Marx's early development carried him, in a sense, through the various stages of European, and particularly of German, civilization. The Gymnasium had presented him with the tradition of classical antiquity, coloured by the idealist outlook of German neo-humanism, it had made him familiar with the world-view of the Enlightenment; and, last but not least, he had received there a Lutheran type of catechetical instruction. The objective elements of a more or less complete tradition were spread before him.
It would have been quite normal if in the two following years, which he spent at the Universities of Bonn and Berlin, Marx had simply proceeded along this path. However, in his examination-paper on the choice of a profession he had already evinced the inner dilemma of a youth who felt torn asunder, as it were, between the heights of man's calling and the abysm of human failure. This inner disruption is reflected in the deep anxiety felt by his father, Heinrich Marx, with whom he enjoyed an intimate relationship. In a letter of March 1837, written when Marx was still a student in Berlin, the father revealed his solicitude for his son's future career, his agonizing doubt as to whether Karl's heart was not at odds with his head and his talents. The father wondered whether there was room in his son's heart for the milder, more earthly sentiments which, in this vale of tears, are an essential source of consolation. Since Karl's heart was evidently possessed by an extraordinary demon, was that demon heavenly or Faustian, would his heart ever be susceptible to truly human, domestic happiness, would he be able to extend that happiness to his immediate environment? The older man saw Karl's outstanding talents threatened by an unbridled ambition, a Luciferian reaching for the stars, an incompatibility with the common measure of things, the homely, the practical.
Of course, such an inner restlessness is a fairly normal feature of adolescence; but in Marx's development it also reflected the influence of the Romanticism which had flowered among the previous generation. In the context of German history, Romanticism was the peculiarly German reaction to the impact of the French Revolution. Whereas the socio-political development of France was marked by a radical break, Germany's semi-feudal order displayed a surprising resilience, resulting in an emotional protest against the impotent rationality of the Enlightenment. The flame which could not strike outward was driven in. As compared with the forest-conflagration of the French Revolution, German Romanticism was a mere domestic outbreak; but the movement showed a surprising depth and vehemence. The literary products of Marx's first academic years in Bonn and Berlin give evidence of an intense receptivity for the Romantic inspiration. The documents which have been preserved contain a collection of poems, a fragment of a “phantastic drama” titled Ulanem, the torso of a “humorous novel” entitled Scorpion and Felix, and a collection of folk-songs.
The verse collection, though worthless as poetry, is a remarkable biographical document. Some of the poems reveal Marx wrestling with the ineluctible powers of God and Fate, powers which cast their thunderbolts down upon the fragile target proffered by mortal men. But the mortal man, seeing his most cherished possessions in ruins, takes revenge: he builds a throne for himself, so that his work, although destroyed by God and Fate, is reconstructed by Eternity. It is the “Prayer of a desperate man” (the title of one poem) but at the same time it is the expression of an immense “Human Pride” (the heading of another poem). Man's supreme prayer is his own greatness. If man be doomed to perish through his own greatness, then his fall amounts to a cosmic catastrophe, and he dies the death of a god-like being, mourned by demons.
This volcanic fire and its catastrophic eruptions, revelations of man's god-like nature, are the explosive forces of the supreme, divine energy dwelling in the human soul, that is to say, the power of love. In a series of poems, Marx celebrates his burning love for Jenny von Westphalen, to whom, as a young student of 18 years old, he had been engaged. Romantic sentiment elevates earthly love to those divine heights where man can see himself and his beloved in the likeness of gods. When the stream of love flows through the human soul, man walks like a victorious god through the ruins of a world consumed by his devouring fire; every word spoken is sheer, burning activity, and his breast resembles the bosom of the Creator himself.
Yet this blessed feeling of godlikeness cannot last for long: almost at once this divine being falls headlong from his phantasmal throne and stands confronted with his mortal nothingness, beneath a soulless, starry sky. The “Ode to the Stars” is an exclamation of misery, yearning and despair. We mortal beings are doomed to suffer and to perish, while, lifting up our eyes, we discover that heaven and earth stand as before. Whereas within our heart a world is drowned, the outside world remains totally unaffected; no tree splinters, nor is any star descending.
At the same time, man's nothingness in face of the infinite Universe is only the negative side of his participation and union with the Infinite. Around us is a restless Eternity, above us, underneath us, beyond our understanding and endless, and, like single atoms, we are drowned in it. But—this poem is called “Awakening”—our setting is an endless rising, and that endless rising is a flaming, eternal kiss of the Godhead. The same mystical truth is acknowledged by the hero of the dramatic fragment Ulanem: to be drowned in Nothingness, completely to perish, to be nothing, that would indeed be life!
Death is the entrance to eternal life. Lifting up his eyes from this cold life, this miserable earth, man sees heaven open and feels the longing to die, to enter heaven and to see a more beautiful country. “Torn to pieces” is the title of the poem in which this longing for death finds expression. Essential to all these utterances is the inner pain of self-disruption, the consciousness of being swung like a pendulum between extremes. There is no fixed standpoint in the objective world, either on earth or in heaven. Heaven, one moment the inaccessible height of the starry sky, at the next turns into the blissful object of the longing for death. The crushing consciousness of man's nothingness in face of God and Fate can also turn into mystical absorption, the absorption of a dwindling atom into the infinite divine Universe. In this aesthetic subjectivism there is certainly no room for anything like positive religion. “Do you believe in God?” is the question in the drama Ulanem, to which the reply is given: “I don't believe in Him, at least not according to the common notion of belief: but I know Him as I know myself.”
In the same drama the terrific idea of being unconditionally surrendered to an objective, changeless Being is sketched in impressive colours: “Bound, for ever, fearful, splintered, empty, fastened to the marbleblock of Being, bound, fastened for ever, for ever!” It sounds like a hint at the fate of Prometheus, who was fettered to a rock and suffered the eternal judgment passed by the gods on his heroic but criminal action in stealing the heavenly fire. Here, in fact, we touch the heart of Marx's inner wrestling during these years. His father wondered whether the demon which possessed him were heavenly or Faustian. Marx himself confesses his admiration for Faust, with whom he wishes to identify himself.
The torso of the novel Scorpion and Felix presents a Faustian uncertainty with regard to truth and reality. In a passage which reads like an ironic comment on the New Testament parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25), the contrast between right and left is reduced to absurdity. Of course, if God's countenance sported a nose, it would be evident what is right and what is left. But they are completely relative concepts. If God were to turn over, after He had dreamt the previous night, then the goats would be standing at His right hand and the sheep at His left. If we could define what is right and what is left, therefore, the whole problem of creation would be solved. But as a matter of fact we are all in the position of Faust: we don't know which side is right and which is left: our life is a circus, we run in a circle, we look about us in all directions, until we bite the dust at last and are killed by the gladiator, life itself. We desperately need a new Saviour, because—agonizing thought that keeps me awake, ruins my health, slays me!—we cannot distinguish the left from the right side, we cannot tell the location of either.
Obviously, Marx is already on his way to an horizon beyond the positions so far familiar to him. Beyond the classical idea of a well-ordered macrocosmic whole which is in full harmony with our microcosmic viewpoint. Beyond the positive or agnostic rationality of Enlightenment. Beyond the aesthetic religiosity of a Goethean and a Romanticist world view. Beyond the message of the Gospel, the proclamation of a Judge who is at the same time the Saviour and in face of whom we are—in Luther's words— “simul justus, simul peccator”, at once sinner and justified. The dilemma that emerged in his examination paper on the choice of a profession, the agonizing question of certainty which beset his mind, has grown in depth and intensity. If there is a Judge, if there exists an absolute distinction between right and left, between good and evil, between salvation and doom, and if this Judge is a conscious person rather than the insensible marble-block of objective Being, then he must be like us, capable of turning suddenly in the opposite direction so that what was right becomes left, so that good changes into evil, so that the doomed acquire salvation. No; this message too fails to give a saving answer; what we need is an answer beyond this answer: we need a new Saviour.
Reading this poetry with care, one is struck by one outstanding feature. It is the ever-recurrent use of the symbolism of an ocean, in most cases an ocean of water, but sometimes an ocean of fire and light. Closer investigation from a psychoanalytic viewpoint is likely to discover a strong inclination towards maternalistic symbols, arising out of a latent desire to return to the pre-natal and pre-conscious bliss of the womb. In terms of the phenomenology of religion, there is an evident tendency towards the symbols of a mother-religion.
Two poems which Marx dedicated to his father contain the mystery of the complete union and identity of the divine and the human person, connected by the bond of love. One poem, called “Creation”, celebrates the mystery of the origination of the Universe, proceeding from its eternal source in the uncreated spirit of the Creator, like the waves of ocean emerging from their primeval origin, like waves of fire condensed into the firmament of golden stars. The divine Eros expresses itself within the limitations of the created world, just as the poet has to express his ineffable feelings by means of forms and words. But the divine Eros that creates the world is identical with the poetic Eros ascending to the divine source of All, the latter being its pure image. The waves of Love coming forth from the bosom of the eternal Father are the very waves of love that emanate from the bosom of the poet. Harmony binds together what is alike; souls can be captured only by the divine Soul; in the eternal Eros creature and Creator become one.
Two poems, called “Wild Songs”, are the only products of his Muse which Marx himself caused to be printed (in 1841). These poems reflect yet another aspect of man's participation in the divine, eternal Love, namely, the connection of Eros with death. “The Minstrel” is a ballad which again is marked by the symbolism of water and waves. While the fiddler-minstrel is performing, the blood springs in waves; and from his violin waves of music stream forth. The poet tries to whip up the fiddler's playing until the music swells into a dance of the stars; for his art is a gift of God. But the minstrel replies that God neither knows nor respects his art. It emerges from the dark abyss of hell, bedevilling the mind and bewitching the heart; and his dance is the dance of death. The minstrel draws his sword and thrusts it into the poet's soul. “Nightlove”, the title of the second poem, described as a “romance”, continues the same theme. Love, the burning union between two souls, is an ecstasy that raises them to the glowing stars. But the heart, set aglow by the flame of love, turns out to have drunk a poisonous drink, the drink of night; the heart writhes with the pains of death; and the eye closes, never to be opened again.
In the collection of poems which in 1837 Marx dedicated to his father in honour of his sixtieth birthday, the romance, “Night-Love”, is followed by two ballads. The water-symbolism is already present in the titles “Siren-Song” and “The Old Man in the Water”. As we shall see, the siren-theme has obsessed Marx's mind. In the ballad of the minstrel it says that the waves of his music dash thunderously against the rock, the eye is dazzled, the bosom explodes and its sound descends into hell. The ballad of “The Old Man in the Water” also opens with a lamentation about the water which is undulating in a circular, never-ending rhythm: the water does not sense how the waves are shattered: it has a cold, unfeeling heart. But the next strophe introduces a change: within the hot abyss inside the heaving water an old man is sitting; he dances when the moon and the stars have appeared, and he tries to swallow up the waters. But they are his executioner, consuming the old man's bones; and by daybreak the old man has died. It is worthwhile to compare this ballad with the poem on creation. Whereas in the latter poem the eternal undulation of the Universe is blessed by the all-inspiring Spirit of the Creator and Father, the ballad on the other hand stresses the gloomy aspect of its terrifying and soulless automatism, which destroys “the old man”—apparently a symbol of God the Father. His mystical element is the moonlight and the night sky, threatened by the invincible logic of the physical order, exposed to the sunlight of man's analysing intellect.
The agonizing pain caused by the soulless undulation of the Universe is not Marx's last word, however. Just as the water-symbols tend to lure his mind into the magic circle of mother-religion and aesthetic romanticism, so the same symbolism can become a challenge to action. The water becomes the river on which the boat of his career is sailing towards unknown vistas. The cold, soul-less, objective world can be mastered by man's intelligence, courage and imagination. In the “Song of a Bargeman on the Lake”, the poet swears on oath, deep in his heart, by the waves blue and wet, that he will inflict on them the griefs with which they have afflicted him; and he undertakes to lash them uninterruptedly. The poet indeed keeps his word: he lashes the cold waves without intermission, he is seldom on dry land. The poem ends with a bold challenge to the waves: “You may play and scourge as much as you can, you may roll around my barge. You must bear it towards its goal: for I am your master!”
At last, through all the vicissitudes of romantic subjectivism, he appears to have achieved his goal. It had already been defined, in his examination paper on the choice of a profession, as the goal which the Godhead has determined for mankind and for every human being individually. At that time, however, Marx had still not measured the immense distance separating him from it, the tempting waters that had to be traversed, the tremendous sufferings which the soul had to overcome. Now he has come to know the force which will raise him beyond the contemplative peace of Romantic aestheticism. In a fragment of a poem, written in the autumn of 1836, Marx declares that he is never able, in a peaceful and comfortable state of mind, to deal with things that have fascinated his soul. He refuses to let himself fall into a mood of fearful, brooding resignation, since his mind remains filled with an intense longing and, above all, with a desire for activity! “The Song of a Bargeman on the Lake” describes how he is fascinated by the raging storm, how he is driven forth from his bed, from his safe, warm and peaceful abode, to sail in storm and lightning, to fight with wind and waves. While praying to God, the Lord, and while allowing his sail to swell, he keeps his eyes fixed on the polar star. This resolute mood betrays a romantic feeling of superiority to the narrow-minded mentality of the average, middle-class citizen. In a series of epigrams, Marx launches the arrows of his biting sarcasm against the philistine attitude which a vulgarized version of the Enlightenment had imprinted upon the ordinary German citizen; the philistine remains deaf and blind to the literature produced by great poets like Goethe and Schiller. Marx pokes fun at the pious stupidity of the average church member, who fails to see the point of Faust's wanderings, his doubts about God and world, his pact with the devil: this sort of piety believes the faith of Moses and the glory of Easter to be infallible safeguards against the temptations of hell and Satan. But Romanticism, in the years of Marx's adolescence, was already decaying: his critical eye had discovered its weakness as a socio-political phenomenon. One epigram of his is an ironic comment on the German mentality which, after the defeat of Napoleon and when the great expectations of a liberation and renewal of German society had been disappointed, became absorbed in literature and philosophy. Another epigram sketches with biting sarcasm the stupid complacency of the German bourgeoisie: like the spectators in a theatre, they watch the stormy scene of world events and, after the storm is over, begin to develop phantastic philosophies embracing the Universe. But they are only interested in the dead past. They would do better to let the Universe take its own way, better to try and understand the present time; for earth and heaven proceed upon their accustomed courses, and the waves continue to lap quietly along the rock.
At the end of this epigram we once again encounter the symbolism of the waves rushing past the rock. The Universe follows its eternal, circular course, undisturbed by any resistance or human encroachment. It is man's calling to be present at the point where the waves are breaking against the rock, that is, amid the decisive events of contemporary world history.
Among the epigrams ridiculing the political escapism of German literature and philosophy, there are four on Hegel, with whose philosophical system Marx had come into contact at the University of Berlin. These epigrams give evidence of the contradictory feelings that the encounter with Hegel's philosophy aroused in his mind. Being in a period of vehement inner ferment, while trying to cope with the lure of aestheticism and to grope his way beyond romanticism, his first reaction to Hegel's authority was one of confusion and perplexity. Epigrammatic irony was the form most adequate for expressing these ambivalent feelings.
With the exception of the last, the epigrams are presented as if Hegel himself were speaking in the first person. The first two reflect Marx's puzzlement at the abstruseness of Hegelian dialectics. “Since I have discovered the highest top and since my meditations have found the depth, I am wrapped in inaccessible darkness, like a God,” says Hegel. “I have been exploring a long time, floating on the waving sea of thoughts, and there I found the word. Now I hold fast what I have found.”
The epigram reads like a reference to the biblical story of creation, beginning with the Word of God which is spoken in the midst of the primeval waters. The second epigram is a comment upon this suggestion that Hegel's thinking is based on the word. Hegel teaching consists in words, mixed up in demonic confusion: their interpretation is left to private initiative, unhampered by any restrictive limitations. Just as the poet meditates upon the words and thoughts of his sweetheart, which well up, as it were, from the seething torrent gushing out of the protruding rock, so is everybody allowed to sip the refreshing nectar of wisdom. “I say All to you,” concludes Hegel, “since I have said Nothing to you!”
The symbolism in these two epigrams is closely akin to the symbolism of the poem “Creation”: even the words are very much alike. In the latter poem it is God the Father and Creator who, bringing forth the Universe from the infinite waves of the primeval waters, shrouds himself in poetic forms and words which are only to be interpreted by the divine love, the “Eros” in which man's soul meets his own divine image. “The blissful images of My Spirit,” says God the Father, “have to be recaptured and reflected by the spirit”, that is, by man's spirit which is God's Spirit indwelling man. The two epigrams take up this theme: this time it is Hegel himself who is speaking as God. The irony of these epigrams is extremely ambiguous. Marx encounters in Hegel's reconciliation of objective and subjective reality and in his dialectical identification of the divine and the human spirit the very temptations of pure mysticism which he is just now wrestling to overcome. Hegel's dialectical identification of All and Nothing, of pure Being and pure Nothingness, of affirmation and the negation of negation, threatens to drag him into the terrifying relativization of right and left, good and evil, true and false, in a word, into the magic circle of the truly Faustian spirit dwelling in every man. What attracts and frightens him in Hegel's thinking is the siren-like seduction of the rushing waters gushing out of the rock.
However, this is not the whole of Marx's comment on the first encounter with Hegel. The third epigram reverses the coin and shows a surprisingly new aspect. Once again it is Hegel who is speaking: “Kant and Fichte,” he says, “were fond of flying off into the ether, seeking there a distant land; I only try thoroughly to understand what I found on the roadway.”
This third epigram is, apparently, the very antithesis of the first and the second. Whereas in the latter Hegel is presented as the mysterious Godhead, shrouding his thoughts in words which may mean all or nothing, here, conversely, he is depicted as a pedestrian thinker. As contrasted with Kant and Fichte, Hegel is the down-to-earth philosopher. As a matter of fact, what Hegel had arraigned in the philosophical systems of Kant and Fichte was their incapacity to reconcile objective reality with the spirit, their blindness to the self-realization of the spirit through the material world. In other words, what is illuminated in this third epigram is Hegel's realism.
Did Marx himself not recognize the amazing contradiction between these epigrammatic comments on one and the same philosopher? On the one hand, Hegel is sketched as a mysterious God whose spirit is moving on the primeval waters and whose abstruse words leave us wretched mortals to the pre-rational chaos of contradictory interpretations. On the other hand, Hegel, like a rag-picker, gathers his truths from the dust beneath our feet. Rather than believe Marx to have overlooked these contradictions, we should regard them as symptomatic of Hegel's contradictory impact upon his over-sensitive mind. Perhaps the fourth epigram on Hegel is to be read as an ironic comment on these contradictory statements. Its apology for the preceding epigrams which “sing fatal melodies” refers to Marx's study of Hegel, which had not yet been completed with “a study of his Aesthetics”. This sounds, in part like an ironic resistance on the part of Marx's original and independent mind to the pedantic cocksureness of the Hegelian system. But the reference to “fatal melodies” which the preceding epigrams are said to contain, seems to hint at the demonic power of Hegel's philosophy: his contradictory evaluations cannot be reconciled in some sort of aestheticist harmony. “Fatal melodies” is apparently synonymous with the “Siren-Song” emerging from the rushing waters of this abstruse thinking. In order to understand these metaphors, we have to turn to another document belonging to Marx's early academic years.
The letter which Karl Marx wrote from Berlin on November 10, 1837, is the only letter to his father now extant. This extraordinary document humain affords us a deep insight into his spiritual development at that time. Written as an attempt at self-investigation at a turning point in his life, the letter matches the intimacy of a conversion story with the depth of a confession of faith.
Already in its first phrases the letter shows a sense of history that reminds us of earlier writings. We have met with this feature in the examination paper on the choice of a profession, just as we shall meet it again in the dissertation: it has proved to be one of the most characteristic features of Marx's life and thinking. History was to him at once world history and individual biography; both aspects were to his way of thinking inseparable. Though the encounter with Hegel's thinking doubtless gave depth to this notion, the examination paper already expressed his conviction that the goal of world history and the goal of the individual are essentially identical. That paper was written before Marx knew anything of Hegel beyond his name. He derived his notion of history from the ideas, handed down by the traditions of the Enlightenment, of classical neohumanism and of Lutheranism. But, above all, it found a response in the inner recesses of his mind.
Selbstverständigung, the absorption of literature, philosophy, and science as the way of self-understanding and self-analysis, had been a driving force in Marx's life from his youth on. This factor explains the devastating criticism that he was wont to hurl at other thinkers. It also explains the merciless self-criticism which led him to annihilate several of his own philosophical productions and made him work continuously on his manuscripts.
Moreover, this desire for Selbstverständigung was closely connected with his sense of historical decisions. In the letter to his father he calls it the “necessary consciousness of one's real position”. In November 1837, a year after he had moved from Bonn to Berlin, such a decisive moment in his life had come. “World history also knows these moments,” Marx wrote, in this way introducing world history as though it had a personal consciousness. Just as we human beings at a turning point in our life, want to survey with the eagle's-eye-view of thought the past and the present in order to realize our position, so world history itself loves such a retrospective view, and takes a moment of rest for self-inspection. Although it has the appearance of going back or standing still, in such moments world history settles down comfortably in an attempt at self-understanding and spiritual penetration of its own activity, that is, the activity of the Spirit.
The phraseology used is significant. At its turning-points world-history is engaged in reflection on its own activity as an activity of the objective Spirit. We are strongly reminded of that poetry of his which described the mystical union as a reflex of the divine spirit in the human Spirit. But this mystical concept has now turned into a historical concept. The self-expression of the Creator-Spirit within the creative human eros has shifted from the inner dimension of the soul to the public field of history: the timeless eternity of mystical bliss is transformed into the activity of the objective Spirit as realized in the concrete acts of human history. What in his meditation on the choice of a profession was still an external goal of history determined by the Godhead, has, through a stage of radical subjectivism, developed into the self-reflection of history in which objective Spirit and subjective spirit become identical.
Just as two years before, at the moment of finishing high school, Marx had tried to map out his future course, so now he is looking back at the trajectory. There is a close parallel between the patterns of thought followed in both meditations; after an initial proposition about the general goal of world-history, the argument focuses on personal biography. Rooted in the conviction that there exists an intimate relationship between individual and universal history, his view of the history of mankind seems inspired by intimate personal experiences. The main theme of the letter is the so-called “metamorphosis” he has just been passing through. The prospect of a new period he is now entering, arouses lyrical sentiments in him, as if this moment were the overture to a great new poem he has in mind. On the other hand, he sees his letter as a swan-song, a retrospective view. Peering into the future which is dawning with radiant, though still vague colours, seems incomparably more attractive than meditating upon the recent past. Nevertheless, a memorial should be erected in honour of past experiences in order to restore in our subjective feelings the place these experiences have lost on the field of action.
We have to dwell for a moment on this important phrase; and, once more, a comparison with the examination paper would seem to be relevant. In that paper, where he is mapping out a future career, his feelings of doubt, uncertainty and despair are assuaged by two considerations: the guidance received from his parents, and the divine goal of history. This time, thinking of the future puts him in a lyrical mood; for it is the field of his own designing, of his personal action. Nothing is said about a goal set by the Godhead; now, his own passionate conviction of having discovered the right course for his life appears to be wholly sufficient. The problem which makes him uncertain this time is confrontation with the past, since in such a retrospective encounter reflection is substituted for action. At this moment of uncertainty he finds support in two considerations.
The first will already be familiar to the readers of his examination paper. The most sacred place for a memorial of the past is the heart of our parents: there exists our mildest judge, our dearest companion, the sun of love warming the inmost recesses of our aspirations!
The second consideration is new. We may trust forgiveness of our failures and errors if we understand their necessity, so that our heart need not be worried any longer at the repugnant vagaries of accident and mental aberration which have tricked us in the past.
What is striking in these considerations is the unmistakably religious overtones, the more so as the letter is devoid of any explicit reference to God or the Godhead. Marx's development up to this moment might be aptly described in terms of three different types of religiosity. The general mood of the examination paper might be characterized as reflecting the sentiments of “father-religion”, derived from an optimistic Enlightenment-belief in a Godhead, whose kindly and instructive wisdom leads history towards perfection. The Romantic period of the early academic years is steeped in the emotions of “mother-religion”. The last traces of Enlightenment-belief have been drowned in the flood-tide of mysticism; but its features of father-religion can still be detected in the unbroken personal relationship with his parents, particularly with his father.
There is yet a third type of religiosity to be traced in this letter: the belief in necessity. As distinct from the types of father-religion and mother-religion, this might be defined as the type of “neutral religion”. An understanding of necessity saves us from the threat of persistent self-reproach in the face of past failures and accidents; it is the genuine source of forgiveness.
Once more, however, Marx returns to the field of action. Whenever he leaves this field, to indulge in retrospective meditation or in romantic introspection, religious tendencies come to the surface. The field of action is the place where he feels quite on home ground. He sees life as the expression of a spiritual activity which appears in a whole variety of manifestations, such as science, art, private life, and so forth. Individual life, like the movement of world-history, reveals the inner activity of the spirit. The essence of objective and subjective reality is action.
Marx begins by describing the first academic year in Berlin as a period marked by his discovery of a new world, the world of love, that is, initially, of a hopeless love, drunk with desire. On his journey to Berlin all the new and fascinating things around had been lost upon him: their beauty was nothing as compared with the beauty of his sweetheart, Jenny. Even the beauty of art could not match her beauty.
In the summer of 1836 Marx had become engaged to Jenny von Westphalen, four years his senior, daughter of an aristocratic family, a playmate since early childhood. Though he had promised, on account of his youth, to forgo any direct contact with her for the next few years, his passionate mind—which was never content with doing things by halves—suffered intensely from the enforced separation. He found a substitute in an immoderate devotion to science and art.
The fruit of his artistic activities were three collections of poems which he sent to his Jenny. Some of the poems which have been discussed in this lecture belong to these collections. From his present standpoint, Marx evaluates the so-called “lyrical poetry” as “purely idealistic”. What he means by “purely idealistic” is described thus: “a jenseits (hereafter, beyond) as remote as my love became my heaven, my art. All reality vanishes, all things become boundless; attacks on the present time, expansive and formless sentiment, nothing natural, all things constructed from the moon; the full contrast between that which exists and that which ought to be, rhetorical reflections instead of poetic thoughts.” Although these poems might enshrine a certain emotional ardour, a struggle for vitality, this is still to be condemned as the expansion of an unlimited desire.
The key to this radical rejection of his own poetry lies in the analogy between the remoteness of his love and the remoteness of his art, which he characterizes as his jenseits, his “heaven”; which is the same as “pure idealism”. Since in the “Introduction to a critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law” Marx's evaluation of religion uses a phraseology closely akin to the self-criticism of this letter, it should be worthwhile to look at these words more closely. Marx had just described his love for his sweetheart, Jenny, in its full ambiguity. Love was for him the discovery of a new world. It was a very real world; for, before his departure to Berlin, Jenny and he had become engaged and had spent the summer in regular contact in Trier, where both families were living. But he had to leave her; and marriage was still years ahead. He would have to wait until he had finished his studies and could provide for a family. This very real love for a girl of flesh and blood was at the same time terribly unreal, since it remained unfulfilled. It was a love drunk with desire. Its glory was the very source of his despair; its reality was at the same time infused with a terrible emptiness that nothing was able to fill. All that he experienced in the external world and all his artistic creations could not match the reality of his beloved, from whom he was separated. Therefore, all his lyrical poetry, which sang his love and was dedicated to his sweetheart, all this he had discovered to be a mere substitute, a miserable makeshift.
“A Jenseits, as remote as my love, became my heaven, my art! “What he blames in his art is its artificiality. His beloved was real, she existed, he had not created her, nor had he created his love by himself, but he had found his beloved and their mutual love like a gift. What lacked reality, therefore, was not his love, but the way his love had to linger on, a shadow of its true being. True love means union between the beloved, physical proximity. For the reality of this union no substitute exists. Of course, spiritual love may bridge physical distance, and poetry may express one's devotion to the absent sweetheart. But the bridge is an illusory bridge, constructed by an imagination which meets no resistance and therefore sees no boundaries.
The analogy between “my love”, “my art” and “my heaven” has to be interpreted against this background. His lyrical poetry had indeed elevated his earthly love to heaven and identified divine and human eros as emerging from, and striving towards, one and the same mystical union, rooted in boundless and timeless eternity. This was, of course, not nonsensical; on the contrary, these artistic creations belonged to the new world that he had just been exploring, the world of love. His “heaven” was not a pure phantasmagoria, it possessed the same degree of reality as his love. But it was a Jenseits, in both the objective and the subjective sense. It was, from the objective viewpoint, as remote a reality as his beloved herself was far away. It was left to a subjective, impotent desire, to the devices of imagination, to bring near what in reality was remote. His “heaven” was the hopeless substitute for a very real desire felt for a very real, and yet remote, beloved.
Poetry, much as he might devote time and energy to it, could not during this first year in Berlin be more than a subsidiary occupation. More important were his legal studies and, notably, his wrestling with philosophy. The critique of Hegel's philosophy of right, which Marx was to write several years later, is obviously the fruit of a process of study and thinking that started with his first academic years. Marx reports how he continued the study of jurisprudence which he had begun in Bonn; he translated, merely for the exercise, two volumes of Roman jurisprudence from Latin into German. Besides that, he tried to develop a philosophy of law, one entirely on his own making, applicable to jurisprudence as a whole. He started with a series of metaphysical propositions. The result, which he calls a “miserable piece of work”, ran to almost 300 pages. Its size gives evidence of the almost demonic explosion of Marx's enthusiasm and intelligence, already displayed by the young student; just as the fact that this early work has not been preserved points to the devastating seriousness of his self-criticism. What is more important, these first attempts reveal the close combination, displayed throughout his life, of an almost pedantic zeal for scrutinizing sources and facts with a profound need for philosophical reflection and creative thinking.
Looking back at these attempts to develop a philosophy of law, Marx denounces them as purely idealistic products, meaning that they conform to the pattern of Fichte's “Foundation of Natural Law according to the Principles of the Theory of Science” (Grundlage des Naturrechts nach Prinzipien der Wissenschaftslehre) and Kant's “Metaphysical Principles of the Theory of Law” (Metaphysische Anfangsgründe der Rechtslehre). By “pure idealism” he means the construction of a radical opposition between what is in reality and what ought to be (Gegensatz des Wirklichen und des Sollenden), the separation of form from matter. In accordance with this idealistic pattern he first designed a purely formal metaphysics of law, divorced from all actual jurisprudence and from any actual form of law; it was followed by a second volume, a philosophy of law that dealt with the pattern of development in concrete Roman jurisprudence, as if concrete law could be considered as totally separate from the purely formal, abstract propositions contained in the first volume.
He rejects this kind of purely formal metaphysics of law as an unscientific form of mathematical dogmatism, which allows the subject to circle round the object, to fence about the matter. This method fails to get at the truth, because it does not allow the object to display the fullness of its own organic essence. The mathematician designs his geometrical constructions and demonstrations; but his triangle remains a product of pure imagination in space. It does not develop a life of its own, but is dependent on artificial relationships to other imaginations. On the other hand, in the concrete manifestations of the living thought-world, that is, in law, state, nature, philosophy, the object is to be observed in its development, free from arbitrary distinctions. “The contradictory reason of the thing itself has to roll along until it finds its unity in itself.” (Die Vernunft des Dinges selbst muss als in sich Widerstreitendes fortrollen und in sich seine Einheit finden.)
Of course, this philosophical conclusion anticipates the standpoint Marx had reached at the time of writing the letter to his father. Picking up the threads of his report, he continues the story of his trials and errors before the new truth had been revealed to him. Before he could even finish his design for a philosophy of law, and having tried in vain to force Roman jurisprudence into the framework of a tripartite concept, he discovered the fundamental error of his design, closely akin to Kant's philosophical system. Leaving the manuscript of almost 300 pages to its own devices, he made a fresh start and began to develop a completely new metaphysical system. But once again the result was so miserable that he called a premature halt to the whole enterprise.
Meanwhile, driven by restless anxiety for universal knowledge, he continued making excerpts of all sorts of literary and historical works, which he provided with his personal reflections. He translated works of Tacitus and Ovid, began to learn English and Italian and simultaneously devoured a wide variety of literary, juridical and historical works. At the end of the semester he resumed writing his poetry, which ended up in pure formalism. The total frustration of his artistic creativity touched off the latent crisis. All of a sudden he saw, as if illuminated by a flash of lightning, the domain of real poetry revealed like some remote, ethereal palace; and all his creations crumbled to nothing. This crushing blow was followed by a physical breakdown, which obliged him, on medical advice, to seek recovery in the countryside.
“A curtain had fallen, my Holy of Holies had been rent asunder, and new gods had to be substituted”; so runs Marx's terse description of his first, terrible crisis. Just as he had at the beginning of his letter, once again Marx resorts to religious phraseology, this time of an unmistakably Christian character. We are reminded of the christocentric allusions at the end of his examination-paper on the choice of a profession, referring to Christ's sacrifice for the sake of universal happiness, a sacrifice which we are called upon to imitate in our personal life. Now, two years later, recalling the moment of his mental and physical breakdown, he seems to be remembering the gospel-story which records that, at the very moment of Christ's death on the cross, the veil of the temple was torn in two. The description reminds us also of what is reported in John 12:29, that a clap of thunder was heard at the moment when Jesus prophesied regarding his death and resurrection. Marx describes his personal crisis in such terms as to identify it with the end of the Old Covenant. The curtain which veiled the Holy of Holies, was torn asunder, the old God had died. The old God, that is the “idealism” which he has left behind in order “to seek the ideal in the real itself. As formerly the gods had been dwelling beyond the earth, so they had now become its very centre”.
In philosophical terms, what Marx describes is the substitution of Hegel's philosophy for the rejected idealism of Kant and Fichte. He explicitly mentions the names of these three thinkers, so that one might be inclined simply to identify the old gods dwelling above the earth with Kantian and Fichtean idealism and the new gods, living at its centre, with Hegel's reconciliation of the ideal with the real. Had Hegel's philosophy become the end-point of Marx's wanderings, then this turning-point in his life could, indeed, have been aptly described as the substitution of one philosophy for another. But such a simplification is ruled out by the ambiguous and paradoxical character of Marx's relationship to Hegel.
Up to this moment Marx had not mentioned Hegel's philosophy. Now the time had come to pronounce the magic name. Marx tells his father how already earlier, during his first year in Berlin, he had been reading fragments of Hegel's philosophy; but its “grotesque melody of the rock” did not please him. “Once more,” he goes on, “I wanted to dive into the sea, this time, however, with the fixed purpose of bringing the pure pearls to the surface and to hold them in the sunlight; I resolved to stop fencing with ideas and to find the spiritual nature as necessary, concrete and palpable as the corporeal nature.”
With this purpose in mind, he wrote a dialogue of approximately twenty-four pages, entitled Cleanthes, a treatise on the starting-point and the necessary development of philosophy. In this philosophical essay he succeeded, up to a point, in uniting the completely separate domains of art and science. He began patiently to design a philosophical-dialectical development of the Godhead, in its successive manifestations of pure concept, of religion, of nature, of history. He had prepared for this essay by studying physics, Schelling's philosophy and history. Designed as a kind of new logic, it had required an immense degree of cerebral exertion on his part. The conclusion is surprising: “My last sentence was the beginning of the Hegelian system. This very treatise this, my dearest child, nurtured in moonlight, bears me, like a false Siren, into the bosom of the enemy. Infuriated, I was for a few days incapable of thinking. Like a madman, I ran round the garden on the muddy waters of the Spree, in which souls are washed and tea is diluted; I even attended a hunting-party with my host, ran to Berlin and was in a mood to embrace every loafer.” Shortly afterwards he continued with “merely concrete studies” and became absorbed in the immense task of reading, epitomizing or translating all sorts of classical, philosophical and scientific works.
The result was complete exhaustion of mind and body. “Consumed with grief over Jenny's illness and over the futile creations of my mind which had perished, devoured with anger because I was compelled to idolize a hateful conception, I fell ill. Having recovered, I burnt all poems and designs of novels and so forth, in the illusion that I could leave off. So far I have not yet, after all, furnished proof to the contrary.”
During his illness he had studied Hegel from beginning to end, as well as most of Hegel's disciples. In Stralau, the village to which his doctors had sent him to convalesce, he had several meetings with friends, who introduced him into a “Doctors’ Club”, a club of Young Hegelian academics at Berlin University. “In the conflict of opinions,” Marx continues, “I chained myself up faster and faster to the present world-philosophy which I had thought to evade, but certainly not without silencing all music that was left in my heart; I was all irony at so much negation. Added to this was the fact that Jenny remained silent.”
With a casual remark about some unsuccessful new writings he had produced, Marx ends the account of his experiences during the past year in Berlin. The rest of the letter deals with his post-university prospects. He acknowledges his sacred duty to complete his studies as soon as possible in order to enter the legal profession or begin an academic career as a lecturer or assistant professor. It is that duty, as well as strong doubts as to his father's consent which forces him to stay in Berlin, though he is consumed with desire to visit Trier and to see his family and his sweetheart.
The whole letter reveals the state of mind of a young man, torn between contradictory ideas and passions, desperately trying to steer a course through the breakers and into smoother waters. Philosophical reflections, artistic enthusiasm and the ardour of a consuming love are inextricably tangled together in him. It is this peculiar mixture which makes the letter a true revelation of Marx's inner development.
The document contains what is in every respect a genuine conversion-story. Just as the allusion to Christ's death and the rending of the Temple veil indicates the dimensions of his personal crisis, likewise there are several features that remind us of the story of Paul's conversion as reported by the apostle himself in the Book of Acts. The fact that Marx was mentally incapacitated, was quite unable to think for several days, reminds one of Paul's three-day blindness. The stroke of lightning which suddenly revealed to him the nothingness of all his creations, recalls the heavenly light which shone about Paul on his way to Damascus. There is even one feature of Marx's story that recalls the baptism which Paul received in Damascus after his conversion (Acts 9:19). Marx reports how he was walking like a madman along the bank of the river Spree in whose foul waters “souls are washed”. The phrase is a quotation from Heinrich Heine's cycle of poems Peace, being the first part of a larger cycle which bears the title “North Sea”. And to complete the analogy: just as after his baptism and recovery Paul was for several days with the disciples (Acts 9:20), so Marx, while recuperating in the village of Stralau, became a member of the “Doctors’ Club”, the club of Young Hegelian philosophers which became his first genuine, spiritual community.
As a matter of fact, the water-symbolism which had proved to be an essential element in his romantic poetry, also plays a prominent role in Marx's conversion-story, notably in connection with his paradoxical encounter with Hegel. After a casual reading of some fragments, he was displeased with the “grotesque melody of the rock” of Hegel's philosophy. Diving into the sea in a final effort to find the pearls of truth, he discovers in those depths the very philosophy which he had tried to rebut as a fatal temptation: the Hegelian system. His dearest child, nurtured in moonlight, was, like a false Siren, bearing him into the bosom of the enemy.
The expressions “grotesque melody of the rock” and “false Siren” remind us of the “protruding rock” and the “fatal melodies”—expressions which we encountered in two of the epigrams on Hegel. Obviously, these metaphors are related to the well-known saga of Lorelei, the demonic mermaid sitting upon the protruding rock in a dangerous bend of the Rhine. While she is singing her siren song, she seduces the heart of the bargeman and pulls his boat down into the fatal whirlpool.
In other words, the encounter with Hegel is permeated by all the blissful and terrifying features which make the water-symbolism such a striking expression of the mysterium fascinosum et tremendum, the fascinating and tremendous mystery of religion. We are particularly reminded of Marx's romantic “Ballad of the Old man in the Water”, which I discussed in the preceding lecture. The endless undulation of the waters, above which shines the sun, is the murderer of the old man who is living in the water's abyss and dancing in the moonlight. Comparing this ballad with the poem entitled “Creation”, I ventured to interpret the “old man” as representing the Father-Creator, the uncreated Creator-Spirit whose images are reflected by man's spirit. The treatise which Marx wrote in a last effort to find in the oceanic abyss the pearls of truth, was a philosophical dialogue about the dialectical development of the Godhead in its manifestations of pure concept, of religion, of nature, of history. This dialectical self-manifestation of the Godhead was the truth he found in the “oceanic depths”. An extremely ambiguous truth! It was the very truth which he feared as one would fear the pernicious fascination of the Siren's song.
In the encounter with Hegel, Marx is faced with the paradoxical riddle of his own mind, with the inner contradictions of his own thoughts and passions, of his mystical raptures and abysmal doubts. What he fears in Hegel is that same boundless mysticism which had permeated his own lyrical poetry and had expressed some of his deepest desires. On the other hand, he is fascinated by the concept of a Godhead which is no longer dwelling in a remote, illusory heaven, but is manifesting itself in all the dimensions of earthly reality of which it is the centre. His suspicion is aroused by the rationality of this philosophy, which brings the pearls of truth out from the abyss into the sunlight of reason and thus repels the mysteries of divine love and human eros. Much as he is fascinated by this comprehensive system of a powerful thinker, he dreads its tyrannical embrace, which threatens his own freedom of thought. But no choice remains; the die is already cast. Like the bargeman on the lake, described in one of his romantic poems, he will valiantly confront the Siren on her rock, he will castigate the waves and show himself their master.