The man who is “absorbed” by the object that he is contemplating can be “brought back to himself” only by a Desire.
That’s one of the first pronouncements in Alexandre Kojève’s famous lectures on Hegel, which were eventually edited for an English edition by Allan Bloom and published under the title Introduction to the Reading of Hegel. I went back to it after reading Matthew Rose’s essay on Kojève in the latest issue of the magazine (“Masters and Slaves,” April). I didn’t need much encouragement. I read the book in graduate school 30+ years ago and was electrified by the opening as much as intellectuals in Paris were ninety years ago. I return to those dense, clipped sentences every few months. It’s a mental exercise, a little German Romantic speculation to keep the mind open (a teacher of mine once referred to the Hegelian idiom as “teutonic fog”).
It’s the same with Hegel himself. Here’s a sentence from the introduction to the Phenomenology:
For if knowledge is the instrument by which to get possession of absolute Reality, the suggestion immediately occurs that the application of an instrument to anything does not leave it as it is for itself, but rather entails in the process, and has in view, a moulding and alteration of it.
Right there you have the classical problem of epistemology, which Hegel will proceed to solve in the very next pages. It’s not the truth of those statements that matters, though, not to me. Rather, it’s the agility that is forced upon you as you try to make sense of the dialectic. I remember going over the first sections of the Phenomenology again and again when I first encountered it and feeling like a blockhead. I didn’t get it. The line from Jailhouse Rock kept running through my head: “Lady, I dunno what the hell yer talkin’ about.” When it finally came clear, it didn’t become simple. It still isn’t, which is why it merits rereading.
Rumer Godden’s novel Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy is caught between the worlds of a monastery and a prison. The reader meets Lise as she is being released from Vesoul, a prison where the sisters of Bethanie visit and offer counsel to whomever asks to speak with them. Conversations with the sisters have raised the question of a vocation for Lise, and she is on her way to Bethanie when she is accosted by another recently released prisoner, Lucette. For reasons that are never made entirely clear, Lucette worships Lise and vows to go wherever she is going—expecting that she is headed back to a life of prostitution and crime. Lucette is dismayed and disgusted to find out that her hero is headed to a monastery, but accompanies her anyway. Lucette discovers her own vocation at Bethanie and stays—equally steadfast in her loyalty to Lise and fidelity to her monastic call. Lise doesn’t ever know quite how to take Lucette’s unyielding devotion, and for Lise the relationship is haunted by her past.
Lise’s backstory is revealed over the course of the book. Before she went to prison, she knew another young woman, Vivi. Pity blinded Lise to Vivi’s wickedness (which rivals that of Steinbeck’s Cathy Ames), and in a misguided effort at keeping Vivi from a life of prostitution, Lise murdered their pimp and landed herself in prison. Years later, Lise is chosen to be one of Bethanie’s prison missionaries and she crosses paths with Vivi once more. Vivi provokes a brawl and exposes Lise’s past choices to all present. In doing this, Vivi forces Lise to fully reconcile herself to her past, and the brawl becomes a moment of Flannery O’Connor-style grace—except Godden doesn’t end the book there.
Vivi completes her sentence and upon her release seeks further vengence against Lise. Lise is praying before the Blessed Sacrament when Vivi’s plans go awry, and she doesn’t murder the nun she intended to. Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy is about the extreme capacities of the human heart, but most of all it’s a book in which mercy gets the last word.
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