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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Meaningless to Whom, Exactly?

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An artist is someone who sees something that others don’t. And then makes that thing visible, in their work, for others to see.

What the artist sees is something that did not exist before it was observed by the artist. William S. Burroughs seems to equate existence with visibility. Ignore your enemies out of existence, he says, putting great emphasis on the power of the human mind to shape its own reality. Burroughs believes in ESP, witchcraft, Scientology … Whatever you think of these things, it’s impossible to truly grasp Burroughs’s approach to writing without acknowledging his deep and literal belief in the truth of many paranormal claims.

You have to take him literally: he found meaning in his dreams. But looking around it seemed to him that not many people were capable of doing the same. “Dreams mean nothing,” they say. To which Burroughs replies: “Meaningless to whom, exactly?” And he points out that he has made a living finding meaning in his dreams.

If science believes it has proven our night-time dreams to be meaningless, it also believes it has proven the daydreams of paranormal enthusiasts to be false. But, like dreams, the realm of the paranormal was a great source of inspiration for Burroughs. Would it have been better if he had listened to reason and abandoned his study of magic and UFOs? But in that case Burroughs the writer would have become a very different animal.

If the question of meaning – of what is meaningful and what is not – is decided for us in advance, then the notion of a personal quest for meaning itself becomes meaningless. And who knows by what paths you will come to the greatest understanding of yourself? While it is certainly a sign of progress that scientific method can be applied to determine the truth or falsity of any given claim, it’s worth remembering that truth and meaning are not the same thing. It’s suspension of disbelief that allows you to find meaning in what is fantastical, and by noticing where you find meaning – what stories inspire you, and what dreams nourish you – you might also find a great new truth about yourself.

(I’ve been reading My Education by William S. Burroughs.)

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“ … It was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”

Christmas would also be a serious time, for Scrooge. He would remember that night of his sudden change of heart. By his nature, he had never been forgetful – always remembering every debt, and slight, and perceived stupidity in others. And what is deepest in him, the tenacity that defines him, remains unchanged. Only now he holds on to only what is important for the spirit, and lets the rest go. The lessons he learned on that long night: those he must keep. His own debts and faults: he must remember those, and learn from them. And, most of all, he remembers to laugh at his old self, in his newfound lightness of spirit.

Almost imperceptibly – you’ll see it in his twinkling eyes if you look closely – he becomes sober and thoughtful as advent approaches. He is thinking about past Christmases. He is thinking about what might have been. He has seen the horror of an alternate future narrowly averted.

He’s back on form by the 1st of December, if he could ever have been said to have been off it. This is his time to shine, after all. He does what is expected of him and keeps Christmas in grand style. Not because it is expected of him. No, he has a natural inclination to smile and sing at Christmas because Christmas brings him joy.

And he’s a jolly person all year round now. Even in a thoughtful mood, he’s a hair’s breadth from breaking into laughter, and he’s always ready with a smile if anyone should interrupt his meditation. Christmas brings about no change in Scrooge, in respect of his jollity. The change is one of perspective: Christmas, with all its traditions and associations, is an illuminating force, a shining backdrop, which shows up Scrooge plainly now for what he truly is and has been all year. The greens, reds, whites of Christmas – trees, gifts, candles – all set him off and show him up, a shining example of humanity and joviality.

And that’s all the big change in him ever was: a change of perspective. Everything you see is a projection of what you are. It took a change of heart, a lighting up and brightening of the spirit, to create a world that Scrooge could find joy in.

(I’ve been reading A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.)

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The Golden Age

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The ideal is always something inhuman:

“These men were the so-called golden race, subjects of Cronus, who lived without cares or labour, eating only acorns, wild fruit, and honey that dripped from the trees, drinking the milk of sheep and goats, never growing old, dancing, and laughing much; death, to them, was no more terrible than sleep.”

According to Robert Graves, the golden age myth has its origins in the worship of the Bee-goddess. Like bees, the ideal human beings just get on with whatever comes naturally, dance their dance, and are incapable of worry. Like the bee they don’t labour: you might think of a bee as “busy”, but it doesn’t count as work when it’s no trouble and just part of an eternal dance.

The golden age ideal is a state of bliss free from worry. Neither is there any choice, since choice implies worry. “Did I do the right thing?” Everyone moves according to a natural flow, and no place for reflection or second-guessing.

Reflection comes in the silver age, where people start to become “quarrelsome”. With reflection comes judgement and retrospection. “You shouldn’t have done that.” The implication here is that these quarrelsome people are inferior to the golden ones. According to the golden age myth, we should all have remained as bees and thereby remained perfect. It’s funny that the silver race are criticised for being “ignorant” when the golden ones were all mindless as bees.

But bees aren’t entirely mindless. They know what they need to know to do what they do. The people of the silver age lack that kind of knowledge. They do not sacrifice to the gods – and thereby fail to do what is necessary for their own survival. They are ignorant in the sense that their minds are always on the wrong things, spiralling off into reflection and blame, and thereby losing sight of the material reality of their own existence.

It’s difficult to remain focused on what’s important when you have so much to think about. The golden age myth is a reminder that less can be more: emptying your mind can put you in touch with reality again, with what is essential for a creative life. That all the calculations and abstractions in the world won’t get you anywhere if you can’t catch hold of what is in front of you.

(I’ve been reading The Greek Myths by Robert Graves)

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