For Hölderlin’s Soul

Sometime after he returned from France, in 1802, the German poet, Friedrich Hölderlin started to unravel. In 1803, one of his old school buddies from Tübingen wrote to another mutual school buddy.
The saddest sight I’ve seen during my stay here was that of Hölderlin. Since his journey to France, where he traveled on Professor Ströhlin’s recommendation with a completely false conception of what the duties of his position were to be, and whence he immediately returned again, since it appears that demands were made of him which he was incapable of fulfilling, and which were not compatible with his sensitivity — since this unfortunate journey, his spirit has become completely disturbed, and although he has proved capable of a few works, such as the translations from the Greek, he is otherwise thoroughly absent of spirit. The sight of him was unsettling to me: he neglects his appearance to the point of repugnance, and though his speech is less suggestive of madness, he has taken on the outward mannerism of those in such a condition. There is no hope of being able to restore him to health here.

The thing was that  there was not much hope for poor Hölderlin. He went crazy and basically stayed that way until his death in 1843.

I was prompted to read some of his stuff because I kept running across books and articles with titles something like Hölderlin, Nietzsche, Heidegger, or Hölderlin, Heidegger, Adorno or some such. So I read Hyperion, Hölderlin’s epistolary novel from 1797 or 1799 (it came out in two parts). And it is…well, it’s fantastic. I mean it’s got beautiful poetic language, passionate, moving passages, a passionate friendship, a tender love-affair, a fight for freedom (the novel takes place during the Greek rebellion against the Ottomans of 1770)…everything. It is also overtly philosophical and fully of truly profound thoughts on nature, man, freedom, etc. The other thing the novel is full of, is references to ancient Greece. This becomes relevant for all those philosophical papers I mentioned.

There are two diametrically opposed philosophical traditions, both claiming Hölderlin as their own. Let’s call them the Nietzscheans and the Hegelians. Freddy (Nietzsche) thought Holderlin a kindred soul, because they were both obsessed with ancient Greece and its philosophy, poetry, tragedy; they were both misunderstood in their respective times (or so Freddy thought, he was more popular than he knew), both went mad, etc. The personal similarities never end. Early on in his career, Freddy wrote poetry in honor of Hölderlin and scholarly essays about him that were poorly received partly because they were coming from him, partly because the subject was somebody who was on his way to be forgotten (or so it seemed in the 19th century).

Martin Heidegger, following Nietzsche (we’re putting him in that camp for our purposes here), also spent a lot of time reading and writing about Hölderlin. He gave a series of lectures in 1942 about Hölderlin’s poem The Ister, this being the ancient Greek name for the river Danube (at least the part downstream in the Balkans). Marty (Heidegger) fancied himself the greatest philosopher of all time, and the greatest expert on all things ancient Greek, so he deemed it appropriate to render judgment on previous thinkers. Here’s a passage from his Introduction to Metaphysics.
Of all the early Greek thinkers it is Heraclitus who, in the course of Western history, has suffered the most transformation along un-Greek lines, and yet who in recent years has provided the strongest impulse toward rediscovery of the authentic Greek spirit. Hegel and Hölderlin were both under the great and fruitful spell of Heraclitus, but with the difference that Hegel looked backward and drew a line under the past while Hölderlin looked forward and opened up the way to the future. Still different was Nietzsche’s relation to Heraclitus. Nietzsche was a victim of the current (and false) opposition between Parmenides and Heraclitus. This is one of the main reason why in his metaphysics he did not find his way to the decisive question, even though he understood the great age of Greek beginnings with a depth that was surpassed only by Hölderlin.

In a paper entitled Between Hölderlin and Heidegger: Nietzsche’s Transfiguration of Philosophy, the author quotes another Heideggerian scholar. “Föster writes that Heidegger ‘entered into a dialogue with the poet that continued throughout his life,’ whereby ‘Hölderlin represents the alternative to the entire metaphysical tradition that reaches its peak in Hegel’s system.'”

Which is a stunning pronouncement all on its own, you see, because the letter I quoted at the beginning was written to Hegel by another philosopher of German idealism, Friedrich Schelling (I know, they were all Friedrich, including Hegel). Hegel and Hölderlin were born a few months apart in 1770, and roomed together (along with the slightly older Schelling) in Tübinger Stift in the 1790s. Meaning that in one bedroom in the 1790s, the world contained one guy who was the pinnacle of an ‘entire metaphysical tradition,’ and one guy who represented its alternative. (One wonders: a well timed earthquake…)

Which is why there are people who want to claim Holderlin back into the Hegelian tradition. Like Georg Lukacs, the Hungarian philosopher and Marxist. He has a 1934 essay, in which he is trying to reclaim Hölderlin from the Nazis, since he had by then been revived and become a Nazi favorite.

For Lukacs, Holderlin was an unfinished Hegel. They were both swept in the fervor of the French Revolution and both dismayed by the Terror that followed it, and disappointed by Napoleon. (They also both translated Sophocles’ Antigone from ancient Greek, Hegel too being obsessed with the ancients.) Clearly, they were both trying to make sense of the new bourgeois world emerging in Europe at the time. But whereas Hegel overcame this problem (the only other person to have overcome this problem as well, according to Lukacs, is Balzac) and saw the Terror, Thermidor and Napoleon as necessary phases, Holderlin’s pure, aesthetic soul could not bear the defeat of the French Revolution, and he got lost in mysticism in his writing, and madness in his own life. Thus Lukacs.

To be continued…

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