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A lingering life beyond rationality

Hölderlin’s Madness. Chronicle of a Dwelling Life. 1806-1843.
HOLDERLIN / Giorgio Agamben makes a loose juxtaposition between Goethe and Hölderlin, between madness and reason. Did the latter allow himself to be pushed psychologically to the limit?


In this article I will try to piece together Giorgio Agamben's latest book: Hölderlin’s Madness. Chronicle of a Dwelling Life (2023), with his earlier book, Holy man, the sovereign power and the naked life (1995). The word 'fugue' is not chosen randomly in this context. The German poet Holderlins (1770–1843), late poetics is described as a form of 'hard grouting'. It can be described as an extremely compressed literary form, where the words are very far apart in terms of association, but where the meaning is extremely tightly packed.

Homo sapiens was a book that examined the foundations of politics and sovereign power. According to Agamben, the basis of power lies with sovereign which is a person (or a state) who has the power to abolish the normal legal order, and to introduce state of emergency, and which can therefore reduce some people's lives to a naked life. Agamben's new book on Hölderlin was, tellingly enough, written during the corona shutdown. In other words, this book is written about a person in a state of emergency – under a state of emergency.

Hölderlin knew, according to Agamben, that it would not be possible to achieve "the hard grouting" without his own sensory and cognitive experiences being pushed to the extreme. Hölderlin would grasp the impossible and try to 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 understand the original poetic unity – which exists before the division between the self and the world has arisen. In that way, a poet would repeat the same experiment that Hölderlin describes in the dramatic work Empedokles’ death: the complete reunion with nature. According to legend, Empedocles threw himself into the volcano Etna. For Hölderlin, creating through language meant investigating the fundamental possibilities of human existence. He had to be reunited with the original unity and power of nature.

The tragic hero

After Hölderlin had spent his studies in Jena and for a time was tutor at Gontard, where he fell in love with the family's daughter, and where madness broke out, he stayed as a kind of refugee in a seriously broken 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 a highly exaggerated polite manner. He liked to refer to them as "Your Royal Highness" and the like, and wrote poems at the request of the visitors.

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

According to Agamben's book, Hölderlin viewed himself through the glasses of the tragic hero who has fallen from the cliff of rationality into madness. One tragic hero who considered himself to be both guilty and innocent at the same time. Hölderlin wrote many fragments on Greek literature in this period. One of them was called Notes on Oedipus, where he writes that Oedipus is 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 associational disconnections".

Holderlin and Goethe

This is where the first part of Agamben's book ends, and the next part is called 'Chronology (1806–1843)'. Here it says Goethes daily life in italics, while Hölderlin's life is in italics. Sometimes white pages appear as lacunae in the text, and Goethe's diaries and the rest of the text stand not in chronological order.

I read Agamben's text so 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 him risking his sanity. Goethe distanced himself from everything that smacked of imbalance in nature, in the human psyche and in art. He could not recognize the poetry of unhappy souls like Hölderlin and von Kleist. Goethe was like the river Ganges: Everything flowed through him, and those who lived in places where the Ganges did not reach risked dying lonely and of existential thirst.

The sovereign power has the power to introduce a state of emergency, and to decide for how long state of emergencyone must last. Hölderlin had to pay with his intellect to be able to carry the poetry forward, while Goethe in his sovereignty could reject Hölderlin's translations and poems as strange and deviant – according to his own classical criteria. According to Agamben, he thus put Hölderlin in a "concentration camp", where Hölderlin, as a representative of "naked existence", spent the rest of his life, pushed psychologically to the limit.

The sovereign state power can deprive the population of its freedom, shut down society, decide who will be sick and who will be healthy, who will be sane and who will be mad. The sovereign power makes the laws and can just as quickly repeal them again. Here it is close to thinking of Michel Foucault's book The history of madness (in Norwegian 1999).

Hölderlin's most interesting poetry

Hölderlin continued to live for many more years in the tower – he uttered simple words and sentences without comprehensible connection, 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 of a "free absence of hypotactic correction".

But the question is whether or not Hölderlin fully conscious stepped in to create something that would move beyond the logical join. As Agamben writes: "To live a poetic life means 'dwelling on this earth'." And 'dwelling on this earth' means being in a place where 'reason is not.'"

Henning Næs
Henning Næss
Literary critic in MODERN TIMES.

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