May 02, 2009

A letter from Karl Marx and the education of a communist

In November 1837 Marx had spent a year at the provincial university of Bonn. During this time he wrote to his father- we have some of those letters- but he wrote a particularly long and full account of his year in November. What Marx tried to get across to his father in this letter was his slow conversion to the philosophy of Hegel- to having to 'make my idol a philosophy I hated' and abandoning idealism, Kant and Fichte. The letter is an interesting production- obviously for what it says about Hegelianism and other philosophical schools but also for what it reveals about the young Marx- his personality and the way that he understood his own intellectual evolution- this is afterall an intellectual account, an audit of a year's work.

The first thing that I think you get from the letter is the sense of Marx's volume of reading. It stretches across both classical authors (he names Tacitus and Ovid) and modern (notably Hegel, but also Savigny, Feuerbach, Cramer, Lauterbach and others). It encompassed many subjects: Marx essayed to read in poetry, literature, he 'made some acquaintance with natural science and history' (particularly delighting in Riemarus's 'On the Instincts of Animals), inquired into law both Canon, German (through Frankish capitularies) and modern and of course joined a reading group prompted by his philosophical investigations. WE also get a sense of the young Karl's output- he attempted to write a philosophical treatise, books of romantic lyric poetry to his future wife Jenny, and 'began to learn English and Italian on my own ie out of grammars'. Marx is of course writing to his father- but even so the names of the titles and the way that the letter addresses their contribution to his intellectual trajectory are redolent of a student encountering a vast corpus of European literature across a range of subjects: Marx was obviously well read.

What is interestingly absent is economics: we hear plenty of philosophy but little of the craft that was to reveal to Marx (so he thought) the underlying material basis of society. That is partly because Marx's own interest in what seems to have been untutored reading did not focus on economics or society itself but on the relationship between change and reality. He battles for example with the definition of law- looking to compose a study of law by splitting it into two parts, the first a theoretical consideration of the metaphysics of law (its underlying principles) and secondly attempting to view the definitions of law as passed through Roman in particular and other laws. As Marx himself expressed, such a project hid problems, he wrote 'as though the development of the ideas of positive law... could ever be anything different from the formation of the concept of law.' In a sense here we have Marx struggling towards a Hegelian or later Marxist undestanding of the role of history in the development of a human conceptual apparatus: the history of the adaptation of a term to circumstance is actually the history of the process of refinement that that term goes through. History in that sense is related to the formation of concepts and much more related to that process than formal definition or abstract logical reasoning is.

I am not professionally competent enough to understand Hegelianism- but this letter does seem interesting to me because it describes an education. Marx's reading in this period of his life was his own and it seems directed to an end- an end we should be aware of when we consider what communism as it later evolved in his hands and the hands of others became. What he seems to be interested in in this letter is the relationship of change to the structure of ideas of forms: Marx describes a juvenile philosophical pamphlet as containing 'a philosophical and dialectical development of the divinity as it manifests itself as idea-in-itself, religion, nature and history. My last sentence was the beggining of Hegel's system'. For Marx this revelation changed utterly his own understanding of the world- and he writes his letter in such a way as to reveal his changing thought about how concepts are generated- describing a history or process of thought rather than a logical sequence of thoughts.

Reading this letter suggests therefore that when we come to try and understand Marx, it is vital not to see him only as an economist but also as some kind of philosopher of history and experience. His movement towards the communism that was to make him famous started with the adaptation of Hegelian ideas and the reasons that he adopted those- as set out in this letter- were to do with the relationship between experience and history. This letter whcih I have barely understood is an important document which reflects the kind of education that Marx had and suggests interesting issues about the kind of theory he was to develop. Eventually his arguments were to be economical but the idea that ideas were generated by historical evolutions rather than ab nihilo was never to leave him.

April 29, 2009

Gion Bayashi

Oppression is an unsubtle word- it fails to capture anything of what it describes- the sheer range and variety of human suffering and fails to express the indignities that people feel, sometimes for their entire lives. You cannot sum up in a word the experience of being downtrodden, of suffering, of the slow erosion of the ego. One of the functions of art is to take us inside an experience- whether it is the experience of laughter and enjoyment or the experience of fear and death. Films have for me captured moments in history- like the Great War or the resistance to Hitler- in ways that words cannot always manage. A great film like a great poem surges through the psyche and says something, often indefinable, that is more than the sum of its parts- it expresses a part of human experience in a way much more vivid than my mere imagination can do. Oppression is one of those things that remain individualised- sympathy is the ultimate in fake emotions, not because the feeling is fake, nor because the effort is to be deplored, but because it is almost impossible to put ourselves genuinely in the shoes of another- to see the same beauty, to feel the same pain. Art can help us for a moment, a precious moment, believe- no matter how falsely- that we have seen in the eyes of another and stepped in their footsteps.

Gion Bayashi is a film that did that for me when I watched it last night. It is a film about the closeknit weave of oppression that surrounds its major characters- two geisha in mid twentieth century Japan. The younger woman, Eike, has fled the sexual advances of her uncle and unable to find any other work decides to become a Geisha. The older woman, Miyoharu, takes her in and tries to set her on the road to a prosperous life as a geisha. The film's plot is basically unimportant but it revolves around the fact that to this- to get to the point at which you can become a geisha you need money- you need fabulous clothes for example that a geisha's wage does not cover and you need patrons to introduce you in fashionable coffee houses and cafes who will want repayment. In the case of Miyuharu and Eike the payment demanded is sex- in Miyuharu's case she is the sweetener in a contract, in Eike's case the young girl is promised by a cafe owner to a wealthy client. All sorts of things happen in the story- but the real core remains this that the life of a Geisha is a simple exchange, dignified by ancient ritual, sex for money.

Mizoguchi, the director of the film, did a lot of research in 1950s Japan- staying in the cafes, observing the clients and the Geisha interacting and it is the feel of the film more than anything he gets right. I do not know what the real Japanese experience of Geisha in 1950 was like and that is not what I mean by the 'feel' of the film. What I mean is that Mizoguchi gets the very subtle ways that human unfreedom work absolutely right. He understands that debt for example is what traps Miyuharu into a difficult position: obligation is a source of coercion and coercive power is exercised by those able to wield both the power to call in debt and the power to manipulate a market. In a sense the film is about the subtle weft of unfreedom in a capitalist society: it deals with the issue of how an obligation freely entered into becomes a constraint because its used to constrain. So that in this case Miyoharu borrows money not knowing that the conditions attached are that she eventually must have sex with a certain man: those conditions are 'implied', afterall what else is a Geisha to do but obey the wishes of her clients, but they are not stated and they rip into the fundamental dignity of Miyoharu.

There is another way in which the fundamental dignity of the two women is at stake. Again it concerns sex- but here it is the relationship between gender and sex that is at stake. There is a male presumption that should a woman marry or consent to be a geisha or a prostitute, then she has consented to sexual intercourse from that point afterwards, no matter what she says. That is an attitude made visible by many characters within the film. And yet we see because we inhabit the worlds of Miyoharu and Eike, that that is just not true. There is a rape scene in this film: when it happens it is shocking, perhaps as shocking a scene as you are likely to see in a film of this era- not I hasten to add because it is graphic in any way, but because for the half hour before you see the rape, you believe that the two geisha have been innocently invited on a train journey and then you realise that the male character (and plenty of female characters afterwards) believes that such a gift must be matched by a reciprocal gift. I invite you for a bottle of wine, and you then will perform sexual services for me. It is what the Americans would call date rape: and I think the film gets why it is unjust and presents you with the full scale of its injustice.

Prostitution and date rape are heavy subjects and this is a serious film. It is also a brilliantly acted film- the two leads are both incredible actresses who get inside the skins of their characters and present them as real women. They are eminently credible. For example, Miyoharu is a hard headed businesswoman with deep emotional commitments and reserve outside of the coffee houses, but take her to a client and she becomes what her clients want, giggly and silly. Of course what that demonstrates is how little the client perceives- he may get her body and her time but he does not reach into her soul. WHat is perhaps the centre of the film's lighter side is the relationship between the two geisha- Miyoharu becomes in a sense Eike's elder sister and I think their relationship presents a vision of how things can work for human beings within the world. In that it is both unselfish and loyal: it is the opposite of the relationships that we see amongst the more respectable members of society which are all coercive and perhaps represents the slightest tone of idealism in this sad and sombre picture.

April 27, 2009

The Canadian Liberal Leader and the British Philosopher

Michael Ignattief's elevation to Canadian Liberal leader reminded me of this interview with the philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin. Ignatieff has written interesting and important studies- particularly of eighteenth century philosophy and penal reform, not to mention a biography of Isaiah Berlin himself. Berlin though is the man revealed in these interviews- and the revelations show you only a percentage of the interest of his essays and thought. These interviews introduced me to the history of ideas when I first saw them in 1997. Berlin remains one of my most important influences- it is a while since I saw these interviews but I feel it is appropriate to post as much as I could find of them on this blog in full.

April 26, 2009

Morality and the malevolent: Les Diaboliques

Une peinture est toujours assez morale quand elle est traqique et qu'elle donne l'horreur des choses qu'elle retrace
A painting is always quite moral when it is tragic and it conveys the horror of the things it depicts: Barbey d'Arevilly

Henri Clouzot's film, Les Diabolique, is about a school where the headmaster has married into money, his wife is ill, and he is waiting for her to die so that he can take over the school with his mistress. He is unpleasant and resented by his wife- who knows of his mistress and knows that he has abused her as he has abused the wife. Indeed the headmaster seems to abuse everyone he comes across- his cruelty is his only constancy. His mistress and the wife then come to agree to murder him- they complete the task and the film is about the unravelling of a sequence of events with a twist at the end which lead us from that task to a denouement. I do not wish to give anything away- but merely to explore some of the themes of the film- and in particular the theme announced above- the theme of instruction and also the theme of guilt.

The film is in a sense less about a murder than about the consequences of a murder on one particular character- the wife of our headmaster- whose inner psyche is the map we have of what happens. Our camera is focussed through her eyes- we see what she sees and not what other characters see and believe. This means that we perceive neither those things which she does not know nor the mechanism- particularly of detection- which she is not aware of. We are being directed to take her view of the story, which maintains the suspense- and also her view of any actions or reactions committed. Her view is formed by her Catholicism- ultimately this is a film seen through the eyes of an ex nun and we have to appreciate that in order to appreciate how we see guilt and eventually instruction in this film.

In the corner of the room of the wife is a picture of Christ with a candle beside it- illuminating as it were the entire film with its shadow. The shadow of that picture, the shadow of her religious faith dominates the film: she is, her husband says, a little ruin- in that she shares a characteristic with her house and school- but her faith serves to illuminate her from within. What Clouzot in the film demonstrates though is the way in which her faith which serves as her sanctum from a horrible husband turns into a weapon to turn against her: his death causes her to worry, to be unable to stop conceiving of how things are going wrong and ultimately causes her to succumb further to her illness. She cannot stop believing in the supernatural and even beyond the grave, her husband has the ability to make her believe in his powers to destroy her life. As opposed to the mistress who fears no hell, the wife cannot but fear hell- and if her earth after the murder becomes a kind of hell- for her it is more plausible because it is an anticipation of what she fears.

Conscience thus turns into a canker at the centre of this film- and conscience is the faculty by which we instruct ourselves. Our heroine is undermined by her conscience- she knows that what she has attempted is wrong- she knows that she must pay and every shadow on the wall- even or especially the shadow of Christ under the candle is a reminder. Barbey d'Aurevilly's quote begins the film and I think it is worth seeing the entire movie as a commentary on it- what Clouzot is describing is a painting that is tragic because it is moral. The horror of what his painting depicts is the abuse of morality- and the instruction is not obvious. The wife is confined by her morality- both because she cannot divorce her husband and is so driven to desperation- and because her morality drives her mad. Her physical weakness here turns into a dispositional weakness- she cannot but regret the actions she takes. Whereas her husband's depravity is all the more effectual for being without conscientious scruple.

Ultimately though this is a Catholic tale itself. The wife afterall suffers because she sins. Here it is worth noting the film's setting- as we complete the painting. The school and the world by implication are in a delapidated building- the teachers themselves all exhibit various kinds of corruption- we are in the world of Bresson. The argument from Clouzot here is that the wife's suffering proceeds from her corruption, the fact that she yielded- but the fact that she is corrupt is another expression of the world's corruption. Clouzot's tale is a sophisticated theological exploration which reminds us that in a world that is corrupt- a virtuous conscience can be lead to evil ends by Machiavellian means and that temporally such a conscience is a disadvantage. In a world of sin, morality can be a weapon of the malevolent.