Marx-Engels Correspondence 1885

Engels to Minna Kautsky


Source: Marx Engels On Art and Literature;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.

London, November 26, 1885

I have now also read Die Alten und die Neuen [The Old Ones and the New, a novel by Minna Kautsky], for which I sincerely thank you. The life of the salt-mine workers is described with as masterly a pen as were the portraits of the peasants in Stefan. The descriptions of the life of Vienna society are for the most part likewise very fine. Vienna is indeed the only German city which has a society; Berlin possesses merely “certain circles,” and still more uncertain ones, that is why its soil produces only novels about men of letters, officials or actors. You are in a better position to judge whether the plot in this part of your work develops sometimes too rapidly. Many things that may give us this impression, perhaps look quite natural in Vienna considering the city’s peculiar international character and its intermixture with Southern and East-European elements. In both spheres the characters exhibit the sharp individualisation so customary in your work. Each of them is a type but at the same time also a definite individual, a “Dieser,” as old Hegel would say, and that is how it should be. And now, to be impartial, I have to find fault with something, which brings me to Arnold. He is really much too worthy a man and when he is finally killed in a landslide one can reconcile this with poetic justice only by assuming that he was too good for this world. But it is always bad if an author adores his own hero and this is the error which to some extent you seem to me to have fallen into here. In Elsa there is still a certain individualisation, though she is also idealised, but in Arnold the personality merges still more in the principle.

The novel itself reveals the origins of this shortcoming. You obviously felt a desire to take a public stand in your book, to testify to your convictions before the entire world. This has now been done; it is a stage you have passed through and need not repeat in this form. I am by no means opposed to partisan poetry as such. Both Aeschylus, the father of tragedy, and Aristophanes, the father of comedy, were highly partisan poets, Dante and Cervantes were so no less, and the best thing that can be said about Schiller’s Kabale und Liebe is that it represents the first German political problem drama. The modern Russians and Norwegians, who produce excellent novels, all write with a purpose. I think however that the purpose must become manifest from the situation and the action themselves without being expressly pointed out and that the author does not have to serve the reader on a platter — the future historical resolution of the social conflicts which he describes. To this must be added that under, our conditions novels are mostly addressed to readers from bourgeois circles, i.e., circles which are not directly ours. Thus the socialist problem novel in my opinion fully carries out its mission if by a faithful portrayal of the real conditions it dispels the dominant conventional illusions concerning them, shakes the optimism of the bourgeois world, and inevitably instils doubt as to the eternal validity of that which exists, without itself offering a direct solution of the problem involved, even without at times ostensibly taking sides. Here your exact knowledge and admirably fresh and lifelike presentation of both the Austrian peasants and Vienna “society” find ample material, and in Stefan you have demonstrated that you are capable of treating your characters with the fine irony which attests to the author’s dominion over the beings he has created.

But now I must finish, or I shall bore you to tears. Everything here is as before. Karl and his wife [Karl and Louise Kautsky] are studying physiology in Aveling’s evening classes, and are also working diligently; I am likewise engrossed in work; Lenchen, Pumps and her husband are going to the theatre this evening to see a sensational play, and meanwhile old Europe is preparing to set itself in motion again — and not before time, perhaps. I simply hope that it gives me time to finish the third volume of Capital, then it can begin!

In cordial friendship and with sincere respect I am Yours,

F. Engels