Hegel’s pages on Beautiful Soul and the “hard heart” in his Phenomenology[1] reverberate today as an uncanny in-advance critique of Political Correctness. Just recall his claim that moral judgment is “envy which helps itself to the cloak of morality” (361). What is missing in Political Correctness is the Hegelian reconciliation, which is only achieved when the judging “hard heart” itself admits its complicity in what it condemns. But how, exactly, does this happen?

The PC judging consciousness

“is hypocrisy because it pretends that such judgment is not only another manner of being evil but is rather itself the rightful consciousness of action. In his non-actuality and in the vanity he has in being such a faultfinder, it places himself far above the deeds it excoriates, and it wants to know that its speech, which is utterly devoid of any deeds, is to be taken as a superior actuality.” (359)

Or, as Hegel puts it concisely, the true evil is the gaze, which sees evil everywhere around itself. What is crucial here is language as the medium of truth, not just an expression of inner intention: the judging consciousness says the truth, it advocates universality, but (in Wittgenstein’s sense) it displays the opposite attitude of non-forgiveness, of elevating its singularity above others:

“the hard heart does not recognize the contradiction it commits when it does not let the discarding that took place in speech be the true discarding, whereas it itself has the certainty of its spirit not in an actual action but in its innerness and has its existence in the speech in which its judgment is phrased. It is therefore just the hard heart itself which is putting obstacles in the way of the other’s return from the deed into the spiritual existence of speech and into the equality of spirit, and through its hardness of heart, it engenders the inequality which is still present.” (360)

And one has to go to the end here: the supreme figure of Evil is therefore God himself insofar as he stands above creation, judging us. This is why true reconciliation happens only in Christianity, which enacts the infinite judgment “god is a mortal man,” an absolute contradiction:

“Absolute spirit comes into existence only at the point where its pure knowing of itself is the opposition and flux of itself with itself. Knowing that its pure knowing is the abstract essence, it is this duty knowingly in absolute opposition to the knowing that knows itself, as the absolute singular individuality of the self, as the essence. The former is the pure continuity of the universal which knows singular individuality knowing itself as the essence as nullity in itself, as evil.” (362)

What does this mean in actual life? Towards the end of A River Runs Through It (Robert Redford, 1992), Rev. Maclean gives a sermon about being unable to help loved ones who are destroying themselves and will not accept help: what those who truly care for such a self-destructive person can do is only give unconditional love, even without understanding why. This is the Christian stance at its purest: not the promise of salvation, but just such unconditional love whose message is: “I know you are bent on destroying yourself, I know I cannot prevent it, but without understanding why I love you unconditionally, without any constraint.” This also allows us to provide the only consistent Christian answer to the eternal critical question: Was God there in Auschwitz? How could he allow such immense suffering? Why didn’t he intervene and prevent it? The answer is neither that we should learn to withdraw from our terrestrial vicissitudes and identify with the blessed peace of God who dwells above our misfortunes, from where we become aware of the ultimate nullity of our human concerns (the standard pagan answer), nor that God knows what he is doing and will somehow repay us for our suffering, heal our wounds and punish the guilty (the standard teleological answer). The answer is found, for example, in the final scene of Shooting Dogs, a film about the Rwanda genocide, in which a group of Tutsi refugees in a Christian school know that they will be shortly slaughtered by a Hutu mob. A young British teacher in the school breaks down in despair and asks his fatherly figure, the elderly priest (played by John Hurt), where Christ is now to prevent the slaughter. The priest’s answer is: Christ is now present here more than ever; he is suffering here with us. When we curse our fate in despair, when we courageously accept that no higher force will help us, he is here with us – and this is our reconciliation at its most radical.

To elaborate this point in more detail, let’s take a well-known case of operatic reconciliation. In the third act of Wagner’s Tännhauser, the hero is on a pilgrimage in Rome where he approaches “him, through whom God speaks” (the Pope) and tells his story. However, rather than finding absolution, he is cursed and told by the Pope: “As this staff in my hand, no more shall bear fresh leaves, from the hot fires of hell, salvation never shall bloom for thee.” Desperate, Tannhäuser returns home and dies, but after his death the growing light bathes the scene as a group of younger pilgrims arrive bearing the Pope’s staff sprouting new leaves, and proclaiming a miracle: “Hail!, Hail! To this miracle of grace, Hail!” Tannhäuser is posthumously pardoned… Is this a true reconciliation? Alain Badiou was right when, against Adorno, he pointed out that there is no true peace of reconciliation at the end of Tannhäuser: the traumatic impact of Tannhäuser’s Rome narrative is far too strong to allow any peaceful resolution of its unbearable tension. (And, incidentally, the same goes for The Twilight of the Gods where the brutality of Siegfried’s death and funeral march is not really appeased by Brunhilde’s immolation.) The reconciliation that concludes the opera is purely formal, an effect of beautiful music.

To clarify this mess, one should begin by recounting how Tannhäuser explains to Venus what he misses in Venusberg, namely not spirit but peaceful nature: “Days, moons – mean nothing to me anymore, for I no longer see the sun, nor the friendly stars of heaven; I see no more the blades of grass, which, turning freshly green, bring the new summer in; the nightingale that foretells me the spring, I hear no more. Shall I never hear it, never behold it more?” In the spirit that characterizes German Romanticism, nature and spirituality go together, so the choice the hero face is not between sensual reality versus spirituality but both together against the excess of jouissance. The true opposition is thus the one between spiritualized nature and excessive jouissance, where Venus does not stand simply for this excess but is immanently split into two. When the pious Wolfram sings praises to the evening star (“Oh du mein holder Abendstern…”), we should not ignore the obvious fact that he is singing praise to Venus: Venus is the morning star and the evening star, i.e., a figure which belongs to the same series as the Sumerian goddess Inanna: “The discontinuous movements of Venus relate to both mythology as well as Inanna’s dual nature. Unlike any other deity, Inanna is able to descend into the netherworld and return to the heavens. The planet Venus appears to make a similar descent, setting in the West and then rising again in the East.” Is this not yet another argument that Venus and Elisabeth are one and the same person? That’s why the same singer should sing both. Even more, Venus and Elisabeth are not just the two sides of the same woman; they are the two projections of the hero himself onto the object of his love – the woman is here quite literally Tannhäuser’s symptom.

The big step towards the right reading of the opera was made by Romeo Castellucci’s in his path-breaking 2017 staging of Tannhäuser in the Bavarian State Opera. The first scene takes place in Venusberg, the site of carnal pleasures from which Tannhäuser wants to escape. Venusberg is presented as an ugly mound full of outgrowing and disgusting, vaguely feminine creatures, with thick fat hanging from their bodies and intermixing into a field of flab shaking like cellulite — an image of suffocating decay, boredom and satiation. Tannhäuser’s first words in the opera, resisting the calls of Venus to stay with her, are: “Zu viel! Zu viel!” (“Too much! Too much!”). But this is not all: above this disgusting sleazy movement of life, a circular ball (a fantasy frame) hangs in the air within which the idealized version of these same creatures (Venus and her companions) appears, this time as slim ethereal creatures floating in the air and gently dancing, deprived of their gross carnality.

One cannot but recall here the well-known scene from Terry Gilliam’s Brasil in which, in a high-class restaurant, a waiter recommends to his customers the best offers from the daily menu (“Today, our tournedo is really special!”, etc.), yet what the customers get upon making their choice is a dazzling colour photo of the meal on a stand above the plate, and, on the plate itself, a loathsome excremental paste-like lump. We get the split between the image of the food and the real as its formless excremental remainder, i.e., between the ghost-like substance-less appearance and the raw stuff of the realm, exactly in the same way as in Castellucci’s Tannhäuser, we get the split between the disgusting real of the flesh and the dematerialized image. We should emphasize here that there is nothing “authentic” in the experience of this split: it doesn’t render visible the disgusting reality of sex, but just bears witness to Tannhäuser’s psychotic split between the Real and the Imaginary which takes place when the third term, the Symbolic, is foreclosed. In other words, the shaking blob is not the Real of sex supplemented by the fantasy of ethereal girls dancing: fantasy is not only the ethereal vision of dancing slim girls, but also the image of the disgusting shaking blob whose function is to obfuscate the fact that sex is always-already “barred,” thwarted by a constitutive impossibility.

So, how does Elisabeth redeem Tannhäuser? Does she kill herself? But this is a mortal sin… The opera remains a mess – towards the end of his life Wagner himself remarked that he still owes his public a Tannhäuser. Jon Vickers cancelled a performance of Tannhäuser because he disagreed with its religious stance and considered it blasphemous: as a Christian, he believed that Tannhäuser’s redemption should not come about through the love of a woman but through God himself. (Incidentally, there is much more profanity in Parsifal, despite its Christian aura.) The only solution is the one offered by Istvan Szabo in his Meeting Venus, a wonderful movie about a staging of Tannhäuser in Paris immediately after the fall of the Wall. The conductor (Niels Arestrup) is from Hungary, the diva (Glenn Close) is a temperamental superstar from Sweden, the baritone is a rotund East German who thinks mostly about obtaining hard currency to use in his auto-painting business, and then there are, of course, the musicians, the members of the chorus, the stagehands and electricians and painters and property masters, all members of unions that are ferociously protective of their contracts. A union man refuses to press the button to raise the curtain just before the premiere since he would thereby violate a trade union rule, and it looks like the performance will have to be cancelled. But the diva proposes a simple solution: they should perform the entire opera in front of the closed curtain, directly addressing the public. The performance is a triumph, and while the camera shows the conductor during the last notes of the music, we see in reality a repeated miracle: the conductor’s dry wooden stick sprouting fresh green leaves… The true miracle is the spirit of community established by this performance: all their petty conflicts and sexual tensions are forgotten, and we pass from eros to agape. The supreme irony is that some idiots read the film as an anti-worker manifesto: art (spirituality) wins over class struggle (trade union defence of workers’ rights), even though the truth is rather the opposite – the spirit of Communist solidarity wins over petty trade-unionist conflicts of interests.

Two details deserve especially to be noted about the finale.

First, while everybody is in a panic at the prospect that the performance will have to be cancelled, it is the diva who proposes the solution that leads to triumph, and here a blessedly benevolent smile of satisfaction dominates the final moments when all others are caught in the enthusiasm of full triumph. Her gaze is directed at the conductor with whom she had a passionate love affair that ended in a fiasco during rehearsals – her staring at him signals deep reconciliation. Their exclusive love affair occurs at a higher level: the tumultuous eros (which has to end in failure since il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel) is transformed into the peace of agape.

Second, the miracle (the wooden stick sprouting fresh leaves) is repeated: first, just staged as a part of the story; then, as an event in reality, and it is this repetition of the miracle in reality that works as an authentic shock bringing us, the viewers, to the edge of tears… Surprisingly (or not so surprisingly), the same reconciliation through music, through the musical form, is at work in one of Rammstein’s superb songs, “Mutter.” The lyrics tell the story of a child not born from a womb, but in an experiment: thus, a child who has no true father or mother. They describe his plan to kill both the mother “who never gave birth to him” and himself. However, he fails to kill himself, ending up mutilated instead, and no better off than before. The child begs and prays for strength, but his dead mother does not answer. Here are the lyrics of the first strophe:

“The tears of a crowd of very old children

I string them on a white hair

I throw the wet chain into the air

And wish that I had a mother.”

Upon a closer look, one discovers that the situation of the child is ambiguous: Was it an experimental birth outside the womb, an abortion (meaning that he sings as already dead), or, at a more general level, a metaphor for the situation of Germans after WWII, when they found their “motherland” destroyed and their lives ruined? One should resist the temptation to decide what the song “is really about.” It is “really about” the formal constellation of a motherless child who survives his suicide. And a similar ambiguity is surprisingly at work in different musical versions of the song: there is the Rammstein hard rock “original,” but then there are versions for solo soprano accompanied by piano or a symphonic orchestra, for a male chorus, a Russian version, and even for a children’s chorus (in Russia), and they all sound so “natural” despite the extreme brutality of the event described in the lyrics.

One should definitely not interpret this last version as a display of extreme irony. No, the singing children enact the only possible reconciliation of the desperate predicament of the song’s hero, so that they are to be taken in all naivety. The point is again that what Hegel calls “reconciliation” is not a reduction of the traumatic excess to a gapless totality, but the acceptance of this excess in its meaningless brutality.


[1] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel – The Phenomenology of Spirit (Terry Pinkard Translation).pdf (libcom.org). Numbers in brackets indicate pages in this edition.