Extreme Philology: Benjamin, Adorno, McCall and the Enigmas of Hölderlin

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Extreme Philology: Benjamin, Adorno, McCall and the Enigmas of Hölderlin

Ian Balfour
York University

“I have given some thoughts to philology [. . .] I was always aware of its seductive side.”

Walter Benjamin, letter to Gershom Scholem, 14 February 1921
In memory of Tom McCall

1.         The term “philology” tends to conjure images of dusty manuscripts squinted at by dusty professors. It might seem out of place in the discursive haunts of the Frankfurt school, broadly understood, whose major concerns were fighting fascism and resisting any number of formations and formulations of capitalism—especially of the “late” variety. A discipline whose name means something like “the love of words” hardly seems of a piece with such intellectual endeavors and their high stakes, both political and social. Something of the same suspicion might hold for post-structuralist—and specifically deconstructive—modes of analysis that, if undeniably text-based, were and are pervasively concerned with matters of difference, power, and institutional force. In both domains, some the “late” surprisingly strong appeals are made for or in the name of philology. When Hamlet, at a certain point in the play bearing his name, is asked what he is reading, he replies: “Words, words, words” (2.2.192). It’s not a very satisfying answer to Polonius who asked him. Perhaps it is even a sign of Hamlet’s perversity, if not quite his madness. What matters to Polonius is “matter,” as he makes explicitly, literally clear. Something is distinctly amiss when there is, or appears to be, an undue focus on words. Yet that is what philology, in the first instance, for better or worse, does. It attends to words: their senses, their sequences, even their sounds. In arguing for a “return to philology,” Paul de Man contends, only a little polemically, that literary analysis does and ought to scrutinize how meaning is produced in advance of any attempt to fix or even just to make sense of meaning (25). In its more meaning-oriented disciplinary fellow travelers, literary criticism and literary history, this too is often the case. Even historically oriented literary criticism—directed to the world outside the text—tends for at least a while to dwell, more or less poetically, with words as they are articulated.

2.         Yet when old-school philology did what it does, it moved outward from the literary text to its enveloping historical contexts, centering the text in question in something of a series of concentric circles extending from the author’s life (inner and outer) to his or her immediate literary and historical contexts (history of the pertinent genre, for example, or the grand historical events, forces, or mode of production), zones of more or less settled meaning thought to be formative for the production of the text. What could be more sensible than that? Indeed, such protocols, when well executed, have yielded all kinds of impressive, clarifying results. Think of the grand tradition that goes from Giambattista Vico through Erich Auerbach to Edward Said and beyond. Yet philological analyses prosecuted under this banner often come up short on several counts. To begin with an exemplary lament from a philosopher who earned his livelihood as a classical philologist from a tender age: “Ah, it is a sad story, the story of philology! The disgusting erudition, the lazy, inactive passivity, the timid submission.—Who was ever free?” (Nietzsche 3.325). Friedrich Nietzsche is arguably the inaugurator of a counter-tradition that could be dubbed extreme philology. [1]  He opined, in the unfinished “untimely meditation” titled “We Philologists,” that

The stance of the philologist towards antiquity is apologetic, or else dictated by the view that what our own age esteems highly can likewise be found in antiquity. The correct point of departure, however, is the reverse one, namely, to proceed from an insight into our modern perversity and to look back: then much of what in antiquity had heretofore been rebarbative will appear as profound necessity. (3.325; my translation)
Brushing against the complacent, conservative philology of his time, Nietzsche struck out to set the discipline on its head, as he did spectacularly in his first book, The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music, unleashing the force of the Dionysian for a too Apollonian academic discipline, not just as a topic but as a performance, upending in the process any number of its idées fixes and idées recues, to say nothing of its guiding values. [2]  Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf would write a stinging and not simply defensive, much less naïve, critique, branding Nietzsche’s effort “Zukunftsphilologie” (“Future-Philology”) [3]  as a way to signify a fanciful relation to antiquity. But it was a charge Nietzsche would in turn brandish as a kind of banner: “People believe philology is at an end—and I believe that it has not yet begun” (325; my translation).

3.         Something of the future Nietzsche envisioned took shape in the thinkers and texts I address in what follows. I track the practice and some of the theory of “extreme” philology, critical texts that occupy a place at the edge of a spectrum of a discipline whose center has tended to be conservative in more ways than one, a discipline dedicated to preserving and honoring classic(al) texts of the past, a discipline often bent on consigning those texts to the past—embalming rather than just preserving—even as it promotes their reading in the present. [4]  The more or less Nietzschean counter-tradition is critical, skeptical, open to the dark side and to the obscurity of texts, willing to admit the limits of its knowledge as well as being not unaware of the pressure philologists in a given present can—and in some sense should—apply to texts of the past. [5]  Most particularly, the discipline of philology, which is by definition committed to making sense of texts, is, in the hands of these critical philologists, often geared to confronting crucial and definitive moments when texts stop making sense, when philology comes up against its own limits. This sort of stance need not have been and is not in every respect “extreme” but it can come across as such, in contrast to the sometimes sloppy humanist (and often bourgeois) complacency of so much that passes for philological scholarship and understanding.

4.         The readings and reflections I shall focus on from Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and Tom McCall are characterized by attention to the complexity and violence of language registered alternately by allegorical readings or simply by dwelling on what exactly the text says, so far as one can know or articulate it. These procedures too can have the force of radicality. The examples singled out cluster around the work of Friedrich Hölderlin, the object of some of the most intense philological work, both practical and theoretical, expended upon any post-classical author. Hölderlin is in this horizon both a special and an exemplary case of a poet to seize on. “Discovered” in a major way only very belatedly, roughly a century after the high-water mark of his creativity, Hölderlin became, after the first good edition of his work by Norbert Hellingrath in the second decade of the twentieth century, a touchstone and a cipher, with his body of work enlisted in any number of struggles: ideological, aesthetic, and philosophical, as Helen Fehervary has charted. One could see him alternately (and mutually exclusively) as a fervent supporter of the French Revolution as well as of the rights of man/citizen or as a harbinger of the “fatherland” to come, destined to take such horrific shape in the era of Hitler. Something of a cultural history of Germany in the long twentieth century could be written by tracking how this one poet was read and fought over left and right by the left and the right, with, say, Georg Lukács, Adorno and Benjamin on the one (left) hand, as it were, and on the “right” hand (including center-right, in political terms) imposing figures such as Max Kommerell, and Martin Heidegger, whose complex, adulatory readings throughout the 1930s and 1940s, including on the theme of the fatherland, were of a piece with any number of tenets of fascist ideology, even if his (non- or anti-mimetic) aesthetic principles bore little relation to the run-of-the-mill Nazi “scholarship” and journalism devoted to the poet. [6]  The division even marks the two most extensive editions of Hölderlin, with Friedrich Beissner’s so-called Grosse Stuttgarte Ausgabe, begun in the WWII years and supported by the Nazis on one side, and on the other the so-called Frankfurter Ausgabe published beginning in the 1970s by the Roter Stern (Red Star) press, a publisher that wears its left-wing politics on its sleeve. The acme of the right-wing use and abuse of Hölderlin came with the grotesque Nazification of the poet, when tendentious selections of his work were made available to troops in “field editions” by the hundreds of thousands in the Second World War. It seems that any number of Nazis were happy to overlook the likelihood that when Hölderlin said “fatherland” he most often meant Swabia, whose imperial pretensions were zero.

5.         Hölderlin also poses a particular set of problems for philology, old-school and otherwise. If one of the main goals of traditional literary understanding is to get at, as far as possible, the author’s intention, that task is rendered more precarious than usual, given Hölderlin’s real and perhaps also sometimes feigned madness. His late poems are often signed “Scardanelli” and he gives a number of these poems, written between 1806 and 1843, dates such as 1748, 1758, 1676, and, most chillingly, 1940—times when he was not by any measure alive. Any number of philologists/literary historians simply ascribe these to a period of madness, but dating the onset and severity of madness is not an easy thing at the best of times, and more difficult with the patchy records of Hölderlin’s life—to say nothing of the difficulty presented by what Paul de Man called “the madness of words” (122). Adorno reacts negatively to those who caution about the forbidding character of the difficulties of certain literary oeuvres (Georg Trakl, Hölderlin, Franz Kafka): such difficulties are spurs to understanding, not signals to throw up one’s hands and abandon all hope. What is more, subjective intention, for Adorno, even in the production of first-person lyric poetry, will be recognized as largely irrelevant. Philology, old-school and new, is to be mobilized but it cannot remain simply old-school.

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6.         One is often introduced to Walter Benjamin as the media theorist of “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility” or the cultural historian of nineteenth-century Paris in the Arcades project and the writings on Charles Baudelaire. Rarely does one think of him as, in the first instance, a philologist, and yet philology and reflection on it is more than a minor concern of his throughout the various “phases” of his variegated career. In a relatively early letter to Gershom Scholem, after his dissertation on the concept of critique in German Romanticism but before the great Elective Affinities essay, much less the writing (though not the prior conceiving of) the Baroque Trauerspiel book, Benjamin reflects on philology as a topic and a vocation. [7]  He remarks, in unusual terms, how he has “given some thought to philology” and that he “was always aware of its seductive side” (C 175). [8]  He goes on to specify and to gloss at some length just what he means by philology, a discipline one might think of as already rather circumscribed:

It seems to me [. . .] that, like all historical research, philology promises the same joys that the Neoplatonists sought in the asceticism of contemplation, but in this instance taken to the extreme. Perfection instead of consummation, the guaranteed extinction of morality (without smothering its fire). It presents one side of history, or better, one layer of what is historical, for which a person may indeed be able to gain regulative and systematic, as well as constitutive, elementary logical concepts; but the connection between them must remain hidden. I define philology, not as the science or history of language, but as the history of terminology at its deepest level. In doing this, a most puzzling concept of time and very puzzling phenomena must surely be taken into consideration. If I am not mistaken, I have an idea of what you are getting at, without being able to elaborate on it, when you suggest that philology is close to history viewed as a chronicle. The chronicle is fundamentally interpolated history. Philological interpolation in chronicles simply reveals in its form the intention of its content, since its content interpolates history. (176)
One observes how the apparent delimitation of philology—a history only of terminology—nonetheless quickly leads to history in general and to one of its fundamental narrative modes, the chronicle, just by virtue of the fact that one would have to come to terms with terms over and in time. Benjamin is certainly right that the notion of time entailed—elaborated by him elsewhere—is puzzling and he wonders aloud whether his “oracular pronouncements about philology” would be of any use to Scholem (176). One can imagine why Scholem, in a letter that does not survive, might have proposed the chronicle as a historiographical analogue to philology. If the chronicle aims to record in neutral, more or less objective fashion what is pertinent about a historical event or series of events (one notes what is noteworthy, as it were), then it would seem to correspond to philology’s goal of presenting or accounting for all that is significant in a text. Benjamin would much later, in the theses “On the Concept of History” drafted close to the end of his life, posit the chronicle as a model for historiographical plenitude insofar as it does not distinguish between great and small, thus allowing for the redemption, at some future date, of the totality of a given past:
The chronicler who narrates events without distinguishing between major and minor ones in accord with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost to history. Of course only a redeemed mankind is granted the fullness of its past—which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments. Each moment it has lived becomes a citation à l’ordre du jour. And that day is Judgment Day. (SW 4.390) [9] 
The leap from simple chronicle to the absolutely redeemable past modeled on the finality and totality of the (Christian) Bible is no doubt an extravagant gesture, but not atypical of Benjamin’s penchant for moving from the small and smallest items to the opposite extremes. [10]  Yet in Benjamin’s letter to Scholem of 1921 the chronicle is a rather different matter. Benjamin determines it as “interpolated history,” a kind of intervention of history in history. [11]  His model for interpolation, as he explains to Scholem, is the allegorical tale of a miniature woman by Goethe, “Die neue Melusine” (“The new Melusina”), that is inserted into the vast encompassing narrative of Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years). The fact of interpolation—even if the interpolation of a history—suggests an intervention, a construction, not simply the neutral representation of what has happened, even if that is what it “contains.” But the chronicle seems to be, in Benjamin’s conception, representation and intervention, record and event. Benjamin writes to Scholem, after re-reading his correspondent’s (lost) letter: “Chronicle, interpolation, commentary, philology—they all have one nexus” (C 176). Each of the items in this series is at one time or other throughout Benjamin’s corpus conceived, via a protocol or almost a habit of thought, as something other than a belated mimetic version of what has preceded it.

7.        The insistence on the desirability and inescapability of philology, reflected on so searchingly in 1921, is never really left behind in Benjamin’s work, not even in what turned out to be the last years of his life. When in the 1930’s Benjamin was devoting a good deal of his energy to combating forms of fascism, he saw his massive, unfinished, perhaps un-finishable book on Baudelaire and the Arcades as bound up with that struggle, indeed part and parcel of his political thinking. The status of philology in all this was rather fraught, as became clear in the exchanges between Benjamin and Adorno about the former’s work on Baudelaire. Having eagerly awaited Benjamin’s long-in-the-works work, Adorno, on first reading it, could not conceal his disappointment with what Benjamin had produced, charging it especially with an inattention to mediation in its shuttling—one might say lurching—from the macro-and micro-economic to the works of culture, which Benjamin had thought legible in Baudelaire’s poems and their milieu of production (CC 280ff). [12]  Countering Adorno’s various charges, Benjamin wrote back the following on December 9, 1938:

When you speak of a “wide-eyed presentation of mere facts” you are characterizing the proper philological attitude. This had to be embedded in the construction as such and not only for the sake of results. The indifference between magic and positivism must, as you so aptly put it, be liquidated. In other words, the philological interpretation of the author should be preserved and overcome [aufgehoben] in Hegelian fashion by the dialectical materialist. Philology is the examination of a text, which, proceeding on the basis of details, magically fixates the reader on the text. What Faust took home in black and white is closely related to Grimm’s devotion to little things. They have in common that magical element whose exorcism is reserved for philosophy, here to the final part. (C 587)
The allusion to Goethe’s Faust: The First Part of the Tragedy invokes the episode where a student says “Denn, was man schwarz auf weiss besitzt,/ Kann man getrost nach Hause tragen” (“What one possesses in black in white, one can take home with confidence [literally, “consoled’]”), a saying that, when spoken in the presence of Mephistopheles, comes across as naïve (lines 1966-67, “Studierzimmer” 2). The student sounds guilty of simply taking the text at its word and partaking of the ethos of the wide-eyed-ness of (a certain) philology. The other reference to the great philologist Jakob Grimm is perhaps apocryphal; nonetheless, Benjamin invokes it at least twice, and one other place he does so is in his essay “Rigorous Study of Art” where he praises this attention to (even) insignificant things as “the spirit of true philology” (SW 2.668). Nothing, in principle, escapes philology, and in this it resembles, once again, the chronicle, the mode of historiography that avoids weighing matters in a balance, distinguishing between great and small, as Benjamin outlines it in the “Theses.” Everything remains to be read, and to be read again, later, otherwise.

8.         In his response to Adorno, what Benjamin conjures with one hand—the magic of philology’s fixation on the text—is spirited away with the other hand, the more or less tight fist of dialectical materialism, though one might not be mistaken in thinking Benjamin wants to have it both ways, especially if we understand the emphasis in “sublated” (“aufgehoben”) as indicating preservation. (The term aufheben can mean to negate, preserve and/or raise to a higher level, and often in Hegel means all three at once.) Benjamin never had much time for Hegel, but the mechanism of Aufhebung was congenial to him as a negatively dialectical concept/figure with affinities to the dynamics of fulfillment or completion so crucial to how he thought culture and history worked. In any event, Benjamin goes on to assuage Adorno on the score of a certain philology’s eventual disappearance:

The appearance of closed facticity which attaches to a philosophical investigation and places the investigator under its spell, fades to the extent that the object is construed in an historical perspective. The base lines of this construction converge in our own historical experience. (CC 292)
In these lines we glimpse the linkage of (the new, rethought) philology to the outlines of Benjamin’s now familiar but still challenging theory of historical understanding that entails, instead of grand historical, causal narratives, the construction and articulation of two moments: of the knowing and the known, the citing and the cited. If there still is any lingering doubt about the import of philology for Benjamin’s later thinking, one should consider this remarkable, lapidary pronouncement in the drafts to his “Theses on the Concept of History,” which is also to say the theoretical underpinnings of the Arcades project: “The historical method is a philological one” (SW 4.405). Enigmatic in this form, the pronouncement is less so in the larger passage from which it comes:
If one wants to consider history as a text, then one can say of it what a recent author says of literary texts—namely, that the past has left in it images, comparable to those registered by a light-sensitive plate. “The future alone has developer at its disposal strong enough to allow the image to appear in all its details. Some pages in Marivaux or Rousseau contain a secret sense, which the contemporary reader could not have deciphered completely.” The historical method is a philological one, whose foundation is the book of the world. “Read what was never written,” says Hofmannsthal. The reader, to be thought of here, is the true historian. (SW 4.405; translation modified).
It’s hard to overestimate how much of Benjamin’s work throughout the 1930s was devoted to figuring out how history works, in general and in kinds and examples of its particulars. It is thus of considerable importance for our understanding of the status of philology in his thinking that he determines the historical method he outlines and practices as a philological one. This seems consistent with his perhaps enigmatic pronouncement to Scholem that philology required one to think through a “puzzling notion of time,” just what Benjamin did from roughly 1920 to 1940. Over time Benjamin gradually crafted a theory of history and its epistemology that stipulated that:
Articulating the past historically means recognizing those elements in the past which come together in the constellation of one and the same moment. Historical knowledge is uniquely and only possible in the historical moment. But cognition in the historical moment, however, is always cognition of a moment. Insofar as the past gathers itself together in a moment—in a dialectical image—it enters into the involuntary memory of mankind. (SW 4.403; translation modified)
That historical knowledge only occurs as a relation of one moment to another is one reason why the models for it are reading and citation. Such knowledge is even enacted as history, as the charged examples of revolution make plain: the French Revolution “cited” the Roman one (Thesis XIV) and the revolutionaries of July 1830 reiterated Joshua’s stopping of the sun (Thesis XV), along the lines of what Karl Marx had outlined as revolution’s modus operandi in the opening pages of The Eighteenth Brumaire (SW 4.395). It is not just that our knowledge of history is mediated by reading and citation: it is structured as they are, as the encounter in and of a more or less determinate present with a more or less determinate moment in and of the past, of one act of language with another, or of an act of language with something other than language.

9.         In his response to Adorno on the charge of being too philological, Benjamin introduces some other key categories pertinent to our thinking through the possibilities and parameters of philology, categories that will be crucial for Adorno in his understanding of Hölderlin and for his aesthetic theory in general:

If you think of other writings of mine, you will find that a critique of the attitude of the philologist is an old concern of mine, and it is basically identical with the critique of myth. Yet in each case it is this critique that provokes the philological effort itself. To use the language of Elective Affinities [Benjamin’s essay on Goethe’s novel, not the novel itself] it presses for the exhibition of the material content in which the truth content can be historically revealed. (CC 292)
Once again, Benjamin appears to have it both ways, defending the philological texture of his Baudelaire work and saying he has long prosecuted a critique of the attitude of the philologist. The inadequacy of some philology requires more, better, different philology. Benjamin rightly invokes his “epoch-making” essay on Elective Affinities: there Benjamin elaborates a theory—adumbrated in the early Hölderlin essay—whereby a work of art possesses both subject matter or material content (Sachgehalt) and truth content (Wahrheitsgehalt) in a dialectical, historically changing fashion. The effect of time passing is to disentangle or pry apart these two aspects of the work that are conjoined at the moment of production. According to Benjamin, a basic law of literature dictates that: “ [. . .]the more significant the work, the more inconspicuously and intimately its truth content is bound up with its material content.” With that passage of time, however, “truth content always remains to the same extent hidden as the material content comes to the fore” (SW 1.297). Critique, Benjamin maintains, is concerned with the truth content of a work of art and commentary with its subject matter, but it becomes clear that the ideal philologist—and later the historical materialist whose work is modeled on philology—necessarily engages both, not least because the character of the relation between truth content and subject matter alters with every significant change in and over time. Reading, for this reason, is what Benjamin sometimes calls, after the German Romantics, “an infinite task,” even if each and every reading is finite, punctual (SW 4.402).
* * * * *

10.         Let us turn now to Benjamin’s early (and in his lifetime, unpublished) essay modestly entitled “Two Poems by Friedrich Hölderlin,” dating from the early years of the First World War. It’s not easy to know what to make of this essay, considered by him and others his first major literary study. It appears to have been a highly charged text for him, not least as its subject matter—poems featuring the death of the poet or readiness for death on the part of the poet—is intimately bound up with the then-recent death of his friend, Friedrich Heinle, a poet who committed suicide rather than be conscripted into military service. Yet quite aside from any personal resonance, it is an elusive, oddly textured essay. One paragraph extends for almost five pages. A good deal of it seems almost mystical (Scholem called it “deeply metaphysical” [SW 1. 36]), riddled with epigonal, arch-Goethean language: “inner form,” “innermost,” “quintessence,” and so on. At one point Benjamin even uses the word “mystical” is an apparently approving tone (SW 1.34). The essay was never published in his lifetime, and Benjamin did not return to the central category explored in his text. Almost only readers of Benjamin would do so, one of them being none other than Theodor Adorno.

11.         At the conceptual center of the essay is a category for which Benjamin had to fashion an unheard-of word or dredge up a forgotten one: “das Gedichtete.” It could be rendered as the “poeticized” or “poetized” (Ralph Waldo Emerson’s term, adopted for the Harvard edition) or “poematized” (McCall’s rendition). “Das Gedichtete” was, and is, a very unusual term. No less than Goethe used (perhaps coined?) the term, if only in conversation, when he claimed “Das Gedichtete behauptet sein Recht, wie das Geschehene” (“The poetized [i.e. what has become poetry] claims its right just as much as what has happened”) but Goethe gives it no technical or special force (22.650). The term seems not have taken hold for about one hundred years and then was invoked fleetingly, though in charged circumstances.

12.         It is a term that, strikingly, Heidegger would later also invent—or re-invent—decades after Benjamin. For all their massive differences, Benjamin and Heidegger find common ground in this term and for a common reason, namely, a sense that the time-honored metaphysical distinction between form and content seems inadequate to do justice to whatever it is that Hölderlin writes, what he poetizes or poeticizes. Here is how Benjamin characterizes what he, almost for the first time, calls das Gedichtete:

As a category of aesthetic investigation, the poetized differs decisively from the form-content model by preserving within itself the fundamental aesthetic unity of form and content. Instead of separating them, it distinctively stamps in itself their immanent necessary connection [. . .]. In the unity of form and content [. . .] the poetized shares one of the most essential characteristics with the poem itself. It too is built on the basic law of the artistic organism. It differs from the poem as a limit-concept, as the concept of its task [Aufgabe] not simply through some fundamental characteristic but solely through its greater determinability [Bestimmbarkeit]; the poetized is a loosening up of the firm functional coherence that reigns in the poem itself, and it cannot arise otherwise than by disregarding certain determinations, so that the meshing, the functional unity of the other elements is made evident. (SW 1.19)
There are other glosses on and identifications of just what “das Gedichtete” is, such as “the synthetic unity of the intellectual and perceptual orders” (19) but it is remarkable in the passage above that is said to be characterized “solely through its determinability” (my emphasis). “Determinability” is of those categories Benjamin so often invokes featuring the suffix “-ability,” a gesture whose consequences Samuel Weber has analyzed in exemplary fashion in Benjamin’s -abilities. Such terms denote the condition of possibility of the realization of “x” rather than its empirical realization. “Determinability” is a term replete with virtuality. As it happens, in the poems Benjamin singles out for scrutiny, the greater presence or absence of determination will be not only a defining structural feature of das Gedichtete but also a value, such that the greater determination of one poem over another will be the very sign of its superiority.

13.         Benjamin uses the phrase “aesthetic commentary” to characterize his undertaking, “commentary” usually having designated (more so in his day than ours) a mode of dealing with a text engaged within the discipline of classical philology. Benjamin’s commentary is in the spirit of what he thinks of as philology “in the expanded field,” one might say, even if here he does not call it philology here. [13]  Benjamin juxtaposes two poems of Hölderlin’s so-called mature period (he was around thirty years old), poems so closely allied that they could be considered “versions” of each other, as they share numerous identical or similar formulations and formal features. The analysis is prosecuted in the mode of immanent critique. We are not informed of any dates, nor given a recognizable historical content or a framework in the history of ideas, nor much that is pertinent from the history of literature or other examples of the genre. Even though “the poeticized” is considered a limit-concept between life and poem, we are alerted that we will learn nothing of the poet’s life. And yet Benjamin’s text, in a way that seems to go beyond quoting, paraphrasing, or mimicking Hölderlin’s, engages “the living,” “the people,” and nothing less than the cosmos. This all could still be understood as immanent criticism, as only having to do with the imaginary of the poem, but when Benjamin repeatedly refers, for example, to “this world” (diese Welt) the analysis seems to burst, at moments, the immanent borders it erected in the first place (SW 1.25, 32ff).

14.         It is also immanent critique insofar as it allows for and demands judgment or evaluation, Beurteilung, even judgment of its truth, which is not necessarily a concern of all philological endeavors. Commentary usually entails going through everything of real significance in a poem, down to, in the spirit of Jakob Grimm, its “details.” Benjamin might be said to have done just that, in a dense twenty or so pages on two short poems. It is literally an essay in “comparative literature,” though within one and the same language, comparing what could be considered two poems with an elective affinity or two versions of the “same” poem. In the confrontation, the first version, “Dichtermut” (“The Poet’s Courage”), emerges as almost systematically lacking in relation to the final version or later poem “Blödigkeit” (“Timidity”). Benjamin not only analyzes but critiques the first version (or the first poem) in terms of its artificial mythologizing, posing the negative category of mythology against what is, for the moment, the far more positive category of myth, the latter implying a certain “inner greatness and structure of the elements” (20). [14]  The first poem celebrates or exhorts the poet’s courage, seeming to tie his (or, less likely, her) fate to the fates unduly or, even more, to the overriding figure of the sun god that dominates the final stanzas and helps account for the possibility of a “beautiful death.” By contrast, the later poem vaults beyond the “sun-god” (Sonnengott) to the “god of the heavens” (des Himmels Gott), which Benjamin judges to be more mythical than mythological, one of numerous instances of it deepening the earlier version. [15]  The first version presents an “impenetrability of relation,” even as it invokes any number of distinct and seemingly related entities, whereas the second poem operates according to the law of identity (in the good sense, because dialectical). All unities in the latter poem already appear in intensive “interpenetration.” One can grasp the structure of relations, whereby “the identity of each individual being is a function of an infinite chain of series in which the poeticized unfolds.” [16]  It presents “the spatiotemporal interpenetration of all configurations in a spiritual quintessence, the poeticized that is identical with life” (SW 1.24, 25). By stark contrast, the first poem stagnates in the felt “immediacy” of life, atomizing entities, in an indeterminate or underdetermined way: abstract expressionism, as it were.

15.         The first poem, “Dichtermut” (“The Poet’s Courage”), is found to be, in effect, not true to itself but then it finds its truth in “Blödigket” (“Timidity”), a poem that literally invokes the category of truth. Whereas the second line of “Dichtermut” reads: “Nährt zum Dienste denn nicht selber die Parze dich?” (“Does not the Parca [fate] herself nourish you for service?”), its later transformation in “Blödigkeit” reads “Geht auf Wahrem dein Fuss nicht?” (“Does not your foot tread on truth [what is true], as upon carpets?”). This latter, startling line—much like the extraordinary phrase from “Dichtermut” “zur Wende der Zeit,” (“at the turning of time”)—seems of a piece with any number of features adding up what Benjamin discerns as a deepening of thought and figure in the second poem, which is also to say its truth. It’s not that the explicit invocation of “what is true” (das Wahre) guarantees the truth of that utterance, but it does lodge the possibility of truth, however poetic, in the consciousness of the reader. [17]  The second poem or later version of the first poem is, among other things, the critique of the first: the second articulates the truth that the first failed to, the truth of relationality. It performs its own truth of greater determination. From early on in his thinking Benjamin tended to follow Friedrich Schlegel, the principal author addressed in his dissertation, in his positing that the work of art, of its own accord, called for critique—and that critique was not something accidental that might or might not befall a work of art. The work of art, for which Schlegel’s model was Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister—a highly self-conscious, self-reflexive novel—is a medium of reflection, which is also to say, for Schegel and for Benjamin after him, a medium of self-reflection. Moreover, as self-reflection, the work of art is in some sense the first, more or less encrypted instance of the very critique it calls for. The chain is, in principle, infinite: there is no end to the call for critique. In our case: Hölderlin’s poems demand the critique of a sort that Benjamin delivers, and Benjamin’s text arguably provokes a reading along the lines delivered by Tom McCall.

16.         The power of Tom McCall’s formidable essay “Plastic Time and Poetic Middles: Benjamin’s Hölderlin” lies in the tenacity with which he tracks the rhetoric and thinking of Benjamin and the rigor with which he articulates the stakes involved. McCall rightly refrains from inscribing Hölderlin, following Benjamin, into a tradition rife with a post-Platonic and quasi-Biblical ethos of inspiration (or its naturalized equivalents, as in Wordsworth) thought to have granted Romantic poetry a good deal of its authenticity and authority. Instead McCall underscores how Hölderlin’s activity operates in the realm of what the poet calls “lawful calculation.” It is governed by what McCall glosses as “a strict, lawful, and rule-governed poetics, with its calculus and quasi-machinal functions” (para. 3). Benjamin proposes, in keeping with such a poetics, a schema of functions and relations that would account for how Hölderlin’s poetry works. As we have seen, the two poems Benjamin elects to compare relate to each other in such a way that the later poem emerges as a deepening, more intense, more determinate version of its predecessor. Indeed, in some sense, its fulfillment: a motif and structure that characterizes a dynamic built into each of Benjamin’s central categories of language, translation, critique, and history.

17.         In the circumscribed context of Benjamin’s intense study of two short poems, the fulfillment—via greater determination, deepening, and intensification—of one poem in a later one sounds like an unequivocally good thing. That dynamic, is enveloped in a nexus of terms such as “innermost,” “quintessence,” inner form,” all of which articulate aspects of das Gedichtete, the posited unity of form and content, as well as the unity of the intellectual and perceptual orders. What could be better?

18.         McCall’s essay is tenacious in tracking any number of elements and rhetorical/conceptual moves in Benjamin’s essay that work against any ideal notion of das Gedichtete or the “aesthetic organism” whose inner form it is. Honing in on the middle (Mitte) Benjamin posits as organizing the Hölderlin poem which consists of its various “functions,” McCall notes:

It is the multiplicity of functions that constitutes Benjamin’s special topos of “the Middle” [die Mitte] of the poem—which, as “the untouchable middle of all relation” (125), is not the actual stanzaic mid-point of the poem but a conceptual repository for the irreducibly unrecognizable modalities of the signifying process, and for the ultimately undiscoverable relations linking already enacted meanings to their productive “functions.” The Benjaminian topos of “the Middle” is the means taken to mark out the way in which both the poem, and the tradition informing it, become aporetic for criticism—no longer simple readable and understandable, but more of a task—when the reading turns on the issue of calculation rather than inspiration and its associated concepts. (para. 8)
In what might sound like a bleak, extreme reformulation of Benjamin’s argument in his reading of Hölderlin, McCall is in effect almost only noting and synthesizing what Benjamin says in various passages and then drawing the consequences. Whereas some readers of Benjamin might focus on the literally central notion of “the middle,” McCall draws our attention to its qualification as “unapproachable” and has us pause over it, not content to proceed to the possibly more satisfying or comforting notion/figure of the middle. Here, and in general, McCall’s essay also has the virtue of tying Benjamin’s analyses back to some of its sources in the poetological writings of Hölderlin, which display an idealist framework and almost stubbornly balanced, dialectical prose that is easy to misread if one emphasizes the play of its master terms and overlooks their complicating qualifications. McCall’s rigor tracks Benjamin’s rigor tracking Hölderlin’s rigor, and the result is that we see what is actually happening in the text.

19.         The complexity of McCall’s analysis is raised a notch or two when he shows how the passage from the “substance” poem of “Dichtermut” to the greater determination of “Blödigkeit” in effect shows that the problematic identified with the posited notion of “the middle” results in the project of a second-order “lyric of criticism”:

[. . .] at the “middle” of the poem “the sum-total of all functions” (124) is indeed to be located, but in relations of identity so embedded, so inaccessible in their totality, that such identifications can exist only in the mode of a “task” [Aufgabe] to be undertaken again and again, but destined to fail. The unavoidable incompleteness of reading the lyric engenders the construct of “the poematized” [das Gedichtete], a sort of secondary “lyric of criticism” or metapoem abstracted from the actual poem [das Gedicht], imposed as a task and existing to make those relation-functions of the poem available to criticism in a more visible and determinate form: “The principle of the poematized generally is the sole sovereignty of relation” [Alleinherrschaft der Beziehung (124)]. (para. 12) [18] 
Philology, Werner Hamacher maintains, tends to extend philology (which begins with poetry as “first philology”), and here we see a brilliant example of McCall extending what in some sense is already present in Benjamin’s essay (“95 Theses” 26-7). By determining the character of poetry as a matter of determinability and casting the latter of the two poems as a matter of greater determination in relation to the first, the latter poem in effect resembles the work of interpretive philology, which likewise consists of articulating relations of greater determination (by deciding on some possibilities and excluding others, even if the decision is to point to an ambiguity).

20.        In the passage above, McCall in effect undermines in advance what could sound like Benjamin’s triumphant proclamation of “the sole sovereignty of relation” that constitutes das Gedichtete. But then here too he is really only following Benjamin’s lead, following Hölderlin, by unpacking what is at stake and calling into question the character of that sovereignty, as he does again in this related passage:

For Benjamin, the Hölderlin text is the self-reading (or metacommentary) of the inaccessibility to analysis of its unity functions; the failure of penetration in this self-reading [. . .] becomes the very condition of possibility for the phenomenal unity the poem is able to achieve. The possibility of “materialization” [Versachlichung], as of unity itself, arises from the density of relations “at the middle”—a density too “thick” (the dicht of “Dichtung”) in the interrelations of its functions to be differentiated in criticism. Aesthetic unity depends here, as elsewhere, upon the impossibility of a complete critical disarticulation. This density is associated with a certain “violence” of tragico-mythical relata [. . .] the textual symptom of which is the displayed unity of the lyric. Immanence, the poetic middle, is a function of the violence (forcefulness, density, “thickness”) of those identity relations it harbors; without the closeness and tightness, i.e. violence, of relations, there would be no (“untouchable”) immanence. (para. 17)
The great theme of so many of Tom McCall’s essays—the violence of language, the violence of the aesthetic—is elucidated here apropos the category at the center of Benjamin’s essay, das Gedichtete as the “untouchable middle.” This phantom middle is said by Benjamin to be a “product [Erzeugnis] and object [Gegenstand]” (SW 1.19) of the analysis, one more way in which the constructed (non-natural) synthetic unity of the poem is like the philological project that will attempt to understand it, with the task, the Aufgabe, of philology responding to and in some sense repeating the task of the poem.
* * * * *

21.         The specter of “das Gedichtete” surfaces again in Theodor Adorno’s late, formidable essay “Parataxis: On Hölderlin’s Late Poetry.” Despite being a voracious reader of literature and much else, Adorno could hardly be called a philologist. In responding to Adorno’s rather severe critique of his work on Baudelaire, Benjamin opened one of his letters with the decidedly testy line: “On est philologue ou on ne l’est pas” (“Either one is a philologist or one is not”) (C 596). Yet this non-philologist, Adorno, whose writings on literature account for about 1/20 of his published work, and an equally small portion of the Nachlass, comes to write about Hölderlin some fifty years after Benjamin’s essay on the poet, and is clearly in his old and older friend’s debt. Adorno’s essay originated as an address before the Hölderlin Society (Hölderlin-Gesellschaft), which is to say, before an audience filled mainly with (modern) philologists. [19]  Adorno begins by acknowledging the many advances in the understanding of Hölderlin via philology in the narrow and broad senses. Indeed, remarkable strides had been made since, say, Nietzsche only had access to Hölderlin’s work in partial, unsatisfactory fashion and when extended commentary on the poet’s corpus was almost non-existent. [20]  But already in the opening paragraph, Adorno challenges what would have been axiomatic for a good many in his audience: “The difficulty of these authors does not prohibit interpretation so much as demand it. According that axiom, knowledge of literary works would consist in the reconstruction of what the author intended. But the firm foundation philology imagines it possesses has proved unstable” (“Parataxis” 109). Against the pervasive tendency of philology to take authorial intention as a basis for guiding interpretation, Adorno argues that “What unfolds and becomes visible in the works, the source of their authority, is none other than the truth manifested objectively in them, the truth that consumes the subjective intention and leaves it behind as irrelevant” (110). Whereas this may be true in general, Adorno is interested in registering its consequences in the vexed case of Hölderlin, for whom the subject has a special, historically constituted status, not least for his singular (but in some respects, not-so-singular) relation to language.

22.         The “starting-point” for philology, Wilamowitz-Moellendorff contended in his history of the discipline, is “a feeling of wonder in the presence of what we do not understand” [“das Verwundern über das Unverstandene”] (1). Adorno recognizes, as we noted above, that philology has proved itself capable of putting us in a position to understand some texts and things better, and yet that there are limits to that philological understanding even or especially regarding what is arguably the most essential:

What philological explanation is compelled to clear out of the way nevertheless fails to disappear from what first Benjamin and later Heidegger called “das Gedichtete,” that which has been composed poetically. This moment, which eludes the grasp of philology, inherently demands interpretation. It is the moment that is obscure in literary works, not what is thought in them, that necessitates recourse to philosophy. (“Parataxis” 111-12)
Adorno, who would have been among the first to read Benjamin’s unpublished essay, invokes the notion of das Gedichtete, the poetized, as if it is an apt, useful category in thinking through Hölderlin. In it, Adorno too sees a category that helps to overcome clunky distinctions of form and content which he finds, unsurprisingly, not to have been thought through in sufficiently (read, negatively) dialectical fashion. Yet unlike Benjamin, for whom the analysis of das Gedichtete is the endpoint of the analysis, for Adorno the provocation for poetry and the poeticized demand translation into philosophy. For Benjamin, as we saw, the dynamics of each of language, translation, critique, and history demanded that any given entity be thought in terms of translation and even fulfillment. Adorno specifies in no uncertain terms that it is philosophy that is to come to terms with poetry, since poetry and philosophy have a common object in truth content. But not just any philosophy or philosophical approach—Adorno’s essay features a stinging critique of Heidegger as a reader of Hölderlin, in the same spirit as The Jargon of Authenticity, but here attack is more pointed. Though Heidegger can surely be admired for the seriousness with which he takes Hölderlin’s poetry, Adorno sees him as making some arch-philological and arch-philosophical errors in explicating Hölderlin—not least in rendering him too philosophical—by focusing on what is enunciated as if it were articulated in the mode of statements, Aussagen. Certainly Hölderlin’s poetry is riddled, to an unusual degree, with quasi-philosophical dicta such as “Es ereignet sich aber das Wahre” (“But what is true emerges”) and the like. To Adorno’s mind, Heidegger, in his zeal to enlist Hölderlin’s judgments on this or that matter of content (the fatherland, truth, etc.) tends to sacrifice form and language, with all its complicated configurations, such that Hölderlin’s poetry appears sometimes reduced to a series of more or less debatable sayings or positions.

23.        The understanding of Hölderlin, however, is helped partly by Heidegger in taking up, independently, the very category Benjamin too had stumbled on or had been forced to invent. Adorno acknowledges the possibilities it affords for thinking through Hölderlin, even as he does something a little different than either of his forerunners. As he says in the following remarkable footnote:

The concretization of the poetic substance (das Gedichtete), a desideratum which Hölderlin too experienced as binding—his whole mature work asks mutely how it is possible for a poetry that has shaken off the illusion of the close at hand to become concrete—takes place only through language. The function of language in Hölderlin qualitatively outweighs the usual function of poetic language. If his poetry can no longer trust naively either to the poetically chosen word or to living experience, it hopes to attain bodily presence through the constellation of words and in fact from a constellation that is not satisfied with the form of the logical judgment. As a unity, the latter levels out the multiplicity that lies within the words; Hölderlin is after connection, which allows words, which are condemned to abstractness, to sound, as it were, again. The first strophe from “Brod und Wein” (“Bread and Wine”) is paradigmatic for this and extraordinarily effective. It does not restore the simple, general words it uses but instead links them to one another in a manner that reworks the strangeness proper to them (ihre eigene Fremdheit), their simplicity, which is already an abstract quality, to make it an expression of alienation (Entfremdung). Such constellations have moved across into the paratactic, even where parataxis does not emerge fully in the grammatical form or the construction of the poem. (339-340, trans. modified)
What Heidegger neglected, from Adorno’s vantage, was the texture of Hölderlin’s verse, its rhetoric writ small and large: that includes the status of words (Hölderlin’s odd abstractions that are nonetheless not usually philosophical), but even more the signature stylistic/grammatical form of parataxis that gives Adorno’s essay its title. In the hands of most writers and in the midst of many texts, parataxis is one figure among others; yet clearly, for Hölderlin, parataxis—the sequencing of words and phrases without logical connectors (and, though, if, etc.)—is no longer a strictly localized figure of speech or thought, but a more pervasive trait informing how all units of the poem do or not hang together (to translate a little too literally the German zusammenhängen). In Hölderlin’s hands parataxis is pushed to point of challenging logic as such. It is all the more so when combined with the self-conscious exploitation of inversion (Longinus’ paradigm for sublime, anti-natural rhetoric) that “intensifies the violence done to language” (136). Adorno continues:
Whether intentionally on Hölderlin’s part or simply by the nature of things, this occasioned the sacrifice of the period [verse paragraph], to an extreme degree. Poetically, this represents the sacrifice of the legislating subject itself. It is in Hölderlin, with that sacrifice, that the poetic movement unsettles the category of meaning for the first time. (136)
This last is an astonishing claim, spelling the most serious sort of challenge for philology, whose mission is usually predicated on the undoubted possibility of meaning, even if sometimes recognized as hard to ascertain. This disruption adds to the complexity of what is occasioned by Hölderlin’s practice, as outlined in the penultimate passage from Adorno quoted above regarding das Gedichtete. It’s easy not to notice, but also hard to process Adorno’s claim about the strangeness, the foreignness proper to words. In that passage one is almost lulled into thinking by Adorno’s phrasing that he is about to say something closer to the opposite: is not “properness” proper to words? Instead he insists that strangeness (Fremdheit) is proper (eigen) to them. Adorno was the author of two essays explicitly devoted to what he and we tend to call “foreign” words (“On the Use of Foreign Words” and “Words from Abroad”). The latter of these was a response to complaints registered about a radio address he had given, an address peppered with occasional foreign words and phrases, something that irked sections of his German-speaking audience. Adorno, who once opined in Minima Moralia that “German words of foreign derivation are the Jews of language” (110) offered a spirited defense of these alien terms, these verbal Jews, invoking for his cause Walter Benjamin, whose well-known theory of translation calls for translations to mark themselves as foreign and not simply to dissolve into the so-called target language, as if pretending one is not translating. In his One-Way Street (Einbahnstrasse) Benjamin had compared the polyglot man of letters to a surgeon who performs a difficult operation on his idea and in doing so inserts “a foreign term as a silver rib” into the idea, that is, something artificial or inorganic that nonetheless makes the patient all the stronger when the organic rib was doing quite the opposite (SW 1.476). The startling thing about Adorno’s note on Hölderlin’s “poetic substance” is that he is claiming that all words are foreign words. Hölderlin’s procedures restore the original impropriety of words, the proper, if radical, impropriety, as it were, masked by the seeming native or organic or non-foreign character of words as they so often appear to so-called “native” speakers. The precarious movement of language renders virtually everything a matter of transport, of metaphor, of translation. It is no wonder, we are told, that on the occasion of Adorno’s address to the Hölderlin society, some gasped, some got up and left.
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24.        The work of Tom McCall inscribes itself in the tradition of “extreme philology” (with particular and indeed the utmost attention to Hölderlin) or at the very least a philology sensitive to the extremities of texts. We have already seen how McCall tracks and deepens this sort of analysis in his reading of Benjamin reading Hölderlin. In coming to a close, I want to highlight some aspects of McCall’s most direct engagements with Hölderlin, readings that rival in their intensity and perspicacity the achievements of his illustrious predecessors.

25.         McCall concentrates on Hölderlin’s notoriously eccentric translations of Sophocles, as powerful as they are problematic. He sees in them much more than a failed attempt by a poet on the cusp of madness and with a less-than-perfect grasp of ancient Greek struggling with the local difficulties of translating two of the most imposing tragedies in the canon. They are a performance of and reflection on the vexed historical and linguistic relations obtaining between a modern German and an ancient Greek, a bridge over something that Walter Benjamin, not for nothing, specified as abyssal. In his famous essay on “The Task of the Translator,” Benjamin had contended that translations were characterized by the “looseness” or the “fleeting” relation to the meaning of the originals, for which the paradigm is Hölderlin’s project on Sophocles:

Confirmation of this as well as of every other important aspect is supplied by Hölderlin’s translations, particularly those of the two tragedies of Sophocles. In them the harmony of the languages is so profound that sense is touched by language only the way an aeolian harp is touched by the wind [. . .]. Hölderlin’s translations in particular are subject to the enormous danger inherent in all translations: the gates of a language thus expanded and modified may slam shut and enclose the translator with silence. Hölderlin’s translations from Sophocles were his last work; in them meaning plunges from abyss to abyss until it threatens to become lost in the bottomless depths of language. (SW 1.262)
One of the surprising turns in the passage is the movement from what is plausibly the “enormous danger” associated with Hölderlin’s work on Sophocles—on the brink of madness—to the claim that such “enormous danger” is not only possible more generally but “inherent in all translations.” Benjamin invokes a Hölderlinian phrase “from abyss to abyss” in the act of suggesting that there is something exemplary about the counter-exemplary translations by Hölderlin. They expose what is always already at stake.

26.        Hölderlin’s translations were often understood, perhaps because of the combination of madness and bad Greek, to be unduly literal renditions of Sophocles, or at least their Wörtlichkeit, as Benjamin stresses, a term usually translated as “literality” (indeed, one of its senses) but which also can denote the character of being “word-for-word,” thus also a matter of syntax. Tending to take, by and large, the word as the unit to be translated, rather than the more usual (at least now) option of the sentence, Hölderlin produces versions that are faithful (aside from errors!) at one level, but “monstrous” (the word is Benjamin’s [SW 1.260]) at another, because the word-for-wordness of the translation results in a distinctly strange German text, verging on un-German. [21]  This is of great theoretical import for Benjamin, since he is arguing against translations that simply dissolve into their own language and for translations that mark themselves as foreign, that retrain traces of their other from the original at the very surface of the “home” language.

27.         Something of the texture and power of McCall’s reading of Hölderlin’s procedure can be registered by following his analysis of one of the famous locutions: Hölderlin’s rendition of Zeus as, astonishingly, “Vater der Zeit” (“father of time”). (What follows is part McCall, part my extrapolation or gloss of McCall. [22] ) McCall understandably wonders why a virtually pure transliteration of the Greek name Ζεύς as the German Zeus would not be a perfectly good, obvious choice, the identity of the two names being bolstered by the familiarity with Zeus as a Greek god for any educated German. Here what would get “lost in translation” would seem to be as minimal as can be. Moreover, as McCall recalls, normally proper names stand outside the domain of units of language that require translation. If anything need not be translated—and indeed resists translation—it would be the proper name. At most, there is sometimes a transposition of some letters, substituting the equivalents or near equivalents between the languages. And one might think that in the translation of the name of a god, one should interfere as little as possible. Not only does Hölderlin not reproduce the name literally, letter by letter, in German, he switches the category from proper name to common noun, or a phrase made up of common nouns. Eschewing the obvious and easy translation, Hölderlin opts for a charged, resonant and allegorizing “name” that is hardly a name, indeed something closer to an epithet or gloss. McCall notes: “Holderlin’s example undoes a fundamental linguistic distinction and shows that even the god—that most proper of all entities—has to be re-denominated again and again, in a rhetorical movement which we will be aligning with allegory” (“Wrathful Translation” para. 7). “Father of time” renders, improperly, “Zeus,” providing a figuration where none seemed required. Of the possible determinations of Zeus (from among all his characteristics or attributes) Hölderlin singles out “father of time”—which is not just any identity when it comes to translation and, for that matter, tragedy. It is in and through time that Zeus becomes the “father of time.” The intervention of time makes Zeus appear as the “father of time,” as the engenderer of time, the agent of the victory of the Olympians over the Titans. [23]  Zeus made possible his ultimate translation, in the fullness of time, as “father or time.” The father of time is all the more just that, in and after (some) time, retroactively. But how does this work as a translation? If Zeus is the “father of time” is that not included, as it were, in the name Zeus? Why render him in just that and only that way? It is at once more specific and more reductive to call Zeus “father of time.” It makes explicit and allegorical what was only one aspect to which the name Zeus possibly referred. Time is the very medium in which Zeus transforms and in such a way that it renders it necessary or plausible for Hölderlin to (re)name Zeus “father of time.”

28.        The charged identification of Zeus as “father of time” is linked to another motif that McCall highlights in Hölderlin’s characterization of how time operates in the Sophoclean tragedies (both Oedipus Tyrannos and Antigone), namely the reissende (tearing) texture of time. Following the famous analysis of the caesura, the counter-rhythmical interruption required to balance the two unequal “halves” of each tragedy—a caesura paradoxically featuring the appearance of the “pure word” such that representation as such appears, in each play, in the oracular speeches of Tiresias—Hölderlin comments on the wrath of Oedipus that takes the form of his relentless desire to know:

Hence, afterwards, in the scene with Creon, the suspicion: because an ungovernable thought, which is weighed down with sad secrets, becomes unsure, and the faithful and certain spirit suffers in angry immoderation that delights in destruction and only follows the tearing rapacity of time (der reissenden Zeit nur folgt). (EL 320) [24] 
McCall’s exemplary analysis of the strangely central function of wrath—the chief pathos driving Oedipus’ knowledge and unifying god and man, even as those two pull endlessly in opposite directions—can be read at length in this volume. Here I want only to call attention to the motif of “tearing” (“reissend”) that McCall emphasizes and boldly translates as “lacerating.” The tragic hero here follows time in its tearing, its rending, its lacerating. Oedipus tears, rends. This tearing is part and parcel with, and partly the result of, Oedipus’ wrathful and “foolishly wild search for consciousness” (321). The fragile unity of Oedipus’ consciousness is torn apart via his own search for the identity of the man who caused the plague plaguing Thebes, an unnecessary error, from Hölderlin’s vantage, insofar as Oedipus interpreted Tiresias’ oracle “too infinitely” by paradoxically limiting the cause to a single man when the oracle specified nothing of the kind. Oedipus interpreted too broadly by narrowing in on the single man that will turn out to be none other than himself. The search-and-destroy mission, which takes the form of knowing and interpreting, unfolds all too quickly. As McCall notes in typically witty fashion:
[. . .] in the “baroque” translations of Greek tragedy (such as Hölderlin’s Sophocles), allegory occurs at allegro pace; its sense are played out so fast—made and unmade so often—that the text serves as a metacommentary on its own acts of sense-making, and stages, beyond itself, the genesis and erasure of sense itself. (“Wrathful Translation” para. 32)
It’s not a matter of indifference that Hölderlin names Zeus “father of time” in a play, a dramatic tragedy that unfolds in time, and not just in any way, as McCall makes clear. A tragedy is one of a small number of kinds of literary works that, insofar as it is performed, can’t be stopped. One can’t put it down. The familiar tragic thematics of fate and inevitability are rendered all the more forceful when unfolding in a headlong, allegro allegory such as Oedipus Tyrannos. Time tears, lacerates in almost real time as it brings mythical, dynastic, longue-durée forces to a head. The tearing in time ultimately rends and renders the tragic sufferer out of time altogether:
He steps into the path of fate as the guardian of the natural power which tragically removes man from his orbital of life, the very mid-point of his inner life, to another world, and tears (reisst) him off into the eccentric orbit of the dead. (EL 318)
Moreover, the spectators of this spectacle—even if death is beyond vision—are in their turn torn or, as McCall would have it, lacerated. As Hölderlin remarks:
Hence in the chorus of the Oedipus, the lamenting and peaceful and religious elements, the pious lie (If I am a soothsayer, etc.), and the sympathy to the point of complete exhaustion towards a dialogue which, in its angry sensitivity, will tear apart the souls of these very listeners. (324)
Often one imagines the audience as the survivors of tragedy, who may or may not be mirrored by characters within the play, along the lines of the chorus in so many Athenian tragedies or of a Horatio to an expired Hamlet. Yet here not even the audience escapes being torn apart. Hölderlin, as McCall recalls, contends that the very words of Sophoclean tragedy are “deadly”—not just that they are about death. At every level, Hölderlin’s tragic translations oscillate between the making and what McCall terms the erasure of sense.“Everything,” Hölderlin posits in the remarks on Oedipus, “is speech against speech, which mutually cancel each other out” (323).

29.        Philology is, in the very fabric of its being, dedicated to making sense of texts. In the extreme case of Hölderlin, who is at the same time exemplary, philology confronts literature in the act of unmaking sense even as much as it makes sense(s). Such philology requires extreme measures to respond, in this case, to the Hölderlin translations that McCall judiciously calls “critical.” In this the translations are not fundamentally different from Hölderlin’s poetic works—works that are themselves sensibly understood as what Hamacher calls “first philology.” In his grand endeavor McCall exemplifies the sort of philosophically informed philology practiced by thinkers, such as Adorno and Benjamin, not prone to smooth over difficulties of texts in order to encompass them in some overarching discourse that makes eminently good sense. To make perfect sense of Hölderlin: that way madness lies.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. Minima Moralia. Trans. E. F. N. Jephcott. London: Verso, 1974. Print.

---. “Parataxis: on Hölderlin’s Late Poetry.” Notes To Literature. Vol. 2. Trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen. New York: Columbia UP, 1992. 109-49. Print.

Adorno, Theodor and Walter Benjamin. The Complete Correspondence 1928-1940. Ed. Henri Lonitz. Trans. Nicholas Walker. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2001. Print. Trans. Of Briefwechsel 1928-1940. Suhrkamp, 1994.

Balfour, Ian. “The Philosophy of Philology and the Crisis of Reading: Schlegel, Benjamin, de Man.” Philology and its Histories. Ed. Sean Gurd. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2010. 192-212. Print.

Benjamin, Walter. Walter Benjamin: Gesammelte Schriften. 7 vols. Ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser (and Adorno and Scholem). Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1972-1989. Print.

---. The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin. Ed. Gershom Scholem and Theodor W. Adorno. Trans. Manfred R. Jacobson and Evelyn M. Jacobson. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1994. Print.

---. Selected Writings. 4 vols. Ed. Michael Jennings, et. al. Harvard UP, 1996-2000. Print.

Benne, Christoph. Nietzsche und die historisch-kritische Philologie. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2005. Print.

Corngold, Stanley. Complex Pleasures. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998. Print.

De Man, Paul. The Resistance to Theory. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983. Print.

Fehervary, Helen. Hölderlin and the Left: The Search for a Dialectic of Art and Life. Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1977. Print.

Fenves, Peter. The Messianic Reduction: Walter Benjamin and the Shape of Time. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2011. Print.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. Gedenkausgabe der Werke, Briefe, und Gespräche. Ed. Ernst Beutler, 25 vols. Zurich: Artemis, 1949. Print.

Hamacher, Werner. Für – Die Philologie. Basel: Engeler, 2009. Print.

---. “95 Theses on Philology.” Trans. Catherine Diehl. diacritics 39.1 (2009): 25-44. Print.

Hölderlin, Friedrich. Essays and Letters. Ed. and Trans. Jeremy Adler and Charlie Louth. New York: Penguin, 2009. Print.

---. Sämtliche Werke, Frankfurter Ausgabe. 20 Vols. Stroemfeld/Roter Stern, 1975-2008. Print.

Honold, Alexander. Der Leser Walter Benjamin: Bruchstücke einer deutschen Literaturgeschichte. Berlin: Verlag Vorwerk, 2000. Print.

Jennings, Michael. “Benjamin as a Reader of Hölderlin: The Origins of Benjamin’s Literary Criticism.” German Quarterly Review 56.4 (Nov. 1983): 544-62. Print.

McCall, Tom. “The Case of the Missing Body.” Le pauvre Holterling. Blätter zur Frankfurter Hölderlin-Ausgabe, Nr. 8. Stroemfeld/Roter Stern, Frankfurt am Main/Basel, (1988): 53-71. Print. Reprinted in this volume with the kind permission of the Press.

---. “Plastic Time and Poetic Middles: Benjamin’s Hölderlin.” Studies in Romanticism 31.4 (1992): 481-99. Print. Reprinted in this volume with the kind permission of the Trustees of Boston University.

---. “Wrathful Translation: Hölderlin’s Sophocles.” Unpublished Manuscript. The selection included in this volume is part of a longer essay that will be included in a future volume of McCall’s essays.

Most, Glenn. “On the Use and Abuse of Ancient Greece for Life.” Nietzsche Source. Association HyperNietzsche, n. d. Web. 10 May 2013. Online version from Nietzsche. Ed. Sandro Barbera. Spec. issue of Cultura tedesca 20 (2002): 31-53.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Werke in drei Bänden. München: Carl Hanser, 1954. Print.

Petzold, Emil. Hölderlins Brod und Wein, ein exegetischer Versuch. Sambor: Druck von Schwartz und Trojan, 1896-97. Print.

Porter, James I. The Invention of Dionysus: An Essay on The Birth of Tragedy. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2000. Print.

Savage, Robert. Hölderlin after the Catastrophe: Heidegger—Adorno—Brecht. New York: Camden House, 2008.

---. Nietzsche and the Philology of the Future. Stanford: Stanford U P, 2000. Print.

Schestag, Thomas. “Interpolationen: Benjamins Philologie.” Philo:Xenia. Ed. Thomas Schestag. Basel: Urs Engeler, 2009: 1-51. Print.

---. “Philology, Knowledge.” Telos 40 (2007): 28–44. Print.

---. Philologie, Erkenntnis.” Neue Rundschau 2008/3: 128-143. Print.

Reinhardt, Karl. “Die klassische Philologie und das Klassische.” Die Krise des Helden: zur Literatur und Geistesgeschichte. München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1962. Print.

Weber, Samuel. Benjamin’s -abilities. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2009. Print.

Weigel, Sigrid. “Bildwissenschaft aus dem ‘Geiste wahrer Philologie’: Benjamins Wahlverwandtschaft mit der ‘neuen Kunstwissenschaft’ und der Warburg-Schule.” Schrift-Bilder-Denken: Walter Benjamin und die Künste. Ed. Detlev Schöttker. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2004. 112–27. Print.

Wilamowitz-Moellendorf, Ulrich von. Geshichte der Philologie. 1927. Leipzig: B. G Teubner, 1959. Print.

---. History of Classical Scholarship. Trans. Alan Harris. Ed. Hugh Lloyd-Jones. London: Duckworth, 1982. Print.


[1] Among the possible precursors in critical philology together with (critical) reflections on the idea and practice of such philology, one could rank Giambattista Vico and Friedrich Schlegel. BACK

[2] In many respects the discipline is clearly defined, at least in institutional terms, but for a searching argument on how it is difficult or impossible to delimit “philology” see Hamacher. BACK

[3] An English translation of Wilamowitz-Moellendorff’s attack can be conveniently located here. BACK

[4] For first-rate accounts of the ethos and attitude of classical philology from “within” but sympathetic to any number of Nietzsche’s contentions, see Karl Reinhardt, Glenn Most, and James Porter. For a literally old-school, sharp history of classical philology to the early twentieth century century, see Wilamowitz-Moellendorff. For a recent, thorough account of Nietzsche’s philology and its relation to his contemporaries, see Christoph Benne. BACK

[5] Not all the philologists or quasi-philologists in this loose counter-tradition share Nietzsche’s politics. Yet even Walter Benjamin, whose politics were usually quite different from Nietzsche’s, invokes favorably the Nietzsche of the Untimely Meditations, especially the second “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life,” which argues for (among other things) a critical history and one directed against “the victors.” For an acute reading of that Nietzsche essay in relation to nineteenth-century German thinking on philology, see Glenn Most. BACK

[6] Kommerell was the author of numerous distinguished essays but also of one notorious book from 1928 called The Poet as Führer in German Classicism (a book Benjamin reviewed with decidedly mixed feelings in “Against a Masterpiece,” [Selected Writings 2.378-385]). He was throughout the 1920s in the inner circle of the (Stefan) George-Circle, having served as George’s secretary for several years and having studied with Friedrich Gundolf. He broke from the circle at the end of the 20s. He became a party member of the NDSAP in 1939. BACK

[7] The next few pages on Benjamin rework material addressed in an earlier, differently focused essay of mine, “The Philosophy of Philology and the Crisis of Reading: Schlegel, Benjamin, de Man” (2010). BACK

[8] All references to The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin will be abbreviated C. BACK

[9] All references to the Selected Writings of Benjamin will be abbreviated SW. BACK

[10] See Thomas Schestag’s “Interpolationen: Benjamins Philologie” on Benjamin’s tendency to move from the small to the smallest in strangely apocalyptic fashion. BACK

[11] For a superb set of reflections on the chronicle as interpolation, and more generally, for the status of interpolation for Benjaminian philology, see “Interpolationen: Benjamins Philologie.” BACK

[12] All references to The Complete Correspondence of Adorno and Benjamin will be abbreviated CC. BACK

[13] In a very fine analysis of the essay, and the fullest that we have, Alexander Honold is likely right to maintain that Benjamin’s project is “weniger philologisch als aesthetisch” (“less philological than aesthetic”) (53), though that is partly a matter of texture rather than content. BACK

[14] Across the spectrum of Benjamin’s diverse works the valence of the term “myth” can be charged as positive, negative, or neutral. BACK

[15] McCall rightly notes the latter as an example of Hölderlin’s signature periphrasis (para. 18). BACK

[16] For a painstaking analysis of the grand distinction between the two texts as examples of a “substance poem” and a “function poem,” see Peter Fenves. BACK

[17] Readers coming to Benjamin’s essay from outside the German philosophical tradition might be surprised by the emphasis on truth, but such emphasis is virtually a constant in German aesthetic theory in Friedrich Schelling, G.W.F. Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Benjamin, Adorno, and more. BACK

[18] The page numbers internal to McCall’s quotation are to Benjamin’s Gesammelte Schriften. BACK

[19] For an illuminating, thorough account of the occasion of the address and the polemical character of essay (written largely contra Heidegger), see Robert Savage, Hölderlin after the Catastrophe: Heidegger—Adorno—Brecht. BACK

[20] There are exceptions to the rule, such as the astonishing monograph from 1896 Hölderlins “Brod und Wein’: ein exegetischer Versuch by Emil Petzold, a high school teacher. BACK

[21] The volume of the Frankfurt edition of the translations produces an interlinear version of the Greek text and a German one (not identical to Hölderlin’s, which is on the opposite page), which permits one to gauge the relative word-for-wordness of Hölderlin’s versions. See Sämtliche Werke of Hölderlin. BACK

[22] I am following the analysis in Tom McCall’s “Wrathful Translation” published for the first time in this collection. BACK

[23] Hölderlin’s short ode “Natur und Kunst oder Saturn und Jupiter” (“Nature and Art or Saturn and Jupiter”) aligns, allegorically, Jupiter/Zeus with art and its difference from nature. One way to conceive of this is that art, as the break from or with nature, marks the beginning of time. BACK

[24] Essays and Letters will be abbreviated EL. BACK


Published @ RC

October 2014