Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, Eco's The Myth of Superman, and Camus'The Fall

Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, Eco's The Myth of Superman, and Camus'The Fall

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Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, Eco's The Myth of Superman, and Camus'The Fall

It is impossible to truly realize the impact of earlier minds on modern society, simply because that which they taught is so intrinsic to thought which followed. One great example is G.W.F. Hegel, an eighteenth-century philosopher who first named dialectical relationships. In his book Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel details the relations between people and ideas in a way that now seems obvious, but was groundbreaking at the time. He opens his discussion by describing consciousness meeting as master and slave, and describes the development of the interaction in a dialectical fashion. In this particular situation, the slave receives an original definition from the master, then negates it, since it is not a complete (and therefore an inaccurate) description of the self. The relationship between the two consciousness plays out as a progression of a definition, the negation and the result. The common terms given to this movement are thesis (the original posit or definition), antithesis (the negation), and synthesis (the final movement combining elements of each of the first two). The synthesis often becomes the new thesis, which is similarly negated. The whole theory can be seen as an elaboration of cause and effect, where the original thesis "causes" the antithesis which "causes" a synthesis. There is a direct causal progression.

An interesting concept which the dialectic gives rise to is the fact that once a thesis is made everything that comes after is affected by the original posit. For example, one can attempt to negate a label, yet still give validity to the label, and the synthesis will cause the slave, even in the "free" definition, to define the self in terms of what the master originally defined. Even a negation ends in the original terms, because the original terms were the "cause" of any definition the slave would create.

Hegel's theory held prevalence in society for many years, thinkers such as Kierkegaard and Heidegger relying heavily upon the dialectic as a way to further their own theories. Cause and effect became the main way of looking at world events, and life continued until the advent of the twentieth century, which saw a negation of Hegel's thought and a shift in the dialectic.

In 1972, an English translation of Umberto Eco's The Myth of Superman was published. In this article, Eco, a critic and novelist, discussed the shift from the Hegelian dialectic in light of the Superman saga.

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He begins with a discussion of how the conditions in the early 1900's, including the emergence of machinery and the assembly line, caused Americans to look for a new her. He claims, "In an industrial society, however, where man becomes a number ... he has no means of production and is thus deprived of his power to decide. Individual strength ... is left abased when confronted with the strength of machines such a society. the positive hero must embody to an unthinkable degree the power demands that the average citizen nurtures but cannot satisfy." Previous heroes could not compete with machines. Something entirely new was needed.

Superman was the attempt to reconcile the traditional universally mythic hero with the advent of the novel. The novel marked a change in literature, in that, for the first time, the reader did not know what was going to happen when the book was picked up. Modern storytellers had stopped writing stories designed to make the reader feel again the pain of a character he or she had grown up with ... which was what ended by killing the mythic heroes. Superman posed a problem in that the writers wanted to create a character who was both predictable but also who grew.

This was accomplished by changing the rules of writing. The comic book became the medium of this Superhero, smaller than a novel and written more frequently. Before Superman, the characters were always consumed -- they accomplished a number of tasks, grew old, and died. Superman broke out of this cycle by avoiding the preset causality of existence and worked out of order: each now issue, instead of beginning where the last ended, took place instead as something which came prior to the last one, as if the author had forgotten to mention the adventure.

This began the shift from the Hegelian dialectic, a shift that led to four basic problems. First, it eliminated the need for cause and effect, which threw phenomenological identities off balance. Characters no linger developed according to the old form of action and reaction, and plot moved without the shift from thesis to antithesis to synthesis, which, again, depended heavily on cause and effect.

Second, Superman promoted the "other directed man," whom Eco defines as "not responsible for his past, nor master of his future ... " Superman is heterodirected, but this only allows the other directed man to relinquish al responsibility to Superman, which is made possible due to the lack of causality.

Eco's third problem dealt with Superman's iterative scheme, the way each story begins with no regard as to how the last ended. This trend has become increasingly popular in television as well as literature, and Eco traces this popularity to desire to desire in humanity to see something familiar, and the gratification when the familiar is seen. It is this public hunger for familiarity is seen. It is this public hunger for familiarity that leads to redundancy.

The fourth problem Eco traces back to the emergence of Superman is the new definition of good and evil. In order to not be consumed (grow older), Superman must not do anything which could necessarily impact the rest of the stories and thus destroy the iterative scheme. Superman therefore limits his world to Metropolis, his good deeds to helping widows and orphans, and his crime fighting to stopping bank robbers. He never deals with major situations, such as overthrowing an evil dictator. The problem with this, according to Eco, is that "Good is represented only as charity" while "evil ... is an attempt on private property." Eco realizes this is necessary to keep Superman "alive" and not ridiculous, but still is troubled by the message this sends to the young who look up to Superman.

Eco's concerns dealing with modern thought and the shift away form Hegel are actualized in Camus' novel The Fall, where the protagonist, through a reclaiming of the Hegelian dialectic, negates Superman and poses a new synthesis. Camus, a Nobel Prize winning author, begins his book with a quote from Lermontov: "A Hero of Our Time, gentlemen, is in fact a portrait, but not of an individual; it is the aggregate of the vices of our whole generation in their fullest expression [sic]." This quotation prepares the reader for the hero of this story, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, who brings to life the problems, later highlighted by Eco, in the protagonist. Jean-Baptiste refers to John the Baptist, the one who heralded the arrival of Christ -- and Clamence, too, denotes a herald or messenger. Overall, he is immediately referred to as a prophet, a title that he embraces toward the novel's end(118).


Jean-Baptiste is a judge-penitent, serving both as a judge and a confessor to the area, although he started as a lawyer who specialized in helping the widows and orphans or, more generally, any "noble case"(17). Through his own stories, Jean-Baptiste is found to be a hero in Lermontov's eyes, a personification of man's vices.


Jean-Baptiste is not only that, but also can be thought of as identical to the Superman model. Like Superman, Jean-Baptiste practices what he does in a limited arena: Mexico City, a small bar in Amsterdam. He begins in Superman's place, even saying "[he] looked upon [him]self as something of a superman"(28). This is true, for Jean-Baptiste is friendless (32), acts form a sense of duty, and, in his eyes, all of society is obligated to him because he has acted beyond the call of duty, done more than his share.


Like Superman, the narrative in The Fall is set up as a series of stories, which take place with out regard to what happened just before. He admits on page 119 that "all my stories, true ore false, lead to the same conclusion." In other words, order and historicity are unimportant factors in determining truthfulness, and life occurs in the order that he "remembers." Another example of lacking temporal flow is found on page 47, where Jean- Baptiste identifies himself with the god Janus, whose two faces look to the future and the past as being the same thing. As the story progresses, the character begins to negate the modern definition of hero (Superman) and reverts to Lermontov's model.


The first event that Jean-Baptiste remembers as affecting his behavior is a laugh whose only distinguishing feature was a lack of source. At the time, he had "felt rising within [him] a vast feeling of power ... and completion"(38-39), when suddenly he had heard the laughter. Later he admits that he "seemed to hear it within [him]," but his behavior has changed. "Life became less easy" (42) and Jean-Baptiste attributes the source of his problems to that point in time.


Bean-Baptiste is seen attempting to regain the Hegelian dialectic (a further negation of Superman) on page 44 with his embrace of the master/slave paradigm: "I am well aware that one can't get along without domineering or being served." Superman, despite his abilities, refuses to be a master or slave to anyone, seen through his refusal to become president, the epitome of servant as master in the United States (something which he would have the power to do). If Superman chose to rule, of course, it would be a marked event that would age and bring him closer to death. If he became a slave, his whole identity as a hero would be lost. Jean-Baptist's reclaiming of what Superman had negated from Hegel brings Hegel back into the dialectic.


Jean-Baptiste, at this point of the novel, remains other-directional, not having yet synthesized this aspect of the Superman problem. This is clear when Jean-Baptiste declares, "Fundamentally, nothing mattered. War, suicide, love, poverty got my attention, of course, when circumstances forced me, but a courteous, superficial attention. At times, I would pretend to get excited about some cause foreign to my daily life. But basically I didn't really take part in it except, of course, when my freedom was thwarted" (49). The character takes no responsibility for anything past, future, or present, and recognizes freedom alone as a value.


The next step in Jean-Baptiste's progress is mentioned when, in the iterative sense, he "remembers" an incident during which he had lost face, when he had "collapsed in public" (51-53). Although he was able to forget everything up to this point, something that he admits to as being both good and bad, the incident remained memorable. In his words, "I had dreamed ... of being a complete man who managed to make himself respected ... but after having been struck in public without reacting, it was no longer possible for me to cherish that fine picture of myself" (54). He continues to muse about the incident and concludes that because he cannot forget the episode, he's not a friend of truth and is, instead, a common thug. It is then that he "discover[s] in [himself] the sweet dreams of oppression" (55).


Camus continues in his attempt to synthesize Superman with Hegel and regain the dialectic movement by having Jean-Baptiste realize that "it is very hard to continue seriously believing one has a vocation for justice and is the predestined defender of the widow and orphan" and that he now is "an irascible master who wanted ... to strike down the offender and get him on his knees" (56). If Jean-Baptiste is seen as the new Superman, the synthesis, this is a direct negation of the old Superman who stood for justice and the protection of the widows and orphans.


When the narrator discovers his role as irascible master, he turns around and embraces sensuality, a fall from his former virtuosity. He claims himself as his only love, and seeks only satisfaction for his sexual and ego needs. Here, the narrator again manifests aspects of other-directionality, claiming "I was never concerned with the major problems" (60". Also, as opposed to being the play actor he first introduced himself, the narrator finds himself "living [his] part" (61).


Jean-Baptiste continues to be lost in iteration and in his hunger for redundancy caused by the Superman antithesis. "As a result of beginning over and over again, one gets in the habit ... and one day you find yourself taking without really desiring" (63). Repetition led to habit, habit let to taking without desire, and taking without desire led to the next step of his fall, which occurred when Jean-Baptiste learned that one of the women he had slept with had "related his deficiencies to a third person" (64), causing him to do everything in his power to get her back. He did so, and the abuse which followed is another realization that "[he] attached [him]self to her as I imagine the jailer is bound to his prisoner (64)." Eventually she leaves and forgets her, yet the "little adventure" his changed him. This is a return to Hegelian causality, for Jean-Baptiste is affected by his experience.


He controls the women he has affairs with, becoming God to them, even telling them where they can live. Here, the narrator admits his inability to feel shame, calling it a "silly emotion which has to do with honor" (69). Clearly, he has fallen far from his original claim of the pinnacle of virtue. In any case, after a forgettable excursion, he walks over a bridge and passes a young woman. He is startled fifty yards later to hear the sound of a body hitting the water. In this instance, he has a chance to redeem himself and act selflessly, doing something truly noble and not just something charitable, but he still accepts the antithetical definition of good. He ignores the drowning woman.


Jean-Baptiste continues to slide, "falling" morally in his attempt to synthesize. He realizes the extent of his friendlessness after noting that committing suicide would cause nobody to suffer: the mark of a friend, in his book, is depriving oneself of comfort that a friend is deprived of voluntarily, and, since nobody would suffer death with him, he is alone. The narrator still forgets his own shortcomings, loves himself and despises others. He becomes a judge of others and then, "[he] had the suspicion that maybe [he] wasn't so admirable" (77). After that, he becomes increasingly distrustful and realizes that everyone is constantly judging him, for "there was something to judge in [him]" (81). He notices that he has enemies he must appease. The laughter comes back, too, first from those who judge and then from "the whole universe" (80).


Jean-Baptiste again addresses other-directedness stating "You won't delight a man by complimenting him on the efforts by which he has become intelligent or generous. On the other hand, he will beam if you admire his natural generosity. Inversely, if you tell a criminal that his crime is not due his nature or his character but to unfortunate circumstances, he will be extravagantly grateful to you" (81). Basically, he states that people in the modern era enjoy being place in the other-directed world, having the responsibility for their lives taken off their own shoulders and placed in a void. He reinforces that notion on the next page, pointing out, "Yet there is no credit in being honest or intelligent by birth. Just as one is surely no more responsible for being a criminal by nature than for being a criminal by circumstance" (81-82).


The effort to synthesize continues. He is aware that he is not who he was, that he has enemies, and he allows others to judge him. Unable to deal with the fact he has enemies, he says, " ... we should like ... to cease being guilty and yet not make the effort of cleansing ourselves ... we lack the energy of evil as well as the energy of good" (83). He realizes that he cannot consider himself as good anymore, but does not want responsibility any more than another other-directed person does. Instead, he denies the energies of good and evil, upholding neutrality as the virtue of Earth.


At this point, Jean-Baptiste undergoes a Hegelian shift within himself, identifying himself with that which he is fighting. "Modesty ... helped me to shine, humility to conquer, and virtue to oppress. I used to wage war by peaceful mean" (84). He begins to rail against justice, hating it, and begins tormenting those he used to help. He cannot stand himself, and he cannot stand the fact that others know this and despise him for it. He defends a thief by exposing the crimes of an honest lawyer (94). He rails against everything that Superman stands for, against good (charity) and justice.


Much of this is taking place, too, in a region which is sometimes land, but at other times is covered in water: the nature of the Netherlands, fitting for someone who confuses lies for truth and injustice for justice. The sea negates the land as he negates Superman.


The narrator then relates the impossibility of loving anyone other than himself, and the subsequent quest to rid himself of desire (in the forms of gambling and women), but how this simply bored him although he ended up in "the realm of truth" (101). Then, "despairing of love and of chastity, [he] at last bethought [himself] of debauchery, a substitute for love, which quiets the laughter, restores silence, and above all, confers immortality" (102). He describes himself as "bursting with a longing to be immortal" (102). This also acts as a negation of Superman, for Superman with his powers has taken the place of God. Fighting the atheism in Superman, Jean-Baptiste is striving to become the immortal, the God, which Superman denied. In his debauchery, he finds a misguided sense of liberty: "true debauchery is liberating because it creates no obligations" (103). While he is correct to a point, this liberty is not morally based and indicates his fall: the fall that negates Superman at the sacrifice of himself.


In the midst of his debauchery the narrator finds himself recollecting the woman who had jumped off the bridge, and he realizes the truth of the cry, which hadn't stopped ringing since she'd fallen, had been waiting for him there. He feels guilt again, to the point where he realizes that "Every man testifies to the crime of all the others" (110).


At this point, the narrator reintroduces God, reclaiming that which Superman denied. He begins talking of the Last Judgment, the time when guilt will be ascribed to all, and notices that "God's sole usefulness would be to guarantee innocence" (111). Then, in an attempt to justify himself, he claims that Christ was not innocent, and that innocence was placed on Jesus' shoulders so that others could name him Messiah. He believes that since Christ did not stop the Slaughter of Innocents the cry of the dying infants, ever ringing in his ears, was the cause of Christ's death. Humans took it upon themselves to ascribe meaning to that particular death.


Jean-Baptiste's next claim is that Christ was the original superman, for "in certain cases, carrying on, merely continuing, is superhuman" (114). Christ continued despite his early introduction to guilt. HE now becomes able to see good and evil outside Superman's definitions of them, claiming "Too many people have decided to do without generosity in order to practice charity. Oh the injustice, the rank injustice that has been done him! It wrings my heart" (115)! Here, an evident shift is made. Jean-Baptiste speaks against charity (originally his chief virtue), and for justice (which before maddened him). The Hegelian progression, Superman's negation, continues.


Only when he breaks Superman's hold is Jean-Baptiste able to identify himself. He says, "I am ... an empty prophet for shabby times ... my finger raised toward a threatening sky, showering imprecations on lawless men who cannot endure any judgment. For they can't endure it ... he who clings to a law does not fewer the judgment that reinstates him in an order he believes in. But the keenest of human tortures is to be judged without a law" (117). This, then, is his place. He has come to know himself more truly, and is able to identify his function. Jean-Baptiste continues to try to reinsert God into the equation, saying "I am the end and the beginning; I announce the law. In short, I am judge-penitent."(117).


Jean-Baptiste ends his story by rementioning the stolen picture, "The Just Judges," a picture of the four horsemen of the apocalypse returning to worship the lamb after the final judgment. To him, the replacing of the original with a copy is the truest statement of the human condition and he is happy because "False judges are held up to the world's admiration, and I alone know the true ones ... Justice is separated from innocence" (130).


He also strikes against the other-directed man, stating, "No excuses, ever, for anyone ... I deny the good intention, the respectable mistake, the indiscretion ... with me there is no giving of absolution or blessing ... I am for any theory that refuses to grant man innocence and for any practice that treats him as guilty" (131-132). In negating Superman, Jean- Baptiste once more forces responsibility back onto the shoulders it was lifted from: each individual person.

Jean-Baptiste, after this story, returns to the point where he started: a judge. "I dominate at last, but forever. Once more I have found a height to which I am the only one able to climb and from which I can judge everybody" (142). Yet, the novel ends with room for him to grow. At the end, he revisits the situation with the woman who fell off the bridge, and wonders at a second chance. He fails ultimately, however, in redeeming himself because his is glad that "It's too late now. It will always be too late. Fortunately" (147)!

Overall, then, Camus succeeds in forcing a dialectic movement, negating Superman and creating a new hero, a synthesis. Jean-Baptiste experiences all movements, beginning as identical to the Superman hero, yet moving to a point where Superman is negated. Good is once again more than charity, the other-directed man is abolished, repetition is proven futile and a larger scale world is seen as needed. What will happen next?

We will have to wait for the next movement of the dialectic.

Works Cited

Camus, Albert. The Fall. Trans. Justin O'Brien. New York: Vintage International Press, 1991.

Eco, Umberto. "The Myth of Superman." The Critical Tradition. Ed. David H. Riker. Boston: Bedford Books, 1989. 929-941.

Hegel, G.W.F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A.V. Miller. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
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