Mourning Sickness: Hegel and the French Revolution

Mourning Sickness: Hegel and the French Revolution

Mourning Sickness: Hegel and the French Revolution

Mourning Sickness: Hegel and the French Revolution

Synopsis

This book explores Hegel's response to the French Revolutionary Terror and its impact on Germany. Like many of his contemporaries, Hegel was struck by the seeming parallel between the political upheaval in France and the upheaval in German philosophy inaugurated by the Protestant Reformation and brought to a climax by German Idealism. Many thinkers reasoned that a political revolution would be unnecessary in Germany, because this intellectual "revolution" had preempted it. Having already been through its own cataclysm, Germany would be able to extract the energy of the Revolution and channel its radicalism into thought. Hegel comes close to making such an argument too. But he also offers a powerful analysis of how this kind of secondhand history gets generated in the first place, and shows what is stake. This is what makes him uniquely interesting among his contemporaries: he demonstrates how a fantasy can be simultaneously deconstructed and enjoyed.

Mourning Sickness provides a new reading of Hegel in the light of contemporary theories of historical trauma. It explores the ways in which major historical events are experienced vicariously, and the fantasies we use to make sense of them. Comay brings Hegel into relation with the most burning contemporary discussions around catastrophe, witness, memory, and the role of culture in shaping political experience.

Excerpt

Only our most distant descendents will be able to decide whether we should be
praised or reproached for first working out our philosophy before working out our
revolution.

HEINE, On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany

A well-rehearsed story about German intellectuals around 1800 goes something like this. Gazing across the Rhine at the chaos and carnage, German philosophy congratulates itself for having preempted such turmoil on its own soil. Germany doesn’t need that kind of revolution: it has already experienced a far more shattering one of its own. Having long established its own brand of radicalism in the form of the Protestant Reformation, Germany has already outstripped, at a spiritual level, anything the French could accomplish in practical terms.

Having successfully gone through its own upheaval, Germany recognizes its own image in the French revolutionary struggle and is poised to extract from the Revolution an energy blocked to those caught up in its whirl. This affinity allows it to affirm solidarity with the Revolution and even to enjoy a vicarious thrill in its terrors, while managing to soften its ultimate impact. Germany lays claim to the revolutionary legacy even as it denies any immediate link to the event. By insisting on its own radical pedigree, it is able to position itself as the French Revolution’s predecessor, successor, and most faithful contemporary. It can celebrate, surpass, and mourn, at a distance, what was never its own to experience firsthand. The . . .

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