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Archive for July 11th, 2006

pêcheur

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Marx claimed that with the accomplishment of socialism, a typical day might consists of fishing in the morning, tending sheep in the afternoon, and writing literary criticism at night. But we are left to wonder: what sort of literature would such a world produce for criticism to attend to? On what terms would such a criticism proceed? Surely, the years of refining bourgeois recidivism out of the novel would have long ended by this time… Surely it is easier to purge bourgeois recidivism from the novel than to overthrow the division of labor in real life?

Speaking of Marx, Francis Wheen (unfortunately a Eustonite) had a rather nice piece in the Guardian this weekend on Marx and literature, Marx as modernist.

Like Frenhofer, Marx was a modernist avant la lettre. His famous account of dislocation in the Communist Manifesto – “all that is solid melts into air” – prefigures the hollow men and the unreal city depicted by TS Eliot, or Yeats’s “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”. By the time he wrote Das Kapital, he was pushing out beyond conventional prose into radical literary collage – juxtaposing voices and quotations from mythology and literature, from factory inspectors’ reports and fairy tales, in the manner of Ezra Pound’s Cantos or Eliot’s The Waste Land. Das Kapital is as discordant as Schoenberg, as nightmarish as Kafka.

Marx saw himself as a creative artist, a poet of dialectic. “Now, regarding my work, I will tell you the plain truth about it,” he wrote to Engels in July 1865. “Whatever shortcomings they may have, the advantage of my writings is that they are an artistic whole.” It was to poets and novelists, far more than to philosophers or political essayists, that he looked for insights into people’s material motives and interests: in a letter of December 1868 he copied out a passage from another work by Balzac, The Village Priest, and asked if Engels could confirm the picture from his own knowledge of practical economics. Had he wished to write a conventional economic treatise he would have done so, but his ambition was far more audacious. Berman describes the author of Das Kapital as “one of the great tormented giants of the 19th century – alongside Beethoven, Goya, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Ibsen, Nietzsche, Van Gogh – who drive us crazy, as they drove themselves, but whose agony generated so much of the spiritual capital on which we still live”.

Yet how many people would think of including Marx in a list of great writers and artists? Even in our postmodern era, the fractured narrative and radical discontinuity of Das Kapital are mistaken by many readers for formlessness and incomprehensibility. Anyone willing to grapple with Beethoven, Goya or Tolstoy should be able to “learn something new” from a reading of Das Kapital – not least because its subject still governs our lives. As Berman asks: how can Das Kapital end while capital lives on? It is fitting that Marx never finished his masterpiece. The first volume was the only one to appear in his lifetime, and the subsequent volumes were assembled by others after his death, based on notes and drafts found in his study. Marx’s work is as open-ended – and thus as resilient – as the capitalist system itself.

Although Das Kapital is usually categorised as a work of economics, Marx turned to the study of political economy only after many years of spadework in philosophy and literature. It is these intellectual foundations that underpin the project, and it is his personal experience of alienation that gives such intensity to the analysis of an economic system which estranges people from one another and from the world they inhabit – a world in which humans are enslaved by the monstrous power of capital and commodities.

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July 11, 2006 at 10:30 am