Books: Cultural Amnesia — Hegel |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]


The philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Freidrich Hegel (1770–1831) was a departure point even for those later philosophers who disagreed with his version of idealism. Croce, for example, was as much in debt to Hegel as he was to Vico. But most of the miasma that retroactively surrounds Hegel’s name was generated by those who agreed, or thought they did. The Communist theory of dialectical materialism was a toytown model of Hegel’s dialectic, as set out in the two volumes of his Wissenschaft der Logik (The Science of Logic) between 1812 and 1816. Similarly, his later theories about the state as a perfectible creative expression appealed to those who saw Germany in a leading role, and the long residue of that idea was available to those pre-Nazi nationalist thinkers who helped pave the way for the Nazis, who scarcely thought at all. (Unfortunately their sleep-walk towards destiny fulfilled Hegel’s prediction of what the right people might one day do: he just hadn’t guessed that the wrong people would do it.) Helping to confuse the issue about Hegel was a prose style that became steadily more impenetrable as his thought developed, thereby encouraging, among his numerous epigones, the damaging notion that obscure is the way philosophy should sound. It should be remembered that Hegel, early on, after his academic career was interrupted by Napoleon’s victory at Jena in 1806, did time as a newspaper editor and a headmaster. He was not without experience of practical affairs, and his art criticism shows that he could stick close to an issue. But he had an undoubted natural tendency to ascend to higher realms, building towering systems of thought that were attacked in the twentieth century (notably by Moore and Russell) as castles in the air. Those who believe, however, that all German philosophy is necessarily as abstruse as Hegel’s should read one of his predecessors, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, whose resurgent reputation after World War II might have had something to do with a widely felt desire to re-attach German philosophy to the concrete reality from which Hegel’s influence had worked to separate it.

* * *
The owl of Minerva begins its flight only in the gathering darkness.

HEGEL’S PROSE COULD be very beautiful, like this. After his death, his prose became famous for being unyieldingly opaque; and indeed much of his later prose was; but the best reason for believing that the tangles he got into were legitimate is that he could have an idea as delicately suggestive as this and write it down without breaking it. The theme is that the Zeitgeist can be understood only when its time is over. There is a piquant appeal in that for us; and part of the appeal might arise from a syllogism with an undistributed middle term; we would like to take, as proof that a bad time is over, the fact that we have begun to understand it. I, for one, would dearly like to believe that this book is a flight by Minerva’s owl; in the sense that I would like to believe a terrible era has so finally and unarguably come to an end that even I have begun to understand it. I would like to believe that, but I can only hope it’s true; and since September 11, 2001, even the hope has come to seem silly. The period when “the end of history” sounded like an attractive idea can now be recalled as being very brief: a hump in the hallway, a thirty-second seduction by language. In the dark light of recent events, Hegel’s owl of Minerva might be heading anywhere. Following the sound of its flapping wings, we can perhaps say a few things about where beautiful language can lead, when it unexpectedly shows up somewhere in the course of a reasoned argument.

The poetic line plucked from a philosopher might provide us with only the illusion of understanding what he has to say, but the range of implication feels real for a good reason—it might not be under our control, but it is not under his either. By saying something so resonant, he made a lucky strike, and part of the luck is that it can reach us by an indirect route. The rich saying gets passed on. It was at the end of Edgar Wind’s classic set of 1963 Reith Lectures, Art and Anarchy, that I first read about Kant’s dove—the dove which, on being told about air resistance, thought it could fly faster by abolishing the air. If I had had to wait to hear about the dove from Kant himself, I might have grown old and grey. As things were, I was handed in good time an analogy that has served me well for the ambitious artist who hopes to express himself more easily by ignoring technique. I even have a picture of him: a gormless bird disappointed by its own slowness as it flaps in the opposite direction to Minerva’s owl.

Walter Benjamin, by way of Hannah Arendt, supplied another flying paradigm for a mental skyscape growing crowded like one of those airborne avenues in Blade Runner. In her collection of essays Men in Dark Times Arendt cites Benjamin’s angel of history, which flies backwards with its hands raised to its face, appalled by the spectacle of the ruins piling up constantly before its eyes. Benjamin, it might be objected, was not a philosopher. Well, he was when he wrote that: or else he was the kind of poet who, writing only in prose, has moments of explanatory intensity for which the word “poetry” is hard to withhold, unless we call them philosophy instead. As for the systematic philosopher, he might try, as a matter of professional etiquette, to avoid speaking in quiddities, but is most likely to be cogent when he finds that imputation hard to dodge. If he has poetic moments, they will not necessarily be throwaway: often they will happen at the focus of the argument, as a natural consequence of trying to get a lot said at once. The same happened even for Croce, who preferred to lay out an argument throughout a whole book at an even pace, with an unvarying transparency. He preferred a texture as serenely even as a snowy plateau in the Antarctic. But just as the snowy plateau in the Antarctic is studded with meteorites like chocolate chips in vanilla ice cream, so Croce’s long, smooth stretches are riddled by sentences heavier than the surrounding texture. Reading Croce day after day in the Biblioteca Nazionale in Florence the year after the 1966 flood, I picked out and stored hundreds of sentences as attention-getting as Hegel’s twilight owl. If I had to choose a favourite, it would be because it chose me: for reasons I can’t be sure of, although I am sure they go deep, it’s the one about the history of the flowers. Croce was saying that all living things have a history: having a history and living are the same process. Even the flowers, he said, have a history, although only they know it.

I can remember sitting back and shaking my head, to clear it from too much clarity. Although only they know it was the speeding point of light that rang the bell. The wave-particle of prose that rings the bell does what poetry does. Poetry just does more of it, and one of the ways we measure greatness in poetry is by how it organizes, to an even higher degree, everything that great prose does in the same space, gracing it with the additional splendour of a festival. Shakespeare, nearly three hundred years before Croce was born, did that for the flowers.

How with such rage shall beauty hold a plea
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

I saw it said in some newspaper profile that this is Seamus Heaney’s favourite moment in Shakespeare. A favourite moment in Shakespeare is a concept that could make sense only to a cultural journalist with a deadline. One can imagine the journalist’s question, and the poet’s politely suppressed groan of despair. Yet if one were forced to choose on pain of death, this moment would not be a bad choice. We might think it could not be added to, but Croce added to it, because one of the things meant by what he said is: and no weaker. These connections between phrases, sentences and lines across time might seem tenuous, but I know nothing more surely than that the collective mentality of humanism is made up of them. They give the mentality of humanism its coherence and independence: two of the characteristics which the totalitarian mechanism always makes it an early business to destroy. Sooner or later, and usually sooner, the jealous mind of the tyrant decides that pleading beauty must be brought under strict control, even when it presents itself in the unspectacular form of a philosopher’s passing remark. In normal times, the aim of scholarship is to bring out the meaning of a seemingly passing remark in its full richness. In dark times, the aim is to confine meaning to a sanctioned path, or eliminate it altogether. In 1939, the German state came to knock on the study door of Hegel. He wasn’t in, but the Nazis knew how to make even a dead man change his story. There was an irony in that, because Hegel thought civilization had reached its purpose and apogee in the ordered Prussian state. But the Nazi state, though it had received some of its impetus from his ideal of order, was something else. In 1939 Alfred Kroner Verlag in Stuttgart put out a handy one-volume selection from Hegel on the subjects of Volk, Staat and Geschichte (the people, the state and history). Poetic suggestiveness was rigidly eschewed: this little book meant business. (The Kroner pocket books always did: they were the hard-bound German equivalent of the English Pelican series in later years.) The editor of the Hegel volume was one Friedrich Bülow. My copy, which I bought in Munich in 1992, was first owned by Dr. H. Linhardt of Münster. He bought it in Rothenburg on May 19, 1940—a time of Hitlerite triumph. (Rotterdam was blitzed five days before, and the King of the Belgians capitulated nine days later.) There is a bravura passage in paragraph 373 which we hope was not music to Dr. Linhardt’s ears. It certainly would have been to Hitler’s, at any time before those final hours when he decided that the German people had been unworthy of their destiny. Hegel speaks of the Volk destined to rule an epoch. This Volk carries the development-stage of the world-spirit (Entwicklungsstufe des Weltgeistes), against which other peoples have no rights: in world history they no longer count.

As far as I know, Dr. Linhardt’s activities during the war made little mark on world history. One hopes they were benign. We know what happened to Hitler: in Hegelian terms, he died cursing the German Volk for their shortage of development-stage. But the name to notice is that of Friedrich Bülow. His name was still there on the title page of Kroner’s 1955 reissue of Hegel’s Volk. Staat. Geschichte. Though the reissue was in the same reliable Kroner format, there was a notable change to the exterior. The word Volk had disappeared from the spine, which now read Recht. Staat. Geschichte. The people had been quietly replaced by the law. But on the inside of the book, the ecstatic passages about the people chosen by history to carry the development-stuff of the world-spirit remained intact. There was no footnote to warn of the presence of toxic waste, and perhaps there should not have been. Though I think the West German government was right to ban Mein Kampf even at the certain cost of its becoming a bootleg hit with neo-Nazis, on the whole the revived democracy’s educational authorities were wise not to attempt a new tampering with established texts. The Nazis had done that, usually by banning them if not burning them: and it hadn’t worked. Some of Hegel’s thinking had lethal tendencies, but the times had to become lethal before the tendencies became obvious; until then, those bits looked merely silly. In 1940 Dr. Linhardt made marginal notes against any of the editor’s comments that he found too liberal (grund falsch!) but that was because the Nazis had so distorted Staat and Recht that they had convinced a nonentity like Dr. Linhardt he was enrolled with Hegel as a member of the world-historical Volk. Hegel’s celebration of unopposed and inexorable power had become temporarily relevant, but it was never right. On that subject he had set Minerva’s owl flying too early. In the long run, had he lived, his poetic perceptiveness would have shown him what had gone wrong with his political theories. Great writers supply us with the strengths to measure their weaknesses; but the latter are always there, to generate the air through which the dove flies, dreaming of freedom.