Archive | November 3, 2007

Marx Atomic

Karl Marx’s doctoral dissertation wasn’t on economics or history or political philosophy; it was on the Greek atomists. Specifically, it was a systematic comparison of the atomic theories of Democritus and Epicurus.

Marx-Atomic Perhaps ironically, given his later reputation as arch-determinist and arch-materialist, Marx takes the side of Epicurus, the anti-reductionist and proponent of spontaneously swerving atoms, over the necessitarian reductionist Democritus; Epicurus makes nature active, Marx tells us, while Democritus leaves nature passive and inert. (As Marx points out, this criticism of Democritus was first made by Aristotle, and Epicurus may have formulated the doctrine of the swerve in order to rescue atomism from this Aristotelean charge.) Many of the ideas that Marx would eventually become famous for in the sphere of social philosophy he tries out here for the first time in the field of natural philosophy; hence the dissertation is an important document for the study of Marx’s intellectual development, just as Nietzsche’s early writings on the Presocratics (Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks and The Pre-Platonic Philosophers) are important for understanding Nietzsche’s own thought.

But the illumination isn’t directed solely authorward. Like Nietzsche’s study of the Presocratics – and if anything even more so – Marx’s study of the atomists views the early Greek thinkers through the lens of 19th-century German philosophy, and anachronistically reads modern concerns back into the ancients. Yet, again like Nietzsche’s Marx’s discussion nevertheless sheds insightful light on the ancients and raises fascinating questions about them. Thus even if the Hegelian categories that Marx labours to impose on Epicurus won’t quite take, much of what he has to say about him is, I think, genuinely useful for classical scholars. (For example, I was intrigued by Marx’s suggestion that the atomic swerve is reproduced structurally throughout the Epicurean system, in the sage swerving away from public life, the gods swerving away from the kosmoi etc.; and I was forcefully struck by Marx’s enumeration of the respects in which the celestial bodies that Epicurus scorned mirror the properties of his beloved atoms.)

First Writings of Karl Marx So I’m pleased that the “first complete single-volume edition of Karl Marx’s doctoral dissertation to appear in English” has been published. (Previously one had to dig through the 800-page first volume of Marx’s Collected Works.)

Logically this book should appeal both to readers with an interest in Marx and to readers with an interest in Greek philosophy. But the publishers seem to be marketing it solely to the first group – for the title they’ve given it is not Marx’s own title Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature, nor yet the perhaps sexier Karl Marx on the Greek Atomists, but instead the topically opaque First Writings of Karl Marx – perhaps as a bait-and-switch for consumers who will buy a book on atomism only if they think it’s a book on politics. Unfortunately, this probably means that the book will fail to attract the notice of some readers who might otherwise be interested in it. (The author of the Introduction also seems to be interested in the book solely for the light it sheds on Marx and not at all for the light it might shed on the Greek atomists.)

The Plot Thickens

The end of a melody is not its goal; and yet:
if a melody has not reached its end,
it has not reached its goal.

– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Wanderer and His Shadow

Beginning fiction writers are often told to ask themselves whether something they want to put in will “advance the story” or “advance the plot.” Rand, for example, wrote that an author should “devise a logical structure of events, a sequence in which every major event is connected with, determined by and proceeds from the preceding events of the story – a sequence in which nothing is irrelevant, arbitrary or accidental, so that the logic of the events leads inevitably to a final resolution.”

On the face of it this seems like bad advice. After all, the point of a story is not to get to the end as quickly as possible; it’s to enjoy the journey along the way. It’s certainly true that all the elements one includes should hang together organically and contribute positively to the work as a whole, but to equate that with pushing the plot along is to reduce the work to its plot.

Admittedly one function a story element can serve is to advance the plot. Advancing the plot is one desideratum among others, but in each case it needs to be weighed against competing considerations; it’s not an iron rule that trumps everything else.

Key Largo Consider Key Largo (a Bogart-Bacall movie far inferior to, say, The Big Sleep or To Have and Have Not). The characters are holed up in an inn during a hurricane, and being held hostage by a gangster, an escaped con who is waiting for a boat that will take him out of the country. The gangster has been reunited with his former girlfriend, an aging ex-singer, and at one point he demands that she sing to the group.

At that point the filmmakers have a choice: should she sing well or badly? is she still in good form, or is she over the hill? They choose to have her sing badly, and doing so indeed serves to move the plot along: her poor singing leads the gangster to treat her cruelly, which allows Bogart’s character to express sympathy for her, which in turn lays the groundwork for her betraying the gangster to help Bogart later on. Having her sing well wouldn’t have moved the plot forward at all. But just imagine: in the middle of a Florida Keys hurricane – the winds howling outside, the lights flickering – a singer stands up and sings beautifully, hauntingly, defying the storm without and the terror within …. Wouldn’t it have made a better scene? It would have improved the movie for this viewer, at least; I’d happily trade away the more plot-integrated scene for the more beautiful scene.

Nevertheless, the advice I mentioned above isn’t necessarily bad advice. We may think of it as remedial advice; advice that describes, not the way an accomplished practitioner would do things, but rather something that may help an un accomplished practitioner become accomplished. Aristotle says the right thing to do is whatever the wise person would do; but since he recognises that an unwise person may have trouble identifying what the wise person would do, he also recommends erring on the side of the vice that is the opposite of one’s own vice. For example, the coward should err on the side of being too bold and the rash person should err on the side of being too cautious. In this case his advice is not to do what the wise person would do (the wise person would not err on either side), but to do what will make it easier for one to develop the habits that help one become a wise person.

Similarly, the requirement often taught in grade school composition, that each paragraph should have a “topic sentence,” can look utterly crazy if it’s thought of as a description of what good writers do – since good writers of course do no such thing. But it’s less crazy advice (I’m not actually convinced that it’s especially good advice, but anyway it’s less crazy) if thought of as on a par with training wheels, as a way of forcing writers to think about the unity of their paragraphs, and thus curbing the tendency to make breaks among paragraphs arbitrary.

On the same principle, telling writers to make sure that every element advances the plot no matter what can be good remedial advice, as a corrective to the tendency of inexperienced writers to let their stories become episodic and fragmented. But this shouldn’t be confused with a description of what accomplished writers actually do. And fortunately, writers (e.g., Rand) who give this sort of advice as though it were something more than remedial are usually too sensible to follow it religiously in their own works. (Rand is not fanatically averse to coincidence in her plots, for example.)

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