Hölderlin Hermeneutic

Romanticism and the Recovery of Narrative

Romanticism, the cultural movement that attempted to succeed the Enlightenment has claimed my attention for a very long time.   The beginning of this movement was the last decade of the 18th century, somewhat in reaction to the exhilaration of the promise of the French Revolution  and revulsion of its execution.  It continued on, long into the 19th century, despite serious restraints in Germany in 1830 and England 1848, two more revolutionary years, that darkened the cultural horizons of those respective nations.  Early romanticism is quite different from late Romanticism, fact that has made the definition of Romanticism problematic.  Of all the aspects of Romanticism that changed with time, the most enduring was the attempt to recover the role of narrative in the establishment of community, be it sacred or secular.  The interest of this blog, is to better identify how narrative works by looking at early romantics of the English and German schools.

Why Hölderlin?

 I had an inkling of the importance Romanticism might play in my thinking when I was first introduced to Frederick Dennison Maurice in my seminary education.  This  19th century Anglican theologian, who  saw himself indebted to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, clearly had ties to romantic culture, as did the broader Anglo-Catholic movement.  His theology was, of course, presented to us as throughly English and distinctly not Germanic!  In post graduate studies, where I initially thought I would be championing his Anglican uniqueness, I found his connections with the  German theological moments of the 19th century, particularly,  Friedrich Schleiermacher and Johan Adam Möhler and the Roman Catholic faculty at Tübingen.  That study contributed to a better definition of their common methodology.  So it came as surprise to find a 19th century German poet, of whom I had only the vaguest awareness until this past year, belonged in the midst of the cultural milieu and offered to reopen the relevance of romanticism, not only to ecumenism, but to whole culture crisis of our present times.  So I would hope with this blog to draw out what others know about Hölderlin and to lead other to know what Hölderlin might cause them to understand.

“Hölderlin Hermeneutic,”

I am presently working on the identification of a “Hölderlin Hermeneutic,” that is ona point of view which would allow that poet’s message to be properly discerned. The poetry of  Friedrich Hölderlin, 1770-1843, all but lost in the 19th Century, has since it recovery at the beginning of the 20th Century, has suffer a great deal of misinterpretation, not least of which was Martin Heidegger making it the topic of 1942 lecture-series.  In general, it has been read as a call for German nationalism and as a defense of the strong state along with the general perception that romanticism in general has led to fascism.   This fails to recognize the difference in early German and English romanticism and in particular Hölderlin’s liberal optimism.
       I have found a recently publish book by Hannah Vandergrift Eldridge, Lyric Orientations,  Hölderlin, Rilke and the Poetics of Community, most helpful in consolidating my own thoughts and highly recommend it to you.   Clearly, community is for the early romantics a central concern and their efforts can generally be view as  seeking for a poetic which would make for an authentic community of individuals who at the same time would remain marvelously diverse. 
       I think that the key for understanding Hölderlin can be found in a careful reading of his early bildungs novel, Hyperion or the Hermit in Greece, publish in 1797 and 1799.  The novel is in the form of letters from Hyperion, a contemporary Greek national, to a friend in Germany know as Bellarmine.  In the sixth of the letters, Hyperion is describing his deep friendship with a fellow who goes by the name of Alabanda.  The two are twins like the Castor and Pollux of the constellation and recapitulates a conversation that has lead, in part, to their separation.

 “We spent our bridegroom days together.  I cried exhilarated  . . .  But to return to our earlier conversation.  You concede too much power to the state.  It may not demand what it cannot coerce.  But what love and spirit gives, cannot be coerced.  Either the state leaves that untouched, or we take its law and nail it the pillory!   By heaven!  He who would make the state into a school of mores does not know his sin. (F. D. Maurice, the Anglican Theologian, makes the same point in England, suggest the his romanticism has a common ground with that of Hölderlin.)  Hölderlin goes on to say:
The State has always been made into hell because man wanted to make it into his heaven!”

 “The coarse husk around the kernel of life and nothing more that is the state.  It is the wall around the garden of human fruits and flowers.”

 “O rain from heaven!  Enthusiasm!  You bring us again the springtime of peoples.  The state cannot command you to come.”

 “Do you ask me when this will be?  It will be when the darling of time, the youngest, most beautiful daughter of time, the new church, will emerge out of these besmirched, antiquated forms, when the awakened feeling of the divine will bring man his divinity again, and restore beautiful youth to his breast, when I cannot herald it, for I have only a vague presentiment of it, but it will come surely, surely.    Death is a messenger of life, and that we now sleep in our hospitals testifies to imminent healthy awakening.”     (Pages 43-44 Archipelago 2008)

      While this is a conversation between two fictional characters, it is clear that it has a clear reference to a conversation between himself and one of his close friend of this student .   They included  Hegel and Schelling and Sinclair, each of whom could have been the model for Alabanda.  Much is left to be seen in this passage.
      It might be tempting to say that this passage belongs to the beginning of Höderlin career and is likely to have lost its hold on him as his work matured.  It should be remembered that his career was rather brief, ending 1806 when he hospitalized for mental illness, and that on of the last of his major poems, was “Remembrance,” in which he laments the absence of Bellarmine.   Clearly, Hyperion still has a vital place in his poetic.
      In the end, the appropriation of Hölderlin by the early right leaning nationalists and Heidegger in particular was content to over look passages which seem to be distinctly differ from their own perception.

 The Role of Hyperion in Understanding Hölderlin

 It was common among the Romantics to write a novel, Maurice, Charles Kingsley, Disraeli, who didn’t.  These novels were not solely driven of artistic vision, but were used to make an argument, not unlike the masterful classic of Jane Austen, in which she argues that polarities reason and feeling, sense and sensibility are united by a common ground!  Hölderlin’s bildungsroman, is a methodological statement, in which he explores the relationship between the polarities of  his intellectual project.  The foundation is Adamas, “his father,” who has a “peculiar longing to penetrate inner Asia” and who  summons Hyperion, his alter ego, to join him in building a world.  The metaphor for this world is a liberated-modern Greece.  The world that Hölderlin hopes to build is based on this foundation, and driven to action by the counter  pole represented by Alabanda, Hyperion’s soul mate.  Alabanda speaks of the boredom of the centuries and of its many strange, crooked paths, which at some point took leave of life’s “straight path” which has been obstructed.  Diotima, Hyperion’s beloved, represents the third mediating aspect of his thinking.  In her mysterious silence, she contains the seminal image of the whole, of the world, and thus she unites the opposing poles of foundation and action.

        This make clear that Book One of the novel was intended to lay out these three aspects of his identity which would in Book Two be explored as a Peloponnesian Campaign, a metaphorical foreshadowing of the intellectual combat to which Hölderlin expected to find in the execution of his own life project.  If we remain a little vague about how he envisions this project, perhaps he is himself, we can certainly grasp its outline!  

        In the novel the campaign ends in failure.  Hyperion’s army betrays him by attacking Mistra, the reputed capital of ancient Sparta, thieving and murdering, bringing disgrace to Hyperion.  Now in flight, Hyperion’s  suffering is compounded by the death of Diotima.   Susette Gontard, who would indeed die in 1802, disliked the fact that Hölderlin had made Diotima die in the novel.  It was hardly his wish in 1797 that Susette would die or even that illicit relationship would really end, but in terms of the novel it was a way for him to immortalize her so that she would remain the mediating principle of his thought and be muddled in any future history of his relationship with Susette.
 It would be interesting to see in what way this might be represented in “The Oldest Systematic Program of German Idealism" (German: Das älteste Systemprogramm des deutschen Idealismus), 1796/97, which was said to have been coauthored by Shelling, Hegel and Hölderlin.

The Oddity of Hyperion

       Invariably Hyperion is praised for its lyrical prose.  Plot and character development is certainly not its long suit.  What is most striking about it is the vivid physical description of location to which Hölderlin had never been, beginning with standing on heights of the Corinthian Isthmus where like a bee among flowers, his “soul often flies back and forth between the seas that to the right and left cool the feet of my glowing mountains.”  It is not unlike in this manner the late poem “Patmos,” “Hospitable nonetheless, in her poor house, she is”  Both are masterpieces of transmigration, and in the end they form what we might call the bookends of Hölderlin’s literary corpus. 
 How this could come about, one has to imagine the student Hölderlin sitting through the endless lectures on Greek words that played such a prominent role in German education of his time.  What this or that commander had said to his troops, what a lover had sung to his beloved, what a leader had charged his people, what a master had replied to his critics, these words were repeated and memorized.  All of which would have become quite boring to this quirky and gifted student, who would have already mastered the words.  Had not Alabanda, his soul mate, called the “the boredom of the centuries?”  One might imagine that he had begun to imagine in his own mind where the commander had stood when he issued his command, or the lover knelt when he composed his song, at what hills the leader gazed when he spoke to the people, or how the sky had appeared when the master formed his reply to his critics.
 Had he asked the lecturer, where the commander was standing the day that he spoke, the lecturer would have surly quipped with masterly sarcasm: “What difference would the make?”  But then this student would have already become convinced that words were not separate from nature, nor nature from words.  It was precisely upon that very point that he would build his poetic and on which with his friends he would make a revolution.
Michael Tan Creti July 21, 2018.   

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