Francisco de Goya, Loyalty (c. 1816-19).
I. Introduction: An Absolute Comedy of Spirit?
Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit has long been described as a work of comedy, propelled by misunderstandings that lead gradually and painfully to the reconciliation of its warring parties in a higher unity. In the book’s opening chapter there is the farcical situation of ‘natural consciousness,’ which believes itself in possession of an immediate, sensuous certainty about its reality, is repeatedly embarrassed, and is made to stumble from one mishap to the next on its path of despair. Throughout the chapters on ‘Reason’ and ‘Spirit’ we encounter paired figures—such as the heartful and the conceited, the virtuous and the cynical, the faithful and the enlightened, the beautiful souls and those they accuse—who are set at odds with one another, voice their right to condemn one another, and speak past one another until they happen upon some hidden, happy truth that unites them as one. The entire chapter on ‘Religion,’ with which Hegel ends his narrative, might be described as a retelling of human history in the mode of a divine comedy, in which the holy spark is revealed not on high but in the human community “as something concrete, summoned into action and put in movement.” As Gillian Rose remarks, the Phenomenology functions as an “absolute comedy” for the modern era, which seeks out the necessary steps by which the sufferings of history can be redeemed. For this comedy to be absolute it must be capable of accounting for the whole range of historical phenomena, both good and ill, granting them a place in a narrative that progresses by way of its bad turns just as much—if not more so—than its good ones.
To describe the Phenomenology as a comedy is for this reason not an unambiguous designation of its genre, as it bears directly upon the philosophical stakes of the work and the sort of world that Hegel purports to describe in its pages. Indeed, we should not let the comedic course of the Phenomenology obscure the deep ambiguity of comedy itself in Hegel’s narrative of world history, in which it appears at two significant moments of historical rupture. The first of these is presented in the Phenomenology when Hegel describes the end of classical life, when the laws of the city and the gods had become laughable, and the arts of comedy and satire stepped in to salve the wounds of a dying culture. The second is found in the Lectures on Fine Art, in which comedy is presented as the last of the modern, romantic arts, and signals the end of art itself as an independent field of work. In both cases, comedy is positioned at moments of crisis, when the substance of a culture has become insubstantial, when the old ways of thinking and living have become defunct, but into which no new form of life has yet emerged. As we will see in more detail in a moment, rather than a sign of a flourishing, living culture, comedy is for Hegel a marker of cultural exhaustion.
The repeated moments of comedy—one ancient and one modern—cannot but disturb, because they direct us toward the rift at the core of Hegel’s account of modernity, which is at once ancient and incomplete. In respect to its antiquity, modernity for Hegel can only have begun two millennia ago, with the end of the classical era and the death of its ethical form of life. In the place of the ancient ethical life, as Hegel tells it, emerged the dominion of abstract law, propped up by the invention of the legal person, which has continued down from the Roman empire to the present day. In this respect, our modernity is already ancient, and to draw a phrase from the subtitle of Gillian Rose’s Broken Middle, Hegel’s comedic project is one which must draw us “out of our ancient society” and into the light of a new historical epoch. As regards its incompletion, Hegel’s modernity is one which has never truly taken place. The past two centuries have not seen the realisation of philosophy’s promise but its ruin, and the delay of a properly modern age, usurped by the reign of an unconscious, unquenchable capitalism.
Hence, with the doubleness of comedy in mind, there is still more to be said about Hegel’s own comic tale, which, this paper argues, is not only a narrative of misunderstanding and reconciliation, but also the ruin of all forms of life that have become exhausted and therefore laughable. Continue reading “The Last Laugh: Hegel’s Catastrophic Comedy”