In a fortunate instance of synchronicity, my recently departed comrade, Lowell May on September 12, 2011 forwarded a snippet of Karl Marx just two months after musician Brian Eno had issued his collaboration with poet Rick Holland, Drums Between the Bells (and six days before Occupy Wall Street). What Lowell sent was a blog post of the same date by one N Pepperell, lecturer at an unnamed university in Melbourne, who felt the quotation from Marx “is on point for the sorts of reading strategies I apply to his style in Capital.” The language of this relatively obscure open letter, published twenty-four years before Capital, when Marx was 23, abstractly mirrors that of Holland’s words atop Eno’s soundtrack.
Freedom’s Colour: Grey
Pepperell’s post is titled poetically, from a line in Marx’s text, The Sole Rightful Colour of Freedom. More prosaic is the title of the text itself, at least as it appears at Marxists.org: Comments on The Latest Prussian Censorship Instruction. Marx seems to have written it while living in Bonn, around the time he became involved with Rheinische Zeitung, a Cologne newspaper that had begun publishing on January 1, 1842 and of which he would become editor. By the time of his text’s publication in 1843 Marx and his wife had relocated to Cologne, thus it is signed: By a Rhinelander.1 At some point the Prussian government took note of the newspaper’s content and its censors reviewed every edition prior to publication.2
Marx’s editorial is just one item of many in his corpus—eloquently and painstakingly pointing out the censors’ many hypocrisies—and might have been overlooked but for this lengthy paragraph, early on in a lengthy argument:
You admire the delightful variety, the inexhaustible riches of nature. You do not demand that the rose should smell like the violet, but must the greatest riches of all, the spirit, exist in only one variety? I am humorous, but the law bids me write seriously. I am audacious, but the law commands that my style be modest. Grey, all grey, is the sole, the rightful colour of freedom. Every drop of dew on which the sun shines glistens with an inexhaustible play of colours, but the spiritual sun, however many the persons and whatever the objects in which it is refracted, must produce only the official colour! The most essential form of the spirit is cheerfulness, light, but you make shadow the sole manifestation of the spirit; it must be clothed only in black, yet among flowers there are no black ones. The essence of the spirit is always truth itself but what do you make its essence? Modesty. Only the mean wretch is modest, says Goethe, and you want to turn the spirit into such a mean wretch? Or if modesty is to be the modesty of genius of which Schiller speaks, then first of all turn all your citizens and above all your censors into geniuses. But then the modesty of genius does not consist in what educated speech consists in, the absence of accent and dialect, but rather in speaking with the accent of the matter and in the dialect of its essence. It consists in forgetting modesty and immodesty and getting to the heart of the matter. The universal modesty of the mind is reason, that universal liberality of thought which reacts to each thing according to the latter’s essential nature.
Marx’s next two paragraphs, while emphasizing the first, speak to the wiggliness of terms that are interpreted by those in positions of power. (I touch on the “natural fact” of such terms in my most recent post.)
Further, if seriousness is not to come under Tristram Shandy’s definition according to which it is a hypocritical behaviour of the body in order to conceal defects of the soul, but signifies seriousness in substance, then the entire prescription falls to the ground. For I treat the ludicrous seriously when I treat it ludicrously, and the most serious immodesty of the mind is to be modest in the face of immodesty.
Serious and modest! What fluctuating, relative concepts! Where does seriousness cease and jocularity begin? Where does modesty cease and immodesty begin? We are dependent on the temperament of the censor. It would be as wrong to prescribe temperament for the censor as to prescribe style for the writer. If you want to be consistent in your aesthetic criticism, then forbid also a too serious and too modest investigation of the truth, for too great seriousness is the most ludicrous thing of all, and too great modesty is the bitterest irony.
But returning to the poetry of the first paragraph: a single drop of dew glistens with refracted sunlight of innumerable, mutable colors—ideas, opinions. Yet censors are allowed to regulate the spectrum, to reduce it to a single shadow of a color: a colorless color, a monochromatic perspective—grey.
new/ colours/ that/ fly
In 2003 Brian Eno began working with poet Rick Holland on experiments of spoken word accompanied by musical sound.3 Eight years later, their collaboration was released as Drums Between the Bells (the title of one of its eighteen tracks). The piece from Drums, with which I immediately associated when reading Marx’s “inexhaustible play of colours,” is “Dreambirds.” See what you think…