Monday, May 14, 2018


An effort to watch the National Geographic film about Picasso landed me in the same old morass of protocols that end in a money trap.  So I went back to see what was on Netflix.  What I found was a three-part history lesson about major figures of the modern world:  Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud.  I only watched the first two, but the lecturer, historian Bettany Hughes, was clear and appealing.  It soon became clear that these men didn’t determine the course of history, as is assumed by many, but struggled hard to figure out the changes brought on by the Industrial Revolution and then the ensuing use of capital as a system.  They were trying to understand the forces of economics, how our fortunes are determined by the way things happen.

Marx was not from Russia, but after his death the Soviet system used a partial version of what he said to justify their autocracy.  In reality Marx had to leave rigid Prussia for free-form Paris.  This was middle of the 19th century, where the emptying of formal meaning was intensified by failure of both wheat and potato crops.  Science was gaining importance and capitalism was just emerging out of industrialism, which involved the exploitation of natural resources through the convention of “ownership”.

Marx was impressed by “production” and “work”, but saw that the results were unequally distributed because of wages from ownership.  Socialism seemed the remedy, so that profit and ownership would merge.  Engels, his friend, had great regard for the working class and compassion for the rock bottom poor, a condition of many people that we have returned to now, especially in our cities where the homeless crowd the sidewalks.  Though we think of these well-known historical characters as somehow triggering social revolution, the reality is that they were describing something already happening almost overwhelmingly.  By 1849 Marx was in London and stayed there to the end.

He was physically miserable: bad liver, enflamed eyes, neuralgia, insomnia and a weird crippling and painful disease called hidradenitis suppurativa, a recurring infective condition arising from blockage of apocrine ducts opening into hair follicles.  He had little patience, a bad temper, and a taste for things that were bad for him.

All these thinkers were entrapped by the binary structures of Greek and Roman thought that still control our legal and governmental worlds.  If a thing has gone wrong, the first impulse is reversal.  Dichotomous thinking, either this or that, good or bad, is at the root of much stigma and destructive thinking. 

In the case of Marx he was stuck between the Apollonian highly structured authoritarianism of Prussia and the wildly Dionysian demand to be free embodied by the French Revolution.  His context/platform for speaking out was journalism.  From a long line of rabbis, his father was secular, or rather Lutheran.  Religious background supplied the passion and belief that ideas could be known “truths.”

Two people loved him and stood by him: his wife, Jenny; and Engels, a German much like himself, slightly younger and pressed into returning to his manufacturing father in order to make money for all of them.  Marx and his family sank to abysmal poverty and the loss of babies {alcoholism, of course) and until eventually Jenny inherited enough money for them to live comfortably except that Marx would not stay within a budget.  When Engels died, Marx was survived by two daughters who inherited Engels’ four million dollar fortune.

The arc of ideas developed by these two men is too powerful and elaborate to summarize here.  People make the study of them a lifetime’s work.  I can’t think who to name as equivalents in our time.  They probably are not writers of books, but producers of cinema.


Nietzsche, the second man in this series of three, was a loner but he too suffered bad health and finally dementia in his forties.  Instead of a wife, he was tended by a sister who thought she was promoting him when she made friends with Hitler and the Nazi bureaucrats.  He had not had sympathy for them.  Professor Hughes sees the precipitating event as the early death of his pastor father due to a brain tumour and the intellectual intrusion of Biblical criticism, the historical revelation that the Book is not divinely and wholistically created, but rather a political accumulation of scattered writing over time.  The despair and grief of these events overwhelmed Nietzsche’s basic prosperity, but he was able to publish.

A dichotomy that captured him is now used mostly in literature: the Apollonian (ideal, severe, remote but highly intelligent) versus the Dionysian (ecstatic, emotional, transformational).  He took this dyad to the love of music, particularly Wagner.  Falling in love with Lou Salome, he was rejected because she turned away all suitors.  This helped to convince him that it was impossible for a great man, an Ubermensch, to find satisfaction and fulfillment so they should progress past “good and evil” to a kind of staring into the abyss of human mess.  He was sort of a “Goth” in the modern sense of someone attracted to the morbid and destructive, braced against the “normal” mediocrity.  This career is a second long, complex story that attracts many other people, esp the young.

We’re now in the midst of another world-turning event, at least in terms of the European world that preoccupies many of us.  The Industrial Revolution has moved to China; the famine and violently skewed power go on in Africa; and South America seems to be following the Euro-preoccupation with Populism, the idea that if we just go back to yesterday and throw a wall around what we had, everything will be “great” again.  At the same time we are trying to come to terms with the mysterious technology of the cyber world that makes fences impossible but demands infrastructure of much cost.  If we could just figure it out.

The trafficking and slavery Marx and Engels tried to solve still persists.  The terms of meaning that Nietzsche found irresolvable are still unresolved.  The Industrial Revolution is approaching exhaustion and, in some cases, power is in the hands of the people through privatization (wind, sun) that begins to make major investment, “venture capital,” irrelevant.  Once in place, a computer gives access to the world at little cost for the child and the artist equally.  Until next month when Net Neutrality ends.

What is the answer to the quandary of existence today?  Maybe it’s simply participation, the simple and sometimes erotic openness to the planet and all its life-sustaining geo-surfaces that supply food and shelter.  I’d like to see simpler lives — I’ve chosen one for myself and understand that it stigmatizes me with the terrible crime of being poor.  But like these thinkers, I can still attempt eloquence.

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