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9— Language in Exile Hölderlin's The Death of Empedocles
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Language, Nature, and Progress

The Straub/Huillet film uses this narrative skeleton as its basis but decidedly takes it in the modernist direction, in part by suspending the various "strides" of the narrative, a modernist separation of elements, and in part by cinematographic means. Helmut Krebs describes the suspension and explosion of the two sides of the plot.

In Hölderlin's first version the death of Empedocles follows, on the one hand, from the will to revolt, to a break of the barrier between nature and human arising from the divisions among people themselves; and on the other hand, from individual hubris, the blind obsession with reason, domination of nature rather than to shape a relation to it. The first brings upon him the curse of the priest caste, for the second he curses himself. [. . .]

The tragedy explodes in the last moment this interweaving of suicide and martyrdom, of revolution and guilt. Granted, it is in the moment where the play breaks off, in the break between the lines, as a fragment.[46]

This fragmentary, contradictory quality is the essence of the "modernism" of Hölderlin and the Straub/Huillet films, which exists at both the thematic and


formal level. At the thematic level, the film shares with Othon the juxtaposition of a "classical" text with the present reality, in Straub's words, "We live in a world of ruins and an empire that cannot be governed."[47] Part of the contemporary malaise is the contradiction of progress and oppression, both seen in the context of the French Revolution and the socialist experiments of the twentieth century,[48] and also the contradiction between social and industrial-scientific "progress" and destruction of the environment. As Hurch puts it, Hölderlin "had sensed something of, as Benjamin says, 'what we call progress' and what was in reality an incessant consequence of great desolation and destruction that passes over this earth."[49] Dominique Païni has also traced to the turn of the nineteenth century and the work of Hölderlin the origin of the "modern" sense of these contradictions.

The modern feeling of nature—and its representation that would culminate in Cézanne—was invented at the dawn of the nineteenth century. Hölderlin is the exact contemporary of this audacious representation of nature that dispenses with the justification of a prerequisite and explicit discourse (religious, philosophical, or poetic). Also it is not by the accident of a vague intellectual attraction that drove the Straubs to direct this Death of Empedocles by Hölderlin and to draw the text—without forcing it very much—toward a cry of anguish in regard to the outrages to which nature submits today.[50]

Both in thematic and formal terms, the narrative of Empedocles, then, can be seen to correspond to this "original sin of the modern."[51]

The indictment of the devastation of nature is combined with the political revolutionary content of Empedocles to produce a challenge to the ideology of progress. The result, however, is not elegiac, which I would say it was in the case of Lukács's hope to harness Hölderlin to the wagon of socialist state formation. Instead, the radical challenge proposed by Empedocles arises precisely from the suspension of choice between the utopian ideals of the past, sensuous joy in the "thereness" of the world in the present, and revolutionary zeal insisting on the contemporary possibility of this unity and plenitude. But since it refuses to make any sacrifices to achieve unity, the resolution of this dichotomy remains "paratactic."

The refusal to make a choice in the Empedocles film arises in part from the fact that virtually none of the political references critics have seen in Hölderlin or the film is made explicit. There is no document in the film from the period following the French Revolution except for Hölderlin's language; there is no document of the twentieth-century resonance with the theme and politics of the film except for the voices, bodies, and faces of the actors (aside from Hölderlin's text, literally all that is German in the film) and the contemporary look and sound of the Sicilian hills. Beyond that, a contemporary reality the film documents is the invisible efficacy of its own cinematic technology.


This distance , which I examine later on the level of language and film structure, is seen by Krebs as a major prerequisite for the critical force of the film.

Although it refrains from any contemporary updating, precisely in the distance and foreignness of this film lies a moment of historical truth that touches our "End-of-Time" [Endzeit ] more than any Star Wars film.

The present is recognizable here as the German malaise of an unfulfilled promise, which perpetuates the connection between violence and history.[52]

Krebs sees precisely the lack of optimism or contemporary relevance as the source of the "utopian powers" of literature and film, which bear elegiac testimony of a humane culture as it becomes ever more distant and disappears. Although I agree that the distance to the text is one aspect of the film's critical force, I do not agree that the entire attitude of Straub/Huillet is elegiac. The explicit reference to Benjamin in this regard as well as the overtly political interpretation Straub/Huillet give to the plot of the Empedocles drama speak more toward militancy than elegy. Krebs's own contrast of the world of Empedocles with Germany's "unfulfilled promise" and the "preclusion of all social change since 1789" seems to share this militancy.

Straub included in a collage of texts from Hölderlin and Cézanne the following résumé of the revolutionary hope of [Hölderlin's] poetry: "And poetry should give the children of the earth the courage to turn their backs on so-called progress, so-called science—the courage of revolution, which according to Benjamin is the tiger's leap, not into the future, but into the past, a tiger's leap 'under the free sky of history.'"[53] But this "redemptive" view of the sense of poetry, in the context of Empedocles' fate, can have another interpretation—one that suspends the choice, even the choice of a specific redemption.

Wilhelm Schmid stresses that the power of the Empedocles film derives in part from its simplicity. "[Straub and Huillet] do not load Hölderlin's language with meaning, but exclude the question of interpretation as much as possible. They gain thereby a multifaceted, crystal-clear figure of Empedocles. All that is to be said is on the surface of the celluloid; there is no subject 'beneath the surface.'"[54] Part of this simplicity arises simply from the modest yet radical undertaking of putting Hölderlin on film at all: again a work for "a mass medium" that generally is thought to be a difficult event for the educated and thus reserved for the enjoyment of a small elite. Just to make a film of Hölderlin "for the people who don't have time to read him" is a utopian assault on the culture industry—that is, both the restrictions it places on high culture and its watering-down of mass culture.

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