Monday, May 02, 2011

Origins of a famous phrase

Most of the turgid writings attributed to Karl Marx cannot be read with any literary pleasure. The one sterling exception is the Communist Manifesto, first published in German in 1848 under the joint authorship of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

English-speaking readers have often been struck by one phrase in the first part of the manifesto: “All that is solid melts into air.” Ostensibly, these words capture the duality of capitalism: a seeming permanence that is nonetheless destined for total dissolution.

It will come as a surprise to learn that that ringing phrase was not due to either Marx or Engels. It was introduced by the English lawyer Samuel Moore in his somewhat free English version of 1888. Here is the original German text: “Alles Ständische und Stehende verdampft, alles Heilige wird entweiht, und die Menschen sind endlich gezwungen, ihre Lebensstellung, ihre gegenseitigen Beziehungen mit nüchternen Augen anzusehen.” Evidently Moore was paraphrasing the verb “verdampft” in the first clause; it means “evaporates.”

The reason for the effectiveness of the Moore version is the fact that it is a riff on Prospero’s speech in Shakespeare’s Tempest (Act IV, scene 1).

 “Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”

The allusion does not seem entirely appropriate, for Prospero is describing the illusions conjured up by Shakespeare’s dramatic art, which have never been real. Yet for Marx and Engels the oppressions of capitalism are all too hideously real.

With its three authors--Engels wrote the draft, Marx edited it, and Moore gave it its enduring English dress--the Communist Manifesto is a powerful piece of rhetoric. Yet it may be less successful as analysis than the tedious texts Marx wrote all by himself.


NOTE. Here is the whole paragraph in the familiar Moore version: “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found your blog trying to find any further significance to the famous phrase. thanks so much for your writing it elucidated in a very clear way its history. I have always been attracted to it, since I heard it at theather performance put up by a theater group in Colombia where I grew up. I have used it throughout the years in my own creative and academic pursuits never knowing its origins. Now that I am preparing to teach a class myself, I thought I might as well be more prepared to answer questions or before I am accused of plagiarism... for me though it has always meant how what seems like solid knowledge right this minute can be easily transformed once we access deeper levels or knowing or understanding of such thing... I am not a philosopher so pardon my digressions... any way... thanks again for your blog...I always appreciate informed and educated "opinionators". ; )

12:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting and informed assessment, nontheless your approach to the theoretical and factual aspects of the book is improvised, you should hinder yourself from commenting about that wich surpasses your knowledge in "humanities and literature", otherwise evaluating such a book from a merely esthetic point of view is rather naive.

9:01 PM  
Blogger Robert Dawson Scott said...

I know it's a long time since you wrote this blog but I've just discovered it and since it so precisely answers the question I was asking the least I can do is say thank you. And I wonder if I might add this; Marx and Engels, German intellectuals living in London, would have known their Shakespeare - the world's playwright, after all. Perhaps they themselves, albeit inadvertently, were echoing that famous speech which also mentions "solemn temples" (the holy profaned). So the translation, undoubtedly itself deliberately echoing the Shakespeare, as you say, could unknowingly be a more accurate translation than the translator himself realised. We'll never know; but it's an entertaining, if whimsical, thought. Thanks again. RDS

1:49 PM  

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