For Hölderlin’s Soul continued

Far be it from me to decide which of the two philosophical positions on Hölderlin is correct. Nor do I feel comfortable giving some deep literary analysis of Hyperion, since it requires at least one more reading from me and a lot more thinking.

However, I want to give you my impressions of these philosophic interpretations of Hölderlin’s work. I should probably disclaim that I have studied a little Hegel and have a (perhaps bad) habit of reading his philosophy into many a text. I am always suspicious of a text that sounds overly Hegelian, because I’m afraid that I’m just reading my own mind back to myself. So when I kept running across Hegelian thought throughout Hyperion, I was worried.

That being said, let’s try to leave an overtly Hegelian critique aside for a moment. The Nietzschean side of this debate (and here that does not mean all Nietzscheans nor solely Nietzscheans, but rather those who subscribe to that interpretations of Hölderlin) seems to me to be an incredibly sensitive literary analysis of Hölderlin. Not only of the thought, which we think as the important thing for philosophy, but the beauty of the prose, the rhythm of the words and sentences. So not just the content, but the style. In addition to that, the Nietzscheans are sensitive to Hölderlin’s relationship with ancient philosophy. Hyperion (the novel) takes place in 18th century Greece, but in Greece nonetheless. And although that civilization is irretrievably gone, the lessons are there, in their philosophy, plays, sculptures, temples. These lessons for Hyperion (the main character) are not just markers of the past, but ideals towards which me must move to live in a better world (to over simplify things).

This account, however, suffers from a kind of ahistoricity in two ways. The first is that it seems to talk about Man in ancient Greece and Man today in the same way: these are questions of metaphysics, of fate and freedom, of tragedy and suffering, as if Hölderlin’s eyes upon Europe of the 18th century are our eyes upon our world are the eyes of Heraclitus upon his world. Surely, our civilization (if we may broadly say that Hölderlin’s civilization is ours) and the ancient Greek are different enough? Surely, some development has taken place in the world in the last two and a half millenia to question such conflation?

The second ahistoric aspect of Nietzschean accounts is that reading it, one would think that this is writing pulled out of a personal suffering and tragedy and could have been written in the 12th century as well as in the late 20th. This is some kind of rarefied, metaphysical thought! No mention of the revolutions that rocked Europe, of the problem of living in turbulent times, when an old (Medieval) world is crumbling much, much faster than the new (bourgeois) can form. Greece may be the site of old Hellas, but it was also the site of the nascent modern Greek nation state, a cause célèbre of the literary world of the day (Lord Byron famously went to fight with the Greeks). Tragedy and suffering are noble topics, but the thought that Hölderlin might have also been thinking of the question “What now that the Turks are gone?” does not enter into the Nietzschean equation. (And if the question seems particular to Greece, consider that the French revolutionaries and German idealists would have had to ask themselves the same.)


I need to read more accounts of the Hegelian interpretation of Hölderlin, because Lukacs botched this one. In his zeal to stick it to the National Socialist and their ideologues (this was written in 1934, after all), he reads Hölderlin like it’s a decorated version of a philosophy stuck half way between Rousseau and Marx. Or else Hyperion is a poetic narration of the history of the failed French Revolution. Literature is neither veiled philosophy, nor a glorified diary of events.

Here is a passage form Lukacs’ essay. “His Alabanda says of the bourgeois: “One does not ask if you want! Slaves and barbarians, you never want! It is not you we wish to improve, for this would be in vain! “We wish to take care only that you get out of the way of the victorious advance of mankind.” A revolutionary Jacobin in Paris in 1793 could have spoken such words amid the rejoicing of the plebeian masses. In Germany in 1797, such a view signified a despairing and disconsolate solitude, for there was no social class to which these words could be addressed, none in which they could have found so much as an ideological echo.
Surely, this is torturing the text to fit one’s interpretation. Hölderlin uses the word bourgeois not at all, and it all reads like it is Lukacs who would like speak those words in Paris in 1793 amid the rejoicing plebeian masses.

If the Nietzschean interpretation is too esoteric, Lukacs’ is too limiting. In attempting to situate Hölderlin’s thoughts at the time of the French Revolution, an admittedly crucial aspect his thought, Lukacs writes like the circumstances exhaust this text. Because Hölderlin was German (and not English like Shelley), and because the industrial revolution was more successful earlier in England than in Germany, Hölderlin’s thought is therefore more abstract and ends in pessimism. Or because Hölderlin could not comprehend the inherent contradiction in bourgeois society, he never developed a Hegelian understanding of post revolutionary reaction. As if just because they dealt with the same problem, they have to have arrived at the same conclusion.

It is clear that Lukacs is trying to wrest Hölderlin away from the Nazis and place him in the list of pre-Marxian leftists. This in itself is not a weakness. But there lacks a literary analysis, something to support the politico-ideological pronouncements, such as this. “But with all its defects it is one of the great paths which leads to the future and to the elaboration of the materialist dialectic.” Really, George, really?


As I said, my impulse in general is to side with the Hegelians, but I feel that the Nietzschean side has a better literary analysis of the novel. And even if I find something better than Lukacs, there is much to be learned from ‘the other’ side.

I leave you with a letter between two friends. Here is Hölderlin to Hegel in 1794.
I am certain that you have occasionally thought of me since we parted from one another with the watchword — Reich Gottes! [Kingdom of God] I believe that we would recognize each other throughout every metamorphosis with this watchword. I am certain that whatever you become, time will not efface this trait in you. I think that this will also be the case with me. Every trait that we love one another for is exquisite. And thus can we be sure of everlasting friendship. Otherwise, I often wish that you were nearby. You were so often my genius. I thank you very much. Only since our separation have I felt this so completely. There is still a good deal that I would like to learn from you, and I would also like to occasionally impart something of my own.
Writing letters, of course, is only makeshift, though it is something. Therefore, we should not neglect it altogether. Occasionally we must remind ourselves of how greatly entitled to one another we are.


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