May 5, 2008

The Bad Old Days

by Kenneth Rexroth

The summer of nineteen eighteen
I read The Jungle and The
Research Magnificent. That fall
My father died and my aunt
Took me to Chicago to live.
The first thing I did was to take
A streetcar to the stockyards.
In the winter afternoon,
Gritty and fetid, I walked
Through the filthy snow, through the
Squalid streets, looking shyly
Into the people's faces,
Those who were home in the daytime.
Debauched and exhausted faces,
Starved and looted brains, faces
Like the faces in the senile
And insane wards of charity
Hospitals. Predatory
Faces of little children,
Then as the soiled twilight darkened,
Under the green gas lamps, and the
Sputtering purple arc lamps,
The faces of the men coming
Home from work, some still alive with
The last pulse of hope or courage,
Some sly and bitter, some smart and
Silly, most of them already
Broken and empty, no life,
Only blinding tiredness, worse
Than any tired animal.
The sour smells of a thousand
Suppers of fried potatoes and
Fried cabbage bled into the street.
I was giddy and sick, and out
Of my misery I felt rising
A terrible anger and out
Of the anger, an absolute vow.
Today the evil is clean
And prosperous, but it is
Everywhere, you don't have to
Take a streetcar to find it,
And it is the same evil.
And the misery, and the
Anger, and the vow are the same.

"The Bad Old Days" by Kenneth Rexroth, from Selected Poems. © New Directions, 1984. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Karl Marx, (books by this author) born in Trier, Germany (1818), the son of a lawyer. Marx went to university to study law but was not a very dedicated student and became president of the Trier Tavern Drinking Society. When he transferred to a school in another city, he became a more serious student. He married Jenny von Westphalen, his childhood sweetheart and the daughter of a Prussian Baron, in 1843. They would have seven children together, only three of whom would survive to become adults. Nonetheless they had a tender and generally happy marriage, and Marx once wrote to his wife, "There are actually many females in the world, and some among them are beautiful. But where could I find again a face whose every feature, even every wrinkle, is a reminder of the greatest and sweetest memories of my life?"

In 1848, he published The Communist Manifesto, which begins, "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." The next year, he and other journalists for a radical newspaper were banished from Germany. He fled to Paris, but he was forced from there also and a month later, when he was 31 years old, fled to England, where the prime minister was a proponent of free speech.

Marx spent the rest of his life in London, and in poverty. He spent his days in the British Museum's Reading Room, where he read old issues of the Economist. Friedrich Engels supported Marx's family, working in Germany and mailing money to Marx. The two exchanged several letters a week for 20 years.

The family was constantly poor and was evicted from one flat for not paying rent, and forced to find a cheaper place to live. His wife and daughter helped him with his work. In 1855, his son Edgar died from tuberculosis. It was their third child to have died, and it was particularly devastating to Marx. The eight-year-old son who often cheered up his parents by singing silly songs had died in his father's arms.

His wife's health declined. In her 40s, she gave birth to a stillborn child and also got smallpox, from which she became deaf. Marx suffered from terrible boils that were so bad that he sometimes had to write standing up at his desk because it was too painful to sit on his afflicted rump. He told Engels that "such a lousy life is not worth living" — though Marx also wrote that he derived some consolation in that "it was a truly proletarian disease." Marx's writing reflected the consciousness of his disease at some points; he once wrote, "At all events, I hope the bourgeoisie will remember the carbuncles until their dying day. What swine they are!"

He said, "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. "

Today is Cinco de Mayo, a national holiday in Mexico that celebrates the Battle of Puebla, 1862, in which Mexican forces defeated French invaders against overwhelming odds. What began with a demand by the government of France for payment on bonds turned into a war of conquest. The French commander was sure of victory, but 2,000 troops under General Ignacio Zaragoza carried the day instead. The French ultimately won the war, installing Maximilian of Austria as ruler of Mexico, but the victory at Puebla gave the Mexicans the confidence to depose him and declare independence, five years later. Cinco de Mayo is celebrated with fiestas, parades, battle reenactments, and often a combate de flores, a battle of flowers. The site of General Zaragoza's birthplace, in Goliad, Texas, was designated a state park in 1960.

It's the birthday of philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, (books by this author) born in Copenhagen, Denmark (1813). His father — a pious Lutheran wool merchant who was 57 when Soren was born — had made a fortune early in life and then retired, at 40, devoting himself to intellectual pursuits. The house was filled with professors, clergymen, and writers. Soren, the youngest of seven children, was slightly deformed, sickly and frail, yet highly gifted. In bad weather his father took him for imaginary walks up and down his study, commenting on many make-believe sights, helping the boy develop an inexhaustible imagination.

He thought about becoming a Lutheran minister but decided against it, and he ended up living on an inheritance and publishing philosophical books with his own money. He argued that truth is subjective, and that it's not enough to believe in something if you don't live by your beliefs. He was almost unknown outside of Denmark in the 19th century, but in the early 20th century he was rediscovered by European writers and philosophers, and he had a huge impact on writers like Henrik Ibsen, Franz Kafka, and Albert Camus.

Kierkegaard said, "Listen to the cry of a woman in labor at the hour of giving birth — look at the dying man's struggle at his last extremity, and then tell me whether something that begins and ends thus could be intended for enjoyment."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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