Posts Tagged ‘literary criticism’

“But unlike the novels of Stoker and Shelley, Marx’s account is not only gothic. His descriptions of a blood-drenched and gore-caked mode of production are prescient of horror as we see it in more recent cinema. Whatever these descriptions lack in the sense of morality shared by gothic novelists they make up for in cold rationality.

Marx’s horrors are irredeemable and absolute. When he insists that capitalism is the mode of production that “comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt,” he really commits himself, as a gifted writer and a master-stylist, to conveying specifically that kind of horror.

Elsewhere in Capital, when the vampire image returns, narrative emphasis shifts from the bourgeois predator to the exploited worker, and specifically to the worker’s obliterated body:

It must be acknowledged that our labourer comes out of the process of production other than he entered. In the market he stood as owner of the commodity “labour-power” face to face with other owners of commodities, dealer against dealer. The contract by which he sold to the capitalist his labour-power proved, so to say, in black and white that he disposed of himself freely. The bargain concluded, it is discovered that he was no “free agent,” that the time for which he is free to sell his labour-power is the time for which he is forced to sell it, that in fact the vampire will not lose its hold on him “so long as there is a muscle, a nerve, a drop of blood to be exploited.”

The vampire reveals itself only when it is already too late, when the façade of legal niceties turns out to be an evil, Faustian pact, inescapable until the death of either party.

Stylistically important is that quoted material at the end, taken from a description made elsewhere by Friedrich Engels. The quotation from Engels confirms the organic substance of capital, its own expropriated lifeblood, is the insides of the worker.

While Marx frequently draws on the patently gothic imagery of vampires and werewolves, specters and gravediggers, here we can see that his accounts of capital also acquire a taste for human viscera, with sentences chewing their way through bodily gristle:

We may say that surplus value rests on a natural basis, but this is permissible only in the very general sense, that there is no natural obstacle absolutely preventing one man from disburdening himself of the labour requisite for his own existence, and burdening another with it, any more, for instance, than unconquerable natural obstacles prevent one man from eating the flesh of another.

Capitalist accumulation is, as Marx knows, a crime whose most obvious analogue is cannibalism. Born into the wage-relation we are not human subjects. We are only our capacity to work, which means serving up our variously muscular, nervous, and cerebral organs — and consuming those of our friends and families, as well as those of complete strangers.

Gothic descriptions like these are not merely decorative. Instead, they get to the very essence of life under capitalism. They remind us how bodies and brains are mutilated into commodities. Literally, we need only think of the deformations, injuries, and fatalities caused by strained working conditions at every level of capitalist industry, from neurological trauma through to heart attacks, right down to broken bones, amputated limbs, and mass deaths.

Figuratively, every minute and every hour spent in wage labor is another minute and another hour in which our bodies are wired to a vast machine that only lives by draining our life substances.

Life under capitalism is the experience of horror, the irreversible liquefying of human substance and its necrophagic consumption. Like the grim fate of the victims in any given horror film, whose bodies are obliterated beyond all recognition and so frequently ingested by other humans, once our labor succumbs to value that transformation is utterly irreparable. So reflects poet Keston Sutherland in a brilliantly nauseating essay on Marx’s jargon: “All that is meat melts into bone, and vice versa; and no effort of scrutiny, will or heated imagination, however powerfully analytic or moral, is capable of reversing the industrial process of that deliquescence.”

The lesson can be put this way: we all inhabit the same horror story and we should all be intensely revolted by this. But, even if we cannot undo what has already been done, that revulsion might still be a catalyst for revolution. Perhaps this is what Marx was trying to teach us all along with his unique brand of gothic horror.

– Mark Steven, “Reading Marx on Halloween.” Jacobin, October 31, 2018.


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Feuerbach, we know, conceived the Christian ideas of the Incarnation, the Trinity, Immortality, etc., as
the mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery of the Trinity, the mystery of Immortality. Herr Szeliga
conceives all present world conditions as mysteries. But whereas Feuerbach disclosed real mysteries,

Herr Szeliga makes mysteries out of real trivialities. His art is not that of disclosing what is hidden, but of
hiding what is disclosed. 

Thus he proclaims as mysteries degeneracy (criminals) within civilisation and rightlessness and
inequality in the state. This means that socialist literature, which has revealed these mysteries, is still a
mystery to Herr Szeliga, or that he wants to convert the best-known findings of that literature into a
private mystery of “Critical Criticism”. 

We therefore need not go more deeply into Herr Szeliga’s discourse on these mysteries; we shall merely
draw attention to a few of the most brilliant points.

“Before the law and the judge everything is equal, the high and the low, the rich and the
poor. This proposition stands at the head of the credo of the state.

Of the state? The credo of most states starts, on the contrary, by making the high and the low, the rich
and the poor unequal before the law

"The gem-cutter Morel in his naive probity most clearly expresses the mystery” (the mystery
of the antithesis of poor and rich) “when he says: If only the rich knew! If only the rich
knew! The misfortune is that they do not know what poverty is." 

Herr Szeliga does not know that Eugéne Sue commits an anachronism out of courtesy to the French
bourgeoisie when he puts the motto of the burghers of Louis XIV’s time ”Ah! si le roi le savait!“ in a
modified form: ”Ah! si le riche le savait!“ into the mouth of the working man Morel who lived at the
time of the Charte vérité.” In England and France, at least, this naive relation between rich and poor has
ceased to exist. There the scientific representatives of wealth, the economists, have spread a very detailed
understanding of the physical and moral misery of poverty. They have made up for that by proving that
misery must remain because the present state of things must remain. In their solicitude they have even
calculated the proportions in which the poor must be reduced in number by deaths for the good of the
rich and for their own welfare. 

If Eugene Sue depicts the taverns, hide-outs and language of criminals, Herr Szeliga discloses the
“mystery” that what the “author” wanted was not to depict that language or those hide-outs, but
“to teach us the mystery of the mainsprings of evil, etc." 

"It is precisely in the most crowded
places … that criminals feel at home." 

What would a natural scientist say if one were to prove to him that the bee’s cell does not interest him as
a bee’s cell, that it has no mystery for one who has not studied it, because the bee "feels at home
precisely” in the open air and on the flower? The hide-outs of the criminals and their language reflect the
character of the criminal, they are part of his existence, their description is part of his description just as
the description of the petite maison is part of the description of the femme galante

For Parisians in general and even for the Paris police the hide-outs of criminals are such a “mystery” that
at this very moment broad light streets are being laid out in the Cité to give the police access to them.

– Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “Chapter V: ‘CRITICAL CRITICISM’ AS A MYSTERY-MONGER,

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““Immortality” was commissioned from Platonov under the auspices of a large project called “People of the Railway Empire,” initiated by the Union of Soviet Writers and the railway newspaper Gudok (Horn) in late 1935. In line with the new Stakhanovite movement, which showcased particularly productive individual workers in each major industry, on July 30, 1935 Stalin gathered the most illustrious railway workers for an awards ceremony at the Kremlin. By August 17, working at a Stakhanovite pace, the publishing arm of the rail industry prepared and published a commemorative volume, Liudi velikoi chesti (People of Great Honor), which featured brief biographies of the sixty-seven award-winning railway workers. Sometime that autumn a decision was made to commission literary works about them. Platonov was assigned two Stakhanovites of the rails: pointsman Ivan Alekseevich Fyodorov of Medvezh’ia gora station, and stationmaster Emmanuil Grigor’evich Tseitlin of Krasnyi (Red) Liman station. Fyodorov became the protagonist of “Among Animals and Plants,” in which he is maimed while trying to stop a runaway train, is honored at a ceremony in Moscow, and promoted to the position of coupler. Tseitlin was fictionalized in “Immortality” as Emmanuil Semyonovich Levin, the indefatigably caring chief of Red Peregon station.

Platonov (1899–1951) was a natural choice for the project. Born in the family of a railway engineer, he had frequently set his stories in and around rail yards. He explained his railway obsession in a text later published by his widow Mariia:

Before the revolution I was a boy, but after it happened there was no time to be young, no time to grow; I immediately had to put on a frown and start fighting [i.e., in the Civil War] … Without finishing technical college I was hurriedly put on a locomotive to help the engineer. For me the saying that the revolution was the locomotive of history turned into a strange and good feeling: recalling it, I worked assiduously on the locomotive … Later the words about the revolution as a locomotive turned the locomotive for me into a sense [oshchushchenie] of the revolution.

A revolutionary fact gives rise to a feeling and organizes labor, but then returns to a metaphor that rapidly accelerates out of control. This literal belief in metaphor animated socialist realism, the official aesthetic system of the Soviet Union beginning in 1932, and Stalin relied heavily upon the mobilizing power of metaphor when, in 1935, he placed the rail industry at the center of public discourse, as seen in railway commissar Lazar Kaganovich’s speech at the celebration of July 30, 1935:

In The Class Struggle in France Marx wrote that “revolutions are the locomotives of history.” On Marx’s timetable Lenin and Stalin have set the locomotive of history onto its track and led it forward. The enemies of revolution prophesied crashes for our locomotive, trying to frighten us with the difficulty of its path, its steep inclines and hard hills. But we have managed to lead the locomotive of history through all inclines and hills, through all turns and bends, because we have had great train engineers, capable of driving the locomotive of history. We have conquered because our locomotive has been steered by the dual brigade of the great Lenin and Stalin.

Tropes unexpectedly spawn real imperatives. Though Platonov had been marginalized since his stories attracted Stalin’s personal ire in 1929 and 1931, the railway commission promised a way back into print.

“Among Animals and Plants” was accepted by the journals Oktiabr’ (October) and Novyi mir (The New World), but Platonov refused to make the changes they demanded. Both “Among Animals and Plants” and “Immortality” were then rejected by the prestigious almanac God Deviatnadtsatyi (The Nineteenth Year), before being accepted by the journal Kolkhoznye rebiata (Kolkhoz Kids), where they appeared in abbreviated adaptation for children. The decision by the editors of Literaturnyi kritik to publish Platonov’s stories as the first and last ever works of fiction ever included in the journal demonstrates both their high regard for Platonov and their determination, despite his difficulty in finding outlets for his work, to see him in print.

Given the political tenor of the moment—August 1936 also witnessed the first Moscow show trial of Stalin’s rivals—it was an act of no little boldness. In an extended but unsigned preface, the editors explained their decision as dictated by the timidity of literary journals’ editorial boards, which prefer safe “routine” and “cliché” to a realism that reveals contradictions and incites reflection:

We categorically reject the formula “talented, but politically false.” A truly talented work reflects reality with maximum objectivity, and an objective reflection of reality cannot be hostile to the working class and its cause. In Soviet conditions a work that is false in its ideas cannot be genuinely talented.

What sounds like pure casuistry reflects the journal’s consistent position that literary narrative possesses a degree of autonomy, i.e., means of efficacy that cannot be mapped directly onto ideology: “Vigilance is necessary. In order that it be real, actual, Bolshevik vigilance, however, and not just a bureaucrat’s fear of ‘unpleasantness,’ it is necessary first of all to know literature.”

Georg Lukács was a leading light of the journal, and the unnamed editors’ opposition between “literature” and “bureaucracy” calls to mind Lukács’s 1939 essay “Tribune or Bureaucrat?” In fact the entire project “People of the Railway Empire” had been conceived along roughly Lukácsian lines, considering his opposition to pure factography in the 1932 essay “Reportage or Portrayal?” The project was to be rooted in close study of Soviet life, specifically through an archive of transcripts of worker interviews that were commissioned especially for the occasion. As its organizer Vladimir Ermilov stressed, writers would travel to the home locations of their subjects “for personal impressions, so that this figure really comes to life in the hands of this writer when he is writing, working.” The result will be that “this literary work will not be isolated from the specific nature of the railway … in order that these works show people in the genuine, specific surroundings in which they live, work and fight.” Unlike previous collective documentary projects (e.g., on the heroic Cheliuskin expedition to the Arctic Sea or on the construction of the Moscow Metro), authors were urged “to provide stories, highly artistic documentary sketches and literary portraits, written by authors themselves over their personal signature; not reworked transcripts but genuine, self-sufficient artistic works about the person.” In addition to prose works written on the basis of the transcripts, Ermilov encouraged the creation of plays and also a “railway Chapaev,” modeled on the popular 1934 sound film about a Civil War-era commander.

Platonov fulfilled his commission with admirable conscientiousness, completing his two stories by the deadline of February 10, 1936. For “Immortality,” in addition to renaming his protagonist and the location, Platonov appears to have used the (unknown and possibly lost) transcript of Tseitlin’s interview with great license, deriving from it only the basic picture of a railway station chief working tirelessly to keep trains on schedule despite the incompetence and truculence of less conscientious coworkers. In Platonov’s story the logistics specialist Polutorny is preoccupied with finding a Plymouth Rock cockerel for his hens. Another logistics specialist, Zakharchenko, spends most of his time at his pottery wheel producing wares that he sells at great personal profit. Night supervisor Pirogov is depressed, needy, and incompetent, while Levin’s assistant, Yedvak (based on the word for “hardly,” yedva), is simply lazy. Protected only by his loyal but limited cook Galya, Levin sacrifices sleep and nourishment to keep a watchful eye over the entire operation.

In his story Platonov observes a delicate oscillation between documentary source and fictional invention. Traveling to Krasnyi Liman only after finishing the story, Platonov found Tseitlin “intelligent (true, I’ve only spoken to him for ten minutes so far) and very similar to his image in my story.”11 Publishing the story in Literaturnyi kritik, Platonov attached an enigmatic note: “In this story there are no facts that fail to correspond to reality at least in a small degree, and there are no facts copying reality.” Platonov strives for realism, but realism excludes the “copying” of reality. So what, for Platonov, was realism?”

– Robert Bird, “Articulations of (Socialist) Realism: Lukács, Platonov, Shklovsky.E-Flux Journal, #91, May 2018.

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“We know that
Marx enjoyed reading horror stories, and we know that the vampire was a
popular literary form in the nineteenth century. While the best-known novel
of the genre, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, was not published until 1897, after
Marx’s death, the vampire in general had had plenty of coverage prior to that.
James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampire, for example, serialized the
year before the publication of The Manifesto of the Communist Party,
stretched to 220 chapters over 868 pages.

Cultural and literary studies have come back to the meaning of the gothic in
general and the vampire in particular time and again. Time and again, attention
has focused on the vampire’s alien features — its ‘Otherness’, in the lingua
of contemporary theory. Donna Haraway, for example, writes that
‘defined by their categorical ambiguity and troubling mobility, vampires do
not rest easy (or easily) in the boxes labelled good and bad. Always transported
and shifting, the vampire’s native soil is more nutritious, and more
unheimlich, than that.’ Like the monster in general, the vampire is the ‘harbinger
of category crisis’, resisting easy categorization in the ‘order of
things’. As a form of monster, the vampire disrupts the usual rules of interaction,
occupying an essentially fluid site where despite its otherness it cannot
be entirely separated from nature and man. As simultaneously inside and outside,
the monster disrupts the politics of identity and the security of borders. The vampire is a harbinger of ‘category crisis’ because, again as with the
monster in general, he or she represents a form of difference.

Within cultural studies many writers have connected this difference with
the scapegoat, and thus with oppressed and marginalized groups. Following
the connection between the monster and the scapegoat drawn by René
Girard, the vampire has been interpreted as the figure of the Jew, a
transgressive sexuality either in general or in a particular form such as the
homosexual, and travellers of all sorts. In particular, it has been argued that

the vampire represents the terrifying ‘otherness’ of female sexuality. Tony
Thorne points out that our modern perception of the vampire is distorted by
the (male) influence of Count Dracula himself, but ‘when in the eighteenth
century the blood-sucker first made the transition from village ghoul to literary
protagonist, via Imperial documents and salon gossip, it was as a femme
, a lady, that she was cast’. Until well into the nineteenth century, in the
wake of John William Polidori’s Vampyre (1819), the majority of vampires
were female. This gave ideological weight to those who fought against
female sexual emancipation, for the political obsession with blood has ‘been
instrumental in turning any woman who exhibited even the slightest independent
interest in sex into a vampire’. More generally, the vampire appears
to be identified with the oppressed and outlawed.

Yet while such answers may have an obvious appeal within, say, cultural
analyses of film or popular literature, they do not quite fit the bill when it
comes to Marx. As Wolff argues, literary style often has ontological presuppositions,
and ‘Marx’s literary style constitutes a deliberate attempt to find the
philosophically appropriate language for expressing the ontological structure
of the social world’. Much as Capital may be read as a work of high literary
art, its dominant metaphors and ironic structure serve a deliberate philosophical
and political purpose. The choice of metaphor is thus philosophically and
politically important: through it, Marx aims to make a substantive point about
the social world. Since the vampire is a parasite, Marx could have simply chosen
the term ‘parasite’ or ‘leech’ or something similar; but he chose not to.
Moreover, when he uses the vampire he is hardly using it as a gendered term
or with reference to transgressive sexuality; nor, it must be added, does the
vampire motif appear in his discussions of Judaism in ‘On the Jewish Question’.
Of the many points Marx tries to make about the social world, none of
them can be read as a critique of ‘Otherness’; Marx was hardly an existential
or postmodern cultural theorist avant le lettre.

An alternative way into the subject might be to read Marx’s use of the vampire
metaphor in the context of the kind of writers we know Marx was familiar
with who had also at some point concerned themselves with the vampire. On
this score, Carver situates Marx’s vampire metaphor in the longer history of
interest in the vampire expressed by the eighteenth-century Enlightenment
thinkers. He suggests that Marx’s approach to the vampire ‘was every bit as
rationalist as one would expect, having its roots in the philosophes themselves’. A fair amount of historical and literary evidence might be adduced

for this claim. The eighteenth century was indeed a period of unprecedented
interest in the vampire. The century saw a large number of ‘vampire epidemics’:
in Istria (1672), East Prussia (1710, 1721, 1750), Hungary (1725–30),
Austrian Serbia (1725–32), Silesia (1755), Wallachia (1756) and Russia
(1772). The word ‘vampyre’ first entered the English language in the 1680s
(not 1734 as the OED has it) and in the French in the 1690s (becoming a
household word after 1746). It was a familiar word in scholarly debate in Germany
by the 1720s. Laurence Rickels estimates that between 1728 and the
early 1840s some forty treatises on vampirism were researched and published
at German and French universities. Unsurprisingly, then, the question of the
vampire thus became an important issue for Enlightenment thinkers. As
Christopher Frayling puts it, the age of reason was much perplexed by the
question of vampirism.

In general, the philosophes’ assumption was that since the vampire was
beyond the bounds of possibility, the vampire itself was either a subject of no
interest or, better still, a subject to be dismissed as a product of ignorant and
unenlightened minds. Voltaire’s entry for ‘Vampires’ in his Dictionnaire
(1764) begins with a rhetorical and dismissive question:
‘What! Is it in our eighteenth century that vampires exist? Is it after the reigns
of Locke, Shaftesbury, Trenchard, and Collins? Is it under those of
D’Alembert, Diderot, St. Lambert, and Duclos, that we believe in vampires?’ In the same vein, the two ‘most eminent physicians’ sent by Maria
Theresa to ascertain the exact nature of the occurrences in Silesia in 1755 concluded
that ‘it was all the result of vain fears, superstitious beliefs, the dark,
disturbed imagination, simplicity and ignorance of the people’. In a slightly
different vein, Rousseau concedes that in one sense vampires do indeed
exist — in the minds of those who had attested to their existence — and that
this existence is important because it raises questions concerning how one
interprets the world and, more important, the kinds of authorities that verify
such interpretations. In a letter to Christophe de Beaumont, the Archbishop of
Paris, Rousseau observes that ‘if there is in the world an attested history, it is
just that of vampires. Nothing is lacking; depositions, certificates of notables,
surgeons, curés and magistrates. The proof in law is utterly complete. Yet
with all this, who actually believes in vampires? Will we all be condemned for not believing in them?’ For Rousseau, vampires are ‘miraculous’ phenomena
‘attested’ to by all the major authorities, with the corollary that the same
authorities will thus condemn us if we fail to accept the claims for the existence
of vampires. In other words, belief in vampires is evidence of the way
the institutions of authority are legitimized by superstitious and unenlightened

So one source of Marx’s vampire metaphor may well have been the eighteenth century
Enlightenment and its main thinkers. But while the unprecedented
eighteenth-century interest and Enlightenment concern with the vampire is
likely to have influenced Marx — and is undoubtedly a more plausible explanation
than the suggestion that Marx’s use of the vampire is linked to his use
of images drawn from the pre-capitalist world — as an answer to the question
of why Marx is so interested in the vampire metaphor it is insufficient.
Carver’s suggestion that in using the vampire metaphor Marx was ‘alluding to
the arguments of the philosophes, Rousseau and Voltaire among others, that
the true significance of… vampires and other popular superstitions was to
bolster the sacred and secular authorities in society’, does not seem to be
borne out by the citations from Marx given above. When Marx uses the vampire
metaphor, he seems to be far from ridiculing it as a superstitious belief.
While he may not be suggesting that the vampire really exists, he uses it as a
metaphor to capture something very real indeed, namely a particular relation
between human beings. It is true that Marx sometimes makes reference to
institutions of authority when using the metaphor. As the examples cited earlier
show, he refers to the French National Assembly as a vampire living off
the blood of the June insurgents, and to other agents of the French state as
‘blood-suckers’ or ‘judicial vampires’. But pace Rousseau, Marx is not suggesting
that the vampire is useful to the authorities by bolstering their position
of interpretive power. Rather, he is clearly suggesting that the authorities
themselves are like vampires. Although Rousseau attempts to situate the vampire
in the wider context of authority in society, his position and Marx’s are by
no means the same. While it may be that ‘Rousseau may have been attracted to
the vampire image because it offered a vivid means of symbolising modes of

mutual dependence in society which were not benign’, it is not at all clear
that he is doing with the vampire image what Marx was. His vision may have
been of a ‘master–slave dialectic, with teeth’, but it does not appear to have
the same implications as Marx’s.
Now, there is in some Enlightenment thought a little of Marx’s sense. It can
be found, for example, in Voltaire’s entry on vampires in his Dictionary. Voltaire
comments that ‘in both these cities [Paris and London] there were
stock-jobbers, brokers, and men of business, who sucked the blood of the people
in broad daylight; but they were not dead, though corrupted. These true
suckers lived not in cemeteries, but in very agreeable palaces.’ He adds that
‘the true vampires are the churchmen, who eat at the expense of both kings
and people’. Similar comments can be found in other eighteenth-century
writings. In England in the 1730s The Craftsman presented Walpole and the
past and present directors of the South Sea Company as vampires sucking the
blood of their country; and during the 1750s rumours of a bloodsucking
monarch circulated throughout Paris, remaining part of radical-popular folklore
until the revolution of 1789.”


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“Terrell Carver has suggested that Marx uses the vampire metaphor three times
in Capital. Marx claims that ‘capital is dead labour which, vampire-like,
lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it
sucks’. He also comments that the prolongation of the working day into the
night ‘only slightly quenches the vampire thirst for the living blood of labour’;
thus ‘the vampire will not let go “while there remains a single muscle, sinew
or drop of blood to be exploited” ’. But if one also explores the text for comments
that appear to derive from the vampire motif but fail to mention the
vampire explicitly, one finds a wealth of additional material. Capital ‘sucks
up the worker’s value-creating power’ and is dripping with blood. Lacemaking
institutions exploiting children are described as ‘blood-sucking’,
while US capital is said to be financed by the ‘capitalized blood of children’. The appropriation of labour is described as the ‘life-blood of capitalism’,
while the state is said to have here and there interposed itself ‘as a barrier to
the transformation of children’s blood into capital’.

If we take an even greater textual license with Capital, the motif appears
even more apparent. In the chapter on the working day, Marx compares the
historical development of the factory system with other historical forms of
domination, such as Athenian aristocracy, the Norman barons, the American
slave-owners and the feudal corvée. Regarding the latter, he notes that the legal mechanisms through which peasants performed forced labour on behalf
of landowners could be stretched well beyond the stated number of days. The
example he gives is of Wallachian peasants performing forced labour on
behalf of the Wallachian boyars: ‘For Moldavia the regulations are even
stricter. “The 12 corvée days of the Règlement organique,” cried a boyar,
drunk with victory, “amount to 365 days in the year.” The source Marx
cites for this quote is É. Regnault’s Histoire politique et sociale des
principautés danubiennes 
(1855). The ‘Wallachian boyar’ in the text turns out
to be none other than Vlad the Impaler: Vlad Dracula.

If we extend the textual licence and situate Capital among other texts produced
during its writing, we find even more connections. In the Grundrisse
capital is described as ‘constantly sucking in living labour as its soul,
vampire-like’, or as ‘sucking its living soul out of labour’. In the ‘Inaugural
Address of the International Working Men’s Association’, given while he was
in the middle of writing Capital, Marx describes British industry as ‘vampirelike’,
which ‘could but live by sucking blood, and children’s blood too’. As
Marx was putting the finishing touches to Volume 1 of Capital, he wrote to
Engels that a number of industries were being ‘called to order’ in a report by
the Children’s Employment Commission: ‘The fellows who were to be called
to order, among them the big metal manufacturers, and especially the vampires
of “domestic industry”, maintained a cowardly silence.’ At one point
Marx shifts from the vampire to the werewolf, though the implication is the
same: ‘So far, we have observed the drive towards the extension of the working
day, and the werewolf-like hunger for surplus labour, in an area where
capital’s monstrous outrages… caused it at last to be bound by the chains of
legal regulations.’

If one extends such a textual analysis to other major and minor works by
Marx, it is clear that the vampire motif, if not the vampire himself, runs like a
red thread through his work. In The Class Struggles in France he compares
the National Assembly to ‘a vampire living off the blood of the June insurgents’. In The Civil War in France the agents of the French state, such as ‘the notary, advocate, executor, and other judicial vampires’, are described as
‘blood-suckers’. In the Eighteenth Brumaire he comments that ‘the bourgeois
order … has become a vampire that sucks out its [the smallholding peasantry’s]
blood and brains and throws them into the alchemist’s cauldron’. The Wallachian boyar also makes a reappearance in both the Eighteenth
and The Civil War in France.  

The theme of the vampire had also been present in the work of both Marx
and Engels throughout the 1840s. In The Condition of the Working Class in
, the sociological observations of which filtered through into Marx’s
Capital, Engels had already toyed with the idea of the ‘vampire propertyholding
class’. In The Holy Family the two writers comment about a character
of Eugene Sue’s that ‘he cannot possibly lead that kind of life without
sucking the blood out of his little principality in Germany to the last drop like
a vampire’. In his unfinished journalism as ‘The Correspondent from the
Mosel’, Marx had planned to write five sections, the fourth (and never written)
of which was to be on ‘The Vampires of the Mosel Region’; and in an
essay on the Prussian Constitution of 1849, Marx comments on ‘the Christian-Germanic
sovereign and his accomplices, the whole host of lay-abouts, parasites
and vampires sucking the blood of the people’.

It is clear, then, that as a metaphor the vampire and its connotations play a
key role in many of Marx’s formulations. The question I wish to address here
is: Why? More specifically, what does Marx mean when he describes capital
as vampire-like?”

MARX’S VAMPIRES.” HISTORY OF POLITICAL THOUGHT. Vol. XXIV. No. 4. Winter 2003, pp. 669-671

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“SPY NOVELS NARROW THE WORLD to the dimensions of agencies and their rivals or targets. They are realist in texture, never experimental, resolutely focused. Characters become their functions: agent, handler, mole, director, or operational head. Like Balzac in La Comédie humaine, spy novelists reuse characters: though the plots are byzantine, the people are familiar. The locales are far-flung, but in an enclosed, airless way: casinos, hotels, safe houses, clubs, airports, and passport checkpoints. (The spy blends the solitary tourist’s isolation with the native’s blasé familiarity.) There is, of course, the lingo, which manages to be well-known while parading its exclusivity: walk-ins, babysitters, sleepers; to be burned, rolled up, exfiltrated. Spies in spy novels also read other spy novels — Olen Steinhauer’s Milo Weaver reads le Carré; le Carré’s Jerry Westerby reads Greene and Conrad as Saigon falls. Thus the weariness of the literate, worldly spy: there is nothing new under the sun.

The limits of its thought-world defined, spy fiction comfortably becomes a literature of expertise — the literature, perhaps, of the knowledge worker. Written by former participants and experts, thanks to the conventional alibi that the secrets of their world can only be expressed allegorically or fictionally, the spy novel gives us a world with handles. How-to is as important to the spy novel as it is to Odysseus or Robinson Crusoe, and evoking it is one of the spy novelist’s most fundamental tasks. In David Ignatius’s The Quantum Spy, the novel’s putative villain — a mole inside the CIA who passes her Chinese masters scientific information out of the ideological principle that science should not respect borders — is caught, but arranges a plea agreement in which she writes “a manual on tradecraft”: “She wrote it in the form of a novel, which captured what she had come to understand about intelligence… . Ford’s book was circulated widely within the intelligence community. It gave Ford what she had sought through her career but had only achieved after she became a foreign spy, which was a reputation as a brilliant and intuitive operations officer.”

Tradecraft: the spy’s professional fetish. The dead drop, the brush pass, the dry clean. Knowing how to evade surveillance, make a convincing legend, encrypt a message. Every action in the spy novel is done badly or well, clumsily or skillfully. The mystique of tradecraft lies somewhere between secrecy and simplicity, the suspicion a reader has that one could, with training, also do these things well. So wrote William Hood, former OSS and CIA officer, who in his 1982 memoir, Mole, asserted: “Tradecraft may seem mysterious to outsiders, but it is little more than a compound of commonsense, experience, and certain almost universally accepted security practices… . The fact is that tradecraft is like arithmetic: it has been around for centuries. The basics are easy to learn and good texts can be found in any library.” It is also, in its way, fun; when the American Oulipo member Harry Mathews was mistaken for a CIA agent in the early 1970s — as he writes in My Life in CIA — he played along: he invented a false travel agency to act as cover, commissioned maps woven into shawls, and left enigmatic chalk marks on Parisian walls.

The neutral respect for a job done well, the professional’s code, overrides every other consideration. What is the first thing Robert Ludlum’s amnesiac assassin in The Bourne Identity learns about his identity? “If he had learned anything about himself during the past forty-eight hours it was that he was a professional. Of what he had no idea, but the status was not debatable.” James Bond himself, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, observes his abductor, the Corsican ganglord Marc-Ange Draco: “James Bond sipped his drink and watched the other man’s face with respect. This was one of the great professionals of the world!”

The ethic of tradecraft is larger than the items that usually constitute it; it saturates the lifeworld of the spy novel. It is dedicated, without irony, to the art de vivre. In Fleming, one learns how to play chemin de fer, how to ski, how to seduce. In the work of Howard Hunt, CIA figures cultivate the high-cold-war manner. They smoke pipes and plot grand strategy, are skilled men of action who mingle headmaster with buccaneer in the manner of the OSS. David Morgan, protagonist of Hunt’s The Hargrave Deception, is the fantasy: New England boarding-school boy turned CIA agent, fluent in various languages, adept at killing, intimate with grand hotels and secret restaurants in various European capitals, always sure of what wine to order. Like a child trapped with an irritatingly well-informed adult, Hunt’s reader learns how to fish for dolphin (and that “dolphin was the finest eating-fish in the Caribbean”), how to wrap sidearms in condoms to keep them from corroding in salt air, and how to properly make scrambled eggs, “with a splash of cream and two drops of Worcestershire.”

The art de vivre, of course, aims to make everything knowable; and a knowable world shades imperceptibly into a world of stereotypes:

Later they feasted on broiled dolphin and fried platano, drinking a chilled chablis-type Paternina that Morgan had come to know in Spain. Afterward he sipped Felipe II brandy while Marisa sang to her guitar, and toward ten o’clock they went to bed where they fell asleep in each other’s arms, moonlight filtering through the slatted blinds across their bodies and the bed.

The cartoon earnestness of Hunt’s Floridian espagnolisme, the fussiness about the proper drink and consort: it offers narcotic comfort. To the spy, no choice is accidental; everything is deliberate. It’s as if the spy — or the spy’s narrator — wants to weep at the loveliness, and transience, of well-arranged things.

This intensely throttled emotion is a male sentimentality that gives the spy novel its tonality. Few female characters, vanishingly few female authors. So often the spy is fatherless, father haunted, in search of a father figure, or otherwise burdened by the weight of patriarchal lineage: le Carré’s Peter Guillam, his father a French Resistance hero murdered by the Gestapo, finds a second father in George Smiley; Steinhauer’s Weaver, his father ex-KGB, reemployed in a secret intelligence bureau at the UN, is himself sterile. The service women render as guides to the male spy’s self-discovery is classical in its simplicity. How else to explain Jason Bourne, who abducts a young woman who then devotes herself to making sense of his past and making him whole? Or take the textbook case of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, where a homosocial struggle over a Vietnamese woman ends in the narrator’s strangled quasi apology to his dead rival, an American spy: “Everything had gone right with me since he had died, but how I wished there existed someone to whom I could say that I was sorry.”

No genre is more masculine than the spy story, more impervious to revisionary feminist versions. Still, it attempts to inoculate itself against charges of bravado, because it depends on the poignancy of male failure and insufficiency with pitying self-regard. It is filled with male failures and betrayals; with men who let other men down. The paradigm is Kim Philby: the charismatic friend one loved and trusted, color in a gray world, who takes the color with him when he flees into an outed mole’s ignominy.

What glamour male heartache still has is suffused with the pathos of obsolescence and the struggle to keep current. Sometimes a cultural code in even the most au courant of these novels would stride confidently out of a couple of generations back: “Flanagan did look like a perpetual undergraduate,” Ignatius writes. “He was dressed, as ever, in a tweed jacket, chino pants, and his Bass loafers.” Not just a male kind of story, it is a middle-aged one.

As I read these novels in public and stumbled across sentences like these, I began to feel self-conscious. It is the literature of Father’s Day gifts and the half-populated shelves of vacation cottages, the leisure reading of think-tank apparatchiks, as smugly incurious in its purview as a well-paid pundit. Yet spy novels are also rights-optioned as thrilling crowd-pleasers and reviewed as serious geopolitical statements. This least cool of genres retains an aura of suavity, insider expertise, cosmopolitanism. (The spy is traditionally of dual nationality or ethnicity: Bond is half Scot and half Swiss.) Could any other popular narrative genre be so given to a critique of Americanism and forgiven for it, celebrated for it? Le Carré’s well-known left-leaning politics are closer to the rule than the exception; American spies are naïfs or pallid sidekicks, playing Felix Leiter to various Bonds, in need of British adroitness or, as in Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon novels, an Israeli gruffness about moral niceties. Like a Henry James heroine traveling on a false passport, the American spy is continually wandering with passionate ignorance into complicated foreign snares.

The spy novel is silly, when it isn’t claustrophobic; urgent, but with an urgency severed from any link to the various impending geopolitical alarms — German invasion, Soviet infiltration, Chinese technological advancement, terrorist havoc — that the genre’s history continually sounds. There is something in the condition of existence in these novels, the presuppositions of their world, in other words, that seems, finally, to be at once illness and cure.”

– Nicholas Dames, “Coming in from the Cold: On Spy Fiction.” N+1, Issue 31. Spring 2018.

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“[Georgette] Heyer’s imaginary world may be amusing, even beguiling, but it little to do with the historical reality of that era of social turbulence and change—no more than has the world of Bertie Wooster and his friends in the Drones Club to that of the early 20th century. Hopefully, few people would confuse the world of Bertie Wooster with historical reality. However, because of her thorough research on the Regency’s current events, topography, literature and, especially, the lifestyle of the upper class, Heyer’s depiction of the Regency UK is frequently held up as a standard of accuracy to emulate.

The American Regency romance writer Maggie Mackeever, for example, admits that Heyer’s Regency world never existed, but urges novice writers to “Immerse yourself in Georgette Heyer … Lots of people have written about Regency England since, but no one has done it as well. Read until you have the era fixed clearly in your head. Then sit down and start to write your own story.”

Heyer’s Regency population consists of the aristocracy and gentry, their devoted retainers, some vulgar, socially aspiring merchants, a handful of comic rogues, and a backdrop of contented peasants. That is hardly representative of the United Kingdom in that era. Heyer’s readers are encouraged to imagine themselves to be one of the 1.5 percent of the population comprising the gentry; or even as a member of one of the families of the approximately 300 titled men out of a population of maybe 9,000,000.

Of course, historically aware readers distinguish between “Heyer’s Regency England” and historical reality. However, many others do appear to believe that they can learn about history through the Regency romances. This article is typical. The poster discusses Heyer’s description of the Battle of Waterloo in the least “fluffy” of her “Regencies,” An Infamous Army, oblivious to the fact that Heyer’s emphasis is almost entirely on the officer class.

This obsessive focus on this tiny upper class goes arm in arm, unsurprisingly, with a strong status quo bias. Heyer’s untamed heroines and wild heroes are all rebellious and wild within a very narrow range, before they are reincorporated into society.

One example of this ‘conservative resolution’ is her 1959 novel The Unknown Ajax. Lord Darracott’s heirs have died suddenly and accidentally. His relatives are appalled to learn that as a result, his grandson through a misalliance with “a weaver’s daughter” is next in line to the title.

This grandson is Major Hugo Darracott, veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, a seemingly uncultured giant with a broad Yorkshire accent. He has no valet and dresses unfashionably. Lord Darracott wishes to civilize him and marry him to the heroine Anthea, who is appalled.

Hugo horrifies the family by reminiscing about being “transported” and living in a hovel with a mud floor—only to reveal that he is referring to his army experiences. Later, he admits that his mother was in fact the heiress to a wealthy mill owner, while he attended the prestigious Harrow School. He confesses to Anthea that he adopted that Yorkshire dialect to tease. He promises to show Anthea’s younger brother Richmond all of the manufacturing processes. In this era, mills employed children as young as five in appalling conditions, but the humane Hugo seems unperturbed by this detail.

Heyer here does a clever sleight of hand: Hugo appears to threaten the status quo, but his true attraction is that he does not trouble class hierarchy at all. When a blacksmith from a family with “subversive” ideas—depicted as wholly contemptible—forces his way into the mansion, in what is presumably meant to be a parody of revolutionary uprising, it is Hugo who throws out his “filthy carcase.” Anthea and all the family are finally won over when Hugo saves Richmond from the law when he is shot in a smuggling venture. Here, he is shown to have a greater respect for the law than his grandfather, who has turned a blind eye to local smuggling.

Heyer’s aristocratic bias, and that of many of the Regency romances written in emulation of her style, is thrown into sharp relief by Jo Baker’s novel Longbourn. A 2013 revisiting of Pride and Prejudice—from the point of view of the servants—Longbourn depicts the hard facts of their lives, the bedrock on which the gracious living of Austen’s characters depends.

Baker’s heroine, Sarah, like Hugo in The Unknown Ajax, comes from a “family of weavers.” That family’s fate is tellingly different from that of Hugo’s relatives. Beggared when their village is destroyed through enforced enclosure of the land, they have to put Sarah in the workhouse, later to be sent to work as a housemaid.

The life of unrelenting toil of the servants is brilliantly depicted. Much of it is sordid drudgery. Unlike Heyer’s heroines—whom Heyer herself commented “Lived only from the waist up” —the females in Baker’s novel menstruate, entailing unsavory washing. The family’s chamber pots have to be emptied. In the daily round of unceasing labour, a few moments of stolen happiness are a delight.

In Heyer’s novels, the ugly aspects of life in the Regency UK—poverty, disease, filth and feces in the streets; public torture and death, massively high infant mortality and the low status of women—are ignored. With the exception of some ridiculous subversives, everyone is content with his or her lot. Injustice and misery are rarely portrayed, and when they are, they can be put right by some charitable works.

Heyer’s fans heatedly defend her works as “harmless escapism.” Yet is so pervasive and reactionary a version of a historical era harmless in its influence?”

– Lucinda Elliott, “The Regency Romance Hoax.Public Books, December 6, 2017.

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