Joe Hill’s NOS4A2: Creativity, Inscape, and Horror

Joe Hill has a new book out, and it’s filled with references to his father, Stephen King, to David Mitchell, and to Gerard Manley Hopkins (and to others, I’m sure). Although the references to Mitchell are somehow the most surprising to me, it’s the references to Hopkins’s notion of “inscape” that intrigue me the most. (Then again, it’s the use of “inscape” that might explain the references to Mitchell.)


nos4a2-coverThere are a few characters in the novel who have special creative abilities.  The protagonist, Vic McQueen, can find lost objects or people using her “Shorter Way Bridge,” when she travels over it with a vehicle of some sort (a bike, a motorcycle, etc.). Charlie Manx, the principle villain, uses his own vehicle, a Rolls Royce Wraith, to take children to a place called “Christmasland,” a place in his “thoughtworld” or “world of inscapes” that’s inaccessible to anyone without a special creative inscape or ability.

Another of these characters with special abilities, Maggie Leigh, works in a library and through her extensive reading she discovers that Hopkins’s notion of “inscape” describes  these special creative abilities perfectly. According to Catherine Phillips’s introduction to the Oxford edition of Hopkins’s major works, “Inscape is often used of the characteristic shape of a thing or species. An artist’s analysis, […] it is used for the crucial features that form or communicate the inner character, essence, or ‘personality’ of something; one portrait is preferable to another, for example, because it conveys not just a passing mood but the personality of which that mood is a part.” Inscape is “the result of mental analysis and perception” (xx).

What’s interesting here is the importance of the observer, the necessary interplay between the thing and the artistic observation of the thing, in creating that inscape or essence. The inscape is the truth, yet it is the “result of mental analysis and perception.” Even if that perception or artistic representation is fictional, it’s what captures the real essence. The same is true in NOS4A2, as Maggie explains:

There’s the real world, with all its annoying facts and rules. In the real world, there are things that are true and things that aren’t. Mostly the real world s-s-s-suh-sucks. But everyone also lives in the world inside their own head. An inscape, a world of thought. In a world made of thought—in an inscape—every idea is a fact. Emotions are as real as gravity. Dreams are as powerful as history. Creative people, like writers, and Henry Rollins, spend a lot of their time hanging out in their thoughtworld. S-s-strong creatives, though, can use a knife to cut the stitches between the two worlds, can bring them together. Your bike. My tiles. Those are our knives. (p. 100) [fn. 1]

The point above is the use of creativity by these “strong creatives” to learn about the world around them, to cut into it and get at its essence. And as with Gerard Manley Hopkins, the inscape world, or the thoughtworld, or the idea-world, is real. (“Emotions are real as gravity. Dreams are as powerful as history.”) Later in the novel, Maggie says of Christmasland, “Oh, it’s a real place. Ideas are as real as rocks. Your bridge is real, too, you know” (p. 552). I’m reminded here of Žižek’s virtuality of the Real:

The big Other is a virtual order which exists only through subjects ‘believing’ in it; if, however, a subject were to suspend its belief in the big Other, the subject itself, its ‘reality,’ would disappear. The paradox is that symbolic fiction is constitutive of reality: if we take away the fiction, we lose reality itself. (Less Than Nothing 93).

For Žižek, as for Joe Hill and Gerard Manley Hopkins, ideas constitute reality. Now, this goes far beyond saying, “Well, sometimes really good ideas affect reality.” I mean, that’s just patently obvious, and fairly banal. Who doesn’t understand that? Žižek goes further, saying that ideas constitute reality. The Real is itself virtual. The capital-R Real, the real Real, the Real that is so Real we can’t actually full access it, is virtual (though the Real is still that which “resists” symbolization). In NOS4A2, this means that creativity is important; and fiction is important. The truth is accessed — insofar as it can be accessed — through fiction. In an interview, Hill calls NOS4A2 his “senior thesis on horror fiction.” [fn. 2] Throughout the novel, Hill highlights the importance of fiction itself, and he engages with what [horror] fiction is, or what it’s potential is.


Vic McQueen, uses her special inscape ability to find things she’s lost, such as a photograph she left at school, or a fancy bracelet left in a restaurant. And what she needs to do this is a “vehicle” and a “bridge.” Sound familiar? It sounds to me like the very definition of a metaphor. When Vic explains her creative ability, she says, “People who could do impossible things if they had the right vehicle” (p. 311; my emphasis; see also p. 408 for the same basic phrasing). Vic’s “vehicle” is a bike that she has to drive headlong over a shaky wooden “bridge” called the “Shorter Way Bridge.” By definition, metaphors are conceptual bridges. They unite two unlike things; they take “the shorter way.” In order to do this they use a “vehicle.” In rhetoric, the “vehicle” of a metaphor is the unlike object to which the comparison is made. For example, if I compared my mistress’ eyes to the sun, the eyes are the “tenor” and the sun is the “vehicle.” [fn. 3] The vehicle is what takes your understanding of a given idea to a new conceptual realm.

Vic’s journeys over her bridge are headlong (sometimes her brakes aren’t even fully working), and she never knows if it’s safe to cross, or where she’s going to end up. Isn’t this the experience of the creative act? You don’t know what you’re going to write before you write it. It’s dangerous. You try something, rushing headlong into it, and you don’t know if it’s going to work, where you’re going to end up, or what you’re going to find.

In her spare time Vic writes a successful children’s book about a character called “Search Engine.” Why “Search Engine”? Because that’s what her Shorter Way Bridge is for: searching for lost objects. And, as above, isn’t this a good way of thinking about what the creative act is like? It’s a search until you realize, Yes, this is what I was looking for, and this word choice or metaphor is just right—I’ve found it, and this finally captures that essence I was looking for, but could not yet articulate. Thomas Carlyle said the Poet says what all men were longing to say. Percy Shelley said the Poet sees the future in the present, and that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. In a weird way, I think Joe Hill is playing in the general area of this tradition; he’s engaging with how the writer or the poet makes that headlong leap using the semantic or metaphoric bridge to find what was already there, just out of our reach, lost then found. Which metaphor, which clearly “unrealistic” intrusion of the supernatural captures the “real” essence?

The Ethics of Horror Fiction in NOS4A2

It’s with Charlie Manx, the villain of the novel, where it becomes clear what Hill is doing with inscape’s relation to horror. Like Vic, Manx uses a creative, metaphoric “vehicle.” Only this time his vehicle is evil—a Rolls Royce “Wraith” with license plate number “NOS4A2.” Manx uses his inscape and his vehicle to drain “unhappiness” from the children he kidnaps, when he brings them to Christmasland, a place where it is Christmas every day. This destroys the children, because when they “can’t understand anything except fun” they’re literally turned into monsters. Maggie says, “Innocence ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, you know. Innocent little kids rip the wings off flies, because they don’t know any better. That’s innocence” (p. 552). Wayne, Vic’s own child, begins doing this to a butterfly when he is kidnapped by Manx. In short, children can be little sociopaths if they don’t understand or care what’s evil, or horrific.[fn. 4] According to NOS4A2, you need both innocence and experience, happiness and unhappiness, in order to be a balanced human being. You need a little bit of horror fiction, says Hill. It’s good for you. Because if you rob someone of their ability to experience horror, such that the horror isn’t horror, then where does that leave you? You’ll be like Wayne, ripping wings off butterflies and not understanding what’s wrong with that.

Although he is a “strong creative,” Manx’s monstrosity stems from his lack of imagination. Christmasland represents the “limits of Charlie Manx’s imagination” (p. 641). He can’t imagine or understand the horror of a situation. Maggie describes Christmasland as Manx’s “idea of endless fun, endless youth, dressed up in a form his dumb little mind can understand” (p. 552). It is this idiocy, this limited imagination that turns Manx into a monster, and allows him to turn the children he kidnaps into monsters in precisely the same kind of way. During the climactic battle, Vic realizes, “Whatever the children had become, whatever [Manx] had done to them, he had done to make them safe, to keep them from being run down by the world. He believed in his own decency with all his heart. So it was with every true monster, Vic supposed” (p. 651).

George Eliot agreed with Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments that “the sympathetic imagination is the foundation of all morality” (Austen 560). And for Eliot, literature fostered this imagination. I suspect that although George Eliot was a staunch Victorian realist, she and Joe Hill are really on the same page. (See also Dickens’s contrast between Fact and Fancy in Hard Times for more of the same idea from another Victorian “realist.”) A weak imagination means an inability to sympathize with others—one fails to imagine oneself in another’s shoes. If that someone else is experiencing something horrific, you won’t sympathize in the proper way. And if you can’t sympathize, you don’t fully understand what’s happening.

Hill explores the effects of a lack of imaginative sympathy further after Manx is defeated. We realize that Manx’s kidnapping victim, Wayne, is still damaged by his experience. Wayne discovers that he takes a kind of sick pleasure in horrific things. When he sees things like a plane crash or news stories about wars in other parts of the world, Wayne feels “charged, jolted by excitement and guilt, as if he were looking at pornography” (p. 677). This is the flipside of horror fiction; it’s exactly what happens when horror loses half its effect, and becomes, instead, a kind of pornography. In the interview I quote from above, Hill notes “I’ve always detested when horror in the late ’90s turned into torture-porn,” because such works “failed at accomplishing the aims of horror.” In other words, they left out the most important part, the ethical dimension of horror. This is also the hardest part, because it requires real imagination. You have to imagine yourself in the shoes of the victim in order for the horror to really hit home, in order for you to fully understand it.

The references to David Mitchell, especially those to Jacob de Zoet, make a little bit more sense in this context. Even though it’s set at the turn of the nineteenth century, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is very much about finding a moral compass in the modern world; so too is NOS4A2. The generational conflicts, and especially the long echoing effects of individual actions — which I’ve talked less about here — also helps explain the references to Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. The thinking about the nature of creativity, and the ways in which the artistic process is an encounter with the New, a headlong rush over a shaky bridge into the unknown, seems one of the most important ways in which NOS4A2 engages with the work of Hill’s father, Stephen King; I’m reminded of the latter books in the Dark Tower series, in which King often talks about how he doesn’t know what’s going to come next, and can’t control the story as much as he’d like. (The author is just a channel for Gan or whatever.)

I find it refreshing to see horror that wrestles with the problems of its own genre, and with fiction more generally. I agree with Wayne Booth that there is a “rhetoric of fiction.” Every novel takes a stance, posits an implied author, puts you into a subject position, regarding this or that theme or ethical dilemma. This is not true only of propaganda fiction–all fiction does this, and must do this. The really good novels question or complicate their own stance, or the stance of their entire genre, as well as the nature of how such stances come to be. To my mind, NOS4A2 succeeds in this endeavor.


[1] The reference to the knife reminds me of Carol Ann Duffy’s “Little Red Cap,” in which the speaker discovers that the poet-wolf she’s sleeping with “howls the same old song at the moon, year in, year out, / season after season, same rhyme, same reason,” so she ventures out on her own, and uses an axe (read: a pen) to deconstruct the world around her: “I took an axe / to a willow to see how it wept. I took an axe to a salmon / to see how it leapt. I took an axe…” (lines 35-8).

[2] Joe Hill interview at the AV Club.

[3] You probably shouldn’t compare your mistress’s eyes to the sun, though. Shakespeare basically already called you out on how lame this is.

[4] The Onion agrees: Kids are sociopaths.

Other References

Austen, Zelda. “Why Feminist Critics Are Angry with George Eliot.” College English 37.6 (1976): 549-61. Print.

Hill, Joe. NOS4A2: A Novel. New York: William Morrow, 2013. Print.

Phillips, Catherine. “Introduction.” Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Major Works. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. xv-xxxv. Print.

Žižek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism. London: Verso, 2012. Print.


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Mad Men and Desire

I’ve been re-binging through AMC’s Mad Men. I caught up, having missed the last season and a half, and then decided to hell with it–I’ll just start over. Watching it now, I think the interplay between desire and condemnation in Mad Men is really where a lot of the meat of the show is, and that’s also where it gets difficult to unpack.

What do I mean here? A common (bad) criticism of Mad Men might be, “Oh, but look at all the drinking, racism, and sexism! That stuff is bad!” to which the obvious response is a somewhat confused, “Uh, okay, but it’s obviously condemning all those things, so I don’t know what your problem is?” The former criticism seems, at first glance, to be a bit like thinking the writers of the Sopranos are pro-murder, or that the writers of Breaking Bad are in favour of drug trafficking, and destroying your family and those around you in order to ensure your ego is satisfied. The criticism is stupid, and it comes up again and again with any form of art that portrays “bad” things, or has an anti-hero, or whatever. Hell, even Dickens received that criticism. But just because a given behavior or ideology is depicted does not mean it is being advocated. Duh.

But with Mad Men there’s more to it than that. Yes, we’re condemning Don Draper’s adultery and lifestyle choices, the drinking, the rampant sexism, the consumerism, and so on, but doesn’t the camera like to play with the fact that we also desire (many aspects of) this lifestyle? Don’t we ogle over those perfectly tailored suits, those perfectly trim haircuts? Even the drinking and the sex in the office? And don’t we admire the “legend of Don Draper” (to quote a character in the show) such that, when the really troubling stuff comes up with him (the racism, the sexism) it’s a bit jarring? (As opposed to when Pete or some minor character shows they’re a massive, privileged bigot, which is just par for the course.)

I’m not just saying there are people who don’t “get” Mad Men, and that these people just sort of tune out the fact that maybe the show isn’t always advocating Don’s lifestyle. (Though I’m sure these people exist.) No, I’m saying that according to the logic of the show, you should feel a bit of desire for everything Don has, for what Dick Whitman has become, the man he has turned himself into. He’s not just something to condemn. If you find yourself, like various characters in the show, occasionally lured in by the myth of Don Draper… well, good. You’re paying attention.

First, Don knows he’s selling something that’s unattainable–the objet petit a, in Lacanian terms. As Don says, “What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.” The fact is, we want to be like Don, we want that lifestyle, even as we condemn it for being ultimately empty. Don understands this, but when Dick Whitman is given a new name, and can construct any identity he wants, what does he pick? Being a successful creative ad man, a partner in a firm, wearing the latest fashions, but without being too obviously a slave to fashion trends (note that in Season Six Don hasn’t yet adopted sideburns, unlike Pete and Roger). Don is fully aware of who and what he is, that he’s totally just a part of the machine, workin’ for the man, or whatever, but at the end of the day that’s exactly where he wants to be.

In 2013 we’re obviously still living in an age very much created by the self-styled “mad men” of Madison Avenue. Now we want to think we’re sophisticated, and that we’re totally aware that all this consumerism stuff is just “phony” (side note: I loved Sally’s recent use of this word, plus her visit to the New York Museum of Natural History — has she been reading her Salinger?), and yet, there we are, all the same, often participating in the very same aspects of our culture we tend to criticize. Ironic distance doesn’t really solve much; it just keeps us in a social position from which we can criticize the thing we don’t really want to change, because if it did change, the social position from which we are free to criticize would be upset. Just look at all those times in Mad Men Season 1 where Don calls out members of the counter-culture for being just as hypocritical as he is, if not more so.

I’m reminded of two Zizekian ideas. First, Zizek’s “subject supposed to believe,” the idea that Oh, no, I don’t really believe X–I just fake it, because that other guy believes X. But if everyone’s pretending, putting on a performance (like, say, Dick Whitman), what’s the difference? Even if you don’t “believe” in X, you’re still enjoying it. You’re still enjoying that position from which you’re free to pretend you don’t believe in it. We all condemn consumerism — seriously, who doesn’t do this, to some extent? Isn’t it even just a bit obscene when someone is fully invested in it, without that bit of self-conscious distancing? — but then, in real life, it’s like, goddamn, look at those sweet jeans! And they’re on sale!

Secondly, I’m reminded of Zizek’s dialectics. First you have the stupid appearance (boy, Don Draper is cool!), then you have the ingenious correction, the contradiction inherent in the initial proposition or appearance (but wait: everything that makes Don cool is ultimately presented as empty!), but then, finally, you have the return to the initial, stupid appearance (I know that lifestyle is supposed to be empty, and yet… I still want to enjoy all of it, and I still go to my hair stylist and ask for “the Mad Men cut”).

One of the solutions to ironic distance (which is really just the occupation of that final position, where we’re free to enjoy) is the New Sincerity, which can be seen in the refreshing earnestness of Parks and Recreation (at least, Parks and Rec is my favourite example; the author of the link above lists Wes Anderson). But maybe, just maybe, it can be seen in Mad Men as well, at least in terms of the way the show calls us out on that which we claim to condemn; it calls us out on the insincerity of our condemnations.

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Stephen King’s The Dark Tower: a re-read, hazy thoughts, and the Virtual

I’m re-reading Stephen King’s Dark Tower series (so I know the ending), and so far I’ve been very impressed.

Having re-read the earlier ones again (I’m on the sixth book, Song of Susannah, right now), some of the things that I was on the fence about, and the things that I know other people absolutely hated — I’m looking at you, number nineteen, Doctor Doom Wolves and Harry Potter “Sneetches,” and certain intertextual and metatextual cameos I know are coming up — now seem a lot better, and a lot more coherent, what with the internal logic established by the series.

Speaking of “internal logic established by the series,” I think internal logic is an appropriate term for at least a big part of what the “Dark Tower” itself stands for. The internal logic of a work of fiction, or perhaps a body of work. What “holds it together,” so to speak. The focus on “19” relates to King’s body of work being such a product of its time(s), the latter half of the 1900s, culminating in 19-99.  This again relates to the different times from which Roland pulls his ka-tet, to the breakdown of time being experienced in Mid-World, to the heavy focus on dialect and its relation to place and time, and to the role of a “gunslinger,” or the figure of the gunslinger, in a world that has moved on. Moved on from what? Other stories, other genres. There’s obviously a big focus on stories, genre and their relation to history, and to intertextuality.

For example, I just read the bit with Trudy Damascus in Song of Susannah. Trudy doesn’t believe in UFOs or fantastic stories, until she sees Susannah/Mia show up out of thin air, magically. The scenes focalized through Trudy make constant references to Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, in which Scrooge ascribes Marley’s ghostly presence to indigestion, a bit of underdone potato. The point here, with both A Christmas Carol and with the episode with Trudy, is that it doesn’t matter what *really* happened, in a way. What matters is that whether Scrooge’s or Trudy’s experience did or did not happen, they are fundamentally changed, forever. Trudy will never again scoff at people who believe in fantastic stories and UFOs; Scrooge will never look at Christmas the same way again, whether it was a bad dream brought on by indigestion or not. Even fiction has real power, in the “real” world. Our lives are, as Slavoj Žižek would say, governed precisely by that which is virtual, immaterial: fictional narratives we’ve absorbed so deep into our bones that we don’t even know we know them.

Many of my thoughts are very hazy right now, but I’ll have to write more on it, because I’m now thinking there is a whole lot going on.

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Slavoj Žižek on wrapping your head around Hegel

Standard Žižek. Vulgar jokes combined with an encouragement to not settle for your initial, first-glance interpretation.


Also, the idea that Hegel somehow thought that history’s over with him, that he comes at the end. It’s — I mean, it’s empirically not true. […] So, at least, empirically, he wasn’t an idiot.

– Žižek, Slavoj, “Slavoj Žižek. The Return to Hegel Part 1/16,” Saas-Fee, Switzerland: The European Graduate School, 2009. YouTube. Web. 21 August 2012.


Allow me to conclude, to propose my final formula. Because still, now, I’m well aware, I just tried to confuse you. Like, you think you, as it were, caught Hegel by his balls and are squeezing them, but no, Hegel finds a way out, and so on. No no no, I nonetheless propose this formula.

– Žižek, Slavoj, “SLAVOJ ZIZEK Negativity in Hegel and Freud, Part 6,” New York: The Deutsches Haus at New York University, 28 October 2011. YouTube. Web. 21 August 2012.

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Žižek, the Coen Bros., and C.S. Peirce on the semiotic reality of math formulas

How do you represent what can’t be represented? (Painfully inadequate metaphors, duh.)

Then, the Symbolic Real.

It’s simply, for example, scientific discourse, scientific formulas, like quantum physics. Why is this Real? For a simple reason: the minimum definition of the Real, for Lacan, is that which resists symbolization, inclusion into our universe of meaning. And isn’t that precisely which happens for example with quantum physics? What is quantum physics? Formulas which work — experimentally confirmed and so on and so on — but we cannot translate them into our daily experience of ordinary reality. As we all know, this is what is so traumatic about quantum physics. We literally cannot understand it. Not in the sense that we, common people, cannot understand it, only a couple of scientists can — even they cannot. In what sense? In the sense that it just works, but if you tried to build a consistent ontology out of it, again, you get meaningless results. You get time running backwards, you get parallel universes, or whatever. In other words you get things which simply are meaningless with regard to our ordinary notion of reality. So this would be Symbolic Real. Symbolic, obviously it is Symbolic: formulas, pure signifiers. They function, it’s a functioning machine, but, meaningless. We cannot make any sense out of it. We cannot relate it to our experience. Which is why we try so desperately to do it, which is why we try to invent metaphors to imagine quantum universe. But, it cannot be done.

— Slavoj Žižek The Reality of the Virtual (2004) (my transcription)


(awkwardly writing formulas on the board)
Okay. So. This part is exciting. So. Am I right? So, okay. So, if that’s that, then we can do this. And that’s Shrodinger’s paradox, right? Is the cat dead? Or is the cat… not dead?


(Shortly thereafter, in Larry’s office.)

So, uh, what can I do for you?

Uh, Doctor Gopnik. I believe the results of the physic midterm were unjust.

Uh huh. How so?

I received unsatisfactory grade. In fact, ‘F,’ the failing grade.

Uh, yes. You failed the midterm. That’s accurate.

Yes, but that is not just. I was unaware to be examined on the mathematics.

Well, you can’t do physics without mathematics, really, can you?

If I received a failing grade, I lose my scholarship. And I feel shame! I understand the physics! I understand the dead cat!

But y-you can’t really understand the physics without understanding the math. The math tells how it really works. That’s the real thing. The stories I give in class are just illustrative. They’re like fables, say, to help give you a picture. I mean… even I don’t understand the dead cat. The math is how it really works.

Very difficult. Very difficult.

A Serious Man (2009) (my transcription)


Thus, an algebraic formula is an icon [i.e. a type of sign which shares some similar property with its object], rendered such by the rules of commutation, association, and distribution of the symbols. It may seem at first glance that it is an arbitrary classification to call an algebraic expression an icon; that it might as well, or better, be regarded as a compound conventional sign. But it is not so. For a great distinguishing property of the icon is that by the direct observation of it other truths concerning its object can be discovered than those which suffice to determine its construction. [par. 279]


Many diagrams [i.e. the second type of “hypoicon”] resemble their objects not at all in looks; it is only in respect to the relations of their parts that their likeness consists. [par. 282]

— Charles Sanders Peirce, Collected Papers Vol. 2

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Slavoj Žižek, on writing books

I like his method.

I have a very complicated ritual about writing. It’s psychologically impossible for me to sit down, so I have to trick myself. I operate a very simple strategy which, at least, with me, works. I put down ideas, but I put them down usually already in a relatively elaborate way, like the line of thought already written, full sentences, and so on.

So up to a certain point I’m telling myself, no, I’m not yet writing, I’m just putting down ideas. Then, at a certain point, I tell myself, everything is already there, now I just have to edit it. So that’s the idea, to split it into two: I put down notes, I edit it. Writing disappears.

— From Žižek! (2005)

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New Žižek book: Less Than Nothing

Žižek has a new book on Hegel: Less Than Nothing. And I ordered it! Finally! I say that kinda like someone who has read everything by Žižek and has been thirsty for more, but that’s not really true. There’s plenty of his stuff that I haven’t read. (Most of his stuff, actually.) But this one is, like, different from his other stuff, man.

No, seriously:

“A lot of what I write is blah, blah, bullshit, a diversion from the 700-page book on Hegel I should be writing.”

“A life in writing: Slavoj Žižek” @ the guardian

And another quote:

And on Saturday, I propose to go into Hegel, the limits of Hegel, again, with a detailed new analysis. Because you know, enemies of the people claim I am just bluffing – “that big book of Hegel, ‘haha,’ I will never write it” – Fuck you. I have it. 800 pages.

“The Idea of Communism and Its Actuality” Masterclass @ Birckbeck Institute for the Humanities

So… there you go. He has it. 800 pages. (Reviews on Amazon indicate it’s more than that, actually.)

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