Thursday, July 30, 2009

Dead Horses

I have always had a soft spot for Frederick Engels. In spite of the man’s obvious gifts, he will forever be the annotation to his friend Marx: the follower, the supporter, the man on whom Marx depended, the man whose own writings are folded into Marx’s. It was his fate to be a part of another man’s gigantic whole.

But the part speaks. In fact, Engels wrote well. He thought not only in terms of the categories Marx so laboriously forged, but also in terms of the philosophy he studied in his youth – thus the odd flotsam of natural philosophy that float to the surface of his works from the 1880s, like the Dialectic of Nature, works that have been viewed, alternately, as embarrassing anachronisms or illuminations of … Marx.

I was reading Keith Thomas’ Man and the Natural world last night. Thomas quotes a passage from Engels that I had to look up, so I did this morning. It is from the Dialectic of Nature:

“Comparison with animals proves that this explanation of the origin of language from and in the process of labour is the only correct one. The little that even the most highly- developed animals need to communicate to one another can be communicated even without the aid of articulate speech. In a state of nature, no animal feels its inability to speak or to understand human speech. It is quite different when it has been tamed by man. The dog and the horse, by association with man, have developed such a good ear for articulate speech that they easily learn to understand any language within the range of their circle of ideas. Moreover they have acquired the capacity for feelings, such as affection for man, gratitude, etc., which were previously foreign to them. Anyone who has had much to do with such animals will hardly be able to escape the conviction that there are plenty of cases where they now feel their inability to speak is a defect, although, unfortunately, it can no longer be remedied owing to their vocal organs being specialised in a definite direction.”

The idea that dogs and cats feel their inability to speak strikes me as so marvelously mysterious, such an odd and overlooked insertion into the vast Gulf Stream of Marxism, that surely it should be pointed to and pondered. This was written in the same decade that another philosopher actually heard a horse speak, in Turin. The horse, it seems, contained the spirit of Richard Wagner. The philosopher, of course, is Friedrich Nietzsche.

Tocqueville speaks of the historians task as a ‘descent into the tomb” – and among those things that stir in the tomb of the nineteenth century, and have no correspondent in our own lives, is the heavy reliance of the whole of urban civilization on the horse. In fact, that use of the horse goes on well up through the 20th century, with the greatest mobilization of horses in any war occurring, as a matter of fact, in WWII. In Ice Horses, one of Malaparte’s semi-fictional accounts of the war from the Axis side in his book, Kaput, he reports on going with a group of soldiers to Lake Ladoga, in Finland, in the spring of 1943, to chop out of the ice a thousand horses frozen there after escaping from a fire in a battle in 1942.

“The lake looked like a vast sheet of white marble on which rested hundreds and hundreds of horses’ heads. They appeared to have been chopped off cleanly with an axe. Only the heads stuck out of the crust of ice. And they were all facing the shore. The white flame of terror still burnt in their wide-open eyes. Close to the shore a tangle of wildly rearing horses rose from the prison of ice.”

Such are not the scenes of affection between man and his close circle of beasts that Engels was thinking about. And in fact, when scientists go on about “intelligence” – by which, of course, they mean, as the Greeks once meant, logos, human intelligence – they tend to downgrade the pussy cat and the lapdog in favor of the porpoise and the sperm whale. At the same time, who can deny the good ear of the dog, cat, or horse? An ear that is not shared by the human, who guesses at barks and meows and whinnies. Although, to be fair, this odd communicative couple of pet and petowner does seems to transcend the merely lexical, and speak to one another heart to heart. But it is not just of pets that Engels is speaking, but of his day to day experience of horses. The horse in the city was to Engels, naturally, what the car in the city is to us. Although I suspect the horse will return as the cities burn down and we discover that our massive betrayal of the atmosphere, our offering to the heavens of four hundred million years of organic matter, creates an unbearable world in which our children’s children will die, shaking their fist at this generation of world class vipers.

Elisabeth de Fontenay calls attention, in her essay on Philanthropia and the animal in the Greco-Roman world, to a passage in Plutarch’s life of Cato in which Plutarch ponders a duty that is not a duty – the duty towards the beast. A thing that is without law, and yet not without love – and towards which we express either our humanity by going beyond the law, or our inhumanity by adhering strictly to the letter of the law.

“Yet certainly, in my judgment, it marks an over-rigid temper for a man to take the work out of his servants as out of brute beasts, turning them off and selling them in their old age, and thinking there ought to be no further commerce between man and man than whilst there arises some profit by it. We see that kindness or humanity has a larger field than bare justice to exercise itself in; law and justice we cannot, in the nature of things, employ on others than men; but we may extend our goodness and charity even to irrational creatures; and such acts flow from a gentle nature, as water from an abundant spring. It is doubtless the part of a kind-natured man to keep even worn-out horses and dogs, and not only take care of them when they are foals and whelps, but also when they are grown old. The Athenians, when they built their Hecatompedon, turned those mules loose to feed freely which they had observed to have done the hardest labour. One of these (they say) came once of itself to offer its service, and ran along with, nay, and went before, the teams which drew the wagons up to the acropolis, as if it would incite and encourage them to draw more stoutly; upon which there passed a vote that the creature should be kept at the public charge even till it died. The graves of Cimon's horses, which thrice won the Olympian races, are yet to be seen close by his own monument. Old Xanthippus, too (amongst many others who buried the dogs they had bred up), entombed his which swam after his galley to Salamis, when the people fled from Athens, on the top of a cliff, which they call the Dog's Tomb to this day. Nor are we to use living creatures like old shoes or dishes and throw them away when they are worn out or broken with service; but if it were for nothing else, but by way of study and practice in humanity, a man ought always to prehabituate himself in these things to be of a kind and sweet disposition. As to myself, I would not so much as sell my draught ox on the account of his age, much less for a small piece of money sell a poor old man, and so chase him, as it were, from his own country, by turning him not only out of the place where he has lived a long while, but also out of the manner of living he has been accustomed to, and that more especially when he would be as useless to the buyer as to the seller. Yet Cato for all this glories that he left that very horse in Spain which he used in the wars when he was consul, only because he would not put the public to the charge of his freight. Whether these acts are to be ascribed to the greatness or pettiness of his spirit, let every one argue as they please.”


Duncan said...

Roger, I keep trying to put my finger on the exact way in which your blogs are so wonderful. I fail. This post made me think of W.G.Sebald. I used to love Sebald's work very much... Then I realised it was fundamentally kitsch - that it lied in its emotion and its history, muting and suppressing their meaning in order to achieve a muted, tastefully anguished tone. This post strikes me as illustrating well how Sebald's work fails - or doesn't even know how to succeed. Sebald cannot be vulgar, cannot call bullshit on anything. I mean - the category of bullshit is not present in Sebald; nor are the vulgar excitements and horrors that would be captured by the category. [And, of course, what should be unquenchable rage becomes a sedate despair.] This post strikes me as being beautiful in some of the ways Sebald's work is - it has a similar chain of associations, which expresses something that cannot be found in any of the items associated. [I know you don't like Arendt much - but one way of saying this would be by using Arendt's description of Benjamin: that he thinks poetically.] Like Sebald, it relies on 'found' or quoted beauty, while transforming the quotations, violently placing them in contexts that bring out their fire. Unlike Sebald, however, it has fire - fire of its own. There's a more expansive range here than anything (contemporary) I'm used to reading. Perhaps my ignorance.

I'd never heard of Malaparte (ignorance) - but that quote is ravishing. I see from Wikipedia that the Casa Malaparte, which he built, was one of the locations in Godard's Le Mepris. I can't remember which of Godard's later films features the repeated line "We can only think of something by thinking of something else." But your blogs seem to me to illustrate that, also.


Roger Gathmann said...

Thank you Duncan! Although you are a little harsh about Sebald! I'm reading one of those authors Sebald recommended, H.C. Adler, at the moment, a quite sickening novel about the expropriation of his family's stuff and their transport to Theresienstadt.

You should check out Malaparte! His novel is a NYRB classic book. He is a huge bullshitter, but he also happened to be everywhere in WWII, and what he witnessed was incredible. The man was the bad boy of Italian lit.

Anyway, thanks for the comments. I'll think about that associational logic. And really, I've been attacking Arendt not because I don't like her - who could not respect the spirit of that woman - but because she is too alive for me to let her get away with certain arguments. Let's say I respect her ghost too much not to argue with her.