The Hegel Variations

Spent the last days of 2014 reading Fredric Jameson’s The Hegel Variations, his brief, lucid commentary on The Phenomenology of Spirit. I confess I picked up the book as an example of theoretical style. A writing boot camp I am hoping to take soon asks writers to select their readings for form as much as content, and when I began to do so, I realized that almost all the theorists I admire wrote in languages other than English. I even suspect that what sounds like theory to my ear might be nothing other than the sound of translation into English from German, French, Italian, etc. Hence my idea that I should begin with writers in the theoretical tradition who compose in English.

The most noticeable aspect of the Hegel variations is Jameson’s use of musical analogy to defend a non-systematic, non-teleological reading of Hegel. The idea that Hegel isn’t so much unfolding a system of history as developing variations on a theme. I thought a lot about John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things, and then listened to the album again in light of this idea that a writer or musician can take a familiar, even overly familiar tune, and then expand and experiment upon it repeatedly until the relationship between the performance and it’s theme is strictly undecidable.

Of course stating something is different from demonstrating it. I don’t know I would go so far as to say that Jameson performs a set of variations on Hegel in his reading. Or that The Hegel Variations is itself musical or jazz-like in form. Fortunately, Jameson makes no effort to mimic Hegel’s prose, although he does provide enough block quotes from it to confirm its reputation for impenetrability. He both whets my interest for tackling the Phenomenology someday and supplies a masterful enough overview of its concepts (except the “beautiful soul” which I am very curious about) to do in the meantime.