By Ivan Boldyrev
The end comes in many forms, and it is intriguing to hear that something may not end by mere ending. In his short essay The End of the Poem (1999), Giorgio Agamben explores how a poetic text might end (or not) – a text, that is, ceaselessly hesitating between sound – rhythm – and sense – message, and in its end coming to the verge of its own ability of holding the two together. I will come back to this tension in the very end.
Agamben’s essay itself ends with a curious digressive makeweight dealing with philosophy and poetry:
Wittgenstein once wrote that “philosophy should really only be poeticized” [Philosophie dürfte man eigentlich nur dichten]. Insofar as it acts as if sound and sense coincided in its discourse, philosophical prose may risk falling into banality; it may risk, in other words, lacking thought. As for poetry, one could say, on the contrary, that it is threatened by an excess of tension and thought. Or, rather, paraphrasing Wittgenstein, that poetry should really only be philosophized.
What interests me here, is how a philosophy purportedly obsessed with the ends (of art, or history) and with the final resolutions, a philosophy that seems to have left poetry behind, demonstrates how open and uncertain the ending of its own prose might be.
How does Hegel’s dialectics end – or, to be more precise, how does its text end? In one particular case, the ending is poetic: Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit famously ends with a couple of lines borrowed, with alterations, from Friedrich Schiller’s poem Friendship. It is as if Hegel had followed Agamben’s advice and decided, indeed, to poeticize his philosophy; that is, to suspend, in its final stanza, the illusory coincidence of sound and sense, and to open his discourse to the vicissitudes of literary expression.
This quotation would not be too surprising in the Phenomenology. After all, this work is itself a series of quotations, direct and indirect, making other discourses appear and disappear within its own text. But it is relegated to the very end, where philosophy, in its absolute knowledge, should have finally overcome the limits of poetic “representation” (Vorstellung) discussed in the preceding chapter on Religion.
Another unsettling element of this final gesture is a series of alterations Hegel makes when appropriating Schiller’s lines. The intrusion of poetry becomes a work of emendation. It is precisely this work, I believe, that could inspire a new understanding of Hegel’s speculative project.
So, what was going on in the end? Hegel writes in § 808 of the Phenomenology:
The aim, absolute knowing, or spirit knowing itself as spirit, has its path in the recollection of spirits as they are in themselves and are as they achieve the organization of their realm. Their preservation according to their free-standing existence appearing in the form of contingency is history, but according to their conceptually grasped organization, it is the science of phenomenal knowing. Both together are conceptually grasped history; they form the recollection and the Golgotha of absolute spirit, the actuality, the truth, the certainty of its throne, without which it would be lifeless and alone; only –
Out of the chalice of this realm of spirits
Foams forth to him his infinity.
Here is Schiller’s original last stanza from 1782:
Friendless was the great worlds-master,
Felt a lack — and so created spirits,
Blessed mirrors of his own blessedness! —
The highest essence found no equal,
Out of the chalice of the entire realm of souls
Foams forth to him — the infinity.
Hegel’s text does not mention “the great worlds-master” anymore – he is replaced by the absolute spirit, which is not friendless without its forms, but lifeless and alone. Schiller’s whole narrative of God’s loneliness and separation is separated from the quote and substituted by “only –”. Hegel also introduces explicit alterations in the quotation itself: the chalice (Kelch) receives an additional final “e” (aus dem Kelche) – to preserve the rhythm; “of the entire realm of souls” (des ganzen Seelenreiches) becomes “of this realm of spirits” (dieses Geisterreiches); infinity ceases to be “the infinity” (die Unendlichkeit) and becomes “his infinity” – that is, it now belongs to the absolute spirit. Finally, Hegel removes the emphasis put by Schiller on “him” and deletes the dash separating “the great worlds-master” — turned absolute spirit — from his creations, or infinity.
What do these edits do? Their common intent seems to be that of staging the presence, the immediacy of spirit, of appropriation as an exercise in (temporal) actualization. This could mean “radical denial of all transcendence,” as Alexandre Kojève proposes. Or, in Slavoj Žižek’s view, a no less radical incarnation of God that demonstrates the self-sacrifice of the Absolute in its here and now. Indeed, in Hegel’s language, the pronouns this and even his very clearly allude to the immediacy of sense-certainty – the first, the primitive form of spirit on the Phenomenology – and its transient knowledge of the present moment. This self-referential move also involves self-mediation of the Phenomenology as a text: it is this text, the whole process of becoming-absolute, that pours and foams back (or forth) to the absolute spirit out of the chalice (Comay, p. 83). (In a recent study of Hegel’s Logic, Patrick Eiden-Offe calls this – quite typical – Hegelian move italicizing the copula.)
Rebecca Comay, who studied the punctuation of this passage, thinks of Hegel’s editing of Schiller as a “sacramental performative” (p. 74). Following the logic of the Phenomenology, Hegel’s changes aim to erase the profound ambiguity, “the painful reference to divine lack” in Schiller’s Friendship. A crucial role is played by Hegel’s erasure of Schiller’s dash – “the stroke graphically separating creature from creator.” Comay, together with Frank Ruda, traces how this textual violence haunts Hegel’s own prose and how the dash reappears as a central graphical and rhythmic element of the whole speculative project. Katrin Pahl, on the contrary, sees the situatedness of Hegel’s re-reading and re-writing Schiller as a new finitude. In her interpretation, Hegel’s return to sense certainty does not proclaim a new universalizing movement, as Comay seems to suggest. Rather, it marks a never-ending fragile openness. “[T]he subject of Hegel’s version of Schiller’s lines drinks its infinity ‘only’ from a specific chalice and its truth is therefore circumscribed” (p. 98).
Introducing poetry into philosophical prose, Hegel repeats Schiller’s way of using his own verse in the Philosophical Letters; their aim, characteristically, was to trace the “epochs of reason” – a task very similar to the one pursued in the Phenomenology. What Hegel borrows are the final lines of the final stanza, the poem’s last word, an ontological coda to a musing on friendship. Hegel thus quotes the quotation and ends with the ending. He mediates his philosophy with a quite specific poetry – the poetry which itself praises friendship as ontological mediation. In taking recourse to the Schillerian pathos of infinity and eternity to invoke ‘his’/spirit’s own eternity – overcoming time in Absolute Knowledge – Hegel’s text comes tantalizingly close to Schiller’s.
The dangers of reading are not just to misread and misunderstand. The risk of dialectical speculation is – to become so identified with your object that you lose your distance – if you ever had one – and to find yourself exposed, in the historical situatedness of this, to the faults and limitations of your protagonist. Hegel’s dialectic, a system of science grounded in the Absolute Knowing of the Phenomenology, hardly begins before it must circle back into the territory of poetry. In trying to sublate the poem, it reveals its own affinity with it, its own mimetic dependence on literature.
If poetry, for Agamben (who uses the definition given by Paul Valéry and endorsed by Roman Jakobson) is “a prolonged hesitation between sound and sense”, between the prosodic moment of rhythm and the semantic moment of message, where and how might this constitutive tension be resolved?
Probably in the very end. It is in this tension that the last line of a poem becomes so significant. Agamben argues that at the very end, on the brink of speech, the enjambment, a generative poetic device, which interrupts the linear flow of prose and introduces rhythm, or “sound,” becomes impossible.
Is there here, finally, a point of coincidence in which the poem […] joins itself to its metrical element to pass definitively into prose? The mystical marriage of sound and sense could, then, take place. Or, on the contrary, are sound and sense now forever separated without any possible contact, each eternally on its own side […]?
In Agamben’s reading, the key poetic technique that could illuminate the puzzle of ending is that of “unrelated rhyme” (or clavis). It is a rhyme in the last line of verse that does not have an immediate counterpart, and thus does not resolve itself into any rhythmical harmony. Illustrated by the final stanza of Dante’s envoi (the term for a poem of dedication or farewell, also used to denote the final stanza itself), this technique demonstrates how a poem may end without final resolution, in a silent fissure between sound and sense.
Agamben explores other poetic forms. In a series of rhymes in a sestina, a poetic structure built on the expectation of ending, he sees the incarnation of messianic time – the time that time takes to come to an end. By reflectively twisting linear time, the poem intensifies it and culminates in a final stanza, a so-called tornada. This last line summarizes the whole poetic movement and gives it a final meaning. Like to poetry itself, there is no real end to the sestina, no full-fledged stanza to put the final mark. Judging by what it does to language, Agamben considers poetry, just like messianic time, an open and intensive enterprise.
So is the speculative dialectic. Its own time – the time of the Phenomenology – is the sign of a discrepancy between the subject and the object, awaiting to finally get reconciled – and time to end. But this waiting for – or precipitating – the end is a fragile endeavor. Instead of a final dot, Hegel returns to the previous forms he meant to sublate, while absolute spirit experiences the actuality of the spirits – infinity – by observing how it appears from the chalice of its text. The effort of final recollection at the Golgotha of history, which keeps piling wreckage, the effort of messianic contemporaneity, is hopeless because of its openness to previous forms and texts. It is this ultimate fragility, I contend, that might redeem the time of Hegel’s speculative poem and suspend its ending.
[i] John McCumber, “Writing Down (Up) the Truth: Hegel and Schiller at the End of the Phenomenology of Spirit”, in Richard Block and Peter Fenves (eds.) The “Spirit of Poesy”. Essays on Jewish and German Literature and Thought in Honor of Géza von Molnár (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2000), pp. 47-59.
Ivan Boldyrev is Assistant Professor at Radboud University with interests ranging from the history and philosophy of recent economics to German idealism and critical theory. He has written several books including Ernst Bloch and His Contemporaries (2014) and Die Ohnmacht des Spekulativen: Elemente einer Poetik von Hegels Phänomenologie des Geistes (2021).
Featured Image: Paul Klee, “A Leaf from the Book of Cities,” 1928. Public Domain.