Hegel, Reason, and the Unhappy Consciousness

As the sun sets in Canto II of Dante’s Inferno, the pilgrim, Dante himself, explains that he is not worthy to undertake the journey, through Hell and Purgatory, to Heaven. I lack the strength and skill, he says. The poet Virgil, Dante’s guide, listens patiently before he replies: you are merely afraid. He goes on to give a rousing speech, inspired by a message he himself received from Heaven, which fills Dante’s heart with courage. Now the pilgrim can go on.

This canto illustrates the plight of the “unhappy consciousness,” which Hegel describes in his Phenomenology of Spirit. The unhappy consciousness sees nothing in itself but sin and weakness. Everything worth living for – everything essential to itself – can be found only in a distant, and ultimately unreachable, beyond. The unhappy consciousness is the medieval Christian mind that can only get a glimpse of God through penance and absolution; a mind that is elevated to sublime joy in those moments of reconciliation with the divine, when its heart is filled with courage again by the intervention of the priest and his rites; a soul that crashes down to despair again when it reflects on its own sin, on the fresh sins for which it has not yet been absolved, and sees once again a great chasm between itself and God.

In the final canto of Dante’s Paradise, we find St Bernard praying, on behalf of the pilgrim, that the Virgin Mary might allow the poet a glimpse of God. Dante looks up and sees before him the perfection of the universe. Before describing his vision, the poet prays that he might be able to relate even “just one spark” of the vision of light that he saw – now he has been returned to Earth from Heaven the vision has faded somewhat. This notion of a vision granted from above which fades when contact with the divine diminishes; the prayers to an outside power to aid him in creation – these are symptoms of the unhappy consciousness of the medieval mind.

“Reason” is the next stage of consciousness, directly following the discussion of the “Unhappy Consciousness” in Hegel’s Phenomenology. Reason finds in the notion of absolution the key it requires to go on: in absolution we saw the reconciliation of the individual with their own essence. Whereas the unhappy consciousness feels gratitude for this reconciliation – since it was bestowed by the grace of God – reason takes its absolution for granted. This is because “reason,” in the sense Hegel means it here, is self-consciousness aware of itself as self-consciousness: in other words, it sees itself as both the conscious subject and as the sole object of its consciousness. The world that consciousness, as reason, sees is only its own self: “reason,” for Hegel, means “idealism.” The “God” of the unhappy consciousness was only ever self-consciousness itself and so reason – at least for now – has no use for a concept of a transcendent God in a distant Heaven.

(I’ve been reading: Dante’s Inferno, translated by J.G. Nichols; Dante’s Paradise, translated by Mark Musa; and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit translated by A.V. Miller.)

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The “Specific Shape” of Stories (Notes on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit §§678-679)

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For Hegel, the limitation of religion is that it relies on “picture-thinking.” A religion is based around the interpretation of a number of stories, images, and rituals designed to show the human spirit the truth about itself and its place in the world. Whether or not you believe the story of the Resurrection to be literally true, it is likely that the story will resonate in some way as it touches on the themes of suffering, death, re-birth, and hope.

But stories are created through a process of condensation and simplification, while reality is broad, free, and complex. The metaphor will never be large enough to encompass the reality. Having a “specific shape,” the picture of spirit in the story lacks the freedom of spirit itself.

The only thing that has the freedom of the human spirit is the human spirit itself, which is to say: “absolute spirit,” or spirit that is wholly and absolutely spirit. But to talk of such a thing is to talk in abstractions. The religious mind says: abstraction is useless, and the closest the human mind can get to the mystery of spiritual existence is to tell the stories, interpret them, and live by their lessons.

The stories are interpreted, as are the images and rituals. And these interpretations are themselves stories, simplifications of the reality of spirit, specific shapes designed to capture something of absolute spirit which, being absolute, has no shape.

Religion deals with the “beyond” because its goal is self-consciousness, and self-consciousness seems to be something beyond the mere consciousness of “spirit in its world.” Consciousness, through its endless interpretation and story-telling, pictures the world to itself but this continuous stream of pictures never amounts to the full realisation of self-consciousness that religion is striving for. Religion’s method – story-telling and picture-thinking – is never adequate to religion’s goal, which is a true awareness of the self that is perceiving and interpreting. Religion is “sublated” – cancelled to give way to something higher – because it fails, on its own terms, to achieve its own aims. Religion gives way to philosophy.

And yet the human spirit still craves stories and, in the Hegelian view of the world, religion will always have a place in any human society. But in the modern age it should never claim the highest place. Though it might sound ironic, Hegel believes that a real understanding of God lies beyond the scope of religion.

(I’ve been reading A.V. Miller’s translation of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.)

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Conscience and the Perfection of Religion (Notes on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit §§677-678)

Conscience holds the moral truth within itself. Instead of waiting for the day of judgement, conscience judges its own actions in the here and now. But conscience is fooling itself. The universal law that the moral self-consciousness holds within itself, and that determines what is right and wrong, is closed up within self-consciousness, and “superseded” by what conscience has already decided is right and wrong. The universal is suffocated, and does not have the form of “free otherness” that you find, for example, in nature. Conscience would not know how to respond to a sudden change in external circumstances, and so it remains closed off from the outside world, following its own little rules in its own little world.

Religion is “spirit that is conscious of itself as spirit”. As we’ve seen, to be conscious of oneself as spirit always involves looking out into a beyond, to find the universal which constitutes the essence of the human soul and which cannot be found in the here and now. It leads to thoughts of death and the afterlife in which the journey of the soul will be completed.

In order for “the perfection of religion” to come about, it’s necessary (says Hegel) for spirit, conscious of itself as spirit, to exist “in its own world.” Clarity must be found in the here and now. Moral self-consciousness knew this, but wound up at a dead end: the universal that it held close to itself was no longer free and so no longer true. What the conscience of morality lacked was transcendence, which is essential to religion.

The puzzle that Hegel is setting out for himself is: how can transcendence be found immediately in the here and now?

(I’ve been reading A.V. Miller’s translation of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.)

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Notes on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit §§674-677: Heaven and the Underworld

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In the ancient Greek conception of “the underworld,” the shades that dwell there are individual souls still, as they were in the world above. They are still cut off from the unknown, unknowable, and universal “fate” that determines the outcomes of human actions, and which brought each one of them to this place. Hegel describes the ancient belief in “the nothingness of necessity”: there is such a thing as fate, but it is dark and mysterious, something the human mind could know nothing about, even if it searched and wondered for an eternity. From a human perspective, then, fate is nothing, nothing can be said about it, and yet it determines everything.

The later concept of “Heaven” develops out of and in contrast to the ancient visions of the underworld. Whereas ancient souls would continue, after death, to wander in the dark, still disconnected from the universal power of fate, in Heaven it is different: the soul is no longer merely individual, but is reunited, after death, with the universal, with God, thereby becoming “clear to itself.” In Heaven, the soul comes to know the power that had been guiding it all of its life.

The Enlightenment, since it has reason as its foundation, is opposed to this view of Heaven: as we’ve seen, reason has no interest in anything beyond this world, and the soul finds all the satisfaction it needs in the here and now.

Out of the Enlightenment comes what Hegel calls “morality,” which is a form of consciousness that is certain of itself. Morality, or the moral self-consciousness, has the universal within itself, and so it can be clear to itself here, in life. Morality is certain that it lives its life correctly because it believes it finds the universal within itself.

This, at least, is the belief that morality clings to, certain that it no longer has any need for the old-fashioned concepts of fate, Heaven, or Hell.

(I’ve been reading A.V. Miller’s translation of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.)

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Notes on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit §§673-674

“Religion” is a concept that Hegel develops throughout his Phenomenology of Spirit. Here I’m going to look at the most abstract concept of religion that Hegel provides, the most minimal notion of what a religion must be in order to be called a “religion.”

The most fundamental thing that any religion must have, for Hegel, is a concern with a “beyond.” Meaning: a concern with what is beyond self-consciousness. In other words, religion is always concerned with something transcendent. This is Hegel’s minimal definition of religion: there’s always more to religion than this, but religious thought is always concerned with what is beyond consciousness of the self.

“Religion,” in this minimal sense, is opposed to “reason,” as Hegel understands it. This is because “reason” denotes a form of self-consciousness that seeks itself in the here and now, while religion must always seek a beyond. As long as the religious mind is looking out beyond itself for something other than itself, it is neglecting the task of reason, the task of seeking itself in the here and now.

What causes a mind to turn to religion? Why should it seek a beyond? Human beings are confronted early on in their lives with something undeniably beyond themselves: the fact of death. Death is “pure negativity” and the absolute opposite of the being of self-consciousness. The human mind is curious to explore this realm of non-being, and so the first stirrings of religion begin early in human history.

The self only exists in the present. Whatever it seeks beyond, it will not find itself there. Religion is, as we’ve seen, the search for something other than the self, and therefore opposed to reason. Ultimately, Hegel will show that religion and reason are compatible, but the abstract concept of religion will have to develop into more concrete forms before such a synthesis becomes possible.

(I’ve been reading A.V. Miller’s translation of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.)

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Notes on Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin

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The sun is shining and Berlin belongs to Hitler, is the almost final thought of Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin. Christopher catches his reflection in a shop window and is horrified to see that he is smiling: sunshine is still pleasant, even under fascist rule.

A shudder to think. Easy to imagine gloom and night and the dark uniforms of the Gestapo. Harder to imagine the cloudless summer days that must have, occasionally, passed in Berlin between 1933 and 1945, sun shining on the blood red folds of the flags of the German Reich.

The world is no longer as it appears. As Christopher prepares to leave, Berlin still looks the way it did, more or less, like a photograph of the past. But he knows the evil lurks underneath: he has seen the brownshirts patrol the streets day and night. He has heard the news as his Jewish friends disappear one by one. The shops and clubs that defined his time here have closed down, the decadence of capitalism to be replaced by a new form of inhuman terror.

The body knows what is happening, even when the mind cannot comprehend. The mind does not like a contradiction. A smile and a warm spring day in fascist Berlin, the mind shudders. But the body knows two things can be true at once. It smiles and walks quickly and knows it is leaving this behind.

A German woman who voted communist in the last election but won’t admit that now. She smiles and is glad to drink coffee with an old friend and she knows she is leaving something behind.

Separation of body and mind. Christopher has arrived at the party with a bad toe, and it is this wound that protests, sending out signals of pain and envy, as a young woman, an old friend, walks away. In that moment his body speaks, since his mind cannot acknowledge such feelings.

A great writer’s skill is being able to present these contradictions as reality – because this is reality. No reality without contradiction. You know when a story doesn’t ring true: when it is one-sided, one-dimensional, when the hero is too perfect. Christopher is never perfect, although – no, because – he is a perfect Englishman. He is false, always has his armour up. It doesn’t do him any good. His real strength is not to be found in this defensiveness, but in his gentleness with others, and his lack of judgement. He got angry with her when she asked him if he thought she had any faults. “She’s fishing,” he thought. And he doesn’t like to assess people with a list of pros and cons. He becomes defensive and hard when his core of gentle acceptance is challenged. Another contradiction.

Christopher is English, therefore he is one way on the surface and quite another underneath. Only this is not quite true: the surface itself is complicated, not merely the outside but a multitude of outsides, reflecting and refracting the light of outside observation on its many different edges.

With his cool stone exterior, Christopher is not fully one thing or another. He’s not really a communist, he says. He’s not really a writer. He lacks consistency: he’s too lazy for that. You need enthusiasm if you’re going to be consistent, because consistency is a sign of wrongness: for things to fit together you have to force them, because really they’re a mess. An honest outlook can only result in laziness, indecision, and passivity. Christopher is honest, at least with himself, for all his pretence.

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Notes on David S. Wills: Burroughs on Civilisation, Hallucination, and Telepathy

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For William Burroughs, the nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a dividing point in history, marking the moment that Western civilisation finally ended. Could you really call a people capable of such an atrocity “civilised”? And so without civilisation, those born since 1945 have lived scavenging about the ruins of a lost civilisation, without a home or a people. Burroughs was often nostalgic for the times before the bomb.

From there, the post-modern idea that artistic creativity includes random processes, the chopping together of whatever you can find. You do what you must in a post-apocalyptic world. Failure of many to understand: they wait for the apocalypse, expecting immanent disaster, but it’s already happened.

Burroughs tells us to pay attention to visions. “Just a hallucination” is meaningless, doesn’t explain anything: what, after all, is a hallucination? You don’t know. So focus on what you DO know. You SAW something. What is it? What are its qualities? And see if it means something to YOU. You can disregard it if it’s vague and without meaning for you. Otherwise, take it up and use it, or pay attention and heed its warning, depending on what it is you saw.

Telepathy is, by definition, independent of space. A telepath can send her thoughts anywhere. It’s also independent of time, says Burroughs. Meaning that every thought that has ever, is right now, or ever will be thought is present and available to anyone sensitive enough to pick it up. So ignore your “hallucinations” at your peril.

It’s easy to feel jaded, and say that the world is singularly devoid of vision today. Why? If humanity has no future, then there’s no future thought to pick up on. You can only look around at the present, scattered people blinking at each other, or turn backward, search in old books, or whispers of past thoughts lost among long scattered ashes.

Too pessimistic. The end of civilisation meant the end of something. And something new will arise from those who live among the wreckage. But it’s difficult to pick up on the signals of a future culture, speaking as it will a whole new language, with a whole new system of thought. Difficult but not impossible. Learn to recognise the new and you can help to bring it into being.

(I’ve been re-reading David S. Wills’ Scientologist!: William S. Burroughs and the “Weird Cult”)

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The Pendulum

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In Chapter 5 of his book about the philosopher Leibniz, Gilles Deleuze ponders whether he should keep working this evening, or go to a nightclub. He’s not firmly in favour of either and he seems to prefer first the one option, then the other. Perhaps he couldn’t even tell you at any given moment which he prefers, and a series of “possible or even hallucinatory perceptions” crowd his mind when he thinks about it. (“Not only of drinking, but the noise and smoke of the bar” – he’s writing in the 1980s – “not only of working, but the hum of the word processor and the surrounding silence.”) He compares the oscillation between the two options to the swing of a pendulum, and whatever he decides will depend on where the pendulum happens to be at the particular moment he happens to act. But his point is this: though the question of what he chooses is, for the moment, open, his final decision, his going out or staying in, will be an expression of his “entire soul at a given moment of its duration.”

Deleuze’s decision must be free and voluntary if it is to express his soul. But for Leibniz, possibility was closed the moment that God created the world. The creator set in motion the series of events out of which would arise the best of all possible worlds, the one we live in now. Anything is possible for God, but in this world an event, in order to come into being, must be “compossible” not only with past events in the world, but also with what has been predetermined to happen in the future. Did Deleuze really make a free choice at all?

Everything is possible before the creation of the world. It is possible to imagine an Adam who never sinned. It is essential to believe that Adam freely chose to sin, or the concept of sin makes no sense. And yet he could not have done differently, because God created this version of the world, in which Adam sinned.

“The event is voluntary when a motive can be assigned”. Deleuze wasn’t forced to go to the nightclub, or to stay at home: his own motives, which drove his decision, are evident in his inclination to be tempted by the thought of a smoky atmosphere or the hum of the machine. Adam wasn’t forced to sin, and yet “at that instant his soul has taken an amplitude that is found to be easily filled by the aroma and taste of the apple …” God, of course, knew Adam’s moods.

Your free will, if it is free, reflects the way your soul is in that moment. A free act “expresses the wholeness of the soul in the present.” Deleuze made his decision based on how he happened to feel when the phone finally rang. Adam made his, too, on a pendulum swing.

(This week I’ve been reading The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, which was written by Gilles Deleuze and translated into English by Tom Conley.)

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Beats and Hippos

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And the Hippos were Boiled in their Tanks is an early work of the Beat Generation, written in the winter of 1944-45 by William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac together, or separately in that they take it in turns throughout the book to write the chapters, a book not published in their lifetimes, and probably of interest only to scholars and fanatics.

The writing is competent but neither writer has come into his own yet. There are places where an editor might have stepped in and suggested some changes, but it being published so late, and neither writer still living and able to reply, it was presumably decided to leave such imperfections alone, which, in the early work of writers such as these, who went on to write such great books, can only lend a certain charm to the work. In the “Afterword”, the editor James Grauerholz seems to confirm this when he writes that he has “endeavoured to present these writings according to the authors’ own intentions, insofar as those can be discerned.”

The title is strange, and is explained in Chapter 4, in which Kerouac describes the “unctuous relish” with which a newsreader, heard on a radio as some of the characters drink in a bar, describes a fire at a circus in which hippos perish in the manner described. It has little or no bearing on the story itself, which is about the murder of David Kammerer (“Ramsay Allen” or “Al” in the book) by Lucien Carr (“Phillip Tourian”), except insofar as both are tales of death and cruelty, told with equal relish. “We had fun doing it,” said Burroughs.

I love a title like this, the sheer self-indulgence of it, giving no clue as to the subject-matter of the story itself, offering no assistance to the reader who is trying to decide whether to pick up the book or not. A kind of aristocratic disdain for the reader, who’s going to read the book or won’t, it makes no difference. Often writers are not so courageous – not so privileged, one might say – since they want readers in order to make money: a title will be quite literal, or at least a little bit suggestive of the subject matter of the book, so that a reader knows what they’ll be getting and can make an informed decision. But a weird title like this can be almost a work of art in itself, a generous gift from the authors in that it perhaps will give a flicker of strange pleasure to a reader, even one who never picked the book up and will only ever know the title. “You’re welcome,” it seems to say, even as the once potential reader moves on and picks up something else.

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Life into art: taking what you find, a smokestack or a button, and finding what is abstract in it, and thereby transmuting it into art. Miller, of course, the great example. Even in a button you can find the stuff of life. The essence of life is perspective, and where there is narrowing of vision there is a depletion of life. Every time life is transformed into art, a new perspective is created, and life is enriched and enhanced.

Art into life: Taking what is already an abstraction of life, and relating is back to what you “know”. “Know” in the narrow sense of bumping into it in everyday life. This can be a frivolous direction to go in, taking what is full of thought and meaning and reducing it to the ordinary. A sign of someone no longer interested in art, who can only find enjoyment in a book or a painting if it relates directly to themselves in some way. It doesn’t have to be as trivial as recognising a lover’s face in a painting by an old master. Perhaps, full of serious purpose, you just want to put the work of art in its place, and remind it that it’s just a painting after all. When you write about it draw attention to the viewer, the back of your head before the painting, the latter being now just another object in your life. Or picture yourself in your study with a classic work of literature. (“Lie quiet Divus …”) Serious work can come out of this, and Pound is still a more widely respected writer than Miller.

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