Vanity: The Mother of all Noble and Vile Illusions

Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad

It’s usually more fun to think about other people’s problems, but we can never get away from ourselves. And our fixations on others can teach us a lot about ourselves. For example, if you often hear yourself saying, “Dave is such a jerk for always talking about how much money he has,” you are probably more than a little bit jealous. Or, if you are constantly telling yourself, “It’s a good thing I don’t drink as much as Larry. He really has a problem,” well, you might just be an alcoholic.

I have found that a great opportunity for reflection is the moment after the flood of hostility and righteous indignation has passed. But first I have to remind myself that it’s not my task in life to figure out what’s wrong with everybody else.

But in order for human beings to function as social organisms, some level of interest in others is necessary. A perfectly solipsistic person who spends all his psychic energy focused upon his inner world would be incapable of social interaction in addition to being a tedious bore. (Think Sheldon Cooper minus the modicum of concern he has for the rest of humanity.)

Our view of the world is filtered through the prism of our thoughts and feelings; the trick is to maintain some level of sanity by achieving a workable harmony between our inner and outer worlds. People who are unable to reconcile the pain and frustrations of this world with their need to assert some level of dignity often resort to drastic solutions. As Joseph Conrad notes of the hapless, ragtag lot of would-be world-fixers in The Secret Agent:

in their own way the most ardent of revolutionaries 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.

Broken on the inside but lacking the requisite courage and self-understanding to confront their pain, Conrad’s misbegotten idealists endeavor vainly to incite a revolution that will obliterate their woes.

There are two types of revolutionaries in The Secret Agent: The fanatics (The Professor and Karl Yundt) and the ineffectual justice-seekers (Michaelis, Comrade Ossipan, and Stevie.) (Verloc, the paid informant of an unidentified foreign power, is, of course, no sort of revolutionary at all.) Conrad sums up theses two sects:

the majority of revolutionists are the enemies of discipline and fatigue mostly. There are natures too, to whose sense of justice the price exacted looms up monstrously enormous, odious, oppressive, worrying, humiliating, extortionate, intolerable. Those are the fanatics. The remaining portion of social rebels is accounted for by vanity, the mother of all noble and vile illusions, the companion of poets, reformers, charlatans, prophets, and incendiaries.

For the two fanatics in The Secret Agent, this monstrously enormous sense of justice is crammed inside their feeble little egos. The ghoulish Karl Yundt (The Terrorist) is obsessed with manly violence and self-glorifying violence. In his twisted, misanthropic mind, destruction is the highest form of benevolence:

I have always dreamed,” he mouthed, fiercely, “of a band 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, and free from the taint of that resigned pessimism which rots the world. No pity for anything on earth, including themselves, and death enlisted for good and all in the service of humanity–that’s what I would have liked to see.”

In striking contrast to Yundt, the Professor doesn’t require any followers. This man actually is an island. He lives, works, and plots his destruction alone. As he brags to Ossipan: “I’ve the grit to work alone, quite alone, absolutely alone. I’ve worked alone for years.” The professor’s gargantuan vanity feeds his acute need for isolation. It’s not his fault that humanity refuses to bow in obeisance to his manifest greatness.

His struggles, his privations, his hard work to raise himself in the social scale, had filled him with such an exalted conviction of his merits that it was extremely difficult for the world to treat him with justice— the standard of that notion depending so much upon the patience of the individual. The Professor had genius, but lacked the great social virtue of resignation.

And no one, not even the Professor, deserves to live in a world where the Professor is not adequately appreciated: “What happens to us as individuals is not of the least consequence,” he tells Ossipon.

The Professor is ready to blow himself up at any moment as a means of “affirming his superiority over all the multitude of mankind.” Like the petulant child who constantly threatens to take his ball and go home, the Professor is perpetually prepared to obliterate himself in order to prevent anyone from ever getting the best of him.

In order to preserve this illusion of strength, the Professor has convinced himself that his utter fear of humanity is a mark of virtue: “There are very few people in the world whose character is as well established as mine.”

Too vain, too pure, and too weak to scrutinize his inability to engage in the quotidian give-and-take of human interaction, the Professor’s fear of intimacy manifests itself as a twisted death wish which is only heroic in his own mind.

They depend on life, which, in this connection, is a historical fact surrounded by all sorts of restraints and considerations, a complex organised fact to attack at every point; whereas I depend on death, which knows no restraint and cannot be attacked. My superiority is evident.

Conrad notes that an appetite for intrigue and action is a prerequisite for the constable as well as the revolutionary: “The terrorist and the policeman both come form the same basket.” In contrast to the would-be revolutionists in The Secret Agent, however, Chief Inspector Heat and the Assisstant Commissioner possess sufficient self-awareness to maintain their sanity. (This is no small achievement. As Joseph Wambaugh notes, police work involves “a daily drop of corrosion.”) The Assistant Commissioner finds police work messy and unpleasant, but an honest self-appraisal allows him to keep his psyche intact.

No man engaged in a work he does not like can preserve many saving illusions about himself. The distaste, the absence of glamour, extend from the occupation to the personality. It is only when our appointed activities seem by a lucky accident to obey the particular earnestness of our temperament that we can taste the comfort of complete self-deception

Idealists have brought us, among other things, the abolition of slavery, child labor laws, and universal suffrage. The world is a better place for their efforts. But Joseph Conrad reminds us that “the way of even the most justifiable revolutions is prepared by personal impulses disguised into creeds.”

Richard W. Bray

Tags: , , ,