The story was itself a little masterpiece, he said, "full of the most delightful irony". If he did, he would certainly have spotted the irony but might have been surprised that his old friend could take any delight in it. The Unknown Masterpiece is the tale of Frenhofer, a great painter who spends 10 years working and reworking a portrait which will revolutionise art by providing "the most complete representation of reality". When at last his fellow artists Poussin and Porbus are allowed to inspect the finished canvas, they are horrified to see a blizzard of random forms and colours piled one upon another in confusion. Why, what brought you here, then?

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The story was itself a little masterpiece, he said, "full of the most delightful irony". If he did, he would certainly have spotted the irony but might have been surprised that his old friend could take any delight in it.

The Unknown Masterpiece is the tale of Frenhofer, a great painter who spends 10 years working and reworking a portrait which will revolutionise art by providing "the most complete representation of reality". When at last his fellow artists Poussin and Porbus are allowed to inspect the finished canvas, they are horrified to see a blizzard of random forms and colours piled one upon another in confusion.

Why, what brought you here, then? Answer me! I am your friend; tell me, have I spoiled my picture? And I have worked ten years! After banishing the two men from his studio, Frenhofer burns all his paintings and kills himself. Marx had toiled for many years on his own unseen masterpiece, and throughout this long gestation his customary reply to those who asked for a glimpse of the work-in-progress was identical to that of Frenhofer: "No, no!

I have still to put some finishing touches to it. Yesterday, towards evening, I thought that it was done.

This morning, by daylight, I realised my error. It goes without saying that a writer who works continuously cannot, at the end of six months, publish word for word what he wrote six months earlier. Or, to quote Frenhofer again: "Alas! I thought for a moment that my work was finished; but I have certainly gone wrong in some details, and my mind will not be at rest until I have cleared away my doubts. I have decided to travel, and visit Turkey, Greece and Asia in search of models, in order to compare my picture with Nature in different forms.

Did he fear that he too might have laboured in vain, that his "complete representation of reality" would prove unintelligible? Das Kapital is as discordant as Schoenberg, as nightmarish as Kafka. Marx saw himself as a creative artist, a poet of dialectic. Had he wished to write a conventional economic treatise he would have done so, but his ambition was far more audacious.

Berman describes the author of Das Kapital as "one of the great tormented giants of the 19th century - alongside Beethoven, Goya, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Ibsen, Nietzsche, Van Gogh - who drive us crazy, as they drove themselves, but whose agony generated so much of the spiritual capital on which we still live".

Yet how many people would think of including Marx in a list of great writers and artists? Even in our postmodern era, the fractured narrative and radical discontinuity of Das Kapital are mistaken by many readers for formlessness and incomprehensibility. Anyone willing to grapple with Beethoven, Goya or Tolstoy should be able to "learn something new" from a reading of Das Kapital - not least because its subject still governs our lives.

As Berman asks: how can Das Kapital end while capital lives on? It is fitting that Marx never finished his masterpiece. The first volume was the only one to appear in his lifetime, and the subsequent volumes were assembled by others after his death, based on notes and drafts found in his study.

Although Das Kapital is usually categorised as a work of economics, Marx turned to the study of political economy only after many years of spadework in philosophy and literature. It is these intellectual foundations that underpin the project, and it is his personal experience of alienation that gives such intensity to the analysis of an economic system which estranges people from one another and from the world they inhabit - a world in which humans are enslaved by the monstrous power of capital and commodities.

Marx was an outsider from the moment of his birth, on May 5 - a Jewish boy in a predominantly Catholic city, Trier, within a Prussian state whose official religion was evangelical Protestantism. His father encouraged Karl to read voraciously. On long walks together the Baron would recite passages from Homer and Shakespeare, which his young companion learned by heart - and later used as the essential seasonings in his own writings.

In adult life Marx re-enacted those happy hikes with von Westphalen by declaiming scenes from Shakespeare, Dante and Goethe while leading his own family up to Hampstead Heath for Sunday picnics. There was a quotation for every occasion: to flatten a political enemy, enliven a dry text, heighten a joke, authenticate an emotion - or breathe life into an inanimate abstraction, as when capital itself speaks in the voice of Shylock in volume one of Das Kapital to justify the exploitation of child labour in factories: Workmen and factory inspectors protested on hygienic and moral grounds, but Capital answered: My deeds upon my head!

I crave the law, The penalty and forfeit of my bond. Economists with anachronistic models and categories are likened to Don Quixote, who "paid the penalty for wrongly imagining that knight-errantry was equally compatible with all economic forms of society". After these experiments, he admitted defeat: Suddenly, as if by a magic touch - oh, the touch was at first a shattering blow - I caught sight of the distant realm of true poetry like a distant fairy palace, and all my creations crumbled into nothing.

A curtain had fallen, my holy of holies was rent asunder, and new gods had to be installed. Suffering some kind of breakdown, he was ordered by his doctor to retreat to the countryside for a long rest - whereupon he at last succumbed to the siren voice of GWF Hegel, the recently deceased professor of philosophy at Berlin, whose legacy was the subject of intense dispute among fellow students and lecturers.

At university, Marx "adopted the habit of making extracts from all the books I read" - a habit he never lost. A reading list from this period shows the precocious scope of his intellectual explorations.

This is the same eclectic, omnivorous and often tangential style of research which gave Das Kapital its extraordinary breadth of reference. As a student Marx was infatuated by Tristram Shandy, and 30 years later he found a subject which allowed him to mimic the loose and disjointed style pioneered by Sterne.

Like Tristram Shandy, Das Kapital is full of paradoxes and hypotheses, abstruse explanations and whimsical tomfoolery, fractured narratives and curious oddities. How else could he do justice to the mysterious and often topsy-turvy logic of capitalism? We will follow the owner of the money and the owner of labour-power into the hidden foci of production, crossing the threshold of the portal above which is written, "No admittance except on business".

Here we shall discover, not only how capital produces, but also how it is itself produced. We shall at last discover the secret of making surplus value. The literary antecedents for such a journey are often recalled as he proceeds on his way.

Describing English match factories, where half the workers are juveniles some as young as six and conditions are so appalling that "only the most miserable part of the working class, half-starved widows and so forth, deliver up their children to it", he writes: With a working day ranging from 12 to 14 or 15 hours, night labour, irregular meal-times, and meals mostly taken in the workrooms themselves, pestilent with phosphorus, Dante would have found the worst horrors in his Inferno surpassed in this industry.

Other imagined hells provide further embellishment for his picture of empirical reality: From the motley crowd of workers of all callings, ages and sexes, who throng around us more urgently than did the souls of the slain around Ulysses, on whom we see at a glance the signs of overwork, without referring to the Blue Books under their arms, let us select two more figures, whose striking contrast proves that all men are alike in the face of capital - a milliner and a blacksmith.

This is the cue for a story about Mary Anne Walkley, a year-old who died "from simple overwork" after labouring for more than 26 hours making millinery for the guests at a ball given by the Princess of Wales in Her employer "a lady with the pleasant name of Elise", as Marx notes caustically was dismayed to find that she had died without finishing the bit of finery she was stitching.

There is a Dickensian texture to much of Das Kapital, and Marx gives the occasional explicit nod to an author he loved. But that is not my fault, it is the fault of the knife. Must we, for such a temporary inconvenience, abolish the use of the knife?

Only consider! Where would agriculture and trade be without the knife? Is it not as salutary in surgery as it is skilled in anatomy? And a willing assistant at the festive table? If you abolish the knife - you hurl us back into the depths of barbarism. In volume one he scorns those economists who "conceal under a parade of literary-historical erudition, or by an admixture of extraneous material, their feeling of scientific impotence and the eerie consciousness of having to teach others what they themselves felt to be a truly strange subject".

A fear that he could himself have committed this offence may explain the anguished admission, in the afterword to its second edition, that "no one can feel the literary shortcomings of Das Kapital more strongly than I". Even so, it is surprising that so few people have even considered the book as literature.

One deterrent, perhaps, is that the multilayered structure of Das Kapital evades easy categorisation. Frankel writes in Marx and Contemporary Scientific Thought. Wilson regarded Das Kapital as a parody of classical economics. No one, he thought, had ever had so deadly a psychological insight into the infinite capacity of human nature for remaining oblivious or indifferent to the pains we inflict on others when we have a chance to get something out of them for ourselves.

Marx is certainly the greatest ironist since Swift, and has a good deal in common with him. Had he wished to produce a straightforward text of classical economics he could have done so - and in fact he did. A commodity has a value, because it is a crystallization of social labour. Price, taken by itself, is nothing but the monetary expression of value.

What the working man sells is not directly his labour, but his labouring power, the temporary disposal of which he makes over to the capitalist. And so on. Whatever its merits as an economic analysis, this can be understood by any intelligent child: no elaborate metaphors or metaphysics, no puzzling digressions or philosophical excursions, no literary flourishes. So why is Das Kapital, which covers the same ground, so utterly different in style? Did Marx suddenly lose the gift of plain speaking?

Manifestly not: at the time he gave these lectures he was also completing the first volume of Das Kapital. A clue can be found in one of the very few analogies he permitted himself in Value, Price and Profit, when explaining his belief that profits arise from selling commodities at their "real" value and not, as one might suppose, from adding a surcharge. Scientific truth is always paradox, if judged by everyday experience, which catches only the delusive nature of things.

Ludovico Silva, a Venezuelan critic of Marx, has drawn on the etymological meaning of "metaphor" as a transfer to argue that capitalism itself is a metaphor, an alienating process which displaces life from subject to object, from use-value to exchange-value, from the human to the monstrous. In this reading, the literary style Marx adopted in Das Kapital is not a colourful veneer applied to an otherwise forbidding slab of economic exposition, like jam on thick toast; it is the only appropriate language in which to express "the delusive nature of things", an ontological enterprise which cannot be confined within the borders and conventions of an existing genre such as political economy, anthropological science or history.

In short, Das Kapital is entirely sui generis. There has been nothing remotely like it before or since - which is probably why it has been so consistently neglected or misconstrued. Marx was indeed one of the great tormented giants.


Karl Marx, de Francis Wheen

Start your review of Karl Marx Write a review Shelves: life-writing , dismal-science Its strange but arguably true: millions of people died in Siberia because a philosopher in London had carbuncles on his ass. Chaos theory now makes a little more sense to me. In a famous riff on Hegel, Marx once said that history repeats itself, "the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. His life was a grubby, shambolic farce that somehow gave birth to a world-historic tragedy. If Stalinism was a misreading of Marx, it was at least a plausible misreading. But, okay, Marx himself was no monster, and Wheen does a good job of humanizing the old bogeyman — almost too good a job, actually: his Marx is not just human, but hilariously, embarrassingly, disastrously human.


The poet of dialectics




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