In 1739-40, David Hume published anonymously the three volumes of A Treatise of Human Nature, far and away the greatest work of philosophy ever written in the English language. Desperately eager for literary success, he was deeply disappointed by its reception, and later said of it that it "fell still-born from the presses," a phrase that will resonate with every author who has ever anxiously awaited reviews.
My little book cannot even be said to have had an unfavorable reception, for it had virtually no reception at all. It was not noticed, save for one rather favorable review by George Scialabba in The Village Voice [!!], and if the royalty reports are to be trusted, has not yet managed, twenty-two years later, to sell one thousand copies.
And yet, and yet. If I am any sort of judge of literary and intellectual merit, it is, page for page, the best thing I have ever written. It is also, I am absolutely confident, the best thing anyone has ever written about the literary, philosophical, and theoretical dimensions of the first several chapters of volume one of Marx's great work.
Even in the select circle of close friends and former students who form the readership of this blog, I cannot assume much awareness of my little failed book, so let me quote several passages that I think are especially well-written. This entire blog post is so embarrassingly and nakedly self-promoting that I shall not even attempt a feeble excuse. Put it down, if you must, to an old man's intimation of mortality.
In the first chapter, I am talking about the relationship between the literary resources of a language and the conception of reality that the language is being used to articulate. I choose as an example the language of the metaphysical poets of the 17th century:
"The metaphysical poets conceived the universe as having been created by God in such a way,and according to such a plan, as to establish an endless series of correspondences or parallels among the most disparate elements of the creation. As the moon shines by the reflected light of the sun, so the subjects of a great monarch shine by his reflected glory, and so too does the lover live in light or shadow as his beloved bestows upon him the radiance of her smile. As the sun rises in the East, heralding the start of an earthly day, so the crucified Christ, God's Son, rose in the East to heaven, heralding thereby the dawn of a new day in the spiritual life of the world; so, eventually, do we hope to rise to heaven to begin the endless day that awaits us beyond the night of the grave."
And here is a second passage, from near the end of the third lecture. I am trying to explicate Marx's difficult and puzzling claim that the concepts of "commodity" and "value," though verruckt [crack-brained, crazy], are nevertheless socially real and therefore objectively valid. Throughout the early chapters of Capital, Marx repeatedly uses religious metaphors and allusions to communicate his conviction that the marketplace is as fully mystified as the altar ever was.
"Economic efficiency demands that both entrepreneurs and merchants abstract entirely from the natural properties of the commodities they produce and sell, attending only to their exchange value. The prudent capitalist cannot allow his economic decisions to be influenced by his normal human responses to the accidents of his wares. The tailor in love with his worsteds is no better than a whiskey priest drunk on sacramental wine. A sensuous affection for fine cloth, lingering on from a precapitalist craft pride, may incline him to a more costly suiting than the market demand justifies. Soon he will find himself driven to the wall by rational tailors whose fingers are numb to the feel of good wool, but whose metaphysical consciousness can discern the exact quantum of value in each yard of goods."
Nobody, I think, has ever written like this about Marx. And no one else has ever deciphered, as I do in the final chapter, the famously mysterious discussion of the Relative Form and the Equivalent Form of Value, all while explicating it by means of an old Jewish joke.
By way of contrast, my best known book, In Defense of Anarchism, has sold more than 200,000 copies in English, and exists now in fifteen languages, including Croatian, Korean, and Malaysian.
Sigh. I am reduced, as Norman Mailer would have it, to taking out advertisements for myself.