God, Marx, and the Funnies, or ... Playing Havoc with the Party Line

The Key to Heaven and Conversations with the Devil by Leszek Kolakowski trans. by Celina Wieniewska and Salvatore Attanasio Grove Press, 1973, $6.95

DIALECTICS and wit make such excellent bedfellows. It suggests a major oversight in the matchmaking sector of Absolute Mind that the two should enjoy so few opportunities for collaboration. But conuptial beds are hard to come by for children of hostile houses, particularly when the houses in question behave as if they had never heard of each other. And what houses are more deaf to each other than the one with the monopoly on dialectical thought and the one with its valuables stored in the parlors of the past two centuries?

Though some traffic between the two houses exists on this level, most of it runs through the channels--or slips through the fingers--of popularizers and funny men in the pink-gloved Shavian tradition. But playing the dialectical scales with a ten-foot pole of fashionable sentiment tends to lopsided results. Such practices may sharpen the edge of wit but they blunt, if not miss, the point of dialectics. Hence the temptation to subscribe to the thesis that whatever the depth and seriousness of mind a dialectical command of reality requires, it must be incompatable with the temperamental high-jinks needed to produce wit.

Fortunately the traffic can run the other way, and examples exist to disprove the thesis. In a recently translated collection of writings, the Polish philosopher, Leszek Kolakowski demonstrates that just as some humorists can have pretensions to Marxism, some Marxists can stake claims on humor.

In his new book The Key to Heaven and Conversations with the Devil, Kolakowski brings dialectical reason and Marxist exegesis to bear on such unsuspecting material as the ass of Balaam, the quarrel over Job, and Martin Luther's argument with the devil in the bathroom mirror. Ostensibly a hodge-podge of theological quibbles, the book sews its cases in point together with the strong thread of a sophisticated socialist ethics, and a delightful sense of both the fun and sometimes the necessity of playing havoc with the party line.

Kowlakowski does not assume a particularized knowledge of dialectical materialism or post-Marxist debate, but he demands familiarity with the basic philosophical issues. The idealist versus materialist argument, the role of praxis, the creation of ideology, the objectivity of labor all crop up time and again in his various case studies.


In the first section of the book, a set of biblical tales retold, Kolakowski puts the original ambiguities into the Marxist-Leninist idiom. While this sounds reductionist, the effect is quite the reverse. Kolakowski is so faithful to and concerned with the problematic paradox of Hebraic legend that he exaggerates the difficulties to the point where, for sheer ambivalence, his tales rival even the parables of Kafka. Translated into the lingo of current ideological strife, the Old Testament acquires an applicability most have long given up suspecting. To take his own best illustration, Kolakowski turns the story of Jacob and Esau into a lesson on the ways of fabricating political truths. The naive realist who believes in the objectivity of his birthright cannot defend it against the pragmatic idealist who knows that truth lives in opinions, not in acts, and who can manipulate surrounding thought accordingly. Other tales Kolakowski investigates are those of Noah, Ruth and Cain. The subtitles suffice as index to the mind here at work. Respectively they are "The Temptation to Solidarity," "The Dialogue between Love and Bread," and "The Interpretation of the Principle To Each According to his Needs'". In all of these tales Kolakowski evinces an admirable grasp of ethical complexities. There is a consistent argument, implied rather than stated, for more relativism than the standard authoritarian fare will tolerate, be that Marxist, Capitalist or Catholic.

IN THE SECOND half of his book the author adopts a variety of personae, from Orpheus to Luther to Satan himself, to demonstrate both the range and limitations of dialectical argument. In a mock soliloquy titled "Shorthand Transcript of a Metaphysical Press Conference Given by the Demon in Warsaw, on 20th December 1963," Kolakowski impersonates Satan in a remarkable exhibition of incontestable sophistry; he argues for his own existence in a discredulous age along the lines that his very strength lies in the fact that he does not exist. In other soliloquies, notably in one given by Abelard's Heloise in defense of the flesh and in another given by a student of sexual exorcism, Kolakowski indicts Christianity for its contempt of the body, and by implication, of this world. While this second section is not so successful nor so concise as the first, it is more ambitious. Kolakowski is trying to be a Marxist Kierkegaard, even to the extent of simulating the same use of irony by impersonation of a point of view he means to discredit. But Kolakowski is not ventriloquist enough. The false perspective does not convince, and so the correct one stands out too visibly between the lines. Consequently the book stumbles onto a shriller and more orthodox note than the author may have intended.

Nonetheless, from this brief but far-reaching display of capsulated argument, Kolakowski gives every appearance of deserving his growing reputation. As if the effort to relativize Moscow's dictates to the Communist conscience weren't enough, a Marxist with a sense of humor ought to be heard. Kolakowski is more serious, and for that reason, funnier than the ideological comedians this country has to offer.