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  • The Beautiful Soul:From Hegel to Beckett
  • Drew Milne (bio)

The "beautiful soul," lacking an actual existence, entangled in the contradiction between its pure self and the necessity of that self to externalize itself and change itself into an actual existence, and dwelling in the immediacy of this firmly held antithesis—an immediacy which alone is the middle term reconciling the antithesis, which has been intensified to its pure abstraction, and is pure being or empty nothingness—this "beautiful soul," then, being conscious of this contradiction in its unreconciled immediacy, is disordered to the point of madness, wastes itself in yearning and pines away in consumption.

—G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit

The figure of the beautiful soul marks out a limit of representation. Its persistence is that of a literary fiction which cannot be actualized, but whose imaginative lure is no less powerful for being so resistant to embodiment. The beautiful soul emerges in a shift from philosophical reflections on moral beauty into the romantic novel, but for Robert E. Norton, the history of the beautiful soul is brought to a close by Hegel [139]. Nevertheless, the way this figure stands between philosophy and literature, and between moral agency and the literary imagination, casts shadows over contemporary thought. Unreconciled immediacy, disordered by consciousness of its contradiction and proximity to pure abstraction, becomes the sign of modern art, perhaps most explicitly in the writings of Samuel Beckett. In The Broken Middle, Gillian Rose projects the beautiful soul out of Hegel and Goethe into a speculative account of modern thought's ethical equivocations. For Allen Speight, Hegel's recourse to the awkward literary and novelistic status of the beautiful soul reveals how "inescapable questions discernible in the products of modern literary artists are ones that concern the account we give of our freedom as modern agents" [135]. This essay seeks to unravel some of the contemporary relevance of the beautiful soul, exploring the instability of this figure as a mediation between philosophy and literature, in particular as a tension in the interpretation of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit.

The difficulties posed by the beautiful soul for interpreting Hegel can be gleaned from Terry Pinkard's impressively lucid survey German Philosophy, 1760-1860. Pinkard notes how Hegel's discussion of the beautiful soul in the Phenomenology of Spirit "makes oblique reference to Goethe, Friedrich Schlegel, Fichte, Fries, Novalis, perhaps Rousseau, and maybe even Hölderlin" [240n19] before ascribing centrality in Hegel's discussion to Jacobi's novel Waldemar. Oblique reference folds into a structure whose indeterminacy concerns both the freedom claimed by literary representations of the beautiful soul, and the inability of this freedom to amount to more than a confession of conceptual paralysis or impotence. The beautiful soul proves resistant to interpretation, a literary-philosophical compound that destabilizes conventions of referentiality. The beautiful soul threatens to dissolve philosophy from the perspective of an inward delicacy of moral feeling, claiming [End Page 63] [Begin Page 65] the authenticity of a subjectivity that will do no wrong and knows no other as an object on which to act. Philosophical interpretations are often too brusque with the reflexive irony through which the beautiful soul is represented, or insufficiently literal-minded to capture its content as form. In turn, the self-critical claims of literary representation often dissolve into an ironic indifference to determinate consequences.

The beautiful soul, however, can hardly be said to have existed outside its representation in writing. It recurs in manifold guises more as an aspiration to be, or appear, morally sensitive but incapable of action. Donald Phillip Verene sketches its background in the Romantic movement but suggests that: "The beautiful soul is not difficult to understand, as Hegel sketches it in the several pages he devotes to it. We are familiar in ordinary experience with types of persons that approximate to the stance of the beautiful soul, that is, if we keep polite company and associate from time to time with delicate people" [100-01]. Anyone who has spent time with aesthetes or poets who claim a delicacy of moral insight without feeling the need of justification or labor to actualize their insights knows the ills this shape of...