Scorpion and Felix

by Kieran Healy on April 28, 2006

David Bernstein speculates about the casting for a new film of Atlas Shrugged. Inevitably, someone in the comments points out the obvious, viz, that Ayn Rand is an atrocious novelist fit only for insecure fifteen-year-old boys. Some other Volokh readers are not amused, and stomp off in a huff to listen to their Rush CDs. In the course of his snipe at Rand, the commenter says “At least Marx, for all his faults, didn’t attempt fiction.”

Well, as a matter of fact, he did. Scorpion and Felix is Marx’s unpublished comic (I do not say “funny”) novel, written around 1837, when he was 19. It is not for the faint-of-heart. In essence it is a pastiche of Tristram Shandy, a book Marx thought was fantastic. Here is the entirety of Chapter 37:

David Hume maintained that this chapter was the locus communis of the preceding, and indeed maintained so before I had written it. His proof was as follows: since this chapter exists, the earlier chapter does not exist, but this chapter has ousted the earlier, from which it sprang, though not through the operation of cause and effect, for this he questioned. Yet every giant, and thus also every chapter of twenty lines, presupposes a dwarf, every genius a hidebound philistine, and every storm at sea—mud, and as soon as the first disappear, the latter begin, sit down at the table, sprawling out their long legs arrogantly.

The first are too great for this world, and so they are thrown out. But the latter strike root in it and remain, as one may see from the facts, for champagne leaves a lingering repulsive aftertaste, Caesar the hero leaves behind him the play-acting Octavianus, Emperor Napoleon the bourgeois king Louis Philippe, the philosopher Rant the carpet-knight Krug, the poet Schiller the Hofrat Raupach, Leibniz’s heaven Wolf’s schoolroom, the dog Boniface this chapter.

Thus the bases are precipitated, while the spirit evaporates.

In his biography of Marx, Francis Wheen points out that the convoluted parodic style seen in the novel was a feature of Marx’s writing throughout his life, and in Capital in particular. He also notes that the passage above, with its contrast of Napoleon and Louis Philippe as giant and dwarf, clearly prefigures the famous opening of the Eighteenth Brumaire:

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Caussidiere after Danton, Louis Blanc after Robespierre, the montagne of 1848 to 1851 after the montagne of 1793 to 1795, and then the London constable [Louis Bonaparte], with a dozen of his best debt-ridden lieutenants, after the little corporal [Napoleon Bonaparte], with his roundtable of military marshalls.

At any rate, it is striking that Marx had such versatility that he could write a novel even less readable than Atlas Shrugged.

{ 61 comments }

1

rilkefan 04.28.06 at 12:27 am

“Tristram Shandy, a book Marx thought was fantastic.”

_Tristram Shandy is_ fantastic.

2

Dr. Free-Ride 04.28.06 at 12:32 am

Hey, Rush is at least a few rungs up from Ayn Rand!

3

bob violence 04.28.06 at 1:56 am

If Marx loved Tristram Shandy, he at least understood that there was such a thing as irony, which Rand never did; and so even if Scorpion and Felix is craptacular, I bet it’s better than Atlas Shrugged.

I really hope the movie has lots of Rush on the soundtrack. And maybe some Pink Floyd.

4

John Quiggin 04.28.06 at 2:13 am

“the philosopher Rant”

Is this a typo, or am I missing some obscure joke?

5

Brendan 04.28.06 at 2:13 am

‘Rush is at least a few rungs up from Ayn Rand!’

Shudder. Rush are AWFUL!!

6

tregetour 04.28.06 at 2:32 am

‘Rush is at least a few rungs up from Ayn Rand!’
That doesn’t mean Rush isn’t awful.

7

Shalom Beck 04.28.06 at 3:54 am

Most objectivist I have met are female.

8

Marc Mulholland 04.28.06 at 3:56 am

“the convoluted parodic style seen in the novel was a feature of Marx’s writing throughout his life, and in ‘Capital’ in particular”.

Capital is pretty well written, I’d say. Now, for horribly elaborate sarcasm, it’s hard to find worse in Marx than in his earlier writings, the ‘Holy Family’ say, or those huge bits of ‘The German Ideology’ nobody reads.

9

Daniel 04.28.06 at 4:24 am

Atlas Shrugged is a good novel. I’m sorry but it is. It’s not a flawless novel, and the political speech which dominates pages 950-980 of the Pan paperback version is very much worse than the one in Native Son. But it’s a good old read squarely in the Victor Hugo tradition for at least the first 900 pages. I swear I am going to write a favourable review of it one of these days.

“The Fountainhead” is, if anything, better.

10

Jim 04.28.06 at 5:58 am

Well he was NINETEEN and it was UNPUBLISHED(perhaps due to second thoughts about the quality?), excuses which Ms. Rand does not have.

11

Brett Bellmore 04.28.06 at 6:07 am

If Rand didn’t have a better idea of what good writing looked like than your average philosopher, her philosophy probably wouldn’t have become as popular. Her novels were a triumph of theory (Of what constitutes good writing.) over the total absence of tallent, even if they weren’t a complete triumph.

12

arthur 04.28.06 at 6:19 am

As a side note, there is a movie for The Fountainhead directed by King Vidor. Canonical according to some, and one of Slavoj Zizek’s top 10 favourite films.

13

Brendan 04.28.06 at 6:23 am

On the ‘bad novels make good movies’ theory, apparently the movie of the Fountainhead (with Gary Cooper) was actually pretty good.

Er….does anyone know if this is true?

14

nnyhav 04.28.06 at 6:54 am

Scruton even perpetrates opera.

15

dagger aleph 04.28.06 at 7:53 am

“Most objectivist I have met are female.”

Interesting. This hasn’t been my experience, and furthermore, I’ve never met a single female who likes Rush.

16

Sean Carroll 04.28.06 at 7:54 am

Ayn Rand couldn’t write her way out of a paper bag, while each member of Rush possessed world-class instrumentalist chops. It’s an open-and-shut case.

17

Russell Arben Fox 04.28.06 at 8:03 am

“…each member of Rush possessed world-class instrumentalist chops. It’s an open-and-shut case.”

This is absolutely correct.

Incidentally….why, Kieran, when it comes time to make jokes about the listening habits of libertarians (of which I only want more, I assure you), do you always invoke Rush? I mean, sure, there are the obvious reasons: “Free Will” and all that. But at least some libertarians must order their listening preferences not upon the doctrinal orthodoxy of a musician’s lyrics, but upon their whole lifestyle package, don’t you think? In other words, shouldn’t some of them sometimes stomp off in a huff to listen to Ted Nugent? Or Glenn Fry?

18

aaron 04.28.06 at 8:15 am

I really liked the Fountainhead. I’m very imature for my age though.

What is it exactly that people don’t like about her writing?

I see that many people don’t like it, but not one reason why.

19

Doug 04.28.06 at 8:24 am

The philosopher Rant is, I presume, the gentleman from Koenigsbrug, now known as Kalininblat.

20

eweininger 04.28.06 at 8:25 am

Bah. Rand, Schmand.

Let us hold our collective breath until the day when some brave soul undertakes an adaptation of Chernyshevsky .

Of course, it must be acknowledged that his literary conduct can at least be excused by the exigencies of czarist censorship.

21

Stuart 04.28.06 at 8:26 am

Aaron – even though my politics tend to the libertarian, and I sorta liked Atlas Shrugged, I’ll be the first to tell you that the bombast gets annoying after a while. Rand’s style is to say everything three or four times every time she says it, and then just to underline the point, tell you that if you disagree you are either evil or in need of further education.

Her basic point – that people should be free to blaze their own paths and accomplish what they can, without hurting others – is absolutely correct, though. But I said it in less than one sentence. She took almost 1200 pages.

22

Dmitry 04.28.06 at 8:26 am

It is because they rely on handouts and tax cuts and enitelment to get somewhere in life. Rand’s philosyphy was getting everything in your life through your own means, and using your own mind. Most people shy away from taking responsibility for their own mistakes and accomplishments.

23

Stuart 04.28.06 at 8:27 am

Aaron – even though my politics tend to the libertarian, and I sorta liked Atlas Shrugged, I’ll be the first to tell you that the bombast gets annoying after a while. Rand’s style is to say everything three or four times every time she says it, and then just to underline the point, tell you that if you disagree you are either evil or in need of further education.

Her basic point – that people should be free to blaze their own paths and accomplish what they can, without hurting others – is absolutely correct, though. But I said it in less than one sentence. She took almost 1200 pages.

Oh, and for the record, my taste in music runs more to Pink Floyd than Rush.

24

Maurice Meilleur 04.28.06 at 8:30 am

Maybe they could adapt Atlas Shrugged the way that Paul Verhoeven adapted Heinlein’s Starship Troopers — as a satire of the ideas in the novel.
There must be some equivalent for a screenplay of Rand’s novel to Verhoeven’s casting Neil Patrick Harris as the pyschic Colonel Jenkins in ST. Maybe Jon Heder as Galt?

25

Uncle Kvetch 04.28.06 at 8:31 am

each member of Rush possessed world-class instrumentalist chops

No argument there. Unfortunately, “world-class instrumentalist chops” and “excruciating boredom” are not mutually exclusive.

26

Maurice Meilleur 04.28.06 at 8:31 am

“But what are you going to do, John?” “Whatever I want . . . Gosh!”

27

Aidan Kehoe 04.28.06 at 8:45 am

Capital is pretty well written, I’d say.

Nope. It was written in bad macaronic German, first published as bad German, then translated into bad English.

28

Jacob T. Levy 04.28.06 at 8:49 am

OK, Rand and Rush are both old news. Could we direct attention to the eye-gougingly awful book that Kieran has made us aware of? Maybe this is well-known to Marx scholars, but I’m guessing it’s not widely known even in academia.

And, oh, dear god.

I conclude therefore that fairies wear beards, for Magdalene Grethe, not the repentant Magdalene, was decked out like a warrior jealous of his honour with whiskers and mustachios, the curls on the soft cheeks caressed the finely moulded chin which like a rock in lonely seas — that men however behold from afar-jutted out of the flat skilly-plate of a face, enormous and proudly aware of its sublimity, cleaving the air, to stir the gods and overwhelm men.

The goddess of fantasy seemed to have dreamed of a bearded beauty and to have lost herself in the enchanted fields of her vast countenance; when she awoke, behold, it was Grethe herself who had dreamed, fearful dreams that she was the great whore of Babylon, the Revelation of St. John and the wrath of God, and that on the finely furrowed skin He had caused a prickly stubble-field to sprout, so that her beauty should not excite to sin, and that her youth should be protected, as the rose by its thorns, that the world should

to knowledge aspire
and not for her take fire.

Wow.

29

Kieran Healy 04.28.06 at 8:50 am

why, Kieran, when it comes time to make jokes about the listening habits of libertarians … do you always invoke Rush?

I think mostly because someone at Volokh went through a phase of quoting freedom-loving Rush lyrics at length once a week.

30

The Modesto Kid 04.28.06 at 8:52 am

Cool irony in the repeat posting of 20/21.

31

Ben Alpers 04.28.06 at 9:01 am

Kieran,

Your bringing Marx’s unpublished novel to our attention made me leap from my seat and exultantly exclaim, “Well grubbed, old mole!”

32

norbizness 04.28.06 at 9:10 am

I thought it was because Rush (esp. Neil Peart) were Randroids back in the day. There was a song called “Anthym” off an old album, and “The Trees” is a bad objectivist fairy tale come to musical life.

33

Henry (not that Henry) 04.28.06 at 9:27 am

No. 13–no, it’s not, at least not in this case. Gary Cooper somehow manages to play the hero even more woodenly than you would have expected (see Sgt. York, Pride of the Yankees and The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell, where he turns that obstinate single-mindedness into a virtue). The problem is the gaoddamn dialogue: the blather that comes out of his mouth does not resemble human speech, much less ideas, but just a string of slogans. The trial scene is particularly painful: the only thing that compares is the trial scene in Mission to Moscow.

34

Ben Alpers 04.28.06 at 9:28 am

Re: the movie of The Fountainhead

It’s pretty good, in an incredibly campy way. The scene in which Dominique Francon (Patricia Neal) falls for Howard Roark (Gary Cooper) as he’s operating a jackhammer is worth the price of admission, as is the concluding shot of Roark atop his skyscraper (as Hitchcock said of the train entering the tunnel in the final shot of North by Northwest, “It’s a phallic symbol. Don’t tell anyone.”). There’s certainly nothing intentionally ironic about Vidor’s adaptation. He was apparently quite taken with the novel.

This is particularly interesting because only fifteen years earlier, Vidor had directed Our Daily Bread (1934), which is probably the most wholeheartedly collectivist film ever to come out of Hollywood. John and Mary Sims (Tom Keene and Karen Morley), unable to make it in the city during the Great Depression, help found a farming commune. The film concludes with a brilliant filmed sequence in which the dozens of former urbanites who’ve joined the Sims work together to bring water to their dry fields by constructing an irrigation ditch. It really looks like something out of Soviet cinema.

Our Daily Bread, in turn, was a semi-sequel to The Crowd (1928), arguably Vidor’s greatest film, which traces the struggles of John and Mary Sims in a 1920s New York that perfectly reflects contemporary anxieties about cities and the limitations of democratic life.

Vidor was a very good director. These three films are especially interesting because Vidor seemed drawn to political (by Hollywood standards) projects, yet also seemed to have no really fixed political opinions. So he kind of channelled what was in the air at the time each was made. Each of these films is worth checking out. They also teach wonderfully in either film history or American cultural history courses. In terms of cinematic quality, I’d rank The Crowd as pretty clearly the best of the three, followed by The Fountainhead. The conclusion of Our Daily Bread is spectacular, but much that precedes it is a bit indifferent.

35

Cthomas 04.28.06 at 10:32 am

Re: Rush and “world-class instrumental chops.”

Rush fans often say this. Their music could not be more simple, when it comes to chords and melody. Sure, everyone flails around a lot (and yes, Neil and Geddy are interesting in the way they flail around).

But surely someone who is a “world-class instrumentalist” ought to be able to write an interesting melody, or chord progression, or to improvise … none of which Rush does.

And that’s leaving aside their wince-inducing lyrics. But, yes, I, too used to rock out to them in 9th grade.

36

Sebastian Holsclaw 04.28.06 at 10:51 am

Atlas Shrugged is readable but not excellent. It is sort of like a call-back to an older style of long-winded novel though, so doesn’t stand up well to modern expectations. Clarissa is a much better book of course, but modern readers have many of the same problems with it that they have with Atlas Shrugged. I loved Clarissa and I think it is a good novel, but I wouldn’t reccommend it to casual friends.

See also Anne Rice and Robert Jordan for flashes of brilliance carefully obscured behind thousands of pages of dreck.

37

s. ellison 04.28.06 at 11:04 am

In both scholarship and style, Marx’s writing is delightful… especially those sections of The Ideology that nobody reads. I’d put the second chapter to the Poverty of Philosophy up against anything written by Rand [or Rush… for what it’s worth :)] in terms of both content and enjoyment.

38

Pithlord 04.28.06 at 11:37 am

Marx certainly contributed enormously to the underappreciated genre of the catty footnote.

39

Matt Weiner 04.28.06 at 12:10 pm

In the “second time as farce” spirit, why is the URL for this entry “scorpion-and-felix-2”?

(Marx certainly contributed enormously to the underappreciated genre of the catty footnote. HELLS YEAH.)

40

rilkefan 04.28.06 at 12:20 pm

“Their music could not be more simple, when it comes to chords and melody”

When Elliot Carter writes his “Lakeside Park” or “Entre Nous” or “YYZ”, get back to me.

41

ian 04.28.06 at 12:29 pm

Rand’s style is to say everything three or four times every time she says it, and then just to underline the point, tell you that if you disagree you are either evil or in need of further education.

I think she has been reincarnated as Verity at Samizdata!

I have never read Atlas Shrugged. I did read the Fountainhead and that was enough.

42

Ajax 04.28.06 at 12:50 pm

Australia’s conservative Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, who staged an illegal coup in 1975 against the elected Australian Government, always said his favourite novelist was Ayn Rand. That was enough for me never to read any of her books.

43

a different chris 04.28.06 at 2:00 pm

Hey, reading Marx is always rewarding!!! For instance, I could never remember why I don’t like champagne, being very rarely confronted with it (New Year’s Eve, of course). Now Marx lays it out in his rip-it-right-down-to-the-guts fashion: “for champagne leaves a lingering repulsive aftertaste”.

I can’t possibly forget that particular turn of phrase.

On Libertarians and the Nuge, I always wonder how they (and Teddy, in fact) wrap their little inflexible minds around “Great White Buffalo”.

And I still crank both him and Rush to ear-bleeding volume if it’s a song (and they both have a few) with a good riff. Most rock lyrics are stupid, that’s part of its charm, so who cares about the politics therein.

I do wonder if Geddy Lee has ever been informed that gasoline turns to varnish eventually so that Barchetta was unlikely to leave that barn without a couple of people pushing.

44

Pithlord 04.28.06 at 2:10 pm

#42: There was nothing illegal about the coup against Whitlam’s government. Surely, you have heard of constitutional monarchy…

45

weichi 04.28.06 at 5:04 pm

Damn it, now I’ve got Spirit Of Radio in my head:

One likes to believe
In the freedom of music
But glittering prizes
And endless compromises
Shatter the illusion
Of integrity

So true, so true.

46

Keith 04.28.06 at 5:26 pm

The phrases “A good novel” and “the political speech which dominates pages 950-980” would seem to cancel each other out. But then what do I know, I’ve never read the bloody bookstop. All I know from Atlas shrugged,/i> I learned from the pastiche of it in Illuminatus!, called Telemachus Sneezed.

Now there’s a book I’d like to see filmed… it’d be ten hours long but well worth it.

47

Seth Edenbaum 04.28.06 at 9:27 pm

Marx was one of the 19th century writers whose ideas encouraged generations of ideologues.
Rand was an ideologue who couldn’t write.

It really doesn’t matter that he wrote lousy a lousy novel, he was still ‘a writer’ and saw himself as part of that tradition. I remember arguing with Henry about Marx’s determinism, but Marx was a craftsman who used his craft to argue for a logic. That contradiction is lost in the 20th century, where intellectuals disdained craft and craftsmen.
I’ve gotten in fights here with people who’ve argued that science makes literature besides the point.

And Marx could recite pages and pages of Shakespeare from memory.

48

Seth Edenbaum 04.28.06 at 9:30 pm

Marx was in fact a ‘great writer.’
That’s part of his definition

49

almostinfamous 04.28.06 at 10:28 pm

dudes, ladies, gents and whatever other kind of people read this here blog.

if you happen by the IMDB page for atlas shrugged and click on the name james v. hart, it will lead you to the screenwriter of (among other things) T&A Academy 2, hook and dracula.

if that doesn;t give credit to the ‘movie as parody of the book’ theory, i don’t know what will.

50

Omri 04.29.06 at 12:45 am

I’ll admit first, so you’ll have something to sneer at: I read Atlas Shrugged. I was 18, immature, insecure, and had a long commute in the summer. And while the book was unreadable to anyone who had read enough better books, it was eminently readable to anyone who hadn’t, since unlike Marx, Ayn Rand’s sentences were about as complex as a football announcer’s.

But

Read the news lately, anyone? A country is in an inexorable economic decline, social tensions are rising, and a bureaucratic elite tries to keep things together with daily bureaucratic dictats that range from the ineffective to the absurd, while gingerly trying not to provoke popular backlashes that are also farcical. Sure seems to ring a bell.

It doesn’t make Ayn Rand into a prophet. It just shows Odin is sleeping off a mead binge and Loki is taking a vacation in France. And boy, does that trickster god have a twisted sense of humor.

51

jez b 04.29.06 at 3:01 am

Just wanted to support all those who said ‘the Fountainhead’ is a good book – nay, a great book. I read it when I was about 20 and was so enamoured of it I bought the gf a copy too. So, does that mean I was an immature 20 year old? Can’t say I know anything about RUSH however…

52

Aidan Kehoe 04.29.06 at 3:51 am

Marx was in fact a ‘great writer.’ That’s part of his definition

Firstly, he was bad at writing German. He interspersed his manuscripts at random with other languages, signally failing to care whether his reader understood what he wrote; what he writes on Victorian society is certainly thorough, true, and scathing, but what he writes on what would succeed it is, essentially, fevered rambling.

Secondly, he failed to make a living as a writer; he died in debt, despite Engels regularly stealing sums from his family’s cotton factory and supporting him on it. I would submit that inherent in the “Great Writer” thing is that enough people should read the writer’s work that writing it would be worth the time. Even Communists didn’t read Marx if they could at all avoid it.

53

ian 04.29.06 at 6:51 am

A country is in an inexorable economic decline, social tensions are rising, and a bureaucratic elite tries to keep things together with daily bureaucratic dictats that range from the ineffective to the absurd, while gingerly trying not to provoke popular backlashes that are also farcical.

‘Alongside Night’ which I approached with some trepidation, after seeing the reference to Rand on the cover seems likely to be much better (it is a hell ofg a lot shoreter for one) – as indeed did Jack London in ‘The Iron Heel’.

54

Daniel 04.29.06 at 8:23 am

The phrases “A good novel” and “the political speech which dominates pages 950-980” would seem to cancel each other out.

Well, Native Son also has a thirty page political speech at the end and it is a very good novel indeed (it’s a rather better political speech than the one in Atlas Shrugged, mainly because the protagonist doesn’t have the burden of also having to give a primer in Rand’s slightly odd epistemology).

I’ll admit first, so you’ll have something to sneer at: I read Atlas Shrugged. I was 18, immature, insecure, and had a long commute in the summer.

I read it last month and have no excuses at all.

55

Matt Weiner 04.29.06 at 9:17 am

I would submit that inherent in the “Great Writer” thing is that enough people should read the writer’s work that writing it would be worth the time.

Didn’t Melville die in poverty, or something like that? Admittedly he had some bestsellers, but his Great Novel wasn’t read that widely in his lifetime.

56

RETARDO 04.29.06 at 12:37 pm

I would submit that inherent in the “Great Writer” thing is that enough people should read the writer’s work that writing it would be worth the time.

Ahh, free market philistinism. Rand would be proud.

Anyway, it is my understanding that Neil Peart disavowed randianism — like most people enamored with Rand, he grew up and then out of the affliction. so far as I know, he’s not even libertarian anymore.

57

vivian 04.29.06 at 7:50 pm

Like #46, after the Illuminati trilogy, much loved, I had to read Atlas Shrugged – declare anything unreadable to a certain type of fifteen year old guarantees at least one attempt. I found Rand’s obsessions amusing, and the book passed the time (though less well than most things I read by choice, but I read fast).

Imagine my shock when in college I met people who took that stuff seriously, even considered it a workable politics. Kept far away from them, though.

58

Aidan Kehoe 04.30.06 at 5:03 am

Ahh, free market philistinism. Rand would be proud.

So your peculiar brand of literary criticism has no respect for the tastes of wider society? Good for you!

59

Danny Yee 04.30.06 at 5:38 am

I’ve just written a review of Peter Weiss’ The Aesthetics of Resistance. If you’re after a communist political novel, that’s pretty damn good!

60

Chris Bertram 05.01.06 at 6:16 am

Just a recommendation: S.S.Prawer’s Karl Marx and World Literature.

61

Paul Gowder 05.01.06 at 11:31 am

I kinda like the Marx novel quote! C’mon, you can’t tell me that the giant/mud line isn’t better than anything RAND’s ever written. (Not that this is saying much, mind.)

(Then again, I kinda like Free Will. And I’d pay good money to see a movie of Illuminatus! But Rand? Has anyone ever successfully gotten through all of Atlas Shrugged? I personally didn’t make it through chapter 1.)

Comments on this entry are closed.