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A lingering life beyond rationality

PHILOSOPHY / Giorgio Agamben makes a loose juxtaposition between Goethe and Hölderlin, between madness and reason. Did the latter allow himself to be pushed to the psychological limit?

Hölderlin’s Madness: Chronicle of a Dwelling Life, 1806-1843.
Author: Giorgio Agamben
Publisher: Seagull Books, USA

In this article, I will attempt to fuse Giorgio Agamben’s latest book, Hölderlin’s Madness. Chronicle of a Dwelling Life (2023), with his earlier book, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1995). The word ‘fugue’ is not randomly chosen in this context. The late poetics of the German poet Hölderlin (1770–1843) are described as a form of ‘hard fuguing’. This can be described as a highly condensed literary form, where the words are associatively very far apart but where the meaning is highly compact.

Homo Sacer was a book that examined the foundation of politics and sovereign power. According to Agamben, power’s basis lies with the sovereign, a person (or a state) with the power to suspend the normal legal order, introduce a state of exception, and thereby reduce some lives to a bare life. Agamben’s new book on Hölderlin was, tellingly, written during the coronavirus lockdown. In other words, this book is written about a person in a state of exception – during a state of exception.

According to Agamben, Hölderlin knew it would be impossible to achieve «hard fuguing» without pushing his own sensory and cognitive experiences to the extreme. Hölderlin wanted to grasp the impossible and achieve a state that can be described as «an infinitively united and living unity,» which can be compared to trying to grasp nothingness through language. He wanted to grasp and comprehend the original poetic unity – which exists before the division between the self and the world arises. In this way, a poet would repeat the same experiment as Hölderlin describes in the dramatic work The Death of Empedocles: the complete reunification with nature. According to legend, Empedocles threw himself into the volcano Etna. To create through language meant for Hölderlin to explore the fundamental possibilities of human existence. He had to be reunited with the original unity and power of nature.

Goethe represented the sovereign, while Hölderlin represented the state of exception.

The Tragic Hero

After Hölderlin had spent his student years in Jena and a period as a tutor at the Gontard household, where he fell in love with the family’s daughter and where his madness broke out, he resided as a kind of refugee in a severely broken-down mental state with the carpenter Zimmer in a tower in Tübingen. Hölderlin’s mental health was unpredictable. He wrote eccentric letters to acquaintances and addressed visitors in an exaggeratedly polite form. He often referred to them as «Your Royal Highness” and the like and wrote poems upon request from visitors.

According to Agamben’s book, Hölderlin saw himself through the lens of the tragic hero who has plummeted from the cliff of rationality into madness—a tragic hero who considered himself to be both guilty and innocent at the same time. Hölderlin wrote many fragments about Greek literature during this period. One of them was called Remarks on Oedipus, where he writes that Oedipus is a representative of a «tragic-dialectical recreation of the conflict between the sacred and the human.» Hölderlin did this, according to Agamben, through a «conscious disarticulation of language by means of linguistic associative disconnects.»

Hölderlin

Hölderlin and Goethe

This ends the first part of Agamben’s book, and the next part is titled ‘Chronology (1806–1843)’. Here, Goethe’s daily life is in italics, while Hölderlin’s life is in regular type. Sometimes, there are white pages that act as lacunae in the text, and Goethe’s diaries and the rest of the text are not in chronological order.

I read Agamben’s text as suggesting that Goethe represented the sovereign, while Hölderlin represented the state of exception. Goethe began the first part of Faust at the same time (it was published in 1808), but without risking his sanity. Goethe distanced himself from anything that tasted of imbalance in nature, the human psyche, and art. He could not recognise the poetry of unhappy souls like Hölderlin and von Kleist. Goethe was like the Ganges: Everything flowed through him, and those who lived in places where the Ganges did not reach risked dying lonely and from existential thirst.

The sovereign power has the power to introduce a state of exception and to determine how long the state of exception shall last. Hölderlin had to pay with his sanity to be able to advance poetry, while Goethe, in his sovereignty, could dismiss Hölderlin’s translations and poems as strange and deviant – according to his own classical criteria. According to Agamben, this effectively put Hölderlin in a «concentration camp,» where Hölderlin, as a representative of «bare existence,» spent the rest of his life psychologically pressed to the utmost.

The sovereign state power can deprive the population of its freedom, shut down society, and decide who should be sick and who should be healthy, who should be sane, and who should be mad. The sovereign power forms the laws and can just as quickly suspend them again. Here, it is close to thinking of Michel Foucault’s book Madness and Civilization (English edition 1965).

Hölderlin’s Most Interesting Poetry

Hölderlin continued to live for many years in the tower – he uttered simple words and sentences without understandable context and without being able to concentrate. But it was in this state that he wrote his most interesting poetry. According to the book, his poetics consisted of an «extreme parataxis» and a «free absence of hypotactic correction.»

But it is questionable whether Hölderlin consciously set out to create something that would move beyond logically joined together elements. As Agamben writes: «To live a poetic life means ‘to dwell on this earth.’ And ‘to dwell on this earth’ means to be in a place where ‘reason is not.’»

Henning Næss
Henning Næss
Henning Næss is a literature critic, Modern Times Review

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