Warming the seat where Marx wrote ‘Das Kapital’ | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Warming the seat where Marx wrote ‘Das Kapital’

When people seek my advice on sources and inspirations for writing, the answer I give them is plain and simple: reading, travel and conversation, though not always in that order. Contrary to popular belief, writing is the last step in a long process of composition. It begins with sitting still to catch various thoughts, harvesting memories of things read, seen, heard, touched, smelled, tasted and felt; then organizing everything to make a point, in a text that has a beginning, a middle and an end.

Writing requires no blue moon, mood music or dedicated writing instruments. Trite as it may sound to those who harbor romantic ideas about writers and writing, my only inspiration is the deadline.


When Letty Jimenez Magsanoc invited me to write for the Op-Ed page of the Inquirer in 1990, she introduced me to the publisher Eugenia D. Apostol, who welcomed me with a warm smile and a short polite chat. On my way out, I caught sight of the terrifying sign in the newsroom that screamed: “Deadlines wait for no one.—EDA.” From then on, twice a week (and for an additional hundred days in 1998 and another hundred in 1999), my adrenaline has been depleted to meet deadlines. A natural-born slacker, I would not have produced so much without deadlines.

Speaking of deadlines, the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities will be unable to complete the century-old project of publishing the complete writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in time for the bicentennial of Marx this year. Many conferences are happening worldwide for Marx 200, including one in UP Diliman that made me wonder how many Filipino scholars, with the notable exception of Ateneo de Davao president Joel Tabora, have actually read the primary sources for Marx and Engels in the original German.


An international team of editors has projected the complete Marx-Engels output to run into 114 volumes, of which only 55 have seen print. Due to the expense of printing these cumbersome volumes, some materials will only be available in digital form. All these Marx-Engels materials are further enlarged by annotations, notes, cross references, indexes, bibliographies and scholarly apparatus known as the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe, or “Mega” for short, whose comprehensiveness makes historians sigh in relief that Marx and Engels did not have cell phones, thus forcing them to commit their thoughts and exchanges on paper.

Although my German is not fluent enough to make sense of Marx in print, I browsed the digital library of high-resolution scans of Marx-Engels manuscripts with accompanying transcriptions and references. Compared to Rizal who always wrote legibly, Marx’s handwriting is terrible; he wrote furiously to catch thoughts swifter than his hand. Crammed text runs from the top left of the page to the right. Marx doodled, too.

Mega editors claim that Engels’ handwriting is better than Marx’s, but both are challenging since they wrote in a 19th-century German schrift that I cannot read. Rizal resorts to this style of writing, too, making me rely on the transcriptions and translations into Spanish or English.

As a postgraduate student at the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies in the early 1990s, I spent a lot of time in the British Library, which then shared space with the British Museum. Before the Library moved to its new building in 1997, researchers worked in the Great Reading Room, an elegant space under a blue dome supported by a circular wall of mahogany bookshelves.

Imagine working on the hard court of Araneta Coliseum with the seats and bleachers replaced with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Desks were lined in leather, had a book rack and an overhead lamp, and all spaces were marked so you could find your way back after a break.

Tourists disrupted scholarly activity when they were allowed in twice a day to gape at the interiors and take pictures of desk “G7,” where Marx sat regularly during his London exile from 1849 to 1883. One day, I came in early and claimed G7 with my pen and notebook. I worked there for a day, earning the right to boast that I once warmed the seat where Marx wrote “Das Kapital.”

Alas, there is no record of where Rizal sat in 1888 when he worked on his edition of Antonio de Morga’s “Sucesos de las islas Filipinas.”

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TAGS: History, Reading, travel, writing
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