Sunday, February 16, 2014

She will not read the philosophy of Hegel.

She can neither make a pancake nor darn a sock, and she will not read the philosophy of Hegel.

This misguided fellow, an Isak Dinesen character, is thinking of marrying – these are reasons not to marry the woman, if you can believe it.  I say marry that lady and go out for pancakes.  Here I am looking at Seven Gothic Tale s (1934), “The Poet,” p. 385.

I, too, will not read Hegel, although in some sense I should.  He has been popping up everywhere.

Alexander Herzen has just returned from exile in the provinces to Moscow, where he discovers that there is a hot new thing among the literary radicals:

My new acquaintances received me as people do receive exiles and old champions, people who come out of prison or return from captivity or banishment, that is, with respectful indulgence, with a readiness to receive us into their alliance, though at the same time  refusing to yield a single point and hinting at the fact that they are ‘to-day’ and we are already ‘yesterday’, and exacting an unconditional acceptance of Hegel’s Phenomenology and Logic, and their interpretation of them, too.  (My Past and Thoughts, Vol. 2 of the Garnett/Higgins translation, 398)

Young Russians fresh from the German universities have gone crazy for Hegel and the dialectic. “People who loved each other avoided each other for weeks at a time because they disagreed about the definition of ‘all-embracing spirit’” (398), and “[n]o one in those days would have hesitated to write a phrase like this: ‘The concretion of abstract ideas in the sphere of plastics presents that phase of the self-seeking spirit in which, defining itself for itself, it passes from the potentiality of natural immanence into the harmonious sphere of pictorial consciousness in beauty.’” (399)

Herzen is allowed to mock because, he says, “Carried away by the current of the time, I wrote exactly the same way myself.”  Plus, as he describes at some length, he successfully absorbed but also eventually purged himself of dialectical “scholasticism” – “I stretched its bow until the string snapped and the blindfold dropped from my eyes” (403).

I really need Hegel for Henrik Ibsen, as serious a Hegelian as Herzen once tried to be, with what level of understanding I do not know.  Brand and Peer Gynt make sense dialectically, a thesis and an antithesis.  The synthesis may be Emperor and Galilean, Ibsen’s long play about Emperor Julian, although I do not see how.  The latter play, with its unusual two part structure, presents another thesis and antithesis – they are right there in the title, Classical and Christian, and a synthesis is discussed in the text, a Messiah figure that blends the two.  That does not work out well for Julian, but perhaps it describes the age Ibsen saw himself living in.

Even better, Ibsen scholar Brian Johnston has argued at length that the twelve “realist” plays written from 1877 to 1899, including A Doll House and Ghosts and so on, were not meant to be taken as separate plays but in fact make up a single long tragedy “whose subject was modern humanity undergoing (in Hegelian terms) a journey of spiritual recollection,” with each play covering one of twelve steps from The Phenomenology of Spirit.

This sounds nuts – the kind of nuts I like.  Johnston, who died a year ago, put all of his work up at Ibsen Voyages, and I plan to loot it thoroughly as I read Ibsen’s plays, but with just a tinge of regret that I will not really be able to evaluate the argument about Hegel, because I will not read the philosophy of Hegel.  I know my limits.  It won’t do any good.


  1. a. I am glad to find you have your limits.
    b. I love Seven Gothic Tales, which is one of my rereads. Might be time to reread again some time soon.

  2. German Idealism is a certain limit.

    A syllogism: people can learn to read Hegel; I am a people; I can learn to read Hegel. But I do not believe it would be worth the effort. If I am going to work on a foreign language, it will be German, not Hegelian.

    I am going to mangle Kierkegaard in today's post, as if to demonstrate my limits with philosophy.

    All right, the Dinesen - that is a difficult book! One for which there is no reading, only re-reading, and I have not re-read it. Maybe I will write about it just to attract good comments from its good (re-)readers. I have noticed that the book has a good fans.

  3. Sorry I can't help you, I have only read Winter's Tale and Ehrengard, but I humbly offer this gem:
    "Yes," said Charlie. "When there is only one person in the world whom you care for, and that is a monkey, and he is dead, then that is a pity."
    - The Young Man with the Carnation (16)

  4. There is a fine, fine monkey in Seven Gothic Tales, too.

    Is Winter's Tales also full of tricky puzzle stories? I will have to find out for myself.

    1. She seems, to me, to have a mind for the twisted tricky fairy tale aspects of life...

  5. I am hoping to read Seven Gothic Tales later this year. I will have to take notes on your discussions of it.

    Interesting theory about Ibsen and Hegel. I read a little Hegel in college and it was so very painful that I have blocked it out of mind in order to cope with the trauma.

  6. In that sense, I too have read Hegel. It was long ago and I do not remember what I read - must have been an excerpt of The Phenomenology of Spirit. He was, in terms of prose, among the worst writers I have ever encountered. And people sometimes act as if the more opaque kinds of academic writing, or the turn to theory, are recent phenomena.

    I may have to take notes on my own discussion of Dinesen. I am developing the suspicion that she has a mind for the tricky fairy tale aspects of literature. These stories are pretty deeply coded.

  7. The craftsmanship of those Gothic tales is quite high, there is no first reading of them, only rereading. Did you notice how the very first paragraph of The Supper at Elsinore suggests sympathetic magic, hinting at the key to the secret plot?

  8. Counterpoint to Dinesen: Pancakes are hard (I agree -- go out for pancakes!), but darning socks is an easy skill easily acquired by either member of a romantic partnership.

    I read the tiniest bit of Hegel in my high school philosophy class, and then some more for an art-and-morality class that I foolishly, foolishly took instead of regular art history in college. That is plenty for me.

  9. No. No I did not notice that. That is a good example. It will be a challenge to write about this book.

    Jenny - I might have more of a shot at the stuff about aesthetics. Metaphysics is hopeless, but with aesthetics I have done some of the work. But I suspect not enough, not enough for Hegel at least.

    You are right that the fool, the potential husband, should darn his own darn socks is he cares so darn much.

  10. All I can remember from reading Hegel in college is about what you remember, that his prose seemed impenetrable.

    I'm greatly looking forward to your comments on Seven Gothic Tales, as I am one of those fans. Writing about Dinesen seems daunting; among my favorite introductions to any book is that by Dorothy Canfield in the Smith & Haas edition of Seven Gothic Tales, in which she utterly humbles herself before the work and almost begs off writing about it (but manages to nonetheless). "Tricky fairy tale aspects of literature" - yes. Also the written tale as a revival of the oral tradition: if ever any work suggests being read aloud, it's this one (if you can find it, there's a marvelous audiobook version of "The Old Chevalier" with the late Irene Worth doing just that).

  11. I have that edition, or a version of it. Canfield says Dinesen's book tastes like a ripe pineapple grown in Siberia that has been watered only with "fine old wine."

    The faux-oral business is all borrowed from the 19th century German novella. It is unusual to see an English-language writer using this stuff. But Dinesen is an unusual case.

  12. Just a couple of hints:
    From The Supper at Elsinore: '[The two daughters] would talk, then, of life with the black bitterness of two Timons of Athens and give Madam Baek an uncanny feeling, as in an atmosphere of corrodent rust. Their mother...'

    From Timon of Athens:
    Painter: You're a dog.
    APEMANTUS: Thy mother's of my generation: what's she, if I be a dog?
    TIMON: Wilt dine with me, Apemantus?
    APEMANTUS: No; I eat not lords.
    TIMON: An thou shouldst, thou wouldst anger ladies.
    APEMANTUS: O, they eat lords; so they come by great bellies.

    From The Supper at Elsinore: '[The two daughters], now that they were real old maids, that they were to disappear from the earth without leaving any trace whatsoever did not trouble them[...] They could not possibly putrefy, as would most of their friends, having already been [...] laid down with myrrh and aromatic herbs. When they were in their sweet moods, and particularly in their relations with the younger generation, the children of their friends, they even exhaled a spiced odor.'

    From that other story taking place at Elsinore:
    Hamlet For if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a god kissing carrion,--Have you a daughter?
    Lord Polonius I have, my lord.
    Hamlet Let her not walk i' the sun: conception is a blessing: but not as your daughter may conceive. Friend, look to 't.
    Lord Polonius [Aside] How say you by that? Still harping on my daughter.

  13. There have been points where I think "This is more allusive than The Wasteland."