Monday, May 31, 2010

Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin

In the middle ages, fishing from the Danube was a way of life but, now, it is rare.

Certain Romanian folk songs tell the story of a white monastery with nine priests, on a white island, on the Danube.

The Black Forest is the origin of the Danube, Europe's second longest river. From Germany, it flows eastwards, for almost 3000km, passing through, or forming, the borders of ten countries, into the Black Sea.

The river marked the border of the Roman Empire and the Danube basin is the site of some of the earliest examples of human civilization. In 3000 BC, for example, the Vučedol people, who are famous for ceramics, lived on the Danube.

The Bulgarian National Anthem extols the Danube as a symbol of the country's natural beauty.

The German tradition of landscape painting was developed, during the 16th century, in the Danube valley.

The Blue Danube was the name of the first British Nuclear weapon.

Homer and Hesiod refer to the lower Danube as the Okeanos Potamos. There is an island at the end of the lower Danube, Alba, where Apollo is said to greet the rising sun. Achilles, in one account, was buried on this Island.

In English, we have used the French word Danube, to name the river, since the Norman conquest of England.

The French word comes from Latin, in which the river was called Danubius, Danuvius, and (from the Greek word, Istros) the Ister.


The Ister

by Friedrich Hölderlin (trans. Michael Hamburger)

Now come, fire!
We are impatient
To look upon the Day,
And when the trial
Has passed through the knees
One may perceive the cries in the wood.
But, as for us, we sing from the Indus,
Arrived from afar, and
From the Alpheus, long we
Have sought what is fitting,
Not without wings may one
Reach out for that which is nearest
Like so
And get to the other side.
But here we wish to build.
For rivers make arable
The land. For when herbs are growing
And to the same in summer
The animals go to drink,
There too will human kind go.
This one, however, is called the Ister.
Beautifully he lives. The pillars’ foliage burns,
And stirs. Wildly they stand
Supporting one another; above,
A second measure, juts out
The roof of rocks.
No wonder, therefore,
I say, this river
Invited Hercules,
Distantly gleaming, down by Olympus,
When he, to look for shadows,
Came up from the sultry isthmus,
For full of courage they were
In that place, but, because of the spirits,
There’s need of coolness too. That is why that hero
Preferred to come here to the wellsprings and yellow banks,
Highly fragrant on top, and black
With fir woods, in whose depths
A huntsman loves to amble
At noon, and growth is audible
In resinous trees of the Ister,
Yet it seems
To travel backwards and
I think it must come from
The East.
Much could
Be said about this. And why does
It cling to the mountains, straight? The other,
The Rhine, has gone away
Sideways. Not for nothing rivers flow
Through dry land. But how? A sign is needed,
Nothing else, plain and honest, so that
Sun and Moon it may bear in mind, inseparable,
And go away, day and night no less, and
The Heavenly feel warm one beside the other.
That also is why these are
The joy of the Highest. For how
Would he get down? And like Hertha green
They are the children of Heaven. But all too patient
He seems to me, not
More free, and nearly derisive. For when
Day is due to begin
In youth, where it starts
To grow, another already there
Drives high the splendour, and like foals
He grinds the bit, and far off the breezes
Can hear the commotion,
If he is contented;
But the rock needs incisions
And the earth needs furrows,
Would be desolate else, unabiding;
Yet what that one does, the river,
Nobody knows.


Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin (1770 – 1843) was a German lyric poet. He wrote his poem, Der Ister, about the Danube River, taking its ancient name for his title, before his madness reached its full height.

Hölderlin was a Romantic. He studied with Hegel and Schelling and was acquainted with Schiller, Goethe and Novalis. As a young poet, he worked as a tutor, a position from which he was dismissed for his intolerance of his pupils, and, briefly, joined the clergy. He struggled financially. He wrote in fragments, rewriting and remaking his older poems, leaving spaces and unfinished lines. He fell in love with an older woman, Susette Gondard, the wife of his employer. He wrote about his love for Suzette in his poetry, before she died of influenza. Not long after Suzette’s death, Hölderlin was declared mentally ill and became a patient of Dr. Ferdinand Authenrieth, who invented a mask that prevented his patients from screaming. When he was discharged, considered incurable but harmless, a sympathetic carpenter called Ernst Zimmer gave him a home. He stayed in a tower attached to the carpenter’s house for the next 36 years until his death. (There is a resemblance to the second half of Robert Walser’s life, a century later). He became something of a tourist attraction and would write short poems, off-the-cuff, for visitors.

The young poet Wilhelm Waiblinger, who would visit him in the tower, wrote at length about his friend’s sheltered life:

[…] For music had not yet abandoned him completely. He still played piano correctly, though in a highly eccentric style. Whenever he plays, he sits at the instrument all day long. He will follow a childishly simple notion, turn it around, and play it back hundreds of times all day until one can endure it no longer. And along with this come quick, spasmodic fits which force him to race like lightning across the keyboard with his long, overgrown fingernails clattering all the way. It is the greatest displeasure for him to have these trimmed, and he has to be tricked like a stubborn and capricious child into having it done. When he has played long enough to stir his soul, he suddenly closes his eyes, lifts his head and begins to sing as if he wanted to pine and waste away. As many times as I heard it, I could never figure out what language it was; but he sang with an excessive pathos, and it sent shivers through every nerve to see and hear him in this way. Melancholy and sorrow were the spirit of his song, and one could tell that he had once been a good tenor. […]

Part of Waiblinger’s essay, from which the above quote comes, "Friedrich Hölderlin's Life, Poetry and Madness" (1830), can be read at the Walter Benjamin Research Syndicate (link). It is fascinating.

Hölderlin felt the presence of the ancient Greek gods in his life and represented them in his poetry. J. M. Coetzee, in his article The Poet in the Tower (link), writes,

Hölderlin wrote enthusiastic, rather strident poems of a pantheistic bent celebrating the universe as a living whole infused with divinity. Their immediate model was Friedrich Schiller, but their philosophical underpinning was ultimately Neoplatonic. As his motto, Hölderlin adopted the Greek phrase en kai pan, one and all: life is a harmonious unity, our goal must be to merge with the All.

He was, in Coetzee’s eyes,

a déclassé intellectual alienated from church and state, aspiring toward a utopia in which poets and philosophers would be accorded their rightful due; more specifically, a poet constitutionally trapped in a backward-looking posture, mourning the passing of an age when gods mixed with men (“…My friend, we have come too late. Though the gods are living,/Over our heads they live, up in a different world./…Little they seem to care whether we live or do not”).

And, yet, Hölderlin was popular with Nazis. His poetry aroused, what was considered, a call to the German people. He was a poet, who, “could be made to speak for both a lost past and a National Socialist future.” Coetzee describes Hölderlin’s standing in Nazi Germany:

In Germany the Hölderlin centenary of 1943 was celebrated on a grand scale. Ceremonies took place across the country; hundreds of thousands of Hölderlin readers were printed and distributed to German soldiers. Why this philosopher-poet, elegist of the Greek past and foe of autocracy, should have been adopted as a mascot of the Third Reich is not obvious. Initially the line followed by the Nazi cultural office was that Hölderlin was a prophet of the newly arisen German giant. After the tide of the war turned at Stalingrad, that line was amended: Hölderlin now spoke for European values being defended by Germany against the advancing Asiatic, Bolshevist hordes.

O take me, take me up into the ranks,
so that I do not one day die a common death!
I do not want to die in vain, what
I want is to fall on the sacrificial mound
For the Fatherland, to pour out the heart’s blood
For the Fatherland.

As an example of Nazism appropriating writing, it has a particular sharpness because of the lecture course, entitled Hölderlin Hymn “The Ister”, delivered by Martin Heidegger at the University of Freiburg, in 1943. Without Heidegger, Nazism’s recruitment of the lyric poet might be dismissed without reflection. Nevertheless, Heidegger decided to deliver his most sustained thoughts on the essence of politics via Hölderlin’s poem The Ister. Here is Coetzee, on the relationship between Heidegger, Hölderlin and Nazism:

The fortunes of Hölderlin under the Nazis are intricately intertwined with his fortunes in the hands of his most influential interpreter, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger’s meditations on the place of Germany in history are carried out largely in the form of commentaries on Hölderlin. In the 1930s Heidegger saw Hölderlin as the prophet of a new dawn; when the Reich collapsed he saw him as the consoling poet for dark times when the gods withdraw. While in rough outline this account squares with the Nazi version, it does an injustice to the seriousness with which Heidegger reflects on each line of Hölderlin. To Heidegger in “the completely destitute time” of the present (he was writing in 1946), when the relevance of poetry is everywhere in doubt, Hölderlin is the one who articulates most clearly the essential calling of the poet, namely to speak the words that bring a new world into being. We read Hölderlin’s dark poetry, says Heidegger, not so much to understand him as to keep in contact with him until that future arrives when he will at last be understandable.

Heidegger is still infamous today for his support of Adolf Hitler and his membership of the Nazi party, from May 1933 until May 1945. And, yet, his book, Being and Time, is, I gather, one of the most important philosophical works of the 20th Century. The debate, over whether he was an anti-Semite and whether his politics complicated his philosophy, is long and was recently revitalised by an English translation of Emmanuel Faye's book, Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy, which I haven’t read. There are some good reviews online, however, which précis its argument, here, here and here (there are others). Martin Cohen, in his review for Times Higher Education (link), touching on Heidegger’s treatment of Hölderlin, said the following:

In 1942, the year of the Final Solution, Heidegger is to be found working on an idea in a poem by Friedrich Hölderlin. Faye notes that philosophers are ignorant of the significance of Hölderlin - but that the answer is very easily obtained by perusal of Nazi texts.

Heidegger uses Hölderlin as part of a theory explaining how the historic mission of Ancient Greece was passed to the German volk. Heidegger thinks that the Germans and the Greeks sprang from a shared root somewhere in the East. "The name Heraclitus is not the title of a philosophy of the Greeks long run dry, no more than it is the formula for universal humanity as such. In truth, it is the name of an original power of Occidental-Germanic historical existence.

Heidegger's development of Hölderlin is to add a kind of swastika symbol, as he outlines a new philosophical justification for racial purity based on passing via distress to light.

I don’t know how Heidegger should be read, but I can’t help thinking that in a speech made to the Heidelberg Student Association in 1933, he sounded, at the very least, cruel:

A fierce battle must be fought against this situation in the National Socialist spirit, and this spirit cannot be allowed to be suffocated by humanizing, Christian ideas that suppress its unconditionality.

Heidegger’s Ister lecture, on the other hand, as far as I understand it, discusses the meaning of poetry, the essence of politics, ancient Greece, modern Germany and Technology. He considered Hölderlin, as yet, unheard. The lecture is divided into three parts and can be read, in full, here (link). Nothing Heidegger wrote is, to me at least, easily understood, however, at the start of Part One of his lecture – “Poetizing the Essence of the Rivers” – he makes some remarks which, with literary criticism in general in mind, make considerable sense:

What this lecture course is able to communicate are remarks on the poetry it has selected. Such remarks are always only an accompaniment. It may there be that some, or many, or even all of these remarks are simply imported and are not “contained in” the poetry. The remarks, in that case, are not taken from the poetry, not presented from out of this poetry. The remarks in no way achieve what is in the strict sense of the word could be called an “interpretation” of the poetry. At the risk of missing the truth of Hölderlin’s poetry, the remarks merely provide a few markers, signs that call our attention, pauses for reflection. Because these remarks are merely an accompaniment to the poem, the poetry itself must in the first instance and constantly be present as what comes first.

And, putting aside sense, for the moment, his concluding statements have a mysterious and beautiful magnetism:

These relations have their own essential prevailing and flowing. The poet is the river. And the river is the poet. The two are the same on the grounds of their singular essence, which is to be demigods, to be in the between, between gods and human. The open realm of this between is open in the direction of the holy and that essentially prevails beyond gods and humans.

In 2004, a film tracing the path of Heidegger's 1942 lectures, following the path of the Danube, was released by David Barison and Daniel Ross. It is a beautiful thing.

The filmmakers travel upstream from the Black Sea, at a Sebaldian pace (although they approach their subjects much more directly than Sebald), interviewing philosophers - Bernard Stiegler, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe - and taking in the intellectual and political history of the river. Gracefully, the film moves from an archaeological site, to a concentration camp, to the lecture theatre at Friburg University where Heidegger spoke, and to the castle where Marshal Petain fled in 1945, without ever giving the impression of exerting itself. The style is elegiac, meditative and glowingly intellectual.

The highlight of the film is Steigler's interview, but at no point is it any less than hypnotically brilliant. At times, the river and the light become Romantic, sublime, and the spirit of Hölderlin is made cinematic. Barison and Ross illustrate philosophy. For a more in-depth review, see James Chamberlin's article, Draggin' The River: The Ister (link).

The film closes with an original recording of Heidegger reading, in German, Hölderlin's poem, Der Ister:


  1. Faascinating. I have just returned from the Black Forest but did not realise that the Danube rose there. I have added your excellent blog to my blogroll

  2. Thanks.

    There is some wonderful footage of the source of Danube, at the end of "The Ister", as the filmmakers make their way towards the Black Forest... It is such a great film.

    And, thanks for helping me out with Walser ISBN.

    All the best.

  3. One of the most beautiful works of art ever written: "Hyperion" by Hölderlin.