The most “delightful irony” of all in The Unknown Masterpiece, noted by the American writer Marshall Berman, is that Balzac’s account of the picture is a perfect description of a 20th-century abstract painting – and the fact that he couldn’t have known this deepens the resonance. “The point is that where one age sees only chaos and incoherence, a later or more modern age may discover meaning and beauty,” Berman wrote. “Thus the very open-endedness of Marx’s later work can make contact with our time in ways that more ‘finished’ 19th-century work cannot: Das Kapital reaches beyond the well-made works of Marx’s century into the discontinuous modernism of our own.”
Like Frenhofer, Marx was a modernist avant la lettre. His famous account of dislocation in the Communist Manifesto – “all that is solid melts into air” – prefigures the hollow men and the unreal city depicted by TS Eliot, or Yeats’s “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”. By the time he wrote Das Kapital, he was pushing out beyond conventional prose into radical literary collage – juxtaposing voices and quotations from mythology and literature, from factory inspectors’ reports and fairy tales, in the manner of Ezra Pound’s Cantos or Eliot’s The Waste Land. Das Kapital is as discordant as Schoenberg, as nightmarish as Kafka.
In February 1867, Marx urged his friend Engels to read Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece– the story of a painter who devotes 10 years to paint a picture that would be the complete representation of reality- but when the picture is opened for viewing, the viewers discover nothing but a “blizzard of random forms and colours piled one upon another in confusion”. Marx saw in this tragic attempt , his own relentless pursuit of perfection.