Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."

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Tuesday, February 27, 2018


The responses to my faux self-deprecatory celebration of my three millionth page view move me to make some comments about the movie Susie and I saw last Saturday in a free screening here at Carolina Meadows [complete with free popcorn], viz Amadeus.  I had seen the movie before, of course, and loved it, but this time around it had an unusually powerful effect on me.  Indeed, I choked up at several points.  In this comment, I am simply going to assume you have all seen it.  [Susie and I also saw Black Panther this past weekend, but that is another story entirely.]

It goes without saying that I identified with Salieri.  Mozart is presented in the movie as a sport of nature, a miracle, an alien creature.  It is impossible to identify with him.  But Salieri, especially as portrayed by F, Murray Abraham in a deservedly Oscar winning performance, is human, all too human.

The movie works precisely because Salieri is not really a mediocrity, the closing scene to the contrary notwithstanding.   He is a genuinely accomplished composer, cursed with the ability fully to recognize and appreciate Mozart’s incomprehensible genius.  He is, after all, quite capable of looking at a score and hearing the music in all its beauty.  And it is those moments in the film that made me weep.  The scene, for example, in which he looks at the original Mozart scores Constanza brings to him in an attempt to get him to lobby for a teaching gig that the profligate spendthrift Mozart needs.  Salieri genuinely loves music, and although his operas are merely competent workmanlike scores, he is ravished by the beauty he sees on Mozart’s pages and hears in his mind.  That is how I feel when I look beneath the surface of the Critique to the beautiful argument hidden within the text.  It is how I felt yesterday as I tried to show the people gathered in the room and those who will view the video the beauty of Marx’s insight into the mystifications of the capitalist marketplace.         

As I have frequently remarked, despite being a political thinker with beliefs to advance and criticisms to offer, my real pleasure comes from taking a difficult idea, making it clear to myself until it is transparent as Jack and the Beanstalk, and then showing it to a class or a reader so that others can see its beauty as I do.

Oh, the popcorn was good too.


Anonymous said...

You are doing amazing work! I could not wait for new Marx so I watched all the Kant lectures and most of ideological critique, though until that point I had vague interest in Kant, which I thought was incomprehensible. God I'm addicted to all things Wolff

Anonymous said...

"...taking a difficult idea, making it clear to myself..."

And I might add -- a genius for re-telling the narrative to your youtube audience. One incidental benefit personally has been re-discovering classics. I've re-read Mansfield Park after watching your videos. Now I will do the same with Critique and Capital.

Just today I started rethinking the arc of my story-telling in my own classes. I will be making changes in the organization and structuring of the material based on your style. Thank you very much.

LFC said...

Having just watched your very clear lecture 4 on Capital, and glanced again at bits of the text, I have to say I don't think Marx's insights on the mystifications of capitalism -- assuming here, for the sake of argument, that those insights are entirely correct -- are beautiful in the way that a Mozart composition is. Marx's insights may be brilliant, incisive, and/or penetrating (pick your adjective), but I don't think I'd call them beautiful. YMMV.

Howard Berman said...

Dear LFC

Not everything can be pretty like sunset or your lover's eyes. If the sun can be pretty so too can a mountain or a bridge or a 400 meter sprint or a mathematical proof. Didn't the Greek term for beauty 'kalon' have wide ambit? I think by beautiful Professor Wolff means something like well made and elegant.
Plus you raise the question whether a Mozart composition has its beauty from it's mathematical structure or the sensation it engenders.
Professor Wolff alluded to how his analysis of Capital combines the literary and the mathematical- so it might not differ from Mozart as much as it first seems

Anonymous said...

I cannot think of Amadeus without being reminded of this less profound parody of it, which I duly refer to your attention in case distraction is in order:

s. wallerstein said...

De gustibus non est disputandum.

Aesthetic tastes are "subjective".

The example of Mozart is misleading since almost everyone agrees that Mozart is beautiful (maybe a bit too beautiful, in my opinion), but among music lovers, there is a lot of disagreement about the beauty of other famous composers, for example, of Wagner or of Ravel, not to mention of contemporary composers such as Philip Glass.

My son is getting a doctorate in musical composition, so I can tell you that from personal experience.

I don't find Marx is be beautiful myself. I might call Spinoza's Ethics "beautiful".
But given that aesthetic tastes are "subjective", I wouldn't argue with Professor Wolff's
characterization of Marx as "beautiful".

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I watched the parody. It is truly bizarre. Very funny.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Howie Berman has it about right.

LFC said...

H. Berman:
Didn't the Greek term for beauty 'kalon' have wide ambit?

I don't think I even knew that kalon was the Greek term for beauty. If you say it had wide ambit, I'll take your word for it.


Btw, we're all aware that Prof Wolff has written his own books on Marx, but there is a v. short book on my shelf that, based on dipping into it, I think is in tune, at least to some extent, with the spirit of Pr. Wolff's lectures, or to be more precise the lectures on Capital: Francis Wheen, Marx's Das Kapital: A Biography (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007). 130 pp., including the index. Wheen has also written a life of Marx.

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

Speaking of beauty, what was the book that contained the proof of the fixed point theorem that you once cited?

Matt said...

My first girlfriend in college once complained (maybe in a letter to me? I re-read it recently, so perhaps that was it) "why must I always be Salieri and never Mozart?" or something like that. I remember thinking, even at the time, but now even more so that I'm older, that most of us would be really, really, lucky if we could be Salieri - an extremely competent and well respected professional, highly prized in his day and still respected, even if not thought to be great. For most of us, that would be a pretty high goal to set, but maybe not 100% impossible to achieve, and therefore not crazy.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Andrew, it is a famous theorem by the Dutch mathematician L. E. J. Brouwer. I have no idea where it was first published. My old friend and graduate school apartment mate Charles Parsons would know. I found it in a math text, and at UMass actually taught it as part of a course in which I went through von Neuman's equally famous Fundamental Theorem of Game Theory, which invokes it at a crucial point.

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

Ah, yes, I recall, hazily, but there, sort of.... But, you used to cite a text book that contained the proof of the fixed point theorem. Perhaps, that is a mnemonic illusion, alas.... Do you recall the text?