In Memory Of

With that, just as a

sun ray reaches

up for your chin

to cling,

with a frantic hand,

your grim look

strikes me

square across the neck.

 

Draw the blinds

you snuff the life out of

the winged hero

I recognize myself,

the expert healer.

 

I owned a heavy debt

I owed it all to the old king

the prize-winning thoroughbreds

chariot and all

the whole lot,

lost in naked treachery

as herons ringed the fort.

 

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where are you from kid? what can you see kid? what does the gold sound like?

They often hear the question

“WHO SNAPPED THE GOLDEN BOUGH”

what a fruitful hive

you may perhaps be solicitous

in an ephemeral collection

of songs, all running out of time.

You may perhaps be solicitous,

they everywhere carry admonition

you can tell

one born here is

distinguishable by gait.

After the exposure, exhaustion,

descending through the day, unhorrified.

their eyes were blinded by

GOLD BEAMS

 

A Bird in the Bush is Worth One in the Ear: Thoreau, Perception, and Avian Auditory Co-Presence

“Music is perpetual, and only hearing intermittent” – Journal, February 8, 1857.

Regrettably, Henry David Thoreau did not own a tape recorder. Were he alive today, he might be found with microphone in hand, producing amateur recordings of ambient sound. However, he did record sound, perhaps the deepest source of his veneration of the natural world, in writing. Pre-empting the fields of soundscape ecology, Thoreau engaged in novel forms of sonic perception which reveal a disciplined ear that was open to the vibrations of an ordered, harmonious cosmos. Thoreau’s attentiveness to ambient sound, especially his extensive writings on bird song, reveal his unique ability to perceive the component particulars of a given environmental soundscape. His written descriptions of sonic phenomena signal a development beyond his early transcendentalist consideration of sound as a singularly spiritual correspondence, toward a balance with a more empirical, universal method of recording. In studying his method of deep listening and subsequent written representation of sound, we can trace Thoreau’s development of multiple eco-acoustic theories, including a synergistic view of subject-object orientation, acoustic niche theory and human-animal co-presence, all of which reveal a rare ear open to the sonic possibilities produced by the birds of Concord.

Readers of Thoreau know that he was an astute observer of all natural phenomena. His writings, especially his journals contain valuable records of his findings, etched out in exquisite descriptive detail. As such, Thoreau is today considered one of the first major interpreters of nature in American literary history, a patron saint of environmentalists. However, he was aware of the limitations of his activity as a naturalist, indeed of the limitations of the human perception and language he used to record his collections. In a Journal entry from November 20, 1857 he noted that, “Here I have been these forty years learning the language of these fields that I may better express myself” (Searls 479). In recognizing the limitations of the written word, Thoreau correctly identifies sound, “the language of these fields,” as something distinct and worthy of his attention. This natural language requires learning, or a special type of listening to gain access, possible only if the observer prepares the whole self to perceive it. In Thoreau’s words, “The body, the senses, must conspire with the mind. Expression is the act of a whole man” (Cramer 92). This consideration of the whole man indicates a balance between the mind of an empiricist and the invigorated imagination of an inspired poet. Perhaps this combination of perceptual techniques allowed Thoreau to more regularly hear the perpetual music of the natural world.

The “I” and the Ear: Developing the Technique and Learning to Hear

Before investigating Thoreau’s writings on sound, it is essential to first understand the component parts of Thoreau’s philosophy, which would have impacted the way in which he perceived his natural environment. To do so, one must investigate his transcendental inheritance. One can find some of the early development of Thoreau’s sonic philosophy in the writings of Emerson, who was a towering figure in the polymath’s life in Concord. Thoreau, often described as Emerson’s empirical opposite, moved gradually beyond the core of what Emerson put forth in his seminal 1836 work, Nature, which identified nature as man’s spiritual counterpart, arguing that natural phenomena contained both spiritual and material significance (Emerson 8). Ultimately, Thoreau developed a greater ability to integrate self and nature, whereas Emerson was rooted in the human perspective. In his 1844 essay Experience, Emerson describes a synchronic connection between the perceiver and the perceived, in which, “Thus inevitably does the universe wear our color, and every object fall successively into the subject itself” (Emerson 210). While this synthesis seems to suggest a human-natural co-presence as a mode of being and as a sense of being, the idea that the object “falls successively” into the subject creates a distinct hierarchy of the perceiver over the perceived. This stab at the concept of subject/object synthesis signals Emerson’s understanding of a universal cosmic vocabulary, where humans and natural phenomenon are intertwined, but Emerson’s understanding is invariably rooted in the experience of the human, whereas Thoreau’s is considerably more open.

In Experience Emerson goes on to consider how, “The subject exists, the subject enlarges; all things sooner or later fall into place…let us treat the new comer like a travelling geologist, who passes through our estate, and shows us good slate, or limestone, or anthracite, in our brush pasture. The partial action of each strong mind in one direction, is a telescope for the objects on which it is pointed.” (Emerson 211). Emerson’s subject is a hungry one, a subject that consumes the world around it, subjugating it to the sense-world of the perceiver. For Emerson, a lecture or a bird song might reveal to the listener the inner essence of his own perception, the listener’s “good slate.” This is not to discount Emerson’s mode of perception; indeed, he recognizes the ability of external objects to serve as an unexpected teacher, which must be listened to or perceived attentively, without too much interference. However, his mode of perception nearly always favors the human consumer.

There is no doubt Emerson’s thought left an indelible impression on Thoreau’s mind, although after 1850, Thoreau’s approach to nature became markedly empirical. A growing commitment to exact observation saw more lists and solidly descriptive text emerge in the Journal (Searls 139). While Emerson’s primary consideration was how nature might subserve humanity, Thoreau realized a different epistemological aim. Thoreau’s intention was to define, with words and rough data-collection, nature’s structure both spiritually and materially, for its own sake, and in a form that was as close as he could get to nature’s own language.

What set Thoreau’s mode of perception apart from Emerson’s? Ecocritic Lawrence Buell claims that Thoreau’s turn to the empirical represented his ability to overcome not only the limits of his classical education and his early transcendental idealism, but also an intense preoccupation with himself, his moods and his overall identity (Buell 172). Buell states how, “this narcissism he surmounted by defining his individuality as the intensity of his interest in and caring for physical nature itself.” (Buell 172). In his enthusiastic studies of Thoreau’s auditory capabilities, musicologist John Titon further develops this claim, arguing that Buell overlooks the way in which Thoreau’s listening body “integrated self and nature…it was not so much a surmounting of narcissism as an understanding of the relations between self and environment by means of listening and co-presence” (Titon 146). Here, Titon underlines the unique role of the notion of co-presence and of auditory economy at play in Thoreau’s writing. Thoreau was aware of the multiple acoustic agents of any environment, all jockeying to define their sonic niche: different species of birds using different calls to identify their kin, the drones of crickets or “dreaming toads,” even human sounds of the deep cut made their way into Thoreau’s ear. How would Thoreau make sense of such a heterogeneous orchestra? To develop his ear more wholly, so as to pick apart the components of this sonic tapestry, Thoreau needed to cast off his early mentor’s influence and develop a mode of perception all his own. He did so in his shift to the empirical.

Thoreau describes this shift in the Journal, where on September 2, 1851, he considers “A writer, a man writing [as] the scribe of all nature – he is the corn & the grass & the atmosphere writing.” (Cramer 92). Here Thoreau is constructing a new model of literary perception in which he is not merely recording nature or taking its dictation, but what Sharon Cameron describes as Thoreau’s desire to “incarnate [nature’s] articulating will” (Cameron 47). This empirical shift indicates a new openness to whatever aspects of the sonic environment present themselves to the perceiver. Thoreau’s new mode of sonic perception was one that rejected common listening habits, described in a Journal entry from March 30, 1853 where, “the walker does not too seriously observe particulars, but sees, hears, scents, tastes, and feels only himself” (Searls 193). Thoreau’s receptivity to bird song, his ability to listen and truly hear, was not just brilliance; it represented a technique that required practice, a form of sonic meditation, and a hyper-awareness of sonic environment. This was likely an outgrowth of his lifelong note taking, a highly industrious practice, a competence of the whole self, and a complete knowledge of particulars. His writings following 1850 feature even more detailed records, lists, sketches, and written meditations, all distillations of his sauntering in which he would often lose himself in these particulars.

Lost indeed, Thoreau seems to have encountered limitations to a purely objective approach. In a Journal entry from August 19, 1851, Thoreau indicates his frustration with this new approach, writing that, “I fear that the character of my knowledge is from year to year becoming more distinct and scientific; that, in exchange for views as wide as heaven’s cope, I am being narrowed down to the field of the microscope. I see details, not wholes nor the shadow of the whole. I count some parts, and say, ‘I know.’ The cricket’s chirp now fills the air in dry fields near pine woods” (Cramer 89). This is not to say that Thoreau completely abandoned his poetic transcendental roots in his shift to the empirical, quite the opposite. This awareness of the limitations of pure objectivity was likely useful for Thoreau, who seemed to develop a hybrid approach that incorporated both poetic and empirical gestures.

In fact, the gestures in question denote an observer who defies binary categories of individual acoustic representation, and the text itself is generally hybrid, oscillating between didactic “manifesto” aims and empirical scrutiny. Thoreau’s complex, detailed, and even contradicting moments are akin to the auditory opacity of a wandering mind, unable to focus completely on a bird sound or some other natural element. By willingly becoming lost in a sonic environment, Thoreau thereby unlocks a new method of sonic perception, effectively rendering his mind empty and open, ready to be swept away by sonic particulars and their subsequent poetic or spiritual evocations.

This concept of losing oneself in an environment can be found in more modern acoustic study, especially in the work of John Cage, an American experimental composer and sonic artist. Cage wrote how “[You] should be ready for a new experience, and the best way to be ready for a new experience is to be attentive and empty. By empty is meant open — in other words, the like and dislike of the ego doors should be down. And there should be a flow so that the experience of listening can come in” (Kostelanetz 235). Here the similarity between Thoreau and Cage’s sonic philosophy is striking. Both were interested in allowing the untrammeled language of nature to unfold, without infusing too much of the human will into the listening process.

Thoreau’s language was a listening language, not meant to define with authority, but to describe, letting the world take him along for the ride. In his essay Poethics, Gerald Bruhns develops a crucial distinction between using words to grasp the world and using them to inhabit it, and considers John Cage’s interpretations of Thoreau to do so. Cage says how “Reading the Journal, I had been struck by the twentieth-century way Thoreau listened. He listened, it seemed to me, just as composers using technology nowadays listen. He paid attention to each sound, whether it was ‘musical’ or not, just as they do; and he explored the neighborhood of Concord with the same appetite with which they explore the possibilities provided by electronics.” (Cage ix). Cage correctly identifies Thoreau’s ability to disintegrate a sonic environment into its particulars. For Thoreau, the difficulty came not in the perceiving; he was well trained in this. It was transposing natural sonic artifact in a manner that would not anthropomorphize the sound to a significant degree. If Thoreau was always in the business of learning the language of nature, he was also responsible for translating it for an audience that did not have such eco-linguistic access.

The Human-Animal Language: Linguistic Co-Presence through Bird Song

In his 1991 work, The animal that therefore I am, Jacques Derrida suggests that ‘The idea according to which man is the only speaking being… seems to me at once displaceable and highly problematic. Of course, if one defines language in such a way that it is reserved for what we call man, what is there to say?” (Derrida 116). Here Derrida hints at a human-animal linguistic co-presence, in which language should be, and is liberated from its strictly human connotation. He then attempts to rectify the faulty mechanisms of human language by placing possibility at the core of language, stating how “If one reinscribes language in a network of possibilities that do not merely encompass it but mark it irreducibly from the inside, everything changes. I am thinking in particular of the mark in general, of the trace; of iterability, of différence. These possibilities or necessities, without which there would be no language, are themselves not only human.” (Derrida 117). The possibilities described by Derrida contain linkages to Cage’s modes of attentive listening, wherein the observer is “Ready to hear what there is to hear, rather than what [s/he] thinks there’s going to be to hear” (Kostelanetz 237). By placing openness and attentiveness at the core of one’s listening, the observer then attains a state of what Charles Junkerman describes as a condition of “auditory disponibilité.” (Junkerman and Perloff 52). Unlike word-bound speech and writing, sounds have the ability to communicate directly, in what Thoreau calls a language “without metaphor” (Walden 411). Thoreau attempted to infuse his writing with this language without metaphor, a sort of economical prose, which only took stock of the necessary, self-evident elements of his thought and his surroundings.

Few examples illustrate Thoreau’s impartial, yet undeniably imaginative representations of nature better than his written descriptions of bird song. In a Journal entry from May 3, 1852, Thoreau recounts a sonic environment, where he hears “the first brown thrasher, -two of them. Minott says he heard one yesterday, but does he know it from a catbird? They drown all the rest. He says cherruwit, cherruwit; go ahead go ahead; give it to him, give it to him; etc., etc., etc. Plenty of birds in the woods this morning” (Searls 132-3). Here Thoreau is truly nature writing itself, indicating the presence of multiple sonic actors, considering what today we call acoustic niches, and the transcribing of the sonic characteristics of bird song itself. In doing so, Thoreau taps into multiple senses of observation, and defines multiple forms of sensorial experience, establishing a dichotomy between the song described and the cognitive effects it provokes. Thoreau uses human language to describe the rhythm and cadence of the bird song. The text connects to the reader, who is invited mentally to perform the songs described on the stage of the mind, and experience them, once-abstracted, on a cognitive-sensorial level. This transmutation appeals to the reader’s creative intelligence, promoting the virtual reproduction of the act of listening. Thoreau thus allows us to travel to the woods without moving, to give us a clue of what to listen for on our next jaunt into the forest.

The primary presentation of bird song in Thoreau’s text is as an interjection, a piece of supporting evidence. However, there are moments where Thoreau dissects the sound, anthropomorphizing it through its transformation into written language, integrating it into a human-animal hybrid language. In a passage from Walden, Thoreau describes, “For sounds in winter nights, and often in winter days, I heard the forlorn but melodious note of a hooting owl indefinitely far; such a sound as the frozen earth would yield if struck with a suitable plectrum, the very lingua vernacula of Walden Wood, and quite familiar to me at last, though I never saw the bird while it was making it. I seldom opened my door in a winter evening without hearing it; Hoo hoo hoo, hoorer, hoo, sounded sonorously, and the first three syllables accented somewhat like how der do; or sometimes hoo, hoo only” (Walden 263). In describing bird song as an essential aspect of the lingua vernacula of Walden Wood, Thoreau unveils the existence of hybrid and co-dependent sonic realities, in which bird song is normally withdrawn into the mélange of background noise or overshadowed by human noises.

Thoreau found music in the natural world, it was his muse and his endless source of free entertainment. In a Journal entry from June 22, 1851, Thoreau recounts that, “I awoke into a music which no one about me heard…To the sane man the world is a musical instrument” (Shepard 44). American modernist composer and musical theorist Charles Ives writes how Thoreau’s susceptibility to natural sound “was probably greater than that of many practical musicians…Thoreau was a great musician, not because he played the flute but because he did not have to go to Boston to hear ‘the symphony’” (Ives 77). Ives’ assessment of Thoreau rings true, especially when reading passages of the Journal where Thoreau was deeply moved by common bird songs. Perhaps his favorite winged performer was the common wood thrush, of which he writes fondly. On June 22nd, 1853, Thoreau wrote how, “As I come over the hill I hear the wood thrush singing his evening lay. This is the only bird whose note affects me like music – affects the flow and tenor of my thought – my fancy and imagination. It lifts and exhilarates me. It is inspiring. It is a medicative draught to my soul. It is an elixir to my eyes and a fountain of youth to all my senses.” (Cramer 192-93). This description, while admittedly poetic, indicates a powerfully evocative communion with nature. For Thoreau, this song is not only a natural artifact, for it also retains much of the spiritual significance that both he and Emerson articulated in their transcendentalist visions. He goes on to write how, “[the wood thrush] changes all hours to an eternal morning. It banishes all trivialness. It reinstates me in my dominion – makes me the lord of creation – is chief musician of my court…All that was ripest and fairest in the wilderness and the wild man is preserved and transmitted to us in the strain of the wood thrush. It is the mediator between barbarism and civilization. It is as unrepentant as Greece.” (Cramer 193). The music he describes provides the reader with an opportunity to join him on a dynamic and synesthetic exploration.

Unlike Wordsworth, Keats, and Coleridge, Thoreau does not solely use birds as a romantic-symbolic mode. He does not profess an American “Nightingale”, and keeps his writing more rooted in the real, remaining generally focused on relaying the sonic environment. However, he does describe bird song in a poetic form. In a Journal entry from May 17, 1853, Thoreau draws a comparison between his beloved wood thrush and history’s most famous poets, stating how, “The wood thrush has sung for me sometime. He touches a depth in me which no other bird song does. He has learned to sing and no thrumming of the strings or tuning disturbs you. Other birds may whistle pretty well but he is the master of a finer toned instrument. His song is musical not from association merely – not from variety but the character of its tone. It is all divine – Shakespeare among birds and a Homer too.” (Walden Woods Project). Furthermore, in a Journal entry from April 2, 1852, Thoreau describes numerous acoustic actors in a single sonic environment. He writes, “The sun is up. The air is full of the notes of birds, – song sparrows, red-wings, robins (singing a strain), bluebirds,- and I hear also a lark, -as if all the earth had burst forth into song. A few weeks ago, before the birds had come, there came to my mind in the night the twittering sound of birds in the early dawn of a spring morning, a semi-prophecy of it, and last night I attended mentally as if I heard the spray-like dreaming sound of the midsummer frog and realized how glorious and full of revelations it was” (Searls 120-21). Here Thoreau evokes the prophetic voice of birds, but only as a semi-prophecy. He recognizes the limitations of the romantic-symbolic mode as if to say that the poetry of Keats on the nightingale, Browning on the thrush, and Shelley on the skylark are all splendid, and all evoke charismatic metaphor, but are the birds really singing for us? Nevertheless, Thoreau was clearly moved by bird song, and his descriptions of it indicate his oscillation between the empirical and romantic.

Thoreau was also preoccupied with the effects that bird song produced on the human ear, and the broader effects that sound had on its surroundings. On February 20, 1857 he pondered, “What is the relation between a bird and the ear that appreciates its melody, to whom, perchance, it is more charming and significant than anyone else? Certainly, they are intimately related, and the one was made for the other. It is a natural fact. If I were to discover that a certain kind of stone by the pond-shore was affected, say partially disintegrated, by a particular natural sound, as of a bird…I see that one could not be completely described without describing the other. I am that rock by the pond-side” (Searls 438). This relationship between the bird and the ear, in which one cannot be fully described without the other, in which they are complimentary, indicates a profound awareness of human-bird co-presence. The listener needs the subject as the singer needs the audience. Instead of a classic subject/object-oriented view, Thoreau takes the co-present, or synergistic view. When he writes “I am that rock by the pond-side” he indicates that the subject and object complete each other, that they are harmonious, part of a larger being, that of the cosmos. Listening is therefore not an activity purely of the individual mind, which represents one’s immediate reality, but an immersion in an acoustic environment that mobilizes all of the instruments of the mind and perception, thereby challenging a long dominant dualism of subject/object orientation. The act of listening is rooted in co-presence, a fact which Thoreau explored, whether he realized it or not.

Thoreau was nature writing itself; he was tuned in. The song of nature was his symphony, the wood thrush, his first chair. Sometimes it is hard to think of the Journal as anything other than a sweeping romantic life project. Why bother taking down all this information? Modern readers are lucky that someone so attuned to the cosmos happened to take notes. Among the final lines of Thoreau’s Journal include his admission that, “All this is perfectly distinct to the observant eye, and yet could easily pass unnoticed by most” (Cramer 438). Over the course of his life he used that observant eye, but his scrutiny was at the same time auditory. In fact, all of his senses were used to drink up the particulars of any given environment. His life’s business was paying attention to experience, finding wonder in it, and recounting it either in his Journal, his published works, or his public oratory. Thoreau developed a grand and unifying vision which recognized a reality he called “the frame-work of the universe.” (Walls 300). Thoreau’s astute sense-perception afforded him privileged access and understanding of this framework, especially in terms of his perceptions of sonic environment. Concepts like co-presence and acoustic niche theory are outgrowths of Thoreau’s insights, which have been recognized and documented by scientific and philosophical communities, many of whose practitioners are undoubtedly Thoreauvians.

wood-thrush-john-jnmes-audubon

Bibliography

Buell, Lawrence. New England Literary Culture from Revolution through Renaissance. Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Buell, Lawrence. “Sound Commons for All Tition.” The Cambridge Companion to Henry David Thoreau, pp. 171–193.

Cage, John. M: Writings: ’67-’72. Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1973.

Cameron, Sharon. Writing Nature: Henry Thoreau’s “Journal. University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Derrida, Jacques, and Marie-Louise Mallet. The Animal That Therefore I Am. Fordham University Press, 2008.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo, and Jeffrey S. Cramer. The Portable Emerson. Penguin Books, 2014.

Ives, Charles, and Howard Boatwright. Essays before a Sonata: the Majority, and Other Writings. Norton, 1999.

Kostelanetz, Richard. Conversing with Cage. Routledge, 2003.

Krause, Bernie. Great Animal Orchestra. Profile Books Ltd, 2012.

Mynott, Jeremy. Birdscapes: Birds in Our Imagination and Experience. Princeton University Press, 2012.

Perloff, Marjorie Gabrielle., and Charles Junkerman. John Cage: Composed in America. The University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Sherman, Paul. “The Wise Silence: Sound as the Agency of Correspondence in Thoreau.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 4, 1949, p. 511.

Shultis, Christopher. Silencing the Sounded Self: John Cage and the Experimental Tradition in Twentieth-Century American Poetry and Music. 1993.

Thoreau, Henry David, and Damion Searls. The Journal, 1837-1861. New York Review Books, 2009.

Thoreau, Henry David, and Jeffrey S. Cramer. I To Myself: an Annotated Selection from the Journal of Henry D. Thoreau. Yale University Press, 2012.

Thoreau, Henry David, and Jeffrey S. Cramer. Walden. Yale University Press, 2006.

Thoreau, Henry David. The Heart of Thoreau’s Journals. Dover, 1967.

Titon, Jeff Todd. “Thoreau’s Ear.” Sound Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, 2015, pp. 144–154.

Walls, Laura Dassow. Henry David Thoreau: a Life. The University of Chicago Press, 2018.

Zhao, Shanyang. “Toward a Taxonomy of Copresence.” Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, vol. 12, no. 5, 2003, pp. 445–455.

 

Dry Hill (Time Enough)

Stopped by the hill.
How slowly and majestically
The battle with time
In its earnest vigor, only leaves
Inexpressible dry stillness.
It is wonderful, wonderful,
The unceasing demand of roots,
The sheen of sunlight reclaims
The dewy utterances.
How slowly and majestically
This sluggish muse invites
The vain boasts of humans,
Their disparaging nerve.
How slowly and majestically
Lank yellow-white reeds sag
Steely lizards and hawks reign
As heavens withdraw their destiny.

When You Eat Your Own Heart

When you eat your own heart
You are obliged to.
You must hold on to your life
With your teeth, sinews gust
Drowned mouth of warm sinking sap
Peeling the skin off nature’s bones.
With each vivifying breath
You survive, the rending.
You must dig up scarlet oaks
Until light charms the dead specimen.

When you eat your own heart
You are poetic, an ichor spirit.
Sight clouded, eyes lolling back, blackened.
A source to plunder, twisting
Chambers in a messy web, plucking
One final eternity in disjunction
You notice the record of your love
Amidst the light and shadow.
You notice the dreamy motions,
Until, in disciplined scrutiny, the heart is eaten.

Perceiving Materiality: Balzac’s Social Realism and the Marxist Connection in Père Goriot

Honoré de Balzac writes in his 1835 novel Père Goriot, “Money is life. If you have cash, you can do anything” (Old Man Goriot 205). Balzac, who was intimately acquainted with the hierarchy of wealth in Restoration society, revealed the veiled contours of wealth and its inevitable implications on the lives of men and women, most notably their material realities. With his sociological eye, Balzac depicted the effects of wealth disparity with an authenticity and evocative power that few empirical analyses have been able to match. Balzac’s stylistic approach, social realism, identified and personified the love of money, which was the root of life in Paris at the time. His literary realism uncovered the importance and preponderance of economic realities over feelings and ideas. However, it was not money alone that was of central importance to Balzac; it was the appearances that could be obtained with money, the destinies that could be unlocked by real material things and the power they signified. Balzac’s literary realism had a profound effect on the founders of Communism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who shared this material fixation, as one could not live in the tumultuous industrial age without recognizing the effects of the media of exchange. Despite some theoretical divergence, the emphasis on materialism presented in Père Goriot contains links to the broader philosophical materialism that ultimately shaped a central aspect of Marx’s theory, historical and dialectical materialism.

Balzac’s work embodies an all-encompassing preoccupation with the material, where money and its manifestations compose the structure and meaning of La Comèdie humaine. In the social and physical world Balzac creates, the beginning and end of all feelings, beliefs, and mores is gold and its subsequent material benefits. This distinct cognizance of economic and social realities in La Comèdie humaine is strikingly similar to the necessary and universal emphasis on economics and the material in the works of Marx and Engels. In the preface to the 1888 English translation of The Communist Manifesto, Engels identifies the fundamental proposition which forms the nucleus of the work, stating that, “In every historical epoch, the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange, and the social organization necessarily following from it, form the basis upon which is built up, and from which alone can be explained the political and intellectual history of that epoch, that consequently the whole history of mankind…has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiting and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes” (The Communist Manifesto 5). This systematic approach to human history carries a Balzacian resonance, in which the prevailing mode of economic production and its material implications comprise the social substructure, the motor that puts the whole of society into motion.

It is no secret that both Marx and Engels were fans of and influenced by literary realism. Karl Marx, who praised “the present splendid brotherhood of fiction-writers” in an article for the New York Tribune on August 1, 1854, stated that realistic novelists’ “graphic and eloquent pages have issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together” (Marx in New-York Tribune 1854- “The English Middle Class”). For Marx and Engels, realism represented not only a trend in literature, but a formidable achievement in the world of aesthetics. Engels, who developed a definition of realism in an 1888 letter to Margaret Harkness in London, argued that, “Realism, to my mind, implies, besides truth of detail, the truthful reproduction of typical characters under typical circumstances” (1888 Letter).  This emphasis on truth and realistic representation of environment was not intended to merely copy reality but represented an aesthetic tool to infiltrate and reflect the essence of a phenomenon, social, historical, or otherwise. Literary realism made it possible to reveal the traits of a particular temporal context.

It follows that Marx would view language, and subsequently literature, as a reflection of particular social conditions and relationships. “Language,” wrote Marx, “is as old as consciousness, language is practical consciousness…language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity of intercourse with other men… Consciousness is therefore from the beginning a social product, and remains so as long as men exist at all” (The German Ideology 19). This view indicates Marx and Engels’ belief that social relations, class antagonisms and the conditions for the development of human individuality, have significant bearing on literary consciousness, determining its nature and development.

Balzac’s world is saturated with the contradictions between the exploitative capitalist system and the humanist ideals so lauded by Parisian society. This contradiction is reflected in the trajectory of the young social climber, Eugène Rastignac, who “Like other noble souls…first wanted to succeed on merit alone…[and] was soon side-tracked by the need to make the right connections” (Old Man Goriot 29). Rastignac’s forked path to material and social success is rife with moral dilemmas. The young man is nearly always pulled in multiple directions by filial piety, Vautrin’s temptations, the beckoning comforts of high society, his sense of idealism, his increasing understanding of Goriot himself, and ultimately, his love of Delphine, which is material in nature.

Engels too described Balzac’s brilliance as a novelist in the 1888 letter and highlighted a specific fondness for Balzac’s treatment of economic and material details. In the letter, Engels states that Balzac gives the reader, “A most wonderfully realistic history of French society…in economic details, (for instance the rearrangement of real and personal property after the Revolution) …I have learned more [from Balzac] than from all the professed historians, economists and statisticians of the period together” (1888 Letter). Engels’ appraisal of Balzac bears a striking similarity to Marx’s article in the New York Tribune, written 34 years prior. The similarity of their praise indicates the profound impact that Balzacian social realism had on the two thinkers. Balzac was so appealing to Marx and Engels precisely because of his truthfulness of depiction, his concrete historical approach to the events and characters described, and his emphasis on the importance of material reality.  Here in the 1888 letter, the mention of the material, in this case personal property, accentuates the commonality of materialism in the thinking of all three writers.

Balzac’s realism represents a vast accumulation of real and realistic, people, cities, houses, furniture, clothing and currencies, all of which are interrelated. Indeed, trousers are not merely trousers; they are signifiers of social status and carry significant metaphorical weight, not to mention golden “Louis d’or” coins. Upon receiving much needed funding from his family members, Eugène felt as if, “The world belonged to him! His tailor had already been summoned…Rastignac had understood the influence that tailors exercise over the lives of young men… Eugène found his to be a man who understood the paternal side of his trade, seeing himself as the link between a young man’s present and future… ‘I know’, he said, ‘two pairs of his trousers that made matches worth twenty thousand livres per year’” (Pere Goriot 88). Here, Balzac is unambiguous in establishing the primacy of belongings and the power they signal. Eugène’s immediate plan upon receiving an infusion of cash is to acquire new trousers, so that he might be seen in them and make a match worth twenty thousand or more livres per year.  Balzac is aware of the magnificent power of trousers, of material, of what something as quotidian as trousers can do for their wearer.

Whether intentional or not, Balzac’s descriptive satire of this avaricious social reality effectively condemned the moral rot of capitalist society. It is no question that bourgeois society produced Balzac, who despite his own class position, was capable of transcending his particular environment to view society as a whole to produce a true and vibrant picture of real life. Balzac’s development of individual character traits, best exemplified by the inhabitants of that respectable boarding house La Maison Vauquer, reflects typical aspects of the character and psychology of the class milieu to which they belong. In the very beginning of Goriot, Balzac states that “This drama is neither fiction nor romance. All is true, so true that we may each recognize elements of it as close to home, perhaps even in our hearts” (Old Man Goriot 4). While aspects of the story are almost certainly fictionalized, Balzac signals to the reader that he communicates his ideas not by didactic philosophizing, but through vivid images of the real, which represent a clear understanding of the dynamic interchange between people, classes, and socioeconomic forces, which are intended to affect the reader with their artistic expressiveness. All this well describes the standard explanation of Balzacian realism, that there is an external reality, independent of the text, that Balzac does a good job of reflecting. A more interpretive reading acknowledges that realism is not necessarily a translation of a pre-existing reality but a manifestation of that reality itself; it is, in a sense, the experience itself.

This is not to say that Balzac was any sort of proto-Marxist revolutionary. Despite the fact that Marx and Engels were deeply convinced that realist literature must reflect the deep-lying, dynamic processes of a particular epoch, which Balzac does, Balzac does not necessarily promulgate progressive ideas or defend the interests of the progressive forces in society. In fact, Balzac was deeply entrenched in the social relations of the day. He was a legitimist, a royalist, and wrote for money (Lyons 146). The serialization of his work was based on an urgent need to make money, money to pay for his expensive material tastes that he had cultivated as part of his integration into Parisian high society. Balzac, a self-described reactionary and monarchist, is less concerned with the overthrow of the existing system than are Marx or Engels. In his 1888 letter, Engels wrote how “Balzac was politically a Legitimist; his great work is a constant elegy on the inevitable decay of good society, his sympathies are all with the class doomed to extinction. But for all that his satire is never keener, his irony never bitterer, than when he sets in motion the very men and women with whom he sympathizes most deeply – the nobles. And the only men of whom he always speaks with undisguised admiration, are his bitterest political antagonists, the republican heroes of the Cloître Saint-Méry” (1888 Letter). Despite his admiration of the “republican heroes,” Balzac’s intentions are not those of the provocateur. He does not seem as focused on where things may be going; rather he is singularly fixated on illustrating how things are in Restoration society with as much detail as possible, showing it all to the reader, the good the bad, and the ugly.

Balzac’s ability to depict genuine passions and the multiple facets of the human character generates a portrait of Parisian material life that exposes the suffering and the absurdity of humans operating under capitalist relations. Balzac’s bourgeois society is hostile, and rife with collusions, alienation, and tragedy. Perhaps the ultimate tragedy is personified in the life of the eponymous character of the novel, old Goriot himself. Identified by his mercantile title, “the vermicelli dealer,” Goriot represents the socioeconomic prime directive of post-revolutionary France: accumulate capital and spend it on material items that denote social significance. As Balzac introduces the character, he describes that, “Goriot arrived fitted out with an opulent wardrobe, the magnificent trousseau of a merchant with the means to treat himself on retiring from trade. Madame Vauquer had admired eighteen cambric shirts, whose exquisite quality she found all the more remarkable for the two pins joined by a fine chain, each set with a huge diamond, that the vermicelli dealer wore on his shirt frill” (Old Man Goriot 17-18). Goriot’s opulent possessions, namely clothing and gilded trinkets, are meant to be shown off, to indicate his social stature, emblematic of the materiality in Balzac’s world.

The tragic nature of Goriot’s life is inexorably tied to the material, and his degeneration over the course of the story is at all points based in material circumstances. This idea is best exemplified by the transformation of his most prized possession. As he unpacks his belongings at La Maison, Goriot reveals “a platter and a small dish with two kissing turtle-doves on its cover…the first present my wife ever gave me, on our anniversary…It cost her every penny of her maiden’s savings…I would rather scrape a living from the earth, with my bare nails than part with this” (Old Man Goriot 18). Later, Eugène secretly observes Goriot as he shapes “a silver-gilt platter and what looked like a tureen…into ingots…Old Goriot contemplated his handiwork sadly, tears trickled from his eyes” (Old Man Goriot 33). In a powerful display of what Engels called “rearrangement of real and personal property” in his 1888 letter, this transformation of sentimental artifact into material commodity is symbolic of deeply emotional sacrifices one makes to acquire cash, in this case intended for Goriot’s grasping daughters. Balzac intentionally tugs at the reader’s heart strings, not to sensationalize, but to indicate the reality of these kinds of sacrifices, which are also made by Eugène’s family, all to acquire new material goods to keep up appearances and ascend to the next rung of the social ladder. The objectivity and realism of Goriot’s story speak to Balzac’s focus on the material, and the broader human experience of suffering and endless striving in pursuit of capital.

The material emphasis in Père Goriot contains links to the historical materialism espoused by Marx and Engels, but the two are not entirely similar. Materialism is a difficult concept to pin down, and this paper will consider two definitions. The first is a standard definition, a preoccupation with material rather than intellectual or spiritual things. This is the definition that is most pertinent to Balzac’s aristocracy and bourgeoisie. Or is it? The second, a philosophical definition, is the doctrine that the only thing that can be said to truly exist is material substance. In this philosophical definition of materialism, one can identify the idealist/materialist split that dominated much of nineteenth-century philosophy. Broadly, idealism, which takes the process of thinking as the primary ontological reality, is opposed to materialism or naturalism, which sees matter and its movements as the primary ontological reality.

Much like his philosophy, Marx’s relationship with materialism is rife with contradiction. To call Marx a “materialist” is misleading, as he is concerned, like Balzac, with conditions of material reality, but he is not an ontological materialist in the philosophical sense. Marx was profoundly influenced by a Hegelian conception of rationality in which logic equates to ontology, and in which ontology thus equates to mind (Marx Engels Reader xx-xxi). To call Marx a pure materialist, or an ontological materialist who believes that the world is ultimately material and nothing more, would be false. Marx wished to take no position on the ultimate question of reality, rather his position was more pragmatic; he wished to address the real concerns of human beings (Megill 8). What really concerns human beings is not “What is the nature of reality,” but rather “How are we to engage the social and natural world that surrounds us?” (Megill 8). Marx is therefore concerned with material reality as well.

For Marx, Engels, and other nineteenth-century thinkers, history, change, and consolidating the sheer volume of systematic knowledge became of central concern. Marx suggests that “we see how consistent naturalism or humanism differs both from idealism and materialism and is at the same time their unifying truth. We also see that only naturalism is capable of comprehending the process of world history (Critique of Hegel’s Dialectic and General Philosophy- Early Writings 389.) In dealing with this contradiction, Marx indicates that he has drawn from both sides of the material/ideal split, that man has a material nature but he also has a thinking nature. This empirical feature of humanity indicates a reconstitution of the split. Many intellectual historians argue that Marx was a synthesizer of ideas, that he was not an original thinker and merely incorporated ideas that came to him from elsewhere. Indeed, Marx’s historical materialism comes largely from Hegel’s dialectic, developed in History of Philosophy.  There is some validity to this criticism, but one must not ignore the breadth and applicability of the synthesis itself (Megill 36). Marx’s broader project was to bring together, in one way or another, the disparate parts of human knowledge. In nineteenth-century literary figures, especially Balzac, one can also identify a similar vein of synthesis, whose aim was to create a stylistically unified and broad-ranging description of his immediate material and psychological reality.

Like Marx, Balzac understands the connection between material and psychological elements, and ultimately ascribes more significance to the material. In Goriot, materiality is inevitably tied to psychological impact, best expressed in sentimental material artifacts, which represent the material/ideal synthesis. Balzac describes the scene at Goriot’s deathbed, where the old man reaches a hand towards his chest, grasping for his locket and “Uttered plaintive, inarticulate cries, as an animal does when in terrible pain…Eugène went to fetch the plaited chain of ash-blonde hair, presumably belonging to Madame Goriot. On one side of the locket was engraved ‘Anastasie’ and on the other ‘Delphine’: a mirror image of his heart… As he felt the locket touch his chest, the old man let out a long, deep sigh of such contentment…one of the last echoes of his sensibility” (Old Man Goriot 249-50).  The locket, like the silver gilt platter, indicates the unquestionable power of material possessions saturated with emotional significance. Without the locket, Goriot cries out like an animal, as a fundamental piece of his humanity is contained within the trinket, no doubt an indication of Balzac’s emphasis on the material.

As far as materialism is concerned, the largest divergence between Balzac and Marx/Engels rests in the agency of the human in relation to material reality. Balzac’s materialism is a bourgeois materialism, in which sensuous material reality affects the human observer through the medium of the senses, which stir up emotional and psychological effects. Here, the external world is the active element, a dynamic force that impresses itself upon the receptive mind. Balzac’s characters are not static observing beings, but dynamic forces that react to the environment around them. Upon receiving money from his family, Eugène’s near-suicidal disposition transforms instantaneously. Balzac describes that, “As soon as a few notes slide into a student’s pocket, an imaginary pillar of support rises up inside him. He walks taller than before, senses a fulcrum giving him leverage…yesterday timid and humble, he would have cowered under a shower of blows; today he has it in him to punch a Prime Minister” (Old Man Goriot 88). The profound impact that money and its potential have upon Eugène’s psychology in this scene is astounding. Furthermore, material circumstances impress themselves upon human agents, exemplified when Balzac writes that “[Eugène’s] last remaining scruples had vanished the previous evening when he found himself in his new rooms. Now that he enjoyed the material benefits of wealth…he had shed his provincial skin and smoothly made a move that pointed to a promising future” (Old Man Goriot 199). Such is the nature of the intersection between class, personal ambition, and materiality, a cash nexus where shallow values are quickly abandoned in favor of material comforts.

The crucial distinction between Balzac’s materiality and historical materialism is in Marx’s view that the human position in society is not purely that of an observer, but that of a force that impacts the world, and changes history through the negating or overturning of existing systems through dialectical progress. In The German Ideology, Marx writes that “the first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus, the first fact to be established is the physical organization of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature…the writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men” (The German Ideology 149). For Marx and Engels, the passive bourgeois materialism will indeed be naturally superseded by the active part of history, the technical, production-oriented transformation of the world by human agency. Balzac himself was a thorough observer of reality, perhaps his view of this subject/object problem was influenced by his activity as an observer (Mortimer 99). Balzac’s characters, like their author, are not concerned with changing the external world, as they have seen the grizzly consequences of the revolution. Rather, Balzac’s Parisians seem more concerned with navigating a Paris that he describes as inordinate, disorganized, and chaotic, almost to an absurd degree.

Balzac describes nearly all his characters as operatives in the frenetic striving for social ascendance but does not characterize them as shaping history in the same manner that Marx and Engels do. These characters are so fixated on obtaining money and objects to climb the social ladder that they become passive actors in the broader trajectory of society, the historical materialist project that Marx is so concerned with. The characters are idealistic; Balzac describes “the Parisiennes who now fulfilled [Eugène’s] dream of ideal beauty [and] the uncertain future of this large family, one that rested on his shoulders…fueled his desire to succeed and tripled his yearning for distinction” (Old Man Goriot 29). The primary activity of Balzac’s Parisians is not to shape the world, but to allot their efforts to secure the material aspects necessary to appear as though they have ascended to a higher social class. Balzac’s moneyed classes only wish to see and be seen, like peacocks, showing off their plumage, content to trot about the palace grounds and peck at scraps of “the obvious material delights of Paris” (Old Man Goriot 28). Regardless of the characters’ lack of history-making praxis, Balzac’s emphasis on materiality parallels that of Marx and Engels, who placed the materialist conception of history at the center of their project.

Père Goriot is a masterful and accurate display of materialistic Parisian life, where “love is essentially vainglorious, shameless, wasteful, flashy, and false” (Old Man Goriot 199). In this central novel of La Comèdie humaine, we have come to identify and isolate the components of Balzac’s social realism, an interpretive tool which enabled the transposition of the author’s acute perception of social reality. Indeed, Marx and Engels identified social realism as a truthful and authentic method of encapsulating the struggles of a particular temporal context. Balzac’s realism amounts to a capacity for re-counting the same reality formulated theoretically by Marx and Engels and designates a clear implication of the primacy of materialism. Despite some theoretical divergence, all three writers ultimately shared this material fixation, and developed their works around this nucleus. In the words of Engels, “[Balzac] describes how the last remnants of [la viellie politesse française], to him, the model society gradually succumbed before the intrusion of the vulgar moneyed upstart…how the grand dame whose conjugal infidelities were but a mode of asserting herself in perfect accordance with the way she had been disposed of in marriage, gave way to the bourgeoisie, who horned her husband for cash or cashmere; and around this central picture he groups a complete history of French Society” (1888 Letter). The cash or cashmere of the vulgar moneyed upstart are personifications of Balzacian materiality, the glittering gilded focal point that illuminates the entire edifice of La Comèdie humaine.

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Bibliography

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Fracchia, Joseph, and Thomas M. Kemple. “Reading Marx Writing: Melodrama, the Market, and the ‘Grundrisse.”.” The German Quarterly, vol. 70, no. 3, 1997, p. 285.

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Marx, Karl, and Frederic L. Bender. The Communist Manifesto. Norton, 1988.

Marx, Karl, et al. Capital: a Critque of Political Economy. Penguin Books, 1991.

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McLaughlin, Kevin. Writing in Parts: Imitation and Exchange in Nineteenth Century Literature. Stanford University Press, 1995.

Megill, Allan. Karl Marx: the Burden of Reason (Why Marx Rejected Politics and the Market). Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.

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Mortimer, Armine Kotin. For Love or for Money: Balzac’s Rhetorical Realism. Ohio State University Press, 2011.

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The Prescient Praxis of Parable: Marx’s Theory of History in Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle

It is essential to view Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle within a historical context, both in terms of when he wrote and in terms of how he portrays historical development within the play. Brecht, undoubtedly a committed Marxist, intends to utilize Marx’s theory of history as a means of forcing the viewer to reckon with his or her preconceived notions of how humans and history interact. Brecht presents multiple temporal realities in a non-linear format and ultimately infuses the play with Marx’s conception of human societal progress away from estrangement through a dialectical-practical method.

In order to discuss Brecht’s work, it is first necessary to understand Marx’s theory of history, both in terms of its philosophical origins, most notably Marx’s inheritance of the hegelian dialectic, and its theoretical component parts that appear in The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Although Marx intended to develop a holistic theory of history and developed the “materialist conception of history” in which he attempted to assert a unified, rational, and scientifically oriented account of human history, he was ultimately unable to develop an all-encompassing theory. Instead, Marx developed multiple fragmentary views of history. This is not to say that these fragmentary views of history were entirely separate from each other; on the contrary, the theories are largely interdependent.

The first aspect of Marx’s theory of history is an anthropological interpretation. Marx develops the concept of history as a process of humanization and naturalization in which history is directed towards man developing the potentiality of his being and becoming fully human while simultaneously becoming more united with humanized “nature”. Marx argues that this human development will arise out of the current state of affairs that is largely characterized by self-estrangement. In 1844, Marx developed a criticism of political economy in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. The manuscripts describe some of the fundamental elements of Marx’s anthropological theory of history including: man’s coming-to-be and future communism as goals of the historical process, the characterization of man as a social being, as well as a comprehensive depiction of the concept of man’s “self-estrangement”, which plays a central role in the theory. In the manuscripts, Marx identifies and describes four main aspects of the estrangement of labor:

  1. The fact that “labor is external to the worker…that therefore does not confirm himself in his work, but denies himself, feels miserable and not happy… ” (Early Writings 326). The worker feels disconnected from his activity and as such, the relationship of labor to the act of production within labor leads to alienation in the mind of the worker.
  2. The relationship of the “worker to the product of labor as an alien object that has power over him” (EW 327). This relationship creates hostile opposition between the worker and the “sensuous external world, to natural objects”, an opposition which is the root cause of the other estrangements.
  3. Estranged labor “estranges nature from man and estranges man from himself, from his own active function, from his vital activity…from his species” (EW 328). Marx goes on to explain how the animal is immediately at one with its life activity, and that humans make this life activity an object of his will and consciousness. As such, man is a species being “i.e. his own life is an object for him”. The object of labor is therefore the objectification of the species-life of man and estranged labor divorces man from his species-being. This self-estrangement makes man’s human essence and natural potential alien to him.
  4. Estranged labor also leads to the estrangement of man from man. Marx notes that because man is estranged from his individual specifies-being, “each man is estranged from the others and that all are estranged from man’s essence” (EW330). Marx later notes how estrangement is realized and expressed only in man’s social relationship to other men.

Estrangement, which Marx links to the current bourgeois mode of production, restricts man from fully becoming man and realizing the full wealth of his being. Only upon becoming conscious of this estrangement and transcending it, is man able to develop in accordance with his productive forces and truly express his species-being.

Marx characterizes man as “not merely a natural being: he is a human natural being…a being for himself…a species being, and has to confirm and manifest himself as such both in his being and in his knowing” (Marx Engels Reader 116). Marx places particular importance on the concept of man’s coming-to-be, and puts it at the center of his anthropological conception of history. To Marx this humanization is an end goal in man’s historical development and coincides with the inevitable realization of an un-estranged society. In the 1844 manuscripts, Marx explicitly describes the linkage between man’s coming-to-be and history when he states how “man too has his act of coming-to-be–history–which, however, is for him a known history, and hence as an act of coming-to-be it is a conscious self-transcending act of coming-to-be…history is the true natural history of man” (MER 116-117). By categorizing man’s coming-to-be as a natural historical process, Marx thereby confirms the conscious self-transcending act, man’s practical-critical activity, as a central component of historical development.

A second aspect of Marx’s theory is history as praxis or activity. Marx develops the bulk of this interpretation of history in The German Ideology, The Grundrisse, and in his contribution to the Theses on Feuerbach. Marx’s 1845 contribution to the Theses on Feuerbach represents his philosophical and practical rationale to break with Hegel, Feuerbach, and philosophy at large. Marx instead focuses his efforts on an analysis of modern capitalist society from this point on. In his first point in the text, Marx states how Feuerbach mistakenly “regards the theoretical attitude as the only genuinely human attitude, while practice is conceived and fixed only in its dirty-judaical manifestation…[and] he does not grasp the significance of ‘revolutionary’, of ‘practical-critical’ activity” (EW 421). In this passage Marx criticizes Feuerbach’s dismissal of praxis as a “dirty-judaical manifestation”, as Feuerbach equates all practical activity to the dishonest market practices of Schacher (a term for haggling with a negative Jewish connotation). Marx deplores the mode of social behavior that was present in the market and implied in Schacher, and rejects Feuerbach’s conception that praxis and Schacher were inseparable. The passage also elucidates Marx’s view that ‘practical-critical’ activity plays an important and dynamic role in history. Marx further elaborates this position in the third point of the text when he argues that “the coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice” (EW 422). Again, Marx criticizes Feuerbach for not considering the act, the ‘revolutionary practice’, as a fundamental element of historical development. This emphasis on praxis marks a shift away from his initial anthropological thinking, but does not represent a complete break. Marx still entertains Feuerbach’s humanistic language, and still considers man’s coming-to-be as a vital aspect of historical progress.

In The German Ideology, Marx remains consistent with his prior humanism when he states how “the first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organization of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature…the writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men” (MER 149). Here Marx describes the connection between history and the action of living human individuals citing the actions of human beings as making history, a current that runs throughout his work. Later in the text, Marx goes on to define history as a series of historical acts including: the production of the means to satisfy human needs, the production of new needs, the production of the family, and finally the production of co-operation. Here Marx frames the development of history in the context of human activity. This is congruent with the anthropological view of history because both views use the process of man’s coming-to-be through his labor which he states is the self-confirming essence of man, but indicates that praxis itself takes precedence.

In his 1844 manuscripts, Marx states how “the real, active relation of man to himself as a species-being… is only possible if he really employs his species-powers-which again is only possible through the cooperation of mankind and as a result of history…” (EW 386).  Here Marx emphasizes the concept of the real active relation of man to himself, again bringing attention to the importance of the act in the development of history. Marx states how praxis is necessary in the creation of a society that is fully developed which produces man in all the richness of his being. Marx argues that in creating this society “the resolution of the theoretical antitheses themselves is possible only in a practical way, by virtue of the practical energy of man” (EW354). To Marx, the resolution of these antitheses must be practical because it is not merely a problem of knowledge, but a real problem which philosophy and other theoretical investigations are unable to solve.

The overlap between the anthropological and praxis-oriented theories of history is clear, especially when Marx continually references man’s relation to his species-being. The praxis-oriented view of history seems to have the same goals of man’s coming-to-be and future communism, but places particular emphasis on the active process itself whereas the anthropological view is more, if not excessively, metaphysical.  The anthropological and praxis-oriented views of history are also linked by Marx’s interpretation of labor as a process of productive consumption. According to Marx, labor “creates the material elements for the development of the rich individuality which is as all-sided in its production as in its consumption, and whose labor also therefore appears no longer as labor, but as the full development of activity itself” (Grundrisse 325). Marx uses labor to connect the concepts of the development of rich individuality and the development of activity itself, characterizing labor as productive consumption which enables the satisfaction of current needs and increases the productive potential of labor. This productive potential aligns with the development of history as it leads man to develop the potentiality of his being through active labor.

Marx’s theories of history are personified and fully expressed through the dramatic works of Brecht. In The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Brecht shows that historical social change can be reflected, inspired and made accessible through fable to the audience. Brecht’s progressive presentation of historical development indicates his preference to subvert the dominant capitalist paradigm. Brecht’s Chalk Circle provides a unique opportunity for the spectator to stand outside of linear temporal reality. No longer a passive audience member, Brecht’s critically engaged observer is able to observe the montage of changing epochs, able to juxtapose the “Old World” and the new, and ultimately able to glean some philosophical lesson from the experience to share with his or her own immediate community. This format of “Epic Theater” enabled Brecht to provoke the viewer into considering Marx’s theories, and in this case, his anthropological and praxis-oriented views of history.

Brecht’s jumbled chronology invites the reader to consider the social relations of the community in each distinct socio-historical context, compare them, and acknowledge the contradictions present in each. The comparison of the land dispute portrayed in the prologue and almost all of the disputes portrayed in the “old world’ story indicate Brecht’s preference for the resolution described by the former. The peaceful resolution of a land dispute under a communist plenum runs counter to the often violent and arbitrary legal process outlined in the rest of the play. There is no doubt that Brecht intended the prologue to serve as an ideological counterweight to the rest of the play, something for the viewer to keep in mind as one observed the arbitrary and cruel rulership of the Prince, the Governor, and Azdak, whose character is more nuanced and benevolent, but unavoidably corrupt. This notion of mismanagement of the community by its elites further signals Brecht’s proletarian sympathies.

Brecht’s characterization of the “old world” as backwards indicates his preference for progress and modernity, for a future guided by the science of dialectical-historical development. By juxtaposing the “old world” and the “new”, Brecht wants to draw our attention to the fact that things have indeed gotten marginally better, history has developed and improved the lives of all those involved in the peaceful resolution of the post-war land dispute. In terms of Marx’s theory of history, the public plenum that Brecht portrays in the preface represents an active relation of species being to species powers insofar as the cultivators win the land for use, which only comes about from the cooperation of mankind and the logical result of history, which has developed since the “old world” that is expressed in the rest of the play. There are multiple dimensions to the word “develop” here, as it implies not only a sense of temporal passage but also of a net growth in social decorum, which is augmented by the structural juxtaposition against the  traditional “feudal” order, which is consistently characterized as oppressive and tyrannical.  Brecht’s portrayal of historical development mirrors Marx’s in the sense that the development of the old world into the new will only occur through what Marx describes as the real active relation of man to himself, actualized in the plenum that occurs in the prologue.

The moral framework that Brecht introduces in The Caucasian Chalk Circle is ultimately defined in Marx’s terms of social utility and production, and follow Marx’s theories of historical development. For both Brecht and Marx, historical development represents a process of both anthropological development, or actualization and expression of the species-being, and practical activity. Any sense of progress in the play relates back to this historical model first put forth by Marx. In the prologue, the land goes to the party most likely to put it to good use, to develop it in accordance with the growing collective’s species-being. In Grusha’s case, this utility oriented morality is most clearly expressed by the actions she takes to make the child her own, which indicate her social utility and her seizure of the “means of production”. Grusha’s intersession and adoption of the child represents a direct expression of her species-being, of her motherliness.

Grusha’s sacrifices and peril, her crossing the bridge and her engagements with the ironshirts, all develop her “productive” capacity, as she “produces” her own sense of motherhood of the child. At the conclusion of the fateful chalk circle scene, Grusha states how she is unable to tear the child from the circle in fear of hurting him, indicating the true heart of a mother. In response, Adzak formally appoints Grusha as the new mother, stating how “In this manner the court has determined the true mother” (CCC127).  It is Grusha’s practical activity, or in this case, the lack of harmful action towards the child, that ultimately cements her identity as a mother. This final sentencing accords with Marx and Brecht’s social utility-oriented moral framework and anthropological-practical model of historical development.

In The Caucasian Chalk Circle human activity is the object of inquiry, not merely taken for granted as a function of the plot. It is Grusha and Azdak’s radical actions that propel the play forward, each one overturning the status quo in some manner. Grusha’s praxis is present in her intercession with the child. She interrupts the natural lineage of the royal family to claim the child as her own, and has in this sense created history on her own. Azdak co opts the legal-juridical framework and introduces his own brand of arbitrary sentencing. Brecht describes Azdak’s period of judging as “a brief golden age, almost an age of justice” (CCC128). Considering the fact that Grusha and Azdak are the only characters who exhibit praxis and develop in accordance with their species-being, perhaps society at large is not yet prepared for a full-fledged “age of justice,” hence the “almost” that modifies the singer’s narration. For both Brecht and Marx, the actions of these two characters represent a taste of what is possible for a more modern society developing under proper conditions with the proper actions taken by all individuals of the community.

The conclusions of the legal disputes in both eras of the story indicate Brecht’s approval of Marx’s developmental theory of history, and Marx’s theory as a whole. The legal outcomes of both trials reject estrangement, which restricts man from fully becoming man and realizing the full wealth of his being. Grusha and Azdak both “invent” history by disrupting the normal progression of “feudal” society, they reject the bounds placed upon them by their class, and reject the ruling paradigm. By overturning the pre-existing structures of authority, they are effectively staging a revolution of their own, advancing the historical dialectic that Marx puts forth in his theory of history. Even the trial of the chalk circle represents a practical resolution of two antithetical agents. Two individual humans physically pull on the child to resolve the dispute, only one can win, just as the dialectic propels Marx’s praxis oriented theory of history.

The legal outcomes of the play are also congruent with Marx’s view of history as a series of historical acts, which appeared in the excerpts from The German Ideology mentioned above. Azdak, Grusha, and the collective farmers are responsible for the production of means to satisfy human needs, the production of new needs, the production of the family, and finally the production of co-operation, especially the last two. As Marx frames this development in the context of human activity, it is congruent with his anthropological view of history, as both views use the process of man’s coming-to-be through his labor which he states is the self-confirming essence of man.

In the closing scene of the play, the singer neatly summarizes the moral of the story, which ultimately affirms the anthropological and practical aspects Marx’s theory of history. The singer states how “what there is shall go to those who are good for it, children to the motherly, that they prosper, carts to good drivers, that they be driven well, the valley to the waterers, that it yield fruit” (CCC 128). By allowing “what there is” to go to “those who are good for it,” Brecht’s form of justice negates estrangement and allows for both Grusha and the collective farmers to fulfill their species-being. Only upon becoming conscious of estrangement and transcending it are the characters of the play able to develop in accordance with their productive forces and truly express their species-being, be it as a mother, or a farmer. These final lines of the play neatly summarize Brecht and Marx’s position, and leave the reader or viewer with a pithy reminder of the moral-historical model expressed over the course of the play.

It is only fitting that Marx’s philosophy should find its expression in the practical act of theater, especially Epic Theater, the necessarily political form of artistic consciousness that forces the viewer into a critical, analytical frame of mind. Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle seems to posit the inevitability of progress, and the central role that humans have in the historical process. Things will develop over time, and humans will be the ones engaged in the practical activity. For Epic Theater practitioners like Brecht, historicization is necessary to show that the human being is determined by and determining of its social and physical circumstances, as Marx describes in his theory of history. Brecht considers questions of progress and rightful ownership, and invites the audience to realize the larger forces and dynamics at work in society. Marx’s theory of history ultimately equipped Brecht with the proper tools to investigate how humans participate in history, an especially pressing question in the post-war environment.

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Observer Syndrome (Patience)

Nothing like the beauty
Of the listening head snapping up
Of the shoulders falling
Of the triumph of a secret thought
When the dream comes true.

As a net cast, dreaming upwards
Eight months prior, in Los Gatos
Two statues, nocked in invitational stance
Now only afford
Clean inhalations, clean exhilarations.

I pretended to read, in Los Altos
I don’t know why I examine
The man walking up
And down the rutted aisles of
Auditorium anywhere, packed
Planetariums, the galaxy breathes as
two kids speak in foreign tongues.

Getting back to it, in Sunnyvale
I read and reread the first lines
As a song on repeat, peeking out
There are no crows gathering above.
It sure feels like there are.

Along the estuarine, gulls wing
The old coastal scrub and oak savanna,
paved marine woodlands, now stifled.
This is no place for a cowboy,
In Mountain View, spirit clefted.

I saw a bag fly
I saw its wrinkles hover
From inside
the Jiffy Lube,

the bag

Riding high, tugging upwards.
Supplicating, grasping at
Hot dry cotton breeze.
Months later,

the bag

Flat, dusted with utterances
Of wildfire smoke particulate matter
Of projected stars
Of free, burnt coffee.

One-Trip Grocery Haul

I gathered it all up
into my arms, laden
as a one-trip grocery haul.
I gathered the sense.
The old woman across
the street, watching me as
her silk pip cat would.
It was raining and I had ran.
Slammed up on the door,
forehead tripod, key fumbler.
“How does this look, Fran?”
“Are you not satisfied?”
When you are old, you can delight
in one younger, sopping
gripping slippery knob,
tripping through hinged barrier.
Dripping duct upon the wood,
I was not in the mood
for withered, hidden eyes.