Joseph Conrad and the Darkness of Heart. Part I. “The Secret Agent”.

Screenshot 2014-03-25 11.19.00Joseph Conrad is considered one of the most important writers in the 20th century. He was Born in 1857 in Berdichev, a region of Poland which today belongs to Ukraine. He became a British national at the age of 29, using English as his writing language.

Conrad is a prolific author who wrote dozens of short stories, novels, and travel journals. He excelled at the subject of adventures, including colonial undertakings in Africa. He is less known for his prophetical novels on the political intrigues and conflicts in Europe which reveal his profound knowledge and insight of these complicated issues.

Some situations portrayed in his political novels Under the Western Eyes and The Secret Agent could still be easily identified in the present time. Even if these extraordinary novels are fictional, both contain rich descriptions of certain terrorist plots or activities of the “agent provocateurs” and spies paid by foreign governments.

The main purpose of hiring these kind of agents is to warn their recruiting governments about the potentially dangerous activities of the radical groups. Governments that pay for this kind of “dark agents” also attempt to spread their influences in other countries.

The Secret Agent, written in 1907, is the story of Mr. Verloc, an agent employed by the French Government to report about the activities and plans of socialists, anarchists and other underground political figures living in London. These type of personalities would gather late in the evening in Mr. Verloc’s small shop which, on the surface, sells “obscure newspapers, badly printed, with titles like ‘The Torch’,‘The Gong’—rousing titles” with windows displaying “photographs of more or less undressed dancing girls”. Mr. Verloc was also one of the Vice-Presidents of an organization named “The Future of the Proletariat”

Despite all these links, Mr. Verloc enjoys a comfortable bourgeois double life with his family until he receives a “peremptory letter” summoning him to the French Embassy in the daytime, an unprecedented and unpleasant situation that can damage his image with his comrades.

He is received with some contempt by a new First Secretary, who says “I have here some of your reports” mocking Verloc’s accounts as useless and expensive. “In the time of Baron Stott-Wartenheim (the previous French Ambassador) we had a lot of soft-headed people running this Embassy.” And he continues, “What is required at present is not writing.. now we want facts…”

To convey what he means by “facts” and what Mr. Verloc is required to do to continue getting paid, the French diplomat explains that his government considers it “dangerous” that England has an absurd “sentimental regard for individual liberty position” opposing to tougher measures to combat political dissidents, soon to be discussed in an international meeting on security issues. “What we want is to administer a tonic to the Conference in Milan,” he says, “..its deliberations upon international action for the suppression of political crime don’t seem to get anywhere. England lags.“, the bureaucrat claims.

The First Secretary carries on his monologue outlining his plan to “induce” England to accept new repressive policies. He orders Mr. Verloc to organise a series of terrorist acts to be “executed here in this country; not only planned here”. That will shock and scare the middle class, turning them in favour of measures to make them feel secure. These acts, he says “…must be sufficiently startling—effective. Let them be directed against buildings…the fetish of the hour that all the bourgeoisie recognise…”.

Almost as an anticipated ominous warning, 94 years after this novel was published, the U.S. suffered a series of well-planned terrorist attacks in 2001, mainly targeted at buildings, killing more that 3,000 people and destroying the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, one of the most famous Manhatan landmarks.

In this classical novel, Joseph Conrad demonstrates his deep understanding of the radical minds of his time behind convulsive political intrigues that created tensions and serious conflicts, ending with the First World War.

It is clear that Conrad was aware of the destructive nature of radical ideologies that tended to justify violence and terrorism, disregarding innocent human lives for the sake of an abstract cause. In The Secret Agent and Under the Western Eyes he explores the so-called “Heart of Darkness”, a metaphor of dark spirit, as used in the book title of one of his most famous novels.

These two works, written more than 100 years ago, are not the only classic novels that deal with these current complex political and social topics. Dostoyevsky, some 30 years before Conrad, wrote The Possessed, a.k.a. Devils or Demons, which also tackles  terrorism, a topic that regrettably continues to be very much alive today.


Excerpts From: Conrad, Joseph. “The Secret Agent.” iBooks.

Letters as an Art Form and a Source of History. Part II. Rilke, Kafka, Van Gogh, Freud, Churchill, Lennon

Screenshot 2014-03-18 11.19.41Part II

…. I will provide some of the historic contexts and literary backgrounds, starting with the correspondences between Thomas Mann and Herman Hesse, two renowned literature Nobel Prize winners, including texts that showed their fears during the rise of Nazism in Germany and Hitler’s arrival to power. They wrote about the impact of this dark regime in their literary works as well as their feelings on witnessing the tragedy their own country was going through during those years. Even in the early days of Hitler both authors sensed that something very wrong was happening to their country. As  Thomas Mann mentioned in his letter dated July 1933 to Hesse, “Day by day news from Germany, the deceit, the violence, the ridiculous show of ‘historical grandeur’, the sheer cruelty, fill me with horror, contempt and revulsion”. In 1934 Mann wrote, “I am so plagued by the happenings in Germany, they are such a torment to my moral and critical conscience, that I seem to be unable to carry on with my current literary work.” Hesse, on the other hand, expressed his fear for the safety of his family and close friends, “At the moment any wrath aroused by my name is likely to bring physical mistreatment and other troubles on my friends”, he wrote in February 1937. By contrast, in most of their letters, there are direct references to the books which they were reading and what they were writing at that time. With great eloquence, Pete Hamill wrote an introduction to the latest English re-print edition by Jorge Pinto Books, describing his experience reading the letters, “…I feel like some privileged guest in a special room, sitting off to the side somewhere, listening while these men talk.

To complement the views of these two exceptional writers regarding the horrors which followed Hitler’s destructive path from the early 1930s, there are also some relevant passages in the letter that Winston Churchill wrote to his wife Clementine before the UK’s involvement in World War II, giving his account of the events that had led to the war. These personal letters provide a spontaneous personal description of the challenges that his country and Europe were facing at the time.

In a less somber theme, I find Rainer Maria Rilke’s letters to Lou Andreas-Salome refreshing, under the title “Rilke and Andreas-Salome: a love story in letters” and his own “Letters to a Young Poet”, which include references to poetry and love. The content of these letters show his frankness and desire for intellectual conversations and are full of wisdom, showing at the same time the unique passionate sensibility of this great artist and his immense capacity to express and discuss love.

The same characteristic can also be found in the letters of Franz Kafka to his two lovers, Milena and Felice, to whom he almost wrote daily. From the two collections, we realize that Kafka is not only a great novelist but also a fertile and passionate correspondent.

The collections of avant-garde artist Van Gogh’s letters to Theo, his brother, are full of references to what art and painting meant to him as well as to other famous artists such as Monet and Gauguin.

The extensive correspondence of Sigmund Freud to his fiancé, colleagues, patients, friends and family members show how the Father of Psychoanalysis used letters to share his knowledge and insight of the human condition way beyond his professional realm.

Sending letters in the past required time and patience. Correspondence has its own protocol: once a letter is completed, it is usually sent folded in an envelope and, in some cases, sealed with wax to avoid tampering. Some rich individuals and government officials have their own trusted messengers; others might ask friends or relatives to deliver their letters just to feel more secure. Postal services have existed since ancient times in a relay fashion similar to ours, with one messenger passing letters on to another at a certain post or tavern along defined routes linking different cities and even countries. With the introduction of a more affordable national postal service together with a growing educated and well-traveled middle class in the mid-18th century, letter writing began to flourish with messages exchanged almost globally. That form of communication requires people to wait patiently for weeks before the postmen bring replies to their messages. To illustrate what expecting a letter meant I would like to quote from the final paragraph of one of Mrs. Churchill’s letters to her husband Winston in 1915: “The post will be here in a few minutes & eagerly await a letter from you”.  Sigmund Freud seemed to be frustrated with the slow postal system and complained to Carl Jung in 1911, “I am writing you again this year, because I can’t always wait for you to answer and prefer to write when I have time and am in the mood… “.

An interesting phenomenon of letter communication is the fact that active writers, in general, are highly disciplined and tend to keep organized collections of their letters to make it easy for people to publish them after they die. In some cases, a close family member becomes the editor, as is the case with “The Personal Letters of the Churchills”, of whose selection and editing their daughter Mary Soames was in charge. Likewise, it was Freud’s son Ernest L. who compiled and edited a selection of his father’s letters addressed to Einstein, Thomas Mann, H. G. Wells, Maria Montessori, Carl Jung, Romain Rolland and many others, under the title The Letters of Sigmund Freud. Most of the editions of the collections of letters in the form of a book are made by scholars who are given access to the archives of the original copies.

Letters of famous people can be valuable tangible assets and kept in museums for safe storage and exhibition. For example, in the renowned Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, the letters of Albert Barnes, its founder and collector, to various artists, intellectuals, gallery owners, etc. are displayed with detailed context and background to show how and why some of the art works of the Museum were acquired.

The material value of letters can be confirmed by the regular auctions where many important letters can fetch a big sum of money depending on who the writers are. To give an idea: the price of a hand-written letter from John Lennon to Eric Clapton reached a pre-sale estimate of US$20,000 to $30,000 in an auction by Profiles in History, a leading dealer in original historical autographs, letters and manuscripts. Two days ago the Financial Times published an article about a new sale of another manuscript by Lennon this time at at Sotheby’s for the same estimated price.

Reading these collections gives a glimpse of the richness of the form of the written communication that is being lost little by little with the arrival of modern technology, including personal computers, internet and portable electronic devices such as iPhones and iPads together with many social platforms which have changed the way we read, interact and communicate with others.

The new media to communicate show a striking contrast through a simpler and instantaneous process: messages can be sent soon after finished with a click of a button. Particularly with improved eMail applications in smartphones, correspondences tend to be fast, made even on the road. Computers, smartphones and tablets have replaced ink, paper and typewriters, whereas internet and wireless communications have greatly diminished the role of the much slower traditional postal services.

Today, almost everybody is connected, receiving and sending dozens of emails a day and probably posting notes and photos on Twitter, Facebook and other social platforms or messaging services. The new communication styles are tremendously different from those of traditional letter-writing, reserved for private moments.

We can easily imagine that in the near future we will see books with selections of private relevant e-mails by famous people. Some of their e-mails could become valuable items for various reasons. Private disk drives and other storage devices could be worth a fortune. Just imagine the value of a selection of Steve Jobs personal e-mail archive!

The abandoning of physical letter-writing as a communication method replaced by electronic mailing is so unprecedented that Malcolm Jones, the well-known author of book reviews, considers that the “decline in letter writing constitutes a cultural shift so vast that in the future, historians may divide time not between B.C. and A.D. but between the eras when people wrote letters and when they did not

Bibliography Part I & II:

1. Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann. Introduction by Pete Hamill. The Hesse-Mann letters,1910-1955. Jorge Pinto Books, 2006.

2. Rainer Maria Rilke, Lou Andreas-Salome, Edward Snow (Translator) “Rilke and Andreas-Salome; a love story in letters” W.W. Norton, 1988

3. Rainer Maria Rilke Letters to a Young Poet. Dover Publications, 2012.

4. Franz Kafka, Letters to Felice, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1988.

5. Franz Kafka, Letters to Milena, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1990.

6. Vincent van Gogh, The Letters: The Complete Illustrated and Annotated Edition, edited by Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten, and Nienke Bakker, Thames & Hudson, London, 2009.

7. Mary Soames, Winston Churchill, Clementine Churchill. The Personal Letters of the Churchills.Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999.

8. Sigmund Freud. Letters of Sigmund Freud. Edited by Ernest L. Freud. Dover, 1992

9. Peter Aspden John Lennon as writer and artist. Financial Times, March 15, 2014

10. Malcolm Jones. The Good Word. Newsweek, January 17, 2009. Link:

Letters as an Art Form and a Source of History Part I: Thomas Mann-Herman Hesse

FrontCoverBooks with collections of letters written by prominent artists, writers, thinkers, politicians, psychotherapists etc. are rich sources of knowledge which help us to understand different aspects of human nature such as love and friendship and others.

This literary genre allows readers to explore various facets of the personality and temperament of especially those who disguised they true nature or were distorted in their biographies which are sometimes full of lies and self flatteries.

Most of the published letters contain personal exchanges between people that dedicated time and passion to correspond with their lovers, families, friends and so forth. Such material reveals the personality, mood, taste, and personal challenges of the letter-writers. It also gives us the opportunity to get to know the atmosphere of their times and in some cases what was happening when the letters were written, including the spirit of their times, i.e. Zeitgeist.

In general, published correspondences were kept and organized by the writers and/or the addressees, and after their death, these writings passed on to their families or friends, which sometimes resulted in their ending up in museums or foundations or private collections. These institutions or individuals that are in possession of the collections  sometimes license the rights to publish books with selections made by experts or authors’ close relatives, who sometimes provide the context of the letters.

Letters also serve as an important source of information for biographers who can quote the writers directly expressing their own voices and intimate feelings that are always relevant for the readers to understand a writer’s character. For example, the controversial Russian author Lou Andreas-Salome used letters to support the biographies on the life and works of  Frederick Nietzsche and passionate poet Rainer Maria Rilke respectively, both were romantically linked to her in their lifetime.

There are also many examples of fictional letters that are regularly used in novels as part of a plot, including Ian McEwan’s recent novel “Sweet Tooth” in which letters form an  essential part of the story. Fictional letters are also used in The Flash and Outbreak of a Fiery Mind by Dale M. Moyer Ph.D. who published the imaginary correspondences that “Martha Bernays wrote to her fiancé, Sigmund Freud during the four years of their engagement.” Irving Yalom in his novel When Nietzsche Wept used letters from this famous philosopher to build up a fictional story based on real life events.

We find multiple examples of films in which letters play a central role in the story. A good example is The Go Between (1970) by Joseph Losey where in the summer of 1900, a 13-year-old boy helped to carried letters between two secret lovers. The film is based on a novel by L.P. Hartley with the same tile.

Likewise, the form of letters is used in plays such as Vita and Virginia by Eileen Atkins, which is heavily based on the intelligent and passionated letters between the two British writers Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf who exchanged letters for some 20 years until Woolf’s suicide in 1941. Actresses Vanessa Redgrave and Eileen Atkins payed the two writers when the play was premiered in New York in 1994.

I would like to mention a few collections of letters, mainly from some letter-writers who lived between the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, a turbulent era with two devastating World Wars but at the same time full of creativity and romanticism.

I will provide some of the historic contexts and literary backgrounds, starting with the correspondences between Thomas Mann and Herman Hesse, the two renowned literature Nobel Prize winners, including texts that showed their fears during the rise of Nazism in Germany and the arrival of Hitler’s arrival to power.

(To be continued)


Bibliography Part I & II:

1. Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann. Introduction by Pete Hamill. The Hesse-Mann letters,1910-1955. Jorge Pinto Books, 2006.

2. Rainer Maria Rilke, Lou Andreas-Salome, Edward Snow (Translator) “Rilke and Andreas-Salome; a love story in letters” W.W. Norton, 1988

3. Rainer Maria Rilke Letters to a Young Poet. Dover Publications, 2012.

4. Franz Kafka, Letters to Felice, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1988.

5. Franz Kafka, Letters to Milena, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1990.

6. Vincent van Gogh, The Letters: The Complete Illustrated and Annotated Edition, edited by Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten, and Nienke Bakker, Thames & Hudson, London, 2009.

7. Mary Soames, Winston Churchill, Clementine Churchill. The Personal Letters of the Churchills.Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999.

8. Sigmund Freud. Letters of Sigmund Freud. Edited by Ernest L. Freud. Dover, 1992

9. Malcolm Jones. The Good Word. Newsweek, January 17, 2009. Link:

Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe and the Power of Destructive Love

Screenshot 2014-03-03 00.51.43Adolphe is a sorrowful classic novella by Benjamin Constant, first published in London and Paris in 1816. The  book has captivated numerous scholars and romantic readers  who are lucky to discover it. In 2002 french director Benoît Jacquot adapted Adolphe into a film starring the celebrated actress Isabelle Adjani.

 Benjamin Constant was born in Lausanne Switzerland and is best known for his books on politics. He was an active liberal political figure at the end of the French Revolution as a member of the Directory in 1799 and then of the “Tribunal”, but was forced to resign by Napoleon Bonaparte for his radical ideas on democratic rules as well as usurpation of power which form the core of his writings.

 Some believes that Adolphe is an autobiographical novella since Constant happened to be a seducer as well in his real life. Like Adolphe, he also pursued older women or neglected wives who tend to be vulnerable emotional-wise, making them easy preys of skilful lovers.

Constant had a 15-year long romantic relation with Germaine de Staël, with whom he became very close politically and emotionally. She was forced to exile from Napoleon’s Paris and settled in Château de Coppet near Geneva where she organised famous gatherings of “Salon” style, attended by refugees and political thinkers to talk about  international events. Before Adophe was published, Mme de Staël had written two novels which can be seen as “inversed mirror” of Constant’s novella since the victim is not a tormented married woman who becomes madly in love with a younger and selfish lover as in Adolph, but a married man that falls in love with a woman who makes him suffer as she does with other men. Like Constant, Mme de Staël also used the main characters’ names as the titles of novels – Corinne (1802) and Delphine (1807).

There has been three editions of Adolphe, in 1816, 1824 and 1828 respectively. Each of the second and third came with a preface explaining why the work was reprinted. The  novella exists in the form of a diary of a young man which is sent by the inn keeper in a box to a publisher who is stranded by a snow storm and comes across a stranger who happens to be the writer and who has vanished. The content of the mysterious box is described by the publisher as “a quantity of very old letters either unaddressed or on which the addresses and as signatures were illegible, a woman’s portrait and a notebook containing the anecdote or story you are about to read.” The fictional publisher remembers that stranger as “..very silent and looked sad. He showed no impatience. Now and again, as he was the only man in the place to whom I could talk” and “when the roads were reopened and we could have set off, the stranger fell seriously ill”.

 Adolphe, the narrator of the novella recalls that at the age of twenty two his father, a government official, sent him “on a tour of the most interesting European countries” where he leads “a very dissipated life”. He looks back to the moment when he falls in love with Ellénore, a married woman who is ten years older than him. Initially she turns down this younger suitor who uses his charms to win over her love. She eventually gives up her stable and privileged status and abandons her husband for a short, passionate and then, in the end, painful love affair.

In the beginning Adolphe finds profound pleasure with his seducing adventure and describes how “younger men.. were delighted with the skill with which I had supplanted the Count“, i.e. Ellénore’s husband, and “congratulated me on my conquest and undertook to imitate me.”

However, Ellénore feels the opposite as she “soon realised that opinion was turning against her”. Women friends including family members, “broke off the connexion with the greatest possible ostentation”.  Men, on the other hand, “came …because she was still a attractive and her recent frailty had given them aspirations they made no effort to disguise.

The happy beginning of the affair soon brings disgrace and social isolation. Adolphe’s father who cares about his son’s future career decides to break the relationship. At the same time Adolphe is getting bored and trying to end an affair which becomes a heavy emotional as well as social burden. The book focuses on the feelings and state of mind of a desperate lover, that is Ellénore, who suffers to see her beloved becoming distant  which almost reaches a point of cruelty.

Adolph is aware that Ellénore has sacrificed everything for him, now that she is socially cut-off and continues to be attached and deeply in love with him. He also perceives that a separation will bring utter despair and pain to her which might lead to a suicide.

There are many stories about enduring love which is made possible only when each of the couple is “lover” and “beloved” at the same time. Somehow it is not the case with Adolphe, which deals with unhealthy relationships pursued by immature egocentric seducers who target fragile persons, which always have tragic endings since the seducers, once achieve their conquests, stop being a pursuing “lover” but, for vanity’s sake, allow themselves to be “loved” and thus cause enormous pain.

 There are many other novels which follow the same pattern, such as Senso, written by Camillo Boito and adapted into film by Luccino Visconti in 1954. The Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carlson MaCullers brilliantly portrays this type of relationship. When she describes a love relationship, she distinguishes the “lover” and the “beloved”. Clearly  “the beloved is only a stimulus for all the stored-up love which has lain quiet within the lover for a long time… The beloved may be treacherous, greasy-headed, and given to evil habits. Yes, and the lover may see this as clearly as anyone else—but that does not affect the evolution of his love one whit.” – this is how the prototype of the character Adolphe could be depicted by the author of the Ballad.

 Benjamin Constant In this brief novella explores with considerable knowledge the social context in the post French Revolution Europe and shows a profound understanding of individual feelings and the psychological state of mind of those who confuse love with infatuation.


1. Excerpts From: Benjamin Constant. “Adolphe.”. Pinguin Books, 1964 iBooks.

 2. Excerpts From: Carson McCullers The Ballad of the Sad.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Cafe. 2005.

3. Benjamin Constant. The Spirit of Conquest and Usurpation, 1814.