One of my very favorite movies is the 1984 Milos Forman version of the 1979 Peter Shaffer play Amadeus [which Wikipedia tells me was inspired by a Pushkin play! Who knew?] If you have crawled out from under a rock too recently to have seen it, Amadeus is the story of the tragic life of Antonio Salieri, a quite competent and legitimately celebrated composer in the 18th century court of the Emperor Joseph II who has the devastating misfortune to reside in Vienna at the same time as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I have always identified with the central character, Salieri, who, having committed his life to music and made quite a respectable run of it, is utterly overshadowed by the truly divine music that pours seemingly effortlessly from the young, boorish lout Mozart. [I trust no one will be so lacking in elementary literary critical skills as to imagine that it is Mozart, not Salieri, who is the focus of the play and movie.]
At one point in the movie, the young Mozart is trying to explain to the Emperor and his little circle of court composers why he wants to write an opera based on the scandalous Beaumarchais play The Marriage of Figaro. Rather excitedly, Mozart says that in a play, if you have three or four characters speaking at once, each saying something different, the result is an incomprehensible babble. But in an opera, one can have two, three, four, five, even six characters all singing at once, each one singing a different text, and the result is perfect harmony. The Emperor and his coterie are clearly unimpressed, but in the end relent, thank heavens, and allow Mozart to write one of the most glorious works in the operatic repertory.
I thought of that scene yesterday as I sat in my study with a pad on my lap, beginning to map out my Marx course. Even though it is almost four months until the first meeting, I have been brooding for some while on how to organize the course, and finally decided to try putting something on paper. My problem is this:
Thirty-eight years ago, in the Fall of 1976, while teaching a graduate course at UMass on Classics of Critical Social Theory, I had an idea, an epiphany, an eclaircissement. On the reading list was Volume One of Capital, a book I had last read in 1960 in preparation for the inaugural Sophomore Tutorial of Social Studies at Harvard. As I re-read this famous, and famously difficult, book, I suddenly understood, with a flash of insight, what Marx was doing. Translating that act of comprehension into clear, simple expository prose took me a good deal of effort over the next twelve years and involved, among other things, learning Linear Algebra, reading my way through an entire library of works on mathematical economics, plowing through endless volumes of Marx's letters and less important writings, and telling the story to myself over and over until each element of it was clear.
Although the understanding came to me in an instant, it is exceedingly complex, for Marx's thought in Capital is deeper, richer, more multi-faceted than anything I have ever studied, not excluding Kant's First Critique. Unlike the Critique or any other great work I have read, save perhaps the Republic, Capital is a book that cannot be understood unless one attends carefully to its literary style and works out why Marx chose to write in a fashion utterly unlike that adopted by any other social scientist who has ever lived. As I recognized in a flash and eventually was able to explain in clear, simple language, Marx believed that his complex vision of capitalist society and economy could only be captured by a language simultaneously precisely technical and thoroughgoingly ironic, for in Marx's understanding, it is capitalist society itself that has an ironic structure. Hence, if I may speak paradoxically, I could only capture Marx's vision if I could find a way to build the irony into the equations. This I did, I believe, in the two books and several articles I wrote between 1976 and 1988.
I have determined to communicate the entire multi-dimensional complexity of my understanding of Marx in my course next Winter and Spring. But where do I begin? The story is not linear, as have been so many of the theoretical stories I have told in my philosophical writings. Every part of it requires for its comprehension a grasp of all the other parts. Shall I begin with the political and economic situation into which Marx was born, or with Marx's own life story, or perhaps with a history of the Political Economy of Smith and Ricardo? Or shall I begin with a lecture on the relationship between literary style and an author's conception of reality, making reference to Erich Auerbach's Mimesis. At what point in the semester do I actually open Capital to page 1 and read aloud the deep, evocative, complex first sentence: "The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as "an immense accumulation of commodities," its unit being a single commodity." To steal a line from The King and I, it is a puzzlement.
Sigh. Perhaps I should sing it.