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

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Part 2 of a review of Karl Marx by Frances Wheen (first draft & incomplete)

With regard to Marx's weakness for phrases, this is in part explained on page 19: Unlike his own son, Edgar, the Marx boy [i.e Karl Marx, the prophet] had a hunger for knowledge and a quick intelligence with which to digest it. On long walks together, the old man would recite long passages from Homer and Shakespeare to his young companion. Marx came to know much of Shakespeare by heart - and used it to good effect, salting and peppering his adult writings with apt quotations and analogies from the plays.' His respect for Shakespeare was boundless: he made a detailed study of his works and knew even the least important of his characters,' Marx's son-in-law Paul recalled. 'His whole family had a real cult for the great English dramatist; his three daughters knew many of his works by heart. When after 1848 he wanted to perfect his knowledge of English, which he could already read, he sought out and classified all Shakespeare's original expressions.'

On page 25 appears the following: His reading list from this period shows the breadth of these intellectual explorations: who else, while composing a philosophy of law, would think it worthwhile to make a detailed study of Johann Joachim Winkelmann's History of Art? ... In the next semester, while devouring dozens of textbooks on civil procedure and cannon law, he translated Aristotle's Rhetoric, read Francis Bacon and 'spent a good deal of time on Reimarus, to whose book on the artistic instincts of animals I applied my mind with delight'.

With regard to the first sentence, intelligent people who self-study a field often engage in interdisciplinary exploration. They have the time and definitely the motivation, and the fact that Frances Wheen would find this novel is very suggestive as to his own range of erudition. As to the second sentence, passing over the dubious likelihood that anyone would devour dozens of textbooks on any field, there comes a simple question of why an intelligent person not chained to a university lecture-hall desk would devour textbooks in any number in the first place? Textbooks are almost always written by mediocrities: did Newton, Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, or George Orwell write textbooks? University textbooks are almost always the worst source of information for anything.

Another example perhaps of the burble of flowing words, a further proof that neither Frances Wheen nor Karl Marx were generally interested in ideas but yearned instead for the narcotic of poetry, is found on page 28: No false modesty there: at the age of 19 he was already trying on the clothes of a Man of Destiny and finding that they fitted him handsomely. Now that he had begun the next stage of life, he wanted to erect a memorial to what he had lived through - ' and where could a more sacred dwelling place be found for it than in the heart of the parent, the most merciful judge, the most intimate sympathizer, the sun of love whose warming fire is felt at the innermost center of our endeavors!'

One might complain that this is Marx at the tender young age of 19, when the desire for poetry is allegedly at its apex, though I never could stomache the stuff myself at any age. However, the Communist Manifesto which he wrote in 1848 as a ripe adult is full of the same sort of tripe: The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his "natural superiors", and has left no other nexus between people than naked self-interest, than callous "cash payment". It has drowned out the most heavenly ecstacies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation.

Not only is it factually nonsensical, logically improbable, and a clear attempt to generate smoke and heat through the sneak of anthropomorphizing a wooly concept and giving it arms, legs, and a sinister character, but what on earth are the heavenly ecstasies of chivalrous enthusiasm and philistine sentimentalism? The only thing I find myself in agreement with is the philistine nature of sentimentalism; though this is surely not what Marx meant by the phrase. What did Marx mean? Did even he know? Did he care? It reads more like a booster politician's speech from 1920's America.

I hate to go back to Henry Mencken, yet again, for a quote, but he covers most of the bases when it comes to democracy, particularly its foibles and fustian. On page 43 of a Carnival of Buncombe Mencken quotes the New York Times' defense of President Harding in 1921: "Mr. Harding's official [speaking] style is excellent. Its merits are obvious. In the first place, it is a style that looks Presidential. It contains the long sentences and big words that are expected... furthermore, the president's style is one that radiates hopefulness and aspiration, and is a fitted vehicle for sentiment of the kind dear to a million American firesides... It is complained that the president is too verbose and too vague. But this is... to miss entirely the point of popular acceptance. In the president's misty language the great majority see a reflection of their own indeterminate thoughts."

Mencken's concludes: In other words, bosh is the right medicine for boobs. The doctrine, alas, is not new.... What ails the style of Dr. Harding, in brief, is precisely the fact that he spent his whole life addressing persons devoid of intelligence, and hence afraid of ideas. His normal hearer, down to the time he became a candidate for the presidency, was an Ohio yokel whose notions of a lofty and satisfactory rhetoric were derived from reading the Marion Starr... and from listening to speeches by visiting fraternal order magnates... stump oratory by Ohio Congressman, and sermons by ecclesiastical morons trying to imitate Gypsy Smith and Billy Sunday. Addressing such simians, the learned doctor acquired a gift for the sort of discourse that is to their tastes. It is a kind of baby talk, a puerile and windblown gibberish. In sound it is like a rehearsal by a country band, with only the bass drummer keeping time. In content it is a vacuum.

What the mob wants is the mere sough and burble of words, add a solemn mien and some transparent monkeyshines, and it is willing to listen and believe.

That last sentence sums up Marx and much of his verbal relationship with his audience. Unconvinced? Here's some more Marx (1841): As long as a single drop of blood pulses in her world-conquering and totally free heart, philosophy will continually shout at her opponents the cry of Epicurus: 'Impiety does not consist in destroying the gods of the crowd but rather in ascribing to the gods the ideas of the crowd.' Philosophy makes no secret of it. The proclamation of Prometheus - 'In one word, I hate all gods' - is her own profession, or one slogan against all gods in heaven and earth who do not recognize man's self-consciousness as the highest divinity. There shall be none other beside it.

This was during his student days, and he apparently never got over this sort of opposing the adults by fluffing up the obvious via the application of campus sloganeering. He rarely wrote a forthright sentence. And it's not at all the case that 19th-century writers universally expressed themselves in the sort of clogged Victorianese one might naively expect from the period. Writers from Thomas Paine through to Oscar Wilde were all capable of writing clearly, concisely, and in an entertaining manner. Mediocrities follow the fashions and cliches of the age, but authors who are self-possessed and have a great deal to say usually value economy and precision. Those with nothing new between their ears, but plenty of the old and gray to rehash and an uncontrollable impetus to burst into song about something, anything, go for the fluffing route, the apostle route, the swami route.

After reading pages and pages of the bloviated author and Marx, it became a torment to turn the page and I was already beginning to scrawl rough epithets in the margins by page 36 because the author is so unflaggingly enthusiastic about Marx's juvenility, egotism, boggling of logic, and unpluggable verbal diahhrea.

For example, on page 34: In July 1841 Marx went to stay with Bruno Bauer in Bonn, where the two reprobates spent an uproarious summer shocking the local bourgeoisie - getting drunk, laughing in church, galloping through the streets on donkeys and (rather more subversively) penning an anonymous spoof...

Down the page Marx is quoted by a supposedly radical philosopher as saying: for I find the proximity of the Bonn professors intolerable. Who would want to have to talk always with intellectual skunks, with people who study only for the purpose of finding new dead ends in every corner of the world!'... thus Bonn remains my residence for the time being; after all, it would be pity if no one remained here for the holy men to get angry with.'

Again, the author quotes the above with approval. But nobody studies with the purpose of finding new dead ends in every corner of the world. This is the lame type of political jocosity beloved of oppressed second-raters. It's the sort of revenge kick I heard ad nauseum as a child in the inferiority-complex driven nationalist humor of Scotland and Northern Ireland: utterly improbable events contrived to have the Englishman fall on his arse every time and thus give the politically powerless the illusion of empowerment. This sort of haw-haw is developed first of all by the type of low-grade individual who enjoys formula humor and who, ipso facto, is either immersed in the company of half-wits too dazed to understand wit or else who simply wholesale lacks the imagination and worldliness required for wit and thus wouldn't understand it if he heard it anyway. If nothing else, wit requires that the statement made be at least superficially accurate.

In the second lame haw-haw, the one about it being a pity if no one remained behind with the holy man, the same problem occurs. It's just not funny. It's too easy, like a pun. There's no refreshing twist, no suspense, just another sad Vaudeville wheeze. Hurry up and laugh! Sigh. It's not just pathetic but also symptomatic of the same dull unthinking frame of mind that led to the bragging about drunkenness, the outraging the local yokels in church, or the galloping through the streets on donkeys. Yawn. Why would someone of a superior intellect care what the locals thought at all? I've lived in such a town; actually, in such towns. I live in such a city as we speak. Impressing buffoons is no more rewarding than trying to impress a dog with chaos theory.

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