[Marxism] Marx: The Poet of Dialectics

Peter McLaren drpetermclaren at gmail.com
Sat Jul 8 10:38:57 MDT 2006

The Poet of Dialectics

Karl Marx's Das Kapital is a ground-breaking work of economic  
analysis. But, argues Francis Wheen, it is also an unfinished  
literary masterpiece which, with its multi-layered structure, can be  
read as a Gothic novel, a Victorian melodrama, a Greek tragedy or a  
Swiftian satire

Saturday July 8, 2006
The Guardian

In February 1867, shortly before delivering the first volume of Das  
Kapital to the printers, Karl Marx urged Friedrich Engels to read The  
Unknown Masterpiece by Honoré de Balzac. The story was itself a  
little masterpiece, he said, "full of the most delightful irony". We  
don't know whether Engels heeded the advice. If he did, he would  
certainly have spotted the irony but might have been surprised that  
his old friend could take any delight in it. The Unknown Masterpiece  
is the tale of Frenhofer, a great painter who spends 10 years working  
and reworking a portrait which will revolutionise art by providing  
"the most complete representation of reality". When at last his  
fellow artists Poussin and Porbus are allowed to inspect the finished  
canvas, they are horrified to see a blizzard of random forms and  
colours piled one upon another in confusion. "Ah!" Frenhofer cries,  
misinterpreting their wide-eyed amazement. "You did not anticipate  
such perfection!" But then he overhears Poussin telling Porbus that  
eventually Frenhofer must discover the truth - the portrait has been  
overpainted so many times that nothing remains.

"Nothing on my canvas!" exclaimed Frenhofer, glancing alternately at  
the two painters and his picture.
"What have you done?" said Porbus in an undertone to Poussin.

The old man seized the young man's arm roughly, and said to him: "You  
see nothing there, clown! varlet! miscreant! hound! Why, what brought  
you here, then? - My good Porbus," he continued, turning to the older  
painter, "can it be that you, you too, are mocking at me? Answer me!  
I am your friend; tell me, have I spoiled my picture?"

Porbus hesitated, he dared not speak; but the anxiety depicted on the  
old man's white face was so heart-rending that he pointed to the  
canvas saying: "Look!"

Frenhofer gazed at his picture for a moment and staggered.

"Nothing! Nothing! And I have worked ten years!"

He fell upon a chair and wept.

After banishing the two men from his studio, Frenhofer burns all his  
paintings and kills himself.

According to Marx's son-in-law Paul Lafargue, Balzac's tale "made a  
great impression on him because it was in part a description of his  
own feelings". Marx had toiled for many years on his own unseen  
masterpiece, and throughout this long gestation his customary reply  
to those who asked for a glimpse of the work-in-progress was  
identical to that of Frenhofer: "No, no! I have still to put some  
finishing touches to it. Yesterday, towards evening, I thought that  
it was done . . . This morning, by daylight, I realised my error."

As early as 1846, when the book was already overdue, Marx wrote to  
his German publisher: "I shall not have it published without revising  
it yet again, both as regards matter and style. It goes without  
saying that a writer who works continuously cannot, at the end of six  
months, publish word for word what he wrote six months earlier."  
Twelve years later, still no nearer completion, he explained that  
"the thing is proceeding very slowly because no sooner does one set  
about finally disposing of subjects to which one has devoted years of  
study than they start revealing new aspects and demand to be thought  
out further". An obsessive perfectionist, he was forever seeking out  
new hues for his palette - studying mathematics, learning about the  
movement of celestial spheres, teaching himself Russian so he could  
read books on the country's land system.

Or, to quote Frenhofer again: "Alas! I thought for a moment that my  
work was finished; but I have certainly gone wrong in some details,  
and my mind will not be at rest until I have cleared away my doubts.  
I have decided to travel, and visit Turkey, Greece and Asia in search  
of models, in order to compare my picture with Nature in different  

Why did Marx recall Balzac's tale at the very moment when he was  
preparing to unveil his greatest work to public scrutiny? Did he fear  
that he too might have laboured in vain, that his "complete  
representation of reality" would prove unintelligible? He certainly  
had some such apprehensions - Marx's character was a curious hybrid  
of ferocious self-confidence and anguished self-doubt - and he tried  
to forestall criticism by warning in the preface that "I assume, of  
course, a reader who is willing to learn something new and therefore  
to think for himself." But what ought to strike us most forcibly  
about his identification with the creator of the unknown masterpiece  
is that Frenhofer is an artist - not a political economist, nor yet a  
philosopher or historian or polemicist.

The most "delightful irony" of all in The Unknown Masterpiece, noted  
by the American writer Marshall Berman, is that Balzac's account of  
the picture is a perfect description of a 20th-century abstract  
painting - and the fact that he couldn't have known this deepens the  
resonance. "The point is that where one age sees only chaos and  
incoherence, a later or more modern age may discover meaning and  
beauty," Berman wrote. "Thus the very open-endedness of Marx's later  
work can make contact with our time in ways that more 'finished' 19th- 
century work cannot: Das Kapital reaches beyond the well-made works  
of Marx's century into the discontinuous modernism of our own."

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.

To read the full article:

The URL f is: http://books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/ 

More information about the Marxism mailing list