The Soul of the Marionette by John Gray (2015)

Everywhere , the self-assured confidence of priests, scribes and intellectuals has been mocked by unexpected events… (p.143)

‘Humanity’ is only a name for a ragtag animal with no capacity to take charge of anything. (p.145)

The Soul of the Marionette

The Soul of the Marionette is a short, easy and very stimulating read. Its brevity is indicated by the way it’s set in a larger-than-usual typeface for a Penguin paperback in order to pad it out its 170 or so pages. Really, it’s two extended magazine essays linked by a common theme.

John Gray (b.1948) is a retired political philosopher. He mainly taught at the London School of Economics with spells at Yale etc, so he’s an academic by trade.

For the past thirty years or more he’s been writing non-technical and accessible books, as well as numerous articles and reviews, and from time to time popping up with thought pieces on Radio 4. All of them bang on the same theme over and over again:

1. Modern liberals are wrong Modern progressive thought is wrong. Modern secular thinkers are wrong.

How so? In several connected ways. ‘Modern liberals’ think history is progressing towards a good end, think that there is some purpose or end-point of evolution, think that human societies are heading onward and upward, becoming more enlightened, liberal, permissive and diverse.

The belief that evolution is advancing towards some desirable end is ubiquitous… (p.61)

BUT

Evolution has no attachment to the attributes modern thinkers imagine are essentially human… (p.143)

Above all, modern liberals think human nature can be changed. All Gray’s work presents a barrage of arguments designed to annihilate this position:

2. The survival of violence and barbarism disproves the idea that humans are ‘improving’ Evolution has no goal or plan or design or intention. Stuff is just changing and humans are mad if they think they can alter it very much. Progressives like to think that we ‘learn from history’ or that liberal values are succeeding around the world – but violence, terrible crude sadistic violence, is still practiced all round the globe. There may be no repeats of the two epic world wars, but violence and brutality haven’t gone away; they have merely been scattered and diffused into the form of asymmetrical conflicts in a variety of failed states such as Syria, or sudden eruptions of barbarism as in Burma, or the ongoing horrors of the war in the Congo.

Or else a permanent state of civil unrest, where violent protests teeter on the brink of uprisings and armed conflict. This is the new normal.

In a scathing passage, Gray describes how violence has been internalised in the West, in the ways that America, for example, the supposed ‘land of the free’, imprisons more of its citizens than any other country in the world, and experiences almost daily mass shootings, with the result that its entire police force is now a warzone militia armed with machine guns and bullet-proof vests.

About 40,000 people were killed by guns in America in 2017, compared to the 2,500 who died on D-Day. Gray’s point is that homicidal violence hasn’t gone away because world wars have cease; it’s just become normalised in other ways.

The normalisation of amoral hyper-violence in American culture. This movie is a ‘comedy’.

3. The popularity of dictators demonstrates that human societies aren’t particularly progressing On a purely political level, the elections of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Erdoğan in Turkey, the endless rule of Putin in Russia, and the increasing authoritarianism of Xi Jinping in China – all show conclusively that political or cultural history is not moving steadily upwards towards some progressive, liberal nirvana.

Even more disillusioning for progressives is that most of these leaders were democratically elected because, as one section of the book emphasises, people more than anything else want meaning, order and security in their lives. People prefer meaning, order and security to uncertainty and chaos. You and I, being enlightened progressives, may think that the leaders I’ve listed above are not going to provide the meaning and security which they promised their electorates, but that only proves Gray’s other point, that none of us are really in control of our lives: we choose one thing, we get something completely different.

Most people’s lives are demonstrably in the grip of various impersonal, suprahuman forces – but almost all of us desperately want to feel that we’re in control. Electing strong leaders with assertive agendas gives us electors the illusion of control, that we’re taking part in a fightback against them, the nameless forces which seem to be ruining the world.

4. Technology changes, but people don’t change Above all (to repeat the point, as Gray does again and again), modern liberals think human nature can be changed and improved – but it can’t. The amazing technologies we have developed over the past 200 years have given over-educated and under-experienced Westerners the deluded sense that we can change human nature. Technologies may change, but people don’t change.

Thus one of the book’s central strands is an allusive history of human attempts to create super-humans, from Frankenstein in 1816 to all the hype about artificial intelligence in 2020.

Gray makes the simple point: How can we hope to make better, superior versions of human beings, when we don’t even understand ourselves? Scientists still don’t actually understand how minds work, how consciousness arises from matter, how flashing synapses produce the strange thing called consciousness.

Eradicating evil may produce a new species, but not the one its innocent creators have in mind. Humans have too little self-knowledge to be able to fashion a higher version of themselves. (p.43)

And:

We think we have some kind of privileged access to our own motives and intentions. In fact we have no clear insight into what moves us to live as we do. The stories that we tell ourselves are like messages which appear on Ouija boards. If we are authors of our lives, it is only in retrospect. (p.137)

5. Artificial intelligence is doomed to fail for the simple reason that we don’t understand human intelligence. This is why all the exhibitions I’ve been to recently showcasing artificial intelligence seemed so pathetic and inadequate. (And it’s not just me saying that: the BBC journalist sent to review the Barbican’s exhibition about artificial intelligence also thought the sum total of the best examples of artificial intelligence the curators could assemble from across the world, was ‘pathetic’.)

It’s because any ordinary person knows that machines which can climb up a flight of stairs on their own or a computer which can beat the world chess champion or one which does cumulative facial recognition, are trivial and irrelevant compared to what it is like to be a person – a confused, sleepy, fantasy-driven human consciousness making endless mistakes about bus times or shopping lists or homework or the countless other chores we struggle with every day, as well as trying to manage personal relations with family, friends and work colleagues.

Compared to the complexity of being human, beating this or that chess champion is so very, very narrow an achievement on the part of the programmers who have been slaving away perfecting chess programs for fifty years or more, as to be almost sublimely, hilariously irrelevant.

In fact the most telling thing about artificial intelligence – which comes over very strongly when you read interviews with the scientists developing it – is how keen they are to rush towards a post-human future. But why? Because, Gray says, they cannot cope with the human present.

Struggling to escape from the world that science has revealed, humanity has taken refuge in the illusion that science enables them to remake the world in their own image. (p.30)

6. Communism and other failed utopias Gray reserves some of his most scathing criticism for communists, the followers of Lenin and Stalin, who – in effect – thought that it was worth murdering millions of people in the here and now in order to secure a remote future in which everyone will live in peace. And then in the Cold War era to foment small wars around the world (Africa, South America, South-East Asia) in order to bring an end to war.

Same with the Nazis, who thought they could create a better world by first of all exterminating all the Jews and then all the Slavs.

In the twentieth century the worst episodes of mass killing were perpetrated with the aim of remaking the species. (p.88)

All the atrocities of the 20th century were carried out in the name of building a better world. Gray mocks modern liberals who carry on the same mantra (obviously without the holocausts) because they are basing it on the same basic delusions – that you can remodel human nature. You can’t.

7. Humans are, at bottom, incapable In fact, the reality is that humans barely understand themselves, and are laughably unable to ‘take control of their own destinies’:

Today’s Darwinists will tell you that the task of humanity is to take charge of evolution. But ‘humanity’ is only a name for a ragtag animal with no capacity to take charge of anything. (p.145)

Thus the comedy of climate change is that these pathetic people, this pathetic species, having created a global catastrophe, thinks it can change or fix anything. Oh no it can’t. Watch and learn.

8. The fundamental basis of all modern liberal thought – that things will get better i.e. history has a direction and an end goal – is based on Christian theology If you go back to the ancient Greeks or sideways to read the surviving works of the Aztecs, you find societies which were under no illusion that things – society of human nature – would ever change. Their religions and rituals were not linear and progressive but cyclical, based on the circular rhythm of the seasons plus the recurring astrological cycles.

Aztecs did not share the modern conceit that mass killing can bring about universal peace. They did not envision any future when humans ceased to be violent. (p.86)

The notion that history has a purpose and is heading for a Grand End-Point is a Christian idea (in fact it may be a Zoroastrian or Eastern idea originally, but it was picked up and incorporated in Christianity from its earliest days and thus spread throughout all Christian and post-Christian societies).

It is Christian theology which declares that history is heading to a Glorious End-Point when the Son of Man will return in glory and wind up history as we know it, at which point the dead will be raised and everyone will be judged and dispatched to heaven or hell.

Modern liberals unwittingly base their concept of history as a steady improvement towards some kind of nirvana or utopia on this very Christian theology, but without the subtle and complex insights into human nature developed by Christian thinkers over 2,000 years. Progressives have been:

reared on a curdled brew of Socratism and scraps of decayed Christianity… (p.160)

This is why progressive liberalism feels so shallow. It is piggy-backing on the back of Christian theology, but without the deep and penetrating insights into all aspects of the human psyche which tens of thousands of Christian theologians and writers carried out.

Secular thinking follows a pattern dictated by religion while suppressing religion’s most valuable insights. (p.19)

Instead, modern liberals join hands, sing Things Can Only Get Better and are shocked and amazed when they don’t. Their conviction that everyone is a progressive liberal at heart, if only they had enough education and the opportunity to read the right newspapers, cannot cope with the actual world in its often violent and even evil reality.

This basic naivety explains, in Gray’s opinion, the fact that ‘liberals’ are continually surprised at renewed outbreaks of human atrocity. ‘Liberals’ and ‘modern thinkers’ thought we had learned from the Holocaust and had ‘progressed’, and so they were unable to compute modern horrors like the wars in Yugoslavia, the Rwanda genocide or 9/11 or the Syrian civil war or the Rohynga massacres… and on and on it goes, the roll call of never-ending atrocities.

Events like that just don’t fit into the narrative that every day, in very way, we are becoming more tolerant and free and fair-minded and equal and ‘woke’ and aware. Oh no, Gray says, we aren’t.


Cherry picking from literature

The book’s strength is also its weakness. This is that it takes the form less of a sustained argument than of a kind of daisy chain of potted analyses of authors who Gray likes or whose works provide useful ammunition for his position.

It is very much not a work of political philosophy, in fact it references hardly any philosophers of any kind (apart from two or three pages about Thomas Hobbes and the same about Jeremy Bentham) and certainly no contemporary philosophers.

Instead Gray takes us on a hugely entertaining and colourful journey through the thought of a bright and shiny array of creative writers through the ages, cherry-picking authors whose mordant and gloomy points of view echo, support or anticipate his own.

This is exactly what Christians do with the Bible. The Bible is so vast, varied and contradictory, that you can find quotes to support almost any point of view, from the most socially conservative to wacky science fiction fantasies if you put your mind to it.

And as a literature graduate I know the same is true for the corpus of secular literature, especially if you broaden it out to include all European literature, and extend it back in time to the Renaissance, the Middle Ages or, as Gray does, back to the ancient Greeks.

There are now so many points of view, expressed by so many hundreds of thousands of authors, that – if you adopt Gray’s approach – it is easy to cherry pick ‘proofs’ and ‘evidence’ for any point of view imaginable.

Of course none of this is proof of any kind about human nature or human existence or consciousness or history etc. Proof in any of these areas would require an engagement with the latest scientific literature in areas of consciousness, AI, sociology and so on, with properly carried out studies, and with a world of data and statistics.

Gray skips lightly away from any such engagement and instead gives us an entertaining stroll through some of his favourite authors, who each get a thumbnail biography and then four or five pages summarising their thoughts and musing about human nature, history and so on.

And it comes as no surprise to anyone that all of these thinkers, plus his interpretations of various historical cultural events (his scepticism about the so-called ‘scientific revolution’, his dazzling reinterpretation of Aztec culture), all go to reinforce his anti-liberal, anti-modern secular bias.

A daisy chain of authors

This is a complete list of the authors and works referenced in The Soul of the Marionette:

Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811)’s essay The Puppet Theatre (1810) paradoxically suggests that it is the puppet who is free because he is not conflicted by a torn and agonised self-consciousness.

Novelist and poet Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) in The Avignon Quartet describes a modern-day Gnostic.

Communist crystallographer J.D. Bernal (1901-1971) speculated that human society would be replaced by a Utopia of post-human cyborgs.

Director of Engineering at Google Ray Kurzweil (b.1948) published a book with the sub-title When Humans Transcend Biology.

Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) wrote short stories on the theme of Gnosticism i.e that the world wasn’t created by a benevolent all-powerful God but by a blind or malevolent Demiurge, which explains why it is so botched and chaotic. Only those who come to know this (gnosis is Greek for knowledge) can, through an arduous apprenticeship and reading many mystical books, arrive at true knowledge of their place as souls trapped in fallen bodies in a badly made world, and break out towards the light of the True God.

Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) is famous for his sensuously melancholy verse but also wrote a long work of thoughts about human nature, the Zibaldone, which is bitingly pessimistic about human nature and ridicules the idea that science will improve humanity. He is particularly savage about Christianity which, he thinks (with plenty of evidence to back him up) promotes a universalist claim, Christ’s injunction to his disciples to convert the whole world, which – in practice – gave carte blanche to force everyone in the world to convert, at the point of a sword or under threat of being burned at the stake. This, in Leopardi’s view, explains why the barbarity of the Middle Ages far eclipsed anything known or comprehensible in the ancient, pre-Christian world.

American poet and short story writer Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849) wrote some fictions which touch on the Gnostic theme in which characters have dreams which come true, or dream a better world into existence.

Mary Shelley (1797-1951) wrote Frankenstein, always predictably dragged out on these occasions as the forerunner of all ‘modern’ debate about creating artificial life or intelligence.

The Symbolist poet Villiers de L’Isle-Adam (1838-1889) coined the word ‘android’.

Gustav Meyrink (1868-1932) wrote The Golem (1915) another novel about people creating new uber-humans.

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) in his story The Circular Ruins imagines a magician whose dreams come true before he realises that he himself is someone else’s dream.

Polish science fiction author Stanislav Lem (1921-2006) in his novel Solaris (1961) imagines a planet whose surface seems to be alive and conscious in ways we cannot conceive, and which communicates with the humans in the space station orbiting it by creating people from their past or creatures from their dreams.

American science fiction author Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) wrote a whole series of novels exploring the possibility of alternative consciousness, and how individual consciousnesses might be able to bend and warp reality. Gray devotes an unusually prolonged passage to Dick and his works.

H.G. Wells (1866-1946) wrote The War of the Worlds suggesting other intelligences have no concern about us.

Michel Faber (b.1960) wrote Under The Skin in which aliens come to earth purely to capture and eat humans, whose meat is tasty!

Boris and Arkady Strugasky‘s novel Roadside Picnic is about people who venture into the forbidden zones where alien spaceships landed, settled, then took off again. The thrust of all three of these stories is why should we think artificial intelligences we create (if we ever do) will give a damn about us.

T.F. Powys (1875-1953) wrote a series of novels in the 1920s and 30s which featured God or Devil or Demiurge characters appearing as normal people, giving rise to a lot of discussion about creation and reality.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) masterpiece Leviathan is based on the idea that people will do anything, and submit to a strong central authority to avoid violence. But Gray thinks this is a chimera, a far too rational view of human nature. All the evidence suggests that people can initiate and put up with a quite staggering degree of violence i.e. human nature isn’t as one-dimensional as Hobbes paints it.

John Dee (1527-1608) was Elizabeth I’s astrologer and magician and an epitome of Gray’s view that what modern secular thinkers like to think of as ‘the scientific revolution’ was in fact deeply intertwined with all kinds of magical and voodoo beliefs, the prime example being Sir Isaac Newton who formulated the laws which underpinned the new scientific view of the universe but was also a mystic and heretical Christian who devoted an enormous amount of energy trying to decipher the prophecies contained in the Book of Revelation.

Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), mathematician and philosopher, helped the Manhattan Project, is acknowledged as the father of cybernetics, and envisaged a future where man makes machines which outdo man.

John von Neumann (1903-1957), mathematician, physicist and computer scientist, also helped with the Manhattan Project and founded game theory. The ideas of both men underpin futurists’ confidence that man can remake man, or make a super-man machine, or machines which can help people achieve super-lives.

Guy Debord (1931-1994) is popular with students of the humanities and the arts because of his book Society of the Spectacle which expands on Marxist ideas that governments control us by getting us to buy into the mindless entertainments of the mass media. More than that, even political protests or extreme events like terrorist attacks, are all part of The Spectacle. Gray is, as you might expect, bitingly sceptical about Debord, concentrating on his career after the 1968 revolution failed to materialise, wandering the French provinces, slowly expelling all the members of his organisation, the Situationist International, drinking heavily, coming to the despairing conclusion that there can be no revolution because The Spectacle can assimilate anything and eventually committing suicide in 1994.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) the ultimate in rationalist philosophers who formulated the ideas of Utilitarianism and said social policy should be judged on whether it promotes the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Gray describes Bentham’s idea for the Panopticon, a prison built in a circle so guards at the centre could monitor all the prisoners, and then goes on to claim that we live in a surveillance society infinitely more thorough and extensive than anything Bentham could have imagined.

E.M. Foster (1879-1970) famous for his novels of Edwardian upper class life, wrote a striking science fiction story, The Machine Stops (which I happen to have read and reviewed). Gray criticises the story for giving no indication of how the bubble world entirely controlled by some vast central machine came into existence. But he mentions it in order to speculate about how our societies might collapse and fall.

Samuel Butler (1835-1902) wrote his satirical vision of the future, Erewhon which predicted there would be labour-saving machines and robots in the future. Well, half of that was correct.


Straw men

Most debaters set up straw men i.e. simplify the arguments of their opponents in order to caricature and counter them. I was struck by the way Gray does just this – establishing an entity or group or party or movement of ‘modern secular thinkers’ which he then proceeds to hammer from all directions – struck because he doesn’t mention a single name. Instead he rings the changes on a generic set of terms for ‘the Enemy’, which I began to find interesting in themselves:

  • many people today…
  • modern secular thinkers believe mankind can be recreated in a higher form…
  • it does not occur to these sublime moralists that in human beings the good and the bad may be intermixed…
  • those who aim to fashion a higher humanity with science…
  • … Gnostic themes that unnoticed or repressed, shape much of modern thinking…
  • this view of things is nowadays close to being incomprehensible…
  • The modern world inherits the Christian view…
  • … human impulses that modern thinking denies..
  • … how tenuous are the assumptions on which western thinkers base their hopes of peace…
  • … modern humanity insists that violence is inhuman…
  • … believers in reason, lacking any deeper faith and too feeble to tolerate doubt…
  • modern individualism tends…
  • Today there are some who expect such machines to be among us within a few decades…
  • …this modern catechism is mistaken…
  • modern thinkers have imagined that humans can achieve a state of freedom…

You can see how the repetition of the central terms builds up an image of a straw man (or straw liberal) who is particularly dim and uninsightful – but without troubling to name names or quote any texts.

Mentioning specific named writers would, of course, instantly complicate the situation, because it is unlikely that any ‘modern secular liberal’ is quite as dim as Gray likes to make out.


Sick writers

There are many ways to be entertained, amused and informed by this lovely jumble sale of a book, but I noted another strand which unintentionally confirms one of my own bête noirs or obsessions: which is that writers – poets and novelist and playwrights and philosophers – are, on the whole, among the very last people whose advice you want to take about life and living, seeing as almost all of them have been sick misfits, with a variety of mental illnesses and substance addictions. Thus:

Kleist was forced to join the civil service which he hated, wanted to be a writer but struggled to produce anything which satisfied him, tried and failed to join up to Napoleon’s army and ended up committing suicide in 1811.

Schulz was forced to become a school teacher in order to support ailing relatives, hated his job, struggled to write, had a failed engagement to a woman, and, as a Jew, was murdered by the Nazis.

Leopardi was a hunchback with poor sight, who was frail and sickly all his life, having a long but unsuccessful involvement with a married woman, living most of his life in poverty, before moving to Naples and dying of TB aged 38.

Edgar Allen Poe was a disastrous shambles of a man, who never secured a regular income despite starting umpteen magazines and journals, living hand to mouth in poverty, a chronic alcoholic, before being discovered roaming the streets of Baltimore out of his mind and wearing someone else’s clothes, dying in a pauper’s hospital aged 40.

Philip K. Dick was mentally ill for most of his life, dosing himself with alcohol and amphetamines to fuel his prodigious output of disturbing novels until he suffered a full-blown mental collapse in 1974, during which he claimed to have a had a great Revelation about life which he spent the rest of his life struggling to understand. Psychosis, five marriages, heavy drug addiction, repeated suicide attempts.

Guy Debord heavy drinker, despair, suicide aged 63.

Not exactly role models, are they? More to the point, where are all the people of their times who lived healthy, happy, fulfilled and productive lives? Well, they were too busy living life to the full, to write anything.

In other words, writers, on the whole, are a self-selecting and self-reinforcing, self-supporting, self-promoting group of the sick, the mentally ill, the addicted, impoverished, failed and frustrated.

To put it another way, writers in their writings tend to give a wildly inaccurate picture of human nature and human society. The works and thoughts of any ‘creative’ writer should, therefore, be taken with a large pinch of salt and not treated as any kind of ‘truth’, let alone as lessons by which to live life.


Gray’s prescription – withdrawal

Seeing all around him chaos, resurgent barbarism, and an array of misguided beliefs in meliorism, social improvement and scientific advances, Gray recommends withdrawing into yourself and there seeking to achieve harmony through acceptance of the fact that you are an irrational, conflicted being which doesn’t understand itself, let alone the world it lives in – and cultivating an inner freedom.

It’s worth quoting the book’s final passage in full as this turns out to be a surprisingly frank and candid piece of advice about how to live.

We do not know how matter came to dream our world into being; we do not know what, if anything, comes when the dream ends for us and we die. We yearn for a type of knowledge that would make us other than we are – though what we would like to be, we cannot say.

Why try to escape from yourself? Accepting the fact of unknowing makes possible an inner freedom very different from that pursued by the Gnostics. if you have this negative capability, you will not want a higher form of consciousness; your ordinary mind will give you all that you need. Rather than trying to impose sense on your life, you will be content to let meaning come and go. (p.165)


My thoughts

I agree with him.

I too believe human nature is unchangeable, that Western progressive liberals make up a minority of the human population which they arrogantly and ignorantly claim to speak for, that their view of human nature is insultingly shallow (amounting to little more that shouting ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’ at anyone who doesn’t fit their narrow parameters) and that their shallow ideology:

  1. fails to grasp, understand or prevent the failure of their political movements, as represented by the election of Trump, Johnson, Brexit
  2. fails to understand why populations would democratically elect right-wing populists such as Bolsonaro or Erdogan and above all
  3. fails to understand or explain why people continue to be barbaric, violent and sadistic in terrible conflicts all around the world

It’s not that progressive liberalism is morally wrong. It is that it is factually inadequate, biologically illiterate, philosophically impoverished, and so politically and socially misleading.

It is doomed to fail because it is based on a false model of human nature.

As to Gray’s prescription, that we abandon the effort to understand either ourselves or the world around us, I think this is a nice idea to read about, here or in Ursula Le Guin, or in a thousand Christian or Eastern mystics. It is a nice fictional place to inhabit, a discursive possibility, in the same way that I – and billions of other readers – inhabit novels or plays or works of art for a while.

But then I am forced to return to the workaday world where I must earn a living and look after my family, and where simply ‘letting meaning come and go’ is not an adequate guide to life.

To thinking about life, maybe. But not to actually living it.


Related links

The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin (1974)

This is a good, deep and thoughtful novel even if, in the end, you disagree with some of its ideas and aims.

It is a) set in the far future, b) in a solar system far, far away, and c) starts off as a variation on the age-old science fiction theme of the innocent who arrives in a new world / new civilisation, notes the myriad of ways in which it is different from his home country / civilisation, and then slowly realises he is a pawn in a murky geopolitical power-play.

At various moments it reminded me of some of the earliest science novels such as Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy in which a sleeper wakes into a drastically changed human society and spends the rest of the book being lectured about the badness of the bad old days, or HG Wells’s The Sleeper Awakes where a Victorian man wakes in the far future to discover not only that an entire cult has built up around him, but that society is fiercely divided into haves and have-nots and his very awakening triggers a violent revolt by the underclass.

In this novel a naive idealist goes to a more sophisticated future culture and finds himself triggering a major revolt of the long-suffering underclass, which is put down with bloody violence. So at moments I had a strong sense of deja vu.

Urras and Anarres

In this variation of the theme, there are two sister planets, apparently of the ‘Cetian’ system, named Urras and Anarres, which (seem to) orbit each other and so appear as each other’s moons.

Both are occupied by human-type entities, who in fact refer to themselves as Mankind. (There are teasing references to two other planets beyond the immediate system, Haina and Terra, the latter presumably being ‘our’ Earth: only towards the very end of the book do we learn – from the Terran ambassador no less – that Terra is indeed our earth, that it is eleven light years from Tau Ceti, that humanity almost destroyed itself and has ravaged Earth’s environment, and was only saved by the arrival of the more advanced Hainish. There is some intriguing speculation that at some point in the remote past all these planets were colonised by humanoids – which would include Earth, p.119.)

Anyway, these are just intriguing grace-notes of the kind science fiction writers love teasing their readers with and science fiction readers love working up into elaborate theories.

More central to the story is that 170 years before it begins, technology on Urras led to the development of spaceships which could voyage to its ‘moon’, Anarres. The first arrivals were disappointed to discover the supposedly green planet was in fact a mostly windswept desert of dust, where only rare regions had even low-lying trees, where there were no birds or land animals, for life was still at the fish stage.

Initially, the Urrasti mined the new planet, sending back metals and petroleum which had become rare on Urras due to over-development. But some kind of social revolution was taking place on Urras, led by a woman philosopher and social reformer named Odo. Odo developed a pacifist, anarchist, communitarian, vegetarian, holistic philosophy in several books – the Prison Letters and the Analogy (p.74) – and her teachings spread, threatening to undermine the materialist Urrasti way of life, leading to ‘the Insurrection’ in the year 747. (Odo had a husband, mentioned once, Aseio, p.157)

And so the authorities – ‘the Council of World Governments’ (CWG) – on Urras realised a clever way to square the circle would be to pack off the entire sect of ‘Odonians’ to their ‘moon’, where they could put all their utopian visions into practice, and also continue to provide the raw materials Urras required.

And so, over a course of 20 years, some million Odonians were ferried up to Anarres, at first settling what became the capital city, Abbenay (which means Mind in the new language they began to use), slowly moving out to colonise the other regions (and discovering just how barren and inhospitable Anerras is).

Shevek

And it’s at this point that the narrative opens, focusing on the experiences of the young Anarresti physicist, Shevek. It opens with Shevek boarding one of the rare (only ten or so a year) cargo flights which travel from Anerras back to the ‘mother’ planet, Urras. The populations of the two planets remain in touch, but – as you might expect – as their social systems, languages and customs have diverged, so suspicion and reserve have arisen on both sides. (In fact, again only towards the end of the book, we learn that the emigration involved signing certain Terms of Settlement which mandated that no Urrasti were allowed off their occasional cargo ships.)

The narrative proceeds by alternating chapters describing Shevek’s arrival on Urras, with others giving flashbacks to his childhood, boyhood, and young manhood on his home planet. This sounds like a gimmick but it works wonderfully well, in the second half of the novel the alternating timezones create a powerful rhythm and create a deepening emotional connection with the supremely clever but naive, idealistic and yet troubled Shevek.

In other ways, it is is slowly, through the slow revelation of Shevek’s backstory and experiences, that the book reveals its depths.

Initially, we are led to believe that Anarresti society is a Utopia – a non-materialistic, communal society, where there is so little personal property that there aren’t even personal pronouns (no ‘my’, ‘your’, ‘his’ or ‘her’s), where children are raised communally, where everyone works voluntarily and eats freely from the communal refectories, there is no profit motive and no power complexes, in fact no government, just ‘syndicates’ which specialise in particular areas of work, and a central administration of the division of labour (DivLab) which uses computers to organise the population’s work rotas.

‘We have no government but the single principle of free association. We have no states, no nations, no presidents, no premiers, no chiefs, no generals, no bosses, no bankers, no landlords, no wages, no charity, no police, no soldiers, no wars. Nor do we have much else. We are sharers, not owners.’

If they are mostly brain workers, then every tenthday (they don’t have seven-day weeks, they have ten-day ‘decads’) they will be rotated to some kind of manual labour. They speak Pravic, a language invented to be rational and without all the words for possession, ownership and exploitation. Anyone beginning to display such tendencies is (mildly) criticised for being a ‘propertarian’, or told to ‘stop egoising’ and put the community first.

The sexes (there are two sexes, named men and women) are completely equal, participate equally in work and decision making and scientific study etc, and sex is easy and casually available as and when couples feel the need, with no shame or taboos. If couples partner up, fine, if they break up, fine, just as Shevek’s parents split up when he was small, and he was brought up in a communal centre.

Because Anarres is relatively impoverished, there is no waste and everyone lives frugally. Because there are no land animals, everyone is vegetarian.

In other words, Anarres – at least to start with – has very much the feel of a hippy Utopia circa 1974.

Shevek on Urras

When Shevek arrives by rocket on the mother planet Urras – heralded as ‘the first visitor from the moon in 170 years’ – he of course discovers that, although its inhabitants have more goods and services, their society is unrecognisably different from his communal homeland. Urrastis are ‘propertarians’, society is ruled by the profit motive, everyone has titles and formal terms of address (unlike the simple one-word names of Anerras which, we learn, are allotted by computer).

The first time he is taken to the two-mile-long shopping street – Saemtenevia Prospect in the capital city, Nio Esseia (p.110) – Shevek is made physically ill by the excess and the waste.

And so on. As is standard with this kind of ‘innocent abroad’ narrative, we are made to see the corruption, waste and greed of our own wretched capitalist system via a description of a supposedly ‘fantasy’ civilisation as seen through the eyes of an archetypal outsider.

As well as the fondness for titles and possessive pronouns, Shevek discovers (i.e. Le Guin satirises) various other aspects of Urrasti-American culture. Shevek discovers that women on Urras are second-class citizens, very much confined to the home as housewives, and banned from the university, which he finds unnerving and bizarre.

He can’t believe the staggering scale of the conspicuous consumption, the myriads of different clothes, along with the numerous forms of address and politeness, none of which exist on simple, honest Anerras.

He is appalled at the way everything is packaged and wrapped, even the wrapping paper is wrapped in wrapping paper. Waste upon waste.

He goes to the theatre and doesn’t understand the play which is full of snide references to copulation which never actually mention the fact; everyone titters and guffaws but he doesn’t understand their hypocritical shying away from the basic facts of life.

He goes to a museum and is appalled by all the relics of bloodthirsty barbarity it contains.

Shevek the physicist

The institution of the University looms large and makes me realise I haven’t yet explained that, as well as some trade between the two planets, there is also intellectual exchange, and that Shevek is an intellectual prodigy.

The descriptions of his childhood are used to explain Anerras’ utopian social structure to us, but also to bring out Shevek’s unique vision, his intellectual precocity. We are shown Shevek quickly outdoing his college teachers, one of whom in particular – the sneaky Sabul –  suffers from an inferiority complex vis-a-vis the much better-endowed intellectuals of the richer, larger mother planet, and so sends some of Shevek’s graduate work back to academics on Urras.

It is this – Shevek’s intellectual promise – which leads to the invitation from leading academic figures on Urras to visit them, to take a rocket journey back to the home planet, and to the extended passages where the disorientated visitor is shown round this brave new world by his hosts – all this allowing Le Guin to make her points about the unattractiveness of materialism, capitalism, conspicuous consumption, the oppression of women which this simple, honest, open man is introduced to.

Politics

But again, as you might well expect for this kind of storyline, there is trouble in paradise. We slowly learn that Urras is divided between two power blocs, the runaway capitalism and conspicuous consumption of A-Io, and a rival state named Thu, an authoritarian system that claims to rule in the name of the proletariat.

Ring any bells? It would have done in 1974, when this aspect of the story would have been an obvious reference to the way the world was divided between two rival superpowers, super-capitalist USA, and the ruthlessly authoritarian Soviet Union which practiced every kind of tyrannical practice in the name of the ‘proletariat’.

It turns out that the scientists – and so the political leaders – of A-Io and Thu have both realised that Shevek’s physics is teetering on the brink of a major breakthrough in the understanding of spacetime, a new theory called ‘transilience’ which could, potentially, lead to the development of vastly more powerful forms of instantaneous communication and maybe transportation across stellar distances.

Thus, as you might have predicted, on one level the novel turns into a kind of Cold War thriller, in which Shevek – who had naively come back to the mother planet seeking to establish ‘brotherhood’ and a new understanding (p.121) – slowly realises that his smiling, obliging hosts in A-Io are after his knowledge, but so are agents of Thu who have been sent to ingratiate themselves with him, namely Dr Chifoilisk who tries to persuade him that Thuvians are revolutionaries, like the Odonians. He becomes a pawn in the power politics of Anerras.

Indeed, Shevek eventually becomes so disillusioned that he throws in his lot with the inevitable ‘underground’ movement, getting in touch with them in their haunts on the derelict Old Town part of the capital city, and becoming the symbolic figurehead of an immense protest march of the underclass which wins through the city streets to the Capitol Square, where Shevek makes an inspiring speech about brotherhood and solidarity just before state security helicopters open fire on the crowd, massacring unarmed women and children, and Shevek makes a getaway, helping a mortally wounded man to a hideaway in a derelict warehouse where he stays with the man till he dies of blood loss and shock.

This as well, reads like an only slightly paranoid version of the police state many liberals thought America was in danger of becoming in the final stages of the Vietnam War, with mass civil disobedience leading to atrocities by the National Guard.

From that point onwards Shevek freely expresses his disgust with Urras:

‘There is nothing you can do that profit does not enter into, and fear of loss, and a wish for power. You cannot say good morning without knowing which of you is `superior’ to the other, or trying to prove it. You cannot act like a brother to other people, you must manipulate them, or command them, or obey them, or trick them. You cannot touch another person, yet they will not leave you alone. There is no freedom. It is a box – Urras is a box, a package, with all the beautiful wrapping of blue sky and meadows and forests and great cities. And you open the box, and what is inside it? A black cellar full of dust, and a dead man.’

Utopia and universities

In the preface to this novel, Le Guin explains how she came across anarchist writings, for example of Kropotkin, and found these a more attractive alternative to the more authoritarian Marxism as, indeed, many well-heeled bourgeois academics and writers have. How wonderful to live in a world with no bosses, no state and where everyone co-operates willingly for the common good!

And, at least to begin with, the description of the utopian arrangements on Anerras for work or sex or education or relationships or family or farming or building and so on come across as idyllically simple and fair and soul-building, allowing each to contribute to society voluntarily, how and as and when they wish.

And it is a central flaw or issue with the book that virtually all the characters are intellectuals: Shevek’s school and college career leads straight into a job in the university (though with breaks for quite demanding manual labour); his wife Takver is also an academic, a marine biologist; their friends are writers or fellow intellectuals, and they are all shown having extended arguments about the soul of man, and justice, and property and ownership and communal living and so on. And when he arrives on Urras it is to join the faculty of the famous Ieu Eun university and mix with, yes, more lecturers and professors who spend all their time talking about society and justice and so on.

In fact, although it is regarded as a masterpiece of science fiction, The Disposessed could be considered a sort of campus novel, a tale of two university campuses, and all its lead characters are almost exclusively academics.

He crossed the campus on his way to a lecture. (p.171)

Because Shevek is a young man finding his way in the central chapters about his life on Anerras (aged 24 on p.156 as he falls in love with the marine biologist) and because so much of the book has the feel of an undergraduate debating society, it is a surprise to learn that he has just turned 40 at the point where he decides to take the fateful trip to Urras, and has – by that point – spent over ten years working on the problem of Simultaneity – the General Theory of Temporality.

Towards a subtler picture

The essentially white liberal bourgeois academic milieu and the prolonged and high-minded debates about social organisation and justice sometimes give it the feel not only of a campus novel, but of a very 1970s campus novel, with all the characters, whether radical or reactionary, worrying about the advent of The Revolution as if it’s just around the corner, just the way people used to talk about The Revolution in the 1970s.

And, as mentioned, the book has a lot of rather cliched themes – the innocent traveller to a more corrupt culture and the solitary idealistic figure who becomes the trigger for a violent insurrection.

BUT. But but but… I found the second half of the book steadily improved, grew richer and deeper and – crucially – was less expected and predictable. In the alternating flashback chapters we come to ones which describe a really profound drought which affects Anarres and leads to a disastrous famine. Food is short all over, and Shevek volunteers to go and help with famine relief.

Now we begin to see cracks in the high-minded fabric of the utopia. Now we see people not mucking in together, people behaving selfishly, people trying to protect their own. And, during the extensive description of this time, Le Guin emphasises that the entire communal lifestyle is only possible because it is necessary. Part of the reason there is no conspicuous consumption and waste is because there just aren’t enough resources on Anarres to make very much more than basic recycled cotton clothes, and the dreariest of simple vegetarian diets.

Slowly, in a number of scenes, we come to see that even people raised from childhood in an egalitarian society can become selfish, jealous, snide, threatening and violent, if the circumstances are correct.

These scenes – and the commentary of the characters such as Shevek and his wife and best friends discussing them – are genuinely interesting reflections on human nature in an entirely invented culture and civilisation, coming under pressure.

Keng

Similarly, towards the end of the novel, after the climactic massacre in Capitol Square, Shevek manages to evade the sinister, black-clad security forces, and his friends in the ‘Underground’ smuggle him to the neutral city of Rodarred, where he seeks asylum in the Terran Embassy. (A setting which gives rise to all kinds of intriguing contrasts between the physique of the Anarrasti – big and haired all over – and of the Terrans – slight and smooth). And here he meets the slight, smooth-faced female ambassador whose name, Keng, suggests she is of Chinese ancestry.

Here a number of threads are tied up.

  1. Keng arranges with the authorities of A-Io that Shevek can return to Anarres unharmed (in fact he will be carried there by a ship of the fourth race of humanoid mentioned, the Hainish)
  2. The climax of Shevek’s mission is that he explains that he has developed the theory which could lead to Transilience and a technology of instantaneous communication (it is here we learn from Keng that the planets we’re on are eleven light years from Earth i.e. messages to Terra take at least 11 years there and 11 years back, so instant messaging would transform all the humanoid civilisations). And he asks Keng if she can arrange for the crucial handful of physics equations to be beamed to all the humanoid planets simultaneously, so no one culture gets exclusive use of them.

So they have a fascinating conversation, the slight Terran ambassador and the hulking hairy Anarresti. But what pleased me because it was unexpected and yet seemed psychologically true is that, after Shevek has finished a long speech about how much he now hates and detests Urras and its grotesque capitalist luxury and inequality… what was strangely moving is that the ambassador then makes a speech in which she explains that, from the perspective of the ravaged, ruined Earth, Urras is Paradise!. Sure it has its inequalities and tensions, but her home planet is desolate, barren, a place of ruins and total poverty. At least Urras has life and invention and colour and exuberance.

It’s not a very profound fictional move, but it exemplifies the way this slow-building but eventually wonderful and moving book looks at themes and ideas which, to begin with, seem rather stereotyped and over-familiar, and then subjects them to more penetrating examination than you’re used to in the generally sensationalist genre of science fiction.

Time and meaning

And it’s symptomatic of the way the book leans towards a more ‘serious’ tone and attitude, that the final chapter isn’t triumphalist or doom-laden, it doesn’t end in flames or indeed anything very decisive. Only here, right at the end, do we learn about the opposition stirred up to Shevek’s idea of travelling to Urras among his fellow anarchists and communalists.

Like people everywhere, it turns out that they can be quite as paranoid, suspicious and vindictive as anyone else – Shevek is treated as a traitor, his wife is cold-shouldered at her work, and even their ten-year-old daughter is bullied and victimised at her learning centre.

All this reinforces the metaphysical strand at the heart of the book, that life isn’t a fixed state, happiness isn’t something you achieve and then relax. Life is a continual process, and its meaning derives from the union of past and future in a continual flux.

This issue – the question of the meaning of human existence in an endlessly changing world – maps beautifully onto Shevek’s intellectual concerns as a physicist trying to reconcile two completely different theories of time, he devotes his life to seeking:

the unification of Sequency and Simultaneity in a general field theory of time,

The fact that Le Guin was raised in the home of two successful academics at first glance helps explain the limitations of the novel – as I’ve mentioned – to a cast list mostly made up of academics and intellectuals who spend nearly the whole book having philosophical discussions,

But on the upside, it means that she does manage to capture the feel of academic research, the mundaneness of it. The scene – a sequence of a few days – where Shevek – after a disastrous social outing on Urras where he gets humiliatingly drunk on champagne which he’s never drunk before – tells his servant to close ad lock the doors, allow no-one admission, and then spends day after day sitting at his desk, getting up, walking round, staring out the window and… suddenly sees the solution, the answer, the way to reconcile the two contradictory ways of thinking about and measuring time… this scene for me marvellously captures the joy of silent, entranced, intellectual effort, and its deep rich rewards, as you become aware of your mind unfolding a huge new way of seeing life.

In a smaller but comparable way, it may occur to the reader that, the alternation of the chapters, which alternate between the ‘present’ of the main narrative, and a series of flashbacks – all of which are bound together by a narrative which starts with Shevek leaving his home planet and ends with him returning – in their structure reflect Shevek’s attempt to integrate a linear and a circular theory of time. That the narrative structure in some sense embodies the theory of integrated time which Shevek is working towards…

Conclusion

It’s not a perfect book, and many elements have dated in ways I’ve indicated. But at its core is a really serious attempt to engage with a number of issues – about politics and society, about the possibility of a fair and just civilisation – about the life of the mind – and above all about time and our place in time’s flux – which are rare to encounter in any genre of fiction.

The Dispossessed is not wonderfully written. But it is wonderfully and seriously imagined.


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian
1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s
1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s
1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s
1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

1930s
1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s
1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – the florid revenge of Gulliver Foyle, a fastpaced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport and a terrifying new weapon has been invented
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1970s
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

1980s
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa

Albert Camus on Franz Kafka (1942)

In 1942 Albert Camus published his famous long essay, The Myth of Sisyphus in which he addressed the issue of Suicide i.e. Is the world so empty, pointless and absurd that we might as well cash in our chips?

He takes a hundred pages or so to answer No, the basis of his argument being that at the core of every man is a Revolt Against His Fate.

Revolt gives life its value. Spread out over the whole length of a life, it restores its majesty to that life. (p.54)

Rather oddly, Camus added on to his passionate essay a 14-page appendix about the work of Franz Kafka, to be precise:

Hope and the Absurd in the Work of Franz Kafka

The whole art of Kafka consists in forcing the reader to reread.

This is comparable in its bluntness to Walter Benjamin’s thought that the most important thing about Kafka was his failure. But then critics are much given to saying the most important thing about x is y — it is a structural limitation of the genre (and, maybe, of how we think about aesthetics).

Anyway, Camus is approaching Auden’s view that Kafka was the master of the parable which everyone interprets in their own way, from a different angle, from the insight that you get to the end of a Kafka story and are left wondering what it meant. Hence you are forced to reread it.

Camus speaks of Kafka’s symbols as overflowing with meaning, as refusing to deliver a pat meaning.

His summary of the plot of The Trial makes it sound quite a lot like his own novel The Outsider in that he focuses on the last act where Joseph K is brutally murdered and more or less skips the weird atmosphere, the strange encounters, the agonisingly long dialogues and the eerie details (all those attic rooms) which characterise the previous 250 pages.

He is on to something when he talks about the ‘naturalness’ with which Kafka’s characters accept their inexplicable predicaments.

The more extraordinary the character’s adventures are, the more noticeable will be the naturalness of the story: it is in proportion to the divergence we feel between the strangeness of a man’s life and the simplicity with which that man accepts it. It seems that this naturalness is Kafka’s.

Other critics have brought out the way that Kafka’s language is calm and sensible, and lacks almost all metaphor and simile: is flat and factual and precise. Early on Camus begins to impose onto Kafka his own conception of ‘the Absurd’.

He will never show sufficient astonishment at this lack of astonishment. It is by such contradictions that the first signs of the absurd work are recognized.

I’m afraid I recoiled at much of the pretentious rhetoric Camus employs in this essay. In my review of Camus’s other essays in The Myth of Sisyphus collection, I highlight the contrast between the pre-war essays full of lush verbiage and inflated rhetoric and the post-war essays which are immensely more chastened, more overt and accessible. This one definitely belongs to the pre-war, hothouse period.

The Castle is perhaps a theology in action, but it is first of all the individual adventure of a soul in quest of its grace, of a man who asks of this world’s objects their royal secret and of women the signs of the god that sleeps in them. Metamorphosis, in turn, certainly represents the horrible imagery of an ethic of lucidity. But it is also the product of that incalculable amazement man feels at being conscious of the beast he becomes effortlessly.

But Gregor Samsa feels no amazement, none at all, at changing into a giant insect, in fact neither do his family. He never does and his family, after their initial shock, settle down to accepting it s part of everyday life. That’s the whole point.

Camus wants to impose on Kafka a simple set of binary oppositions of which one is his pet notion of The Absurd.

These perpetual oscillations between the natural and the extraordinary, the individual and the universal, the tragic and the everyday, the absurd and the logical, are found throughout his work and give it both its resonance and its meaning. These are the paradoxes that must be enumerated, the contradictions that must be strengthened, in order to understand the absurd work.

Though he is correct to point out the reconciliation in Kafka’s stories of the mundane practical prose of everyday life on the one hand and, on the other, an almost supernatural anxiety.

There is in the human condition (and this is a commonplace of all literatures) a basic absurdity as well as an implacable nobility. The two coincide, as is natural. Both of them are represented, let me repeat, in the ridiculous divorce separating our spiritual excesses and the ephemeral joys of the body… Thus it is that Kafka expresses tragedy by the everyday and the absurd by the logical.

Or – the horrific, the terrifying is all the more effective if it is understated. As with all his early essays Camus veers in and out of making sense.

The human heart has a tiresome tendency to label as fate only what crushes it. But happiness likewise, in its way, is without reason, since it is inevitable.

Contrary to what he said a moment ago about the ‘incalculable amazement’ Gregor feels at turning into an insect, he is closer to the mark when he points out the combination of the extreme and the everyday. Thus this man to whom befalls the most amazing thing that has ever happened to anyone, ever, is a boring travelling salesman whose first thought is concern about what his boss will say when he’s late for work (Gregor having, in a very characteristic Kafka way, not yet acknowledged that he is never going back to work).

Camus tries to persuade us that The Castle complements The Trial in ‘a barely perceptible progression’ which represents ‘a tremendous conquest in the realm of evasion.’

The Trial propounds a problem which The Castle, to a certain degree, solves. The first describes according to a quasi scientific method and without concluding. The second, to a certain degree, explains. The Trial diagnoses, and The Castle imagines a treatment. But the remedy proposed here does not cure. It merely brings the malady back into normal life.

Like a lot of Camus this sounds good but melts in your hands. If it is an interesting idea it deserves to be expanded and explained at greater length. He is right to point out how K. is the more buoyant of the two protagonists, never gives up hope, remains optimistic even though he quite obviously will never make it into The Castle, never realises or accepts that each new chapter ‘is a new frustration’. Camus notes how K. strives endlessly to try and become normal, to become one of the villagers, like everyone else – to be accepted.

Camus refers o God a lot in his discussion of The Castle and talks about Kierkegaard’s notorious leap of faith (Kierkegaard thought man can never know whether or not there is a God; he has to take a leap). He refers to Nietzsche and uses words like ‘existentialism’, but without persuading the reader that he really understands what he’s talking about. As with his other early essays we see the triumph of rhetoric over meaning.

That stranger who asks the Castle to adopt him is at the end of his voyage a little more exiled because this time he is unfaithful to himself, forsaking morality, logic, and intellectual truths in order to try to enter, endowed solely with his mad hope, the desert of divine grace.

He tries to appropriate Kafka for his own concerns, and in particular the special use of the word ‘hope’ which he had developed in The Myth of Sisyphus. In that essays ‘hope’ is the word he gives to the thousand and one ways people turn away from and deny the reality of life, hoping for a God or a political party or a cause or something to transform the absurdity of the world.

The word ‘hope’ used here is not ridiculous. On the contrary, the more tragic the condition described by Kafka, the firmer and more aggressive that hope becomes. The more truly absurd The Trial is, the more moving and illegitimate the impassioned ‘leap’ of The Castle seems. But we find here again in a pure state the paradox of existential thought as it is expressed, for instance, by Kierkegaard: ‘Earthly hope must be killed; only then can one be saved by true hope,’ which can be translated: “One has to have written The Trial to undertake The Castle.’

Clever sounding, but what does it mean? In the essay’s final page he tries to do the same thing as in Sisyphus, which is bring a discussion which began with despair and the Absurd round to a positive conclusion, something along the lines of: Embrace the Absurdity, relish the challenge of the universe’s meaninglessness. Feel the fear, and do it anyway 🙂

It is strange in any case that works of related inspiration like those of Kafka, Kierkegaard, or Chestov -those, in short, of existential novelists and philosophers completely oriented toward the Absurd and its consequences – should in the long run lead to that tremendous cry of hope. They embrace the God that consumes them. It is through humility that hope enters in.

If you say so. But I think Camus is hopelessly [sic] distorting Kafka. There is no hope in Kafka. There is no uplift or rejoicing. By this stage I’ve realised that Camus is imposing his own dynamic onto Kafka (as, according to Auden, everyone does). I realise that he is imposing his own newly minted concept – The Absurd – on Kafka in order to make Kafka perform the same movement from despair to hope, or Revolt and lucid hope, which he has enacted in Sisyphus.

The absurd is recognized, accepted, and man is resigned to it, but from then on we know that it has ceased to be the absurd. Within the limits of the human condition, what greater hope than the hope that allows an escape from that condition? As I see once more, existential thought in this regard (and contrary to current opinion) is steeped in a vast hope.

1. I don’t think this is a very accurate or useful summary of the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre or the earlier existentialist philosophers. 2. There is no hope in Kafka, in fact the essay on Kafka by György Lukács which I’ve just read references a characteristically bleak and wry quote from Kafka on precisely this subject:

In conversation with Max Brod, after Brod had asked whether there is ‘hope outside this manifestation of the world that we know’, Kafka is said to have replied: ‘Oh, plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope – but not for us.’

Now that is the true Kafka note, the bleak humour but also the teasing quality, the feeling that, as Walter Benjamin pointed out, he is privy to some kind of doctrine or knowledge that none of the rest of us understand: that his works are all fragments pointing towards some amazing new doctrine which, however, was never completed and never could be completed.

Comparing Camus’s superficial references to Kierkegaard and ‘the existentialists’ against this quote from Kafka, or against the force of Benjamin’s tremendously powerful essay, makes me realise that Camus is out of his depth.

He simply isn’t mature enough, clever enough or deep enough to grasp the unfathomable abyss which Kafka is plumbing. Thinking he can go from a set of superficial remarks about Kafka’s symbols and the elementary observation that The Castle complements The Trial before hurrying on to declare that, in the end, embracing the Absurd is paradoxically hopeful and uplifting — Camus comes over as an excitable teenager. His concluding remarks are painfully trite.

His work is universal (a really absurd work is not universal) to the extent to which it represents the emotionally moving face of man fleeing humanity, deriving from his contradictions reasons for believing, reasons for hoping from his fecund despairs, and calling life his terrifying apprenticeship in death. It is universal because its inspiration is religious. As in all religions, man is freed of the weight of his own life.

But Kafka emphatically was not freed of the weight of his own life. Camus is thinking about the emotional journey which he himself has just been through in The Myth of Sisyphus and not at all of the actual writer Franz Kafka who was more oppressed from start to finish of his career by the unbearable weight of his own life than any other writer in history. Who couldn’t escape himself or the delusion of trying to escape himself, no matter where he turned, who saw error building upon error and doors closing at the end of every corridor.

You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid. (Kafka, Letters)

Camus’s distance from Kafka’s books is symbolised by the mistake he makes about the end of The Trial where he has the two men who arrest Joseph K. ‘slit his throat’, whereas, in fact, ‘the hands of one of the men closed round his throat, just as the other drove the knife deep into his heart and turned it twice.’ Camus has maybe misremembered this because it is, at some level, a little more capable of redemption that what Kafka actually wrote, which seems to me to be absolutely pitiless. Into the heart goes the metal knife. And then they twist it. There is no hope or rejoicing and no clever paradox about it. Camus’s final remarks are incoherent and, I think, profoundly irrelevant.

For if nostalgia is the mark of the human, perhaps no one has given such flesh and volume to
these phantoms of regret.

‘Phantoms of regret’ is a wholly inadequate phrase to convey anything to do with Kafka’s work. Camus’ prose is overblown, romantic, melodramatic and immature whereas Kafka’s was precise, understated, and unsparing.

The translation

Hope and the Absurd in the Work of Franz Kafka was translated by Justin O’Brien. Is it O’Brien’s fault or Camus’s that the text is often badly phrased and poorly structured, sometimes becoming incomprehensible?

A symbol is always in general and, however precise its translation, an artist can restore to it only its movement: there is no word-for-word rendering.

There are works in which the event seems natural to the reader. But there are others (rarer, to be sure) in which the character considers natural what happens to him.

In the fullest sense of the word, it can be said that everything in that work is essential. In any case, it propounds the absurd problem altogether.


Related links

Related Kafka reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

Reviews of other books by Camus

György Lukács on Franz Kafka (1955)

Brief biography of György Lukács

From the 1920s to the 1960s György Lukács was one of the leading Marxist philosophers and literary critics in Europe.

Born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1885, the son of a very affluent Jewish banker, he benefited from a superb education and was a leading intellectual at Budapest university, combining interests in literature and (Neo-Kantian) philosophy, and founded a salon which featured leading Hungarian writers and composers during the Great War.

The experience of the war (although he was himself exempted from military service) radicalised Lukács and he joined the Communist Party in 1918. His cultural eminence led to him being appointed People’s Commissar for Education and Culture in the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic which lasted from 21 March to 1 August 1919 and took its orders directly from Lenin. Lukács was an enthusiastic exponent of Lenin’s theory of Red Terror.

When the Republic was overthrown by army generals who instituted the right-wing dictatorship which was to run Hungary between the wars, Lukács fled to Vienna where he spent the 1920s developing a philosophical basis for a Leninist version of Marxism.

In 1930 he was ‘summoned’ to Moscow to work at the Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Sciences, although he soon got caught up in Stalin’s purges and was sent into exile in Tashkent. But Lukács survived, unlike an estimated 80% of Hungarian exiles in Russia, who perished.

At the war’s end he was sent back to Hungary to take part in the new Hungarian communist government, where he was directly responsible for written attacks on non-communist intellectuals, and took part in the removal of independent and non-communist intellectuals from their jobs, many being forced to take jobs as manual labourers.

Lickspittle apparatchik though that makes him sound, Lukács in fact trod a careful line which managed to be critical of Stalinism, albeit in coded and often abstruse phraseology. Due to his experience and seniority he was made a minister in the government of Imry Nagy which in 1956 tried to break away from Russia’s control during the so-called Hungarian Uprising. Nagy’s government was suppressed by the Soviets, and Lukács along with the rest of the Nagy government was exiled to Romania. Nagy himself was executed, Lukács only just escaped that fate. Yet again he had experienced the brutal and repressive force of Soviet tyranny.

He was allowed back to Budapest in 1957, abandoned his former criticisms of the Soviet Union, engaged in public self-criticism, and was allowed to keep his academic posts, continue writing and publishing his theoretical and critical works, up to his death in 1971.

His was a highly representative life of a certain kind of Central European intellectual in the twentieth century. He was reviled at the time by the people whose lives he blighted and by a wide range of liberal and conservative opponents.

Modernism as a symptom of capitalist society

In 1955 Lukács delivered a series of lectures on the clash between Realism and Modernism and a year later the lectures were published in essay form in a short book titled The Meaning of Contemporary Realism.

The message is simple: Realism good, Modernism bad. Simple enough, but the interest and, for me at any rate, the great pleasure to be had from reading this book is in the secondary arguments, in the premises and working through of the ideas and theories and insights which support this basic conclusion.

He begins with a sweeping premise: the era we live in is dominated by the conflict between capitalism and socialism. Looking back at the nineteenth century we can see how Realism in the arts emerged with the newly triumphant bourgeoisie, and was a result of the new social conditions brought about by their rise and overthrow of the last vestiges of power of the European aristocracy.

(Realist authors would include Stendhal, Balzac and early Flaubert in France, Tolstoy in Russia, George Eliot in England, Mark Twain in America.)

Realism in literature was followed by Naturalism in the final third of the century, which paid determined attention to the grim social conditions of mature capitalist society but also, in the hands of a novelist like Zola, began the process of reducing human beings to ciphers worked on by malign environments. Darwinism could be made to make people appear simple tools of their genetic inheritance, socialist theories could make people appear pawns and slaves of their working environments.

Zola saw his novels as sociological experiments. For Lukács he had already lost the tricky balance the realists maintained between character and ‘type’ – which helps to explain why Zola wrote nearly forty novels without a single memorable character in any of them.

(Naturalist authors are spearheaded by Zola in France, with maybe Jack London in America, George Gissing and Arthur Morrison in England.)

By the end of the century a shoal of movements erupted which prioritised an interest in decadence, perversion, the macabre and gruesome, the so-called Decadent movement and the gloomy atmosphere of Symbolism.

This brings us to the eruption of Modernism about the time of the First World War, the movement which, Lukács claims, is still praised and defended by bourgeois capitalist critics at the time he’s writing (1955). But for Lukács, Modernism represents a colossal failure of humanity: it turns its back on history and society, its protagonists are almost all loners undergoing nervous breakdowns, hopelessly alienated from societies which are portrayed as stuck, static, incapable of change or improvement.

From T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land to Samuel Beckett in Waiting For Godot Modernist writers depict complete psychological collapse, in Beckett’s case the degradation of human beings into almost wordless vegetables. He backs it up with references to Musil’s The Man Without Qualities and other European works which foreground hopelessness and despair, and he was, of course, writing during the heyday of French existentialism, which became a byword in the 1950s for black sweaters and anguish.

All of these works and writers, Lukács argues, are symptoms of the alienating effect of living under Western capitalism. All these writers, artists and composers bear out Marx’s insight that in the capitalist system people are alienated from each other and from themselves.

Specific points

This makes Lukács sound like a cumbersome Stalinist commissar, but in fact the book is a pleasure to read from start to finish because i) it moves relatively quickly, not belabouring the points ii) it makes references to all kinds of writers, most from the European and not the Anglo-Saxon tradition, and iii) it features a whole series of thought-provoking ideas.

Time There is a fascinating discussion of subjective versus objective time, and how Modernists of all stripe, including Modernist philosophers, became fascinated by trying to describe the undifferentiated flow of sense impressions and ideas which became known as stream-of-consciousness, most famously in the works of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

He compares and contrasts their approaches with the way Thomas Mann uses what, at first sight, is stream of consciousness to capture the thoughts of the poet Goethe in his novel Lotte in Weimar. Mann is a realist writer and so, in Lukács’s opinion, the stream of consciousness is deployed as a tool within which particular individuals and events emerge against a clearly defined social backdrop.

Static versus dynamic Joyce’s worldview is static. More than one critic pointed out how Ulysses portrays a Dublin trapped in stasis and his masterpiece, Finnegan’s Wake, portrays a vast circular movement. But, says Lukács, human beings only achieve their personhood, only become fully human, by interacting with other humans in a constantly changing, dynamic society. Realist authors select characters and details to portray their understanding of this ceaseless dialectic between the individual and society.

Solipsism and nihilism A full and proper understanding of society in all its relations is empowering, an analysis and understanding which gives people the confidence to mobile and change things. By contrast, Lukács accuses Modernists of turning their back on healthy interaction with the world, of rejecting society, and rejecting a historical understanding of how societies change and evolve.

And it is no great leap to go from the belief that nothing ever changes, to despair. Rejecting society and history leads the protagonists of Modernist fictions to:

1. be confined within the limits of their own subjective experiences (Joyce, stream of consciousness)
2. ultimately deprive the protagonist of even a self a personal history, since that history is (in a normal person) largely the interaction between themselves and the host of others, starting with their family and moving outwards, which constitute society

By exalting man’s subjectivity, at the expense of the objective reality of his environment, man’s subjectivity is itself impoverished. (p.24)

Man is reduced to a sequence of unrelated experiential fragments. (p.26)

Lukács invokes the teachings of Heidegger, as the godfather of 20th century existentialism, with his fundamental idea of Geworfenheit ins Dasein, of having been ‘thrown-into’-Being’, abandoned in a godless universe etc etc, all the self-pitying tropes which were promoted by existentialist philosophers, critics, playwrights, novelists, film-makers, rock stars and millions of teenagers in their lonely bedrooms ever since.

The individual, retreating into himself in despair at the cruelty of the age, may experience an intoxicated fascination with his forlorn condition. (p.38)

By contrast, Lukács invokes the fundamental insight of one of the founders of western philosophy – Aristotle – that man is a social animal: we only fully live and have our being in a social context. This insight goes through to Hegel in the early nineteenth century, who applies his mental model of the dialectic to the continual interplay between the healthily-adjusted individual and the society they find themselves in.

How does this play out in fiction? Well, the realist novelist such as George Eliot or Tolstoy chooses representative types, puts them in a narrative which represents realistic actions which capture the possibilities of their society, and selects details which highlight, bolster and bring out these two aspects. By and large things change in a realist novel, not least the characters, sometimes against the backdrop of dramatic social events (Middlemarch, War and Peace).

It is the interplay between a character and his or her fully realised environment, from Homer’s Achilles to Thomas Mann’s Adrian Leverkuhn, which gives us fully developed sense of character and, deeper than this, a dynamic sense of human potential. At bottom, the subject of the realist author is human change and development.

Moreover, he goes on to point out that all literature is, at some level, realistic. It would be impossible to have a totally non-realist novel (as you can have an utterly abstract work of art). More to his point, about the value of society and history:

A writer’s pattern of choice is a function of his personality. But personality is not in fact timesless and absolute, however it may appear to the individual consciousness. Talent and character may be innate; but the manner in which they develop, or fail to develop, depends on the writer’s interaction with his environment, on his relationships with other human beings. His life is part of the life of his times; no matter whether he is conscious of this, approves or disapproves. He is part of a larger social and historical whole. (p.54)

The Modernist, on the other hand rejects all this. More often than not their characters are extremes, psychopaths, neurotic, going mad, and he points to all of Samuel Beckett’s characters, but also the many mentally challenged characters in William Faulkner, of the man adrift on a sea of phenomena in Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities. Details are chosen not to highlight their representativeness but to bring out the freakishness of themselves and the uncanny world they inhabit. And the plot or story is often sick and twisted, or barely exists, or revels in degradation and decline (Beckett).

(I laughed out loud when he described the way Beckett stands at the end of this tradition, as an example of ‘a fully standardised nihilistic modernism’, making him sound like a standard edition family saloon or entry level fridge freezer, p.53)

In a striking manoeuvre he invokes Freud as a godfather to Modernism, pointing out that Freud himself openly declared that his way of gaining insight into the structure of the ‘normal’ mind was via study of a colourful array of neurotics, obsessives and phobics. I.e. one of the major planks of though underlying all Modernist psychology, Freudianism, is based on the morbid and the unnatural (p.30)

Franz Kafka

Which brings us to Kafka. Kafka, for Lukács, even more than Beckett, for all his genius, represents the acme of the sickness that is Modernism. He points out a detail I’d forgotten which is that, as Joseph K is being led away to be executed, he thinks of flies stuck on flypaper, tearing their little legs off. This, Lukács says, is the vision at the heart of all Kafka’s fiction and at the heart of the Modernist worldview – humans are helpless insects, totally impotent, paralysed in a society they don’t understand, trapped in unintelligible situations.

Kafka’s angst is the experience par excellence of modernism. (p.36)

Lukács dwells on Kafka’s brilliant way with details, his eye for the telling aspect of a person or situation which brings it to life. But Lukács uses this fact to bring out the world of difference between the realistic detail in a realist fiction, which has been chosen because it is representative of the real world, properly conceived and understood – and the details in Kafka, which he chose with absolute genius to convey his sense of utter, paralysing futility and nonsense.

Kafka’s fictions are absolutely brilliant allegories, but allegories of nothing, allegories of emptiness (pp.44-45).

Thoughts

Pros

This is just a selection of some of Lukács’s insights in this short and, for the most part, very readable book. He may have been a slimeball, he may have been a criminal, he may have been a hypocrite, he may have been a toady to power – but there is no denying he was a clever man, very well read, and he conveys his learning fairly lightly. He doesn’t set out to be impenetrable as most French theorists do.

And he’s candid enough to admit that many of the experiments and new techniques and works written by the Modernists were dazzling masterpieces, and to concede that much of the stuff written under the aegis of Stalin’s Socialist Realism was tripe. He’s too sophisticated to defend rubbish.

But his basic critique that the Modernist works which Western critics, to this day, tend to uncritically adulate, do tend to foreground the outsider, the alienated, the loner, often with severe psychological problems, in fictions which often lack much plot or any interaction with other characters, and in which both hero and author have largely turned their back on wider society – this is very insightful. His analysis of the aspects of Modernist fiction is useful and stimulating.

And, having just read Kafka’s biography, his diagnosis of Kafka’s writings as the brilliant masterpieces of a very sick mind are completely spot on. I like the way he brings out the important of the just-so detail in Kafka’s works, the precise details which tip the whole thing over into paranoid nightmare.

Cons

But all that said, later on in the book an unnervingly more dogmatic tone emerges. Scattered references early in the book about the Cold War and the Peace Movement coalesce into political polemic. He links his concept of the Good Realist writers directly with the 1950s Peace Movement, which was strongly promoted by the Soviet Union amid disingenuous claims to want to end the Cold War (while all the time retaining a vice-like grip on Eastern Europe and funding destabilising communist insurgents around the world).

By contrast, he explicitly links some of the philosophers and authors of angst (most notoriously Heidegger) with Nazism and so tries to tar all Modernist authors with the taint of Fascism.

In other words, Lukács disappoints by making a direct and rather crude connection between a writer’s underlying worldviews and developments in international politics. He is not crude enough to blame individual writers for Fascism or capitalism – but he does point out repeatedly that they base their works on the same worldview that accepts the exploitation and alienation implicit in the capitalist system.

For most of the first half I enjoyed Lukács’s dissection of the psychopathology of Modernism. But when he began to directly relate it to capitalist-imperialism and to lecture the reader on how it led to The Wrong Side in the Cold War, the book suddenly felt crude, simplistic and hectoring.

When he suddenly states that:

The diabolical character of the world of modern capitalism, and man’s impotence in the face of it, is the real subject matter of Kafka’s writing (p.77)

I thought, How can such a clever, well-read man write something so crude?

  1. Kafka’s visions of human life crushed by a faceless and persecuting bureaucracy could equally well have come out of Czarist Russia with its notorious secret police.
  2. Kafka didn’t in fact live in an advanced capitalist society such as America, Britain or Germany – the endless useless bureaucracy of his books is not that of snappily efficient America or Germany, but precisely that of provincial Bohemia, a sleepy backwater entangled in the vast and impenetrable civil service of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
  3. And Kafka would have been horribly out of place in any social system, at any time, as his biography brings home.

Worst of all, when, in the middle of the book, Lukács says that what counts about a writer isn’t their actual works, not their words or pages or techniques or style, but the general tendency of their thought… the implication is that this tendency can be measured by a commissar like himself, and suddenly I could hear the tones of Zhdanov and the other Soviet dictators of culture, whose crude diktats resulted in countless artists and writers being arbitrarily arrested and despatched to die in the gulag, crying out as they went that they meant no offence – while the apparatchiks calmly replied that they weren’t being punished for anything they’d actually said or done: they were being condemned to ten years hard labour for the tendency of their work.

At moments in this suave and sophisticated book, you suddenly glimpse the truncheon and the barbed wire of actual communist tyranny, which gives it a sudden thrill and horror not normally encountered in a genteel volume of literary criticism.

So it’s a complicated business, reading Lukács.


Related links

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Dates are dates of composition.

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera (1978)

We are all prisoners of a rigid conception of what is important and what is not. We anxiously follow what we suppose to be important, while what we suppose to be unimportant wages guerrilla warfare behind our backs, transforming the world without our knowledge and eventually mounting a surprise attack on us.
(The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, page 197)

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is divided into seven parts, each of which is a self-contained story although, as the recurring titles suggest, with recurring themes:

Part One – Lost Letters
Part Two – Mother
Part Three – The Angels
Part Four – Lost Letters
Part Five – Litost
Part Six – The Angels
Part Seven – The Border

Short sections

And each story is itself broken up into numerous, very short, numbered sections, often as short as a page long. For example, the first story, Love Letters, is 22 pages long and is divided into 19 sections.

The reading experience is dominated by this fragmentation of the narrative into short sections. Kundera uses the ‘short section technique’ for a number of purposes.

One is to continually change perspective on events, shedding ironic light on his characters’ mixed motives and misunderstandings. The most obvious way is to describe a piece of dialogue or event, and then devote separate sections to the speakers’ often wildly differing interpretations of what they just said or meant.

It also allows him to switch from close-up description of actions carried out by the protagonists, to higher-level reflections, about human nature, the character of irony or comedy, generalisations about men women and love, or about fate and destiny – and especially about Czech history, and of course, focusing on the most traumatic event of his lifetime, the communist coup of 1948 and its consequences.

The ‘short section technique’ allows Kundera to set off a train of events and then to step right outside them and present them from the perspectives of the different characters, revealing – more often than not – that they completely misinterpret each other’s motives. This has been the bedrock of his authorial approach since his first novel, The Joke – the basic premise that people really, really don’t understand each other, and that pretty much all our intentions and aims and plans turn out to be wildly miscalculated, and consistently backfire.

I read all Kundera’s books back in the 1980s when he first became very fashionable, and I had remembered Laughter and Forgetting for being lighter and funnier than its predecessors – but this, I think, was a misleading memory. Although the text is much more broken up and ‘bitty’, more interrupted by digressions and ideas – the actual content is just as grim as its predecessors. The opening story, in particular, leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

1. Lost Letters

It is 1971 and Mirek is a dissident who played a prominent role in the 1968 Prague Spring, then, after the Russian tanks and half a million Warsaw Pact soldiers invaded Czechoslovakia, was thrown out of his job and became an unperson. Since then he’s religiously kept all his diaries and journals and the records of meetings of him and dissident friends, despite them all advising him to burn or destroy them. But:

It is 1971, and Mirek says that the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. (p.3)

When we read that grand opening sentence back in the early 1980s (the book was published in English in 1980) we all thought it said something profound and beautiful about human nature and politics and society, and the need to resist the ever-growing forces of oblivion (as well as being a good example of Kundera’s straight-out, intellectual, almost academic style. No long paragraphs setting the scene or describing dawn over Prague or an unmarked car drawing up outside a house, none of the normal conventions of fiction. Instead Kundera goes directly to the beliefs and ideas of his main characters.) Anyway, rereading the story today, I realise this simple interpretation doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

The main event in the story is Mirek driving out to the village to meet up with an old flame of his, his first love in fact, Zdena. Why? Because she has a big cache of all the letters he wrote to her and he wants to secure, protect and guard his archive. Also, there is a deeper psychological reason. He wanted:

to find the secret of his youth, his beginnings, his point of departure. (p.18)

The body of the short story concerns Mirek’s thoughts and reflections about Zdena, for example the fact that, back when they were going out, she was plain and ugly, his friends, and even she herself, were surprised that he was going out with her. Nobody knew that he was timid and shy and a virgin.

As he drives, Mirek realises that his car is being followed, by a car driven by a couple of security goons who make no attempt to hide. When Mirek stops at a friend’s mechanic shop to get the car tuned up, the goons stop too, and watch him, with a smirk.

So that when he finally arrives at Zdena’s house, and is reluctantly invited in, and makes his pitch to ask for his letters back, and she surprises him by saying a categorical NO… Mirek is convinced it’s because she is in league with the security men, and is keeping the letters to hand them over to the authorities, preparatory to his arrest and trial etc. She always was a communist die-hard, a party fanatic, even when they were going out together, as he now remembers bitterly.

But the narrator has told us otherwise. He has explained that Zdena was not a party fanatic but simply clove to the party after Mirek dumped her. After he dumped her, she needed to have something she could trust and base her life on, and this became an absolute faith in the Party. It was Mirek who made her what she is.

And, we learn, she is not at all in league with the security men, who she doesn’t even know about. She is simply scared – scared witless, scared of how it’s all got too big and scary, how they’re arresting people, how he might be bringing trouble into her life. She is simply too paralysed by fear to hand the letters over.

Demoralised, Mirek gets back into his car, the security men get back into theirs, and they tail him back to Prague, despite a small interlude when he throws them off in a village and sits parked by the railway station, dazed, pondering his past and future.

The narrator now picks up the theme about memory and forgetting which was announced at the beginning, reflecting that Mirek’s true motive in seeking the letters wasn’t because he never loved Zdena, or regretted loving Zdena. It’s because he loved Zdena so much and is now embarrassed about being associated with such a plain, if not ugly woman, that he wants to erase her from his past. Which leads us up to the author’s message, a characteristically jaundiced view:

By erasing her from his mind [by finally repossessing the letters] he erased his love for her… Mirek is as much a rewriter of history as the Communist Party, all political parties, all nations, all men. People are always shouting that they want a better future. It’s not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. the past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past. They are fighting for access to the laboratories where photographs are retouched and biographies and histories rewritten. (p.22, italics added)

So 1. that grand opening statement turns out to be a lie. Mirek is lying to himself. His grand claim to want to preserve the past from forgetting is completely contradicted by this analysis of his motives. According to his creator, Mirek is every bit as mendacious and controlling as his enemy, the Communist Party.

And 2. when Mirek arrives home he discovers the police are already there, have ransacked his apartment, and read through all the diaries and journals in which he recorded meetings with other dissidents, their criticism of the Party, their analysis of its tyranny after the crushing of the Prague Spring. In other words, they have seized all the documents in which he foolishly implicated and betrayed his closest friends. The last sentences of the ‘story’ are bleak and unforgiving.

After a year of investigatory custody he was put on trial. Mirek was sentenced to six years, his son to two years, and ten or so of their friends to terms of one to six years. (p. 24)

So let us return to that ringing opening line – ‘the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting’: it now appears to be contradicted in at least two ways.

  1. Although it’s Mirek’s own line, we have seen that, when push comes to shove, he doesn’t believe it; his quest to reclaim Zdena’s letters is, according to his creator, a quest to erase and rewrite the past as completely as the Communists want to.
  2. Worse, it turns out to be a ludicrously selfish and self-serving position and one which ended up condemning his best friends – and his own son – to years and years in prison.

Could it be that the opposite is true? That maybe the past ought to be forgotten? Certainly I think so. I completely disagree with the old cliché “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It’s the other way round. Those who obsessively remember the past, are doomed to walk within the confines and categories it imposes on us. In Northern Ireland throughout my life and in Yugoslavia during the 1990s, there were groups of people who clung on to the past, cherished and nurtured their grievances, thirsted for revenge, determined to re-enact the past (the freedom struggle of the Irish people, the freedom struggle of the Serbian people) but this time to win. it seemed back then that it is precisely those who remember the past, who are doomed to repeat it.

Maybe the content of the story proves the complete opposite of that ringing opening declaration.

2. Mother

Marketa and Karel are married. At first they lived with his parents, but Marketa and his mother had daily run-ins, which became so intense that they eventually moved to the other end of the country to be as far as possible away. Then Karel’s father died and Mother was left alone, and Marketa, as she got older, softened. It is Easter and Marketa invites Mother to come and stay for a week, Saturday to Saturday, because they’ve something planned for Sunday.

This is an orgy, well a ménage à trois. Marketa knows Karel has a high sex drive. Early on in their marriage it became clear that he would be the unfaithful one and Marketa would suffer, although she would enjoy the perks of an unassailable moral superiority.

Then one day, in a sauna at a spa (the Czechs and their spas!), Eva walks in, naked, beautiful and confident, and starts chatting to Marketa. Soon they are good friends and it makes Marketa feel in control when she introduces Eva to Karel and they become lovers.

The irony is, we learn a few pages later, that Eva and Karel had been lovers for years before this. Their first meeting and love-making is very erotically described. It had been Eva who suggested that she approach Marketa. And so the three of them have settled into having periodic three-way sex. Sunday evening has been set aside for one such session.

But Mother mischievously declares she will only leave on Monday and both Karel and Marketa fail to argue her out of her decision.

On the fateful Sunday evening, the girls have slipped off to the bedroom to change into their sexy outfits (a negligee so short it reveals her pubes, for Eva, a pearl necklace and garter belt for Marketa) and are about to return to the living room, where they’ve been chatting and drinking for Karel, for the erotic entertainment to begin… when Mother comes in!

Now, the saving grace is that Mother has gotten pretty short-sighted and so doesn’t even realise the girls are wearing next to nothing (Marketa scampers out to throw on a raincoat). In fact Karel maliciously welcomes her untimely visit because he’d been getting irritated with the girls. And the story is unusually sympathetic to Mother – unusual in the sense that almost all Kundera’s narratives focus on horny men. She has stumbled back into the living room because she is troubled by the memory of reciting a poem which she had described earlier, over dinner, to Marketa and Karel. She had told them it was a poem about the Austro-Hungarian Empire which she recited at the end of the war. But Karel points out that she left school well before then. Alone in her bedroom, it dawns on her that he is right, and that it was a Christmas poem, not a patriotic one, and that she had recited it years earlier. And now she blunders back into the living room – just as the orgy is about to begin – to set them all right. And, in this odd, ludicrous setup, proceeds to recite the poem again, reviving the distant memory of her girlhood.

And then she goes one further by pointing out that Eva reminds her of Nora, a friend of hers when she was a young woman. And all of a sudden Karel has a flashback, remembers being four years old, in some spa town, and being left in a room, and a little while later the tall, statuesque naked body of Nora entered the room and took a nightgown off a hook. The memory of being four, of being small, and looking up at this huge naked Amazon, has stayed with him ever since.

Having said her piece and fussed around a bit more, Mother goes quietly back to her room. Immediately, Karel arranges Eva as he remembers Nora standing in that distant boyhood memory, and kneels down so that she is towering over him. Fired with lust, Karel proceeds to make love to both women furiously.

But, as with all Kundera, there are other perspectives. While he is tupping them, Marketa is miles away, trying to reduce Karel’s fornicating body to a headless machine. And afterwards, as the girls are lying on the couch, Eva quietly invites Marketa to come away with her and have a threesome with her husband. And Marketa quietly accepts.

Karel may be lost in his childhood reveries, but this doesn’t stop the other characters – his wife and mistress – carrying on living their own lives, pursuing their own goals and agendas.

3. The Angels

The angels are those who believe the world is full of order and rationality. They are humourless imposers of order and pattern and meaning. They are terrifying because they want to abolish all the muddy, confused, speckled, mongrel mixedness of the actual world and real people. Kundera identifies them with the Communist Party, Soviet tyranny, feminists, modern literature teachers, and with hypocrites like the French surrealist poet Paul Éluard, who wrote inspirational poems about Freedom while at the same time supporting the Czech regime which sent poets to their deaths.

To begin this assault Kundera creates a pair of earnest and utterly humourless American feminist literature students who don’t understand that a play by Ionesco is meant to be absurd and funny. And when they do grasp this basic fact, he satirises the funny little choked breathy noise they make. He is referring to their laughter.

The students have a narrow, dogmatic literature teacher, Miss Raphael, who is lonely. She is looking for a circle of like-minded believers to dance with. She has tried the Communist Party, the Trotsykists, the anti-abortionists, the pro-abortionists (this pairing is included to show that she has absolutely no moral underpinnings or beliefs, but is just looking for a gang she can join).

Then Kundera describes the way the idealistic young people, students and writers and artists, danced in the street after the communists came to power in Czechoslovakia in 1948, danced and laughed, even as innocent politicians and poets and artists were being executed in prisons just a few miles away.

Thus they danced in circles, the high-minded angels, laughing their laughter of joy because the world is so ordered and rational and just. And – in a touch of magical realism – their dancing bodies slowly lifted off the ground till they were dancing in the air.

Similarly, when the two humourless feminist students give their humourless interpretation of Ionesco to their class, their humourless teachers joins hands with them and they, too, rise up into the sky.

But not everyone can join a circle. Circles, in fact, can’t be broken. Unlike ranks. Anyone can slip into the ranks of an army, they are designed to allow any number of new members to fit right in. But getting into a circle is hard, if not impossible, without momentarily breaking it. Circles are exclusive.

Kundera very forcefully emphasises how he doesn’t belong to the flying circles of dancing angels, sublimely convinced of their own rectitude. He was once a Communist, he once danced in those circles, but he was unwise and tactless and expelled from the party, and forbidden to work. He was kicked out of the circle and he has been falling ever since (for nearly 30 years, by the time this book was published) falling falling falling like a meteorite broken loose from a planet (p.66).

Then he gives us an extended example of how his misplaced humour prevented him from ever dancing with the angels.

Forbidden to write for any official outlet, friends got Kundera a job writing an astrology column in a popular magazine for young socialists. It was harmless work, and not particularly well paid. But after a few years, the intelligent young woman editor – known only as R. – who had given him the job was called in for questioning by the security police. Does she realise she is ridiculing socialist youth? Does she realise she is mocking the people? Does she realise she has been associating with notorious enemy of the people Kundera?

She is promptly sacked from her job and when she turns to others in the media, they all cold shoulder her as well. Her career is through. Her life is over. She meets Kundera in a borrowed apartment and she is so terrified by what is happening to her, that she has to keep going to the toilet, her bowels are that upset.

And as he listens to her repeated flushing of the toilet, Kundera realises he has become a curse to those he knows and loves. He really cannot go on living in his homeland, bringing bad luck down on everyone he knows. He will have to go into exile. He will have to carry on falling, falling, falling away from the circles of the angels, the laughing angels, laughing because they know the Truth about a world which is orderly and rational and for the best, rejoicing in how:

rationally organised, well conceived, beautiful, good and sensible everything on earth was. (p.62)

4. Lost Letters

The title makes you think it might return to the character Mirek, who we met in the first story. Not at all.

It concerns Tamina. She is a Czech exile, working in a café in an unnamed Western town. She and her husband fled Czechoslovakia illegally, pretending to go on holiday. Thus she never brought all her belongings. Her husband got ill once they were abroad, sickened and died. Hollow and sad, she works at the café, listening to every customer who wants to bend her ear.

One day one of the customers, a tiresome wannabe writer named Bibi, mentions that she and her husband are thinking of going on holiday to Prague. Suddenly Tamina wakes from her sleep. Back in Prague, in a drawer in a desk in her mother’s flat, is a bundle of all the diaries she kept during her eleven-year marriage to her husband.

Suddenly Tamina is fired up and wants them back. She has been living like a ghost. The prospect of repossessing them promises to fill in her life, colour it in, give it detail and background and depth. The rest of the story details her struggles, first of all to get her mother-in-law to unlock the desk and get out the notebooks (every phone call to Prague costs her an arm and a leg), then to persuade her father to take it from the provincial town where they live to Prague where he can hand it over to Bibi.

Just about everything which could go wrong does go wrong, but the ‘story’ is really a peg for Kundera to hang miscellaneous thoughts on. One of these is an extended disquisition about graphomania, namely that back at the beginning writing promoted mutual understanding. But in our current state of graphomania, the opposite is true:

everyone surrounds himself with his own writings as with a wall of mirrors cutting off all voices from without. (p.92)

and again, a bit later:

The proliferation of mass graphomania among politicians, cab drivers, women on the delivery table, mistresses, murderers, criminals, prostitutes, police chiefs, doctors and patients proves to me that every individual without exception bears a potential writer within himself and that all mankind has every right to rush out and into the streets with a cry of ‘We are all writers!’

And then:

Once the writer in every individual comes to life (and that time is not far off), we are in for an age of universal deafness and misunderstanding. (p.106)

This was written over forty years ago. How prophetic of the age of Facebook and twitter.

Another theme of the story is how fatuously stupid Westerners are. Several scenes and characters exist solely to satirise the West.

For example, Bibi dreams of being a writer but comes over as a narcissistic fool. They do contrive a meeting with a real published author, Banaka, who comes over as a pompous bore. One day he turns up in her café drunk and on the verge of tears because he was the victim of a poor review in a newspaper. Pathetic.

In another scene, a professor of philosophy holds forth about the nature of the novel. On a separate occasion, Tamina is with Bibi, her husband and a Japanese woman, watching TV on which two authors get irate. One of them is insisting that the fact that he spent his entire childhood in the village of Rourou is important, very important, vitally important if you are to understand his work. A new character, Joujou, tells everyone in the room, straight-faced and humourlessly, that she rarely used to have orgasms, but now she has them regularly. Bored, Bibi remarks offhand that what they really need round here is a revolution to shake things up.

Since all Kundera’s work up to this point describes what a revolution really looks like in practice i.e. the repression, the arrests, the executions, and the systematic humiliation of the entire population, it is difficult to think of anything she could say which would be a more damning indictment of her empty-headed idiocy.

After struggling to get through to her bloody family in Czechoslovakia, Tamina finally gets through to her brother and persuades him to travel to the provincial town and gather her diaries and notebooks from her mother-in-law. He reports that he’s done so, but found the drawer unlocked and the notebooks ransacked. Her mother-in-law has been through them, maybe read everything. Suddenly they don’t feel so precious…

Bibi abruptly announces she is not now going to Prague so Tamina shifts her attentions to Hugo, a young man with bad breath who regularly visits the café and is in love with her. Torpidly, she lets herself be taken out for a date, then back to his place, and stripped naked and penetrated, all without any excitement or interest, solely because Hugo says he will go to Prague and get her things. But he is irritated at her complete passivity. In subsequent meetings she just sits there dumbly while he craps on about his big plans to write a book, yes a book! a book all about power and politics. And then he tells her he has published an article about the Prague Spring which means he will not be allowed to travel to Czechoslovakia. He is sure she understands, he had to, he owed it to the world to share his article.

And suddenly she is so revolted by him, and the memory of him penetrating her, that she runs into the toilets and copiously strenuously throws up. And her vomiting seems, to this reader, to also be a reaction to the self-deception, narcissism and superficiality of the spoilt West.

There was only one thing she wanted, to preserve the memory of her husband and their time together untainted. And just about everyone she knows has conspired to foil that endeavour and desecrate his memory.

She went on serving coffee and never made another call to Czechoslovakia. (p.115)

What this story has in common with the first Lost Letters is how bleak it is.

Part Five – Litost

Kristyna is in her thirties. She lives in a small town with her husband, a butcher, and their little boy. She is having an affair with a mechanic who she allows to penetrate her in the locked security of the garage tyre bay. Then she meets the student, home from university for the vacation, and is seduced by his ways with big words and poetic quotations. He is desperate to make love but she wants him to remain on the level of poetry and ideas. Saying yes would drag him (and her) down into the world of the mechanic. So she meets with him in out-of-the-way places and lets him kiss and touch her but always refuses to go all the way. Finally the holidays end and they make a last-minute pact: she will come up to Prague and stay the night in his accommodation. They both know what this means.

Litost is a Czech word which combines grief, sympathy, remorse and an indefinable longing (p.121). It is ‘a state of torment caused by a sudden insight into one’s own miserable self’ (p.122). Kundera gives us some stories from the student’s past to flesh it out.

The night Kristyna is coming to stay, the student’s professor, who Kundera wittily names Voltaire, tells him the greatest poet in the land is having a get-together that night and he’s invited. The student is thrown into a quandary: sex or literature? He is young. He chooses sex.

When Kristyna arrives in Prague she is horrified at the seedy little restaurant he’s arranged to meet her in, the kind of place the butcher takes her to. It’s dirty and full of drunks and they give her a table by the toilets. By the time the student arrives, she’s ready to give him a piece of her mind. But he also is chagrined: she is wearing the most embarrassingly provincial clothes imaginable, including heavy strings of pearls and black pumps.

He tries to mollify her and they go out into the streets. She had dreamed of nightclubs and theatres and glamour – but he is only a poor student, after all. He takes her to his garret; it is small and shabby. Suddenly he has a brainwave. He tells her about the evening of poets, and says he’ll go (he can’t take her, it’s men only) but he’ll take a book and get it autographed by the greatest poet.

She willingly agrees, chooses a book off the poet’s shelf and settles down while he hurries off.

Kundera, with the airy candour which has become second nature, tells us that he’s writing all this in 1977. He eventually couldn’t put up with life in communist Czechoslovakia and drove west, as far west as he could till he stopped in the Breton town of Rennes. Now he is setting this passage fifteen years earlier, in the happier days of 1962. He paints a charming eccentric portrait of an evening’s drinking and squabbling among a variety of poets he humorously names after famous poets in the Western tradition, namely Goethe, Verlaine, Petrarch, Yesenin, Lermontov, and the cynic and anti-poet Boccaccio.

This extended depiction of a bunch of boisterous drunken poets is mildly entertaining but I was struck by the echoes of his novel, Life is Elsewhere, about a lyric poet, in which we met Lermontov quite a few times. And by the way Lermontov, in this book, dismisses all the rest of the poets as ‘Mama’s boys’ (p.141) – exactly the accusation Kundera threw at lyric poets as a class in the earlier novel.

Eventually the party breaks up and all the poets group together to help carry Goethe downstairs because he is very old and can’t walk without crutches. Then Lermontov gets in the taxi and volunteers to take him home and handle Mrs Goethe, who is a dragon and always cross when her husband stays out late.

The student walks with Petrarch who tells him lots of things about love, for example love and laughter are opposites. Then rushes back to his garret where Kristyna is awaiting him. He presents her with the book of poetry which he got Goethe to sign and indeed write a long personal message for her, and she is genuinely thrilled. He tears off his clothes and jumps into bed with her and she kisses him back but then, when he tries to part her thighs, refuses. And refuses and refuses and refuses. All night long, For hours. He is fired up and hard as rock. But she still wants to preserve the student on a different plane from the rest of her life. (Also, the delivery of her son was so difficult the doctors told her she must never again get pregnant or it would endanger her life.)

Eventually the student rolls off her body and onto his back and, for some obscure reason, Kristyna reaches out and grasps his rigid member, but doesn’t move it or do anything to relieve the pressure. Just holds it. Like a mother, like a sister, passionlessly.

Litost!

Part Six – The Angels

This begins as a literary-political essay about Prague which Kundera calls a city of forgetting. In the works of Kafka, Prague is a city which has forgotten its own identity, full of unnamed streets and houses, and even the characters have forgotten their own names – Josef K. of The Trial declines to become just K. in The Castle.

Kundera then moves on to discuss T.G. Masaryk, seventh president of Czechoslovakia, who was installed by the Russians in the aftermath of the crushing of the Prague Spring, and who is known as ‘the president of forgetting’ (p.158). Among other things he sacked some 150 Czech historians, as part of a repressive policy of obliterating the past and writing a new official version.

Tamina reappears, she of Part Four. She is sad because she has forgotten so many details about her husband, not least after making love to the despicable, smelly Hugo. Her plight reminds Kundera of his father, whose dementia meant he slowly lost the power of speech until finally all he could say was one phrase: ‘That’s strange!’

Kundera’s father was a musicologist and had been working on a study of Beethoven’s variations. With the airy confidence with which he slips so much factual content into all his books, Kundera proceeds to stop the narrative while he writes a page or two about the profundity of the variation form, ‘the form of maximum concentration.’ Indeed:

This entire book is a novel in the form of variations. The individual parts follow each other like individual stretches of a journey toward a theme, a thought, a single situation, a sense of which fades into the distance. (p.165)

And the figure of Tamina is at its heart, the faithful lover who struggles to remember her beloved.

The rest of the story is odd, and reminds us that, although we remember the sex, and the politics and the philosophy, dreams and fantasy are also a recurring theme in Kundera’s work.

A nice-looking man named Raphael comes into the café, knows Tamina’s name, and asks her to leave with him. They go outside and get into his sports car, and drive off, drive into the country, the green landscape turning sandy, then ochre. It reminds Tamina of the landscape her husband was forced to work in, when he was kicked out of white collar jobs and ended up working a digger on building sites.

He parks by a river and points down towards where a boy is holding the painter of a boat. As in a dream she gets into the boat and he starts to row, but she takes over, rows and rows, they arrive at a strange strand, are greeted by children, she disembarks and is shown the way to a dormitory where she’ll be sleeping, the children tell her that only children live on the island (she walks along the shore and ends up back where she started), and are divided into ‘squirrels’ and ‘tigers’, they are fascinated by her mature breasts and black pubic hair, and she finds herself at night being touched and stroked so she achieves a strange kind of climax, until one day one little urchin twists her nipple hard and she throws them all off, she tries to join in their games, like hopscotch, but gets things wrong, they chase her, catch her in badminton nets, a little like other outsiders in science fiction scenarios, finally she runs down to the seashore and swims, while they yell at her from the shore, she’s a strong swimmer and swims all night imagining she must reach the other side, but when dawn breaks she realises she’s only a few hundred yards from the island and is overcome with fatigue.

Some of the children come out in the rowing boat to watch her curiously, they make no offer to help her, and watch, while she goes under, once, twice, and then drowns.

Part Seven – The Border

This appears to be a whole-hearted satire of life in the West. Jan is from the East and observes the people round him like a zoologist. Jeanne likes to sit cross legged like the Buddha while she traces the outline of the coffee table before her, drawing attention to herself and her asinine comments. Jan drops in on the Clevis family. They are card-carrying liberal progressives, who subscribe to all the best liberal opinions and when he drops in they’ve just finished watching a TV programme on which representatives of all the schools of thought debated one of the big issues of the day, which is whether women should go topless. Jan listens to their fourteen-year-old daughter shout that she’s not going to be anybody’s Sex Object, while her mother cheers her on. The narrator reflects that millions of women across the west have burned their bra and now go about their days work wobbling as Nature intended.

They remind me of the right-on, vegetarian, socialist feminist family, the Webers, in the Posy Simmonds cartoon strip. And any number of other right-on families who were mocked and satirised in the 1970s.

The Clevises point out that poor Jeanne has gone through tragic times because her son ran away for a few days. Jan reflects on what the term tragic means in his country and how trivial it is in this country.

Jan is seeing a girl from a sports rental company. She is an orgasm fanatic. She is determined to have as many as possible, and gives him a running commentary when they’re making love, telling him just what to do when, and where to put his hands and whether to speed up or slow down. She’s like the cox of a rowing eight.

There’s a lot more discussion of sex. Jan speculates there are three kinds of erotic history: all the women you’ve had; all the women you could have had but let slip; and then all the women you could never have had. He is alarmed that more and more women seem to be slipping into this category. Is it because they have ‘begun to organise and reform their perennial fate?’ (I take it he’s referring to feminism).

There’s a passage about the male gaze (presumably Kundera was introduced to all these ideas, along with humourless feminist students, only once he’d arrived in France, in 1975), which he takes for granted as already being a well-known concept. This was forty years ago. Less well known, he asserts, is the fact that the object can look back. The object can cease to be an object, open its eyes, and unsettle and unnerve the gazer, and his protagonist goes on to discuss about various examples of women who bite back, with his girlfriend Edwige, the feminist.

For example, their friend Barbara is known for giving orgies (who are these people? how did he get to know so many women obsessed with sex? how come I never met or heard of anyone like this when I was a young man?) One day she invites their friend Ervin who arrived to find two pretty women and Barbara. Barbara got out an egg timer then the three women stripped naked. Then she told Ervin to strip naked which he quickly did. Then she set the egg timer and said he had precisely one minute to get a hard on or they’d throw him out. And all three women stared at his crotch laughing. Then they threw him out.

Then Jan and Edwige discuss rape. Jan sees rape as integral to eroticism, whereas castration is its negation. Edwige says if rape is integral to eroticism, then we need to develop a new form of eroticism. He defends women who say the word ‘no’ when they don’t mean it. She gets angry and says ‘no means no’. He trots through a repertoire of sexual scenes – the woman acting coy, having to be brought round, concealing her charms, the man having to talk her round, persuade her to reveal herself, and so on. He calls them time-honoured images. She says they certainly are time-honoured – and idiotic! Time to change them all!

And so it goes on, the never-ending ping-ping game between men and women.

Meanwhile, the notion of the border is applied to several situations. A friend is dying of cancer. Jan reflects how very close death is all the time to each of us. The border is an inch away. Ten years ago he used to be visited by a woman for sex. They both stood and stripped in the same hurried way each time. One time she caught his eye and smiled a sad sympathetic smile. Jan was inches away from bursting out laughing, which would have ended their sexual affair. The ‘border’ was there filling the room. But he stifled his laughter, stayed this side of the border. Another time he chatted up a young woman on a train but it just wouldn’t click, despite taking her to the dining car, then out into the corridor and lifting her head into the light as he had done a thousand times before. There was a border of seduction, but he just couldn’t cross it.

There’s also a border when it comes to repetition. Every time something is repeated it loses part of its vital force. Every action therefore has a border, this side of which it retains meaning, that side of which it has become meaningless automatism.

Similarly, many of Jan’s fellow exiles initially felt great attachment to their old country and fiercely vowed to fight for its freedom. But that passion faded, and now many are scared to admit they have passed beyond a psychological border where they realise there is no cause and no fight. And no purpose.

Their friend Passer dies of cancer. At his funeral the hat is blown off the head of Papa Clevis and in successive gusts blown to the feet of the solemn funeral orator. Everyone strains to contain their laughter. Then it blows into the grave itself. When the orator bends to throw the first earth into the grave he is stunned. The watchers strain every sinew not to burst out laughing.

Jan attends one of Barbara’s legendary orgies and is appalled to discover what a bully she is, pushing and arranging and goading and forcing everyone to have a good time. Jan buddies up with a bald man who quips ‘Major Barbara’ and comments that she’s like a coach training her team for the Olympics. Barbara spots them chatting and separates them, taking the bald guy off to a corner where she starts masturbating him, while Jan finds himself being handled by the clumsy provincial stripper who had started proceedings. He finds himself looking over at the bald man, and coming up with more jokes and references and ludicrous metaphors, and suddenly both he and baldie burst out laughing. Barbara is furious. She expels Jan from the party.

Sex is a serious business. It cannot stand being mocked. Now, as Jan moves into his forties (Kundera was nearly 50 when this book was published) he finds himself more and more aware of all these borders: death just inches away; absurdity underlying all our behaviour; sex just a facial flicker away from guffaws.

In the last sequence in the book, just before he goes abroad for good (to America, I think), Jan takes his feminist girlfriend to an island which is a nudist colony. In their rented cottage they strip off, then walk down to the beach to join grandparents, parents, teenagers and toddlers, all stark naked.

Here his misunderstandings with Edwige – and the entire novel’s theme of misunderstandings – reaches a kind of climax. She is obsessed with ‘the Western Judaeo-Christian’ tradition of shame of the body. But Jan is thinking about something quite different. More and more he has been dreaming of a state of bodily arousal which is pleasure but innocent of climax; a pre-sexual state, which he associates with the Greek myth of Daphnis and Chloe.

They sit on the beach in the sun, watching all the naked people around them, and Jan murmurs ‘Daphnis’. Edwige hears this and pounces on it, convinced he shares her feelings about a feminist escape from the Judeao-Christian sexist tradition. He nods agreement although he is sick to death of her trite, stupid obvious ideas, the way she feeds everything into the same half dozen, half-baked ‘issues’. Instead he is consumed with a sense of the sheer absurdity of human existence, and this conviction – so similar to the recurring obsession of his author and creation – is cemented in the vivid image which ends the book.

A group of Edwige’s nudist friends has just come up and been introduced to Jan, and Edwige has mentioned Jan’s throwaway idea that they should name the anonymous little island Daphne.

Everyone was delighted with the idea, and a man with extraordinary paunch began developing the idea that Western civilisation was on its way out and we should soon be freed once and for all from the bonds of Judeo-Christian thought – statements Jan had heard ten, twenty, thirty, a hundred, five hundred, a thousand times before – and for the time being those few feet of beach felt like a university auditorium. On and on the man talked. The others listened with interest, their naked genitals staring dully, sadly, listlessly at the yellow sand. (p.228)


Thoughts

Are these stories continually interrupted by multiple digressions into interesting topics? Or essays on interesting topics into which ‘characters’ and their slender narratives are occasionally inserted?

Of the five books by Milan Kundera which I’ve read so far, this one has by far the most ‘interruptions’ and digressions; it feels the most finely balanced between narrative and editorial, between story and lecture.

For example, the story titled Litost, with its rhetorical questions and technical explanations (of foreign words and their etymologies) keeps reverting to the nature of an academic essay, a quality demonstrated by one of the last sections which is titled Further Notes for a Theory of Litost. 

Or take the section about the two types of laughing, the demonic which celebrates chaos, and the angelic which celebrates order, which underpins the sections about Angels i.e. that their laughter is repressive.

Or Kundera’s touching memoir of his senile father, and the way he (Kundera) came to understand his father’s scholarly fascination with the variation form.

In fact Part Six has an extended passage remembering much more about his father the musicologist: how he explained to the young Milan the structure and purpose of the key system, before Kundera himself goes on to give his account of the collapse of that system, as overthrown by Schoenberg, the reluctant revolutionary, who ushered in the twelve-tone system, which was to dominate international classical music after the Second World War.

There’s a lot lot more topics like this: on the nature of absurdity and human intention; on the nature of love; on the nature of political and cultural forgetting.

A cultural conservative?

Although he is a striking radical in the technique he brings to the novel, in chopping it up into these bite-sized sections, and inserting all kinds of authorial asides, and with the brisk no-nonsense way he gets straight to the gist of a character’s thoughts… in other ways, when you look at what his discussion values, Kundera can come over as a surprisingly cultural conservative.

In this book he thinks ‘beauty’ is a thing of the past which has been buried under a deluge of pop music and public announcements. He thinks Schoenberg murdered music and, as with the three-hundred page diatribe against lyric poetry which is his second novel, Life Is Elsewhere, he did it with the best of intentions. His innovation represented the death of classical music, but he made it with excitement and daring, and his post-war devotees were zealots and extremists of the kind Kundera deplores.

Bleakly, he says that everyone who spouts the big word Progress, imagines it means progress towards a bright new future. They don’t realise that what they are moving towards is death (p.179).

He hates pop music. There are a couple of pages comparing the Czech pop singer Karel Gott with the president of forgetting, T.G. Masaryk, in the sense that both want to bury the past. Pop music is ‘music without memory’, music deprived of the legacy of Bach to Beethoven, music reduced to the stumps of its basic elements, mindlessly repeated over a nightmareishly amplified totalitarian beat.

Towards the end of the book he rubbishes the entire notion of ‘progress’.

Jan had never shared Passer’s enthusiasm for observing how things change, though he did appreciate his desire for change, considering it the oldest desire in man, mankind’s most conservative conservatism. (p.215)

Pessimistic stuff, isn’t it?

Lost in the West

In this the book represents Kundera’s uneasy transition to the ‘free’ society of the West. In a sense, it was easy to write in the East because art, poetry and literature were taken seriously, especially by the regime, which paid artists and writers the great tribute of locking them up and, in the Soviet Union, of murdering them.

In the communist East there was not only a shortage of food and consumer goods (cars, fridges), which meant you made do with a much more threadbare lifestyle – but a shortage of types of lifestyle. At its simplest, you were either for the regime or against it, and everyone trod a very careful path so as not to put a foot wrong and be dragged off to prison.

This was Kundera’s first book published since he defected to the West (in 1975) and although his technical achievement (the chopping up of narratives into micro-sections and their interleaving with meditations on all kinds of subjects) has reached giddy heights, it seems to me that he is struggling with the sheer profusion of narratives available in the West.

Put simply, there’s so much crap. Radios are on everywhere blaring out idiot pop music, muzak in lifts and supermarkets, so much cheap food the inhabitants make themselves sick and fat, shiny adverts bombard you from radio, TV, cinema and huge hoardings.

And people fuss and fret about such trivia – epitomised by the monstrous superficiality of the would-be novelist Bibi in Part Two, or the ludicrous self-centred ‘tragedy’ of Jeanne in Part Seven, or the stupid television debates about whether women should or should not go bare breasted on beaches. Is this it? Is this what thousands of years of human civilisation dwindle down to? An endless froth of trivia?

Maybe this is what he means when he says that the entire book is about Tamina, protagonist of the fourth and sixth stories, which is at first a puzzling statement, since a number of the other characters (Mirek and Karel spring to mind) are well defined and memorable. But:

It is a novel about Tamina, and whenever Tamina is absent, it is a novel for Tamina. She is its main character and main audience, and all the other stories are variations on her story and come together in her life as in a mirror. (p.165)

And who is Tamina? She is an exile in the West. She loves her country and feels she left her soul there. But all her attempts to reclaim it are foiled. She is appalled by the superficiality (Bibi) and selfishness (Hugo) and pretentiousness (the writers bickering on TV) of ‘cultural’ life in the West. And what happens to her in the end? She drowns.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

The Joke by Milan Kundera (1967)

‘A melancholy duet about the schism between body and soul’ (Milan Kundera in the Introduction)

Czech history – a postwar snapshot

Kundera was born in 1929 in Brno, Czechoslovakia. When he was ten the Nazis annexed his country and imposed Nazi rule, when he was 16 the Russians liberated his homeland, and when he was 19 the Russians supported the February 1948 coup which brought a communist government to power. Initially, many of the brightest and best in the country celebrated a new era which promised to deliver a new world of freedom and justice and equality for all. Soon enough the government showed its Stalinist colours, rounding up not only conservatives and capitalists, big landowners, bankers and so on, but also socialist and liberal writers and critics. Hundreds of thousands were sacked from their jobs, around a hundred thousand were imprisoned and tens of thousands executed as spies and traitors and saboteurs, including friends and colleagues of Kundera’s.

After putting up with nearly twenty years of oppressive rule, in late 1967 and early 1968 rising protests against the regime was met by a new, more liberal generation of party leaders, who set about loosening communist policy, reining back the dreaded secret police, and allowing a flowering of expression and political criticism in the media, newspapers, radio and TV, and among artists and writers. Which all became known as ‘the Prague Spring’.

The growing political, economic and cultural liberalism of Czechoslovakia led to fears that it might be about to leave the Soviet-backed security and economic alliances, and that its example might undermine Russia’s grip on all Eastern Europe. So in August 1968 some 500,000 Russian and other eastern bloc soldiers rode tanks into Czechoslovakia, occupying all the cities and strategic points, overthrowing the liberal government and reinstalling a hardline Stalinist regime. Over a hundred thousand Czechs fled the country, and another massive wave of repression and punishment threw an entire generation of professionals out of their white collar jobs, forcing them into menial labouring jobs.

Kundera, just turning 40, was among this group. Back in 1948 he had been an enthusiastic communist, joining the party when still at school. He welcomed the 1948 coup and the arrival of a new world, and went, as a student, to study film at university. But his outspoken wit and anti-establishment stance got him in trouble with the authorities and he was expelled from the party in 1950. After a hiatus in his studies, he was, however, readmitted to the university, completed his studies in 1952, and was appointed a lecturer in world literature. In 1956 he was readmitted to the Communist Party. For the next ten years he was a dutiful communist and academic.

Kundera played a peripheral role in the Prague Spring, looking on as his students went on strike, organised meetings and rallies, devised slogans which they printed on posters and banners and carried on marches and spray-painted on the walls of the capital. But even after the Russians invaded, he continued to defend the Communist Party, engaging in polemical debate with more thoroughly anti-communist intellectuals, insisting that the communist regime was capable of reform in a humanist direction.

Only in the early 1970s, as it became clear that the new hardline government was imposing an inflexibly authoritarian regime, did Kundera finally abandon his dreams that communism could be reformed. In 1975 he moved to France, taking a teaching job at Rennes, then moving on to Paris. He was stripped of his Czech citizenship in 1979, and legally became a French citizen in 1981.

By the 1980s, when his novels began to become widely popular in the West, Kundera had, in other words, been on a long gruelling journey of personal and intellectual disillusionment.

Themes in Milan Kundera’s fiction

Communism

This all explains why, although the main action of the novels is often set contemporaneously – in the later 1960s and 1970s just before they were published – their root is in that 1948 coup. Again and again, in all of his books, he returns like a soldier revisiting the scene of his post-traumatic stress disorder, to the primal trauma of the revolution (in The Farewell Party, Jakub – a key character – describes it as the obsession of someone who’s been in a bad car crash to endlessly relive the trauma). Again and again he examines all its aspects, reliving the jubilation and sense of emotional awakening he and his generation experienced, and then – in the rest of the text – generally delineating the long, grim consequences the advent of communist rule had on so many people and so many aspects of life.

So Kundera’s work is characterised by his obsessive return, again and again, to relive aspects of the coup and re-examine what it meant, recasting the events as fable, fairy tale, allegory, in a host of genres and forms, in order to try and work through what was for him, the primal imaginative and psychological trauma.

Cynicism and the absurd

There’s no-one as cynical as a disillusioned revolutionary. All Kundera’s books bespeak an immensely jaded cynic, with a bitter view of human nature. What makes them interesting is he keeps his corrosive cynicism under control, and deploys it strategically to dramatise and emphasise his plots. What I mean is – he will often create one particular character who is extremely jaded and disillusioned and cynical, and let that character give full vent to (what we can guess is) Kundera’s own bitterness, against optimism, against utopian politics, against idealistic revolutions, against unimaginative party apparatchiks who carry out orders without reflecting. BUT – these characters are often set in juxtaposition with other characters, often with sunnier, happier outlooks, and often the cynical characters are proved to be completely wrong.

So he creates dramatic structures in which his bitter cynicism can be forcefully expressed but is always careful to balance and control them with other points of view. Eventually, as we shall see in our analysis of The Joke, what emerges is less cynicism as such, than an all-consuming sense of the utter absurdity of human existence: that nobody’s intentions come out as they mean them to, that all human perceptions, understandings, analyses and goals are absurd.

And this doesn’t necessarily mean bleakly, nihilistically absurd. it can mean ridiculously, comically, even light-heartedly absurd.

The personal and the private

If the communist government could nationalise entire industries, dispossess the rich of their belongings, collectivise the farms, determine what jobs each citizen is allotted, take over control of all newspapers, radio and TV, and monitor everything every citizen published or wrote, even in private letters and diaries – the one area of life it could not easily control was the citizens’ love lives, in particular their sex lives.

Sex plays a huge role in Kundera’s fiction, on one reading it is arguably his central theme, and some of his descriptions of sexual encounters between characters are immensely powerful and erotic. And, if you are a card-carrying feminist, I can see how the unrelenting emphasis on the predatory sexual stance of almost all the male characters can become claustrophobic and, eventually, oppressive. I am a heterosexual man, and I have gotten a little tired of the way all of the male characters are obsessed with sex, and with very straightforward, vanilla, penetrative sex, at that. Many elements of his obsession with male predatory sexuality now seem very, very outdated to modern readers.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that sex performs two other functions in Kundera’s fiction.

1. Given that it was impossible for citizens of Czechoslovakia to write or publish what they felt, to write poems or plays or novels or stories that wouldn’t be censored by the authorities, let alone make films or TV documentaries or radio programmes, or even put on festivals or meetings which didn’t go unmonitored by the authorities – given that almost all forms of expression were banned or heavily censored and controlled – then sex – the sexual encounter between a man and a woman (that’s all it ever is in Kundera’s traditional mindset) can be a theatre of the intellect and the emotions, a place where all kinds of thoughts and moods and opinions which are utterly banned in the public sphere can be expressed in the private realm of the bedroom.

2. But the most dominant idea which emerges is Kundera’s fundamental concept of absurdity, the absurdity of the human condition. When I mentioned to a friend that I was rereading all of Kundera, she said, ‘Oh my God, he’s so sexy, so erotic!’ But the odd thing is that, studying the texts, you realise that many of the sexual couplings which take place are actually quite repugnant. In several of the novels men force themselves on women who are very very reluctant to have sex. There is at least one instance of brutal gang rape. And most of the other couplings take place between people who have ludicrously misjudged each other’s intentions. A good example of which lies at the heart of The Joke.

The Joke – structure and style

The Joke was Kundera’s first novel. The end page states that it was finished in December 1965, when Kundera was thirty-six i.e. it is not a young man’s book, it has been long meditated on. In fact, towards the end, the protagonists’ age itself becomes a topic of reflection, see below.

The Joke is divided into seven parts which are listed on the Contents page.

  1. Ludvik (10 pages)
  2. Helena (10 pages)
  3. Ludvik (84 pages)
  4. Jaroslav (34 pages)
  5. Ludvik (40 pages)
  6. Kostka (30 pages)
  7. Ludvik, Jaroslav, Helena (58 pages)

Which tells us straightaway the names and genders of the main protagonists, and that the main figure is going to be Ludvik, who has more appearances, and more pages devoted to him (134 of the book’s 267 pages), than all the others put together.

Kundera’s prose style is flat and factual…

The sections are named like this because each one presents a narration in that character’s voice, and Kundera makes an obvious effort to distinguish their voices. Ludvik, for example, is self-centred and factual in his approach. Helena’s style is immediately different, in that her sentences are made up of numerous clauses which all run into each other. Maybe this is an attempt to capture a more ‘feminine’ stream of consciousness, and noticing this reminds me of James Joyce and Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy at the end of Ulysses. However, Kundera is a very different writer from Joyce.

Joyce had a miraculous, Shakespearian grasp of the infinite range of the English language and, in Ulysses, made it explode into a multi-coloured firework display, melting and reforming words and phrases, and mixing them with other languages to create an extraordinary verbal extravaganza.

Kundera is the opposite. His language is pretty flat and boring. Maybe this is the fault of the translation, but I don’t think so. No, the interest of the book doesn’t stem from the words but from:

  1. a complex, farcical and thought-provoking plot
  2. from the complex interplay of the handful of characters caught up in the plot
  3. but most of all from what the characters think about the events they’re caught up in and activate; the characters are endlessly reflecting, thinking, pondering and analysing their motives

…because Kundera is not a descriptive writer but an intellectual, analytical author

This is what it means to say that Kundera is an intellectual writer. We barely find out what any of his characters look like (having read to the end of the book I have no clue what Ludvik actually looks like, what colour his hair or eyes are, whether he’s tall or short or fat or thin).

1. Analysis Instead we are incessantly fed with what the characters are thinking. And their thinking almost always takes the form of analysis. Even when they’re thinking about their love lives – and they spend most of their time thinking about their love lives – they are thinking about them in an analytical way. When they think about other people, even their supposed beloveds, the people they’re married to or in love with or planning to have an affair with – they tend to think of them as categories of person, as types which fit into certain typologies, and must be managed and handled as types.

Thus Ludvik thinks of Zemanek as The Betrayer and of Zemanek’s wife, Helena, as Instrument For Revenge, and remembers Lucie as being Ideal Pure Femininity.

2. Deconstruction But the book is intellectual in another way, which is that the entire story has been dismantled and analysed out into separate elements. The text itself is made up of parts like a jigsaw puzzle. As the index indicates, Kundera conceived a story – then he dismantled it into a set of disparate narratives given from the points of view of four main characters. Like a forensic scientist investigating a complex chunk of organic matter by submitting it to a set of procedures designed to identify the basic elements which make it up.

3. Multiple points of view So, although – as per point 1 – all the characters tend to think of each other as types or categories – the use of multiple points of view almost always undermines their analyses, showing just how wrong they are. Thus it’s only about page 100, when we first hear from a completely different character outside Ludvik’s worldview, Jaroslav, that we see things from a completely different perspective and learn that Ludvik is not the master narrator of events but is himself also a type – the Cynic, the Man Who Abandoned Folk Music For The Revolution – and a type very much caught up in events, misunderstanding and misreading other people.

In some ways the heart of the book only comes with the thirty pages devoted to the character named Kostka, where we see the world through his eyes and gain a completely different perspective on Ludvik’s history, and on his pivotal relationship with Lucie, showing the Ludvik was completely wrong in everything he thought about his one true love.

Thus:

  1. not only do the characters obsessively analyse their own motives and other peoples’
  2. and the narrator analyses his characters’ analyses
  3. but also, by juxtaposing characters’ analyses against each other, Kundera performs a further level of analysis, a kind of meta-analysis of the analyses

See what I mean by a very intellectual author.

The Joke – the plot

The book is set around the time it was published, the mid 1960s. But to understand it you have to realise that its roots lie 15 years earlier, at the period of the 1948 Communist coup and its immediate aftermath.

The fateful postcard

To be precise, the summer of 1951. Ludvik Jahn is one of the generation of young students caught up in the idealism generated by the Communist Party’s seizure of power and he is still a staunch communist, but also an intellectual and wit and joker. In his circle of friends is a particularly po-faced and unimaginative woman student named Marketa. She never gets any of their gags or references, which tempts her friends to spin all kinds of jokes on her, for example the time they were all down the pub and Ludvik invents the notion that the hills of Bohemia are home to a shy and elusive race of trolls – which Marketa accepts with open mouth and wide eyes.

So when she goes away to summer labour duty, helping with the harvest, as all young zealous communists do, and when she sends him a series of letters each more po-faced and staunchly patriotic and communist than the last, Ludvik decides to pull her leg by scribbling a quick postcard with the sentiments most guaranteed to shock her, namely:

Optimism is the opium of mankind!
A healthy spirit stinks of stupidity!
Long live Trotsky!

The card is intercepted on the way to Marketa’s camp. The authorities call her in for questioning. Then Ludvik is called into a kangaroo court where he slowly realises that his quick jeu d’esprit is being interpreted in the most sinister way possible. How long have you been an agent for enemy powers, his interrogators ask him. With horror he realises that merely making a joke, of any kind, is – to these people – an insult to the 100% earnest, patriotic, communist fervour required from the entire citizenry.

Things reach a peak of horror when he is hauled before a roomful of his peers at the university, fellow students and communist party members. Ludvik is briefly heartened when he learns the chair is to be his good friend and fellow wit Zemanek. However, Zemanek rises and gives a thrilling and brilliantly damning indictment of Ludvik, kicking off by quoting the prison diaries of a young communist, Julius Fucik, who was arrested, tortured and executed by the Nazis but who died knowing he gave his life for a noble cause. Having let that sink in among the tearful audience, Zemanek then comes to another text, and reads out Ludvik’s postcard. At which point Ludvik realises he is lost. When it comes to a vote, 100% of the arms of his friends and colleagues stretch up to expel him from the university and from the communist party.

In those heady revolutionary times, Kundera explains, it was thought that human beings had a fixed inner essence and that that essence was either for the Party and with the Party, or it was against. Black or white. And a single slip, a chance remark, in a conversation or article or meeting – might suddenly reveal the terrible fact that you were not for the Party. And just that one slip revealed to all the party zealots, to the police and to all society who you really were. Just one slip of the tongue, and you were categorised and condemned for life as an enemy of the people. You would be fired from your job, unable to get a new one, all decent respectable people would shun you.

(Reading Kundera’s bitter and extended explanation of how the young, clever, intellectual communist zealots of this day took a fierce delight in policing everyone’s speech and writing, and pouncing on the slightest example of unrevolutionary sentiments… the reader can’t help reflecting that this is exactly the fierce, young university student zeal which drives modern political correctness.)

In the mining camp

It was only the fact that Ludvik was a student that had exempted him from military service. Now he’s kicked out of university, he is immediately conscripted straight into the army and, because of his misdemeanour, into a punishment battalion which works in the coal mines.

There follows a long passage describing the grim lives of the coal miners and the barbed-wire-encircled barracks they live in. Slowly Ludvik gets to know the other criminals and ‘social deviants’. I like prison camp memoirs (the twentieth century was, after all, very rich in them; the prison camp memoir is a major twentieth century genre) and I found this extended section powerful and moving. For the first time Ludvik is forced to pay attention to the lives and fates of people outside himself, and to sympathise with their plights.

Once a month they all get a pass to go into town on a Saturday night and spend the money they’ve earned in the mine, getting pissed and shagging the local prostitutes. Ludvik describes this in some detail.

But then he also describes meeting a shy girl who is different from the rest and who he conceives something resembling true love for, a young woman named Lucie Sebetka. He can only meet her once a month, and comes to project all his sensitivity and soulfulness onto her, turning her into an image of frail purity.

But Ludvik is a man – and a man in a Milan Kundera novel – so sex is ever-present in his mind and it isn’t long before he wants to – needs to – possess her, and make her his.

This sequence is written very convincingly, the way Ludvik’s thoughts slowly morph from worshiping Lucie’s purity to needing to possess it. Thus, on several successive dates – spread months apart – he tries to have sex with her, despite her refusing, clenching her legs together, pushing him off, and bursting into tears.

Maybe it’s because I’m so much older than Ludvik (he is, after all, only 20 at the time) or because I’ve read so many hundreds of accounts of #metoo-type rapes and assaults – but I quickly suspected that she had been abused earlier in her life and this explains her paradoxical behaviour: she loves Ludvik, she brings him flowers, she visits the camp and says hello to him through the wire mesh – in every way she is devoted to him; and yet on the two occasions where he manages to engineer meetings (at some risk – for the second one he manages to escape through a hole in the wire, and devise an elaborate set of arrangements whereby he borrows the bedroom of a civilian miner he’s befriended down the mines for just one evening) she is OK kissing, and sort of OK taking her clothes off but… absolutely and completely refuses to go any further, driving Ludvik into paroxysms of frustration, and then into a fiery rage.

He eventually shouts at her to get out and throws her clothes at her. She dresses and leaves in tearful silence. Ludvik waits an appropriate period of time, goes back downstairs to find the friendly miner has got a few mates round and they’re all a bit drunk, so he regales them with an entirely fictional account of what wonderful championship sex he’s just had with his girlfriend, before riskily sneaking back into the camp, and going to bed in his miserable bunk.

He never sees Lucie again – on his next furlough he discovers she’s simply left the dormitory she was sharing in with two other girls and left no forwarding address – but he never stops being haunted by her memory.

His mother dies while he’s doing his time and when it’s finally over, he is so heartlost and forlorn, that he signs up for another three years hard labour. The loss of Lucie – the stupid bungling lust of that one night – plunges him into years of ‘hopelessness and emptiness’ (p.104).

The Revenge

It is fifteen years later. We are in the mind of plump, middle-aged Helena. She is fed up with her husband Pavel and his philandering. She hates the petty bickering at work – she works in a government radio station. She resents all the fuss they made when she got some little hussy who she discovered was having an affair with a married man, sacked from her job. All her staff rounded on her, some even muttering ‘hypocrite’. But what do they know about all the sacrifices she’s made for the Party? And for her country? And for Truth and Justice?

OK, she herself flirts with younger men but that is completely different. And anyway, now she has met the love of her life, a wonderful heartfelt passionate man named Ludvik. And he has invited her for a trip out of Prague, to a town in the country where there is an annual folk festival. She has combined business with pleasure, as she’ll cover the festival for her radio station (accompanied by a loyal young puppy of a sound engineer named Jindra) but her real motivation for going is that Ludvik has told her he can’t contain his passion any more and must have her. She is thrilled to her fingertips. She has brought her best underwear.

And so she proceeds to check into the hotel in this rural town and then to meet Ludvik. It is only half way through this passage, and half way through the book (on page 151) that we casually learn that her last name is Zemanek. When I read that sentence I burst out laughing and everyone on the tube carriage looked at me. Yes, Zemanek, the name of Ludvik’s smooth-talking friend who was the first to betray him and led the meeting which had him expelled from university and the party, who ruined his life.

Now Ludvik is taking his revenge. Having eventually returned to Prague and found white collar work he is suited for, he one day meets Helena who comes to interview him for her radio programme and her surname makes him perk up. He does background checks and establishes she is the wife of his persecutor and contrives for them to have another meeting, at which he uses all his wiles to seduce her. The seduction proceeds apace and is now due to reach its climax in his home town, the setting of the annual folk festival.

And the heart of the novel (arguably) is this grand, staged, ceremonial act of sexual intercourse between the aggrieved Ludvik and his blissfully ignorant, plump adorer, Helena. It is described in great detail and is, I suppose, very erotic.

The two standout features of Ludvik’s technique are 1. He insists she strip naked for him, until she is standing there before him, starkers – without pulling the curtains or turning off the light. She is initially reluctant but eventually strips, and this has the psychological effect of making her truly really completely accept the reality of the situation. Rather than hiding under a blanket and letting something unspeakable happen to her, she is made completely complicit, willing and responsible for the act of sex.

Number 2 is that half way through coitus, Ludvik gets carried away and slaps Helena and, to his and her amazement, she likes it, it makes her howl louder, so he slaps her again, and soon he is slapping her face at will, then turns her over and spanks her big wobbly bum, while she howls and groans in ecstasy.

All very erotic, and written with an intense erotic charge, but – as I’ve emphasised above – also all wildly absurd. Because the forced stripping and the beating unleashes in Helena a deeper level of erotic experience than she could ever have imagined possible, with the result that her love and adoration of Ludvik goes from high on a normal counter, to off the scale, into slavish, super-deotional Shades of Grey territory.

BUT, as the process unfolded, Ludvik found himself more and more overcome with disgust and hatred. With the result that, once they are totally spent, Helena can’t keep her arms off him, is all over him, kisses him all over his body, while Ludvik, thoroughly repulsed and now ashamed of himself, shrinks like a starfish at her touch, and only wants to get dressed and flee.

So the idea of the joke has multiple levels. It refers to:

  1. the original joke postcard that Ludvik sent
  2. and this elaborate ploy he sets up to ravish, ransack and steal from his bitter enemy, everything that he (the enemy) loves (p.171)

However, there is more to come. Namely that Ludvik makes the tactical error of asking Helena to tell him more about her husband. He does this for two reasons a) he wants to hear more about their deep love, so he can savour the idea that he (Ludvik) has ravaged it, b) it will stop Helena pawing and fawning all over him.

What he hadn’t at all anticipated was that Helena proceeds to tell him that her marriage to Zemanek is over. Zemanek doesn’t like her. He has been having affairs. They have ceased living as man and wife. True they share the same house, but they have completely separate lives.

In a flash Ludvik’s entire plan turns to ashes, crashes to the ground. It has all been for nothing. Worse, Helena now enthusiastically tells Ludvik that now she can announce to Zemanek that she has a lover of her own, and he can go to hell with all his pretty dollybirds because she, Helena, has found the greatest, truest love of her life.

Appalled, Ludvik finally manages to make his excuses, plead another appointment and leave.

Jaroslav and the Ride of the King

The book is so long and rich and complex because there are several other distinct threads to it. One of these is about Czech folk music. It turns out that the provincial town where this folk festival is taking place is also Ludvik’s home town. As a teenager he played clarinet in the town’s folk ensembles and was deeply imbrued with the folk tradition. He became very good friends with Jaroslav, a big gentle bear of a man, who emerged as a leader of the town’s folk musicians and a one-man embodiment of the tradition.

Jaroslav’s monologue allows Kundera to go into some detail about the Czech folk tradition, what it means, why it is special, and the impact the communist coup had on it. Surprisingly, this was positive. After all the Czechs were forced to copy the Stalinist model of communist culture – and this emphasised nationalist and folk traditions, while pouring scorn on the ‘cosmopolitianism’ of the international Modernist movement, then, a bit later, strongly criticised the new ‘jazz’ music coming in from the decadent West.

The communist government gave money to preserve folk traditions and to fund folk traditions like the one taking place on the fateful weekend when Ludvik and Helena are visiting his home town. Jaroslav is not backward in expressing his contempt for Ludvik, who abandoned all this to go to the big city, who turned his back on the true folk tradition to celebrate a foreign, imported ideology. Once best friends, they haven’t met for many years, and Jaroslav in particular, harbours a deep grudge against his former band member.

Jaroslav describes in some detail the ‘Ride of the King’ which is the centrepiece of the festival, when a young boy is completely costumed and masked to re-enact the legend of the almost solitary ride of an exiled king in the Middle Ages. It is a great honour to be chosen to play the ‘king’ and Jaroslav is thrilled that his own son was selected by the committee to play the king.

Admittedly the ride itself, as witnessed through the eyes of both Jaroslav and Ludvik, is a rather shabby and tawdry affair. The authorities don’t even close off the main street so the characters dressed in bright traditional costumes and riding horses, are continually dodging out of the way of cars, lorries and motor bikes. And the crowds are the smallest they’ve ever been. (At this point you realise this novel is set in the early 1960s, as radio-based rock and roll was just coming in, as the Beatles were first appearing – and the reader can make comparisons between this Czech novel lamenting the decay of traditional folk festivals, and similar books, describing similar sentiments, written in the West.)

Jaroslav puts a brave face on it all, decrying the horrible noisy modern world, insisting on the primacy and integrity of folk music and traditions and still beaming with pride that his son is riding on a horse through their town dressed as the King of the Ride.

Except he isn’t. Later on in the book Jaroslav makes the shattering discovery that his son has bunked off, gone off on a motorbike with a mate to a roadside café to drink and listen to rock’n’roll. And his wife knew all about it and helped cover it up, helped arrange the dressing up of a completely different boy, and then lied to Jaroslav!

No greater betrayal is conceivable. Stunned, the big man stands in their kitchen, while his wife faces their stove, continuing to fuss over the soup she’s making while her husband’s whole world collapses in ashes. Then, one by one he takes every plate on the dresser and hurls them at the floor. Then he smashes up each of the chairs round the table. Then he turns the table over and smashes it down on the pile of broken crockery. While his wife stands trembling at the cooker, crying into their soup. Then he leaves, dazed and confused, wandering through the streets, and beyond, out into the fields, out to the countryside and eventually sits down by the river which flows through the town, the Morava, then lies down, using the violin case he’s brought with him as a pillow. Lies and stares at the clouds in the sky, completely forlorn.

Kostka’s story

Kostka’s story comes toward the end of the novel, but it provides an important centre and touchstone. As you read it you realise that although Ludvik may be the central consciousness, he is powerfully counterbalanced by first Jaroslav and now Kostka.

Kostka was also of Ludvik and Jaroslav’s generation, the 1948 generation. But Kostka was and is a devout Christian. (Christianity, Christian faith and Christian terminology crops up throughout Kundera’s fiction. Readers [correctly] associate him with meditations on politics and communism, but Christian belief is also a substantial theme in his books.)

Kostka’s inflexible religious belief meant that he, too, eventually found it impossible to stay in university, though he differed from Ludvik in voluntarily quitting and being assigned to a state farm as a technical adviser (p.184) where, being highly intelligent and hard working, he was soon devising more effective ways to grow crops. It was then that a rumour spread about a wild woman of the woods, stories circulated about milk pails being mysteriously emptied, food left out to cool disappearing. It wasn’t long before the authorities tracked down the young woman to her shad shabby lair in a disused barn and brought her in for questioning.

It was Lucie, Ludvik’s pure young woman. This is what happened to her after their tragically failed night of sex, after he threw her clothes at her and told her to clear out. She did. She left her job and the dormitory she shared, and travelled across country sleeping rough, and ended up in a rural area, living off berries and food she could steal.

The authorities take pity on her and assign her to the communal farm. This is where she comes under the protection of Kostka. And very slowly we learn how she relaxes and opens up and tells him her story. As I had suspected, she was abused, to be precise as a teenager she hung round with a gang of boys and on one pitiful occasion, they got drunk and gang raped her. Even the quietest, sweetest boy, the one she thought was her special friend. He was the most brutal, to show off to his mates that he was a real man.

That is more than enough explanation of why she couldn’t give herself to Ludvik. It was precisely because what she needed wasn’t sex, but protection. In her mind, she was forcing Ludvik to conform to the role of Lover and Protector. Having sex destroyed that image which is why she couldn’t do it (over and above the sheer terror the act revived in her mind). And of course, in his mind she was pure and virginal, and he had worked himself up into a young man’s romantic state where he thought of her as especially his, and the act of love as a sacred blessing on the altar of her unsullied beauty.

So both were acting under pitiful delusions about the other.

In fact, we had been briefly introduced to Kostka right at the start of the novel because when he arrives back in his home town for the festival and to deflower Helena, Ludvik looks up one of the few friends he can remember in the place, Kostka, who is now an eminent doctor at the local hospital. In an amiable but distant way, Kostka agrees to loan Ludvik his apartment for an afternoon (for the fatal act of sex). It is only later, when they meet up that evening, that they share a drink and Kostka ends up telling him about his life.

Now Kostka remembers another meeting, by chance, on a train, in 1956. Kostka had been forced to quit the collective farm because of political machinations and had ended up becoming a labourer. First they shared the irony that two young men, both so idealistic about their beliefs, had both been dumped on from a great height by… by… by what? By ‘History’ is the best they can come up with. By the impersonal forces of society working to a logic nobody really understands, certainly nobody can control. In fact Ludvik was so incensed by the unfairness of Kostka’s fate that he moved heaven and earth and used all his old contacts, to get Kostka appointed to the hospital where he still works.

This is why Ludvik looks Kostka up when he arrives back in his hometown in the book’s ‘present’. This is why Kostka agrees to lend him his flat for the deflowering of Helena. And this is why, later that night, when the two old friends share a drink, Kostka tells Ludvik about Lucie, without realising he knew her: about the gang rape, the flight. How she found one man she could trust, a miner in a god-forsaken mining town. But how he, too, turned out to be just like all the rest. How she had turned up the collective farm all those years ago, how Kostka took her under his wing and how, despite himself, he too took advantage of her and began a sexual relationship with her – about which he now, older and wiser, feels cripplingly guilty.

Soon after this revelation, Kostka’s section ends and we are returned to the mind of Ludvik, in the present, walking back from Kostka’s flat late at night, and absolutely reeling. What? Everything he ever believed about Lucie, both during their ill-fated affair and for fifteen years since – turns out to be utterly, completely wrong (p.210).

Back to Helena

But there are still more acts to go in this pitiful black farce. For to Helena’s own surprise no other than her suave philandering husband, Pavel Zemanek, turns up for the festival. He is now a super-smooth and successful university lecturer, adored by his students for his fashionably anti-establishment (i.e. anti-communist) views. And he’s brought his latest student lover along, a long-legged beauty – Miss Broz – perfectly suited to Pavel’s stylish sports car.

Helena takes advantage of her recent mad, passionate coupling with Ludvik, to tell Zemanek that she’s met the love of her life, that she doesn’t need him any more, and generally take a superior position. She goes so far as telling Zemanek her marvellous lover’s name, Ludvik Jahn, and is puzzled when he bursts out laughing. Oh they’re old friends, he explains.

Helena recounts this all to Ludvik when they meet up the next morning, and it is all Ludvik can do to conceal his dismay. Just when he thought things couldn’t get any worse. And then a few hours later, in the throng of the bloody festival, in among the crowds packing the streets to watch the Ride of the bloody King, suddenly Zemanek emerges from the crowd, accompanied by his long-legged dollybird and Helena is introducing the two enemies, face to face for the first time in 15 years.

And, of course, whereas Ludvik is strangled by an inexpressible combination of rage and hatred, Zemanek is unbearably suave and cool, well dressed, well-heeled, hair well-coiffed, gorgeous student on his arm – unbearable! And doubly unbearable because he realises his revenge on Zemanek has not only failed, but epically, massively failed. Not only did he not ravish and desecrate the body of Zemanek’s beloved wife – because Zemanek doesn’t give a damn who his wife sleeps with – but Helena falling so deeply and publicly in love with him (Ludvik) has done Zemanek a big favour. For years Helena has been a burden round his neck – now at a stroke Ludvik has done him the favour of removing that burden!

Farce is laid over farce, bitter black joke on top of bitter black joke.

As if all this wasn’t bad enough, yet another layer is added to the cake of humiliation – because as Ludvik is forced to swallow his rage and join in the polite chit-chat going on between Helena and Zemanek and Miss Broz, he realises something from the latter’s talk. As she witters on praising Zemanek for standing up to the authorities and bravely speaking out about this or that issue and generally becoming a hero to his students, Ludvik is subject to a really shattering revelation: the past doesn’t matter any more.

As she talks on Ludvik realises that, for her and her generation, all that stuff about 1948 and purges and executions and party squabbles and ideological arguments: that’s all ancient history – ‘bizarre experiences from a dark and distant age’ (p.232) which is just of no interest to her and her generation, who want to party and have fun.

Not only has Ludvik failed utterly to wreak his revenge on his old antagonist – but the entire world which gave meaning to their antagonism, and therefore to his act of revenge, has ceased to exist. He has been hanging onto a past which doesn’t exist anymore. It sinks in that the entire psychological, intellectual and emotional framework which has dominated his life for fifteen years… has evaporated in a puff of smoke. No one cares. No one is interested. It doesn’t matter.

Alone again with Helena, Ludvik lets rip. He tells her he hates her. He tells her he only seduced and made love to her to get his own back on her husband, the man who sold him down the river when they were students. He says she repulses him.

At first she refuses to accept it – she has just thrown away her entire life with Zemanek, the security of their house and marriage – for Ludvik and here he is spitting in her face. Eventually she wanders off, dazed, back to the village hall where she and her sound engineer, Jindra, have set up base to make their radio documentary. In a dazed voice, she says she has a headache and the engineer (still virtually a schoolboy, who has a puppy crush on Helena) says he has some headache tablets in her bag. She sends him out for a drink and then, rummaging in his bag, comes across several bottles full of headache pills. She takes two and then looks at herself in the mirror, at her fact tear-stained face, contemplating the complete and utter humiliation she has just undergone and the shattering of her entire life.

And, as she hears Jindra returning with a bottle from a nearby tavern, she hastily swallows down the entire contents of not one but all the bottles in the engineer’s bag. She emerges back into the hall, thanks him for the drink and writes a note. It is a suicide note addressed to Ludvik. She pops it in an envelope and scribbles Ludvik’s name on it and asks Jindra to track Ludvik down and deliver it.

Now, Jindra has got wind of Helena and Ludvik’s affair and was present when Zemanek and his student were introduced to them, so he knows Ludvik by sight. Reluctantly he goes off with the letter. The observant reader might notice that the story commences with a missive – a postcard – and is ending with another, though I can’t quite figure out the meaning of this – something about misunderstood messages.

Jindra fairly quickly finds Ludvik in the beer garden of the most popular pub in town. He grudgingly hands over the letter. Now a message from an angry upset Helena is about the last thing Ludvik wants to have to deal with and so, to delay matters, he invites Jindra to join him in a drink. He calls the waiter. He orders. The drinks arrive. They drink. They toast. The letter sits on the table unopened. I really enjoyed this little sequence.

Eventually and very reluctantly Ludvik opens the envelope and reads the message. He leaps out of his chair and demands to know where Helena is now. The engineer describes the village hall they’ve borrowed and Ludvik sets out at a run, zigzagging through the crowds and avoiding the traffic.

He makes it to the hall, bursts in and it is empty. Down into the cellar he goes, amid the cobwebs and detritus, yelling Helena’s name. No reply. They check every room on the ground floor, then realise there’s an attic, and find a ladder and go up there, Ludvik convinced at any moment he’ll see a mute body dangling from a rope. But no Helena – so another frenzied search reveals a door into a back garden, and they burst out into this quickly realising there is no body prone in the grass or hanging from the trees.

But there is a shed. Ludvik bounds over to it and beats on the door, which is locked. ‘Go away’ they hear Helena’s anguished voice, and Ludvik needs no bidding to kick open the door, smashing its flimsy lock to reveal…

Helena squatting on a toilet in agony, angrily begging him to close the door. Those headache pills? They weren’t headache pills. The puppyish engineer now sheepishly admits to both of them that he often gets constipated and so keeps a supply of laxatives ready to hand. Only he’s embarrassed about people seeing them so he keeps them in old headache pill bottles.

Ludvik steps back, surveys the situation and closes the door on Helena’s humiliation and stands lost, dazed, staggered. What… What is life about? What is the point? Could he be any more of an ironic plaything of Fate?

He walks away from the outside loo, from Helena and Jindra, back through the church hall, out into the hectic streets, along busy roads, across town to the outskirts, where the houses peter out, and on into fields, farmland, lanes and hedgerows and trees. Eventually he finds himself walking along beside the river Morava, and then makes out a figure lying down beside it. As he comes closer he is astonished to see it is his old friend and fellow musician, Jaroslav. He greets him and asks if he can sit down beside him.

And so the two lost men, their lives and their illusions in tatters, sit out in the empty countryside contemplating the absurd meaningless of existence…

Summary

The Joke is the longest of Kundera’s books, and also the most dense. The plot is intricate, ranging back and forth over the fifteen-year period and some of these periods are described in great detail, for example the long passage describing life in the miners’ punishment camp. As his career progressed, Kundera was to compress passages like this, making them ever shorter and punchier.

The Joke also feels dense because it includes large sections packed with very intellectual meditations – about music, folk music and Christian belief, as well as politics, communism, and human life considered from all kinds of angles. Kundera doesn’t hesitate to lard almost every action in the book with a philosophical commentary, some of which lift off from the text entirely to become stand-alone digressions in their own right.

And if it is a traditional form of literary criticism to describe the patterns in a novel’s narrative, particularly in terms of the growth and development of its characters – then you could easily do the same and analyse the patterns in Kundera’s deployment of ideas which, like the characters, seem plausible enough when you first meet them but then, slowly, over the course of the book’s intricate windings, themselves are undermined and contradicted. To put it another way – in a Kundera novel, the ideas have as many adventures as the ‘characters’.

It’s true there are a number of sequences acts of copulation and, more to the point, the male characters in particular, obsess about sex almost continually – which can, if you’re not careful, become very tiresome. But, as I hope I’ve shown, this focus on the private act of sex itself is continually opening up into more philosophical and psychological speculations about human nature. It’s as if sex, the sex act, is itself merely a stage on which much deeper philosophical and fictional questions can be raised and explored. There may be a fair amount of sex in the book, but if you look closely, you’ll see that hardly any of it is happy and fulfilling; most of it is fraught and tragic. Or tragi-comic.

And fundamentally, beneath the meditations on History and Communist power, beneath the stories of the individual characters and their worries and experiences and plans, and beneath the erotic layer of lust and sex which lards much of the book – at bottom the message, for me, is one about the complete Absurdity of human existence.

For me the message is that: Humans are the meaning-making animal, condemned to waste vast amounts of energy trying to find meaning and purpose in the grand narrative of their lives as much as in the slightest event or accident which occurs to them… But at the same time – because we are limited to our own very narrow points of view and relatively tiny number of lived experiences – our interpretations of the world and other people are more often than not howlingly inaccurate and ridiculously self-centred.

It is this mismatch between the will to understand, and the completely incomprehensible reality of the world, which is the Absurdity of the Human Condition. It’s all a big Joke.

The plot of The Joke is itself a joke. And not only its plot. Its ‘philosophy’ as well: man, caught in the trap of a joke, suffers a personal catastrophe which, when seen from without, is ludicrous. His tragedy lies in the fact that the joke has deprived him of the right to tragedy. (Introduction)

Because what if the ‘aberrations’ and ‘mistakes’ and miscarriages of justice aren’t aberrations from History at all? What if the aberrations and mistakes and miscalculations, which people are continually dismissing from their thoughts, are the norm? What if everything, if all human endeavour and effort, is one vast continual ongoing misunderstanding, just one big stupid joke? (p.240)

Most people willingly deceive themselves with a doubly false faith: they believe in eternal memory (of men, things, deed, people) and in the rectification (of deeds, errors, sins, injustice.) Both are sham. The truth lies at the opposite end of the scale: everything will be forgotten and nothing will be rectified. (p.245)

Another view

A friend of mine is mad about Kundera. She says I miss the point, or miss her point, about him.

Reading Kundera showed her that even the most grim and sordid events – the kind she was familiar with from her unbookish, working-class upbringing – can be redeemed by thought and imagination. Reading Kundera transported her into a world where even the most crude and barbaric behaviour was translated into intellectualism, into dazzling insights and memorable formulations. The act of reading Kundera was in itself an escape into the company of a highly educated, urbane, confident, man of the world, who could deploy ideas and quotes from the great names of European literature with a light touch, to bring out hitherto unsuspected aspects of even the most mundane situations (two reluctant lovers groping in a shabby bedroom). He sprinkled a magic dust of insights and ideas over everything, making her realise that every minute of her day was just as capable of being analysed, just as susceptible to witty insights and psychological revelations. Reading him made her own life feel full of imaginative promise and intellectual excitement.

And she was dazzled by the way the reader feels they know the characters via their interiority, going straight to the heart of their affairs and dilemmas. She loves the way Kundera plunges you straight into their psychological depths and complexities. It doesn’t matter at all that they remain undescribed physical shadows, in fact it’s a big plus, it helps you focus all the more on their minds and characters.

As a woman she didn’t feel at all patronised by the focus on sex-driven male characters. After all, she grew up in a world of sex-driven men. What riveted her thirty years ago, when she first read Kundera’s novels, and has stayed with her ever since, was the revelation that even the most humdrum moments of the most humdrum lives can be transformed by the imagination and intellect into wonderful luminous ideas. This opened doors into a whole new way of thinking and helped inspire her go to university, and beyond.

It’s hard to think of a more moving and profound tribute to an author, which is why I include it here.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

What Is Life? How Chemistry Becomes Biology by Addy Pross (2012)

I will attempt to show that the chasm separating biology and chemistry is bridgeable, that Darwinian theory can be integrated into a more general chemical theory of matter, and that biology is just chemistry, or to be more precise, a sub-branch of chemistry – replicative chemistry. (p.122)

Repetitive and prolix

This book is 190 pages long. It is much harder to read than it need be because Pross is a bad writer with very bad habits, namely 1. irritating repetition and 2. harking back and forward. The initial point which he repeats again and again in the first 120 pages is that nobody knows the secret of the origins of life and all previous attempts to solve it have been dead ends.

So, what can we conclude regarding the emergence of life on our planet? The short answer: almost nothing. (p.109)

We don’t know how to go about making life because we don’t really know what life is, and we don’t know what life is, because we don’t understand the principles that led to its emergence. (p.111)

The efforts to uncover probiotic-type chemistry, while of considerable interest in their own right, were never likely to lead us to the ultimate goal – understanding how life on earth emerged. (p.99)

Well, at the time of writing, the so-called Holy Grail (the Human Genome sequence) and the language of life that it was supposed to have taught us have not delivered the promised goods. (p.114)

But the systems biology approach has not proved a nirvana… (p.116)

Non-equilibrium thermodynamics has not proved to be the hoped-for breakthrough in seeking greater understanding of biological complexity. (p.119)

A physically based theory of life continues to elude us. (p.119)

While Conway’s Life game has opened up interesting insights into complex systems in general, direct insights into the nature of living systems do not appear to have been forthcoming. (p.120)

The book is so repetitive I though the author and his editor must have Alzheimer’s Disease. On page viii we are told that the physicist Erwin Schrödinger wrote a pithy little book titled What Is Life? which concluded that present-day physics and chemistry can’t explain the phenomenon of life. Then, on page xii, we’re told that the physicist Erwin Schrödinger’ found the issue highly troublesome’. Then on page 3 that the issue ‘certainly troubled the great physicists of the century, amongst them Bohr, Schrödinger and Wigner’. Then on page 36, we learn that:

Erwin Schrödinger, the father of quantum mechanics, whose provocative little book What Is Life? we mentioned earlier, was particularly puzzled by life’s strange thermodynamic behaviour.

When it comes to Darwin we are told on page 8 that:

Darwin himself explicitly avoided the origin of life question, recognising that within the existing state of knowledge the question was premature.

and then, in case we have senile dementia or the memory of a goldfish, on page 35 he tells us that:

Darwin deliberately side-stepped the challenge, recognising that it could not be adequately addressed within the existing state of knowledge.

As to the harking back and forth, Pross is one of those writers who is continually telling you he’s going to tell you something, and then continually reminding you that he told you something back in chapter 2 or chapter 4 – but nowhere in the reading process do you actually get clearly stated the damn thing he claims to be telling.

As we mentioned in chapter 4…

As noted above…

I will say more on this point subsequently…

We will consider a possible resolution of this sticky problem in chapter 7…

As discussed in chapter 5… as we will shortly see… As we have already pointed out… As we have discussed in some detail in chapter 5…  described in detail in chapter 4…

In this chapter I will describe… In this chapter I will attempt…

I will defer this aspect of the discussion until chapter 8…

Jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today.

Shallow philosophy

It is a philosophy book written by a chemist. As such it comes over as extremely shallow and amateurish. Pross namechecks Wittgenstein, and (pointlessly) tells us that ‘tractatus’ is Latin for ‘treatise’ (p.48) – but fails to understand or engage with Wittgenstein’s thought.

My heart sank when I came to chapter 3, titled Understanding ‘understanding’ which boils down to a superficial consideration of the difference between a ‘reductionist’ and a ‘holistic’ approach to science, the general idea that science is based on reductionism i.e. reducing systems to their smallest parts and understanding their functioning before slowly building up in scale, whereas ‘holistic’ approach tries to look at the entire system in the round. Pross gives a brief superficial overview of the two approaches before concluding that neither one gets us any closer to an answer.

Instead of interesting examples from chemistry, shallow examples from ‘philosophy’

Even more irritating than the repetition is the nature of the examples. I thought this would be a book about chemistry but it isn’t. Pross thinks he is writing a philosophical examination of the meaning of life, and so the book is stuffed with the kind of fake everyday examples which philosophers use and which are a) deeply patronising b) deeply uninformative.

Thus on page x of the introduction Pross says imagine you’re walking through a field and you come across a refrigerator. He then gives two pages explaining how a refrigerator works and saying that you, coming across a fully functional refrigerator in the middle of a field, is about as probable as the purposeful and complex forms of life can have come about by accident.

Then he writes, Imagine that you get into a motor car. We only dare drive around among ‘an endless stream of vehicular metal’ on the assumption that the other drivers have purpose and intention and will stick to the laws of the highway code.

On page 20 he introduces us to the idea of a ‘clock’ and explains how a clock is an intricate mechanism made of numerous beautifully engineered parts but it will eventually break down. But a living organism on the other hand, can repair itself.

Then he says imagine you’re walking down the street and you bump into an old friend named Bill. He looks like Bill, he talks like Bill and yet – did you know that virtually every cell in Bill’s body has renewed itself since last time you saw him, because life forms have this wonderful ability to repair and renew themselves!

Later, he explains how a Boeing 747 didn’t come into existence spontaneously, but was developed from earlier plane designs, all ultimately stemming from the Wright brothers’ first lighter than air flying machine.

You see how all these examples are a) trite b) patronising c) don’t tell you anything at all about the chemistry of life.

He tells us that if you drop a rock out the window, it falls to the ground. And yet a bird can hover in the air merely by flapping its wings! For some reason it is able to resist the Second law of Thermodynamics! How? Why? Nobody knows!

Deliberately superficial

And when he does get around to explaining anything, Pross himself admits that he is doing it in a trivial, hurried, quick, sketchy way and leaving out most of the details.

I will spare the reader a detailed discussion…

These ideas were discussed with some enthusiasm some 20-30 years ago and without going into further detail…

If that sounds too mathematical, let’s explain the difference by recounting the classical legend of the Chinese emperor who was saved in battle by a peasant farmer. (p.64)

Only in the latter pages – only when he gets to propound his own theory from about page 130 – do you realise that he is not so much making a logical point as trying to get you to see the problem from an entirely new perspective. A little like seeing the world from the Marxist or the Freudian point of view, Pross believes himself to be in possession of an utterly new way of thinking which realigns all previous study and research and thinking on the subject. It is so far-ranging and wide-sweeping that it cannot be told consecutively.

And it’s this which explains the irritating sense of repetition and circling and his constant harking forward to things he’s going to tell you, and then harking back to things he claims to have explained a few chapters earlier. The first 130 pages are like being lost in a maze.

The problem of the origin of life

People have been wondering about the special quality of live things as opposed to dead things for as long as there have been people. Darwin discovered the basis of all modern thinking about life forms, which is the theory of evolution by natural selection. But he shied away from speculating on how life first came about.

Pross – in a typically roundabout manner – lists the ‘problems’ facing anyone trying to answer the question, What is life and how did it begin?

  • life breaks the second law of thermodynamics i.e. appears to create order out of chaos, as opposed to the Law which says everything tends in the opposite direction i.e. tends towards entropy
  • life can be partly defined by its sends of purpose: quite clearly inanimate objects do not have this
  • life is complex
  • life is organised

Put another way, why is biology so different from chemistry? How are the inert reactions of chemistry different from the purposive reactions of life? He sums this up in a diagram which appears several times:

He divides the move from non-life into complex life into two phases. The chemical phase covers the move from non-life to simple life, the biological phase covers the move from simple life to complex life. Now, we know that the biological phase is covered by the iron rules of Darwinian evolution – but what triggered, and how can we account for, the move from non-life to simple life? Hence a big ?

Pross’s solution

Then, on page 127, Pross finally introduces his Big Idea and spends the final fifty or so pages of the book showing how his theory addresses all the problem in existing ‘origin of life’ literature.

His idea begins with the established knowledge that all chemical reactions seek out the most ‘stable’ format.

He introduces us to the notion that chemists actually have several working definitions of ‘stability’, and then introduces us to a new one: the notion of dynamic kinetic stability, or DKS.

He describes experiments by Sol Spiegelman in the 1980s into RNA. This showed how the RNA molecule replicated itself outside of a living cell. That was the most important conclusion of the experiment. But they also found that the RNA molecules replicated but also span off mutations, generally small strands of of RNA, some of which metabolised the nutrients far quicker than earlier varieties. These grew at an exponential rate to swiftly fill the petri dishes and push the longer, ‘correct’ RNA to extinction.

For Pross what Spiegelman’s experiments showed was that inorganic dead chemicals can a) replicate b) replicate at exponential speed until they have established a situation of dynamic kinetic stability. He then goes on to equate his concept of dynamic kinetic stability with the Darwinian one of ‘fitness’. Famously, it is the ‘fit’ which triumph in the never-ending battle for existence. Well, Pross says this concept can be rethought of as, the population which achieves greatest dynamic kinetic stability – which replicates fast enough and widely enough – will survive, will be the fittest.

fitness = dynamic kinetic stability (p.141)

Thus Darwin’s ideas about the eternal struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest can be extended into non-organic chemistry, but in a particular and special way:

Just as in the ‘regular’ chemical world the drive of all physical and chemical systems is toward the most stable state, in the replicative world the drive is also toward the most stable state, but of the kind of stability applicable within that replicative world, DKS. (p.155)

Another way of looking at all this is via the Second Law. The Second Law of Thermodynamics has universally been interpreted as militating against life. Life is an affront to the Law, which says that all energy dissipates and seeks out the state of maximum diffusion. Entropy always triumphs. But not in life. How? Why?

But Pross says that, if molecules like his are capable of mutating and evolving – as the Sol Spiegelman experiments suggest – then they only appear to contradict the Second Law. In actual fact they are functioning in what Pross now declares is an entirely different realm of chemistry (and physics). The RNA replicating molecules are functioning in the realm of replicative chemistry. They are still inorganic, ‘dead’ molecules – but they replicate quickly, mutate to find the most efficient variants, and reproduce quickly towards a state of dynamic kinetic stability.

So what he’s trying to do is show how it is possible for long complex molecules which are utterly ‘dead’, nonetheless to behave in a manner which begins to see them displaying qualities more associated with the realm of biology:

  • ‘reproduction’ with errors
  • triumph of the fittest
  • apparent ‘purpose’
  • the ability to become more complex

None of this is caused by any magical ‘life force’ or divine intervention (the two bogeymen of life scientists), but purely as a result of the blind materialistic forces driving them to take most advantage of their environment i.e. use up all its nutrients.

Pross now takes us back to that two-step diagram of how life came about, shown above – Non-Life to Simple Life, Simple Life to Complex Life, labelled the Chemical Phase and the Biological Phase, respectively.

He recaps how the second phase – how simple life evolves greater complexity – can be explained using Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection: even the most primitive life forms will replicate until they reach the limits of the available food sources, at which point any mutation leading to even a fractional differentiation in the efficiency of processing food will give the more advanced variants an advantage. The rest is the three billion year history of life on earth.

It is phase one – the step from non-life to life – which Pross has (repeatedly) explained has given many of the cleverest biologists, physicists and chemists of the 20th century sleepless nights, and which – in chapters 3 and 4 – he runs through the various theories or approaches which have failed to deliver an answer to.

Well, Pross’s bombshell solution is simple. There are not two steps – there was only ever one step. The Darwinian mechanism by which the best adapted entity wins out in a given situation applies to inert chemicals as much as to life forms.

Let me now drop the bombshell… The so-called two-stage process is not two-stage at all. It is really just once, continuous process. (p.127) … what is termed natural selection within the biological world is also found to operate in the chemical world… (p.128)

Pross recaps the findings of that Spiegelman experiment, which was that the RNA molecules eventually made errors in their replication, and some of the erroneous molecules were more efficient at using up the nutrition in the test tube. After just a day, Spiegelman found the long RNA molecules – which took a long time to replicate – were being replaced by much shorter molecules which replicated much quicker.

There, in a nutshell, is Pross’s theory in action. Darwinian competition, previously thought to be restricted only to living organisms, can be shown to apply to inorganic molecules as well – because inorganic molecules themselves show replicating, ‘competitive’ behaviour.

For Pross this insight was confirmed in experiments conducted by Gerald Joyce in 2009, who showed that a variety of types of RNA, placed in a nutrient, replicated in such a way as to establish a kind of dynamic equilibrium, where each molecule established a chemical niche and thrived on some of the nutrients, while other RNA varieties evolved to thrive on other types. To summarise:

The processes of abiogenesis and evolution are actually one physicochemical process governed by one single mechanism, rather than two discrete processes governed by two different mechanisms. (p.136)

Or:

The study of simple replicating systems has revealed an extraordinary connection – that Darwinian theory, that quintessential biological principle, can be incorporated into a more general chemical theory of evolution, one that encompasses both living and non-living systems. it is that integration that forms the basis of the theory of life I propose. (p.162)

The remaining 50 or so pages work through the implications of this idea or perspective. For example he redefines the Darwinian notion of ‘fitness’ to be ‘dynamic kinetic stability’. In other words, the biological concept of ‘fitness’ turns out, in his theory, to be merely the biological expression of a ‘more general and fundamental chemical concept’ (p.141).

He works through a number of what are traditionally taken to be life’s attributes and reinterprets in the new terms he’s introduced, in terms of dynamic kinetic stability, replicative chemistry and so on. Thus he addresses life’s complexity, life’s instability, life’s dynamic nature, life’s diversity, life’s homochirality, life’s teleonomic character, the nature of consciousness, and speculating about what alien life would look like before summing up his theory. Again.

A solution to the primary question exists and is breathtakingly simple: life on earth emerged through the enormous kinetic power of the replication reaction acting on unidentified, but simple replicating systems, apparently composed of chain-like oligomeric substances, RNA or RNA-like, capable of mutation and complexification. That process of complexification took place because it resulted in the enhancement of their stability – not their thermodynamic stability, but rather the relevant stability in the world of replicating systems, their DKS. (p.183)

A thought about the second law

Pross has explained that the Second Law of Thermodynamics apparently militates against the spontaneous generation of life, in any form, because life is organised and the second law says everything tends towards chaos. But he comes up with an ingenious solution. If one of these hypothetical early replicating molecules acquired the ability to generate energy from light – it would effectively bypass the second law. It would acquire energy from outside the ‘system’ in which it is supposedly confined and in which entropy prevails.

The existence of an energy-gathering capacity within a replicating entity effectively ‘frees’ that entity from the constraints of the Second Law in much the same way that a car engine ‘free’s a car from gravitational constrains. (p.157)

This insight shed light on an old problem, and on a fragment of the overall issue – but it isn’t enough by itself to justify his theory.

Thoughts

Several times I nearly threw away the book in my frustration before finally arriving at the Eureka moment about page 130. From there onwards it does become a lot better. As you read Pross you have the sense of a whole new perspective opening up on this notorious issue.

However, as with all these theories, you can’t help thinking that if his theory had been at all accepted by the scientific community – then you’d have heard about it by now.

If his theory really does finally solve the Great Mystery of Life which all the greatest minds of humanity have laboured over for millennia… surely it would be a bit better known, or widely accepted by his peers?

The theory relies heavily on results from Sol Spiegelman’s experiments with RNA in the 1980s. Mightn’t Spiegelman himself, or other tens of thousands of other biologists, have noticed its implications in the thirty odd years between the experiments and Pross’s book?

And if Pross has solved the problem of the origin of life, how come so many other, presumably well-informed and highly educated scientists, are still researching the ‘problem’?

(By the way, the Harvard website optimistically declares that:

Thanks to advances in technologies in these areas, answers to some of the compelling questions surrounding the origins of life in the universe were now possibly within reach… Today a larger team of researchers have joined this exciting biochemical ‘journey through the Universe’ to unravel one of humankind’s most compelling mysteries – the origins of life in the Universe.

Possibly within reach’, lol. Good times are always just around the corner in the origins-of-life industry.)

So I admit to being interested by pages 130 onwards of his book, gripped by the urgency with which he tells his story, gripped by the vehemence of his presentation, in the same way you’d be gripped by a thriller while you read it. But then you put it down and forget about it, going back to your everyday life. Same here.

It’s hard because it is difficult to keep in mind Pross’s slender chain of argumentation. It rests on the two-stage diagram – on Pross’s own interpretation of the Spiegelman experiments – on his special idea of dynamic kinetic stability – and on the idea of replicative chemistry.

All of these require looking at the problem through is lens, from his perspective – for example agreeing with the idea that the complex problem of the origin of life can be boiled down to that two-stage diagram; this is done so that we can then watch him pull the rabbit out of the hat by saying it needn’t be in two stages after all! So he’s address the problem of the diagram. But it is, after all, just one simplistic diagram.

Same with his redefining Darwin’s notion of ‘fitness’ as being identical to his notion of dynamic kinetic stability. Well, if he says so. but in science you have to get other scientists to agree with you, preferably by offering tangible proof.

These are more like tricks of perspective than a substantial new theory. And this comes back to his rhetorical strategy of repetition, to the harping on the same ideas.

The book argues its case less with evidence (there is, in the end, very little scientific ‘evidence’ for his theory – precisely two experiments, as far as I can see), but more by presenting a raft of ideas in their current accepted form (for 130 boring pages), and then trying to persuade you to see them all anew, through his eyes, from his perspective (in the final 50 pages). As he summarises it (yet again) on page 162:

The emergence of life was initiated by the emergence of a single replicating system, because that seemingly inconsequentual event opened the door to a distinctly different kind of chemistry – replicative chemistry. Entering the world of replicative chemistry reveals the existence of that other kind of stability in nature, the dynamic kinetic stability of things that are good at making more of themselves.Exploring the world of replicative chemistry helps explain why a simple primordial replicating system would have been expected to complexify over time. The reason: to increase its stability – its dynamic kinetic stability (DKS).

Note the phrase’ entering the world of replicative chemistry…’ – It sounds a little like ‘entering the world of Narnia’. It is almost as if he’s describing a religious conversion. All the facts remain the same, but new acolytes now see them in a totally different light.

Life then is just the chemical consequences that derive from the power of exponential growth operating on certain replicating chemical systems. (p.164)

(I am quoting Pross at length because I don’t want to sell his ideas short; I want to convey them as accurately as possible, and in his own words.)

Or, as he puts it again a few pages later (you see how his argument proceeds by, or certainly involves a lot of, repetition):

Life then is just a highly intricate network of chemical reactions that has maintained its autocatalytic capability, and, as already noted, that complex network emerged one step at a time starting from simpler netowrks. And the driving force? As discussed in earlier chapter, it is the drive toward greater DKS, itself based on the kinetic power of replication, which allows replicating chemical systems to develop into ever-increasing complex and stable forms. (p.185)

It’s all reasonably persuasive when you’re reading the last third of his book – but oddly forgettable once you put it down.

Fascinating facts and tasty terminology

Along the way, the reader picks up a number of interesting ideas.

  • Panspermia – the theory that life exists throughout the universe and can be carried on meteors, comets etc, and one of these landed and seeded life on earth
  • every adult human is made up of some ten thousand billion cells; but we harbour in our guts and all over the surface of our bodies ten times as many – one hundred thousand bacteria. In an adult body hundreds of billions of new cells are created daily in order to replace the ones that die on a daily basis
  • in 2017 it was estimated there may be as many as two billion species of bacteria on earth
  • the Principle of Divergence – many different species are generated from a few sources
  • teleonomy – the quality of apparent purposefulness and goal-directedness of structures and functions in living organisms
  • chiral – an adjective meaning a molecule’s mirror image is not superimposable upon the molecule itself: in fact molecules often come in mirror-image formations, known as left and right-handed
  • racemic – a racemic mixture, or racemate, is one that has equal amounts of left- and right-handed enantiomers of a chiral molecule.
  • reductionist – analysing and describing a complex phenomenon in terms of its simple or fundamental constituents
  • holistic – the belief that the parts of something are intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole
  • Second Law of Thermodynamics – ‘in all energy exchanges, if no energy enters or leaves the system, the potential energy of the state will always be less than that of the initial state.’ This is also commonly referred to as entropy
  • the thermodynamic consideration – chemical reactions will only take place if the reaction products are of lower free energy than the reactants
  • catalyst – a substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without itself undergoing any permanent chemical change
  • catalytic – requires an external catalyst to spark a chemical reaction
  • auocatalytic – a reaction which catalyses itself
  • cross-catalysis – two chemicals trigger reactions in each other
  • static stability – water, left to itself, is a stable chemical compound
  • dynamic stability – a river is always a river even though it is continually changing
  • prebiotic earth – earth before life
  • abiogenesis – the process whereby life was derived from non-living chemicals
  • systems chemistry – the chemical reactions of replicating molecules and the networks they create
  • the competitive exclusion principle – complete competitors cannot co-exist, or, Ecological differentiation is th enecessary condition for co-existence

Does anyone care?

Pross thinks the fact that biologists and biochemists can’t account for the difference between complex but inanimate molecules, and the simplest actual forms of life – bacteria – is a Very Important Problem. He thinks that:

Until the deep conceptual chasm that continues to separate living and non-living is bridged, until the two sciences – physics and biology – can merge naturally, the nature of life, and hence man’s place in the universe, will continue to remain gnawingly uncertain. (p.42)

‘Gnawingly’. Do you feel the uncertainty about whetherbiology and physics can be naturally merged is gnawing away at you? Or, as he puts it in his opening sentences:

The subject of this book addresses basic questions that have transfixed and tormented humankind for millennia, ever since we sought to better understand our place in the universe – the nature of living things and their relationship to the non-living. The importance of finding a definitive answer to these questions cannot be overstated – it would reveal to us not just who and what we are, but would impact on our understanding of the universe as a whole. (p.viii)

I immediately disagreed. ‘The importance of finding a definitive answer to these questions cannot be overstated’? Yes it can. Maybe, just maybe – it is not very important at all.

What do we mean by ‘important’, anyway? Is it important to you, reading this review, to realise that the division between the initial, chemical phase of the origin of life and the secondary, biological phase, is in fact a delusion, and that both processes can be accounted for by applying Darwinian selection to supposedly inorganic chemicals?

If you tried to tell your friends and family 1. how easy would you find it to explain? 2. would you seriously expect anyone to care?

Isn’t it, in fact, more likely that the laws or rules or theories about how life arose from inanimate matter are likely to be so technical, so specialised and so hedged around with qualifications, that only highly trained experts can really understand them?

Maybe Pross has squared the circle and produced a feasible explanation of the origins of life on earth. Maybe this book really is – The Answer! But in which case – why hasn’t everything changed, why hasn’t the whole human race breathed a collective sigh of relief and said, NOW we understand how it all started, NOW we know what it all means, NOW I understand who I am and my place in the universe?

When I explained Pross’s theory, in some detail, to my long-suffering wife (who did a life sciences degree) she replied that, quite obviously chemistry and biology are related; anyone who’s studied biology knows it is based on chemistry. She hardly found it ‘an extraordinary connection’. When I raised it with my son, who is studying biology at university, he’d never heard of Pross or his theory.

So one’s final conclusion is that our understanding of ‘The nature of life, and hence man’s place in the universe’ has remained remarkably unchanged by this little book and will, in all likelihood, remain so.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

The Environment

Genetics and life

Human evolution

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

Socialism: Utopian and Scientific by Frederick Engels (1880)

Modern Socialism is, in its essence, the direct product of the recognition, on the one hand, of the class antagonisms existing in the society of today between proprietors and non-proprietors, between capitalists and wage-workers; on the other hand, of the anarchy existing in production. (Opening sentence)

I bought my copy of Socialism: Utopian and Scientific in a cheap Chinese edition from the Marxist bookshop under Brixton railway arches in the 1980s. It cost 45p. Neither the Chinese editions nor the bookshop exist any more.

Prefaces

A feature of the texts by Marx and Engels is the way they come festooned with prefaces and introductions. This is because:

  1. The societies they were describing in such detail, kept evolving and changing: the Europe of 1848 for which the Communist Manifesto was written had changed a lot by 1868, and out of all recognition by 1888.
  2. More subtly, socialism itself kept changing, in the hands of socialist and communist parties spread right across the continent, some of which were banned, some of which (e.g. in Germany) entered Parliament, some of which (e.g. in England) were tempted to join forces with the increasingly well-organised trades unions who weren’t interested in overthrowing capitalism at all; they wanted to keep it in place, but with better pay and conditions for their members.

And thus Marx and Engels found themselves having to tag new introductions and prefaces to all their works in order to keep up with the changing realities of European society, and also the changing nature of socialist belief, which included the continual eruption of new and heretical brands of socialism.

This text has a foreword by Marx, two prefaces by Engels and then an introduction by Engels which is nearly as long (30 pages) as the original text (56 pages).

Origins and impact

Socialism: Utopian and Scientific is such a short text because it is an extract from a longer work Engels wrote in 1878, entitled Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science or the Anti-Dühring, as it became known.

During the 1870s the German philosopher, positivist, economist, and socialist Eugen Karl Dühring (1833–1921) published a sequence of books in which he enunciated a ‘positivist’ philosophy, on which he based a form of ‘ethical communism’, along with an economic theory which suggested there would eventually be a harmony of the interests of capitalists and labourers. Things, in other words, could only get better. Dühring’s extensive erudition across numerous fields, and his ‘soft’ form of communism, made his ideas influential in left-wing circles.

Marx and Engels were naturally alarmed because Dühring’s views undermined their insistence on the necessity of class warfare, and the inevitability of a violent revolution in which the radicalised proletariat would overthrow bourgeois capitalism. Dühring denied all this.

Also, it happened that both Marx and Engels had for some time being mulling over the fact that Marx’s great masterwork, Capital, was impenetrable to ordinary readers and that they should probably write a more accessible summary of their philosophical, political and economic theories for the man in the street.

Thus the need for a handy summary of Marxism combined with the urge to refute Dühring’s views inspired Engels to write his lengthy Anti-Dühring – and then to extract three chapters of it into the present work.

Socialism: Utopian and Scientific went on to become probably the most influential single work written by either Marx or Engels. It was quickly translated into over ten European languages, and widely distributed. It became the main vehicle publicising their socialist ideas in the key decades from 1890 to 1910.

In his epic biography of Marx, Gareth Stedman Jones quotes contemporaries testifying to its impact. According to the communist David Riazanov, founder of the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow after the revolution (and then a high-profile victim of Stalin’s show trials in the 1930s):

Anti-Dühring was epoch-making in the history of Marxism. It was from this book that the younger generation, which began its activity during the second half of the 1870s, learned what was scientific socialism, what were its philosophical premises, what was its method… all the young Marxists who entered the public arena in the early 1880s – Bernstein, Kautsky, Plekhanov – were brought up on this book.

And Karl Kautsky, the Czech communist and torch bearer of orthodox Marxism between Engels’ death in 1895 and the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, said:

Judging by the influence that Anti-Dühring had upon me, no other book can have contributed so much to the understanding of Marxism. Marx’s Capital is the more powerful work, certainly. But it was only through Anti-Dühring that we learned to understand Capital and read it properly. (quoted in Jones, p.560)

Structure

Overall the book aims to distinguish Marx’s communism from all other previous and current versions of socialism, which Engels dismisses as ‘utopian’. Those other theories were or are based on morality – on moral feelings of outrage, sympathy for the oppressed, appeals to ‘justice’, and so on and so on.

Marx’s communism alone was scientific in the sense that Marx claimed to have uncovered the economic laws which underpinned the development of human civilisation and to have shown that a communist revolution will come regardless of anyone’s feelings or intentions.

Marx’s sociology had revealed that all previous societies have been based on class conflict. More than this, Marx had shown how societies evolve through the process of Dialectical Materialism, namely that at any given epoch there is a master narrative or ideology which, of necessity, contains within it the seeds of opposition and of its eventual overthrow. Within the slave society of ancient Rome lay the seeds of the feudal system. Within the feudal system lay the guilds and the seeds of the mercantilism which superseded it. Within mercantilism lay the seeds of the more organised, competitive capitalism.

And the capitalist system now triumphing in the West contained within itself the seeds of its own destruction. For, by concentrating more and more wealth and power in the hands of the bourgeoisie, the system inevitably, and unstoppably, created a larger and larger and larger class of powerless, impoverished, immiserated people – the proletariat – which sooner or later, must inevitably realise their superior strength, rise up and overthrow their capitalist masters and thus give rise to the communist society where everyone carries out productive labour, as they wish, and where everyone is equal.

This process was reinforced by the fundamental instability of capitalism – this was caused by the endless clash of rival companies and their products, an economic chaos which created day to day social anarchy, led inevitably to regular financial crashes and depressions and, at its highest level, gave rise to wars between rival capitalist empires fighting over raw materials and new markets in the third world.

This ‘system’, Engels explains, is simply not sustainable and will sooner or later crash under the weight of its own ‘contradictions’.

Chapter one

Engels begins the book by describing the thought of some characteristic ‘utopian’ socialists, starting with Saint-Simon, before going on to Charles Fourier and Robert Owen. He shows how their versions of socialism contained many insights but, at bottom, merely reflected the personal opinions of the authors.

Saint-Simon had the genius as early as 1802 to enunciate the principle that ‘all men must work’; to realise that the French Revolution had been a struggle not only between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie but also the propertyless poor; and by 1815 was predicting that politics would soon boil down to issues of production: politics, in other words, would morph into economics – ‘the administration of things and the guidance of the processes of production’.

Fourier declared that humanity had progressed through four stages – savagery, patriarchy, barbarism and civilisation – each of which, including the bourgeois society of his time, partaking of the same tensions and stresses.

Robert Owen set up a model cotton factory at New Lanark in Scotland where he made the workers work shorter hours, and not the then customary seven days a week, provided hygienic accommodation and invented the infant school for the children. With the result that there was no drunkenness, no crime – and yet his investors still made sizeable returns on their money. Owen developed the idea that the wealth the working class produced ought to be retained by the working class instead of being siphoned off to support the aristocracy and the endless war against Napoleon. As his attacks on private property, religion and marriage became more strident, so Owen was dropped by his initial supporters.

According to Engels, each of these three political thinkers had valid and sometimes insightful contributions – but mixed up with hobby horses, personal views and experiences. The net effect was to contribute to a confused and confusing mish-mash of opinions welling up from the obvious injustices of society, and a thousand different schemes to put them right.

By contrast ‘scientific socialism’ derives from the close study of reality. It is based on a materialist conception of human history, and on the premise that the most important feature of any society is its level of technological achievement. The technology, and the economic system which derives from it, are the basis of the classes into which any given society is based, and underpin the ideology which is the collective value and belief system of that society.

  • The economic basis of society.
  • The instability of the capitalist system, constantly forced to seek out greater profits, new markets, resulting in periodic gluts and recessions.
  • The inevitability of class conflict between factory owners and workers.
  • The unstoppable triumph of the proletariat.

Chapter two

This is a short but genuinely interesting attempt to explain what dialectical materialism is.

Engels starts by asking you to reflect on your own experience and thoughts, how they are a constant flood of impressions and mental leaps and connections. Similarly, a moment’s reflection suggests that all organisms, people, objects, are in a constant state of flux. The Greeks knew this. They called it the dialectic, the acceptance of flow and change.

It was only from about the 16th century that western philosophers began to develop what became the natural sciences, whose central methodology is to isolate and define entities. This led to the triumph of Newtonian cosmology, which was reflected in the eighteenth century effort to define and categorise everything into static categories. Fixed entities. Unchanging mechanisms. The opposite of flow and change.

Engels sees the philosophy of Hegel as a rebellion against this mechanistic view of the universe and people. Hegel wanted to re-establish the impermanence of all entities and of all thought as the central feature of existence.

Engels goes on to claim that, as the 19th century had progressed, all the sciences had tended to prove Hegel right. We now know that planets and solar systems and even galaxies aren’t static, but come into and out of existence. The very landscape of the earth has changed out of all recognition over billions of years and is continually changing. Charles Darwin had proved that species are in a permanent state of flux. Even biology had proved that individual human beings – and all life forms – consist of cells which are continually dying, being sloughed off and replaced.

We are all of us, at the same time, something and not something. We are all processes.

This is the rebirth of dialectical thinking based on up-to-date science. This is a dialectic of matter. This is dialectical materialism, a worldview based on the idea that all things are in a state of flux, including humans and including human societies.

There is no such thing as a static society, there are no such things as static social ‘values’. A scientific study of history (such as the kind Marx and Engels claimed to have pioneered) shows that all previous societies have been in states of flux, always changing and evolving.

What Marx has proven in Capital and other writings is that these changes are not random, but the product of certain historical laws – laws which show that:

  • all societies are based on the technology of the day
  • the technology is owned and exploited by a ruling class which is always pitted against those it exploits, whether slaves or serfs or workers
  • the ruling classes produce an ‘ideology’ which contains the ideas used to justify and bolster their power – ‘religion’, ‘morality’, ‘the sanctity of marriage’ etc

But each era has not only had a dominant class, but contains within itself seeds of the opposing class which will rise up and overthrow it.

From that time forward, Socialism was no longer an accidental discovery of this or that ingenious brain, but the necessary outcome of the struggle between two historically developed classes – the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Its task was no longer to manufacture a system of society as perfect as possible, but to examine the historico-economic succession of events from which these classes and their antagonism had of necessity sprung, and to discover in the economic conditions thus created the means of ending the conflict. But the Socialism of earlier days was as incompatible with this materialist conception as the conception of Nature of the French materialists was with dialectics and modern natural science. The Socialism of earlier days certainly criticized the existing capitalistic mode of production and its consequences. But it could not explain them, and, therefore, could not get the mastery of them. It could only simply reject them as bad. The more strongly this earlier Socialism denounced the exploitations of the working-class, inevitable under Capitalism, the less able was it clearly to show in what this exploitation consisted and how it arose.

Lacking a proper understanding of a) dialectical thinking i.e. the constant process of becoming, and b) the material basis of society and human nature, the reformers Engels mentioned in chapter one – Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owen – certainly had ‘inspired moments’, but were unable to effect any real change.

The theory of surplus labour

Added to this philosophical breakthrough is another insight, just as important, in the field of economics, which is Marx’s discovery of how capitalism works.

Capitalism works through squeezing out of each worker the ‘surplus value’ of his labour. Vampire-like, capitalism accumulates wealth by stealing the worker’s productive labour.

The more strongly this earlier Socialism denounced the exploitations of the working-class, inevitable under Capitalism, the less able was it clearly to show in what this exploitation consisted and how it arose. For this it was necessary to present the capitalistic mode of production in its historical connection and its inevitableness during a particular historical period, and therefore, also, to present its inevitable downfall; and to lay bare its essential character, which was still a secret.

This was done by the discovery of surplus-value.

It was shown that the appropriation of unpaid labour is the basis of the capitalist mode of production and of the exploitation of the worker that occurs under it; that even if the capitalist buys the labour power of his labourer at its full value as a commodity on the market, he yet extracts more value from it than he paid for; and that in the ultimate analysis, this surplus-value forms those sums of value from which are heaped up constantly increasing masses of capital in the hands of the possessing classes. The genesis of capitalist production and the production of capital were both explained.

These two great discoveries, the materialistic conception of history and the revelation of the secret of capitalistic production through surplus-value, we owe to Marx. With these discoveries, Socialism became a science.

Chapter three

Applies Marx and Engels’s materialist view to history.

The materialist conception of history starts from the proposition that the production of the means to support human life and, next to production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all social structure; that in every society that has appeared in history, the manner in which wealth is distributed and society divided into classes or orders is dependent upon what is produced, how it is produced, and how the products are exchanged. From this point of view, the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men’s brains, not in men’s better insights into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production and exchange. They are to be sought, not in the philosophy, but in the economics of each particular epoch.

This passage introduces a lengthy description of the way capitalist production arose out of medieval, feudal production, of how individual cottage producers gave way to workshops and then to factory owners who could produce goods cheaper than individual artisans and craftsmen, who drove them to of business, and forced them to become wage-slaves working in their factories.

But, remember – according to Hegel’s dialectic, any system is always changing, always contains within itself the seeds of its own overthrow.

For example, the capitalist, by creating a huge labour force of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of workers – creates the very force that will overthrow him, a huge mass of exploited workers who are capable, because of their new proximity to each other, of discussing and understanding their plight, of organising and educating and, eventually, of rising up and ending their exploitation.

The joy of paradoxes

Marx and Engels enjoy paradoxes. In fact their argument often proceeds by paradoxical reversals rather by than strict logic. For example, there’s a long, involved passage where Engels explains that new technology and new machinery – which ought to make everyone’s lives more pleasant – is twisted by the capitalist system (i.e. the ravenous competition between capitalists, the need to keep costs down) into the very thing which oppresses the worker. For the spread of new technology leads to the laying off of workers, who then create a pool of unemployed labour, ready and willing to be re-employed and the cheapest rates, which allows the capitalist to reduce wages to his existing staff.

Thus it comes about, to quote Marx, that machinery becomes the most powerful weapon in the war of capital against the working-class; that the instruments of labor constantly tear the means of subsistence out of the hands of the laborer; that the very product of the worker is turned into an instrument for his subjugation.

This is given as an example of dialectical thinking, although to the literary-minded it could also be interpreted as a love of ironic reversals and paradoxes, a love of binaries which Marx and Engels again and again collapse into their opposites.

But the chief means by aid of which the capitalist mode of production intensified this anarchy of socialized production was the exact opposite of anarchy. It was the increasing organization of production, upon a social basis, in every individual productive establishment

Accumulation of wealth at one pole [among capitalists] is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole, i.e., on the side of the [workers].

In the trusts, freedom of competition changes into its very opposite – into monopoly.

The rise of monopolies

Engels points to a number of trends in contemporary capitalist society where, he claims, you can see the dialectical opposite of capitalist production already appearing.

For example, there is a tendency to monopoly in a number of industries e.g. railways or telegraphs. By an irony the tendency of a handful of big companies to buy up all the smaller ones repeats on a higher level the way early capitalists drove out small, cottage producers. Now it’s a lot of the capitalists who are turned into a ‘reserve army’ with nothing much to do all day except count their dividends.

At first, the capitalistic mode of production forces out the workers. Now, it forces out the capitalists, and reduces them, just as it reduced the workers, to the ranks of the surplus-population…

One step further along this line, in many European countries the state has bought out the monopoly capitalists, nationalising the railways and some other industries. This move is at one and the same time the peak of capitalist monopoly control but also – a forerunner of the way the state run by the workers will abolish all companies and run everything themselves.

The capitalist relationship is not abolished, rather it is pushed to the limit. But at this limit it changes into its opposite.

There is something powerful, slick, and magically persuasive about this rhetoric, like the famous phrases in The Communist Manifesto which describe the constructive/destructive impact of capitalism:

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned…

It is a very effective way of thinking and makes for a powerful rhetoric.

The communist utopia

Having explained why previous socialist thinkers were mere rootless dreamers, having explained how Hegel’s theory of the dialectic can be allied with modern science to generate a theory of how things change, having explained how a materialist view of history throws out all fancy talk about God and Sin and Justice and focuses on the changing nature of production and the class antagonisms this throws up – and having looked in detail at why capitalist production is so unstable and gives rise to regular crises and recessions – Engels has prepared his reader for a vision of what a communist state should look like.

Namely that the means of production should not be used to enslave people and to create an unregulated chaos of competition – but brought into the ownership of the state, a state acting on behalf of everyone, so as to plan work and production, so as to maximise human life, health and happiness.

This solution can only consist in the practical recognition of the social nature of the modern forces of production, and therefore in the harmonizing with the socialized character of the means of production. And this can only come about by society openly and directly taking possession of the productive forces which have outgrown all control, except that of society as a whole. The social character of the means of production and of the products today reacts against the producers, periodically disrupts all production and exchange, acts only like a law of Nature working blindly, forcibly, destructively. But, with the taking over by society of the productive forces, the social character of the means of production and of the products will be utilized by the producers with a perfect understanding of its nature, and instead of being a source of disturbance and periodical collapse, will become the most powerful lever of production itself.

And the state, which has hitherto all through history been nothing more than the legal instrument through which the oppressing class dominates society – once it is identified with the great mass of the oppressed class, once it becomes truly representative of all of society – will die out. The state will wither away. Because its repressive function is no longer required in a society where production is controlled and planned by the whole population.

Insofar as the (repressive) government of persons is replaced by the (fair and just) administration of things. of the products of industry – so the entity which repressed people (the state) will simply vanish 🙂

It is here!

Engels has one last point to make, which is that the time for revolution is now, not because this, that or the other activist thinks so: but because it is objectively the case in the economic development of the West. In the early industrial revolution the amount produced by factories was barely enough to maintain subsistence living among the immiserated proletariat. But in the past forty years the amount of output, the wealth and variety and richness of industrial products, have reached new heights.

The socialized appropriation of the means of production does away, not only with the present artificial restrictions upon production, but also with the positive waste and devastation of productive forces and products that are at the present time the inevitable concomitants of production, and that reach their height in each new economic crisis.

Further, it sets free for the community at large a mass of means of production and of products, by doing away with the senseless extravagance of the ruling classes of today, and their political representatives.

The possibility of securing for every member of society, by means of socialized production, an existence not only fully sufficient materially, and becoming day-by-day more full, but an existence guaranteeing to all the free development and exercise of their physical and mental faculties – this possibility is now, for the first time, here. It is here.

With the seizing of the means of production by society, production of commodities is done away with, and, simultaneously, the mastery of the product over the producer. Anarchy in social production [i.e. chaotic competition between capitalists which leads to regular crises] is replaced by systematic, definite organization.

The struggle for individual existence disappears. Then, for the first time, man, in a certain sense, will finally be marked off from the rest of the animal kingdom, and emerge from mere animal conditions of existence into really human ones.

The whole sphere of the conditions of life which environ man, and which have hitherto ruled man, will now come under the dominion and control of man, who for the first time becomes the real, conscious lord of nature, because he has now become master of his own social organization.

The laws of his own social action, hitherto standing face-to-face with man as laws of Nature foreign to, and dominating him, will now be used with full understanding, and so mastered by him.

Man’s own social organization, hitherto confronting him as a necessity imposed by Nature and history, will now become the result of his own free action.

The extraneous objective forces that have, hitherto, governed history, will pass under the control of man himself.

Only from that time will man himself, more and more consciously, make his own history – only from that time will the social causes set in movement by him have, in the main and in a constantly growing measure, the results intended by him.

It is the ascent of man from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.

Thoughts

Wow. This is mind-blowing rhetoric, a heady, drunken mix of German philosophy, English economics, underpinned by the latest scientific theories and brought to bear on the great social issues of the age.

You can see why scads of people, from illiterate workers to highly educated intellectuals, would be roused and inspired by this vision. It is, at the end of the day, a wish for a better society, a wish every bit as utopian as the wish of Saint-Simon or Owen – but it is dressed up in a battery of ‘scientific’ and philosophical and economic arguments which pummel the brain like a heavyweight boxer.

Without doubt Marx brought an incredible rigour and thoroughness to left-wing thought across Europe, and then around the world, and his insights into how capitalism works, why it seems condemned to periodic crises, and into the way a culture’s ‘ideology’ masks the true nature of class conflict or exploitation of the poor by the rich, all these remain fertile insights right down to our own time.

But the entire prophetic and practical aspect of his creed failed. The most advanced economies – America, Britain and Germany – instead of experiencing a millennial revolution, managed to co-opt the workers into the fabric of bourgeois society by offering them the benefits of a welfare state – shorter hours, better working conditions, health benefits, pensions.

Exploitation continued, strikes and riots continued and the entire fabric of the West came under strain during periods of depression and seemed to many to have completely collapsed during the Great Depression, and yet…  even amid this ruinous failure of capitalism, the promised communist uprising never took place.

Instead, the revolution occurred in the most economically and socially backward society in Europe, Russia, and even then, less as a result of the inevitable triumph of capitalism magically morphing into its opposite – the process so beguilingly described by Engels in this entrancing pamphlet – but by straightforward social collapse brought about by prolonged war and starvation.

A political vacuum in which Lenin and his zealots were able to carry out a political and military coup, which then took years of civil war and immense suffering to settle down into the kind of prolonged totalitarian dictatorship which would have horrified Marx and Engels.


Related links

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Karl Marx

Communism in Russia

Communism in China

Communism in Vietnam

Communism in Germany

Communism in Poland

  • Warsaw 1920 by Adam Zamoyski (2008) How the Polish army stopped the Red Army from conquering Poland and pushing on to foment revolution in Germany.
  • The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953) A devastating indictment of the initial appeal and then appalling consequences of communism in Poland: ‘Mass purges in which so many good communists died, the lowering of the living standard of the citizens, the reduction of artists and scholars to the status of yes-men, the extermination of entire national groups…’

Communism in France

Communism in Spain

  • The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor (2006) Comprehensive account of the Spanish civil war with much detail on how the Stalin-backed communist party put more energy into eliminating its opponents on the left than fighting the fascists, with the result that Franco won.
  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) Orwell’s eye-witness account of how the Stalin-backed Spanish communist party turned on its left-wing allies, specifically the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification which Orwell was fighting with, leading to street fighting in Barcelona and then mass arrests which Orwell only just managed to escape arrest, before fleeing back to England.

Communism in England

Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion by Gareth Stedman Jones (2016)

The Marx constructed in the twentieth century bore only an incidental resemblance to the Marx who lived in the nineteenth. (p.595)

This book is marketed as a biography but it is much, much more than that. It is more like an encyclopedic summary of all the books and thinkers which influenced Marx, of all the books and pamphlets which Marx wrote, of all the books and pamphlets written against him, of his defences and replies to them – in short, it is the biography of a whole climate of thought.

Stedman proceeds in straightforward chronological order, starting with the family background of Karl (as Jones refers to him throughout), his Jewish roots (Karl’s Jewish father adopted Christianity and Karl himself was raised a Christian), his time at school, his student years, his engagement to Jenny von Westphalen, marriage and children.

There’s a vivid description of how, exiled in London’s Soho, Karl got their maid pregnant. The entire household- Marx himself, his wife, his pregnant maid and a horse of five or so small children – was living in just two small filthy rooms. Karl’s adult life was plagued by poverty and ill health which Stedman lists and explains in the relevant parts of the story.

But for the purposes of this book, Karl’s actual life is just background, lightweight, details.

Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion is really about Karl’s intellectual odyssey, the intellectual development of one of the most influential thinkers of all time.

A book of summaries

The characteristic mode of the text is not the anecdote or letter or diary: Jones isn’t much interested in Karl’s psychology. It is the précis or summary of major philosophical, economic or political texts. Countless times Jones mentions the book Karl is writing, or a book which influenced him, only to give us a 1-, 2- or 3-page summary – for example, the two pages devoted to summarising Feuerbach’s interpretation of Hegel, or Proudhon’s book on property – before Jones goes on to explain how Karl reacted to this new input, how it influenced (or not) his own intellectual development.

Since Marx sits at the intersection of three distinct intellectual disciplines – politics, philosophy and economics – a decent grasp of all three is required to really understand him.

This book goes a long way to summarising both the intellectual background of the three disciplines, as they existed and developed before Marx – and then how he took and developed ideas from the various traditions, rewiring them, transmuting them, making them his own.

For example, there is a longish passage of 30 or so pages, starting around page 100, which goes into great detail about the influence of the German philosopher Hegel (died 1831) on Karl and his generation. This is no easy matter since Hegel wrote a series of ambitious philosophical texts which a) frequently contradict each other b) were very diversely interpreted by his followers.

I had to read this 30-page passage three times to begin to get even the shape of it clear in my mind (see the summary of Hegel, below).

Das Kapital

Similarly, around page 375 there begins a long section which explains the background to Karl’s most ambitious book, Capital: Critique of Political Economy (1867).

To explain it, Jones goes back to the founders of economics, Adam Smith and David Ricardo to summarise the ideas of theirs which Karl took up, analysed and argued with.

Stedman looks in great detail at specific aspects of the economic theory of the day – at the theory of value, money, circulation, production, wages, and so on – showing how they had developed over the 80 years or so prior to Capital.

He then explains how these ideas changed and evolved in Karl’s own thinking over the 20 years or so, since he first crystallised the central themes of his thought in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, the so-called Paris Manuscripts.

Jones shows how the shape of Capital was based on the schema for the unfinished Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy, before showing how key terms and ideas developed through eight or so drafts. And he explains the real world constraints which hampered Karl – his own chronic illness, his acute poverty which sometimes meant he didn’t even have materials to write with, his problems with publishers – all of which led the final work to have the shape it does.

For all these reasons – which can be summarised as his difficulties in working through to his own satisfaction all the implications of his vast theory of economics, history and politics – Karl decided to make the work into a trilogy, at the last minute consigning some of the most problematic issues to the subsequent volumes. He then told Engels and his closest collaborators that he was working on these ideas and all would be explained in the subsequent volumes. But they were never published during his lifetime and when, after his death, Engels came to look at his drafts and notes, he was horrified at the lack of progress Karl had made.

Having explained in great detail the intellectual and practical origins of Capital, Jones then proceeds to critique it, highlighting what was new in Marx’s economic thought, what was new in Karl’s own intellectual development, and pointing out its many shortcomings, namely the failure to properly work out a theory of value, and the decision to drop the teleological schema adopted from Hegel, in favour of a more scientific approach (explained below).

This extended account of Capital goes on for about 60 pages (pp. 375 – 430) and I found it very difficult.

At the centre seemed to be the problem of ‘value’, which I didn’t realise gave economists so much trouble (pp. 396-400). What is something worth? The cost of its raw ingredient? Plus the cost of the labour? What about the capital cost of machinery involved? Or the buildings where it’s made and the overheads involved? Or, conversely, is a product only worth what someone will pay for it? And if that’s measured in money, what if the value of money goes up and down (as exchange rates do every day)?

Karl not only wanted to prove that the capitalist exploits the ‘surplus labour’ of the worker (which turns out to be harder than it sounds) but link this up with his historical theory that this new system of production and distribution (capitalism) which was spreading so fast around the world, would eventually create the economic conditions for its own collapse.

Linking these two ideas proved impossible. Karl asserts that it will happen but he nowhere proves it. And this inability, and his knowledge that he couldn’t do it, explains why Karl was never able to complete volumes two and three of Capital, and why they were never published in  his lifetime. (His close ally and subsidiser, Friedrich Engels the Manchester factory owner, oversaw their publication in 1885 and 1894, respectively.)

Contemporary history

So if we take Karl’s biography, and then the strands of text investigating the origins and development of philosophy, economics, and radical political theory as four key strands in the text, there remains a very important fifth one – which is Jones’s account of the contemporary history of Karl’s time, especially as it resulted from and affected the radical thinkers and theoreticians of the day.

If we take Karl’s adult life to span from 1836 (when he turned 18) to 1883 (when he died) he lived through the most turbulent years of the Victorian era, in terms of the domestic political affairs of the European nations, and of a number of key international wars – but Jones only deals in detail with the ones which affected his political thought.

Thus, some of the major historical events of the era are mentioned only briefly because they aren’t politically important. The biggest example for me was the Crimean War, quite a big deal at the time, but it didn’t much affect the political, economic or philosophical theory of Karl and his partners and opponents in Europe’s many radical movements.

Similarly, Jones makes passing reference to the American Civil War and to the Indian Mutiny, and these are described in some of Karl’s voluminous political journalism, but they don’t affect his political theory.

By contrast, Jones describes at length the key events which did affect the way political theorists thought about European societies, the development of radical politics and the chances of a real working class revolution:

1815 – Napoleon is defeated and the Congress of Vienna restores all the old kings to the countries they’d been removed from. But Napoleon’s armies had spread republican thought and the new idea that people should think about themselves not as subjects of particular dynasties, but as ‘nations’ joined by common languages, customs and traditions who ‘deserved’ to rule themselves. These seeds sprouted after the 1848 revolutions, into a movement Jones describes as ‘transnational republicanism’.

1830 – Revolution in France removes King Charles X, the Bourbon monarch, replacing him with his cousin Louis Philippe, Duke of Orléans. The Poles rise up seeking an independent nation (only to be crushed by Russia which rules them). A new kingdom of Belgium is established, independent of the Netherlands which had ruled it.

1848 – Revolution in France topples Louis Philippe and establishes a republic. After various constitutional manoeuvres, an election for president is held which, to everyone’s surprise, is won by Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, nephew of the famous emperor. Four years later, he has enough support in the country (especially the countryside and the Catholic Church) to overthrow the republic and declare himself emperor, inaugurating the Second Empire period of French history (1852 to 1870).

1870 – The Franco-Prussian War, in which the Prussians thrash the French then besiege Paris. After peace is signed with France the Prussians withdraw, but a radicalised National Guard seizes control of the capital and, in a very confused sequence of events, radicals declare the city under control of the revolutionary government which comes to be called ‘the Commune’. The conservative French government, based in Versailles, sends loyal troops to Paris who fight their way street by street through the city from the west towards the working class heartlands in the east, massacring so-called communards along the way. Karl writes an essay defending the Commune and declaring it a herald of a new era of working class power.

This skimpy summary cannot do justice to the depth and clarity with which Jones describes, explains and evaluates these historical events, then traces their impact not only on Karl but on other leading left-wing thinkers of the time, for example, Feuerbach in the earlier, philosophical, period of the century; Proudhon, Karl’s main antagonist in the 1850s and 60s; and then the Russian anarchist, Bakunin, in the 1870s.

I particularly benefited from Jones’s detailed account of the series of events in France, Belgium, in Switzerland and in the various states of Germany, during the revolutionary year of 1848, what they were trying to achieve, the euphoria among radicals which they prompted, their eventual defeat, and then the slow counter-reaction which led, unexpectedly, to the economic boom years of the 1850s in which working class radicalism almost disappeared – failures and setbacks which Karl and his comrades found so hard to accept.

The 1850s and 1860s

I found Jones’s depiction of the 1850s and 1860s particularly interesting.

It’s so easy to look back and make generalisations about ‘the Victorian era’, but the long 19th century had phases and decades every bit as distinctive as those of the 20th century. Thus the 1850s were characterised by:

a) The ebbing of the revolutionary hopes of 1848. Many radicals had thought this was it, the triumph of ‘the people’, ‘the proletariat’ etc, but 1849 ushered in a counter-revolution where liberal-aristocratic coalitions secured their hold on power. Radicalism everywhere was comprehensively defeated.
b) However, the 1850s also saw the dynamic spread of capitalist technology and economic relations around the world at a breath-taking pace. Railways, in particular, were built all across Europe, in the new republics of South America, and across the vast United States. Factory production spread like wildfire.

This was the backdrop to the 1860s when a new generation of radical and working class leaders came on the scene.

Jones shows how Karl and his generation had based their dreams of a radical, utopian transformation of society on the French Revolution of 1789, and in particular on the key year of 1792, when the Jacobin extremists had come to power. These hopes, and much of the rhetoric of 1792, had been revived by the stirring events across Europe of 1848, and especially the way they happened all across Europe, as if a new era really was starting.

But Jones explains how, during the 1850s, capitalism transformed the world (railways, the telegraph, steamships) so that by the 1860s political radicalism took an entirely new shape. In a word this was trade unions. Established first in Britain, where they enjoyed greater freedom than anywhere else on the continent, the coming together of working men in every type of trade, and their solidarity (i.e. supporting brother workers in other factories or trades when they went out on strike), began to establish a completely new political force in all European countries.

Jones describes in detail Marx’s surprisingly central role in the establishment of the International Workingmen’s Association in 1864, created in the aftermath of another failed rising by Polish nationalists in 1863. The IWA held congresses across Europe designed to hammer out a common platform for working men across the continent. At its peak the IWA is estimated to have had 5 million members. Initially an obscure member, Marx manoeuvred his way into writing the fundamental documents of the new organisation, namely the Address to the Working Classes.

Early Marx (1840s) and later Marx (1860s and 70s) differ in a host of ways, but this is one of them: early Marx worked in the context of a relatively small clique of intellectuals who thought the revolution would be precipitated by the acuteness of their intellectual critique; from the 1860s Marx was involved in a really international organisation of the working class, with much larger numbers, much more complicated organisations, which had to adopt strategies suited to the changing political realities in the key countries where revolution was hoped for (Britain, France, Germany).

Jones shows how this difference is mirrored in the shift in Karl’s thinking from the dominance of the abstract German philosopher Hegel in the 1840s, to a more modern interest in science and materialism in the 1860s. This may be the moment to explain a bit more about Hegel.

The influence of Hegel

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 to 1831) was a key figure in the strand of philosophy known as German Idealism. He is sometimes credited with creating the biggest, most all-encompassing system of any philosopher.

Hegel conceived of all history as the expression of a ‘World Spirit’ which was continually evolving onwards and upwards. There were half a dozen key moments in history when the nature of its expression changed:

  • when the Roman world changed from being a republic into an empire, a seismic shift which coincided with the advent of Christianity and the end of the pagan world
  • the Middle Ages with their feudal social system of king, knights, serfs, the Church
  • the Reformation (which, importantly for all these German thinkers was, of course, a German invention) introduced a new, more personalised version of Christianity
  • the Enlightenment, the term given to a century or so of intellectuals promoting the triumph of Human Reason (during the 18th century)
  • the French Revolution, which threw up all kinds of ideas about politics and human nature and could be interpreted as a catastrophe or a beacon of hope, depending on personal preference

Having a good sense of these decisive moments of European history is important because the subsequent generation of German philosophers returned to them again and again, to reinterpret them according to their changing philosophical schemes.

Jones gives us detailed summaries of the changing interpretations of history generated by German thinkers, and followers of Hegel such as Arnold Ruge, Bruno Bauer and Ludwig Feuerbach.

All these German thinkers took from Hegel the idea that the ‘World Spirit’ (or ‘Humanity’ or ‘Man’ or whatever abstract term they each preferred) has a teleology, i.e. it is moving purposefully towards a knowable end. Hegel himself thought the World Spirit had reached a natural climax in the establishment of the royalist Prussian state of his day, after the defeat of Napoleon.

However, his young devotees experienced for themselves the growing repression of this ‘ideal’ Prussian state and disagreed. They thought the World Spirit had a bit more evolving to do and that this would probably involve the overthrow of the Prussian state and the reactionary forms of Christianity which bolstered it.

And so the young generation of philosophers, the ‘Young Hegelians’ as they came to be known, almost all students of Hegel who had attended his lectures and been completely dominated by the beauty and power of his huge system, argued and debated fiercely about what the World Spirit was, where it was heading, how it expressed itself, what the different eras of history marked out by Hegel really meant, and so on.

Bruno Bauer and the gospels

For a spell from 1839 to the early 1840s, Bruno Bauer made the running and was the most notorious of the Young Hegelians. He published studies of the four gospels which set out to prove that the ‘incidents’ described in them are utterly fictional and were invented by the authors to express the advent of a new kind of ‘religious consciousness’.

On one level this was a contribution to the newish factual study of Christianity and its core documents, an area where Germany led the field for much of the century. On a social level, Bauer’s books served as an attack on the conservative, reactionary and very religious post-war regime in Prussia (with the result that Bauer and the other Young Hegelians were initially banned from working in the state’s universities, and eventually had prices put on their heads and were forced to flee Germany).

And on a third level, Bauer’s secular interpretation of the gospels was part of the ongoing exploration, adaptation and extension of the Hegelian legacy of ‘History conceived as the progress of Spirit’ which dominated this generation of German thinkers.

Karl, initially as excited as the others in the group by this radical thinking, became frustrated that Bauer insisted on limiting his interpretation to Christianity. Karl and others wanted to extend the insights to all of society.

Feuerbach and alienation

It was at this point that Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72) enters the scene. Feuerbach took a sociological view of Christianity. He argued that in the polis or city state of the ancient world, individuals had had a direct relationship with each other, an ‘I and Thou’ relationship.

Christianity had swept that away by encouraging people to turn away from ‘society’ and concentrate all their efforts on God. They became alienated from each other. Feuerbach developed the idea that in each of the historical eras of Hegel’s timeline, Man had alienated part of his intellectual life into fetishes – inanimate wooden objects (on the analogy of African religious fetishes which, we deduce, must have been known about in Young Hegelian circles).

According to Feuerbach men had created God but had then given him their powers, in fact given him a dream of total power. They had alienated to him their own agency. They preferred to worship things instead of having a healthy relationship with their fellow citizens.

Feuerbach expressed this theory of alienation in The Essence of Christianity (1841) and Karl was profoundly taken with it.

Karl applied Feuerbach’s concept of alienation to economic theory, where he tried to prove not just the fairly common sense idea that workers in factories are ‘alienated’ from their work and their produce in a way that handicraft workers in cottages were not – in not having control about what they make, how many, in what timeframe, or for whom.

But the more philosophical idea that workers in the capitalist system alienated to the commodity the power and agency which should be theirs. Capitalism sets up the product of the working class as a fetish which is more important – and more valuable – than the downtrodden workers that made it.

Das Kapital 20 years later was to take the paradoxical nature of ‘the commodity’ as the starting point for its investigation of capitalism as an economic and social system.

At a more meta level, the entire system of capitalism alienates the sense of control and agency which humans ought to have over their own lives. People are beaten down and think, ‘There’s nothing I can do’ to end poverty, change the system, end abuses – ‘That’s just the way it is’. People under capitalism are emasculated, dehumanised.

This is just one example of the way Karl took an idea developed by a Young Hegelian (Feuerbach) itself derived from the historical worldview developed by Hegel, and incorporated it into his own theory of capitalist development.

(Feuerbach angrily disagreed with the way Karl had applied an idea developed solely to explain the phenomenon of religion, into a broader critique of capitalism as an economic practice and a social system.)

Materialism in the 1860s

So much for the powerful Hegelian influence on the young Karl Marx and his entire generation of German intellectuals.

But Jones shows that the 1860s were culturally, politically and philosophically very different from the Hegelian 1840s. Specifically, the younger generation of radicals knew nothing and cared less about Hegel. For them the ‘new thing’ was the flowering of scientific thought which had accompanied and helped the boom of capitalist technology in the 1850s.

Darwin’s theory of evolution was published in 1859, which provided a completely materialist explanation of the evolution of all life on earth, including humans, and he was to apply his theories to human beings in the Descent of Man (1870). Various other discoveries in the fields of chemistry and physics meant that a new scientific and materialistic approach to the world, to life, to the intellectual realm, completely eclipsed the ideas of a World Spirit which Hegel had first formulated fifty years earlier.

Even Karl’s best buddy, Engels, was writing to warn him in the mid-1860s that the intellectual world had moved on. Nobody read Hegel any more (p.400). Their worldview needed to be updated.

Jones thinks this realisation influenced the final version of Capital. He shows how, in the Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy (1858) which Capital is based on, and in the successive drafts of Capital which Marx made through the 1860s, Karl had expended considerable effort trying to incorporate his fundamentally Hegelian view that History evolves through set phases of human development and self-awareness into the actual historical epochs described in the history books.

However, in the final version of Capital, the philosophical theory underpinning the idea of an inexorable progression is largely left out (Jones shows how, in private, Marx’s version of Hegelianism had evolved into a rather eccentric notion that history moved in a series of widening spirals; good idea to drop that bit, Karl).

Instead, in Capital, the different types of society and the social relations between the classes are stated and analysed as static categories. This was more in tune with the times, more scientific, more like an analysis of chemical compounds or the formulae of physics: but it was done at the cost of losing a fully theorised explanation of why history is inevitable and why the pressures building up within capitalism itself must bring about its collapse.

The failure of inevitability

This, if I understand Jones, is the crux of Marx’s failure.

Marx never abandoned his roots in Hegelian philosophy, a philosophy with a truly global perspective, which saw the human race evolving through set phases or eras.

It is clear that when attempting to organise his material (for the Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy, 1858) Karl’s first resort was Hegel. (p.389)

Karl had adapted Hegel’s schema to his communist beliefs, to come up with the idea that the owners of modern means of production and finance (the capitalists) would continue to grind the workers (the proletariat) into the dirt, crushing all peripheral artisans and small producers along the way, until the number of the proletariat was so overwhelming, and the number of the super-rich bourgeoisie had become so small, that almost by a law of physics, the workers would realise their strength, rise up, abolish the bourgeoisie and inaugurate a new era devoid of class conflict.

The history of the human race, which had hitherto been a history of class conflict, would come to an end in a new classless utopia of the ‘free association’ of people who worked as and when they wanted, to fulfil only their needs and not to produce the unnecessary tat required by commodity capitalism, ‘plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a joyous heart’ (Inaugural Address to the IWMA, quoted p.470).

This is the vision expounded in The Communist Manifesto of 1848 and, although buried or elided, it also underlay Capital and all Karl’s his later writings.

However, the opposite happened.

During the 1850s and more so into the 1860s, the working class, organised into new centralised trade unions, was able to negotiate better conditions and better pay in scores of industries, in all the industrialised countries.

Their economic power was even translated into political power when Disraeli, in Britain, extended the franchise with the Representation of the People Act of 1867, which doubled the number of voters from 1 million to 2 million (out of 7 million adult males in England and Wales). Disraeli’s intent was purely cynical, to steal the thunder of his arch-enemy Gladstone and also in the hope that the newly enfranchised upper working classes would vote for him. 18 years late a further reform act increased the electorate to 5.5 million.

The political parties of the time underwent alignments completely contrary to Karl’s predictions. When there was an economic slump in the 1850s Karl hoped that the good old Chartist movement which had so dominated the 1840s would be revived. Instead, in 1859 the anti-Corn Law campaigners Cobden and Bright joined with Whigs, Peelites (a wing of the Tory party) and rebellious Irish MPs to form the Liberal Party, soon to be led by William Gladstone.

In other words, the working classes proved reluctant to carry out the role allotted to them by Karl’s economic Hegelianism, a role whereby they submitted to greater and greater immiseration before rising up to overthrow the bourgeoisie, end the history of class conflict and usher in a new phase of history whereby human consciousness ceased to be alienated from itself.

Instead, the working classes allied itself with the bourgeoisie to create reformist parties, parties concerned with here-and-now policies like reducing the working day to 8 hours, establishing weekends and holidays free from work, extending the franchise and so on.

As Jones puts it, the working class didn’t want to overthrow the political system – it wanted more say in it. Thus the British working classes were slowly and steadily co-opted into capitalist society, allowed to vote and, eventually, allowed to create the Labour Party. Although some of its intellectuals and some of its members thought the Labour Party was a revolutionary organisation, in fact it overwhelmingly represented the interests of the assimilationist trade unionists – better pay, better job conditions and so on – policies which were, from a revolutionary perspective, conservative in impact, because they underpinned and cemented in place bourgeois exploitation.

The Labour Party has never wanted to overthrow capitalism, it just wants a better deal for the working classes.

Much the same went for the International Workingmen’s Association. This was the scene of dramatic arguments about the direction radical political thinking should take between the followers of Marx, those of Proudhon and those of the Russian anarchist Bakunin. All these arguments tended to raise the spectre of apocalyptic and violent social revolutions – but in practice the IWMA sought the much more modest aim to extend the benefits of the well-established and well-organised British trade unions to the more backward continent.

The fundamental aim of the IWMA, as it was conceived by the English Trade Society leaders, was to bring the benefits of British social legislation (limitation of working hours, restriction of juvenile employment) and the achievements of the new ‘amalgamated’ model of trade unionism to the other nations of Europe and the world. (p.458)

In fact the main achievement of the IWMA was to spread across Europe a new language of social democracy, spreading English terms like ‘strike’, ‘meeting’, ‘trade union’ and ‘solidarity’ to more repressive societies like France and Germany (p.462).

Jones shows how, contrary to the teachings of 20th century ‘Marxism’ with its belief in the central role of ‘the Party’ spearheading a violent insurrection, during the 1860s Karl actually put his hopes in the work of organised international labour to consolidate class identity and activity. Hence the large amount of time he devoted to his administrative work and writings for the IWMA.

Bakunin and the end of the IWMA

Bakunin’s influence within the IWMA grew and so did the theoretical and practical divide between what came to be seen as the ‘Marxists’ and the ‘anarchists’.

Central was the way that Karl never lost his essentially Hegelian belief in the primacy of the state. In his view the state under capitalism had evolved to a high level of centralised bureaucracy and power – just as the bourgeoisie had taken the means of production to unprecedented levels. Both would be overthrown by the proletariat who would then use this state machinery to create a better society.

Bakunin radically disagreed. He also had been a young devotee of Hegel but had moved in a completely different position, coming to believe that everyone had the right to live as they wanted to, untrammelled or controlled by any external forces. In practice, people needed to co-operate to produce the necessities of life so he advocated small communes or co-operatives which lived in loose federations. But he categorically rejected the idea of ‘the state’, any state, be it bourgeois or proletarian.

Thus Bakunin and his followers opposed tooth and nail Karl’s view of the proletariat seizing control of the state and then using the state to guide society towards greater fairness.

Bakunin thought this would lead to a dictatorship worse than the current bourgeois state, which at least granted some men the vote, in which laws some could be changed, in which organised strikes had impact. Bakunin thought that in a communist dictatorship nothing would change and everyone would be oppressed.

Jones describes in detail the sequence of IWMA congresses in which the disagreements of the two parties (and others as well, it was always a very fractious body) led to Karl’s drastic suggestion that the organisation’s HQ be moved to New York! And then to its formal dissolution in the early 1870s (even the date of its closure varies depending on whether you follow the Marxist account or the Bakuninite account, since the anarchists went on to hold a few more congresses after Karl’s bloc had left).

The creation of ‘Marxism’ in the 1880s

Arguably the juiciest, because the most relevant to today, part of the book is the final 40 or so pages where Jones shows how the long evolution of Karl’s thought (beginning in rarefied Hegelianism, struggling in the 1850s to produce a really coherent synthesis of radical economics, all too often ignoring the moderate wishes of the actual working classes in favour of abstract theorising, his failure to produce the knock-out masterpiece which would really bring in converts, and the failure of the proletariat revolution he had been predicting since the early 1840s) how this long evolution unexpectedly underwent a revival in a new ‘scientific’ guise, in the 1880s and 90s.

There was a general cause and a specific cause.

The general cause was the advent of a prolonged depression which started in manufacturing in 1873 and spread to agriculture in the following years. Cheap grain from the American mid-west undercut British farmers, cheap goods from around the world began to blow back into the pioneer of the industrial revolution, for the first time undercutting British manufacture. In different ways (due to their radically different political and economic policies) the depression also impacted the other leading industrial nations, France and Germany.

In this climate, a generation which knew nothing of Hegel and the doctrinal disputes of the 1830s, for whom the revolutions of 1848 were distant history, and had grown up in societies with well-established trade unions, looked for a theory or critique which explained why this depression had come about, and why it proved so difficult to budge – why, in other words, the global capitalist system seemed to have a logic of its own which no government, of whatever stripe, could budge.

Enter Karl. Or, more precisely, enter his lifelong friend and propagandist, Friedrich Engels. They had been closely collaborating since they met in the 1840s, with Engels generally deferring to Karl’s greater intellectual achievement (although, as Jones points out, it was Engels, with his personal experience of factory conditions in Manchester and with deep research of the classic The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1845, who prompted Karl to begin to put an economical base to his philosophy.)

The specific cause was a pamphlet written by Engels in 1878. Eugen Karl Dühring was a German professor who, despite being a materialist, was also a positivist, who wrote books expounding his optimistic view of the evolution of man towards higher states of consciousness. In political terms, he believed in the ultimate harmony of bourgeoisie and proletariat who could be brought together in a national patriotic union.

As such, Dühring was a strong critic of Marx and – here’s the point – his views were taken up by a number of the leading radical party in Germany, the Social Democrats. As with previous ideological enemies (such as Proudhon and his followers, or Bakunin), once again Karl and Engels decided that Dühring needed to be refuted.

Now Karl, in his final decade, after the end of his work with the now defunct International Working Men’s Association, had, theory, returned to his intellectual research and reassured Engels and all his friends that he was hard at work on volumes II and III of Capital. In reality, as Jones shows, he made very little headway in solving the conceptual problems which had troubled him in the early 1860s. In fact, in the last five or six years of his life Karl became increasingly secretive about his work, not even telling Engels and upon his death it became clear why.

(Jones shows in his final chapter that this may have been because his thinking underwent a major revision in the late 1870s: after the successful defeat of the Commune, the 1870s saw the triumph of political counter-revolution across Europe, not least in the way the governments of Britain, France and Germany co-opted sections of the working class into the suffrage, into political parties, into trades unions and so on. Karl withdrew more and more from the vision of an abrupt and violent revolutionary overthrow of bourgeois society, writing at different times that the bourgeoisie might, instead, be subtly transformed from within by the pressure of the proletariat organised into trade unions. In fact, in his final years he became attracted to the idea – proposed by a series of scholars – that Europe’s ancient Celtic and Germanic societies had once been propertyless communes. This fed into the intriguing question of whether the primitive commune-like world of Russia‘s backward serfs [only ‘liberated’ in 1861] might skip the destructive phase of bourgeoisification, and go straight from primitive commune to sophisticated commune. Jones quotes Karl’s correspondence with some Russian radicals who wanted his opinion on this very question.)

But Karl’s inability to complete Capital and this late-in-life change of opinion about the viability of primitive communal society weren’t made public at the time or until long afterwards. Instead, on the assumption that Karl was busy with his important ‘revolutionary’ work, it fell to Engels to write a pamphlet refuting the worrying influence of this Professor Dühring.

And this book – sarcastically titled in German, Herrn Eugen Dührings Umwälzung der Wissenschaft or Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science – which became known as the Anti-Dühring – turned out to be the most influential book written by either Karl or Friedrich. It deliberately set out to be a comprehensive summary of the development and content of Marxist theory. Friedrich called it an attempt ‘to produce an encyclopaedic survey of our conception of the philosophical, natural-science and historical problems.’

It was from this little summary that the new generation of radicals learned the meaning of what Friedrich now termed ‘scientific socialism’.

The book had three chapters. A few years later chapter one (the one which dealt in detail with Dühring’s beliefs) was dropped and chapters two and three were reprinted as Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. A French edition appeared in 1880, a German edition in 1882.

The pamphlet thereafter became the most popular source for the understanding of ‘Marxism’ for the following twenty years. (p.560)

Engels placed Karl alongside Darwin as the founder of a new science. Karl’s importance rested on two ‘scientific’ discoveries, the materialist conception of history, which saw all human history as a sequence of class struggles, and the theory of ‘surplus value’ which he had revealed as the hidden motor of capitalism.

Engels pointed out how the bourgeoisie had destroyed feudal and artesan labour, the labour of small masters and apprentices, forcing all workers into factories where they had to work collaboratively, and where the ‘surplus value’ of their labour was stolen by the bourgeoisie.

But, reflecting the political and social changes of recent years, Engels then went on to claim that the new technologies pioneered by the bourgeoisie had to some extent been taken over by the state in Britain, Germany and France. In these countries the state had already taken over key industries such as the telegraph, the post office, some railways and so on.

In other words the proletariat only had to seize control of the state to find it had already accomplished half the work of nationalising industry: the workers would simply be completing a process Engels saw happening in modern society anyway.

It is in this little book that Engles concludes with a vision, not of the state being overthrown in a violent revolution like the Jacobin revolution of 1792, which had so dominated the imagination of radicals of his generation: instead the state, once in the hands of the proletariat, would die out or wither away.

These arguments were taken up by August Bebel, the foremost leader of the German Social Democratic party. They were included in the 1891 constitution of the Party, the so-called ‘Erfurt programme’ of 1891.

Karl had died, worn out by years of illness and also the severe illnesses of his (now adult) children, in 1883. In his graveside oration Engels again compared Karl to Darwin for his ‘scientific’ discoveries which explained all of human history, the growth of capitalism, and ‘scientifically proved’ how capitalism was crippled by its own internal contradictions and would soon pass away, giving way to the free association of free and happy men and women.

It was this view, essentially drafted and curated by Engels, of Karl as a scientific materialist, which went on to influence later generations. It was taken up and assiduously promoted by Karl Kautsky in his radical paper Die Neue Zeit, which from 1883 to 1914 was the theoretical journal of the German Social Democratic Party and the leading journal of the Second International of Working Men (1889 to 1916).

Among the radicals it influenced was Georgi Plekhanov (1856-1918) one of the founding fathers of Russian Marxism, who was in personal touch with Engels from 1883 and went on to found a radical organisation called ‘the Emancipation of Labor Group’. In 1895 Plekhanov published In Defence of Materialism: The Development of the Monist View of History, which despite its daunting title put forward a Marxist view based on the Anti-Dühring. Among the early members of the Emancipation group was the young Vladimir Ulianov, who later gave himself the revolutionary name ‘Lenin’. In 1900 Plekhanov and Lenin were among the founders of the revolutionary newspaper, Iskra or The Spark.

Later, after he had founded the breakaway section of the Russian Social Democratic Party which became known as the Bolsheviks (in 1912), Lenin was fiercely criticised by Plekhanov on the classical Marxist basis that Russia was still a backward nation not ready for revolution because it hadn’t industrialised or produced a bourgeois class.

Lenin disagreed, believing that there were sufficient workers to justify a violent revolution which would seize power in the name of both workers and peasants. Despite his criticism of Plekhanov, Lenin never ceased praising his role in disseminating ‘scientific Marxism’ and insisted that his texts be taught in schools after the revolution of 1917.

Thus a direct thread runs from Engels’ creation of a new ‘scientific Marxism’, updated to suit the age of Darwin, through its dissemination among leading German and Russian radicals, to the Russian revolution itself.

But it was a Marx who was carefully tailored to the new age of scientific rhetoric. Jones devotes his last few pages to showing just how different the ‘scientific Marx’ of 1900 was from the ‘Hegelian Karl’ of 1840 or 1850, the actual, living, breathing, thinking Karl who we have accompanied through these 600 enthralling pages. Hence his conclusion:

The Marx constructed in the twentieth century bore only an incidental resemblance to the Marx who lived in the nineteenth. (p.595)

Summary

On every page of this staggeringly well-informed work, we learn new things about the thought and politics of the era, about the many radical thinkers of the day as they wrote articles, pamphlets, books, argued and squabbled with each other about the precise definition of ‘human consciousness’ or ‘civil society’ or ‘democracy’ and so on. And then, into the more politicised 1850s and 60s, we learn masses about the conflicting theories of political action proposed by the likes of Proudhon and Bakunin; and then on to the crystallising of ‘scientific Marxism’ in Karl’s final years and after.

Jones helps us see how Karl weaved the various fragments and influences together into what would become known, after his death, as his doctrine of ‘dialectical materialism’, and provides detailed critiques of every stage of Karl’s thought, presenting summaries of his key writings and then assessing their success and failure.

Jones provides unparalleled detail on the key political events of the Karl’s lifetime as they affected his work and the work of other radicals – giving the reader a really deep understanding of the dynamics which flowed from 1815, through the revolution of 1830, to the continent-wide disruptions of 1848, into the two long decades of capitalist conquest and the rise of trade union militancy in the 50s and 60s, through the shocking events of the Paris Commune, and on into the gritty 1870s. This historical strand by itself presents a bracing, thrilling panorama of an age.

In its scope, its breadth and depth of scholarship, and in the confidence with which Jones deals with economic theory, abstruse German philosophy, or the key historical events of the era, Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion feels like an unprecedented synthesis of knowledge and insight.

On the cover the Economist magazine is quoted as saying, ‘There is no better guide to Marx’, and it is really difficult to see how a more thorough and compendious account could ever be written of the man’s life and thought.


Related links

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Karl Marx

Communism in Russia

Communism in China

Communism in Vietnam

Communism in Germany

Communism in Poland

  • Warsaw 1920 by Adam Zamoyski (2008) How the Polish army stopped the Red Army from conquering Poland and pushing on to support revolution in Germany.
  • The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953) A devastating indictment of the initial appeal and then appalling consequences of communism in Poland: ‘Mass purges in which so many good communists died, the lowering of the living standard of the citizens, the reduction of artists and scholars to the status of yes-men, the extermination of entire national groups…’

Communism in France

Communism in Spain

  • The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor (2006) Comprehensive account of the Spanish civil war with much detail on how the Stalin-backed communist party put more energy into eliminating its opponents on the left than fighting the fascists, with the result that Franco won.
  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) Orwell’s eye-witness account of how the Stalin-backed communist party turned on its left-wing allies, specifically the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification which was Orwell was fighting with and he only just managed to escape arrest, interrogation and probable execution.

Communism in England

The Rebel by Albert Camus (1951)

The logic of the rebel is to want to serve justice so as not to add to the injustice of the human condition, to insist on plain language so as not to increase the universal falsehood, and to wager, in spite of human misery, for happiness. (p.248)

Camus was already one of the leading writers of his day when he published his long philosophical essay, The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, in 1951. Many critics consider it his best and most important book. At 270 pages in this Penguin translation, The Rebel is well over twice the length of his previous essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. It is a very long recapitulation of the history of political violence from the French Revolution to Stalin’s show trials, designed to refute arguments for revolutionary violence or state terror, and to affirm positive, humanistic values.

But because it comes out of the French tradition it takes a long time to do all this, in sentences often convoluted with philosophical attitudinising and verbal paradox. It gives a lot more credence and leeway to the exponents of political violence than you’d expect – as the French left-wing tradition generally does.

Above all, it is framed in terms of Camus’s own rather personal ‘philosophy’ or vision or worldview of the Absurd. It attempts – despite what often seem like long detours into the works of Hegel or the meaning of the contemporary novel – to create one continuous logical argument which starts in Camus’s vision of the Absurd and ends with an (admittedly embattled) affirmation of humanism.

The Rebel’s place in Camus’s works

One of the introductions to Camus explains that while still in his twenties, he developed a Grand Plan for his writing career. He would consecutively address major topics or issues of the day – and depict each one via the differing formats of a novel, an essay and a play.

The first topic was his early philosophy of the Absurd, his semi-nihilistic belief in the absurdity of human existence which he developed during the late 1930s. The resulting ‘cycle of the Absurd’, the works which define and explore all its implications, are the essay The Myth of Sisyphus, the play Caligula and the novel The Outsider, all written about 1940.

10 years later, in his introduction to The Rebel, Camus is able to look back and describe The Myth of Sisyphus as being very much a response to its time, which he calls the ‘Age of Negation’. Not being a historian he doesn’t give precise dates but is presumably referring to the period between the wars with its pessimistic and even nihilistic political and philosophical culture – Spengler, Heidegger and so on. For Camus the central question of this period of ‘humiliated thought’ was whether life was worth living at all in a ‘godless universe’, epitomised in the issue of suicide. If there is no God, and life is meaningless, why go on? This is the central subject of the Myth of Sisyphus.

At the start of The Rebel, Camus says that now, in 1951, he and his readers are living in a new era, the post-Second World War era which he describes as ‘the Age of Ideologies’, an era which has seen the uprooting, enslavement and murder of some seventy million human beings, an era of:

slave camps under the flag of freedom, massacres justified by philanthropy or by a taste for the superhuman… (p.12)

Things have moved on from worrying about suicide. Now the central question of the day is whether we – whether anyone – has the right to murder their opponents. Is the widespread culture of political murder at all justified – because it is certainly the political culture of Europe.

Every dawn, masked assassins slip into some cell: murder is the problem today. (p.12)

Why murder?

How does that follow? Why is murder, and specifically political murder, worth writing a 270-page long essay?

Because in 1951 many leading intellectuals of the day, and organised workers’ parties all across Europe, saw the communist party as the only way out of the dead-end of failed capitalism, the only alternative to the bankrupt bourgeois values which had characterised the 1930s and which had been shattered to pieces during the unspeakable catastrophe of the world war.

Many intellectuals and a huge number of the working class joined the communist party and voted communist despite knowing that the revolution it calls for entails violence, suffering and death – in short, for political murder. Political murder is at the core of the communist revolution which so many of Camus’s contemporaries were calling for – so it really was a central and very pressing question: Can political murder ever be justified?

Camus’s answer is ‘No’. He reaches this conclusion through two routes: a purely philosophical argument about the nature of human existence, and via his long historical review which is designed to bring out the nihilism and murderous tendencies of all totalising revolutions, which he opposes to his own person concept of revolt or rebellion.

1. The philosophy of the Absurd validates all human life

To take the philosophical argument first, Camus sets out to make a philosophical case against political murder and for the sanctity of human life. To follow it we have to go back to his reflections on suicide, which he recaps early in The Rebel.

Camus’s notion of ‘the Absurd’ – that the universe is blankly indifferent to our longing for meaning and consolation – logically requires two components: the subjectivity which wishes for meaning, and the universe which is indifferent to it. Like two plus two makes four, both parts must be present for the equation to exist.

1. Now, to commit suicide would be irrational because it would remove part of the Absurd equation.

The final conclusion of absurdist reasoning is, in fact, the repudiation of suicide and the acceptance of the desperate encounter between human inquiry and the silence of the universe. Suicide would mean the end of this encounter, and absurdist reasoning considers that it could not consent to this without negating its own premises.

To say that life is absurd – one must first be alive.

Absurd reasoning thus recognises life, human life, as an irreplaceable component of the Absurd equation. Camus’s philosophy of the Absurd requires human life for it to exist. Human life is an irreducible requirement of Absurdity. You have to fully accept and buy into this premise to follow what comes next.

2. Because the moment it recognises this basic premise, Absurd reasoning also recognises the importance of all human life.

The moment life is recognised as a necessary good, it becomes so for all men…

Absurd reasoning validates all human lives.

3. Then Camus takes a big leap –

Murder and suicide are the same thing; one must accept them both or reject them both. (p.14)

His Absurd philosophy of revolt embraces all life. He is vehemently opposed to nihilistic thought because it not only tempts people to suicide – but by denying the importance of life it simultaneously tempts people to murder. If life has absolutely no meaning, not only suicide is possible, but murder, too.

You can see what he’s trying to do here – build the validation of all human life up from the pit of despair.

Going down into the depths of psychological anguish, into the blackest pit of suicidal misery, Camus grapples with the apparent ‘solution’ of suicide and rejects it – because suicide destroys the premise of the worldview which drove you to suicide in the first place. Committing suicide because of your sense of the Absurd would destroy the Absurd. It would be logically self-contradictory. And by recognising that life, human existence, is a vital component of the philosophy of the Absurd, you recognise that value for everyone – you acknowledge that all human life is vital.

And if you reject suicide – one form of the denial of life – you must also reject its fellow, its partner, its equal in denying the value of life. You must reject any form of murder.

(In the kind of tangential insight with which the book abounds, Camus points out that history provides many examples of the intimate link between suicide and mass murder. The example fresh in everyone’s minds in the post-war era was the way the mass murder of the Nazis culminated in the mass suicide of the Nazi leadership, huddled in their bunker, passing out the cyanide pills. Suicide and murder both stem from a profound negation of all human values. In the German language the connection is more obvious – the word for suicide is Selbstmord, literally meaning ‘self-murder’But Camus’s insight also made me think of all those people in our time who go on a killing spree at their local high school or shopping mall before turning their guns on themselves. Or the men who kill their wives and children and then themselves. Yes, many suicides may be solitary acts, but a certain number do seem to involve the nihilist deciding that they will – that they must – take out as many other people as possible before killing themselves.)

If Camus’s argument is a little hard to follow I think it’s because it is in many places more willed than really argued or thoroughly proved. But by repeating it again and again Camus wants to make it so, and it was only by reading it again and again, in numerous reformulations, that I began to accede to its emotional logic.

To repeat: The entire book is devoted to showing that from the ruins of a post-theological waste land, bereft of God or any transcendental source of moral values, Camus’s philosophy of the Absurd offers a reasoned, logical set of steps to help people affirm the value of their own lives – and then of everyone’s lives – and then to create a morality based on self-knowledge and a realistic assessment of the limits of human freedom and power.

2. A historical review of revolutionary nihilism

This philosophical argument is most clearly spelled out in the book’s first 20 pages (though he then invokes it repeatedly at key points throughout the text).

The next 250 pages are mostly devoted to a historical account designed to show how the revolutionary absolutism which stems from the Enlightenment – by overthrowing God and by claiming no limits to abstract ideas of human freedom, human virtue, human achievement or whatever – unwittingly undermine the practical freedoms of real flesh and blood people in the here and now. Camus goes back to the 18th century to examine the thought of a succession of European writers – thinkers as diverse as Hegel, Dostoyevsky or Nietzsche – having dispensed with God, struggled to identify an alternative source of ‘values’, and to define the nature of man’s freedom.

Camus’s review shows how, for thinker after thinker, this meant freedom from all restraints. But he shows how freedom from all restraints, a purely abstract and total concept of human freedom, tends to lead to freedom from respecting other people’s freedom. Ignoring the autonomy or rights of other people. It ends in tyranny.

Thus the Marquis de Sade takes the theory of personal sexual freedom to the limits and beyond, but discovers that his untamed appetites require an infinite number of men to torture and kill and women to use and destroy.

Similarly, Camus shows how the revolutionary Virtue of Saint-Just, the outspoken apologist for the French Revolutionary Terror, defeats itself. The Jacobins demanded an impossible level of ‘revolutionary’ purity from the people but instead found weakness and treachery everywhere, and was led to an downward spiral of violence, guillotining criminals and counter-revolutionaries by the cartload, in what became known as The Terror, until the people – or at least their political representatives – overthrew the Government of the Virtuous in the name of government of the practical – and the exponents of state execution – Saint-Just, Robespierre and their colleagues – were themselves executed by the unforgiving state they had created.

150 years later the Bolsheviks asserted that the proletariat must be led to freedom by a communist party, stripped of any sentimentality or bourgeois morality, which reserves the right to punish anyone hesitating or questioning its right to rule and lead humanity to its promised utopia. By identifying itself with the unstoppable force of History, the Party claims total control of human reality. Anyone questioning it must, of course, be eliminated.

And so his historical survey shows that:

All modern revolutions have ended in a reinforcement of the power of the State. 1789 brings Napoleon; 1848, Napoleon III; 1917, Stalin; the Italian disturbances of the twenties, Mussolini; the Weimar Republic, Hitler. (p.146)

The same logic which drives Stalinism, also drove Hitlerism – it is the attempt to place every single individual in a society under the control of one totalising value (History, the proletariat, the Volk, whatever).

The book really lifts off when it gives a long explanation of the preposterous totalising ambitions of the German philosopher Hegel – and then takes this criticism on into a devastating critique of Karl Marx and the Communist Parties he inspired.

This anti-Marx section is full of all sorts of insights and angles – I was particularly struck by the way Camus claims that lots of Marx’s insights were the common currency of his time: the economic analysis of capitalism had already been established by the bourgeois economist Ricardo; the appalling conditions of the industrial proletariat were copied from British Government reports; a blind belief in the power of an ever-improving science and technology to transform humanity was a truism among bourgeois propagandists of his day.

For Camus, Marx’s great failure was his vagueness, his changing opinions, his contradictory statements about the single most important element of his vast political philosophy – just how and when the dictatorship of the proletariat would end and the utopia of the classless society begin.

The lack of any definition on this crucial point in effect gives carte blanche to the communist party which leads the ‘revolution’ to rule forever. Also since – as he shows – almost all revolutionary regimes provoke or are subject to war (the French Revolutionary regime declared war on all the kings f Europe, the Commune of 1870 only occurred because of the Franco-Prussian War, the Russian Revolutionaries called for world revolution), they almost inevitably rule under the embattled conditions of wartime, which justify them in taking the most drastic security measures necessary. Forever.

Camus is echoing George Orwell’s vision of the totalitarian party of the future with its jackboot crushing a human face. Forever.

3. Camus opposes tyrannical revolution with his own idea of limited rebellion

Is there an alternative? Yes. For as the book progresses, in each of the detailed analyses of European thinkers, Camus distinguishes between the post-theological revolution, in the name of some Absolute Value, like Virtue or History or Das Volk, which is always bound to fail and end in repression – and his own, much more personal notion of revolt or rebellion against man’s fate, against the human condition and so on but which – crucially – respects the limits of the humanly possible.

If rebellion could found a philosophy it would be a philosophy of limits, of calculated ignorance, and of risk. (p.253)

Rebellion, by virtue of the way Camus has defined it, must acknowledge its limits and respect the freedom of others. Rebellion cannot give itself to any totalising ideology because it is a permanent tension, a permanent opposition to human fate and destiny, which also opposes all impositions on the human spirit.

Absolute revolution supposes the absolute malleability of human nature and its possible reduction to the condition of a historical force. But rebellion, in man, is the refusal to be treated as an object and to be reduced to simple historical terms. It is the affirmation of a nature common to all men, which eludes the world of power. History, undoubtedly, is one of the limits of man’s experience; in this sense the revolutionaries are right. But man, by rebelling, imposes in his turn a limit to history, and at this limit the promise of a value is born. It is the birth of this value that the Caesarian [i.e. communist] revolution implacably combats today because it presages its final defeat and the obligation to renounce its principles. The fate of the world is not being played out at present, as it seemed it would be, in the struggle between bourgeois production and revolutionary production; their end results will be the same. It is being played out between the forces of rebellion and those of the Caesarian revolution. The triumphant revolution must prove by means of its police, its trials, and its excommunications that there is no such thing as human nature. Humiliated rebellion, by its contradictions, its sufferings, its continuous defeats, and its inexhaustible pride, must give its content of hope and suffering to this nature. (p.216)

There are lots of ways of parsing this fundamental dichotomy (and Camus works through them with fascinating and sometimes bewildering thoroughness).

One key aspect, mentioned in the excerpt above, is that the totalitarians believe there is no such thing as human nature – that human beings are infinitely malleable and so can be turned into Model Workers (which Camus interprets as Unquestioning Slaves). By contrast, Camus asserts that there is such a thing as human nature and that at its core is revolt, revolt against the apparent futility of human destiny, against the apparent meaningless of life in a godless universe, revolt in favour of life.

(You can see how this would have alienated Camus’s ‘frenemy’, Jean-Paul Sartre, whose existentialism is based on exactly the opposite premise – that there is no human nature and that, as a result, everyone is ‘condemned’ to absolute freedom and that we all create ourselves with our free choices. We cannot blame any pre-existing human nature for limiting our decisions: our decisions are ours and ours alone to justify and bear.)

Camus continues that this personal revolt against death translates into the social value of rebellion, rebellion against any one totalising ideology which is imposed on it, and – consistent with its origin in the Absurd – rebellion against death in all its forms. Rebellion into life, if you like.

Another way of thinking about it is to address that old chestnut: Do the ends (a communist utopia in some remote future) justify the means (terrorising society in the here and now)?

As you might expect by now, Camus’s answer is a resolute No. He goes to great lengths in the long sections on Hegel and then Marx to demonstrate that both these German thinkers take the Absolute Value formerly attributed to Christian theology and reassign it to new entities: to the progress of the World Spirit in Hegel, or to Marx’s concept of History conceived of as an unstoppable machine moving through successive stages of social relationships up until the advent of capitalist society which will itself, with unstoppable inevitability, give rise to the revolution, the triumph of the proletariat and the End of History coinciding with Paradise for All.

The mistake of both of them, according to Camus, is to preserve the Totalising and Transcendent Value derived from Christianity and attribute it to utterly abstract, inhuman Ideas. With hideous inevitability, you end up sacrificing real people to an unreal inhuman Idea, an Idea (the end of history) which can never be attained because it isn’t real. This is another way of saying that communist repression would be, potentially, forever, because it is based on working towards an impossible Ideal which will never arrive.

Instead, argues Camus, you must start from a realistic assessment of fragile, limited, actual human nature which – for him – has at its irreducible core, this one notion, this movement, this gesture, this impulse, to revolt, to rebel against death in favour of life, to cling on, to survive, to battle and overcome.

A realistic political programme can only be based on this vision of mediating between countless conflicting wills. (Though he doesn’t say it explicitly, this is obviously a philosophical underpinning for the idea of democracy).

Back to ends and means. Camus very neatly says the question isn’t, ‘Does the end justify the means?’ Given that there is in fact no end – there is no ‘end of history’, no final revolution, no paradise and no utopia – the real question is, ‘Do the means justify the end?’

In other words, you should judge the (purely notional and maybe unattainable) outcomes of a political system by its effects here and now. In which case, the permanent terror state and political murder practiced by all the communist regimes is quite clearly the exact opposite of the freedom, peace, security and justice which they preach. Judged by their means – by the methods they are using, the values they are putting in practice in the here and now – whatever ‘end’ they claim to be holding on for cannot possibly be justified.

When the end is absolute, historically speaking, and when it is believed certain of realization, it is possible to go so far as to sacrifice others. When it is not, only oneself can be sacrificed, in the hazards of a struggle for the common dignity of man. Does the end justify the means? That is possible. But what will justify the end? To that question, which historical thought [communist theory] leaves pending, rebellion [Camus’s philosophy] replies: the means.

Reversing the usual order, Camus says the end itself – if deprived of some kind of supernatural underpinning, if deprived of the German ideological conviction that the end is the guaranteed moment when History comes to an end in the triumph of the World Spirit (Hegel) or the classless society (Marx) – if there is never in fact going to be an end — then all you are left with is the means. And if the means – the entire methodology of political murder and state terrorism – are rotten, then so are the ends.

He doesn’t say this but it occurs to me that the means are the ends, because there are no ends. History will never ‘end’. There will be no classless society or reign of the Just. It’ll just carry on in the same kind of way. Meanwhile, all we have is the means. The means is how we will be judged.

Conclusion of Camus’s argument against political murder

Camus’s philosophy of the Absurd insists on the value of human life. The individual’s revolt against the absurdity of the human condition transfers, on a social level, into men’s general rebellion against nihilistic systems of thought and against the vicious oppression which follows in their train.

History testifies, in fact, to the irreducible human spirit of rebellion throughout the ages.

But where this rebellion has turned into, or been commandeered by, the totalising and nihilistic values of revolution, it always ends in disaster – in war, state terror, torture and mass murder – in repressive regimes worse than the ones the revolutionaries set out to overthrow.

The philosophy of the Absurd – and the act of rebellion – by their very nature are against murder and political murder. They are not only for human life, they logically require human life to exist and to be respected.

Thus, via both his philosophical argument and his long review of European history, Camus hopes to demonstrate that human nature, and human values, will always revolt against the totalising oppression – and political terrorism – entailed by the inhuman absolutism of ideologically-driven ‘revolution’.

Although it begins as an ostensible investigation of the problem of political murder, this is where The Rebel ends up – as an impassioned defense of the fundamental human act of revolt against individual destiny and against social oppression. And this explains and justifies the title – L’Homme révolté.

(It’s a shame the force and power of the phrase L’Homme révolté is not really captured in the English translation of The Rebel. The literal translation of ‘The Revolted Man’ means something quite different. Revolutionary Man is the extreme opposite of what is intended, since the values of ‘revolution’ are portrayed throughout the book as the ultimate betrayal of humanity. Some editions of the book have a sub-title, Man in Revolt, which seems better to me than the nominal title.)

Earning the right

From our Anglo-Saxon point of view, it takes Camus 270 pages to arrive at a version of liberal humanism with a respect for universal human rights which many other people (for example, most Americans) never questioned to begin with.

So where’s the achievement?

Well, what made the book so important in its time was that it started out from absolutely nothing, from a crushing sense of the absurd meaninglessness of life – from the place of profound depression and moral devastation which afflicted many millions of Europeans after the horrors of the Second World War – and also takes account of the very real threat of the communist party, not only in Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe but in the West, in Italy and France in particular, imposing its rule by terror and political violence – it starts in a stricken and embattled place which is difficult for British and American readers to really appreciate — and then it claws its way on a long, difficult odyssey upwards, through the long litany of betrayal by European thinkers and revolutionaries, before finally arriving at these hard-won conclusions.

We believe that the truth of this age can be found only by living through the drama of it to the very end. If the epoch has suffered from nihilism, we cannot remain ignorant of nihilism and still achieve the moral code we need. No, everything is not summed up in negation and absurdity. We know this. But we must first posit negation and absurdity because they are what our generation has encountered and what we must take into account. (Resistance, Rebellion and Death, page 59)

The Rebel isn’t complacent. It earns its arrival at a morality of common decency. It has worked its passage.

Thus, although many readers may have fallen asleep during the detailed analyses of de Sade or Dostoyevsky, of the Russian Nihilists or Hegel’s theory of the Master and Slave – if they managed to make it to the end of the book they would be aware that they had been on a long journey across 200 years of nihilistic thought – but a journey of hope, a journey which assured them that common decency can be justified and established in the godless universe of the Absurd, in the post-war rubble, amid the clash of homicidal ideologies.

And so, despite its longueurs and its frequently impenetrable phraseology, The Rebel is a really moving and stirring call to human dignity and morality in a world seemingly hell-bent on destroying both.

Helen’s Exile

It is useful to read alongside The Rebel the essay Helen’s Exile, which is included in the Penguin edition of The Myth of Sisyphus. Written in 1948, Helen’s Exile gives a much pithier version of the central idea of The Rebel but starting from a different place, starting from a consideration of ancient Greek culture.

Camus points out that central to Greek thought was the idea of human limits: the Greek myths and legends are packed with cautionary tales of people who ignore or overstep these human limitations and are savagely punished for their hubris.

It is this self-knowledge of the Greeks, of the necessity of limiting our wishes, our freedoms and our actions in line with the recognised limits of human nature – contrary to the totalising tendency of modern ideologies which assert that human nature is a blank sheet to be written on at will by revolutionary dictators – which Camus thinks we have lost and must regain.

Admission of ignorance, rejection of fanaticism, the limits of the world and of man, the beloved face, and finally beauty – this is where we shall be on the side of the Greeks.


Discussion – a fragile argument

The entire argument, although it ranges widely over European philosophy and art of the last 200 years, is framed within the constraints of Camus’s own peculiar and very narrow theory of the Absurd. The crucial logic, the key explanation, is all dealt with in the first twenty pages or so:

The Absurd point of view logically leads to the rejection of suicide, because suicide negates the Absurd equation. Since suicide and murder are two sides of the same coin, rejection of suicide means rejection of murder. This rejection of suicide/murder is the bedrock of man’s revolt against the Absurd condition of life. And it is not only a NO to the godless universe but implies some kind of positive value in favour of which one is revolting/rebelling. Because as soon as one rebels against the Absurd condition – rejects suicide/murder and chooses life – one affirms the value of all human life.

Thus: Man’s Revolt against suicide/death is an affirmation of all human life everywhere.

And this revolt which is at the core of man’s being can never acquiesce in totalising revolutions which practice political murder in the name of abstract ideologies which claim to be able to erase and rewrite human nature. Human nature will always rebel.

Out of the depths of the Absurd comes an irrefutable affirmation of human life and a vehement rejection of any theory which denies it.

Good. Fine.

But all this is built on the idea that you accept Camus’s highly specific and, in the end, highly personal definitions of ‘the Absurd’ and of ‘Revolt’; and that you can follow the ‘logic’ of the arguments he extracts from them.

a) It’s unlikely that many, if any, of his readers really genuinely accept his very specific premises.
b) Every time I’ve reread and summarised the key passages in the book I’ve been very aware that several steps in the argument are willed rather than convincingly argued.

Possibly that’s why he made the book so long – because he hoped that by reiterating and rephrasing his claims, in the detailed analyses of a succession of great writers and of historical events, he would achieve by sheer repetition what he was uneasily aware was logically very fragile if stated clearly and briefly.

The sheer weight of text, its length, its numerous repetitions, and the repeated rephrasings of his humanist conclusions certainly do make for a stirring and inspiring read.

But beneath all the rhetoric, the philosophical analyses and the literary criticism, the fundamental, founding idea that suicide must be rejected because it negates one half of the Absurd equation (living human + indifferent universe = the Absurd), that murder is the same as suicide and so must similarly be rejected because it is illogical for a believer in the philosophy of the Absurd (and in ‘rebellion’) to abolish a key ground of their beliefs — these form an abstract, academic and very fragile basis on which to base an entire worldview and a complete political morality.


Reception

Although like-minded liberals warmly welcomed this elaborate endorsement of their views, the powerful mouthpieces of the French communist party, as well as many professional philosophers and intellectuals, came down on it like a ton of bricks. This was mostly because the book amounts to a sustained attack on communism and most French intellectuals of the time flirted with or became communists. But they were also able to focus their attacks on the fragility of its ‘philosophising’.

Camus had hoped to create a philosophical argument strong enough to lift Europe out of its despair; but the unrelentingly negative reactions to the book from the French intellectual élite, and their demolition of his philosophical arguments, plunged Camus into a personal depression. He never again tried to write a ‘philosophical’ work.

Only a few years later, in 1954, the Algerian War of Independence broke out and Camus found the well-spring of his creativity – his love for the harsh sensual beauty of his homeland – threatened in a new and unexpected way. The oppressed ‘natives’ of his homeland were enacting his narrative of revolt in a way he had completely missed from his long analysis of the contemporary political scene.

So, while the Paris intellectuals attacked his intellectual shortcomings, the Algerian revolutionaries undermined the basis of his creative vision: Camus was embattled from all sides. In the circumstances it is amazing that he managed to go on writing, creating the foggy allegory of The Fall and then the suite of passionate short stories collected in Exile and the Kingdom, as well as returning to his first love, the theatre, where passion and feeling are more important than clarity or logic.

Thus, amid very difficult political and personal circumstances, Camus did his best to explain and defend human freedom and dignity. It feels like a heroic achievement.

At the very end of The Rebel Camus’s argumentation gives way to the high poetic lyricism, to the sensuous imagery of fierce Mediterranean sunlight and the warm blue sea which are always lurking just beneath the surface of his writing. And to ancient Greece, where men knew the limits of themselves and their societies, and so were genuinely free.

At this meridian of thought, the rebel thus rejects divinity in order to share in the struggles and destiny of all men. We shall choose Ithaca, the faithful land, frugal and audacious thought, lucid action, and the generosity of the man who understands. In the light, the earth remains our first and our last love. Our brothers are breathing under the same sky as we; justice is a living thing. Now is born that strange joy which helps one live and die, and which we shall never again postpone to a later time. On the sorrowing earth it is the unresting thorn, the bitter brew, the harsh wind off the sea, the old and the new dawn. With this joy, through long struggle, we shall remake the soul of our time… (p.270)

(Amusingly, Conor Cruise O’Brien chooses just this quote as an example of ‘Camus’s most lamentable Mediterranean-solar-myth vein’ [Camus: Modern Masters p.56].)


Credit

L’Homme révolté by Albert Camus was published in France in 1951. This translation by Anthony Bower was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1953. All quotes & references are to the 1971 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

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