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The Sole Rightful Colour of Freedom

September 12, 2011

No time for blogging at the moment unfortunately, but I wanted to catalogue a passage Marx wrote in 1842, which is on point for the sorts of reading strategies I apply to his style in Capital:

You admire the delightful variety, the inexhaustible riches of nature. You do not demand that the rose should smell like the violet, but must the greatest riches of all, the spirit, exist in only one variety? I am humorous, but the law bids me write seriously. I am audacious, but the law commands that my style be modest. Grey, all grey, is the sole, the rightful colour of freedom. Every drop of dew on which the sun shines glistens with an inexhaustible play of colours, but the spiritual sun, however many the persons and whatever the objects in which it is refracted, must produce only the official colour! The most essential form of the spirit is cheerfulness, light, but you make shadow the sole manifestation of the spirit; it must be clothed only in black, yet among flowers there are no black ones. The essence of the spirit is always truth itself but what do you make its essence? Modesty. Only the mean wretch is modest, says Goethe, and you want to turn the spirit into such a mean wretch? Or if modesty is to be the modesty of genius of which Schiller speaks, then first of all turn all your citizens and above all your censors into geniuses. But then the modesty of genius does not consist in what educated speech consists in, the absence of accent and dialect, but rather in speaking with the accent of the matter and in the dialect of its essence. It consists in forgetting modesty and immodesty and getting to the heart of the matter. The universal modesty of the mind is reason, that universal liberality of thought which reacts to each thing according to the latter’s essential nature.

Further, if seriousness is not to come under Tristram Shandy’s definition according to which it is a hypocritical behaviour of the body in order to conceal defects of the soul, but signifies seriousness in substance, then the entire prescription falls to the ground. For I treat the ludicrous seriously when I treat it ludicrously, and the most serious immodesty of the mind is to be modest in the face of immodesty.

Serious and modest! What fluctuating, relative concepts! Where does seriousness cease and jocularity begin? Where does modesty cease and immodesty begin? We are dependent on the temperament of the censor. It would be as wrong to prescribe temperament for the censor as to prescribe style for the writer. If you want to be consistent in your aesthetic criticism, then forbid also a too serious and too modest investigation of the truth, for too great seriousness is the most ludicrous thing of all, and too great modesty is the bitterest irony.

Finally, the starting point is a completely perverted and abstract view of truth itself. All objects of the writer’s activity are comprehended in the one general concept “truth”. Even if we leave the subjective side out of account, viz., that one and the same object is refracted differently as seen by different persons and its different aspects converted into as many different spiritual characters, ought the character of the object to have no influence, not even the slightest, on the investigation? Truth includes not only the result but also the path to it. The investigation of truth must itself be true; true investigation is developed truth, the dispersed elements of which are brought together in the result. And should not the manner of investigation alter according to the object? If the object is a matter for laughter, the manner has to seem serious, if the object is disagreeable, it has to be modest. Thus you violate the right of the object as you do that of the subject. You conceive truth abstractly and turn the spirit into an examining magistrate, who draws up a dry protocol of it.

The moves here are typical of many of Marx’s works: the scathing contempt for analyses that sunder subjectivity and objectivity, that fail to grasp the specificity of the object, that adopt an external and free-floating “objective” perspective on truth. The sensitivity to how “the same object is refracted differently as seen by different persons and its different aspect converted into as many different spiritual characters”. And, of course, the well-developed sense of the absurdity of the social and political situation that confronts him – and the conviction that an absurd object needs to be addressed in a way that expresses and brings this absurdity out.

I’m unfortunately very unlikely to have time online this week, but thought I should at least throw the passage up as a placeholder.

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