The pale violet notebook had ninety-six pages, five inches by eight and a half. He filled them in a methodical way, beginning each new item on a right-hand page, continuing to the back if necessary. When he made mistakes, he tore out whole pages. Instead of saving the last page for a table of contents as he had in other notebooks, he filled it up too, and listed the contents inside the front cover. Then he sharpened his pen, changed his ink, and filled the blank space he had left on the backs of pages and the pages he had skipped, first squeezing new titles between lines in the table of contents, then, when there was no more room, making a new column to the right. Everything is mixed up in the end—old work, new work; songs and romances; epigrams, dithyrambs, ballads; a fable, a sonnet; a series of “Xenia” after Goethe and Schiller; a “freely rendered” translation from Ovid; the first act of a play; excerpts from a novel—but mixed up in the nicest bureaucratic cursive, without hooks or humps, with tight curls and a distinguished occasional backward slash that gives the impression of finishing something off, putting it behind after reasonable consideration.
“Verse / of the year 1837,” the front cover reads, “dedicated to my dear father / on the occasion of his birthday / as a feeble token of everlasting love. / K. H. Marx, Berlin.”
The “H.” is for Heinrich, which was also the name of Karl Marx’s father, who turned sixty that April. Karl was nineteen, at the end of his first year studying law at the University of Berlin, where he had transferred after a year at Bonn to focus on cameralistics, or public administration—a focus nearly guaranteed to leave him in a dead-end job or unemployable altogether. There was a glut of administrators in Prussia, the Statistical Agency had warned the previous year, with more than twice as many graduates as positions open. Karl would also be warned by his father, who was a lawyer himself, “You would not be able to complain at all if, a few years after having completed your studies, you became an unpaid tax assessor, and then remained an assessor for years after.” They plotted together carefully that fall, exchanging names and making connections. “Herr S. is not von, he is the brother of the Attorney General S. of Cologne and has a post at the Court of Appeal. Herr M. knows him well.…”; “Herr J. and Herr E. are not only excellent men, but are probably important for you, and it would be most unwise and really improper to neglect them….”; and so on.
Heinrich Marx also told his son to write, to work especially on his poetry. Before Hallmark cards, poems were given in Germany as gifts, greetings, signs of affection or respect—general evidence of culture, an important thing for a provincial middle-class teenager looking for a patron. The right sort of poems could be the “first lever” of a career, as Heinrich Marx put it, could have a “magic effect,” could help to “create prospects for a good situation and, eventually, to realize them.” A little practice was all that was needed—“basically you have talent, only the form is not yet smooth.” That was December, 1836. By February, the question was “winning the confidence of a good publisher.” Now poetry “takes second place.” “Light polemical articles are the most useful, and with a few good titles, if they are original and have a new style….” Or a book, “something philosophical or legal, or both together, seems excellent for laying a basis….”
Sometime in the late winter or early spring, Karl Marx did try “something philosophical or legal,” attempting to reorder according to his own new logic the entire Corpus Juris Civilis, the Roman legal compendium that forms the basis of German law. He later described this lost work as an “unhappy opus… of almost three hundred pages,” “covering the whole field of law,” beginning with “what I was pleased to call the metaphysics of law.” The surviving scraps suggest absolutely limitless confidence in his own mind, although in fact he knew only some law and no metaphysics. He seems not to have known or cared that the law he was ordering had been annotated and arranged over and over again for centuries and was not likely to yield suddenly to a sophomore. He knew the legal history in vague outline but seems not to have had any sense of its scale; more generally, he had not yet made the humbling discovery that the mass of accumulated knowledge is infinitely greater than all the mental strength it is possible to muster at the age of twenty. He gave up that project around Easter.
By March, he “again sought the dances of the Muses and the music of the Satyrs,” beginning by trying his hand at a play, a tragedy in some way related to Hamlet. His father was wary. Drama was more public and less reputable than verse, a dangerous business, “especially in the big cities,” full of “intrigues, cabals, [and] jealousy.” The novice should “look for a possible way by which this great test would be preceded by a smaller one involving less danger,” he advised, “but sufficiently important… to emerge from it, in the event of success, with a not quite unimportant name.” It should be uncontroversially patriotic, heroic, grand, “redound to the honor of Prussia and afford the opportunity of allotting a role to the genius of the monarchy”—but not too long or too complex. It should be set at some moment “not so prolonged as to call for an epic, but a crowded moment of time where, however, the future hung in the balance.…” “I wracked my brains for a long time,” he wrote, before hitting on the perfect theme. Karl Marx should write a play commemorating the defeat of Napoleon; it could be performed for the anniversary of Waterloo in June.
One can only guess at his reaction to the violet notebook he received for his birthday instead. That letter has been lost, but the next letter still extant begins with an apology. “Dear Karl,” his father writes, “My letter, written when I was greatly excited, may have hit you rather hard….”
There is the first act of a play in the violet notebook, the tragedy of Oulanem, a mysterious German traveler, also called “the Stranger,” “the Wanderer,” described as “a gloomy aesthete… who spends his hours in subtle meditation.” A creative reader could hear a faint, mutant echo of Hamlet in the single long monologue that forms the whole of scene three. One of Marx’s professors, the classicist and eminent Shakespearean A. W. von Schlegel, first popularized the familiar reading of that play as a “tragedy of thought” as opposed to a “tragedy of action,” driven by inner conflict rather than hubris or divine retribution, in which “a calculating consideration, which exhausts all the relations and possible consequences of a deed, must cripple the power of acting.” Oulanem would also have been, if it had ever been finished, a play about the inability to act—about exactly the opposite of the heroic ode to the Prussian victory at Waterloo that his father had recommended.
After the tragedy, listed alone on a single line across the bottom of the table of contents as an Anhang,
a “supplement to the dedicated verses,” as if it wasn’t worth dedicating, or not appropriate, or just something extra for free, comes the farce: “Some Chapters from Scorpion and Felix. A Humorous Novel.”
Scorpion and Felix is neither humorous nor a novel. There are twenty-four chapters in the excerpt in the violet notebook, numbered ten through forty-eight, with several sections missing, but most of the “chapters,” about half, are only a paragraph long; the whole excerpt totals about six thousand words. What there is makes almost no sense. It might have been more than one book once, some old failures cut up and crammed together into one last big failure. Strands run through but barely or never connect. Some fragments go nowhere.
Felix, an apprentice to a tailor, and his friend Scorpion, the tailor’s son, are minor characters, only appearing in three chapters. The tailor, whose name is Merten, and Grethe, the cook, each appear about as often. Merten’s dog, Boniface, who his master insists is possessed by the spirit of the patron saint of Germany, seems to be the center of the action. Boniface suffers from severe—possibly fatal, but the ending is a cliff-hanger—constipation. The climax is Merten desperately trying to find and administer a laxative. The last words are: “Oh, pious constipation!”
Chapter 12, in its entirety: “‘A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!’ said Richard III. ‘A husband, a husband, myself for a husband,’ said Grethe.” Chapter 16 begins, “In the beginning was the word,” an allusion to Faust, which also begins with the opening line of the Gospel according to John; the chapter ends a paragraph later in a crude joke about Grethe’s thighs. Nineteen is a digression on the color blue. Twenty-one, subtitled “Philological Broodings,” is all about the meaning of the name “Merten.” “Partly because he is a tailor [Schneider], partly because his son’s name is Scorpion, it is highly probable that he is descended from Mars, the god of war, genitive Martis, Greek accusative Martin, Mertin, Merten, since it is the business of the god of war to cut [schneiden], inasmuch as he cuts off arms and legs and mows down all the joy on earth….” Going on like that for a few pages, it is the longest chapter in the violet notebook.
Skip to chapter 22: a translation of a few lines of Ovid’s Tristia, with the names Scorpion and Merten interpolated in the first line. Then Ovid himself enters, crying, “a tear rolled down the old man’s cheek, when—” he is interrupted by Merten yelling at Scorpion. Chapter 27 is some unidentified people arguing about knees. There is a “refers to an earlier chapter” in parentheses, but that chapter is either lost or not yet written. The argument about knees segues into a rambling digression on right and left—“Tell me, thou mortal, whence cometh the wind, or whether God has a nose in his face, and I will tell you what right and left are. Nothing but relative concepts!… Oh, our yearning is delusion—until we distinguish right from left. For it is written, He will place the goats on the left, and the sheep on the right. But should He roll over, should he face in another direction—for instance, because He is having a bad dream—then the goats will be on the right and the pious on the left, and so much for our miserable picture,” etc., then ends, as do six other chapters, midsentence, in a dash: “We cannot distinguish the left side from the right, we don’t know where they are—”
At this point, roughly halfway through, our novelist is interrupted by an unexpected guest, whose “facial structure seemed to betray a bureaucrat: his cheeks were like hollow, smooth bowls, so well protected against the rain by his gigantic protruding cheek-bones that one could well store in them documents and governmental decrees.” The guest introduces himself as “Engelbert Klingholz,” a name Marx had used before in the title of a poem found in a notebook that belonged to his sister, dated 1835. In “Engelbert Klingholz. A Ballad,” the hero is a sort of zombie or golem conjured up out of a rotting stump by a monk. There is a play here on klingen (to sound) and Holz (wood); when the monk hits the stump with his magic wand, “das Holz klingt dumpf,” the wood makes a hollow “thump.” This Klingholz is part tree: he has thin hair like autumn leaves, he whispers like the rattling crackle of empty branches, his head is hollow as a rotten log, and so on. In the monk’s words, Klingholz is an elend, hölzern Krüppelding, a miserable wooden cripple-thing.
According to The Biographical Lexicon of Trier, Engelbert Klingholz was also a real person, a Landrat, or provincial administrator, in Marx’s hometown. That may be a slightly higher position than Marx himself would have been able to attain in any case, but in Scorpion and Felix he plays the role of Marx’s evil twin or doppelgänger. This is made clear by some subtle clues, such as allusions to the work of E.T.A. Hoffmann, the horror writer most closely associated with the doppelgänger motif, as well as some clues that are less subtle, such as in chapter 42: “I looked around to see who spoke, and saw—you won’t believe it, but I promise, I swear, it’s true—
I saw—but, now, don’t be angry—
I saw—and don’t worry, it’s got nothing to do with either your wife or your digestion—I saw myself, for I had offered myself
as proof by contradiction. The thought occurred to me at once—‘Hey! I’m a doppelgänger!’” The allegorical meaning of the bureaucrat-doppelgänger Klingholz is clear: he is both the opposite of Marx and his ideal, or what he could potentially become. Generously, the allegory could be read as a satire not only of the bureaucrat himself but also of the doppelgänger as a literary device, which by 1837 had become shopworn. For a moment, the two life paths that Marx might have been able to see for himself crisscross, and neither seems quite satisfactory.
Not long before attempting to write his Shakespearean tragedy and his novel, Marx had adopted the habit he would have for the rest of his life of excerpting, copying out longhand sometimes pages at a time of whatever interested him. He had been studying the recent history of criticism, beginning with Lessing’s Laokoön and Winckelmann’s history of Greek art, two masterpieces of eighteenth-century classicism; although there is nothing “classical” in Marx’s chaotic literary experiments of 1837, it is clear he is not just screwing around either. He has something in mind. Insofar as there is any literary theory behind the writing in the violet notebook, it may have come from a less well-known book that he happened to read, Erwin, Four Dialogues on Beauty and Art, by Karl Solger.
Solger is one of those minor transitional figures found in anthologies, always named offhand as an example of a tendency, remembered mainly for being mentioned by others, in a journal entry by Coleridge, a book review by Hegel, a few impatient pages in Kierkegaard’s college dissertation. Few historians give him more than perfunctory treatment; an exception is René Wellek, one of the founders of comparative literature, who gives Solger five pages in his History of Modern Criticism, the same number as Shelley. The idea at the core of Solger’s aesthetics is that all art worthy of the name must be profoundly ironic—“itself so striking an idea,” Wellek argued fifty years ago, “that Solger deserves resurrection today, when ‘irony,’ though in a different sense, has again been exalted….”
Irony was in Marx’s time an annoying word, hard to use without wincing a bit, but hard to avoid in talking about contemporary literature. Since the last decade of the eighteenth century, it had been a literary buzzword with philosophical pretensions. Chiefly responsible was Friedrich von Schlegel and his brother, Marx’s teacher, August Wilhelm, supported by a tight-knit circle of collaborators on their journal, the Athenaeum, including the playwright Ludwig Tieck, the poet Novalis, the theologian Schleiermacher, and F. W. J. Schelling, who was for a few years the philosophical conscience of the group. The postmodern literary critics Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy—and the contemporary reader can fairly infer the tone of the Athenaeum from the fact that it was rediscovered, with warm feelings of kinship, by postmodern literary critics—have argued that the Athenaeum group represents a certain limit point to literature, inaugurates the present age “in which literature—or whatever one wishes to call it—devotes itself exclusively to the search for its own identity… charting the space of what we now refer to, using a word of which the romantics were particularly fond, as ‘theory.’” As the Frenchmen put it, these early romantics invented “theory itself as literature, or, in other words, literature producing itself as it produces its own theory.”
The Athenaeum group would have accepted that description as accurate but too earnest. They were indeed intensely self-involved—their favorite object of criticism was themselves, and, as romantics, their constant and most pressing question was: What is romanticism? Like their epigones today, they had a precarious sense of what exactly it was they were trying to do; this led them to be both dogmatically unsystematic and incessantly, often insipidly, clever. As one of their clearest fragments put it—they wrote mainly in fragments—“Irony is the form of paradox. Paradox is everything simultaneously good and great.” They aimed consciously to be “playful and serious, guilelessly open and deeply hidden,” to use “continuous self-parody” to provoke and confuse “harmonious bores” until “they get dizzy and take what is meant as a joke seriously and what is meant seriously as a joke.” (Those are quotes from themselves, not their critics.) They were up on all the latest philosophy but never committed to any particular view. They liked the deep feeling of German idealism but not its rigor, and they reveled in the final collapse of Kantianism, as the postmodernists reveled in the final collapse of Marxism, as a liberation from worrying about liberation, a license to “philosophize poetically” without really worrying too much about what it
Hegel, as might be expected, was particularly annoyed with the Athenaeum group, who set literary fashions at a time when he himself was an aging, unappreciated nobody. He hated particularly their chatter about “irony,” a word they equated nonsensically with “the clear consciousness of eternal agility, of an infinitely teeming chaos.” For Hegel, the word evoked Socrates, Greek tragedy, and the collapse of empires, either good-natured humility or tragic mortality but not literary mischief—not, as with the Athenaeum group, aristocratic privilege over anything so tedious as thinking. It was really the egoism of the group that irked him. “Whoever has reached such a standpoint of god-like geniality,” Hegel wrote, “consequently looks down in his superior fashion on all other mortals.” And yet these modern ironists simply don’t know what irony is; “these superior people are on excellent terms with such modes of expression, without being able to tell us much about what they mean.” He never missed an opportunity to bash a Schlegel or a Tieck when he had the chance.
But Hegel—whom, it should be mentioned, Marx had not yet read—made an exception for Solger. “Solger was not, as the others were, satisfied with a superficial philosophical culture, but rather driven by a true speculative inner striving, to mount the depths of the philosophical idea,” he wrote. In one of the two book reviews that he wrote in his life, he faulted Erwin for being too conversational, or, in Hegelese, for having “the form of the fortuitousness of the enunciated.” It was not dialectical in the Platonic sense, he argued, and thus not properly a dialogue. Nonetheless, he complimented Solger’s “comprehensive knowledge” and depth of thinking, and in the context of another discussion of Plato he cites Solger’s theory of irony in a courteous footnote. “My colleague, the late Professor Solger, adopted the word ‘irony’ which Friedrich von Schlegel brought into use… and enhanced to equivalence with the principle of subjectivity knowing itself as supreme. But Solger’s finer mind was above such an exaggeration; he had philosophic insight and so seized upon, emphasized, and retained only that part of Schlegel’s view which was dialectic in the strict sense, i.e., dialectic as the pulsating drive of speculative inquiry.”
As Hegel goes on to explain, Solger distinguishes, as has long been obligatory when discussing irony, the false or superficial version from the genuine article. “True irony,” Solger writes, “arises from the view that so long as man lives in this present world, it is only in this world that he can fulfill his ‘appointed task’ no matter how elevated a sense we give to this expression. Any hope we may have of transcending finite ends is a foolish and empty conceit. Even the highest is existent for our conduct only in a shape that is limited and finite.” False irony is a retreat into universal skepticism; true irony is an attempt faithfully to express the human comedy, the real fact that we ourselves are constantly undone by circumstance. At root, one is nihilistic, the other humanistic. Hegel paraphrased all that as “seriousness which destroys itself in itself, the triviality that takes itself seriously.”
In Erwin, Solger places irony at “the essential center of art,” as the “most perfect fruit of the artistic intelligence.” Every artwork, he suggests, by virtue of its being a material thing, is an imperfect revelation of the idea, necessarily disappointing when compared to the grand motives behind it. As artists, we “cannot help being seized by an immeasurable grief when we see what is most glorious of all dispersed into nothing on account of its necessary earthly existence.” But irony catches the intoxicating moment of creation and destruction in the artwork itself—“this moment of transition, in which the idea itself necessarily perishes, must be the true realm of art: the place where wit and contemplation, each striving against each other simultaneously to create and destroy, must be one and the same.” For Solger, irony is literally divine—“whoever has grasped the heart of our irony will thereby be able to possess in this life true being and the divine idea”—will be able to incorporate a mortal divinity into everyday, finite life.
Solger’s definition of irony was homegrown and rough-hewn. He was an eclectic thinker, borrowing terms from metaphysics or theology and using them in a loose aesthetic sense. Kierkegaard, whose 1840 dissertation The Concept of Irony is a high-water mark of the history of irony, complains there about Solger’s schwerbegreifbarer philosophischer Klarheit, or difficult-to-comprehend philosophical clarity, “frequently more poetic than philosophical,” in which one sees the meanings of the words but not quite their purpose or direction. “Such expressions as ‘to negate,’ ‘to destroy,’ and ‘to annul’ are frequently used, but in order for the reader to be truly oriented, he must know the laws of motion.” It is a fair complaint from a philosopher, but middle-range, essayistic writers, like neutral oils, are often the best historical medium; they help carry ideas from one better thinker to another without any of the mistrust and resentment that come from a direct encounter with a system. To the prephilosophical Marx—who knew the work of the earlier German romantics and probably followed more recent debates about German romanticism among writers like Mme de Staël and Heinrich Heine, but who still found Hegel opaque: “I had read fragments of Hegel’s philosophy,” he wrote in 1837, “the grotesque and craggy melody of which did not appeal to me”—a bit of undirected clarity may have been a helpful thing. The very qualities that led someone like Solger to be overshadowed in posterity might have made him digestible by the very young Marx.
There is, after April, when Marx sent the violet notebook to his father, an unexplained gap in their correspondence. The son did not write home all summer. In August, he wrote an apparently uninformative letter in which he mentioned he was planning to launch a journal of theater criticism. His father was reluctant. It was “suitable for creating a reputation,” and “it is precisely to gain a reputation, a reputation as a critic, that is so essential for you.…” He wanted to hear more. Marx wrote again at the beginning of September, mentioning that he was planning to shift his focus from law to philosophy, and his father became more reluctant. There is another gap in their correspondence. Then there is a long letter in November, explaining everything.
He remembered how busy he had been in his first term at Berlin and how little good it had done.
“I spent many a sleepless night, fought many a battle, and endured much internal and external excitement, yet at the end I emerged not much enriched….” Feeling physically and emotionally drained, he left the city of Berlin for the outlying fishing village of Strahlau. In a café there he met a group of theologians and critics he described as the “aesthetic celebrities of the Hegelian school,” and under their influence he read Hegel seriously for the first time, “from beginning to end, together with most of his disciples.”
Hegel’s effect on him was stronger because he had always dismissed the philosopher before as modish and unreadable, “grotesque and craggy,” even “the enemy.” He read him begrudgingly, with a “nagging annoyance at having had to make an idol of a view that I hated,” and an eerie sense of becoming against his will “ever more firmly bound to a modern world philosophy from which I thought to escape.” But his November letter shows how firmly bound he was, how personally and pretentiously obsessed. “Dear Father,” it begins, “There are moments in one’s life which are like frontier posts marking the completion of a period but at the same time clearly indicating a new direction. At such a moment of transition, we feel compelled to view the past and present with the eagle eye of thought in order to become conscious of our real position. Indeed, world history itself likes to look back in this way and take stock, which often gives it the appearance of retrogression or stagnation….”
Immediately after reading Hegel, Marx stopped writing altogether. “Seized with a veritable fury of irony, as could easily happen after so much had been negated,” he “burned all the poems and outlines of stories, etc.,” and swore to “give them up completely.” He was particularly embarrassed by the little tragedy in the violet notebook—an “unsuccessful, fantastic drama,” “mere formal art, mostly without objects that inspire it and without any impassioned train of thought,” and by Scorpion and Felix, in which “idealism pervades forced humor.” And yet—“And yet these last compositions are the only ones in which suddenly, as if by a magic touch—oh, the touch was at first a shattering blow—I caught sight of the glittering realm of true poetry….”