Overweening Generalist

Monday, June 13, 2011

Free-Floating Intellectuals: More Fugitive Notes

Regarding my posts on the threat of intellectuals (here and here, for example), there have been some truly horrifying scholars who were unattached intellectuals, following with almost demonic zeal some subjects that fascinated them. And then writing about them. Lemme give you two who, while they worked in the 19th century, merely uttering their names still cause fits, panics, and vitriol whenever mentioned: Karl Marx and Charles Darwin. O! How they are loathed! Why?

Because their works still threaten significant numbers of total-worldviews.

Personally, I think both are immortal and I've been influenced by both. They both pursued their interests - in wildly different political environments - on their own, within small affinity groups of like-minded thinkers. And in a relatively Open Society: England.

Marx had been hounded out of at least three countries that I can recall, for his political agitations. He finally settled in the British Museum to write his magnum opus, Das Kapital. I am much more interested in Marx's earlier works, but what of it? This penurious, obsessed intellectual wanted to show the world that capitalism was doomed. Audacious! He was the kind of guy who did algebra problems for recreation, like people today do crossword puzzles or sudoku. He wrote his doctoral thesis on Greek philosophy. He did not have an easy life and was probably not pleasant to be around most of the time. 

[Psst: Is this OG guy a Marxist? Answer: No. Calm down.]

What has surprised me for a long time and now just galls me: he was only an intellectual. One of the greatest ever, but yea: he wrote books, mostly. What he wrote? That's what great intellectuals do. He was lucky Engels was so supportive, or he and his family would have been in even worse shape. But to link neurologically the name Karl Marx with 20 million dead under Stalin, or something like that, (it's easy) is, to me, ludicrous and even moronic. And all-too-common. Why don't you link Jesus with the Spanish Inquisition? Oh, because you "like" Jesus. You think you understand what he "really meant" and we all know that words in a book are a DIRECT CAUSE of murder and gulags and totalitarianism and the welfare state!...in the case of Marx. Jesus? Some folks got carried away. 

Marx as a Religious Figure?: Even while he was alive he said he wasn't a "Marxist." Yet he became, in death, a secular religious figure. How? Thousands of writers had written critically of the inhuman aspects of capitalism in the 19th century. Why was Marx's work "go viral," as they say in 2011? If some bright young kid asked me what (s)he should read to get a feel for how rough things were in a place like London, for the working class, I'd say read Hard Times by Dickens. Then, kid, if you still wanna pursue, we'll talk...So yea: why Marx so viral? Because the Intellectuals saw he was writing in more their Elevated Style: incredibly erudite, difficult, etc. Dickens was serialized in newspapers

Still, I think the best answer to why Marx viral over so many others? A robustness of intellectual virtuosity that appealed to a class (intellectuals) who were not in power, but would really, to be honest, quite like to be in power themselves. They'd get jobs, they'd get to be in power...because they should be in power, just look at the imbeciles in parliament. Or that idiot-criminal Czar over in Russia! Marx's overall rhetoric won the day - well, 100 year's worth of days - because his rhetoric was in the right places at the right times.

[By the way: Francis Wheen has quasi-recently (10 yrs ago) published a 500+-paged, learned book emphasizing how funny Marx was, with a good argument and textual examples. Das Kapital can be read as a experimental Gothic Novel, and sort of like cyberpunk when it was invented as a branch of science fiction set in the near future; Wheen also argues Marx is in the conversation with Jonathan Swift.]

As for Darwin, whose work I personally enjoy more than Karl Marx's: much has been written about his chronic illnesses. Here's a recent diagnosis, made more than 110 years after his death: "cyclical vomiting syndrome." Okay. But I still wonder if he was so subconsciously afraid of the upset his work would have on the cherished myth that the Old Testament God created us. And perhaps the stress allowed some bug to get the chronic best of him, stress having compromised his immune system. Look at the fits of horrors he still gives authoritarians and textbook editors in some of the less-progressive areas of Unistat. And Darwin, unlike Marx, did not seem the type who relished pissing off Those In Control.

Marx had boils. But I suppose you knew that. 

Darwin and Marx: neither were tenured professors. 

Go forth with your studies and writings with zeal, fellow FFUIs!* You just might somehow alter the course of history. But: try to maintain your sense of humor? It's good fer ya.

FFUI = "free-floating unattached intellectual"

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