An elderly gentleman with a bushy beard and white mane atop a strikingly high forehead had taken a seat in the barber’s chair, and this sedentary giant now looked far larger than when he entered the shop. MARCH 16, 2018
THE FOLLOWING IS an abridged excerpt from Jürgen Neffe’s Marx. Someone for whom words meant everything, someone who used words masterfully, and who was ruled by them in turn, slipped off his old skin the better to discover the charms and settings and beautiful absurdities of the world and its people. I feel broken down.”
His wife had been worn out by a total of seven pregnancies, a reality he appears to have shrugged off. He holds a doctorate in biochemistry from the Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule in Aachen, Germany. Generations of biographers have grappled with the question. Ferryman: No! He had always been a fighter, fearless and indomitable. His eyes had lost their sparkle, but they flashed up briefly when he spoke and told jokes, thus providing the only indication of his true age. He was destroying his image, his own graven image, molded after Zeus, a mighty bust of whom adorned his study at home. Or was it a symbol of liberation and a new beginning, as his relatively young age would still permit? If Marx’s trip to the barber, where he got to peer behind his mask, is mentioned in the Marx literature at all, it receives only anecdotal treatment as a whimsical act brought on by some sort of medical issue, most likely a skin problem. That will whet your appetite for things Arabic. They were hailed, whereas he was only feared. With this sort of calculation, the result itself is of secondary importance: those who are true to themselves may fail magnificently; those who betray themselves may prevail wretchedly. How might he see himself and his work, and his work’s place in it? The man laid to rest at Highgate Cemetery in London barely a year after the final cut at the barbershop in Algiers bore only a faint resemblance to the Olympian father of the gods that posterity would remember. Philosopher: Then you’ve wasted half your life! Shortly after the return of the forlorn head of the household to the deserted house in London, death dealt him its penultimate blow, before finally coming for him a few weeks later. But his male descendant meant more to him — all Pasha and Patriarch — than the three surviving daughters. There is no attempt to explore the inner life of Marx as an individual, which would surely be of great interest. A ferryman is ready and waiting, with his small boat, on the tempestuous waters of a river. Correspondence functioned as a substitute for keeping a diary. The last journey Karl Marx undertook was like an odyssey in search of his lost self. The knives were sharpened, white locks of hair were falling to the floor. If it had, it was probably destroyed by his daughters after his death, like all personally compromising letters, especially those between Marx and his friend, and between Marx and his wife. During the final decade of his life he was no longer publishing anything of crucial importance, but he did produce countless memos and letters. Finally, in January, after relinquishing his final year, he arrived back home in London feeling mortally ill. The following dialogue ensues:
Philosopher: Do you know anything of history, ferryman? Someone posted a portrait of the shorn Marx on the internet. “I have gone through all kinds of bad luck,” he wrote to his friend in Manchester after the burial of little Musch, “but only now do I know the meaning of true unhappiness. In a few days he would turn 64. A life as tragedy, but also a complete character study, a life that brought him the final role of a living dead man. What was the nature of the inferiority complex that must have weighed him down? He was especially fond of little Johnny, whom he regarded as his own child — a belated consolation for the loss of his beloved son Edgar. In light of this situation, how is posterity supposed to get a realistic picture of Marx’s personal life and personality? During his visit she had bravely concealed her suffering from him. Back in the summer, he had sent a bitter lament to Engels from Monaco: “A pointless, arid, and also expensive existence!” From a purely medical point of view, that was entirely correct. ¤
Jürgen Neffe is a German journalist and writer and the author of best-selling biographies of Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, and Karl Marx. From that day forth he handed the stage to the other person he had been, and whose destiny he could no longer shape, or at least to no greater degree than a creator who shapes the world that he has brought into being, along with its laws, and then leaves it to its own devices. What would his analysis of the ongoing crisis look like, with the world now plunged into unfettered capitalism? As soon as they were separated they wrote letters to each other, and had been doing so for four decades by this point. Such was the gradual evolution of his historic role as an immortal who became the resonant container of human hopes for a better world. He had his last known photograph taken in Duterte’s photo studio, shortly after his arrival in late February. What sort of self-hatred must have raged within him that it had to find such crass expression in arrogance and affectations of superiority? Now the devil was playing his part. By letting go of himself now — and letting himself go — he was able to give free rein to it, and allow himself to display a level of vulnerability in the thoughts he scribbled down that would have been inconceivable earlier on. […] Yesterday in the evening, wonderful moonlight on the bay. It amounted to little more than an amateurish retouching effort. Moor.”
Psychologically, as his letters from afar reveal, his odyssey marked a real leap forward. Everything that has been attained is assembled to form the set of life’s achievements, regardless of the extent to which good or bad luck played the decisive role, or in spite of the providential circumstances responsible for facilitating an individual’s path. Today they needed to be particularly sharp. He looked sickly, a little bloated, and drained by life. “Old Moor,” confessed his outrageous hair-cutting act to “dear Fred” from afar: “because of the sun, I have done away with my prophet’s beard and my crowning glory, but (because my daughters would rather have it this way) I had myself photographed before offering up my hair at the altar of an Algerian barber.”
His clumsy language reveals the decline that was putting a damper on the final year of his life. His letters and activities reveal his unwavering zeal and curiosity about the world, in accordance with the diverse interests of a man who had been passionate about politics and was now retired. By dropping his mask, which also kept his facial expressions so well concealed, Marx was exposing himself and, in a touching way, making himself invisible as well: no one would recognize him, although his likeness would soon appear on millions of posters. In 2007, his Einstein: A Biography was named as the Washington Post’s Book of the Year. He had never gotten over Edgar’s death at the age of eight. It is possible that such documentation once existed. Shortly after arriving in Algiers, he wrote to Engels: “The wind gave us a concert last night. At the age of 38, “little Jenny” had succumbed to bladder cancer. Gorbachev’s famous saying — inverted, the way Marx liked it — could easily serve as a motto for the story of his life: life punishes those who come too early. How much envy must have been involved, how much frustration when witnessing the success of labor leaders and freedom fighters such as Lassalle and Garibaldi winning over people’s hearts? Now the floodgates had opened, and he was pouring forth the depictions of landscapes and cities, of nature and its magic, that he had refrained from expressing in the past. Death, which was now knocking at his door, had been a constant companion in the lives of the Marx family. It was as if he had had to conceal the true face of a poetic Marx during all that time. His journey came to a seemingly conciliatory end. Like an actor who has finished performing and is sitting with his mask on, about to remove his makeup, he was bidding farewell to the character who had dictated his image throughout his life. One last solitary act; World Theater without an audience. Der Unvollendete (C. A few months earlier, when Marx lost his life’s companion, his wife Jenny, who had succumbed to cancer, Engels said, “The Moor has died as well.”
“Offering up my hair”: was this haircut a radical step that anticipated his own death, where the customer doesn’t get away unscathed? By turning the barber’s chair into a director’s chair, and from there surmounting his own self — putting the finishing touches on the work of art of his own tormented life — he proved to himself his willpower, and showed providence his true face. Although he knew that the end was near, he bravely and confidently reassured his friend in his final lines to him: “Even so, I believe that with patience and pedantic self-control, I’ll soon be back on track. A better measure of the “gross domestic product” of a life story would be the authenticity of the person: being true to oneself and one’s own convictions, and openness to what is new. What degree of playful curiosity — which had brought him so far as an explorer — might have been at work here? Whereupon:
Ferryman shouts: Can you swim? Philosopher: Then you’ve wasted more than half your life. Would the immortal man be able to repeat the performance that his mortal counterpart had pulled off just a few months before, in the salon of an Algerian barber? His overcoat, his demeanor, and his highly precise French identified him as a man from the north, yet with his bronzed complexion and dark brown eyes, he could have been from these parts. How must it have felt to leave behind a buried treasure of earth-shattering writings while perhaps anticipating that the great times still lay ahead, so to speak, in the here and now of the beyond? The question arises of whether he was able to feel sorrow in the situations he found himself in, or merely rage. After his appointment at the photographer’s, no more pictures of him would appear. Philosopher: No! The beard — which had been one of the best known beards of all time — was now off. Gazing into the camera, and beyond it into the darkness of the time that lay ahead, was a marked man who somehow knew that the worst was behind him. The Moor had breathed his last sigh. His itinerary included Marseille, Algiers, Monte Carlo, Nice, Argenteuil, Paris, Lausanne, and Vevey, before heading back to Ventnor on the Isle of Wight. He wrote to his youngest daughter, Eleanor, the “dearest little Tussy,” as she was known in the family, from Monte Carlo: “Nature here is splendid, further improved by art — I mean the gardens that appear as if by magic on barren rocks that often slope from steep heights all the way down to the enchantingly blue sea, like the hanging terraces of Babylonian gardens.”
In the first half of the 19th century, whose texts we know, never did he commit such words to paper. On this portrait, however, the digitally shaved man bears a disconcerting resemblance to the last powerful ruler allied to his teachings, the man responsible for laying to rest the phantom protection of Marx in the Eastern bloc: General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. In the mirror of an Arab beard shearer, Karl Marx saw himself taking leave of his familiar look. Without his aureole, his mighty head seemed small, almost frail, by comparison. Bertelsmann Verlag, 2017), translated by Shelley Frisch.
Algiers, late April 1882. It was as though someone had discovered the sensuality that had been lying dormant within him for so long, like a prisoner of reason. He also owed his nickname to the Moorish aspect of his features: his family and his German friend back home, now living in exile in London, called him “Moor.” That was how he signed his letters to his comrade there, and the name his three daughters had known him by since they were children. I can never stop feasting my eyes on the sea in front of my balcony.”
After his visit to the barber, he wrote to his friend: “Sirocco storms dancing about […] Time to flee Algiers.” Fleeing: The story of his life, whose end ought not to be “fulfilled.” If he had chosen to take stock of his life as he regarded himself in the mirror the result would have been a mixed portrait at best, unlike the prophet who feels reassured in being able to account for the future. A philosopher, wishing to get to the other side, climbs aboard. Its message still applies to our current era:
Our nomadic Arabs […] have memories of having once produced great philosophers, scholars, etc., which, they think, is why Europeans now mock them for their current ignorance. Marx scholarship doesn’t go far enough in order to answer the question of how he viewed himself, what drove him, and how he became the person he was, particularly as someone who had conjured up a “social revolution,” yet could act so antisocially that his behavior assumed self-destructive proportions. But he would not be rising up again from this final defeat. No sooner were these words out of the philosopher’s mouth than the wind capsized the boat, and tossed both the ferryman and the philosopher into the water. He looked a bit lost in reverie, smiling through his suffering. In Argenteuil, a suburb of Paris, the uprooted Marx visited the Longuet family and was reunited with his grandchildren once more. Now he could stroll down our streets, clean shaven and short-haired, as his own revenant. With many kisses and love,
Old Nick. In his salon somewhere in the play of shadows on the cool back streets, a barber was sharpening his knives. Not a thought about what this new look meant for him; whether the loss of self he orchestrated may have shocked or amused him. Would he feel as though he’d been vindicated, understood — or more likely betrayed and sold down the river? He then had only three more months to live — or, more accurately: to die. Two weeks before he went to the barber, Marx wrote a long letter from Algiers to his daughter Laura Lafargue, his “dearest Cacadou.” It closed with a little parable from the Orient, which he must have picked up somewhere along the way. And again The Philosopher: Have you studied mathematics? One man was always on hand, even if he was not with him at that very moment: Friedrich Engels, his companion in England. In China, which reveres the elderly and hallows its ancestors and still calls itself communist with a keen sense of irony, this portrait remains his most popular likeness. For the first time he had left the confinement of Europe. “Moor,” they said, “Moor is furious, Moor can go.” Not: “The Moor.” At the close of every letter he wrote them, he sent the young women his (always fond) regards, and signed his letters “Old Nick,” which, in English, stood for the devil. Ferryman: No! There is no surviving photograph, not even sketches or even any mention of the old man with the bare face. Hence the following little fable, typical of Arab folklore. The actual incentive for taking this grueling trip, which his doctors had persuaded him to endure, was to improve his health, but it didn’t help: neither his skin nor his liver nor his bronchial tubes were in better shape after convalescing in a supposedly more agreeable climate. Indeed, Marx would point the finger unerringly at the hypochondriatic aspect of his constant suffering: “My illness always comes from my head.”
In works about Marx, readers generally search in vain for a discussion of the self-perception of this rebel, who could philosophize so inimitably about man’s self-awareness as a “species being.” These works read as though someone was merely playing Marx’s role, as a man cast into the world by history in order to complete his assigned tasks, rather than as a flesh and blood human being with eyes that couldn’t escape his own reflection as a profoundly solitary man. Most have wound up skirting the issue and presenting whatever was available as the full picture. This picture was intended for his children and for posterity. He confessed to his friend, “I’ve still been putting a brave face on an evil game.”
That was how he wished to be remembered and how he will live on in people’s minds: as a wise old man, and the image of an era that would not dawn until a long time after his death. Ferryman: Then you’ve wasted your whole life. How might Marx see the world today? On life’s balance sheet, success and failure are often lined up like credit and debt. “A propos,” Marx, a.k.a. Perhaps the journey helped Marx find his way back to the dreams of his youth when he tried his hand — unsuccessfully — at poetry, novels, and plays. The man wished to shed his crowning glory, from his face and his head, probably on the advice of a doctor. Marx without a full beard was like a clown without make-up or the Great Dictator without a mustache: he was a different person. After an unusual period of cold weather with rain streaming down from black skies, a hot desert wind was driving temperatures up to more than 30 degrees Celsius. People who acknowledge their mistakes and are capable of changing themselves and their behavior achieve more than those who dig in their heels in spite of what they know to be true.