The E-Channel presents the words and wisdom of the writer Charles Johnson. It's Charles Johnson LIVE ! It was created by E. Ethelbert Miller (that's what the E stands for) in January 2011. It's a one year project in which Miller will interview Johnson about his books, beliefs, and various matters of the heart and mind. The E-Channel presents Johnson's own voice. Every word is his. They are responses to questions asked each week by Miller.
Thursday, April 14, 2011
KARL MARX IN THE FICTION OF CHARLES JOHNSON
Over the decades many real people have walked through my stories, novels, and screenplays. The list includes Plato and Diogenes, the Buddha, Descartes, Martin and Coretta King, Frederick Douglass, Phyllis Wheatley, Rev. Richard Allen, Martha Washington, Charlie Smith, Booker T. Washington, and Karl Marx, who was the first historical figure I treated in a work of fiction.
Marx has a rather spirited cameo in Oxherding Tale, one that I almost didn't write. Early in that novel the narrator Andrew Hawkins mentions that Marx paid a visit to the Cripplegate plantation of his master Jonathan Polkinghorne. When I wrote those lines in 1979 I had no idea if I could pull off an appearance by Marx, and promised myself as I proceeded to write each chapter that I would delete that early remark if bringing Marx to America (which he never visited) proved to be too difficult. But I knew Marx's biography well; I devoted my master's thesis to him, Freud and Wilhelm Reich, and taught Marxism as a teaching assistant in the Philosophy Department at SUNY-Stony Brook for a year.
To a degree, the problem presented by writing fiction about a real person is deciding what traits or characteristics one will make dominant in one's interpretation and presentation of that person. And which ones will be recessive. As a young philosopher, I naturally identified strongly with Marx the philosopher, with his genius and intellectual courage, his indebtedness to the dialectical method of Hegel, and the poverty that plagued his family. So the Marx who arrives at Cripplegate to visit Transcendentalist Ezekial William Sykes-Withers is not so much the standard image of the fiery, anger-filled political activist immersed in class struggle (though he does bristle once or twice at Ezekiel's unconscious classism), but instead a more phenomenological Marx who chastises Ezekiel for his intellectual elitism and hubris.
My Marx makes him see that the true foundation for the socialist vision must be inter-subjectivity and, yes, love. In the ontogenesis of the Self, noesis (subject) and noema (object) are two sides of the same epistemological event, linked like fingers on the hand. On the deepest ontological level, self and other (or object) are in a sense one. That appearance by Marx, that one scene---and resolving the question of how he would appear on the pages of the novel and what he would say---took a month and a half of writing.
The young KARL MARX
I've always had difficulty feeling comfortable with any version of socialism or communism that lacked love as its foundation, and promoted a discourse of hate, divisiveness, anger and dualism. (I suppose I should mention that M.L. King was naturally troubled by Marx's atheism---how could he not be?---and at the end of his life was what one might call a Christian Socialist.) As literary scholar Linda Selzer points out in Charles Johnson in Context, forty years ago I was more closely aligned with critical Marxism (the New Left) rather the positivist, rigid economic determinism of classical Marxism (the Old Left, which was simply abysmal when it attempted to discuss art and aesthetics). And I was absolutely turned off by thinkers like George V. Plekhanov.
In her book, Selzer mentions a 1972 collection of essays entitled The Unknown Dimension, which addressed an "underground tradition" in Marxism, one that sought to "restore human consciousness, human subjectivity to the heart of Marxism." That was the interpretation or phenomenological "profile" of Marx that I attempted to portray in Oxherding Tale, a socialism more informed, one might say, by Buddhist Dharma.