Monday, May 14, 2018

And Marx Stood Quietly in Darwin’s Garden

My review of a novel by Ilona Jerger, Und Marx stand still in Darwins Garten, is fitting for Karl's 200th birthday. Jerger based her book on the fact that old Charles Darwin and semi-old Karl Marx not only shared their first name but lived in London simultaneously only ten miles apart.

They could have met but they did not although Marx had read Darwin‘s On the Origin of Species (1859) while Darwin owned Marx‘s Das Kapital (1867) of which he only read a few pages for the book was written in Marx’s torturous German. In 1881 both men were ailing though pronounced hypochondriacs, providing Jerger with the literary pivot: In her novel, they happen to have the same doctor who arranges a meeting in the form of a dinner at Darwin’s house. Both protagonists end the evening in Darwin's garden.

The style of Jerger’s novel is both superb and enchanting. For her text, the author uses quotations from letters and books both men wrote and combines them in the form of monologues and dialogues the two men have with their doctor and during their fictitious dinner.

In one of his many discussions with Doctor Beckett, Darwin goes into politics, "I fear that in our society trade unions and left-wing politics carry the bad, thus fostering the weak and the rotten. I tell you, it's not good when too much welfare undermines natural selection." When Dr. Becket frowns, Darwin mitigates his statement: "Of course, here too everything is a question of dose. Helping the poor without pampering them is something that modern government must offer to some extent."

The doctor wrinkles his nose, "Whoever is weak, remains poor? And whoever is poor, goes down? Now I'm a bit surprised. I used to think you kept your theory out of political discussions. But what you just said sounds to me as if competition and selection govern survival not only in nature but also in human societies. Survival of the fittest not only in bees but also in humans?"

When Dr. Becket tells Marx about his conversation with Darwin, Marx clenches his fist, holds it up and lets it bang down on Darwin's book, "It's a classic circular." He uses his forefinger to draw circles in the air, "Darwin has transferred the struggle for survival that he observed in the capitalist system to animals and plants. No, it's no coincidence that he recognizes his English class society in nature.“

When at the dinner Dr. Becket makes Darwin aware of Marx's reaction the latter starts to argue but the doctor wants to change the direction of their conversation, “I believe there is another connection between your two theories of revolution and evolution. And it seems exciting indeed. I asked Marx what he thinks of your theory of evolution. And he praised you in the highest tones for having swept away the 'otherworldly gossip', as he put it. He literally said that your theory created the historic and natural basis of communism."

In the following discussion, Darwin somehow feels guilty for sidelining Christianity. He vigorously claims that he is an agnostic and not an atheist, "Just the fact that chance is the greatest force of evolution, is not satisfactory although I don't doubt for a second that it is so, I don't like this aimlessness myself. Our lives get a sour taste that nobody wanted us. The earth as a huge casino, where nature scores hits and misses. This is an attitude to life that few people appreciate."

Nevertheless, Marx's reaction to Darwin's statement is prompt: "He has given us the sword to behead religion! In this respect, Darwin is quite excellent."


When writing her book, Jerger observed, “The more I researched, the more amazed I was that two such different characters, represented by the conceptual pair of evolution and revolution, had so much in common. When I noticed that, I started to keep a list that became longer and longer. It says, for example, that both Darwin and Marx lost several children and could hardly cope with the death of their respective favorite child (Darwin’s daughter Annie died in 1851, Marx’s son Edgar, called Musch, died in 1855); that both suffered from nausea, hypochondria, migraine, insomnia, and massive skin problems. That both got opium. Both had their “racetracks” to think about. Not to forget their iconic heads with the flowing white beards. But above all, that both wrote works that people will never let go.”

“They also had great battles with their religion and seemed to feel guilty in a similar way. Darwin had studied theology and, as a devout young man with the Bible in his luggage, had boarded the Beagle; Marx coming from a rabbi family would certainly have been considered a rabbi of Trier. However, the Marx family converted to Protestantism because as a Jew, Karl’s father would not have been able to run a law firm.”

On the occasion of Marx’s 200th birthday, I hope Jerger’s exceptional book will find an anglophone publisher.

Here as a lagniappe, Marx's statue, in the meantime unveiled, in Trier. A walking giant of 18 feet (5.5 meters) carrying Das Kapital in his left! hand.

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