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Why Can’t Spenserians Stop Talking About Hegel? A Response to Gordon Teskey
by Joe Moshenska

Gordon Teskey’s remarkable essay “Edmund Spenser meets Jacques Derrida: On the Travail of Systems” begins with a moment of serendipity—the “accident” of biographies of these two figures having been published “close to each other in time”— and weaves moments of autobiographical rumination into its attempt to make sense of  the opportunities for thought created by this accident. I hope that I will be forgiven therefore if I begin my response with a moment of autobiographical reflection of my own that involves a similarly happy coincidence. When I was a graduate student the best part of a decade ago, I was fortunate enough to participate in two remarkable seminars, in each of which we worked our way progressively through a long work that benefited immeasurably from being read in this fashion—slowly, and in company. In one seminar we read the 1590 Faerie Queene, and in the other we read Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. I was fortunate to be a participant in these gatherings, either one of which would have been life-changing in its own right: but what was truly remarkable, and unsettling, was the experience of their concurrence. Each week, in the aftermath of two engaged discussions of a new part of each of these works, I would be unable to shake the experience that they were speaking to one another, through me, in the strangest of ways. In fact, in my wildest moments of introspection, I found myself wondering whether they were in fact the same book, written twice, in wildly different idioms.

This might seem, prima facie, a rather unlikely claim. One way to understand this lurking feeling would be to see it as a symptom of a mood that will be recognizable to anybody who has read Spenser’s poem: a mood that I can best describe as a sort of delirious paranoia that The Faerie Queene is capable of inducing, in which everything within it seems to connect with everything else, and, perhaps, with everything outside the poem, such that every word or scrap of sound becomes potentially meaningful, a clue to be interpreted. Teskey himself has offered the best explication of this manic mood in his essay on allegory for the Spenser Encyclopedia, where he describes the “hermeneutic anxiety” inculcated by allegory’s way of flaunting not only its meanings but its sense of pervasive meaningfulness.[1] This was certainly part of the situation in which I found myself: and, while the reader of any work frequently has to ask herself what to do with moments of what seem like unmistakable resonance with other works of a sort that has no historical grounding, I would wager that these moments are particularly common when reading The Faerie Queene. (Two years later, I was fortunate enough to participate in another remarkable Spenser seminar, which happened to coincide with the first time that I watched and was astounded by the HBO series The Wire: and, sure enough, I found myself captivated by what seemed to me the profound affinities between the two).[2] Usually, when two seemingly unconnected works start to intermingle in this way in our minds, we stay quiet about it, chalking it up to coincidence and leaving the felt connections behind when we come to write criticism on either work.

As I began to move from the landscape of Spenser’s poem into the scarcely less varied and labyrinthine world of Spenser criticism, however, I found that, even if the parallel with Hegel’s Phenomenology was best understood as a symptom of the interpretative paranoia that the poem inculcates, I was at least not alone in my symptoms: mine was a kind of readerly paranoia that found solace in company. Indeed, whereas I was initially almost embarrassed by the fanciful links that I had intuited between these two works, I was startled to find that several of the most interesting Spenser critics had felt tempted to forge just such a link in their writing. In fact, the work that in many ways laid the foundations for modern Spenser criticism—the chapter on The Faerie Queene from C. S. Lewis’s The Allegory of Love—includes the following claim on its penultimate page, as a way of rebutting those who “are apt to conclude that [Spenser] has nothing to do with ‘life,’” in contrast with the truthfulness to life found in Shakespeare:

The Faerie Queene is “like life” in a different sense, a much more literal sense …. The things that we read about in it are not like life, but the experience of reading it is like living. The clashing antitheses which meet and resolve themselves into higher unities, the lights streaming out from the great allegorical foci to turn into a hundred different colours as they reach the lower levels of complex adventure, the adventures gathering themselves together and revealing their true nature as they draw near the foci, the constant re-appearance of certain basic ideas, which transform themselves without end and yet ever remain the same (eterne in mutability), the unwearied variety and seamless continuity of the whole—all this is Spenser’s true likeness to life. It is this which gives us, while we read him, a sensation akin to that which Hegelians are said to get from Hegel—a feeling that we have before us not so much an image as a sublime instance of the universal process—that this is not so much a poet writing about the fundamental forms of life as those forms themselves spontaneously displaying their activities to us through the imagination of a poet. [3]  

This still strikes me as a remarkable way of formulating a critical juxtaposition, and I find myself wanting to defend parts of it—Lewis’s claim of the poem that “the experience of reading it is like living,” and his attempt to locate the point of contact in the sensation of reading—though I will ultimately disagree strenuously with his emphases on resolution, the “seamless continuity of the whole,” and the centrality of “universal process” as the features shared by these works. Then there was Harry Berger, Jr., who argued that

Again and again Spenser presents examples of one-sided and premature union, development or fulfilment which must be obstructed or destroyed so that they may be repeated in more adequate form at a later, more appropriate phase of relationship … This is the Hegelian dynamic of sublation (aufheben): the new context and usage confer on earlier, simpler forms a destiny more inclusive than their own, a more universal and organic function, so that they may transcend themselves in a manner not possible to them in their first isolated push toward fulfilment.[4]  

And finally, there was Teskey himself, who more than once returned to Lewis’s invocation of a Hegelian parallel in making sense of the poem’s tendency towards conceptual violence, or of the quality of the moments in which it does its thinking.[5]  

I was delighted to discover that I was in such good company in finding a curious kind of resonance between The Faerie Queene and the Phenomenology of Spirit, as if I were not the only one who could not shake the sensation, to use Lewis’s term, that each of these books could help us read the other: so delighted, in fact, that I began writing an essay with the deliberately hyperbolic title “Why Can’t Spenserians Stop Talking About Hegel?” I never finished it, because it seemed unlikely that its strange titular juxtaposition would be of interest to many other than myself. I was particularly grateful to Teskey’s recent essay because it allowed me to return to a connection that had been so integral to my first reading of these works, and to try at last to make sense of it: I have therefore retained my original title, although, as these citations suggest, it would be more honest to say that a particular (and particularly interesting) subset of Spenserians choose to talk about Hegel at particularly telling moments. But, if my indebtedness to and admiration for Teskey’s work should be obvious in the way that I have framed my approach, my desire to write a response was spurred in part by a feeling of resistance that arose as I read some of the specific ways in which he makes the connection. For his recent essay is, of course, not about Spenser and Hegel, but about Spenser and Derrida. Hegel enters in this instance secondarily and only because it is upon the most sustained of Derrida’s various Hegelian engagements that Teskey chooses to focus, the left-hand column of Glas, and it is this work rather than the Phenomenology itself which Teskey aligns, provocatively and revealingly, with The Faerie Queene. The precise degree to which he wishes to align Spenser and Derrida is left ambiguous, but the dynamic that he establishes between Glas and the Phenomenology is clearer and more familiar. Derrida’s book is described as “an extreme, polysemous, uncontrollable, and unmasterable text,” whereas the Phenomenology is presented as a magnificent but ill-fated attempt to tame and incorporate the heterogeneity upon which Derrida repeatedly insisted and which his text performs. “The [Hegelian] system,” Teskey writes, “appears to be digesting what is heterogeneous to it… . The transcendental or the repressed, the unthought or the excluded, must be assimilated into the body of the whole, interiorized as a series of moments, idealized even in the very negativity of their work.” Hegel, then represents the system that founders upon, and cannot reconcile itself with, its own travails: “The Hegelian dialectic is like those decaying colossuses, which are sublime and powerful, and yet weak, always turning to rubble.” The apparent forcefulness of the systemic urge—the apparent implacable self-assurance of Hegel’s work which led Derrida, as Teskey notes, to punningly elide his name with “l’aigle,” the ferocious imperial bird—hides its constitutive weakness. Teskey made a similar point in Allegory and Violence in his reading of Lewis, for whom, he claimed, “To grow in mental health reading Spenser through Hegel is to grow into a totalitarian vision in which all things are equally manipulable and equally expendable, including our bodies.”[6] On this reading, to align the two texts means seeing them as equally brutalising systems by means of which particularity (and especially physical particularity) is necessarily forgotten. In this earlier work, it is for Teskey the disruptive, Nietzschean, genealogical force injected into the poem by Mutabilitie that unsettles the The Faerie Queene’s systematizing urge in the closest that it possesses to a final episode. In the recent essay, by contrast, it is Derrida who assumes this function (“The Mutabilitie Cantos,” Teskey writes, “arrive where Glas starts: at the agony of system.”)  He brilliantly introduces the figure of the Faerie Queen herself as a “textual trace” whose perpetual absence undoes the integrity of the whole and necessitates the torrent of writing devoted to her impossible pursuit, and this authorizes the most important alignment of the Spenserian and Derridean texts: “Each is a graphomaniacal tour de force, but one theme is common to both: a preoccupation with system. The important point for comparison between Derrida and Spenser is the relation in each of system to waste (Glas) and of allegory to the non-signifying, mimetic event (The Faerie Queene).”

Just as Teskey’s essay took its departure from the near-simultaneous publication of the biographies by Hadfield and Peeters without being a review of either, what I aim to develop here is not an argument against Teskey per se nor a point-by-point engagement with his essay—I would be uninterested in and incapable of doing either of these things—but the lineaments of another way of reading Hegel and Spenser together. Rather than stressing the complementarity of their twin totalising and systematising urges (as Lewis does, in Teskey’s reading) I propose to see both The Faerie Queene and The Phenomenology of Spirit as works that are drawn towards the clarity and conviction made possible by the formation of a complete system while being unable to lose sight of the forms of damage that are involved in any such formative endeavour. The form in which Spenser navigates this inescapable and constitutive damage, as Teskey has done much to teach us, is personification allegory; for Hegel, it is called negativity. In short, I propose to sketch some of the implications of reading Hegel’s Phenomenology itself as a Spenserian allegory: not a system that is imperiously sure of itself and must maintain a blind-spot towards its crumbling weakness, but a work that presents us with a series of ambiguously imagined forms of abstracted but embodied consciousness, trying to make their way in the world with a limited and limiting set of suppositions and discovering the impossibility of so doing. If I began by asking why Spenserians often find themselves talking about Hegel, then, one of the implications of my argument is that although Hegel (to my knowledge) nowhere mentions The Faerie Queene, it is a shame that modern scholars of his work do not engage with the poem to aid their philosophical investigations. Once we approach the Phenomenology itself as a form of personification allegory operating as a kind of romance—and as a work which, like Spenser’s, seems to want in some ways to gather itself into a unified whole but which appears conversely to teem with a variety of figures and a plethora of voices that make claims on us in different ways and that threaten the text’s claim to univocal authority—it might seem like a system that is more comfortable with, even demands, the possibility of its own undoing. And this, in turn, is how Hegel’s work has helped me to view The Faerie Queene

 * * *

It would of course be ludicrously hubristic to venture anything like a thorough juxtaposition of these two vast and complex works, and to do so would suggest a more exact fit between them than I intend to argue. There might be subterranean reasons for some of the affinities between Spenser and Hegel in terms of shared intellectual commitments and sources—both seem orientated at least in part by a commitment to reformed theology (though to a degree that is disputable at best); both writers could be said to share a basically Aristotelian orientation, suffused in each case with a recurrent fascination with forms of Neoplatonism tending towards the hermetic and quasi-mystical; both were steeped with the rhetorical norms and techniques of the Classical past which live on in their writings—but this a relatively superficial level of alignment and one which does not interest me. Instead, I propose to venture some thoughts on episodes from near the beginning of each work, and suggest some ways in which reading them side by side can aid the interpretation of each. I am concerned with the first encounter that each of these works contains. In both instances—the Redcrosse Knight’s confrontation with Errour, and Hegel’s account of Sense-Certainty—this encounter seems both exemplary for what follows, and to stand apart from it in certain ways, to trouble the very modes of interpretation that each seems to inaugurate by virtue of its precedence.

In neither instance are we dealing with the very beginning of the work in question. In The Faerie Queene, of course, we first meet the Redcrosse Knight pricking across the plain, and we follow him as he takes shelter from the storm and makes his way into the “wandring wood,” only entering “Errours den” in the fourteenth stanza; and, by this point, we have already made our way through the proem to the first book and perhaps, depending on the placement of this material in the edition that we are reading, the dedicatory sonnets and the “Letter to Raleigh.” In the case of the Phenomenology, to reach Sense-Certainty we must already have worked our way through the scarcely less dark and labyrinthine paths of the work’s preface and introduction. What I am proposing to align, then, is not the absolute beginnings of these texts but the point at which we as readers feel that the action proper has begun. In these episodes, it seems fair to say, we learn something about the sort of book that we are reading and the manner in which it will go about its business. It is only when Una utters the line that I quoted in parts above—“This is the wandring wood, this Errours den”—and only when the knight enters the cave and confronts and defeats the beast that she has named that we ascertain some of the basic but profound information that we will need to understand the narrative: that at least some of its figures are not only individuals existing on a narrative plane but physical embodiments of abstractions, and that, in this poem, overcoming an inchoate risk or threat such as error will mean vanquishing a monstrously physicalized foe.[7] None of this will be news to readers of Spenser’s poem. But how might this summary account help us to approach what Hegel does in the first moment proper of the plot of the Phenomenology? There, Hegel presents us not with a monster but with a form of “knowledge or knowing” which he proposes to take as the object of enquiry. “The knowledge or knowing which is at the start or is immediately our object,” he writes, “cannot be anything else but immediate knowledge itself, a knowledge of the immediate or what simply is.”[8] This form of immediate knowledge is designated as “Sense-Certainty,” and it is defined by the conviction that neither the “I” that is responsible for knowing nor the “This” that is known are, as Hegel puts it, “a rich complex of connections, or related in various ways to other things.”[9] Instead, it operates through the assumption of a simple, self-identical “pure ‘I’” which similarly knows the object “only as a pure ‘This’” (PoS 58).  Sense-Certainty essentially sees no problem on either side of the subject-object relation: neither knower nor known needs to be accounted for. But, Hegel suggests, once Sense-Certainty tries to act on or actualize these convictions, tries to assume a position vis-à-vis a known object, the assumed simplicity on which it is founded comes under threat: “The question must therefore be considered,” he suggests, “whether in Sense-Certainty itself the object is in fact the kind of essence that Sense-Certainty proclaims it to be” (PoS 59). That is to say, he proposes not to try to refute Sense-Certainty or its presumptions of immediacy, but to show that, in acting, Sense-Certainty cannot remain faithful to the position that it claims to occupy: it cannot, on its own terms, realize the immediacy that it claims for itself. He strives to show this by proposing a challenge to Sense-Certainty:

It is, then, Sense-Certainty itself that must be asked: “What is the This?” If we take the “This” in the twofold shape of being, as “Now” and as “Here,” the dialectic it has in it will receive a form as intelligible as the “This” itself is. To the question: “What is Now?”, let us answer, e.g., “Now is Night.” In order to test the truth of this Sense-Certainty a simple experience will suffice. We write down this truth; a truth cannot lose anything by being written down, any more than it can lose anything by our preserving it. If now, this noon, we look again at the written truth we shall have to say that it has become stale.

(PoS 60)

For Hegel, the simplicity proclaimed by Sense-Certainty cannot survive the attempt to situate itself spatially or temporally: if it attempts to commit the truth of its situation to paper it will discover, when it returns to the scene of writing, that what seemed like a straightforward truth is now false. Sense-Certainty seeks to say something about its essence, and the essence of the thisness that it perceives: but, in the simple act of so doing, it discovers something of the complexity that it purports not to require as the basis for its actions. Sense-Certainty, for Hegel, discovers that it cannot say what it means to say, or mean what it means to mean: when we make particular utterances, he claims, “we utter the universal,” in the sense that our attempt to articulate the simplest this cannot escape the need to account for the manner in which even bare thisness is spatially and temporally situated and mediated. Thus, for Hegel, what begins as an attempt to describe the world in its immediacy collapses inevitably into failure: Sense-Certainty tries to articulate something about a temporally located object external to it (the nowness of Night) and discovers instead something about its own locatedness and the poverty of its own knowing. Hence while “Sense-Certainty immediately appears as the richest kind of knowledge … in the event, this very certainty proves itself to be the most abstract and poorest truth” (PoS 58). It is this discovery, of a falsely assumed richness that dissolves, upon any attempt to actualize it, into the emptiest poverty, that sets the Phenomenology in motion, as a new form of consciousness and attempted knowing—“Perception”—arises and attempts to make good on its claim to access the world in a manner that Sense-Certainty proved unable to do.

Described in this way, the discoveries of Sense-Certainty might not sound much like the Redcrosse Knight’s conflict with Errour, but I return to my claim that these episodes both allow us to begin apprehending some of the fundamental ways in which these works will function: the knight is an embodied abstraction who will fight other embodied abstractions in order to vanquish the qualities that they embody in Spenser’s poem; and successive forms of consciousness will emerge in Hegel’s work, each with a claim to know the world in a certain way, only for the claim to break down in practice, with the particular form of failure giving rise to a new form of consciousness with a new claim-to-knowledge of its own. What, though, is the specific virtue of reading these instructive openings in conjunction with one another?  This question can best be approached by staying for a moment with Hegel, and considering some of the responses that his account of Sense-Certainty has provoked. Commentators on the Phenomenology have long professed extreme discomfort at the way in which this opening moment transpires. As early as Ludwig Feuerbach’s critique, in fact, there has been a feeling that Sense-Certainty is treated unfairly: that Hegel is dishonest when he claims to be doing nothing more than displaying the immanent process of Sense-Certainty’s inevitable self-refutation, and that he is coercing a form of consciousness that might otherwise go about its Sense-Certain business quite happily. Demanding that Sense-Certainty account for itself, that it actualize itself in speech and writing, is, for Feuerbach, an illicit privileging of language itself over sensuousness: “To sensuous consciousness it is precisely language that is unreal, nothing. How can it regard itself, therefore, as refuted if it is pointed out that a particular entity cannot be expressed in language?”[10] Andrzej Warminski, in a wonderfully subtle deconstructive account of the episode, makes a similar point, describing “the downright ludicrousness of the dialogical proceedings” and balking at “the arbitrariness, unfairness, indeed bullying that victimized Sense-Certainty undergoes at the hands of the ‘we,’” the collective philosophical stance in whose name Hegel purports to speak.[11] Warminski’s reading points towards what is, I would suggest, the deep concern that is shared by these opening episodes from The Faerie Queene and the Phenomenology, the concern that justifies reading them in conjunction with one another: the problem of exemplarity. These moments are, I have been arguing, exemplary of and for the texts that they help to begin, in one sense—they convey something essential of the manner in which each text will operate, and the forms of alertness that we must bring to them as readers. But the disquiet expressed by Feuerbach and Warminski suggests that we might see the account of Sense-Certainty as involved in a problematic of exemplarity in a second sense: Sense-Certainty is made an example of, like a child humiliated by a teacher for his or her ignorance, publically made to reveal that his or her deepest held-convictions are in fact the most naïve foolishness. This is Hegel as philosophical bully, making an appropriately imperious beginning to his systematic text: blithely exposing the falsity of a specific and partial stance from the position of the achieved clarity of the whole. Warminski shows superbly how the problem of exemplarity is woven into the verbal texture of the Phenomenology. Hegel, in fact, seeks to disavow responsibility for the very exemplarity upon which his treatment of Sense-Certainty is founded: he claims that “It is not just we who make this distinction between essence and example … on the contrary, it is found within Sense-Certainty itself” (PoS 59, translation altered). That is to say, Sense-Certainty cannot avoid acknowledging that it inescapably apprehends individual instances of phenomena as in some sense examples of universals, and so it is an example that teaches us about the nature of examples. Unfortunately, Miller’s generally excellent version translates the word “Beispiel” in the words that I have quoted above—“Diesen Unterschied des Wesens und des Beispiels”—as “instance” rather than “example,” obscuring the persistence of this language of exemplarity, and the same occurs when he interposes the abbreviation “e.g.” in the words that I quoted above—“To the question: ‘What is Now?’, let us answer, e.g., ‘Now is Night’”—whereas the original reads: “Auf die Frage: was ist das Jetzt? antworten wir also zum Beispiel: das Jetzt ist die nacht.”[12] It is a mistake to obscure the repeated presence of the word “Beispiel” in this fashion when the flaunting of the problem of the example—the very problem which Sense-Certainty cannot navigate—is integral to Hegel’s argument. But, for Warminski, Hegel makes an example of Sense-Certainty in flagrantly bullying fashion precisely because he cannot adequately account for his own use of examples: he cannot consistently justify his treatment of a particular example as a way of illustrating the untruth of an entire form of consciousness while also claiming that the exemplary itself is the inessential, and this problem reveals the “illegitimacy and usurpation” that lies at the origin of the Phenomenology.[13]

Let us now return to Book I of The Faerie Queene and ask whether it makes sense to see Spenser’s poem (and therefore his system) as founded on an analogous act of metaphysical bullying. The problem of exemplarity is integral to the 1590 Faerie Queene, as Jeff Dolven has shown in detail.[14] Errour herself is both an opening example of how the poem’s narrative will proceed, and an instance of the exemplarity integral to the operations of personification allegory. This figure—this female monster, who lives in this cave (her particularity is rendered as concrete in the poem as the phony thisness that Sense-Certainty cannot maintain)—is nonetheless an example of something much more diffuse, the human tendency to err. She is the individual instance who nonetheless gathers and distils the essence of all of the individual errors for which she stands, and her defeat can therefore stand as exemplary for the defeat of all such errors. But the manner in which this then transpires in the poem gives us good reason to read it otherwise: not only as an exemplary allegory but as an act of exemplary victimization akin to that with which the Phenomenology opens. The Redcrosse Knight has to seek Errour out: she does not come looking for him in aggressive fashion, as Orgoglio later will. We are given a description of her vile body and her brood as she is seen through the knight’s eyes, but when she first sees him, her first response does not bespeak an aggression to match her monstrous form:


Their dam vpstart, out of her den effraide,
And rushed forth, hurling her hideous taile
About her cursed head, whose folds displaid
Were stretcht now forth at length without entraile.
She lookt about, and seeing one in mayle
Armed to point, sought backe to turne againe;
For light she hated as the deadly bale,
Ay wont in desert darknesse to remaine,
Where plaine none might her see, nor she see any plaine.



If we apprehend something about the poem’s basic functioning through this first episode, we also begin to be alerted to some of the features that its critics have long sought to illuminate: the way in which it seems to solicit multiple and mutually exclusive levels of interpretation at once, and to demand both an allegorical and literal interpretation, which conflict with rather than reinforce one another. The whole stanza, the reason for Errour’s flight, is amenable to terse allegorical paraphrase: errors love to stay hidden, to avoid the light of truth, so that they can proliferate. But in the terms of the narrative, the events are amenable to paraphrase of a very different sort: a mother who has hidden herself away so as to feed her children in quiet safety is disturbed by an intruder, tries to flee, and is violently prevented from so doing. There seems to be a collusion of sorts between the violence that the knight aims at Errour and the barrage of starkly negative adjectives that the narrator assigns her: “hideous” and “cursed” seem designed to distract us from the very possibility of the more sympathetic literal reading that I have just outlined, just as any sympathy that we manage to retain for Errour, as mother and as victim, is about to be washed away by the torrent of her toad- and book-filled vomit. But I would argue—and this argument is of central import for my attempt to align the poem and the Phenomenology—that the possibility of our feeling for Errour, as the victim of the knight and in some sense of the poem, cannot be so speedily or entirely erased. If we are being introduced to the way that the poem will work in this episode, we are also being inducted into the possibility that the monsters whom we meet will periodically provide us with opportunities for strange forms of pity and affective attachment that conflict with their allegorical role. A similar effect, I would argue, is achieved through the startling epic simile in stanza 23, in which Errour’s foul brood are compared to “cumbrous gnattes … striuing to infixe their feeble stinges” into the body of a “gentle Shepheard” at dusk on a quiet hillside, before he brushes them off with his “clownish hands”  (I.i.23). This moment—in a manner that Susanne Wofford’s work has helped us to understand—does not seem to explain the poem’s action in any meaningful sense so much as it allows us to come up momentarily for air, to find brief refuge in a twilit pastoral world whose existence we might have forgotten in the dank of the cave—and, crucially, it incorporates the squirming brood into this attempt, making them not just vile, teeming errors but occasions for the creation of a new kind of beauty.[15] What I am suggesting by accentuating these moments is the curious nature of the poem’s exemplary opening: that it seems not only to approve of the narrator and the knight’s collusive act of victimization,but to obsessively draw attention to what is bullied, to the stories and the forms of life by means of whom examples are made.

Most important for understanding the ambivalence of this opening, however, are not these instances of surplus imaginative possibility, but what happens (or rather does not happen) next. The knight leaves the cave victorious; Errour has apparently been vanquished; he immediately meets Archimago, fails to see through his disguise, mistakes the false for the true Una, and is deceived by Duessa disguised as Fidessa into becoming her companion. How should we describe these failures properly to discern other than as errors? And, if this is the case, if the knight continues to err, in what meaningful sense has Errour been defeated? As we read the episode, I have suggested, it expands and contracts unstably before our eyes, opening up alternative and counter-allegorical ways of thinking and then shutting them down, but without managing to force us to forget them; a further way of reading the episode, however, is opened up to us only in retrospect, once we see the knight’s continued propensity for error. The monster has been decapitated, her brood have burst their bellies feasting on her blood, but while the allegorical figure Errour has been banished from the poem, the human propensity for error has not: it needs to be continually renegotiated in each of the ensuing episodes. If this is the case, then we are enabled to see the exemplary opening episode in a very different light: it might not be an allegory of error, in which the capacity to err is defined and contained, so much as an implicit analysis of allegory as error. That is to say: believing that error can be conceptualized by making it into an object which can then be definitively vanquished may be the most damaging error of all.[16] If this is the case, then the poem gives us an exemplary beginning that undoes the very form of exemplarity through which it purports to function. If we were to look for an epigraph for the opening episode of the poem read in this light, we could do no better than a sentence from Hegel’s introduction to the Phenomenology, in which he suggests that “the fear of falling into error [Irrtum] sets up a mistrust of Science [Wissenschaft],” and asks: “should we not be concerned as to whether this fear of error is not just the error itself?” (PoS 47). Hegel’s account, even if it is criticized for its coercive tactics, cannot be said to dismiss the forms of consciousness that it describes as simply erroneous: each form, starting with Sense-Certainty, is shown to possess a self-contradictory but generative internal complexity, and it is through its inescapable (and, as I will argue, perennially recollected) erring that the work progresses. Hence error cannot be fended off (or decapitated) once and for all, but is the indispensable and immanent motor of the development of forms of consciousness that makes up the work’s narrative. To allegorize error, to turn it into a self-contained figure that can be demarcated and defeated, can be read in this light as a symptom of the fear of error against which Hegel warns, but the Redcrosse Knight’s subsequent travails—and the reader’s consequent retrospective realization that his apparently decisive opening victory has been deeply pyrrhic—suggests that Spenser too guards against the complacency that underpins the apparent exemplarity of his poem’s opening episode.

* * *

So far, I have tried to trace some of the lineaments of what was, for me, the mutually illuminating back-and-forth experience of reading the beginnings of The Faerie Queene and The Phenomenology of Spirit in tandem: Hegel’s account of Sense-Certainty and its reception encouraged me to consider anew the bullying exemplarity with which Spenser’s poem begins; reading the encounter with Errour in this way suggested some of the ways in which the poem seemed discomfited by its own exemplarizing urges; and this ambivalence in turn seemed to suggest new ways of reading Hegel’s openness to error—his insistence on its retention and its generativity—when I returned to his work. I now want to consider some of the implications of my juxtaposing of these episodes for the workings of these works more broadly, and specifically the implication of this juxtaposition for their relative systematizing urges. I have suggested that we are in both of these moments, and in almost the same instant, given a powerfully exemplary sense of how the work in question is going to function, and given a series of reasons to doubt the coherence or consistency of its functioning. In the case of Errour, this arose in part from the developing and partly retrospective sense that she was several things at once, and that these things did not fit easily together into a coherent whole: she was mother and monster, lurking threat and cruelly assaulted victim, exemplary both of allegory as the physical embodiment of concepts and of allegory as flight into a spurious clarity whose efficacy in practice was largely undercut by the ensuing events of the narrative. Reading the poem is partly the experience of trying to fit these facets together into a single coherent understanding, and the pleasures of failing fully to do so. What, then, if we turn back to Hegel with this account of Errour in mind, and ask: what is Sense-Certainty? If we are to agree with responses like Feuerbach’s and Warminski’s that complain that Hegel is a bully, we should at least try to be sure whom he is bullying: if he is guilty of victimization, who is his victim? Sense-Certainty arrives as if from nowhere: introduced as “immediate knowledge itself,” we are told that, “Because of its concrete content, Sense-Certainty immediately appears as the richest kind of knowledge” (PoS 58: first italics mine, second italics Miller’s). Sense-Certainty springs from nowhere and provides Hegel with his starting point. But who or what has appeared in this fashion? Apparently an individual of some sort, to whom, as we have seen, questions can be posed, and by whom unsatisfactory answers can be given. But is Sense-Certainty, then, a specific historical individual whom Hegel has implicitly in mind? Perhaps, given that he will go on in the chapter on self-consciousness to discuss specific configurations of ancient philosophy—stoicism and skepticism—he has in mind here a chronologically earlier form of thought, like Democritean atomism, which did indeed tend to place great emphasis on the reliability of sensory experience? Or, to take another possibility, perhaps he presents us not with a concrete historical individual but with an ideal type? Perhaps the Sense-Certain attitude is that of the average person on the street—“the natural attitude” which is “the way in which we indeed do live out most of our conscious life,” as Joseph Flay puts it?[17] This would return us to the exemplarity of Sense-Certainty, who would become on this reading an abstract type for a certain tendency endemic to human life.

The possibility of reading Hegel’s work as a concrete historical narrative is another of its aspects that I have found helpful to approach in conjunction with The Faerie Queene: both works seem at times to flaunt the specificity of their historical references (as with Hegel’s allusions to the French Revolution, or Spenser’s treatment of Raleigh angering the Queen through his clandestine marriage to Elizabeth Throckmorton via the tale of Timias and Belphoebe) while making it impossible to maintain a continuous historical thread as the interpretive key to the text. To which specific historical form of slavery does the master-slave dialectic refer? If Duessa’s execution in Book V is clearly a version of the death of Mary, Queen of Scots, surely this tells us little about Duessa’s identity in the earlier books?[18] As Gillian Rose writes, “The structure of the Phenomenology both displays and defies a chronological reading,” and the same can be said of The Faerie Queene.[19] The historical references simultaneously provoke and thwart our desire for a certain type of consistent and concrete specificity which would serve as an interpretative key. But, in the case of Sense-Certainty, concrete specificity is present in another form. When Sense-Certainty tries simply to grasp the “Here” in which it finds itself, this “Here” turns out, Hegel writes, to be “a this Here which, in fact, is not this Here, but a Before and Behind, an Above and Below, a Right and a Left” (PoS 64). Sense-Certainty tries to assert the simplicity of the situation in which it finds itself, but, through this very endeavour, it discovers not only the inescapable complexity of the act of knowing, but the equal complexity of its own situatedness in space. And, I would argue, it is crucial that this is a physical situatedness, as Hegel’s insistence on its three dimensions suggests. Here too Rose’s work is helpful, particularly her claim that “‘spirit’ in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit never leaves its body.”[20] In fact, the very need to make sense of the complex situatedness of its body as part of the scene of knowing is arguably what Sense-Certainty discovers. What I am suggesting, then, is that the nature of the being that Hegel apparently bullies is an odd yoking together of several incompatible dimensions, amenable to two conflicting readings—the concrete-historical and the abstract-exemplary—and that these possibilities are bound together not just conceptually, but within the locus of a specifically physical form.

It will probably be obvious by now what I am insinuating, which is that, in introducing the forms of consciousness that will populate the Phenomenology and undergo the experiences that constitute its narrative, Hegel is conjuring up oddly over-determined figures in a manner analogous to those whom Spenser creates. That is to say, it might help us to understand the curious forms that populate Hegel’s book if we read it as a form of the personification allegory spliced with romance narrative with which Spenser presents us. Before I go further in advancing this reading of Hegel’s work, however, I would like to return to the question of these texts as systems, and explain once again my decision to focus on their opening episodes. What the systematic readings tend to leave out, I would suggest, is the deep strangeness of the experience of reading these works: the demands that they make on us as readers from the outset, and the unexplained confusions with which we are expected to wrangle as we continue on our way. If we are to stress Spenser’s or Hegel’s will-to-system, we must also reckon with the processual development of the work in which the system supposedly inheres: with the experience of the parts through which we inevitably experience each work, not the majestic whole that each sometimes aspires to be. This is not, I hasten to add, a critique of Teskey’s use of Hegel in general—his riveting account of “thinking moments” shows just how sensitive he is to the way in which the Phenomenology manages its curious mode of progression—but it surfaces implicitly when the systematizing Hegel, the imperious philosophical eagle, becomes the foil in the Derridean juxtposition. Far from being certain as we begin The Faerie Queene or the Phenomenology that we are entering a systematic work, I have been suggesting that we are radically unsure just what we are entering, just whom we are meeting, and just what is being asked of us. In Spenser’s case, I have suggested, we are given reason to wonder whether the exemplary dismissal or error may itself be a form of erroneous fear, and we must then ask where this leaves us as readers. In the case of the Phenomenology, I agree with Simon Jarvis that “It is almost impossible to know what kind of book this is supposed to be. And because it is almost impossible to know what kind of book this is supposed to be, it is almost impossible to know what kind of propositions it is supposed to contain.” Hence Jarvis can argue that “the primary hermeneutic problem of the book … is one of genre,” and he describes the Phenomenology’s “withholding of a determinate generic status” as integral to its operations.[21] The difficulty of deciding just what Sense-Certainty is points towards the larger problem of deciding just what the book itself is. This in itself might be one reason to juxtapose it with The Faerie Queene, if only because it jolts us out an easy chain of assumptions: Hegel was a philosopher, ergo he wrote philosophy, ergo this is a work of philosophy that demands to be situated among other such works. A great deal of scholarship has, of course, been dedicated to showing just how saturated with specific literary references the Phenomenology is, but discussions of its generic status have generally been restricted to the question of whether it is tragic or comic.[22] Judith Butler, in a wonderful short essay which is itself a response to an account of Derrida’s reading of Hegel, gives a twist to the comic reading of the Phenomenology which might helpfully point us back towards the world of The Faerie Queene. “Consider,” she writes,

that those transitions in the Phenomenology that are effected by an Aufhebung exemplify an ironic reversal of sorts. Like Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Hegel’s journeying subject … at every stage of its experience takes some configuration of reality to be absolute only to discover that what the defining configuration excludes returns to haunt and undermine that subject in its self-definition and in the basic metaphysical assumption into which that self-definition is integrated …. As readers of his text, we undergo the drama of accepting false certainties and then being rudely and, indeed, comically confronted by that which they unwittingly exclude …. Indeed, the narrative journey of Hegel’s emerging subject in the Phenomenology is marked by a repeated and insistently premature proclamation that the absolute has been achieved. Like Cervantes’s Don Quixote, a text that Hegel clearly admired, reversal propels the narrative. [23]  

It is a brilliant, tantalising comparison, beautifully attuned to the tonal modulations of Hegel’s text and his odd variety of humour (another reason to align Spenser and Hegel: both have the capacity to be much funnier than their reputations suggest). She rightly argues that, far from featuring sublime confidence in its capacity to capture the Absolute, Hegel’s text repeatedly stages the temptation to view the Absolute as something that can be grasped in this fashion. Particularly valuable is her emphasis on the process and the narrative that ensue through these repeated forms of failed apprehension, and the way in which this relates to the ongoing experience of the text for the reader: in this instance, to think generically is not to categorize the Phenomenology but to introduce a new, surprising but illuminating comparison as a way of acknowledging its uncertain generic status, and to return to the (often baffling and ironic) nature of experience through time that it accentuates, both in knowing and in reading. I am not arguing—and neither is Butler—that we can solve the generic problem of the Phenomenology by finding the right category to fit it into (a novel, or a failed romance) so much as suggesting that thinking generically about the text is a good way to approach its apparent determination to nonplus its readers. Cervantes’s knight and his failed quests may indeed provide a useful route into Hegel’s work—it is notable that Flay’s commentary is titled Hegel’s Quest for Certainty, as if he views the philosopher as a knight errant—but I would argue that The Faerie Queene provides a better route still, precisely because the serio-comic rhythm of Hegel’s narrative that Butler so perceptively describes is combined in Spenser’s poem with the profound uncertainty surrounding the ontological status of the figures that the work contains, which, I have already suggested, is paralleled in Sense-Certainty. To put this more bluntly: if with the Phenomenology, as with both The Faerie Queene and Don Quixote, we repeatedly discover that we do not know where we are going, it is in Hegel’s and Spenser’s works that we discover as well that we do not know what or whom exactly we meet when we arrive.

* * *

I have already hinted that I propose in general to read Hegel and Spenser not as purveyors of systems but as somewhat analogous creators of necessarily unstable allegorical romances. Butler’s reading suggests the virtue of reading the Phenomenology as a perpetually failing romance, and this is of course a way to read Spenser’s poem too, given that its knights only ever arrive at the virtues towards which they strive in deeply ambiguous fashion: the Redcrosse Knight omitting his unholy dabbling with Duessa from the account of himself that he gives to Una’s parents, holiness achieved only by mendacity; Guyon decimating the Bower of Bliss in strikingly intemperate fashion; Britomart frozen before a form of happy consummation that she can neither attain nor disavow, and so on. What, then, of my claim that we might productively approach the Phenomenology as a personification allegory, riven with the same tensions and self-divisions that attend Spenser’s practice of the mode as part of his over-determined generic mixture? Sense-Certainty, I have suggested, is like a Spenserian figure in that it is a form of embodied consciousness that floats uncertainly between the possibilities of abstract-exemplary and concrete-historical forms of reading. As with the figures who populate Spenser’s Fairyland, Sense-Certainty is presented to us with blithe confidence—this form of consciousness simply appears, just as figures from the poem like the three brothers Sans- seem to be generated spontaneously out of its landscape—and we find ourselves accepting their appearance unthinkingly, before often being abruptly reminded that we remain radically uncertain as to just what kind of beings they are. With both works we find ourselves asking: are these people? Are these individuals? Are these characters? And we find it impossible either fully to accord or to deny them this status. But, I would suggest, it is the simultaneous and irreducible possibility of the conflicting forms of interpretation that I have been outlining that mitigate from the very outset against the closure of system, for we cannot even decide how the beings that we encounter are to be categorized. This for me is the deeper truth of Lewis’s claim that reading these works is like living, even if what they describe is not like life: they hold out as temptations the possibility of determinate understandings of those whom we encounter, even while making clear the risks and the costs of such understandings. The challenges of meeting an allegorical personification, on this understanding, present an exaggerated form of the challenges constantly presented by the real people whom we meet, rather than being utterly unlike those everyday encounters (this also suggests the paradoxical relevance of allegory for ethics). On this account, rather than seeing the creation of Errour or Sense-Certainty as moments of reductive bullying at the origin of system-formation, we can see them as deliberately unstable experiments in creating beings of this sort, who force upon us the difficulty—the impossibility—of reconciling the interpretations that they provoke. Here too Gillian Rose is the best guide to Hegel’s work, and to the characteristics that enable us to align it with Spenser’s, when she writes that “The Phenomenology is not … a teleology of reconciliation, nor a dominating knowledge. The Phenomenology is not a success, it is a gamble.” Sense-Certainty—like Errour—is the beginning not of this text’s blithe conviction but of its self-divided experimentation.[24]

 Hegel’s work has occasionally been read as an allegory before, notably by John H. Smith in his wonderfully sensitive account of the rhetorical basis of Hegel’s understanding of Bildung or acculturation, which stresses its unique commitment to narrative: “the Phenomenology,” he writes, “contains a story of the Spirit in nonliteral language, in the form of extended figurative images.” Each time that a formation of consciousness seeks to express itself, it does so in a language of whose significance it turns out to be unaware, as we have seen, and this builds into all utterances in the work a form of doubled significance, or metaphorical expression. Picking up on the description of the work in the closing paragraph of the Phenomenology as a “Galerie von Bildern” or gallery of images (PoS 492), Smith argues that for Hegel “The Bild … has the general form of an ‘extended metaphor’ (ausfurliche Metapher). It is therefore implicitly related to the classical conception of allegory.”[25] This suggestion has been taken further by David W. Price, who has aligned it with Paul de Man’s reading of allegory as designating “primarily a distance in relation to its own origin,” in order to argue that it is this doubleness and openness of allegory that thwarts the closural drive of the Hegelian system: “The Hegelian metaphor will never collapse into a false unity of the symbol. Instead, Hegel offers the allegorical mode, the interplay of texts that invert, pervert, and illumine one another while at the same time preserving their separateness.”[26] This is a valuable argument and one which I endorse, but what we gain from reading the Phenomenology specifically as a Spenserian allegory is the way in which the linguistic and temporal dimensions that de Man’s work has so richly illuminated (and which Teskey’s work develops in some of the most notable ways) intersect with the strange manner in which ideas are corporealized, granted a body, in these works. It is in the radically experimental attempts that Spenser and Hegel make to fuse conflicting forms of conceptual abstraction and historical specificity within the confines of a specifically physical form that they most resemble one another.

Price’s argument is valuable for another reason, which is that his reading of Hegel-as-allegorist emerges from an account of one of the Phenomenology’s most notorious intertextual moments, its use of Diderot’s Le Neveu de Rameau. Both the choice of this text and the way in which Hegel treats it have seemed scarcely less problematic to commentators on his work than his treatment of Sense-Certainty. Hegel engages with Diderot in the chapter on “Culture,” in which he apparently turns to the Nephew of the work’s title in order to exemplify a form of “disrupted consciousness” which is “the perversion of every Notion and reality, the universal deception of itself and others.” I will not go into the details of this account, but Hegel has been criticized for it heavily, and it is telling that deconstructive readers have taken particular issue with this passage. In particular, he has been accused repeatedly of suppressing the anarchic, dialogical nature of Diderot’s original work, and folding it into the monological arc of his own teleology.[27] This is an important claim, for descriptions of the putatively monological nature of Hegel’s work, in which all other voices are reduced to his own singular mode of utterance in a form of repeated ventriloquism, are integral to accounts of its systematicity (in this sense he occupies the opposite pole in recent theoretical writings to Nietzsche, whose work is repeatedly described in terms of its plurality—whether of voices, as in Henry Staten’s work, or styles, as in Derrida’s).[28] But, I would argue, reading Hegel with Spenser is of further use because it allows us to question these descriptions of the “seamless monologicality” of the Phenomenology.[29] We should ask: why would a work striving towards system found itself on the most anarchic of dialogic exchanges, a work in which every claim to truth or meaning is corroded by the Nephew’s rhetorical facility? Why would Hegel run the risk of even seeking to confer monological unity on the rampantly dialogical? This is, I would suggest, the very same risk that Spenser runs when he famously founds so many of the central episodes of his poem’s first book in Chaucer’s Tale of Sir Thopas, a decision that has proven scarcely less baffling to critics than Hegel’s. Chaucer’s tale represents a threat to everything that Spenser seems to hold dear: it suggests the pomp and emptiness of the entire chivalric tradition, and the difficulty of maintaining its seriousness in the face of claims to its absurdity. Why, rather than quietly pretending that it did not exist (as he easily might) did Spenser return to Chaucer’s tale obsessively—not only closely echoing it in his opening stanza (and including a later cancelled reference to “Childe Thopas” as the vanquisher of Ollyphant), but making it the basis of Arthur’s dream of the Faerie Queen herself, the vacant centre of the text, “the textual trace,” “the absence … [that] is necessary for its system to work,” as Teskey designates her. Until remarkably recently, critics were willing to accept Josephine Bennett’s suggestion that Spenser simply missed the joke, and treated The Tale of Sir Thopas as a suitably serious tale on which to found his own—this seems unthinkable, and has been thoroughly debunked by Judith Anderson.[30]  Instead, I would suggest that the founding of Spenser’s poem in Chaucer’s unruly tale becomes one of the reasons that The Faerie Queene can fleetingly and persistently open up perspectives or windows into kinds of experience and understanding that seem to trouble its deepest representational commitments: it is because Sir Thopas shadows the adventures of Spenser’s knights that we are periodically enabled to find them, and the entire chivalric enterprise, entertainingly ludicrous. The key to understanding the shadowy presence of Thopas in The Faerie Queene, in parallel with Hegel’s recourse to Diderot, may be in Dryden’s famous claim that “Spenser more than once insinuates that the soul of Chaucer was transfused into his body.”[31] According to this model of metempsychosis as the basis of literary influence, when Spenser cites, echoes, adapts, or completes one of Chaucer’s tales in the course of writing his own, he is not appropriating his great predecessor so much as being appropriated by him; not speaking for him so much as being spoken through.

What I am gesturing towards here is the central paradox of the prophetic mode in which Spenser—and Milton after him—often suggests that he understood himself to be writing, and via which Hegel might also be productively read.[32] The prophetic poet is spoken through by a higher power, whether the divine itself, the Muse, or, as in the case of Chaucer, a great forbear elevated to level of the pseudo-divine. On the one hand, this elevates the status of the poet and his or her utterance, since the words uttered now carry with them the authority of a higher power, and since to be selected in this way as a suitable vessel carries with it a degree of prestige. On the other hand, this prestige is won at a great cost: even a prestigious, specially-elevated conduit is still only a conduit, and words spoken in this way are never one’s own. In his reading of the appropriation of Diderot in the Phenomenology, James Hulbert argues that Hegel operates on a Platonic model, in which dialogue is spurious, present in form only, since the truth always and only belongs to one voice, that of Socrates: it is “a double scene of mastery in which one voice completely dominates what presents itself as a dialogue.” Simon Jarvis, in contrast, has used the work of Gregory Nagy to argue that the Socratic dialogue never entirely repudiates the model of rhapsodic poetic utterance, which “brings back to life not only the words of Homer. It brings back Homer himself.” Jarvis argues that Socrates “stands in a relation of co-operative antagonism” to the rhapsode, and that Hegel likewise returns not only to the Socratic but to the rhapsodic model of dialectic, “which involves ‘recomposition in performance.’”[33] Reading Hegel as likewise torn between the Socratic and Rhapsodic models of performance is to see him, like Spenser, as occupying a deeply equivocal and divided position in relation to the status of his own utterances, torn between two self-understandings: according to one, that of the monological will-to-system, every other that one encounters, every voice that one hears, is to be made one’s own, made an example of, spoken through like a ventriloquist’s dummy; according to the other, it is the writer who is the ventriloquist’s dummy, spoken through by the very voices that are seemingly appropriated, and which allow the text in question to be flooded with other voices that threaten to introduce their own perspectives and disrupt the seamlessness of the whole. It matters—and this too is obscured by the punctuation added in Miller’s translation—that we do not know where the citations from Diderot end and begin, or even whether to call them citations: Rameau’s Nephew, who represents the possibility of ironic perversion and inversion, is not contained by being quoted, but disseminates through the text like a virus, lending something of his manic and corrosive energy to each of the comic and anarchic reversals through which the text progresses. Hegel cannot speak for the Nephew without being spoken through, any more than Spenser can make serious matter of Sir Thopas without the anti-romance energies of the tale spilling out into his Fairyland. This would be one way of reading Emil Fackenheim’s important claim that “if Hegelian ‘science’ is marked by an unprecedented philosophical presumptuousness it is also marked by an equally unprecedented philosophical humility, and only if both are seen together is there any hope of doing justice to either.”[34] The prophetic or rhapsodic mode requires just this balance of arrogance and self-effacement, while the systematic mode tends to rely solely upon the former.

Seeing the monological and systematizing urges of these works as one pole of a bipolar dynamic created by the paradoxes of rhapsodic utterance might also allow us to rethink the famous Hegelian notion of aufhebung or sublation, which, as I mentioned at the outset, Harry Berger Jr. has previously aligned with Spenser’s poem. As Berger has lucidly defined this word elsewhere in his writings, “As I understand Hegel’s notion, when you sublate something you 1) transcend it or negate it, pass it by, render it obsolete, 2) recognize that you have transcended it, therefore 3) you sustain it, hold it up so that it does not vanish, for you give it a new life and direction in your life, you assign it historical significance and bestow on it a career going beyond itself which it could not have had without you.”[35] If The Tale of Sir Thopas and Le Neveu de Rameau, like the many other voices and forms that find their way into these sprawling works, seem to have been subsumed or superseded, then they also live on in a more than nullified form, able to disrupt the systematic drive of which they have become part rather than being decisively forgotten. If systems are founded on forgetting then these works seem incapable of ever fully forgetting anything.

* * *

Having suggested that reading Hegel and Spenser together enables us better to see some of the ways in which their respective wills-to-system constitutively compromise themselves from the outset, let me end by returning a final time to The Faerie Queene to suggest what happens to some of the voices that are allowed to enter via the ambiguity of the prophetic or rhapsodic utterance. One reason that this form of utterance long seemed so troublesome even to its practitioners is that it was uncannily like demonic possession: the individual was taken over from without and spoken through by a higher force, with his or her own agency rendered nugatory. A particularly stunning moment in Warminski’s reading of Sense-Certainty comes when he invokes as a parallel the memory of “an exemplary moment in the New Testament,” the combat with Legion, in which Christ drives the spirits that possess a man whom he meets in the land of the Gadarenes into a herd of swine, which then charge into the sea and are drowned (Mark 5.1-20). Warminski sees this episode as “exemplary of dialectical conversion,” and it enables him to see the treatment of Sense-Certainty as the inauguration of a sacrificial logic that forms (and deforms) the ensuing trajectory of the Phenomenology. The demonic swine for him represent the “pure loss” and “sheer excess” that must be sacrificed to return the possessed man to his singular self-identity, just as the potentially destabilizing sensuousness of Sense-Certainty must be exorcized for the sake of progressive reason.[36] This is at base another assertion of Hegel’s monological and systematic drive: the demons represent a threateningly plural voice, or rather, as Jean Starobinski notes in his meticulous reading of the scene, the grammar of the demons’ famous words to Christ fluctuates between singular and plural—“My name is Legion: for we are many.”  Their “singular collective,” as Starobinski calls it is, however, effortlessly vanquished by Christ, who is “the immutable representative of the singular,” and it is the victory of singularity and the victimization of polyvocal plurality that Warminski sees Hegel as similarly seeking.[37]

This violent sacrifical logic might also seem an apt way of describing the opening defeat of Errour, who must similarly be vanquished and exorcized from the poem—even if, as I have argued, this attempt can be seen in retrospect to be doomed to failure, just as Sense-Certainty is transformatively retained and recollected rather than merely driven out and forgotten. The single and monstrously erroneous body that teems with mini-errors may even obliquely recall the many voices that gather within and then are driven out of the Gadarene. But, near the end of Book II, Spenser makes clearer allusion to this scriptural moment in his account of the lake into which Maleger is thrown “without remorse” by Arthur (II.xi.46).[38] The teeming threats that have assailed the House of Alma and sought to possess it, like the demons that congregate in the Gadarene, are finally expelled and defeated. But, I would suggest, the allusion does not end here: if in Canto xi we are given a version of the scriptural sea, in the next canto we meet one of the swine. This is Gryll, the recalcitrant porcine who is left untransformed following Guyon’s destruction of the Bower of Bliss. His name most clearly relates him to a long tradition of hoggish pleasure leading back to Homer and Plutarch, but, I would suggest, the close proximity of the “standing lake” in which Maleger meets his end encourages us to read this as one of Spenser’s many splintered allusions, in which the energies of the scriptural exorcism are diffused beyond their most obvious echo and resurface elsewhere. Gryll is an emblem, as the words of Guyon and the Palmer make clear, of the human propensity to bestial pleasure, the “filth and fowle incontinence” in which “The donghill kinde / Delightes” (II.xii.87.6-7). But the Palmer’s words—“Let Gryll be Gryll”—are crucially ambiguous: they could mean “leave him, he is beyond help”; but they could tacitly (even unwittingly) mean “leave him be, his pleasures are beyond our remit and therefore, perhaps, beyond our understanding.” Why, we might ask, is Gryll not made a victim of the poem’s sacrificial logic? Why is he not exorcized—butchered, perhaps, and hung from one of the trees of the Bower? We are not sure if he is silenced by the poem’s system of understanding in being excluded from it—driven into the deep and drowning sea of allegorical understanding, as it were—or whether, conversely, he becomes a sort of guardian for the forms of pleasure and for the teeming, demonic voices towards which the poem seems to aspire even as they are apparently disavowed and silenced.

If The Faerie Queene and the Phenomenology of Spirit seem to share a deep urge towards system, towards the temptations of totalizing understanding, by reading them side by side we can see that neither Spenser nor Hegel was willing either to relinquish this urge or to lose sight of what lay beyond it or threatened to deform it from within. They never ceased striving to reckon with and to lay bare the forms of sacrifice and silencing upon which they relied, finding ways to atone and to give voice elsewhere. Perhaps one way of summarizing my point would be to say that for me, reading Hegel with Spenser takes me not towards Derrida’s counter-systemic thinking but towards the transfigured Hegelianism of Theodor Adorno, for it is Adorno who saw human thought itself as inescapably an agent of wounding and damage, not least in its desire to build systems, but for him this meant not abandoning the desire (this would be impossible) but to find forms of writing and aesthetic experience that would themselves be ways of reckoning with, atoning for, the wounding power of thought itself. “Within the system,” he writes, “and in terms of the laws of the system, the truth of the nonidentical”—that is to say, the claims made on thought by the particular valences of human experience or human voice—“manifests itself as error, as unresolved … Thus the incomprehensible explodes the system.”[39]  He was writing principally about The Phenomenology of Spirit, but could just as easily have been describing The Faerie Queene.

Joe Moshenska
Trinity College, Cambridge

I would like to thank Ross Wilson for his valuable comments on this essay. Above all I would like to thank those who first taught me to read Spenser and Hegel: in the very earliest stages, Colin Burrow and Simon Jarvis; and, in the classes referred to here, Jay Bernstein, Jeff Dolven (who also generously read and commented upon this response), and Susanne Wofford.

[1] Gordon Teskey, “Allegory,” in The Spenser Encyclopedia, ed. A. C. Hamilton (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990), 48.

[2] I do not propose to argue at length for the worth of this particular parallel, though I do not think it is as frivolous as it might seem, given that The Wire’s co-creator, David Simon, has repeatedly suggested that the show takes its bearings from a canonical literary tradition. Specifically, he has suggested that it was written as a modern equivalent of a Greek Tragedy, in which individuals act with a false sense of their own autonomy while in fact the meanings of their actions are determined by inscrutable and amoral higher forces (we have institutions that play this role, where once there were gods). Clues for this connection are scattered through the show, including a character who carries a copy of Prometheus Bound into a courtroom in order to achieve a spurious appearance of dignity and erudition. But it is worth noting that allegory is another form in which agents believe that they act for individual motives while in fact they are actualising the dictates of abstract forces that work through them: and The Wire, like The Faerie Queene, experiments dazzlingly with the fictional personae that it contains, tempting us at different moments to see them as fully realized individuals, or mere instances of social or conceptual types. Even if this is purely an instance of a connection created by my idiosyncratic hermeneutic anxiety, each of these works has helped me better to experience the other, and I generally wonder if we should allow more room for this sort of groundless but revelatory parallel when we write, as we often do when we teach.

[3] C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1936), 358.

[4] Harry Berger, Jr., Revisionary Play: Studies in the Spenserian Dynamics (Berkeley: U of California P, 1988), 117. Louis Montrose discusses this claim in his introduction to this volume, and notes that Berger’s critical paradigm is “more immediately recognizable as neo-Hegelian than Neoplatonic,” while implying that this neo-Hegelianism amounts to the postulation of an “evolutionary model of consciousness” (6), though I will again question linear progression as an adequate basis for the juxtaposition of these works.

[5] Gordon Teskey, Allegory and Violence (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), 185-7, Ibid., “Thinking Moments in The Faerie Queene,” Spenser Studies 22 (2007), 103-125, esp. 112-16. To these written parallels I would like to add one that, unfortunately, I had the chance to hear only second-hand. Jeff Dolven tells me that John Hollander was given to posing and answering a rhetorical question: “Why is there no Phenomenology of Spirit in English? Because we have The Faerie Queene.”

[6] Teskey, Allegory and Violence, 187.

[7] Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, ed. A. C. Hamilton (London: Longman, 1977, rev. ed. 2006), I.i.13.6. All further references to the poem are to book, canto, stanza, and line number in this edition, and appear parenthetically. It seems sensible throughout this piece to assume greater familiarity with Spenser’s poem than Hegel’s work, and so I will generally devote less space to summarising the action of the former.

[8] G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977), 58. All further references are to page numbers in this edition and appear parenthetically as PoS. All emphases are Miller’s unless otherwise noted.

[9] Miller in his translation gives “sense certainty” entirely lower case and unhyphenated, in keeping with Hegel’s “die sinnliche Gewißheit.” I have chosen, however, for reasons that will become clear, to retain the routine capitalisation of the German noun and extend it to the adjective, because it is the integrated and possibly personified being of this form of consciousness that I want to stress: hence I diverge from Miller and give “Sense-Certainty” throughout.

[10] Ludwig Feuerbach, “Towards a Critique of Hegel,” in The Fiery Brook: Selected Writings, trans. Zawar Hanfi (London: Anchor Books, 1972), 77.

[11] Andrzej Warminski, “Reading for Example: ‘Sense-Certainty’ in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit,” Diacritics 11.2 (1981), 83-95; 90.

[12] German quotations are from G. W. F. Hegel, Phänomenologie des Geistes, ed. Georg Lasson (Leipzig: Felix Meiner, 1907), 66, 67. Miller’s addition of quotation marks is also worth noting, in terms of the argument that I will later advance regarding the risks of separating too strictly the voices of Hegel’s text.

[13] Warminski, “Reading for Example,” 92-3.

[14] Jeff Dolven, “Example: The 1590 Faerie Queene,” Scenes of Instruction in Renaissance Romance (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2007).

[15] Susanne Wofford, The Choice of Achilles: The Ideology of Figure in the Epic (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1992).

[16] I am grateful to Jeff Dolven for first helping me to read Errour in this way.

[17] Joseph C. Flay, Hegel’s Quest for Certainty (Albany: SUNY P, 1984), 14.

[18] I disagree here with the argument for her consistent historical specificity advanced by Richard A. McCabe, “The Masks of Duessa: Spenser, Mary Queen of Scots, and James VI,” English Literary Renaissance 17 (1987), 224-42, esp. 229-31.

[19] Gillian Rose, Hegel Contra Sociology (London: Athlone, 1981), 154.

[20] Gillian Rose, “The Comedy of Hegel and the Trauerspiel of Modern Philosophy,” Mourning Becomes the Law: Philosophy and Representation (Cambridge: CUP, 1996), 63-76; 71-2. See the related claim by Charles Taylor that for Hegel, “Perception of objects is available only to a subject who is an embodied agent interacting with the world he experiences” (“The Opening Arguments of the Phenomenology,” Hegel: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Alasdair MacIntyre [Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 1976], 151-87; 182).

[21] Simon Jarvis, “Spirit Medium: On Hegel’s Phenomenology,” The Cambridge Literary Review 2 (2010), 147-159; 153-4.

[22] Gillian Rose describes “the movement of the Absolute as comedy” (“The Comedy of Hegel,” 64): for the older and more frequently repeated claim that the text features a tragic movement see Donald Philip Verene, Hegel’s Recollection: A Study of Images in the Phenomenology of Spirit (Albany: SUNY P, 1985), 111-12, 114, Terry Eagleton, Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), 41-3.

[23] Judith Butler, “Commentary on Joseph Flay’s ‘Hegel, Derrida, and Bataille’s Laughter,’” Hegel and His Critics: Philosophy in the Aftermath of Hegel, ed. William Desmond (Albany: SUNY P, 1989), 174-8; 175. Verene offers a similar account though without mentioning Don Quixote by name: “every stage of consciousness described in the Phenomenology,” he writes, “is an illusion, a trap, a Verwicklung, an entanglement, a confusion, an embarrassment of consciousness. This occurs because at every stage consciousness believes that it has found reality… . But this discovery, as it attempts to work out its details and its supposed power, turns into an embarrassment, a confusion. It has been deluded. But it learns very little from this experience. Optimistically it grasps another master key to reality and asserts it, dedicates itself to this new understanding, of the object and itself” (Hegel’s Recollection, 105).

[24] Rose, Hegel Contra Sociology, 159.

[25] John H. Smith, The Spirit and Its Letter: Traces of Rhetoric in Hegel’s Philosophy of Bildung (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1988), 179, 178. Hegel’s self-description tantalisingly recalls Pope’s famous anecdote concerning The Faerie Queene, which is of course often discussed in terms of “literary pictorialism”: “After my reading a canto of Spenser two or three days ago to an old lady between 70 and 80, she said that I had been showing her a collection of pictures. She said very right” (Joseph Spence, Observations, Anecdotes, and Characters of Books and Men [London: John Murray, 1820], 86).

[26] David W. Price, “Hegel’s Intertextual Dialectic: Diderot’s Le Neveu de Rameau in The Phenomenology of Spirit,” The Phenomenology of Spirit Reader, ed. Jon Stewart (Albany: SUNY P, 1998), 272-281; 278, 280, and citing Paul de Man, “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983), 187-228; 207.

[27] This argument is made particularly forcefully by James Hulbert, “Diderot in the text of Hegel: A Question of Intertextuality,” Studies in Romanticism, 22 (1983), 267-91, esp. 275, 283, 290. See also the account by Hans Robert Jauss, “Le Neveu de Rameau: Dialogique et Dialectique,” Revue Metaphysique et Morale 89 (1984), 145-81, esp. 173.

[28] Henry Staten, Nietzsche’s Voice (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990), Jacques Derrida, Éperons: Les Styles de Nietzsche (Paris: Flammarion, 1978).

[29] Hulbert, “Diderot in the text of Hegel,” 275.

[30] Josephine Waters Bennett, The Evolution of The Faerie Queene (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1942), 15. This argument was given wider currency by J. A. Burrow, who argues that Spenser “nowhere in his writings betrays his awareness—supposing he was aware—of the burlesque character of Sir Thopas,” and he suggests that Spenser “read Sir Thopas at one level as a serious moral allegory” (“Sir Thopas in the Sixteenth Century,”  Middle English Studies Presented to Norman Davis in Honour of his Seventieth Birthday, ed. Douglas Gray & E. G. Stanley [Oxford: Clarendon, 1983], 69-91; 81, “Chaucer, Geoffrey,” The Spenser Encyclopedia, ed. Hamilton, 144-8; 146). For the refutation see Judith H. Anderson, “‘Pricking on the Plaine’: Spenser’s Intertextual Endings and Beginnings,” in Reading the Allegorical Intertext: Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton (New York: Fordham UP, 2008), 54-60; 58.

[31] John Dryden, Of Dramatic Poesy and Other Critical Essays, ed. George Watson (London: Dent, 1962), 2.270.

[32] See Angus Fletcher, The Prophetic Moment: An Essay on Spenser (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1971), for a rich account of the implications of prophetic-poetic utterance for The Faerie Queene.

[33] Jarvis, “Spirit Medium,” 155; the first quotation Jarvis cites from Gregory Nagy, Plato’s Rhapsody and Homer’s Music: The Poetics of the Panathenaic Festival in Clas­sical Athens (Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2002), 32-3.

[34] Emil L. Fackenheim, The Religious Dimension in Hegel’s Thought (Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1967), 33.

[35] These words are not from Berger’s Spenser criticism but from his “Archaism, Vision and Revision: Studies in Virgil, Plato and Milton,” Centennial Review 11 (1967), 24-52; I first encountered them cited by Angus Fletcher, The Transcendental Masque: An Essay on Milton’s Comus (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1971), 119n.3.

[36] Warminski, “Reading for Example,” 88-9.

[37] Jean Starobinski, “The Struggle with Legion: A Literary Analysis of Mark 5: 1-20,” trans. Dan O. Via, Jr., New Literary History 4.2 (1973), 331-56; 341-2.

[38] On this allusion see John Erskine Haskins, Source and Meaning in Spenser’s Allegory (Oxford: Clarendon, 1971), 84-7.

[39] Theodor W. Adorno, “Skoteinos, or How to Read Hegel,” Hegel: Three Studies, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993), 146-7.




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Cite as:

Joe Moshenska, "Why Can’t Spenserians Stop Talking About Hegel? A Response to Gordon Teskey," Spenser Review 44.1.2 (Spring-Summer 2014). Accessed September 25th, 2018.
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