Hairy Podcast Week, Day 4
Today, to celebrate the audio book and podcast of Hairy London, I’m re-posting my blog of a few years ago “Hairy London, Beardy Marx.”
In Hairy London – a very silly novel with a very serious theme, which is set somewhere in Victorian/Edwardian times – I used a few real people as fictional characters, including Karl Marx. One of the main characters, Velvene Orchardtide, scion of the landed gentry and rather fond of stealing from his parents, is forced to leave the bosom of his family home and undertake the Suicide Club quest initiated by Sheremy Pantomile, which is to find the true nature of love. Early on, Velvene and Marx have an inconclusive meeting in Highgate Cemetery, where Velvene has crashed his bovine balloon:
Velvene described as best he could the purpose of the Suicide Club and Pantomile’s wager, concluding, “I found myself short of funds, and so put my name forward. I mean to uncover the true nature of love and win the money.”
“Huh,” Marx grunted. “A waste of time. You are a crippled man in a crippled society, journeying around your Empire as if it were a playground, while the common person, the authentic person, struggles against the oppression of the upper classes.”
“So you say,” Velvene retorted, “but some of us who find ourselves, through no fault of our own, born into wealth become philanthropists-“
“An illusion! What use is some? You are alienated from everything in your world. You know nothing of real life, of poverty, of work, of struggle, of disappointment, of the crushing of opportunity. And here you are now, jousting with me and daring to tell me you seek the truth of love? You would not know love if it clung on to you with the passion of a young woman.”
Velvene at this point has little understanding of himself, of his curious circumstances and of the nature of the struggle suggested by Marx, but as the novel progresses he does gain understanding, and in the end becomes something of a hero. But what was Marx on about in the cemetery scene above? What was Marx’s concept of humanity?
In Beyond The Chains Of Illusion the radical humanist, Marxist and former Freudian psychologist Erich Fromm noted that one of Marx’s fundamental points is that the nature of “man” (i.e. human beings) is comprehensible, a concept which at the time went head-to-head with the prevailing idea that we are all a blank sheet for culture and other forces to write upon:
Marx, in assuming the existence of a nature of man, did not concur in the common error of confusing it with its particular manifestations. He differentiated ‘human nature in general’ from ‘human nature as modified in each historical epoch.’
Yet even Erich Fromm at this stage in his life’s work would add:
Human nature in general we can never see… what we observe are always the specific manifestations of human nature in various cultures… In his earlier writings, Marx still called ‘human nature in general’ the ‘essence of man.’ He later gave up this term because he wanted to make it clear that ‘the essence of man’ is no abstraction inherent in each separate individual… For Marx, the nature of man was a given potential, a set of conditions, the human raw material, as it were, which as such cannot be changed, just as the size and structure of the human brain has remained the same since the beginning of civilisation.
In my own work I’ve made a few changes to this stance, using the term ‘human condition’ to mean the unchanging, biologically/evolutionary-determined aspect of ourselves, and ‘human nature’ to be the historically dependent, ‘visible’ aspect. The human condition in my view is inviolate, and leads, according to cultural conditions, to various types of human nature. I also disagree with Fromm in that in my opinion there is no bar to what I’ve called a scientific description of the human condition. Fromm was insistent in all his later works on humanity assembling of a full understanding of the human condition, a process he was very much a part of and which he memorably contributed to in his seminal work The Sane Society.
Marx, then, grasped that human nature at least could be assessed and discussed, if nothing else. And of course he saw the consequences of not understanding the true needs of human beings:
Marx chuckled. “You’ve read Montesquieu then,” he remarked. “If a person becomes active, productive and independent, then yes, they may be counted authentic. But it involves releasing themself from chains of illusion. And you? Look at you. You wear clothes created from the subjection of the masses in Lancashire. Your chronoflam is gold removed from a foreign country that your King rules but has never visited. Your club for the idle rich employs servants who make the myriad delicacies upon which you feast, and all for a few pennies. Wager? I wager this – that you have never done a full day’s work in your life.”
Such is Marx’s early challenge to Velvene Orchardtide.
What then of love? Is it something forever beyond grasp, a phantasm, an illness, a spiritual affection perpetually enigmatic? Or did it evolve over hundreds of thousands of years, along with emotion and a host of other aspects of the human condition? Hairy London presents three possible answers to the question at its conclusion, but Velvene and Marx had a second encounter much later in the book, where the two are somewhat more courteous to one another:
“And what of love?” [Marx] asked.
“My research continues.”
“Who then have you questioned?”
Velvene, annoyed again, decided to oppose Marx by attacking. He replied, “Tell me, do you believe, as Freud and Reich do, that man is a tabula rasa, or do you side with Jung, who believes all men are born with unconscious personality already within him?”
Wrongfooted by this question, Marx peered long and hard at Velvene, then glanced away and said, “I suppose I side against Jung.”
“Then we are born, effectively, a blank sheet of paper?”
“Well, where then do our personalities come from?”
Marx considered, then replied, “I suppose they come from the real world, from our experiences, placed inside us through memory.”
As this conversation develops, I take Marx away from his real stance:
Do you suppose that more might be placed inside us, perhaps through the actions of our parents, our siblings, our family, eh?” [Velvene said.]
“I suppose that to be perfectly possible.”
Velvene considered. “Then it must be that love, and all the other psychological templates, are also placed inside us, in such a way as to chime with the theories of the estimable Mr Darwin.”
Again Marx considered this point, before answering, “You mean, because we are all of the same species, descended from apes, we all partake of the same mental template?”
Marx… said, “What a remarkable idea. What then shall we decide about love?”
Velvene felt ideas flooding his mind as the implications of his notion arrived. He replied, “Though we all partake of the same mental template, we all grow up in different conditions, eh? The working class man has a different experience of life to the imperialist. Therefore, it must be that we all approach love from different angles.”
“And yet every man and woman across the world experiences love in the same way.”
“Well, true, true…” Velvene murmured. He thought for a moment, then said, “You must be correct, Mr Marx. Though we are all different in the circumstances of our lives, love is universal. It must therefore be an aspect of our mental template.”
“Moreover, it must be a deducible aspect – as with any scientific theory.”
Velvene nodded, intrigued. That was a notion he had never considered. “By reasonable extension of what he have decided so far,” he said, “love must be an aspect of the process of placing experience inside us as we grow up.”
“But what aspect?”
This takes Marx well away from 19th century thought. Although the idea of different classes of people in, say, British culture approaching life differently is in accordance with Marx’s historically-dependent ‘essence of man’ notion, the pair do agree that love is essentially a universal experience.
“But my point is this,” [Velvene said.] “If a man truly… loves a woman, would he not want everything possible for his beloved, eh? Including her freedom, her happiness, her enjoyment of life.”
“He would want that,” Marx replied. “I certainly wanted that for my wife.”
“Then this surely is what love must be. It is the way we most profoundly understand the beloved, so that they may experience the best of what life has to offer. After all, we enter this world knowing nobody – yet we, as a social animal, have no option but to know the people around us.”
“Indeed!” Marx said. “Then love, understanding, and freedom must all be words for the same thing.”
Velvene felt excitement course through him. “They must be! And though I have heard it said amongst cynical, and often very young men that love is blind, the opposite must be true. Love is like spectacles. We see better through it.”
“A remarkable analogy, sir! I believe I may put that in my pamphlet.”
And so it is a universal experience. In The Art Of Loving, Fromm wrote:
… mature love is union under the condition of preserving one’s integrity, one’s individuality. Love is an active power in man; a power which breaks through the walls separating man from his fellow men, which unites him with others… In love the paradox occurs that two beings become one and yet remain two.
Love, understanding and freedom are all words for the same experience:
“There exists however,” Velvene said, “a dilemma in the experience of our lives. We, ourselves, are most vividly and continuously experienced. We know our own deeds and wishes, our every idiosyncrasy and foible, feeling, thought, hope and desire. But no other human being, however close, is experienced in this intimate manner, eh? There is always the impossibility of feeling precisely the same feelings as another, of having different thoughts, of remembering different experiences – in short, of being different people. This dilemma is resolved by the experience of union.”
“What do you mean by union?” asked Franclin.
“Well, I mean love. Our need for communication and our need for union are similar in the sense that they draw people together through society. But union has a more profound quality. Communication between people is an aspect of living, though it can in some cases be deep… But union does not have any aspect of chance. We do not live, as it were, casually creating union with others. Union has a different meaning. Union relates, as Marx pointed out, to the actual experience of the human condition, to the experience of living a human life. Union is the exchange of the experience of life, whereas communication is the exchange of information relating to life… union, by which I mean love, is the experience of understanding others. Union indeed is an inevitable part of life, because we simply have to understand others.”
“Love is inevitable, then?” Franclin asked.
“We are born,” Velvene replied, “without any knowledge of the world, and so we have to create our memories by learning about life. At least, most [psychologists] think so, Mr Jung being the notable exception, eh? Love, therefore, was an inevitable consequence of our evolution from apes.”
“What then is your wager presentation?” Lord Blackanore asked.
Velvene turned to face him. “The purpose of love is to facilitate the appearance of other human beings in our minds. It is our method of bringing other people, wholly independent of the self as I have explained, into our minds, to be understood. The experience of love is the experience of union. Indeed sir, loneliness is unbearable precisely because true understanding of the self and of life is inextricably bound up with the true understanding of others.”
“I do not follow.”
Velvene nodded. “… Love is indeed a paradoxical experience, eh? It preserves the integrity and independence of those involved. Love requires freedom to exist, for without freedom, Blackanore, why then it would be but a tie of necessity, eh? Love and freedom and understanding are therefore conceptual equivalents… You see, love is not blind. In fact it is the very opposite, eh? Love gives us an improved experience of others, since it is the very experience of the truth of these others, not just the perception of some surface quality.”
Thus does Velvene Orchardtide redeem himself.