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9— Language in Exile Hölderlin's The Death of Empedocles
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Hölderlin and the German Left

The invocation of 1968 is not at all amiss in reference to Empedocles or to Hölderlin, since Straub/Huillet's Hölderlin films add to a long tradition of Hölderlin reception on the Left. Hölderlin is a romantic figure but a rather classical author in German literature. He was a friend and fellow student of Hegel and Schelling, was known for his talent as a philosopher and Hellenist, and was closely associated with the idealist philosophy of the period. Hölderlin is celebrated as a classical poetic genius and was praised by the romantics as well, especially Bettina von Arnim. He has been politically appropriated by both the Right and the Left in recent German history. Like many other German artists and intellectuals, he was inspired by the French Revolution and corresponded with the Swabian Republican movement as well. His first version of the Empedocles play, for example, has been seen as an explicit contribution to this political struggle.

Hölderlin attracts the romantic sensibility, however, partly due to his withdrawal for the last forty years of his life into a legendary state of mental illness (now believed to be schizophrenia) and silence pierced by flashes of lucidity and poetic insight. His last works before this withdrawal (from which Straub/Huillet have chosen their film texts) also distinguish Hölderlin from the classicism and the Hegelian idealism of his earlier allegiances. The poems of this period reveal what Eric Santner has called a loosening of "narrative vigilance," and I argue that this quality exists in Empedocles as well (from the same period). The translations of Sophocles introduce a new attitude toward the nature of language itself and toward the nature of the essence of poetic expression. All of this might account for Straub/Huillet's choice of these works by Hölderlin for almost ten years of work.

After considering the role of Hölderlin in leftist positions on German cultural heritage, I examine the treatment of language in Hölderlin's Empedocles and Antigone , the importance of translation, and the relevance of these issues for Straub/Huillet's cinematic structures. As Hölderlin challenged the ability of language to communicate, Straub/Huillet question "film language" and confront head-on the dilemma of idealism and identity raised by the "crisis of political modernism."


The parallels between Straub/Huillet's reception of Hölderlin and their own position as contemporaries and inheritors of the New Left culture are striking. The demise of state socialism in Eastern Europe and the USSR, the crisis of the leftist intelligentsia in the First World since the 1970s, and the critical fragmentation brought about by the "postmodern condition" raise fundamental questions about the political position of leftist intellectuals and artists. As in their approach to German culture and history in other films, their work is not to be seen in isolation, however. In the 1930s, Ernst Bloch, Hanns Eisler, and Bertolt Brecht all maintained a need for an avant-garde in socialist art, which would have been consistent with retaining the sharp-edged contradictions between Hölderlin's national-poetic achievements and his political and formal radicalness. The work of placing Hölderlin in this context of intellectual and cultural archaeology is similar to the case of Kafka, treated in chapter 6, and the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari to "rescue" Kafka from the canon.[24] Helen Fehervary has summarized Hölderlin's importance for the Left as follows: "More radically than any other German writer and in quintessential form, Hölderlin exposes the problematic of the intellectual caught between the utopian and tragic dimensions of history and between subjective consciousness and political engagement."[25]

As we will see, the political engagement Hölderlin's work represents in Straub/Huillet films diverges sharply from the reception of Hölderlin by both the conservative Right and the establishment Left. The Right has celebrated Hölderlin as a German nationalist and as the stereotypical poet of myth. The Nazis, for example, placed Hölderlin in the "German" tradition of Leibniz, Herder, and Goethe as counterpoised to the "Western' degeneration" of the thought of Kant and Schiller. At the same time, however, leftist German exiles—particularly Lukács, Johannes R. Becher, and their heirs in the GDR—defended Hölderlin. They did so, however, by means that also reified him so that he could fit the canon of "good" German culture that was to be the alternative cultural heritage of the German Democratic Republic. As Fehervary concludes regarding this popularization of Hölderlin for socialism, "That he thereby represented a co-optation of the materialist moment in socialist culture is self-evident."[26]

Because of this establishment co-optation of Hölderlin by socialism since the 1930s, Straub/Huillet are again choosing an author for their films with a leftist relevance but a stifled or deformed reception by the Left. As part of their historical relation to the cultural and political legacy of the 1960s, their films reveal what Fehervary has termed the "schizophrenic character" of this reception.[27] The general inhibitions of cultural exploration in West Germany caused by the legacy of Nazism and the chill of the cold war had led avant-garde and Left-liberal artists and intellectuals to ignore Hölderlin for the most part. The primary Nazi image of Hölderlin as the poet of nationalistic myth persisted


on the one hand, while on the other, the Stalinist reification of culture in the GDR occluded any productive Western reflection on the leftist tradition of the 1930s as well.[28] This stagnation in the reception of Hölderlin lasted in West Germany from 1945 well into the 1960s, according to Fehervary, typifying the attitude of both the "Group 47" and revolutionary writing in the student movement (Hans Magnus Enzensberger, for example): "Clearly Hölderlin would be irrelevant to this development [i.e., politicization à la Brecht after the Spiegel Affair]. If he had been anathema to avant-garde writers in the 1950s, in the tendentious-agitational literature of the 1960s he was virtually nonexistent."[29]

This stalemate in the West was broken by two influential speeches on Hölderlin, by Theodor W. Adorno in 1963 and by Pierre Bertaux in 1968,[30] the period when Huillet and Straub were living in Munich. Adorno's speech stressed Hölderlin's modernism, which meant for Adorno his tendency toward abstraction, especially in the late poems. This interpretation, as furthered by Santner, will be examined in the context of the Empedocles film shortly. Bertaux's speech reestablished the connection to the French Revolution, which the French had always assumed in their scholarship but which had become invisible to the West Germans. Without discounting the poetic greatness of Hölderlin's work, Bertaux argued that its formal radicalism was due to its "conscious, independent, and active political character." The "lyrical-Jacobin style" of Empedocles , Bertaux argued, was of "burning contemporary topicality." The Greek setting, according to him, was merely a Paris fashion of the time, and the real subject was "not a situation in Agrigent but the National Convention in Paris."[31]

Straub indicates his familiarity with this significance when he refers to the Empedocles drama as Hölderlin's "calling card" as an ambitious young "Poet of the Revolution" for the expected republic in Swabia.[32] Bertaux had emphasized the importance of the play to Hölderlin's politics, its revolutionary content even in the direction of François-Noël (Gracchus) Babeuf's agrarian communism, or what Straub has called "Hölderlin's 'Communist dream.'" Bertaux points out that the work on the fragment was abandoned when the French general, Jourdan, announced that revolutionary activities would not be permitted in Württemberg.[33]

The various emphases continue from that point on in Hölderlin's reception on the Left in Germany, with the controversial play by Peter Weiss that also presents Empedocles as a revolutionary character but once again removed from political efficacy.[34] In the 1970s as well, D. E. Sattler published a new "Frankfurt" edition of Hölderlin's works, the product of independent scholarship and appearing at the Red Star publishing house. Like Fritz Lang in Contempt , the Frankfurt edition placed value on the variants in Hölderlin's work rather than the search for a definitive reading.[35] And more recently, in a dialogue with himself (1976 and 1993) and with Hölderlin, Sattler has published sixty-six


"Theses on Statelessness."[36] The Empedocles film, calling on the Stuttgart edition and with Sattler as a consultant, thus relates to the Hölderlin debate on the Left and what Fehervary calls the schizophrenic position of left-wing intellectuals both in regard to high culture/poetic language and revolutionary political practice.

The plot of The Death of Empedocles begins after the hero's transgression and subsequent condemnation to exile. Thus, as Hans Hurch has put it, the play is "basically a long, grand leavetaking."[37] Because he has been swept along by his own visionary enthusiasm to call himself a god, Empedocles has been condemned to leave Agrigento—by his rival, the priest Hermocrates, and with the concurrence of his former friend Critias. Loyalty to Empedocles comes only from his young disciple Pausanias, Critias's daughter Panthea, and his three steadfast slaves. Pausanias insists on following Empedocles into exile and, at the play's conclusion, urges him to seek another country rather than death. Delia begins the play by praising Empedocles' aura to her older friend Delia, a visitor from Athens. Empedocles' ministrations had also once "healed" Panthea when she was close to death.

The only other characters in the piece are the "citizens," who vacillate between harsh condemnation of Empedocles at first and later the wish to crown him king as they fear the fate of their city under the leadership of Empedocles' tormentors. Finally, there is a peasant who refuses hospitality to the stranger Empedocles on his way to Etna.

The cyclic progression of Empedocles' relation both to the people and to the gods (or, represented by Nature in the abstract, the metaphysical realm in general) parallels the "spiral" of the movement of the spirit postulated by German idealism. Therefore, one could say that the "plot" of Empedocles has both an idealist and a political side. Empedocles' drama shares with Hegel's phenomenology the cyclical structure Santner observes uniting the sacred narrative with human history: "For, according to Hölderlin, the sacred narrative unfolds only within the historical space of mortals, indeed, history is nothing other than the story of the union, alienation, and imminent reunion of gods and mortals."[38]

Santner also describes this idealist narrative in the context of the extinction of various heroes in the "heavenly fires" after they have surpassed the boundaries between the human and the divine: "This longing for dissolution, for merging with the fires of heaven—the theme of the ode 'Stimme des Volks'—is portrayed throughout Hölderlin's oeuvre as the distinctive trait of the heroic individual; the hero's fate describes the tragic path . . . 'away from this earth.'"[39]

The narrative path of Empedocles is indeed this: because he has broken the bounds that separate humans from nature, Empedocles is impelled out of human society and into the heights of Mount Etna, since "the hero's tragedy is always that of incineration by the heavenly fires."[40] The progression of


locations and camera angles in Straub/Huillet's film reflects this same impetus toward the heights that Santner describes in the poems. Only at the beginning of the film do we look down toward the sea. And although we learn in the first lines of the piece that "this is his garden," we are following the gaze of the young Panthea and not Empedocles. On the contrary, as the film progresses, we see less and less of the ground, especially in shots of Empedocles. Instead, he is framed most often with the branches of a tree, shot from slightly below, with more and more light and sky appearing. And finally, the two images of the heights of Mount Etna itself are accompanied only by Empedocles' implied gaze and his disembodied voice. They are further separated from the rest of the film by the fact that the text is read offscreen, not recited from memory.[41]

What Santner does not examine is the other aspect of this dialectic of the hero's alienation: from the people. This is implied by the fact that the hero's "longing for dissolution" is expressed most clearly in the poem "Voice of the People." Thus it is not only the alienation from the gods and nature that the hero longs to overcome by the dissolution of his own identity, it is also the alienation of the individual from society.

Here we have returned to the political context of the human history on which a metaphysical narrative is inscribed: the longing for dissolution is connected by the longing of a political revolutionary for his own dissolution, the dissolution that would be implied by the very success of the revolutionary enterprise. The intermediate step between the impulse for identity impelled by popular revolutionary fervor and the impulse for dissolution that would be its logical fulfillment is the hubris of the revolutionary becoming a king, the impulse to reify the revolution into a bureaucratic state.

Schütte summarizes the connection of the film's plot with the hubris of Hölderlin's time.

Hölderlin's fragment . . . reflects the bitter experience of failure into which the French Revolution—welcomed by the German Jacobins—seemed to be turning. It places the Sicilian natural philosopher Empedocles at the center of a consideration of the themes of human greatness, society, religion, nature, and res publica.

At first Empedocles had been banned from society by the citizens of Agrigento (led and "seduced" by the priest Hermokrates) because the onetime favorite of the gods had raised himself too far above the people and was therefore punished by the gods. Later he is begged to return by the same citizens, but after having just been spurned by a peasant and offered a crown, he has long since decided to retreat into a union with Nature.[42]

For the late twentieth century, one has the brief solidarity of students, intellectuals, and workers in 1968 contrasted with the long list of co-optations of revolutionary inspiration and alienation of left-wing intellectuals from the "masses." Fehervary stresses the importance of this aspect for the reception


of Hölderlin by the Left after 1968: "Thus the history of Hölderlin's reception on the Left during this time [the 1960s] was also coming to terms with the relationship between the poetic word and concrete political practice. If the writers' image of Hölderlin was an ambivalent one, it only articulated their own ambivalence to their craft."[43] It's important to note, too, that the two sides of this schizophrenia, as Fehervary describes, relate to cultural production as well as political leadership: the contradiction between praxis and manipulation of the audience as an artistic method.

How one interprets Hölderlin's relation to the French Revolution depends exactly on one's interpretation of this dilemma: in short, the choice between a "realist" (Lukács) or "modernist" Hölderlin. One who belongs in the past tradition of bourgeois revolutions, or one who spurs on contemporary revolts with the unfulfilled longings of his poetic practice.

Lukács clearly felt that Hölderlin needed to be used to manipulate people, rather than spur them along to autonomous revolutionary undertakings. Therefore, while exploiting Hölderlin as a synthesizer of German idealism and the ideas of the French Revolution, he discounted Hölderlin's Jacobinism because it came too close to the modernism of 1920s and 1930s avant-garde movements and the "radical 'sectarianism'" of that time.[44] Therefore, the "modernism" of Hölderlin, as that of Kafka, is transformed into "realism" for socialist consumption, and the progressive impetus of Hölderlin is confined entirely to the past. Hölderlin was seen as "a unique poet, who did not and could not have a Nachfolge ."[45]

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9— Language in Exile Hölderlin's The Death of Empedocles
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