Translator: Robert Anchor;
Source: Goethe and His Age Merlin Press 1968;
Transcribed: Harrison Fluss for marxists.org, February 2008.
Oh! were there a banner … a Thermopylae upon which I could spill my blood with honour, all that solitary love for which I can have no use.
[O gab’es eine Fahne . . . ein Thermopyla, wo ich mit Ehre sie verbluten konnte, all die einsame Liebe, die mir nimmer brauchbar ist].
Hölderlin’s glory is that he is the poet of Hellenism. Everyone who reads his work senses that his Hellenism is different, more sombre, more tortured by suffering than the radiant Utopia of antiquity envisaged during the Renaissance and Enlightenment. But his vision of Hellas has nothing in common either with the tedious, trivial, academic classicism of the nineteenth century or with the hysterical bestiality with which Nietzsche and the imperialist period envisaged Greece. The key to Hölderlin’s view lies then in the understanding of the specifics of this conception of Hellenism.
With inimitable clarity Marx uncovered the social basis of the veneration for antiquity during the great French Revolution.
“As unheroic as bourgeois society is, it nonetheless had need of heroism, the spirit of self-sacrifice, terror, civil war, and wars between nations in order to engender it. And it is in the rigorous classical traditions of the Roman Republic that its gladiators found the ideals and the art forms, the illusions which they needed to conceal from themselves the limited civic content of their struggle and to keep their passion at the pitch of the great historical tragedy.”
The peculiar situation of Germany during the transition of the bourgeoisie from its heroic to its unheroic period consists in the fact that the country itself was still far from being mature enough for a real bourgeois revolution, but that in the minds of its best ideologists the heroic flame of these “illusions” was bound to flare up; in the fact that the tragic transition from the heroic age of the polls republic dreamed by Robespierre and Saint-Just into capitalist prose had to be effected in a purely Utopian and ideological manner without a preliminary revolution.
In the Tubingen seminary three young students witnessed with enraptured rejoicing the great days of the revolutionary liberation of France. With youthful enthusiasm they planted a tree in honour of liberty, danced around it, and swore eternal loyalty to the ideal of the great struggle for liberation. Each of these three youths- Hegel, Hölderlin, Schelling-represented in his later development a typical possibility of the German reaction to the course of events in France. Toward the end of his life, Schelling lost himself in the narrow-minded obscurantism of an abject reaction, of a revived Romanticism during the preparatory period of the ‘48 revolution. Hegel and Hölderlin did not betray their revolutionary oath. But when it was a question of realizing it, the difference in their interpretation reveals clearly the ideological courses which the preparation of the bourgeois revolution could and had to follow in Germany.
The intellectual absorption of the ideas of the French Revolution by Hegel and Hölderlin was still far from being accomplished when in Paris Robespierre’s head fell, and Thermidor and afterwards the Napoleonic period came into being. The consolidation of their Weltanschauung had to be achieved then on the basis of this turning-point in the revolutionary development of France. With Thermidor, the -prosaic content of the heroic form of antiquity in bourgeois society, with its progressiveness and also-inseparable from this- its frightfulness, appeared more and more clearly in the foreground. And the altered heroic character of the Napoleonic period placed the German ideologists before an insoluble dilemma: on the one hand, Napoleonic France was a radiant ideal for the national greatness which could flower only on the soil of a victorious revolution, but on the other hand, this same French imperium brought on Germany a condition of the deepest national disunion and degradation. Since the objective conditions were lacking in Germany for a bourgeois revolution, which would have been capable of opposing to the Napoleonic conquest a revolutionary defence of the fatherland similar to that of 1793, the embryonic bourgeois-revolutionary longing for national liberation and unification faced an insoluble dilemma that was destined to lead to reactionary Romanticism. “All the wars of independence waged against France bear the common stamp of a regeneration which is coupled with reaction” (Marx).
Neither Hegel nor Hölderlin lapsed into this Romantic reaction. But their intellectual coming-to-grips with the post-Thermidorian situation develop in diametrically opposed directions. To be brief, Hegel comes to terms with the post-Thermidorian epoch and the close of the revolutionary period of bourgeois development, and he builds up his philosophy precisely on an understanding of this new turning-point in world history. Hölderlin makes no compromise with the post-Thermidorian reality; he remains faithful to the old revolutionary ideal of renovating polis democracy and is broken by a reality which had no place for his ideals, not even on the level of poetry and thought.
In a contradictory manner, both approaches reflect the unbalanced development of bourgeois-revolutionary thinking in Germany. And this unbalanced development – which Hegel himself designates in an idealist and ideological manner as the “ruse of reason” – manifests itself especially in Hegel’s intellectual accommodation to the post-Thermidorian reality which led him into the main current of the ideological development of his class, from which point no further intellectual development was possible until the transformation of bourgeois-revolutionary methods of thinking into proletarian-revolutionary methods was achieved (i.e. the materialist inversion by Marx of Hegel’s idealist dialectic). Hölderlin’s intransigence ended in a tragic impasse. Unknown and unmourned, he fell like a solitary poetic Leonidas for the ideals of the Jacobin period at the Thermopylae of invading Thermidorianism.
On the one hand, of course, Hegel’s accommodation leads to a defection from the revolutionary republicanism of his Bern period. It leads him from his enthusiasm for Napoleon to an intellectual reconciliation with the wretchedness of a Prussian constitutional monarchy. But on the other hand, it leads-although in an ideal-istically distorted and inverted manner-to the intellectual discovery and elaboration of the dialectic of bourgeois society. In Hegel, classical English political economy appears for the first time as an element of the dialectical conception of world history which is only an ideological form, an idealistic reflection of the fact that for Hegel the dialectic of capitalism itself became the foundation for the dialectic of the present. The Jacobin ideal of the struggle against the inequality of wealth and the Jacobin illusion of the economic levelling of a society based on capitalist private property disappears in order to give place to a cynical realization of the contradictions of capitalism inspired by Ricardo. “Factories and manufacturing are founded precisely on the misery of a class,” Hegel writes a few years after his turning to an evaluation of contemporary events. The polis republic disappears as an ideal to be realized. Greece becomes a thing of the past, irrevocably gone, never to return.
The world historical significance of Hegel’s accommodation consists precisely in the fact that he grasped-as only Balzac beside him -the revolutionary development of the bourgeoisie as a unitary process, one in which the revolutionary Terror as well as Thermidor and Napoleon were only necessary phases. The heroic period of the revolutionary bourgeoisie becomes in Hegel-just as antiquity does -something irretrievably past, but a past which was absolutely necessary for the emergence of the unheroic prose of the present considered to be progressive; for the emergence of advanced bourgeois society with its economic and social contradictions. The fact that this conception is marred both by all the faults of an accommodation to the wretchedness of the Prussian and German situation and by all the mystifications of the idealist dialectic cannot diminish its world-historical significance. 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.
Hölderlin always refused to recognize this as the correct way. But even his thinking could not remain unaffected by the reality which emerged after Thermidor. Hegel’s Frankfurt period, the period in which he turns to historical methodology, is precisely the period of their second, more mature association and collaboration. But for Hölderlin, the post-Thermidorian development suggests only a sloughing off of the ascetic elements of the ideal conception of Hellenism, only a greater accentuation of Athens as a model as opposed to the unbending Spartan and Roman virtue of the French Jacobins. He continues to remain a republican. Even in his later work, Empedocles, the hero answers the Acragantines who offer him the crown: “This is the age of kings no longer,” and he preaches-in mystic forms it is true-the ideal of a radically revolutionary renovation of mankind:
What is told and taught you from the lips of the fathers, Laws and customs, the names of the ancient gods, Boldly forget them and, like new born men, Lift your eyes to divine Nature!
[Was euch der Vater Mund erzahlt, gelehrt, Gesetz’ und Brauch’, der alten Gotter Namen, Vergesst es kiihn und hebt, wie Neugebome, Die Augen auf zur gottlichen Natur! ]
This Nature is that of Rousseau and Robespierre, the dream of a transformation of society which-without Hölderlin’s raising the question of private property in a clear manner-restores the perfect harmony of man with a society which is adequate to him, with Nature itself through a society which has become natural again. “The ideal is what Nature was,” says Hölderlin’s Hyperion some- what in the manner of Schiller, but going far beyond him in revolutionary fervour. And for Hölderlin, Hellenism is precisely the ideal which was living reality, Nature. “Formerly the peoples started from a childlike harmony,” Hyperion continues. “The harmony of the spirits will be the beginning of a new universal history.”
“All for each and each for all!” This is Hyperion’s social ideal when he enters the revolutionary struggle for the liberation of Greece from the Turkish yoke. It is the dream of a revolutionary war for national liberation which is supposed to become also the war of liberation for all mankind: almost what the radical dreamers of the great revolution itself-Anacharsis Cloots, for example-hoped from the wars of the French Republic. Hyperion says: “No one must recognize by its flag alone our people to come; it is necessary that all be rejuvenated, that all be radically different, that joy be filled with seriousness and all work be gay! Nothing, not even the least significant, the most commonplace without spirit and the gods! Love, hate, and every sound we utter must astonish the vulgar world, and not once are we to be reminded, even for a moment, of the insipid past!”
Hölderlin thus takes no notice of the limitations and contradictions of the bourgeois revolution. This is why his social theory must lose itself in mysticism, a mysticism it is true, filled with confused forebodings of a real upheaval of society and a real renovation of mankind. These forebodings are even more Utopian and mystic than those of the isolated visionaries of pre-revolutionary and revolutionary France. For in a Germany undeveloped from the point of view of capitalism, Hölderlin is unable to perceive in a concrete manner the seeds and beginnings of social tendencies which point beyond the limited and contradictory capitalist horizon. His Utopia is purely ideological. It is a dream of the return of the golden age, a dream in which the presentiment of the development of bourgeois society is joined in an illusory manner with the Utopia of something beyond this society, of a real liberation of mankind. It is very interesting to note that everywhere, and especially in Hyperion, Hölderlin struggles ceaselessly against the overestimation of the State, and that his Utopian conception of the future State, reduced to its essentials, verges very closely on the thinking of the first liberal ideologists of Germany, e.g. Wilhelm von Humboldt.
The mainstay of a social renovation for Hölderlin therefore can only be a new religion, a new church. In the social development of Germany the bases for his Utopias could not be found: objectively because in fact they did not exist in the bourgeois reality; subjectively because the seeds of a development tending to surmount capitalism could not possibly He within Hölderlin’s purview. So it was inevitable that he should seek the source of a social renovation in a new religion. This turning to religion, despite a complete break with the old religions, is inevitable for all revolutionaries in this period who wish to pursue the bourgeois revolution to its conclusion, but who shrink back at the same time from its necessary result: the unleashing of capitalism with all its social and cultural consequences. Robespierre’s cult of the “Supreme Being” is the greatest practical historical example of this inevitable return to religion.
It is clear that Hölderlin also could not escape this dilemma. If his Hyperion wishes to limit the effect of the State, he nonetheless dreams of the rise of a new church which is supposed to become the bearer of his social ideals. The inevitability, and at the same time, the bourgeois-revolutionary character of this conception manifest themselves in the fact that Hegel also, still during the period of his transition to a complete acknowledgment of the capitalist development of the revolution, is seized by the idea of a new religion. It is a religion “in which the infinite anguish and the whole weight of its opposite are admitted but resolved without trouble and in a genuine manner when there is a free people and Reason will have regenerated its reality as a moral spirit which is able to have the audacity to assume its pure form on the basis of itself and its .peculiar majesty.”
This is the ideological framework within which the action of Hyperion unfolds. The point of departure of the action is the attempt of the Greeks to revolt against the Turks in 1770, an attempt which occurred with the support of a Russian fleet. The contradictory character of this theme, which is both revolutionary and reactionary, is highly characteristic of Hölderlin’s historical situation. But it is also highly characteristic that he has a certain insight into the reactionary tendencies of the situation he depicts; an insight which is incomparably more penetrating and progressive than the illusions of the national revolutionaries of the war of liberation with regard to Russia. Hölderlin’s martial heroes view the Russian aid without illusions and with a Machiavellian and realistic political attitude. “One poison thus destroys the other,” says Hyperion when the Turkish fleet is demolished by the Russians. On this point also then Hölderlin was not a Romantic reactionary.
The internal plot of the novel is formed by the ideological struggle of two tendencies competing to realize Hölderlin’s revolutionary Utopia. The warrior hero, Alabanda, who is endowed with certain Fichtean characteristics, represents the tendency of armed insurrection. The heroine of the novel, Diotima, incarnates the tendency of the religious and ideological, peaceful Aufklärung. She wants to make of Hyperion the educator of his people. At first the conflict ends with the victory of the martial principle. Hyperion joins with Alabanda to prepare and carry out the armed uprising. The fame of Alabanda awakens him to self-reproach as regards his hitherto contemplative inactivity. “I have become too idle . . . too ethereal, too indolent. Yes, to be soft at the right time is fine, but to be soft at the wrong time is odious because it is cowardly! And to the warning of Diotima: “You will conquer and forget what for,” Hyperion replies: “Servitude kills, but a just war enlivens every soul.” Diotima too sees the tragic conflict which at this point confronts Hölderlin-Hyperion. “Your whole soul bids you to it; not to obey it often leads to ruin, but to obey no doubt also does.”
The catastrophe begins. After a few victorious skirmishes the insurgents take Misistra, formerly Sparta. But the conquest is followed by pillage and massacre, and Hyperion, deceived, turns his back on the insurgents. “In truth, it was an extraordinary project to entrust the planting of my Elysium to a gang of thieves.” Soon afterwards, the insurgents suffer a crushing defeat and are dispersed. In the battles of the Russian fleet Hyperion seeks death, but in vain.
Hölderlin’s attitude to armed revolution is not new in Germany. The repentance of Hyperion after the victory repeats on a higher level the despair of Schiller’s Karl Moor at the end of the Robbers: “that two men like me should destroy the whole structure of the moral world.” It is no coincidence that the phil-Hellenic classicist Hölderlin esteemed so highly until the end of his conscious life the youthful dramas of Schiller. He justifies this esteem by means of analyses of their composition; but the true reason lies in the similarity of their formulation of problems, in their longing for a German revolution, and at the same time-inseparable from this-in their shrinking back from the facts and consequences of such a revolution. Along with the similarities, however, it is also necessary to stress the differences in their approach to problems. Young Schiller does not merely recoil from the severity of revolutionary methods, but also from the radical content of the revolution itself. He fears that the moral foundations of the world-of bourgeois society-might collapse in a revolution. This Hölderlin does not fear: he does not feel inwardly related to any of the visible manifestations of bourgeois society. As we have seen, what he hopes foils precisely a radical revolution of his world whereby nothing of the present would survive. He shrinks from the revolutionary methods about which he fears, very much like the idealistic ideologists of the revolution, a perpetuation of the evils of the present in another form.
This tragic discord of Hölderlin was insurmountable for him since it resulted from the relations of the classes in Germany. For all the historically necessary illusions concerning the renovation of the democracy of the polis, the revolutionary Jacobins of France derived their verve and energy from their association with the democratic-plebeian elements of the revolution, with the petty bourgeois and semi-proletarian masses of the towns and with the peasantry. Relying on these elements, they could combat-only temporarily, of course, and in a very contradictory manner-the egoistic baseness, the cowardice and avarice of the French bourgeoisie and drive the bourgeois revolution forward along plebeian lines. The anti-bourgeois characteristic of this plebeian method of revolution is very salient in Hölderlin. 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. After the failure of the Mainz uprising, Georg Forster could at least take refuge in revolutionary Paris. For Hölderlin there was no homeland either inside or outside Germany. It is no wonder that, after the failure of the revolution, the way of Hyperion gets lost in a despairing mysticism, and that Alabanda and Diotima perish with the downfall of Hyperion. It is no wonder that the next and last great work of Hölderlin, the tragedy Empedocles, which remained a fragment, has for its theme mystic self-sacrifice.
The reaction always fastens on to this mystic dissolution of Hölderlin’s Weltanschauung. After official German literary history had long treated Hölderlin episodically as a representative of a secondary current of Romanticism (e.g. Haym), he was rediscovered in an openly reactionary manner in the imperialist period and utilized for the ideological aims of the reaction. Dilthey makes him a precursor of Schopenhauer and of Nietzsche by the simple trick of completely detaching the Hellenism and the effects of classical German philosophy from the influence of the French Revolution and by reducing these latter in significance to the level of an episode. Gundolf already separates in Hölderlin the “original experience” [Urerlebnis] and the “acquired experience” [Bildungserlebnis]. “Acquired experience” is everything revolutionary, everything “merely temporal”; and as such all this is irrelevant to the understanding of the “essential” Hölderlin. The “essential” Hölderlin is an “Orphic mystic.” In Gundolf also the lines lead from Hölderlin to Nietzsche, and beyond him to the “deification of the body” by Stefan George. The Hölderlin, who fell tragic victim to a belated Jacobinism, becomes in Gundolf a precursor of rentier parasitism. Hölderlin’s tragic elegy on man’s loss of political, social, and cultural liberty ends up in Stefan George’s decadent Parklyrik. Hölderlin’s Hellenic and republican cult of friendship, for which his models were the [would be] tyrannicides, Harmodius and Aristogiton, is transformed into a prefigurement of the aestheticist, decadent, homosexual George circle.
Both Dilthey and Gundolf imagine they are able to get at the essential core of Hölderlin by leaving out the “temporal” aspects of his life and work. Hölderlin himself knew very well that the mournful elegiac aspect of his poetry, his longing for vanished Greece, in a word, the essential quality of his poetry was altogether temporal. Hyperion says:
“But this, this anguish, which is like no other, is a ceaseless feeling of total annihilation when our lives lose their significance, when the heart tells itself: you must descend and nothing more remain of you: no flowers have you planted, no cottages have you built only that you might say: I leave a trace behind on earth. … But enough! enough! Had I grown up with Themistocles or lived among the Scipios, my soul surely would never have come to know this side of life.”
And for a liberated fatherland – in his sense of the term – Hölderlin celebrates a heroic death:
Oh, take me, admit me into the ranks,
So that one day I may never die a common death! To die in vain is not my wish, but To be killed on the altar of sacrifice
For the fatherland …
And heralds of victory descend: the battle Is ours! Live on above, oh fatherland, And reckon not the dead! For you Beloved, not one too many has fallen.
[O nimmt mich, nimmt mich mit in die Reihen auf, Damit ich einst nicht sterbe gemeinen Tods! Umsonst zu sterben, lieb ich nicht, doch Lieb ich, zu fallen am Opferhiigel
Furs Vaterland …
Und Siegesboten kommen herab: Die Schlacht 1st unser! Lebe droben, o Vaterland, Und zahle nicht die Toten! Dir ist, Liebes! nicht einer zu viel gefallen].
He also celebrates his own destiny as a poet, his longing for at least one fulfilment of that which is of central concern to his soul:
Grant me but one summer, you mighty ones! And one autumn to ripen my song,
So that my heart, sated with sweet play, Might die then more willingly.
The soul, denied in life its divine right, Rests not even in Orcus below;
Yet should I ever achieve that sacred thing, The poem which is my heart’s desire,
Then welcome, repose of the world of shadows!
I am content, even if the music of my strings
Does not escort me down; once
I shall have lived like the gods, and there is no need of more.
[Nur einen Sommer gonnt, ihr Gewaltigen !
Und einen Herbst zu reifem Gesange mir,
Dass williger mein Herz, vom siissen
Spiele gesattigt, dann mir sterbe.
Die Seele, der im Leben ihr gottlich Recht
Nicht ward, sie ruht auch drunten im Orkus nicht; Doch ist mir einst das Heil’ge, das am Herzen mir liegt, das Gedicht gelungen.
Willkommen dann, 0 Stille der Schattenwelt!
Zufrieden bin ich, wenn auch mein Saitenspiel Mich nicht hinabgeleitet; einmal
Lebt’ ich wie Gotter, und mehr bedarfs nicht].
Nothing can be considered in isolation here. Hölderlin is too genuine a poet, he always echoes the momentary and concrete occasion of his experience, he has no need therefore to rehearse constantly in abstract terms the ultimate bases of the individual experience he expresses. And especially with Hölderlin, the yearning after poetic fulfilment cannot be understood in a formal-artistic sense. Form and content here too are inseparable. Poetic success presupposes that the central content of the poetry will somehow be realized in life, in his life. And Jacobin principles constitute the whole atmosphere of his poems. Only he whose perspective is dulled or blinded by class conformity will not perceive this all-determining atmosphere.
But what about the mysticism of nature; the fusion of nature and culture, man and the godhead in the experience of Hellas ? This is what a modern admirer of Hölderlin, influenced by Dilthey and Gundolf, might perhaps retort. “We have already alluded to the Rousseauesque and Robespierrian character of Hölderlin’s cults of nature and Greece. In his great poem, The Archipelagus (which Gundolf made the point of departure for his interpretation of Hölderlin), Greek nature and the grandeur of the Athenian culture which grew out of it is expressed with overwhelming elegiac pathos. But toward the end of the poem, Hölderlin speaks with equally moving pathos and equally accusatory elegy about the cause of his sorrow over vanished Greece:
Alas! It wanders in the night, it dwells as in Orcus,
With nothing godlike, our race. To their own bustle
Alone they are fastened, and in the raging workshop
Each hears only himself, and the wild ones with mighty arms
Work much without respite; yet ever more
Sterile, like the Furies, remains the toil of the poor.
[Aber weh ! Es wandelt in Nacht, es wohnt, wie im Orkus,
Ohne Gottliches unser Geschlecht. Ans eigene Treiben
Sind sie geschmiedet allein, und sich in der tosenden Werkstatt
Horet jeglicher nur, und viel arbeiten die Wilden
Mit gewaltigem Arm, rastlos, doch immer und immer
Unfruchtbar, wie die Furien, bleibt die Miihe der Armen].
This conception is neither incidental nor unique in Hölderlin.
After the Greeks are defeated in their struggle for liberty and Hyperion experiences his disillusionment, we find at the end of the novel the terribly accusing chapter on Germany, the enraged ode in prose on the degeneration of man into misery, into the narrow philistinism of early German capitalism. The invocation of Greece as a unity of culture and nature is in Hölderlin always an indictment of his age, a vain appeal to action, an appeal for the destruction of this miserable reality.
The “refinement” of the analysis of Dilthey and Gundolf, their eradication of all traces of the great social tragedy in the life and works of Hölderlin, forms the foundation of the grossly demagogic and flagrantly false disfigurement of his memory by the Brown-shirts of literary history. Just as fascist ideologists berated the unconscious, or not yet conscious, petty bourgeois with the hopelessness of their path, the. literary S.A. men befouled the memory of many sincerely despairing German revolutionaries by juggling away the true social cause of their despair and by explaining it as despair over the fact that they could not witness the “deliverance” by the Third Reich and the “saviour” Hitler.
This is also how Hölderlin fared at the hands of German fascism. Among German fascist writers it is good breeding today to idolize Hölderlin as an important precursor of the Third Reich. Naturally, the attempt to carry through this claim in a concrete manner, the attempt to show concretely the evidence of fascist ideology in Hölderlin involves serious difficulties. They are much more serious than they were for Gundolf whose formalistic, art-for-art’s-sake viewpoint, emptied of all content, allowed for the adoration of the formal aspects in Hölderlin, the idealization of his supposedly mystical conception of Hellas, without any immediately apparent inner contradiction. (The contradiction existed “merely” between Gundolf’s image of Hölderlin and the true Hölderlin).
On this basis Rosenberg makes Hölderlin a representative of “authentic” Germanic yearning. He tries to harness Hölderlin to the social demagogy of National Socialism by turning his critique of the times into a fascist critique of “the bourgeois.” “Did not Hölderlin suffer from these people even at a time when they did not yet hold sway as omnipotent bourgeois, even when Hyperion, in search of great souls, was obliged to state that they had only become barbarous by their diligence, their science, and their very religion? Hyperion found artisans, thinkers, priests, and title-holders, but no human beings, only fragmented beings without inner unity, without inner drive, without wholeness of life.” But Rosenberg also takes care to concretize as little as possible this social critique of Hölderlin. This whole great sally ends with a leap into the void. Hölderlin is simply stamped as a representative of Rosenberg’s nonsensical “aesthetic will.”
The same mixture of bombastic grandiloquence and anxious evasion of all facts characterizes the later evolution of the fascist image of Hölderlin. In a series of essays a “major turning-point” in the life of Hölderlin is discovered: his renunciation of the “eighteenth century,” his conversion to Christianity and with it to the fascist and Romantic “German reality.” In a Romanticism constructed to be the prelude to fascism, Hölderlin is inserted into a series extending from Novalis to Gorres. The worth of this falsification of history is shown by the fact that even the official side of National Socialism had to reject it as being “deviant” and “erroneous.” This occurs in an article by Matthcs Ziegler in the Nationalsozialistische-Monatsheft. in which Meister Eckart, Hölderlin, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche are presented as the great precursors of the National Socialist Weltanschauung. But whereas Baumler could succeed in delineating the romantic, anti-capitalist, irrationalist-mystic features of Kierkegaard without overt historical lies, only with some light brown retouching, Ziegler’s article remains a pitiful stammer encased, of course, in crude apodictic bombast. Scrupulously avoiding anything concrete in the quotations, he too only centres on Hölderlin’s opposition to contemporary culture (to the “bourgeoisie”) and his longing for a form of community. And he twists this longing, of which we already know the true social basis and the true social content, into a longing for Hitler, into anticipation of the Third Reich. Summarizing, he writes: “It was the tragedy of Hölderlin that he had to separate himself from the community of men without it being allotted him to contribute to the formation of the community of the future. He remained a solitary man who was misunderstood in his time but who bore within him the future as a certainty. He wished no revival, no new Greece, but he rediscovered in Hellas the Nordic heroic attitude to life which was atrophied in the Germany of his time, the only attitude, however, from which the community of the future could grow. He was obliged to express himself in the language and in the conceptions of his time, which is why it is often difficult for us, men of today, formed by the experience of our age, to understand him properly. But our struggle for the formation of the Reich is the struggle for the same achievement that Hölderlin was unable to accomplish because the time was not yet ripe.”
The objective result, even measured by a standard applicable to a National Socialist literary history, is extremely pitiful; Ziegler himself lets slip the admission that he scarcely understands Hölderlin, if at all. National Socialist writers are obliged to make the image of Hölderlin even more abstract than it is in Dilthey and Gundolf, even more devoid of all individual as well as social and historical features. The Hölderlin of the German fascists is some sort of Romantic poet who is scarcely distinguishable any longer from Georg Biicnner-also repeatedly slandered of late-who has been twisted in turn into a protagonist of “heroic pessimism,” and thereby into a precursor of the “heroic realism” represented by Nietzsche and Baumler. In the spiritual night of the fascist falsification of history, every figure becomes brown.
But the “methodology” of these falsifications nonetheless shows, if unintentionally, a result: namely the intrinsic relation between the inability of liberalism to understand German history and the increasingly conscious falsification of it by fascist imperialism. Dilthey challenges the interpretation of Hölderlin by Haym as being a “lateral shoot of Romanticism,” but only to enrol Hölderlin among the decadent belated Romantics of the end of the century and to make him a precursor of Nietzsche. Gundolf goes further and makes Hölderlin a precursor of Stefan George. And the National Socialists misuse the romantic and anti-capitalist features of Hölderlin, which at that time were still by no means unequivocally reactionary, in order to mount this deformed image of the tragic revolutionary as an ornament on the facade of the fascist prison for working Germany.
In his essence, however, Hölderlin is no Romantic, although his criticism of emerging capitalism is not without some Romantic traits. But whereas the Romantics, from the economist Sismondi to the mystic poet Novalis, see a refuge from capitalism in a simple merchandise economy, and oppose to anarchic capitalism the “ordered” Middle Ages, oppose to the mechanistic division of labour the “totality” of artisan labour, Hölderlin criticizes bourgeois society from another side. In a Romantic manner, he too hates the capitalist division of labour. But in his eyes the most essential aspect of the degradation to be combated is the loss of liberty. And in him this conception of liberty strives to transcend-in mystic forms, as we have seen, and with a vague Utopian content-the narrow notion of political freedom in bourgeois society. The difference in choice of themes between Hölderlin and the Romantics-Greece versus the Middle Ages-is not merely a difference in themes then but a difference in ideology and politics.
When Hölderlin celebrates the festivals of ancient Greece, he celebrates the vanished democratic public character of life. In this respect he not only follows the same course as the friend of his youth, Hegel, before his transformation, but ideologically he moves also in the direction of Robespierre and the Jacobins. In his great speech to the Convention on the introduction of the cult of the “Supreme Being,” Robespierre declares: “The true priest of the Supreme Being is Nature; his temple the universe; his cult virtue; his festivals the joy of a great people united under his eyes in order to draw tighter the bond of universal brotherhood and to offer him the veneration of pure and sensitive hearts.” And in the same speech he refers to the Greek festivals as an example of this strengthening of a democratic republican education aimed at realizing the virtue and happiness of a liberated people.
It is true that Hölderlin’s mysticism far surpasses the inevitable and heroic illusions of Robespierre. Moreover, it is a flight into mysticism and a mysticism of flight: a mysticism of yearning for death, the death of self-sacrifice, death as a means to become united with nature. But this nature mysticism in Hölderlin is by no means uniformly reactionary.
In the first place, its Rousseauian revolutionary source is always perceptible. The immediate point of departure of Hölderlin’s flight into mysticism lies precisely in the fact that he was obliged to raise the socially necessary hopeless tragedy of his idealistic aspirations to the level of a cosmic tragedy. Secondly, his mysticism of self-sacrifice has a distinctly pantheistic and anti-religious character. Before going to his death, Alabanda speaks of his life “that no god created.” “If the hand of a potter has fashioned me, then let him smash his vessel as he pleases. But what lives must be uncreated; must be of divine nature in its origin, superior to any power and all art, and thus invulnerable, eternally.” And in a similar manner, in her farewell letter to Hyperion, Diotima writes of the “divine freedom which death gives us.” “And if I should become a plant, would the loss be so great? I shall still exist. How could I vanish from the sphere of life wherein the eternal love, which is common to all, joins all natures? How could I sever myself from the union which links all beings?”
If the modern reader wishes to gain a historically correct perspective on German nature mysticism at the beginning of the nineteenth century, he must never forget that at that time the dialectic of nature and society was discovered and elaborated of course in idealistic and mystical forms. It is the period of the nature philosophy of Goethe, young Hegel, and young Schelling. (Marx speaks of the “honest thoughts of Schelling’s youth”). It is a period in which mysticism is not merely a dead weight carried over from the theological past, but frequently, and very often in a manner difficult to distinguish, an idealistic haze which veils the still unknown future methods of dialectical thinking. Just as at the beginning of the development of the bourgeoisie, in the Renaissance and in the emerging materialism of Bacon, the intoxication of new knowledge assumes exuberant and fanciful forms, so too now, in the intoxication of the dawn of the dialectical method, a philosophy emerges “on which no member is not drunk” (Hegel). What Marx says about the philosophy of Bacon is valid-mutatis mutandis-also for this period: “Matter smiles on the total man with a poetically sensuous radiance; the aphoristic doctrine itself, on the other hand, still abounds in theological inconsequentialities.”
Hölderlin himself takes a very active part in the formation of the dialectical method; he is not only the friend of youth of Schelling and Hegel, but also their philosophical fellow-traveller. In his important discourse on Athens, Hyperion speaks also of Heraclitus. And the “One differentiated in itself” of Heraclitus is for him the point of departure of thought: “It is the essence of beauty, and before this was found, there was no philosophy.” For Hölderlin also then philosophy is identical with dialectic.
Identical, it is true, with an idealistic dialectic which loses itself in mysticism. And the mysticism is particularly obvious in Hölderlin because in increasing measure it has the task for him of glorifying on a cosmic plane the social tragedy of his existence and of pointing an apparent way out of the historical impasse of his situation in a meaningful death. But this horizon, which gets lost in mystical haziness, is also a common characteristic of the whole epoch. The end of Hyperion and Empedocles is no more mystical than the fate of Makarie in Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre or that of Louis Lambert or Seraphitus Seraphita in Balzac. Just as this mystic horizon, which cannot be disjoined from the work of the great realists, Goethe and Balzac, also cannot invalidate the fundamental realism of their work, so too Hölderlin’s mysticism of death cannot impair the fundamentally revolutionary character of his heroic elegy.
Hölderlin is one of the purest and most profound elegiac poets of all time. In his important definition of elegy, Schiller writes that “in elegy, the sorrow must result only from an enthusiasm aroused by the ideal.” And with perhaps too much severity, Schiller condemns all elegists who lament a purely private fate (e.g. Ovid).
In Hölderlin’s poetry individual and social destinies fuse into a tragic harmony rarely achieved. Throughout his life Hölderlin was a failure. He never got beyond the general transitional stage in which the destitute German intelligentsia existed at that time: tutorship; moreover, he did not even succeed in creating an existence as a tutor. Despite the benevolent protection of Schiller and notwithstanding the commendation of the most significant critic of the period, A. W. Schlegel, he remained completely unknown as a poet and without the prospect of a livelihood. His great love for Suzette Gontard ended in a tragically despairing resignation. Both his outer and his inner life were so desperately hopeless that many contemporaries and biographers have perceived something fatefully necessary even in the insanity which put an end to his youth.
But the elegiac sorrow of Hölderlin’s poetry never has the character of a petty private recrimination for his ruined personal life. Even if Hölderlin cosmically mystified the social necessity for the failure of his decisive aspirations, this mystification also expresses the feeling that the failure of his private aspirations was only the inevitable consequence of this great general failure. This is always the point of departure of the elegiac lament running through his poetic works.
The contrast between vanished Hellas, which must be renewed in a revolutionary manner, and the miserable condition of contemporary Germany constitutes the constant, though always variously recurring, content of his lament. His elegy is therefore a pathetic and heroic accusation against the age and not a subjective and lyrical lamentation of a private fate, however pitiable.
It is the complaint of the best bourgeois intellectuals over the loss of the revolutionary “illusions” of the heroic period of their own class. It is the grievance over a solitude, a cry of distress issuing from a solitude which is insurmountable because, although manifesting itself in all moments of private life, it was created by the iron hand of economic and social development itself.
The revolutionary fire of the bourgeoisie is extinguished. But the heroic ardour of the great Revolution gives rise everywhere in the middle class to fiery souls in whom this brand continues to smoulder. Their ardour, however, no longer inflames the class as a whole. The revolutionary flame of Jacobinism still burns in Stendhal’s Julien Sorel just as it does in Hölderlin. And if the hopelessness of the situation of that belated Jacobin differs deeply in an external sense from Hölderlin’s destiny, if Julien’s fate is not an elegiac lament, but rather a power struggle carried on with hypocritical and Machiavellian means against the ignoble society of the Restoration, the hopelessness is nonetheless the same and has similar social origins. Julien Sorel also gets no farther than to take flight, at the end of an unsuccessful life, into a pseudo-heroic and tragic death; than to fling his plebeian and Jacobin contempt in the face of society after a life of shameful hypocrisy.
The creative form in which this last late-born Jacobin of France appeared was ironical and realistic. In England, such late-comers also manifest classicist, elegiac, and hymnic qualities: Keats and Shelley. But whereas the fate of Keats presents, even externally, a great many features relating him to Hölderlin, a new sun pierces the horizon of Shelley; a new rejoicing intrudes into his elegiac lament. In his greatest poetic fragment, Keats mourns the fate of the Titans overthrown by the ignoble new gods. Shelley too poetizes the destiny of an ancient god, the struggle of the miserable new gods against the ancient gods of the golden age (the golden age, the “reign of Saturn” being in most mythologies the myth of the period prior to private property and the state), and the struggle of Prometheus bound against the new god, Zeus. But in Shelley the new usurper gods are vanquished and his hymns celebrate the liberation of mankind. Shelley has already glimpsed the rising new sun, the sun of the proletarian revolution. He was able to celebrate the liberation of Prometheus because already he could summon the men of England to revolt against capitalist exploitation:
Sow seed-but let no tyrant reap;
Find wealth-let no imposter heap;
Weave robes-let not the idle wear;
Forge arms-in your defence to bear.
In Shelley the prospect of a transition to the real struggle for the liberation of humanity presents itself to Jacobins born too late for their own class.
What was possible socially in England around 1819 for a revolutionary genius, at least as a poetic visionary prospect, was not possible for anyone in Germany at the end of the eighteenth century. Because of the contradictions of the internal and world situation of Germany at the time, the course generally followed by the German bourgeois intelligentsia led to the spiritual morass of Romantic obscurantism. The accommodation of Goethe and Hegel saved and continued the best of the heritage of bourgeois thought, although in a form which in many ways is distorted and trivial. The heroic intransigence of Hölderlin was bound to lead him into a desperate impasse. He is truly a unique poet who did not have and could not have any successors. He is unique, however, not in the sense of those who defile his memory today by singing the praises of his shortcomings and obscurities, but because his tragic situation could no longer recur for the bourgeois class.
A later Hölderlin who did not follow Shelley’s course would not have been a Hölderlin, but rather a narrow classicist liberal. When Arnold Ruge begins his letter in the Correspondence of 1843 with Hölderlin’s famous lament on Germany, Marx replies: “My dear friend, your letter is a good elegy, a breathtaking dirge; but politically it is nothing at all. No people despairs; and even if for a long time its hope is based only on stupidity, after many years all its pious wishes are fulfilled by a sudden intelligence.”
Marx’s praise applies to Hölderlin, for Ruge does nothing more than to vary his quotation in a trivial manner. His rebuke applies to all who have revived the lament of Hölderlin after the basis upon which it was founded, the objective hopelessness of his situation, was negated by history itself.
Hölderlin could have no poetic successors. The later elegists of the nineteenth century bewail, on the one hand, much more private destinies, and on the other hand, in their lament on the misery of their age, are incapable of preserving their faith in humanity with the same purity it had in Hölderlin. This contrast raises Hölderlin far above the generally false dilemma of the nineteenth century. He is neither an insipid optimist nor a despairing irrationalist pessimist. His style neither sinks into an academic classicistic objectivism nor into an amorphous, impressionist subjectivism; his poetry is neither dryly and didactically intellectual not atmospheric and void of thought.
Hölderlin’s lyricism is a lyricism of ideas. Its point of departure is formed by the inner contradiction of the bourgeois revolution raised to the level of a Weltanschauung (and mystified, of course, in an idealistic manner). Both aspects of the contradiction exist in this poetry of ideas: the Jacobin Hellenic ideal and the ignoble bourgeois reality. The imperishable greatness of Hölderlin lies in his superb stylistic mastery of the insoluble contradiction which was basic to his social existence. He not only fell bravely as a belated martyr on an abandoned barricade of Jacobinism, but he also expressed this martyrdom-the martyrdom of the best sons of a once revolutionary class-in immortal song.
His novel Hyperion also has this lyric and elegiac character. It is less epic than plaintive and accusatory. Nevertheless, the bourgeois critics are wrong who see in Hy-perion a lyric dissolution of the epic form such as in Novalis’s Hcinrich von Ofterdingen. Even stylistically Hölderlin is no Romantic. On the theoretical level he goes beyond Schiller’s conception of the ancient epos as “naive” (in opposition to modern “sentimental” poetry). But he does so in the direction of a revolutionary objectivism. He writes: “The epic poem, naive in appearance, is heroic in its significance. It is the metaphor of great aspirations.”
The historical tragedy of Hölderlin affects his artistry in that its epic heroism never advances beyond a mere beginning; in that he was only able to express the elegiac metaphor of the great aspirations. The epic fulness must be transferred from the action into the souls of the actors. But to this inner action Hölderlin imparts a very palpable plastic and objective character, having an intensity such as was possible only on account of the tragically contradictory foundations of his conception. In this respect also, his failure is not only heroic, but is transformed into a heroic song. To Goethe’s “educational novel,” which teaches adaptation to the capitalist reality, he opposes an “educational novel” which teaches heroic resistance to this reality. He does not wish, like Tieck or Novalis, to “poetize” in a Romantic manner the “prose” of the world of Wilhclm Meister; rather he opposes to the German paradigm of the great bourgeois novel the project of a novel of the citizen.
Hyperion also bears stylistically the marks of the hopelessly problematical character of this genre. The attempt to depict the citizen in epic was bound to fail. But from this failure emerged a unique style which is both lyrical and epic: the objective style of a profound indictment of the abjectness of the bourgeois world after the light of its heroic “illusions” is extinguished. The lyric novel of Hölderlin, of which the action is almost solely “metaphorical,” remains then, even in terms of style, isolated in the evolution of the bourgeoisie. Nowhere else has purely internal action been shaped in a manner so palpable and objective; nowhere else has the lyrical attitude of the poet been so thoroughly integrated into an epic work.
Unlike Novalis, Hölderlin never criticized the great bourgeois novel of his age. Nonetheless, his opposition to Wilhelm Meister is more profound, for he opposes to it a completely different type of novel. “Whereas Goethe’s novel grows organically out of the social and stylistic problems of the French and English bourgeois novel of the eighteenth century, Hölderlin takes up the threads of the problem at the point where the revolutionary ideals for the transformation of life by the bourgeoisie gave rise to the attempt to create an epos of the citizen; where Milton had made the great unsuccessful attempt to depict, with classical plasticity, the necessarily idealistic existence and destiny of the citizen. The epic plasticity for which Milton strove, however, breaks up into magnificent lyrical descriptions and purely lyrical-pathetic explosions.
From the very start Hölderlin renounces the impossible aspiration to create an epos in a bourgeois world. In accordance with the requirements of the novel, he situates his characters and their destinies in a setting-however stylized-of everyday bourgeois life. This compels him to depict the citizen without separating him entirely from the world of the bourgeois. And even if he is understandably unable to endow the idealized citizen with a full-blooded material life, he nonetheless approaches much more closely than any of his predecessors a really plastic creation in his depiction of the citizen.
His historical and personal tragedy, the fact that the heroic “illusions” of the bourgeoisie could no longer be the banner for real revolutionary heroism, but only that of the yearning for such heroism, constitutes precisely the stylistic presupposition of this (relative) success. Never have the emotional conflicts expressed by a bourgeois poet been less exclusively emotional, less exclusively private and personal, so directly public than in his works. Hölderlin’s lyric and elegiac novel-despite its inevitable failure, precisely because of its failure-is the most objective epic poem of the citizen to be written in the course of the development of the bourgeoisie.
1. Harmodius and Aristogiton, said to be lovers, conspired to assassinate Hyppias and the tyrants of Athens (514 B.C.). The plot failed and the two conspirators were killed, but the tyrants were eventually overthrown. Both men then were celebrated in song and the sculptor Antenor built a monument in their honour.
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