Letter from Heinrich Marx to son Karl

in Berlin

Written: Trier, December 9, 1837
Source: Marx Engels Collected Works Vol 1, pg 685-691.
Publisher: International Publishers (1975)
First Published: Marx/Engels, Gesamtausgabe, Abt. 1, Hb. 2, 1929
Translated: Clemens Dutt
Transcribed: S. Ryan
HTML Markup: S. Ryan

Dear Karl,

If one knows one's weaknesses, one must take steps against them. If then I wanted as usual to write in a coherent way, in the end my love for you would mislead me into adopting a sentimental tone, and all that had gone before would be the more wasted since you -- so it seems at least -- never take a letter in your hand a second time, and indeed quite logically, for why read a letter a second time if the letter sent in return is never an answer.

I will therefore give vent to my complaints in the form of aphorisms, for they are really complaints that I am putting forward. So, in order to make them quite clear to myself and to make you swallow them like pills, I raise questions which I am inclined to settle quite a posteriori.

1. What is the task of a young man on whom nature has incontestably bestowed unusual talent, in particular

a) if he, as he asserts and moreover I willingly believe, reveres his father and idealises his mother;

b) if he, without regard to his age and situation, has bound one of the noblest of girls to his fate, and

c) has thereby put a very honourable family into the position of having to approve a relationship which apparently and according to the usual way of the world holds out great dangers and gloomy prospects for this beloved child?

2. Had your parents any right to demand that your conduct, your way of life, should bring them joy, at least moments of joy, and as far as possible banish causes of sorrow?

3. What have been so far the fruits of your magnificent natural gifts, as far as your parents are concerned?

4. What have been these fruits as far as you yourself are concerned?

Strictly speaking, I could and should perhaps end here and leave it to you to reply and give a complete explanation. But I am afraid of any vein of poetry in this connection. I will reply prosaically, from real life as it actually is, at the risk of appearing too prosaic even to my Herr Son.

The mood in which I find myself is in fact anything but poetic. With a cough which I have had for a year and which makes it hard for me to follow my profession, coupled with recent attacks of gout, I find myself to be more ill-humoured than is reasonable and become annoyed at my weakness of character, and so, of course, you can only expect the descriptions of an aging, ill-tempered man who is irritated by continual disappointments and especially by the fact that he is to hold up to his own idol a mirror full of distorted images.

Replies and/or Complaints

1. Gifts deserve, call for gratitude; and since magnificent natural gifts are certainly the most excellent of all, they call for a specially high degree of gratitude. But the only way nature allows gratitude to be shown her is by making proper use of these gifts and, if I may use an ordinary expression, making one's talent bear profit.

I am well aware how one should and must reply in a somewhat nobler style, namely, such gifts should be used for one's own ennoblement, and I do not dispute that this is true. Yes, indeed, they should be used for one's ennoblement. But how? One is a human being, a spiritual being, and a member of society, a citizen of the state. Hence physical, moral, intellectual and political ennoblement. Only if unison and harmony are introduced into the efforts to attain this great goal can a beautiful, attractive whole make its appearance, one which is well-pleasing to God, to men, to one's parents and to the girl one loves, and which deserves with greater truth and naturalness to be called a truly plastic picture than would a meeting with an old schoolfellow.

But, as I have said, only the endeavour to extend ennoblement in due, equal proportion to all parts is evidence of the will to prove oneself worthy of these gifts; only through the evenness of this distribution can a beautiful structure, true harmony, be found.

Indeed, if restricted to individual parts, the most honest endeavours not only do not lead to a good result, on the contrary, they produce caricatures: if restricted to the physical part -- simpletons; if to the moral part -- fanatical visionaries; if to the political part -- intriguers, and if to the intellectual part -- learned boors.

a) Yes, a young man must set himself this goal if he really wants to give joy to his parents, whose services to him it is for his heart to appreciate; especially if he knows that his parents put their finest hopes in him.

b) Yes, he must bear in mind that he has undertaken a duty, possibly exceeding his age, but all the more sacred on that account, to sacrifice himself for the benefit of a girl who has made a great sacrifice in view of her outstanding merits and her social position in abandoning her brilliant situation and prospects for an uncertain and duller future and chaining herself to the fate of a younger man. The simple and practical solution is to procure her a future worthy of her, in the real world, not in a smoke-filled room with a reeking oil-lamp at the side of a scholar grown wild.

c) Yes, he has a big debt to repay, and a noble family has the right to demand adequate compensation for the forfeiting of its great hopes so well justified by the excellent personality of the child. For, in truth, thousands of parents would have refused their consent. And in moments of gloom your own father almost wishes they had done so, for the welfare of this angelic girl is all too dear to my heart; truly I love her like a daughter, and it is for that very reason that I am so anxious for her happiness.

All these obligations together form such a closely woven bond that it alone should suffice to exorcise all evil spirits, dispel all errors, compensate for all defects and develop new and better instincts. It should suffice to turn an uncivilised stripling into an orderly human being, a negating genius into a genuine thinker, a wild ringleader of wild young fellows into a man fit for society, one who retains sufficient pride not to twist and turn like an eel, but has enough practical intelligence and tact to feel that it is only through intercourse with moral-minded people that he can learn the art of showing himself to the world in his most pleasant and most advantageous aspect, of winning respect, love and prestige as quickly as possible, and of making practical use of the talents which mother nature has in fact lavishly bestowed upon him.

That, in short, was the problem. How has it been solved?

God's grief!!! Disorderliness, musty excursions into all departments of knowledge, musty brooding under a gloomy oil-lamp; running wild in a scholar's dressing-gown and with unkempt hair instead of running wild over a glass of beer; unsociable withdrawal with neglect of all decorum and even of all consideration for the father. -- The art of association with the world restricted to a dirty work-room, in the classic disorder of which perhaps the love-letters of a Jenny and the well-meant exhortations of a father, written perhaps with tears, are used for pipe-spills, which at any rate would be better than if they were to fall into the hands of third persons owing to even more irresponsible disorder. -- And is it here, in this workshop of senseless and inexpedient erudition, that the fruits are to ripen which will refresh you and your beloved, and the harvest to be garnered which will serve to fulfil your sacred obligations!?

3. I am, of course, very deeply affected in spite of my resolution, I am almost overwhelmed by the feeling that I am hurting you, and already my weakness once again begins to come over me, but in order to help myself, quite literally, I take the real pills prescribed for me and swallow it all down, for I will be hard for once and give vent to all my complaints. I will not become soft-hearted, for I feel that I have been too indulgent, given too little utterance to my grievances, and thus to a certain extent have become your accomplice. I must and will say that you have caused your parents much vexation and little or no joy.

Hardly were your wild goings-on in Bonn over, hardly were your old sins wiped out -- and they were truly manifold -- when, to our dismay, the pangs of love set in, and with the good nature of parents in a romantic novel we became their heralds and the bearers of their cross. But deeply conscious that your life's happiness was centred here, we tolerated what could not be altered and perhaps ourselves played unbecoming roles. While still so young, you became estranged from your family, but seeing with parents' eyes the beneficial influence on you, we hoped to see the good effects speedily developed, because in point of fact reflection and necessity equally testified in favour of this. But what were the fruits we harvested?

We have never had the pleasure of a rational correspondence, which as a rule is the consolation for absence. For correspondence presupposes consistent and continuous intercourse, carried on reciprocally and harmoniously by both sides. We never received a reply to our letters; never did your next letter have any connection with your previous one or with ours.

If one day we received the announcement that you had made some new acquaintance, afterwards this disappeared totally and for ever, like a still-born child.

As to what our only too beloved son was actually busy with, thinking about and doing, hardly was a rhapsodic phrase at times thrown in on this subject when the rich catalogue came to an end as if by magic.

On several occasions we were without a letter for months, and the last time was when you knew Eduard was ill, mother suffering and I myself not well, and moreover cholera was raging in Berlin; and as if that did not even call for an apology, your next letter contained not a single word about it, but merely some badly written lines and an extract from the diary entitled The Visit, which I would quite frankly prefer to throw out rather than accept, a crazy botch-work which merely testifies how you squander your talents and spend your nights giving birth to monsters; that you follow in the footsteps of the new immoralists who twist their words until they themselves do not hear them; who christen a flood of words a product of genius because it is devoid of ideas or contains only distorted ideas.

Yes, your letter did contain something -- complaints that Jenny does not write, despite the fact that at bottom you were convinced that you were favoured on all sides -- at least there was no reason for despair and embitterment -- but that was not enough, your dear ego yearned for the pleasure of reading what you knew already (which, of course, in the present case is quite fair), and Herr Son could say to his parents, that was almost all that suffering, whom he had oppressed by a whom he knew to be senseless silence.

As if we were men of wealth, my Herr Son disposed in one year of almost 700 talers contrary to all agreement, contrary to all usage, whereas the richest spend less than 500. And why? I do him the justice of saying that he is no rake, no squanderer. But how can a man who every week or two discovers a new system and has to tear up old works laboriously arrived at, how can he, I ask, worry about trifles? How can he submit to the pettiness of order? Everyone dips a hand in his pocket, and everyone cheats him, so long as he doesn't disturb him in his studies, and a new money order is soon written again, of course. Narrow-minded persons like G. R. and Evers may be worried about that, but they are common fellows. True, in their simplicity these men try to digest the lectures, even if only the words, and to procure themselves patrons and friends here and there, for the examinations are presided over by men, by professors, pedants and sometimes vindictive villains, who like to put to shame anyone who is independent; yet the greatness of man consists precisely in creating and destroying!!!

True, these poor young fellows sleep quite well, except when they sometimes devote half a night or a whole night to pleasure, whereas my hard-working talented Karl spends wretched nights awake, weakens his mind and body by serious study, denies himself all pleasure, in order in fact to pursue lofty abstract studies, but what he builds today he destroys tomorrow, and in the end he has destroyed his own work and not assimilated the work of others. In the end the body is ailing and the mind confused, whereas the ordinary little people continue to creep forward undisturbed and sometimes reach the goal better and at least more comfortably than those who despise the joys of youth and shatter their health to capture the shadow of erudition, which they would probably have achieved better in an hour's social intercourse with competent people, and with social enjoyment into the bargain!!!

I conclude, for I feel from my more strongly beating pulse that I am near to lapsing into a soft-hearted tone, and today I intend to be merciless.

I must add, too, the complaints of your brothers and sisters. From your letters, one can hardly see that you have any brothers or sisters; as for the good Sophie, who has suffered so much for you and Jenny and is so lavish in her devotion to you, you do not think of her when you do not need her.

I have paid your money order for 160 talers. I cannot, or can hardly, charge it to the old academic year, for that truly has its full due. And for the future I do not want to expect many of the same kind.

To come here at the present moment would be nonsense! True, I know you care little for lectures, though you probably pay for them, but I will at least observe the decencies. I am certainly no slave to public opinion, but neither do I like gossip at my expense. Come for the Easter vacation -- or even two weeks earlier, I am not so pedantic -- and in spite of my present epistle you can rest assured that I shall receive you with open arms and the welcoming beat of a father's heart, which is actually ailing only through excessive anxiety.

Your father