I learned something new from Anna Kornbluh’s article on reading Capital as a Victorian novel:
Long before he aspired to the critique of political economy, the young Marx fluently pursued charming stylizations, conducting numerous “Early Literary Experiments,” including love poems, “Wild Songs,” and a “Book of Verse.” And indeed, rather like enacting a kind of phylogeny of that ontogenetic generic experimentation which culminates in the novel as such, his experiments ultimately amounted to Scorpion and Felix, A Humoristic Novel (1837). Marx’s novel is a Tristram Shandy-ish pursuit of deferred origins, told self-reflexively in the present tense by a first-person narrator. There are three principal characters, Felix, Scorpion, and Merten, and the plot encompasses their attempts to trace their own genealogical, philological, biological, and literary origins. The novel’s bellowed fireside chat clearly ironizes the hot air of philosophy, and it seems at times to juxtapose ideas purely for the ring of cacophonous non-sense. Yet its strategy of provocative contrast and inversion enables rather than defuses its critical philosophical themes. Here, for instance, is the reported remonstrance of the character Merten, that he, and not Scorpion, is indeed the hero of the story: “He had a sh-sh-shadow as good as anybody else’s and even better…and besides he loved the right of primogeniture and possessed a wash closet.”12 What do shadows, primogeniture, and indoor plumbing have in common, and how do they amount to a hero’s qualifications? In the next chapter, the first-person narrator devotes himself to this conundrum of associations:
I sat deep in thought, laid aside Locke, Fichte, and Kant, and gave myself up to profound reflection to discover what a wash closet would have to do with the right of primogeniture, and suddenly it came to me like a flash [Blitz], and in a melodious succession of thought upon thought my vision [Blick] was illuminated [verklärt] and a radiant form [Lichtsgestaltung] appeared before my eyes. The right of primogeniture is the wash-closet of the aristocracy, for a wash-closet only exists for the purpose of washing. But washing bleaches, and thus lends [leiht] a pale sheen to that which is washed. So also does the right of primogeniture silver [versilbert] the eldest son of the house, it thus lends him a pale silvery sheen, while on the other members it stamps the pale romantic sheen of penury.
Laying “aside Locke, Fichte, and Kant” (though not, it seems worth noting, Hegel), this text that insists on its status as something other than philosophy arrives at a historical-materialist insight into the connection between inheritance rights and indoor plumbing. The wash closet is a spring of polishing ablution; primogeniture polishes the first-born with silver, stamps the other brothers with poverty, launders the money of the aristocracy. They shadow one another; the site of sanitation provides a concrete material instance of the opaque and diffuse process of arbitrary resource distribution. Primogeniture and the wash closet are two different forms of appearance of the socio-material matrix in the shadows. As an ur-text in his oeuvre, then, Scorpion and Felix: A Humoristic Novel reveals not how far Marx eventually came, but how consistently he pursued logico-formal connections behind the veil of the visible, how thoroughly he tracked different forms of appearance of the real within ontologically positive reality.
After finishing Scorpion and Felix, Marx sustained a traumatic realization that it failed the bar of his aesthetic ideals. In a letter to his father, he confided: “Suddenly, as if by a magic touch — oh, the touch was at first a shattering blow — I caught sight of the distant realm of true poetry like a distant fairy palace, and all my creations crumbled into nothing.” Palpable here in the melodramatic excesses of the letter that preserve the creations the letter ostensibly negates, the distant realm of true poetry persists as an alluring destination.
The same journal issue includes a preview of Jameson’s Representing Capital.