Two Studies of Friedrich Hölderlin
Werner Hamacher, Edited by Peter Fenves and Julia Ng, Translated by Julia Ng and Anthony Curtis Adler



Versing, Ending: Hölderlin in 1971

est-ce commencer par la fin?


tósō ónoma bíos, érgon dè thánatos


A book is a totality that begins with an author—it closes, however, not with the end of the book as the conception of the author but with the death of death. This was the thesis of a short article composed around January 1968 and later published under the title “Culture et écriture: la prolifération des livres et la fin du livre” (Culture and writing: the proliferation of books and the end of the book) in the journal Noroit, in which Jacques Derrida sought to apply some of the insights from his recently published work, Of Grammatology, to a question opened up by contemporary information science: what becomes of death after the closure of the Book of Life?1 Prompted in part by the discovery that life writes itself, as it were, in cell DNA and in cybernetic programs, at a scale impossible to comprehend for any given individual, Derrida wonders whether the exhaustion of the idea of a divinely authored nature implies that our capacity to bring things to an end has also exhausted itself. Perhaps the very concept of ending must come to an end and with it end the notion that the end of presence is the end of life as such; never before, Derrida writes, has it been more apparent that systems organized around presence, and around “alphabetic” cultures, behave as modes of domination and exclusion aimed at all that is deemed “analphabetic”—not just the masses of humankind who have no access to literacy but also those whose languages fall outside of “phonetic” systems. In Of Grammatology, Derrida identifies logocentrism as an ethnocentrism organized around the metaphysics of phonocentrism; in “Culture and Writing” he describes how phonocentrism, like a book, presumes a temporal and linear totality of spoken discourse such that, insofar as it expects to be read and understood as the reflection of the living word of a living author, it also presupposes an adequation or homoisis of present reality and represented reality, of the thing in itself and the thought of the thing.2 In Of Grammatology, attention to the graphic, hieroglyphic supplements to signification present a challenge to this model. In “Culture and Writing,” this challenge is presented by l’outre-livre, the Mallarméan idea that the book should have its leaves unbound and emerge, in each séance of their rearrangement and reading, as a book anew. The outre-livre is, in the words of Mallarmé, an “Orphic explication of the earth.”3 Its rhythm, impersonal and therefore living, is a trace of interruption from within the philosophical, logical, theological domination that perpetuates itself through forms of reproduction or inheritance held together in the name of the father. In other words, the end of the Book reveals another end of the book, one that discloses from a non-presentist, non-expressive place the possibility still of bringing things to an end.

A version of this thesis—that the end of the book is the death of patronymity—was also the topic of a guest session Derrida led in the summer semester of 1968 at the Department for General and Comparative Literary Studies (Seminar für Allgemeine und Vergleichende Literaturwissenschaft, AVL), founded three years earlier by Peter Szondi at the Freie Universität Berlin. The department had been conceived with an expressly anti-nationalistic intention against a background of what some would remember as shame at the role played by German philology under fascism, which Germanistik had yet to fully, or indeed even begin to, work through by the mid-1960s.4 Unlike his counterparts in Germanistik, Szondi had a network that consisted mainly of exiled scholars who were outside Germany and had access to other traditions of literary criticism and theory, in particular comparative literary studies at Yale and the aesthetic theory of the Frankfurt School. His research seminar reflected this international orientation, frequently hosting guest lecturers from the United States, France, and Switzerland. Those who attended remembered it as a space for theoretical experimentation unencumbered by the territoriality and hierarchy they saw as typical of national literatures. Derrida’s aforementioned visit to the department, his first, took place in early July of 1968 and was devoted to “the end of the book” and related themes in Mallarmé; he returned a year later, in the summer of 1969, to lead a colloquium on the topic of “the concept of mimesis in two passages from Plato’s Philebus and Mallarmé’s Mimique.” These visits to AVL were, in effect, the introduction of Derrida and poststructuralist theory to Germany and German-language literary studies.5

Szondi’s project of pushing the boundaries of what was deemed acceptable for literary studies appealed to students and younger colleagues who were interested in the work of contemporary French philosophers, particularly Derrida. One of these students was Werner Hamacher, who had entered the department in 1967.6 It was here that Hamacher composed his first extended scholarly work, initially entitled “Bild und Zeichen in der späten Lyrik Hölderlins” (Image and sign in Hölderlin’s late lyric poetry), which he submitted to the Freie Universität Berlin as his master’s thesis in December 1971. Hamacher’s choice of topic may have reflected his expectation that its evaluator or even its supervisor would be Szondi, who had recently published Hölderlin-Studien.7 But above all, in 1971, Hölderlin was perhaps the most fitting topic for anyone to have selected who thought at all about hastening the death of patronymity from its interior. The revival of interest in Hölderlin, which had begun half a century earlier with Norbert von Hellingrath’s establishment of the first historical-critical edition of his works and his discovery of the then unpublished and unknown poetry from Hölderlin’s “late” period, had been accompanied from the outset by the admonition that these hymns and fragments, far from being the products of an unwell mind, in fact contained the most significant of his technical and conceptual achievements—that is, if one possessed the key to their intelligibility. In a lecture that he gave in Munich in 1915, a year before his death at Verdun, Hellingrath specified where this key was kept: it was an “innermost ember” embedded in the “deepest” level of the “German essence.” Hölderlin, whom Hellingrath described as “the most German of Germans,” produced hymns whose hidden message was entrusted “only to a select few,” would only “come to the light of day in a secret Germany,” and was destined to remain “perhaps never penetrable by non-Germans.”8

The extent to which this George-School paradigm of Hölderlin as the “pure” poet, to whose will and mystery acolytes surrendered themselves, persisted even after the two world wars can be measured by the furor that ensued following Pierre Bertaux’s address to the annual meeting of the Hölderlin Society in 1968, convened on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of Hölderlin’s death. In his lecture on “Hölderlin and the French Revolution,” Bertaux not only advanced the thesis “that Hölderlin, in his heart of hearts, was and always remained an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution and a Jacobin”—a point that was, in itself and as Bertaux himself admits, uncontroversial, having been made by various scholars before him and being evident from Hölderlin’s correspondence.9 Bertaux, a professor at the Nouvelle Sorbonne who had once been told that no Frenchman could hope to comprehend Hölderlin, started out by addressing his audience of listeners in Düsseldorf, who themselves had spent lifetimes studying Hölderlin, with an inversion of Hellingrath’s dictum: it was not the Germans who held the key to understanding “the most German of German poets” but the French. “What can a German understand of Hölderlin,” he asked, if Germans “lacked the one prerequisite” for doing so, namely a “visceral familiarity with the history of the French Revolution and with the revolutionary pathos that the French possess”?10 The address, which immediately provoked heated discussions during and after the conference and captured the attention of the press for a long while afterwards, was a self-conscious parallel action to the efforts made by the May 1968 student movement in Germany to seek in Hölderlin a legitimizing standard-bearer for their own struggle against the reactionary forces of capitalism. For those looking to Hölderlin for an exemplary revolutionary hero, both his “poetry” and his “madness” were, as manifestations of the disequilibrium between thought and action, encoded modes of resistance that immediately translated poetics into praxis.

Similarly, Bertaux argued, one finds the intention for such a translation in the opening lines of “Stimme des Volkes” (Voice of the people). In the verses “The voice of God I called you and believed you once, / In holy youth; and still I say it!” (StA 2: 51; PF, 239, mod.), the “you,” according to Bertaux, evidently refers to the “voice of the people,” which the poet immediately identifies with the “voice of God” in an expression of enthusiasm that would only have been shared by the Jacobins and for the new republican ideas of freedom, equality, and fraternity.11 The simplicity of this expression, so Bertaux, only enhances the sense that Hölderlin was by temperament “freely born,” the “arcadian” and “archaic” character of his ideal an indication that he, like all successors of Rousseau, was “internally ready for action, and was just never presented with the right opportunity.”12 Citing Hellingrath on the inseparability of Hölderlin’s life and works—for Hölderlin, there was but one world, in which “poetry is reflection . . . , a mirror image of the times and of the nature of things”—Bertaux interpreted various excerpts from the poetry in toto as a manifesto of Hölderlin’s political convictions and hopes for a Swabian republic circa 1799.13 Correspondingly, Bertaux took the existence of a “late” period of Hölderlin’s poetry not as evidence of a psychopathological breakdown but as a reaction to the “turning point” of 16 March 1799, when General Jean-Baptiste Jourdan declared that the French Revolutionary Army would quell rather than support the republican insurgency then brewing in Swabia. From this point on, Hölderlin turned towards articulating a new lyrical form that corresponded with his sense of living under enemy rule; the lyrical-mythical characteristic of his “late” poetry became the form in which the poet felt he could encode and conceal his political message and preserve it for future generations—or for the secret friend in possession of the interpretive key, Isaac von Sinclair. Later, in his 1978 biography, Bertaux would go as far as to argue that Hölderlin feigned insanity in order to escape arrest for his alleged involvement in the Sinclair plot.14

Bertaux’s inadvertent restaging of the aesthetic ideology of the “secret Germany” of the 1910s inspired a brief but significant episode of left-wing popularization that unsettled the monopoly that the “establishment”—or, more precisely, the Hölderlin Society—had held over Hölderlin reception since its founding under “Reichsminister Dr. Goebbels” in 1943.15 This was nowhere more apparent than during the celebrations of Hölderlin’s two-hundredth birthday two years later, in 1970, when Hölderlin seemed to fully reemerge as the “leader” of the people, albeit a people that vocalized its discontent with the “reactionary falsification” of Hölderlin at the hands of the Hölderlin Society and its National Socialist remainders in ways that were ever more direct, both within and beyond the confines of the society.16 The publication of Bertaux’s talk in the Hölderlin-Jahrbuch and, in extended book form, with Suhrkamp in 1969 had paved the way for open debates on Hölderlin’s politics; as the summary of the discussion published in the 1967/68 volume of the Jahrbuch already attested, it was time for “Hölderlin interpretation and therefore the Hölderlin Society’s self-understanding [to] enter a critical phase requiring methodical reflection.”17 Bernhard Böschenstein, who had written his dissertation on the “Rhine” hymn (whose apostrophe to Sinclair Bertaux had interpreted as evidence of a surreptitious call to arms18) and who by 1967 had become one of the editors of the Hölderlin-Jahrbuch, noted that after the shock delivered by Bertaux’s address, “it has become necessary for German Hölderlin research to recall its failures, the correction of which would fall upon the shoulders of younger generations.”19 And in 1970, it was a young Martin Walser, who had studied under Friedrich Beissner and had communist inclinations at the time, who delivered the keynote, which was eventually published under the title “Hölderlin zu entsprechen” (Corresponding to Hölderlin). Distancing himself somewhat from Bertaux’s polemical shorthand, Walser was careful to cast Hölderlin as a mediator, “singing, on the side of the revolution, no doubt, but singing.”20 Nevertheless, he thereby also recast Hölderlin as a future-oriented thinker in a time of stagnation, whose role it was to mediate, by way of “harmonic opposition” [harmonische Entgegensetzung],21 the presence of an alternative precisely where opposite parties caught up in a stalemate had brought the historical process itself to an end.22

Walser’s lecture closed on the notion that, for Hölderlin, it is anathema to hold that mastering a goal is synonymous with arriving at the end of history; he pointed out, referring to a verse from Hölderlin’s “Celebration of Peace,” that instead history moves in the direction of a “now [where] / Dominion [is] nowhere to be seen among spirits or mortals”23 (PF 525). Certainly, neither spirits nor mortals could have been said to hold dominion over the other the day before Walser’s address, when, on March 20 1970, a group calling itself the “secret tübingen jacobin club” gathered at Hölderlin’s grave site for a parallel commemoration of his birth. Attired in red Jacobin caps with tricolor cockades, the participants laid a wreath made of barbed wire on the grave, dedicating it “to the suppressed revolutionary.” Displayed across a banner was a quote from “Empedocles”: “You can’t be helped / If you won’t help yourselves.”24 Speeches were delivered calling for the “liberation” of Hölderlin from the “claws of the reactionaries” and drawing parallels between Hölderlin and Marx. In the wake of these two events—Walser’s address and the graveside action—that both, to varying degrees, defied the “establishment,” Hölderlin also emerged as a figure in public life; in the months that followed, the Deutsche Akademie der Wissenschaft, the Deutsche Akademie der Künste, the Deutsches Nationaltheater in Weimar, and the Schiller-Nationalmuseum in Marbach all convened events at which Hölderlin’s “anticipatory capacity” for the “overcoming of the theory-praxis relation through art” was proclaimed, by and on behalf of not only scholars but also poets and cultural functionaries.25 By 1971, “Hölderlin” was thus well on his way to becoming a pop-cultural, albeit short-lived, icon of the post-68 generation; beyond that, Hölderlin’s model of “harmonic opposition,” hitherto regarded purely as the organizational foundation for his poetology, now redefined his poetry as the horizon for thinking, and mediating, the advent of another state.


1. See Jacques Derrida, “Culture et écriture: la prolifération des livres et la fin du livre,” Noroit 130 (1968): 5–12.

2. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Spivak (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 3.

3. Derrida, “Culture et écriture,” 11.

4. Gert Mattenklott, in a speech delivered on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Szondi Institute; cited by Irene Albers in her foreword to Nach Szondi: Allgemeine und vergleichende Literaturwissenschaft an der freien Universität Berlin, 1965–2015, ed. Irene Albers (Berlin: Kadmos, 2016), 9.

5. See Samuel Weber and Irene Albers, “Screen Memories,” 299–309; the sequence of letters between Weber, Derrida, and Szondi, 44–50; Sima Reinisch’s summary “Derrida in Dahlem,” 51–53; and the “Chronik,” 451–519; all in Albers, ed., Nach Szondi.

6. For this and other biographical details I am grateful to the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach, which houses Hamacher’s literary estate, for making available Hamacher’s “Curriculum Vitae” from March 12, 1990, and to Dr. Robert Zwarg for supplying us with a facsimile.

7. Peter Szondi, Hölderlin-Studien. Mit einem Traktat über philologische Erkenntnis (Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag, 1967). Republished in Szondi, Schriften II (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1978), 263–412.

8. Norbert von Hellingrath, “Hölderlin und die Deutschen,” in Hölderlin: Zwei Vorträge (Munich: Bruckmann, 1921), 17 and 21.

9. Pierre Bertaux, “Hölderlin und die französische Revolution,” Hölderlin-Jahrbuch 15 (1967/68): 1–27; 2.

10. Bertaux, “Hölderlin,” 1.

11. Bertaux, “Hölderlin,” 7.

12. Bertaux, “Hölderlin,” 9.

13. Bertaux, “Hölderlin,” 13.

14. Pierre Bertaux, Friedrich Hölderlin: Eine Biographie (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1978).

15. For this point and many of the other historical details in the previous two paragraphs, I was fortunate to rely on Robert Savage’s illuminating epilogue to his book Hölderlin after the Catastrophe: Heidegger, Adorno, Brecht (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2008), 194–214.

16. Günter Mieth, “Ein Rückblick auf öffentliche Hölderlin-Ehrungen 1970,” in Mieth, Friedrich Hölderlin: Zeit und Schicksal. Vorträge 1962–2006 (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2007), 216–26; 220.

17. Renate Böschenstein-Schäfer, “Bericht über die Diskussion,” Hölderlin-Jahrbuch 15 (1967/68): 318.

18. Bertaux, “Hölderlin,” 26.

19. Böschenstein-Schäfer, “Bericht,” 319.

20. Martin Walser, “Hölderlin zu entsprechen,” Hölderlin-Jahrbuch 16 (1969/70): 6.

21. Hölderlin, “On the Procedure of the Poetic Spirit” (StA 4: 257; EL 281, mod.) and “Ground of the Empedocles” (StA 4: 152; EL 261, mod.).

22. Walser, “Hölderlin zu entsprechen,” 17. What Walser has in mind in terms of contemporary German politics is the stagnation of parliamentary democracy brought about by two-party politics and the necessity of recognizing socialism—especially as “actualized” in the GDR—as presenting a genuine alternative to this impasse. Cf. Mieth, “Ein Rückblick,” 220.

23. Walser, “Hölderlin zu entsprechen,” 18.

24. “Euch ist nicht / Zu helfen, wenn ihr selber euch nicht helft,” Hölderlin, “Tod des Empedokles, Erste Fassung” (StA 4: 63).

25. Mieth, “Ein Rückblick,” 222.