It is hard to define his mood exactly, but Karl Marx was certainly elated around the time of his twenty-sixth birthday in May 1844. He was living in Paris, newly married; his daughter, Jenny, was just a few days old; and he was filling page after page of his notebooks with hectic hopes for the dawning of a communist new age. He knew that the proletariat had endured fearful poverty and humiliation under capitalism, or ‘the system of private property’ as he then called it. But he was convinced that the workers were not suffering in vain: human nature needed to be ‘reduced to absolute poverty in order to give birth to its inner riches.’ The first glimmerings of the new day might still be stained with ‘politics’ but, before long, the conflicts associated with private property would be healed in ‘the completed naturalism of man and the completed humanism of nature.’ Communism was the self-conscious fulfilment of the entirety of history, both human and natural: ‘it is the solution to the riddle of history,’ Marx wrote, ‘and knows itself to be the solution.’
A few months later, Marx met Friedrich Engels and put aside the dreamy speculations of the so-called ‘economic and philosophical manuscripts’ in order to embark on a militant literary collaboration: an attack on the ‘critical criticism’ of Bruno Bauer and his socialistic ‘consorts’, as Marx called them. But if Marx’s tone changed from euphoric fantasizing to flailing polemic, his mood of exultant expectancy did not alter. He lampooned the prophetic rhetoric of critical criticism, but echoed it as well, calling the jointly authored work The Holy Family, stuffing it with allusions to ‘transfiguration’, ‘the critical redeemer’, ‘revelation’ and ‘political superstition’, and rounding it off with a satirical chapter on ‘The Critical Last Judgement’, laden with allusions to St John the Divine and the end of the world: the angel of God, for example, descending from heaven with a little book in his hand (a work of critical criticism), and announcing an ultimate crisis after which ‘there shall be time no longer’. Quoting the Dies irae from the mass, Marx looked forward to the day of wrathful judgement when ‘all that is hidden will be brought to the light’, though in his opinion it was no longer private property that was about to come to an end, but only critical criticism.
Perhaps the word that best describes Marx’s tone in 1844 is apocalyptic, evoking both the original Greek sense of apo-kalyptein—an un-covering or dis-closing of that which has long been hidden—and the last book of the Christian Bible, the Apocalypse or Revelation of St John. Apocalypse was certainly in the air that year. All over the United States, followers of William Miller were awaiting Christ’s return to earth and the beginning of the millennial Kingdom of God. Miller’s revised estimate, based on close study of the Book of Revelation, had fixed the moment at dawn on 22 October 1844. The day came, but Christ did not, and the Millerites—50,000 of them, according to some estimates—remembered it as the Day of the Great Disappointment. Some despaired and lost their faith, but most adapted to their changed situation, and many turned the Great Disappointment into the basis of a new religious movement, committing themselves as Seventh-Day Adventists to a universal campaign for healthy living based on temperance, vegetarianism and the wholesome cornflakes of John Harvey Kellog.
A fascinating historical study of Seventh-Day Adventism, Seeking a Sanctuary, by Malcolm Bull and Keith Lockart, appeared in 1989. Its authors were wryly detached about Adventism, but affectionate too. They sought to retrieve and celebrate some of the movement’s truculent radicalism, and indeed revealed that they themselves had been born into Adventist families. Despite its doctrinal flakiness, they argued, Adventism constituted ‘one of the most subtly differentiated, systematically developed and institutionally successful of all alternatives to the American way of life.’
A decade has passed, and Malcolm Bull has now established himself as a brilliantly idiosyncratic thinker, with solidly progressive allegiances but none of the intellectually correct predilections that standardly accompany them. He delights in ethnography, opera, art history, sociology, rock music, literary criticism, theology and social history, and keeps finding allies and avatars of the left in the most unlikely places. (See, for example, ‘The Ecstasy of Philistinism’ in NLR I/219, September–October 1996.) Now, in his first substantial book, he has returned to the Adventist themes of dream, disappointment, and the search for alternatives to bourgeois forms of life, in an energetic work of synthesis which ranges sure-footedly from Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen to Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, from somnambulism and mesmerism to John Rawls’s ‘veil of ignorance’, and from Walter Benjamin’s ‘angel of history’ to Donald Davidson’s fulminations against ‘the very idea of a conceptual scheme’.
For all its magpie variousness, Seeing Things Hidden makes a sustained argument in political philosophy and cultural theory, deeply pondered and finely wrought. Its implicit point of departure is a second Great Disappointment: disappointment that the new life to which socialists have been sacrificing themselves for the past two hundred years has not come to pass, at least not yet and not in a blaze of apodictic glory. But whilst most socialists enter the twenty-first century chastened and rather afraid, fastidiously picking over their political agendas and trying to remove every last trace of starry-eyed prophetic utopianism, Bull urges us to return to the apocalyptic tradition for fresh inspiration.
It is, of course, apocalypse with a difference. Bull contends that the idea of a day when ‘all that is hidden will be brought to the light’ has been misunderstood, flattened out into a banal and repulsive dream of total visibility, a nightmare in which privacy, secrecy, ambiguity, nuance and discretion would be utterly annihilated. With great panache, he shows that the idea of ‘seeing things hidden’ contains a subtlety that does not immediately strike the eye. It is natural to imagine it in terms of revelations—of lifting a lid or drawing back a curtain to expose something hitherto concealed; but Bull points out that ‘seeing things hidden’ could equally mean a sceptical reconciliation with our own ignorance—an acknowledgment that some things are hidden from us, and perhaps will always be. When hiddenness is brought to light, what we see is not the whole world as it really is, but rather the fact that ultimate truth will always elude us. Bull’s apocalypse, it would seem (though he does sometimes keep his meaning rather dark), is the moment when hiddenness at last comes into its own; or, to use his own teasing phrase, it is a time of ‘coming into hiding’.