Plastic Time and Poetic Middles: Benjamin’s Hölderlin

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Plastic Time and Poetic Middles: Benjamin’s Hölderlin

Tom McCall

This essay was originally published in Studies in Romanticism 31.4 (1992): 481-99. Reprinted with kind permission of the Trustees of Boston University.

1.         The study of lyric poetry, especially since the romantics, has tended to fall under the aegis of what is broadly known as “the aesthetic tradition.” A substantial reality, existing outside the poetic text, is thought to be translated into that text, most often by an autonomous lyric consciousness, localizable in the poem, which gives voice to a world of objects (emotions, ideas, experience, mind) capable of being represented. Although Hegel’s phrase “the sensible appearance of the idea” (das sinnliche Scheinen der Idee) pertains to a Greek artistic era of the symbol which he believes irretrievably past for the moderns, this notion—lifted out of the specific Hegelian historical schematizations—exactly describes lyric in its general aesthetic context, in which intellectual and sensate features are brought together into synthesized unities. Coleridge’s notion of the symbol as an organic fusion of inner and outer, particular and universal, also helps to situate the lyric in its aesthetic mode: the lyric, like the symbol upon which it is based in this tradition, “always partakes of the reality which it renders intelligible; and while it enunciates the whole, abides itself as a living part in that Unity [. . .].” (30). [1]  This tradition is well-known and hegemonic, having shaped significantly both the writing of lyric poetry and its criticism since the romantics.

2.         The subject of the present essay is Walter Benjamin’s early (1914) essay on Hölderlin—“Two poems of Friedrich Hölderlin” [“Zwei Gedichte von Friedrich Hölderlin”], unpublished at the time yet surely regarded by the young Benjamin to be of great significance for future directions. [2]  Explicitly calling itself an “aesthetic commentary,” this essay demonstrates its affiliation to the aesthetic tradition with frequent formulations of “unity” [Einheit] and “identity,” e.g., “of sensory and intellectual forms” [die Identität der anschaulichen und geistigen Formen] involved in the achievement of the lyric (GS 2.1.112). A cursory reading of this dense, at times obscure piece might in fact come to dismiss it as youthful, uncritical Schwärmerei, a youthful exercise in metaphysical poetics or aesthetic ideology.

3.         It can be shown, however, that Benjamin’s essay occurs within another tradition of the aesthetic: this could be called the tradition of aesthetic calculation, as a minor movement and critical mutation within a primary tradition of aesthetic inspiration. In the latter major tradition, an intuitive consciousness, disdainful of rules, creates the poem on the basis of its natural capability and privileged sympathy with the “greater life”; within “aesthetic calculation,” by contrast, appearances and poetic syntheses are produced according to a strict, lawful, and rule-governed poetics, with its calculus and quasi-mechanical functions. To the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” the furor poeticus, the “drunken” inspiration of the first aesthetic of inspiration, Benjamin consciously opposes a designation he borrows from Hölderlin, in order to mark the second aesthetic of calculation, denoted as a prosaic “Sobriety” [Nüchternheit]. Rather than originating in a rhapsodic lyric consciousness that achieves a marriage of mind and nature, the unified poem in this case is produced by something more sober and prosaic: the poetic text as manufactured by the always repeatable and reiterable laws governing the genesis of poetic figurations. The shift to a poetics of calculation operates implicitly as a critique of the major tradition based on inspiration, which hides from itself its own reliance on technique, poetic mechanisms, and methodologies. Camouflaged within such inspired conceptions as poetic “insight,” apocalyptic imagination, and visionariness there lurks a lawfulness dominating all aesthetic productions. In fact, Benjamin’s conscious renunciation of the predominant discourse of an aesthetics of inspiration leads to the severe abstractness of many formulations in the essay, which occur in the place of those equally abstract but much more familiar conceptions rejected.

4.         Several years after the Hölderlin essay, in his dissertation—The Concept of Art Criticism in German Romanticism (published in 1920)—Benjamin is careful to establish the historical pedigree of this anti-inspirational “sobriety” of calculation. He associates Novalis, Schlegel, and Hölderlin with the “anti-aesthetic” aesthetic of prose, the proper vehicle of romantic reflection, understood, in its purest form, as the reflection of reflection. The dissertation links the notion of “the holy-sober” [heilig-nüchtern] (GS 1.1.104)—mentioned in the earlier Hölderlin essay—to features associated with it in Hölderlin’s “Notes to Oedipus” accompanying his 1804 translations of Sophocles: “lawful calculation” [gesetzlicher Kalkul] and “mode of procedure” [Verfahrungsart] (FHA 16.249-50); [3]  these refer to textual machineries of sense-making [Empfindungssystem], narration, and figuration capable of “manufacturing” the beautiful, each time the right “laws” are applied. Benjamin’s attraction to the “lawful calculation” attending the Hölderlinian notion of “sobriety” makes poem-making less a natural and inspired creation than the product of specific functions and linguistic operations.

5.         We shall return to Benjamin’s citations of Hölderlin’s “lawful calculation”; for now, we note only that the aesthetic sense of “unity” in the essay on Hölderlin is based on calculated, even mechanical, textual processes of signification. Indeed, Benjamin speaks of a unity-function [Funktionseinheit] by virtue of which the Hölderlinian lyric “Blödigkeit” [Timidness] presents itself as unified (GS 2.1.107). Not the substance-unity discourse of aesthetics of inspiration but the sober-mechanical mode in the aesthetic tradition is the issue here: “Not substantially but functionally is the identity given as law” (117). A function is whatever “relates” or “binds together” elements into a composite, into unity. Speaking, therefore, of the fundamental “law” of Hölderlinian lyric as “relatedness” or “relationality” [Verbundenheit], Benjamin postulates a “unity for the function [Funktion] of the binding and the bound” (122). Unspecified abstractions proliferate in this dense essay, but the notion of the poem as a concatenation of “identity-functions” intimately bound up within their correspondent “lawfulness” [Gesetzlichkeit] is foremost: “The law according to which all apparent elements of sense and of ideas shows itself to be the sum-total [Inbegriffe] of essential, in principle infinite, functions—is called the Law of Identity [das Identitätsgesetz]” (108).

6.         One recurrent “function” or law in all of those “identity laws” whose application produces unity may be called the “phenomenality” function, to specify the textual act by means of which a consciousness (or poetic subjectivity) makes its presence felt in the poem; a number of Benjamin’s formulations have to do with expositions of that specific identity-function which translates abstractions (such as the poet, human emotions, gods) into forms and formal expressions within the poetic text: the function by which, e.g., “the poet steps into life [within the poem]” (116), or the function by which, e.g., “the innate spiritual temporal order of joy [Freude] is rendered sensible, audible” (117); or the identity function which makes “gods into highly particular and determinate figures [Gestalten]” (118). Phenomenalization is that process of signification which institutes the text as an expression. Even “time” turns out to be a function in this essay: die Funktion der Zeit. The 1914 essay is remarkable in the way it argues for—rather than merely takes for granted—phenomenalization and lyric expression as the end result of quite specific and complex acts (calculations, identity-functions) of textual signification. [4] 

7.         However important the “phenomenality-function” is, it is still but one of a manifold of functions which together make up the rhetorical and syntactical identities of the poem: “But the insight in the function presupposes the multiplicity of relational-possibilities [Verbindungsmöglichkeiten]” (106)—so presupposing, also, a multiplicity of functions that comprise textual relations, many of which, it is suggested, cannot (yet) be identified. With the term “relational-possibilities” and its affiliations in the “Zwei Gedichte” essay, we find embryonically the famous distinction, in the 1921 essay on “The Task of the Translator,” between the “meaning” of a text [das Gemeinte] and “the way in which meaning is produced” [die Art des Meinens]. This distinction implies a new set of relations: a signifying process has to be related to a signification, a meaning now bears a relation to certain devices of meaning which may or may not be able to produce it. In other words, contained in the overall sense of “relational possibilities” is a forceful point of entry for critical reading, one based on the possible non-convergence of textual significations, on the one hand, with those performative “functions” which actualize them (or fail to). A dense theoretical tract of Hölderlin’s (available in the 1913 Hellingrath edition Benjamin admired, and entitled “Werden im Vergehen”) emphasizes “relationality” [Beziehungsart; die Möglichkeit aller Beziehung] as the act of relating both themes and forms; one theme to another; forms to each other; meanings to linguistic forms; acts to interpretations; modes of signifying to significations. This act of relating becomes especially needful when relations usually conserved by the aesthetic conventions (governing meaning and its devices) have been disrupted by what Hölderlin calls a “genuinely tragic language.” “Werden im Vergehen” theorizes about an accelerated performance of textual dissolution in which acts of signifying always fail and need to be reenacted (in order to fail again). This continual, accelerated failure to “relate” leads to the constant need to relate, thereby constituting the sense of “relationality,” a dynamic romantic model for what post-Saussurean criticism later calls “inscription” or “materiality.”

8.         It is this 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 Benjamin 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 simply readable and understandable, but more of a task—when the reading turns on the issue of calculation rather than inspiration and its associated concepts.

9.         At this point, we must backtrack to the Hölderlinian determination of “lawful calculation” [gesetzlicher Kalkul] or “calculable law” [kalkulables Gesetz] mentioned earlier; calculability always engenders a concomitant incalculability. Poetics produces aesthetics, but the latter owes its potency to its ultimate unreadability. The sense of poetic “law” (and sober calculation) in the Hölderlin text brings before critical reading a genuine alterity (something which cannot be calculated), which appears to defy all attempts to reflect it back into discursivity. It is the inaccessibility of this otherness to conceptuality in Hölderlin’s text—a difference which, again, asserts itself in Hölderlin’s sense of poetics—which Benjamin translates as the “untouchable middle” of aesthetic unity.

10.         To see how what we may call the “otherness of lawfulness” informs Benjamin’s sense of inaccessible immanence, we cite Hölderlin: in the “Notes to Oedipus” (1804), the artwork is the place where “the living sense, which cannot be calculated, is brought into relation with the calculable law” (FHA 16.250). When “the living sense,” that which, by itself, “cannot be calculated” [nicht berechnet werden kann]—and which here does not itself get calculated—is instead brought into relation [in Beziehung gebracht] with what can be calculated (or, say, determined, articulated), we have a liminal situation with two conceivable sides, an inside or near side within calculation (determination) and a far side determined only as the hollow “outside” to the contours of formation. The law may be reflected from within the lawful formation, with the reflection here both made possible and determined by the law; but the “far” side—that part of the living sense which comes into contact with the near, determinable (lawful) side—cannot be calculated from its own side, which lies outside of the law and the calculable. One such moment in this (unlawful) alterity could be, for example, the incalculable sense of repetition itself, which asserts itself in the always repeatable law. The number of divergent expositions of the important concept of repetition (Freudian, Kierkegaardian, Nietzschean, Hegelian, and so on) could itself serve as an illustration of its incalculability. In Hölderlin’s case, the “coming into contact with form” can only be reflected from the side of formation, which finds itself occurring always only over against the unconditioned. His formulation of “lawful calculation” in fact describes a function or process of signification. With such functions, such identifications of uniformity, we may believe that we have comprehended the text and its modes of signifying; and we have done so, to some extent. Yet such comprehension only occasions a new indeterminateness as its condition of possibility.

11.         This may be further clarified by noting that, in the above passage from Hölderlin, the sense of “rhythm” (and with it the prosodic term, “caesura,” to be treated below) closely attends the idea of “lawful calculation.” “Rhythm,” as a pure rhythmicity involved in the merely formal “rhythmical succession of representations,” [5]  is the reduction of the aesthetic (as calculation) to pure repetition, the aesthetic as a repetition compulsion. The repeatability of the law according to regular recurrence creates the conditions for the aesthetic; “rhythm,” the abstract design of repetition, is the aesthetic in the mode of pure relationality. Yet the aesthetic (which in the literary context, at least, qualifies as the general condition for cognition) cannot itself be comprehended as mere regular recurrence; what is cognized (the rhythm, the regular return of the aesthetic) is irremediably estranged from those conditions (rhythmical functions) which produce it. “Rhythm” would thus also denote the failure to master the aesthetic, to fathom it critically.

12.         This problematic informs Benjamin’s reading of Hölderlin (and of lyric; and later, it turns out, of Greek tragedy). As he explains, the identification of relations and their functions lies beyond the pale of critical scrutiny: at the “middle” of the poem “the sum-total of all functions” (GS 2.1.124) is indeed to be located, but in relations of identity so deeply embedded, so inaccessible in their totality, that such identification can only exist 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). [6]  This “poematized,” Benjamin makes clear, does not exist in the mode of a universal and metaphysical category applicable to other poetic texts, but is sui generis, a singular project(ion) of its actualized poetic text.

13.        Associated with this “untouchable middle of all relation” [die unberührbare Mitte aller Beziehung] are two related designations: the poet, and death—or, we may say, the dead poet, that poet who reveals himself in the metapoem as death, the frozen intersection of relata taken out of flux and fixed in the poem: “unified in death [im Tode] [. . .] are all known relations” (125, my emphasis). “Death” as immanence has to do with “Form in its deepest binding” [Gestalt in ihrer tiefsten Bindung] (110). In the book on German tragic drama (which Benjamin began working on only a few years after the Hölderlin essay), the sense of inaccessible immanence is prominent in the delineation of the inarticulate but knowingly superior hero of Greek tragedy; in the Hölderlin essay, as later, it has to do with muteness, but in the present case with a certain inarticulateness of criticism—as regards the inscrutability and unnameability of unity-functions. In their untouchable place “within,” “death” and “the poet” look like displaced names for the sum-total of unnamed functions “at the middle.” The “death” or dead-spot there evokes the sense of a densely clustered network of congealed relations, so recalling the close-packed “thickness” of language etymologically suggested in the word Dichtung. Within general (unwritten) “life” at large, death may be the great Dissolver of relation-functions and relationality, but here it is what reifies relations on the flat surfaces of writing, from within an immanence made all the more inscrutable by being manifested only in the externality of the epitaphic, textual surface [Mitte und Erstreckung] (116). “Death” as the great Congealer of (textual) relations is Versachlichung (or “materialization”—the act of becoming material, objective inscription), a poetic function which Benjamin, following Hölderlin, associated with a certain fiction: the “death” of the gods.

14.         Such a death, a dying into inscription, is for Benjamin (as for Hölderlin) a specifically temporal action determined as a god-death: an internal concentration of formative energy or “temporal/timely Plastic” [zeitliche Plastik] erupts from the pressure of immanence to congeal into the inscribed names and attributes of divinity. The inscription of the divine name introduces a temporality into what is written, thematized as “death.” The temporality of inscription, we should note, occurs in a particularly romantic and modern critical revisitation of ancient “Greece,” a literary topos which signifies for a nineteenth- and twentieth-century modernity the historico-philosophical possibility that the sacred word could render itself entirely present within phenomenality, i.e., could render itself aesthetic. But this coherence of the oracular and the visible without loss of sense can only appear to us “Hesperians” (moderns) now as a peculiarly Greek “aesthetic mistake” [Kunstfehler], to use Hölderlin’s term. [7]  In its pretense to have utterly transcended the temporal in becoming a flower of poetic artifice, the god’s name introduces “death” into the text as a radical forgetting of temporality, which yet abides as an unconditioned temporal excess, something incalculable, a “plasticity” still left over after the inscription of the beautiful image—which itself relies on plastic time as its own condition of possibility. In Benjamin’s spatial metaphorics, “depth” and “immanence” are the sites of this death; they are the markers of this aesthetic “mistake,” this forgetting of an inconceivable, but always sovereign, excess.

15.         Plastic time thus rips something immanent from within the poetic middle in its depth, and conjugates this onto the graphemic, physiognomic surface of the text. Temporal “plasticity” involves the capability to transform and invert the immanent into its superficial forms, according to the “function of time” [Funktion der Zeit], a function which determines the tightness or looseness of relata in the textual web, the Dichtung (118). The deeper, more distant the particular “relation of identity” informing the poem is to be located “at the middle,” so the more “untouchable,” which is to say, “timely” and plastic it will be. The gods are “produced,” says Benjamin, when they “fall prey to their own forces of formation,” i.e., when the force of the identity-function governing them is so intense (concentrated, forceful, binding) that it turns into a “temporal-internal seizure” (121), turning the internal inside out to display itself within the unifications of deadened, phenomenalized forms. As often in the hyperbolically self-conscious texts of Hölderlin, a beautiful deadness of expression, a literary cliché on the mere poetic surface, evokes the inexpressible as that expression’s insinuation of its own impending erasure.

16.         It is probable that this motif of “materialization,” as well as the closely related notion of “immanence,” is derived directly from the “Notes” [Anmerkungen] to Hölderlin’s translations of Antigone and Oedipus Tyrannus. Although he did make use of Böhm’s 1905 edition (which excludes the “Notes”) for the texts of the two poems discussed in the essay (“Dichtermut” and “Blödigkeit”), the “Notes” would doubtless have been available to Benjamin in the Hölderlin edition he preferred—the 1913 Norbert von Hellingrath edition. [8]  The similarities are striking, as the following cento of passages taken from Hölderlin’s “Notes” (“Ödipus” FHA 16.249-58; “Antigona” 16.411-21) will demonstrate (my emphases throughout):

Hölderlin #1:
[. . .] the force of nature, which tragically removes mankind from its sphere of life, the middle point of its inner life, and rips it into the eccentric sphere of the dead. [immanence, materialization, Inversion, Unity]

[. . .] and as, without bounds, the force of nature and the most internal part of mankind become One in wrath [. . .]. [immanence, unity]
The myth is recognizable by the inner unity of God and Fate (GS 2.1.109).

[. . .] transposed into the middle of life nothing remains for him [the poet] but motionless existence [. . .]. How much he signifies the untouchable middle of all relation is shown by the last two verses (125).

The poet need not fear death, he is hero, while he lives the middle of all relation. It is obvious that death, in the form of “overnight stay” [quoting Einkehr from Hölderlin’s lyric], was transposed into the middle of the poem, so that in this middle is the origin of the song, as the sum-total of all functions (124).
Hölderlin #2:
[. . .]the God, totally One with humanity [. . .] while differentiating Himself with holiness, lays hold of Himself, and the God becomes present in the form of death. [materialization, unity, inversion]

[. . .] forced to become present [. . .] in non-finite form [. . .] (profanethi theos) [“Show yourself, god” (aorist imperative profaino)]. [materialization]
[. . .] the Formative [Gestaltung], the internally plastic principle, is so intensified that the doom of the dead form imposes itself over the god [. . .]. Plasticity is inverted from within to without, making the god entirely into an object [. . .]. The heavenly is produced. Here is highest expression of identity: the Greek god falls prey completely to its own principle, to form (121).
Hölderlin #3:
Since such men stand in violent circumstances, their language also speaks, almost in the manner of Furies, in more violent relations. [density of relation, as demonstration of “Relationality”]

[. . .] the possibility of all relations dominates in that which is in translation [im übergehenden] [. . .] if existence [. . .] is felt in its dissolution, then the Unexhausted and Inexhaustible of the relations and forces must be felt. [Relationality, Inversion, (inarticulate) Immanence] [9] 
[. . .] the violent relationship between the individual spheres (111-12).

[. . .] the of the boundedness [die Intensität der Verbundenheit] of the sensory and intellectual elements (108).

But the consideration of “the poematized” leads not to the Myth [. . .] but only to mythically bounded elements [die mythischen Verbundenheiten] (126).

The significant example of Hölderlin makes it clear how the poematized offers the possibility of judging the poetry by means of the degree of boundedness [Grad der Verbundenheit] and the greatness of its elements (107).

But an especially central place of this Boundedness must still be exhibited [. . .] in which the energy of the inner form shows itself to be all the more forceful, the more that the signified life is in flux and formless (122).

17.         Exposition of the Hölderlinian contexts must here be omitted in order to focus on Benjamin’s transformations and revisions. We note, first, the Benjamin reads Hölderlin’s poem “Blödigkeit” (or rather its “poematized” version at issue in a critical reading) as an allegory for the “deep” immanence of its own relations, in an application of principles gleaned from the “Notes” to Antigone and to Oedipus. 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 (undertaken in the “metapoem”) 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-mythic relata (see set of citations under #3 above), 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. We have already linked such violence to the Hölderlinian notion of “rhythm” as the violent regularity (a Greek ananke) with which the aesthetic returns, as the mostly passive reenactment of a relation-function. We should also note that this violent force governing relations “at the middle” may be intimated either by self-dissolving signifiers on the textual surface (see last Benjamin citation under #3 above) or by fixed signifiers having the sense of being prematurely congealed, such as the materialization of the dead “god” (in citations under #2 above). The effect is the same: an innate temporal plasticity, concentrated into a violent energy, either “gives up” representing itself or “gives in” to a representation which fails it.

18.         Further, Benjamin introduces two designations, linked to the notion of “temporal plastic” and “violent relations at the middle,” and discussed through the two Hölderlin lyrics featured in the essay: a merely “mythological,” earlier draft “Dichtermut” yields to a “mythic,” revised draft “Blödigkeit.” Whereas the elements in the first (“mythological”) text are “loose,” having no “energetic” relation to a submerged and violent plasticity at the middle, the elements of the “mythic” poem exist in dense and violent relation to their immanence “at the middle.” In other words, there is no immanence (and thus submerged violence) in the “mythological” poem, characterized by the “lack of relation” [Beziehungslosigkeit] among its elements and by its “isolation of form” [Vereinzelung der Gestalt] (GS 2.1.111); its constituents therefore unable to “make sense,” the poem is made up of mere citations of prior (possibly once “mythic”) texts. As evidence, Benjamin refers to conventional phrases (in “Dichtermut”) merely recycled from a “mythological” diction of (neo)classical poetry at hand: e.g., “der Sonnengott” [the Sungod/Apollo] (120) and “die Parze” [Destiny]. The “dead” citationality of, for example, the (neo)classical “der Sonnengott” (earlier draft), isolated and unmeaningful because not proceeding from a nexus of functions embedded in the poem, is forcefully revised into the “romantic” “des Himmels Gott” [God of Heaven] of the later draft, which exhibits (in German, not in translation) the peculiar tension of the Hölderlinian periphrasis. On Benjamin’s reading, “des Himmels Gott” would issue from a “density” and active energy of relational identites, thus illustrating the “intensity of relation” [Instensität der Verbundheit] of a “mythic” immanence (108).

19.         This is to say that signification depends entirely upon the processes of an aesthetic context involving “mythically-bounded elements” (see citations under #3) rather than upon the mere citation of elements having an extra-textual reference: “The mythological demonstrates itself as Mythos only in the measure of its boundedness [Verbundenheit]” (109). The “classical” and “mythological” mode of the earlier draft thus fails to be aesthetic, thereby failing to be a lyric, be an original, with corresponding loss of immanence. To put this another way: the merely “mythological” is the stuff of aesthetic ideology, whose unity-functions and modes of phenomenalization will be more transparent for a criticism that will be able to carry out its tasks more easily on mythological materials than on mythic. But if the signification functions of a text prove to be more transparent and readable, they will also be less forceful, less aesthetically efficacious, less innately unified. The process of revision in going from the earlier to the later draft of the poem may trace out the passage from classical to romantic, which (following Hölderlin’s lead in this respect) is a passage into immanence. But the aesthetic functions of the immanent text of romance will prove to be unreadable, beyond the reach of criticism; the latter will be unable to distinguish individual relata in the dense plastic clusters “within,” caught up as they will be in a text governed, says Benjamin, by the “impenetrability of relations” [die Undurchdringlichkeit der Beziehungen] (111). Once we are in the (romantic) revision, it becomes “difficult,” says Benjamin, “to acquire a possible access into this fully unified and singular world.” [10]  This is to say that the more criticism succeeds (in unraveling the unity-functions of a text), the less the successful critical performance is likely to mean anything. Still, the mythological appears to be the appropriate vehicle of discursive truth, unlike “the mythical,” which is indifferent to it. [11] 

20.         Benjamin asserts, for example, that the earlier draft of Hölderlin’s lyric achieves no real relation to “death,” since “life was still the precondition for death” (123); that is, “death” here comes from an extra-textual life and so is “substantial” rather than textually immanent—unlike that “death” of the later draft, determined as “Form in its deepest binding” (110). Here the classical citation from the first draft recalls that “other” aesthetic tradition we began with, in which lyric unity is conceived as imported into the text from outside it, as something substantial and merely referential. Lacking the immanence of what in the Hölderlin-Benjamin context emerges as the genuine artwork associated with a “mythic” and “romantic” relationality, the classical, Greek and “mythological” production would be aligned with “the weakest achievements in art,” which, as Benjamin reminds us early in his essay, fail because they “relate immediately to life,” as opposed to “the strongest” works, connected with “a sphere related to the mythical” (107). By contrast, the later draft (“Blödigkeit”) does realize “death” as this immanent, binding relation, and to such a degree that “a new meaning of death” is to emerge from it, although this “new” meaning may only be proleptic, paradoxically to be realized when this lyric in its turn—“with the turn of time” (citing the poem’s zur Wende der Zeit)—becomes mythological, i.e., becomes canonical and starts being quoted and translated. Still, as it presently exists in the poem, such a “death” is “inconceivable to us on a clearer basis” (126).

21.         As Benjamin explains it (125), the central “characteristic” of Hölderlinian “sobriety” [Nüchternheit] is best referred to only at the end of his essay, where it can finally emerge in its determinateness. There, he asks where the Hölderlin topos of the “holy-sober” is “still that of Greece.” As his subsequent remarks make clear, this is the same as asking if the “holy-sober” belongs to the lyric sublimity of that other aesthetic tradition derived from “inspiration,” where the artwork is conceived as the direct life expression of a people and of an individual [the poet]. Though it may be “composed in Greek forms,” the “holy-sober”—so runs the answer—is emphatically not Greek, which is to say, not related to the inspired “Ecstasy”—“the mania of Plato”—of the major aesthetic tradition at all, but rather to that “mechanical reason” which “soberly [nüchtern] constitutes the work” (GS 1.1.106). If “life” and, for example, that “new death” discussed in the last paragraph are productions of the “Holy-Sober” mode, they would spring (like any produce of sobriety) from

the inner Sureness [Sicherheit] in which they [sober words] stand in his [Hölderlin’s] own spiritual life, in which now Sobriety is allowed, required—because it is, in itself, holy, beyond all elevation in the sublime [jensits aller Erhebung im Erhabnen]. (125)
To surpass the sublimity of the sublime is to become something wholly prosaic, at once ultra- and anti-sublime, in an inversion that Benjamin precisely specifies as an “untouchable sober-prosaic figure” [unantastbaren nüchternen prosaischen Gestalt] and that he links to a poetological term called a “Caesura” (GS 1.1.106). This latter notion, again borrowed from Hölderlin, is a means to thematize the real resistance of such “untouchability” to critical appropriation. “Caesura” [Zäsur] does not occur in the discussion of Hölderlinian “holy-sober” in the dissertation (Kunstkritik) several years later, and for good reason: there the sober law, the materials it shapes—and its associated “untouchability”—are always to be re-assimilated into the spheres of discursive reflection by the “positive” dialectical appropriations of the romantic idea. Although the operation of the law “infinitizes” the task of criticism, in the Kunstkritik the latter will still be an endless success story of speculative self-meta-reflection, for the very reason that it finds itself challenged into furious activity by the sober-prosaic. Yet, in the Hölderlin essay Benjamin shows himself rather less willing to let this untouchability—and the potential difference it generates as unreadable immanence—be ultimately circumscribed entirely within the endlessly assimilative process of the romantic absolute, within, that is, the “absolutizing, universalizing classification of the individual moment [. . .] that is romanticization” (GS 1.1.67). But that immanence emerging in the “Two Poems” essay is instead allowed to exist more (which is not to say, entirely) in the mode of its genuine liminality and potential heterogeneity, as we have explicated this with respect to the Hölderlinian “lawful calculation.” Both Hölderlin and Benjamin expressly link the poetic law to what they call a Caesura; in a sense to be unfolded below, the latter indicates both a powerful aesthetic function and a threshold of criticism.

22.         Quoting the last stanza of “Blödigkeit”—a stanza which very possibly motivated (in conjunction with motifs from the “Notes” to Hölderlin’s Sophocles translations) his entire reading of this lyric as a metacommentary on its own functions and on their latency as the condition of lyric unity—Benjamin mentions the caesura in the context of a poetic unity that is only achievable when the poet, understood as the principle of form, operates from within an immanence whose untouchability translates into the distance [Abstand] of the poet from its materialized unities on its surface:

Wie sehr er [the poet] die unberührbare Mitte aller Beziehung bedeutet, enthalten die beiden letzten Verse am mächtigsten [. . .] “und von den Himmlischen/ Einen bringen. Doch selber/ Bringen schickliche Hände wir.” So ist der Dichter nicht mehr als Gestalt gesehen, sondern allein noch als Prinzip der Gestalt, Begrenzendes, auch seinen eignen Körper noch Tragendes. Er bringt seine Hände—und die Himmlische. Die eindringliche Zäsur dieser Stelle ergibt den Abstand, den der Dichter von aller Gestalt und der Welt haben soll, als ihre Einheit. (GS 2.1.125)

[How much he signifies the untouchable middle of all relation is embodied most powerfully in the last two verses [. . .] “and (we poets) bring one of the heavenly ones. And ourselves we bring capable hands.” So the poet is no longer seen as form, but only still as principle of form, the Delimiter, the one still carrying even his own body. He brings his hands—and the heavenly ones. The striking caesura of this place produces the distance, which the poet, as their unity, should have in the presence of all form and the world.] (my translation)
The “striking caesura” asserts itself through the curious literalization of the “hands” that the poet is said to “bring.” In other contexts this metonymy could appear quite natural: one “brings” “capable hands” as one may “bring”: “a strong back,” “a clear head,” “energy and enthusiasm.” The hands could elsewhere be naturalized as figures for the physical implements of the writer’s craft; but here the contrast with that “One of the gods” who is also brought contributes to an estrangement called the caesura. The latter is an interruption or hesitation of sense, the effect of a juxtaposition which strikes the reader as a faulty parallelism: “Hands—Gods.” One normally brings one’s hands, moreover, without needing to remember to bring them, or to remark that they have been brought, for they are attached to the (physical and lyrical) body as a natural and substantial extension. Only if hands were the mechanized, prosthetic devices of the amputee would they need to be remembered and “brought.” But this is the sense of Hölderlin’s poet of functions, a miracle of rare device, who—as Composer-of-functions and Composed-of-functions, as pure prosthesis, a pure functionality—having no attachments, can take none for granted, and must literally remember to bring himself into the poem [tritt nur/ Baar in’s Leben, from the first stanza (116)]. “Don’t forget to carry your body into it, either!” comes through in Benjamin’s uncompromising reading of the caesura. In the prosaic repetition of “bring,” we find an emergent sense of the “holy-sober” stylization that Benjamin admires in Hölderlin but which can hardly be called “natural” or even “lyrical” in their usual senses. The poet brings the “holy One” in a poetic invocation of the sacred; but this “beautiful” lyric convention explicitly parallels something “else” that is brought, which would be macabre if it were more of an actual bodily part (as “this living hand” of the late Keatsian poem is) and less a functional or prosaic tool (of writing, composition), as it is here: the “sober,” mechanical and mundane “hands.” The juxtaposition of the theophanic and the technological (capable hands, which Hölderlin elsewhere calls the mechane) constitutes the caesura, which here strikes the reader as the Hölderlin-Benjamin project to realize, always only imperfectly, the complete separateness and distantiation that the perfectly “sober” unity of lyric demands.

23.         For Benjamin, reading the caesura appears to crystallize reading Hölderlin, reading romanticism and the lyric, and no doubt critical reading in general. Indeed, it is the “unreachable goal of all German artistic praxis” not only to present, but to comprehend the caesura which inhabits the poetic discourses of “occidental junoesque sobriety” (GS 1.1.182). This formulation appears in an essay (published in 1925) on Goethe’s “Elective Affinities,” which reiterates Hölderlin’s own determination of the caesura in his “Notes to Oedipus”: “The tragic transport [Transport] is in actuality empty, and the most unbound” (GS 1.1.182). How does one best appreciate, critically comprehend, something that is “empty” [leer]? We recall for the moment the verse, cited by Benjamin (see preceding paragraph), which he finds thematic of the caesura: “He brings his hands—and the heavenly ones.” In this instance the disparity of those themes just before and just after the gap to be read—the figurations beginning and ending the “transport” across the empty passage—appears to offer a critical purchase on the caesura: “hands” are in stark disjunction with “the heavenly ones.” Is a caesura easier to read when its thematic frames are dissociated as here? But given the potent aesthetic that surges up through these very transports across an indeterminate (“unbounded”) and empty space, the critical articulation of this space to be read all too easily vanishes into it, swallowed up within the same aesthetic it would distinguish. “Er bringt seine Händeund die Himmlischen.” This paratactic figuration promises criticism a deep incision into the untouchable aesthetic: it plays out analogically the same distantiation [Abstand] at issue in the idea of the holy-sober, as the radical disjunction between signification and the lawful functions that produce it. Adorno fell for this tactic of the paratactic as a mode of reading Hölderlin: in Adorno’s famous reading, Hölderlin’s own “epic” style—where words are “piled on,” merely added on in endless supplements without any (“hypotactic”) subordination to an overarching motif—promises an insight into the Hölderlin text, with the manifold interruptions in the interpretative process that its own “striking caesuras” pose for readers. [12]  Yet reading the caesura through such thematic disjunctions qualifies as the very problem of reading lyric, reading romanticism. In the preface to The Rhetoric of Romanticism, Paul de Man suggests that the criticism of romanticism habitually “stumbles” over those very “breaks and interruptions that readings disclose,” in the sense that such readings end up smuggling back in “the aesthetic unity of manner and substance that may well be what is in question in the historical study of romanticism” (ix). Our failure to read the romantics has to do with our failure to achieve the failure of aesthetic recuperation. De Man’s very example of this failure (to fail) is Adorno’s famous paratactic reading of Hölderlin, which recuperates the fragment (a modality of the caesura) under the aesthetic aegis of parataxis.

24.         Even though Benjamin, too, may gravitate towards something like a paratactic reading of Hölderlin in his notion of the “extensionality” [Erstreckung] of the text (its ability to unfold indefinitely “in a row of chains,” in a certain way, in accordance with a governing “fate”), he proves to be a wary reader, suspicious of the possible collusion of his critical strategies with the deeply embedded aesthetic unity of the textual object to be criticized (GS 2.1.116). Indeed, the entire Hölderlin essay is constructed as a reminder of this possibility of collusion and the difficulty of achieving critical impasse. What in the Hölderlin essay is the unreadability (“untouchability,” “impenetrability”) of the “mythic” and original lyric emerges ten years later in the Goethe essay as an “inexpressible violence” [ausdrucklose Gewalt] which any successful or “sober” art-expression harbors as its internal condition of possibility (GS 1.1.182). As Benjamin specifies it, the inexpressibility of this violent force arises from both the necessity of analyzing the caesura of the artwork (as the critical access to its aesthetic unity), on the one hand, and from the impossibility of doing so, on the other, due to the way in which criticism itself, the metapoem of the poem, is (like the poem) “caesura’d,” always drawn into its aesthetic rhythms and unity functions. Thus, on the one hand, criticism is unable to differentiate “appearance from essence in the artwork” (ibid.); the attempt to read the radical otherness of the caesura is always perceived by a self-aware critique to be a misreading of sameness. “The Inexpressible is the critical force, which is, on the other hand, unable to differentiate appearance from essence [Schein vom Wesen] within art [. . .]” (GS 1.1.181). On the other hand, this inability so far looks like the critical solipsism brought on by the iron machineries of dialectic recuperation, where differences are overlooked, transformed and forgotten through their assimilation back into those very aesthetico-critical unities which are being interrogated (and which would be exploded if the differences were allowed to exist outside of the unifying frameworks of criticism). Yet, in this case, the inability, appearing as it does in caesura, does not lead back into the circle of reflection, but rather remains exactly where it is—at the limit of the circle: “[. . .] the critical force that, on the one hand, is unable to differentiate appearance from essence within art, but on the other hand keeps them from being confounded” [my emphasis]. This caesura-criticism would thus refuse that assimilation back into “romantic” reflection, without, however, relinquishing its status as criticism, for it maintains a critical difference in the face of its impossibility, or, rather, it refuses to act on its inability to differentiate, refuses to give up the impossible task of criticism.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. “Parataxis: Zur späten Lyrik Hölderlins.” Noten zur Literatur. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1965. Print.

Benjamin, Walter. Walter Benjamin: Gesammelte Schriften. Vol. 1 (“Abhandlungen”) and 2 (“Aufsätze, Essays, Vorträge”). 7 vols. Ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser (and Adorno and Scholem). Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Taschenbuch, 1991. Print.

Chase, Cynthia. “Translating Romanticism: Literary Theory as the Criticism of Aesthetics in the Work of Paul de Man.” Textual Strategies 4 (1990): 349-75. Print.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. The Statesman’s Manual, in “Lay Sermons.” The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Vol. 6. Ed. R. J. White. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972. Print.

De Man, Paul. “Lyric Voice in Contemporary Theory: Riffaterre and Jauss.” Lyric Poetry. Ed. Chivava Hosek and Patricia Parker. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985. Print.

---. “Preface.” The Rhetoric of Romanticism. New York: Columbia University Press 1984. Print.

Hölderlin, Friedrich. Sämtliche Werke: Frankfurter Ausgabe. 20 vols. Ed. D. E. Sattler et. al. Basel: Strömfeld/Roter Stern, 1975-2008. Print.

---. Hölderlin: Werke und Briefe. Vol. 2. Ed. Beissner and Schmidt. Frankfurt am Main: Insel, 1969. Print.

Menninghaus, Winfried. Schwellenkunde: Walter Benjamins Passage der Mythos. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1986. Print.

Nägele, Rainer. “Benjamin’s Ground.” Benjamin’s Ground. Ed. Rainer Nägele. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1988. Print.

Wellbery, David. “Benjamin’s Theory of the Lyric.” Benjamin’s Ground. Ed. Rainer Nägele. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1988. Print.


[1] For an excellent discussion of romanticism in the aesthetic tradition, see Cynthia Chase, “Translating Romanticism: Literary Theory as the Criticism of Aesthetics in the Work of Paul de Man.” BACK

[2] All references are to “Zwei Gedichte von Friedrich Hölderlin” are from Walter Benjamin: Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. 2 (“Aufsätze, Essays, Vorträge”), hereafter abbreviated as GS. Translations are my own. References to Der Begriff der Kunstkritik in der deutschen Romantik and “Goethes Wahlverwandtschaften” and are in the first volume of GS. BACK

[3] Except for references to Werke und Briefe, parenthetical citations of Hölderlin will be abbreviated FHA. BACK

[4] “The principle of intelligibility in lyric poetry,” writes a well-known critic influenced by Benjamin, “depends on the phenomenalization of the poetic voice” (de Man 55). BACK

[5] FHA 16.250: “in der rhythmischen Aufeinanderfolge der Vorstellungen”; “[. . .] wird die Aufeinanderfolge des Kalkuls, und der Rhythmus geteilt”; “Ist nun der Rhythmus der Vorstellungen so beschaffen daß.” BACK

[6] Two helpful discussions of Benjamin’s Hölderlin essay, to which my own exposition is indebted, may be cited here. Rainer Nägele, “Benjamin’s Ground,” and David Wellbery, “Benjamin’s Theory of the Lyric.” BACK

[7] This occurs in a letter to Friedrich Wilmans, who published Hölderlin’s Sophocles translations. In this letter of September 1803, Hölderlin justifies his translation practice as a means to open the text up to fresh meaning by declassicizing the Greek formulation (through an emphasis on the eccentric and “oriental”) and by “correcting” the Greek “aesthetic mistake” [“[. . .] un ihren kunstfehler [. . .] verbessere”]. See Hölderlin: Werke und Briefe 2.947. BACK

[8] See GS 2.3.921-22. BACK

[9] This passage comes from the prose fragment, “The declining Fatherland” [Das untergehende Vaterland] (1800). See FHA 14:135ff. The fragment was first published in the 2 printing (1911) of Wilhelm Böhm’s edition. BACK

[10] The revised poem is called “die anschaulich-geistige Ordnung, der neue Kosmos des Dichters. Schwer ist es, einen möglichen Zugang zu dieser völlig einheitlichen und einzigen Welt zu gewinnen” (111). BACK

[11] See Winfried Menninghaus’s Schwellenkunde: Walter Benjamins Passage der Mythos, 68-69. BACK

[12] See Adorno’s “Parataxis: Zur späten Lyrik Hölderlins.” BACK