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  • Losing Spirit:Hegel, Lévinas, and the Limits of Narrative
  • Michael J. MacDonald (bio)

"No one here wants to be bound by a story."

—Maurice Blanchot, Waiting Forgetting.1

During the course of a remarkable analysis of the "veiling" and "unveiling" of the figure of truth in Hegel's Aesthetics, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe observes that only the "worst case" of misreading would interpret The Phenomenology of Spirit (1805) as a "narrative tragedy," "novelistic epos," or "Odyssey of Consciousness" (132). It would be imprudent to view Homer's Odyssey as a genotext secretly organizing the Phenomenology (the way it does, for example, Joyce's Ulysses) because Hegel's account of the "laborious journey" of Spirit toward Absolute Knowledge transcends the linear time of narrative chronology. In fact, for Lacoue-Labarthe the Phenomenology marks the dénouement of narrative representation in general: here "'fiction' becomes unnarratable, because the figure itself . . . allows Sense, unveiled, to appear" (135). In a distant echo of the weaving and unweaving of the "knot" of tragic action in Aristotle's Poetics, Hegel himself argues that the linear series of episodes that comprise the Phenomenology are nevertheless woven into a "single bundle, and combine at the same time symmetrically [in a] coordination of universal directions" (346). In other words, even if the Phenomenology seems to resemble a "narrative exposition" [erzahlende Auslegung], the phases of the journey of Spirit are less chronological moments of history than logical moments [momenta] of an Absolute Idea that transcends the chronic time of historical narrative, a "pure" Idea that nevertheless "empties itself out" into the worlds of substance and spirit. Thus, like the last pages of the Confessions of Saint Augustine, in which the narratio of a fallen life inscribed in the space and time of the written word opens onto the timeless present [End Page 182] of Divine Scripture [ennaratio], the Phenomenology marks the passage from phenomenology, the science of the "spiritual shapes" [Geistern] assumed by Spirit [Geist] in history, to logic, the science of the pure Idea in the eternal element of Spirit (the "pure ether of science"). It is precisely by transcending the linear temporality of narrative that Hegel can define God as the "Absolute Idea" and proclaim the good news of speculative philosophy: the Science of Logic is the only "true theodicy." In light of Hegel's remarks, then, it would seem more prudent than ever to observe the protocols set forth by Lacoue-Labarthe, and to read the Phenomenology as the unraveling of narrative representation in general.

In spite of all these precautions, however, it is possible to detect a subtle interweaving of narrative and argument in the text of The Phenomenology of Spirit, a complicity between mythos and logos that in turn reveals a more intimate rapport between narrative and knowledge in the Hegelian system of Absolute Idealism as a whole. In fact, without proposing any rigorous thematic parallels, one can identify several remarkable points of convergence between the great Homeric epic and the journey of reason toward the "reality, the truth, the certainty of its throne" recounted in the Phenomenology—a work Hegel himself called his "voyage of discovery" (267). We may note, to begin with, that the Odyssey leaves it mark on the origins of the Phenomenology—the "birthplace," for Marx, of the whole Hegelian system—in a very material fashion. The first traces of the composition of the Phenomenology were discovered on a draft of a letter Hegel sent to Johann Voss, Professor of Philology at Heidelberg, in May, 1805. In this letter Hegel defines his own philosophical venture in relation to Voss' popular translation of the Odyssey (1781): "Luther has made the Bible speak German; you, Homer . . . I shall teach philosophy to speak German" (Kaufmann 316). Second, the fact also remains that that the reception of the Phenomenology from the Young Hegelians to the present day also testifies to the "Odyssey effect" produced by Hegel's Bildungsroman of Spirit. In fact, many of the most renowned Hegel scholars interpret the Phenomenology precisely as an Odyssey of consciousness that chronicles the adventures of Spirit on its way back home, like Odysseus, to its "native land" [einheimische Reich] of truth. Thus in Christian Marklin (1851), for...


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pp. 182-194
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