Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Feng Dong reviews Two Studies of Friedrich Hölderlin

Werner Hamacher. Two Studies of Friedrich Hölderlin. Trans. Julia Ng and Anthony Curtis Adler, Ed. Peter Fenves and Ng. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2020. 240 pp.

Review by Feng Dong

8 September 2021

Since Martin Heidegger’s elucidations of Friedrich Hölderlin’s poetry appeared in the 1930s, the German poet has become a touchstone for both critics and philosophers. Werner Hamacher’s two newly translated studies of Hölderlin are the latest representatives of a critical continuum ultimately derived from Immanuel Kant’s transcendental philosophy but including Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Peter Szondi, and Paul de Man.

Hamacher’s is perhaps the last heroic undertaking to embrace Hölderlin on the poet’s own metaphysical ground. Combining Szondi’s philological approach, Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction, and Adorno’s paratactic practice, Hamacher’s treatment of Hölderlin is systematic, meticulous, and thought-provoking. In the first essay, “Version of Meaning: A Study of Hölderlin’s Late Lyric Poetry” (1971), Hamacher examines how meaning for late Hölderlin has become something tortuous, inhibited, de-absolutized, and thus abyssal; Hölderlin’s verse is not only “subject to the dominion of meaning, but also gifted with the sovereign capacity to usurp meaning’s dominion” (p. 97). Heidegger interpreted Hölderlin’s rivers as pertaining to the origin and thus opening up the essence of Dasein. Hamacher, instead, sees Hölderlin’s rivers, for example in “Voice of the People,” as agents of difference and disappearance: “the poet’s words find their actual subject, the connection between vox populi and vox dei, at the place where they withdraw from representation,” for both voices “want to acquire the abyss as the place” (p. 23). Driven by divine yearning, the rivers would fall into the All, thus completing their telos, their destiny. It’s the same route (the shortest route) for a people: in striving for their gods, they fall into ruins in a war. Hamacher indicates, however, that the gods themselves are not exempt from such ruination: sending a whole people (via the “heroes”) to their destiny, the gods are also “introduced into a process of deferrals and dispersions in which not only the identity of their expressions but also their self-identity disintegrates” (p. 26).

Hamacher could not possibly be satisfied with only deconstructing Hölderlin’s gods into dispersed origins; he goes on to elaborate late Hölderlin’s core project: the Hesperian reversal. The most intriguing part of the essay centers on Hölderlin’s failed attempt to reconcile Christ with Dionysus. This is probably why Hölderlin wrote three versions of “The Only One” (“Der Einzige”) without truly convincing himself that Christ is the only One. For Hölderlin, “no force is monarchic in heaven and earth,” so in the poem he rather deems Christ a “brother” to Heracles and Dionysus (p. 31). The central issue here is how to turn the “Oriental” transgression of the measure and laws, as represented by Bacchus and Antigone, into a certain “Hesperian sobriety,” so that a real measure, a fate, might be introduced to the Occidentals (p. 55). Besides “sobriety,” “Hesperian” also connotes “turning the form [Gestalt] of Greek positivity, through an exposition of ‘sacred pathos,’ toward a figure of deferral, and ‘eccentric enthusiasm’ toward a form of ‘propriety’ [Schiklichkeit]” (p. 58). Hesperian reversal thus constitutes “the double path of measure and excess, of sobriety and the violation of the law, of decline and preservation, on which Christ moves, on which history completes itself, and towards which the poet must head” (p. 59). This is how Hölderlin deals with the opposing forces of Christianity and Hellenism: to make Christ the one who “within measures transgresses” (p. 61). Hamacher calls our attention to Hölderlin’s verb vergehen, which means “to transgress” and “to pass, to die.” Rather than positively embodying divinity, Hölderlin’s Christ invites a double interpretation as that which (re)posits a measure and law and who in his own passing turns away from humans.

In the second essay, “Parousia, Stone-Walls: Mediacy and Temporality, Late Hölderlin” (2006), Hamacher continues this line of thinking, yet with a greater focus on Hölderlin’s radical understanding of time. The Hölderlinian project, argues Hamacher, aims at cutting a path out of the systematic philosophies available at the time, such as Kant’s, Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s, toward a new conception of the poetic. Slowing down his critical pace, Hamacher catches up with Hölderlin’s aorgic moment when poetic speech petrifies and stops, when time suffers its own birth pang. Drawing on Hölderlin’s concepts of hyperbole and overdrive, Hamacher perceives the impossibility of any determination of temporality for a poet who was writing constantly in extremis. The “divine moment” has come to be the moment of “the atheologization and alogicization of the One God,” as well as the moment of “the generation of a finite, contingent, and irreducibly manifold language” (p. 130). This language, in “the raptus,” “the seizure” of time, withdrawing from any mediation of consciousness, can only be an inorganic language, the speech of stone walls (p. 156). It communicates what still remains standing under the infinite “lateral bending” of time and history (p. 157). Late Hamacher thus stands close to both late Hölderlin and late Heidegger, as his hermeneutic legacy urges us to experience poetry more inwardly in connection with "inceptual" thinking and original meaning formation.