From Edmund Wilson’s landmark To the Finland Station (1940). You can download a full-text PDF of the book by clicking on the link above.
In the August of 1835, a young German-Jewish boy, a student at the Friedrich-Wilhelm Gymnasium at Trier on the Moselle, composed a theme for his final examination. It was called Reflections of a Young Man on Choosing a Profession, and it was radiant with those lofty ideals which are in order on such occasions and which in the present case have attracted attention only for the reason that the aspiring young man managed to live up to his aspirations. In choosing a profession, said Karl Marx at seventeen, one must be sure that one will not put oneself in the position of acting merely as a servile tool of others: in one’s own sphere one must obtain independence; and one must make sure that one has a field to serve humanity — for though one may otherwise become famous as a scholar or a poet, one can never be a really great man. We shall never be able to fulfill ourselves truly unless we are working for the welfare of our fellows: then only shall our burdens not break us, then only shall our satisfactions not be confined to poor egoistic joys. And so we must be on guard against allowing ourselves to fall victims to that most dangerous of all temptations: the fascination of abstract thought.
One reflection — which the examiner has specially noted — comes to limit the flood of aspiration. “But we cannot always follow the profession to which we feel ourselves to have been called; our relationships in society have already to some extent been formed before we are in a position to determine them. Already our physical nature threateningly bars the way, and her claims may be mocked by none.”
So for the mind of the young Marx the bondage of social relationships already appeared as an impediment to individual self-realization. Was it the conception, now so prevalent since Herder, of the molding of human cultures by physical and geographical conditions? Was it the consciousness of the disabilities which still obstructed the development of the Jews: the terrible special taxes, the special restrictions on movement, the prohibitions against holding public office, against engaging in agriculture or crafts?
Both, no doubt. There had been concentrated in Karl Marx the blood of several lines of Jewish rabbis. There had been rabbis in his mother’s family for at least a century back; and the families of both his father’s parents had produced unbroken successions of rabbis, some of them distinguished teachers of the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. Karl Marx’s paternal grandfather had been a rabbi in Trier; one of his uncles was a rabbi there. Hirschel Marx, Karl’s father, was evidently the first man of brains in his family decisively to abandon the rabbinate and to make himself a place in the larger community.
The German Jews of the eighteenth century were breaking away from the world of the ghetto, with its social isolation and its closed system of religious culture. It was an incident of the liquidation of medieval institutions and ideas. Moses Mendelssohn, the Jewish philosopher, through his translation of the Bible into German, had brought his people into contact with the culture of the outside German world, and they were already by Karl Marx’s generation beginning to play a role of importance in the literature and thought of the day. But Mendelssohn, who had been the original of Lessing’s Nathan the Wise, produced a result far beyond what he had intended: instead of guiding the Jews as he had hoped to a revivified and purified Judaism, he opened to them the doors of the Enlightenment. For the young Jews, the traditional body of their culture seemed at once to collapse in dust like a corpse in an unsealed tomb. Mendelssohn’s daughters already belonged to a group of sophisticated Jewish women with salons and “philosopher” lovers, who were having themselves baptized Protestants and Catholics. Hirschel Marx was a Kantian free-thinker, who had left Judaism and Jewry behind.
Living in Trier, on the border between Germany and France, he had been nourished on Rousseau and Voltaire as well as on the philosophy of the Germans. Under the influence of the French Revolution, some of the restrictions on the Jews had been relaxed, and it had been possible for him to study law and to make himself a successful career. When the Prussians expelled Napoleon and it became illegal again for Jews to hold office, he changed his name to Heinrich, had his whole family baptized Christians and rose to be Justizrat and head of the Trier bar.
Next door to the Marxes in Trier lived a family named van Westphalen. Baron von Westphalen, though a Prussian official, was also a product of eighteenth-century civilization: his father had been confidential secretary to the liberal Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick, the friend of Winckelmann and Voltaire, and had been ennobled by him. Ludwig von Westphalen read seven languages, loved Shakespeare and knew Homer by heart. He used to take young Karl Marx for walks among the vineyard-covered hills of the Moselle and tell him about the Frenchman, Saint-Simon, who wanted society organized scientifically in the interests of Christian charity: Saint-Simon had made an impression on Herr von Westphalen. The Marxes had their international background of Holland, Poland and Italy and so back through the nations and the ages; Ludwig von Westphalen was half-German, half-Scotch; his mother was of the family of the Dukes of Argyle; he spoke German and English equally well. Both the Westphalens and the Marxes belonged to a small community of Protestant officials — numbering only a scant three hundred among a population of eleven thousand Catholics, and most of them transferred to Trier from other provinces — in that old city, once a stronghold of the Romans, then a bishopric of the Middle Ages, which during the lifetimes of the Westphalens and Marxes had been ruled alternately by the Germans and the French. Their children played together in the Westphalens’ large garden. Karl’s sister and Jenny von Westphalen became one another’s favorite friends. Then Karl fell in love with Jenny. Continue reading