I have always had a soft spot for Frederick Engels. In spite of the man’s obvious gifts, he will forever be the annotation to his friend Marx: the follower, the supporter, the man on whom Marx depended, the man whose own writings are folded into Marx’s. It was his fate to be a part of another man’s gigantic whole.
But the part speaks. In fact, Engels wrote well. He thought not only in terms of the categories Marx so laboriously forged, but also in terms of the philosophy he studied in his youth – thus the odd flotsam of natural philosophy that float to the surface of his works from the 1880s, like the Dialectic of Nature, works that have been viewed, alternately, as embarrassing anachronisms or illuminations of … Marx.
I was reading Keith Thomas’ Man and the Natural world last night. Thomas quotes a passage from Engels that I had to look up, so I did this morning. It is from the Dialectic of Nature:
“Comparison with animals proves that this explanation of the origin of language from and in the process of labour is the only correct one. The little that even the most highly- developed animals need to communicate to one another can be communicated even without the aid of articulate speech. In a state of nature, no animal feels its inability to speak or to understand human speech. It is quite different when it has been tamed by man. The dog and the horse, by association with man, have developed such a good ear for articulate speech that they easily learn to understand any language within the range of their circle of ideas. Moreover they have acquired the capacity for feelings, such as affection for man, gratitude, etc., which were previously foreign to them. Anyone who has had much to do with such animals will hardly be able to escape the conviction that there are plenty of cases where they now feel their inability to speak is a defect, although, unfortunately, it can no longer be remedied owing to their vocal organs being specialised in a definite direction.”
The idea that dogs and cats feel their inability to speak strikes me as so marvelously mysterious, such an odd and overlooked insertion into the vast Gulf Stream of Marxism, that surely it should be pointed to and pondered. This was written in the same decade that another philosopher actually heard a horse speak, in Turin. The horse, it seems, contained the spirit of Richard Wagner. The philosopher, of course, is Friedrich Nietzsche.
Tocqueville speaks of the historians task as a ‘descent into the tomb” – and among those things that stir in the tomb of the nineteenth century, and have no correspondent in our own lives, is the heavy reliance of the whole of urban civilization on the horse. In fact, that use of the horse goes on well up through the 20th century, with the greatest mobilization of horses in any war occurring, as a matter of fact, in WWII. In Ice Horses, one of Malaparte’s semi-fictional accounts of the war from the Axis side in his book, Kaput, he reports on going with a group of soldiers to Lake Ladoga, in Finland, in the spring of 1943, to chop out of the ice a thousand horses frozen there after escaping from a fire in a battle in 1942.
“The lake looked like a vast sheet of white marble on which rested hundreds and hundreds of horses’ heads. They appeared to have been chopped off cleanly with an axe. Only the heads stuck out of the crust of ice. And they were all facing the shore. The white flame of terror still burnt in their wide-open eyes. Close to the shore a tangle of wildly rearing horses rose from the prison of ice.”
Such are not the scenes of affection between man and his close circle of beasts that Engels was thinking about. And in fact, when scientists go on about “intelligence” – by which, of course, they mean, as the Greeks once meant, logos, human intelligence – they tend to downgrade the pussy cat and the lapdog in favor of the porpoise and the sperm whale. At the same time, who can deny the good ear of the dog, cat, or horse? An ear that is not shared by the human, who guesses at barks and meows and whinnies. Although, to be fair, this odd communicative couple of pet and petowner does seems to transcend the merely lexical, and speak to one another heart to heart. But it is not just of pets that Engels is speaking, but of his day to day experience of horses. The horse in the city was to Engels, naturally, what the car in the city is to us. Although I suspect the horse will return as the cities burn down and we discover that our massive betrayal of the atmosphere, our offering to the heavens of four hundred million years of organic matter, creates an unbearable world in which our children’s children will die, shaking their fist at this generation of world class vipers.
Elisabeth de Fontenay calls attention, in her essay on Philanthropia and the animal in the Greco-Roman world, to a passage in Plutarch’s life of Cato in which Plutarch ponders a duty that is not a duty – the duty towards the beast. A thing that is without law, and yet not without love – and towards which we express either our humanity by going beyond the law, or our inhumanity by adhering strictly to the letter of the law.
“Yet certainly, in my judgment, it marks an over-rigid temper for a man to take the work out of his servants as out of brute beasts, turning them off and selling them in their old age, and thinking there ought to be no further commerce between man and man than whilst there arises some profit by it. We see that kindness or humanity has a larger field than bare justice to exercise itself in; law and justice we cannot, in the nature of things, employ on others than men; but we may extend our goodness and charity even to irrational creatures; and such acts flow from a gentle nature, as water from an abundant spring. It is doubtless the part of a kind-natured man to keep even worn-out horses and dogs, and not only take care of them when they are foals and whelps, but also when they are grown old."