Thu Apr 27, 2006

Scorpion and Felix

David Bernstein speculates about the casting for a new film of Atlas Shrugged. Inevitably, someone in the comments points out the obvious, viz, that Rand is an atrocious novelist fit only for insecure fifteen-year-old boys. Some other Volokh readers are not amused, and stomp off in a huff to listen to their Rush CDs. In the course of his snipe at Rand, the commenter says “At least Marx, for all his faults, didn’t attempt fiction.”

Well, as a matter of fact, he did. Scorpion and Felix is Marx’s unpublished comic (I do not say “funny”) novel, written around 1837, when he was 19. It is not for the faint-of-heart. In essence it is a pastiche of Tristram Shandy, a book Marx thought was fantastic. Here is the entirety of Chapter 37:

David Hume maintained that this chapter was the locus communis of the preceding, and indeed maintained so before I had written it. His proof was as follows: since this chapter exists, the earlier chapter does not exist, but this chapter has ousted the earlier, from which it sprang, though not through the operation of cause and effect, for this he questioned. Yet every giant, and thus also every chapter of twenty lines, presupposes a dwarf, every genius a hidebound philistine, and every storm at sea—mud, and as soon as the first disappear, the latter begin, sit down at the table, sprawling out their long legs arrogantly.

The first are too great for this world, and so they are thrown out. But the latter strike root in it and remain, as one may see from the facts, for champagne leaves a lingering repulsive aftertaste, Caesar the hero leaves behind him the play-acting Octavianus, Emperor Napoleon the bourgeois king Louis Philippe, the philosopher Rant the carpet-knight Krug, the poet Schiller the Hofrat Raupach, Leibniz’s heaven Wolf’s schoolroom, the dog Boniface this chapter.

Thus the bases are precipitated, while the spirit evaporates.

In his biography of Marx, Francis Wheen points out that the convoluted parodic style seen in the novel was a feature of Marx’s writing throughout his life, and in Capital in particular. He also notes that the passage above, with its contrast of Napoleon and Louis Philippe as giant and dwarf, clearly prefigures the famous opening of the Eighteenth Brumaire:

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Caussidiere after Danton, Louis Blanc after Robespierre, the montagne of 1848 to 1851 after the montagne of 1793 to 1795, and then the London constable [Louis Bonaparte], with a dozen of his best debt-ridden lieutenants, after the little corporal [Napoleon Bonaparte], with his roundtable of military marshalls.

At any rate, it is striking that Marx had such versatility that he could write a novel even less readable than Atlas Shrugged.