News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Part 1 of a review of Karl Marx by Frances Wheen

One of the telling things about Karl Marx is that his theories gained such broad currency despite being so counterintuitive to a person of experience. Marx starts out with dubious propositions, juggles incredible logic on the way to developing nigh impossible prognostications. But then, of course, Marx offered an essentially secular edition of the meek shall inherit the earth; which is to say the ne'er do wells, mediocrities, hard-luck Charlies, and garden variety fuck-ups which constitute so much of the population of all nations were given an encouraging heads-up and a spiritual lifting up by the bootstraps by Karl and his crew. Needless to say, this get-rich-quick sure-cure that Marx hawked, and surely didn't believe a word of, only benefited himself and his pals, many of whom surely did believe it and swallowed the bill of goods whole hog in one fantastic gulp; those with greater gifts of the EQ, if not the IQ, such as Lenin and Pol Pot, gave it an upgrade that enabled them to do really handsomely.

On the back of the book is a blurb by Nick Hornby, the author of such pop fiction works as High Fidelity, which you may have caught in the movie form. In Hornby's Guardian review he wrote, "I'll read anything by Frances Wheen, even a biography of Karl Marx, and my trust was not misplaced: the simple elegance of the writing, and Wheen's ability to winkle humor out of the most unpromising subject, results in a book which is far more pleasurable than anyone had the right to expect."

But Frances Wheen goes way out of his way to load up his sentences with unintelligible cleverness and cocktail party humor: From page 22:

What is dialectic? As any school child with a set of magnets - or, for that matter, any dating agency - will confirm, opposites can attract. If it were not so, the human race would be extinct. Female mates with male, and from their sweaty embrace a new creature emerges who will, eventually, repeat the process. Not always, of course, but often enough to ensure the survival of progress of the species.

The dialectic performs much the same function for the human mind. An idea, stripped naked, has a passionate grapple with its antithesis, from which a synthesis is created; this in turn becomes the new thesis, to be duly seduced by a new demon lover. Two wrongs may make a right - but, soon after its birth, that right becomes another wrong which must be subjected to the same intimate scrutiny as its forebears, thus we go forward. Marx's own engagement with Hegel was itself something of a dialectical process, from which emerged the nameless infant that was to become historical materialism.

This wheezing humor, this dreadful collecting of platitudes, this babysitting and hand-holding of the reader, plus the incurable addiction to the poetic, all performed at the expense of clarity, is most noticeable of all in the author's choice of quotes from Karl Marx's letters and works; a selection which is not flattering to the Prophet himself and which would suggest that Marx was incapable of writing an intelligible sentence. Then again, the author no doubt is mad about Marx because both have a rather diffident relationship with reality. Likes attract. Again, much of Marx, like Edward Said or Robert Kaplan, is unintelligible because all were far more interested in writing blank verse than prose. Nevertheless, Marx does fall to earth and write clearly at times, achieving an effect similar to when Biblical verse has been translated from the original Shakespearean into the modern vernacular by American protestant churches; which is to say, reducing poetry to syllogism which can then be tested for its logic and which, in the case of both the Bible and Marx, unluckily tends to fall on its face.

For example, from page 14: 'Social reforms,' Karl Marx wrote, when warning the working-class not to expect any philanthropy from capitalism,' are never carried out by the weakness of the strong; but always by the strength of the weak.' The strength of the weak?

In a laudable attempt to show superiority to his subject (there's nothing worse than authors affecting equality with the comman-man ignoramuses they usual deal with) the author points out, though not here unfortunately, that Marx has a weakness for trying too hard to find or fit a contradiction into everything. Marx, having come across a verbal effect that worked, in the manner of a one-trick Vaudeville comic, works it to death and wears out his welcome with the serious reader. Marx's heroic effort to marry poetry with syllogism becomes very tiring when one is trying to understand what the old fraud was on about. Though, of course, no doubt part of his success lies in the fact that his verbal effects, like those of any mob-master, obscure the logic of the underlying argument; when there is any.

That Marx would be an unpromising subject for humor to Nick Hornby is simply further evidence that most novelists, from Cervantes to Steinbeck, from Dickens to Nick Hornby, are ignorant, shallow, incurious, and not only devoid of ideas, but have no aptitude for juggling or generating them either; a claim that, admittedly, their readers will likely find offensive and presumptuous. To hell with their readers. I have a tough time taking novel-readers seriously as it is. Which, of course, explains why I write such bad novels...haha...

Anyway, anyone within even a passing acquaintance with Marx's life, or even just his writing (which, after all, is to be found infesting libraries, academe, and the internet), would presume that Marx must have led a fabulously interesting life. After all, like all prophets he found the elite and, unluckily all too often the great masses of the downtrodden as well, to not be too terribly fond of free speech. He was banished from his home country of Germany, banished from France, and spent most of his adult life in England where he roused his fans with millenarian predictions that socialism would break out like the black plague; but, which instead turned out to be no more than a profitable and newsworthy scare like SARS. Either way, Marx led an exciting and unusually languorous and sedentary life of sponging from everyone in his ambient environment, finally settling on Engels as the chief host to parasitize, with his daughters following down the glorious sponging path he had cleared for them and soaking Engels for all they could as well.

As a youth the eager and ambitious Marx wetted a finger, put it in the air and accurately forecast where his best chances lay for raking in the rubes. He and Engels grew beards and became swamis to the growing German socialist movement. He took day jobs for a while, serving as a newspaper and freelance reporter. Taking to the writing of tomes, he was involved in scandals concerning the veracity of some sources and the invention of others, while also getting caught toying with the words of individuals he claimed to be quoting verbatim. Engels went down the same slippery route and ended up also being found out in ignominious detail. Predating the post-modernists, both were proud members of the cult of victimhood which has a displayed a curiously consistent habit, from Canada's Farley Mowat to America's Noam Chomsky to Egypt's Edward Said to Australia's Lyndall Ryan and Henry Reynolds, of never letting the facts get in the way of the truth. If all of this weren't fodder enough to make a life interesting, Marx also refused to take baths, his skin was covered in boils regularly, he couldn't keep his friends, and he was a rough-handed racist who recklessly heaved heavy, greasy epithets at his enemies; the latter being one of the only things, in an irregular and dilettante life, that he succeeded in manufacturing on a regular basis. He was born into a family of middle-class means, died penniless but satisfied, having made a great success out of squeezing money out of suckers beginning with his doting parents whom he otherwise ignored (dodging his father's funeral, for example) while at the same time being fanatically egotistical and rude in a manner perhaps only outdone by the founder of the modern pimping line, the great Rousseau: a master-sponge who has deservedly won the admiration of hucksters and shysters for generations past and who will no doubt continue to do so forever more.

No comments:

Post a Comment