Archive for ‘Books’

May 31, 2012

It’s a Fractal World

– for Helen

These patterns quickly learned to copy themselves (this was part of what was so extraordinary about the patterns) and went on to cause massive trouble on every planet they drifted on to. That was how life began in the Universe.
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy 

I’ll try and keep this short since I’m writing on something I know nothing about. (Not that this has stopped me before.) I’ve only read the first of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books (as I’m not big on science fiction, I’d never read it before) and what I’m about to compare the book to is something I really know nothing about.

The structure of the book is fractal. From what I gather, two things are important for fractals: near identical repetition and scale shift. (A coast line viewed from a satellite looks straight, but when viewed close up could conceivably have as man ridges as a seemingly perfectly round grain of sand magnified.) We get both of this at the beginning of the book. Arthur Dent’s house is being demolished to make way for a throughway; the only reason this matters not one iota is that the Earth itself will soon be destroyed to make way for an inter-stellar highway. The same bureaucratic reasons are given and the same disregard for those living in the relevant spots is shown.

This idea of repetition carries the book. The characters’ several near-death escapes carry us through the plot of the book, and what makes them fractal in addition to their similarity with each other, is the reader’s familiarity with the way they play out. The improbable escapes are different from, say, those of Indiana Jones only in the details. Of course, in fractals as in everything else, the Devil’s in the details. Hence the near in near-identical repetition.

Not that any of this is any consolation to Arthur Dent, whose home was doubly destroyed, and whose mind is stuck in this specific world and this specific time. Near-identical is still different enough, I’m afraid. “No, thank you,” said Arthur [when offered a walk on the surface of New Earth] “it wouldn’t be quite the same.”

May 9, 2012

[Orwell Removed]

At some point last year I wrote a short text entitled [comment removed] (complete with brackets). It grew out of an exchange on Facebook between myself and a couple of friends. I had (rather crudely) made fun of something that one posted to the other. So my friend deleted my comment and posted the aforementioned comment in brackets. What I found interesting about his intervention is that it did not completely obliterate my mockery. Someone who didn’t know what had happened could see, by the fact that the words [comment removed] stood there, that a number of things had happened. It made me think of the subversive nature of these words. One could, after the fact, just as easily assume that the moderator (my friend) was unjust in removing my comments, and therefore the phrase [comment removed] indicated an injustice done. One that cannot be named, but is present.

(Can you tell that I am currently reading Derrida?)

Anyway, the text that I ended up writing about this was not in fact about the subversive nature of the phrase. It was about my inability to shut up and let things go. In discussing the text that actually got written, someone asked me if I was now going to write something about the original idea: the subversive nature of [comment removed]? It had slipped my mind since then.

And then I ran across this passage in George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.

There was a new rule that censored portions of a newspaper must not be left blank but filled up with other matter; as a result it was often impossible to tell when something had been cut out.

This is what I had been thinking about with the phrase [comment removed]. Orwell is talking about the his last days in Barcelona, just before he is driven out by the Stalinists for his association with the POUM (considered Trotskyist). It’s almost as if he’s complaining that this new form of censorship is somehow dishonest, hiding the very fact of censorship. Implying that there is a better, a fair, a friendly form of censorship (indeed in my case, one done by a friend). A censorship which erases, but leaves evidence of its own activity, one where the blank space tells the reader that there has been some heavy-handed editing. Orwell is indicating an increase in repression, an undercutting of subversion.

The blank space is subversive. And rather than prove it positively, here is negative proof (a proof by absence, one might say) that it is so. If it were not subversive, the government would not have instituted this new rule.

Perhaps in a year’s time, when I get around to it, I’ll write something about Georgie Orwell.

April 16, 2012

In Praise of Transitional Technology

I got a Kindle. When this happened, some of my friends raised their eyebrows. They like books, and they know I like books, so why would I add nails to that coffin. Of course, as I am fond of pointing out here (and anywhere), this is both equivocation and unnecessary panic. Books are doing fine in their hard format. Also, and more importantly here, books will still exist, they will just be in a different format. Conceivably, they will be in digital, e-book form.
Before any such complete switch happens, however, methinks the book will have had its revenge on the Kindle. Even if the Kindle turns out to be a soldier in the destruction of the book citadel, it is itself unlikely to be the one standing on the top of the hill victoriously waving a flag. Why? Because, despite what my friend, Miloš Luković wrote here about the elegance of single-function devices (and the Kindle is largely one such), they tend to get incorporated into more complicated digital devices. The iPod lasted a generation or two as a music device only, before it added video, and then with the iPhone transforming completely. Most phones have a music playing function, and nearly all of them have a camera. And the Kindle has its single-function up against the tablet’s complete set of computer functions. Tablets are probably now to lap tops what lap tops were to desktops fifteen years ago. Give the tablet a few more years and it might become the standard computer device for a person or household. Won’t the tablet incorporate the Kindle function?
Perhaps. Around the same time the transience of the Kindle occurred to me, I read that the e-mail attachment turned twenty. The Guardian had an article talking about the man who invented it, Nathaniel Borenstein, how it came about, and where it is today. Now that we have the cloud and social media, how much will the attachment be used? Mr. Borenstein himself makes a decent case that the attachment is still quite useful, but who’s to say that it will not go the way of the PalmPilot?
Which raises another interesting question. How many examples of transitional technology have existed in (let’s say) the last one hundred years (technology-obsessed as they have been)? Music is here the obvious example. Although the radio was not killed by TV, the victrola and the cassette deck are pretty much gone, and the CD is on its way out. Typewriters are another example. In a combination of the two, and a great piece of transitional technology, I found these images over at Colt + Rane.

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I have one more before I leave you without having said anything. I have no idea how scientific or true this is, but

It appears from this that WordPress is still climbing, but for how much longer? Word? Press? In a digital world of images? It just can’t last. Enjoy it while you can.

Post Scriptum
If you follow the above link to the Guardian article about the e-mail attachment, you may notice that the photo of Nathaniel Borenstein was taken, no doubt digitally, and e-mailed to the editor as an attachment, by a Christian Sinibaldi. Where have I heard that last name, Sinibaldi? Ah yes, Antonio Sinibaldi, about whom I wrote this last year: “Antonio Sinibaldi, scribe to the Medicis, who had “an elegant, gracile hand,” was the first major scribe to be put out of work by the Gutenberg machine in 1480.” I wonder if they’re related.

Post Scriptorum
Since it is now the way of the world (or will soon be), I have a tumblr.

April 8, 2012

Lila Dit Quoi?!

Quelle putain de bon livre!

Where to start with this? I could write about the idea of masculinity in this book; or about the warped conception of sex we’ve been sold and how easily the book calls it into question; or about the dispossessed Arab youth in Parisian suburbs in the mid nineties (about the time La Haine came out); or the limits of idealization; or perhaps the role of writing in a person’s life; or the relation writing and literature have to real life; or the emerging (and hence threatening) female subject in male literature…

But I won’t. I feel it would just ruin the magic, the pure joy, the sheer pleasure, the immanent delight, the elating and surprising wonder I felt reading this book.

Instead, I will sell you on it the way the book was sold in manuscript form to its publishers. (In my own translation) this is what it says when you open the cover:

Note from the editor
The story of the manuscript of this book deserves to be told.
It was delivered directly into our hands by a lawyer. Its author, Chimo, whose name is found in the text, wanted to stay anonymous. We have never met him and know nothing about him.
The manuscript was made up of two red Clairefontaine notebooks, with squared lines on its pages. It did not have a title. We found the phrase “Lila Says” written in capital letters in the margin, atop of page 7. It seemed to us to fit the need.
Chimo’s handwriting, for which he used Bic pens, was difficult to decipher. We settled for correcting spelling errors for the final manuscript. In places, we thought it necessary to retouch the punctuation, which was rather spotty. We have left unchanged one or two passages even though we were unsure of their meaning.
Despite the claims to sincerity in the text, we have come up with our own hypothesis of mystification. We were split in the office on this question. Was it the work of an established writer or the first novel of a talented young writer (in the text, Chimo says he is nineteen and a half)?
Whatever the case, the surprising literary quality of the story, whether or not a ruse, made us publish it.

And indeed made me read it!

They also offer an image of the first page of the manuscript:

April 2, 2012

Character of Gold

If you don’t know about it, Tristram Shandy is a famous 18th century novel. Academics call it the postmodern novel two centuries before the postmodern. What’s more, it’s a great read.

One of the things I remember from the novel, which appeared in nine installments from 1759 to 1767, was part of the author’s dedication before volume IX. The sentence in it I really liked goes like this.
Honours, like impressions upon coin, may give an ideal and local value to a bit of base metal ; but Gold and Silver will pass all the world over without any other recommendation than their own weight.
Laurence Sterne is talking about character, of course. The title of Lord or Duke can be confer importance even upon the most vile man, but true quality of character will shine through anywhere regardless of the approval of powerful people. It is a noble sentiment.

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I am reading David Graeber’s book Debt, which talks about the history of money and credit. I may decide to write something about it when I’m done with it, but I came across this passage and remembered Sterne’s dedication. (The passage is a bit long, so I have chopped it up a little to shorten it, but the thread, I believe is there.)
“Yet the great public debate of the time [1690s], a debate about the very nature of money, was about not paper but metal. […] Something had to be done. A war of pamphlets ensued, which came to a head in 1695, one year after the founding of the bank. Charles Davenant’s essay on credit, which I’ve already cited, was actually part of this particular pamphlet-war: he proposed that Britain move to a pure credit money based on public trust, and he was ignored. […] The man who won the argument, however, was John Locke, the Liberal philosopher, at that time acting as advisor to Sir Isaac Newton, the Warden of the Mint. Locke insisted that one can no more make a small piece of silver worth more by relabeling it a “shilling” than one can make a short man taller by declaring there are now fifteen inches in a foot. Gold and silver had a value recognized by everyone on earth; the government stamp simply attested to the weight and purity of a coin, and – as he added in words veritably shivering with indignation – for governments to tamper with this for their own advantage was just as criminal as the coin-clippers themselves:
“The use and end of the public stamp is only to be a guard and voucher of the quality of silver which men contract for; and the injury done to the public faith, in this point, is that which in clipping and false coining heightens the robbery into treason.”
Therefore, he argued, the only recourse was to recall the currency and restrike it at exactly the same value that it had before. This was done, and the results were disastrous.”
(I added the emphasis, as well as the hyper link, obviously.)

Something interesting is going on here. As far as I know, most countries do not tie their monetary units to the gold standard. Britain went off it in 1931, and the US in 1971. I know that Marx argued against the concept that money ultimately derived its value from gold. Which means that Charles Davenenat was right, and John Locke was wrong. (Doesn’t it?)

But then, where does the value of gold come from? It’s not like Locke invented the idea of precious metals being valuable in themselves. Ancient civilizations already valued gold and silver, and we still do today. What makes them able to “pass the world over without any other recommendation than their own weight,” as Sterne wrote?

Could it be that gold is valuable in the way Davenant claimed money should be, that is, it simply has public trust? Is it valuable for no other reason than that somehow all of humanity (or a large portion of it, anyway) thinks it is valuable? Would that make both Davenant and Locke right, since it is a value based on trust, but is also recognized by everyone on earth?

And what of Sterne’s metaphor? If gold and silver have no intrinsic value, does that debase the metaphor? Should the sentence read “Gold and silver will pas the world over without any other recommendation than that which they already have from everyone, but that’s only because nobody has thought about it?” In which case they are not that different from base metal rendered important with honors. Somehow, this makes me unhappy…

March 8, 2012

Dead in the Centre…Ough!

“There was a vast amount of red — good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there, a deuce of a lot of blue, a little green, smears of orange, and, on the East Coast, a purple patch, to show where the jolly pioneers of progress drink the jolly lager-beer. However, I wasn’t going into any of these. I was going into the yellow. Dead in the centre. And the river was there — fascinating — deadly — like a snake. Ough!”

This is Marlow in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, describing a colonial map of Africa towards the end of the 19th century. The colors correspond to territories in control of various European powers. I’m not sure about all of them, but I think red are the British, blue the French, and the purple refers to Germans.

So I found this map.

The colors on this map are not the same as Marlow describes them, since his yellow, into which he is going, is here black – the Belgian Congo. Still a vivid illustration of how European colonialists carved up Africa at the time.

October 18, 2011

If Dr. Seuss designed a library…

What do we like on this blog? Interesting books, buildings… And by interesting, I mean crazy creative, like if Dr. Seuss were coming up with the design. One wonders what Dr. Seuss (full name Theodor Seuss Geisel) would have thought of the library named after him at UC San Diego:

(click on any of these for a larger image)

Geisel Library at UCSD

There’s the Ann Arbor District Library in Michigan.

Ann Arbor Library

Or perhaps you would like the Vancouver Public Library.

I have to post the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library at Yale University. I already mentioned it houses the Voynich manuscript, but it also has one of the 48 remaining copies of the Gutenberg Bible. From the outside it looks like an impenetrable white box. Like this.

But the interior looks warm and spacious.

And the light you see coming from the walls is not lighting. The walls are made from translucent Danby marble, letting in a limited amount light. I like to think that the architects designing this had old cathedrals in mind, with their stained glass windows that look dull on the outside, but sparkle and explode in color from the inside.

I leave you with one last library. The Royal Library Copenhagen, Denmark.

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Thanks to Ana for the original link where you can find yet more interesting libraries.

August 9, 2011

Getting Lost

Because I liked his article in Lapham’s Quarterly on pica (which I wrote about here), I decided to read Daniel Mason’s novel The Piano Tuner.

My recommendation is not, repeat NOT, to read the author’s note at the end. Although it does contain some mildly interesting facts about Burmese history, it also tells the reader which parts of the novel are historical and which are invented. What this does is to reinforce the familiar, comfortable and above all false dichotomy between fact and fiction. Like, here are the things that are supposedly real (history) and false (invention), so when you close the back cover of the book you are fully back in the given, everyday world. This is a shame because the novel does such a good job of teasing the reader out of it, slowly and subtly charming the reader into a foreign world.

Edgar Drake, the main character, is a piano tuner in London at the end of the 19th century, during the British-Burmese wars. There is an unusual request by the War Office that he travel to the remote hills of Burma to tune a grand Erard piano. From the very beginning, the reader is tied to Drake. We want to know just as much as he does why someone would demand a grand piano be shipped from London to the jungle in Burma, how it was transported, what is it used for, how it is helping the British war effort (for the purposes of the book, we are loyal British subjects), etc.?

The book echoes Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in that takes its time describing the trip out of Britain and into foreign, other, colonial, war-zone territory. But where in the Heart of Darkness the more we travel, the more strange and other the Congo becomes, in the Piano Tuner the opposite happens. Drake is a curious yet sensitive traveler. His eyes onto a new world open us up to reading about a exciting and beautiful world, that loses none of its enchantment as it becomes more familiar.

When we finally meet Anthony Carroll, the eccentric genius doctor in the British military at whose request both the piano and the piano tuner were brought to Burma, we have, along with Edgar Drake, forgotten that there is a war going on – we are lost. Now we have eyes for fascinating rituals, exotic plants, and people’s habits only. Drake’s and our transition can be seen in Mason’s language describing the makeup and paint the women and men in Burma use for their faces. When we first encounter it, there is a grotesque aspect, a slight revulsion, like upon hearing that some foreign culture eats a plant or animal we (in Victorian England) do not consider food. As the novels moves, Drake notices the make up no longer as ‘that thing they do,’ but rather in the way we would notice the difference between a woman wearing or not wearing mascara and what it means for example that she had just put it on. It goes from strange phenomenon to signifier.

Mason, of course does not leave it there. Without revealing too much, I’ll say that the war provides complications. But however things turn out for Mr. Drake, it is this aspect of leaving the familiar and getting lost that is the joy of reading this novel. Until, as I said, he goes on to ruin it all by writing an author’s note at the end.

August 7, 2011

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.)

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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?

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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.

August 6, 2011

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…