Works and Days

Heuristic Debris, Remains of Professor Nicolello

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On the Narratology of Concept-Being, Lecture Seven: Hegel in Hell

On the Narratology of Concept-Being, Lecture Seven:

Hegel in Hell

[Dante’s Inferno, Hegelian Aesthetics,

& the Hermeneutics of Blindness]

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To penetrate the mind of a medieval thinker is to go beyond his words and phrases. It is to effect an advance in depth that is proportionate to the broadening influence of historical research.

Bernard Lonergan[1]

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Every traveler who goes forward until the route ahead is unclear finds the

correct route to proceed by looking backward.

Joachim of Fiore[2]

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Today I introduce a Hegelian reading of Dante’s self-reflexivity concerning cieco – or blindness – in Inferno, and its poetic implications for the dialectic of identity and difference at the center of literary theory. I argue that rather than scrap at new utopian abstractions or recycle temporal politicizations,[3] Dante’s hermeneutics and Hegel’s aesthetic theory converge in a manner that proclaims a new direction, one concerned with the Dantean strain amidst Hegel’s place in the birth of theory.[4] I will first lay out a framework for understanding Marx’s debt to Dante,[5] namely the structural connotations between Capital v. 1 and Inferno. We shall then dive right into a critical analysis of Dantean blindness from the Hegelian point of view.

Capital and Comedia

It is not so cut and dry as Marx ‘rejecting’ Hegel and ‘moving on’ to create his own system. This correction must be made in order to understand that Hegel is invariably more trenchant to this study in redefining literature studies, with their Marxian bent, and any viable future study of theory’s conception, or birth, than a subjective link between Marx’s interpretation of Inferno while constructing the first volume of Capital.[6] Like Andrew Cole, I contend that Marx, as with Nietzsche, is running with the Hegelian torch despite flexibly rigid canonical understandings of Hegel.[7] But Hegelian and Marxian conjoin in the project of theory in a singularly Dantean hermeneutics of ontological blindness.[8] I take this further in picking up where Roberts left off,[9] dismissing euphemistic miscalculations of tenuous excerpt-reading by analyzing the Dante’s poetic genesis and structure in strict Hegelian fashion, adding to literary studies rather than myths and legends;[10] and all of this leads to an examination of the line of sight of figurative blindness, dialectical vision , by way of Hegel’s Dantean aesthetics and the identity/difference of the Inferno therein.[11]

For in order to transform himself into a Virgil for the proletariat Marx had to do much more than get through Hegel before acquainting himself with Dante.[12] For it does not matter that Marx’s predictions were wrong in the same way that all religious predictions that were wrong have unfolded; we learn from history that we do not learn from history. But where does Dante fit into this metaphysics of contradiction?[13] Dante’s circles of force[14] become, in time, Marx’s indictment of the then-imperceptibly vile core that is accelerated manipulation at the heart of a thriving capitalism; and here is the first Hegelian nod, as between these two writers’ literary aesthetic of damnation is Hegel, whose work is a set of pillars (secular and theological) upholding the bridge from that poetic Hell to the workers’ Hell.[15] Dante’s Upper Hell, with its sins of incontinence, takes us through circles 1-5 and cantos 4-8; Marx’s rejoinder is Commodities, exchange, and money, chapters 1-3. Dis, with its sins of violence, concerns circles 6-7 and cantos 9-17; Marx to this end moves into capital and capitalist exploitation, chapters 4-11. By the time of Dante’s Malebolge, sins of fraud, we are at the eighth circle, and cantos 18-30; at this stage in Capital v. 1 Marx moves to the capitalist mode of production and fraudulent accumulation, chapters 12-25. Lastly, we enter Cocytus, sins of treachery: circle nine, cantos 31-34; and thus Marx’s primitive accumulation of capital, chapters 26 to a perfect 33, while moving from the distribution or denial of fetishistic eucharist to the wafer factory itself. Marxist economic theory is thus bound to the threefold sequence of feudalism-capitalism-socialism rather than focusing on an exclusive demolition of capitalism; it is paradoxically Dantean and Hegelian, and thus a literary model rather than tenable actuality.[16] But if Marx did not pluck this vision out of thin air, then where did it come from? Let us step back from Marx to meet Hegel in Hell.

            Lines of Sight

            Two notes from J.N. Findlay’s commentary of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit make for perfect examples of Hegel’s aesthetic theory in its crystallized form, or the nucleus of his System where it pertains to Dante’s achievement. Findlay’s compressed commentaries on these otherwise winding, cryptically allusive passages, are, firstly, §781: “Spirit is the most essentially itself in the religious community where the Divine Man or Human God is transformed into the members’ universal, inward, chastening self-consciousness.”[17] In a word, at this late point in the Phenomenology, Hegel is concerned with an elevated consciousness, predicated upon collective memory and historical transformation, of a people who have slowly but thoroughly prepared themselves for the ecclesiastical poetics of the threefold afterlife to move from conscientious mustard seed to a personified blossoming instrumentation. The Church cannot bring to its subjects a vehicle less than immovable dogma; questions of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory have hitherto subsided in the Platonic cave of subconsciousness. The idea of eternal life, itself ultimately incomprehensible to a finite being, is most holy and for-itself in the allegories, symbols, and prayers of biblical text and exegetical writers. The choice is to either leave the next world to the Gospel, the Church, and one’s prayers, or to risk blaspheme and tap into the world that is that of Platonic Ideas, or poetical transubstantiation. Hence, Dante’s exile is the perfect disaster for the already-gifted poet to now move beyond the wages of sin, and into the architectonics of sociological and dialectical heuristic:[18] the line between heresy and dogma is poetical consciousness’s task. Building on the idea of Dante’s temporal place in the poetic synthesis of transformation in Christ, there is next §788:

In revealed religion self-consciousness is aware of itself in pictorial objective form, not as yet as self-consciousness. It must cancel this form and become aware of itself in all the forms it has hitherto taken up. They must not merely be forms of self-consciousness for us, the phenomenological observers, but for self-consciousness itself. It must see how it has externalized itself in various objects, and in seeing this also canceled the externalization. It must see all its objective forms as itself.[19]

Part of the self-seeing objective form is the multilayered approach to blindness considering identity/difference. And while the three selections I have chosen wherein Dante uses the word ‘cieco’ are by no means the sole encounters with linguistic derivatives of blindness in the Inferno[20] I have made my decision for reasons that, by the end of this discussion, and in subsequent examinations of blind language in the moment of digitality, will furthermore be made clear.

            We read in Inferno 4.13-15: “Or discendiam qua giù nel cieco mondo/cominciò il poeta tutto smorto/Io sarò primo, e tu sarai secondo.”[21] Thus Dante’s preliminary blindness makes clear that an absolute, or ontological blindness, lies beyond life for the condemned. The blindness of Hell must be distinct from earth’s temporal Hell; it is neither simply figurative nor connotating, for Dante and Virgil, the sense of sightlessness we can conjure by simply closing our eyes. Hence, the blindness of Hell is straightaway something more than the self-evidence with which it appears at a glance; and for Hegel the invokes picture-thinking in light of absolute negativity (in the spirit of Pseudo-Dionysius). By taking Dante into pictorial-objective form, Hegel systematizes the aesthetic of its process and reality and gives it a place within his System. Hegel’s putting language strives, likewise, to eclipse the ever-present metamorphosis that unfolds whenever one says, ‘I see what you mean.’ Inherent comprehension is made visible in the Hegelian sense of not-blindness, correlating into the religious sphere whereby it is rendered authentic in-itself; which is precisely what Dante does with the Commedia: linguistically construct a sociological-religious principle that’d till then been beyond the apprehensible, structural realm of poetics: Hegel consciously seeks to take philosophy to the place Dante took western poetics; and he succeeds by a methodology that diagnoses and eclipses blindness.

            But at the same time we can see that Hegel is also concerned with the very philosophical perennialization that must consolidate movement from idea to construction in a form that is linguistically tangible;[22] the blindness of the underworld must converge with the blindness of a post-Kantian Germany in the autumn of feudalism. Shortly after Hegel’s death, the torch is picked up in Italy, whereby through Hegel Italian philosophers worked to reconceptualize Giambattista Vico as a similar type of historiographical-hermeneutic bridge.[23] Previous modes of picture-thinking must be annulled if one wants to move from colloquial invisibility to imaginative signs, from foggy to clear glass, as Dante did with the afterlife by apprehending the movement of threefold deathlike thought and its systematic. The Hegelian response is to note that the highest art in fact moves from the communal state of mind to the beginning of auditory subjugation. The overcoming, or escaping blindness is an act of textual resurrection so deeply engrained in being that it perfectly mirrors the authorial subjects themselves: the Dantean threefold afterlife and the Hegelian development of consciousness are concepts at once literally embedded albeit impossible to convey until the moment ontological blindness is literarily deconstructed and reassembled; then the public sphere has at last a concise codex for what it is.

Hegel’s aesthetic discourses on Dante next concern, in the overcoming of aesthetic and spiritual blindness, in the midst of the observation that one can no longer consider, let alone engage in, an “idyllic poverty of spirit” that coincides with a full person’s higher urgings in light of lesser artwork. But here sterile – or temporal – is recognized in its role as foundation. For Hegel inner and outer harmony, as well as balance, have been dismantled in man’s disconnection through the alienating labor of machinery. And looking back to Dante Hegel observes that art, at this point, has two tonal options: an egregious exaggeration which its maker erroneously perceives as a statement of extremity; or, plainly (and scarcely), transcendent authenticity. Hegel notes that there one dialogical key to the latter is the singular ability, masterful way to portray authentic suffering; and this is found in Dante, who “touchingly presents to us Ugolino’s death from starvation.”[24] But Dante’s description of starvation is for Hegel a prime example of a breadth and scope of allegory that must, unfortunately, also remain open to a seemingly endless stream of interpretation. In this process an initial chain of magnets is observed with authentic attempts at penetrating the Platonic aura of a poem’s interpretational wellspring; but these magnets give way to a process that eclipses itself in a process that is unaware of its self-eclipse, and at this scholastic point endless interpretations set out in uncontrolled directions. Indeed, Hegel would know this conundrum well; such has been the fate of his work, and such has been the unfortunate nucleus of Theory in-itself. 

            If everything is symbolic, we have two more questions in approaching Dante and his infernal land of the multifaceted blind: first, does an all-encompassing symbolism negate itself? Second, is all symbolism subjective duality? On this note Hegel first approaches Dante, suggesting that to ‘decode’ Dante line-by-line, allegorical assessment by allegorical assessment, is to pursue a false understanding of symbolism:[25] the task is meaning and shape which works from the interpretative foundation of art-itself as a symbolical other rather than a systematic deconstruction. According to Hegel, should one render Dante a methodical treatment in allegory is in the last analysis simply ideological rereading; it claims to reveal Dante, but Dante has already crystallized the symbolical debt in choosing to write poetically; his method in poetics, such as language, exilic reflection,[26] and rhyme schemes are the symbolic channels through which to comprehend the poem. Even the most straightforward dialectical conversions of topoi are a matter of personification rather than allegory:

[Dante’s] theology appears fused with the picture of his beloved, Beatrice. But this personification hovers (and this constitutes its beauty) between allegory proper and a transfiguration of his youthful beloved. He saw her for the first time when he was nine years old; she seemed to him to be the daughter, not of a mortal man, but of God; his fiery Italian nature conceived a passion for her which was never again extinguished. When it had awakened in him the genius of poetry, then, after the early death of his dearest love had lost her for him, he put into the chief work of his life this marvelous memorial of, as it were, this inner subjective religion of his heart [italics mine]. [27]

In this light a nine-year-old Dante’s vision concerns less the daughter of a man than the daughter of God; absolute spirit is for Hegel at work in a line of sight that will hitherto serve as Dante’s vision par excellence. The reflexive orbit that extend, through aesthetic epiphany and epistemological retraction, all further aspects Dantean allegorical theology by means of sublimation, or a sublated identity/difference.[28] As with Marx, we do not have to dig; Dante has done the digging for us.[29] The second wave of blindness comes in 10.58-60: piangendo disse: “Se per questo cieco/carcere vai per altezza d’ingegno/mio figlio ov’ è? e perché non è teco?”[30] The precocious heights of lofty genius are apparent even to they who dwell, like the weeping Guido Cavalcanti , forever. One weeps in Hell, but is not blinded by tears; and in fact in this case sight is something like punishment to the second power, enabling the figure to see greatness in Dante, who is bound for better places, as well as that one’s son has not, is not going to arrive to spend eternity in Hell with his father, or to even visit alongside Dante and Virgil. For Hegel, the mythology of destitution lays throughout history an extensive groundwork that ultimately raises the question of whether an entire genre or school of art can be interpreted symbolically.

                Hence, Hegel’s vision of Dante as the exemplary productive artist in the classical age both compares him to Raphael in his ability to move kingdoms and the lowest class in one fell swoop.[31] On the first hand there is literal revelation that begets reconciliation on intertextual levels, moving from gospel edict in direct inspiration from the sublime to a hermeneutical prosody that at last address have and have-not as equal.  After this there is the sphere drawing on the results of such revelation, giving shape to “what was already present in the creeds and religious ideas.”[32] This observation allows us to move away from either the quasi-formalistic approach or that of allegorical historicism; instead we can begin to understand the wealth of knowledge found within Dante’s concrete references, and seeing Dante as a process rather than an artist without predecessor or successor.[33] Such insight enables us to remove – even if just temporarily – the aura from Dante that bars one comprehending his poetic intuition as anything less than a meteoric flash in the poetic pan. By working from that which was already available, itself made available from sources not of this world, Dantean engagement entails “a similar respect the art of sublimity too, but with the difference that there the relation to the content as the one substance prevents subjectivity from coming into its rights and does not allow it any independent self-sufficiency.”[34] This scarce methodological success, vision, achievement, is in other words profound in its classical Beatrician elation begins for Hegel on the whole in the arena of otherworldliness, is ravaged by untimely death, and yet unlike so many thoughts of nine-year-old’s, there is an absolute normalcy is Dante’s childhood vision working as the aesthetic vehicle throughout his life.

Blindness is for Hegel an ever-present aspect of art in a method akin to that of Pseudo-Dionysius’s negative theology taken to aesthetic historiography. Art’s subjective emancipation connotates for Hegel a blindness that– as in its makers’ species – once possessed a naivete that was lost, and not in the Miltonic sense; this aesthetic paradise cannot be regained having slipped away. To this end it is perfectly clear as to why, considered from the view dialectical-aesthetic negativity, Hegel sees in Dante the essence of Raphael: these figures (not-Raphael) represent the ontological reality that art cannot undo its movements forward, no matter how backward it might seem. The restored sight for one who experiences aesthetic depth in earnest does not, in its curing of societal blindness, prepare one to carry out a similar task, but rather carry out one’s lifework in a way that is illuminated rather than imitative. Blindness executed in the sphere of Dantean hermeneutics thus paints a portrait of revelatory negative: in assessing what is not, that which is unfolds, channeling aesthetic finitude and the infinite, artistic life, and death.

The Hegelian concept of artistic death, or aesthetic decay within the archival finality of the species’ nonexistence, is as much a product of the living as the threefold afterlife becomes for Dante the matter of poetics. Christ is the Author and Finisher of the Faith; but Dante is the poetical jury and executioner of the living, or those who have lived. His matter is thus the transitory becoming eternal, in becoming itself, whereas the Hegelian aesthetic transistorizes cumulative absolute spirit in realizing the enormity of what is at play in the medieval dialectic of identity and difference. Hegel’s living through the last shreds of feudalistic being thus equip him with a profound sense of ideological exile, one that registered with the Italian Hegelians.[35] Hegel does not have to be ejected, like Dante, from his homeland; he does, however, need be there as Napoleon rides through in the shadow of Kant, prefiguring less the end of history than the concrete decimation of feudalism, and hence cementing the way for technological destruction and saturation.

            Darkness Visible

            Throughout the voluminous Aesthetics, Hegel’s thoughts on Beatrice never part from that first, gilded sight. Specifically, a dwelling upon the senselessness with which a young person can die tragically love in a universe that is created by God, also known in one Dionysian sense, as Love, that injects itself into the bloodstream of the poet’s understanding. It is also Dionysian in its dialectical rendering of identity and difference, in a perfect Hegelian sense; Dante’s foundation, for Hegel, is consciousness’s movement that is at the center of this aesthetic totality. This childhood vision of love and loss is for Hegel a perfectly tangible lifelong well from which to draw theological-poetic waters, as he makes regular reference to Beatrice-the-person through his voluminous aesthetic theory, in particularly as the seed of the restructured totality and infinity of ecclesiastical finitude, as well as the text’s culmination. Furthermore, the beatific vision is for Hegel the intuitive – distinctive from the conceptual seed – mustard seed from which a singular artist ascends the heights of divine judgment; one equipped with a perceptive apparatus that sets its face like flint before tragedy is, in effect, in business.

Hegel says, however, that Dante “only gave a shape to what was already present in the creeds and in religious ideas”; but in so doing, Dante’s art of sublimity only disables self-sufficient subjectivity that finds its polar opposite in symbolism for-itself, the latter “running riot without proportion and definition.”[36] The Comedia is furthermore Dante‘s fulfilment of one poet to judge men to Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, “an artistically developed ardor of the heart, formed [with] a close union with religion”, the resulting synthesis of which is what Hegel calls “a higher work”[37]:

A higher work is that which every man has to achieve in himself, i.e. his life, whereby he settles for himself his eternal fate: despite the strict organization of the whole, there is no lack of fantastic ideas or adventures in so far as this work of salvation and damnation comes before us not only absolutely in its universality but as a list of practically innumerable individuals brought forward in their particular characteristics – and, besides this, the poet  makes himself the world’s judge.[38]

We can see this much in Inferno 27.25-27: Se tu pur mo in questo mondo cieco/
caduto se’ di quella dolce terra/latina ond’ io mia colpa tutta reco [39]whose vision of love is necessarily degraded in subsequent poets,[40] a Marxian matter of totality and infinity:

Indeed even his damned souls in Hell still have the bliss of eternity – io eterno duro[41] stands over the gate of Hell – they are what they are, without repentance or desire; they say nothing of their torments – these affect neither us nor them, as it were, at all, for they ensure forever – they keep in mind only their disposition and deeds, firm and constant to themselves in their same interests, without lamentation and longing.”[42]

Beyond the terz-rima, canzone, sonnets, and stanzas, Hegel’s aesthetic diagnosis is concerned with the totality of the project, where the universal and the individual entail no abstract separation of their sides; there is no mere servitude of individuals,[43] which again compliments John Freccero’s observation that there is no sense of self-reflexional prior to Dante.[44] For as Freccero notes this, it follows that absolute self-reflexional alone can separate the individual from the universal, objectivity and logic from subjectivity and plurality. The dialectical unity of opposites is therefore a perfect aesthetic conjoiner to Hegel and Marx’s respective – and equally monumental – dialectical convergences of syntheses. Negativity becomes the handmaiden of dialectical systematic; through subtraction of the is-not Dante arrives at what is. But what makes his vision unique is moving beyond negativity’s surplus goods into the simultaneous universalization and individual concretization of its conceptual reality and history. By rendering himself judge, Dante fulfills the simultaneous dream of secular and ecclesiastical thinking alike: God has given him the task to carry out that which could not formerly be seen; and in so doing, Dante applies a fourfold literality to this vision: Firstly, in completing the work, ordained by God, Dante brings kings and slaves, prisoners and freedmen, martyrs and popes into a unity with the Holy Spirit that all other works and their categories, subcategories, simply cannot touch, unpacking the questions of anthropology and categorization: one cannot say that the poet-pilgrimage was not aided by God. Secondly, the aesthetic process of render a former proximity obsolete is a subconscious shock to the general readership, as it forces readers, societies, nations to reconsider the reality and hermeneutic facticity of historiographical dogma and the absolute meaning of Geist. Thirdly, typology is thence unpacked into the dialectical unison of negative theology coming to terms with the dismantling of taboo. Fourthly, imagination emerges as the absolute champion of conceptual history in concept-being as concerns steady currents of methodology and temporality (as defined by conceptual historian Reinhart Koselleck).[45]The individual is at stake; but their fate can be added or subtracted as concerns the conceptual invincibility of Heaven. 

            The bold energy of inventive genius furthermore strikes us in time as ordinary, says Hegel, drawing on Homer as an instance in expressive literality[46]  that for Hegel structurally depends upon the acute cognition of word-forms within the exacted System:

The individual vitality of a poem is destroyed if these word-forms substitute a universal mode of expression, constructed on rules, for the peculiar outpouring of feeling and passion. If they do, they form the very opposite of the deeply felt, fragmentary and laconic expression which the depths of the heart can utter despite its little command of eloquence, and which has such great efficacy, especially in romantic poetry, for the description of undisburdened states of soul. But, in general, sentence-construction remains one of the richest external means available to poetry.[47]

For Dante and the Christological Hegel, one is marked by evil for failing to see what we might today casually refer to as the natural law: laws that needn’t be written down, and are rather figuratively written in the wind: one plus one is two in Sumer as well as Williamsburg; harming any innocent person, especially a child, is the most egregious of offenses. There is no way to make any system break down faster than to disobey the universal law; but Marx rightly points out that the law is itself subjective, and furthermore tarried by its structural standing as infallible. The fact that one is considered blind for being skeptical of that which does not even exist is itself odious to one who considers death a terminus and life much less than an entrance.[48]             Marx, however, fails to admit that all powers are grasped in subjugation, and that all conquerors arrive in the name of a new freedom and generally end up more despotic than before. Dante and Hegel would say that this the problem of Marx and his followers is that they do not have, among other thing, the natural law. Hence, their actions are guided by words that can never be definitive, predicated upon a Christological mistrial of false premises in blindly denying Logos; the Marxian exposition of remedial utopianism as a cure for subjective blindness is itself objectively blind. Definitive words, or the dogmas of empiricism, reformulate; but the Dantean weight of their conceptual existence warrants a uniformity whereby Hegel contends that if there is to be a life and death of aesthetics, its perceptive process must demand the seen prior to the unseen, rather than the other materialistic way around, on its way to resurrecting a berated language. For Hegel and Marx the Comedia is further exemplified as a model by its express and interchangeable theological and materialistically adaptable aura; this aura connotates an absolute lack of stylistic hindrances to the proceedings, and is intensified by the slow advance of the story, as in epic. At the same time, Dante has an ever-present ability halt of the description at any given step throughout, dialectically enmeshing narratological chronology and a sense of timelessness, space, and form, that was not lost on the opening books of Milton’s Paradise Lost; and this mirroring of sociological anxieties in many small episodic stories and conversations bestows upon us individuals for whom, if the hermeneutic cieco that permeates the text would have crept into its author’s hand, what are initially successful as powers become just as easily lifeless machinery. But the affective machinations of blindness are never degraded, never falling to teleological artificial creation of the poet.[49]

            Here, in the act of aesthetic construction and balance, we have something rather close to a definition of the textual transmission of Platonic Form(s), despite Dante’s Aristotelian bent. The understanding of how a poet makes or breaks ‘lifeless machinery’ or molds it into vibrant matter is found in the aforementioned higher viewpoint and is again synonymous with eyesight lost and regained. These steps, the pilgrim’s, and the pilgrim’s dialectical unfolding, can be understood but not followed, coinciding with the idea of theological geography and, even more importantly, conquering blindness by way of trustfully surrendering to divine providence.

            First, the inventor must conceive the plan. The inventor must then either execute the plan, like paint splashed against the wall, or undergo a heuristic decoding of the Absolute Concept. At the same time, equal attention must be given to the heuristic devices as is given to the vigor with which one has originally committed to moving the idea from imaginative text to action. It is this point of tautological apprehension that the aesthetic theory of a hermeneutic linguistics must replenish itself within formulating intuition, as is noted by Hegel in his Natural Law: Dante’s Thomistic acquiescence is unmarred by narrative lack of opposition along the way; and at the same time, if Dante had not crystallized the above method of aesthetic-linguistic synthesis that is the germ of Hegel and Marx (by ensuring that the ever-present Absolute systematically, horizontally and vertically, replenishes itself), there would be no contingent purpose for his pilgrim’s “perfect security and calm, merely opposition without seriousness or inner truth.”[50] This poetic-dialectical structure echoes Finn’s discussion of an Augustinian Christology whereby God’s image mnemonically achieved by “legitimating word imagery for the mental act of thinking (cogitare) and its fruit, a thought (cogitatio), and setting this production of an inner word… a true word is one that contains what is in memory.”[51] But as for Hegel, “God and the world are not extrinsic to each other in Hegel’s system; his linguistic logic overcomes that divide.”[52] It is thus fitting that between Augustine and Hegel we discover a current whereby concrete memory – of God, no less – converges within the epistemological totality of a Hegelian linguistics that seeks to transpose the divide between God and humanity’s approximation of the Concept with literarily philosophical prose; and it is this very dense aesthetic theory that informs Hegel’s singular study of Dante’s dialectical refusal and reconstruction of the conceptual-poetical epic.[53]

            It is therefore the aesthetic of a Christological axis whereby the abstract finite-infinite Being, or God, is at the same time announced as concept, in a poetical method that is removed from strict heterodoxy or contradiction: it is the Triune God presented as both Creator and Presence, lending credence to what Gustave Flaubert[54] would later describe as the ideal author: “Like God, present everywhere and visible nowhere.”[55] For Dante the modus operandi is not a text inspired by God. It is something more than intercession; and this hermeneutic facticity is herein apprehended by Hegel.[56] These realms must take on a poetic realm of archival finality, a language that, writes Marchesi, “is the more perfect the closer it comes to becoming transparent, the becoming the imperceptible vehicle for the exchange of ideas” [italics mine].[57] This poetic intuition is for Erich Auerbach the Dantean place where the text, directionally steep but preordained, is “a true umbra [shadow] of the truth, chiseled in [one’s] mind… character and fate are one, and the destiny of the autonomous self lies in the freedom of choice… the divine order of the universe becomes visible and manifest.”[58] Theory must be transformed and history not the developing sphere within which the author works, but as the unfolding calamitous process and reality that has prepared the transcendent author with the tools to which unpack Platonic Ideas in a sense hitherto unknown.[59] Dante, furthermore, must make the exilic break first with community and then the interior break with dogmatic constraint or expectation; he must realize the afterlife in all sense faculties, but most imperatively this: that an authentic dispensation of the concept of time is prerequisite to paradise. So it was for Dante, Hegel, and Marx: conceptual progression is rendered obsolete within the parameters of absolute interiority. What is more, Dante renders the afterlife’s three prospects his vision, his unfolding mnemonic device that never spirals out of control (this is further attested to in the poem’s ability to be read vertically, horizontally, in pairs or numbers, and so on); the threefold prospect of one’s eternal indwelling is suddenly less ecclesiastical than it is Dantean. The bridge from Dante to Marx enables literary scholars to better understand the medieval origins of the modern state, political religion, secular reexaminations of conceptual sin, and the genesis and structure of conceptual time in the sphere of Christological history.

It is the work of Dante and Hegel, then, to apprehend the absolute self-knowledge through conceptual thought – first in poetic intuition, then in philosophical systematic – developing and transmitting the collective consciousness of picture-thoughts that long sift among a people before being crystallized into their aura. We can cite the heretical tones in Dante, cite any number of atheistic variations on Hegel; but both Dante and Hegel are united in a hitherto neglected Christological aesthetics: “When people assert that we cannot know the truth, this is the extreme of blasphemy. People are not aware of what they are saying here. If they were aware of it, they would deserve to have the truth withdrawn from them… [invoking Paradiso, IV. 124-29].”[60] It is the aesthetic bond described by Dante here that brings these torrents of prose together; that enables Hegel to recognize it as such, and to later allow Marx to dive into the bowels of a system his contemporaries could all but skim the polemical surface of. As is well-documented in Roberts’s text, these figures are neither boring nor irrelevant (Proudhon being perhaps the most famous of them),[61] a pattern we see as well in Took’s pre-Dantean survey of Italian poetry.[62] But it is the imagination that enables the hermeneutic facticity of conceptual afterlife, conceptual consciousness, and conceptual vindication of the powerless with an urgency that perpetually self-replenishes. It constructs a conduit from the conceptual (literal) underworld to the literal (conceptual) underworld because the aesthetic clock strikes, and summons forth singularity with which to concretize universal abstractions and to set collective memory in motion – for better or for worse – the acquisition of self-reflexive consciousness that is borne unto a people with the Comedia, Phenomenology, and Capital (as well as the minor characters contemporaneously)[63] each dialectically, aesthetically reformulating the semiotic entirety of objective life, saying at last, an author has arrived, whose ideological systematic converges with aesthetic hermeneutic in rendering the fruit of justice in the time of harvest.[64]

Consciousness and Reality

Considering this argument for a refortified literary appraisal of Hegelian aesthetics ala self-reflexive identity/difference of Dantean blindness has been proceeding without a hitch, we may well pause to ask, as though disrupted mid-sleep by silence: is a thesis that proclaims Hegel the father of theory simply too enormous to contain at present, hence painting too large a target on its imaginative back?

To this I offer a threefold rejoinder: firstly, consider a Thomism that is exhausted beyond measure. It is a vast school of thought, not unlike a large family; and at some point, the creation of children must cease due to reasons that abdicate desire. Would it be out of the question, then, to consult the early Dominicans, or even Albert the Great[65] for that matter? To my estimation this is, like my Dantean-Hegelian thesis, a matter of conceptual time and dialogical austerity; if the foundation of a source has run its course, must it retain its standing as a perpetual reference point? Such is subjective linguistics. But what is not subjective linguistical matter is this, that the process in moving from the ever-present source of an intellectual school is bound to carry with it growing pains; its strength is made perfect in weakness.[66] Graham Harman put it well when he described the handmaidenesque flux with which theories that are slated for demolition move from temporality to temporality, “like a bossy partygoer changing the music on another’s sound system.”[67] While our technological gadgetry is plainly different from our forebearers, I would like to suggest that literary-theoretical stalemates are as old archaism more generally.[68] Our theoretical stalemate, or bind, is what it is not because of political or historical moments unfolding right now that are, seemingly, unattached at the surface level from literary scholarship, but because in our mad rush to object-accumulation culture we lost track of the austere higher level thinking that an actual functioning knowledge of both literature and philosophy demands in order to flourish, which is simultaneously a vice-grip on ontological blindness. After all, it is not exclusively Hell that drew Hegel and Marx to Dante; but it is Hell through which we must first enter, as it is the closest Dantean season to our way of life, for which literature has long served as that most potent, supplement: “He answered and said, Whether he be a sinner or no, I know not: one thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see.”[69] We are thus less concerned with the miraculous claim here than we are with the process, as was Plato with the move from shadow to reality; Dante knew it, and so did Hegel.[70] It moves from Dante’s ecclesiastical-sociological unveiling of the imperceptible (threefold afterlife as decreed by neither gods nor God but a mortal), and it is the measure of the inborn gift amidst centuries of quantitative breakdown, or the recording of global consciousness, striking a target that none before or after in the field can even see, let alone hit. The second we are on the way to reengaging the nucleus herein, identity/difference, is the second literary an indispensably rich horizon, vault of literary studies is reopened to the discontent student and professional alike. Such is the modus operandi of this working monograph’s final chapter: the historiographical implications of Hegel, in his Philosophy of Mind, ending his published engagement with Dante by working through Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind (Oxford), Paradiso 124-30. Following suit, Marx’s Dantean finality comes in the form of Capital’s citation of Paradiso 24.84-5. Light, then, at the end of the tunnel; the same lights that engulf Dante’s Paradiso, whether pro or contra; the linguistic hermeneutic light that is sensed in the seeing and blind alike.

Between Dante and Hegel in several regards lies Ficino, whose first book of Platonic Theology goes right to the heart of hermeneutical blindness. Like Salutati before him and Grassi later, Ficino’s Virgilian casting down of darkness comes in the form of citing Aeneid 6.734: ‘clausae tenebris et carcere caeco’, or ‘incarcerated by darkness and a sightless dungeon’ (translation mine), whereby the mind prior to theological dialectics looks in vain to light. Ficino sounds radical when he proclaims that nothing outside of bodily death can render one anything remotely resembling substantial happiness – but is this not the crux of the Commedia? Is it not, among so many other things, the sociological-ecclesiastical doctrine of bodily destruction giving way to conceptual destruction, as in the destruction of conceptual time, content, and objectivity? Ficino’s Virgilian concern with eclipsing the dungeon of unknowing, surpassing empirical content and eternally recurring objectivity, is likewise purely Hegelian:

Spirit has shown itself to us to be neither merely the withdrawal of self-consciousness       into its pure inwardness, nor the mere submergence of self-consciousness into substance,          and the non-being of its [moment of] difference; but Spirit is this movement of the Self        which empties itself of itself and sinks itself into its substance, and    also, as Subject, has    gone out of that substance into itself, making the substance into an         object and a content at            the same time as it cancels this difference between objectivity and content.[71]

From the dialectical point of view, the poetic rejoinder to an unfolding, multifaceted blindness must be the object-oriented break with planetary reality. I have in mind, specifically, a moment from none other than Virgil himself, as recalled by Salutati (born ten years after Dante’s death) in his De laboribus Heruclis: “To put one thing in the place of another is possible for no one but the poet, as [when Virgil presents] the golden bough that the Sybil called for an Aeneas to break off before entering the underworld.”[72] The break with the way things are, or at least appear to be, is no doubt at least a passing thought, if not plausible obsession, for any writer deciding to give it a go.

            But as we have seen, Dante and Hegel contain between them a rare dialogical aesthetic of transcendence that, in the last analysis, gave Marx the final push in comprehending the structure and springing into attack as per Capital. In each of the three cases, the world of letters was and remains rattled, mystified, and obsessed; now it is time for literary scholars to stop looking elsewhere, in temporal places for indefinite solutions, and consider that whether or not the Kingdom of God is, truly, in one, then at least the formula for a resurrected literary theory capable of eclipsing the euphemistically political and recurrently tenuous is at hand. The Dantean-Hegelian wager of system-building, picture-thinking, and reinvention of contemporaneous consciousness, wielding the locomotive dialectic of a refurnished identity and difference, can serve to unpack the birth of theory chronicled by Andrew Cole. It can now be taken further into underworld of theoretical conception, where the afterlife, consciousness, and revolution have already been cemented in something like a fourth volume of Foucault’s History of Sexuality, or what it might have looked like had it ever been written: the technological ontology of simultaneous virtual sex/death that is in one’s pocket now, at last, at all times; liberation revealed as bondage; manufactured subcultures and political religions; Gnosticism and permanent standby: all of this is the canvas of dialectical literary studies. Like Virgil’s break with the golden bough as prerequisite to transformative darkness, putting one thing in the place of another, such is identity/difference, on the way to reconceptualizing discourse in literary theory, the Dantean line of sight restored, the current blindness of literary discourse swept out.

Works Cited

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            —. The Myth of the Eternal Return. Princeton Univ. Press, 2018.

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Harman, Graham. “The well-wrought broken hammer: object-oriented literary criticism.” New literary history 43, no. 2 (2012): 183-203.

Hegel, G.W.F. Aesthetics (2 vol). Oxford Univ. Press, 2010

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—. Philosophy of Mind. Oxford Univ. Press, 2017.

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—. Hegel’s Idea of Philosophy. Fordham Univ. Press, 1983.

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Marchesi, Simone. Dante and Augustine. Univ. of Toronto Press, 2011.

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—. Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. CUP Archive, 1977.

—. “Marx’s Economic Manuscript of 1867–68 (Excerpt).” Historical Materialism 1, no. aop (2019): 1-31.              

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Stewart, Jon (ed.).  The Hegel Myths and Legends. Northwestern Univ. Press, 1996.

Took, John. Dante. Princeton Univ. Press, 2020.

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Voegelin, Eric. “On Hegel—A Study in Sorcery.” In The Study of Time, pp. 418-451. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg, 1972.

Williams, Robert R. Hegel on the Proofs and Personhood of God. Oxford Univ. Press, 2017.  

Zambrana, Rocio. Hegel’s Theory of Intelligibility. Univ. of Chicago Press, 2015.


[1] Insight (Univ. of Toronto Press, 2013), 769.

[2] From the Book of Concordance [Book 2, Part 1, Chapter 4], as translated (Bernard McGinn) and anthologized in Apocalyptic Spirituality (Paulist Press, 1979), 123.

[3] I contend that Hegel’s aesthetics eclipse such protocol at a time when humanities scholars are existentially perturbed with eternal returns of suspicious hermeneutics, identity politics, et al., as chronicled in Rita Felski’s Limits of Critique (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2015). Authentic progression is no longer Marx-forward, but Marx-backward. This lecture also concerns Italian Hegelians; I advocate bringing several into American literary discourse.

[4] See also William Clare Roberts’s Marx’s Inferno (Princeton, 2017). For whereas Andrew Cole located the Hegelian foundations of theory (Birth of Theory, Princeton Univ. Press, 2014), Roberts chronicles Dante’s structural place in Capital vol 1; this lecture thus was thought up reading him and Cole while engaged in critical study of the Comedia and medieval theology.

[5] One might add to Roberts’s analysis a host of Dantean correlations rampant in other Marxian primary texts, viz., “To call on them to give up their illusions is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions… Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear the chain without fantasy or consolation but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower.” From A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (Joseph J. O’Malley, and Richard A. Davis. Early political writings. Cambridge University Press, 1994), 58. Likewise, Inferno 3.85, “Forget your hope…” is echoed in Marx’s “criticism of Heaven.” Ironically, Marx ends this tract proclaiming that “religion is only the illusory sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself”; such extreme narcissism, perhaps replacing the illusory sun with an arctic, frozen moon, exemplifies Dante’s inward mutations of Lucifer in the climax of Inferno.

                Further, “Precisely because political economy does not grasp the way the movement is connected, it was possible to oppose, for instance, the doctrine of competition to the doctrine of monopoly, the doctrine of craft freedom to the doctrine of the guild, the doctrine of the division of landed property to the doctrine of the big estate – for competition, freedom of the crafts and the division of landed property were explained and comprehended only as accidental, premeditated and violent consequences of monopoly, of the guild system, and of feudal property, not as their necessary, inevitable and natural consequences… First, the fact that labor is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his intrinsic nature; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working, he does not feel at home. His labor is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor. Money, then, appears as this distorting power both against the individual and against the bonds of society, etc., which claim to be entities in themselves. It transforms fidelity into infidelity, love into hate, hate into love, virtue into vice, vice into virtue, servant into master, master into servant, idiocy into intelligence, and intelligence into idiocy.” See “Estranged Labour.” (1844): 32-38, as well as “The Power of Money” from Marx’s Economic Manuscript of 1867–68 (2019).

                Lastly, a host of Marxian reflective practice is made of Dante’s third canto of Inferno, the Hegelian subject of this project, not least by the poet’s inability to recognize the tortured, and Marx’s “Hence the ancients wailing about money as the root of all evil”, which precisely leads into the literal disfigurement of greed, viz., Grundrisse (Penguin Classics, 1993), 221-4); Grundrisse 156 also chronicles the bank as papacy of production “disfigurement and transformation”; where the absolute is itself conditional, cf. 42, 488). Reading the Grundrisse in light of Columbia’s digital Dante commentaries, e.g. “the eternity of Hell is of a different order from the eternity of Paradise: eternity of Hell signifies duration, while eternity of Paradise signifies an eternal present”, the idea here is immediately correlative to the Marxian prospect of revolution, where the banal enslavement of endurance, debasement, and duration of capitalism returns humanity to an ever-present origin of archaic ecstasy; one no longer has no relation to one’s unending work (“What the product of one’s labor is, one is not” – is this not Dante’s Lucifer, the not-good, ice at the core of earth?), but works for the good of oneself and one’s kin. But whereas one may be quick to bring up the idea that Hell is an arbitrary assignation rather than the consequence of one’s own choices as per Purgatorio 16.67-72, Marx, like Hegel, approaches the concrete by arresting empirical thought, rather than posthumous being, taken to the second power: the Hegelian point of view is concerned, aesthetically, not with free will in the afterlife, but in the conditions that enable the artist to forcefully transmit the hitherto collective subconscious culture, replacing its cultural totality within the frame of a single book; whereas Marx, to this end, seeks movement from text to action, overthrowing the unnatural state, and returning to an archaic mode of organic being. Hence, both Hegel and Dante would argue that this effort is in vain; for as in art, like the pillar of salt, there is no turning back. The dream cannot move beyond the dictatorship of the proletariat, supposedly temporal; to this end Marx’s followers, in distorting Hegel, find themselves forever dwelling in perfect Dantean schemas. Such is, as Dante knew, the diachronic unveiling of economic realities.

[6] Marx had a propensity for modeling his texts on literary works, while in his day the vying socialist writers regularly utilized the concept of “social Hell.” But Marx is different in that he seems to have actually spent read Dante. For instance, the first circles of Dante’s Hell exhibit persons on whom self-control was lost; and for Marx, producers are torn apart by their ultimately uncontrollable products, which cannot guarantee a stable living.

[7] See for instance Cole’s “The Function of Theory at the Present Time.” PMLA 130, no. 3 (2015): 809-818.

[8] Italian Hegelianism in the lifetime of Marx is chronicled by Guido Oldrini and Betrando Spaventa (1817-83); the latter recalled that “in Naples, starting in 1843, the Hegelian idea penetrated the mind of the young cultivators of science, who, uniting fraternally, took to advocating it in speech and in writing as if moved by saintly love.” See ‘Studi sopra la filosofia di Hegel’, in Unificazione nazionale ed egemonia culturale (Bari: Laterza, 1969), 23.

[9] “While it would be foolish to argue that it is Dante, not Hegel, who provides the key to the structure of Marx’s book, Hegel cannot claim our complete attention. There is room to investigate other influences upon Marx’s “method of presentation.” William Clare Roberts, Marx’s Inferno (Princeton Univ. Press, 2017), 12.

[10] See The Hegel Myths and Legends (ed. Jon Stewart, Northwestern Univ. Press, 1996).

[11] The question was glossed in in a general, if vague sense in 1982 in John Dobbins and Peter Fuss’s, “The Silhouette of Dante in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.Clio 11, no. 4 (1982): 387.

[12] Engels refers to Dante as the last poet of the Middle Ages and the first of modern times, while the discovery of the Grundrisse led Western Marxists to affirm the sentiment of what Lukacs and others had been saying for some time: that Marx was in the last analysis a radical Hegelian (Martin Jay, Marxism and Totality, (Univ. of California Press, 1984), 3). He, like Hegel, was drawn to Dante’s dialogical self-reflexiveness through which there was rendered, at last, a structural-poetic depiction of ecclesiastical matters divided by Aristotelian propaedeutic (See Poetics XVIII, viz. “Identity exists where the Complication and Unraveling are the same” (Translated by H.S. Butcher). Roberts, in assessing the Dantean schema of Marxian sociology and textual structure, notes that the early socialists, who Marx was reading and responding to, and who often wielded a systematic that was “in essence a cheap knock-off” (Roberts, Marx’s Inferno, 22) of Dante. And Marx does not reject this but actualizes it – but with the aesthetic guide of Hegel, acknowledged or not. Dante elucidates the eternal endgame of a temporal system. Marx wants to divulge what the meaning of this meaning means, and what it says about the world.

[13] Such is the etymology of utopia, no-where; Hegel calls this “unhappy consciousness.” Yet Dante proves that this means nothing in light of the individual’s dogmatic fate, whereas “Marx wanted to publish a work that would be both a systematic treatise and a thoroughgoing critique of both the capitalist mode of production and the political economy that reflected and justified it… Marx’s fourfold literary mission – depiction and critique, of practice and of theory – required a literary armature to support it” (Roberts, 23). While Roberts surveys Dantean correlations within Capital and the years of its composition more generally (Roberts, 24-6), the task at hand remains to unpack how Hegel’s Aesthetics as a literary-theoretical bridge between Dante and Marx, specifically focusing on Hegel’s aesthetic epistemology and the Commedia’s place therein.

[14] This Hegelian idea of Force is one that Marx, like Dante, sees in the veneer of respective contemporality: illusion of choice, for medieval and modern oligarch alike, as the alchemical transubstantiation whereby the gold of reality is relegated to a perpetual baser metal of warring exhaustion and economical bondage. For Marx, exploitation is the code and not the exception: and this process and its taboo dissection is fixed in the unnatural (alongside exploitation and plunder) (Roberts, 17-18).

[15] “[Unhappy Consciousness] occupies rather this intermediate position where abstract thinking is in contact with the individuality of consciousness qua individuality. The Unhappy Consciousness is this contact; it is the unity of pure thinking and individuality; also it knows itself to be this thinking individuality or pure thinking and knows the Unchangeable itself essentially as an individuality. But what it does not know is that this its object, the Unchangeable, which it knows essentially in the form of individuality, is its own self, is itself the individuality of consciousness. Phenomenology of Spirit (Oxford Univ. Press, 1977), 131.

[16] See Michel Henry’s “Life, death: Marx and Marxism” from Marx: An Introduction (Bloomsbury, 2019), 37-60.

[17] Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit (Translated by A.V. Miller, Oxford Univ. Press 1977),588; 473.

[18] Martin Donougho’s “Hegel as Philosopher of the Temporal [irdischen] World: On the Dialectics of Narrative”

[19] Phenomenology of Spirit, 589; 479-80.

[20] Passages I plan to take up in the prospective second chapter of this hypothetical monograph include Inferno 3.47 (e la lor cieca vita è tanto bassa/Their blinded lives beyond perverted); 6.93 (cadde con essa a par de li altri ciechi/They perished in blind tandem); 12.49 (O eyeless greed, like senseless wrath); and 15.67 (Vecchia fama nel mondo li chiama orbi/Even the sightless world has long perceived their blindness). Translations mine. – JN.

[21] “Let us descend now into the blind world”/Began the Poet, pallid utterly/I will be first, and thou shalt second be.” (Translated by Longfellow.)

[22] Hegel’s debt to Dante lent itself to a host of tragically neglected Italian philosophers writing during and after Hegel’s life, into the eve of WWII. Vicenzo Gioberti, an Italian Hegel, bridged the gap between Vico and the present; and the parallels between Gioberti and Hegel’s lesser discussed theological writings, as well as his Natural Law, are made clear by Rubini 48-57. Gioberti would also make for an invigorating case study alongside the Christological Hegel perhaps best recorded most recently in Douglas Finn’s Life in the Spirit: Trinitarian Grammar and Pneumatic Community in Hegel and Augustine (Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 2015), as well as Stephen Crites’s Dialectic and Gospel in the Development of Hegel’s Thinking (Penn State Univ. Press, 1998).

[23] Italian philosophers in the early twentieth-century likewise had a ‘temple of Hegelianism’ in the University of Naples (Rubini 102). Even in the 1920s Agostino Gemelli “was aware that Italian idealists could back their claims with an equally illustrious roster of names and that they had been working long, hard, and successfully to prove Hegel’s congeniality to Italy” (119). Spaventa maintained that Hegel taught Italy, through future-oriented dialectics, how to approach the past from a philosophical perspective (202).

[24] Hegel, Aesthetics, 259.

[25] Hegel, 313.

[26] In accordance with the Dantean-Marxian motif of exilic system-building and epiphanic breakthrough, Vicenzo Cuoco belonged to the first generation of nineteenth-century intellectual experience defined by exile (Rubini 39n20). But whither Hegel? According to Rubini, “One need only compare the work of Cuoco to that of his exact contemporary, Hegel, to gauge the philosophical incommensurability between Italy and Germany” (47, italics Rubini’s).

[27] Hegel, 402.

[28] See Robert R. Williams’s Hegel on the Proofs and Personhood of God (Oxford Univ. Press, 2017), viz. “For Hegel, the phenomenological genesis of the concept of spirit is the union resulting from mutual-reciprocal recognition wherein the I becomes a We. On a higher level, spirit is manifest in ethical life – institutions such as love, marriage, family, and the state in the ethical sense; God is no exception to, but the chief exemplification of, spirit, and that is why Hegel’s preferred term for God is absolute spirit.” 266.

[29] “Paradise and Hell are not in themselves a world affecting us more nearly but serve only as a place for the reward or punishment of men.” Hegel, 1055.

[30] “Weeping, he said to me: ‘If through this blind/Prison thou goest by loftiness of genius/Where is my son? /and why is he not with thee?’” (Trans. Longfellow.)

[31] Also unpacked through the lens of neglected Hegelian philosopher Francesco De Sanctis (1817-83) by Rocco Rubini in his The Other Renaissance (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2014), 77-9.

[32] Hegel, 438-439.

[33] This has been laid out superbly in Took’s Dante (Princeton Univ. Press, 2020), most notably in the early chapters chronicling Dante’s poetic forerunners and their place in his subsequent development.

[34] Hegel’s Aesthetics, 439.

[35] There is for instance the case of De Sanctis, whose exile led to prison – where he nonetheless accordingly spent three years exclusively studying Hegel’s Logic in the aftermath of the 1848 revolution (Rubini outlines De Sanctis’s relationship with Hegel on 74). Upon his release he threw himself into a Hegelian reconsideration of Dante, seeing in the poet a marked ability to magnetically draw together varied stages in an ontology of reconciliation: knowledge and desire, the doctrinal and the mystical, identity and difference, and echoing Hegel, sees Dante’s crowning achievement as the dialectical embodiment that is Beatrice, “ideal unity, the love that joins together intellect and act, science and life (History of Italian Literature 1.145). It is only after Dante has finished that the Comedia, for De Sanctis, that a new century (or ‘secolo’, viz. self-contained cycle), can begin. In between the lines lies the stuff of epochal transformation (Rubini 77-8) that paved the way for an unfiltered reconsideration of the Renaissance “as an intrinsically flawed epoch, only partially redeemed by what Spaventa had been able to articulate on philosophical grounds, via Hegel” (305).

[36] Hegel, 439.

[37] Here Hegel’s notion of an aesthetic higher-level thinking is a forerunner to what will in time become the division of what-is-called-Fiction and Literary Fiction. The idea is also unpacked, from the Thomistic-philosophical point of view, in Bernard Lonergan’s Insight re: “higher viewpoints”, cf. 37-43, 258-60.

[38] Hegel, 589. 

[39] “If thou but lately into this blind world/Hast fallen down from that sweet Latian land/Wherefrom I bring the whole of my transgression” (Longfellow). Hence the latter the authority of the poetical archetype.

[40] Hegel, 591.

[41] Inferno, canto iii, 8. ‘Eternal I endure.’

[42] Hegel, 874.

[43] Hegel, 979-980.

[44] “The Portrait of Francesca. Inferno V.” MLN 124, no. 5S (2009): S30.

[45] See The Practice of Conceptual History (Stanford Univ. Press, 2002): “The methodological, temporal layering, extending from the interviewing of direct eyewitnesses and the questioning of mediating earwitnesses to the countermeasure of written records, was as well developed in Herodotus as it was in Bede or present-day historians. There are anthropological pregivens for the possibility of gaining knowledge about events composed of personal experiences which, once discovered, cannot be relinquished. That is the distinction of methodology.” 58.

[46] Hegel, 1009.

[47] Hegel, 1008.

[48] More recent classical accounts of the natural law, Gnosticism, and political theology in the work of Dante and Hegel run through the bibliographies of Eric Voegelin and Carl Schmitt. See Roman Catholicism and Political Form and “On Hegel – A Study in Sorcery.” And although he is criminally all but unknown today, the lifelong Hegel scholar and Fordham professor, Fr. Quentin Lauer, S.J., wrote about this as well, as in Hegel’s Idea of Philosophy and Hegel’s Concept of God. [These texts are all documented in the bibliography.]

[49] “For however far poetry also involves an element vision and illustration, it still remains even in this respect a spiritual activity and it works for inner intuition to which the spirit nearer and more appropriate than external objects in their concrete visible and external appearance.” Hegel’s Aesthetics, 972.

[50] See Hegel’s Natural Law (Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1975), 105-06.

[51] Douglas Finn, Life in the Spirit (Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 2015), 57.

[52] Finn, 60.

[53] “Dante has no individual rounded action proceeding on the broad basis of the world, and yet it is precisely this epic which is least lacking in the firmest articulation and rounded completeness. Instead of a particular event it has for its subject-matter the eternal action, the absolute end and aim, the love of God in its imperishable activity and unalterable sphere… in the face of the absolute grandeur of the ultimate end and aim of all things, everything individual and particular in human interests and aims vanishes, and yet there stands there, completely epically, everything otherwise most fleeting and transient in the living world, fathomed objectively in its inmost being, judged in its worth or worthlessness by the supreme Concept, i.e. by God.” Hegel’s Aesthetics, 1003.

[54] French novelist (1821-1888) whose most famous work is Madame Bovary. Also known for surgical precision of prose, secular monasticism, and intense research regiment that enhanced themes of late antiquity in his other works.

[55] Victor H. Brombert’s Novels of Flaubert: A Study of Themes and Techniques (Princeton Univ. Press, 2015), 169.

[56] “For as individuals were in their passions or sufferings, in their intentions and their accomplishments, so now here they are presented forever, solidified into images of bronze. In this way the poems comprise the entirety of objective life: the eternal condition of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise; and on this indestructible foundation the figures of the real world move in their particular character, or rather they have moved and now in their being and action are frozen and are eternal themselves in the arms of eternal justice. While the Homeric heroes have been made permanent in memories by the muse, these characters have produced their situation for themselves, as individuals, and are eternal in themselves, not in our ideas. The immortality created by the poet’s muse counts here objectively as the very judgement of God in whose name the boldest spirit of his time has pronounced damnation or salvation for the entire present and the past. This character of the subject-matter, already independently finished, must be followed by the manner of its portrayal.” Hegel’s Aesthetics, 1003-04.

[57] Marchesi, 35.

[58] Time, History, and Literature (Princeton Univ. Press, 2014), 104, 122, 191.

[59] “This can only be a journey through realms fixed once and for all, and although they are invented, equipped, and peopled by the same freedom of imagination with which Homer and Hesiod formed their gods, still they are meant to provide a picture and a report of what has really happened: in Hell the movement is energetic but the figures are plastic and stiff in their agony, lit terrifyingly, though the picture is modified by Dante’s own mournful sympathy; in Purgatory things are milder but all fully worked out and rounded off; finally, in Paradise all is clear as crystal, a region of eternal thought where external shapes are no more. There are glimpses of antiquity in the world of this Catholic poet, but antiquity is only a guiding star and a companion of human wisdom and culture, for, when it is a matter of doctrine and dogma, it is only the scholasticism of Christian theology and love which speaks.” Hegel’s Aesthetics, 1104. 

[60] Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind (Oxford Univ. Press, 2017), 166: “I see that nought can fill the mind’s vast space/Unless Truth’s light dwell there as denizen/Beyond which nothing true can find a place./In that it rests, like wild beast in its den,/When it attains it; and it can attain,/Else frustrate would be all desires of men” (Translated Plumptre).

[61] Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865), noted socialist writer and, alas, impetus for Marx’s Poverty of Philosophy.

[62] See John Took’s Dante (Princeton Univ. Press, 2020), 82-113.

[63] “If Italians [once] chose to embrace Hegelianism as fulfilling their national philosophy, it was most certainly because of Hegel’s apparent combability not only with Vico but also with late Renaissance thinkers such as Bruno and Campanella… a prolonged naturalization of German idealism ensured that the Italian philosophical tradition would gain a solid internalist perceptive on itself” (12).

[64] Took, 65.

[65] See Rutkin’s “Astrology and Theology in Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas: Fate, Divination and Providence.” In Sapientia Astrologica: Astrology, Magic and Natural Knowledge, ca. 1250-1800, pp. 173-234. Springer, Cham, 2019; Räsänen’s “Ecce novus: Saint Thomas Aquinas and Dominican Identity at the End of the Fourteenth Century.” Acta ad archaeologiam et artium historiam pertinentia 31 (2019): 161-176.

[66] 2 Corinthians 12:9.

[67] See Graham Harman’s “The well-wrought broken hammer: object-oriented literary criticism.” New literary history 43, no. 2 (2012): 183.

[68] Mircea Eliade’s The Forge and the Crucible, The Myth of the Eternal Return, and Jean Gebser’s Ever-Present Origin come to mind.  

[69] John 9:25.

[70] “Hegel does not articulate reason’s purposiveness in terms of a goal that is unambiguously actualized, thereby affirming a classical teleology of reason… [the] actualization of reason is the subjectivity of things themselves.” Rocio Zambrana’s Hegel’s Theory of Intelligibility (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2015), 42-3.

[71] Phenomenology of Spirit, 490.

[72] Translated by Ernesto Grassi, Rhetoric as Philosophy, Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 2001, vii.

On the Narratology of Concept-Being, Lecture Seven: In Search of Plotinian Order

We began these discourses tinkering with the idea of whether it was a fruitful idea to advance Cole’s epistemological wager in a manner that fills in the blanks of postcritique’s recounted limitations with new directions, and now turn to a source that I have nowhere seen appear in literature studies pro- or contra-Cole, that of Eric D. Perl’s Theophany – as the book aside from Plotinus concerns Pseudo-Dionysius, who Cole also notes as a key dialectical thinker[1] – it has for a time struck me as an ideal source for the student seeking order in literary cognition, or insight, that is dissatisfied with the Marx-forward approach, or in that case, stalemate. In Perl we are dealing with a Neoplatonic scholar whose book, thin and dense, sees Plotinian texts and commentary peppered throughout in a manner highly conducive to the student of literature by way of a perpetual intertextual engagement of dialectical identity/difference, ranging from Plotinus’s life prior to writing up to and through contemporary engagement with scholars, commentators through the century long overshadowed by Aristotelian predominance. Further, what emerges from Perl’s dialectical accounts of Plotinus is a portrait of a figure whose negative theology is concisely in rhythm with a hypothetically enormous impact in the field of literary studies in an age of permanent sexualized technologies. And I believe this is so because of Perl’s Dionysian work on Plotinus that I shall herein review, particularly concerning the movement of conceptual appearance in text and thought to reality[2] as well as identity/difference in Perl’s portrayal of Plotinian literary cognition has greater implications for a new methodological historiography, which I have declared is a prerequisite to any future reinstallations of literary-theoretical discourse.

            Plotinus’s being-made-to-be is for Perl an apprehension of higher-level thinking that will eventually technologize itself into a rejection of fireside lore, orality. What this means is that Plotinus was well aware, seventeen-hundred years ago, that dialectical thinking run amok risks the undisciplined process of running off its rails unless it is kept in check. Today we can see this in among several fashions, a pair worth noting in particular: technological advancements that have led to digital rather than paper pages, and the proliferation of cinematic immersion that has rendered would-be readers skeptical of the mere page, what with its silence, 26 letters, and dubious black ink. But here we must again fully understand Cole’s construction of Hegelian recentralization in light of the Plotinian measure of refurnishing a dialectic of mute perception, or reading, which is not solely technological reconsideration but also an ancient concerned merged with theory’s continual rejection of surface-level entities, exemplified in the way that Plotinus could not stay put with Plato.

            For Perl, Plotinus’s meditations on Platonism, a school that he both revolutionized and in his neglected way transcended, are not unlike the theorist today seeking to move beyond spokesmen and forerunners as cults of personality, who are at the same time cognizant of the predicament’s semiotic cementing of a revolutionary place in dialectical thinking. The idea for Plotinus was not discredit or abolish Plato, and I feel the same way even as concerns more tarnished reputations, such as de Man or Althusser – like Plotinus on Plato, I advocate studying these figures for the simple reason that anything less than doing so is a denigration of one’s theoretical mastery, or personal framework. At the same time, there is the need of offering up participatory causality in light of the textual One, or eclipse of limitation: “Reversion, in fact, is nothing other than participation, the participation of the determined effect in its causal determination, considered as an activity of the participant.”[3] This idea, in time picked up by Pseudo-Dionysius,[4] is designed to furnish the perceptive apparatus in order to free up the possibility to transcend both choice and necessitation by transcending the space between them. Choice, in the Heideggerian sense, is the hermeneutic facticity of reality: that how one approaches it is a choice.[5] Literary fiction, and hence theory, is a testament to the transcending of choice and necessitation. It offers a choice to read that is itself a ready-made heuristic canon: modes of reading; schools of thought; the individual; the group; the scholar; the artist; the laity; the type of fiction. And what of necessitation? Plotinus says, in so many strokes of Neoplatonic genius: Think in order to live. Write in order to live. Choice and necessitation, for Plotinus, are not abstractions that are lost in technological upheaval;[6] they are rather ever-present origins of dialectical thinking on the way to literary-theoretical cognition.

            But whereas suspicious hermeneutics is wont to excoriate the soul if it is to acknowledge it at all, the Plotinian preoccupation that leads to Hegelian Geist is unconcerned with whether one has a soul or not. Rather, the dialectical concern is that preoccupation of mortals which can neither be definitively put to rest nor empirically proven. One proclaiming to have evidence of the soul is in the same camp as one proclaiming to have extinguished it, entertaining archival finality wherein the dialectician sees an abstract essence eternally returning all over the world. Its essence is therein the essence of essence, the very existence of conceptual nonexistence; in this way it mirrors both literary cognition and technological identity, matters of disruptive simulation weathered by the stages of ideology and the state, formerly feudal dialectics and negative theology.[7] Suspicious is thus never abandoned, but entered into a formulaic discourse whereby subjectivity is held captive by the state apparatus: “To be is the activity of a being; and herein lies the possibility of evil.”[8] To be online is the activity; ‘cancel culture’ is the permanent idea of identifying evil in public and non-public figures and nailing them, like flies, against the digital wall. If religious evil has vanished from Western dogmatic thinking, it is mistaken; it has rather transferred, seamlessly, from the ecclesiastical public square into the political discourse of object, home, and portability.  

            Criticism, in transcending itself, still faces the issue of its various processions as simply more and less universal modes of the same divine presence. Consider that “Pseudo-Dionysius’ doctrine of analogous participation in God is thus closely parallel to Plotinus’ teaching that the nature of all things is their share in contemplation or intellectual activity (which itself is the manifestation of the One), so that the life of plants is a ‘growth-thought’ and that of animals a ‘sense-thought'” (3.8.8.14-15).[9] But what is perhaps even more engrossing for the literary dialectician is that the Intellect, for Plotinus, is not some abstract notion between wisdom and folly; it is rather a concrete, immutable level of discourse and historicism that is readily available rather than scarce.[10] A population may veer away from Intellect, or a community might have the notion it has not only run up against a brick wall but has replaced Intellectual with a steady institutional stream of such well-wrought walls; but whether or not a land or community is for it or against it, Plotinian Intellect is immunity incarnate, traversing all countries and space in peace, and indifferent to the oscillating patterns of persons. It warrants a heavenly order that, in its presence, does away with despising human beings.

This immutability-incarnate is also a perpetual process of unfolding that is particularly conducive to texts:

            In Plotinus’ system, according to a conventional but superficial reading, the One    generates Intellect, which in turn generates Soul, which in turn generates the sensible   cosmos; and sensible things, on this view, are not produced directly by the One but stand          at several removes from it. But in fact, each level is not another being additional to its            prior, as though the One were one thing, Intellect a second, Soul a third, and the sensible           a fourth. Rather, each level down in the differentiated appearance, the expression, the             unfolding of its prior, so that the content is the same throughout all levels, in differing       degrees and diffusion.[11]

By differentiating theoretical terminus from its conceptual-historical moment of unfolding, the literary scholar is given the tools to engage the greater textual problems with a technology of critique that is not bound, by automatic ideology, to an eternal return of suspicious hermeneutics. Nor is one trapped in the scenario whereby dogmatic identity defeats itself in prejudicing itself in the game of, “You’re not me, so you cannot possibly know my struggle”; such identity is non-identity, its difference a mishandling of dialectical difference that is steadily developed from Plotinus to Hegel.[12]

For both Cole and Perl, Plotinus’s identity/difference is correlated with the causal presence of hypostases.[13] Hypostasis is the last of Plotinian realities,[14] following the One and Intellect, predicated upon stability and movement.[15] This movement and stability – like Hegel’s Geist, or novelistic construction – indicates a development that is fathomed through conceptual history without ever being apprehended (outside of aesthetic-epiphanic insight, which is in turn methodological revelation). The moment of aesthetic intuition cannot be understood until the subject has reached a place of reflexive exile, temporarily removed from the preordained. This may well come about in a public setting – but it will not be understood by the general public. Moving from historical patterns, it latches onto the identity and difference of a Subject: suddenly Augustus, from the typological point of view, is split in half: Augustus is on the one hand a man well-known by generally unknown men. On the other, medieval theology renders him a typological casting in the divine, dramatic brutalities of Christological ebb and flow. For a moment no one is pointing fingers but rather existing. This aura of transcendence is the Plotinian intuition behind both the composition of a text and its continuation in the public sphere. Notice I did not say “second life”, or “after life”; rather, let us consider the text from a musical point of view: the words, just like a song with or without them itself, stays with us after it has been completed. The totality of the aesthetic object is no longer conceptually a dialectical matter of identity and difference but always has been. Even before Plotinus, it was on the way to Plotinus. There may well be traces in the pre-Socratics, or the Sophists for the matter;[16] but we cannot compare the Plotinian system to the Platonic or Aristotelian in the same way that we cannot compare the critic to the author or the musician to the listener. Pluralism discounts individuation, thereby cavalierly advocating an abstract utopianism; for we cannot say that the guitar-listener and the guitar-player approach the sound of a guitar the same way, as we cannot compare a marathon runner to one daydreaming of a treadmill.[17]

Method in Ontology:

Plotinus and the Apophaticism of Literary Theory

The manifestations of philosophic silence deployed by Plotinus often take the form of extended literary techniques; as his writing style typically flows along a series of problems and investigates different ways to approach them, reflecting the discussions from which the Enneads were in part drawn, isolated citations rarely do justice to what he is doing in a literary sense.[18]

What looks like politics, and imagines itself to be political, will one day unmask itself as a religious movement.[19]

As far as Aristotle was concerned, after untold efforts they found a subtle means of reconciling him not only with Plato, but with Plotinus.[20]

This lecture unpacks Andrews Cole’s survey of Plotinus in his Birth of Theory, expanding Cole’s Hegelian-theoretical reconsideration in a manner that engages contemporary theorists. While laying a vaster foundation for what it means for Plotinus to serve as the beginning to re-understanding what Theory is by unpacking Cole’s prolegomena, my project in a sense takes up where Foucault’s History of Sexuality halted; but this archaeology of return, and a complete rejection of identity-as-liberation, are the sole two – albeit key – Foucauldian aspects of my thesis. I, like Cole, set Plotinus first in a lineage of neglected philosophers who answer questions that hitherto appear – to critics – unanswerable. Plotinus signals the inception of a chain of philosophers culminating in Hegel which Theory, by neglecting, cannot otherwise expect to find an adequate language through which understand itself (or direction). That literary theorists have valued fragments of philosophical and historical texts has not resulted in a new way of understanding literature, but a way of understanding where an absolute poverty of historical and philosophical knowledge leads; and that in Plotinus we have ripostes that others claim are yet-to-come or unavailable until Kant or Heidegger. Plotinus is also neglected precisely because it is inconceivable for so many theorists to go back further than Kant, let alone to the third century; but this is not a matter of progress; it is a matter of dialectical anthropology. Were this project to take on the scope of a monograph or book-length study, there is a host of neglected gems that in fact gel harmoniously with Cole’s groundwork.[21] But for I we utilize a Dionysian negative-theological approach to see where Harman and Felski are mistaken, on the wrong track, and why a conceptive, Plotinian process of theory’s ‘birth’ is perhaps the right one: an epistemology of historical and philosophical immersion rather than sexual technologies and temporal modernities.

Ordo Ab Chao

Andrew Cole’s idea is that literary theory comes into its own with Hegel through a cycle beginning with Plotinus. In order to understand this, however, we must give Plotinus more than a couple of pages to understand the magnitude of Cole’s wager. I therefore now offer a critical account of Plotinus that is (understandably) lacking in Cole’s text, dissecting the great Neoplatonist through a dialogical critique of two contemporary scholars, Graham Harman and Rita Felski.[22] Harman and Felski have recently published theories for a literary-theoretical future that I find make for a lukewarm forecast peppered with occasional epigram; the intellectual aura[23] these writers claim to seek to recapture is completely absent, though not due to what they are looking for, but rather that the totality of their systematics is predicated upon, in both cases, faulty premises. It is a part of this logical absence that I believe is more comprehensible than either make it sound. Detective work guided by emotional politics is no longer the variation; rather, what is needed is the cold logic of historiographical investigation.

It is thus the pair’s narrow conceptual diagnostics that propel us to better understand the Plotinian remedy therein: either author calls for a utopian future in the name of a feigned anti-utopianism that is predicated on a critical underestimation of identity and difference. Harman is mistaken in his rejection of the former,[24] while Felski descends a crooked timber of Deleuzian misreading that ends in emotional appeal; the theoretical options Felski brings to the fore are thus cataclysmically insubstantial in their treatment, despite at least some substantive observations. Without the historical comprehension of identity and difference, though, neither these authors nor any other is going to develop a coherent systematic for authentic proceeding in literary studies. For a key, if subconscious, part of this “crisis” goes beyond technology and into an inauthenticity of jargon, and must confront the crisis of comfortability from a Sorelian point of view[25] on the way to a deconstruction of sexual technology that begins in classical antiquity. For this inauthenticity is itself predicated upon linguistic ambiguities that abound in theory’s ongoing cults of personality,[26] but it is not a sickness that is going to change by curricula or condemning conspiracy theorists. In fact, the sign that both Felski and Latour are even compelled to mention such dubious sources is neither humorous nor enlightening, but indicative of the course having run its gambit. It is by replacing the history and structure of identity and difference with utopian cunning and political religions that the mess began, and it is by comprehending the path from Plotinus to Hegel alone that any authentic sense can be made of novelistic discourse and its gatekeepers. Lastly, the reason this road has not yet been traveled is vast: first, there is the awkwardness in realizing that one’s literary tools do not end with either Heidegger or Kant.

Now of course, one may well do so; but in so doing, one renders obsolete one’s claim to epistemological clarity, as it is simply untrue that our understanding of literature begins with Kant. Hence, the circularity with which this greater conceptual process entails contains uncomfortable truths. One might consider Etienne Gilson’s observation that Augustine beat Descartes to everything Cartesian ideology rests upon by over a thousand years, by simply reading Montaigne in light of medievalism;[27] and that on the contemporaneous hand it is not a greater, progressing human freedom but Donald Trump that is the culmination of those “leftist politics” Harman mentions by name and Felski cannot afford to take into account.[28] What, then, can one do? The literary scholar may, I suggest, come to terms with the outrageous poverty Theory works with in its disregard for virtually all philosophical history while feigning a rigorous philosophical discourse with texts. The second that scholars are willing to stop acting surprised at that which is perfectly causal is the second that we are ready to confront Plotinus.

Let us hypothesize the briefest of exercises concerning the inclusiveness of literary-theoretical studies: imagine listing all the greatest philosophers, famous and not, canonical or despised, everyone and thing in between, who are alien to literary theoreticians. In no time one with even the scarcest philosophical knowledge would be concocting voluminous lists. But here is the key: it would not be a list for the sake of making a list of what’s-not-there; it is rather that Literary Theory claims to work with Literature, guided by Philosophy – all of it. And thus, all that could ever be adequate in tandem with this idea of critique would be a mainline of unlimited types of philosophical thought throughout the ages; a school that offers an intellectual inclusiveness whose flag it waves but cannot comprehend putting into any sort of practice. Indeed, were Theory to actualize itself it would end up birthing a glorious new school altogether. One does not enjoy doing surgery on it; but let us imagine, for a change, not putting another coat of paint upon a house that is collapsing. One needn’t seek another meager system, nor more of the State, nor newspaper paraphraseology: one needs an actual immersion in the hermeneutic facticity of rudimentary principles and hereditary figures in the genesis and structure of narratological discourse.

Hence, it is not a matter of actors, networks, tools; with the switch-blade immediacy of Heideggerian thrownness[29] one should pass over toolboxes, screwdrivers, sheds and theodolites alike, delving into the genealogy of medievalism, feudalism, from late antiquity into Hegel and the French Revolution, beginning at the beginning – with Plotinus.

Method in Ontology

In order to understand where the Plotinian idea of literary theory takes root we must first define two recurring themes for Plotinus: the One and the Intellectual Principle. This One stands for unity[30] and identity, and the Intellectual Principle for difference and plurality.[31] Straightaway we are working with a duality that differs from the archetypal[32] Athenian school of Platonic-Aristotelian ‘One and the many.’[33] Insofar as we acknowledge this tradition we consciously or subconsciously acknowledge another in Plotinus’s isolated case: that unlike Iamblichus of Syria,[34] the profundity of Plotinus’s thought has no direct correlation to Christianity’s triumph over Rome and the fused, or absorbed, paganistic schools of philosophy and theology therein; and unlike Proclus, effective oddity has not come into historically singular fruition as per an exorcised polymorphism of human consciousness.[35] Plotinus is to this extent in the world of classical antiquity but not quite of it; the imperceptible One is something other than God, or one of the gods. A more general unity and identity might call to mind concrete image, concept of laid bricks or a brick’s hue; but Plotinus here has in mind a One that is attainable through strict intellectual practice, structurally unified through its illuminating identity’s interior gifts for the philosopher-scholar. It is unlike the Ideas or Forms of Plato in that the One is both a process and a summit, the epitome of the Real.[36] The Intellectual Principle, then, is a hypostasis that transcends the soul; production begins in earnest at the advent of perfection-as-verb.[37]

The One, in another way, is for us twofold. We could take it up in Plotinian terms and tread a straight line of textual analysis; but this will be saved for part two. For now let us cut right to the chase and consider the twofold theological-negative realm to this Plotinian blueprint for theory, in that the One is the text, the Intellectual Principle its life upon entering the public square and thereafter opening itself up to difference (not-self) and plurality (critics), or differential pluralities (or further still, plurality through negative dialectics).[38] This line of thinking takes us beyond the point of a general sense of wonder and to the cusp of “the semantic reflection of emanation, and an overflow of meaning, transcendence, and immanence.”[39] At stake for Plotinus was certainly the relationship between author and text (Although Plotinus did originally teach oral – not written – lessons, with a vow of silence beset upon his pupils), emanating from the perceived and the transcendent. What becomes of this is, I believe, less a ‘secularization’ of literary-philosophical text, than a mutation of consciousness that is another textual aspect entirely, one of secular metaphysics not unlike what Fiction came in time to signify.

But the demanding stimulation of theory basking in the light of novelty could not help but burn out in mere decades so long as it had no idea of where it came from, and hence where it might end. By abandoning sanity, a monomaniacal obsession with conceptual progress that has neither an actual end-game nor a system of logical discourse cannot help but become a perpetual recourse to the new, or temporality, and hence dependent upon the insubstantial, was born. It is in other words beyond dosage and trapped within the operative, causal system of living off of what is destroying its structure, which is a theory without assemblage. Neither Artaud’s body without organs nor Zizek’s organs without bodies, but a school of architects who have never read Vitruvius due to a burning, irreligious evangelism that cannot justify – and never has – said historiographical and methodological poverty. Nietzsche at least paved the path for a man who both did LSD in Death Valley and died of AIDS and could still abhor the ‘Summer of Love’ and identarian glaucoma; this sort of thing, reality in philosophical and literary history, is no longer shocking when one is in pursuit of the One. Earlier still, Augustine will after Plotinus enter into the conception of theory in a way that, incidentally, leads to the erudition of Pseudo-Dionysian negative theology; and all of this runs in an illuminated, literary-theoretical line, unconsciously, albeit now evidently, within the sphere of Plotinian “ontological self-mastery.”[40] Whether or not the text entails a theological reception or thematic is for Plotinus irrelevant to its epistemological bent in being-of-itself in the dialectic of identity/difference. We might ask then, in the Plotinian spirit, does not monotheistic thought, from oath to being, entail the same – that is the Name, or Focus on the one hand, and its contemplative not-self is the other?

If it does, it must be noted that this Great Architect cannot be broken down into the Plotinian quadrangular cognition of multiplicity by means of successive impression. For the Enneads is a documentarian ascent in the religion of philosophy, an apotheosis of textual transmission and care for an interior narrative castle. As such, the concept differentiates from the totality of negative being; the future can only ever exist in terms of the past; for the not-arrived is nonexistent but when it arrives it both appears and culminates at once.

This force of proximity to the textual One of Plotinus is directly tied to the furnishing of intellect as the principle mission in life, itself the subconscious driving a literary theory done well. Platonic Forms are active but also actively disrupted; in apprehending the text one engages in the simultaneous practice of revelation and dissolving. Traditional measures of God do not converge with the quantitative aspects of Plotinian philosophizing, which is multiplied by impressions until it sees the One. This is a concept that will later be taken up by Bonaventure and Walter Hilton, among so many more. For Plotinus textual transmission is a step en route to multiplicity, wherein we perceive a shade of literary theory in that not only can the novel or poem no longer “speak for itself”, but in fact never could. Likewise, Bloom’s poetical mis-readings give way to Jamesonian dissolving of happenstance, which itself is tinted with a conscious Augustinian – and thus Neoplatonic – light. Plotinus therefore apprehends likeness and the literality of parallels,[41] discrediting receptive ambiguities of the text in taking the dialectical process to its limits, as the critic renders the author’s archival finality of an ending and reinjects the preordained object with a scaffolding of heuristic canons. It is for this reason Cole notes that the Plotinian-critical-theoretical strand took aim at authority before it became the authority by usurping the silent codes of well-kept oligarchical gates; it confronts that most imaginary of things, reality. Likewise, for Plotinus repetition and abstraction culminate in a dialogical subjectivity that does not lead to suspicion but rather is born in suspicion. For this reason, Cole affirms, a definitive turn away from suspicion will not suffice without diluting itself and thus disintegrating back into hermeneutic morality plays:

Examining Hegel’s words in the Plotinian frame we realize that both the tarrying and the looking convert the negative into being in that uniquely phenomenological way: there is delay so as to acquire vision, to see what is at first unseeable, to undergo a formative experience (Bildungs-Erfahrung) that, through repetition, sharpens perception and establishes the phenomenological investigation of appearances… what, in other words, logically mediates the immediacy between being and nothing works, as well and quite easily, at subsequent, more mediated, less aporetic moments. That ‘what’ is identity/difference.[42]

Plotinus and Hegel both employ abstract determination in a way that Plato cannot, as his commitments are neither theoretical nor historiographical enough,[43] whereas Claude Romano takes this idea and today calls for a return to Husserl, proclaiming the priority of a pre-linguistic order.[44] By setting their works within the dialectical vigor of theory and historiography, Plotinus and Hegel reap the fruits of refined typology, borne of an interrelated philosophical consciousness that seeks to move from shadow to reality as concerns the prospect of moving from pre-linguistic order to conceptual history – or the One, the Concept, or Absolute.[45] Predating the dialectical semiotics of Hegel’s systematic Phenomenology by fifteen-hundred years, Plotinus throughout the Enneads confronts delimitation and deconstruction by means of a referential openness which lends itself to a generation of meaning within the text-itself; today we might conceive of the most accurate novel that could ever be written simply having each word in quotation marks. For Plotinus, however, the term hoion (as it were) is utilized in such a sense in order to signify the line between symbolic language and terminological negativity.[46] Here the phenomenologist is also in business in returning to Plotinus regarding the question of language, as in our case the literary theorist is in a less synthetic place by moving backward, rather than forward, from the architects of suspicious hermeneutics (but especially Marx, for the sake of comprehending Marx – rather than Marxism).

Of all the different ways one may pursue, study, unravel the One, there is for Plotinus totality and infinity lurking in a concrete literary sense beneath the veneer of manifest subjectivity. It is no wonder Levinas’s Existence and Existents is rife with poetical memory: his prison camp wherewithal must move from the perceptual oblivion of eternity to a concern with moving from the referential to theoria; it does not, cannot matter that ideas seem to crystallize somewhere beyond the limits of thoughts; for this is itself a coincidence of opposites, or spatial dialectic, predicated upon the linear logic of delimited reference:[47]

Dialectic works with things as they are – existents, as it were, its materials – following a method by which it possesses, together with the statement about them, the objects themselves. Dialectic knows error and sophism only indirectly: discerning another’s error to be alien to the truths within itself, thus recognizing what is advanced as counter to the canon of truth.[48]  

For both Plotinus and, on the other hand Harman, the subject matter, or dialectic, is a unity of opposites. It is the text and its reception; the critic and the text; the object and the method; the group and the other from which all syntheses flow. But the Plotinian dialectic of Identity and Difference is also critical for Harman’s theory because of its concern with ontology, and the value-claim for its method. Plotinus considers dialectic “the most valuable part of philosophy”;[49] it strikes one as a means of adding more concrete form to Harman’s argument, by – if utilizing philosophical history at all, or as literature’s handmaiden – to go all the way. Philosophy is not the handmaiden of literary theory; but nor is dialectic its handmaiden. For prior to Cervantes there were about twelve centuries of prose that brushed against what would become known as literature, theory, and literary theory. There are moments in philosophy, theology, and medieval history writing where either of the genres appear substantive as literary genres. By offering in a moment an example of my and Cole’s method, laying a Hegelian groundwork that looks backward in order to shine a foregoing light on otherwise apparently cloudy, foggy terrain in what theory is, we can seek further whether or not stopping at Kant is predicated upon logically faulty premises. Despite wealth of knowledge and depth of probity, are such readings themselves in fact chronologically and typologically limited?

My Plotinian answer to all this talk of actors, tools, guerillas, networks, and boxes while trying to ‘understand’ ‘where’ theory is ‘going’ is precisely concerned with what Cole refers to as the “wholesale omission of the great middle of intellectual history.”[50] Plotinus looks ahead to the Middle Ages, that place where today’s literary scholar ought to look lest permanent – and needless – bewilderment reign, while Hegel looks back at Plotinus. For either writer, in the spirit of literature and its theory, entity is determinate, containing difference within itself; it does so by the essence of contradiction as the generative essential.[51] Elusiveness is revealed as a matter of lacking dialectical proximity, the force field preventing a move from text to action is revealed empirically subjective and subjectively empirical, connotating the death drive as linguistic life in the spirit. Plotinus moves from Aristotle’s contained probity[52] and ornamental rhetoric to ontology, metaphysics, and cosmology. We might consider a fitting analogy in that everyone in Ireland who read Jonathan Swift understood his maniacal genius at once. But he could not spawn disciples, because of his rich, inimitable corpus. Such is the stature hoisted upon the theoretician: a trickle-down pondering.

The Handmaiden’s Tale

That which cannot be imitated signals the further mutation of collective consciousness and thus collective memory, which then gives way to further components,[53] one of them being an aspect of Harman’s article, when we read that “Despite what Derrida thinks, the problem is not self-presence, otherwise known as ‘identity.’ Instead, the problem is the assumption that such self-presence can be converted adequately into a form of presence for something else.”[54] The glaring issue here is that to say that our problem (which is Derrida’s), or identity, is not is to miscalculate the genesis and structures of literature, where form and presences for-the-other are the intrinsic measures of austerity whereby the tradition is cultivated and blossoms, from Athens to the desert, from the monastery to the university, to the thinning screens and down into the pocket. The methodology that took on this structure was born in the exilic desert, where each text is a disruptive spark emanating from the machinic-eternal return, as Sells, writing on Plotinus, makes clear: “For Plotinus, discursive reason reflects alienated consciousness; and this unfolds in the movement of nous to theoria. Plotinus moves from the noetic identity of subject and predicate, being and act into a fusion identity.”[55]

For Plotinus, the density of that which is known cannot compare to the negative theology of nothingness in light of the One as movement, intellect, and being. The mustards seeds of criticism are with us today, remain with the laity, and sprout from a similar place of bafflement: “How did she write that?” “What was going on in Proust’s mind?” But like Plotinian dialectic, even were we to construct a formulaic that seems to entail a ready-made kit for poetical and novelistic discourse, would remain amidst the shadows and specters of Plato and Marx. If one is to dive into a domain that is thus far untapped in terms of theoretical letters, the outcome should entail not an eclipsing of Plato or Marx; rather, a ferociously quenched thirst as concerns drinking from such water in a hitherto scorched exodus is our Plotinian modus operandi. Dialectical relations now acquire the very measure of taking the known to a level that seeks no longer to occasionally recall or acknowledge but to novelize its historical aura:[56] such is the Plotinian school of narratological being and non-being, or the novelistic undertaking of Dasein, which “attempts to think across the void of non-being and being and seeks to conceptualize the transition from the former to the latter without giving up and dismissing the problem.”[57] His project is to comprehend, in a word, how nothing begets something. Of course, even our most well-developed medical language will still mask that Aurelian reality of conception; but Plotinus is uninterested in that which is readily knowable, even if it pertains the generative principle and all its shrouded masks in time. His proto-existential prosody is thus parallel to the theorist’s: one knows, technically, how a text was written: it likely involved at least a hand, a grass blade, and a leaf. We also know what most likely transpired between one’s parents in order for one to come into concept-being. But this is all surface-level in light of the One, which invites a permanent intellectual rigor that is the chiseling down and refining concept-being and concept-time.

But for Cole, Plotinus’s identity and difference come second to hypostases.[58] Movement and stability – like Hegel’s Geist, or novelistic construction – indicates a development that is fathomed through conceptual history without ever being apprehended (outside of aesthetic-epiphanic insight, which is in turn methodological revelation). The moment of aesthetic intuition cannot be understood until the subject has reached a place of reflexive exile, temporarily removed from the preordained. This may well come about in a public setting – but it will not be understood by the general public. Moving from historical patterns, it latches onto the identity and difference of a Subject: suddenly Augustus, from the typological point of view, is split in half: Augustus is on the one hand a man well-known by generally unknown men. On the other, medieval theology renders him a typological casting in the divine, dramatic brutalities of Christological ebb and flow. For a moment no one is pointing fingers but rather existing. This aura of transcendence is the Plotinian intuition behind both the composition of a text and its continuation in the public sphere. Notice I did not say “second life”, or “after life”; rather, let us consider the text from a musical point of view: the words, just like a song with or without them itself, stays with us after it has been completed. The totality of the aesthetic object is no longer conceptually a dialectical matter of identity and difference, but has always been; for even before Plotinus, it was on the way to Plotinus. There may well be traces in the pre-Socratics, or the Sophists for the matter; but we cannot compare the Plotinian system to the Platonic or Aristotelian in the same way that we cannot compare the critic to the author or the musician to the listener. Pluralism discounts individuation, thereby cavalierly advocating an abstract utopianism; for we cannot say that the guitar-listener and the guitar-player approach the sound of a guitar the same way, as we cannot compare a marathon runner to one daydreaming of a treadmill.[59]

Plotinus’s pre-formulaic to the later Hegelian Absolute Concept is thus abstraction for-itself, in order to eclipse itself by rendering the reader a living system designed to successfully move narratological structure to the next level, engage the reader in an enlightenment for-himself without grander, delusive hopes, and thus invariably eclipse dialectical reason:

Thought brings unity to the dissimilar similars or, if one can bear that tautology, thought is the unity in which dissimilar similars are thought. What unifies all of these oppositions is the soul, but, as we see with Hegel’s absolute, these contradictions never disappear and remain in place as the mystic, the phenomenological observer, rangers from difference to difference.[60]

It is furthermore worth noting that this Heideggerian business of “dissimilar similarities” is taken from Meister Eckhart, who took it from Pseudo-Dionysius, who is for Cole next in the Plotinian line of negative theology and dialogical critique on the way to Theory. Again, I make note of this because one who is proclaiming that our issue begins with Heidegger is in a position far different from that of coming to a collective sense of excitement, anticipatory revelation, the living mythic form that cultural beginnings take on. Were it this way, we could entertain the idea of a Kantian prolegomena on the way to Heidegger who would in turn help us form Felski’s propaedeutic, hoist up three or four intellectual figures as politicized sentinels, and proceed. But the fact that the opposite is the case is all but Koselleckian,[61] which indeed Felski agrees upon.

We might note, for instance, that in Hegelian philosophy culmination is the byproduct of a progressive unfolding rather than situational incidentality, or cumulative rather than abrupt. But what is curious, as Halfwassen notes,[62] is not just the Plotinian parallels in Hegelian terminology, but the fact that Hegel perpetually turns to the ancients in laying the groundwork for his positive eschatology; and in this sense Hegel’s task is similar to ours.[63] This is a matter of at last recognizing the theoretical current’s inability to come to concrete terms with first some things, and then anything(s)-in-itself, as it was for Hegel’s contemporaries’ ill-fated entanglement with rationalistic and transcendental-critical discourse comingled with an inability to return to metaphysical apprehensions of totality and infinity.[64] He turned to Plotinus – as do we, in the spirit of Cole’s Hegel – because “Plotinus was the first to comprehend nous as the fulfillment and the encompassing totality of Being.”[65]

Plotinus as a brilliant prefiguration of Hegelian metaphysics; but also, suggests Halfwassen, an alternative. For both Hegel and Plotinus, for instance,

Thought is not the act of a subject that initially exists only for itself, which relates to an object that is separated from it and merely stands in opposition to it, so that it must remain inconceivable how it can relate to itself in this relation. Such a view drawn from the model of sense-perception remains fundamentally inappropriate for the self-relational Thought. Pure Thought does not originally orient itself towards a separate object, but rather towards the unity of noetic Being. This is the One-Being, which in its self-unfolding returns to itself and which in itself already is thinking self-relation. Thought, for that reason, recognizes itself as Thought in the grasping of the unity of Ideas – i.e. it recognizes itself as pure Thought of itself. Nous does not stand in opposition to the Ideas, then, as a subject which is different from them, but rather it is identical with the idea-filled Being as the all-unity meditating itself to itself.[66]

For Plotinus the Intellect is not the Absolute in that it is not the One which is beyond the limits of thought, as “Plotinus knows that the self-relation of Thought in ineluctable to all thinking; consequently even in thinking the Absolute it cannot be objectively circumvented”; they meet on the Intellect and part on the Absolute, their “ultimate horizon of unity discovered precisely in the self-relation of Thought.”[67]

The Well-Spun Broken Record: Theory of Purgatorial Holzwege

It could very well be argued that criticism is indeed temporarily hopeless. But I, and I believe Plotinus, would argue that there is a more damning factor than the poverty of spirit within academic culture itself; and it is that were academic texts of or on literary theory (or cultural theory for that matter) to vanish overnight, readers and beings more generally would suddenly find themselves nearer to the prospect of an open theoretical discourse. That what is needed now is an empirical wave of authentic literary-fictional genius to sweep out decades of stale, pseudo-political ideas; Plotinus did this in inviting anyone to his discourses treating them as equals (Benedict would mirror this in time, hence laying the groundwork for monastic, and thus academic culture). Nancy cites Diderot to this effect, “that can be read as the program of Kantianism: ‘When does one see the birth of critics and grammarians? Just after the century of divine productions and genius.’ The critical grammarian poses the question of the production of the oeuvre to come: he is attached to the (literary) work as if to something he himself has lost.”[68] Taken from this point of view, it is fitting that Harman moves from Kant forward,[69] to Heidegger as it were, although a shame that he does not utilize the most fitting Heideggerian term for his ideas in Holzwege, or, “ways that lead nowhere.”

I now turn to three interrelated excerpts from Graham Harman’s “The Well-Wrought Broken Hammer: Object-Oriented Literary Criticism”: “It is my view that philosophy should not be the handmaiden of any other discipline, whether it be theology, leftist politics, or brain science… Often it is better to be surprised by what others do with our work, rather than command those adaptations like a bossy partygoer selecting the music in all other homes.[70] If philosophy is the handmaiden of literary theory, we must first unpack how this has come to pass, and this is rather simple: Homer begets Aristotle, rendering philosophy something of, as Gomez-Davila observed,[71] a literary genre. At the same time I actually agree with Harman, especially on the grounds of legitimate aesthetic theory succumbing to politics, the latter of which are at this point in time nothing more than incessant, technologically-sexualized propaganda that persons bear with them in their pockets around the clock.

But while the idea that brain surgeons have set a leash upon philosophy is more imagistic rhetoricity than anything else, it does strike one as odd that Harman is upset with theology’s intermingling with philosophy. Do not the two overlap par-excellence, historically and conceptually? Our two great poles of justification are that there is either meaning (God) or no meaning (no God). It is of course regularly recycled that there is plenty of meaning without God; but from the Plotinian point of view this is just untrue, and from the logical point of view to expect a philosophy without theology nearby is equally absurd. We are seeking not dissolvement or moving from theological geography to mere objects. What we as dialecticians are seeking is the heuristic structure of unbalanced balance, codified in linguistic symbology and rectified in the sound and vision of imaginative structure. Dostoevsky also holds court in this regard, between the twin pillars of anthropology and historiography: that without God, anything goes. This is true, but not true enough; for it would seem that with or without a Great Architect chaos reigns. The object of literal warring violence recedes for a moment in time; and therein psychological havoc begins; Plotinus, Hegel, literature, the theory of literature see this and also see right through into the dialogical and dialogical arena that is a lightness in the gravity of time, or text-being, being-texts, words made flesh.

It is therefore presciently symbolic that Harman sees philosophy as a handmaiden in these three realms and yet decides to plunge right in, like a child allergic to chroline en route to the pool. It is furthermore reminiscent of Deleuze and Guatarri in their “Postulates of Linguistics” suggesting doses rather than totality, this then reminiscent of Plotinian observations on intellectual proximity and illumination: “Knowledge is a kind of longing for the absent, and like the discovery made by a seeker. But that which is absolutely different remains itself by itself, and seeks nothing about itself; but that which explicates itself must be many.”[72] Doses of insight toward a reckoning of static literary studies thus, preliminarily, long for what is absent. Just what is absent will depend upon whomsoever one asks. But the nucleus of such collective replies would entail the desired, and it would be desired not because it is past but because it is good. Let us then consider the Thomistic aesthetic: that which being seen, pleases; such is the good. One seeks this. But an object or objects cannot however seek themselves and remain by themselves in the opposite of consciousness just as a seaman’s monkey island is well and good, but one does not care to draw attention to it when its ship’s floor has had holes shot out all through it.

This situational element of Harman’s argument furthermore suffers from his initial call for ideological segregation instantaneously rendered null by the author’s thereafter-admission of regularly collaborating with other genres, and then proceeding to do so in the article. By considering collaborative inquiry as philosophical handmaindenry, Harman loses sight of a prospective modus operandi on the minds of at least some literary-theoretical practitioners, which is the aforementioned concept of philosophy as a literary genre. His bringing the founder of phenomenology into the Kantian mix and alluding to the root of all theoretical activity but refraining from explaining just why seems to one a weak ambiguity that makes sense if we consider that dialectics is at the Plotinian heart of literary theory, and not objects; namely, again, the dialectic of identity and difference.

The very meditation of critique has life breathed into it at the sign of difference. This is the negation and totality of signification: that difference gives way to the aforementioned Jamesonian prospect of injecting a little more hermeneutic Gnosticism into Bloom’s vision of canonical misreading. The critic who hoists a strained flag while scoffing at the metaphysical advocate raises a point, but not the one that one thinks: rather than display an eclipse of ghosted binaries one is at last announcing to the world one’s absolute poverty of the structure of historical knowledge. One is photographing oneself at the voting booth with a toothy smile, later wondering why nothing ever changes, doubting everything except one’s method while the Marx of “Estranged Labour” is fuming in his casket. But the image of self-restraint and illusory barbarisms are more according to Proclus palate, and we will not join Cole in moving from Plotinus to Proclus. Let us therefore at least re-echo his prescient remarks in terms of comprehending Theory, in moving from Plotinus, “who effectively moves dialectic from rhetoric, logic, and dialogue to ontology, metaphysics, cosmology, and theology, to Proclus who systematizes dialectic of this precise sort and codifies the centrality of identity/difference to dialectic.”[73] We must render unto dogma’s what is dogma’s, theory’s unto theory’s: the prolegomena is also the postscript: “Estranged Labor” to Hegel, and backward to Plotinus. Let the scholars embark on such a critique of technological feudalism, political religion, manufactured subculture, and Numerical Beings in this light: here you will at last have the authentic way forward.

Forward into Authenticity and Theophany

Eric D. Perl takes a step forward in the dialectical history of literarily mystical narrative, moving – as does Cole, albeit briefly – to Pseudo-Dionysius. Taking Pseudo-Dionysius into account by means of a Hegelian reflection, Perl writes that “Self-consciousness epitomizes identity/difference because it recalls the very ancient problem of being and not-being to which Plotinus and those after him applied these logical terms to good effect: as Hegel puts it, self-consciousness is ‘aware that it at once is, and is not, another consciousness.’”[74] Whereas Plotinus lays a linguistic groundwork with identity and difference, Hegel engages opposed consciousnesses in either recognition of the other or in lifeless separation, or indifference (Gleichgultigkeit). This “vanishing magnitude” is in concrete correlation with the technological history of letters, and Benjaminian isolation: from the monastic blossoms of heaven and ashes of hell to feudalism, vice-versa, to unending religious slaughter and industrial acceleration, to the age of psychological genocide and Numerical Beings, the literary cognition that traverses through this world-spirit is relegated by author and not-author, artist and not-artist, composer and listener. But in this transformative repetition difference-itself is bound to linger, broken up by confrontation with the recurring Kantian prospect of worm-eaten dogma that is most recently, and persistently, identity in object-accumulation; or as Cole puts it, “the definition of identity in possession”,[75] and the prescient treasure trove of re-foundational prospects present within the corpus of Hegelian feudalism[76] that has its genesis and structure in Plotinian methodologies:

Plotinus understood what I think is a fundamental point for theory – namely, he knew that his dialectical expositions required a particular kind of prose that enables the very thought of figures as concepts, concepts as figures. In this respect, as we will see, Plotinus both anticipates Hegel’s own phenomenological style and, more importantly, supplies us with a fresh perspective on what makes anti-dialectical philosophies, such as we find in Deleuze and Guatarri, dialectical in an elementary way.[77]

If we return to reconsider now Harman’s Heideggerian musings we again find fractals of sub-argumentation that, like his thesis, would be less questionable had they a formal understanding of Hegel engrained therein. For Harman’s discrepancies entailing specific, recent aspects of a dialogical issues in fact go back much further than nineteenth or twentieth-century schools of thought, or even Kant for that matter. It is a historiographical process that has been taken to Hegel by Habib and Nuzzo, but most critically by Andrew Cole in his Birth of Theory, where Cole locates literary theory’s foundation or culmination with Hegel; but begins the process with Plotinus. Between Hegel and Plotinus there is a wealth of literary dialectical history; but for the time being I would like to question if the issues considered in our readings go back farther than is assumed, or laid out; and if so, that it is so seldom assumed because novelistic discourse did not become itself until the time of Cervantes that we believe the dialectical process of identity and difference that is literary theory began with what is called fiction. Consider what Plotinus has to say in the third century in conjunction with what Harman situates no later than Kant, perhaps substituting ‘existents’ for ‘tools’:

Dialectic works with things as they are – existents, as it were, its materials – following a method by which it possesses, together with the statement about them, the objects themselves. Dialectic knows error and sophism only indirectly: discerning another’s error to be alien to the truths within itself, thus recognizing what is advanced as counter to the canon of truth.[78]

We must therefore reconceptualize what Harman cannot manage, which is an authentic severance from the proclaimed vanity-of-vanity; and again, Plotinus works perfectly as our guide in this literarily-philosophical matter. Such a schematic is laid out in John Cooper’s Pursuits of Wisdom, which parallels between the critic’s task and Plotinus’s idea(s); how Plotinus moves from Plato; how Plotinus moves from the stoics; how, hence, his dialectical departure from either traditional School allows him to conceptualize the intellectual self at a distance that parallels that which is necessary in order to engage in theory; Schopenhauer example applied to the theorist: the realm of all talk and exchange as opposed to living and inventing – but further, the hostile complementariness that is akin warring factions that beget peace time, or the chaos of Forms inherent in a formulating work of art en route to the handed-over product of-itself; Plotinus does not linger on the differences with Aristotle and Socrates but transcends them:

Our life, Plotinus thinks, lies exclusively in activities of pure intellectual thinking that we, all of us, engage in all the time, most of us without even realizing it; our task is to become as self-conscious as possible of this activity, and to constantly focus our minds upon it (something we can, in principle, do even while, qua embodied animals, living an embodied life… That, for Plotinus, is the human good and human happiness. Philosophy’s task – one that only philosophy can perform – is to make us truly alive, and to keep us alive, in that self-consciously intellectual way.[79]

But naturally the literary artist sees through the totality of this veneer while sympathizing with its vitality. For even the closest contact to a revolutionary insight remains slated for historical demolition whilst in the limbo of signification, and otherwise composed in a torturous prose that persons do not have the time for (and not because they are unintelligent, but because they must survive). Harman and Felski fail to realize the linguistic subjectivity that the literary tradition makes its berated subject. This is why, I believe, Felski’s conclusion concerning emotional approaches to seminars is both deflating and inevitable: she ends where she begins, in the realm conceptual progression, “digging for buried truths.”[80] But – whose truths? For this concept, while fine in passing, entails ‘truths’ that even the author of a text does not know. If its illogical reality is part of a jest, it is precisely this sort of non-humor that ages unwell, narcotized by irony. Buried truth certainly concerns all of the non-critic, or non-scholar, but also critics and scholars; if one writes a book, and another says that “Author reveals in this symbol a prescient truth concerning the nature of technological transformation of the collective conscious”, but the author was in fact writing about a literal doorbell, i.e. “I recall writing that. It is a doorbell; the character was at the other character’s doorstep, and it seemed like the next logical move was to ring the like doorbell. That this doorbell is also a surveillance camera is so because I simply know people who have such a thing, and this character does too.” Felski explicates that the problem is one of perception. Plotinus suffered from this as well.[81] Her concerns, like Harman’s, are not ontological; they are institutional.[82]

We can laugh off the notion of a human soul; yet from even the Heideggerian point of view this glorification of raw materials is nothing more than the sputtering end of a productionist metaphysics. One does not need to elevate objects or matter in order to replenish a theory of letters; one rather needs to comprehend the recurring ambiguity of this process that is its hermeneutic and etymological blueprint. Thus while Plotinus broke away from the tradition of cyclical commentary that continues to this day, he was able to retain a dialectical focus on the linguistic and conceptual history of the soul of souls, the text-soul and concept-thinking soul, or becoming-soul of a soul’s innermost soul, so that one – student, reader, thinker, writer – might “center upon the great triad of basic Substances postulated by Platonist metaphysical theory (they are Platonism’s divine Trinity, rival to the Christian one): the One, Intellect, and Soul.”[83] Thus, in Deleuze, Benjamin, Latour, and Felski we see this everlasting reference to detective work; but never is the precise sort of detective undergone, which I believe is threefold: historiographical, theological, and philosophical. If the conceptual detective work is not rigorously engaged in either of these three foundational movements in the dialectic of novelistic discourse, the surface-level connotation inherent in the recycled analogy goes beyond obvious and into the realm of makeshift ambiguity. Concrete instances, such as Wittgenstein’s leisure reading and Jameson’s book on Raymond Chandler, offer an actually stimulating insight into the realm of dialogical detectiveness; but otherwise the analogy must in time appear little more delusive, e.g. persons convinced they are engaged in detective work when the outcome of said work is predetermined, and thus titular illogical in its proximity to a dissatisfying byproduct of the contemporaneous self, or Numerical Being’s, inability to probe Mystery rather than mystery, in the realm of Platonic Forms that is, ultimately, the text. It is therefore no coincidence that the theorists who consider themselves engaged in detective work are a far cry from the recaptured aura of Cole’s Birth of Theory, that line traced backward from Hegel to Plotinus. This neglect of Plotinian, or Platonic principles, is less a rejection of ancient philosophy than it is the nucleus f literary cognition. For let us recall that “Platonists claim that the natures themselves are not there to be learned about by any use, however extensive and effective, of our senses and memories and making projections from the past to the future, from data we might collect about things or properties of those natures.”[84]

The coming and going of that-which-constitutes converging with that-which-destroys is for Plotinus the object of conceptual history.[85] Linguistic subjectivity, again, is enhanced by survival instincts in order to diagnose pro and contra as pertains to flux and debris, or tier and reality. But to end at human investment is to end at the beginning and is the object of literary theory at its worst, or a perfect combination of predictability and a confederacy of charlatans. The world situation (in the Hegelian or Shakespearian sense world-spirit, or world-stage) must recognize itself as a perceptual totality rather than totality, a skylight far beneath the sky. For if there was nothing substantive to theory’s subject matter, what worked for Doblin or Proust would suffuse the supermarket fantasias of King and Koontz. There would be academic philosophy alone rather than academic philosophy beneath philosophy-itself (Magee #), and the school of theory would organically move from Derrida and Joyce to Actor Network Theory and the Twilight series. And it is within the very linguistic assumptions that prevent this from happening that Plotinus was himself concerned with, vindicating ontological illumination within having to worry what was coming next or whether his method was sufficient, or how the body (text) can possess a soul (literary cognition) that takes on bodily aspects (Bloomsday):

Plotinus’s ingenious solution is to suppose that in animating human beings (as well as other animals) Soul provides a special sort of “illumination” in their bodies (Plotinus constantly expresses his views here in heavily metaphorical language). Soul casts a certain “image” of itself (another metaphor) into the bodies of these living things. It is this image or illumination in the body which, taken together with the body, constitutes it as a “living being” (ζῷον). This image is animal consciousness (including perceptual and desiring and emotional consciousness). The living being itself, constituted by this consciousness in that body, possesses the powers of sensation, physical desire, and emotional reaction, all of which have both bodily and conscious components, and it does so because of the soul-image animating and “illuminating” it, and so, making it conscious. The point we need to notice is that Plotinus, by attributing the powers of sense perception and sensory memory, bodily desire, and emotion to this soul-image, can avoid having to think of Soul itself as directly providing or ground these activities, ones that are so evidently alien, and contrary, to its own nature. Soul itself, and therefore all particular souls, being purely spiritual, thinking, “intelligible” entities could not possibly be “affected” by anything bodily, as this soul-image is, when it activates all these powers. However, it is not difficult to conceive of an image of Soul, just because as an “image” it is darker and more obscure, and somewhat deformed, as something mingled in precisely such ways with the body that it animates. We can suppose (even if we do not fully understand it) that this image can make us conscious with these sorts of bodily consciousness.[86]

Perhaps a second key to understanding the poverty of theoretical criticism is expounded in another Plotinian note by Cooper, in that, “One can engage fully and successfully in those operations experimentation, theory construction, medical and atomic-physical research) without thinking or knowing anything about the natures of things (in the sense in which a nature is, on Platonist theory, something abstract and completely nonbodily).”[87] We see here that Latour and Felski’s uncoincidental notes on conspiracy theorists begin to take form in a new light. Latour is against conspiracy theorists not because of their methodology, but because it is the same method of inquiry as his. Felski remarks the same thing. Such is, in a word, the unspeakable crisis of our times: that we do not so much authentically lament historical tragedies but rather the fact that the subjugated remained so even in contemporaneous essence, and that we cannot admit that we are not against evil but rather that we cannot yet inflict it ourselves by willpower of digitality and euphemism alone.[88] The former slave loses his chains but must acquire a call to absolute mental enslavement, and in this poetical-linguistic regard Adorno was wrong: it is not inhuman to write poetry after death camps; no, what is inhuman is a culture whereby the word “Nazi” becomes so common it loses its value, hence its life, and thus is given the subterranean sphere to regroup. Likewise, collective linguistic disintegration reveals that its society’s plebeian chanters would in fact love nothing more than a regime of their own beliefs, becoming that which they claim to despise, and this adds fuel tothe unsung fire that is conservative distrust of such Orwellian groupthink. In half a century theoretical liberalism has culminated not in a joyous, Summer of the Love-of-the-soul, but its utopian freedom has actually stayed well put in that the etymology of utopia takes us to literally nothing.

Peripatetic Rocks

Such are the stakes today including when Felski or Harman the problem is neither the country, what is called literature, nor theory; but rather that neither would be willing to ever move beyond specifically set boundaries in their lamentations for the precise reason that purgatory is for Dante never rendered an infernal – or paradisal – turn. What is at stake in this purgatorial moment is not purposely getting in trouble or offending persons, as Auerbach’s poet of the secular world did not condemn persons to purgatory for the sake of shock-value; what is at stake is the actualization of destroying the sphere of intellectual stagnation in order to eclipse at the same time its opposite,  destruction,[89] but for the sake of a return to aesthetic-anarchical pilgrimage. For the limit of critique is the hermeneutic facticity of itself: that its adherents are too comfortable to shake things up (I find this absolutely pragmatic, as the end of this talk will make clear). That there is, in the end, nothing around the corner, despite the daily foreboding and promise of revolution on one hand and liberation on the other, neither of which arrive. We lift our eyes from Plotinus and Hegel and find Harman’s toolbox is charming but offers nothing beyond lukewarm of theories of a fictionality that is out of his league. He thus pales in comparison to his task at hand not by virtue of working in a sense akin to a hypothetical light-hearted ancestor of Heidegger and Kant, but by even bothering to announce he is working from this mutual shadow; Kant and Heidegger are too close to the present in their working in a post-Swiftian framework, and furthermore have in the last analysis nothing new to tell us about the Homeric tradition in which philosophy is conceived. Kant and Heidegger were not there for the earliest stages of theory and work in a way whereby literality is incidental; Kant’s Critique of Judgment is a great book, but fragments say nothing to us about our technological feudalism, manufactured subcultures, and the linguistic subjectivity of Numerical Being.[90] How, then, could a Plotinus possibly do so?

Having considered the article and text in a Plotinian light, let us conclude with the answer to this question, which simultaneously considers why either of the contemporary theories or theory we have weighed and found wanting: were either Harman’s article or Felski’s book to vanish tomorrow literary cognition would go on unchanged. This is not a harsh judgement on either writer, in whom I see traces of good ideas. But until they understand, like Cole, that identity and difference takes us backward as the only, invaluable way forward, nothing can possibly bear the brunt of spectacular technological assault we now experience around the clock. This is not linguistic trickery: the historiography of dialectical letters is single chance one has to maximize the impact of a redeemed studies of literature and the cognition of the literary work of art.

An important topic does not beget an important text; temporality does not indicate illumination but fragmentary channels. I do not, like the 1950s Chicago School Aristotelians, claim that we must go back to one author in order to proceed; rather, I say that Theory’s usual suspects are less than a fraction of philosophy-altogether. One must turn to Plotinus if one is going to comprehend the conceptual history of theoretical letters; and while I advocate staying there for a sufficient amount of time, it is for the greater sake of climbing the ladder of ascent to Hegel, in whom we can seriously begin to fathom the ontological depths of letters and their future. The rest is circular verbiage in so far as variations on the same themes are concerned, rather than an epistemology of the Concept; we are trapped in the Agambenian pre-god stage of mere language, or incidental action-names.[91] For “if we ask what we, the subjects of our consciousness – that is, the object of our self-consciousness – in fact are (what this thing is that is active in our being consciousness of ourselves being conscious of objects), Plotinus’s answer is that it is our intellect. Indeed, it is because of and from out intellect, through its “image”, that we have the rest of our consciousness, what he calls “lower” consciousness, at all.”[92] Lower indeed.

I near the end of this Plotinian wager with an analogy. In his Creation and Anarchy, Agamben theatrically and haughtily dismisses the Petrarchan moment as a cultural memory of midframe faith in aesthetic development that begets what shall in time become the Kantian realm,[93] disregarding its implosive conceptualization of time and imaginative space, heuristically transmitted into the poetics of Petrarchan simultaneity and temporality.[94] Agamben here is so far off the mark that one wonders if this is an egregious translational blunder; if the same writer with insights coming through on each preceding and descending page could in truth fly from historiographical erudition when it comes to Petrarch’s Augustinian moment and what it signals to forthcoming modes of insight, it is a testament to basketed eggs. One coming from the school of Dantean-poetical reflexology wonders if Agamben is flippant. Here, however, is the thing: were we to stick to the old method, I would hypothesize for some pages why Agamben is wrong, what it means to his argument, and perhaps reference an acclaimed article that establishes the Petrarchan moment and works out the kinks of indexical differentiation into something of a canonical scholarly note. But I have advocated in these pages on behalf of a new method that is so radical it is the stuff of kitchen table discourse: working through Andrew Cole’s thesis on the Hegelian foundations of literary theory and going right to the beginning, or to the ever-present origin. And thus in keeping with this spirit while concluding our talk on Plotinus with a contemporary critique of Agamben’s Petrarch, I present to the reader a philosopher off of the beaten track, in Jean Gebser, enclosed as an Appendix. Gebser is himself fond of Plotinus, and hitherto completely neglected by the school of literary theory. When we have compared Agamben’s abrupt dismissal with Gebser’s conceptual erudition, we will begin to better understand the Plotinian totality and infinity of the dialectical-dialogical One through historiography, en route to Hegel’s Geist.

For many moons persons have said, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ But now it is broke, and one must fix it. It does not matter whether Harman’s Heideggerian toolbox suffices or if Felski has another rhetorical device about conspiracy theorists. What matters is that the object-oriented venture coincides with the worn-out conspiratorial jab: both of these epistemological networks necessitate a poverty of invention whose condemned foundation incubates within a manufactured subculture void of literary or philosophical invention. Like Ashbery’s cathedral, these are not ways forward but ideas that are slated for demolition. Either one must undergo an archaeology of the toolbox if one or the other is to comprehend legitimate technologies of critique. The text is desirable because it is identical with reading, and reading is loved because it is identity and difference within the rhizomatic sphere of mute perception, both microscopic and a little larger than the entire universe. The scholar possesses a thing that pleases when one is immersed in the totality of immersion and resurrection of the One; then we can understand, like Cole, why wisdom was born not in Rome but on her scorched, heinous, abhorred outskirts, by they who rejected everything and thereby gained all, whereby to know literature is to know oneself, as the above is below, and the past is what transpires next, the event on the way Dasein, that “in self-ignorance, we are ugly.”

There is also, in theory, the Plotinian specter of literarily leading by philosophical-dialogical example.

Appendix I

Concept of the Concept: Plotinian-Deleuzian Pedagogy for the Question of Digitality and Being-Death

I once saw a book in which it was maintained that

embryos look upon birth much as we do upon death

Could any death be as horrible as birth?[95]

Samuel Butler

            If the process of life has long enabled age to see with severe clarity the folly of younger generations, today one must look down from technological heights with excruciating perturbation. It appears that all of a sudden there is no time to concentrate, or that – rather – the means of our daily lives (the sexual technology Foucault noted) lend themselves to the annihilation of concentration, which is the lifeblood of aesthetic, intellectual fulfillment. This is the place of understanding one must come from – with or without mercy – in understanding today the younger generation’s automated willingness to breeze over psychanalysis and psychological schools more generally; for today there is a pill for everything, and whether or not one is on pills a good deal of that which was once deemed taboo is today either expected, accepted, or enforced. But I would like to make a twofold point here in the name of psychoanalytic understanding from an outsider’s point of view: first, that if we are ever going to understand the totality of psychoanalytic practice as an historical event in letters we must be willing to see its ecclesiastical aspects, both linguistic, confessional, complicatedly self-evident and liberating; second, this essence is found in the way that one can return to Lacan in a sense that his descendants seem to miss the mark on. Touching on the theme of the above paper, I would say that this is more than the-original-as-authentic; for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest may well be a better film than Kesey’s novel; and works on Kant may well be more desirable than the man’s books themselves. I mention this because the reader who is perhaps looking for a new method in proceeding who is reading Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition may well hit a speed bump when the author veers into Freud. But we must understand Freud less as a fraud[96] or an unread, dissolving household name, but as a key figure in the secular priestly tradition. We must understand psychoanalysis as a revolutionary expansion upon the ecclesiastical office, one that was willing to confront essences that perhaps Scripture never accounted for (One who truly knows despair shall know it by undergoing crises for which even the Bible itself has nothing to say). It is at this point that we can better understand the potentiality in a return to the earliest centuries of formulating-Christian thought, Gnostic texts, and of course, Plotinus; for Plotinus is a secular figure and philosophical master in whom we in addition to literary-dialectical traces find ourselves “the other side” of the Faith. For it is true, indeed, that the original is inimitable insofar as it is itself; but consider how seldom one reading Freud’s chapter in Interpretation where Hartmann is mentioned,[97] who never thought to go and retrieve that 800-page treatise directly fashioned in the improbable synthesis of Hegel and Schopenhauer (improbable when considering the polar opposite these philosophers underwent in life).[98] It is from this text I would therefore like to turn our attention before moving into a word on a Deleuzian pedagogy for the twenty-first century, as Hartmann that is forerunner to Freud, the nucleus of that ecclesiastical-linguistic movement named psychanalysis (that again we must understand in its proper religious-historical place prior to any other familiar or unfamiliar place):

Appendix II: Concept-Gnosticism, Alienation, Typology

            The history of dogmas teaches one not that dogmatic procession grows and degenerates like any other living thing, which is obvious, but also that with the fused advent of sexual technology and irreligious scientism dogma did not dissolve from the public specter but deeper into its subconscious than it could, literally, comprehend. Technology ensured an acceleration in alterative, linguistic ambiguity; but it also engrained dogmatic empiricism far deeper than Quine’s philosophical brackets[99] and straight onto whatever was left of the kitchen table. And I believe that we who should be working together shall remain at contrived odds so long as we fail to see precisely what Foucault did what he could to shine a glaring, contradictory light on: feigned freedom as ontic enslavement, or subjugation in the form of a ceaseless, meaningless propaganda (today in such a full swing it is almost impossible to imagine it getting worse). But what do I mean by ‘working together’? Surely this is not some utopian rallying cry – no, it is not; I have thus read critically into history from both ends of the ideological spectrum, and thus expect nothing higher than a whimsically prolonged diversion of catastrophe. Our first order of business is for now our last in that the most Foucauldian thing acolytes can do is this: stop imitating him and pick up where he left off. Retrieve thy library card, thou heathen, and pick up Pagels’s The Gnostic Paul; Kolish’s Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition; Plotinus; Eric Voegelin; Georges Sorel; Ficino. The list was originally much longer and filled with notes. But in essence we can abandon the past; though let it be known this indicates less enlightenment or progress than theoretical ruin, the breakdown of once-living bones. It was written somewhere, once, Know thyself. One cannot probe for whom reality is a glance-unto-absolute-judgment; such is infantility. One ought to have a page reading “Foucault’s Vol 4” in one hand, and Bryan Magee’s Hegel & the Hermetic Tradition in the other.

Appendix III: The Specter of Thomism

            If we may take the briefest of interrelated detours, I would like to make a note in correlation to conversations I have recently had, discussions heard and papers given, at recent conferences concerning aesthetics and literature. In a word, the sentiment is Thomistic: the nature of reason within a person inclines one to the good.[100] That is to say, that by elucidating one’s conceptual reason or general philosophy of reason we may fairly judge whether this person inclines to the good. Before we can object on grounds of subjectivity let us recall that a text must adhere to reasonable protocol even in the case of its insides being out of joint (in a similar vein a person seriously ill may put on a good outfit and go to work). To make my case, a person may well take a crack at Finnegans Wake in the same English course they take up Conrad. Criticism, then, is predicated on a radical good; it proclaims – correctly – at its best that society has got it wrong, and that there is more to the text than authorial tactics and aim. Published, a work is now a matter of public discourse, and these two parties as one proceed to work in aspects of the good, guided by methodologies of reason.

Now, it is unreason to pursue an unworking thing to a theoretically better end. One cannot ride a bicycle without wheels no matter the revered frame. This is Theory now; Aquinas nails liars to the wall; theoretical logic surmounts political (temporal) emotion.

Appendix IV

            In the above we had briefly considered Agamben, an author for whom there may well be a place as concerns an extended prolegomena for any future Plotinian study in theory. But for the time being I would like to include Jean Gebser’s remarks on Petrarch, and his Augustinian vision that I find so oddly lacking in Agamben’s otherwise richly dialogical text. Gebser, I believe, can here alongside point us in a twofold direction, one of content and context; for I agree not just with what he writes but how he writes it, which indicates a care for the contemplative self, or perceptive apparatus, that I find disrupted in the contemporary-temporal discourse of letters. Gebser writes [seminar turns to print-outs of Jean Gebser’s The Ever-Present Origin, 12-16.


[1] “Pseudo-Dionysius prescribes negation in order to make visible the contradictions that must than be thought through, and overcome in the contemplative ascent, only after which point language, words, and figuration fall away, and conceptualization takes over.” Birth of Theory, 44.

[2] Perl, 33. “To pass from appearance to what is appearing, from being to God, is not to pass from one thing to another thing. Rather, since God is not another thing but the enfolding of all things, to go from beings to God is to gather the whole diverse content of reality together, and in so doing, since being necessarily involves multiplicity and distinction, to pass beyond being.” See also Enneads 6.9.11.42-43, and Perl, 95.

[3] Perl, 40.

[4] Cole, 42-6.

[5] Note from Heidegger Hermeneutics of Facticity. See also the “dissimilar similarities”, a Heideggerian concept taken up from the medieval dialectical phenomenology of Meister Eckhart, and dually noted by Cole, 45.

[6] Perl, 52.

[7] Perl, 55, e.g. “The fall of the soul from intellectuality to sensuality is, as it were, played out in the particular evil deeds we perform as a result of sensual desire, fear, and other passions: ‘[T]he sin of the soul can refer to two things, either to the course of the descent or to doing evil when the soul has arrived here below’ (Enneads 4.8.5.17-18). Moral evil, then, consists for Plotinus not in matter but in the soul’s failure to be fully intellectual, a failure which is an ontological diminution of the soul itself.”

[8] Perl, 59.

[9] Perl, 71.

[10] Enneads v. 5.8.3

[11] Perl, 74.

[12] This is unpacked at some length in Clark Butler’s Hegel’s Logic: Between Dialectics and History (Northwestern Univ. Press, 1996), viz. 140-43.

[13] Cole, 39; Perl, 67.

[14] See Deepa Majumdar’s Plotinus on the Appearance of Time and the World of Sense: A Pantomime (Routledge, 2016), 45.

[15] Majumdar, 169, 201.

[16] Part of M.A.R. Habib’s argument against Cole, which I take up below.

[17] Here a reference to O’Brien’s three compilated Plotinian hypostates is invaluable: Soul, Intellect, and the One, whence “Here, with a vengeance, ontology reposes upon personal introspection, cosmology is the extrapolation of psychology.” 90-108.

[18] Nicholas Banner, Philosophic Silence and the ‘One’ in Plotinus (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2018), 212.

[19] Kierkegaard as quoted in Georges Bataille’s Visions of Excess (Univ. of Minnesota, 1985), 178.

[20] Lucien Febvre, The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais (Harvard Univ. Press, 1982), 463.

[21] Five further sources had a hand in this reconsideration: Jean Gebser’s The Ever-Present Origin (Ohio Univ. Press, 1986); Deleuze’s Difference & Repetition (Columbia Univ. Press, 1995); Georges Sorel’s Reflections on Violence (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1999); Reinhart Koselleck’s The Practice of Conceptual History (Stanford Univ. Press, 2002); Jean-Luc Nancy’s Discourse of the Syncope (Stanford Univ. Press, 2008).

[22] Harman: “The well-wrought broken hammer: object-oriented literary criticism.” New literary history 43, no. 2 (2012): 183-203; Felski: The Limits of Critique. Univ. of Chicago Press, 2015.

[23] It appears Walter Benjamin and I have independently come to a parallel linguistic conclusion. One task of this discussion is my wager that today the theoretical “Real” sans aura is simply intricate misidentification. As Eric Voegelin observed in his masterful “On Hegel—A Study in Sorcery” (The Study of Time, pp. 418-451, Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg, 1972), at some point the Lacanian circus of Zizek and co. had to end; whether there was substance or not will be up to the excavators; but rather like Foucault on the ‘Summer of Love’, I believe I speak for many when I say I am ready – and equipped – for a new direction. Nonetheless, a brisk, compact read on Benjamin, aura, and the prospect of a twenty-first century theological theory is found in Michal Beth Dinkler’s Literary Theory and the New Testament (Yale Univ. Press, 2019), 85.

[24] Harman, 197.

[25] See Sorel’s “Letter to Daniel Halevy” in Reflections on Violence (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1999), 3-35; this idea is unpacked a little below.

[26] “Its sheer difficulty accentuated its allure to a certain kind of critic, convinced, akin to Burke commenting on the sublime, that the obscure is inherently more affecting and awe-inspiring than the clear. Indeed, there was often a fannish dimension to theory – evidenced in a cult of exclusiveness and intense attachment to charismatic figures.” Felski, 27.

[27] Unity of Philosophical Experience, 156-158. My reading of Cole was stimulated by this unlikely place in Gilson, less who-said-what-first than a method of literary reflection that moves from canonical clouds of unknowing to particle showers.

[28] “Those who seem furthest from wrongdoing turn out to be deeply implicated in the creation of social suffering.” Felski, 90.

[29] The Heideggerian approach to existence-as-perspective – textually, symbolically, both – is ineffective because it is not Heidegger who brings this development into being but Nietzsche (Gadamer, The Beginning of Knowledge, 31); and therefore it thus less a matter of what Nietzsche leads into, when that angularly acute, vertical descent has already been exhausted, leaving ripe the ancient grounds of pyramidal exegesis (Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin, 257) than what at the same time, novelistic discourse comprehends concerning “the horizon that one speaks of in the fusion of the horizons of interpretation is nothing that one ever reaches [directly in line with Plotinian thinking]… [that the] horizon of interpretation changes constantly, just as our visual horizon also varies with each step that we take” (Gadamer, The Beginning of Knowledge, 61). The idea of Heideggerian tools or objects, let alone “guerilla metaphysics”, is, first, a matter of faulty premises; but further, in the second analysis, let us cut to the chase: if the student or professor of literature is going to carve out a new direction in theory, there must be something of a call for a systematic training in Heidegger – not an idea or two molded into the linguistic subjectivity of an aggrieved proprietor, nor a minor text or two – but a call undertake Heidegger-qua-Heidegger before anyone even thinks of bringing such thought into the specter of novelistic discourse. Until then it shall appear as though ideas plucked out of the next purgatorial hat at random because this is what the matter boils down to when the non-philosopher seeks to dive into such extreme density, and equally when the philosopher makes the pallid mistake of kickstarting one’s technologies of critique from Kant forward without even so much as a Wolffian prolegomena to Homer. The direction, summarily, is predicated upon theoretical historiography in the philosophical development of what is called literary cognition. Anything less results in precisely what has transpired, is transpiring, and otherwise shall: an equatorial sphere, lukewarm, wrapped around the bursting, paralytic study of dialogical-hermeneutic facticity in neglect; temporality all the way ‘round.

[30] “[For] any being, to be is to be finite and unitary, and hence to be dependent on the unifying definition by which it is the one being that it is… Plotinus turns the One as the ground or source on which being depends, that by which all beings are beings.” Eric P. Perl, Theophany (SUNY Press, 200810), 10.

[31] Andrew Cole, The Birth of Theory (Princeton Univ. Press, 2014), 8.

[32] Plotinus differentiates between the participant and participated, whereby the “image” is rendered contradistinctive from archetype (Perl, 23); where by way of  “differentiated appearance of the cause (or text) …we may think of all things as the many different points on the circumference of a circle. If we imagine all the points moving toward the center, each along its own radius, the circle will become progressively smaller. When all the points meet at the center, the circle will ‘blink out’ altogether. That is the One: not anything, but the undifferentiated containment of things… What distinguishes each being from the others is also what distinguishes each being from the One.” Perl, 25.

[33] This work is not only foundational but ongoing, as in the case of W. Norris Clarke, S. J., viz., “At the root of all intellectual inquiry, including the metaphysical quest, is the radical dynamism of the human mind toward the fullness of being as true, what Bernard Lonergan calls ‘the unrestricted drive of the mind to know being, that is, all that there is to know about all that there is… Plotinus initiated a dramatic new turn in history, Platonic Ideas as well as Aristotelian forms: an utterly simple, infinite, concentrated fullness of perfection beyond all limitation even of intelligible form, from which flows out the whole universe by necessary emanation in successive descending levels, each constituted by a further limited participation in the perfection above it.” The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics (Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 2015), 14-5, 156.

[34] Writing around the same time as Plotinus, I mention Iamblichus because he would be a most excellent figure in one looking to synchronically merge Roman Christianization into a reformulated vision of Theory. One might also in this regard trace a long clerical line right into the philosophical culmination of psychoanalysis. But for information on this other figure of late antiquity, see Theurgy and the Soul: The Neoplatonism of Iamblichus (Williamsburg: Angelico Press, 2014).

[35] See Bernard Lonergan’s Insight (Univ. of Toronto Press, 1992), cf. “The many gods give place to the many philosophies. The intellectualism of a Plato and an Aristotle is opposed by the atomism of a Leucippus and Democritus. Time divides the Old, the Middle, and the New Academies. The Lyceum deserts the fifty-odd unmoved philosophers of Aristotelian cosmology to settle down to empirical research. Philosophy itself becomes practical in the primarily ethical concern of Cynic and Cyrenaic, of Epicurean and Stoic, and the brilliant speculation of a Plotinus ends in the more effective oddities of a Proclus and Iamblichus.” 704.

[36] Inherent within my argument is that Zizek and Edelman have failed to reach the Real. More than a matter of being non-Plotinian, such authors become language animals rather than philosophical visionaries in their misappropriation of a latter-day misappropriation of the Plotinian Intellectual Principle. The very strata of their theoretical structures must, by law, summon a sense of deflation rather than concrete epiphanic insight. This is not a polemic but an argument offered in the spirit of Plotinus: these authors’ misappropriation of the Real has terrible linguistic consequences, not least of which is an ambiguous density that is truly, in the last analysis, hollow.

[37] See O’Brien, 94-8.

[38] “The positive turns out to be a temporary way station en route to the negative, whose sovereignty rousingly reaffirmed… the halo dropped by the poet has been picked up by the critic”, Felski, 128-34.

[39] Sells, 32-33.

[40] Sells, 33.

[41] Cole, The Birth of Theory, 9.

[42] Cole, 15.

[43] Cole, 17.

[44] To this end Romano strikes me as much more sophisticated, if not tenable voice crying in the theoretical wilderness. See his At the Heart of Reason (Northwestern Univ. Press, 2015), 13.

[45] “An appearance of a real thing is not the real thing itself, nor is it another real thing, but neither is it nothing.” Perl, 20.

[46] Michael A. Sells, The Mystical Language of Unsaying (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1994), 16-17.

[47] Sells, 21.

[48] Elmer O’Brien (ed.), The Essential Plotinus (Hackett, 1964), 122-3.

[49] O’Brien, 123.

[50] Cole, 24.

[51] Cole, 34.

[52] “In opposition to Aristotle, Plotinus understands matter, insofar as it is not form, as privation (2.4.16.3-5), the ontological deficiency of sensibles in relation to purely intelligible realities.” Perl, 54.

[53] Assmann, Aleida. “Memory, Individual.” The Oxford handbook of contextual political analysis 5 (2006): 210.

[54] Harman, 197.

[55] Sells, 23-25.

[56] Whereas Harman has conflated ‘allure’ with a genealogy of Benjaminesque aura (“In Husserl’s philosophy there is a further hybrid strife between sensual objects and their real qualities; it need not be discussed in this lecture, though I hold that this is the root of all theoretical activity in all domains… [I contend allure] is the key phenomenon of all the arts, literature included. Allure alludes to entities as they are, quite apart from any relations with or effects upon other entities in the world” (187). Husserlian allusions of allure may just bode unwell, then (and in the last analysis), as literature’s handmaiden. Allure is obvious is physicality in the realm of the senses; a theory of literature seeks surgical devices for metaphysical operations on readily available and seemingly impenetrable organs alike.

[57] Cole, 36.

[58] Cole, 39.

[59] Here a reference to O’Brien’s three compilated Plotinian hypostates is invaluable: Soul, Intellect, and the One, whence “Here, with a vengeance, ontology reposes upon personal introspection, cosmology is the extrapolation of psychology.” 90-108.

[60] Cole, 45.

[61] Felski obscurely references the text on 41. While Koselleckian conceptual history is synonymous with what we might call etymological archaeology, Felski does not realize the irony of her compressing such an enormous concept into a mere glance at etymology and how she therein intensified the very crisis she proclaims to probe: “Concealment and intensification are one and the same process.” Koselleck, Critique and Crisis (MIT Press, 1988), 127. Plotinus further illuminates the dire subjectivity in makeshift etymology: “etymologies are to be taken as anyone wishes… for even the light of the sun which it has in itself would perhaps escape our sense of sight if a more solid mass did not underlie it”. Enneads V (Loeb), 173-77.

[62] From Gersh (ed.): Plotinus’ Legacy: the Transformation of Platonism from the Renaissance to the Modern Era (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2020);Jens Halfwassen’s “Hegel’s Programmatic Recourse to the Ancient Philosophy of Intellect”, 217-229.

[63] Halfwassen, 217-220.

[64] Halfwassen, 218.

[65] Halfwassen, 219.

[66] Halfwassen, 224.

[67] Halfwassen, 227-8.

[68] Jean-Luc Nancy, The Discourse of the Syncope (Stanford Univ Press, 2008), 43.

[69] “The strange blindness of all those who have bound Kant to the pillory of literature lies in the fact that they have never taken into account the statements of Kant himself, who never ceased to complain of lacking literary talent. And it goes without saying that philosophers, for their part, have considered his declaration even less.” Nancy, 20.

[70] Harman, 183. No politic is good in that it is mortal and hence temporal and ulterior; but the most of odious of politics, despite its surface-level packaging, is that which is predicated upon the propaganda of moral superiority, as laid out by Nietzsche, e.g. “wherever the strength of a faith steps decisively into the foreground, we infer a certain weakness in its ability to demonstrate its truth, even the improbability of what it believes. We, too, do not deny that the belief “makes blessed,” but for that very reason we deny that the belief proves something—a strong belief which confers blessedness creates doubts about what it has faith in. It does not ground “truth.” It grounds a certain probability— delusion.” Genealogy of Morals (Oxford World Classics, 2008), 124, or 3.24. It is thus not that all apparent morals are feigned; but those explicitly so much fall even lower than an honest immorality.

[71] See Scholia to an Implicit Text (Colombia: Villegas Editores, 2013), I., 312. 

[72] Enneads V, 109.

[73] Cole, 49.

[74] Perl (Theophany, 54) is here citing Hegel’s Philosophy of History, 384. Unfortunately, the corona-virus has closed Walsh Library and I am unable to re-obtain Perl’s book through interlibrary-loan in order to revisit which edition and translation Perl is using. I have the Dover English translation, unabridged, and see similar albeit imprecise phraseology on its page 384. I have also combed other English translations available online but cannot find an edition with these exact words on any page 384. At the same time I have not removed this note altogether because the sentence excerpt is clearly in line with a Hegelian observation, and furthermore we may have Walsh Library up and running in time for me to re-receive the Perl text (This is the sole tidbit of information I do not have down in my voluminous notebooks, or approve to have misplaced).

[75] Cole, 81.

[76] Cole, 83.

[77] Cole, 155.

[78] Plotinus, Enneads [1] (Harvard: Loeb Classical Library, 1966), translated by A.H. Armstrong, 158-61.

[79] Cooper, 307.

[80] Felski, 33.

[81] But Plotinus had no time for such platitudes, which is to say that he understood the banality of irrelevant pondering. He goes further in equating the visible, or object-oriented, with a futility of mind; the Plotinian dialectical procedure is as severed from empirical dogmatism as is Wittgenstein when he remarks that “The world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man” (Tractatus 6.43). On his teaching method and life, see Pierre Hadot’s Plotinus, or the Simplicity of Vision (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1993), cf. 1-34, viz., “turning away from sensible things, philosophy is essentially a conversion, a violent uprooting from the alienation of unconsciousness…” the Plotinian inward turn mirrors that of the literary artist engaged in novelistic discourse several centuries down the line. See also Dominic J. O’Meara, Plotinus: An Introduction to the Enneads (Oxford Univ. Press, 2005), 1-11.

[82] “Our selves become bare centers of intellectual activity, through which we are, in fact, constantly in touch with the higher reality of true being” (Cooper, 318) – as is the text’s critique.

[83] Cooper, 319.

[84] Cooper, 319.

[85] Cooper, 325-6.

[86] Cooper, 332.

[87] Cooper, 338.

[88] This idea is less radical than it sounds; and while it came to me in my studies of contemporary propaganda, my research led me to Georges Sorel’s “Letter to Daniel Halevy” as well as Pascal’s 296th fragment in Pensées.

[89] Again one recalls the Deleuzian admonition of doses rather than totality; Malcolm Lowry’s voyage that never ends; Foucault’s demolition of moral propaganda; Schopenhauer’s laceration of the ‘Truth’ in order to apprehend the process in-itself.

[90] The history of this spirit is the history of religion, evidenced in The Fiery Brook: Selected Writings of Ludwig Feuerbach, “The moment it becomes the objection of narration, it ceases to be a miracle. It is therefore not without reason that people say that time betrays all secrets. Consequently, if a historical phenomenon were actually the manifestation or incarnation of the deity, then it must extinguish – and this alone would be its proof – all the lights of history, particularly church lights, as the sun puts out the stars and the day nocturnal lights, ” (Brooklyn: Verso, 57-58).

[91] The Sacrament of Language (Stanford Univ. Press, 2011), “the names of the gods are initially names of actions or brief events, Sondergotter who, through a long historico-linguistic process lost their relationship with the living vocabulary and, being more and more unintelligible, were transformed into proper names.” 45.

[92] Cooper, 339.

[93] I’ve included the Jean Gebser text in an appendix.

[94] Makkreel, Rudolf A. The Imagination and Interpretation of Kant: The Hermeneutic Import of the Critique of Judgment (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1990), 23-9. In a similar way, Kant’s synthesis of imagination employs an order recognition, reproduction, association, and apprehension. These aesthetic things, in the realm of teleological judgment, strike me as a far more reasonable place for the theorist to dive in rather than predetermining whether the line of focus is visible or invisible, under the bracket of one fleeting critical genre or another.

[95] The Way of All Flesh (Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1997), 432-33.

[96] See Frederick C. Crews’s Freud: The Making of an Illusion (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2017).

[97] “The idealists are far nearer the truth when they allege that [unprejudiced introspection, cultivated taste] is something lying beyond consciousness, antecedent to the conscious aesthetic judgment, consequently something a priori in respect of the latter…As our ear in the deepest tones does not hear a tone, but a droning noise, in the highest is aware no longer of a tone, but an acute pain, as our eye does not distinguish with a very feeble illumination, and is dazzled and destroyed by a brightness all too bright, without the adaptation of these organs being thereby defective, the purposive reflexes can also be looked for only within certain finite limits of the scale of stimulation, but these limits will themselves again by teleologically determined.” (Philosophy of the Unconscious, Routledge, 2010), i.270; iii.232.   Joachim Fischer’s “Nicolai Hartmann: A Crucial Figure in German Philosophical Anthropology—Without Belonging to the Paradigm.” The Philosophy of Nicolai Hartmann (2011): 85, 89-91.

[98] See Cartwright’s Historical dictionary of Schopenhauer’s philosophy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), 10.

[99] See Quine’s “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”, Can Theories be Refuted?, 41-64. Springer, Dordrecht, 1976.

[100] Thomas Aquinas, Treatise on Law (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 1996), 60.

On the Narratology of Concept-Being, Lecture Six: Oration on the Dignity of Ratiocination

A Discussion on Caroline Walker Bynum’s “Material Continuity, Personal Survival, and the Resurrection of the Body: A Scholastic Discussion in its Medieval and Modern Contexts”

This need for violence conflicts with civilization, that is, with the gradual refining of society and its laws, and the progress of democracy and human rights, all seen as endangering the survival of the social structure, as a destructive and undifferentiated demagogy that seeks to revoke humankind’s dependence on the very historical mediations that have enabled it to exist.

Giuseppe Fornari, Dionysus, Christ, and the Death of God, Vol. 1: The Great Mediations of the Classical World

In any case the old sentence of Macrobius’ Saturnalia – non possum scribere in eum qui potest proscribere [‘it is not possible to write against one who has the power to proscribe’] – is valid in all times of political concentration of power and for every publicist.

Carl Schmitt, Ex Captivitate Salus

Before we begin the final stages of this our reconsideration of what philosophical thought can or cannot do well as concerns contemporary concept-being, and the study of the narratives, or narratology, of how technological nihilism came to be what it is today, and what the ontological disclosure that seems to accompany aspects of the [authorial] dialectics of the concrete [Kosik’s note that ideology is equivalent to a “false totalization”, among others], I thought we would simply review an article. For the article in question tells us a good deal about the forthcoming narrative styles and moments up ahead in Plotinus, Dante, and maybe John Milton, maybe Melville[1] again, now that I have nothing more to say about him and just kind of like him as a person, or maybe even Bede. Why has theory hypothesized it may have run its course when it has never taken the step from Nietzsche back to Kant? Why, further, is the historiographical range of philosophical thinking in literary practice yet to approach Kant with the same sort of systematic rigor given to exhausted figures in the field such as Marx and Derrida? Today, my friends, I argue such is rather an appearance rather than any sort of hermeneutic facticity in that it is because literary scholars have not tried, and that they have not tried because they have no legitimate starting ground, or purpose, from which to construct a system. But the truth is that the foundation is in fact the very same starting place, compositionally speaking,[2] as Kantian aesthetics, in §10 of the third Critique.[3]

Phenomenology of Controversy, Phenomenology of Taboo

What is controversy? What is taboo? Strictly speaking, the recognition of things that exist that must be claimed to not exist despite everybody knowing that they exist. Hence the annual primitive chaos when a specific type of death transpires, but absolute silence over hourly thousands of deaths that transpire per annum that correlate to the very same people proclaiming that their mission (necessarily cloudy; it does not actually exist; it is Girardian animality, and was explicated by Plato re: ‘justice’ some time ago: hence one of the buried reasons for hatred of the classics) is to end the unlawful killings of certain people. But the whole vision disintegrates in about four lines under even an elementary Socratic investigation. Clearly, then, what is chanted – this is not the case; for whenever the overwhelming majority of mob-subjects die – and are not venerated by our new hagiographers, the corporate (fascist) media – there is silence. In another case, one hears that there is controversy that one of these said hagiographers notes that the State of Israel is less fixed in biblical values than it is essentially predicated on the Laws of Hitler; “Israel” is merely what Hitler thought, in ideology and structure, best for Europe.

Is reality itself controversial?  What does this say about reality? Truly, the answer is in the ontological disclosure of poetics that says, “That which can be destroyed by the truth, should be.”

The nauseating irony of this reality is thus transported back into the lap of the observer of the obvious:

One is reminded of C.S. Lewis: the doors of Hell truly are locked from the inside. It took me four years to understand the magnitude of this argument; and yet the shame of my delayed comprehension is nothing in comparison to the conceptual freedom I am gifted in coming to see the reality of the allegorical

Thus the need for a phenomenological examination of fascist narrativity is imperative; perhaps this is precisely the reason that anyone opposes fascism is branded as a backwards hick: because a handful of persons – perhaps even one – committed to a phenomenological deconstruction of the narratology of concept-being in crafters – not makers, but close; this is less a matter of digitality than it is Christological and anthropological – would at last pick up Heidegger’s hammer and go to work on the last nail in the coffin that is system of media objects.

These are the issues of our day, but keep in mind these are all more or less – visible or invisible – the thread, or golden thread – as I referred to the tradition of the house of letters in my book on Thomas Aquinas, aesthetic theory, and the possibility of a poetical renaissance – but they are also the issues of the masters. It is, I say again, a matter of ontological disclosure. One who doubts me is instructed to spend an afternoon with Hesiod and then go out and listen to the things persons are saying both publicly and privately; so long as one is pathologically consumed by the visible amplified by the equally pathological impossibility that oneself could ever have anything to do with one’s gravest problems, the people never even stop to consider banding together and going after the slavedrivers of our day, the invisible oligarchs. Really, this is all that our manufactured pathologies boil down to: throwing away attention given to reality and mental slavery and throwing the ball back into the ones who would dare look behind the curtain; such is the poet’s task, and also should the scholar of poetics: the implosion, rather than the veneration, of the narratology of concept-being that has thoroughly rendered a great part of the civilization a league of catatonic sleepwalkers.

So then how can the resurrection of the body, in Dante’s age, help us with any of this? In the most basic sense, that one is perhaps tempted to laugh the idea out of the room; and yet one’s entire reality was constructed around the conviction that one did in fact rise from the dead. And that this would in some way or another be the case for good and faithful servants. If one can get closer to understand how an apex of poetics understood the various ways of dissecting and restructuring the literary cognition of resurrection (more specifically, a literal Resurrection of the Word)… [&c.]

[To begin, we read in Bynum that “to twentieth-century non-Christians and Christians alike, no tenet of Christianity has seemed more improbable-indeed incredible-than the doctrine of the resurrection of the body” (51). That despite our modern inclination to perhaps allegorize or at least de-literalize the matter, “from Tertullian to the seventeenth- century divines asserted that God will reassemble the decayed and fragmented corpses of human beings at the end of time and grant to them eternal life and incorruptibility” (51-2). At the same time, in certain ways eschatology sat uncomfortably among other tenets of scholastic theology, although the doctrine of Resurrection was nonetheless never abandoned. Both Albert the Great and Giles of Rome wrote treatises about it. Peter of Lombard’s theories relay aspects of Augustine’s City of God, Gregory, Julian of Toledo, Jerome, Hugh of St. Victor, among others. Peter chose to consider final things in a way which gives pride of place to questions of the material reassemblage or reconstitution of the body (54). Here are some of Peter’s concerns: He chose to consider final things in a way which gives pride of place to questions of the material reassemblage or reconstitution of the body. In distinction 44, he asks: What age, height, and sex will we have in the resurrected body? Will all matter which has passed through the body at any point be resurrected? Must bits of matter return to the particular members (e.g., fingernails or hair) where they once resided? Will the bodies of the damned as well as the saved rise with their defects repaired? Are aborted fetuses resurrected? How can the bodies of the damned burn without being consumed? Will demons (although incorporeal) suffer from corporeal fire in hell? Distinction 45, after considering where souls reside between death and resurrection and asserting (without explaining) that the blessed will experience an increase of joy in bodily resurrection, turns to lengthy consideration of the usefulness of prayers for the dead. Distinctions 46 and 47 explore in detail God’s justice, especially the punishment of the damned. Distinctions 48 and 49 discuss specific questions concerning what we might call the topography and demography of blessedness: Where exactly will Christ descend as judge?

[But theologians were also curious about whether or not food digested ascended with one to the pearly gates; they also asked whether we will smell sweet odors or touch other bodies in heaven. Will the dead eat or taste? This carnality seems to contradict the idea of eternal life in the spirit; but theologians were also vexed by the resurrected Christ in Luke 24:42-43, who’d eaten boiled fish and honeycomb with his disciples.

[Then there was, in the shadow of the specter of Thomism, the question of cannibalism. Eaten human remains will be resurrected in the person to whom they first belonged; the missing matter will be made up in the second person from the nonhuman stuff he or she has eaten. But what (hypothesized Aquinas) about the case of a man who ate only human embryos who generated a child who ate only human embryos? If eaten matter rises in the one who possessed it first, this child will not rise at all. All its matter will rise elsewhere: either in the embryos its father ate (from which its core of human nature, passed on in the semen, was formed) or in the embryos it ate. Although the cannibal- ism question had been considered seriously at least since Tertullian (d. ca. 220), the issue did not remain the same. To the early fathers such questions were challenges raised by the enemies of Christianity, against whom one asserted, in answer, the absolute power of God to supplement missing matter in any way he chose. Aquinas, in contrast, insisted on tracking the bits of matter as far as possible through the processes of digestion, assimilation, and reproduction before resorting (as he also had finally to do) to divine power to make up the difference.

[Much of the debate about the resurrection of the body and about the relation of body and soul revolved not around a soul/body contrast but around the issue of bodily continuity. Scholastic theologians worried not about whether body was crucial to human nature but about how part related to whole-that is, how bits could and would be reintegrated after scattering and decay. The crucial question to which discussion of the resurrected body returned again and again was not “Is body necessary to personhood?” Medieval theologians were so certain it was they sometimes argued that resurrection was “natural.” Peter of Capua suggested, for example, that it was a consequence not of divine grace but of the structure of human nature that body returned to soul after the Last Judgment. The crucial theological question was rather, What accounts for the identity of earthly and risen body? What of “me” must rise in order for the risen body to be “me”? Only by considering the specific examples debated by schoolmen can we see the extent to which, between 1100 and 1320, they were really debating how far material continuity is necessary for identity. The issue of bodily continuity (of how identity lasts through corruption and reassemblage) was manifested as an issue not merely in the bizarre limiting cases considered by scholastic theologians but also in pious practice: in the cult of saints and relics, in changes in legal, medical, and burial procedures in exactly this period, in the kinds of miracle stories that were popular with preachers and audiences – a connection between actual church practice and the debates of ivory-tower intellectuals, and this connection is easiest to find not in the general philosophical issues such scholars considered but in the strangest of their specific examples.

[In this ecclesial and more generally secular disputation, for instance, Aquinas’s theory of the human being as a hylomorphic (form/matter) union of soul and body is thus a victory over dualism. Outright condemnation of Aquinas’s ideas in the 1270s and 1280s are seen in this interpretation to stem from suspicion that, exactly in their close union of soul and body, such ideas might threaten the immortality of the soul and lend support to the despised teaching we have discussed in seminar, Averroism.

[Bynum notes that 12th, 13th, and 14th century scholars were more on board with another writer we have read, in poet Bernard Sylvestris, who expressed a conception of matter as pregnant, yearning stuff, filled with potential. “Matter,” he wrote, “the oldest thing [in creation], wishes to be born again and in this new beginning to be encompassed in forms.”

[Expressing a similar notion that body is necessary both for person- hood and for eternal bliss, Bonaventure wrote, in a sermon on the Assumption of the Virgin Mary: “Her happiness would not be complete unless she [Mary] were there personally [i.e., bodily assumed into heaven]. The person is not the soul; it is a composite. Thus it is established that she must be there as a composite, that is, of soul and body. Otherwise she would not be there [in heaven] in perfect joy; for (as Augustine says) the minds of the saints [before their resurrections] are hindered, because of their natural inclination for their bodies, from being totally borne into God.”

Richard of Middleton, like Bonaventure, actually saw the soul’s yearning for the body as a motive for the saints in heaven. The blessed around the throne of God pray all the harder for us sinners, he asserted, because these blessed will receive again their own deeply desired flesh only when the number of the elect is filled up and the Judgment comes.

[But even those who departed from theories of material continuity were uncomfortable with, and inconsistent in, their departure. The philosophically elegant new identity theory implied by Thomas and Giles of Rome and finally articulated by Peter of Auvergne, John of Paris -a theory that obviated any need to consider material continuity-never caught on. Not only were certain of its consequences explicitly condemned; it was not fully used by its creators, who continued to speak of the resurrected body as reassembled by God from its own tiny bits of dust scattered throughout the universe. This last point needs explanation in a little more detail. In the course of patristic discussion, theologians had come to see identity as the heart of resurrection. As John of Damascus said (and scholastic theologians quoted him repeatedly): it is not resurrection unless the same human being rises again.58 But what does it mean for a person to be “the same”? In the twelfth century, some felt that only the continuation of exactly the same matter qualified as sameness. Indeed some thinkers held that nutrition and growth were in a natural sense impossible because food could never change substance and become flesh. Hence to Hugh of St. Victor, for example, any growth was a miracle: the growth of Eve from a rib of Adam or of a child from the seed of its father was likened to the miracle of the loaves and fishes.

[By the early thirteenth century most thinkers held that each person possessed a caro radicalis (a core of flesh) formed both from the matter passed on by parent or parents to child and from the matter that comes from food. It was this caro radicalis that God reassembled after the Last Judgment. Thus, as William of Auxerre argued in the early thirteenth century, summing up previous teaching, there must be material identity for numerical identity: the ashes of Paul must rise as the body of Paul. If matter is somehow lacking, the power of God must make up the deficit by miracle. This insistence on material continuity raised, as I explained above, a host of problems. If, for example, all our matter comes back (and, on this point, theologians found Luke 21:18-“Not a hair of your head shall perish”-very troubling), will not the fingernails of those who died adult be too long in heaven? And, on the other hand, where will the matter come from for those who died in the womb? To these problems, the theory of form as identity, adumbrated by Aquinas and articulated by John of Paris and Durandus, was an elegant solution. Since only substances exist, matter does not exist apart from form: prime matter is potency. When the human being dies, therefore, one cannot say that its body or its matter waits to be reassembled, for its body or matter does not exist at all. When the human being is resurrected, the body that is matter to its form (which is also its form of bodiliness because it is its only form) will by definition be its body. The cadaver that exists after we die, like the body that exists before, is second matter-formed matter but the cadaver is informed not by the form of the soul but by the form of the corpse. Thus, says Durandus, we may not say that God can make the body of Peter out of the body of Paul, because this is nonsense; if it is the body of Paul it is the body of Paul. But God can make the body of Peter out of dust that was once the body of Paul. And he need take no more or less dust than necessary to make a perfect human body. Indeed in the discussion of eaten embryos, which would not come up if identity were only formal, Aquinas not only made material continuity the principle of identity, he also tipped the scales toward matter in a second way, violating the Aristotelian theory (which he elsewhere adopted) that the father provides form, the mother matter, in conception.

[Controversy erupted in the 1270s over the implication that, if the cadaver is not the body, then Christ’s body did not lie in the tomb for the three days between crucifixion and resurrection. Not all the events in the course of the debate are clear; but the record shows that the argument that a dead body is just a body equivocally (i.e., that the word “body” in the two phrases “dead body” and “living body” is merely a homonym) was condemned at Oxford in 1277. The doctrine of the unicity of form was also condemned in England in March 1277. We must not make too much of the condemnations. Some were later revoked. What is informative for our purposes is the context of the discussion. Theologians themselves related abstruse considerations of the nature of body and person to such practical matters as burial customs and the veneration of saints. Since the early days of the twelfth century, schoolmen had seen that the status of Christ’s body in the tomb had implications for the cult of the dead. Not merely a mnemonic device, the body in the tomb is the body that will be joined to the saint in heaven Thus in the late thirteenth century, when the new categories of Aristotelian hylomorphism seemed to make material continuity irrelevant, theorists nonetheless discussed survival and resurrection as if identity of matter-or, to put it another way, univocality of “body”- were necessary.

BODILY PARTITION AND BODILY INCORRUPTION IN MEDIEVAL CULTURE

[Whether or not fragmentation or diminution is characterized as significant (or even in fact as occurring) depends not on what happens to the body physically but on the moral standing of the person to whom the bodily events pertain. Indeed the fact of bodily division is often denied by exactly the account that chronicles it. The words attributed to the martyr James the Dismembered, as he loses his toes, are typical: “Go, third toe, to thy companions, and as the grain of wheat bears much fruit, so shalt thou rest with thy fellows unto the last day…. Be comforted, little toe, because great and small shall have the same resurrection. A hair of the head shall not perish, and how much less shalt thou, the least of all, be separated from thy fellows?””‘ The message, with its explicit echoes of Luke 21:18 and 1 Cor. 15:42-44, is clear.” Dismemberment is horrible, to be sure; and even more horrifying is rottenness or decay. But in the end none of this is horrible at all. Beheaded and mutilated saints are “whole” and “unharmed.” Severed toes are the seeds from which glorified bodies will spring. God’s promise is that division shall finally be overcome, that ultimately there is no scattering.” As one of the more conservative theologians might have said: material continuity is identity; body is univocal; the whole will rise, and every part is in a sense the whole.

[Thus the opinions of twelfth- and thirteenth-century schoolmen and of late twentieth- century philosophers and medical sociologists have more in common than simply their respective oddity. [In their debates about fetuses and fingernails as in their popular preaching and legends, medieval people expressed the understanding that body is essential to person and material continuity to body. A significant group among modern intellectuals does not disagree. It is clear both that questions of survival and identity are not, even today, solved, and that they can be solved only through the sort of specific body puzzles medieval theologians delighted to raise.

[Bernard of Clairvaux spoke thus of the joys of bodily resurrection:

[“Do not be surprised if the glorified body seems to give the spirit something, for it was a real help when man was sick and mortal. How true that text is which says that all things turn to the good of those who love God (Rom. 8:28). The sick, dead, and resurrected body is a help to the soul who loves God; the first for the fruits of penance, the second for repose, and the third for consummation. Truly the soul does not want to be perfected, without that from whose good services it feels it has benefited … in every way…. Listen to the bridegroom in the Canticle inviting us to this triple progress: “Eat, friends, and drink; be inebriated, dearest ones.” He calls to those working in the body to eat; he invites those who have set aside their bodies to drink; and he impels those who have resumed their bodies to inebriate themselves, calling them his dearest ones, as if they were filled with charity. … It is right to call them dearest who are drunk with love.”]

*

Yes, I know what you are all thinking: That before we finish for the day we need to talk for at least seven minutes about Bede, author of the Ecclesiastical History of the English People; for anyone even hypothesizing a lukewarm interest in this our language whilst neglecting Bede … is [a very unfortunate person]. Thus I have translated a little note, query, I wrote in Latin into English for you all:

[Ad-hoc postscript]

“The Holy Seed[i]”: On Bede’s Ezra-Nehemiah

Bede was the greatest biblical scholar of his age, whose singular historical authority was inestimably enhanced by the Wearmouth-Jarrow library. This library contained patristic texts, Latin and Greek biblical manuscripts, and allowed Bede to become even more than the exegete and historian we know him as today: preacher, educator, poet, linguist, geographer and hagiographer[ii]. As such, his singular corpus and historical texts are illumined by myriad layers of erudition, of which On Ezra-Nehemiah plays a special role. While Bede claims he is following in the Fathers’ footsteps with his Old Testament commentary, he does so whilst working with biblical texts previously untouched by all prior commentators (E-N, Proverbs, Tobit, Acts and the seven Epistles)[iii].

E-N is dedicated to Acca, bishop of Hexham, Bede’s patron[iv]. It is his fifth longest Old Testament commentary (Innovation 143). While Bede wrote for his monastic brothers, he must have sought a wider readership; but in approaching E-N we must keep in mind that Bede left no dates on his manuscripts, uninterested in this aspect of publication. Nonetheless, recent scholarship approximates the date of E-N at 715 A.D. or later in life, post-725[v].

Bede broke ground in both writing on E-N and in his method of narratology. Some of his allegory is straightforward, as evinced elsewhere[vi] in his Old Testament writings. Bede had also looser, less autobiographical allegory-interpretation, as in the seven lights of the candelabrum (Christ)[vii] and even Sumerian preservations[viii].

Ezra’s title of pontifex is a deliberate correctional message to the priests (Ezra 6:18-22; Bede 101-8). He sees the story of Israel as the story of Christ here[ix] as elsewhere[x] He was virtually alone in his employment of Alexandrian hermeneutical method, constructed less by exclusive devotion to the Patristic and Latin Fathers than the vast aforementioned array his Wearmouth-Jarrow Library offered (Innovation 133). Like Paul, Bede urges his readers to see the symbolism of the Jews (Innovation 133-4); their failure to receive Christ is less complicatedly strained than it is pressing allegory. He sees his own people in the Jews of Ezra and Nehemiah; we find one of several examples in Bede’s analogous reading of Nehemiah 5:1-4, wherein the Jews impose particularly cruel taxation. This for Bede anticipates episcopal greed and simony (Bede 139); his interpretation of Ezra transforms Bede into a reformer of his people (Innovation 138-44).

            Themes of exile and repatriation, destruction and reconstruction, loss and recovery abound; and for Bede, historical chronology manifests into an ever-present origin. All of these movements pertain to the sinner who has lost the Faith, the Church, and who may thus learn from the prophets what must be done in order to redeem oneself; the symbolic safety of this ever-present necessity of salvation is found in both the journey from Babylon to Jerusalem and the reconstruction of the temple (Innovation 151). The temple’s dedication, then, is miraculously available through Christ and His sacraments, making the peoples’ corruption in Bedean times all the more reprehensible.

Bede stresses that teachers must thus teach through word and act; they must preach exemplary texts and be themselves examples. Parallels again unfold through defrocked clergymen in Bede’s time, banned on part of their own incontrovertible sins (Innovation 155). Such is made clear regarding Ezra 6:18: “The order of devotion required that, after the building and dedication of the Lord’s house, priests and Levites be straight away ordained to serve in it: for there would be no point in having erected a splendid building if there were no priests inside to serve God. This should be impressed as often as possible on those who, though founding monasteries with splendid workmanship, in no way appoint teachers in them to exhort the people to God’s work but rather those who will serve their own pleasures and desires there” (Bede 102).

            Despite his devotion to the Fathers, Bede differed from his clerical predecessors in that he imitated their revolutionary being in addition to the work[xi]. He often spoke of walking in their shadows, but through his Old Testament narratives stood at last beside them, absorbing both the work and the life, and became Venerable. His narratology enabled him to move in his own direction (Innovation 168), and thus Bede moved from the shadows of literary time and narrative to its canon.

Thus, one could condense Bede’s historical method in E-N as such: He sees in Ezra and Nehemiah texts laden with direct correlations to the crises and solutions for his ecclesiastical world and actively draws their world into his, and vice-versa; his allegorical narrative  simultaneously pioneered and concretized his original exegetical historiography.  

*

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Speight, Allen. Hegel, Literature, and the Problem of Agency. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2001

Strauss, Heinrich. “The History and Form of the Seven-Branched Candlestick of the Hasmonean Kings.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 22, no. 1/2, 1959, p. 14. Accessed Sept. 27, 2019.

Tuve, Rosemary. Allegorical Imagery: Some Medieval Books and Their Posterity. Princeton University Press, 1966.

Yovel, Yirmiyahu. Kant’s Philosophical Revolution. Princeton Univ. Press, 2020.

Zammito, John H. The Genesis of Kant’s Critique of Judgment. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1992.

Zuckert, Rachel. Kant on Beauty and Biology. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010.


[1] “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids”, for example, is prescient in this regard. It provides the reader access into two subterranean worlds, hidden to different classes and yet conjoined by the economic machinations of the early Industrial Revolution. In the former case we have an elite gathering which, by proxy, is inaccessible to the majority uninvited; in the latter we have the earlier stages of a recognizable slave labor, an incorrigible economic reality seldom associated with the West. This is in large part due to the destruction of the soul by way of body has been technologically balanced out by the psychological destruction of corporatism and its factories, where persons transform into numbers. Whereas the mill workers undergo metamorphosis by being stripped of dignity, the Temple-men undergo a metamorphosis all their own their heavy drinking: “… time told not by a water-clock, like King Alfred’s, but a wine-chronometer.” The narrator’s first encounter with this ‘Paradise of Bachelors’ is twofold: stories are relayed as drinks are downed, though it is more automatic than reminiscent of anything abiding. The men indeed take numbered turns in spinning yarns, although it is not a preface to anything more profound occurring in this paradise; it is chatter for the sake of chatter, drink for the sake of drink, and company for the sake of company. Temple-Bar is, in brief, a shallow place, an aura secretive societies seldom, if ever, give off. An outsider without access to the neighborhood Temple cannot help but wonder what transpires inside, though such an elaborate architectural structure cannot hold mere, automated banter… can it? This automatism of idle storytelling and imbibing subtly prepares the reader for a glimpse into the inner workings of a much more hellish automatism. Regarding the superstructure of Industrialism, Melville brings us into the pedestrian realm transpiring within. This mundane paradise brings to mind Arendt’s ‘Banality’ of evil, or Suetonius’s accounts of the twelve Caesars, one seldom accounts humanity with either the atrophied or the glorified. As the glorified Bachelors live a guarded, banal life behind closed doors, the atrophied mill workers exist in a hellish reality that itself is seldom taken to heart. To change the workers’ conditions is to lose money oneself, either in invest or in product spending; thus, despite someone like Upton Sinclair’s revelations in The Jungle, or even early Engels, the crisis of the mill workers is that from the get-go any hypothetical alleviating of inhumanity is itself a product of temporal bargaining. This overall contradictory crisis comes to a sociological climax in the following statement by the ‘dark-complexioned man’: “We want none but steady workers: twelve hours to the day, day after day, through the three hundred and sixty-five days, excepting Sundays, Thanksgiving, and Fast-days. That’s our rule. And so, having no married women, what females we have are rightly enough called girls.” Industrialism is, then, a horrifically perverted marriage of not just man to machine, but the death of life as way of life. There shall be no moral, intellectual, or psychic growth; the women must be girls. Further, it is either incessant machine-work, religion, nation, or sleep. Religion is covered in fast days, Sunday/Sabbath, and the nation’s history in Thanksgiving. Worse than prison, we are shown men who debauch behind the curtains, perhaps kingpins of such factories, and women – girls – who provide them with their paper. Melville’s reference to Locke’s mind as a blank sheet of paper is another cruel illusion, as is applying the title of Socrates to anyone so vain so as to belong to the Temple’s ilk. In this sense Sallust is cited as a prolegomena to the Middle Ages because of his prosaic rhetoricality’s ability to reflect imminent crisis around its author whilst chronicling it. But it is Sallustian because, as has been raised most recently in the medieval anthology Whose Middle Ages? (Fordham University Press, 2019) (ed. Erler, O’Donnell, et al), the prospect of Sallust, Hegel, or Melville force us to consider this: what is an era? Furthermore, this is not a matter of intuitive pondering but an unsung chronotype within the veins of what is called Fictionality. See, for instance, Julie Orlemanski’s “Who Has Fiction? Modernity, Fictionality, and the Middle Ages.” New Literary History 50.2 (2019): 145-170; Hatavara, Mari. ““I can tell the difference between fiction and reality.” Cross-fictionality and Mind-style in Political Rhetoric.” Narrative Inquiry 29.2 (2019): 332-349; and for a firmer method in theorizing technological feudalism: Alice Bell’s “Digital fictionality: possible worlds theory, ontology, and hyperlinks.” (2019): 249-271.

[2] John H. Zammito, The Genesis of Kant’s Critique of Judgment (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1992), 90.

[3] Consider for instance the limits of limitation as purpose sans purposiveness, i.e. Kant’s §10 of the third Critique. Earlier it was noted that Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique is a text developing and professional literature scholars have been well-acquainted with for half a decade, which, among other things, pursues a muted archetype in referencing Immanuel Kant several times without detail or explanation as to how precisely Kant has had a hand in what is called theory today; the gist of this influential text is that one ought to know of Kant rather than anything about him. And it is the eternal recurrence of this archetype that begs the question, ‘How can literature scholars contemplate the demise of theoretical/critical practice with virtually the entirety of pre-Marxian philosophy at their disposal?’ In the case of Kant in particular, should one assume literature scholars may assume the Critiques impenetrable, a simple rebuttal is that for the literature scholar density has never been an issue. Further, where does this collective assumption come from, if not experience? Beyond any number of hypothetical other objections to Kant, there is an absolute lack of, say, ‘Why not study Kant and work with a piece of writing particularly relevant to aesthetics, purpose, and purposiveness?’ Thus I have chosen §10 of the third Critique for this note: to explain the text itself and its place in Kant’s construction of the book, as well as aesthetic system, while rethinking the intuition of the instant, or moment of cognition in the aesthetic object, in an age of digitality whereby the next wave of literature scholars is straightaway skeptical of the past four decades’ manner of proceeding. There is an effort made by Andrew Cole to bring German Idealism, in particularly Hegel, to literary scholars;  yet this text was itself refuted by perhaps the only other thorough-going Hegelian  in literary practice, in M.A.R. Habib.  However, this botched introduction of German Idealism into critical-theoretical practice for literature scholars also suffered from the fact that neither scholar actually isolate a philosophical section, unpack it in a manner both the developing and professional scholar can work with, and thereafter explicate in tandem with a specific literary object. For the literature scholar’s purpose seems to lack purposiveness; and this is where Kant and the third Critique come in for us in earnest. Through all of its theoretical developments and cycles, for literary practice Kant remains an anomaly. At least part of the problem is in lacking a proper place, or purpose to find a place, to begin, which I argue is in fact §10 of the third Critique. Literary scholarship has long acknowledged Kant without systematically working with him. This calls into question the very nature of the debt, connoting philosophical insight with self-actualization. Whether one is for or against the historiographical turn in theory that runs from Plotinus to Hegel (as we see in Cole), even here the philosophy of Kant is oddly missing. This is most unfortunate, particularly for those scholars who know how highly Kant himself valued literature, in particular English poetry. Thus it is only fitting to me that the time has come to refute automated determinism, as it has never entailed an actual Kantian systematic for literary scholars; the chronic rejection of Kant has never come with a purpose. Thus, I’ll be introducing the reader to Kant’s own remarks on purposiveness in the tenth paragraph of the third critique; I will be doing this in a manner that simultaneously makes sense to the novice and informs the philosopher. But Kantian purposiveness without a purpose is precisely a viable new line of vision needed in literature studies to overthrow theory’s self-imposed limitations. But it is at the same time imperative that I straightaway state that I am not seeking in this short paper to define an entire new school of Kantian criticism, instead analyzing the intuition of the instant that is the philosophically literate scholar willing to work with what is at least in one case considered the origin and nucleus of Kant’s third Critique in re-approaching both theory (or literary practice) and the literary work of art itself. By the end of this paper it will be clear that the lack of Kantian systematicity in literary practice is not because it cannot work, but because it has not been tried. The profundity of this contagious error is for me rather simple: literature scholars do not engage enough with philosophy. At the same time, I do not dream of any sort of ecumenicism of the humanities; but I do work from a premise like that of George Santayana’s,  as well as the Homeric precedence in Aristotle, in seeing something of a perpetual Venn Diagram oscillating throughout millennia, as we move from Kant into an extension of an early passage in his Observations concerning John Milton. Returning to the situation within which we are to incorporate Kant’s purposiveness without a purpose, and thus Felski, I’ll begin by noting that budding literature scholars can proceed past the first or second graduate semester without some type of grounding in what is called theory; but the idea of an all-encompassing philosophical school has run out of steam aboard the engine which began by configuring that theory must begin with Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche, which is why these budding scholars will be at once reading the tradition’s forebearers as well as a recent history that likewise sees theory as having run its course in Rita Felski’s Limits of Critique. Therefore the theory of literature is at once made synonymous with encroaching limitation, of theoretical bounds of sense closing in, that digitality has all but accelerated, rather than derailed, this epistemological stalemate. But why? asks Felski. Theory’s difficulty is made in part by an attraction that she compares to Burke’s sublime,  already setting us in a historical frame to engage Kant.  Theory, or critique, is for Felski “a quite stable repertoire of stories, similes, tropes, verbal gambits, and rhetorical ploys… it is virtually synonymous with intellectual rigor, theoretical sophistication, and intransigent opposition to the status quo.”  But in the same breadth Felski inadvertently displays the philosophical-historical ignorance that will repeatedly negate her own compression of a school of thought she – and untold English departments – claims may or may not have hit a wall, by attributing the grounds of theory to “Kant and Marx.”  This mentioning of Kant does not lead to any sort of systematic elucidation of how or why Kant and Marx, in particular as coupled, are co-founders of theory, and Kant himself does not appear in the book for another twenty-nine pages, when Felski notes that theory is correlative to a western skepticism wherein Kant, alongside Hume and Nietzsche, is a “key player.”  Kant does however appear some pages later, where his “Sapere aude” is noted alongside Descartes  in what can only be assumed a passage designed for undergraduates – but it isn’t. The “disinterested judgment subject of the Kantian subject” is then noted,  albeit in a passage concerning the aesthetics of professorial detachment. While this note is closer to an actual development of Kant, it is in the middle of a paragraph that otherwise has nothing to do with Kant. Later in the book,  Felski mentions Kant again alongside Marx and now also Foucault, speaking both for the presence of Kant in this book and for her fellow practitioners at large in that “We tacitly link ourselves link ourselves to a history [wherein they] loom large; we situate our in relation to a distinguished tradition of theoretical reflection and intellectual dissent”, though the passage is again a meaninglessly vague grouping, in passing, predicated upon the contradictory idea that the reader knows nothing of Kant, one of a handful to whom one’s profession is most indebted. The book is in a sense the perfect example of Kant’s role in literary practice at present: one must know his name but not his work. To this end one cannot help but feel dissatisfied when Kantian aesthetics is declined as a direction in theory as extraordinarily dense; for density is itself something that Felski has noted is a centrifugal aspect of theoretical attraction. There is something unseen that is daunting which is part of the reason Kant is literarily ambivalent. What, then, is the problem?  Perhaps Kant’s place of maxim, imperative, and the value of systematicity, indicates that Kant is not throwing things at the wall to sees what sticks; he cannot be bent in any given ideological direction. Kant demands a rigor that, if it is to be taken on, demands a particular sense of purpose in aesthetic cogitation on behalf of the literature scholar. The problem, then, is a lack of purpose: Felski pulls Kantian feathers out of her hat which lead nowhere, and one is forced to wonder what the role of Kant is in this book, its subject matter, and that the purpose of Kant in the forming or professional literature scholar is a matter of acknowledgment without substance, which is to say an apparent purpose without purposiveness. But what is at the narratological heart of what we might call, Purposiveness Sans Purpose: Kant’s Text? How can one approach an object while at the same time procure a willingness to work beyond the empirical? If we are to transcend the physical sensation of pleasure that accompanies sensory taste, we must set out on a purpose. For Kant, a purpose is according to its transcendental determinations the object of a concept, in so far as the concept is regarded as the cause of the object. The object is the real ground of its possibility; and the causality of a concept in respect of its object is its purposiveness. Though it is tempting to draw on, or gloss, aesthetic objects from various mediums, for the purpose of this paper we shall stick to the textual, in continuing a Milton passage Kant notes early on in the Observations; this has the twofold advantage of, firstly, not so much claiming that Kant was irrefutably influenced by Milton, but that with Kant we can read Milton in a revolutionary way that is at the heart of philosophizing the work of literature in the age of digital reproduction that likewise invites the scholar of letters to reconsider literary cognition; and thus secondly, essentially come to understand the implications that theory’s unchartered past being excavated and explicated is in fact its future. But returning to the aesthetic object as concerns §10, the object’s form and existence is thought as an effect only possible by means of the concept of this effect of transcendental cognition. The representation of the effect is here the determining ground of its cause and precedes it. Consciousness of the causality of a representation, maintaining the subject in the same state, may denote what we call pleasure.   However, says Kant, “on the other hand pain is that representation which contains the ground of the determination of the state of representations into their opposite [of restraining or removing them].”  As political temporality solidified itself as the determinant root of criticism, an equally determinant idea of justice took its place; but in order to proceed on the restraining wave of conceptual justice one must perpetually confront subjective pain in the name of a justice that is, if chronically idealistic, anthropologically nefarious. Aesthetic restrain and removal of perceived political enemies was of course an intellectual death sentence; the trend that in this situate becomes absolute is at the same time predicated upon the promise of unlimited progress without definitiveness. But this is not to say that the eclipse of sublimity is itself bad, nor that justice (which has become a lamentably loaded word) is in the objective sense a good thing. Poets are not excluded from this, as in the case of poetic justice; it is rather a temporality of subjective justices that is problematic as a standalone school of thought, and likewise one that cannot coincide in tandem with an all-crushing systematicity of letters that lends itself to a reciprocal nature in, by virtue of its philosophical range, effortlessly uplifts and promotes a greater poetical culture not unlike that yearned for in Schiller’s letters. For as in the case of an all-crushing metaphysics, iron simply sharpens iron, and that which is destroyed by truth, however painful, is destroyed is the best sense possible, and is itself in line with the foundations of what is called theory. However, centering itself in pain, theory was bound to double its pain by adhering specifically to a severely limiting idea of historicism; likewise, the theorists who decry limitations while shunning Kant have taken the second part of his sentence here, without preliminarily absorbing the aesthetic brunt of it. To this end theory stands to benefit from Kant in the same way that, as concerns canonicity and the idea of the masterpiece, “the faculty of desire, so far as it is determinable only through concepts, i.e. to act in conformity with the representation of a purpose, would be the will.” The aesthetic object or theory is thus determined in conjunction with the faculty of desire as concerns the representation of a purpose. The less historically, self-reflexively stifled any given aspect of perceived purpose-representation correlates desire and will. The faculty of desire that is predicated upon an unquestioned understanding of its latent inclusivity, and has in fact already delimited the prospects of a purpose that is the will which is not predetermined by ideological axis, but by the line of sight in one approaching the aesthetic object, in our case the book. There is a twofold aspect here, however, as is the case with aesthetic scholarship: first, there is the object-in-itself; and secondly, at the same time, there is the perceptive apparatus, moldable, en route to the object; that with experience and conviction this apparatus seems increasingly comfortable or at home says nothing about the newness with which every project is taken up afresh, paralleled by aesthetic approach to the object, or even revisitation to the object, wherein the case must have added to it experiential strata and the impossible object of reexperience. At the same time, the very act is, as Kant notes, in conformity; part of its appellation is an illusory open-endedness, proven by the very first level of this argument, which is that literary scholarship is in a stalemate, but it claims to have no certain idea as to why this is (though whatever it is, Kant cannot guide us in comprehending it, or for that matter, aesthetic experience and theory in the age of digitality. For Kant “an Object, or a state of mind, or even an action, is called purposive, although its possibility does not necessarily presuppose the representation of a purpose, merely because its possibility can be explained and conceived by us only so far as we assume for its ground a causality according to purposes, i.e. a will which would have so disposed it according to the representation of a certain rule.” Rather than begin our methods of execution in a predetermined state of mind (or a concrete idea of the bounds of ideological sense), we can divide the idea of that which is purposive into object, state of mind, or action. In no case is the representation of a purpose necessarily presupposed. Hence, the very purpose of the scholar amidst, or approaching, literary cognition, does not do so a single movement, or frame. Rather, the grounds of dialogical sense are defined by the possibility, rather than the fact, of representational purposiveness. Explanatory conception, we learn here from Kant, is a causal matter pertaining to the grounds of a will that disposes the causality of assumption with regard to that which is in fact predetermined, in the first half of the moment of approach, in representation of a certain rule. But what rule, then? As Felski and others would have it, this rule does not exist, because the idea of such a rule cannot coincide with the excoriating prospects of theoretical literature. However, what is said is about a third of what is at stake, coupled by the implication therein as well as the negative dialectical space taken up by what is not said. This can be floated in a more vulgar political sense, but the real understanding in a survey of theory at wits’ end is in the absolute lack of self-awareness coupled with the prospect of Kantian aesthetics. This is precisely where Kant, and we, arrive at the crux of the matter, purposiveness without purpose as a means to literary practice in the age of digitality. Purposiveness without purpose is a form that, not being a totality, is unfit for a will; the aesthetic object does not as a prerequisite engulf one on the way to cognizing with a will that begins with a purposiveness without purpose, but is made intelligible by way of derivation. Here, again, formalism  strikes me as one of several ways in which a scholar might work with Kant in a school of theory, in less picking out bits and pieces than approaching Kant with an openness to systematicity that is itself a process correlative to explaining a poem or book in a way that is intelligible by means of derivation rather than dogmatic empiricism. That this itself gives one the nature and freedom of optional modes in observation and possibility that grants the scholar, or reader, a greater proximity to the ontological subjectivity of reason (not that an objective reason does not exist, but that, staying with Kant in a broader sense, one is through purposiveness without purpose given greater flexibility in coming to grips with historical and historiographical subjectivity, and hence a greater dialectical fusion of narratives, en route to the topical – there are about seven billion ways of looking at the world, with a little overlap; such is both continent and canvas): “Thus we can at least observe a purposiveness according to form, without basing it on a purpose (as the material of the nexus finalis), and we can notice it in objects, although only by reflection.” But where shall Kantian thinking lead the scholar of letters? To an interior revolution, or systematic destruction of all self-imposed limitations that, like Schopenhauer’s Berkeley,  gave one good thing: the means of overcoming aesthetic bondage in the age of digital reproduction. This notion having passed, one must less return to Kant than arrive. John Milton, like Kant, is considered a revolutionary in his field,  albeit for Milton the artistic revolution is a successful opposition to the ruling spirit of any given community, within his life being his age and community, but made truly revolutionary not in the vulgar sense of temporality and governance, while constructing an aesthetic systematicity that is itself relevant in every age. Then, having experienced the selection in terms of purposiveness and purposivity without a purpose, has one undergone something of an initiation into the type of hermeneutic import Makkreel writes of, but without having to presuppose any type of imaginative play other than a reconceptualization of that which is given at the surface. To this end I would suggest picking up where Kant left off at the beginning of his Observations.  And thus a voice cries out in a lucid dream, “Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed”! For while our old friend Hegel would see it another way,  the poetic procession of Kant’s establishes Milton as in one sense, while working in a sort of inverted Dantean tradition, through a harrowing beauty that has the universality of lacking concrete predecessor, while in another, moving through an indeterminate concept. The poet, in making it his object to simultaneously elucidate both the fall of man and the imaginative lengths which this indicates, while in another sense Milton conveys to us “utter darkness.” And the reader might particularly take him at his word; in his blindness Milton both reconceptualized being and nothingness, something the sighted can but taste a glimpse of should one close one’s eyes, and then with one’s eyes remaining closed, imagine one has opened them: such is the first trace of a beginning of what one might call hermeneutic blindness, as concerns pre-earth space and time, whereby one turns to purposiveness, or Kant. Thus this flood of flames, or “fiery Deluge, fed with ever-burning Sulphur unconsum’d” strikes the reader as both familiar and alien at once: it has purpose but lacks purposivity. The movement from religious poesy to the canon, or collective memory, involves Milton neither trying to merely convert, nor displaying the furthest heights of mortal imagination in an effort to subtly convey that what have historically been mandated as the Word of God is in fact the words of imaginative men. Rather, Milton’s purpose is not to go where other poets have not gone for the sake of exploration, but rather to explicate that which is comparatively speaking glossed in the Bible. It is not only his narrative subject matter that is epic; employing the English language to fill in biblical plots with enormously detailed imaginings is in essence to add to the receptivity of the theoretically infallible. Milton is taking it upon himself to continue the biblical tradition through an aesthetics that transcends commentary while at the same time is sheer imagination; its canonicity is thus a subtle testament to the aesthetic mind for-itself in light of church dogmatics and political theologies. Hence the object’s cause, or the cause of this particularly striking imagery in a flood of unconsumed sulphur, is on the one hand the very causality that leads one from moving to comprehending the textual ‘images’ as qua-poetry, but rather in its form and existence, as a concept of the effect that is preceded via oscillation between the rhapsodic pleasure of absorption versus the systematic pleasure of on the one hand, contemplation or revelry, and on the other, the systematicity of interpretive schools. However, as no work of art is synonymously venerated, there is also the grounds of displeasure in light of purposiveness to take into account. But displeasure in the presentations of Hell, or displeasure in the state/state of mind Milton is (arguably) speaking on behalf of, seems to currently render the highpoints of western aesthetics in a sense of fascism/communism, ala the closing of Benjamin’s Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.  This displeasure, which I believe is foregrounded in a faultily subjective premises of ahistorical bending, is not unlike a displeasure which Kant describes as “that presentation which contains the basis that determines [the subject to change] the state [consisting] of [certain] presentations  into their own opposite.” Naturally, such is a perfectly tenable mode of criticism. But that it has become the foundation of all contemporary literary practice is where there is nowhere to go but into the specter of cultural decline, having mistaken a type of perception for the entirety of perception through which all others flow. However, as I remarked earlier, the scholar of letters can no longer plead ignorance from an ideological point of view as concerns the life and times of any given subject, or author. Milton, to this end, brings us a Hell that is interwoven with less the conditions of his time, than the conditions of all times. As a maxim, the state is not the artist’s friend; the state is the perennial foe of the artist, for the artist’s task is to remember and uncomfortably remind the public that oscillating between automation and distraction are unfits poles of being. From the sociological point of view, it is dispelling the culture industry and its tentacles that appear in less obvious places, as in the eschatological implications of pre-torn clothing; and that for the same generation, three decades on, that one is not made younger by plastic surgery, but rather is given, should the treatment call for it, the veneer of having aged less than one has. Likewise, lacking purpose, literature scholarship puts on the performance of rigor, of exterior diversities, but it all comes at the cost of an absolute lack of interior diversity, and hence individuality, thus negating the very precepts of poetical discourse. But it is the very veneer of unreality that itself might prove as a heuristic means by which to recultivate one’s perceptive apparatus, by cognizing the power of desire. This power of desire is at work in Milton when we read “Such place Eternal Justice had prepar’d/For those rebellious, here their Prison ordain’d/In utter darkness.” There is the rudimentary desire for order, which essentially comes down to the state enforcing any given religious creed or lack thereof with equally religious fervor. There is likewise the desire to acknowledge, rather than activate, eternal justice, which apparently predates Adamic being and all that comes with it. But why then, appears interwoven into Milton’s aesthetic, is there an eternal justice for mortal beings? On the theological end of things, one might suggest predestination.  On the other, this itself appears a purpose without purposiveness. As far as a Judeo-Christian aesthetics is concerned Kant is again helpful, in noting We do call objects, states of mind, or acts purposive, even if their possibility does not necessarily presuppose the presentation of a purpose; we do this merely because we can    explain and grasp them only if we assume they are based on causality [that operates] according to purposes, i.e., on a will that would have so arranged them in accordance        with the presentation of a certain rule.And yet eternal justice is, when empirical, incidentally empirical. We are faced again with purposiveness without a purpose, as we cannot understand as well as it had hitherto been perceived just how, why, when, or where, this seemingly eternal justice comes from, where it dwells in the case of, say, a parent never finding out who murdered their child, or a criminal on the loose, burning down businesses, without ever getting caught, “and yet can grasp the explanation of its possibility only by deriving it from a will” (Kant 65). Such is, in a sense, the will of God; yet Milton also made it clear at the start of this poem.  We know that Kant cherished Pope.  If the will of God must either be a metaphorical way of speaking altogether along the way of the species’ developing consciousness, we might see then Milton conceptually willing the concept of a will, which is in fact, if abstract at a glance, something that is at the heart of being in western time. Reason alone does not suffice; purposiveness in form lends itself to observational harmonies in the structural object; and finally reflection eclipses purpose, becoming itself the purpose without purposiveness, which is poetic self-reflexivity in time, guided by philosophy. Thus the eternality of justice and its ever-present author can for Milton serve thusly as a vehicle with which for one to further consider the initial Kantian isolation of Milton’s passages, in reading “[,] and their portion set/As far remov’d from God and light of Heav’n/As from the Center thrice to th’ utmost Pole./O how unlike the place from whence they fell!” Portions are set, albeit as far from God and heaven as exclusively analogous quantitative terms allow, measured three times over from the furthest pole, and thus describing in epic detail that which both does and does not exist: plot details glossed from pre-being being, or rather the concept of pre-being being, as spoken by a blind being, on the way to expositing the tyranny of heaven. However, in refraining from selecting a poem, book, or excerpt with a prearranged ideological determinism at work, one is forgoing the great deal of trends considered absolute both for several decades and at present. At the same time, it might be suggested that a foregoing of ideology is the root of all ideology. But this is, again, where Kant comes in. For if this type of thinking were easily capable of being cast down, Felski’s book would not end on the ambiguous, inconclusive note that it does, a fate predetermined by neglecting philosophical history in general, and Kant specifically.  However, in proceeding with Kant, we employ section ten as to further situate the poetics of space, Milton’s blind vision of sublimity, that lends itself to a new type of systematicity, that is, an all-crushing recapitulation of ongoing deterministic temporalities. For we are immediately reading a different kind of Hell when are approaching it from this newly implemented point of view. Gone is the automated immersion in a long-running sociological-ecclesiastical afterlife with which so many readers understandably enter Milton; but we are not concerned with the predetermined, as such is the cause of literature’s theoretical stalemate, having lost sight of historiography of philosophy, the engagement with which is theory’s purpose. Thus with Kant, we can refrain from entering into the already-known Judeo-Christian lore, and reexamine the philosophical-aesthetics of Milton’s apparent retelling of the fall of man, and what it means that it means what it appears to mean. The crowning aspect of a new Kantianism in theory is that it likewise offers the practitioner a chance to continue work that Kant carried out, even in the referential form of excerpts, and take the mode of perception further, a concept that brings the scholar closer to Kant by working not only with Kant but through him. The sublime and the beautiful are not ideological strains or specific types of textual figures; they are rather a coupled synthesis capable of dialectical fusion, as in the Miltonic sublimity or beauty of Hell. On the one hand, the literature scholar is at once opened to a book’s worth of material in synthesizing Milton’s visions of Hell, its famous illustrators, and Kant’s remarks on aesthetics and religion. On the other hand, however, it is in keeping with the task at hand to pick up where Kant left off, moving from his selection of eight lines into the next eight, through the lens of §10: “Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed/With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum’d:/Such place Eternal Justice had prepar’d.” Our absorption of this semiotic constellations might be well guided by John H. Zammito, whose Genesis of Kant’s Critique of Judgment sustains Kant’s commitment to the Christological. “Purposiveness – teleology – served as the vehicle for the development for the Critique of Taste”, writes Zammito.  “Purpose is the relation between a concept and an object whereby the concept acts as cause of the actuality (existence) of the object… Kant found it necessary to discriminate repeatedly between ‘sensation’ and ‘feeling’, that is, objective and subjective reference.” (91). As practical as this sounds, its sheer practicality is in fact the essence missing from literary practice that has hitherto disabled its most influential figures from even suggesting a systematic philosophical investigation that opens itself to the history of philosophy. We see this soon enough after Kant as well, in Schiller and Hegel, in the societal and individual demand for balance on the way to – in our case literary – cognition. En masse or the being-proper, scales grossly tipped with the weight of emotion dismantle any premise of rhetorical construction from getting off the ground.Naturally, there is more at play than rhetoric in our case, Kant’s, Schiller’s, or Hegel’s; but I would also suggest that a philosophical cognizing of poetics takes the philosophy of rhetoric with a sense of prescient acuity, as was the case with Grassi,  and as we’ll see in a moment, in an extension of the trivium, logic. Thus, when Zammito further notes that the conceptual universality of consent claimed in a judgment of taste is not actually an element of literal universality, which lies in logical validity. Claims of emotive-political validity in aesthetic cognition are thus unfit for the very feigned universality such doctrines’ scaffolding are made of; Kant is rather interested in “the freest choice possible for man” (93), for such is less a return to taste and beauty but a refurnished cognizing of plurality in being, and thus open to the canons of historiography and philosophy, as this merger with aesthetic cultivation and study is itself true nature, and true freedom, in its seeking neither to exclusively conserve nor doctrinally repudiate, but to reimagine the moment of aesthetic pre-contact, or the moment of absorption that is the willed act, that is the systematicity interwoven within the form of purpose and reality. Such is a typological landscape: that the tradition of the form ultimately bolsters both maker and receiver into recognition of the object’s accumulation process in conceptual time, allowing one to move past appearance, which alone is not actuality, into the processional gravity of the object. Such is at work when we for so many literary works we read “in the spirit of…”; it is that place wherein influence is an understatement, as influence itself is surface level, and thus the appearance of the whole. Which brings us full to circle to Milton, for whom Harold Bloom connotes a particular genius in that he lacks, in his life and poetics, the anxiety of influence. Milton seems to have no real systematic forebearer in his aesthetic approach; he was a devout classicist, but none of his work can be better understood beside Hesiod or Homer, Quintilian or Clement, John of Salisbury or Thomas Becket.

Kant, I would think, with his own revolutionary  project, does not immediately parallel any of his philosophical forebearers; such is the movement from traditional ascendancy to dialogical invention, which should be an organic process for all philosophy and literature, and the former’s cognizing of the latter, as “Purposiveness is a cognitive language to which we resort in the extremity of empirical anomaly.” Concerning free play, Chaouli contends that, for Kant, play’s purpose cannot be found outside the region of experience between and conceptual determination, as play is neither devoid of purpose (in the case of nonsense) nor is geared toward a nameable purpose, as in the case of cognition.  “Kant’s mysterious, unwieldy formula of a ‘purposiveness without purpose’ describes just this logic of play: a purposeful way of doing whose purpose can be found nowhere within itself and that consequently ‘strengthens and reproduces itself (§12).’  It is neither beneath the region of experience nor beyond conceptual determination; thus the region of experience whereby conceptual determination must, I suggest, turn to historical thinking, as such is the sole way we can enact a systematic of canonicity in light of rule, or aesthetic dogmas. Such would seem to move from the beautiful to the biological; and in the moment leading to §10, Rachel Zuckert sees Kant broaching “how we can become conscious of the harmony among our cognitive powers – and answers that we become conscious of our judging activity through ‘sensation’ (219).”  It is this very sensory strata that leads Kant into the unpacking of purpose and purposiveness, and ought likewise to awaken in the contemporary scholar the predicament they find themselves in while proclaiming rules in a realm of abandoned canonicity. As Chaouli understands it, it is actually less a rule than a rule-boundness, mirroring purposivity without purpose, which also finds grounds in normativity without norms and “lawfulness without law.”  We find ourselves thus moving from a rigidly ambiguous history of theory, with Kant, into the realm of being, or anthropology. It is precisely this philosophical anthropology Chaouli identifies the question of aesthetic pedagogy, which is of course the preliminary question of this paper altogether. This “detour”  is perhaps one perfectly constructive rejoinder to Felski: that the as-defined history unto limitation is in fact less exhausted than in need of a detour. And yet the detour is through itself, with even Felski sprinkling the prospect along the way, albeit hitherto unbeknownst to any readers, save when we took up the Kantian cause of purpose altogether, and augmented the elephant in the room. Purposiveness is furthermore a prelude to modality, rather than a recycled socio-political frame.  The assumed purpose oscillating between temporality and determinism is in fact at a limit, but it is a self-imposed limit that theoreticians mistake for contemporaneous grievances, misplacing emotional argument for logico-historical thinking, that is, a historical lens that takes into account victor and vanquished, philosopher and author, whose predicate is, as in §9, for Kant a clearer presence of universal beauty. Universal beauty operates under an indeterminate concept; this is precisely the end of §9/221 that leads to the task at hand (from it we glance ahead to §11 and reconsider what is called reading).  One is likewise purporting how the aesthetic object came into being, the artwork its final end, as we read in Zuckert that Kant’s teleology is purpose and purposiveness, i.e. “they are understood to characterize the nature of rational agency.”  This too makes perfect sense of the above idea of detouring the history of the concept of theory, as per an unpacking that the literary scholar is already well familiar with in assessing the ideological causes and boundaries of any given lens toward a school. The school’s spokespersons have mistaken a fragment for the whole. For while there is no doubt a means of understanding any given text by means of any branch of critical theory; but it is when the imprecisely summarized cannot remove itself from its method of proceeding that the entirety of philosophical discourse is rendered less than a footnote or, as in the case of Kant, a substanceless name amongst others. It should be then either purposiveness without purpose, with or without secondary literatures helping throw light on the concept, that reaffirm the genesis and structure of the precognition of aesthetic insight. In apprehending the systematicity and purpose of neglected forerunners we do not hamper contemporary discourse but rather force it to defend itself, which if it is seriously rigorous scholarship, it should have no qualms whatsoever doing. One is not resurrecting pleasure but re-confronting it, a Kantian pleasure Zuckert defines as “consciousness of a representation’s causality directed at the subject’s state so as to keep him in that state.”  Desire causes the actuality of the object; it is specifically human in that it is linguistic. Aspects of endurance, which border on canonicity, lead one to philosophical insistence in the role of cognizing literature and its study. Literature is philosophical. One cannot compose a poetic work, or effectively construct novelistic discourse, without a philosophy of literature. Returning to the bounds of rule-sense, we are aware also of the severer forms of literature that themselves certainly have a philosophy, even if the philosophy is one of extensive editorial labor in an effect to make a work appear haphazard. But in the case of a less abrasive form, one must with Kant’s maxim of perpetual immersion in past masters without mechanically reproducing them. If one is accurately living with and through the masters, one is on the way to aesthetic discourse; it would be impossible for one to read the masterpieces of literature and philosophy without eventually coming up with good ideas of one’s own. Hence, what began as theory some decades ago constituted a rejection of teleological history, an attitude traditionally prescribed to Montaigne or Descartes  without ever systematically engaging the aesthetic ramifications of either teleological history or historical teleology. The result was historical teleology shrouded in political theology. This line of thinking, mistaken as a nucleus rather than an angle, is both unoriginal and contradictory; the literary sense of purpose was altogether thrust into ideological variations on suffering, which was itself submerged into digitality, and therein paralyzed. As such, it appeared and appears as though theoretical letters has hit a wall, while in truth the possibility of a poverty of historical-philosophical knowledge was never broached. Such is a collective lack of self-awareness identical to Milton’s Adam and Eve and has been disadvantageous to both literary scholarship and American literary culture. But that is where Kant comes in. Kant has been epidemically neglected by literature scholars not because he has been weighed and found wanting, but because literature scholars did not know where or how to begin; that there is no better place to begin than with purposiveness itself in light of a systematicity of commentators and a formalistic reading of the text itself. For the transportation of revelation from abstraction to the tangible mirrors purposivity and its rejoinder. The purpose of the work is likewise caught within the purposiveness without purpose of being: both are subjectively distinct albeit identical in difference. Rejection of historiographical excavation is a choice rather than a revelation, whereby literature scholars remain trapped in a predicament identical to Plato’s cave. It is a cutting off of the psychological oxygen of methods and philosophical discourses available to us throughout conceptual history and time; a Kantian school of literature in light of digitality may well challenge preordained dialectical reason into confronting both its theoretical limitations in literary practice as well as its poverty of historical-philosophical knowledge. Is this not the very philosophical task of literature and poetics to begin with? One is with Kant in thinking that this is both a good and necessary thing, a logical perfection of cognition.  Hence literary practice stands to gain the destruction of its self-imposed limitations, and perhaps in the future someone will write a book-length account of this, supplementally modeled on the first Critique, perhaps entitled Critique of Theory. But even before the prolegomena must come the aesthetic (school) and architectonic (literary type) annihilation of determinism on the way to purposiveness without a purpose, moving into philosophy through digitality, for the sake of the retrieval of critique.


[i] See Bede’s On Ezra and Nehemiah, p. 138: “[W]e should admire the faith and excellent resolution of the people who were freed from captivity, who /1575/ refer to themselves as the holy seed but the other nations in distinction to their own as the people of the lands, so that they might openly imply that they themselves, although born from the earth, nevertheless have their dwelling on earth but in heaven…”

[ii] DeGregorio, Scott: The Cambridge Companion to Bede, p. 127

[iii] Ibid, p. 129.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid, p. 130.

[vi] M.M. Bakhtin notes Bede among others regarding medieval-[anti-]Christological allegorical frameworks in Rabelais and His World p. 293: “The Biblical giant, for instance, was seen by Augustine and Bede as more than a Goliathan foe, i.e. an insurmountable foe; Bede, for instance, interpreted the concept of giant as an incarnation of the Antichrist”.

[vii] See Rosemary Tuve’s Allegorical Imagery: Some Medieval Books and Their Posterity,pp. 108-12.

[viii] Strauss, Heinrich. “The History and Form of the Seven-Branched Candlestick of the Hasmonean Kings.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 22, no. 1/2, 1959, p. 14. In particular, “Apart from the majority of later church candelabra, the type with arms becoming higher towards the centre is also found in old Christian manuscripts: Cosmas Indicopleustes (v. above, n. 3, Good- enough, fig. Io); a picture in Bede’s commentary on the Apocalypse, MS. 209, St. John’s College, Cambridge. This form preserved the connection with the tree of life of the ancient Sumerians more closely than the traditional Jewish one.”

[ix] DeGregorio, p. 132.

[x] Kantorowicz notes as such in The King’s Two Bodies, i.e. p. 53: “…Cyrus [in Ezra-Nehemiah] appears as a prefiguration of Christ”; p. 69: “Bede has also seen the Temple’s divided curtain as a symbol of the Church, itself symbolic: men on earth, saints and angels ruling above.”

[xi] Consider Mary Carruthers’s The Book of Memory, viz. p. 416: “Bede stresses that he is following in the Latin Fathers’ footsteps, and in one a sense this is true. Jerome’s Commentary on Ezekiel, as well as Gregory the Great’s, were with patristic commentaries on the Psalms, the most frequently adapted Old Testament commentaries. None, however, do quite what Bede did; his allegorical autobiography.”

On the Narratology of Concept-Being, Lecture Five: The Barbarism of Ratio

Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod,
Ach, hätt er sich schon eingefunden.

            Da entkomm ich aller Not,
            Die mich noch auf der Welt gebunden.

Anonymous, from Bach’s Cantata BWV 82: Ich habe genug

(genung) for the Feast of the Purification of Mary (1727)

*

So loud the silence – hear it!

Spitteler

*

Rem vero pro re, quod non est alterius quam poete, posuit in aureo ramo quem discerpendum Sibilla monuit antequam [Aenas] inferos adiret (Salutati, De laboribus Herculis)… Once man has emerged from the “cave of nature”, as Gracian puts it in his Criticon, he must learn to see new relationships and to realize them through his behavior.

Grassi, Rhetoric as Philosophy (vii, 16)

*

We had also further plans to look at a passage from an unpublished book of mine, a true oddity from when I was over on Avenue B, called Calico Mountains, as well as an unpublished story, “The Woman Who Turned into a Fish”, and then even spend some time with Auden’s anthology of Kierkegaard and my supplement in my work as anthologizer that saw one stringing together another side of Thomas Merton. This week was therefore set to unfold in a manner dissimilar to the procession of others’; and I do not mean that our plan was better, really, but that we would not have really had anything to compare it to. But as you may have inferred by now, there has been a change of plans. I dare say that now that I have subtracted myself from the scenario we are most equipped to trod further along the untrammeled path of narratology and concept-being in literature and philosophy.

Whereas a lesser man would spin a yarn predicated on the mythic dog having consumed one’s homework, in our case the dissection of a living author, in ystruly, I shall tell you the truth rather than go the way of one who owns a dog so hungry that the poor thing has succumbed to eating its master’s paper: as I prepared to prepare these items my attention was stolen by a stack of books beside my reading chair: Werner Jaeger, Ernesto Grassi, E.R. Dodd, Bruno Snell, Pierre Hadot, Heraclitus, and Origen. In spending the holiday revisiting passages from this marvelous collection of minds, I found myself returning in thought and deed to the Flaubertian-monastic origins of a cultivated literary cognition, which is something you have all agreed shall be fruitful in addition to the strictly scholarly analyses.

But I should say that I did, even though I hit that epistemological speed bump, try again to get my unknown works in order; in order to do so I eventually moved from my reading chair one evening to the backyard, and for some reason was reminded of a passage from Heidegger, which in turn brought me to a memory of Holderlin, which reminded me I had to stop by the Strand in the next day to retrieve Constantine’s biography of Holderlin.

Someone – a voice, really, as I never saw the body, and all bodiless voices are the same in memory – approached me in Union Square and would not let go. I suppose for even the most expensive, potent flea repellent or vaccine there is always the chance of fly of sickness; such is my immunity to those ill-fated New York chorus-words, “Excuse me, sir!” Nonetheless, the light was red and the bus was soaring forth, and thus I stopped. And he said to me, “Sir, would you like to save the world?” “No,” I said. “If the world was worth saving there would be no meaning in being.” I cannot recall the last time a man moved from ecstatic plasticity to univocal horror before my eyes, but there it was, the latest. As noted, the original plan was to stop into the Strand to drop off a few copies of one of my copies and retrieve Constantine’s biography of Holderlin; but instead I kept walking, eventually making it down near the emptied seaport, and for awhile there read the letters of St. Jerome, which I have lately been carrying around with me in place of my flip phone, saving the books for later in the evening.

*

In beginning with ‘work’ assuming negative connotations one does not mean that all work is negative, be it in the deductive sense of wasted time, nor in the sense that the work-itself is negatively severing purpose from the general structure of the given cycle from, let us say, sunrise to sunrise. Rather, in recognizing work as synonymous with the negative, one is working from a place of reconsidering the common rendering of work as the thing one must do but would rather not do, and thus in addition to sleep spends post-work time in an effort to forget about work-time. Digitality and unlimited drugs have made this supplementing of the negative recurrence of work particularly potent: who has not said, or heard one say, “I want/need to escape”, in terms of the post-work dwelling scenario? But if the escape is mental, it is ineffectively mental, and thus delusory; cognizant of this at some level, the being-worker indeed adapts to an oscillating autopilot between the negativity of work, or not-being, or after work, the supplemental not-there. Our purpose is thus, at a glance, not to restructure ‘free time’, as its correlation to the negative seems more impedimental than constructive; and yet it is with the not-work that we in fact must become on the way to work that is no longer alienated from sanctity and smooth streams of metaphysical retrieval, or a wellspring of interior dialogue that is aimed at a cross between poetic structuring of the illuminative and a life-process that unfolds not unlike a prayer. But what is poetry? What is prayer? [remind me to later on bring to the table Gilson’s mystical theology of Bernard] What does this have to do with the negativity inherent in a job that one dislikes? While this shall be a series of lectures all its own, on how the worker might retrieve himself in the process of moving through the threshold of assumption and into the light of a recaptured sanctity in work-being, today we want to look at exemplary figures in the Desert Fathers and Gustave Flaubert, a project that at its most foundational would require the subject have nothing more than a library card and time. In the case of the former being inaccessible due to previously accrued fines grown out of control, one must set aside the money to pay this off. On the other hand, if one is afraid to enter a library, one must begin to get over these fears. But how? St. Anthony did not seem very afraid of what persons said when he left the degenerative splendors of pseudo-Gomorrah to live in a desert. And was not Flaubert, son of a doctor, destined to study law in Paris? We spoke earlier, some weeks back, of a hovering corpse; but who is the poltergeist? And who has thought the poltergeist into being?  

To say that there is no reality is not to indicate that there is no reality, but that a part of reality is preserved for the sighted being who would stand before a mirror and proclaim it is empty. And thus our purpose, if we are to breathe the air of poetics, is to break up the default. There are layers to the default, as there are different types of readings; the ontic default is, in the most basic sense, the opposition to ‘deep conversation’; this is the meekest example. More jarring examples are utopianism lost through violence, or breakdowns brought on by sudden deaths or having witnessed that which one was unprepared for, resulting in the disordering stress of traumatization. The poet wants to see what lies beneath the relatively minimal space that covers the distance between suicide and madness, recovery through spiritual exercise and pharmaceutical acquiescence. We are perpetually jarred, and thus ought to seldom be jarred at all; this is the core of concept-being, or planetary autopilot, which ontological disclosure wants to draw oneself away from, to face extreme, if brief, pain, in order to arrive at the reinserted reference-frame of contemplative precognition. All the while, however, nature is unfazed; the regret of demolition and the demolition of regret are themselves interwoven into its concept-being.

Even the one who sets out to reinsert being simply reinserts the concept of reinserting the impossible, whereby comprehension of the impossible indicates a misunderstanding by way of oversimplification on the topic of the impossible; and subsequently this is the language barrier of language itself, or language as barrier, so long as one sets out on the impossible task of reinserting nonexistent validity into the symbolic black scratching on tree that is the methodology of the possible that has thus far functioned albeit said functionality was essentially an ontological distention that might be illustrated as a chain of opposed magnets hovering in what is called space less out of prerequisite than the locomotive nothingness that is the objective world. Thus concrete thought is always a shadow of allegorical facticity confronting the simultaneous presence of perished incidentals; the concrete, in terms of reception and donation, is in fact always wet cement, envisioned by the seer who has cognized concrete less through empirical unfolding than anticipation of the assumptive. The truth is ontological redemption in the moment that conceptual revelation moves forward into the reconsideration of narrative poetics, furnishing the dispossessed with the ethereality that is the final subjugator, or death, rushing through the ideologies and hallucinations of the age, which are themselves cumulative ventriloquistic barbarisms, and thus must refer to themselves as the opposite in order not to try not to breathe. For if the highest good is itself directly correlative to the scapegoat, the task of being is thus to comprehend the fundamental scapegoat, which is to say the one that covers the ontological and microbiological in one fell swoop, unchanging, as the unfolding consciousness of men moves from [I will email you all Gebser’s chart], and thus to move from Logos is instinctual, and it is to cultivate a hatred for reality [And also email Heraclitus in Greek and English] – everything is in flux, save the synonymity of a hatred of reality with a hatred of the self. And yet there is no triumph in this acknowledgment, but rather the fading ember stream of anxiety and alienation. Bellies, caves, deserts, oceans; anatomical housing developments predicated on the unspoken bondage of gentrification… a gentrification of the heart and soul; a mirror into which one gazes, though a rock has been accurately hurled, albeit for still a moment on the way, and thus the line of sight indicates the presence of the irrefutable. Such is the reinsertion of concept-being into the eternal recurrence of declivity and solar decay, all that is definitive remains in the looming end of that reduplicating thing, in that whatever it is, it ends, and thus books, films, viewings, songs must themselves must end, because the concept-being of concept-being is even itself built for an end that transcends narratives proclaiming the last word on the end, of which there are several, and boredom cannot face itself, but then neither can the shallow pond of public joy, of voices that scream nothing, and bodies that accomplish less.  

*

For ere she reach’d upon the tide

The first house by the water-side,

Singing in her song she died,

The Lady of Shalott.

Tennyson

The other day I was concluding my daily business of outreach to the homeless, those men you see with cups standing along Fordham Road, begging for alms, who have in turn become friends of mine, and whom I strive to take care the best that I can. I longed then to stop by and see the little cats that have made their home in my backyard; but the day was beautiful and thus I took the long way, hypothesizing one of a handful of cafes along the routes and side-streets of Belmont. There I ran into a former pupil, a young woman I had tutored in composition and structural procedures of approaching the host of essays freshmen are assigned. Her flower-adorned dress, white petals with little, nearly invisible bottle-green stems, and golden centers with spots of auburn, was refreshing in its modesty; once one realizes that one is truly disgusted by women in spandex, short shorts, braless tops, in exterior solidarity with the Hasidim, it begins to be a nice type of joy when a woman just starting on her way takes the courage to cover herself up, in an island filled to the brim with half-naked cows who simultaneously claim to detest attention. My old subject had been at church, and heard a most beautiful sermon. Good for thee, saith I; now hast thou still to read Jeremy Taylor? Remember Keats, Keats’s deathbed, and the title of the first part of my Kunstlerroman…

“I realized that what I was being told I saw was different from what I was actually seeing. Then I realized that I did not see or believe in anything the ones telling me Christ did not exist were telling me was the truth of things… in a strange way they actually brought me back to church!”

This, my friends, brings us bright and early to an interesting point: that the contemplative path, or the instrumentation of matter, is the greatest garlic for our vampiric age, hourly demanding all technological-feudal slaves shudderingly face: “Do you believe what you see, or do you believe what you are told that you see?” But I want to say that the matter pertains exclusively to the visible, which is to say fragmentary; for the totality of the oligarchical concept is nothing more than concept-bondage, proven increasingly by our light-hearted justifications for that dual prison that is the digital prison of contemporary being conjoined to the mental prison best evidenced on bright sunny days in the city park, less people watching than turning disconsolately away from the masked women who marching stare at screens. I believe there is a film that I have never seen called The Men Who Stare at Goats; the nightmare of contemporary concept-being has made me juggle about a nonexistent supplement in The Women Who Stare at Screens. That could be a novel for any one of you! All one sees are once-faces with a mask covering most of the face with a rectangular phone perfectly covering the rest of the face; why does no one examine the physiology of all of this? Perhaps because it would entail a bondage so profound that it would annihilate the recurring defaults that make up concept-being in earnest and actually force one to take control of one’s self. Hence digitality incorporates the subjugation of mind, body, and spirit; one must abandon authentic care for the self if one is going to embrace the manufactured politics and ceaseless gadgetry of corporatism. Let us keep these things in mind as we divulge the place of monasticism in the life and work of Gustave Flaubert, and see if anything arises to the surface that might help us better frame, and thence reform, the state of our lives, and how the deliberate incorporation of aesthetic immersion can alone grant one the power to at least begin the thawing process of that ice block that is Dante’s latter half of Satan; we do not want to do this to free up Satan, but rather to free up the ice blocks that have formed in our minds and spirit, the ice in our heart that James Baldwin notes in the beginning of “Sonny’s Blues.” We are after the unfrozen heart; we are going to replace the object-being of outwardness with the interiority of reframed aesthetic cognition in the dialectical process of life-work.

The pain of self-responsibility is an identical reflection of the pain that leads to the authenticity of self-reflection out in the noetic world: the pain of birth; the pain of the addict’s recovery; the pain of confession; the pain of exercise; the pain of hard work; the pain of rejection; all of these pains lead to the not-pain of ontological disclosure. Without self-responsibility, every last act of violence and destruction, in the literature of life and the life of literature, is nothing more than a carnal reveal of the collective or singular lack of self-responsibility; and this, the latter, is the foundation of all misery. See also: Milton’s Eve.

Hence the movement that begins and end with corporate propaganda is slated for nothing more a parade of destruction that accomplishes nothing and is allowed to take place solely for the simultaneous sake of beings in further mental and physical bondage who at the same time become greater consumers. This is the reality that poetry and literature have, from the beginning, successfully set out to destroy; and this destruction of the simulated universe of concept-being is a really a sort of flipping the tables that is despised at first glance and later redeems the afflicted. Our mission is in fact borne of love; one is pained to see clearer than the mob, but there it: not all vision is equal. We want to, with the monks and Flaubert, decimate the assumptive-foundation that is the faulty premise that is the reason that a potpourri of slogans and concepts permanently lead to nothing but more misery: one is mistaking the shadows of skeletal branches for the profundity that is the oaken root(s). Lest we let the shovel sit there and reveal its objectness to us, we follow Marcus Aurelius, and “Within is the fountain of good, and it will ever bubble up, if thou wilt ever dig.”

*

Earlier in the series I made note of a monastic intention on part of Walter Benjamin, the sole member worthy of nominal respect to bumble forth from that dated cask of foul calumnies that is today called the “Frankfurt School.” A number of the books containing information on this bag of ejaculatory charlatans and patron saints of pathological victimhood have been banned from our most popular booksellers, which ought to indicate at least in a sense firstly just how deep the grave has been dug (not to mention that the men and women with shovels at the foot of this ideological foundation pit now control all print and digital corporations of ‘approved’ [i.e. fascistic] communications), and secondly how worthy are the gems of Benjamin, considering the incurable psychopathology and degeneracy masquerading as philosophy that surrounded him, perhaps not unlike that most interesting, if neglected man, Jack Kerouac, surrounded too as was, by completely lesser beings. The more that the West comes to despise the reality of the “I” – moving from object to subject, trying for terrible, cloaked metaphysical reasons to deny the most clearest reality of all, variegated cultures across being and time borne of the union that is rudimentary-being before any concept-being can even be cognized, which is to see the encounter between the donator and the receiver. In fact, this idea-world of donators and receivers are in a perpetual orgy of emulating the means of being: the human oral faculties are designed to talk, or donate, between as the mouth is two ears, made for receiving along with the eyes the fruits of literacy and orality.  But this leads us, by way of the tragedy that is a man in the world with at least an occasional yearning for sanctity, into the more selective scope of secular monasticism in the mystical hall of sentences carried out with the delicacy and sublimity of sculpture, fusing as it were – in life and art – the prosaic symphonies of none other than Gustave Flaubert. Everyone has at least heard of Madame Bovary. No, I take that back. One wants to believe that everyone has at least heard of Madame Bovary, but even that, I concede, is doubtful. One certainly does not expect anyone outside of the planetwide French departments to have read any of Flaubert’s work, correspondence in our age of simulation taken to the power of simulation, or simulation-being trapped in the narratological equivalent of an Althusserian linguistic maze of death. But as for me, one would always be lacking in a potentially clear picture of myself if one was unwilling or unable to deeply research the life and letters and Gustave Flaubert; his approach to being and its sculptural teleology of dialogical elegance really, to my knowledge, has no predecessor or antecedent in the world of poetic interiority and the cultivation of the spirit and the letter, which is the world of solitude. A comparative study could be drawn up between Etienne Gilson’s text on Bernard of Clairvaux’s mystical theology and Francis Steegmuller’s book on and translation of Flaubert. I personally cannot revisit Flaubert’s letters as much as my unchecked, or initial, instincts would gravitate towards, as I fear I would retire from the world altogether, into a spacious den that is something like a conjoined library-study and temple, architecturally modeled on that sacred room described in Henry James’s “The Lesson of the Master.”

Has anyone here seen a film called The Seventh Continent? There are two scenes there I think can further help us understand acuity and precision in the “I” on subjective narrative moving in and through the language of objects: first, the second or two midway through the film when the shot goes black at the market while the sounds of the register clang on; and secondly, the destruction of the Greek vase toward the beginning of the end of the film. The mantelpiece is destroyed first with the vase, breaking through a thin layer of glass that I believe was clothed by lattice, before the vase is swallowed whole by the gutted mahogany; then the vase-breaker picks up what appears to an axe and destroys the rest of the instrument, the earth-ground of its concept-self having opened up and swallowed the fragmented body of the sacred relic. Has ever technological nihilism, its true spirit, ever made itself so felt in a collective four or five cinematic seconds? That scene was the most prescient glimpse into the suicide of the west I had seen all that day, which is saying something, considering I had to walk through Bushwick, Brooklyn on business at one point earlier in the day. The icing on the cake was the mallet-destruction of first the clock, and then the computer, but by then the concept-object of decay had already been perfectly drawn into Hell, or Hades, by the Attic vase. More profane minds can pick up the fragments of the more apocalyptic aspect of the movement in the destruction of the clock and the computer, which requires neither classical nor aesthetic dignity. Now that I ask the question of course we shall all each think of a thousand seconds’ worth of concept-being and eclipse of the object, but when I watched the film lately I could not help but strike down a quick pair of interrelated notes. These moments of the film seem to me a true update on the piano that moves into and through the alleyway of Flaubert into perhaps the greatest literary explosion ever literarily recorded, a preface to the implosion of being at the hands of all-annihilating industrialism on the way to digitality. I mean, of course, the climax of Zola’s Germinal.

But one really has nothing else to say about that chap Zola. It is really the heart of Flaubert that for the moment we are after, and again I cannot recommend highly enough a deep investigation into the life and letters of him; coupled with the unbelievably rich body of monastic texts from all countries and centuries at our disposal, the layman and scholar alike have a real chance to ensure their work returns the aspect of the sacred that is so often lost in the sphere of sacred nihilism, which is a misapprehension of being and time, by way of miscalculating the depths of one’s self in the mix of growing worn out with disaffected industry. Therefore in order to turn our lives into the Imitatio we are commanded by Dasein to raise to sacrament, a real sacrament of being-on-the-streets, we must refurnish not-work in order to reconceptualize technical work. Then one, by reconstructing his ‘free’ time, has reconstructed the soul of his work-time; it is a matter of balance and interior splendor rather than numeric or mental alteration that turns imperceptible sorrow into the action of thought, moving from text to action. Is there not something tragic interwoven into the memory of marble pool within a shopping mall, its floor lined with pennies, nickels, and the occasional quarter?

But never-mind: one turns from the vanished fountain and toward the claw machine and all its stuffed animals, as we shall through the science of Flaubertian prosody see, galloping out the quarter-alms of parental pockets, on the way to salvation.

*

Kinsmen of the Flesh:

Flaubertian Prolegomena in the Monastic Prose of Late Antiquity

It is not impossible that Remigio de’ Girolami (as Mrs. Enrico de Negri kindly pointed out to me) had Romans 9:3 in mind: “Optabam enim ego ipse anathema esse a Christo pro fratribus meis.”[1]

Kantorowicz

Introduction

Flaubertian prose as a means by which to reassess the literary genesis and structure of monastic texts – this is our subject. In this lecture, in addition to the foregoing meditation, I argue that despite ongoing studies of Gustave Flaubert’s life, letters, and literature as a means by which to develop questions of religion which appear to culminate in Flaubert’s Tentation, a more formalisticapproach is still needed. This formalistic perceptivity is grounded in the means by which Flaubert’s intellectual contributions developed through Antony and late antiquity, and is guided by historiography so as to better understand Flaubert’s own lamentations about existence.[2] Establishing the Flaubertian aspects of monastic writings and vice-versa, I suggest, unpacks fictive methodology across genres, lending itself to novelistic discourse and interpretative, narratological readings of historical texts: the reader brings experience into solitude and engages in a necessarily fictional enterprise that predates even Antony.[3] Flaubert, then, is exceptional in that his method is a direct reflection of this reflection “contemporaneously with Marx, a virtual catalogue of such divine or diabolical commodifications.”[4] By rejecting society and turning to biblical texts, Flaubert and the Desert Fathers overlap; Flaubert’s novelistic Christology is the secular culmination of Athanasius’s project.

Unregulated Existence

For the Desert Fathers the essential combat from which all others flowed was against evil.[5] For Flaubert the single combat is against empty page. But what makes Flaubert different from so many other authors is his physical detachment from the city for a fight found in the concentrated solitude of his mother’s house,[6] where he dipped his pen beyond the inkwell of historiographical rhetoricity and into the canvas of Egyptian monasticism with his back to the city. Therein he was one with the monks. It is, further, “not about self-affirmation or self-transcendence; what is at stake is forsaking the self and the suffering this entails. Flaubert articulated this Triebschicksal through a Christian matrix from late antiquity and the early Middle Ages.”[7] Working with a synthesis whereby Flaubert’s literary works are demonstrated as the calculated byproduct of extensive readings in scientific and philological study, Barbara Vinken supplies a monastic rejoinder to this Flaubertian line of vision: “A well-wrought textual body is [like a monastery] all male.”[8]

 Coupled with an intense research regimen and lifelong attachment to Athanasius, this foundation leads to a theoretical procedure: it contends that Flaubert achieved a style that, thanks to incorporating elements of asceticism, is informed by the page alone, rather than – in the Benedictine sense – God alone. For Flaubert was constantly working with and through the Bible, and discreetly did so by moving beyond ideas of religion and into the epistemological fragility of religious research without a binding affiliation for himself. By rendering his religious devotion a quasi-monastic textual matter, Flaubert likewise freed himself up while keeping carnal desires intact[9] in order to explore the mortal elements of myth, typology, linguistics, and a secular asceticism. Therefore, in critically outlining his compositional method, literary construction, and vision of solitude in history and history in solitude one may define and acquire this Flaubertian lens in order to revisit other like-minded solitaries and their texts, as from a place of contemplative erudition Flaubert’s corpus is an indexical engagement with biblical and early monastic thought; his body of work is the result of a monasticism without religion, that renders him an unusual freedom to work for the text alone. This process sheds precise light upon the singular literary construction of the Desert Fathers and what its exilic uniformity stirred in Flaubert. Acute labor given to the processional representation of the past allows Flaubert to make a historical place come alive that is, at the same time, isolated. His historical vision does not seem as though it is part of any chronological narrative that at some point leads to the present moment. Like the early Mothers and Fathers a unified, seemingly timeless zone outside of chronological space, is achieved by inventing things in the present with a vigor matched by reflective, necessarily timeless propaedeutic.[10] This dialectical process of prosaically looking backward while writing forward is heightened by Flaubert’s disinclination to celebrate either contemporary life or the past. His narratology converges poetic intuition with Guidestone, foretelling Ricoeur’s suspicion-without-restraint. As noted, at the same Flaubert is simultaneously a forerunner to the Marxist hermeneutic Jameson observes in the Political Unconscious.[11]

One looking back at the Desert Fathers through a Flaubertian lens is tempted to consult a formalistic approach in order to reconsider Flaubertian style, its compulsory solitude, and thereby reassess monastic works with a renewed literary perception: “The subsidiary devices turn out to be the motivation of those essential devices which permit renewed perception in the first place.”[12] For the idea of a formalism-qua-formalism indicates the isolation of the intrinsic; that if the thing-in-itself cannot function in the case of being sealed off from itself, it cannot function period.[13] It nonetheless seems that this is a mode of perceptivity rather than a rule; that it is logically impossible to formalistically apprehend texts whose histories and autobiographies are already familiar, resulting in a theoretical shoddiness borne of faulty premises: “there are no preexisting laws that govern the elaboration of the novel as a form: each one is different, a leap in the void, an invention of content simultaneous with the invention of the form.”[14] Likewise, Flaubert’s inventorial exactitude works in the first place by granting the reader a tapestry of picture-memories in prose.

But this inverted sola scriptura, despite its claims, is working on a level that takes the apparent “way” of novelistic discourse and reinvents it through elasticised vignettes of monastic history. The resulting precision is both linguistic and philosophical. Flaubert’s intellectual process also corresponds to Jameson’s observations on formalism and the subject: “The need for each successive generation to react against its own masters, the Formalists saw this perpetual change, this artistic permanent revolution, as being inherent in the nature of artistic form itself, which, once striking and fresh, grows stale and must be replaced by the new in unforeseen and unforeseeable manners.”[15] It was thus inevitable that Flaubert would go to trial (like, say, Christ before him and Joyce after). Such is the price of particular wisdom. But I would like to suggest that it was neither flipped tables, false witness, nor the prospect of sexual reality that incensed the government. Instead, Flaubert’s case spoke to the fact that power is dependent upon conceptual device rather than concrete forms; and in this regard Flaubertian methodology mirrors that of the Desert Fathers, whose abandonment of city and secular rule was more perilous an example than whatever their specificities of doctrine. For both the Desert Fathers and Flaubert the specificities are surface-level, and what is imperative is the authorial awakening to call into question society as it stands on the part of the reader. Geoffrey of Monmouth and Henry Medwall dealt with such mental furnishings in centuries prior to Flaubert, and it is further evidenced in the codexical plates of Matthew Paris’s Life of St. Alban. There, eucharistic frames entail space and freedom of choice while secular authority is crowded, deranged, and speaks to the futility of men engaged in the temporality of political religion.

The Desert Fathers and Flaubert drop hollow ornamentation for the sake of a laborious, dialectical process whereby identity and difference are deconstructed through short and long alike, and with regard to formalistic structure and authorial artificiality, I less have Shklovsky in mind than Flaubert himself: “The most beautiful thing would be a book about nothing.”[16] Like “the Muses”, we know precisely what is meant although we cannot quite see it. As Jonathan Culler observes,[17] Flaubert’s insight is revolutionary: he eclipses categorisation amongst who can be a hero, subject, villain, or what a plot “can” be, as the Desert Fathers turned the desert into a wellspring of religious, imaginative freedom.

Returning to Flaubert’s statement on the novel about nothing I would like to suggest that there is a strange lure here, and that it is a monastic rather than a proto-existentialist observation. It is a rejection of mirrored life – Plot – worth conceptualising in both its subtraction from the commonplace and what this process, textually and obliquely, looks like. Both the monks and Flaubert are united in their methods of social loss for the sake of a flourishing interiority.[18] But what does “a text about nothing” look like? The fact that this cannot be answered is in fact the answer. For in the monastery one comes to see the other – exterior – in a threefold way: first, there is the aspect of what drove one to the four walls of freedom in the first place: perhaps that society is a hole held together by some demented, invisible wings, forever fanning the flames of Hell; secondly, obedience to the Abbot, from which community life centered in Imitatio Christi is structured on both temporal and eternal grounds; thirdly, there is the circulation of fragmented memory (of outside life), dissolved by prayer, comradely work, and the incensed universe of prose. Solitude is accessed at a level that cannot be obtained by the mainstream, becoming the explorer’s analogical difference between a round-trip and one-way ticket. For Flaubert this transformative awakening is conveyed into the text by way of late antique historiographical immersion.

Between Antony and Flaubert lies the canvas of medieval solitude as a linguistic mode of representational picture-thinking that connotates an increasing immersion into the construction of memory, recitation, preservation, and texts developed with proto-novelistic aspects. While this is both literally and figuratively true for the religious, we see in Flaubert a life no less dedicated; only his consecration seems to have come in the court room. William of Malmesbury has something of his literary, novelistic flare as well. But Flaubert’s achievement is a textual moment wherein we see for both the monks and Flaubert a rejection of established custom that turns to a living of the text. This has been seen in other cases, both literary and exegetical, i.e. Gregory the Great. However, Flaubert’s is the final phase: literarily surgical precision borne of historiographical solitude and brought to life through a secular monasticism.

Confining Freedom: Literary Method as Historiographical Solitude

As with his depiction of Carthage in Salaambo, Flaubert’s instrumentation allows him to part ways with for instance Polybius, while retaining concrete text as pertains to identical subject matter.[19] The lesser historian’s more general problem of melding facts into prose is handed over; Flaubert’s stylistic alchemy turns such base metals into gold. Attention-to-detail on the one hand is synthesised with the poet’s creative intuition, allowing Flaubert to recreate historical narrative by a methodology beyond mapped attention-to-detail; and on the other hand is his gelding process of localised precision and imaginative exactitude. In this regard Flaubert is less ahistorical than painstaking.[20]

Flaubert’s historical figures lack historical consciousness. He has good, if dense reasoning: the author’s variation on the historical present has nothing in common with that which has already passed, as concerns the subject’s then-intuition of the instant.[21] By doing away with narrative genealogy Flaubert allows his characters to – presumably and prosaically – live as they did, with nothing more than an abstract idea of what their future – our distant past – held. The characters scattered throughout the Desert Fathers are portrayed in a similar way.[22] For Flaubert it is nonsensical to write exclusively about antiquity or the present day; the malaise of contemporaneous France[23] is thus reconsidered in light of the real and imagined violence and sex of the East, which Flaubert has colonially seen and recorded. His narrative therefore justifies imperialism through means of an incomparable critical interpretation. Through reading the Desert Fathers and Flaubert’s narratives in tandem the reader can no longer pretend that we are surprised as to how such subjugation transpired and transpires.[24]

Self-identification in Flaubert’s historical resources comes into stylistic fruition through a comparative reading concerned with mythic substance rather than distorted reinterpretation by way of paraphrased recourse in the Bible and Josephus, a textual pair whose Flaubertian correlation lies between the meaning of the real and its presentation.[25] For instance, Salome’s name is not mentioned once in the synoptic texts; but it is mentioned by Flavius Josephus. Likewise, the synoptic texts mention Salome’s dance, whereas Josephus’s does not.[26] Proximity to the eyewitness is thus transformed into sensory data and communicated through mnemonic centers for fictional processing, selecting narratological moments that work in union with a literary scaffolding. Here authorial vision of the fictive real contains a symbolic identity that is the measure of its faithfulness; and this very faithfulness is the measure of mimesis.[27] As Flaubert’s novelistic chronology moved from Emma to Felicite, “pigments of a brighter hope soften any subsisting ironic tinge.”[28] For the Desert Fathers the Holy Spirit became the phenomenological validation that neither Rome nor even statehoods in their prime could or did offer. Augustine’s immutability[29] is forecasted in “sayings” and letters; their philosophical flourish prefigures Kierkegaardian unchangeability[30] particularly when taken in light of the latter’s Christological parables:[31] “Flaubert stylised himself as a secluded monk who had retreated to his Carthusian cloister in order to renounce all worldly pleasure and devote his life ascetically to his work alone; he signed texts with the name Saint Carpe, a stylite of late antiquity who had turned away from the world in disgust.”[32]

The allegorical bread of redemption translates into Flaubert’s touchstone for literary writing, upon and through which the majority of his explicit and secondary sources flow: the Bible.[33] As with Jerome and Sulpicius Severus, “His flouting of contemporary orthodoxy endowed his work with a potential that is still far from exhausted… instead of warring on behalf of or against the republic, science, or the church, he subverts all of them.”[34] Through Pentecost, Babel, Crucifixion, Resurrection, the fulfilling words of love, borne of the Holy Spirit, Flaubert and the Desert Fathers make the offer of the living bread: by comprehending world history in this light he is able to process an immaculate prose fixed in insularity. But this is where the emphasis in restraint lies, as Flaubert is unconcerned with typological, titular anchorage outside of the enclosed authorial realm. Even if salvation is a lie, and yet its course is fixed by the New Testament. It is a hope in the impossibility of hope, mirroring the impossibility of absolute comprehension in existence; language is a limited summit.

Procedurally Flaubert chooses not to turn to the trends of his age but strives for the highest form of self-denial and asceticism: proverbial impersonality.[35] This habit of being is maintained by an ever-forming literary crystallisation that drew the ire of peers and courtrooms (Imitatio Christi). The Flaubertian corpus exists on a plane between literality and superficiality. But what is set in stone is that the last words of Madame Bovary are “Croix de la Legion d’Honneur;”[36] that Carthagians and mercenaries alike are crucified face-to-face at the end of Salammbo, followed by a variation on the Stations of the Cross;[37] that Three Tales “spatially renders the figure of the Cross through the vertical dynamic of the final scenes, which are crossed horizontally by the carrying of the severed head of John the Baptist out of the vertical castle walls onto the plain of Galilee.”[38]

When Flaubert looks to a closer, more immediate past in either the Enlightenment or the French Revolution, he sees an age of stupidity, ugliness, and shallowness. Yet his response is aesthetic rather than political, a method of victory having diagnosed the prospect of political discourse or success as a temporal waste that is willingly blind to the Hegelian framing of humanity: that we learn from history that we do not learn from history;[39] he is merciless in his unmasking of illusions.[40] In order to understand the monastic approach to historiography we must turn to Leclercq: “The only desire which is legitimate is to possess God here below and forever; here below, in the very midst of sorrow, and because of it; later, in Heaven since celestial realities (caelestia) are but another name for God.”[41] The coming of the Cistercians some centuries off, are not Leclercq’s perspectival-principal literary sources of monastic culture identical to Flaubert’s literary craftwork and way of life? They are: Holy Scripture, the Patristic Tradition, and Classical Literature.

As Diderot held that freedom would be realised when the last king was strangled with the entrails of the last priest, Flaubert lived in the sentiment’s metaphorical aftermath. Religious preoccupations allowed Flaubert to proceed with something of, like Santayana, a Christian atheism. His generation’s Christianity becomes, for Flaubert, a deluded imitation of its patristic glories; it is truly right and just to abhor it. There is neither peace in the past nor in the future unless it is in terms of Heaven for the Fathers, the Text for Flaubert; here a people are either martyred, sinning, subjugating or subjugated. Covenantal sacrifice becomes for Flaubert a means of narrative; it is useless to suffer, but worse than useless to pretend there is a path to trod whereby suffering will be uprooted from the human experience.[42] His turn from a religiosity of expectation into the alcoves of incessant religious research mirrors his turn from domesticity into codependent aversion: “It all comes from their organ. Where a man has a Rise, they have a Hole! That rise represents Reason, Order, Science, the Sun-Phallus, and the hole is darkness, moisture, troubles… love is like the need to piss.”[43] By turning his generative energies to prose, Flaubert spares himself the futility of a donative, second lesson of the cross.[44]

Whereas Bovary provoked public trial, Antony undertook a private one. Rather than do what had been comradely recommended to him by Bouilhet in burning it and never speaking of it again, Flaubert worked on it in three periods throughout his life.[45] Antony’s question appealed to Flaubert because the same questions facing men in both the desert and the city 1,400 years later.[46] For in prose Flaubert found less a remedy than his own heuristic prism. He turned to Antony, Antony turned to Christ, and Christ provided the exemplary case for enduring Satanic temptation in the desert, his 40 days personifying the groundwork for a scorched atlas of literary remapping. The resilient text doubles as its watchword in the spirit of the Desert Fathers: contextual and epistemological resilience. Their concerns, like Flaubert’s are thus at once alien and identical, “understood through a single paradigm and creative text rather than through literary-critical histories.”[47] Consider Flaubert’s letter to Louise Colet, Sept. 4, 1852:

This is the very thing that the socialists of the world, with their incessant materialistic preaching, refuse to see. They have denied suffering; they have blasphemed three-quarters of modern poetry, the blood of Christ that stirs within us. Nothing will extirpate it, nothing will eliminate it. Our purpose is not to dry it up, but to create outlets for it. If the sense of man’s imperfection, of the meaninglessness of life, were to perish – as would follow from their premise – we would be more stupid than birds, who at least perch on trees.

Like Athanasius, Flaubert dismantles hypothetical predicates by leaving no wiggle-room for temporised debate.[48] For Flaubert aesthetics offer, as for Mary Mothersill, “A theory of beauty or artistic merit that must provide some account of the predicate or predicates that it takes as generic.”[49] By lambasting the temporal, Flaubert sheds light on a delicate balance of nihilism without restraint[50] and ideological patristics. His historical-literary conscientious rejection of the city amidst communal revolutionary movements was simultaneously an echo of medieval rejections re: trickle-down anachronistic teleology:[51]

The Vita Antonii and medieval hagiography directly enable Flaubert in his Tentacion to play several time frames off one another analogically, namely the early Church in fourth-century Egypt, medieval Christendom, and nineteenth-century France… Certainly in aesthetic terms Flaubert’s use of the vita and summa as history paradoxically liberates the solely theological constraints of these genres, and widens the question of representing exemplariness to non-theological domains such as comparison of cultures and societies.[52]

Despite irregular nods to Herodotus, Vitruvius, Lucian, and Diodorus,[53] Flaubert gleams from Athanasius the notion of an exemplary, singular sacrifice even in secular, bourgeois matters:[54] “Madame Bovary is me!” Here Flaubert both progresses novelistic discourse while recalling Torah typologies of, among others, Philo and Origen by Fr. Jean Danielou, S.J.[55] Another aspect of the ceaseless appeal in Athanasius is that his historiography orbits around the notion that Antony’s sacrifice is not an instance but a process, first interiorly brought on by Christ. It then transforms one – be it Antony or Athanasius – into a being who can no longer recognise themselves. “Layered strata of significance” fills both the hand’s veins and the clutched instrument’s ink beneath its weight, finding “a connective and analogical ‘logic.'”[56] By replacing world-self, or the “already-out-there-now” with a monastic historicisation, Orr considers that density at the core of such a novelistic system is in Flaubert’s not case not a matter of “opting for aesthetic undecidability either when it comes to representing the unrepresentable of prehistory or mythic ecstasy. When harmonised, the two seeming extremes of lyrical/idea vs. scientific/real details can depict illumination of revelations beyond human grasp.”[57] Thus the classical, secular texts in conjunction with biblical and hagiographical works lead to a varied middle-ground between Athanasius and Flaubert; this treasure-chest of intertextual dialogue ranges from Arthur Schopenhauer to Bernard of Clairvaux.

Writing on Bernard of Clairvaux’s debt to Benedict,[58] Jane Foulcher observes that “There is no route toward God that does not entail a humiliating encounter with human weakness, with the broken or false self… Spiritual progress is painfully slow because there is always interplay between grace and nature, between grace and human freedom.”[59] The monastic experience offers an enclosed space within which to develop a rhythm and structure that is not unlike the hagiographical motif in ever-building, ever-developing upon the theme of Imitatio Christi. The difference is, of course, that now the person has a chance to become a text,[60] an instrument of His peace within what Thomas Merton called the “Four walls of freedom.”[61] This is a Flaubertian insight on par with Arthur Schopenhauer’s theory of the New Testament[62] and solitude as authentic freedom.[63] Solitude is for Flaubert, Schopenhauer, and the Desert Fathers a testament to absolute freedom; it is itself for these seemingly unrelated writers a lived philosophy that, in turn, begets coming to understand that philosophy is a literary genre. If it is alien to us today, it says more about the future than it does about the past; our inability to fathom being alone with God is indicative less of vanished God than it is a technological eradication of the Logos, Geist, Dasein in person and society, returning to Leclercq:

Now at the beginning of His public life, Jesus was led into the desert by the Spirit, that He might engage in single combat with the devil. The struggle in the garden was the prelude to the struggle in the Garden of the Agony. This last was the exemplar and meritorious cause of the charity of all the martyrs and all the hermits who would be tested, like Christ himself, in the furnace of tribulation because they were pleasing to God.[64]

There is both Christological and authorial truth to this concept of mind, as an interiorised eschatology – a suppression of the cosmic in order to preserve a surgical prose – is what Flaubert is operating with: the authorial, narratological freedom to apprehend eschatological totality in principle, theory, and exegetical history for the sake of maximum knowledge which, transformed in contemplative space, is at last transmitted into prose.

But to understand Athanasius’s narrative discourse in both his life of Antony and the preserved letters, we must understand his Flaubertian disclination toward philosophy. I call this Flaubertian because Flaubert is so without a clear debt to philosophical trend that the field’s absence unfolds into his own original philosophy of literature. As with both Athanasius and Marx, Flaubert looks at philosophy and sees a poverty of method;[65] that what he, or they, are going to do cannot be contained by philosophy. It is both offensive to the philosophers and suggestively prescient; philosophy is a literary genre, complete with plots, characters, and so forth. Here we see that Athanasius’s vision of Stoicism and Plotinian thought as pagan, when Arian heresies abounded, his discourse is steadfast in its perpetual recourse to Scripture.[66] At the center of Egyptian ecclesiastical politics, Athanasius turned inward to replenish the vision he held of his life in typological variations on scriptural chronology. His strange death was immortalised 1500 years later by none other than James Joyce.[67] Athanasius understands Christ as the criterion of appropriate reading and, like Flaubert, his interpretation of authorial composition is guided “not by a philosophical framework so much as by privileged biblical images that he describes as paradeigmata, behind which is an analogical vision of reality…[68] Attainment of virtue boils down to christomimetic tropology: Christ is the perfect example of virtue, ‘typified’ in his life.”[69]

Flaubert likewise sees literary history as a process that ebbs and flows, with his generation an organic gutter of superficiality and stupidity. Bernadette McNary-Zak describes in Useful Servanthood a method that serves well as a monastic foundation for Flaubert’s acute responsorial instrumentation: “Verbal purity and integrity were felt to be indispensable for engaging in meaningful interpretation.”[70] Likewise, Antony’s successor Abba Ammonas employed literary letter writing as a means by which to incrementally grant recipients a ladder to communion with the indwelling of the divine, or cosmic purity. His correspondence attests to the exterior paradigm that made possible such an interior growth by way of texts designed for literary reference[71] or private recitation.[72] As for both Antony’s successor and his literary champion, affliction and disgrace are gains.[73] There is to be no confusion, either: be it the dinner table or before an impaling rod, a courtroom or a drawing room: the wrath of an ungodly society is a good thing for both the saint and author, both dialogical pilgrims. Approval from the condemned is a death sentence; it is better, and more at one with God, to undergo the gates of hell.[74]

Whereas Flaubert’s ascension is strictly that of novelistic prose, Athanasius’s removal from society unfolds in stages that parallel the movement of his spiritual development. The journey to freedom in solitude is not achieved at once in a process of eventuality and culmination but is rather a snowballing effect.[75] Historical license, as in Jerome’s case, unfolds into the literary mind. The outsider writes himself into the scenario that commands recognition but which, as is the case, opens the door to rejection, condemnation, and exilic means. But in the case of the first monks who contained a groundwork for literary fiction, a more complete isolation was consciously sought. It is taken further in the crowning success – and its suicidal implications – in martyrdom. Outside of martyrdom, the chronotopic universe seeks lack of concern for the body, and nearly continuous prayer.[76] The age of Athanasius similarly gave way to novelistic insight by way of Jerome’s source-work in creating a literary persona, drawn out of Christian literary activity, by his constructing the hermit Paul first from the standpoint of a self-styled Latin Origen. Then, revisiting the descriptions of classical poets and Eusubius’s own description of Origen, Jerome made the foundational move of weighing a high level of literary activity on the scales of Christian ascesis, “demonstrated his absolute commitment to God through his abandonment of his social position, his familial obligations and even his dearest friend.”[77]

By bringing Christ down to earth, through the country and into form, Flaubert latched his novelistic discourse upon the anthropological process of religious vision and acts draw up Christological, late antique questions and statements on the development of a consciousness transforming from one of plurality (Muses), to a contained plurality that is ontologically singular (Trinity). As the gods became God, so did Flaubert pave the forthcoming way of inventive measures for the novel, literature’s youngest form, inculcating Realism by way of prosaic non-rational, with the help of Antony.

The singularity of Flaubert’s contributions lies in a secular take on monastic meditation being “the craft of making thoughts about God.”[78] Rather than reversing the idea of enclosure and the precipitation of dogmatic canons, Flaubert calls from an intellectual place of enclosure that applies prosaic acuity to the specter of Christendom. For Flaubert, the faith is less a shell of its former self than it is a pair of shells:[79] historiography and fictionality.[80] The present tense is irrelevant not because Flaubert is bound to the nostalgia industry, but because the present tense is a conceptual impossibility; this impossibility is yet an overflowing fountain of mnemonic waters in its vindication of the non-rational. Medieval monasticism portrays the individual within their network being “perfected”, or “made complete” in an architecture of memory: “The arts of memory are among the arts of thinking, especially involved in fostering the qualities we now revere as ‘imaginative’ and ‘creativity.’”[81] Flaubert, as with monastic texts, is understood through negation: first, in the severance from biblical and literary canons in order to undergo initiation in the art of religious, artistic subtilities;[82] second, the formal perceptivity adds a dimension to this textual realm by subtracting the possibility of an actual religious enclosure from his life of solitude; third, in turn he seeks to perfect, or structurally complete the text, rather than the communal self.[83]

Tendential Juridicisations     

In order to further comprehend, and thus solidify, the literary traces that monastic tales hold in the desert and complete themselves in Gustave Flaubert, we must go deeper into the idea of formalistic perceptivity in terms of the texts’ unities through opposition. By this it is meant that as a general literary rule, on the whole nothing in hindsight can but appear less ferocious, or plainly, we are often perplexed at how famously banned texts were ever brought to court or considered even minimally offensive rather than self-evident. For the monks, however, our incomprehension is one of insanity; for we place ourselves within a Manhattan or San Francisco and hypothesise a dogmatic literality that renders contemporaneous trends repulsive beyond measure (to a great extent one does not need to be religious at all in order to despise the modern world, as religion has in general gone from opium to pharmacology). But despite how bad things may be, it is never seems like anything less than insane to leave Manhattan, Brooklyn, or Rome behind in order to live and write in desert pits and caves. Thus, we shall first gloss Flaubertian insanity before moving through Agamben and into the Desert Fathers’ genre-as-form-of-life that precedes his Franciscan liturgies by nearly a thousand years.

The life turned over to a pair of textual variations on Pascal’s wager, pro and contra, find common footing in that “The infinite is not a thematic excess: It is, on the contrary, the rhetorical lack that makes the discourse function. The infinite is composed not of an excess of signified, but rather of a missing signified, of an excess of signifier that is constantly being displaced, replaced by another signifier.”[84] The missing signified begins in the ontological-existential sphere of consciousness. The monks abide by the Bible, a faith tenuously cemented by physical distance from the vile city. Inscriptions of eternity mark their exilic prosody in a way that is contagious and cumulative in Flaubert, where again the writer is bound to the consolation of living in the not-city. What remains is an erasure that is replenished in textual immersion, reminiscent of what Felman writers further, namely, “Inscription is possible only because there is erasure. The castration of meaning, the drowning of the signified, determines the flow, the substitution and displacement of signifiers.”[85] Metaphor on the way to heuristic chastity, the recast net magnetically hostile to vulva. Furthermore, Felman’s reading of these early Flaubert texts lead to the question: How can propose, in the same project, ‘I am going to tell the story of my life’; my life is my thought’? This is a legitimate question is we have an absolute poverty of Neo-platonic, or philosophical knowledge; for the very issue was put forth by Parmenides and illuminated by Pseudo-Dionysius, the one working through Homeric poetics and the other, uncoincidentally, monastic texts; it is therein no coincidence that the Desert Fathers fall in between these figures of Parmenides and Pseudo-Dionysius. As concerns exegetical prose poetics, Agamben’s offering of Bernard of Clairvaux makes another study’s bridge between Flaubert and the monks.[86]

In Basil we see also the aesthetic realm of negative anthropology carried out: “The abbot is the artifex of an art, ‘not attributing the performance of it to himself but to the Lord’ (32). The fabulous artifexer is simultaneously Pauline[87] in a prose guided by the is-not in order to comprehend an otherwise unfathomable what-is. For the theologian this is grace, or revelation; for the irreligious this is revolt against the culture industry laid out in a prose irreconcilable with the profane.

This genre of form-of-life is nonetheless more complicated than it appears. For Flaubert one might pick up biographical texts and works dealing with the life behind the work. But its tradition, created by monasticism with a groundwork laid in Latinity, brings us closer to the Rabelaisian madness that is behind Basil and Paul above: what does it mean to say that one is no longer responsible for one’s actions, and that for good or ill God has taken over? For Basil, the statement is at a glance charmingly selfless; but what is key here is that we take it as a glance. It would appear that this idea of self-God, dependent upon the hostility of grace, is indeed brought out of the negative in terms of authorship, where one is, if only in an empirical, debased state, God of one’s work, with the world of plot and characters literally within one’s hands. The public square replaces the cloistered life, and government officials must now deal with a Prosaic Basil, or Novelistic Paul: thus we observe banned books each year, reminiscent of past burnings, but herein predicated upon that spirit that loosed in Flaubertian prose, and its Marxian hermeneutic of transcending the immediate scenario of bondage in order to understand anything whatsoever. At this point we are ready, for instance, to recall Jameson’s Augustinian connotations in the Political Unconscious, and no longer claim anything but a perfect understanding of the matter.

For we must also consider an aspect of John Cassian that Agamben points out concerning the fruition of monastic being’s dedication to the admonition of postulates,[88] a trial of intense humiliation for ten days that precedes a change from clothing into habit, whereupon one spends a year near the entranceway under supervision of an elder monk. Obedience in turn precludes the vows, rendering in the authorial sense a Dionysian temptation to obey literary cognition, to render unto Parmenides what is Parmenidesian, and declare, like Flaubert, that life is literature. This initiative, or ritual, humiliation is not apprehended for itself alone; it is rather a key to the lock of comprehending self-gods and the exilic place, or spirit, of so much transformative literature. As Benedict’s Rule aims to transform the monk’s life into an uninterrupted Office and liturgy, Flaubertian consecration aims to keep the lines of communication afloat by letter while inverting the tapestry of humiliation: the author who has abandoned city life for live at home with one’s parent(s) cannot expect anything less from his Parisian friends. Indeed humiliation must in a sense coincide with rage; for surely Flaubert’s correspondents and advocates can understand why any of Flaubert’s neighbors, or townsfolk in general, are where they are. But the authorial champion of human rights, the irreligiously Christological vindication of Emma Bovary’s scattered archetypes among them? The torture and crucifixion echo throughout the solitude of a predicament the monastic author must write himself out of, and to fail in this regard is to contend the terrifying element that the sacrificial life was in vain; it is a martyr being hanged, drawn, and quartered, only to end up in some purgatorial rather than heavenly sphere.

Through the extreme displacement of monastic being runs a liturgical current that is also a literary soundtrack. Centurial blending of Platonism, Neo-Platonism, Judaic laws and customs, Stoic philosophies, permanent warfare and political crises, Athenian beauty sans extravagance and ritual Roman formalisms.[89] Literary fiction, or Literature, is also different from Fiction in this way: its history is a bedrock under steady metamorphosis. The world around it changes in technological aspects, or appearance, only; progress is then the history of that which is unchanging in its perpetual conviction that it is on the cusp of something that never in fact arrives. This is because the monk fails to comprehend that the non-monk is perhaps neither wicked nor profane, but simply finds the life – cloistered or open, freely religious – repulsive, having analysed its architectonic and finding the bad outweighing the good. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; but so is the historiographical nailing of liars to the wall like flies, or condemning the voting booth as nothing more than a suggestion box for slaves who will be made free not through voting, but through the totality and infinity of Marxian hermeneutic (which in its historical manifestations has resulted in nothing more than worse regimes than the regimes they eclipsed in Marx’s name). The irreligious, for their part, become religiously political, and therein lose whatever authenticity they may have ever neared.

Apostolic atheism/poverty of surroundings, e.g. distraction excised in conjunction with a vanquished temporal expectation that has also recently been observed by Agamben: “what is at stake is life and the way of living, a novum vitae genus, a life that they call ‘apostolic’ (haeretici qui se dicunt vitam apostolicam ducere…; nos forman apostolicae vitae servamus) or “evangelical” (pure evangelica et apostolica vita… vivere; vita Vangelii Jesu Christi; vivere secundum forman Sancti Evangelli).”[90] Poverty is an ultimatum and an aspect; these “idiots”, one of the way men such as Francis of Assisi or Norbert of Xanten referred to themselves, of course recalls Sartre’s Family Idiot; evaporation of possessions for the later monks mirrors the desert life but perhaps strikes us more in the twofold sense of chronological proximity and the idea that an alien land, or desert, seems to imply the futility of a wallet or a closet; wandering about town with nothing to one’s name is impossible to comprehend in a joyous light – what is the city but an accelerated arena wherein endless ways to spend one’s wages or excess funds in both visible and invisible ways is a perpetual motivations for tourists and residents alike? Why else suffer but for a higher cause? This higher level of thinking lends itself to innovation; the isolated author, monk, or city-dweller find equally, unfathomably repulsive their opposites: distracted authorial means, temporal living, or country pleb. Hence, we might also join Nelson and Gayk in “Thinking of medieval genres as form-of-life [that] both illuminates and develops the temporality, spatiality, and virtuality central to modern genre theory”;[91] that “texts and life are bound up with each other.”[92]

Biblical typology completes the authorial mode geared toward grace and receptivity; and although its historical circuitry fixed in post-desert Augustinian thought is less obvious, it is nonetheless evidenced in Flaubert’s A Simple Heart.[93] Here we are treated to a historical retelling order that works as a means by which for disciples to server themselves from motherhood’s Roman carnality. Recalling Foulcher’s portrait of conceptual monastic eschatology we understand Flaubert as a literarily religious person, we sever him from dogmatism; his two dogmas, literary cognition and stylistic totality, are grounded in empiricism; it is the narratology of operative grace that renders one free in penitential bondage, a testament to agony fixed in irony that is nonetheless a forerunner to spiritual motherhood, and a disrupting of carnal motherhood in order to lay the groundwork for venerating the Virgin Mary: “If the desert is the setting for the remaking of an identity, what is it for? What is the goal of this process of unselfing? And why is humility the way? The focus now moves more explicitly to the purpose of the monastic project, discovering the eschatological orientation that is at the heart both the Life of Antony and the Sayings of the Fathers.”[94] Flaubert arrests this notion of interior eschatological proceeding. Characters, such as a reimagined Julian the Hospitaller, come alive within its harrowing sphere.

But perhaps A Simple Heart best displays the testament begun by Egyptian monks and finished by Gustave Flaubert: that faith in literary work and the life required to compose it is a wall that death cannot surmount,[95] capable of preserving the word when flesh gives way while fueled by the sacred, archival transmission of visions temporal and otherwise in preservation; texts, simultaneously, in the world but not of it, and texts not of the world but for it. Mirroring these two dogmatic canons are the measure of Flaubert’s devotion, therein rendering the Flaubertian method of monastic literary fiction capable of, for example, disposing the king’s two patriarchal bodies, of altar and throne in one fell swoop, with a stuffed parrot.[96]

Partial Bibliography

Anatolios, Khaled. Athanasius. Routledge, 2004.

Babuts, Nicolae. Mimesis in a Cognitive Perspective. New Brunswick: Transaction

Publishers, 2011.

Baines, Robert. “The Opposite of Despair: St. Anthony Meets St. Patrick.” James Joyce

and the Nineteenth-Century French Novel, Brill Rodopi, 2011.

Carruthers, Mary. The Book of Memory. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2009.

—. The Craft of Thought. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000.

Cohen, Walter. A History of European Literature. Oxford Univ. Press, 2017.

Curtius, E.R. Essays on European Literature. Princeton Univ. Press, 1973.

Driver, Steven D. John Cassian and the Reading of Egyptian Monastic Culture.

Routledge, 2016.

Finn, Michael R. Figures of the Pre-Freudian Unconscious from Flaubert to Proust.

Cambridge Univ. Press, 2017

Flaubert, Gustave. Letters. Harvard Univ. Press, 2001.

—. Salammbo. Penguin Classics, 1977.

—. Three Tales. Oxford Univ. Press, 2009.

Foulcher, Jane. Reclaiming Humility: Four Studies in the Monastic Tradition.

Collegeville: Cistercian Publications, 2015.

Fuller, Ross. The Brotherhood of the Common Life. SUNY Press, 1995.

Hagberg, Gary L, and Walter Jost (eds.). A Companion to the Philosophy of Literature.

Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

Jameson, Fredric. Allegory and Ideology.

—. The Political Unconscious.

—. The Prison-House of Language. Princeton Univ. Press, 1975.

Leithart, Peter J. Athanasius. Ada: Baker Academic, 2011.

Matejka, Ladislav, and Krystyna Pomorska (eds.). Readings in Russian Poetics.

Dalkey Archive Press, 2002.

McNary-Zak, Bernadette. Useful Servanthood: A Study of Spiritual Formation in the

Writings of Abba Ammonas. Collegeville: Cistercian Publications, 2010.

Orlemanski, Julie. “Who Has Fiction? Modernity, Fictionality, and the Middle

Ages.” New Literary History 50, no. 2 (2019): 145-170.

Orr, Mary. Flaubert’s Tentacion: Remapping Nineteenth-Century French Histories of

Religion and Science. Oxford Univ. Press, 2009.

Reynolds, Susan. Kingdoms and Communities in Western Europe 900-1300.

Clarendon Press, 1997.

Steegmuller, Francis. Flaubert and Madame Bovary. NYRB Classics, 2004.

Vinken, Barbara. Flaubert Postsecular: Modernity Crossed Out. Stanford Univ. Press,

2015.

Woods, David. “Seriously bored: Schopenhauer on solitary confinement.” British Journal

for the History of Philosophy 27, no. 5 (2019): 959-978.


[1] This reference concerning a Pauline “kinsmen of the flesh” symbolically represents kinship between both textual monasticism and the methodology of Flaubert, centered in the “Word made flesh”; and it comes from The King’s Two Bodies because, as I conclude in this lecture, this stylistic method overturns the two patriarchal bodies of altar and crown, disposed by literary fiction: the seed planted by the Desert Fathers comes into fruition with Flaubert. 

[2] A Sentimental Education, 34.

[3] “Precisely because they claim that silence is at the heart of their interpretation, Valentinus and his followers fabricate their own fictive interpretation… True knowledge does bring the knower into closer contact with the known.” Scott D. Moringiello, The Rhetoric of Faith: Irenaeus and the Structure of the Adversus Haereses, Catholic University of America Press, 2019, 51-4. But for Irenaeus and others among Antony’s forerunners Christ’s work is continued in the work of the Church, not fiction.

[4] Fredric Jameson, Allegory and Ideology, Verso, 239.

[5] Harmless, William. Desert Christians. Oxford, 2004, 245, 328, 385-96.

[6] “If you cannot catch the wind, neither can you prevent distracting thoughts from coming into your head. Your job is to say No to them.” The Wisdom of the Desert (Trans. Thomas Merton). New Directions, 1970, 43.

[7] Vinken, 5.

[8] Ibid., 10.

[9] His love of prostitutes, for instance, granting him a particular Christological proximity to Mary Magdalene, or more monastically, Mary of Egypt: “I love prostitution, and for itself, too, quite apart from what there is underneath. My heart begins to pound every time I see one of those flashily dressed women walking under the lamplight in the rain, just as monks in their corded robes have always excited some deep, ascetic corner of my soul.”. Flaubert in Egypt: A Sensibility on Tour: a Narrative Drawn from Gustave Flaubert’s Travel Notes & Letters. Penguin, 1996, 10.

[10] Walter Cohen, A History of European Literature. Oxford Univ. Press, 2017, 374.

[11] Despite Jameson’s looking back to Balzac, cf. “in late Balzac, a prodigious expansion of the narrative frame, as well as a historicisation of its raw materials, tends to displace the older static desires and manias [of convention] and to shift the focus of the narrative to something like an etiology of desire… (what is its origin and prehistory, into what can it be transformed or sublimated?). Political Unconscious, p. 170. Jameson suggests that Flaubert’s narrative classicism is of invented transitions, “chromatic bridge-passages” (222) of which I would conclude that imagistic late antique hagiography plays both abutment and beams.  

[12] The Prison-House of Language, 52.

[13] Ibid., 43-7.

[14] Ibid., 73.

[15] Ibid., 53.

[16] Matejka (ed.), Readings in Russian Poetics, vii.

[17] “[T]here is a connection between Flaubert’s revolutionary notion that a trivial subject was as good as a noble subject for a serious novel, that the worth of a work of art does not depend on what is assumed to be the worth of its subject, and the democratic notion that every human subject is as worthy as another and allowed to have desires.” Jonathan Culler, “Flaubert’s Provocation.” Text Matters 7, no. 7 (2017): 62.

[18] “Just as fish die if they remain on dry land so monks, remaining away from their cells, or dwelling with men of the world, lose their determination to persevere in solitary prayer. Therefore, just as the fish go back to the sea, so we must return to our cells, lest remaining outside we forget to watch ourselves interiorly.” Wisdom, 29.

[19] Robert Graves’s I, Claudius is, for instance, an incomparable literary-fictional companion to Suetonius. But not only did Graves translate Suetonius: the two texts, Suetonius and Graves’s novel, achieve a sense of interchangeability when read side-by-side. Flaubert, on the other hand, seems to devour all of Polybius en route to the moment of creation; therein he abandoned everything about Polybius’s style, emphasis, memory, and representation, creating a completely unrecognisable world; this, I believe, is due to Flaubert’s personal aestheticisation of conceptual time.

[20] Cohen, 374.

[21] Flaubert’s intellectual contributions also contain the obscure gift of autodidactic precision. His work lends itself to pedagogical methods in history and fiction, the synthesis of conceptual-personal reality and the “world-already-out-there-now.” Brown, Hilary, and Richard D. Sawyer. “Dialogic reflection: An exploration of its embodied, imaginative, and reflexive dynamic.” In Forms of Practitioner Reflexivity, 1-12. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2016.

[22] Cohen, 374-5.

[23] “to subvert the ruling discourses of his time… directly opposed to all the political, scientific, and religious currents that characterise his epoch… he is alone in his vitriolic skepticism.” Vinken, 16-7.

[24] Cohen, 375.

[25] Ibid., 140.

[26] Mimesis in a Cognitive Perspective, 132.

[27] Ibid., 133.

[28] Ibid., 142.

[29] Augustine’s Confessions (trans. F.J. Sheed). San Francisco, 2015: 79, 151.

[30] Garff, Joakim, Peder Jothen, and James Rovira. Kierkegaard, Literature, and the Arts. Northwestern University Press, 2018, cf. Pattison, George. “The bonfire of the genres: Kierkegaard’s literary kaleidoscope.” (2018): 39-54.

[31] Collected as Parables of Kierkegaard. Princeton University Press, 1978.

[32] Barbara Vinken, Flaubert Postsecular: 2.

[33] Vinken, 3.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid., 11.

[36] Madame Bovary (trans. Steegmuller), Modern Library, 1957, 396.

[37] See Flaubert’s Salammbo (Penguin Classics), 275-82.

[38] “Saving the Cross from dogmatic Christian interpretation, which is what Flaubert’s work is about, is not undertaken with a view to some kind of humanisation, but rather to a more truthful imitation of Christ on the Cross… Flaubert inscribes the Cross into the praxis of pre-Christian human sacrifice, as the practice of scapegoating… Only from the unprecedented love that enters the world with Christ’s death on the Cross does the full horror of the human condition reveal itself” Vinken, 16.

[39] Although this sentiment was later politicised by Raymond Aron in his Opium for the Intellectuals, philosophically scientised by Karl Popper.

[40] Steven B. Smith, Modernity and its Discontents: 224-6. 

[41] Jean Leclerq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, 39-40.

[42] “The task of literature is to make the irredeemable figure of the Cross legible throughout history and to convert it into text so as to keep its memory alive. The failure of the promise makes the Passion of those who suffer, through its sheer pointlessness, perversity, and insanity, all the purer. The asceticism of writing is the last means available for attaining this purity. Literature erects a Cross lacking salvation and is therefore an all the more intolerable memento crucis – the only consolation lies in its ability to testify to suffering” Vinken (20).  

[43] Flaubert as quoted in Finn’s Figures of the pre-Freudian, 51, 199.

[44]  Mimesis and Sacrifice (Pally) 25-9, 216-242.

[45] Orr, 3.

[46] “We rose at three in the morning and went to bed at nine at night, living on hard-boiled eggs, dry preserves, and watermelons. It was real desert life.” Flaubert in Egypt.

[47] Orr, 20.

[48] “Literature is at its worst when such a new, secularised evangelical authority assumes it as a legitimate harbinger of redemption. The Church and, to an even more disastrous effect, its secular transformations in the forms of socialism and republicanism are as obsessed with salvation as they are oblivious to suffering. As a whole, the bourgeois middle-class credo that prizes self-interest above all other things is the absolute antipode of a genuine imitation of Christ”, Vinken (16). 

[49] Mary Mothersill’s Beauty Restored. Clarendon Press, 1984, 135

[50] E.R. Curtius, Essays in European Literature, 439: “In Flaubert it is part of a nihilism of values that affects all departments of life with the sole exception of art.”

[51] See Susan Reynolds’s Kingdoms and Communities in Western Europe 900-1300. Clarendon Press, 1997, 181.

[52] Orr, 21.

[53] Coleman, A. “Sources of the Religious Element in Flaubert’s” Salammbô”.” (1919): 174-176.

[54] Singular because had Flaubert chosen, say, Irenaeus as his model, the idea of sacrifice takes on a uniformity within the entirety of the Church: “When his opponents’ exegesis disregards earlier members of the church, it also disregards sacrifices made to God, and it refuses to see that these sacrifices are types of the Eucharistic sacrifice of the church” Moringiello, The Rhetoric of Faith (Catholic University of America Press, 2019), 117.

[55] For the task of a strict typological study I have found Daniel’s From Shadows to Reality (Burns and Oates Ltd, 1960) altogether indispensable. But for the precise notion in question, “[Tertullian, Philo, and Origen] use both the symbol and the content of the symbol… the application of the symbolism to all the details of Scripture; the use of a symbolic method of Hellenistic origin, and a psychological interpretation of the historical data of the Bible” (220-1).

[56] Orr, 54.

[57] Ibid, 249.

[58] Foulcher: ‘Bernard intentionally turns Benedict’s steps on their head’ (182).

[59] Ibid, 183.

[60]  DeGregorio, Scott. “Texts, topoi and the self: a reading of Alfredian spirituality.” Early Medieval Europe 13, no. 1 (2005): 79-96.

[61] Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. Mariner Books: 1999, 410.

[62] “My ethics stands in the same relation to that of all other European philosophers as the New Testament does to the Old, taking this relationship in the ecclesiastical sense… my doctrine could be called the true Christian philosophy.” Essays and Aphorisms (Penguin Classics), 62-3.

[63] Woods, David. “Seriously bored: Schopenhauer on solitary confinement.” British Journal for the History of Philosophy 27, no. 5 (2019): 959-978.

[64] Leclercq, xiv.

[65] See Allen Oakley’s The making of Marx’s critical theory (RLE Marxism): A bibliographical analysis. Routledge, 2015, 7-30.

[66] Peter J. Leithart, Athanasius, 6.

[67] Baines, Robert. “The Opposite of Despair: St. Anthony Meets St. Patrick.” In James Joyce and the Nineteenth-Century French Novel, 94-111. Brill Rodopi, 2011.

[68] Leithart, 40-1.

[69] Ibid., 169.

[70] McNary-Zak, 5.

[71] Ibid, 16-24.

[72] See also Carruthers, Book of Memory, 14., and McNary-Zak 103: “The centrality of, and sustained access to, the gift of discernment in all of its forms and expressions would contribute to those processes of definition that characterised the transformation and development of Christianity in this period.”

[73] McNary-Zak, 156.

[74] Ibid 156-6.

[75] Steven D. Driver, John Cassian and the Reading of Egyptian Monastic Culture (45).

[76] Ibid., 46-7.

[77] Ibid., 48; 73-5: “The text condescends to the reader as though speaking to one who has just renounced the world, and the reader is expected to assume this role… Mental and spiritual discipline are little more than the restriction of one’s wishes and the confession of all things to an elder.”

[78] See Mary Carruthers, The Craft of Thought: 2.

[79] “The closed eyelids were as pale as seashells; and beams from the candelabras all around shone on them” (Three Tales, 104 [“Herodias”].

[80] “Flaubert’s work of deconstruction reaches completion with the Three Tales: a project that, from the perspectives of religion and of the history of ideas, should be grasped as a culmination as well as an abyssal form of self-renouncing kenosis that consummates Flaubert’s writing.” Vinken, 21.

[81] The Craft of Thought, 2-9.

[82] E.R. Curtius, Essays on European Literature, 210: “In order to appreciate Flaubert, one must be initiated into the subtleties of artistic form.”

[83] Yet for Curtius a subtlety interwoven with a sickness unto death: “The hallucinations of Flaubert’s St. Anthony culminate in the self-annihilating wish to dissolve into matter… Flaubert finds life senseless and compiles a catalogue of human stupidity. He gathers incriminating evidence against man and the world” Essays in European Literature, 198-9.

[84] Felman, 87.

[85] Felman, 88.

[86] ”On Precept and Dispensation”, from Works of Bernard of Clairvaux. Vol.1, Treatises (ed. Basil Pennington Cistercian Fathers Series, no. 1. (Spencer, Mass.: Cistercian Publications, 1970).

[87] Galatians 2:20: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.”

[88] Agamben, 39.

[89] Agamben, 87.

[90] Agamben, 92.

[91] Nelson, 12

[92] Nelson, 17. 

[93] Augustine’s Sermons, viz. 280-2.

[94] Jane Foulcher’s Reclaiming Humility, 59.

[95] “This is the truth, if a monk regards contempt as praise, poverty as riches, and hunger as a feast, he will never die.” Wisdom, 74.

[96] See Myra Jehlen’s “Felicite and the Holy Parrot.” Raritan 26, no. 4 (2007), 86: “Felicite’s deathbed vision preempts the Holy Spirit: art and religion are ontologically incompatible. The azure vapor that drifts into the room from censers waved below is no more the breath of the Holy Spirit than Loulou is the Dove. Felicite could never visualise the Holy Spirit—bird? fire? breath? – and, reading her tale, neither can we. But Loulou, we see clear as day.”

On the Narratology of Concept-Being, Lecture Four: The Hour of Incensing

“In our time many artists, I think, are aware, although not all are so unwise to say so, that they address themselves to a public whose ever-increasing appetite for art is matched by a progressive atrophy of the receptive organs.”

Edgar Wind, Art and Anarchy (8)

“They that live in fear are never resolute, secure, never merry, but in continual pain: that, as Vives truly said, no greater misery, no rack, no torture like unto it; ever suspicious, anxious, solicitous, they are childishly drooping without reason, without judgment, especially if some terrible object be offered, as Plutarch hath it. ”

Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy (227)

 “If it’s true that men are such beasts, this must account for the fact that most women are animal lovers.”

Doris Day

*

Part First

“Golden Legend, Pastoral Counsel:

“de Voragine, Mirk & Second Shepherd’s Play

‘Drede ye nothing, grete joy I bringe,

Quod erit omni populo,

Forwhy to you Christe is borne now,

Testante evangelio.’

James Ryman, Medieval English Lyrics (229)

            The Second Shepherd’s Play is an exemplary albeit contentious production in the canon of late medieval drama, merging the sacred and profane in a manner prone to surprise uninitiated audiences in a twofold sense: first, by giving equal weight to both the human and divine aspect of Christianity; and second by building upon biblical narrative for its own narratological sake. This is reinforced by the attributable differences among the shepherds, constructing multilayered life in the play[1] in a time where public processions were – while distinguished from the plays –of the utmost importance.[2] Thus, through textual analysis of Mirk and de Voragine the authorial frame of reference for the play will be made clearer, thereby enhancing the SSP altogether for historians, literary scholars, theatrical historians both new and familiar with the play.

Despite a loose biblical familiarity the SSP is a distinctive case, as bawdy in the realm of the Nativity would be uncommon even by today’s standards, where one can count on a pro- or anti-Christian sentiment but seldom anything else; aesthetic intuition has been replaced by polarity. The precision of cosmic locality required to effectively bring the Magi, for instance, to aesthetic fruition with a humanism unmarred by either religious or irreligious dogma. Thus, considering SSP a complicatedly precise model for unique aesthetic achievement, it is wagered that we shall better transcend the surface level should we better understand the most influential literary forces preceding its composition in Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda Aurea[3] and John Mirk’s Festial. With a brief overview of these texts undergone, we shall see just where and how their collective influence lies within the first half of SSP.Our intention is to take a look at some of the theatrical happenings prior to the advent of Marlowe, so that given the chance to, say, propel a new translation of Balthasar’s El Criticon into being, on the way to better understanding the science of poetics. By this I mean that we have what is essentially a corpse before us, and yet with the proper surgical techniques, we can move beyond the nauseating moral propagandas of among other berated tropes begotten through the mental illness of pharmaceutical digitality, the wincing vanishment that is at the end of a tolerance enacted by corporate reason, to reject the mental slavery of the age, and aesthetically, philosophically proceed like vagabonded children of Athanasius, moving into the replenished aura of a Lazarus of the soul. For just because a new direction is out sight does not it is nonexistent; the predicate of censorship is dependence upon dejection. Conflict is prescribed to the masses so that they shall war with one another while still in mental and physical chains, rather than recognizing said mutual chains and turning their collective energies to the minority of key-bearers. The problem is that corporations no longer suggest reality but create it; hence the pocket of critical hope in the art of prudence that may lead to a recognizing of the inadvertently increased worth of that which has been theoretically abolished, as the dangers of manufactured hatred and manufactured subcultures pale in comparison to the light that is present within even the smallest group of beings who have somehow – through operative grace – escaped the cave that is technological nihilism. And if such thoughts are far from our minds when we ask today, What is called literature?, we should find something else to do. To put it another way, here in our Easter Parade, or May Procession, of the Early Lectures, One who is afraid to suggest that reality remains even when the masses have stopped believing in it has no business studying the literary cognition of martyrdom.

            The Golden Legend was at its height a household item, whose popularity rivaled the Bible. It is a work of Latin hagiography composed of 153 lives, in accordance with Jn. 21:11[4]: “The time of the Golden Legend is a time for fishing for men to be transformed into Christians devoted to God and to salvation… Christ gives a new start to the time of men” (Le Goff 24).

            de Voragine conceived time and the world as a movement carrying men toward God and [that] salvation was a time of festivity (Le Goff 25). Subterranean origins of hidden, cultic mourning transformed into state religion and public displays of veneration. For with the Christianization of Rome, the cult of the saints turned from a nocturnal period of mourning and remembrance into a lived calendrical matter of space and time, and thus a state (Strayer 5). With the annual recurrence of Feast Days came the need for ornament and variation on the lives.

Therefore, if the SSP strays from strict biblical narrative, so did the imagination of the Wakefield Master’s likeliest influence[5], who spoke thusly of Mary in his final recorded sermon (Lest we conflate cosmic locality with insincerity in either text):

            “I began this current book by her inspiration and I have continued to the end to pay the debt with her help” (Epstein 271).

            The Golden Legend, then, was something like a series of textual action films in its day[6]. As such, context and content herein lead us to a clearer understanding of audiences and methodologies in SSP’s construction, production, and performance. But before surveying the play through the lens of de Voragine we must survey the work of an author chronologically between the Golden Legend and the play, John Mirk.

            Mirk, an Augustinian priest from Shropshire, England wrote with ‘ordinary, unexceptional’ (Ford 2) English peoples in mind. That the Festial borrows heavily from the Golden Legend is without question. Thus we have in Mirk textual communication aimed less at the priestly class with the chance for household incidentality than with the masses themselves, as with SSP and related drama(s).

Mirk’s narrative effectiveness is also marked by a compositional proximity to 1381’s absolute chaos.[7] The Festial’s historical circumstances touch of the linguistic-typological therein, as Mirk differs from Wyclif on the question of biblical authority, with Mirk wagering that biblical narratives (and the Bible itself) are not attributable directly to God but a blend of merely human communications and revelations which parallel those of the saints (Ford 121-3). Thus, for Mirk hagiographical narrative is of parallel distinction with the Gospels, and the saints’ lives match the Bible itself in authority, written for an audience traumatized by the Revolt and its causal, eschatological crises. With this established, we are now ready to trace influence and typology via the Golden Legend and the Festial within the SSP.

Mirk’s “[6] De natiuitate Christi” (23) makes for exceptional parallel reading, launching into angelic musicality with a language plain enough for shepherds, or townsfolk audience to easily understand and be moved by:

“Gode crysten men, as 3e sen and heren, [th]ys day al Holy Church maketh melody and myrth in mynde of [th]e blessed burth of oure Lord Ihesu, veri God and mon… boren of hys modur Seynt Mary… pees to men of good wylle… For when he was boren, angeles songon [th]us: ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’ (23).

With its emphasis on Christ’s birth bringing peace between God and man, Fr. Mirk establishes a tone of warmth, cordiality, enhanced by forthcoming song. The Wakefield Master has a reason for conveying emotion through song; the majority of the play is something like slapstick medievalism until the angel begins to sing – then the play’s preceding pages, acts fall into their holier place, in time for biblical culmination.

The Golden Legend also uses auditory methods to further illuminate the Nativity for readers: “So the angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds, announced the birth of the Savior, and told them how they could find them, whereupon a host of angels sang: ‘Glory to God in the highest and peace to men of good will.’ The shepherds went and found everything just as the angel had told them” (41).

We furthermore see that the Wakefield Master employs this biblical musicality and as something of an anchor[8] which the play’s narrative leads into and moves away from. In the case of the Golden Legend, the narrative following the angel’s singing is unexpectedly severe, moving to the Latin Fathers (in Jerome) rather than strict biblical chronology or – as in the Wakefield Master – a behind the scenes sort of dialogue between the shepherds. The result is historical theology:

“[A]s the day of the Lord’s birth drew near, Octavian built public roads throughout the his empire and remitted all the Romans’ debts… even the sodomites gave witness by being exterminated… as Jerome says: ‘A light rose over them so bright that all who practiced this vice were wiped out; and Christ did this in order that no such uncleanness might be found in the nature he had assumed’” (41).

Yet Mirk also details an overwhelming light, i.e., ‘the Light of the World’:

“Wherfore Cryst was boren at mydnyght and turned [th]e darkness of nyght into daylight, schewing [th]at [th]enne was [boren] of ryghtwysnes and comen for to lyghten alle [th]at weren combret wythinforth wyth darkness of synne” (Powell 25).

On stage, post-angelus, the Wakefield Master returns instead to the simple humanity of the Magi[9]; the viewer of this play with a knowledge of the Golden Legend and John Mirk would thus have known that the SSP was in fact about Chaucerian shepherds[10] – but perhaps some of the most renowned shepherds in history in the Magi:

THIRD SHEPHERD. He spake of a bairn

                               In Bedlam, I you warn.

FIRST SHEPHERD: That betokens yond star;

                                     Let us seek him there (Broadview 170).

An established reciprocity allows both texts coincide with the stage to allow the Wakefield Master something like close-commentary. This sets the facts, lore in synchronic place, thereupon building in his own manner where parallels abound upon close-reading. His subjectivity may work in tandem with his aesthetic intuition, but it is never fully removed from focal theatrical point(s).

For instance, the ‘cleansing’ light recorded in the Golden Legend indicates that a literal and figurative night on earth gave way to Christmas on Earth. De Voragine and Jerome feel obligated to annihilate those with ‘impure’ affiliations, although it is not that this instance’s specificity is of surprise or concern[11] – what is important is the illustration of something like a global baptism of light emanating from the Nativity.

Mirk, then, takes this physiological absolution and sets it not into an application to warn against sin, but to remind his listeners of the power of Christ’s redemption:

“[Th]erfore y rede of a womon [th]at was defouled wyth [th]e synne of lechery and almost fel in despeyre… heo [th]oght on [th] passyon of Crist, heo wyst wel [th]at was vnkynde to hym [th]at suffred so much for hure… heo cryed to Crist” (27-8).

Mirk’s pastoral tone emanates from his sermon(s), intact with rhetoricity[12]. We consider the Nativity and begin with the biblical context. We then experience the play and its cosmic locality, thus reconsidering the prospect of biblical subplot, and the lives of characters.

From there, it is as if like clockwork de Voragine answers the call. He writes for the priestly class, and a poverty of historical-theological knowledge will certainly hinder prospective reading of the Golden Legend. But it is a necessary stepping stone on the way to Mirk, who is thence a stepping stone to the stage, where for all its unconventionality the mysteries and riddles of Scripture literally and figuratively become three-dimensional.

That the play is not a straightforward, solemn affair has been made clear; its authorial clay molds the text to work either as a straightforward, surface-level imaginative splendor or the dialectical result of an immense historical, structural, sociological, and psychological understanding while evading prolixity[13]. We become fascinated with just how these people did live, and what their human crises were. In the Lockean sense this is not the task of Scripture, but of the magistrate; the Aristotelian rather than the Platonic by way of Scripture fulfilling the unseen and the magistrate (Guild, etc.) taking care of the visible. Thus, de Voragine’s citation of Bernard in his Annunciation of the Lord (196) is noteworthy in its containing the range of emotions SSP seems to carry upon its shoulders in its depiction of cosmic locality:

“Truly full of grace, because from her fullness all captives receive redemption, the sick receive healing, the sorrowful consolation, sinners forgiveness, the righteous grace, the angels joy, and finally the whole Trinity receives glory and the Son of man the substance of human flesh” (197).

Whereas the Wakefield Master has the benefits of displaying simplicity in the flesh before an audience he would not be hard pressed to gauge, his literary devices depend on the idea that townsfolk, in fact, can come face to face with the Lord. On the theatrical level this a matter of conviction; should the author ill-prepare his actors, even the best of them shall shine as persons while leaving the performative totality lacking. But on the textual level the author must take universality and give it personalness. The Golden Legend does this with surgical precision, oscillating between typological warnings and exemplars of Imitatio Christi.

In this regard Mirk once again serves as a go-between for de Voragine and the Wakefield Master. His pastoral ability to take the holiest of narratives and present them to the flock(s) abounds throughout his sermons; there is a recurring structural tonality wherein Mirk seems to address God, clergy, and townsfolk at once, especially where the Holy Family is concerned:

“[Th]ys day, gode men, ys kalled [th] puryfycacyon of oure Lady, [th]at ys in Englys, [th]e clansyng of oure Lady… wyth hure offryng and wyth hure sone, and offren for a rych a lombe and for a pore a payre and turtures or too bryddes… cast holy watur on hure and clanseth hure, and so takut[h] hure by [th]e honde and bryngeth hure into [th]e chyrche, 3euyng hure leue to comen into [th]e chyrche and to gon to hure husbonddus bed… Holy Chyrche also maketh mynde [th]ys day of candelys offryng” (55-7).

By speaking of holiness in daily life, the flock is given the concepts and tools to reenact the Holy Family in thought and deed. Water, bed, candle; daily items are reinjected with a sanctity that is less ecclesiastical in the sermons of Mirk, but of various bonds between God and man. This sentiment, in theatrical thought and expression, is given the aforementioned three-dimensional life on stage. Through Mirk the audience members have learned how to enrich daily living with contemplation and remembrance of things past; the Bible as a unit does not carry the impression of unobtainability in the Festial, but is an invitation to pious living.

The Wakefield Master balances this sentiment with humor and realistic portrayal of the way relations between married couples transpire, boredom and underappreciation amongst workers, and comedy as in the snoring shepherds. Higher level mindfulness, as in prayer and the sacraments, dialectically converge with the more rudimentarily banal aspects of existence, to provide an honest portrait of life for attendees. This image is crystallized by the characters’ proximity to God; at last the audience comes to comprehend that scriptural persons lived lives just as they. They are therefore impelled to thanksgiving and an annually reaffirmed call to “holynes, goodnes, mekenes” (17).

Our shepherds depart from the Nativity with instructions from the Virgin to remember her, the child on her knee, and his keeping them from woe. Grace, declares the First Shepherd, has found them. They exit singing in joyous answerability to their having met Christ, the Holy Mother, words and act illumined by the then-contemporaneous idea of Christ’s Seven Leaps.

Yet we see here a striking difference between de Voragine and the Wakefield Master as to how the Nativity narrative concludes, with the former’s systematic emphasis on what can be learned, or what is ‘useful’ about Christ’s birth: “Firstly, it served to confound the demons; [s]econdly, it is useful to us in obtaining pardon from our sin; [thirdly] by curing our infirmities; [l]astly, by humbling our pride” (42). De Voragine cites Augustine, for whom Christ is ‘an example, a sacrament, and a medicine… which heals the tumor of our pride.’ Pastoral message and sign is not only enhanced by proximity to the Latin Fathers, but it seemingly takes a given scenario and enhances its historical, rhetorical, philosophical, theological, and poetical qualities in one fell swoop.

Mirk sustains a local sense. The Lord, he maintains, is shepherd and vindication of religious and laity. His closing words on the Nativity redeem melancholic desperation, hope, and prayer, and moreover, Christ’s openness:“Wherfore heo cryed to Crist, prayng hym for hys childhood [th]at he wolde haue mercy on hyre and for3euen hyre hure trespass. [Th]en anon heo herde a voys on hegh and seyde: ‘[Th]I trespas ys for3eue’” (28).

But in a thing of beauty de Voragine saves audience-proximity, inclusion, and a refurbished dialogical relation to and in Mirk and the Wakefield Master until the very end of his sixth Legend: “In one way Christ’s birth was like our own, namely, that he was born of a woman and came forth through the same portal, but in another way it was unlike ours, because he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary” (43). Therefore, the audience’s knowledge of God indicates both similarity and otherness; for harmony does not beget codependency, and the tree of discipleship is forever watered with the holy blood of martyrs.

Grand narrative merges with a lighter intimacy; it paves the way for SSP.

*

Part Second

            “The Hour of Incensing:[14]

“Intertextual Narratives of de Voragine and Mirk in the Mary Play

“The king’s attempt on the apostles brought swift retribution: the avenging minister of divine justice overtook him at once, immediately after his action against the apostles, as the narrative of the Acts records. He had set out for Caesarea, and there on an important feast day, adorned with magnificent royal robes, he mounted on a dais, and standing in front of his throne delivered a harangue which the entire audience received with thunderous applause, as the utterance of a god, not a man; and the inspired record tells us that instantly he was struck by an angel of the Lord, was eaten by worms, and expired.”

Eusebius, II.X.

            Despite the possibility that the Mary Play was borne of both lay and monastic material as property of St. Anne Guild (Lipton 90-2), such unbiblical, theatrical Catholicity was not without immediate[15] and historical[16] foe. Yet perhaps neither vanquished the plays themselves (Gardiner 76-7); their durability may well then owe a debt to sources from which the play built off of. [17] As such, a close reading of de Voragine and Mirk can guide us in shedding light upon the play’s compositional influences, and what audiences were likely already acquainted with in a textual (GL) and pastoral (Mirk) sense. As the play moves from ‘cosmic locality’ to, per Ashley, a “cosmology of purity” (Lipton 92), it is thus wagered that in analyzing source material for the Mary Play through aspects of intertextuality in light of the historical moment (And by deeming famous biblical accounts self-evident)[18] that we’ll better comprehend the referentially inventive devices, and thus see the play’s authorial method in construction through a clearer glass.

            The Golden Legend attributes the authorial origins of Mary’s life, and thus its imaginative history’s beginnings, with Blessed Jerome. Jerome had “read the story in some book… and many years later recorded what he recalled” (537). His emphatic rendering of Mary as descendant of the Davidic line is unpacked by de Voragine as a matter of the apostles’ exclusive concern with male genealogy; it also fired the opening shot to further contemplate the roles of Joachim and Anne, who feature prominently in the Mary Play (537-44), and whose love tested by infertility foreshadows the trial of Joseph and Mary. Through Jerome and Bede we also learn that St. Anne’s second husband was Joseph’s brother Cleophas. GL further contests that Bede provides evidence for Mary’s dual tribal status: at once of the priestly tribe and the royal tribe in order that Christ, Priest of Priests and King of Kings, would be born (537-8).

            Despite this probable familiarity with de Voragine, Mary’s authoritative learnedness undoubtedly caught viewers off guard. If the playwright anticipated an accessibility by way of inventing aspects for scenes lacking concrete biblical source-value, they could not have haphazardly presenting such a striking image of the Blessed Virgin (Broadview 245).

            Side by side, N-Town’s St. Anne and Joachim appear to us as organic extensions of de Voragine. Consider Joachim’s at the feast of the Dedication in prose: “They lived for twenty years without offspring [before deciding that if God would grant them a child, that they would model it as a servant of God]… When the priest saw [Joachim] he angrily ordered him away and upbraided him… he went and lived with the shepherds” (537-8).

            N-Town: JOACHIM: This feast to Jerusalem must go we/To make sacrifice to God eternal… If of his mercy he will a child us devise/We shall offer it up into the temple to be God’s man; ISAKAR: How durst thou among fruitful presume and abuse?  … thine offering I refuse! [There should be no more barren people” (44-5, 64-5;103 [106]).

Joachim’s crisis is lifted by angelic visitation. Among the shepherds, an angel appears to him in a moment of solitude, prophesying, “God punishes not nature but sin, and therefore, when he closes a woman’s womb, he does this to miraculously open it later on…  not the fruit of carnal desire but divine generosity… And let this be a sign to you: when you arrive at the Golden Gate of Jerusalem, Anna your wife will be there waiting for you” (GL 539). 

In the Mary Play, both parents are granted angelic visitation and directions to the Golden Gate. Joachim is told, “In token, when thou come to Jerusalem to the Golden Gate/Thou shalt meet Anne… her sorrows to rebate” (Broadview 198-200). Shortly thereafter Anne is told, “At the Golden Gate thou shalt meet him [humbly]/And in great gladness return to your house… and Mary shall bear Jesus” (221-4).

            Despite a host of opportunities to illustrate Joachim and Anne, John Mirk is free of any material warranting the exactness with which the aforementioned line up. His St. Anne (26 July), Assumption of the Virgin (15 August), Assumption of the Virgin (Second sermon), and Nativity of the Virgin (8 September) contain just the briefest mention of “an husband [of Anne’s that] was called Ioachym” (194.48), and later “hur holy fadur, Seynt Ioachym” (221, 57.7). Parallel and reference in narrative will have to wait for Mary’s birth, and thereby presence in the world.

            The play’s second part introduces us to a three-year old Mary, who memorably recites the 15 Psalms (et sic deinceps usque ad finem quindecim psalmorum). Despite contextual discrepancies, there are numerological parallels:

            “Around the Temple there were fifteen steps, corresponding to the fifteen Gradual Psalms… Mary advanced steadily in all holiness” (GL 538). The playwright appears to have undergone a burst of creative energy, injecting grand narrative between Voraginian numerology. de Voragine’s general commentary that Mary advanced in ‘all’ holiness; that her sacred soliloquy before the Bishop is fruit of two briefer, formerly incidental seeds.

            Relatively early in the third act of the Mary Play (733; p. 266n2) the Broadview editors note that the lines of dialogue between Joseph and the Descendants of David “have been inserted into the manuscript at a later hand.” This makes sense. But the second part of the note, “probably [italics mine] a later interpolation… to emphasize Joseph’s comic unsuitability” deserves enquiry. It is not a matter of doubting the medieval topoi of comic husbandry, nor that the Davidic aspect is one means of bringing to life an otherwise narratively and historically modest biblical figure in Saint Joseph.[19]

            The play’s author was obligated to flesh out Joseph after his remarkable treatment of Joachim. Joseph’s typology shares too many aspects of Joachim for expansion to go uncompleted: “Able to be married that is not I, so may I theen. I have be maiden ever and evermore will been… to take a young wife! But nevertheless, no doubt of, we must go forth to town” (Broadview 737-42). Arguably comedic instances follow; but it is just one aspect of Joseph’s development which could also be considered charming due to humility rather than sheer comedy. His Davidic genealogy of virtues also foreshadows the play’s Contemplacio, Veritas, Justicia in the Parliament of Heaven (Broadview 267-9).

But humility on its own is obvious. It is therefore the correlation of virtue to Davidic Descendance illustrated by de Voragine that the play’s author may have invoked: “Humility, beauty of all virtues, replenished so strong in him, that the more better he waxed, so, as David, the more he showed himself meek and humble” (O’Neil207); “[H]e was greatly beloved of God and was with him in all his works, for he saw in him the meekness of David, the chastity of Joseph, and the riches of Solomon” (O’Neil 157). That Davidic lineage therefore provides Joseph with exemplary meekness prepares Joseph for his imperceptible undertaking; like Joachim publicly rejected in Jerusalem before him, Joseph now must bear the brunt for God: to tell his contemporaries not that he is unable to conceive, but that his teenage wife has been impregnated by neither himself nor any mortal. Perhaps from a psychological point of view no man has ever been worse-equipped to make a case (That can only be fulfilled in Christ’s Resurrection, which Joseph did not live to witness). Despite this, de Voragine makes the case that specific Davidic virtues enable typology to manifest itself in the miraculous.

             For his part, Mirk has little to say about Joseph and his entrance into Mary’s life. If we read aspects of the play’s third act as a call to ecclesiastical obedience through theological history, it comes from Mirk. His rendering of Joseph’s poverty leading him to sell an ox in order proceed with Mary (Ford 108-9) directly corresponds to 1381; they revolutionaries could have spared themselves much death and sorrow had they followed Joseph’s lead, itself borne of Christ’s birth: “But for he hadde no monay, he tok a nox wyth hym for te selle… her durst not leue oure Lady byhynde hym, for ho was so nygh tyme of burthe… God 3eveth pees to hem [th]at ben men and wymen of good wylle and kalleth hem hys children” (6. Nativity; pp. 24-5).

              Little known in canonical sainthood is Brother Bartholomew, to whom Voragine attributes Mary’s vision of the crowd (in what might be imaginatively coined as her ‘Triumphal Entry into Bethlehem’, redemption for Joachim and Christological presaging)[20] from a reading of the Book of the Infancy of the Savior:[21]

“As [Joseph and Mary] drew near to Bethlehem (as Brother Bartholomew, drawing upon the Book of the Infancy of the Savior, testifies in his compilation, the Virgin saw part of the populace rejoicing and part lamenting… those who rejoice are the Gentiles… those who grieve are [Jews], rejected by God in accordance with their deserts” (GL 38).

Now that the playwright has established the Virgin Mary in a myriad of arresting typological, imaginative-apocryphal, and symbolic ways, the viewer or reader experiences further angelic visitation in Gabriel. But rather than a prelude to a climax in Christ’s birth, or even a cliffhanger in the couple’s starting out by foot, we are granted dialogue between Mary and John the Baptist’s mother Elizabeth. We now turn our attention to these last pages of the script; with what we have learned thus far from Mirk, de Voragine, and others, the strikingly modern, poetical-intuition of the writer comes into focus.

            As Mary informs Joseph that Elizabeth is now pregnant the couple rejoices for Zachariah and his wife. They have overcome God’s accursed sterility not unlike Anne and Joachim, with God’s grace. Contemplation returns with Davidic commentary (1420), recalling Zechariah’s being struck mute (Lk. 1:20; Broadview 1428-39); and it is at this very moment that the playwright once again strays from biblical familiarity for a dialogical sequence between Mary and Elizabeth.

            de Voragine’s [86.] The Birth of Saint John the Baptist also takes a theoretical turn at this narrative point (GL 329). From the Voraginian point of view, the first of several possibilities for Zechariah’s having been punished comes from Bede. Bede wagers that Zechariah was struck dumb because he voiced his doubt: CONTEMPLATION: Sovereigns, understandeth that King David here/Ordained four and twenty priests of great devotion/In the temple after their lot appear. They were cleped summi sacerdotes [High priests] for their ministration/And one was an old priest named Zechariah… He, seeing his unworthiness and age, not believed so” (Broadview 1420-31).

            It would thus appear that de Voragine’s ever-present concern with the Davidic genealogy of virtue is at work here, in the spirit of Bede: Zechariah was humble enough to consider himself unworthy despite being a high priest, ordained by David on behalf of the lots God Himself ordains. But his virtue is incomplete; rather than keep silent or enter prayer, he makes his doubt external.

            The other aspects of Zechariah are more general than intertextual: retaining his voice at the birth of John the Baptist, the miracle is doubly obvious; silence imposed by the Law; muteness was a sign received (GL 329-30). It thus appears that the Bedean option was for the playwright had he considered a way to lay the groundwork of his longest play.

            Mary’s recitation of the Latin Magnificant coincides with Elizabeth’s English. Both women intone the Holy Ghost, Father, God’s Son and the Trinity, as Mary is referred to as Mother of God within “this psalm of prophecy” (1524). Elizabeth is presumably six months pregnant:

MARY: But, cousin Elizabeth, I shall you here keep/And this three months abide here now/Till ye have child to wash, scout, and sweep/And in all that I may to comfort you. (1528-31)

It appears that the playwright has once more turned to de Voragine’s The Birth of John the Baptist, and namely another reference to a Latin Father:

“She hid herself for five months, as Ambrose says about this, having felt shame at having a child at her age… she might seem to have indulged in lustful pleasure despite her years…Yet she also rejoiced at being rid of the reproach of sterility… the same angel who announced the coming of the Lord announced the coming of John” (GL 330).

Joseph is relegated to the background, Zechariah taciturn. Mary and Elizabeth thank God with “heartfelt will” for three months (1558). The audience is reminded of the holy persons these women carried in their bodies, with de Voragine noting John the Baptist’s nine special, singular privileges,[22] things that all students of the bible know well and therein have a chance to contemplate Elizabeth herself, and the mysterious months which she and the Blessed Virgin spent together. Their strength is further uplifted by the incidental nature of their husbands; for Mary’s child is Joseph’s to look after, but the Lord’s in creating, while Elizabeth’s husband cannot even do so much as speak until John the Baptist is born. More still, this culmination of all preceding events, scenes, is perfectly described by Kinservik in his article on theological and dramatic resolution in the N-Town plays: “Without suggesting that Mary is more important than Christ, the Assumption play shows her to be of equal significance in the story of salvation. The typological construction of the play recalls Christ’s Passion in order finally to resolve the conflicts that led to Christ’s crucifixion.”[23] Rosemary Woolf’s observation that by the 15th c. theatrical representation and perception in mind assessed that “the history of salvation must begin, not with the Annunciation as had previously been done, but with the story of Joachim and Anna”[24] leads the scholar to reconsider medieval epistemology when working with the Mary Play in terms of intertextual historicity. For there are elements of de Voragine and Mirk within this and other various works of late medieval drama; but to what extent did this moving into the future by reaching into the texts of the past and biblical genealogy represent a general state of evolving consciousness among the audience and viewership alike?

If we cannot answer such an enormous question here it is nonetheless worth noting that Mary and Elizabeth appear at the apex of this insight on behalf of the century in general, and specifically within the mind of the playwright. Suppression of valid inquiry – who came before Mary? Who came before that? And that? – may incur a hindsight of wrath; but historical-intertextual examination is not dangerous because there lacks a definitive, crystallized beginning point, but rather because by disrupting societal narrative, control is loosed; be it gender roles, feminine ascendancy, revealed documents, archaeological findings: they, like role reversal in putting Joseph and Zechariah aside to focus on first St. Anne and the Blessed Virgin, and later the latter with Elizabeth, question accepted narrative. More importantly, through this process, it is unconsciously revealed that dogmatic viewpoint is nonetheless one point of view.

Building upon apocrypha and the Fathers, the Golden Legend offers readers the possibility of reframing, hypothesizing, swapping. Yet like Mirk’s sermons, the legends are a matter of a sole speaker or reader, whereas with the advent of the stage, a process unfolded that could not be controlled by the very force capable of ceasing flow of information. Now the embers of “Seynt Ionys fyre” (Mirk 166-70) could be collected and thereby unified in new methods of both writing and experiencing scriptural scenes.

A final instance of Mary and Elizabeth’s uniting that inimitably shows the summit of feminine holiness on display is Mary’s breath filling John the Baptist with the Holy Spirit (1450-55). Rather than de Voragine or Mirk, it has been wagered[25] that Nicholas Love is here the playwright’s strongest influence.[26]

The breath that contains the Holy Spirit – Mary’s – for John the Baptist parallels the breath of God, breathing humanity into life (Gn. 2:7). As the Mother of God breathes life into the one whom Christ will in time call “the greatest of all living men” (Mt. 11:11; Lk. 7:28), Elizabeth feels her son kneel within the womb in reverence to the Lord. By ending with this image, “For this comfortablest coming, good God, gramercy!” (1546), the playwright paves the way for Contemplation’s Epilogue and portrays a powerful image for the scholar who revisits the text having immersed themselves in research prior. Whether or not this was intended in a precise way is both unknowable and irrelevant in light of the text’s systematic redistribution of past masters and authorial imagination. It thereby enables the author to construct a vision that while novel is routed in a tapestry of past and then-contemporaneous sources at providential work.

As in the medieval tradition reading or seeing the play is one part. Living it through intertextual historiography is culmination,[27] and for the believer perhaps the Little Crown of the Blessed Virgin. The late medieval stage production is a twofold mode of study: its surface may well suffice in one, performative, sense. But in the other the history of its theoretical conception, theatrical construction establishes its place in the annals of Marian representation and literary history.

Bibliography

            Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Book of Troilus and Criseyde. Princeton University Press, 1926.

Epstein, Steven A. The Talents of Jacopo da Varagine. Cornell University Press, 2016.

Fitzgerald & Sebastian (eds.), et al. The Broadview Anthology of Medieval Drama. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2013.

Gardiner, S.J., Harold. Mysteries’ end: an investigation of the last days of the medieval religious stage. Vol. 103. Yale Univ. Press, 1946.

Hanawalt, Barbara A. Ceremony and Civility: Civic Culture in Late Medieval London. Oxford University Press, 2017.

            Le Goff, Jacques. In Search of Sacred Time. Princeton University Press, 2014.

Lindenbaum, Sheila. “Rituals of Exclusion.” Festive Drama, edited by Meg Twycross, Cambridge, 1996, pp. 54 – 65.

Lipton, Emma. Affections of the Mind: The Politics of Sacramental Marriage in Late Medieval Literature. University of Notre Dame Press, 2007.

Love, Nicholas. Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ. Ed. Michael G. Sargent. New York: Garland Publishing, 1992.

Meredith, Peter. Meredith, Peter. “‘Establishing an expositor’s role: Contemplacio and the N. Town manuscript’, in The Narrator, the Expositor, and the Prompter in European Medieval Theatre, ed. by Philip Butterworth (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007), pp. 289–306.” The Practicalities of Early English Performance: Manuscripts, Records, and Staging. Routledge, 2018. 139-156.

—. “The Towneley pageants.” The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre, edited by Richard Beadle, et al., 2008, pp. 152-82.  

Mirk, John. Festial. Early English Text Society, 2011.

            O’Neil, S.J., George (ed.). The Golden Legend: Lives of the Saints. Cambridge, 1914.

            Powell, Susan (ed.) John Mirk’s Festial, Vol. 1. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Ryman, James. “Now the Most High is born.” Medieval English Lyrics, edited by R.T. Davies, University Press, 1988, p. 229.

Strayer, Joseph S. On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State. Princeton University Press, 2016.

de Voragine, Jacobus. The Golden Legend. Princeton University Press, 2012.

            Woolf, Rosemary. The English Mystery Plays. Univ of California Press, 1972.


[1] First Shepherd covers the malaise of the social order; the Second Shepherd covers marital conflict; the Third Shepherd covers employer and employee. Moreover, contemporary audiences can at once identify with each of these (If not, of course, to the letter, then to the remarkable human unchangeability despite technological ascendancy). The characteristic crises indicate a theatrical totality: trial and reconciliation. Enlivening Chaucerian associations, content and harmony, and comic failure reaffirm the Holy Spirit: “Laughter becomes in this pageant a sign of man’s goodwill” (Meredith 172-6).

[2] “Performative actions [in late medieval English towns] were the great teachers of hierarchical order and an honored tradition… These were not empty theatrical effects, but were part and parcel [of creating power]… civil and royal social spaces were the main arteries of the cities (Hanawalt 8-9).

[3] Hereafter simply, [the] Golden Legend.

[4] “[A]scendit Simon Petrus et traxit rete in terram plenum magnis piscibus centum quinquaginta tribus et cum tanti essent non est scissum rete .”

[5] Covering among other historical themes de Voragine’s bibliography apart from the Golden Legend, Steven A. Epstein unpacks issues de Voragine faced in his many sermons (268-70). Among them include how Mary would, literally rather than allegorically or typologically, defeat Satan; using unbiblical picture-thoughts such as elephants for biblical scenarios where words failed to systemize more pressing theological matters (It must also be kept in mind that Voragine was a Dominican in the same era as Albert Magnus and Thomas Aquinas. Hence, dogmatic architectonics were anything but off the table.

[6] At least according to one religious historian, Aviad Kleinberg, with whom contemporary Voragine scholarship seems to agree. See also Donna Trembinski’s review: “Flesh Made Word: Saints’ Stories and the Western Imagination.” Canadian Journal of History 44.3 (2009): 496.

[7] For the sake of time elucidation has been nixed by way of 1381, although Hanawalt’s recent survey of the late fourteenth century’s crises is concrete in austerely compact terms (42-7). 

[8] Another legalistic, visible anchor is surveyed in Sheila Lindenbaum’s critique of James, cognizant of the power public celebration and its opposite held. Lindenbaum’s demand for ‘actual practice’ may well take the economic and political totality of the religious-ideological state apparatus into critical account, thereby rendering performativity on the stage merely incidental to the structural performativity taking spectacular, hierarchical place amidst the stage.

[9] The shepherds’ poverty is not portrayed solely for the sake of relatability if we see the Wakefield Master as a disciple of John Mirk. For Mirk equates poverty with divinity in both Christ’s birth and the Last Judgement (Ford 83-5). Thus, in their lack of distinction and the responsibilities that go with it, the townsfolk are theoretically abler to receive and respond to the call of discipleship when and if it should by grace come upon them.

[10] Without knowledge of the texts the SSP’s author referred to for imaginative, narrative inspiration, the play is seen as some fictional persons – in the spirit of Chaucer – who come upon the Nativity. Having closely read both de Voragine and Mirk, the shepherds themselves take on the possibility of having been the author’s humanizing of the famed Magi. One is thinking of, among other things, the shepherds’ early evoking of a Christ they’ve yet to know, as well as the reference to ‘magic’ – as in the case of Nennius and other historical texts, magicians play the typological role of wizards, neither saved nor altogether useless.

[11] In a word, I seek to neither devalue Jerome, de Voragine, nor casually reference the annihilation of all ‘sodomites’ at the time of Christ’s birth without acknowledging its contemporary call for alarm. Rather, the author is working but a place of historical-theological understanding; that dogmatic consensuses metamorphosize with time, and that regardless of extremity the unflinchingly religious would considered morality and tolerance as something encoded on what Bernard Lonergan calls the “higher level of thinking”; i.e., ‘in the world but not of it.’

[12] For instance, Mirk’s narrative cleverly entwines obedience with sentiment in the Holy Family’s portrayal as returning to Bethlehem (to pay a head-tax). Like de Voragine, a remote historical example is interwoven into the work of Mirk; this allows narratology to go on unperturbed while refraining from polemic, and at the same time advising listeners, readers on the necessity of obedience and the multilayered futility of revolt (Ford 109-10).

[13] As had Chaucer: “But fle we now prolixitee best it/For love of God, and lat us faste go/Right to th’ effect, withouten tales mo” (Troilus 1564-66).

[14] ELIZABETH: “The angel appeared the hour of incensing” (Broadview 1474).

[15] “The depiction of marriage in the N-Town plays should be understood in the context of the controversial role it played in East Anglian religious politics… where Lollard heretics made more direct challenges to clerical authority… The plays’ theatrical promotion of marriage would have appealed not only to Lollard extremists but also to moderate constituencies, such as the wealthy merchant patrons of the numerous parish churches in East Anglia and the members of East Anglia’s many religious guilds.” Lipton, Emma. Affections of the Mind: The Politics of Sacramentl Marriage in Late Medieval English Literature. University of Notre Dame Press, 2007.

[16] See William Prynne’s mammoth Histrio Mastix: The Players Scourge, or, Actors tragoedie (1633).

[17] Lack of index in the two-volume Festial have made it difficult for the linguistic novice to read all of Mirk’s recorded sermons. Nonetheless an earnest effort has been made, and through it a direct reference to de Voragine: “I rede in Legenda Aurea how a Iew com to a chyrch…” (257). As a bare-bones documentation, Mirk’s audience would have to some measure known Mirk’s intimate knowledge of de Voragine.

[18] Passages that even the general reader can clearly identify as biblical, as opposed to insights thoroughly imaginative have thus not been taken into consideration, opting for genealogy, details of events sans biblical scope, etc.

[19] While things Marian and the concept of Mariology are synonymous with Catholicism, a scarcer study exists in Josephology. Its seminal, albeit virtually unknown text is Fr. Francis L. Filas, SJ’s Joseph: The Man Closest to Jesus: The Complete Life, Theology and Devotional History of St. Joseph. St. Paul Editions, 1962.

[20] Mt. 21:1–11; Mk. 11:1–11; Lk. 19:28–44, and Jn. 12:12–9.

[21] The apocryphal text is officially listed as The Arabic Gospel of the Infancy of the Saviour; its referential usage by de Voragine provides us with a chronology predating even the Latin Fathers, thereby potentially marking the birthplace of imaginative narratives: apocrypha.

[22] : The same angel announcing he and Christ; leaping in Elizabeth’s womb; Mary lifting him from the earth; unlocking Zechariah’s tongue; first to confirm baptism; pointed out Christ with his finger; baptized Christ; Christ praised him above all others; he foretold Christ’s coming to the souls in Limbo (GL 330).

[23] Kinservik, Matthew J. “The struggle over Mary’s body: Theological and dramatic resolution in the N-Town assumption play.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 95.2 (1996): p. 192.

[24] Woolf, Rosemary. The English mystery plays. Univ of California Press, 1972, p. 161.

[25] Meredith, Peter. “‘Establishing an expositor’s role: Contemplacio and the N. Town manuscript’, in The Narrator, the Expositor, and the Prompter in European Medieval Theatre, ed. by Philip Butterworth (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007), pp. 289–306.” The Practicalities of Early English Performance: Manuscripts, Records, and Staging. Routledge, 2018. 139-156.

[26] Love, Nicholas. Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ. Ed. Michael G. Sargent. New York: Garland Publishing, 1992.

[27] DeGregorio, Scott. “Texts, topoi and the self: a reading of Alfredian spirituality.” Early Medieval Europe 13.1 (2005): 81-5. In these pages of his essay DeGregorio describes the twofold matter of medieval texts: to read and to live. For my purposes, this intertextual historiography is a lesson in both literature and history; as the stage literally brings a script alive, I wager that this research process mirrors the anonymous playwright’s in its imaginative accumulation of building upon both established and obscure idea of narrative and representation.

On the Narratology of Concept-Being, Lecture 3: Confessions of the Manicheans

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. No, you are not hallucinating: I am wearing one shoe. Please bear with me, as I shall explain momentarily. Today we are, as promised, going to move away from this idea of utilizing aspects of Hegel to assume that the idea of assumption, as pertains to literary practice, has gotten us nowhere. Thus one wants to abolish assumption, and perhaps have a little more fun with literary cognition and the sociology of narrative over the coming mornings. Hence on the one hand, we’ll gloss what a medieval philosopher named Nicholas of Cusa meant to James Joyce as the latter chipped away at Finnegans Wake. We’ll want to keep in mind that Nicholas of Cusa has a profound place in the medieval dialectic of identity/difference, and he is a station on the way from Plotinus to Hegel that the scholar Andrew Cole mapped out in 2014, but left us ultimately dissatisfied, something like going to a chocolate shop whereby free samples are offered by themselves and nothing else; there is a piece or two that is good but nothing that one can box up with a nice sky-blue ribbon and really take home with oneself in more than one form. Such is the crisis of a more general audience. I was reminded of this when I was completing a series of applications some months ago, when on occasion an institution would ask one to fill out one’s religion. There were about twelve to choose from. But I thought it was a shame Manichaeism was nowhere on the list. It struck me as excessively disrespectful. I subsequently wrote to the Chief Officer of Diversity but received only in response what I surmised was a copy-and-pasted set of paragraphs adorned with smiley faces, incomplete rainbows, and clenched fists therein, choleric words and irascible images designated for diverse students who are not a particular type of diverse. And if the diverse is itself ordained, is an institution actually invested in concept-diversity? One can not get too hung up, as one is on a mission. Thus I recalled James Joyce’s method was a bit Manichean, and so, friends, is mine: the constituent elements of γνῶσις. There are some out there who are still angry – despite having successfully censored me – for making a clear case of inquiry in asking if employees at 7-11, White Castle, and university janitors were also Essential Workers. This was when doctors and nurses and their underlings were beings raised to the high heavens, and I wanted to know if, seeing as janitorial work and fast food production continued unfettered through the crisis, were equally risking their lives. I am one of those rare scholars who has actually worked in factories and other unglamorous places colleagues are prone to theorize alone, and I thought it would be helpful for the community to understand if there were different degrees to which one risked one’s life in a pandemic. Everywhere I turned, there was that word one had along with David Bowie outgrown by the end of one’s teenage years, having moved onto the Stranglers: [No More] “Heroes”; even grocery store cashiers were given the label. But never fast food cooks or janitors. I un-sardonically wonder why. We have been post-Orwellian for years; but it is always intriguing to see that other little book come to life, i.e. Animal Farm. Perhaps Nicholas and Joyce can help us weave toward the prospect of a clue. Then we’ll move on to an obscure Augustinian friar named John Mirk, and a touch of late medieval drama, before moving into Plotinus, Dante, and Milton. You will have to excuse me for failing to explain why I am wearing one shoe. I was trying to think of a good story, but the truth alone shall have to do: I stepped in dung three blocks from my apartment and, running late, threw the wingtip into the garbage and kept apace. I wish it was more interesting than that, but there it is; the truth, strewn with manure, in a city garbage can on its last legs, presumably struck with a sledgehammer in the wee hours of morn.

*

These matters are difficult indeed, and far removed from the

senses of those who ponder corporeal and visible things [684B].

Eriugena

*

The technologicity of nature developmentally begets automated mammals, barbaric with the technology that offers the image of enlightenment, but only because it is a regression into bondage. Philosophy and literature worth their name are subsequently more interested in truth than reputation. This is not common sense, but it should be. Subsequently, and in a similar way, the influence of Vico and Bruno on Joyce is if not common knowledge, then at least extensively documented knowledge. But as Donald Verene notes, echoing scholar Adaline Glasheen, “To my knowledge no Joycean has yet read Nicholas of Cusa” (Verene 55). Such is my task, which will of course here be an abridgment of an abridgement. Bruno himself wrote that “This Cusa hath known and understood much; he is indeed one of the most remarkably talented men who hath lived in our world” (Verene 55).

Bruno and Nicholas claimed to have squared the circle, whereas Joyce said it was a matter of circling the square; and the coincidence of these opposites, I wager, has its parallel in literary theory refocused upon the medieval rather than the Marxian, namely the medieval dialectic of Identity and Difference that culminates in the feudalistic threshold of the Phenomenology of Spirit. Likewise, there is a sense of culmination in Finnegans Wake: anything modeled after it is in vain, and its inception sets the stage for a final reexamination of what is called fiction. Thus, in order to better understand the Joycean strains of Vico and Bruno, let us finally give long-due attention to Nicholas of Cusa from a literary point of view, which at the same time converges with the blood, fire, and Hegelian ruin of theory’s foundational reimagining.

Nicholas of Cusa was – among other things – a German-Italian philosopher and theologian born in Germany in 1401 and died in 1464. He was a great Neo-Platonist who preceded Descartes in the way that Hegel preceded Stephen Hawking. Nicholas’s doctrine of “learned ignorance” is a Christianized application of Socratic ignorance, proceeding from a place of knowing nothing in order to uncover as much as possible. Negative theology – that is, working from what is not-God in order to approximate the formerly unfathomable – is conjoined with a methodology of opposites that, from the metaphysical point of view, coincide not by accident, or in a universe of chaotic happenstance, but that the seeming opposites of both history and contemporality are deliberate, brought into perpetual being by necessity. But Nicholas’s confrontation with reconsidering futility in order to approach an absolute sense of overcoming works from a Platonic rendering of Paul, who had centuries earlier written that his strength was made perfect in weakness. The Neo-Platonic collision of opposites has, however, perhaps its first truest sense in the Heraclitean fragment, “all things happen by Strife and Necessity” (57).

So in considering Finnegans Wake as a means by which to stabilize, carry out the autopsy of theory’s hovering corpse by way of Nicholas of Cusa, its ever-present circling of the linguistic-narratological square, we must give a frame of reference for its being-as-form and being-as-subject. In the former it is the culmination of a tradition begun either by Cervantes, Rabelais or letter-writing, depending on who one asks, but which leads either way to Swift: Joyce takes Irish literature, or what is called fiction, to its breaking point and brings both modernity and world-letters with it. As for the being-as-subject, we must locate the transmission of interpretation in the work of none other than Plotinus. It is therefore a coinciding disintegration of late antiquity, forming materials of the earliest middle ages, and its structure of dialogical imagination that implodes in Finnegans Wake. Nearby Plotinus and in the spirit of that aforementioned negative theology we have Pseudo-Dionysius; and it is remarkable that about one thousand years of sparks and traces of literary cognition do not dissuade Nicholas of Cusa from his considering Pseudo-Dionysius as the true father of the Platonic-theological school; and it is the textual spirit that runs from Pseudo-Dionysius to Nicholas of Cusa that gives us Joyce’s utilization of Vico, which again brings us into the theoretical realm of negative dialectics taken to the heights of ontology.

Nicholas and Joyce respectively reach the ends of both divisional limitation and aesthetic typography. Either writer does not just perceive but recognizes themselves at the end of one tradition and the hypothetical birth of another; the heuristic canons have given way to a new sense of going beyond the limits of empirical observation. This is precisely the reason that in his letters Joyce writes that Freud and Jung pale in comparison to Vico; the household names do nothing for him while Vico bridged the chronological water separating Gerty McDowell from the two washerwomen. What Joyce learns from Nicholas is eclipsing what Andrew Cole rightly calls the “capacities of adequation”; there are no longer imaginative dialectics on the one hand and metaphysical dialectics on the other: “For Not-other is the most congruent Form (ratio), Standard, and Measure of the existence of all living things, of the nonexistence of all nonexisting things, of the possibility of all possibilities, and so on for all things of this kind. I see in the Not-other all nameable things.” In his effort to move beyond the ontology of things visible and invisible, Nicholas has an imaginative ally in Joyce. For Joyce, by the time of Finnegans Wake, has taken Cusa’s Not-other dialectic of medievalism and conjoined it with Dante’s theological geography: the prosaic result is an invisible torrent rendered triumphant in its recognition and annihilation of conceptual history.

            But neither takes empirical dogma seriously enough to dispute conceptual reality as a process of the One moving from itself back into itself. This confluence of invisible realities is for both writers a means by which to apprehend the road of literary cognition that leads to the dual place of procession and return whereby negation takes procession over affirmation. Scholar William Hoye writes that “Cusa displays a remarkable capacity to adopt quite different philosophies, apparently disregarding their mutual incompatibilities… ‘Faith is the beginning of understanding. ‘Whoever does not believe, will not have knowledge.’ Faith includes all that can be known. The intellect’s knowledge consists in the unfolding, the explication, of faith. The intellect is led by faith’ Likewise, Joyce had noted in Ulysses, echoing the Psalmist, that God – or Wisdom – is a shout in the street. After a while, however, he decided to go have a listen for himself; and there language went from invisibility to literality, employing the cadence of muted strings. And as in the case of Cusa, writes Hoye, “Should one eclipse God, one has prepared part of the world to disappear into darkness”; and this is precisely what Finnegans Wake is, as Joyce’s book of the dark: a journey into the nocturnal mind, as daylight prose has been exhausted. His novelistic survey of the taken-for-granted mirrors Nicholas’s understanding of the theologians having amounted to what Aquinas called ‘a lot of straw’; they have said everything about which they know nothing, and have thus failed to say anything about which they know everything, which is nothing.

            But for Nicholas the enterprise of subsumed perception is a universal shudder that must be isolated and unpacked. Centuries from Heidegger, Nicholas began to process through inward and external – or church – structure, tension, and reformation, that every age is an age of disruption, and how one perceives reality is a choice. His trinitarian theology could equally be applied to a partial character list of Joyce’s:

Not-other and Not-other and Not-other – although this expression is not at all in use – the triune Beginning is revealed most clearly, though it is above our apprehension and capability. For when the First Beginning – signified through the ‘Not-other’ defines itself, in this movement of definition Not-other originates from Not-other; and from Not-other and the Not-other which has originated, the definition concludes in Not-other. One who contemplates these matters will behold them more clearly than can be expressed.

Such is the outcome of a theological dialectics where all faces have beauty, but none is beauty itself; of a mystical humanism focused on the authenticity of human existence philosophically and ideally leading to wisdom rather than science; which through the perpetual process of coincidental opposites destroying one another while giving birth to the unforeseen, which is in turn made visible and set against its rejoinder, it is thereby the very unforeseen that is the oscillating innards of Finnegans Wake, brought from shadows to reality. It is the imperceptible, albeit penetrable voice of the world-stage calling through the ages. The systematic of the text is the systematic of ontological interpretation: by striving desperately to finish off subjectivity, the coming of everyone, the subject is left with one’s self multiplied by linguistic anthropology taken to the Geist, transmitted from the stars down to earth upon rectangular world-stage.

            As such, for Nicholas the Not-God engages the reader with an ultimatum that is both fresh and terrifying: you must now, if you wish to proceed, get to know what you do not know; for in doing so more will be revealed to you than in repetition: the demolition of familiarity is the beginning of familiarity for both Nicholas and Joyce. Joyce then takes the Not-God of unconsciousness and flips its practitioners on their already-dated heads: the stuff of dreams is the stuff of fiction, as the stuff of God is the stuff of men. Joyce, in the spirit of Nicholas, takes the text and moves from dogmatic modernity to plenipotentiary dialogism; both writers see empiricism for what it actually is, no mere comfort of madness but rather, that which was described by Deleuze some decades later thusly: “Empiricism is by no means a reaction against concepts, nor a simple appeal to lived experience. On the contrary, it undertakes the most insane creation of concepts ever seen or heard.”

Therefore, Nicholas’s notion that Absolute Sight is present in all seeing proved fertile imaginative soil for Joyce, who was at work wondering just how he might prove that there is no such thing as the recording of a dream, as there is no irrefutable historical fact. Rather, there are gross exaggerations and subjective geographies, the Homeric fact that philosophy is a literary genre, and nothing else. There is Neoplatonism, and then there is Nicholas of Cusa; there are novels, and then there is Finnegans Wake: “Chance,” said Joyce, “Furnishes me what I need. I am like a man who stumbles along; my foot strikes something. I bend over, and it is exactly what I want.”[1]

As Susan Sailor puts it, “Joyce does not work with satisfied desire in the Wake, but only with its absence, which is to say, desire as a presence.” This not-desire is the germ of theology and hence theory; it is a positive take on negativity, or an application of its ever-present origin in the text. Negation is thus taken up as a platform upon which; and hence negation of negation for Joyce culminates in a cyclicity that goes beyond the linguistic into the sphere of Nicholas whereby, as in theory, negation is simultaneous canvas and wellspring. But whereas unity is grounded in the infinite for Nicholas, for Joyce – as quoted by Beckett in Ellmann, “Reality is a paradigm, an illustration of a possibly unstable rule.” This possibility of a cosmic poetical anarchy is both the line of vision that enables the text to approach totality and infinity by virtue of negative dialectics, and it is the same spirit, is an acceleration into a darkness that is light: that in the end one realizes there is no end, and therein grasps a bit of that Heraclitean running river, past Eve and Adam, of the end. Joyce’s “babbling pumpt of platinism” (164.10-11) therefore disseminates, by way of critique and crisis, “Investigating concepts and their linguistic history as as-much a part of the minimal condition for recognizing history as is the definition of history that has to do with human society” (Koselleck 20).

Joyce takes Nicholas’s learned ignorance and negative theology not as maxims to live or die by, but as a cumulative perchance to dream on the way to language; and such is, in that tormented essence of Van Gogh’s smoking skull, Finnegans Wake. As Rita Felski remarks, the literary-theoretical key refrain is a blistering excoriation of society; and this is directly linked to the exilic identity and difference of negative theology, where suspicion and interpretative unease are provoked rather than imposed. This allows Nicholas of Cusa to complete the Plotinian project, whereby Joyce brings it to the architectonic of fictionality, summarily rendering unto theory what is theory’s.


[1] [Joyce as quoted in “The Hours of James Joyce.”]

On the Narratology of Concept-Being, Lecture 2: Moby Dick, or Herman Melville’s “Loomings”

The Word Made Blubber: G.W.F. Hegel and Melville’s “Loomings”

Et miraris quod paucis placeo cui cum paucis convenit, cui omnia fere aliter videntur ac vulgo, a quo semper quod longissime abest id penitus rectum iter censeo.

 [And you wonder that few men like me, even though I only get along with a few men—I who perceive almost everything differently than does the crowd and who always consider the right path to be the one that is as far as possible from the crowd].

Petrarch, Epistolae de Rebus Familiaribus, XIX: VII.

Perhaps the central question that the Philosophy of Nature seeks to address is this: given the otherness of nature, why should we care about it at all?

Jeffrey Reid[1]

           Greetings, ladies and gentlemen. Last time we met for a longer talk we discussed Hegel and the Natural Law on the way to a better understanding of where literary practice stands, might stand, or once stood, as concerns the essence and structure of narrativity. We subsequently, online, confirmed that one has never understood why it must be capitalism, fascism, or socialism; that all three are terrible, and worse, proof that the tentacle-stupidity of mankind is a thirst that shall only be at last quenched with Apocalypse. Likewise, moving past mere preordained economics, I broached the notion that there are no ‘real’ characters in a given text but ideas and ideals processed through intertextual dialectics, or from the dialogical point of view, the oscillation between technological nihilism and the interpretative being of the world. No character ‘is’ anyone. Collective perception remains subjective; for every being who thinks that they are a character, well – such is singular universality. And the dialogical is fomented in struggle, which really creates a goldmine of our own age, beneath the veneer of its psychopathologies and simulations, often one and the same. For if all beings did not relate to all characters there would be no book, or being, as being is a essentially a work of literature. Keeping with the notion above of tentacles, I thought we’d remain submerged under water while moving toward what is called literature, namely an old friend of mine, one of the few who never let me down, in Herman Melville. Thus now we circumnavigate Moby Dick, the first chapter “Loomings”, while incorporating such of the philosophical directions glossed in the previous lecture.

            “Why did the poor poet of Tennessee,” Ishmael asks in the opening chapter of Moby Dick, “upon suddenly receiving two handfuls of silver, deliberate whether to buy him a coat, which he sadly needed, or invest his money in a pedestrian trip to Rockaway Beach?” (29). This is part of Ishmael’s broader meditation on the allure of the sea, which focuses the novel’s opening chapter. This allure, however, is not only felt by poor poets, and indigent novelists, but also by the numberless masses of Wall Street, who are “pent up in lathe and plaster, tied to counters, nailed to benches, clenched to desks.” All of these, for Ishmael, are yearning to be at sea. Here the chapter’s title, “Loomings,” refers both to Ishmael’s meditations, but also more specifically, in its nautical sense, to the coming into view, coming into clarity of, in Ishmael’s case an idea, but also quite literally the coming into view of a ship. The ship that comes into view for readers of Moby Dick is, of course, the Pequod, the whaling vessel we step foot aboard in Chapter 16. But what exactly is the Pequod?

            In the novel’s critical history, the ship has been read in various terms: Calvinist, arithmetical, cosmopolitan and Zoroastrian.[2] Perhaps the most familiar reading is to think about the ship as a version of the nation-state, and more particularly, a version of America itself.[3] This of course relates to the novel’s canonical status as the American novel, and so not only the Pequod but virtually every aspect of the novel can and has been read in terms of American national identity. But in what follows, I would like to propose a different way of thinking about what the Pequod might represent, one that draws upon Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirt (1807), and in particular, Hegel’s notion of the Geist. For Hegel, the Geist is a spirit moving through time, but one that can be seen as embodied by certain historical actors and forces. This embodiment is hardly stable, it is an instance in itself, it is a culmination, and it is a signal of a future development. One oft-cited example of this is Hegel’s supposed viewing of Napoleon on horseback entering Jena in 1806, the sight of which prompted him to say, “There is the world-spirit.”[4] For Hegel, this meant that Napoleon represented a culmination of history and also a complete destruction of that history (and reality as it was known for the people there) as the world-spirit, embodied by Napoleon, pulled them into a new unknown reality. What is notable about Hegel’s words is that there is nothing particularly new about an invading spirit; what is new is that Napoleon represents a new way to understand the history of the world.

            Hegel’s thoughts, I would suggest, allow us to think about the first chapter of Moby Dick in ways that depart from the tradition interpretation of national identity. In the first instance, there is nothing particularly new about a novel opening with a sailor longing to go to sea, nor about a sailor ashore looking about himself and feeling restless. But this time it is different.  Just as Hegel sees Napoleon on horseback looming into sight, representing so much more than an instance of military invasion, so too does the sea voyage looming into sight for Ismail represent so much more than vocational opportunity. What we find in “Loomings” is the convergence of a future that will be revealed to us over the next several hundred pages, and an aftermath that Ismail now lives within. In Hegel’s terms, in other words, “Loomings” functions narratively as culmination, destruction, view of a yet unknown future. The trauma that drives Ishmael to Ahab is inestimably magnified in the character’s years before the close of Moby Dick and his famous opening words. In her book Mourning Sickness: Hegel and French Revolution, Rebecca Comay notes: “My interest is philosophical trauma… with the “German misery” as its exemplary model and Hegel, of all people, its most lucid theorist… [t]he German encounter with the French Revolution is an extreme case of the structural anachronism that afflicts all historical experience. The clocks are never synchronized, the schedules never coordinated, every epoch is a discordant mix of divergent rhythms, unequal durations, and variable speeds” (Comay 4). With “Loomings” as the initial – and thus key – aspect to the narrative scaffolding for Moby Dick, we at once make the Hegelian turn to Melville’s imaginative theodicy and eschatology, epitomized in Ishmael’s dual poetic and philosophical style with which he introduces himself to us.

While it is perhaps a poet’s obligation to exude what Jonathan A. Cook, for instance, observes in his Inscrutable Malice, “[That] Melville was long concerned with the injustices of the human condition and the problematic nature of modern Christianity.” However, it is what follows that makes Cook’s observation a prescient meditation on a dual historiographical concept: Melville’s fictional use of it, and Melville’s austere place within it: “[I]n his preoccupation with evil we may class him in company with some of the leading philosophical and creative minds… of the two general attitudes toward evil – the “rationalist” and the “empiricist” – [like Hegel, Melville] envisaged the realm of history as a setting for overcoming human suffering (273).[5]

As with Cook, the author sees something of a justifiably neglected ven-diagram when it comes to the narratological prospect of distinguishing genre, difference, and authorial architectonics in both the philosopher and prose poet, or fictive practitioner; for in a sense it appears less insane than thoughtful to consider the philosophy of Moby Dick and the plot and characters of Hegel’s Phenomenology. Both writers are ultimately concerned with an ontic liberation that transpires inwardly, and through which Ishmael is the closest thing to a totality of its aesthetic expression.[6] Taking Melville’s oft-neglected place as a leading literarily philosophical mind into consideration alongside Cornel West’s recent observation(s)[7] we arrive at a parallel in Hegel’s rejection of philosophy’s then-contemporaneous post-Kantian presuppositionless ambition (Bristow 207); but the parallel is the character of Ishmael and his ideology of rejection, epiphany, and freedom. Furthermore, the conceptual notion which Hegel and Melville envision cannot exist without an exterior/state apparatus whose inescapable crisis is a manufactured dependence upon religious collective memory[8] as laid out in Halbwachs.  

Likewise, Moby Dick circumnavigated through both key and scarcer elements of Hegel’s system and aesthetic thought lead us straightaway to the other side of the pond: industrial pluralism breaks down for Ishmael; its problematic dissemination of Numerical Being, as in the case of the Hegelian author Alexandre Kojeve, paves the way for a global petrification and is directly tied to the problem of individual and suicide (Atheism 70).  Poetical transubstantiation comes at the cost of banishment and is, furthermore, a bestowed scarcity rather commodity exchange; it is preferably dealt with posthumously, rendering an avalanching effect down the mountain of time, history, and literature.

Melville and his reader are well-equated with textual circumnavigation; but in “Loomings” a surmounting deleterious havoc is heightened by Elizabethan rhapsody and has a way of buoying as the Pequod is anchored, thereafter becoming a style spontaneously paralleling the reflective psychic anxiety of narrative-nautical pursuit. Melvillean style – King James Version, Shakespeare, Milton – is in a sense Rabelaisian, fitting as Melville greatly admired Gargantua and Pantagruel (Lawrance 19); it is a joyous gob of spit in the generational moral propagandists proclaiming the ‘prohibition of laughter’ (Rabelais ix). Both authors – Melville and Ishmael – shall now break with contemporaries; they have ‘made up their minds to be annihilated.’ Ishmael’s scattered dialogism is for a moment frozen, and thus revealed: Method precedes purgatorial cetology, incongruity making way for totality; the abstract essence of triumph conjoins astonishment and bliss. His vanishing and reappearing can be taken as a play on the sailor’s typological interchangeability; but it can also be understood that Moby Dick is about the World-Spirit that is the Pequod, whose guests are chronicled in narratological time range from Miltonian apocalypse to Elizabethan superfluity, cetological data entry to proto-existential satire. If we are to grasp his process and reality, we are to do so through the topoi of Hegelian – technological-feudal – alienation, a recurring theme in a host of contemporaneous literary-theoretical scholar conceptualizing Hegel’s foundational role in the prehistory of Theory.[9]

                For Ishmael, a host of symbolic and typological explanations converge to hoist the reader in by way of calamitous universals – all men’s frenzied desire to escape society – proceeding from his litany of epigraphs. Either spectacle – Emperor and Pequod – attracts crowds; but the masses differ when it comes down to participation, especially with regard to those “seemingly bound for a dive.” There is a duality of imminent carnage in soldierly participation, debris of passersby and those caught in the crosshairs that goes beyond the shipyard’s magnetic pull in peacetime with its chance for perishing not immediate but obscure. On the one hand there are mountains of corpses, and on the other ocean floor. Nevertheless, beneath the land that has given way to its other, water, resides a mythic nemesis whose manifestation gives way to its opposite’s object of terrifying reverence: the Napoleonic Force, and all its cumulative firepower, against the vastest of mammals in the Whale. Sightseers pace straight for the water; the soldiers pace straight toward homicidal subjugation. Former wars have given way to Geist; its posthumous particle showers have culminated in this invincible unit of unlimited ammunition and lunging, gleaming sword; its compression will in the end reduplicate, giving way to the imperceptible. But for the present either man – authorial philosopher or philosophical author – must be content with textual structure, moving toward eclipse of dialectical reason, or the extremest limit of land. The conceptual horizon of organic futures has given way to assumption and subjectivity falling apart in the form of establishment collapsing into termination.

That Ishmael’s case the opening words are, like Hegel’s Preface, ‘written last’, is worth noting (It is something more than incidental in transcending horizontal, vertical narratology, culminating rather in epiphanic circularity); and moving from mammalian apocalypse to superfluity. If we are to grasp his process and reality, we are to do so through the topoi of alienation. His collage-like recollections mirror coffin shards; he realizes through authorial cognition that he became a metaphor long ago, standing before those very warehouses that granted him escape. In the opening lines we are granted snippets of the seaman’s life, flickering shadows in the daunting, all-engulfing shadow of whale in ascendancy. In comprehending the lights, like aspects of Hegel’s Science, Ishmael apprehends that which disables him from mere Fiction (As Hegel moved from Text to System). Method precedes purgatorial cetology, incongruity making way for totality; the abstract essence of triumph conjoins astonishment and bliss.

We discreetly learn that Ishmael has taken some years (“never mind how long precisely”) since the Pequod’s apotheosis, and in this time he has found the voice in prose that he could not find on the street: graced with alienation, he can at last make himself understood in narratology. This mutual incompatibility – fish and whale, Ishmael and onlookers – supplant one another’s station through rhetorical interiority. Ishmael, like Hegel, is engulfed in otherness. This mutual alienation is intensified by familiarity; Hegel’s Napoleon on the eve of philosophical breakthrough, Ishmael in the conscience of approaching a body of water that is an end for all but himself, for whom it is but the beginning. Incompatibility – dockside fish and whale, philosopher and emperor, Ishmael and onlookers – supplant one another’s station through rhetorical interiority. Despite appearing near-ready for a dive, the men go against their Industrialized Sirens; their objective is to get as close as possible to the water without falling in, and through mutual necessity invoke that piratical and fluid nature that is seafaring, as the sailors arrive preferring to march past them, offering a glimpse of the nautical spirit of a sifting anarchical hermitage. The very act of walking for Ishmael shakes up stagnation, although it must be a walking that is not predicated upon the bondage of returning on time to wherever it is one was briefly granted leave. Rather, it must for Ishmael be like the very act of sailing itself, for he shuns the notion of anything other than ‘going as a simple sailor.’ This notion is akin, in the Hegelian sense, to the experiential formulations of developing consciousness.

As with Hegel’s conviction that the end of history is not unlike universal vindication through causality’s last, triumphal act, Ishmael’s end is apprehended with pneumonic self-emptying and rendered an indexical system. This system, or memory theater, is of course the novel and its chapters; but its stages on the way to freedom indicate that an apparent immemorial freeing up is a matter of seaside proximity. It is upon us. By walking with a sense of redemptive, cosmic locality about him, Ishmael becomes at last the polar opposite of men chained to desks, benches, tied, nailed, clinched. For now Ishmael knows that misery lies in paralysis; that paralysis dwells in fear; and that fear eats the soul; and that, lastly, it is fear of the concept of fear that is the history and truth of the clinched and the nailed become crystal clear where once incomprehensibility abounded. Neither nailed nor clinched, crucified nor married, beholden to neither money nor property, his boundless joy is that of the Desert Fathers; their forefathers – Ishmael’s once-ambitions – slaughtered by Nero in particular on down, the blood worked like rain upon soil, formulating the indestructible roots of sainthood, and now alive to witness the twilight of the gods: Geist shall soon have the nails removed from its wrists, the looming Pequod’s anchor in time shall rise.

Working against time in another fugitive realm, now writing forward and thinking backward, Ishmael’s narrative sifts from one specter of hiddenness to the next in Wall Street down to the Pequod. From Corlears Hook one looks out upon Williamsburg. Walking clockwise, Ishmael saunters down to Coenties Slip, what with its view of Brooklyn Heights. He has supplanted the statuesque with the cadence of a lyrical mutiny. Passersby are given glimpses into what appears reality in the latter, watching international ships pack up and unload, whereas at Wall Street we are offered glimpses of Bartleby’s source of eventual rebellion, first chronicled by Ishmael: Thousands upon thousands of men, like silent sentinels (28), watching what they are unable to cherish. They in turn accept rejection, and therein reject acceptance, as ship after ship grows microscopic then vanishes; comprehension of life at sea degenerates into little lunch break disagreements in perceptivity. The little fish turn up for bait, their captors never grasping nautical proximity to its distant, infernal machination in the White Whale. Men are, in their seaside variations, objects of a future museum. By rejecting abstract thought for the sake of picturesque solicitude, they have sacrificed themselves by failing to envision themselves in a thoroughly cosmological light. Obelisks of the flesh, even unchained from their desks there is a collective aura about them, frozen in time to Ishmael, embodying manifest movements and yet rearising, forever, at nothing outside of assimilated negation. There in the shadows of towering concrete, angular chrome, he dreams of mother whale eyeless, walking through the unhappy consciousness, and into Geist.

Subjective idealism for Ishmael converges with – again in the Hegelian sense – the realization that there is no being that is entirely independent and self-sustaining; and that this is a linguistic contradiction (McGowan 90). Ocean reveries, foregone myths, mental pictures of folkloric vindication; such useless servanthood is for Ishmael the rejection of life in the spirit. He is convinced that they all seek the same thing: to reject the family, the state, its origins and its eschatologists, to abandon landmen and landswomen altogether, and be at one with seamen, at last, in useful servanthood. But they cannot move from their stationary windows, when all the Geist demands that the window be thrown out of the window. Seaward peeps; their tragedy is lessened in its tense. But en route to looming shipyard it is the unhappy consciousness all over again, trapped between Augustinian immutability and Keatsian ode, men unable to commit to greatness, bound by lath and plaster; it is an industrial misreading of Shelley’s “Triumph of Life”, spectators equal parts magnetized and damned by torture of unreason. “On fairest bosoms & the sunniest hair/Fell, and were melted by the youthful glow/”Which they extinguished; for like tears, they were/A veil to those from whose faint lids they rained/In drops of sorrow.” Of course, the green fields are not gone, although it is a curious question on Ishmael’s part. Firstly, it is aimed at persons climbing high atop the riggings of anchored, docked ships. Secondly, their ascent is a perfect symbol of tragic contradiction, forever climbing in order to display perceptive disfigurement; thereby it remains an austere, locked horizon. Having been the Idea, degeneration renders it novelty item (No shipyard or religious architecture is ever built specifically for daytrip touristry; yet neither escapes this fate). Thirdly, its celebratory gesturing indicates a ponderous implication, like a new lens for a broken camera. Likewise, what if green fields do remain from some observational vantage point? That is for Ishmael a twofold dead-end, neither sea (Freedom) nor stoic freedom (Thought of Freedom) from the agony of power and its World Spirit’s bondsmen made free from its burning sphere of numerical beings, i.e. Napoleonic soldiers and Ahab’s seamen: “the world spirit progresses from lower determinations to higher principles and concepts of its own nature, to more fully developed expressions of the [aforementioned] Idea” (Introduction 63).     

The Cook – with all his later subterranean readings of Judges – is, perhaps more-so than the Stoic, warranted the chance of ‘considerable’ glory. We see that the cook is also something of an officer. That in attending to foodstuff, reading his Judges in isolation, the literal cook of the Pequod has about him the cavernous polarity of an Ahab, albeit to a much more subdued extent. The cook’s wisdom is in his care for the interior of the exterior – the seamen’s needs which subtract them from the Pequod’s daily, nightly tasks in order to take in periodic supping – whose developing narrative in mimetic culmination of harpooning disaster is granted incremental peace by way of the cook’s concoctions. That Ishmael links roasted river horse to the Egyptians is itself rather interesting from a literary-historical point of view; for throughout War and Peace panicked periodicity is often exemplified in the characters’ varied, albeit united, fears of having to eventually eat their horses. For Tolstoy’s characters the sacrifice and subsequent devouring is the last act before death. For Ishmael the ancient Egyptian processions are a testament to a living death, bound the museum of fascinating, albeit odious, eyes of the tourist. Proto-Tolstoian hindsight furthermore bestows upon Ishmael chronicles of Napoleonic Russia – where the World Spirit begins its own end, mirroring the Pequod, in a destruction wrought by monomania, occultic vindication, the twilight of the gods and all its religious fervor, ending in the guillotines dismantled and the installation of ecclesiastical industrialism. The ‘end of history’, from Hegel to Marx and Fukuyama, is revealed temporal eschatology at odds with itself; and the return to eschatology, as with Melville and Hegel, exclusively vindicates that dialectic of desire and recognition. Judiciously buttered onto a judgmatical salting and peppering – but of course! The cook, as vessel of the vessel, is that odd culminated symbol of commodity exchange. Be it interns, cooks, factory workers, cashiers – it is always these vital organs who are deemed fit for manipulation; it is a woeful exchange, dating back to those Egyptian bricklayers. The tables are forever skewed: it is less capitalistic than it is anthropological. For who recalls the very bricklayers of those bake-houses? Who recalls the cook, the simple sailor? None! Unless he has sold his coat, bought a sword, and brandishing some leftover coin, acquired loose-leaf, pencils, and sharpener.

            As we see in Ishmael’s coffins, tombs, and other ‘idolatrous dotings’, consciousness changes throughout the hieroglyphic ages by breaking free from the illusion of bondage to alien powers. False predictions tally up as persons first singularly, then collectively recapture their senses in the painful process of reconsidering dogmatic facticity, be it religious or its opposite. It looks the negative in the face and dwells with it: “[The] life of Spirit is not the life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation, but rather the life that endures it and maintains itself in it. It wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself. It is this power, not as something positive, which closes its eyes to the negative, as when we say of something that it is nothing or is false, and then, having done with it, turn away and pass on to something else; on the contrary, Spirit is this power only by looking the negative in the face, and tarrying with it. This tarrying with the negative is the magical power that converts it into being” (Hegel 19). As with Hegel, come the third chase day’s end we shall see that mind alone is infinite by means of cognition that begets record-keeping; but the record is itself fallible, rendering chroniclers an aura of endurability rather than impenetrable. Authorial mind as aura of eternity is, at last mirage; yet conviction in the mirage appoints one likelier to tap into the hermeneutic circle as pertains to the content of one’s medium. That the end is unfathomable lends congruency to the text (Mind); through contemplating this finite circularity one is thereby closer to the process of resolution by way of fictionality. In other words, Hegel is not writing about the mind.[10] And Melville is not writing about Ishmael’s memory. They are both writing about Mind, having apprehended that in achieving what was only a possibility, their objects become their own truths.

The sailor’s goal, formed by Ishmael’s experience with pedagogical stoicism, wears off in time (30). At a glance it mirrors Stoicism-as-school, which according to Ishmael – who ends with Job – can serve as nothing more than a doctrinal prelude to sense-certainty and perception. The Hegelian key is that Stoicism discerned, actualized, and lived, brings one to the cusp of culmination in its authentic freedom of thought: “Stoicism is just as free in a slave in chains (Epictetus) as in an emperor on the throne (Aurelius)… it is a step in the right direction, but it is not really an emergence from servile consciousness – or, at best, it is a very partial emergence” (Lauer 114). That Ishmael is able to make the complete break from schoolmaster to sailor entails the seeming contradiction of revealed religion: that whoever loses his life will find it. Hence decocting stoicism, despite the durability of Seneca’s work and the implied societal crisis that entails both structural reputation and reputational structure – the schoolmaster – enables the ‘simple sailor’ the idea of fulfillment of the unseen. This source of conceptual understanding, moving from Athens to Jerusalem, curtails the dialogical melancholy woven into the fabric of an exhausted ‘sense of honor.’ For Ishmael, as for Hegel, it’s been abandoned alongside circuitous, monetary benches in a sawdust debris of nails, limbs, hammers, cloth, and staples. Reliance upon the unfolding Spirit again enables the Christological prospect for Ishmael (Who has already asked, ““What does this amount to, say, in the scales of the New Testament?”) of God riding a lowly ass, when the peoples expected Homeric warhorse; of God befriending fishermen, lepers, and prostitutes, and setting doves loose from cages; of the schoolmaster, therein moving from Seneca to Logos, bypassing Wall Street for an apocalyptic odyssey that shall make no sense until it is recorded (And that shall be left to the Fates alone – Ishmael was well-versed and lived in circumnavigated horror stories – where annihilation renders textual procession onto the next freed-up, scrivening seaman). 

Rather than stagnate, Ishmael apprehends the intuition of the instant, cognizant but disillusioned as concerns the American tycoon bloodlines. This temporal lucre wears off for Ishmael less to subside than to transform itself into a textual chronicling of atrophied moguls, provided ideological ammunition by an external system of poetical philosophy; it takes sequential root in the seaside consternation between irony and gravity might be seen as undergoing a matter of imaginative alchemy. For now he is brought up for air, having been baptized by the fire of the mind, the instantaneous price on his head be damned. Ishmael’s historical-Hegelian retribution shakes loose its own decaying bloodline flashbacks into a narrative of authentic  philosophical inquiry’s elimination of the contingent: “We must bring to history the belief and conviction that the realm of the will is not at the mercy of contingency… we find a hollow reality which ought to accord with the spirit but does not yet do so; and for this reason, it must be destroyed” (Introduction 28-9). Therefore, in destroying the aspect of himself that sought in a sense the Promethean bondage of the factory window or school-desk, the anarchic hermit draws the ire of a nation’s titans. He ruins his name, and thereby cements it. He goes down to the dogs, and sees they are but shadows of dogs. He has killed confusion by killing options.

Thus, for Ishmael the physical or metaphysical point of view of truth sets aside temporal persons, stages, motivations, and renders the careless sailor less oceanic troubadour than capable of ontological justification. Ishmael’s necessity of aim becomes less abstract than demonstrative; insubstantial reflection begins to surrender, therein mirroring his conceptual existence. His next assertion is swift, dispelling contradiction: “the wholesome exercise and pure air of the forecastle deck” (31) are aspects of nautical ontology that intuition reverts from epiphanic dialogism to a sense of dissolved alienation. Weary of Cartesian circuitry, Ishmael declares mutiny upon both dogmas and empiricism; this allows him to reconsider what it means to believe anything at all, and thereby to apprehend eternity and death, rendering it foundation. The exercise of not-being grants the alienated sailor an experience that religion can no longer consistently distribute. Ishmael’s Absolute, the Sea, parallels Hegel’s as it is “not to be comprehended, it is to be felt and intuited” (Hegel 4). This cannot make complete sense to us (Not unlike the vanishing ship as seen from spectator’s eyes) unless we consider Ishmael’s “Finally” (31).

Without either saying it a summit is reached by World Spirit on the one hand, landlessness on the other, and both in their ways a lived freedom from the Jamesonian prison house of language’s dialectic of Identity/Difference.[11] Governance and expression, as desired by Ishmael, are borne of a proximity to Spirit, or Pequod; it is transcendence and overcoming over both the immediacy of conceptual religion and the ideological crisis of doctrinal probity (Houlgate 266). Satisfaction and security cannot coexist with this Hegelian criteriology. Melville’s cognition of the lived universal manifests itself through a seismic inner change. Gazing himself out at the sea of reliability, he knows nothing less than extremity will at last beget prerequisitional agency of selfhood, collective memory, give way to spiritual deconstructing of the history of the concept of time. Whereas Hegel employs Philosophy, Melville wagers Fiction. Both, done well, unlock the nature of both nominal thought and chaos at the eschatological end of Thought, or flesh. Conception and oblivion proceed as one; becoming unfolds into prevalence, astern winds, and Pythagorean beans (31). For Ishmael’s narrative, like Hegel’s, is a reconceptualization of differential suppression: “The invisible police officer of the fates” (31) extends its varied bait to arouse the desire to bite: wealth of substance attained in epiphanic deconstruction has had an effect like that of Plato’s cave. It is not that Ishmael or Hegel has seen anything new, but that they have tasted, seen, period.

For either writer, consciousness of the state-endorsed reality is revealed not least of all by the psychological equivalent of placing every written word in quotations marks. Linguistic amputation thus conceptualizes what was previously experienced as a wealth of substance, rendering it formational, multileveled scaffolding, and presenting the narratological opportunity to both seek and find more than worms, dirt, and water (Hegel 5), and “It came in as a sort of brief interlude and solo between more extensive performances” (Melville 31). Moving from the world-as-is, a providential thread of light becomes one or the other: heavenly providence, or imperceptible futility. There is middle-ground, and it is in fact near unanimously agreed upon; but Ishmael cannot help equating it with nonexistence. The Pequod thus fulfills the light’s direction, offering a lived community in the world but not of it. Posthumous anxieties give way through a glass cleared of fog, coming face-to-face with the Spirit, not unlike Nennius, a history extracted from its shallow grave.

The Whale has likewise stolen the intents of the Spirit’s passengers. But it is a good thief, like Plato’s noble liar, or better yet a Thief in the Night. Its vindication is that compact mass of blubber, all stinking ton after wretched ton of it, an avalanche of black, boiling blubber on fire, for pails, vomitous buckets, singed nostrils, swinging lanterns, cracking candles, old midnight hair gel, spit shine and a glass of mist, moonlit skull by mirror, with young men crying, screaming, old hobos being whipped at the rungs, cannibals with clad-iron, invisible men contemplating suicide in the crushing halls of blubber, breathing blubber all day and night, out in the middle of what is called an ocean upon what is called a planet, that word made blubber – which fulfills once-empty depth and breadth through sheer force[12] and multiplicity, as yet skirting negative asymmetricalism, otherness and negation (Bowman 244). Superficiality – cognition of an unrealized Concept – likewise remains landlocked (Bowman 58). Stargazing is natural and its egg basket vainglorious, there where the spirit of otherness has been abolished both in the street and in collective memory. Commodified, empty husks, distillation and distraction, high tragedy and jolly parts in farces (31) – it is all apprehended in the Hegelian submersion of transformation’s labor, where Spirit – Pequod – is only as great as its [commemorative-imaginative] expression. But Ishmael sees both spirit and object in his hazy rapture. Foggy, untrammeled terrain lends itself to prophetic talk without limit; for where the parameters exist for negativity’s sake there can be no home in finitude, and thus no lack of thievery. From there Ishmael escapes in order to Escape, much later, blubber without restraint.

Working from Shakespeare’s world-stage, the Spirit takes hold in a fashion of Judgement and Comprehension: this dialectical fusion is the essence of Pequod, and oneself as another, in effigy: the burning of Thomistic straw,[13] or coming to the end of one’s self. High tragedy – that too is Rabelaisian tissue. For Ishmael the culture industry and all its pilloried marble demand the person become a fragment – a mere passenger, or cook (29-30) – and thus had for so long proceeded as a numerical self, eyes without a face. Principles and general points of view are out of the question for industrial culture; this would lead to a general conception of oligarchical systematic and would thence in a fortnight see it razed to the ground. Differential classification precludes the true nautical desire in proceeding as a simple sailor. Other than this, prospective employment begets lifelong structuring of station, and thus do not render one the lowly freedom to jump from spar to spar like a grasshopper in May meadow (30). Penetration by means of a thoroughgoing narratological descent into knowledge and judgment is in the cards; but the shape of the truth may be defined by nothing other than comprehension of its construction and science.

Ishmael’s next assertion is swift, dispelling contradiction: “the wholesome exercise and pure air of the forecastle deck” (31) are aspects of nautical ontology that intuition reverts from epiphanic dialogism to a sense of being-not, or the negation of unconscienced historicism. The exercise of not-being grants the alienated sailor an experience that religion can no longer consistently distribute. His thoughts upon Manhattan stroll grant access to a special knowledge: carnivalesque vindication of the mind. Ishmael’s Absolute, the Sea, parallels Hegel’s as it is “not to be comprehended, it is to be felt and intuited” (Hegel 4). This cannot make complete sense to us, as with vanishing ships seen from spectator’s eyes. Whatever may transpire is thus preordained, predestined: “I abominate all honourable respectable toils, trials, and tribulations of every kind whatsoever… the invisible police officer of the Fates…” (Moby 29, 31). Aesthetic martyrology is thus connected to a sense of purity, itself reconnected to the sense of danger, in an effort to cleanse the world; and as this is impossible, they resurrect the aforementioned golden chain, granting restoration to the next individual who, having undergone the understanding that community does not possess the consciousness of what it is (Phenomenology 477). The not-author, then, seek Eliadean sacrifice, and find one at the core at on the initial hand, archaic ontology, and on the revealed hand, picture-thought: “If, then, in the picture-thinking consciousness the inwardizing of natural self-consciousness was the real existence of evil, that inwardizing in the element of self-consciousness is the knowledge of evil as something implicit in existence. This knowledge is, of course, a genesis of evil, and is therefore recognized as the first moment of reconciliation” (Phenomenology 474).  

            In transitioning from “Loomings” to “The Carpet-Bag” Melville, like Hegel, “understands division and synthesis as a process of actualization that entails externalization and recollection” (Zambrana 42) in self-negation. This self-negation is critical to both Melville and Hegel, who undergo the mysteries of death and resurrection in their texts. But this is no matter of cliché, or a nostalgia for the present. Rather, this is the culmination of objective incidentalness, paved in deliberate steps, and summoning the reciprocal individual. Dasein, then, paves posthumous groundwork; mediated being establishes the nature of nature, finally comprehending that recollection is the activity of synthesis in two senses, dialectically opposed, distinguished, and reproduced in annulled time (Zambrana 43-6), and in essence takes the form of counteractive nothingness, thrust into what is called ‘the world.’ World-Concept is revealed both Master and Whale. It reveals itself as pragmatic and prescriptive but is pulled toward contradiction like a magnet, seeking yet comprehending neither the noumenal character of nature’s unchangeability, destabilized by the end of the end, nor the past annihilation of discursive thinking and life as such (Nuzzo 353-8), unto Geist, like a snow hill in the air, or Whale: “By reason of these things, then, the whaling voyage was welcome; the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open, and, in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air” (Moby 32).

Both Melville and Hegel lay the groundwork for an ontological alienation. The phenomenology of mind’s threshold is imbedded within semiotic limits not unlike an ocean floor as the sea, like cosmos, reveals and retracts; and then Ishmael begins to tell us all about his Origenian carpet-bag.[14] Like Melville, Hegel “[charts] a social transformation over the course of history, the end point at which slaves recognize themselves and recognize their masters as being dependent on slaves” (Cole 77); and in this regard Melville replicates Hegel’s own speculative method, which he referred to as a circle (Cole 55). Its beginning is enmeshed with the end, “The end occurs when the process of self-completion in which the substance-subject (Which for Hegel is the ‘essence’) engages, finally fulfills its task, that is, when the whole is complete or established precisely as the whole” (Nuzzo 264-5). The end of days implicates the structure whereby days may well end; but this structure is incapable of receding, for it is the days thereof whereby one ponders nonexistence in light of the immovable. Finitude’s delinquency is constitutive rather than criteriological; it is conscious of what it can’t know. Its ceilings are in years revealed doormats: “Fathoms down, fathoms down, how I’ll dream fast asleep/I feel it stealing now. Sentry, are you there? / Just ease these darbies at the wrist, / And roll me over fair. / I am sleepy, and the oozy weeds about me twist.”[15]

As we are dealing with an autobiographical excerpt from Hegel’s letters and what it implies, let us for a moment recall Ishmael’s maker; to read the dreadful affair of Herman Melville’s life in the wake of Moby Dick’s composition and publication evokes a simultaneous familiarity at once human and inhumane. For in his unforeseen, then-imperceptible[16] literary-dialectic of transcendence (Stewart 23) the author of exotic seafaring novels brought forth a book from which there is no escape (Young 87); and like Hegel, he sought the acquisition by the individual of the experience of the species (Young 470), for Melville both did the miraculous by setting the eternal into words[17] through autotelic Elizabethan dialogism on the way to reconceptualizing novelistic epistemology (Holquist 17), whilst posthumously sacrificing himself upon the secular altar of prosaic pleroma and metaphysical poetics: “I am quick to perceive a horror – would they let me – since it is but well to be on friendly terms with all the inmates of the place one lodges in” (Moby 32); and of equal observational distinction, in the words of Henry Murray, ‘… lucky it was for the tongueless sailors that this sensitive and manly fellow stepped out of his class to live among them, and then returned to embody their best sentiments in language that had stuff in it’ (Spark 4); and paralleling Homeric portraiture, ‘he tells stories that could never happen in real life but because he has a conception of man that experience alone could not have given him’ (Auerbach 3), like G.W.F. Hegel Herman Melville ‘identifies in this caesura a reconciliation between humanity and divinity’ (Comay 46); for, in the words of the first Frenchman to translate Moby Dick, ‘a life’s work is of no interest unless it’s a relentless struggle with the great unknown’ (Giono 45). 

We begin with a society synonymous with alienation, therein offering Ishmael a choice: suicide or evacuation. With this arrangement Moby Dick establishes its own structurally dialectical and societally enmeshed ontology as the novel of a man who, in hypothesizing – and later meeting – the worst case scenario with opprobrium nuclei, now prepares to go down in the company of Old Testament prophets (Lawrance 54), with Melville having preliminarily written that, “Every age makes its own guide-books, and the old ones are used for wastepaper” (Redburn 180). Further rumblings are detected in White Jacket, where Melville announced his heart’s comradely yearning, understanding for one “bolted in the mill of adversary” (White 83); but through the simultaneous destruction and epiphany of authenticity’s becoming, Melville’s nautical consciousness purveys the masochistic totality of middle-ground cetology while setting an ecliptic scaffolding for a labyrinthine stage, preparations in the nail in the coffin for inquirers contemplating this word and object. It is from these seeds that today one is able to situate both the nature of philosophy[18] and the philosophy of nature[19] through characters within the kraken’s shadow. And it is thus appropriate that Ishmael, when we meet him, has been gazing upon coffin warehouses (Moby 27): the outcome of his author’s text.

By historically placing oneself within the Ishmaelean realm of Egypt, Seneca, the Old Testament, we are on the road to the early Christians. We might then pause to turn toward Hegel’s Aesthetics, wheretheir dialogical deficiency is perhaps the purest account of a wedded insanity and mirth available in Christological historiography. Though a second wave comes to us in the Crusades, particularly with Runciman’s accounts of Peter the Hermit, as far as getting to the holy insanity of Christ and his colleagues, the first handful of centuries suffice. Incidentally, they reach an unparalleled canonical account in Augustine. It is is with great interest that we turn in closing to Douglas Finn’s work on Hegel and Augustine. For instance, Ishmael’s seaside sauntering, transcending the workers, offers us a chance to take that Melvillean establishment of the heroic one step closer to emancipation in Hegelian light: “For Hegel, the heroes are the vital agents of change, because through their singularly passionate drive, they give concrete universal reality to the rational idea, in whose light their otherwise vastly destructive actions come to make sense” (Finn 127). The passage invites a Melvillean hypothesis, whereby we ponder just how not just the crew Ishmael shall soon meet are agents of internal change, but the agents of change Ishmael passes by and through on his iconic walk on down to the shipyard. Ishmael’s thoughts, like Finn’s Hegel and Augustine, give tangible reconsideration to the concept of the balanced idea, in whose light their otherwise vastly destructive actions come to make sense. Nearby in the text Finn makes an observation that is startingly prescient in conclusively recalling Hegel’s Napoleonic vision in light of the Pequod: “Spirit, the universal, can realize its ends only by means of the particular, and passion is what drives the world historical individual to strive wholeheartedly to actualize the universal in the world. Thus, from Hegel’s point of view, the hero does pursue personal ends, but they are the same as that of Spirit” (Finn 125).[20]

Ishmael sees the fundamental sickness of society present, as Hegel saw the fundamental structures of feudalism present (Cole 75-7), and both affirmatively deal their diagnostic cards. This allows us Melvillean nautical culmination concerning the interior conscience of a surmounting technological feudalism and Hegel’s proximity to the French Revolution, both from which the state’s medieval origins are brought further to the dialectical light of theory. It therefore all the more effective that is unclear until culmination that Ishmael is writing after the fact, and in this regard Melville replicates Hegel’s own speculative method, which he referred to as a circle (Cole 55). Its beginning is enmeshed with the end, “The end occurs when the process of self-completion in which the substance-subject (Which for Hegel is the ‘essence’) engages, finally fulfills its task, that is, when the whole is complete or established precisely as the whole” (Nuzzo 264-5). He would have to first meet Ahab and the crew, float the shipwrecked in casket, as adrift and as alone whence he began, but at last now with a book to write. The narrative’s opening words clarify that stability has nothing to do with innovation, where refined as perpetual latter is, it is too thereby curtailed by manufactured disbelief. This mass production of objects, then as now, vacillates industrial culture’s mirroring the machinations of psychological and laborious automatism, in applying the technical acceleration of machinery to language. This exilic annihilation of the individual is for Melville, Ishmael an etymological matter fixed in orphanage and social ostracization. Authentic invention cannot be, for it is; thereby Ishmael cannot stay where he is coming from outside of mind. Ishmael has at last come to breathe the air of Socrates – know that he does not know, and thereby knows all – but it will take a tattooed cannibal, ponderous religious topography, before he can embrace the prosaic Dionysian tub in earnest. His opening remarks reveal a rejected world that is itself as familiar as it is foreign, pragmatic as it is prescriptive, but in which genuine intellectual probity is pulled toward contradiction like a magnet.[21] Ishmael is seeking yet comprehending neither the noumenal character of nature’s unchangeability, destabilized by the end of the end, nor the past annihilation of discursive thinking and life as such (Nuzzo 353-8), unto Geist, like a snow hill in the air, or Whale.

And the word was made blubber. For Melville had written a wicked book and felt as spotless as a lamb; such was the summit of his Pauline elaboration on “freedom of will within the divine law of predestination” (Lawrance 24). In a perfect instance of critical reverse typology, Ishmael is the lamb who is decidedly not sacrificed. His maker, Melville, went the other way; that of Schopenhauer’s target no one can see. Like the Lord of his lifelong, haunting Calvinism (Lawrance 4-6, 18), he was contemporaneously sacrificed at the profane, Pharisaic altar of intellectual despotism. Stoned and dethroned, the White Whale went over about as well as Christ’s chorded whip,[22] Melville therein going the way of prophets: condemned, exiled, and at last admitted self-evident. In joining the sacrificial ranks of secular martyrdom, he lost everything for the sake of chance of being recalled, something traced in the earlier Redburn.[23] Comprehending Melville is obligatory in assessing the pre-Hegelian conceptions of Theory, and comprehending Melville is, further, comprehending Ishmael. Likewise, Hegel’s ploughed gaze upon Napoleon converges in Ishmael’s looming proximity to the ship. Here – from the point of view of one authoring the Conception of Theory – the ashes of the Second Temple reignite in the flames of Revolution; the blood that waters the tree of martyrs is mixed in with the sacramental wine of both philosopher and author. The former gives way to the Phenomenology, latter Moby Dick. Geist is made variationally incarnate in the Pequod. Ishmael, through Geist, gets his hands on the controls of selfhood. The holy sacrifice of altruism is conceived, commenced; its dogmatic empiricisms are at last granted trial by fire before the phenomenological mast.

Bibliography

Atashi, Laleh. “An Ecocritical Reading of Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener.” 

International Letters of Social and Humanistic Sciences, 73 (2016).

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Indiana Univ. Press, 2009.

Bowman, Brady. Hegel and the Metaphysics of Absolute Negativity. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2015.

Brenner, William H. “Theology as Straw: An Essay on Wittgenstein and Aquinas.” New Blackfriars, vol. 93, no. 1046, 2012.

            Butler, Clark (ed.) Hegel: The Letters. Purdue Research Foundation, 1984.

            Cole, Andrew. The Birth of Theory. Univ. of Chicago Press, 2014.

Comay, Rebecca. Mourning Sickness: Hegel and the French Revolution. Stanford Univ. Press, 2010.

Cook, Jonathan A. Inscrutable Malice: Theodicy, Eschatology, and the Biblical Sources of Moby-Dick. Northern Illinois Univ. Press, 2012.

Edelstein, Sari. ” May I Never Be a Man”: Melville’s Redburn and the Failure to Come of Age in Young America.” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 59.4 (2013).

Finn, Douglas. Life in the Spirit: Trinitarian Grammar and Pneumatic Community in Hegel and Augustine. Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 2017.

Giono, Jean. Melville: A Novel. NYRB Classics, 2017.

Habib, M.A.R. Hegel and the Foundations of Literary Theory. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2019.

Hart, Sarah. “Ahab’s arithmetic; or, the mathematics of Moby-Dick.” BSHM Bulletin: Journal of the British Society for the History of Mathematics (2019).

Hegel, G.W.F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Oxford Univ. Press, 1977.

Herbert Jr, T. Walter. “Calvinism and Cosmic Evil in” Moby-Dick”.” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America (1969).

Holquist, Michael. Dialogism: Bakhtin and His World. London: Routledge, 2002.

Hurh, Paul. American Terror: The Feeling of Thinking in Edwards, Poe, and Melville. Stanford Univ. Press, 2015.

Kojeve, Alexandre. Atheism. Columbia Univ. Press, 2019.

—. Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1980.

Lauer, S.J. Quentin. A Reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Fordham Univ. Press, 1982.

Lubac, Henri de. History and Spirit. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2017.

Mane, Shashank B. “A Marxist Reading of Melville’s Bartleby.” Labyrinth: An International Refereed Journal of Postmodern Studies 10.2 (2019).

McCall, Corey, and Tom Nurmi. Melville Among the Philosophers. Lanham: Lexington

Books, 2017.

McGowan, Todd. Emancipation After Hegel: Achieving a Contradictory Revolution. Columbia Univ. Press, 2019.

Melville, Herman. —. Complete Poems. Library of America, 2019.

—. Moby Dick. Barnes & Noble Classics Series, 2003.

—. Redburn. London: Penguin Books, 1977.

—. White-Jacket. New York: Grove-Evergreen, 1959.

Nuzzo, Angelica. Approaching Hegel’s Logic, Obliquely. SUNY Press, 2019.

O’Neil, John (ed.). Hegel’s Dialectic of Desire and Recognition: Henry Sussman’s “The Metaphor in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind”, pp. 305-28. SUNY Press, 1996.

Parker, Hershel. “Damned by Dollars: Moby-Dick and the Price of Genius.” Living with a Writer. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2004.

Patell, Cyrus RK. “Cosmopolitanism and Zoroastrianism in Moby-Dick.” The Turn Around Religion in America. Routledge, 2016.

Petrarch, Francesco. Epistolae de rebus familiaribus et variae: tum quae adhuc tum quae

nondum editae familiarum scilicet libri XXIIII. variarum liber unicus nunc

primum integri et ad fidem codicum optimorum vulgati. Vol. 1. Le Monnier,

1859.

Reid, Jeffrey. “Comets and Moons: The For-another in Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature.” The Owl of Minerva 45.1/2 (2013).

Spark, Clare L. Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival. The Kent State Univ. Press, 2006.

Thompson, Lawrance. Melville’s Quarrel with God. Princeton Univ. Press, 2015.

Yothers, Brian. Melville’s Mirrors. Camden House, 2011.

Zambrana, Rocio. Hegel’s Theory of Intelligibility. Univ. of Chicago Press, 2015.


[1] Reid, Jeffrey. “Comets and Moons: The For-another in Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature.” The Owl of Minerva 45.1/2 (2013): 11n25.

[2] Herbert Jr, T. Walter. “Calvinism and Cosmic Evil in” Moby-Dick”.” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America (1969): 1613-1619; Hart, Sarah. “Ahab’s Arithmetic; or, the mathematics of Moby-Dick.” arXiv preprint arXiv:1903.12102 (2019); Patell, Cyrus RK. “Cosmopolitanism and Zoroastrianism in Moby-Dick.” The Turn Around Religion in America. Routledge, 2016. 45-62.

[3] Hurh, Paul. “The Uneven Balance: Dialectical Terror in Moby-Dick.” American Terror: The Feeling of Thinking in Edwards, Poe, and Melville. Stanford University Press, 2015. 161-202; Brian Yothers’s Melville’s Mirrors Camden House, 2011, cf. “Aspects of America: Democracy, Nationalism, and War”, pp. 119-49.

[4] [October 13, 1806]: “I saw the Emperor –this soul of the world– go out from the city to survey his reign; it is a truly wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrating on one point while seated on a horse, stretches over the world and dominates it.” Butler, Clark (ed.) Hegel: The Letters. Purdue Research Foundation, 1984, p.114.

[5] In other words, I wager that while it is difficult to pry the mythical, solitary author from a singular, often damned, historical place, that it will be helpful to consider Cook’s observation more generally as pertains to Melville scholarship. Or, that his singular, tragic place is-itself because there has not been much of a move to consider Melville alongside much of anyone in the 19th besides Hawthorne. Melville’s historiographical style, then, might be well reconsidered in what I have referred to in a forthcoming talk (“Kinsmen of the Flesh: Flaubertian Aspects of the Fathers”, 2020) as ‘formalistic perceptivity’, a method constructed in the spirit of M.M. Bakhtin and Fredric Jameson. Through it we wrestle with Melville’s way of describing historical events; then we reconsider Melville’s place in literary historiography; then we are one step closer to be prepared to consider the philosophy-qua-philosophy of his ‘fiction.’

[6] See also, of course, Knox’s two-volume translation of Hegel’s Aesthetics (Oxford, 1998). Also forthcoming: “Tracing Ishmael in Hegel’s Aesthetics: On Melville’s Creative-Poetic Intuition in the 15 Chapters Before the Pequod Sets Sail”

[7] “We live in the age of Melville – an age of spiritual blackout and moral meltdown against the backdrop of an American empire in cultural collapse and political breakdown” (McCall 123).

[8] Ishmael’s American is anchored as a literal and figurative sightseer, rejecting freedom for its opposite: overworking through an addiction to abstract rather than concrete. Such persons cannot answer why one does precisely what one does. For Hegel, a similar (Albeit less self-inflicted, due in part to Germany’s age and reluctance to abandon feudalism with the brevity of her neighbors) paralysis for persons’ inability to process the reality of revolution and the ontology of money. This is amplified by contrived religion’s creation of an unhappy conscious. Both authors – again, we might even consider the Phenomenology of Spirit as a novel in some regards (As done by Henry Sussman, SUNY Press 1996) – chronicle the Numerical Self, submerged in the industrial mustard-seeded dirt of what today has become the full-blown manufactured subculture. Its dependency is hereditarily opposed to the self-evident wellness of a people. They must, then, be unwell; and such, until the mythical epiphanic moment of collision, is the Joycean trailing navelcord of unhappy consciousness.

[9] Three writers working with Hegel and Literary Theory to whom I am indebted include Andrew Cole, M.A.R. Habib, and Angelica Nuzzo (Nuzzo working with Hegel and Melville, specifically). Andrew Cole’s The Birth of Theory (Chicago, 2014) and Angelica Nuzzo’s Approaching Hegel’s Logic, Obliquely (SUNY Press, 2018) are briefly referenced in this lecture’s version; for time – for the time being – prohibits a proper systematic treatise, or response. Nevertheless, Habib considers Hegel’s place in literary criticism thusly: “Theory’s critical instrument is derived from Hegel himself – the dialectic as arrested in its second or ‘negative’ phase. [M]ost modern European systems of thought arose as modifications of, or reactions against, Hegel’s dialectic. Hegel has enabled our worlds of thought on many levels, even those that are vehemently opposed to him… His system inscribes and prefigures the internal structure of capitalism, its ability to absorb everything else – art, literature, religion, love, socialism, other cultures – into its own structures of economic value and significance, into its own expansive and ever-changing identity” Hegel and the Foundations of Literary Theory (Cambridge University Press, 2018) pp. 5-11. Therefore, a prospective Hegelian reading of Moby Dick simultaneously re-envisions literary history while apprehending what Rita Felski calls critique’s ‘limits.’ See also Stephen Houlgate’s Freedom, Truth, and History: An Introduction to Hegel (Blackwell, 2005): pp. 12-20, 51, 164-82.

[10] See Kolakowski’s “The Origins of Dialectic” in vol. 1 of Main Currents of Marxism (Clarendon Press, 1978), pp. 57-65.

[11] “a relatively synchronic phenomenon, the relationship, in a given moment of time or history, of the literary system to neighboring and more distant ones in the totality of experience… But where all history is understood as the operation of a single mechanism, it is transformed back into synchrony, and time itself becomes a kind of a-historical, relatively mechanical repetition” (Jameson 96).

[12] See also Robert Brandom, who puts it – Hegelian ‘force’ as a logical-scientific formalism – thusly: “The moves made under the headings of the ‘doubling of forces’ and the ‘play of forces’ must be understood so as to apply to genes and bosons, qua purely theoretical – that is, exclusively inferentially accessible kinds of things – as well as to literal forces… [t]he ontological categorical conception of particulars as substrates of many sense universals also envisages unobservables knowable only by inference from their observable manifestations. What the allegory of force and its expression is allegorical for is the relation between purely theoretical, postulated entities and the observables on the basis of which those theoretical entities are inferentially accessible.” A Spirit of Trust. Belknap Harvard: 2019, p. 175.

[13] Shortly before his death Thomas Aquinas reflected on his life’s work, referring to it as ‘straw’: Brenner, William H. “Theology as Straw: An Essay on Wittgenstein and Aquinas.” New Blackfriars, vol. 93, no. 1046, 2012, pp. 412–425.

[14] Whereas Andrew Cole worked through Plotinus, Pseudo-Dionysius, and Nicholas of Cusa in terms of a systematic gloss of the prolegomenal Hegelian foundations in Theory, the scholar would likewise benefit from its unpacking. Here Origen (d. 253) is linked in the pre-Plotinian conception of Theory, and in this case a full-length study of Melville and various other works through the lens of a pre-theoretical dialectic of Identity/Difference in History and Spirit (for our purposes, Geist): history exhausts itself as it unfolds. This conceptual exhaustion contradicts the notion of universal progress; it is not something that flows concurrently into living consciousness, but a realm of shadows and symbols which is preparation for something else. The order of history introduces us to truths, for Origen, but never the history of the order of truth. It is spirit in as much as it is analogy. Origen, like Ishmael, foresaw the addiction to arbitrariness; he was as inconceivable to the Hellenic mind as ours. See Henri de Lubac’s History and Spirit, esp. pp. 317-25. Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2007.

[15] Melville’s Collected Poems, Library of America (2019), pp.

[16] This is not careless, flowery language but instead a literal description of the text in Melville’s lifetime: a future comparative study that engages Chapter 16 of Moby Dick with the first dozen pages of the Phenomenology after Hegel’s “Preface”, and a survey of receptions and authorial perspectives of reception.

[17] By this it is meant that Moby Dick has such a universal appeal that were America to cease existence, scholars and divine amateurs – Parker’s way of putting it in Melville Biography (Northwestern University Press, 2012) – would preserve Moby Dick. In one sense it is like Joyce’s Ulysses in this regard, a guide for rebuilding Dublin should it Borgesionally vanish. Thus, in thinking of the text as historical object, there is a Hegelian counterpart re: method of apperception in Michael Forster’s apprehended totality of the Phenomenology, whichmirrors our narratological theory: “[T]he character of the Phenomenology as a wholetends to be passed over rather quickly, and where dealt with dealt not particularly well. This is very unfortunate because many of the most philosophically interesting ideas of the work are to be found at the level of the work as a whole and are not at all clearly visible from the standpoint of particular sections” (2-4), elucidating both the impressiveness and attractiveness of text as architectonic whole.

[18] Atashi, Laleh. “An Ecocritical Reading of Melville’s” Bartleby the Scrivener”.” International Letters of Social and Humanistic Sciences 73 (2016): 7-16.

[19] Mane, Shashank B. “A Marxist Reading of Melville’s Bartleby.” Labyrinth: An International Refereed Journal of Postmodern Studies 10.2 (2019).

[20] See also: “Hegel detects a connection between Trinitarian theology, martyrdom, and religio-political oppression; as a theoretical counterproposal, he introduces the world historical individual, who becomes the true martyr of Spirit on its way to free self-conscious realization in the modern state.” (Finn’s “Grace and Forgiveness: The Hero as Hegelian Martyr” / 114-128) 

[21] “Even if it doesn’t lead to authoritarianism, the great danger of modernity is not a powerful state that impinges on individual freedom but the failure to recognize the state as a state and to mistake civil society for it… The danger that Hegel saw in 1821 has come to fruition.” Todd McGowan, Emancipation After Hegel (Columbia Univ. Press, 2019), p. 205.

[22] See Parker, Hershel. “Damned by Dollars: Moby-Dick and the Price of Genius.” Living with a Writer. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2004. 202-222. Furthermore, while Christological aspects of Hegel and Melville are another lecture (course?) entirely, Douglas Finn’s book on Hegel and Augustine seems to provide something of a groundwork commenced in a working chapter on “The Carpet-Bag.”

[23] Sari Edelstein makes her case with the unlikely but amicable novelistic source. This article also takes into account a history of the adolescent male’s growing up in 19th c. America. ” May I Never Be a Man”: Melville’s Redburn and the Failure to Come of Age in Young America.” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 59.4 (2013): 553-584.

On the Narratology of Concept-Being: Lecture 1, Hegel and the Natural Law

or, The Living Bones of Paralyzed Intellect: on Hegel’s Natural Law

*

But when empiricism seems to go to war with theory, it usually turns out that the one like the other is a vision already contaminated and superseded by reflection and a perverted reason.[1]

*

The themes which monastic discipline assigned to friars for meditation were designed to turn them away from the world and its affairs. The thoughts we are developing here have a similar aim.

Walter Benjamin[2]

*

Welcome back, ladies and gentlemen. A few weeks ago our discussion moved from Eric Voegelin’s brilliant essay on Hegel and sorcery to the seemingly irreconcilable prospect of an orthodox understanding of Natural Law therein. But rather than remain split into camps, as it were, I have decided that we need to understand what Hegel himself had to say about the Natural Law. We can take the conversation further into aspects of his System, the concept of Theory, and the dialogic imagination in light of political theology, only after we have at minimum glossed the overlapping portion of our harrowing Venn-diagram, as it were.

Hegel’s theory of natural law is predicated upon the concern to preserve the unity between thought and reality while expositing his then-formulating System with a single-minded concern to avoid what Whitehead called “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” These concerns entail an effort to comprehend and thereafter transcend a merely manipulative understanding of the world, with Hegel contemptuous of the possible distortions rendered arbitrarily cartographic by the isolation of geographical subjectivity and subjective geography;[3] he seeks a universality that is connected to philosophy and thus free from intellectual opium. Reading the text today offers another level to a geographical isolation Hegel was concerned with among empiricists claiming universals while bound to subjectivity and, furthermore, overconfident in an empirical architectonic that necessarily was disengaged from the Hegelian Absolute, Pure Concept, or Infinity: we can consider an equivalent today in technological isolation that makes itself evidenced in linguistic ambiguities that create imitators of delusory triumphalism as concerns currents in a false universality that is, at least in America, in diametrical opposition to the natural law.[4] But it cannot be doubted that the seemingly endless Hegelian bracketing within genres and subgenres has at least something to do with a dialectical fusion of ambiguity and unclassifiability;[5] and it for this reason that I believe a close-reading of Hegel’s natural law will both clear up the groundwork for his well-known texts as well as shed light on insights highly relevant to our own age. For both Hegel’s world and ours concern a “a world in reverse”;[6] but by closely reading his Natural Law while tracing parallels in our own age, we will better understand Hegel; better grasp the magnitude of our digital feudalism; and, for those interested in the natural law but distraught over mainstream culture, see that there is both nothing new under the sun and that exterior distress must be met with, in the spirit of Ephesians 6:12, interior precision. Thus, our survey this afternoon argues that Hegel’s natural law theory has imminent value as both a precursor to canonized Hegelian thought and direct correlation to contemporaneous issues or crises permeating, or settled within, culture that are antithetical to America’s founding, degeneration, and the practice of natural law more generally.

            Let us begin with Descartes. For Hegel, Descartes is said to be “a dualism in the culture of modern history of our northwestern world, the decline of a whole mode of aging life, of which the quieter transformations of the public life of men and the noisy revolutions in politics and religion are only variegated manifestations.”[7] This Cartesian split amidst Christian societies rendered Hegel in an earlier text to argue that when Christ’s teachings were interpreted in the Judaic authoritative sense of rationality rather than in the Socratic spirit of comradely collectiveness, despotic manifestations transpired; that Socrates’s teachings being rendered unto subjects who naturally considered themselves equals to Socrates[8] spoke to the philosophy of spirit, and that the philosophy of spirit is an aesthetic philosophy; and that Cartesian atomization dislodged poetry as the teacher of mankind.[9]

            It is philosophy’s task, in and through the natural law, to correct this complex error. Hegel’s understanding of the natural law thus operates in terms of uncriticized pre-philosophical categories which philosophy must then apprehend and unite in the name of reason; the conceptual Absolute must be totalized, and thence resurrected, in order to move beyond preliminarily hovering over faith and reason’s synonymous corpse, and thus confronting the Absolute. Harmonized oppositions fall into place whilst mirroring technological forms beget contextual genres-as-forms.[10] For the debased, albeit dogmatic method of permanent crisis turns from physical combat to psychological combat.[11] This incessant warfare cannot be questioned. In the first case it might get one killed, and in the second render one ostracized. Yet because of its incessant nature it negates itself; permanent warfare is no longer warfare, in that warfare has a pre-war state and post-war state. Negation is however nothing more than the veil before the first step in apprehending the conceptual-absolute: political religion, “of immaterial and material bodies, hidden powers and mere appearances.”[12]

            Hegel thus rejects the idea that society is made of pre-existing individuals; and for both Shelling and Hegel, “Morality is better able than logical argument in order to move from the merely relative and incomplete (the sphere of understanding) to the absolute whole (the object of the reason).[13][14] The very activity of enforcing law destroys it… [and] Hegel “anticipates his later argument that coercision is in a sense impossible among rational beings and that morality and law are continuous and inseparable.”[15]

            The society thus is less ambivalent to the natural law than it is antagonistically hostile is predicated upon the appearance of a necessary transition. Propaganda’s litany is strewn together at the font of societal construction and offered up for sacrifice in the name of hollow words and slogans. Equality thus in the end has nothing to do with equality and everything to do with inversion and subjugation; it is not so much that historicism’s villains were wrong in their homicidal actions, but rather that the victims had for themselves no victims. So long as one bears anything but the swastika, Goebbels’ doctrine is a matter of course: a man must become a woman in the way that Nazi Germany’s circle became a square: “Complexity may engender a certain amount of confusion, but naively complex confusion is less misleading than simplified abstraction.”[16] The origins of moral propaganda are beholden to a process and consciousness that entails an intermediary symbolic freedom that claims a power of the rational that shall overcome the sensible attractions of individual desire. Hegel is thus working with and through Kant in ways that are brought into fruition by understanding that morality is not contingent and not localized or a matter of degree. Kant believed that the state and the church could coexist; but the church that seeks inauthentic power through magnetic proximity to secular affairs chips away at its ethereal core until it is caught between a rock (petros) and a hard place (perversion). At worst it is an abject failure (“abortion”; “feminism”; “gender ideology”); at best it strives for political religiosity whilst resulting in Gnosticism, and a negatively temporal dismantling of human understanding in history.[17]

            Like America in 2020, Hegel’s Germany offered a constitution that was only merely a thought and no longer a sovereign power’s blueprint,[18] having fallen victim to the romance language process of ornamental decay, whereby confidence is first unrecognizable, and then altogether lost (Zutrauen). That which is unrecognizable has down through the imperceptible process of degraded Becoming; it can only be understood as itself when the populous has outstripped uncertainty and fallen into interior disarray. It is also at this point that those who believe they are hard-fought victors, who have been dictating and hence stifling public discourse all the while, are exposed as perfect charlatans. Thus the process of falling away from – in the Hegelian sense aesthetic – natural law and into spurious ideality are first violently cast into the pits of hell of their own making (Revolution), thereafter transferred into the subjectively delusional scrapbook of mediated corporate historicism. The national fall from grace is at last figurative and literal.

Hegel argues that Kant’s system of morality proceeded on a straight line of anxiety: in fulfillment would arrive annihilation. Again, the tier and reality of becoming perfected in Christianity is replaced by a state of becoming that negates itself in both success and failure. The idea of corporate charity comes to replace the virtue of charity; the concept engulfs what is to-become unrivaled paradox in morality. This degeneration works in another specific way on both collective memory and linguistics when the spirit is universalized: selfhood, by way of maxim, transforms into principle. That which is tangible becomes that which is impossible, albeit concentrated in ideality. Thus, “By patriotism the individual is attached to those particular men who form this particular society rather than to all patriots everywhere. The society is a whole, not a class, and each member is a part rather than an instance.”[19] We might here consider a chronological unraveling: “Fichte, Schelling and Hegel are all regarded as ‘successors’ of Kant, each of them wrote works of significance during Kant’s lifetime in which they considered themselves developing views they had obtained from him.”[20] If we are to consider Perpetual Peace a pamphlet rather than a text, all three writers published texts on the philosophy of law before Kant; and these texts, chiseled down, contend that morality is a matter of intention. Hegel severs himself from this method of principality in retaining, elucidating a systematic of intention, or architectonics on the stage-setting crux of intentionality as it proceeds within the phenomenological totality of method in connaturality. Mutual security prepares a place for guarantee there where the prospect had become unfathomable; and these guarantees are exclusively obtained if a third party, like Hobbes’s or Schmitt’s sovereign, demands that its subjects conflate economical facticity with freedom of choice: “When an individual violates the right of another he does so in order to obtain something that he wants. If, however, he is sure that by violating the rights of another he will not get what he wants but something he emphatically does not want, he will keep within his sphere and not invade the spheres of others.”[21]

            Legal alteration implies a potential destruction, or at least for Hegel negative alteration in state documents, that attuned citizens acknowledge. No protest can hope to prevent this natural process or even thwart division through contradiction in hostile enlightenment, which implies that “Everyone recognizes that, even in a well-ordered state, the executive has the power to interfere with the working of the constitution and may even pervert or destroy it.”[22] Hegel’s view is that philosophy is in the business of overcoming division; this includes division predicated upon the absolute desecration of nature in a feigned sense of “freedom” that is, in its essence, absolute subjugation. The insistence upon depravity is likewise correlative to unequal minds and bodies of men and women; complimentary organics are injected with the spirit of destruction, “an atomistic, lifeless plurality, the elements of which are absolutely opposed substances.” It is thus inevitable that man falls prey to machination, “would be made into a mere machine.” Such is similar to Fichte, for whom the state “exists in that unsentimental arena where wary dealers squeeze the utmost out of one another.” But on the other hand:

Threats cannot make a free man do what the utterer of them wants him to do, since the free man can accept the penalty rather than do what he is being required to do. In the last resort he can die rather than submit and so the victory is his: ‘By his ability to die the subject proves himself free and entirely above all coercion. Death is the absolute subjugator (die absolute Bezwingung).’”[23] Hegel writes further that “If freedom is an absolute it cannot be a means to something else and cannot be described in terms of the finite categories of the understanding.” Likewise, a convicted and hanged man is for instance subdued and overcome but not coerced.[24]

            If actions are to be real and objective they must also make their place in a system of social institutions that is enveloped by an indexical, Lockean law: that which is seen, in print, and that which is invisible, written in nature; the Fall dismantles willing perceptivity to the Thomistic Good; male/female complementarity; the hermeneutic facticity of metaphysics.[25] For Hegel, Kant’s ‘perpetual peace’ would lead institutions to become static and lifeless and would bring about their ultimate decay, being less innovative than Babel variations. For although the destruction of one or two institutional staples, or departments, may not destroy the body as a whole, these staples or departments are nothing without the body; the social whole is ‘in’ the individuals.[26] Numerical Beings[27] may find it extraordinary to say that the pulse is the whole because we think of the pulse as a physical process of a physical thing, and physical things are themselves and nothing else. But H.B. Acton writes:

“This way of looking at society and the individual, Hegel believed, must influence the way in which we view the relation of law and the state to what is ordinarily called morality. Morality is often if not always regarded as a personal or interpersonal affair, concerned with the motives and intentions, the actions and virtues and vices of individual men and women. Hegel, however, quoting Aristotle’s ‘The state comes by nature before the individual,’ holds that the virtues of individual men depend upon the ethical totality and ethical life which surrounds them’.”[28]

Therefore, according to Hegel, an individual can be virtuous because law and the state provide the paths and directions; outside of this pre-platonic “already-out-there-now” the state is an innocuous matter of incidentality, which having gone against nature must in turn go against itself. Its manner of proceeding is a spontaneous delaying of annihilation.

From this stage, the ontological comprehension of statehood’s bestowal, Hegel adapts classes and virtues in tandem with Plato’s Republic, modified by industrialism, i.e., again noted by Acton:

“Plato divided his ideal society into three classes, the Guardians whose characteristic virtue is wisdom, the auxiliaries or fighting men whose characteristic virtue is courage, and the traders, workers, whose characteristic virtue is temperance. Hegel’s divisions and virtues are reached on a different principle, since he asks which class is free and which is not and takes risking one’s life as the criterion. The aristocratic or noble class, he says, had work to do, but not the work that consists in transforming raw materials for purposes of consumption. It is the twofold task of risking their lives in defense of the whole and developing the political life of the whole. In risking their lives they transcend nature and are free, and they inhabit the infinite and rational sphere of ethical life. The second class do not risk their lives but seek to accumulate and to enjoy comfort. They are therefore not free and inhabit the world of the understanding with the state as a means to their personal satisfaction and with the bad infinity of unlimited gain as their inspiration”.[29]

Under the Roman Empire the first class had capitulated and everyone, as Gibbon put it, had ‘sunk into the languid indifference of private life,’ and this could happen in modern society too if the second class developed at the expense of the others. Schelling defined history in an 1802 lecture as nature at a high power (Potenz), “this great mirror of the world-spirit, this eternal poem of the divine understanding.”[30] As in the case above with Plato, Hegel takes sees the imaginative pillar as more than one, while retaining its unity, albeit among many. Schelling then tapped into less a thing-in-itself than an open propaedeutic. Thus, for Hegel it is “the tragedy which the Absolute eternally enacts with itself, by eternally giving birth to itself into objectivity, submitting in this objective form to suffering and death, and rising from its ashes to glory.” But this begs the ontological questions that occur when, beginning with the industrial specter of revolution, end in the technological modernities and eschatological totalities of unrestrained subversion. Metaphysical transposition and plot give way to a cosmic Jackson Pollock: it is there, and recognized as-itself, despite implication, forewarnings, and a permanent mastery of illusory cultural cusps and firsts. Scientism, as we know it – is it absolute? No. Subjective? Certainly all that is required for subjective fundamentalists to control both the methods and means of communication, and the difference between abstract and concrete universals “History as a whole is a tragedy because in history, as in tragedy, an inorganic element of necessity – like economic necessity within the ethical totality – is encountered as a fate with which the individual has to become reconciled.”[31]

            Unity removed from the natural law is an empty concept; its identity as a negative absolute doubles in contemporaneous totality, wherein problems multiply. Indifference to infinity is predicated upon an unlimited dependence in the likewise inapplicable; in this way tyranny is the organic extension of liberation so long as said liberation is conceptually bound by what D.C. Schindler has rightly called “freedom from reality.”

            For natural law is an essentially philosophical science against dependence upon empirical subjectivity. The Absolute alone transcends the sphere of scientific knowledge, continually conscious of man’s place in the cosmos.[32] As concerns numerological empiricism, one thinks of Heidegger’s history of the concept of time; but this is more of a Hegelian extension.[33] Likewise, natural law’s freedom from fixed concepts lies in an ever-present cognition of technological contaminations and abominations. Logos is thus actualized in Christological freedom; for science is free so long as its higher context and necessity is made clear in stripping its severance from societal intuition.[34]

            Between reality, nothing, and the empty force of identity, the natural law contains for Hegel a potentiality of metaphysical transcendence. Barbarism’s confinements, too romanticized by cultures of inverted narcissism, return to a sense of the Absolute, thereby canceling its former self in the name of abandonment to divine providence. Nonetheless, this is a chance rather than a guarantee[35] so far as Hegel understands natural law en route to his System. Terminological absolute negativity[36] becomes the infinity that cannot, and thus decidedly must, be comprehended. But as the finite being cannot utterly grasp infinite, this comprehension is thus a cosmic locality brought into being by Christological obedience.[37] By bearing directly on the ethical, the natural law concerns itself with the empirical shape of the ethical. This morphs into natural law’s expression of universality as being rather than as moralistic propaganda. Outside of this absolute unity empty abstractions reign unrestrained; here, one may claim the altar of science while rejecting all elementary biological qualities of being. Negative absoluteness demands its arbiters cling to empty forces of identity, or a cruder form of platonic forms:

With the principle of absolute opposition, or of the absoluteness of the purely ideal, the absolute principle of empiricism is posited; and therefore, with reference to perception, the syntheses, insofar as they are not supposed to have just the purely negative meaning of annulling one side of the opposition but also a positive meaning of perception, portray only perceptions.[38]

Through voluntarily renouncing critical philosophy the opponent of natural law imagines that it is free from philosophical criticism. This notion is enhanced by technological surveillance and censorship, in addition to the corporatization of Western canons. In its increasingly estranged place from reality, the dissident collective acquired ironical condescension; what has no end must be extended out of desperation in order to keep hidden that the advertised solution is nothing more than a flash of absolute negativity. For “the totality of the organic is precisely what cannot be thereby attained, and the remainder of the relation, excluded from the determinate aspect that was selected, falls under the dominion of this aspect which is elevated to be the essence and purpose of the relation.”[39]

With the whole organic relation delimited and contaminated, spectacular technology takes hold. That which proceeds from the natural law cannot be conclusively appropriated in temporal terms without having deformed the otherwise immutable form of Christological unity. Thus, exegetical derision comes in waves, and the martyrs’ blood replenishes the tree that is the Book of Life, which itself takes on various esoteric aestheticisms.[40] The pure Concept, in Hegelian terms, is thus emblematic of the mystery that remains mysterious in its unwillingness to indefensibly abscond to deconstruction. The dialectical convergence of materiality is presupposed on grounds of misunderstanding; and such a golden chained totality of empirical knowledge has embers in minds ranging from Cicero, whose Orator we shall later read, to Chrysostom (‘But the science which you have is superior to every kind of storm—the power of a philosophic soul—which is stronger than ten thousand armies, more powerful than arms, and more secure than towers and bulwarks’ Letter to Olympias”) to Bernard Lonergan, parts of whose Insight will be read toward the end of semester, and may itself be classified as adherence to the natural law: the Absolute remains Absolute in light of its opposite (i.e., the grass fades, the flower withers, etc.). Otherwise, for Hegel, chaos reigns in both the physical and the ethical world:

Chaos is conceived now by the imagination more in the image of existence, as the state of nature, now by empirical psychology more in the form of potentiality and abstraction, as a list of the capacities found in man, as the nature and destiny of man. In this way, what on the one hand is asserted to be simply necessary in itself, absolute, is at the same time acknowledged on the other hand to be something not real, purely imaginary, an ens rationis – in the first case to be fiction, in the second a mere possibility; and this is the harshest contradiction.[41]

Dogmatic empiricism and the first cause deforms into a construction of reality reliant upon the temporal decimation, extinction of particularities and opposites. One against nature does not learn; for each lesson is a reminder in the agony of mutated power that lies in the blurring between the accidental and the necessary. Demonstration gives way to capacity, quality to quantity; formality to ideality. This severance that is bound to ideality connotates the phenomenological predicates of symbolic exchange that is formless and external, in “society” and “state.”[42] The divine is thus not abolished but made a debased, soulless form of depiction. To extinguish it outright is simply to replace the saints’ shrines with the revolutionaries’, the ecclesiastical altar with the corporate auditory stage. Conceptual collective selfhood in proximity to God annihilates the intuition of the instant, determined to violate the indestructible, i.e. ‘the Kingdom of God is in you.’ For “the natural would have to be regarded in an ethical relation as something to be sacrificed.”[43] Ethical nature disintegrates into nature-worship.[44]

            Opposition to the natural thus results in a process of perpetual vindication. It has made a conscious break from psalmody (“The Lord is my vindication”) and taken that which is organically delimiting and made into something “like a building, which silently displays the spirit of its creator in its outspread mass, although the image of the creator himself, concentrated in a unity, is not exhibited there.”[45] Intuition’s subordination is less a power move than it is an unveiling of a completely hollow, or political, universality.[46] Baseless coercion no longer builds upon the good, but rather submerges itself in an avalanche of problematic laws, rational ends, and rational principles. But rationality in its most natural light speaks for itself in simply being-itself. It does not need to explain what it is doing unless a force diametrically opposed to it should seek a testimony it already knows the answer to, therein buying time while depending upon obstinate opposition to an authentically empirical unraveling of an artificial framework of principles.[47] Recalcitrant labeling, such as “common sense laws”, rely upon the predicated cloud of unquestioning. It invokes the ad hominem because it is gone against nature and lost. Such is most thoroughly proven in a progression that begets absolute negativity in its self-fulfillment by way of biological contradiction. This mode of production, Hegel wagers, is a vacillation of infinity that goes against philosophy itself: “Now principles and laws are boastfully advanced against philosophy, and philosophy is set aside as incompetent to judge of such absolute truths in which the understanding is stuck; now philosophy is misused for the purpose of ratiocination, in the nature of philosophy.”[48] The debate is thus uncomplicated on grounds of logical dissection, but the transgressive erosion of law’s blurred lines of potential dialogical appropriation make the rational, or natural, impossible; it is a crystal clear sea, the idyllic method of dialogical inquiry, that is incessantly clouded by spurts of ink through which generally invisible tentacles wind.

            This observation brings Hegel into confrontation with an issue running from Parmenides to W. Norris Clarke: the one and the many. The irrational are many; such is brought to light when subsistence has given way to unnatural disunity. What is real is now proclaimed outside of reason, as the proponents of progress must begin to buckle-down on the tools they have otherwise spent their existences condemning. Ethical reason begets absolute unity; but it does so at a long-term cost that even social memory has about as much control of its as a machine does in the hands of its operator. A more Plotinian idea, in the One, makes itself known through the unconscious in ecumenicism and through the spirit in a more Masonic tradition of a Supreme Being. In terms of warfare, this principle is taken as the ends justifying the means; for there is nary an historiographical instance of class warfare that does not result in the ‘revolutionary’ conditions making the overcome conditions pale in comparison as concerns the willingness to resort to evil. This utopian unconscious “is as much superseded as posited.”[49]  In order to get to the sum of things one must dilute conviction; and in diluting conviction one opens up the realm of neglecting historical erudition and thus falling prey to the proponents of nihilistic temporality. Conceptual futures thus belong to futures past; to look to a time is to look through it. Such is the feudal dialectic of identity and difference, or unity in multiplicity: “Philosophy, not ordinary consciousness, is at fault for having chosen the appearance of the immoral, and for having imagined that it had the true absolute in the negative absolute of infinity.”[50] Despite the convictions of a guard’s master, to let it down is to invoke rekindling visions of destruction. In the Lockean sense, or even that of Merleau-Ponty’s, both visible and invisible are affected in ways prone to preclude maximal perception: temporality depends on it. But moral formalism adopts a position whose very move is apparently an action that concerns issues greater than longevity; and it is in such machinations of incomprehension that matter and form contradict one another.[51] For Hegel the latter is Platonic, the former delimited; the strain breaks down into Heideggerian Marxist issues concerning the calculatedly symbolic power of language;[52] this architectonics swings back and forth between the corporeal and the banal, as one cannot do without the other. However, the former maintains a desired stability or proximity to connaturality, while the other works in the degenerated language of slogans and deceptive symbology. Today this aura is most evident in economic pleas for matters that never quite seem to resolve themselves, as in the case of politics and cancer, where “pain is lifted by the force of perception from feeling, where it is something accidental and contingent, into unity and the shape of something objective and absolutely necessary.”[53] Such is the stifled reality of everyday politicization.

            Decaying distinctiveness thereby gives rise to fanaticism rather than devotion, manipulative instrumentation rather than adherence, with the difference being that whereas in the latter case man works from revelation in a similar sense to the face that two plus two equaled four 4,000 years ago and shall still in another 4,000, the former party latches onto situational suspicion with a religiosity it cannot face within itself, thereby rendering reality as an abstraction that is all but serving as a gasoline fueling its refuted flames while clamping down ever harder on epistemological and technological temporality. In this sense it mirrors the technological gadgetry through which is announces itself: it begins as luxury, as in the luxury of peacetime, and soon becomes mandatory. This force ensures a greater potential for depravity, in that the ideology and its instrumentation contain sources that the practitioner cannot see, let alone fathom. Such ideology must be short-sighted in its declaration of universality; for it is a perpetual temporality that is unaware of itself, and thus leads to movements (Pelagianism, structuralism, post-structuralism, feminism, liberalism) rather than Movement. No vindication is found through recollection of intention; the damage has been done, and persons have witnessed that such a systematic is nothing more than mutiny upon a ship, desperate to bring as many persons on board out of desperation masquerading as renegade enlightenment. Concept and legality here come together in a hostile union that, again for Hegel, provide the historiographers with subject matter, but are in essence part of a vaster plan than any subsect would dare admit or fathom; for had it the ability to do so – confront absolute negativity, or Infinity – it would have chosen reality over reprobation. For the cult of the martyrs is not an ancient past, contemporaneously bleeds into the secular.

            Here the most pathetic sense is also the most literal, and thus taboo: interior and exterior conflict come face to face with the Nostalgia Industry and Numerical Beings. Conceptual equality has summoned these Hegelian forces to the fore at the brink of cultural destitution, or physiology: “Against the hierarchy of compulsion descending from the supreme power through all its branches down to every individual, a similar pyramid is in turn supposed to rise upwards from the individual to the supreme pinnacle of counterpressure meeting the descending pressure.”[54] Such an observation is less prophetic than it is pragmatic; for Hegel these processes were unaffiliated with a historical cognition modeled as it is today in a sort of odiously optimistic fashion. Rather, the totality of infinity defies both beginning and end, and is up to man made in the image of God – who is endowed with an apparently definite beginning and end – from which the absolute is added to or subtracted from. It is a level of consciousness that warrants the death-knell to all politics and political movements and opens the door for phenomenological consciousness. But before he would move there, there would need be a dissection of the corporate farce that is on the mind and t-shirt of so many diametrically opposed to the natural law: revolutionary historicism. This mode of recording and comprehending is delimited by individuals who are “incapability of constituting themselves as a general will.”[55] Yet here a twofold consideration of power interests Hegel. First, the power of power, or power as it is represented in light of societal consciousness, or at least clues, as pertains to the unity of a given government and its relation to the doctrinal rule of law. A government cannot move away from its state doctrine without causing flashes of panic among the people. As this panic is temporal, it appeals to those antithetical to the natural law, or founding document that assumedly has some relation to, again, the Lockean bodies both visible and invisible.[56] Here the fragmentary process that is a transition phase from one form of governance to the next is in limbo, and as such sets it on its literal and figurative guard. Formerly unfathomable means of surveillance, imprisonment, and public displays of weaponry emerge from this purgatorial realm as staples of safety incarnate.

            “Next,” writes Hegel, “natural or original freedom is to be limited to the concept of universal freedom.” Such an inherent contradiction is magnified by technological means: first through trade, then industrialism and the airplane, and then the specter of instantaneous connection through the internet. Interconnectivity is promoted while the degradation of individuals picks up steam, to a bathetic fusion of slave labor and violent proximities. It is the technological process of crystallizing both mental and physical enslavement of all nations that drives the unquestionable idea of universal freedom, which in time manifests from Kojeve’s lectures on Hegel to the world-stage.

But here let us apprehend a contemporaneous parallel. Persons are conceived equally, but are not born equal. Slaveowners wrote otherwise, and the crises which have plagued the world for all of its recorded history have not been dissolved by technology. This is in spite of the technological subject, or Numerical Being’s, obsession with conjoining gadgetry and ontology. Returning to the sentiment, that all are “created equally”, and taking advantage of this reality, global pluralism converges with moral relativism so as to give way to a prospect neither sought nor desired by anyone who can see beyond the daily propaganda into the reality that, if persons possess different gifts, some possess adherence to a natural law, fixed in divine providence, that cannot be removed from them because it is Spirit. But what can be removed is all proof that such modes of thoughts and being ever did exist, which a good deal of the world already lives through both in the street and on the screen: “In the concept of coercion itself, something external to freedom is immediately posited. But a freedom for which something is genuinely external and alien is no freedom; its essence and its formal definition is just that nothing is absolutely external.” The unnegotiable structure of the natural law resides in the fact that language flows from it, and not for it; and “freedom is just the opposite; nothing is external for it, so that for it no coercion is possible.”[57]

            With freedom assigned purely empirical characteristics, coercion is a matter of oppositional singularity: “For the individual is singularity, and freedom is the annihilation of singularity.”[58] The dilution of the invisible is made manifest in the stranglehold upon that which is visible; Marxian alienation that thus arises out of such a disconnection of man from Being is less philosophically interesting than it is a pathetic duplication of ontological alienation. A refusal of the mystery of faith (Logos) does not deter the mystery of faith (beginning in earnest with the Pythagorean cold waters flowing from the lake of memory); for all its complexity this revolutionary spirit seldom accomplishes more than temporally negating the immutable. For the revolutionary determination is nothing more than a debased metal variation on false messianic expectations, where the unreal political offering of “choice” is subsumed by a manipulative impatience. Rather than face limitations under the living sign of infinity, finite limitations arise to the lesser surface of presuppositionless, frenzied utopianism unto a poverty of self-awareness: “The possibility of abstracting from determinations is without restriction… there is no determination which is absolute, for this would be a direct self-contradiction. But freedom itself (or infinity) is indeed the negative and yet the absolute, and the subject’s individual being is absolute singularity taken up into the concept, is negatively absolute infinity, pure freedom.” The negative is the absolute in that man is apparently the singular being conscious of its end, which signals either a living eternity or a return to pre-birth nothingness. This differentiated magnitude is both simple and incomprehensible, the alpha and omega of Geist: “Death is the absolute subjugator.”[59] The sheer magnetism of such a polarity also ushers in a refusal of navigational dialogue; one side cannot help but see the other side as condemned.

Individuality is thus the absolute liberation that is also the testament of flourishing aesthetic cultures: for each aesthetic movement on the world stage comprehends the difference between ignoring what is not there and demanding that the letter B is in truth the first letter of the English alphabet. As in the mythic cult of assassinated, neglected, and suicided poets, punishment is the restoration of freedom,[60] with the Cross as its cumulative highest symbol. For even he who rejects the Cross in earnest who has brought good into the world perishes in a manner far more Christlike than he who has simply adorned the symbol in latent, enabling hypocrisy: “the individual proves his unity with the people unmistakably through the danger of death alone” (93). Outside of this on the world-stage aspect is conflated with totality, “just as the blowing of the winds preserves the sea from the foulness which would result from a continual calm, so also corruption would result for peoples under continual or indeed ‘perpetual’ peace.”[61]

Infinity is the negation from which life is, containing the characteristics of manifold reality; its presence unshackles one from quantity and into the realm of quality, the apex of which is first laid out in Plato. The move from shadows to reality does not concern linearity but cosmic typology as concretized in prose. This being the case, such formlessness and simplicity renders conscientious perceptivity a blow should it seek to retain a linear, or constructive vision of historiography. Reconstruction in difference extinguishes utopianism, rendering nostalgic death rather than elusive whim; but it is further evidenced in life, eternity, that the thing that requires extensive effort is the thing that contains within itself, should it be good and true, that which is of the greatest value: cognitive inviolability. The timelessness of conversion tales speak to this unchangeable circumstance, which itself mirrors the Kierkegaardian unchangeability of God; it is a permanent astonishment that holds tight to the dedicated convert, perhaps first literarily fused – Judaica by Platonism – in Augustine. The conversion to a magnitude of this inimitable sort has passed from the cancellation of undifferentiated self-awareness [and is] restored through an annihilation of perceptions.”[62] Ethical spheres and stages therefore reveal themselves to the formerly quantitative, or finite mind, as such:

The equating and calculating or inequality not only has its limits, owing to the fixed determination which implies an absolute opposition, and, like geometry, encounters incommensurability, but – since it remains wholly in determinacy and yet cannot abstract, as geometry can; but, being involved in living relationships, is always confronted by whole bundles of such determinacies – it also encounters endless contradictions.[63]

Comprehension of comprehension freely confronts inequality, while the masses fail to see that this system is one of codependence upon which their ability to “seek” “justice” is allowed as a foggy, predetermined privilege rather than a right. The result, again predetermined, is a tension without limits; its technological source both creates and encourages its opposite, before putting in place an ideological fence to ensure nothing resembling actual “justice” is ever even approximated.

For the adherent of natural law this is the true crisis: if, as Hegel writes, lacking an authentic abstraction of the situations at hand in times of unlimited secularism leads to endless contradictions, it is the endlessness of this scenario and a pragmatic exhaustion that begins to take place, or acedia: “Thus it cannot be a good thing to apply a universally simply rule to what is never simple.” Hegel therein cites Politicus and moves to the sphere of human affairs, where “as implicit as it is empty, there is nothing absolute in it except just pure abstraction, the utterly vacuous thought of unity.”[64] If that which appears most “revolutionary” is itself a manufactured subculture – an idea – then, “we must recognize that what is here called ‘idea’ is inherently null and void, and that perfect legislation is inherently impossible, just as true justice, corresponding to the determinacy of the law, is impossible in concreto (in the exercise of the power of jurisdiction.” Here the convictions of judges comes into play. But as this is neither pure nor unbiased, a societal “absorption of the relation into indifference itself”, or societal acedia, transpires.

With faith lost in mammalian systems, “an actuality and difference which ethical life cannot surmount”[65] comes into the fore. Its most dramatic form is martyrdom; its most untouched form counters Thoreau’s ‘quiet lives of desperation’ with a quiet life of conviction. This natural atmosphere of sanctity allows ethical organization to “remain pure in the real world only if the negative is prevented from spreading all through it and is kept to one side.” Here one cannot help but recall Allan Bloom.[66] For if the decay of relativism must do away with distinction, it must end with going away with Being. “Hate” is, in wicked hands, nothing more than the odious heights self-contradicting subjectivity. Although silenced, here members of a society become acutely aware of the degrading process beneath the delusional veneer of equality; it is the degradation of the soul, in order to subjugate first the mind and then the body. It is the technological height of unnaturalistic despotism, which Hegel illustrates by citing Edward Gibbon: “The principle of universality and equality first had so to master the whole that instead of separating the classes it amalgamated them… the minds of men were gradually reduced to the same level, the fire of genius was extinguished… personal valor remained, but without public courage.”[67] This paragraph’s concluding Platonic citation is also worth referencing in full, in order to assess the Hegelian aspects of Rome and Athens alike, in order to greater comprehend the totality of natural law’s enemies, and where a society degenerating in its vice grip goes (and that it is, perhaps most tragically of all, nothing new under the sun):

“They will easily discover for themselves the many things that have to be laid down about these matters… if God grants them secure possession of a truly ethical constitution. Otherwise they will pass their lives multiplying petty laws and amending them, thinking that at last they will reach perfection… They live like invalids who from impertinence will not give up their bad diet… By all their remedies they achieve nothing except engendering and multiplying greater diseases, while always hoping that someone will advise a drug to make them better… Equally charming are those who make laws on matters like those mentioned and constantly amend them in the belief that they will reach finality – unaware that in fact they are just cutting off a Hydra’s head” (Republic 425c-426e).

God grants a people their truly ethical constitution; it is thus a matter reverence and obedience in the image of Logos that warrants the objective good. Freedom, then, is not physical or mental degeneration, or infanticide, but the means by which to apprehend and condemn such fatalistically deceptive concept-freedoms for what they are: bondage.[68] Liberation which presents itself as beyond questioning can of course never be liberation, which would be glad to explain itself. Thereby like Plato, Hegel doubts that a society can collectively comprehend both the form and objectivity required to comprehend the Absolute in selflessness, which again prefaces the Concept of the Good:

“The Divine in its form and objectivity is immediately double-natured, and its life is the absolute unity of these natures. But the movement of the absolute contradiction between these two natures presents itself in the Divine nature (which in this movement has comprehended itself) as courage, whereby the first nature frees itself from death inherent in the other conflicting nature. Yet through this liberation it gives its own life, since that life is only in connection with this other life, and yet just as absolutely is resurrected out of it, since in this death (as the sacrifice of the second nature), death is mastered.”[69]

            Symbolic inferentiality and the eternal recurrence of mythological reconciliation next converge in the form of an “opposition [that] may present itself as a divinity.”[70] But this performance, despite being demanded, will in time – as it operates in a prioritized sphere of pre-linguistic order, or timelessness – be understood as a farce of its formless faith and its underlying illusion (which is darkest where it is brightest), it being already lost and in the wrong when it futilely imagines itself in the arms of justice, trustworthiness, and pleasure.[71] “The comedy so separates the two zones of the ethical that it allows each to proceed entirely on its own, so that in the one the conflicts and the finite are shadows without substance, while in the other the Absolute is an illusion.” But the not-me, though through-me, unto the highest energy of infinity begets the situational (ontological) affirmation that is real, that the spirit is higher than nature.[72]

            Hegel next notes the difference between an individual’s ethical life and the “real, absolute” ethical life. Such is the bedrock upon which theoretical democracies, deformed republics are revolutionarily supplied historical scaffoldings. This is for Hegel however synonymous with the scientific morality and natural law of an institutional (or corporation) of people.[73] Ethical life of the person must be that of the people, in that it is universally good. With the benefit of hindsight, a people can see what has been weighed and found catastrophic. As a guidepost it can then, on the ideological-structural basis of its government, pursue or brush aside these examples. Scientific hostility plays into the latter’s hands; it is perceptually against the people, with scientific work upheld, even in constant error, with religious reverence. And it religious, and not near-religious, because in this technological scenario Science must transcend God if it is to fulfill itself. Thus rendered despotic, it is vindicated by gadgetry and the claim to having broken up a people’s cloud of political unknowing. It has, for Hegel, here gone against the Pure Concept of Infinity, and simultaneously dismantled the ideal scenario of science working in tandem with an individual ethics mirrors in governance connected “as much as the aether which permeates nature [and is] the inseparable essence of the configurations of nature, and as space (the ideality of nature’s appearances) is not at all in any of them.”[74] Structural natures outside of this harmony acquire a permanent state of negativity, as in going against the natural law dogmatic moralism deals exclusively with the deleterious and incomplete; it rejects Logos and thereby assumes the disastrous air of Savior. For it has missed the point completely, that the true positive is the natural law, and never its reversal: “Natural law is to construct how ethical nature attains its true right.” Deconstruction, or “revolution”, is thus perpetually inadequate by volition of its essence as both its sign and signifier; before it even takes hold, that which is against nature cannot do more than lead straight into a destruction that cannot ever even know itself.

            From here we zoom out in order to reveal the dialectic or identity and difference. Scientific ethics, ethical science; neither is alien nor in accordance with the Absolute. For Hegel these brackets are surface-level concerning an ontological issue outlined in the preceding paragraph. He contends that:

A science of this morality is thus, first, a knowledge of these relations themselves, so that insofar as they are studied with reference to ethical life, a reference that can only be formal owing to their absolute fixity, the above-mentioned annunciation of tautology finds its place here: the relation is only this relation… A lack of skill in formulating the true ethical principles as laws, and the fear of thinking these principles, of regarding them, as one’s own, and acknowledging them, is the sign of barbarism.[75]

This like much else in Hegel’s theory of natural law rings ominously true. To his credit this is, again, less a matter of prophecy than insight: “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.” By breaking free from linearity one severs the ties of polarity, or at least chisels them down to a clear modicum whereby that which is good both in the present and in the long-term is identifiable. The truth is like Augustine’s lion, which does not need to be defended, but rather is set free and defends itself. Thus, it may take a pummeling in dark times; but the lion’s strength is never in authentic doubt. Furthermore, in Hegel’s words above we see the reality of “hateful” speech. Historiography’s atrocity exhibition renders the barbarian his unending, unnatural sickness: that while barbarism spends its days condemning both that which is stable, prosperous, and true, while identifying its target as its opposite, as in “Nazis”, we at last come to see an authentic unfolding of methodological revelation: that the opponents of nature are less condemning specific things and actions than they are enraged that they did not have the chance to instrument such things themselves; working from a stage that is preliminarily slated for demolition, means and ends converge into a tapestry of delusive theorizing and moral propaganda. By raging against the natural law such historical revolutionaries unconsciously prepare themselves to eclipse the evils of that which they initially sought out to overcome. The tide of propaganda distends no other way: “Whether something is a subjective view or an objective idea, an opinion or a truth, philosophy alone can decide… Philosophy can exhibit its ideas in experience; the reason for this lies directly in the ambiguous nature of what is called experience.”[76] We thus see that subjectivity is in a sense ambiguity, in that its totality depends upon its objective, which itself depends upon the concrete science of ethical law and natural propaedeutic, a harmony that is in the judged by Infinity:

For the ethical vitality of the people lies precisely in the fact that the people has a shape in which a specific character is present – though not as something positive (in our use of the word so far) but as something absolutely united with universality and animated by it. And this aspect is very important also, partly in order to recognize how philosophy learns to honor necessity; partly because this aspect is a whole, and only a narrow view sees merely the individual detail and rejects it as accidental; and partly also because this aspect cancels the view of the individual and accidental by showing that it does not inherently hinder life, but that life, on the contrary, by letting the individual and accidental persist as they are of necessity, removes them from this necessity and permeates and vitalizes them… the world-spirit, in every one of its shapes, has enjoyed its self-awareness.[77]

Hegel ranges from the fish to the water, the polyp, nightingale, and lion, identifying natural – national – identity with “particular or universal culture” (127). In doing so he negates global-equity utopianisms and observes that the universe is united in its distinguishing; it is a twofold Judaic-Christian observation that comprehends both Creation and Babel without any desire to tear down canonical dogma: God is well pleased in his creation, and man’s attempt(s) at forced intermixing dispel the organic nature of differentiated universality, “weaker or more developed but always absolute; it has enjoyed itself and its own essence in every nation under every system of laws and customs.” Misfortune is, furthermore, a matter of preference that brings the subjugated down into the realm of animal reality; it has given up universal ideality and thus sacrificed higher law for the crumbs of personality.[78] As with Montesquieu, Hegel dispels empirical reason-for-itself by deconstructing feigned empirical reason into neither reason, experience, nor common sense a-priori.[79] Empirical reason thus does not shed light on accidents within political and legal systems because what appears as common experience is in fact the aforementioned unified differentiation which is the living individuality of a nation rather than an archetypical puzzle-piece of political theology; the distinctions among nations are this severe, that parallelism is a matter of proximity rather than crystallization, as this crystallization is achieved at the ontological level of world-spirit, or Geist, alone. Its dispersed characteristics include both the immemorial and historical scarcities, “ejected and dead… if the whole does not advance in step with the growth of the individual law and ethos separate; the living unity binding the members together is weakened and there is no longer any absolute cohesion and necessity in the present life of the whole. At this stage, therefore, the individual cannot be understood on his own.” The tiers and reality of individual recognition have been since Hegel simultaneously inverted and withered out by Numerical Being. It entails a psychological reality that all members of a society are a part of in private, representing themselves in a way that is impossible to hold weight in alienated reality. Aesthetic decay gives birth to the manufactured subculture, which in turn ensures that widespread moral reconciliation is impossible. It is, like Hegel’s observations on feudalism in light of natural law, no longer a matter of what the people even want. The moment of defending life in the spirit has set sail, interrupted by platform-oligarchy. In turn the person once created in God’s image is a number; the person atop the list of wealthiest persons in the world is a number with a number of slaves, proceeding criminally for a number of years. This Aristotelian perversity, cosmic numeracy deflowered, thus annihilates individuality; respect for the individual cannot coincide with a modernity far beyond restraint, and into the technological pit of factories and sweatshops.

            But as technological revelation comes blindingly to light through this unnatural furnace of godless numeracy, a greater spirit is at work whose aura is ever enhanced by flames. If it were not evident throughout history and made manifest in secret this would, of course, be nothing more than a delusional whim. However, we might consider this aura by way of analogy: its breadth and range of perception are imperceptible to the extent that the Desert Fathers and those who dwelt among them would have seemed unfathomable to Roman citizenry of the day. And while popular books take on this theme, as in the Benedict Option, by its very nature the unfolding of consciousness is a structural form that less defies than precedes group assignment or any sort of utopian musing. Taken in this light evil is both necessary and unacceptable. The natural law thus invokes singularity in a plane whereupon concomitance is a daily event. Hegel likewise does not envision a utopian overcoming, but an insular spirit that ideally magnetizes men to one another. This natural law concerns being, but begins and ends with being-proper: birth and death of the singular being are given a chance to live a life of the spirit. Being thereby mirrors the natural law, which is attained and abandoned as per the terms of phenomenological conception. It demands a man be in the world and not of it. His other options-as-being are lukewarmth or reprobation. Only philosophy can prevent such scientific isolation.[80]

            With all of this mind, that inner contradiction spills over into public, legal life is mandatory: “If something has no true ground in the present, its ground lies in the past; and so we must look for a time in which the specific feature, fixed in law but now dead, was a living ethos and in harmony with the rest of the laws.”[81]  Unchecked, religious and philosophical discourse do not only appear to disintegrate, but their disintegration is stabilized, maintained, and carried out to the bitter end. The individual’s despair is all-consuming whereby this nightmarish stability presents itself as the singular offer beside an interior and exterior life fixed in apathetic dialogism:

Among the positive and the dead there must not merely be counted what belongs entirely to a past and what no longer has any living present and possesses only an unintelligent and, for lack of an inner meaning, shameless power; but that too which establishes the negative (i.e., disintegration and severance from the ethical whole) is devoid of genuinely positive truth. The former is the history of a past life, the latter the definite representation of present death.[82]

By taking on form, decline presents its authorial intricacies in a matter that can be identified only when it is too late. It is therefore in the endless a matter of skepticism or nihilism that constitutes a lost care, trust of the individual in a society, and thus the inability to led culture flow or even conceive of renaissance. This task is left to moralistic propaganda, which is entrenched within the system of stabilized disintegration; it seeks neither to outlaw philosophy, literature, nor acknowledge past excellence, but renders a people psychologically incapable of living lives that contain room for intellectual development:

The absolute totality restricts itself as necessity in each of its spheres, produces itself out of them as a totality, and recapitulates there the preceding spheres just as it anticipates the succeeding ones… although nature, within a specific form, advances with a uniform (not mechanically uniform, but uniformly accelerated) movement, it still enjoys a new form which it acquires. As nature enters that form, so it remains in it, just as a shell starts suddenly toward its zenith and then rests for a moment in it; metal, when heated, does not turn soft like wax, but all at once becomes liquid and remains so – for this phenomenon is the transition into the absolute opposite and so is the infinite, and this emergence of the opposite out of infinity or out nothingness is a leap.[83]

The false absolute has thus acquired the means by which to feign authorial command over the Absolute; its contradistinction in light of natural law and letters more generally cannot work but in the orthodox dialectical realm of unity through opposition, albeit as a misaligned moment in history. The Cartesian fortunes once gripped by a Machiavellian rungs and culminated in an ideology against nature by propping up an inverted nature is revealed predicated upon a logical fallacy of false premises.

However, Hegel identifies the non-Absolute as a Form not to overcome but to comprehended in the realm of hermeneutical judgement; indeed, Hegel’s recurring stature as a prelude to Marx, or as the philosopher “Marx turned on his head”, implies that Marx is an organic extension of Hegel, and furthermore that he was “right.” But this can only be believed by those who are both dogmatically Marxist and proclaim a poverty of knowledge as concerns actually reading Hegel. For these reasons it cannot surprise us that Hegel’s envisioned crisis predicated upon empirical fallacy mirrors his own canonical reputation, which in the Marxist light must be read without God, Spirit, or Infinity, and thus is to from stage one misread Hegel altogether. It is restricted necessitation that both concerns the authorial procedure of Hegel and the posthumous orations at once:

“For the restrictedness of what belongs to necessity, even if it is absolutely absorbed into indifference, is only a part of necessity, not absolute necessity itself, and so it is always an incongruity between absolute spirit and its shape. But it cannot attain this absolute shape by escaping into shapelessness or cosmopolitanism, still less into the void of the Rights of Man, or the like void of a league of nations or a world republic. These are abstractions and formalisms filled with exactly the opposite of ethical vitality and which in their essence are protestants against individuality and are revolutionary, while philosophy must descry the most beautiful shape befitting the high Idea of absolute ethical life. Since the absolute Idea is in itself absolute intuition, its construction immediately determines also the purest and freest individuality in which spirit intuits and beholds itself with perfect objectivity in its shape, and, without returning into itself, and by that very recognition is absolute spirit and perfect ethical life” (133).

            This life, writes Hegel, is the way in which one is purified of the negative. Neither Thomas Paine nor Marquis de Sade, he believes, will do as models as pertains to the totality and infinity of the Idea that is life in the spirit; for they ultimately vanquish the individual – which is emblematic and adherent for and to his people – for the sake of corporate, self-defeating revolution. It is, especially in light of the Hegelian resurgence in the foundations of literary theory, not unlike Gustave Flaubert’s advice in recommending the author be like God: present everywhere and visible nowhere. In this way both Plato and Hegel predate what we would call a ‘hermeneutic circle’, and yet the Form and Idea remind us of the parallel interwoven within the Book of Life that is the Natural Law. But this is not to say that either end – republican or democrat – is not without its merits; but that it cannot be conflated, whatsoever, with the Absolute Idea. The highest moments of world-history – Grecian philosophy, Roman law, Judaic theology, European and American literature – are, for Hegel, to an extent the rungs that devise a Jacob’s Ladder of cosmos and mind, of nature and law, poetic intuition and exemplary pedagogy unto the family and the student, the expert and the novice, the rich and the poor. Such bands are finite brackets that may well at times appear to do nothing to prevent darkening upon the heart that is suffering, but cannot extinguish the multi-scaled legacy – on the local, national, and global levels alike – of a life lived in accordance with the Idea regardless of whether the society within which finds oneself is in opposition or accordance with the Concept, Infinity. Hegel’s Absolute is societal by proxy; it means that swings with a pendulum beyond singular control or available to contemplate in the ontological process of historiography, rendering adherence and availability to a practitioner, like prayer, interior and incapable of ever being taken away (And thus the object of hostility).

Bibliography

            Benjamin, Walter. Selected Writings, 4: 1938-1940. Harvard Univ. Press, 2006. 

            Bourdieu, Pierre. Symbolic Power of Language. Harvard Univ. Press, 1991.

Bowman, Brady. Hegel’s Metaphysics of Absolute Negativity. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2015.

Brooks, Thom. “Between natural law and legal positivism: Dworkin and Hegel on legal theory.” Ga. St. UL Rev. 23 (2006).

Budziszewski, J. The Line through the Heart. Wilmington: ISI Books, 2009.

Burns, Tony. “Hegel and natural law theory.” Politics 15, no. 1 (1995).

Butler, Clark. The Dialectical Method: A Treatise Hegel Never Wrote. Humanities Press, 2011.

Cole, Andrew. The Birth of Theory. Princeton Univ. Press, 2014.

Cropsey, Joseph (ed.). History of Political Philosophy, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1987.

Farber, Marvin. “Max Scheler on the Place of Man in the Cosmos.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 14, no. 3 (1954).

Hegel, G.W.F. Early Theological Writings. Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1971.

            —. On the Natural Law. Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1975.

McGrath, Sean. “Populism and the Late Schelling on Mythology, Ideology, and Revelation.” Analecta Hermeneutica 9 (2018).

Voegelin, Eric. “On Hegel—A Study in Sorcery.” In The Study of Time, pp. 418-451. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg, 1972.

Woods, Robert E. Hegel’s Introduction to the System. Univ. of Toronto Press, 2014.


[1] Natural Law: The Scientific Ways of Treating Natural Law, Its Place in Moral Philosophy, and Its Relation to the Positive Sciences of Law. Hegel, G.W.F., (trans. T.M. Knox). Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1975, p. 69.

[2] Selected Writings, Volume Four, “On the Concept ofHistory”, X: p. 393.

[3] NL, p. 7.

[4] Concerning international theory we see a parallel in postcolonial loopholes of subjectivity and incomprehension.  

[5] Brooks, Thom. “Between natural law and legal positivism: Dworkin and Hegel on legal theory.” Ga. St. UL Rev. 23 (2006): 514-16.

[6] NL, p. 9.

[7] NL, p. 9.

[8] Hegel’s Early Theological Writings, pp. 81-2/102-3.

[9] NL, p. 13.

[10] Rather than hypothesize variations on the misguided cliché of the “Hegelian dialectic”, genre-as-form of being is more concretely surveyed in the forming history of dialectical exchange (See Butler, Cole, Magee/Hilton, Nicholas of Cusa, Boehme).

[11] Revisiting Eric Voegelin’s “On Hegel—A Study in Sorcery.” In this article Voegelin states that Hegel is not proto-Marxian as in the case of Karl Popper, nor a [theologically] misunderstood Christian, but an occultist steeped in Hermetic sorcery ala Giordano Bruno. The Study of Time, pp. 418-451. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg, 1972. So a student might ask, what happened from the time of the Natural Law writings to the System, if Voegelin is correct? Perhaps that is a biographical-historical occasion for a longer study, if its findings were to go past the findings of G. Magee’s 2004 masterpiece Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition.

[12] NL, p. 14.

[13] See Sean McGrath’s “Populism and the Late Schelling on Mythology, Ideology, and Revelation.” Analecta Hermeneutica 9 (2018), pp. 4-7.

[14] See also Schelling’s Introduction to the History of Mythology, on the process of mythology’s ‘facts’ open to philosophical scrutiny or otherwise forfeiting the right to any absolute claims of the Absolute; p. 151, SUNY Press, 2007.

[15] NL, p. 16-7.

[16] NL, p. 19.

[17] Cf. Robert E. Woods’s Hegel’s Introduction to the System (Univ. of Toronto Press, 2014), pp. 53-7.

[18] NL, p. 23.

[19] NL, pp. 26-7.

[20] NL, p. 28.

[23] NL, pp. 29-32.

[24] NL, p. 33.

[25] As in Budziszewski’s The Line through the Heart. pp. 18, 42-5, 145.

[26] NL, pp. 35-6.

[27] Numerical Beings refers to the united opposites of a two-pronged contemporaneous slave labor, as in the prison on one hand, the corporate factory, workplace on the other. This affect trickles into present technological being: one disintegrates from being to number. Its fuel is a conceptual equality that does not and cannot exist. The constitutional being created in the image of God is destroyed for the sake, or chance, of divine fulfillment; the Numerical Being is destroyed mentally and physically because of nothing less than demonic oligarchy run amok on the world-stage of digital feudalism. Thus, Numerical Being relishes its infinite technological fulfillment at the cost of Christological meaning-in-life. Numerical Being can only come into existence where a culture has sufficiently lost track of the invaluable stature of man-created-in the Image of God, or Logos. With this lost, he is a numerical animal processed through digital feudalism, and thus rendered a Numerical Being.

[28] NL, p. 38.

[29] NL, p 40.

[30] NL, pp. 41-2.

[31] NL, p. 42.

[32] Cf. Marvin Farber’s “Max Scheler on the Place of Man in the Cosmos.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 14, no. 3 (1954): 393-399.

[33] Heidegger: “It is not that Hegel’s philosophy has broken down. Rather, his contemporaries and successors have not ever yet stood up so that they can be measured against his greatness.” As quoted in Woods, p. 3.

[34] NL, p. 56.

[35] Tony Burns glosses this in “Hegel and natural law theory.” Politics 15, no. 1 (1995): 27-32. Hegel’s noncommittal stance is also described by Pierre Hassner as a ‘very prudent reserve’ in this regard because of historical and social conditions; such necessarily co-requisite concrete application to universal principals where rationality has usurped connaturality rendered Hegel less an apathetic ambiguity than a crisis of proto-phenomenological Understanding. History of Political Philosophy, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1987, p. 741.

[36] See Brady Bowman’s Hegel and the Metaphysics of Absolute Negativity, cf.  pp. 54-6.

[37] NL, p. 57.

[38] NL, p. 59.

[39] NL., pp. 59-60.

[40] See esp. Cyril O’Regan for Hegel’s influences in the realm of mysticism, eschatology, and occultism:  “Theology and the Spaces of Apocalyptic.” The Père Marquette Lecture in Theology Series 40 (2009): 9-160; “Hegelian Philosophy of Religion and Eckhartian Mysticism.” Proceedings of the Hegel Society of America 11 (1992): 109-129.

[41] NL, p. 63.

[42] NL, p. 65.

[43] NL, p. 66.

[44] “Perhaps the central question that the Philosophy of Nature seeks to address is this: given the otherness of nature, why should we care about it at all?” Jeffrey Reid’s “Comets and Moons: The For-another in Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature.” The Owl of Minerva 45, no. 1/2 (2013): 11n25.

[45] NL, p. 67.

[46] NL, p. 68.

[47] NL, p. 69.

[48] NL, p. 70.

[49] NL, p. 73.

[50] NL, p. 75.

[51] NL, p. 79.

[52] As noted by Pierre Bourdieu: “[The] verbalism of abstract virtue engenders fanaticism and terrorism… all of it participates in the logic of double-dealing, of the ego and its double which underlies the subjectively and objectively legitimate usurpation of the delegate”, Language and Symbolic Power, Harvard Univ. Press, 1991, p. 213. See also Philosophy of Right sec. 140. End-of-world cults must reduplicate and retitle themselves every decade, for theirs is nothing more than secular eschatology, itself a long-winded reflection of a meaningless, finite world, as seen from the imagistic orbits of NASA cameras.

[53] NL, p. 81

[54] NL, p. 86.

[55] NL, p. 87.

[56] On the medieval origins of the modern state and its political theory, see Joseph Strayer’s Medieval Origins of the Modern State (Princeton, 2016) and Ernst Kantorowicz’s The King’s Two Bodies (Princeton, 2016).

[57] NL: p. 89.

[58] NL, p. 90.

[59] NL, p. 91.

[60] NL, p. 92.

[61] NL, p. 93.

[62] NL, p. 94.

[63] NL, p. 94-5.

[64] NL, p. 97.

[65] NL, p. 99.

[66] The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. Simon & Schuster, 2012.

[67] NL, pp. 101-2.

[68] See also in this sense Augusto Del Noce in general: The Age of Secularization (McGill-Queen’s Univ. Press, 2017); The Crisis of Modernity (McGill-Queen’s Univ. Press, 2015).

[69] NL, p. 104.

[70] NL, p. 106.

[71] NL, pp. 107-8.

[72] See Andrew Cole re: Nicholas of Cusa in his Birth of Theory, as a prelude to digital feudalism.

[73] NL, p. 112.

[74] NL, pp. 112-13.

[75] NL, pp. 114-16.

[76] NL, p. 118.

[77] NL, pp. 126-7.

[78] NL, p. 128.

[79] NL, p. 129.

[80] NL, p. 124.

[81] NL, p. 130.

[82] NL, pp. 130-1.

[83] NL, pp. 131-2.

Beneath the Surface: the Columbia Sessions

Beneath the Surface

By Alexandre Gonçalves

I find a rare privilege to be able to measure my thoughts on a book against the author’s intentions when he wrote it. That is why I welcomed the opportunity of interviewing Joseph Nicolello about his first novella A Child’s Christmas in Williamsburg.

For me, his book felt like the literary equivalent of sailing. Notwithstanding the waves and winds on the surface of an eventful holiday celebration, there was always a sense of depth, of calmer, darker and more mysterious realities lying beneath seemingly ordinary circumstances. In my questions to Joseph, I attempted to probe deep into those realities.

How did you come up with the idea of writing this book?

This novella came about in a way that I hope neither any student nor pupil I know takes as an invitation, because it will not work for anyone else at any other time (including myself) as it is just a tale among tales… but then again, we do read at the forefront of Boswell’s Life of Johnson that literary history is the most agreeable subject in the world (2008, 21). So prior to composition I think one can trace the initial mechanisms in that for a good couple of years spent in San Francisco and New York I was always bumping into people with a disdain for mainstream culture, but it was a disdain coupled by either nihilism or its own sort of existential negativity, nocturnal moments that would gloss a creative retrieval, but never quite catapult into being an attempt at the rectification of 21st-century letters. For instance, one discontent with one’s religion could perhaps become a religious himself and start railing against the hypocrisies and frivolities of the age. The painter disgusted with what is called modern art could look to build off of Jackson Pollock and throw paint at canvases. The writer could pen a manifesto or an extreme book. But these modes of reaction seemed untenable to me. I was right at the moment in my life whereby I realized that the unendurable was beginning to disgust me. I was also already then becoming much more interested in figures like Eric Voegelin and Robert Musil, who were neither right nor left nor indifferent, but in their ways eclipsed preordained systematicities of the age. And so on a break from the aforementioned cities I was visiting some friends and family, where a good professorial poet friend of mine (actually the mentor who introduced to me, among many others, the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa) and I reunited. We had a great time together discussing life and literature. It was about zero degrees out that evening.

As we were departing I realized that part of my anxiety about certain old counterparts was my budding interest in religious history, which at that time was not necessarily religious itself; I would say it was more a blend of anthropology and philosophical thinking. I could no longer condemn all religion, having accepted my absolute poverty of knowledge on the subject. Reading the great atheist philosophers and poets, one can quickly become convinced that one is beyond needing to read any religious texts or histories. But one cannot be more dead wrong; what is at stake is selfhood and perception, purposiveness and the cultivation of one’s self. To condemn a thing that one knows nothing of is both common and odious; the reasons for the poverty of knowledge are far less relevant than the fact that one is consciously delimiting reality and conceptual history.

So as we parted ways a brutal gust of wind blew ideas of discontent out of my head and forced me to realize that I would have to take an enormous gamble in actually recreating literature rather than excoriating or lamenting things as they were. The first two ideas that came of this moment was the idea of dogma and literality, or sacrament and neglect. The other was the non-archetype in a gentrified neighborhood, as I believe gentrification has caused innumerable more problems in this city, or country, than the gentrifiers want to let on; indeed, this is the ironical nucleus of a manufactured subculture – everything is ironic less because irony is indispensable, but because the reality of how the borough came to be contradicts everything its archetypal inhabitants claim to stand for.  Thus I was drawn to everyday margins of archetypal neighborhoods, persons who are in Williamsburg but not of it; people like the McGrady family have nothing to hide but are themselves hidden.

Why did you center your narrative in a single mother and her child?

I was in this book concerned with the temporal incarnation of a simple heart, or a pair of simple hearts, as the most powerful force in the world. I do not mean this hyperbolically, but literally: wars will be waged, books burned, dreams shattered, evil carried out; but none of it can ever come close to the endurance a mother has for her child when the former has abandoned herself to divine providence, maintaining her hope by cultivation of a simple heart, which again I am convinced is more revolutionary than any political idea ever has been or shall be, as it is the gift of life-qua-life, or being-in-itself. As I hypothesized the idea of an authorial voice, I also drew on my own experiences, one of which I was then beginning to weigh in light of some of the religious history I was undertaking, at that point the Catholic idea of sacrament, of which marriage is one.

Then as I read ancient and modern texts on marriage as sacrament, it dawned on me that almost every friend or girlfriend I had from grade school on up to undergraduate always had divorced parents. I measured this not only by counting, but in some experience or another I had recently had where someone mentioned their parents were happily married and I was dumbfounded. I wanted to explore this phenomenon, what it said about sacrament and personhood, art and answerability.

Most of the story happens inside your characters’ minds. Your writing often follows their streams of consciousness. When it comes to language and style, who inspired you the most?

As a student of literature, I learned very early on that stream-of-consciousness in published work is of course a very fine-tailored deal. It requires much editorial work, or order, in order to appear anarchic. Thus we write off the top of our heads and often have to go back and revise it. Woolf, Joyce, and any number of mid-twentieth century Americans sought to convey a sense of spontaneity that is itself the result of extensive editorial reconstruction. One must go back and actually edit – or their editors edited – the work to seem particularly overflowing. I have found that when done well one can at the same time better comprehend the other and oneself in a sense that hitherto neither would have thought possible. To this end, I am trying to better understand the outcasts of a society, or the replaced, and their place within religious literality. 

It is certainly not something employed in my other forthcoming books, but for this text I found that the aspect of reflection was so central that I had to make an attempt to capture thought itself. This, alas, is impossible, as if we start writing down precisely what we are thinking, especially when emotionally overwhelmed, it is like hitting the brakes all at once on the highway or something like that, or turning around in a whirlpool, against the current.

I think the stylistic forces at work here were something like a fusion of Gustave Flaubert and Ingeborg Bachmann. One thing that I can say absolutely, looking back, is that there was a sentiment correlative to my idea of literary cognition that I would still stand by today. Interestingly, it was the only epigraph for my forthcoming three-volume Künstlerroman that I did not hear back from the publishers on. I had reached out to New York Review of Books Classics just as the pandemic was beginning in earnest and could have written to them again, I suppose; but the book proceeded without this passage, and perhaps its best usage is indeed to share here. It comes from Francis Steegmuller’s translation of a lesser known bit of prose from Flaubert:

I am turning toward a kind of aesthetic mysticism… When there is no encouragement to be derived from one’s fellows, when the exterior world is disgusting, enervating, corruptive, and brutalizing, honest and sensitive people are forced to seek somewhere within themselves a more suitable place to live. If society continues on its present path I believe we shall see the return of mystics as have existed in all the dark ages of the world. The soul, unable to overflow, will be concentrated in itself. The time is not far off when we shall see the return of world-sickness – beliefs in the Last Day, expectation of the Messiah, etc. But all this enthusiasm will be ignorant of its own nature, and, the age being what it is, can have no theological foundation: what will be its basis? Some will seek it in the flesh, others in the ancient religions, others in art; humanity, like the Jewish tribes in the desert, will adore all kinds of idols. We were born a little too early: in twenty-five years the points of intersection of these quests will provide superb subjects for masters. Then prose (Prose, the youngest form) will be able to play a magnificent humanitarian symphony. [excerpt from Flaubert and Madame Bovary: A Double Portrait (NYRB Classics, 2005.]

Readers of Dylan Thomas will be disappointed not by lack of poetic musicality, but because the title has nothing to do with Dylan Thomas or his book. We could probably add Qiu Miaojin, Proust, Breece D’J Pancake, and Marguerite Porete to the canon of voices at work when I executed the book. This was a very early work, and I must admit that my aesthetic taste was still in the process of getting its bearings straight. I wrote the book in a couple of afternoons; indeed it took me three days to write and five years to get published. Nonetheless, it is important in that it is a seed that goes two ways: a prolegomena to the vast work, and also the first movement of a seasonal cycle of New York novellas.

Your story is centered around Christmas and there are several references to Easter. We learn that Caitlin went to a retreat in the Abbey of Gethsemani. Sarah’s First Communion is also mentioned in the book. The life of your characters is clearly punctuated by those liturgical points of reference. How do you see the role of faith in your story?

Faith is not overt because I believe that my intention was to model a narrative on persons for whom perhaps not even a sacred text can come up with the answer. Not all, I’m sure, but a number of persons reading this who are religious, and have a central text or texts, have turned to this material in every frame of mind imaginable. But perhaps the most troubling is when one brings a problem to the doctrine and cannot find a concrete referential point. In my book, it is rather that I believe attempts have been made in various fashions by the mother, Caitlin, to vindicate her choice and decision, and she has realized she was wrong. But it is this very notion of “wrongness” that I am interested in, not whether someone is or is not wrong.

Freedom from marriage has not resulted in glamor and independence, but rather delusions of living in a “tenement”, or an abject misunderstanding of herself altogether. This again is not some proclamation of traditionalism or something, but rather the very fact that things in general seldom pan out precisely the way we envision them. I am sure there are many persons who have committed an act that violated their religious principles for the sake of what was perceived as freedom or gain, only in the end to find out they were in fact wrong. They are rather torn and conflicted rather than free and easy, and in what is initially a terrible process, they are actually called into a higher state of comprehending holy things, among them pain and suffering, writing and holiness, willingness to militantly be available for what one is called to be, no matter how one got to this place. It is an abolition of victimhood. And again, I rather celebrate Caitlin McGrady, as the cloud of self-referential unknowing is not a bad thing to me, but a natural thing. The age calls for a derangement of the senses. She knows that she does not know, and knows that those around her parading gentrified confidence know far less in believing that they know everything, which is to know nothing. Her strength is made perfect in weakness.

Here is someone who grew up believing marriage was a sacrament, got married proclaiming it as so, taught her child the same thing, and in the next movement was no longer married. The problem is both religious and secular, immediate and genealogical. But this human comedy is quickly curtailed by the idea of offering herself as an ideal mother (and on Christmas Day, as surrogate daughter), not because she is unmarried, but because she loves her daughter.

We do not, I am saying, have to take one’s life decisions and attach it to every last atom of the subject’s being, which our digital culture would certainly have one believe. Likewise, if a faith is steadily undermined to the point of destruction, this does not definitively prove the faith is wrong, per se, but that people have destroyed it for themselves. We quite frankly have no idea what another person on earth feels, nor do we even comprehend ourselves as much as we put on a commendable show of it on the world-stage. Faith then is not lamenting what has happened, nor going through mental jugglery in an effort to vindicate lesser decisions we have made. Rather, it is again about the simple heart. The simple heart is ready to die, but only because its bearer is at last ready to live. At the same time, there are things that are beyond both the science of language and the language of science; I believe the predicament in this book is one of them, and will be in the subsequent three volumes of the tetralogy.

You do not hide the poverty, suffering, and flaws of your characters. Yet, since we get to know them through the eyes of Sarah, it is hard to not look at them with affection. Why did you choose this working-class setting and a child’s perspective of it?

Though I have been discussing some heavier implications of the book, I think here I can move into something perhaps still thoughtful, but theoretically easier. This would be for instance, in a place like Williamsburg or Brooklyn, both of which have simultaneously become nouns and adjectives, we associate a specific type with the adjectival noun. Depending on who we are, our instinctual mental image will vary. Perhaps less so for Williamsburg. But there are many people in Williamsburg who I would imagine do not go to bars until 4:00 am, do not get tattoos, do not listen to music other than what is on the radio, do not care for the Democratic Party, and are in essence not-hipsters, or outcasts-in-being. But the genealogy of persons perhaps several generations-deep in places like Williamsburg constitute just as important a place as any manufactured subculture, or product of the culture industry, such as the idea of the hipster.

I think a perfect example of this is the wealth of classical scholarship available from the late 1960s, or the Summer of Love. There were people hallucinating and fornicating in San Francisco, yes; some are still there, both in the flesh and in mythological or ghost form. But there were also great minds teaching and writing such as Gilbert Highet, Thomas Merton, or Edward Dahlberg, who in their literary profundities force one to realize how odious a good deal of secular glorification is.

So this literary process for me was a secular variation on negative theology: how can I define Williamsburg by what it isn’t, which is thereby what it is? I have no interest whatsoever in the archetypes of Brooklyn or Williamsburg based on both firsthand experience and a natural inclination for substance. I think that for both myself and someone like Caitlin McGrady you are just walking down the street one day, and it dawns on you that empiricism is not the beginning and end, but a limitation. At that point one is in business. Gentrification is a disease of the mind. Pierre Hadot has an excellent book, Philosophy as a Way of Life, in which he (among other things) traces the idea of spiritual exercise from the ancients into the twentieth century… I think that in addition to unloading the ancient philosophical origins of Ignatius of Loyola’s exercises, we likewise can reconsider the spirit at work in ancient practices and texts that we would otherwise consider secular. Typology has a singular hand in Hadot’s book, or thesis; but I say all of this because I think the writing process was for me something of a spiritual exercise, cut in the cloth of a more ancient tradition.

Did you have a concrete reader in mind when you wrote this book?

If I had something concrete in mind when I wrote the book, I believe it was Platonic, or Neoplatonic, in its appeal to the Ideas, or Forms. I was concerned first with apprehending the degradation of life and union in the country, which has been accelerating for four or five decades now. I am not interested, however, in moralizing; I am interested in apprehending the scenario whereby a moral fixity offers itself to every situation at the cost of sanity and endurance. If an institution like the Catholic Church is active in a society whereby the sacrament of marriage is not taken seriously on the whole, it puts the poet in a situation not unlike Dante’s, I suppose, wherein the philosophers and theologians had millions of words on the afterlife… but they could not come up with the Comedia. We have Aristotelians and Platonists running around to this day, but they are hollowed out by our absolute lack of Homers.

Faced with an abysmal situation, like the person who is irreversibly against infanticide or the dissolving of a marriage under any scenario, we have in the remedial sense therapy and support groups for when all hell breaks loose. But this tells us nothing about the interior lives of mothers without husbands, and children with just one parent.

Rather than get too concerned with sin, condemning sinners or sins themselves, I am more interested in the book of disquiet that is at the heart of holiday reflection but cannot seemingly be put into words. Although subsequent books will come forth that are much different from this one, this novella strikes me as a fair starting place. I wrote for the reader who is wondering what on earth happened to literature; my wager could not be any larger, in its idea of a creative retrieval that ultimately, when the day is done, hits a target no one can see. It is not that my books are apolitical, but rather that they reject the very premises of binary political theologies. I am very much like Plotinus in that sense, more concerned with the One than quantity of books sold, speeches read from scripts designed to distract, or whatever eschatological spectacle is in the headlines now, with the urgency of a switchblade knife, only to – poof – vanish, the second it is no longer reported on.  

Alexandre Gonçalves is a PhD candidate in Communication at Columbia University. He also has a Master’s degree in Comparative Media Studies from MIT.

Available Now! Part One of Audio Interview Below – Bookstore Information Forthcoming – Print Interview Forthcoming