Tom McCall, "Wrathful Translation: The Sophocles of Hölderlin"

Printer-friendly version

Wrathful Translation: The Sophocles of Hölderlin

Tom McCall

This essay is an excerpt from a long unpublished manuscript.

1.        Ancient tragedy cuts deeply into the multidisciplinary span of concerns that make up critical theory in our time. Even without us seeming to foist our critical frameworks upon it indiscriminately, classical Athenian tragedy, on its own terms, fully engages the tensions that have defined nineteenth and twentieth-century critical traditions—traditions which could be said, broadly, to turn on the disjunction between the arbitrariness of signs, on the one hand, and the deep embeddedness of meanings in their historical traditions, on the other. When it comes to evaluating the wary modern translation of a Greek tragedy, virtually every major critical movement of the last two centuries may be brought into play. Entire traditions (such as “the humanities”) depend upon translations: by bringing disparate languages and national literatures into relations of continuity, such traditions forge their changing identities through the construction of constantly reinvented and retranslated pasts. Yet cultural institutions, like human consciousness, are highly selective, incorporating into themselves only what ensures the continuities of their own discourses. The same principle of selection operates at the micro-levels of individual translations. It is easy to underestimate what must go unnoticed if that text called “translation” is to do its work: concealments such as the myriad linguistic differences between target and source languages, their disparate idioms, and their heteromorphous grammatical modes and lexical features.

2.        In 1804 Friedrich Holderlin published his famous translations of Sophocles, Antigonä and Ödipus der Tyrann. Although notoriously free and often incorrect by scholarly criteria, these famous translations nonetheless emphasize something common to all translations but mostly hidden by all. By virtue of their literary qualities and charged thematics, Hölderlin’s translations can make legible translative differences which other, more correct or “sober” translations conceal. His translations repeat the original, but repeat it in style; they upstage it in a subversive repetition that seems to reverse chronological order and suggest how originals may be created through their translations. After all, what is a “Sophocles,” an “ancient Greek tragedy,” an “Oedipus,” if not a congeries of textual effects created through a certain text in front of the reader, a text that imparts a tone, a sense, a style “of Sophocles,” or “ancient tragedy”? Whatever a “Sophocles” is, it is only by virtue of that text (recalled to memory or physically before one) “now,” in the contemporaneous present. Even a Sophocles reading the original could only come to know his work through a textual present—in his case, a fifth-century BCE Athenian artistic amalgam of tragic, lyric, epic, legal and philosophical dictions. In Hölderlin’s translations, the imprint of this specific historico-linguistic time of the now (of reading and writing) is especially legible. As we will see in the last section of this essay, his translations construct time quite self-consciously through the stylistic figure of “voice.”

3.        Through their own stylistic features, the Sophocles translations thus impart a sense of their own constructedness as translations, a sense for the way in which originals are reconstituted retroactively as the verbal effect of a certain style and genre (namely, “translation”), the sense of what they bring, linguistically and historically speaking, into the text in order to give it—for the contemporary—the force of the original. Along with his contemporaries Tieck, Novalis and the Schlegels, Hölderlin recognized that a translation reproduces the dynamics of interpretation, so making readable the assumptions, inbred values, and linguistic devices which cohere into acts of signification—such assumptions and values which may attend the original, but which more properly, more surely, are constituents of the translation discourse itself, and which only by means of an insensible and secondary ascription of them back onto the original text can seem to derive primarily from it.

4.        Indeed, after the Hölderlin translations of Pindar and Sophocles, the sober, straightforward or “faithful” translation begins to look a little more illicit, as the following example will show. “We must present the myth more conclusively” (Sämtliche Werke: Frankfurter Ausgabe 415). [1]  So runs one of the hieroglyphic statements in the “Notes to Antigone,” a commentary appended by Hölderlin to his translation of that play. The “Notes” go on to provide an example: “Zeus” should be translated “Father of Time” [Vater der Zeit] or “Father of Earth” [Vater der Erde]. Instead of the straightforward and (to all but Hölderlin) unobjectionable transliteration of “Zeus” for Ζεύς, the metaphorical paraphrase would enliven the bare proper name “in order to bring it closer to our mode of representation” (Werke und Brief 789). By putting on display the way in which the foreigner’s myth is appropriated through the particular mechanisms of one’s own historico-linguistic modes of representation, by showing the way in which the dead (“positive”) forms of the foreigner are “made to speak” through the figural devices of the target language, the critical or self-reflexive translation would foreground its own mythic emblems, thus offering the possibility of a self-reading of its own sense-making. If the original is shown to depend upon the particular historical and linguistic representational modes of the translator’s language, the rendition of the original is shown to depend upon a metaphor—upon one metaphor (one myth) or another. The point here is less the rich thematic meaning and dense polysemy of “Vater der Zeit” than the way in which such “wild” rhetorical swerves in the Hölderlinian translation begin, after several readings, to hint at a heretofore unsuspected kindred rhetorical violence that lurks in the most “sober” and referentially correct of translations as well; the sober translation may be just as wild (“drunken”) but, by virtue of a certain longstanding intellectual tradition of imbibing, can appear to be felicitous.

5.        This manner of self-conscious presentation through which a translation displays its modus operandi is, in fact, not so unusual: as the material record of all the linguistic decisions made to render an alien text, any translation can be read as the metacommentary of its own acts of interpretation. If the translation itself could explain this point, it might say something like this: “What you are reading is, of course, the right translation; but, at the same time, it is also the logbook of all those choices I had to make in my own particular rendering of the original, a rendering that is necessarily circumscribed by my language, history, interpretative wariness.” Here, as elsewhere, translation is a performative (simulation) of the translated meaning—just as much as it is the (semantic) translation of that meaning, the two modes being, in fact, hard to differentiate.

6.        Let us think of the original text as a dense mass of linguistic features: a complex of amalgamated phonemes and morphemes, an interactive network of grammatical and rhetorical forms, a language conglomerate whose semantic and syntactical devices can join and disjoin in ways that are uniquely specific to that language. The idiosyncratic, self-conscious style of Hölderlin’s translations reminds the reader that the original is being rendered through an idiosyncratic representational mode—rendered, at any textual site, through just a certain myth (mythology) or just a certain trope (tropology)—among countless others possible in other languages. As it keeps staging its retro-constitutions of the original, the critical translation has a stake in reminding us that the real thing (the elusive original) is not (correctly, felicitously) named, or only named “with a figure.” To some translators this common knowledge may be so common that they may scorn it as a mere truism that glosses over the real skill needed to come up with those felicitous turns of phrase that make up a translation. Or this common idea may appear to ignore the intense theorizing that has spawned the worldwide discipline known as “translation theory”; yet Hölderlin takes the commonplace to extremes when the stakes are so high—as here, in the translation of the holy name. The translation of absolutes (such as divine names, or the names of famous playwrights) depends crucially upon the textual mode of its re-presentation; this is what “the Absolute” is for a Hölderlin (and other writers of the time, such as Schlegel, Schelling and Novalis): always only a Darstellung of the Absolute before it is the Absolute itself. [2]  Whereas one less acute than a Hölderlin may be inclined to say—“There is no god outside of literature”—Hölderlin would say, rather, “The literary is precisely where the god is—or is not.”

7.        This is all to say: the Sophocles of Hölderlin is an “infuriated” translation that sets in most ruthlessly where the felicitous translation appears to be most flawless. Thus: the Greek letters—Zeta (ζ), Epsilon (ε), Upsilon (υ), Sigma (ς) appear to correspond (or almost) to the German letters (z-e-v-s). Yet precisely this automatic translation is to be exposed by the critical translation as a linguistic and (as we will see) historical naiveté. Although the proper name may occasionally vary from language to language (“Zeus” may sometimes be “Jupiter”), it has no significant semantic component, and so can stay roughly equivalent across languages: English “Joseph” is French “Joseph” or Russian transliterated /zhozif/. Common names, on the other hand, require translation of the semanteme, which varies from language to language (“dog”—“chien”—“perro”); yet here, too, the radical variation of the signifier is considerably stabilized through its grounding in the referent—the dog itself, which appears to stay exactly the same across languages (but we know better: a dog in German is not the same as a dog in English). One may rephrase this by saying that both proper and common names are denominations; that is, neither occurs naturally but has to be denominated, posited again and again in incessant speech acts by means of signifiers that are, in various complex senses, “arbitrary.” Yet a great divide separates the two denominative speech acts. The denomination of the proper name is supposed to last forever—this is, after all, the ideality and ideology of the proper (and, as we will see, of the symbol). But the denominations of the common name keep changing as that common thing they name (e.g., “dog”) circulates from language to language. By treating the proper name (Greek “Zeus”) as a common name that must be translated (“Vater der Zeit”), Hölderlin’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. In the Hölderlinian translation, the god is no more immune to the contingencies of linguistic process than the most common of common nouns—e.g., “dog.” Thus “Vater der Zeit” allegorizes the figure of correspondence hidden within the transliteration: German “Zeus” is as much a deviant figure as “Vater der Zeit.” The latter is the self-conscious performance of translation that implicates the transliteration as a performance just as wild.

8.        The very straightforwardness and apparent effortlessness of the transliteration exemplifies the particular aesthetic of Greek tragedy, a representational praxis which Hölderlin grounds in a Romantic notion of the symbol. Transliteration is essentially a symbolic mode, a monolingual fixation of names to spirits in a literality that lasts. The possibility of transliteration is the same possibility of naming the god in a solar language of stable meanings and apocalyptic perceptions in which “unification” [Eineswerden] prevails more than “separation” and severance [Scheiden], to anticipate a key distinction from the “Notes” that will figure in this essay. The stakes are high in this historico-philosophical critique of the “real” base, as here presented through the frame of transliteration: the real as the ideal correspondence of letters and spirits—a symbolic aesthetic where letters, the signifying elements between languages, are so closely, so internally fused as to be easily interchangeable—in which a defunct god can be given the same name as it once had in another semiotic system. Transliterating the god presupposes an Adamic language of origins that can institute lasting worlds of sense, linguistic worlds in which divinities may be translated into another language simply through a certain iconographic similarity of letters. We may take this possibility for granted, but not Hölderlin. For him, a translation is a labor of remembrance: the easier things are to translate, the more “the memory of the holy ones” is blotted out. The aesthetic of transliteration must be interrupted if the god is to be remembered.

9.        What is really at stake in translation—in the translation of a Greek tragedy? We may orient the question by sketching out what could be called the generalized aesthetic economy of Greek tragedy, at least the general form that economy has taken in received traditions of interpretation. Greek tragedy is famous for the way in which it links bodies in disastrous circumstances to the overarching spiritual powers of the cosmos. This propensity of tragic protagonists to be lacerated by something they perceive or think, this capability of tragic bodies to be restructured psychically, to be grabbed by an idea—to suffer and to learn from it—is the special domain of tragic representation, where catastrophe, pain and confusion come to be assimilated into a spiritual knowledge. As Tecmessa of Ajax laments, “Even in what we suffer I see the gods’ hand” (l. 950). Viewed from an atheological perspective, however, a secret pleasure lurks in this lament: the sense of protection by deity, implied in the context, where pain—or “madness” (mania) or “ruin” (ate)—are unquestioned signs of the divine that link the suffering body to apocalyptic vision. By contrast, bodies in sheer pain—without a language, without a mythical sphere of meaning—would only augur the indifference of gods, their withdrawal. In the self-contained symbolic cosmos of “the Greeks,” violent events such as murder, incest, and suicide are bound to mean—are aesthetically and religiously bound into meanings. It is this central feature of Greek tragedy, its ability to convert painful experience into cognitive insight—or represent conversion—that has intrigued generations of readers.

10.        At the same time there has been ascribed to tragedy the critical function to reveal what has been taken for granted—the normativity of the real—in the staging of its violent disruption. Through plot and characterization, this dramatic writing builds up the sense of calamity and channels it through the heroic body, where it can be felt along the blood and in the present moment; this derangement of the given order may then call attention to the givenness of that order. Yet even here, in the midst of “horrors, portioned to a giant nerve” (Keats I.175), even after the deep incision made by disaster in the order of things, even after this implicit critique, a meaningfulness prevails that is just as all-encompassing and powerful as that order destroyed. In fact, the deeper the gash, the more meaningful. The meaning of catastrophe for us may well be our inability to conceive of catastrophe outside of meaning.

11.        To what preconceptions—religious yearnings or aesthetic expectations—does the representational idiom of tragedy speak? What are the symbolic economies that guide, or have guided, the Greek writing of disaster? [3]  The present essay hopes to articulate a response to such old and large questions, a response to be worked out by this conjunction: Sophocles, Hölderlin, and the task of translation. With its critical eye on the historical and linguistic eccentricity of ancient tragedy, the postclassical translation has the task of dismantling the ancient text and putting it back together in a manner that would demonstrate the idiosyncrasy or singularity of what before had seemed universal or “taken for granted.” But such a demonstration has, all along, been the special province of tragedy; as we will see, the critical translation of tragedy uncovers—and then falls into—a “vortext” common to each.

12.        It could even be argued that “criticism, tout simple, and in one way or another, has to do with the critical disarticulation of the symbolic core of tragedy, especially after this complex genre, considerably simplified through such lucid mimetic models as Aristotle’s, renders itself to critical judgment. For the German translator-poet Hölderlin, tragedy—which presents “the world in small-scale”—is an abyssal approximation to an unspeakable symbol: in his Grund zum Empedokles (1799), the more protagonists or readers fall into their tragic texts, the more the symbol (as a new ideal or ideology, a new ground) asserts itself—as “the unspeakable,” “das nefas”: as something at once linguistically and morally transgressive, a movement that outstrips all articulation. In this fall into tragedy, the more one’s critical ground gives way, the faster one falls “into” the symbol, a passage into tragic sublimity that robs one of the ability to speak, even, or especially, when there may be words to mark the fall. In Antigone, we will see (§5), “the symbol” is the corpse of Polyneices—the “corpse is the image of his own destiny” (Bataille 44). [4] 


13.        As the “Notes to Oedipus” contend, understanding a tragedy depends upon grasping its basic principle: “the enormity,” an original coupling of human and divine in an abyssal place “within,” where “the force of the natural” hinges onto “the innermost part of the human.” If the category of the divine constituted for the Greeks of tragedy that which was “outside” and “beyond” discursive understanding, [5]  we now find this category displaced inward to become a Romantic “inside” and beyond to discursivity:

[. . .] the Enormity [das Ungeheure], as god and humankind couple it, and as, without limit, the force of the natural [die Naturmacht] and the most internal part of the human are on in wrath [im Zorn Eins wird], comprehends itself in this way: unchecked unification [Eineswerden] purifies itself through unchecked separation [Scheiden]. (“Anmerkungen zum Ödipus,” FHA 16.257)

14.        “The enormity” names a force-field of unsuspected magnitude with the capacity to bind and unbind, either uniting consciousness, language, and the perceived world together into substantial unities—or dispersing them. That capacity to conjoin such constituents as matter and spirit, the visible and the intellectual, the sensuous and the abstract into symbolic economies is truly an uncanny [Un-geheure] force—just as the capacity to disunite them.

15.        “Wrath” [Zorn], a significant and complex term in Hölderlin’s later poetry, connects violent figural process with violent emotion, fusing the body to “the Enormity,” to create the enormous suffering body of the tragic hero. Hölderlin’s Oedipus shares this impulse of the strength of wrath. As the human vehicle of this energy, Oedipus is driven mad, “enraged” in “the mad and frantic questing for a consciousness.” Driven by “wrathful curiosity” [zornige Neugier], the “knowledge-desire” [Wissen] of Oedipus “provokes itself to know more than it can bear or grasp” in the encounter with Teiresias; and, in the dialogue with Creon, “the true [. . .] Spirit suffers in wrathful unmeasure [im zornigen Unmass], which, in destruction-joy [zerstörungsfroh], only follows lacerating time [der reissenden Zeit nur folgt].” In this “wrathful reading” of oracle-texts, the hero literally “follows time” by rejecting and renouncing all meanings, in such a way that consciousness and self-identity cannot be consolidated—a failure that is, precisely, the spirit of tragedy, the spirit of (the) time.

16.        The stronger the sense of domination by “the positive” becomes, the more the category of the “spiritual” is opened—the “spiritual,” here as the flaring up of a desire that exceeds all available determinations or “forms” of representation. “Wrath,” then, signals the nonendingness of the process of disowning the signifier. Hölderlin’s Oedipus, possessed by “wrathful curiosity,” converts the intransigence of the Sophoclean hero into negative capability: whatever his character comes to know disintegrates before the raging desire to know; whatever articulation he hits upon as “the case” is the fleeting allegorical marker of something missed, something still to be signified. In this allegorizing language there are no cognitive increments, no creeping realizations, no deepening insights of consciousness—only the renewed process of renunciation. In this tragic split of desire and knowledge, the hero is sent into a “frantic questing after a consciousness” [das närrischwilde Nachsuchen nach einem Bewusstsein] (Große Stuttgarter Ausgabe 199). [6] 

17.        This quest of Hölderlin’s Oedipus seems much closer to separationist allegory than to consolidating symbol, but in fact cannot be determined purely in the mode of one or the other. On the one hand it is appropriate to align “wrathful reading” with a certain kind of allegory, in which not one or another fixed “level of meaning” is intended (e.g., reading Homer as Christian allegory), but a kind of enervated or “infuriated” allegory that suggests the endlessness of allegorical process and the permanent non-coinciding of signifier and signified which enables that process. Thus the hypercritical spirit (of Oedipus) keeps perceiving, “limitlessly” and in rage, a still unsignified excess of spirit. This is precisely what “Geistis, or at least the Geist of tragedy: a structure of opposition [Entgegen-setzung] and non-convergence between a readerly/writerly consciousness and those (oracle) texts which would “mirror” it; a consciousness which then only intensifies its self-scrutiny—awakens the responsibility for reading its texts with as many eyes as possible—to the degree it keeps failing to find itself formulated in them. Spirit is this excess—this “enormity” as the enormous difference between consciousness and language, played out in a frenetic allegory where vital-internal forces are permanently estranged from their external formulations. [7] 

18.        The god “Zeus” is historicized, uprooted from the classical ground, torn from its moorings and displaced by radical translation into another historical, cultural and linguistic space: Hellenic “Zeus” (a paternal figure) is rendered into a Germanic “Vater” who comes back to refigure the original—tearing it from its proper name, out of its extended symbolic body, and relocating it in the historico-linguistic field of allegory: “Father of Time.” If symbolic language refers to the mythopoetic capability of a language, its ability to deliver meanings that last, allegorical language denotes the regressive character within language that resists not so much meaning, as settled and definitive meaning, the stabilized truths of common reading. With origins in Babel rather than Thebes, the kind of allegory at issue here generates a historical language which follows the path of separation [Scheiden], its senses becoming dispersed, incessantly differentiated, non-translatable, embedded in the local and idiomatic, never arising above its materials, resisting totality. The symbolic (which aligns with “the mythic”) and allegorical (“the historical”) coexist as contrastive linguistic modes in any given text, but it makes a great difference whether one gives weight to the mythical or to the historical modes of a text. Hölderlin calls their conflict “the Enormity” [das Ungeheure] to denote that textual site, imagined by speculative criticism, where the centripetal forces of symbolic binding exist in violent equation alongside the centrifugal forces of allegorical unbinding. The spirit of tragedy dwells in this violence, dwells “in wrath” between them, as a monstrous mix of each. [8] 

19.        This is to say that the frantic pace of this allegory never completely undoes the symbol, never manages to escape its identity fixations—just as the symbol is set in motion, internally modified by, the allegory within it. Hölderlin’s “spirit” of tragedy is the amalgam of each. The Time-Spirit [Zeitgeist] of the moderns operates in the textual spaces in between allegory and symbol, becoming symbol in order to be allegory—and vice-versa. “Wrath,” the energizing force of “the enormity,” denotes the constant collapsing—or intertwining—of symbol and allegory. [9] 

20.        In the law of tragedy, what seems to be certain knowledge or secure identity—absolute unification—is the symptom of a deep violence, a deep gash of formation that the symbol cuts into the unconditioned. “Death” itself qualifies as a supreme instance of “unification,” in the Romantic sense of a unification with natural elements. A concise definition of symbol and allegory will help the exposition. “Whereas the symbol postulates the possibility of an identity or identification, allegory designates primarily a distance in relation to its own origin, and, renouncing the nostalgia and the desire to coincide, it establishes its language in the void of this temporal difference” (de Man 207). Recalling once again the formulation of tragic process in “the Notes”: “the enormity [. . .] comprehends itself in this way: unchecked unification [symbolic activity] purifies itself through unchecked separation [allegory].” Hölderlin’s wrathful spirit of tragedy shuttles back and forth between a momentary halting [“unification,” Eineswerden] and a transition away from that halt [“separation,” Scheidung] that ends in further determinations. While properly speaking both “unification” and “separation” are moments of inscription, in the former, sense coalesces into inscription, congeals into stasis, while “separation” refers to a movement away from inscription into dissolution; thus the “becoming unified” is the “possibility of an identity” (emphasis added) and the “separation” is “a distance in relation to its own origin.” As a “coupling” of human and divine, as the “union” of natural and human, “the enormity” qualifies as a symbolic identity; yet, as wrathful union, as “one in wrath,” Hölderlin’s symbol of “the enormity” is self-critical, always turned against itself as it keeps trying to keep open the original gap between signifier and signified that is always being collapsed in symbolic processes. Allegory can be itself—can be the movement away from identifications and lasting determinations—only by coming to a halt, postulating “identity” in momentary determinations, which then are to be left behind, cancelled out as its means to intensify its “search for a consciousness” and move on toward further allegorizations. Hölderlin had renounced the proper name “Zeus” because it was “too” symbolic, insufficiently temporary, not allegorical enough. But he had not completely renounced the charge of the symbol: god=father. Father “Zeus” remains a symbolic “father,” only now this father self-consciously fathers allegorical concepts: father of time, father of earth.


21.        A historico-philosophical axiom informs our subject matter: as the familiar story goes, there is a great historical divide between “us” (moderns) and “them” (ancients), a difference which the critical translation of the ancients keeps trying to reassert. Greek tragedy, with its specific representational mode, is no longer possible for postclassical historical thinking. Hölderlin had extolled “the clarity of the presentation,” the crystalline lucidity of representations in the Homeric epic, as the major Greek achievement, which we moderns have then inherited as our second-nature. In this perspective, clear and distinct perceptions may owe their existence mostly to recycled memory-citations; what seem to be our clearest empirical perceptions might owe their very sharpness and seeming “objectivity” to “positivity,” as the unbreakable habit that keeps repeating the same (already formulated) Greek senses, which only through custom and automatism have come to be known as “the truth,” the unique and best sense.

22.        Developing a notion derived from Winckelmann, Schiller, and others, Hölderlin postulates the fundamental mode of Greek tragedy to be a “naïve” one in which words are “actual and deadly” [das Tödlichfaktische, der wirkliche Mord aus Worten—“the actual death from words”] (“Anmerkungen zur Antigonä” in FHA 16.418). In this particular Greek orientation toward texts, “words” can have a direct contact with the material world; their rhetorical force to maim or kill, to drive mad, apotheosize or impart understanding may be remarked in the apocalyptic fictions of Greek tragedy, with its curses, its omens and shattering revelations.

23.        Thus in a letter Hölderlin could state that the Greeks had achieved a “sureness” in “the phenomenalization of concepts”; this production of an art world made of clear and certain senses constituted the “highest mode of the sign” (FHA 2.921). [10]  Born into a fiery glory of unconditioned energy and pure desire, they discovered how to channel wild natural forces into cultural signs, creating themselves through such marvels as civic law and religion, founding myths and curse words that actually worked. The eminently readable language of the Greeks could make real contact with the material world; their representational mode can touch “matériellement la vérité” (Mallarmé, cited in Benjamin IV.I.17); but such immediacy of word and world is no longer possible for us “moderns” or belated “Hesperians,” for whom the “naïve-visionary” language of the Greeks can only be an “aesthetic fallacy” or “artistic mistake” [Kunstfehler]. [11]  Over time, the original creations of the ancients lead us—their successors—down the path of increasing abstraction and lost definition, for their art forms could only be produced in the “naïve” climate of Greek representation now impossible for historically self-conscious modernity. While the Greek art of representation had created a world accessible to the senses, the belated moderns end up only mimicking the original (Greek) acts of phenomenalization. The moderns may try to “say the same,” yet there is no corresponding production of a sense-certain world. The vast, anterior “intertext” of tradition stands between the most proper part of the modern and the modern body; the very mark of the belated text is its ingrained failure to connect with materiality, but this failure to be Greek is also what gives belated, “Romantic” writing its potential to read the Greek text critically—to “translate” it. Hölderlin suggestively characterizes Romantic textual praxis as so many allegories of force, whereby cultural formations and discourses are always being (allegorically) “forced more resolutely back toward earth” (entschiedener zur Erde zwinget) by “our Zeus.” The dominant tendency [Haupttendenz] of Romantic writing is its incessant allegorical drive toward a greater phenomenality. This drive is the symptom of the moderns’ “weak point,” their inability “to meet with something” [etwas treffen zu können] (FHA 16.418). [12] 

24.        Yet no true writer should even want to imitate the Greeks, whose ancient mythico-symbolic mode of immediate perception would simply be an “artistic mistake” [Kunstfehler] for the self-reflexive modern. The marvelous correspondence and seamless fusion of word and body, of letter and name (transliteration), the coalescence of the corporeal and rhetorical exemplifies (for “us”) the violence of language as an unknown which comes back to “rip” into the body, a language whose violence springs from its very naiveté, its symbolic authority coming from its “excess of internality” [Übermass der Innigkeit]. [13]  The critical translation is to make history by displaying history: the latter is to appear in the way that the translation consistently tries—and fails—to reproduce the “deadly” Greek text, whose mythico-symbolic mode has the rhetorical force of literal meaning. Bad translation and bad literature have this in common: both repress historical differences in their pretence to be falsely “Greek.” Hölderlin’s translations would expose this attempt to be Greek, so making manifest the latent gravitation of the “belated” mode of representation toward “textuality.”

25.        Hölderlin’s translation works critically toward loosening the pre-set correspondence between names and bodies (physical or spiritual), trying to separate them, displace them into the mode of allegory. The genre of tragedy, famous for the way it aligns linguistically mediated knowledge with bodily or spiritual states, is the very place to display how far this attempt to drive a wedge between words and things, gods and names, original and translation may succeed, and what that success may signify.

26.        Surely one of the most important ruling ideas of Romantic and post-Romantic tradition is the notion of “belatedness” and the closely associated “positivity,” to name the entrapment of postclassical writers within those already elaborated (“positive”) forms of their classical inheritance. The belated ones (“Hesperians”) are doomed to live in worlds invented by those who came before, the “originals,” the ancients; thus inscribed within the text of antiquity, they may well be “without destiny” [Schicksallos]. [14]  “Positivity,” the inability to posit, denotes the crisis of the moderns as a kind of textual incarceration. Their history is monotony; no matter how hard they try to rewrite the past, they will always end up only projecting themselves into the same continuous and nonrevolutionary futures.

27.        Yet precisely this alienation from antiquity defines the wrathful “spirituality” of the Hesperians and their corresponding representational mode. As Hölderlin pointedly remarks, the Hesperian spirit is a “Begeisterung” [“inspiriting”], a signifying energy which flares up in the attempt to disown the past. But this desublimation and disinheritance of the ancients must be kept resolutely incomplete, for its closure would make the modern Zeitgeist “weak,” “without destiny,” dusmoron.


28.        The attempt to get to the bottom of the (Greek) symbol has been a remarkably “emotional” experience in European criticism. Hölderlin’s “wrath” is just one of many emotions of a critical tradition that has a stake in keeping open the gap between the letter and the spirit. The critique of “positivity” runs the gamut of critical emotions: “wrath” is an accelerated, infuriated, more antagonistic—yet less self-confident—version of the Schillerian “sentimental,” and can be linked, further, to a series of philosophemes of emotion in significant discourses of the last two centuries. “Rage” [Zorn] and “suspicion” [Ahnung] later take the more subdued form of Nietzschean ressentiment (bearing a grudge); Freud will attach the names of Lust and Unlust [pleasure and unpleasure], as their emotive concomitants, to the stabilization and destabilization of the instinct forces within the psychic economy; in another modulation, “wrath” is toned down into the less rabid but steadier Trauer [mourning] and melancholy which marks the modern tragic consciousness in the work of Walter Benjamin. [15]  In the above exhibits, the emotion philosophemes work critically to disrupt or interrupt direct expression, putting the customary or immediate meaning “on hold” in codes of feeling, until it can be discharged again—the “emotional criticism” reminding us not to accept the previous identifications so dispassionately as before. The coding of meaning in the language of emotions operates as a powerful revisionary thematics whose purpose is to awaken the reader’s awareness of the densely mediated nature of facts, truth, identities, and translations. In summary, Zorn is but one moment in a massive strategy—here organized under the rubric of the emotion-word—to save tradition from a conformity which keeps threatening to deaden it.

29.        To this list we may include other critical affects such as Kant’s “satisfaction” [Wohlgefallen], the telltale reminder that whatever appears to be unified in the judgment of beauty cannot ever qualify as a cognition, the spite [zlost’] of Dostoyevskii’s Underground Man, the jouissance of Hélène Cixous’ écriture feminine. All of these emotion-words serve to indicate that an unselfconscious, unmediated, or “naïve” aesthetic has been critically remarked and rigorously refused. In other words, these emotional words are the repositories of affective reaction against—or programmed liberation from—the positivity that haunts all representations. The subject always falls short of meaningful determinations; it lags behind the meanings it may give itself, or that are ascribed to it by hegemonic traditions. It is this sense of disjunction and displacement—this out-of-placeness—that such words as “sentimental,” “wrathful,” “resentful,” “mournful” are to mark. [16] 

30.        We return for the moment to Benjamin’s “mourning,” a twentieth-century reference point for tragic language. The radical allegory of Benjamin’s seventeenth-century Baroque tragedy, the play of mourning or Trauerspiel, keeps signifying that the sense cannot be fixed, with the result that the sense of engendering allegory itself (allegoresis) is signified. A given meaning always points to another meaning, as if to say: “It is not really, not entirely, this sense here which is meant, but another one, further down the signifying chain.” Or: “Perhaps it is this sense—but not the way it’s being read, now. In any case, the sense is not this, not here, not now—except for the sense of this allegorical signpost pointing elsewhere. In other words, the sense is ‘falling,’ moving elsewhere. So just keep reading.” The allegory in Benjamin’s Trauerspiel is sped up to the point where the allegorical sense truly seems to happen with vertiginous “fleetingness”: “As those who fall somersault as they fall, so the allegorical intention would fall prey to the vertigo [dem Schwindel] of its ungrounded depths [ihrer grundlosen Tiefe] [. . .]” (I.I.405). In both Baroque Trauerspiel, but even more so in the “baroque” translations of Greek tragedy (such as Hölderlin’s Sophocles), allegory occurs at allegro pace; its senses 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. [17]  Benjamin chooses Hölderlin as exemplar of the good translation because the distinctive feature of the latter’s translation style is its “fleetingness”—its provisionality, tentativeness, self-staging specificity, or idiosyncrasy as translative style.

31.        In tragedy, “the enormity [. . .] purifies itself.” Absolute self-purification could only be reached with the total erasure of all meaning—yet then there could be no movement “away,” no abjection of the tragic word. In the words of one writer, “interpretation is directed not so much at the meaning as towards reducing the non-meaning of the signifiers, so that we may rediscover the determinants of the subject’s entire behaviour” (Lacan 212). The wrathful translation reverses this and could be said to augment, thematically and tonally, the non-meaning of the signifier. “Fleetingness” points up the specific modality of a given translation—the fact that it takes the original and touches just a piece of it, making that fragmentation stand for the whole. In the wrathful translation, the classical roles of long-term suppression (of some transgression) and the sudden remembering of the same are inverted, making such lines as Oedipus’ momentous self-recognition “All too true!”—his anagnorisis at line 1182 (melodramatized, idealized, and possibly even knowingly ironized in Hölderlin’s rendition: “Das Ganze kommt genau heraus!” [“The Whole comes out exactly!”])—remind us of what has to be suddenly forgotten whenever clear understanding is to come.


32.        It stands to reason that the “purification” to be accomplished in translated tragedy should involve the connection of two extremes: the utterly sacred and the utterly profane, a God and a corpse, and the linkage between them that has to be asserted again and again as the connection between them—once “purified”—keeps vanishing. In keeping with the ancient institution of tragedy, the purification has a purely ritualistic aspect that exceeds any mere cognitive insight or thematic expression.

33.        The key passage (quoted above) on the self-purifying “enormity” from the “Notes to Oedipus” recurs in the “Notes to Antigone.” Comparing the two articulations, “the enormity” of the Oedipus turns into “the unmediated God” of Antigone, each coming to seize itself purely, to “purify” itself:

[. . .] the Enormity [das Ungeheure], as god and humankind couple it, and as, without limit, the force of the natural [die Naturmacht] and the most internal part of the human are one in wrath [im Zorn Eins wird], comprehends itself in this way: unchecked unification [Eineswerden] purifies itself through unchecked separation [Scheiden]. (“Notes to Oedipus”)

[. . .] the unmediated God, one with the human [. . .] [through] the infinite Inspiriting [Begeisterung] without limit—that is to say in oppositions [in Gegensazen], in consciousness, which consciousness cancels—purely separating itself, grasps itself, and the God is present in the figure of death [in der Gestalt des Todes]. (“Notes to Antigone”)
In these extreme compressions, “the enormity” or “the unmediated god” is to “grasp itself” through the scrutiny—the overview—of those processes by which identity is articulated, constantly made, undone, and revised. Critical readers will accede to such grasping only asymptotically, according to their own negative capabilities. The purifying insight comes from the tragic realization that all determinations are, at least to wrathful vision, absolutely equal. Alles ist Rede gegen Rede (FHA 16.257). In the symbolic mode of “unchecked unification” [das granzenlose Eineswerden] there can be (or seem to be) unquestioned points of contact, actual conjunctures of language and physical bodies; the allegorical mode of “unchecked separation” [granzenloses Scheiden] drives a wedge between the body and the word and tries to pass through the space it had seemed to open. The original connection is not so much severed as altered in a process that may be called “loosening,” which Hölderlin understood, in the “Notes to Oedipus,” as “the remembrance of the holy ones” [das Gedächtnis des Himmlischen].

34.        Here we may speak of a topos of evanescent sense that characterizes the wrath-driven language of tragedy—and translation of tragedy: this would be a metalanguage of signification that stages the production and destruction of determinations. The faster that process of making and unmaking sense on the stage of tragic language, the more “wrath” (“mourning,” ressentiment, jouissance, etc.) is generated as the aesthetic affect. Compared to original works, whose figurations are more durable, being more “symbolic”—less unraveled by the exegetical actions of allegory or translation—the antithetical, countering art of allegorical unraveling is self-referential in the way that it intimates that its institutions of meaning are already on their way to erasure. This is to say that the kind of translation at stake here knows itself as the continuous performance of the act of naming, and its “sense” is a metalanguage displaying its incessant acts of denominating. [18]  Whereas stationary translations (those not falling) are the semantic translations of meanings (e.g., Greek physis=English “nature”), “fleeting” translations (which are also stationary at other levels) impart an added sense of themselves as the performative simulation of translated meanings.

35.        Returning now to the passage from the “Notes to Antigone”: if “the God” can be said to appear anywhere in Antigone, it is in the rotting corpse of Polyneices, the most obvious thematic referent for the “figure of death.” For the “corpse” is the locus classicus of “the sacred” in this drama that works through the consequences of its central figural equation. The unburied body is a signifier for the holiness of the traditional laws that sanction burial and that, consequently, are so sure, so deeply embedded in social practice, that they cannot be countermanded by any merely temporal authority. They are fully outside of discourse, outside of all contestation—and thus “unwritten.” To allegorize this symbolic equation means, in the present argument, to “separate” [heilig sich scheidend] its terms, to show “primarily a distance” between what, in the original text, appears as a “unification” [Eineswerden]: corpse=sacred law. What would it mean to translate this god? To “purify” the connection between the corpse and it? To disarticulate—and to rearticulate—that connection from the vantage of “the infinite”?

36.        The equation is complex enough on its own terms. We recall that the Creon of Antigone issues an edict that forbids the burial of the slain traitor, Polyneices, whose corpse stands for the merely historical language of the king (Creon), his political edict that begins to rot the moment it is issued. But the corpse also stands for the necessity of sacred law that will overpower the edict and hide the rot. The law that hides the corpse must be absolutely decisive—sacrosanct—to the degree that the body is an unholy decay. In this play family ties, the blood bond of siblings, make common cause with the sacred laws; the family is as holy an institution as rotting corpses are an unholy decay. If the body were not rotting, not such “an outrage,” not famous, not royal, and had no family ties, the laws that demanded its burial might begin to look less transcendent, less purely “religious” and more a merely hygienic or cosmetic expedient. If one in full-blown amnesia could discover the body, the latter could appear as “purified” in the sense required—it would appear, that is, as a separate thing, on its own and outside of any cultural ties, in those few moments before the natural aversion to corpses takes hold, causing even the amnesiac (who never quite forgets everything) to withdraw. Allegorical process—the “purification” mentioned in Hölderlin’s commentary—strives to reach that separate thing as it would present itself in amnesia, yet in the full-blown consciousness of the impossibility of ever completely forgetting. Hölderlin had posited the particular spirituality of the Hesperians to be the Deus absconditus; their “God” can only manifest itself “in the form of death,” in, that is, figures of spirit absented from itself. “Purification” entails a “deformation” in the sense of an emptying out of existential contents that leaves behind the desanctified and abstract vessels of signification.

37.        The primary symbolization driving the equation “dead body”=“the sacred” is, of course, that between nature (body) and culture (laws): the rotting body literalizes natural process, a tremendous power, an “enormity,” which then gets channeled into the cultural law (which needs visible embodiment) through the symbolic linkage. “Nature” flows into “culture,” and the law grows more numinous as the body rots. But the task of allegorization is separation, “a distance in relation to its origin”—where “origin” may be one of either terms, the body or the sacred law. As postulated, the task of translation involves bringing to light the (concealed) palimpsests which invisibly hold together what appear to be the clear, certain senses of Greek tragedy, in a demonstration in which even those palimpsests have been destabilized and are “falling” into a dispersal of mediations. If, for example, tragic horror could translate, as if by magic, abstract mental contents into immediate representations of the horrible—a rotting corpse representing the “unwritten laws” of tradition (Antigone), or the notion that one’s wife is really one’s mother—this ancient translation is to be encountered in a critical movement of dispersion that can never quite dissolve the original linkage, but that can gain a deeper awareness of its constructed nature as pre-analytically given norm—of its being a symbolization, a product of repeated mediations rather than an occurrence that occurs by itself and without discursive mediation.

38.        Still, could one possibly separate out the body from that nexus of claims (of family, of the state, of religious tradition) made upon it? Would this entail seeing the body as a merely biological event or “thing”? Even this would be to allegorize it otherwise, but the reallegorization would still qualify as a “separation” of the original terms. Or, inversely, what would happen to the sacred law of burial if the power of nature, the corpse-power (“die Naturmacht,” in Hölderlin’s terms), were siphoned away from it? It would look more like a mere artifice of culture sanctioned only by convention. Antigone would then be a play about conflicting but equally justified political positions (cf. Hegel’s reading of Antigone as a tragic conflict of “individual rights” versus “state rights”) rather than, as traditionally and classically, a play about the fatal hiatus between the politico-cultural order and the raw, sovereign power of deity, which cannot be signified, named, or assigned—or, rather, can be, when the signifier is a corpse: when “the God” [der Gott] may appear “in the form of death” [in der Gestalt des Todes], as the “Notes to Antigone” put it (FHA 16.417).


39.        [In the first part of section five, McCall proceeds with an illustration of his argument through a somewhat revised version of his reading of Antigone from “The Case of the Missing Body” and concludes with the following paragraphs, which also close the essay as a whole.]

40.         [T]he “wrathful translation” foregrounds what remains hidden in most other translations, whose voice—its principle of continuity—is muted; in Hölderlin’s, it is notable, remarkable, singular. Hölderlin translates the Greek, but translates it into the hymnic vocality of Hölderlin. By foregrounding their own voice, his vociferations put on display their principle of translational continuity, making one mindful that all translations employ specific principles of unification. One may read the rhetorical forcefulness of his hymnic-oracular style as a signifier for the singularity of a style; that style renders the original, but the style is one of many possible, a contingent mode of unification that is taken for granted in such common texts as newspapers and translations. “Wrath” is a reaction to the fallacy of the natural style, the one that usually goes unnoticed. The “wrathful” translation imparts a sense of the contingency of styles that render.

41.        The legendary “faithfulness” ascribed to a given translation always depends—at some level of scrutiny—upon a ritual burial of the original. All translations “repeat” the original—or, more precisely, they claim to represent it. Without self-justification, they pass off their own substitutive proposals as the “original” or anterior meaning. The notion of “passing,” passing as a member of another race or gender—or a body passing for buried—is appropriate here, where one thing is accepted as something else through a deception at once dramatic and transgressive.

42.        The farther one pushes the common notion that meaning gets “lost in translation,” the more translation looks to be not so much the repetition of the original than a textual performance that simulates such a repetition through careful scholarship and crafty composition. A language is an integral unity, its formal and semantic registers so closely bound together that the original sense cannot be transferred and repeated in another language without always being fragmented and displaced into other “senses,” with their own translative refigurations and realignments of sense. But that genre called translation works as a powerful textual charm in which the idea of simulation (not the same as repetition) is played down; if it were not, the text would begin to look arbitrary (more like just another original), as if it were merely fabricating meanings instead of translating them. Whatever is inscribed on the seductive pages of “translation” is instantaneously granted the meaningfulness and status of “translation”; even the most woefully inept attempt to render a foreign text may be a “bad” translation, but it is still a translation. From this angle, translations are the performatives of translation, that discourse which acts as if it were “saying the same”—which it does, but through a complex pantomime. Translations are paintings often mistaken for mirrors.

Work Cited

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

Aeschylus. Aeschylus I: Oresteia. Trans. Richmond Lattimore. Eds. David Greene and Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953. Print.

Bartsche, Kurt. Die Hölderlin-Rezeption im deutschen Expressionismus. Frankfurt: Akademische Verlagsgellschaft, 1974. Print.

Bataille, Georges. Eroticism: Death and Sensuality. Trans. Mary Dalwood. New York: City Lights Books, 1986. Print.

Beaufret, Jean. Hölderlin et Sophocle. Brionne: Gérard Monfort, 1983. Print.

Beissner, Friedrich. Hölderlins Übersetzungen aus dem Griechischen. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1933. 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.

Berman, Antoine. L’Epreuve de L’Etranger: Culture et Traduction dans L’Allemagne romantique: Herder, Goethe, Schlegel, Novalis, Humboldt, Schleiermacher, Hölderlin. Paris: Gallimard, 1984. Print.

Binder, Wolfgang. “Hölderlin und Sophokles,” Hölderlin-Jahrbuch 16 (1969-70): 19-37. Print.

Böschenstein, Bernhard. “Gott und Mensch in den Chorliedern der Hölderlinschen Antigonä.” Jamme 123-38.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Lay Sermons.” The Oxford Authors: Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Ed. H. J. Jackson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985. Print.

De Man, Paul. “The Rhetoric of Temporality.” Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983. Print.

Düsing, Klaus. “Die Theorie der Tragödie bei Hölderlin und Hegel.” Jamme 55-82.

Hölderlin, Friedrich. Friedrich Hölderlin: Essays and Letters on Theory. Trans. and ed. Thomas Pfau. Albany: SUNY Press, 1988. Print.

---. Friedrich Hölderlin: Sämtliche Werke und Briefe. Vols 1 and 2. Ed. Michael Knaupp. München: Hanser, 1992. Print.

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

---. Sämtliche Werke: Frankfurter Ausgabe. 20 vols. Ed. Michael Franz, Michael Knaupp, and D. E. Sattler. Basel: Strömfeld/Roter Stern, 1975-2008. Print.

---. Sämtliche Werke. Große Stuttgarter Ausgabe. Ed. Friedrich Beissner. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1943-1984. Print.

Jamme, Christoph and Otto Pöggeler, eds. Jenseits des Idealismus: Hölderlins letzte Homburger Jahre (1804-6). Bonn: Bouvier, 1988. Print.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror. Trans. Leon Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982. Print.

Kurz, Gerhard. “Zur Hölderlins Anmerkungen.” Jamme 83-102.

Lacan, Jacques. “The Subject and the Other: Alienation.” The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1981. 203-15. Print.

Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe and Jean-Luc Nancy. The Literary Absolute. Trans. Philip Barnard and Cheryl Lester. Albany: SUNY, 1988. Print.

Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe. “The Caesura of the Speculative.” Glyph 4 (1978): 57-85. Print.

Lukács, Georg. The Theory of the Novel: A Historico-philosophical Essay on the Forms of Great Epic Literature. Trans. Anna Bostock. Cambridge: MIT, 1971. Print.

McCall, Marsh. “Divine and Human Action in Sophocles: the two burials of Antigone.” Yale Classical Studies 22 (1972): 103-118. Print.

McCall, Tom. “Oedipus Contemporaneous.” Diacritics 25.4 (1995): 2-19. Print.

Reinhardt, Karl. “Hölderlin und Sophokles.” Hölderlin. Beiträge zu seinem Verständnis in unserem Jahrhundert. Ed. Alfred Kelletat. Tübingen: Mohr, 1961. 287-303. Print.

Ryan, Lawrence. “Hölderlins Antigonä: ‘wie es vom griechischen zum herperischen gehet’.” Jamme 103-139.

Schadewaldt, Wolfgang. Griechisches Theater: Aischylos, Sophokles, Aristophanes, Menander. Frankfurt: Insel, 1983. Print.

---. “Hölderlins Übersetzung des Sophokles.” Hellas und Hesperien: Gesammelte Schriften zur Antike und zur neueren Literatur 2. Zurich: Artemis, 1970. 275-332. Print.

Schmidt, Jochen. “Tragödie und Tragödientheorie. Hölderlins Sophokles-Deutung.” Hölderlin-Jahrbuch 29 (1994-95): 64-82. Print.

Sophocles. Sophocles II: Ajax, The Women of Trachis, Electra, and Philoctetes. Eds. David Greene and Richmond Lattimore. Ajax trans. John Moore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957. Print.


[1] Wir müssen die Mythe nemlich überall beweisbarer darstellen.” Except for this translation, which is from Pfau’s collection, all translations from the “Notes” are mine. Sämtliche Werke: Frankfurter Ausgabe will hereafter be abbreviated FHA. BACK

[2] See Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy 27-37. BACK

[3] It should be noted that the issue goes well beyond economies of “suffering” translated into “learning,” as in the Aeschylean pathos mathos formula; goes beyond such moral axioms as “the doer suffers” [δράσαντι παθεῖν] (Libation Bearers l. 313). Such maxims as “suffering is learning” are made possible by a superstructural complex encompassing a range of personal, public, and business practices, customs, responsibilities—together with the pleasures and displeasures, privileges or penalties, honor and shame that society metes out to support the status quo. By the “self-contained symbolic cosmos” above we mean the ancient Athenian socio-political life-world that binds individuals into specific networks of reciprocal relations (such as “helping friends and harming enemies”) to form the hierarchical relations of power, within the interlocking spheres of family and polis, between men and women, mortals and gods, parents and children, subjects and rulers. BACK

[4] In another context Julia Kristeva catches this mise-en-abîme in the following citation (emphasis mine):

In a world in which the Other has collapsed, the aesthetic task—a descent into the foundations of the symbolic construct—amounts to retracing the fragile limits of the speaking being, closest to its dawn, to the bottomless ‘primacy’ constituted by primal regression. Through that experience [. . .] ‘subject’ and ‘object’ push each other away, confront each other, collapse, and start again—inseparable, contaminated, condemned, at the boundary of what is assimilable, thinkable: abject. Great modern literature unfolds over that terrain. (18)
In his essay on translation, Walter Benjamin speaks of the meaning in Hölderlin’s Sophocles translations as “falling from abyss to abyss,” falling into the “groundless depths of language” [bodenlosen Sprachtiefen] (4.1.21). Tragedy, translation, and psychoanalysis are alike in that they never quite “get to the bottom of” their respective subject which tend to recede—or dissolve—before their respective critiques. See my “Oedipus Contemporaneous.” BACK

[5] See, for instance, Aeschylus Agamemnon l. 160-2: “Zeus: whatever he may be, if this name/ pleases him in invocation/ thus I call him [. . .].” For a few instances of an internal activity ascribed to an external Zeus, see Aeschylus, Suppliants l. 86-7: “May his will, if it’s Zeus’s, be well,/ His will not easily traced”; Suppliants l. 1057: “How am I to see through the mind a Zeus, an abyssal sight [opsin abusson],” my translation. BACK

[6] This quest is ended in a remarkable way. This is when, as the “Notes to Oedipus” explain it, “the spirit” of Oedipus “is conquered by the simple brute speech of his servant” (i.e., the “shepherd of Laius”). A revolutionary political motif—the complete inversion of authority, where now it is the servant who gives the law—is interpolated into the raging stream of negations, bringing closure but not bestowing consciousness. BACK

[7] The notion of “opposition”—the oppositionality of articulations, “thesis” and “antithesis”—has a particular significance in German Idealism. As Klaus Düsing notes, Hegel and Hölderlin were at one time (1801 Jena) quite close in their understanding of binary opposition itself as the structural signifier of an irremediable excess not subject to dialectical sublation, such as the presence of the infinite in the finite consciousness. Hegel will later make that difference be the drive-spring into higher unity. See “Die Theorie der Tragödie bei Hölderlin und Hegel,” 59. BACK

[8] Compared to the numerous critical writings on Hölderlin’s poetic corpus, relatively few have been devoted to the poet’s Sophocles translations. To list a few of the latter: Friedrich Beißner, Hölderlins Übersetzungen aus dem Griechischen; Wolfgang Schadewaldt, “Hölderlins Übersetzung des Sophokles”; Karl Reinhardt, “Hölderlin und Sophokles”; Wolfgang Binder, “Hölderlin und Sophokles”; Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, “The Caesura of the Speculative”; Jean Beaufret, Hölderlin et Sophocle; Antoine Berman, L’Epreuve de L’Etranger: Culture et Traduction dans L’Allemagne Romantique; Gerhard Kurz, “Zur Hölderlins Anmerkungen”; Lawrence Ryan, "Hölderlin's Antigonä”; Bernhard Böschenstein, “Gott und Mensch in den Chorliedern der Hölderlinschen Antigonä”; Jochen Schmidt, “Tragödie und Tragödientheorie. Hölderlins Sophokles-Deutung.” BACK

[9] Whereas allegory foregrounds the process of symbolization, the connecting of disparate items into figural equations, the symbol conceals that process, for there the connections appear, by definition, to be “natural,” automatic or self-generating: the symbolic linking of “wind” to “spirit,” for example, or to “breath” or “inspiration” occurs almost seamlessly and seems to “partake of the reality which it renders intelligible” (Coleridge 661). Allegory, which tries to take nothing for granted, links its terms more self-consciously; it would just as well link “wind” to something unnatural (“bed”) or abstract (“love”) as to something “natural.” BACK

[10] See the letter to Böhlendorff of November 1802: “The view of antiquity has given me an impression, which makes not only the Greeks more comprehensible to me, but also the highest in art [das Höchste der Kunst]—art, which even in the highest movement and phenomenalization of concepts [Phänomenalisierung der Begriffe], and everything seriously intended, even in these cases everything stays and maintains itself, so that the sureness in this sense is the highest mode of the sign [die höchste Art des Zeichens].” BACK

[11] See Hölderlin’s letter of 28 September 1803 to Friedrich Wilmans, the publisher of the Sophocles translations: “I hope to present Greek art—which is strange to us due to its national customs and mistakes [Fehler]—in a more lively manner to the public, that I accentuate the oriental, which that art denied, and correct their artistic mistake [Kunstfehler], where it occurs” (FHA 2.925). The “oriental” is that aspect of Greek “sobriety” or “representational clarity” which had to be rhetorically suppressed, or taken for granted, as the price to pay for its lucid forcefulness. BACK

[12] Hölderlin’s speculative reading of the “ancients”/”moderns” topos suggests a way to reframe some of the significant projects of Anglo-European Romanticism. Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality and Wordsworth’s “Preface to the Second Edition of the Lyrical Ballads,” for instance, bemoan the loss of sense in the creeping abstractness of cultural productions; their own projects rise up to meet this loss, whether (in Rousseau’s case) to remind us of the ever-widening “distance between the mere sensation and the most simple knowledge” of an object or (in Wordsworth’s case) to justify a poetic diction that would be the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” BACK

[13] “Grund zum Empedokles,” in FHA 1.871. Anticipating the Benjaminian notion of abyssal immanence in The Origin of the German Tragic Drama, Hölderlin associates tragedy with “the deepest interiority.” In Benjamin, allegoresis, working from within the symbolic nexus, attempts to spin out of such immanence; it tries but ultimately fails, leaving in its wake the debris of citations, which serve to generate tragic affect in the form of melancholia. In other words, the unassimilated “citationality” is put in the service of an aesthetics of the modern “untragedy” of Trauerspiel. BACK

[14] The historical-cultural problem of orientation is explicitly linked to “positivity” in the “Commentary to Antigone”: “[. . .] since the Fate-less, the dusmoron, is our weak point” (FHA 16.418). BACK

[15] Das Traurige fühlt sich so durch und durch erkannt vom Erkennbaren. Benannt zu sein [. . .] bleibt vielleicht immer eine Ahnung von Trauer. Wie viel mehr aber, nich benannt, sondern nur gelesen, unsicher durch den Allegoriker gelesen” (Benjamin 1.398). BACK

[16] Could we look for a comparative dynamic of speed in these emotional words of criticism? Could we rank the speed with which subjects are ripped out of language as meaning-laden discourse and thrown into language as sheer velocity? For example: Schiller’s category of “the sentimental” and Nietzsche’s ressentiment appear to be subdued, slower forms of Hölderlin’s more infuriated “wrath” or Zorn; while Benjamin’s melancholic genius of Baroque Trauerspiel—caught in the frenetic activity of incessant allegorization—could be said to reject meanings nearly as vigorously as Hölderlin’s Oedipus. “To be named,” says Benjamin, “is to have the premonition of melancholy. But how much more if not named but only read—and read with uncertainty, through the allegorist.” BACK

[17] Compare Georg Lukacs’ The Theory of the Novel, where the novelist is a writer of epic, thrown into temporality by belatedness. The novelist tries to achieve the “relationship to totality” that could be achieved in the classical epic: the novel “approximates as closely as possible” the “organic” (i.e., the continuous and “natural” epic, where meaning and form exist in the closure of a symbiotic relation), but that approximation “is nevertheless not a true-born organic relationship, but a conceptual one which is abolished again and again” (76). BACK

[18] The theoretical prose fragment “Becoming in Dissolution” [“Werden im Vergehen”; also titled “das untergehende Vaterland”] thematizes this generation-degeneration of sense motif, finding the latter to be the hallmark of tragic language especially: “the original part of every authentically tragic language” is its “ever creative” part [das immerwährendschöpfrische] (Sämtliche Werke und Briefe 2.73). BACK

Published @ RC

October 2014