both elements—the support within a Western society for a movement opposed to that society, and the workings of the police response to terrorism—are to be found in The Princess Casamassima and The Secret Agent.Portrait of a Fellow Traveler
As in Updike’s Terrorist, the plot in The Princess Casamassima focuses on a young man, Hyacinth Robinson, who is the offspring of radically different parents. Hyacinth, who lives in London, is the product of a union between a dissolute British nobleman and the French courtesan who murdered him. (Hyacinth’s mother dies in prison; he sees her only once, at age ten, when he is taken to the prison by the woman who raises him.)Unlike Updike, James devotes much attention to exploring the psychological impact that both parents have on his novel’s youthful protagonist. Updike’s Ahmad idealizes his absent father and thinks nothing of his mother (at least until the end of the novel, when his gratitude to his mother for raising him perhaps plays some role in his aborting the terrorist plot). By contrast, Hyacinth is an image of both of his parents:His mother had been a daughter of the wild French people . . . but on the other hand, it took an English aristocrat—though a poor specimen, apparently . . . to account for him. . . . The reflection that he was a bastard involved in a remarkable manner the reflection that he was [also] a gentleman.
Hyacinth’s ambivalence ultimately leads him to commit suicide rather than participate in a terrorist assassination. He admires the aristocracy, which he sees asthe flower of a high civilization. At moments he was aghast when he reflected that the [revolutionary] cause he had secretly espoused . . . proposed to itself to bring about a state of things in which [the continued existence of the aristocracy] would be impossible. It made him even rather faint to think that he must choose; that he couldn’t (with any respect for his own consistency) work, underground, for the enthronement of the democracy and continue to enjoy, in however platonic a manner, a spectacle which rested on a hideous social inequality.
Unable to make that choice, Hyacinth resolves his dilemma through suicide.But Hyacinth’s ambivalence about the achievements of a civilization that is made possible only by “a hideous social inequality” is not shared by the book’s title character, Princess Casamassima. The Princess began life as an American girl named Christina Light, who (at the end of an earlier James novel, Roderick Hudson) is married off by her mother to a Neapolitan prince. The Princess is introduced to Hyacinth as “the most charming woman in the world” and “perhaps the most remarkable woman in Europe.” She is beautiful, intelligent, roughly thirty years old, and estranged from her husband.In the Princess, James presents us with a startlingly prescient depiction of a proponent of radical chic: a wealthy woman struck by the injustice of the society in which she lives, who accordingly sympathizes with terrorism. The princess believes that “in the darkest hour of her life she sold herself for a title and a fortune.” Disgusted with “the selfishness, the corruption, the iniquity, the cruelty, the imbecility, of the people who, all over Europe, had the upper hand”, she is convinced that Victorian England is “the old régime again, the rottenness and extravagance, bristling with every iniquity and every abuse, over which the French Revolution passed like a whirlwind.” She therefore believes that “a great social cataclysm is destined to take place, and that it can’t make things worse than they are already.”James’s critical portrait of the Princess is masterly. Although she admires the people in the abstract, she is notably arrogant and no egalitarian. “If you knew what I have been through [in my life with the nobility], you would allow that intelligent mechanics (of course I don’t want to know idiots) would be a pleasant change.” She also assures Hyacinth that “you cease to be insignificant from the moment I have anything to do with you.”James indicates that the Princess becomes a revolutionary to satisfy her own psychological needs. She was “an embodied passion—she was not a system; and her behaviour, after all, was more addressed to relieving herself than to relieving others.” Hyacinth realizes that Christina’s presentphase was little more than a brilliant tour de force, which he could not imagine her keeping up long, for the simple reason that after the novelty and strangeness of the affair had passed away she would not be able to endure the contact of so much that was common and ugly.
But in the meantime, she is a great comic character, “improvising on the piano revolutionary battle-songs and paeans.” To express her solidarity with the common people she moves into a poorly furnished house: “It was plainly her theory that the right way to acquaint one’s self with the sensations of the wretched was to suffer the anguish of exasperated taste.” Furthermore, her attempts to live like the poor don’t work very well, since “some of Christina’s economies were very costly.”Predictably, the Princess’s alienation from the aristocracy does not win her the trust of the terrorists whom she admires. Toward the end of the novel a terrorist whom she befriends brutally informs her that “in giving your money—or rather, your husband’s—to our business you gave the most valuable thing you had to contribute. . . . You are not trusted at headquarters.”In short, in the character of Princess Casamassima James gives us a devastating portrait of the self-disgust that emerges in an advanced civilization, leading at least some among the civilized to opt for its destruction rather than its preservation. James intimates that Victorian England is not just advanced but decadent, and Updike makes a comparable judgment about contemporary America. Jack Levy, the book’s hero, observes that “the crazy Arabs are right—hedonism, nihilism, that’s all we offer.” But Updike does not consider, as James did, how the reaction against a society’s perceived decadence and injustice can generate something like sympathy for a society’s terroristic enemies.Portrait of a Bureaucrat
Like Charlie in Terrorist, the main character in The Secret Agent, Adolf Verloc, is an undercover agent. He purports to be an anarchist but is in fact an informer in the service of forces opposed to anarchism. Verloc is a far more fully realized character than Charlie, though in fairness to Updike, Verloc is the major character, whereas Charlie is a bit player. Verloc, who lives in London, works for the Embassy of a foreign power. (The power is not named in the book, but it is clearly Russia: Verloc’s controller is named Vladimir.) Disgusted by Britain’s liberal tolerance for the anarchists in its midst, Vladimir commands Verloc to act as an agent provocateur, to foment a plot to bomb the Greenwich Observatory. By doing so he hopes to outrage the British public and to impel a British crackdown on the anarchists.Verloc procures a bomb from a nihilist known as the Professor. He enlists his retarded brother-in-law Stevie to accompany him to Greenwich to set off the bomb. (Vladimir notes the irony of Verloc’s being married: “Married! And you a professed anarchist, too! What is this confounded nonsense?”) Stevie accidentally sets off the bomb prematurely, killing himself without harming the observatory. The bomb is traced to Verloc. When his wife Winnie learns that he is responsible for her brother’s death, she stabs him to death and subsequently commits suicide.Conrad loathed terrorists. In the author’s note preceding the novel, Conrad remarks on “the criminal futility of the whole thing, doctrine, action, mentality; and . . . the contemptible aspect of the half-crazy pose as of a brazen cheat exploiting the poignant miseries and passionate credulities of a mankind always so tragically eager for self-destruction.” And his loathing for terrorists arguably weakens the novel, since the anarchists, in their vanity and laziness, for the most part seem so ridiculous that it is hard to take them seriously as a threat. (The aforementioned Professor, a truly frightening fanatic, is an exception to the rule. “Exterminate, exterminate! That is the only way of progress”, he says.) But if terrorists are ridiculously vain and lazy, it is not clear that they pose enough of a danger to warrant serious novelistic treatment.If Conrad is too dismissive of his anarchists, he is far from idealizing the policemen who oppose them. He portrays them not as heroes but as complex, believable, three-dimensional characters. Conrad focuses on the tension between a career civil servant, Chief Inspector Heat—presumably a Dickensian name meant to describe the man who possesses it—and the political appointee who supervises him, known only as the Assistant Commissioner. Heat is troubled when he learns of the explosion near the observatory, but principally for careerist rather than public-spirited reasons: “The fact of the outrage being attempted less than a week after he had assured a high official that no outbreak of anarchist activity was to be apprehended was . . . annoying.”Conrad notes that Heat was wrong to confidently predict that no terrorist attack was in the offing, since “true wisdom . . . is not certain of anything in this world.” But then true wisdom, embodied in a cautious refusal to make any sort of guarantee,would have prevented [Heat] from attaining his present position. It would have alarmed his superiors, and done away with his chances of promotion. His promotion had been very rapid.
Heat rose rapidly in the ranks because he understands that “as a general rule, a reputation is built on manner as much as on achievement.”In response to the bombing, Heat wants to arrest a well-known anarchist named Michaelis, even though there is little evidence against him, as he had nothing to do with Verloc’s plot. “It seemed to [Heat] an excellent thing to have [Michaelis] in hand to be thrown down to the public should it think to roar with any special indignation in this case”, since “the rules of the game did not protect so much Michaelis, who was an ex-convict.” Arresting Michaelis will also ensure good press: “The journalists who had written [Michaelis] up with emotional gush [when he got out of prison] would be ready to write him down with emotional indignation.” Furthermore, arresting Michaelis has the added advantage of freeing Heat from the far more disturbing prospect of contemplating the arrest of the Professor, who is truly dangerous (and actually guilty as an accessory to the bombing). Thus Heat’s “dislike of being compelled by events to meddle with the desperate ferocity of the Professor had its say.”The Assistant Commissioner is more admirable than Heat, more eager to see justice done than to get good press, but he too is beset by selfish motivations. He is reluctant to arrest Michaelis, largely because his wife’s friend, another exemplar of radical chic, admires him. “She will never forgive me”, he thinks.As a result, bureaucratic conflict simmers between Heat and the Assistant Commissioner. Heat has the advantage of permanence: “Assistant Commissioners come and go, but a valuable Chief Inspector is not an ephemeral office phenomenon.” For his part, the Assistant Commissioner resents the fact that Heat has kept information about Verloc from him. In particular, the Assistant Commissioner opposes Heat’s desire to keep Verloc to himself: “This tool [Verloc] should be surrendered to the Special Crimes division as a whole, instead of remaining the private property of Chief Inspector Heat.”When the Assistant Commissioner learns that Verloc is the agent of a foreign power, and that Heat knew this, he smiles “at the fleeting thought that the reputation of Chief Inspector Heat might possibly have been made in a great part by Secret Agent Verloc”: Verloc’s knowledge of the anarchists’ plans, which he communicated to Heat, has established Heat’s expertise in combating terrorism.The Assistant Commissioner ultimately wants to put an end to the existence of agents provocateurs in the pay of foreign powers in Britain, although he realizes that Heat would understand thisbitterly as protection extended to the criminal class of revolutionists. . . . For [Heat] the plain duty is to fasten the guilt upon as many prominent anarchists as he can on some slight indications he had picked up in the course of his investigation on the spot; whereas I, he would say, am bent upon vindicating their innocence.
Heat is therefore depressed by the outcome of the bomb case, in which Verloc’s culpability is revealed:The turn this affair was taking meant the disclosure of many things—the laying waste of fields of knowledge, which, cultivated by a capable man, had a distinct value for the individual and for the society. It was sorry, sorry meddling. It would leave Michaelis unscathed; it would drag to light the Professor’s home industry; disorganize the whole system of supervision; make no end of a row in the papers, which, from that point of view, appeared to him by a sudden illumination as invariably written by fools for the reading of imbeciles.
In short, in remarkably brief compass Conrad illuminatingly sketches many of the dilemmas that continue to affect counterterrorist work today: the need to preserve sources (which makes it difficult to act on information that one could probably attain only from a secret source), the turf wars between different counterterrorist operations, the problems that the press poses for counterterrorism, and the ways in which public motives are inextricably intertwined with private ones. It’s all as true now as it was when the book first appeared, and there’s nothing remotely like it in Terrorist.Like the unhappy families portrayed by Tolstoy, different groups of fanatics are terroristic each in their own way. Clearly, the anarchist terrorism described by James and Conrad differs drastically from the Islamist terrorism discussed by Updike. After all, no society could be less anarchist than one governed by sharia. That said, similarities exist, as well. One might have thought suicide bombing unique to contemporary Islamist terrorism, but that isn’t so. In Updike’s novel, the Secretary of Homeland Security muses that Islamist terrorists “have one thing going for them: they are eager to die.” It’s worth noting that Conrad’s Professor makes an argument that could easily be voiced by Islamist suicide bombers: The police “are bound in all sorts of conventions. They depend on life . . . whereas I depend on death, which knows no restraint and cannot be attacked. My superiority is evident.” Compare a statement by Hizballah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, who has declared that Hizballah will ultimately vanquish Israel because “the Jews . . . love life and we love death.”Given the similarities between yesterday’s anarchist and today’s Islamist terrorism, it is fair to say that James and Conrad offer a better understanding than Updike not only of terrorism in general, but even of the terrorism that confronts us today. James is better than Updike on the crisis of the West—the disarming suspicion that at least some portion of the critique of the West underlying terrorism is justified. Conrad is better than Updike in showing how the defense of the West is complicated by the human condition—the ineluctable intermixture of selfish and public-spirited motives, which (The Federalist notwithstanding) can’t always be made to mesh smoothly.It’s no disgrace to have written a novel about terrorism that isn’t as good as The Princess Casamassima or The Secret Agent, any more than it’s a disgrace to be a worse golfer than Tiger Woods. And Terrorist is far from disgraceful; it’s a serious and provocative book. Still, the fact remains that a reader in search of illumination about terrorism, and specifically the Islamist version we currently face, will learn more from James’s and Conrad’s classic sociological novels than from Updike’s contemporary psychological one.