Sunday, September 29, 2013

“But what is lasting the poets provide.”

Meditations on the poetry of Holderlin…

“But what is lasting the poets provide.”
Friedrich Holderlin has long been recognized as one of the greatest poets of the German language, but little recognition of his achievements dignified Holderlin’s lifetime. Only his epistolary novel, ‘Hyperion’, and a handful of his poems received recognition during his life. He discovered his own poetic voice in the years between 1796 and 1800 and in the relatively short period of stability that remained to him- the later six years until insanity overwhelmed him in 1806- he produced some of the most intense and beautiful lyric poems ever written not only in the German language but in the history of poetry. Unlike many of his friends and peers, Holderlin never enjoyed the economic and emotional security connected with a university position or a position in government- the fact we have to understand is that his aspiration to become a poet only grew stronger as his failures in the “business” world accumulated. The growing determination to be a poet is a decisive factor in Holderlin’s poetry, and ‘determination’ is meant here not only as the human act of volition but the ontic event of one coming into one’s own.
The poetry of Holderlin exerts an influence like the pull of a giant wayward star; so strong has been its allure that one feels compelled to ask why Holderlin’s work captivate to this day so many major poets and philosophers…what is it about this poet that speaks with such tremendous force to us today? The answer, I think, lies in Holderlin’s experience of modernity. As he wrote in “The poet’s calling”, we live in a world in which “everything divine” has been “utilized” for too long, and “all the heavenly powers…thrown away.” We think we can grasp the world, that we can “name all the stars in heaven”, but we have lost our way to the divine. This absence, this deep sense of loss that underlies the unease of modern Western culture, is the basis of Holderlin’s work and power.
The years of his writings, roughly 1795- 1803, saw the blossoming of early German romanticism through the writings of Novalis, Schelling, Friedrich and August Schlegel, Tieck and others; building on the eighteenth century contributions of Herder and Goethe, this generation of thinkers held enormous faith in “the word”, in the medium of language, and never tired of exploring the connection between what Germans call ‘Dichtung’ (the creative writing) and the search for a level of atmosphere of culture that might suggest in the present that cultural unity that moderns have ascribed to the ancient Greeks. But unlike the proponents of romanticism who came to be known as the Jena school, Holderlin’s explorations were conducted on his own, since neither Schiller nor Goethe nor anyone else has much to do with the direction taken by him in the practice of the poet’s vocation. He insisted greatly also on the divinity of poetry because his faith could not allow that poetry is a closed, singularly mortal act: so the precondition for poetry is the receptive, pious soul, which is given inspiration from the very Gods.
The poet’s interest in the remote past, in this case ancient Greece, is not academic: though he shared with academics an interest in learning from and about the past, he went beyond the norm and addressed the issue of ancient culture’s preconditions as the preconditions of all culture. This poet’s motivation in going back to the ancients were more in the nature of approaching what he called “the source”, than longing for a golden age.
A basic attitude of faith is the prerequisite for poetry, in the sense that the poet must acknowledge the existence of something higher than man. “To the Fates” is one of Holderlin’s most widely known poems; even the title suggests the necessity of faith, for the poet is addressing the Fates as deities who are capable of governing the world.
So, remembrance of the divine is perhaps the key theme in Holderlin’s work. And, whether manifest in a memory of the sun gone down, or of childhood or the homeland, or of the poet’s song or of ancient Greece, it is always accompanied by the acute consciousness that we- as individuals and a community- are not in armony with the Gods: for only through remembrance can we recognize what we lack in the present and how to get it back.
Holderlin’s sense of loss and destitution was not simply due to a personal predilection for suffering, but was a part of a larger cultural phenomenon that arose from powerful currents seething under the Enlightenment- an increasing alienation from nature and a growing sense of disenchantment in the face of a triumphant rationality and waning traditions and values. Schiller described modern human beings as “stunted plants that show only a feeble vestige of their nature.” Holderlin, for his part, reacted to these currents with an almost overwhelming longing for lost wholeness.
Finally, instead of simply longing for fullness as in his early poetry, Holderlin’s final poetry acts as a mediator between the Gods, who seem to have the power to grant us finally wholeness, and human beings. For although we may long for complete union with the Gods and nature, we could not bear their intensity- the heavenly fire of this union would obliterate us as individual men. But we only know this because the poets have brought their “suitable hands” to “interpret the holy lore” and sing us traces of the Gods: so, the poet’s song reminds us of the wholeness we have lost.
And, in apprehension of beauty we get an inkling of what that unity might be like as the “supersensible” ground of both nature and freedom, and such apprehension of beauty prompt us to take an interest in matters to which we might otherwise be blind. The apprehension of beauty, best mediated by the poet, unites that would otherwise be only fragmented pieces of nature or our temporally extended lives and, as he put in the final line of his poem ‘Remembrance’: “But what is lasting the poets provide.”
His philosophical importance has only surfaced more recently; although Schelling and Hegel acknowledged him early as their equal, for a long time Holderlin’s philosophical position remained unknown outside the small circle of his friends even if, for Holderlin, there was no separation of poetry from truth and, therefore, no essential difference between poetry and philosophy. However, it was a philosopher who set the stage for the Holderlin renaissance in our century: when Friedrich Nietzsche, in his ‘Untimely Meditations’, launched a scathing attack on German philistine culture, he presented the “glorious Holderlin” as an antidote to the prevalent burgeois values. Holderlin had in fact felt deeply the modern crisis of values and had been filled with longing for a cultural and religious renewal. Nietzsche saw Holderlin as a kindred spirit who had, however, been crushed by the adversity of his own time. Holderlinean themes reverbrated in Nietzsche’s writings and seemed to point to deep affinities between their thoughts and lives that found a resonance with his readers: “Holderlin’s work was more understandable after being illustrated by Nietzsche.”
Moreover, inspired by Nietzsche’s diagnosis of European culture, the Stefan George circle aimed at cultural renewal through the formation of a “new league” of spiritual aristocracy that would function as the germ cell of a new mythologic- aesthetic culture. Through an aesthetics modeled on French Symbolism, George intended to elevate art once again on a sacred level. After the turn of century, Holderlin rapidly became the exemplary prophet of George’s aesthetic utopianism.
Finally, Heidegger’s reception of Holderlin is perhaps unique. Beginning with his lecture course on the hymns “Germania” and “The Rhine”, Heidegger entered into a dialogue with the poet that continued throughouth his life: “My thinking stands in an unavoidable relationship to the poetry of Holderlin.” More specifically, after the attempt in ‘Being and Time’ to elucidate the meaning of “being” through recourse to the implicit understanding of being that characterizes human existence, Heidegger turned away from the language of philosophy and assigned to art, and to poetry in particular, the role of bringing us into proximity with being. Heidegger’s theory of language, in particular in his interpretation of this poet, has brought so the poetry to the forefront of philosophical thought after more than two millenia of nearly unanimous, but also highly problematic, philosophical ejection of poetry from the realm of knowledge and truth. Then, in his subsequent writings, Heidegger interpretated the history of metaphisic from Plato to Hegel as the history of the forgetting of being and saw Holderlin’s hymns as marking the advent of another history: he interpreted Holderlin’s lament of the absence of the Gods in the light of this forgetfulness and Holderlin’s call for the Gods’ return as a readiness for a new thinking in the nearness of being. In their writings the ancients dealt with the question of being on manifold levels, with conception of Nature and Gods that modern man has abandoned. “The historical destination of philosophy culminates in the recognition of the necessity of gaining a hearing for Holderlin’s word.”
Furthermore, Heidegger claims that the Gods are still present, despite their absence: “man who, even with his most exulted thought could hardly penetrate to their Being, even though, with the same grandeur as at all time, they were somehow there.”

Friday, September 13, 2013

Mnemosyne, by Friedrich Hölderlin


History, Philosophy, Religion, Art, Science

Mnemosyne, by Friedrich Hölderlin

Castle Near the River, K. F. Schinkel
Image (C) Barnaby Thieme
Completed around 1803, Hölderlin’s “Mnemosyne” anticipates many of the themes of Modernism by over a century. I’ve given my translation below, but as with all translations of great poems, much is lost. Hölderlin possessed an acute sensitivity to nuance, and many of his wonderful devices can’t be duplicated in English.
For example, the key line “Zweifellos / Ist aber Einer,” literally means “Undoubtedly / Though, there is one”.Zwei, the root of Zweifellos, means two, and the contrast between multiplicity and unity echoes the movement of the mind from a condition of primordial unity into the diversity of the phenomenal world, which constitutes one of the primary themes of the poem.
Also lost is the repetition of nemlich, which highlights various images in the poem in the sense of “that is” or “for example.” But it literally means “namely,” and carries the suggestion of naming or reference, enhancing the sense that objects of experience are signs or names of a sort, meaningful in themselves, and our world is saturated with an intertextual significance.
The title of the poem refers to the Greek goddess of memory, mother of the Nine Muses who inspire and exemplify the great arts of music, history, tragic poetry, astronomy, and so forth. Mnemosyne was an important figure in the mystical traditions of Orpheus, in which she stood as a counterpart to Lethe, goddess of forgetfulness. In this esoteric sense, the memory exemplified by Mnemosyne is the act of bringing forth eternal truths.
This idea is closely related to Plato’s theory of anamnesis or recollection, discussed in his dialogs Meno andPhaedo. Plato argued that our knowledge of subjects such as math and metaphysics is a kind of remembering. The soul can relate the particular objects that it perceives to universal truths, and in so doing the soul makes contact with the timeless realm of abstract relationships from which it came.
The Orphic mystics believed that the soul’s condition in life is one of forgetting its divine origins. Through mystical practice or contemplation, it is possible to recollect and reconnect with the timeless realm.
Hölderlin represents the world in an Orphic light – as a flux made sensible by the mind’s power to relate objects of experience to ideas, memories, or stories. This process is symbolically depicted as the actions of the gods. Memory serves as an image of mystical union with an object out of reach, a vanished memory or lost age.
Perhaps he had the story of Orpheus and Euridyce in mind when he wrote “…mortals almost / Reach into the abyss. Thus it turns, the echo, / With them.” Orpheus, you may recall, pursued his dead love into the underworld, and tried to bring her back into the light of day. But when he reached the mouth of Hades, he turned around to look at her, and she vanished. Perhaps with memory, in a similar fashion, the sought-after object disappears in the dark underworld when we try to grasp it.
Depending on your perspective, Hölderlin’s immortals are metaphors for workings of the mind, or vice versa. The poem is filled with images of signs and reference, but the sign and its object stand in an ambiguous relationship. The poet wavers between two reference points; either the mind knows its object, or the mind and its object are one.
Which is primary – the myth of the flower, or the narcissus that I see? The history or the land? The word or the flesh? Is there a Greece without Achilles? Is the world brought forth by mind, as Buddha taught in The Sutra of the Ten Grounds? Are we ourselves ideas in the Universal Mind?
Now the poem.
We are a sign, meaningless
We are painless and have almost
Forgotten speech in exile.
But if there is strife in heaven over mankind
And the moon travels in force, so the sea
Will speak and the rivers must
Find their way. Undoubtedly, though,
There is one, who
Can bring forth change daily. He scarcely needs
The law. And it sounds the leaves and rings the oak trees
By the glaciers. As not everything is possible for
The heavenly ones. That is, mortals almost
Reach into the abyss. Thus it turns, the echo,
With them. Time is
Long, but the truth
Will come to pass.
But what of love? We see
Sunshine on the ground and burnished dust.
And deep with the forest shadow and it blooms
Smoke from the rooftops, in the old crowns
Of towers, peaceful – the signs of day are good, that is,
If an immortal wounds
The soul in answer.
For snow, the abundant,
like flowers, stands signified where
It may, glistening off the green
Alpine meadow, half
There, speaking of crosses, the
Law is the dead at one stage
Along the way, on higher paths
A wanderer moves in wrath,
Knowing from a distance with
The other one, but what is this?
At the fig tree my
Achilles died to me,
And Ajax lies
In the grottoes of the sea,
At the brooks bordering Skamander.
Following the fixed, constant tradition of
Salamis, Ajax died of the temple’s fury
in strange lands.
Yet Patroclus in the king’s armor. And
Many others also died. At Kithairon
Lay Eleutherae, the city of Mnemosyne. There, too, when
God’s mantel was cast off, the one like night then parted
Her locks. Celestials, that is, are
Unwilling, if one had not gathered
His soul together in healing, but he must; in the same way
Suffers the mourner.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Herta Müller: Poemas

Herta Müller: Poemas de "Los pálidos señores con las tazas de moca"



en la pequeña playa allí venían de nuevo
los finos socios juntos el
director general el putero y
su supuesta tita, el narigón
de mal sueño el
taxista liebre-miedoso el
inaudito probador de pieles el
flautista de zapatos blancos el
descansado doctor de reuma el
representante del zoo y algo más tarde
dos soldados que cada lunes
tenían permiso cuando se les contaba
en el comedor faltaba uno
el pantalón comprado demasiado pequeño estaba
allí sobre el banco su dueño era
un carpintero de veranda puede ser
que se ahogara


uno de los vecinos murió dos veces en la cama en enero
el mismo día incluso en este y en el siguiente
año el otro estaba sentado con su tablero de ajedrez
delante de la casa se quitó la gorra de borla y el tiempo
grande fuera rió desconcertado para que la atmósfera se pusiera
mejor yo por mi parte no me preocupé mucho casi menos
que vosotros de mí así de joven sólo tiró de la
cortina y corrió a través de la ventana al entierro
como música de acompañamiento tuve que llorar al
sochantre goteó mi nariz en el zapato hasta
que le pareció demasiado y entonces desgarró uno de sus cantos fúnebres
de su cuaderno musical me lo dio como pañuelo
y dijo cuando se seque me lo quedo de nuevo
está claro?


Madre se convirtió en una ortiga
Padre se convirtió en un álamo
en lugar de esto me dijo uno
durante la cena
todo amor se nos convierte en lampazo
yo sé en lo que él se convirtió
y cómo yo me empaqueto
pero me gustaría ser la espuma
en la boquilla del clarinete
el penumbroso dinero de los ladrones
o el flaco ladrido de los perros
contra la marca de las costillas de una chaqueta.


A mediodía llegó este cliente con la
pesada cabeza de madera pelada se sentó relajado delante
en el taburete y dijo al señor Klenk que
le cortara el pelo él iba a pagar toda la cuenta
y después iría en coche a una
el señor Klenk dijo estamos de acuerdo
detrás del hombre comenzó con diez encorvados
dedos a viajar a través de lo vacío y con
la boca a zumbar como una herramienta


Conozco el fresno ese el
borde del día y la cesta con dos
ruedas conozco también
en mirada redonda el
cuadrado de residencia cuando nadie
mira entonces cambiamos atolondrada
mente la piel


Y nada acaba
en el alfabeto de la angustia
tan cabezacaninamente pesado
y a la vez lagartijamente delicado
como el presente

am kleinen Strand da kamen wieder
die feinen Mitglieder zusammen der
Hauptvorsteher der Fremgeher und
dessen sogenante Tante der langnasige
Schlafgestörte der
angsthasige Taxifahrer der
unerhörter Pelzprobierer der
weissbeschuhte Flötenspieler der
ausgeruhte Rheumadoktor der
Zoovertreter und etwas später
zwei Soldaten die jeden Montag 
Urlaub harren als man sie
beim Essen zählte fehlte einer
die su klein gekaufte Hose lag
dort auf der Bank ihr Herr war
ein Verandaschreiner kann sein
dass er ertrank 

der eine Nachbar starb zweimal im Bett im Januar
am selben Tag sogar in diesem und in nächsten
Jahr der andere sass mit seinem Schachbrett 
vorm Haus zog die Quastenmütze und die Zelt
gross raus lachte verwirrt damit das Wetter besser 
wird ich wiederum hielt eh nicht viel schier weniger 
als ihr von mir So derart jung zog nur den
Vorhang an und lief durchs Fenster zur Beerdigung
zum Begleitmusik musste ich weinen dem einen
Kantor tropfte meine Nase auf den Shuh bis
es ihm zu wider war da riss er eins der Grablieder
aus seinem Notenbuch gab es mir als Taschentuch
und sagte wenns trocken ist krieg ich es wieder
ist das klar 


Mutter wurde eine Nessel 
Vater wurde eine Pappel
stattdessen sagte einer
mir beim Abendessen
alle Liebe wird uns mal zur Klette
weiss ich was er wurde
und wie ich mich verpacke
aber ich wäre gern der Schaum
am Lippenstück der Klarinette
das dämmerige Geld der Diebe
oder das magere Gebell der Hunde
gegen das Rippenmuster einer Jacke 


zur Mittagsstunde kam dieser Kunde mit dem
schweren holzkahlen Kopf setzte sich locker vorn
auf den Hocker und sagte Herrn Klenk er
solle ihn scheren er wolle die volle Rechnung 
bezahlen und dann zu einer Hochzeit
Herr Klenk sagte wir sind uns im Klaren
begann hinter de Mann mit zehn krummen
Fingern durchs Leere zu fahren und mit 
dem Mund wie ein Werkzeug zu brummen 


die Esche kenn ich die den
Tagrand und die gehtasche die
zwei räder hat kenne ich auch
im runde Blick das
Bleibquadrat wenn niemand
schaut dann tauschen wir Hals
über Kopf die Haut


und nichts gerät
im Alphabet der Angst 
so hundeköpfig plump
und gleichzeitig eidechsig zart
wie die Gegenwart

Traducción de José Luis Reina Palazón
Málaga, Eda Libros, 2010
Cortesía Tinta China
Foto original color: Kim Manresa