Karl Marx: Prometheus and Lucifer

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.

In the summer of Karl’s eighteenth year, when he was home on his vacation from college, Jenny von Westphalen promised to marry him. She was four years older than Karl and was considered one of the belles of Trier, was much courted by the sons of officials and landlords and army officers; but she waited for Karl seven years. She was intelligent, had character, talked well; had been trained by a remarkable father. Karl Marx had conceived for her a devotion which lasted through his whole life. He wrote her bad romantic poetry from college.

This early student poetry of Marx, which he himself denounced as rhetorical almost as soon as he had written it, is nevertheless not without its power, and it is of interest in presenting the whole repertoire of his characteristic impulses and emotions before they are harnessed to the pistons of his system. The style, already harsh and tight-knotted, which suits his satirical subjects, is usually quite inappropriate to his more numerous romantic ones; but even the lyrics have something of the hard and dark crystallization which is afterwards to distinguish Marx’s writing, and they leave in the mind of the reader certain recurrent symbols.

In these poems, we find a woeful old man, all bones, lying at the bottom of the water, but the waves make him dance when the moon is out, for they are cold in heart and mind and feel nothing. There is a man in a yellow house, a little man with a lean horror of a wife; the poet must pull down the shade so that they may not scare off his fancies. There are doctors, damned Philistines, who think the world is a bag of bones, whose psychology is confined to the notion that our dreams are due to noodles and dumplings, whose metaphysics consists of the belief that if it were possible to locate the soul, a pill would quite easily expel it. There are also sentimental souls who weep at the idea of a calf being slaughtered: yet, after all, are there not asses, like Balaam’s, that are human enough to talk?

In one of Karl Marx’s ballads, a mariner is roused from his bed by the storm: he will go forth, he will leave behind him the warm and quiet towns; will put to sea, and let his ship’s sail swell, keep his course by the changeless stars, contend with the waves and the wind, feel the joy of all his forces at full strain, blood pounding in his breast at the danger — he will defy and he will conquer the sea, which is picking the bones of his brother. In another ballad, a second skipper, assaulted by the songs of the sirens — very different from the sailors of Heine, whose bones have whitened the rocks — declares to their faces that their charms are specious, that for them in their cold abysses there burns no eternal God; but that in his breast the gods preside in their might, all the gods, and under their governance no deviation is possible. The sirens, discouraged, sink. In another, a Promethean hero curses a god who has stripped him of his all; but he swears that he will have his revenge, though his strength be but a patchwork of weaknesses: out of his pain and horror he will fashion a fortress, iron and cold, which will strike the beholder livid and against which the thunderbolts will rebound. Prometheus is to be Marx’s favorite myth: he is to prefix to his doctor’s dissertation the speech of Aeschylus’ Prometheus to Zeus, “Know well I would never be willing to exchange my misfortune for that bondage of yours. For better do I deem it to be bound to this rock than to spend my life as Father Zeus’ faithful messenger”; and a contemporary cartoon on the suppression of the paper he is later to edit is to show him chained to his press with the Prussian eagle preying on his vitals. In yet another of Karl Marx’s poems, he proclaims that the grandeurs and splendors of the pygmy-giants of earth are doomed to fall to ruins. They do not count beside the soul’s aspiration; even vanquished, shall the soul remain defiant, shall still build itself a throne of giant scorn: “Jenny! if we can but weld our souls together, then with contempt shall I fling my glove in the world’s face, then shall I stride through the wreckage a creator!”

Old Heinrich, who said that his parents had given him nothing but his existence and his mother’s love, hoped that Karl, with more advantages than he had had himself, would take his place at the Trier bar. He recognized that Karl’s abilities were exceptional, but he disapproved of what seemed to him his uncanalized energies, his all-embracing intellectual ambitions. Though he, too, talks of Karl’s working for the “welfare of humanity,” he is exceedingly anxious for his son to establish good connections, gives him letters to influential persons who may be of use to him in making his career. His letters to his son are a mixture of excited admiration and apprehension — lest Karl’s genius miscarry; and they have the insistence of jealous affection. Old Heinrich reproaches the boy with egoism, with lack of consideration for his parents — Karl rarely seems to have answered his family’s letters; he cries out continually over Karl’s frequent demands for money: does the young gentleman think his father is made of gold? Etc. His mother writes him that he must not neglect to keep his rooms clean, that he must scrub himself every week with sponge and soap, that his Muse must be made to understand that the higher and better things will be promoted through attention to the more humble.

In the meantime, at the University of Bonn, to which he had gone in the fall of 1835, Karl had joined a convivial tavern club, contracted considerable debts, got into trouble with the university authorities for “nocturnal drunkenness and riot,” become a member of a Poets’ Club suspected of subversive ideas and under the surveillance of the political police, taken part in a row which had arisen between the plebeian tavern clubs and the aristocratic Korps associations, and finally — in the summer of 1836 — fought a duel and got a wound over the eye. In a lithograph of the members of his tavern club, made this same year, when Karl Marx was eighteen, he is shown in the background, but with his head held high under its heavy black helmet of hair and thrown back with a look of brooding fierceness from thick and strong black brows and black eyes. — It was decided, with his father’s emphatic approval, that he should be transferred to the University of Berlin, which has beep described by a contemporary as a “workhouse” in contrast to the “Bacchanalian” character of the other German universities.

At Berlin, where he remained till March 30, 1841, he studied law in compliance with his father’s wishes, but neglected it in favor of philosophy, which was at that time in the German universities the great subject of intellectual interest and of which Karl was a born addict and master. Now he shuts himself up to think and study, “repulses friendships,” as he says, “neglects nature, art and society, sits up through many nights, fights through many battles, undergoes many agitations both from outward and inward causes,” reads gigantically, plans immense labors, writes poetry, philosophy, makes translations.

His father’s letters grow continually more troubled. Has Karl more brains and brilliance than heart? Is it a divine or a Faustian daemon that possesses him? Will he ever be capable of domestic happiness, of making those around him happy? Old Marx is impressive in his letters. His son, Karl’s daughter tells us, enormously admired his father and was never tired of talking about him; he carried a picture of him about all his life, and Engels put it in his coffin when he was dead. But much as he got from his father that was valuable, it was vital for the son to reject much. Heinrich’s correspondence with Karl has a certain dramatic interest. It reaches a climax in a letter of huge length and tragic emotional force, written (December 9, 1837 ) five months before the old man’s death — a last desperate effort to save his son from turning into something which the father dreads. He hopes, he tells Karl, that the denying genius may develop into a solid thinker, that he will realize that art is to be acquired only through intercourse with well-bred people; Karl must learn to present himself to the world in an agreeable and advantageous light, he must win consideration and affection. Above all, he must be careful of Jenny, who is bringing to him all her devotion and sacrificing her social position: in return, he must provide her with a place in actual human society, not merely in some smoked-up room beside a bad-smelling oil-lamp, shut in with a crazy scholar.

The old man, who was fond of Jenny and who had done what he could to promote the match, already foresaw the future and felt himself helpless against it. For Karl seems already to have shaken from him the barbarian social world of the beer-swilling and saber-brandishing German students and to have returned to the rabbinical world. He had made his social isolation complete — he was never again to encourage any friends save those who fed his intellectual interests; and he had worked himself into a decline. Sent away to the country to recover, he had read through the whole of Hegel and gone on to the works of Hegel’s disciples. He was already on his way to becoming the great secular rabbi of his century. Salomon Maimon, in the century before, had tried to reconcile rabbinical philosophy with Kant. Karl Marx, also a teacher in the Jewish tradition but now quite free of the Judaic system and with all the thought of Western Europe at his disposal, was to play an unprecedented role as a leader in the modern world.

We shall revert to this aspect of Marx later on: but it may be said here that Karl Marx was too profoundly and completely a Jew to worry much about the Jewish problem in the terms in which it was discussed during his lifetime. The only opinion he would express on this issue was that the usurious activities of the Jews, which had made them unpopular with their neighbors and which to him were more objectionable still, were simply a special malignant symptom of capitalism, which would disappear with the capitalist system. In his own case, the pride and independence, the conviction of moral superiority, which give his life its heroic dignity, seem to go back to the great days of Israel and to be unconscious of the miseries between.

Yet are they? Two of Marx’s poems he rewrote and finally published in 1841. In one of them a wild violinist appears, in a white gown and with a saber at his side. Why does he fiddle so madly? asks the speaker. Why does he cause the blood to leap? Why does he lash his bow to shreds? — Why do the waves roar? the spirit demands in answer. That, thundering, they may crash on the cliff — that the soul may crash on the floor of Hell. — But, musician, with mockery thou tearest thy heart! That art which a bright god has lent thee thou shouldst send to swell the music of the spheres. Nay, the apparition replies, with this blood-black saber I pierce the soul. God knows not, nor honors, Art: it rises from the vapors of Hell — it maddens the brain and it alters the heart. ’Tis the Devil who beats me the time and the Dead March the tune I must play.

Lucifer was to hover behind Prometheus through the whole of Karl Marx’s life: he was the malevolent obverse side of the rebel benefactor of man. In a satirical poem by Engels and Edgar Bauer, written at about this time, Marx is described as the “black fellow from Trier,” a savage and sinewy monster, who creeps not, but leaps, upon his prey, who stretches his arms toward the heavens as if he would tear down their canopy, who clenches his fist and raves as if a thousand devils had him by the hair; and through the years of his later life he was to be familiarly known as “Old Nick.” His little son used to call him “Devil.” True: the devil as well as the rebel was one of the conventional masks of the romantic; but there is something other than romantic perversity in this assumption of a diabolic role.

The second poem is a dialogue between sweethearts: Beloved, says the lover, thy grief stings thee — thou tremblest beneath my breath. Thou hast drunken of the soul: shine, my jewel — shine, shine, o blood of youth — Darling, replies the maiden, thou lookest so pale, speakest so strangely seldom. See with what celestial music the worlds pass across the heavens! — My dear, says the lover, they pass and they shine — let us, too, flee away, let us merge our souls in one. — Then, whispering, with terrified glance: My dear, thou hast drunk of poison; thou must needs depart with me now. Night has fallen; I can no longer see the light. — With violence he clasps her to his heart, death in his breast and breath. She is pierced by a deeper pain; never more will she open her eyes.

Heinrich Marx had died in May of 1838; Karl Marx was married to Jenny von Westphalen in the June of 1843, two years after he had graduated at Berlin.

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