In the chapter on History Experiments, Calasso makes a run at the great theoretician of “universal history”, the moment when man overthrows god – the theoretician named Marx. Marx is the most explicit exponent, Calasso thinks, of the modern moment, which consists of the recognition that there are no limits to man’s domination over the world. This is the moment of universal solidarity. And whether it is the capitalist system or whether a socialist system succeeds it, whether the working class seizes the means of production or simply seizes the occasion to demand fatter retirement benefits, underlying the Marxist schema is the overthrow of the human limit. We are become as gods, and the gods fall shrieking, then, to the earth, and end up in full length Disney cartoons, to finish their weary existences.
“Marx speaks of post history when he mentions the passage from ‘history’ to ‘universal history’ – an experimental phase of history in which everything forms a single body, in which nothing is external to society and everything acts on everything else, as in the resonant primordial cosmos. Its empirical foundation is the world market, since this market is an escape – an exit with no possibility of return – from Borniertheit, from local narrowness. The world market reinvents a kind of fate (just as post history in general reactivates all the archaic categories, which now apply to a reality that inverts the one in which they were created).”
LI was just going to translate some of Georg Forster’s essay, but we first wanted to draw a line, show that Forster is part of a “stem family”, to use the sociological term for a nuclear family over a number of generations of descent, in which one finds Marx too. From the world circumnavigator to the prophet of universal history, things line up with an eerie symbolic and mythic resonance, as though we were dealing with the fates indeed. Not only, of course, would Marx have been aware of the revolutionary generation of Germans – that small band – but Hegel was, of course, vividly aware of Forster, partly by reason of Caroline Micahaelis. That woman, like one of the princesses of Priam’s house, made her long way from the fall of Mainz to the center of German intellectual life, in Jena, in the 1790s, where she sat in Schlegel’s household, conversed with Novalis, and kept in mind the things that she had learned at Forster’s table – by her own account, the commencement of her political education –before divorcing Schlegel and becoming Schelling’s wife. Hegel, in fact, lived with Schelling and her for a year – lived in their house. And surely at some point the death of Forster in Paris, and his “errors”, as the Humboldts put it – verirrte Forster, the man who erred, the traveler whose meanderings didn’t form a coherent journey in the eyes of the shocked, retreating bourgeoisie, Caroline’s ugly man of private failures – who would know more what went down in Mainz than her? and public sublimity – must have arisen as a case for those Jena intellectuals.
And from Forster:
“The happiness of mankind is, according to the assurances of the Governors, the constant goal of their patriarchal concern. The most recent manifesto of the conqueror of the Poles breathes out this spirit and is guided only by this speech. I will not in any way cast doubt on its sincerity here. The confusion of turns of speech, as I have said in another place, is of course great enough; only on the words – happiness, truth, virtue, have our leaders now invested too much to seek whether they can help themselves without them entirely. Without this would the right of the Strong soon be a much too shaky prop for their domination. Even the robber’s final goals are quiet possession and enjoyment. If he finds the means, with his booty to return from out of the cave into the bosom of bourgeois society – don’t you think that he would end up presenting himself as the most jealous defender of its rights, as the strictest revenger of injured property? Anyway, penetrate the history of all revolutions, or for example only the most recent ones, and look how the jealousy of all the quickly succeeding parties, as soon as they grasp the ruder of the state, loudly rejects the bold revolutionary means by which they have made the people the instrument of their victory, preaching in favor of order, peace, obedience to the laws and immunity for persons and property – after the raging tribunals, the slanders, the accusations, the legal murders, the plunderings had set in motion the sacred insurrection.”