Marx is an altogether slippery subject for biography; the reason lies with the biographers. On the subject of Marx, libidinal investment is always just below the surface. Do you want a demon? Fritz Raddatz’s supposed “political biography” of Marx, written during the Cold War, is a hit job by a ‘leftist’ who has been blinded – in the midst of the 1970s – by the brilliant truths of Bakunin. Politics, in other words, as an infantile disorder, which made Raddatz a tool for the Springer media types. He went on to pathographies of Heine, etc. Of the biographies I have picked up so far, I’d recommend Jerome Siegel’s for its judiciousness. Wheen has written a popular biography which makes good points as well. So often, as in the case of Raddatz, one feels like one is reading a flea with rabies – the manic biting into poor dead Karl’s hide is an itchy business.
Of course, the other, hagiographic tendency was its own curse – censoring letters, providing infinite defense lawyer explanations for Marx, and never, ever putting him in historical context – thus pressing him into the stamp album of “heroes” and thus tossing out the window everything he’d ever written about the historical method.
That method, of course, would ask about the material determinants and opportunities within which Marx lived.
One of my favorite essayists, James Buchan, whose book on money, Frozen Desire, is written with a range and a style I absolutely love, falls down on the job, alas, when it comes to Marx. He has the intuition that Marx’s life and Baudelaire’s should be seen together – with which I heartily agree – but then fails to understand both Marx’s life of exile and agitation and – what is worse for the book – Marx’s theory of money. Worse, from his description, one would think that Marx was a humorless and tragic figure – and so one would be, to say the least, surprised that Capital is, among other things, a very funny book – at least the first volume. The humor of political economists is usually as thin and dry as port at the high table, but Marx, with his Goethean culture, is continually surprising the reader with this or that reference or connection.
There’s a much commented upon love letter – a lovely love letter, called, by one of Marx’s cold war commentators, Frank Manuel, with his narc’s vulgate, a “bombastic” love letter – unlike the sweet modest ones that were presumably being penned by the leaders of the Free World at the time - that Marx wrote his wife Jenny from Manchester in 1856. Jenny was in Trier at the time, and Marx evidently missed her – he begins it with the tone he so often takes in letters, of the complaint: “… it annoys me to converse with you all the time in my head without you knowing or hearing or being able to answer me.” Thomas Kemple, in his book on the Grundrisse, Reading Marx writing, puts this letter in relation to Marx’s writing at the time – and one does overhear, even in those common words, a note that is sounded in the Grundrisse and in Capital concerning commodities – they run through our head all the time, and yet they never speak to us. As Kemple points out, the letter, which is an outpouring of love to Jenny mediated through Marx looking at her photograph, is very much about the power of fetishes. This isn’t a Freudian reading – it is a Marxian one. For Marx is teasing himself as well as his wife in this letter: [My translation]
“Bad as your portrait is, it gives me the best service and I now understand how even “the black Madonna”, the most disgraceful [schimpfiertesten] portraits of the mother of God, can find indestructible admirers, and even more admirers than the good portraits. In any case none of these black Madonna pictures have been more kissed, ogled and adored then Your photograph, which really isn’t black, but sour, and completely fails to mirror your sweet, kissable ‘dolce’ face. But I improve the sun’s rays, that have painted falsely, and find that my eyes, as much as they are decayed by lamplight and tobacco smoke, can still paint, not only in dreams, but also waking. I have you bodily before me and I carry you in my hands and I kiss you from head to foot and I fall before you on my knees and I moan out, “Madame, I love you.” And I love you in fact, more than the Moor of Venice ever loved. False and foul the false and foul world mistakes all characters. Who of my many detractors and snake tongued enemies have charged me with the fact that I am called upon to play a staring lover’s role in a second class theater? And yet it is true. Had those rogues the wit, they would have painted the “relations of production and trade” on one side, and me at your feet on the other. Look to this picture and to that. [in English] – they would have captioned it. But dumb rogues they are, and dumb they remain, in seculum seculorum.
Momentary absence is good, for in the present things look too like in order to be distinguished [ in der Gegenwart sehn sich die Dinge zu gleich, um sie zu unterscheiden.] Even towers appear dwarflike up close, while upclose the small and everyday grow too big. Thus it is with passions. Small habits, that through the nearness through which they adhere to the body, take on passionate forms, disappear, as soon as the immediate presence of the eye is withdrawn. Great passions, which through the nearness of their objects assume the form of small habits, grow and take their natural measure once again through the magical effect of distance.”
To be continued