That Which Has Happened Continues to Happen

Rebecca Comay’s Mourning Sickness

Time and history remain two of the most fundamental problems for philosophy. The coalescence in the last two centuries of philosophy and history into a philosophy of history remains a fundamental force in European thought. Some of the most important work in this field in recent decades has been the attempt to periodise the present, with thinkers like Peter Osborne and Frederic Jameson trying to unpick the complex and contradictory temporal mappings of the contemporary. Not least, concepts such as modernity and post-modernity: what we might term to be the two most recent “phases” of the capitalist mode of production.

It is not just philosophy which has a problem getting hold of time; our own everyday experience is cut through with a feeling of untimeliness. Fractured by the dissolutive flux of precarious work contracts, gig economies, displaced industrial production, virtualisation, and so on, the world regularly resembles something disconcertingly out of joint. Time becomes both radically distended, the instant of the present of a globally communicative world where every second is packed with the events of every day, a kind of impossible news cycle; and compacted: with the recent past coming to feel like aeons ago, nostalgia’s lens seeming to dredge up detritus from events that have barely finished occurring. The eschatological linearity of progress and hope and the mythic cyclicality of seasonal return are both perverted by capital into a situation where everything changes in order to remain the same. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Crisis has become a condition of normality, and with it a confusion of unstable identities for whom a confusion about what went wrong, and when, is dissolved before it can take form, leaving in its wake a present that induces nothing so much as a severe sensation of vertigo.

Mourning Sickness: Hegel and the French Revolution by Rebecca Comay (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010)

In her extremely impressive study, Mourning Sickness: Hegel and the French Revolution, Rebecca Comay presents a rapprochement between Hegel and the era-defining event of his age which seeks to expound the inscription of a kind of traumatic temporality in the climax of German Idealism through its relation to the upheavals happening across the border. The book develops, as she writes in the introduction, a philosophical approach to trauma as ‘a modal, temporal, and above all a historical category, with the “German misery” as its exemplary model and Hegel, of all people, as its most lucid theorist’ (4). This Misère is a product of the temporal dissonance between thought and historical activity which led Marx to describe Germany as ‘philosophical contemporaries of the modern age without being its historical contemporaries’. Its own historical present was a wound between theory and practice. What the French Revolution did, as the epochal marker of modernity, was to introduce ‘untimeliness itself as an ineluctable condition of historical experience’ (7).

The opening chapter provides an overview of the relation between Germany and France during the time of the Revolution under the aegis of a traumatic condition, drawing out the strange position of Germany as the “closest observer” of the Revolution, one who might translate and recuperate its benefits without suffering the historical interregnum, as well as a nation which had had its own revolution, but much earlier, in the form of the Reformation. The framing Comay gives is worth quoting at length:

Germany thus sets out to quarantine the political threat of revolution while siphoning off its intensity for thought: crisis is harnessed to the project of critical critique[…] In this light, the French Revolution is seen to be at once far too grandiose and far too modest: risking everything, it dares nothing. What might appear as rapturous upheaval and rupture is repeatedly demystified as regressive and reactionary — a return to ground zero and the reversion of history to mythic nature[…]History in this way collapses into nature, and nature in turn into farce. The modernist figure of revolution as unpredictable historical fracture slides into the traditional astronomical figure of revolution as irresistible cyclical recurrence, while this latter figure of circularity in turn shifts from a consoling image of stability into a mocking image of meaninglessness and futility: one more spin of the wheel, a vain overturning awaiting its own overturning (19).

From here Comay turns to Kant, and extricates this logic of spectatorship from the Kantian logic of the sublime whereby ‘terror experienced at a slight distance yields the sublime satisfaction of moral self-enhancement’ (26). It is through this logic that memory passes from ‘tragic repetition to reconciling remembrance’ (28). Comay then traces this transformation in Kant’s writings on revolution, a movement from traumatic persistence, even evil, to self-legislating evolution in the light of the moral law within. This is the plot of the Kantian Theatre.

Kant’s arguments against revolution appear at times to adopt an apophatic spirit, entailing a ladder of ascending jurisprudential tautologies (37) as Kant rigorously investigates the notion of the Revolution (and particularly the act of regicide) as an event that is both impossible and has come to pass. The trial of the king ‘closes the gap between the king’s two bodies’ (39) and the convolutions of law by which the execution retroactively grounds the presupposition enabling the trial to occur in the first place fascinates Kant, in Comay’s words, because ‘it reveals an illegality that seems to be both internal to the law and the key to its foundational authority’ (41). The act of regicide opens up the question of the paradox of “diabolical” evil, a negativity internal to reason itself, which Kant notes is impossible but functions as ‘a kind of negative regulative Idea’ (43). The king’s trial draws its essentially theatrical character, Comay argues, from this originality of form of a ‘law that had to invent itself in the absence of any precursor’. The ceremonial quality of the trial sustains the ‘revolutionary fiction of self-generation’ (44). What Kant calls for then, is a ‘revolution in the mode of thought but a gradual reformation in the mode of sense’.[1] The inseparability of evolution and revolution is grounded in a distinction between two kinds of theatrical spectatorship: human and divine. In another brilliant passage, Comay draws this conversion of trauma into moral self-improvement with Aristotelian catharsis:

the conversion of the trauma of the missed opportunity into the felix culpa of disaster forestalled. The logic is ultimately Aristotelian: terror is purged through a vicarious catharsis secured by aesthetic distance. Kant’s analytic of the dynamic sublime is perhaps the first fully modern theory of the tragic, in that it links the experience of catharsis to the heroic self-production of the subject by way of the fantasy of its own annihilation (50).

Through the deflationary non-spectacle of the guillotine however, this tragedy becomes exhausted. The tragic poles of pity and terror collapse in the face of Robespierre and his tenderness, they become indistinguishable. The limit of the tragic is reached, and ‘catharsis becomes indistinguishable from purge’ (52).

What then, of Hegel? The next two chapters focus on Hegel’s response to the Revolution, and his trenchant (and exaggerated) critique of Kant (alongside Fichte, Schelling, and others), focusing on the Phenomenology of Spirit. Comay maps the Freudian taxonomy of mourning and melancholia onto Hegel’s differentiation of the two Enlightenments: the German Aufklärung and the French Lumières. In the latter case, the Terror appears not an aberration, but a return of the repressed fanaticism the political upheaval sought to deny. Rationality disavows ‘its identity with the faith is castigates’ and through this contempt ‘expresses its own hidden fundamentalism — an empty ritual of disenchantment that must turn eventually against itself’ (64). This is the Revolution’s haunting melancholia. Enlightenment’s negative self-definition thereby sets it on a ‘nihilating mission’ leading to Terror and a fury of destruction: the disavowed grief for the lost object, that moment of presence which both insight and faith, materialism and deism, tossed away as an ‘empty husk’ (66). What the revolution does then is to ‘bring modernity to its turning point by reactivating the project of antiquity’ (58). The crisis of legitimacy between the theological and political realms returns, and the polis is revealed to have been a fragile dream of theological-political equilibrium, with Beauty providing the hyphen or suture.

Hegel in his analysis demonstrates that absolute freedom and Terror are one. Absolute freedom is terror, it is the freedom of that which permits no other, no agent of mediation, nothing to ‘dilute the passage from individuality to totality, from part to whole, from citizen to state and back again’ (68). Difference is only legible as opposition, paranoia proliferates. The ever-lurking evil, a counter-revolutionary action or aristocratic plot, revives the theological ever-presence of evil but also (like the terrorism of today) provides a stable and constant threat against which to secure the unity of the democratic nation. Freedom sees enemies everywhere. Consequently, all-encompassing suspicion for Hegel is not a ‘contingent deviation from the Revolution but its quintessential expression’. The French Revolution’s unending insufficiency, the terror of purity and its overwriting mechanisms of novelty and repetition were not deviations but results of the event’s own internal logic.

The guillotine returns here in a different form. If ‘suspicion is both the epistemology and the poetics of a world devoid of enduring objects’; a world where otherness has to be repeatedly constructed, discovered or rooted out, denounced, purged and then subsequently reinvented, then decapitation becomes the ‘at once the literalisation, the allegorisation, and the repetitive self-deconstruction of this aporetic, circular epistemology’ (71). Hegel then, for Comay, is unique in his approach to the idea of the Revolution as the inaugural moment of political modernity, in his refusal to attempt to perform a kind of surgical operation on it, extirpating ‘good’ from ‘bad’, ‘freedom’ from terror’, affirming 1789 but refusing Thermidor etc. To act out such liberal machinations is ultimately only to deepen the very wound through the same denial and suppression that lies at its very core: just one more failed attempt to bury the corpse of faith.

Hegel’s refusal can be read as an attempt to enable melancholia to pass over into mourning. It is the analysis of this movement with which the final sections of Mourning Sickness concerns themselves. This problem is presented, not merely as a way to ‘move past’ the French Revolution as historical trauma, but a key component of the closing passages of the Phenomenology. From this perspective, the text becomes a kind of elegy for modernity, the world in a locked in a temporal dissonance of a history that is continually delayed and a future that has already been and gone.

Comay takes Hegel’s bombastic caricature of Kant as an exaggeration utilised to reveal the pathological within the normal, the general field of the critique being the Kantian moral agent’s ‘failure to socialise’ (the psychoanalytic terminology here deliberate), marooned in abstraction away from the social relations that ‘nurture, constrain, and challenge it’ (96). This is the danger for a morality that defines itself against the world of sensuous particularity, and which ultimately grounds Duty in an externality (God) ‘that it can neither tolerate not relinquish’ (101). The final chapter deals with absolute knowing. Resisting the simple discarding of absolute knowing as metaphysical detritus, a cutting perpetrated by many thinkers on the analytic end of the present Hegelian spectrum, or else as a mere deus ex machina for the integration of theology and reason, Comay tries to demonstrate how Hegel criticises the German ideology from within, revealing its traumatic structure.

From this Comay draws out the idea of the final recognition as a ‘missed encounter’, a structural, temporal rift (a delay) that transforms confession and forgiveness: depicting a Hegel capable of re-questioning Blanchot, Derrida, Arendt, and Levinas. For this Hegel, forgiveness is either tautological, impossible, or both. The unforgiveable must already have occurred. This is the ‘truth’ of the wound. To illustrate, in another passage worth quoting at length, Comay writes of the section of the Phenomenology titled ‘Evil and its Forgiveness’, noting the title’s genitive ambiguity:

Evil already possesses forgiveness: forgiveness perpetuates evil in the act of absolving evil, and it bears the indelible stain of the struggle undertaken to achieve it. Every pardon generates another evil in need of pardon, the complicity is infinite, and suspicion must assume terrorist proportions. The offer of forgiveness comes from the one manifestly least qualified to provide it and it comes too late. This untimeliness will leave a permanent shadow over the reconciliation offered.

Absolute knowing then, renders explicit the structural dissonance of experience. It is ‘the subject’s identification with the woundedness that it is’ (130). Comay picks up on one of Slavoj Žižek’s key insights:[2] essentially that the salvation we reach through the dialectical project of self-consciousness is merely a shift of perspective, one by which we realise our desire is in fact already satisfied (a desire to go on desiring). Absolute knowing is ‘neither compensation…nor fulfilment’. The wound of self-consciousness is ‘healed’ by reflectively recognising the wound as its own solution.

Exposing the subject to its collective emptiness, it clears the slate for a new beginning. While appearing to eclipse all previous losses, this sacrifice makes no claim to redeem the lives squandered on the slaughter bench of history (125).

The restless character of the dialectic, its circular erasure and inscription, takes place on a Tabula Rasa (the title of the final chapter): a double blankness on which one attempts to inscribe the death of a state which has not yet arrived and trace the outlines of an opportunity for renewal that has already been and gone. Hegel’s method is, as Robert Sinnebrink aptly summarises in his review of Mourning Sickness:

a performative enactment, as well as critical exposure, of the aporetic experience of historical disenfranchisement — a malaise with which we are doubtless familiar today.[3]

To return to the passage quoted at the beginning, revolutionary negativity is ‘simultaneously a limit to experience and its paradigmatic logic’ (6).

Marx, a figure who was also a stern and penetrating critic of the ‘German Ideology’, surfaces and resurfaces throughout Mourning Sickness, but most prominently in the opening and closing sections of the book: a circling, parenthetical presence, opening and closing the dialectics of the wound. There has been a move in some of the prevailing tendencies of heterodox Marxism to draw Marx’s method and analysis closer to, or even simply extrude it out from, Hegel’s. This oftentimes leads toward a systemic abstraction that elides the material human content of social relations (though drawing valuable insights about the manner in which abstraction holds sway of the concrete in the way capital operates). In essence, it repeats the mystification of the fetish character of the commodity which it seeks to diffuse at another register. This leads to a situation of paralysing immanence whose only release is some kind of final crisis, a negative teleology to supplant the Party’s defunct (and deeply problematic) positive one.

Interestingly Comay’s reading draws Hegel’s dialectic closer to that of Marx, (against Marx’s own and pretty much everyone else’s critiques of Hegel): seeing it as a radical ‘counterfetishistic practice’. Marx’s call for a ‘radical critique of all that exists’, seeking to push the critical axis of philosophy from religion (e.g. Feuerbach) onto the real world, to strip away the illusions of the human condition, is being thought here, in embryo, by Hegel. What remains (for Marx) is to activate the second part of this call ‘to give up a condition that requires illusions’.[4] Hegel, of course, does not make this step, and Comay stresses that his “rabble” cannot be transcoded into a proletariat. One thing which I hope to pursue is to consider how the traumatic logic of revolution might translated by Marx, and how this might reconfigure the temporality of crisis.

Mourning Sickness is a deeply-rich and demanding book, and I have struggled to do little more than outline and paraphrase. One of the most enlivening texts of the recent phase of Hegelian revival, it poses new questions and opens new pathways for reading the Phenomenology. The book is demanding both in the sense of the complexity and multifarious elements of its argumentation, but also in its demands for re-reading those after Hegel, weaving together notions of forgiveness, testimony, memory/oblivion, which remain central to the globalised socio-political present. In doing so, Mourning Sickness demonstrates the centrality of the historical content of the Phenomenology to the philosophical project of the book: unpicking of the conceptual basis of social structures of recognition (Spirit). The ruptured temporal logic Comay excavates draws out vital elements of Hegel’s argument about the experience of time and history, and his demand for making an interpretation of the actuality of the present; as well as an excoriating critique of the foundations of bourgeois liberalism whose double spectre of freedom and universal suspicion continues to haunt Europe to this day.

[1] Kant, Immanuel, ‘Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason’, trans. George di Giovanni, in: Religion and Rational Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) p.92

[2] See, for example: Slavoj Žižek, ‘The Hegelian Wound’, Deutsches Haus at New York University, Friday, September 26th, 2014:

[3] Sinnebrink, Robert, ‘The Uses of Disenchantment: Remarks on Rebecca Comay’s Mourning Sickness: Hegel and the French Revolution’, Parrhesia 17, 2013, pp.41–49

[4] Marx, Karl, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’, Early Writings (London: Penguin, 1975), p.244