Mortal Thought: Holderlin and Philosophy (Bloomsbury, 2016)

28 July 2016, Bloomsbury Publishing

Introduction – Mortal Thought

Mortal Thought explores the radical philosophical innovations of the poet-philosopher Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843) and their seminal influence upon philosophy from the 19th century to the present day. The study casts into relief Hölderlin as a tragic philosopher in the age of romanticism, responsible, according to Foucault, for the radical ‘return of time’ to Western thought. Beginning with the point of departure of Hölderlin in Kant and the post-Kantian debates, Luchte explores the emergence of Hölderlin as poet-philosopher and revolutionary, his influence upon the four dominant strands of Continental philosophy – Nietzsche, Heidegger, Critical Theory and post-structuralism – and his relevance for our own era.


A. Holderlin’s World

1. The Unity of Philosophy in Kant

In this opening chapter, I will argue that Kant scholarship, for the most part, has been, since the emergence of Neo-Kantianism at the end of the 19th century, a formal exercise of analysis, dismembering Kant according to the division of labour of theoretical philosophy (ontology), ethics (moral or practical philosophy), and aesthetics. While Kant paid heed to the traditional divisions in philosophy, he considered all the operations of our several faculties of knowledge and thought as acting simultaneously under the auspices of a rational and existential unity. In this light, I will argue that any interpretation of early German romanticism and German idealism – and specifically, any consideration of Hölderlin – must take into view the entirety of the Critical Project.

2. Transcendental Poetics and the Doctrine of Reflection

Beginning with an exploration of reflective judgment, of imagination, understanding and reason in the Critique of Judgement, I will examine the poetic character (the most free of the arts) of aesthetic ideas as indices for different types of reflective judgments, which in this case are those of the beautiful and the sublime. I will trace the emergence of reason, which Kant regards as that which is truly sublime, as an event made possible by the imagination in its own self-suppression of space and time, of the aesthetical forms of mortal existence, in the production of a pure rational conceptuality.  The implications of Kant’s doctrine of reflection will be considered in the work of Novalis and Schlegel.

3. Poetics Beyond Reflection: Being and Judgment

In his Urtheil und Seyn, Hölderlin will place into question and transgress the ultimately subjective limits of reflection and the poetics of reflection with his distinction between Being and Judgement, or that between the sense of mortal existence and its tragic thought and the divisions and architectonics of consciousness. For Hölderlin, such a consciousness – as it was with Fichte – is a denial of the true meaning of the sublime, which is the thought of mortality, an idea which emerges as a recognition of the finitude of existence in the midst of a Being which transcends and exceeds our comprehension. Rationality is merely a form of escapism for those without the courage to gaze into the Nothing.

4. Hölderlin and the Tragic Sublime

Holderlin regarded Ancient Greek tragedy as an intellectual intuition of human existence, as the art work that, in its failure to resist the sublimity of Being, discloses the tragic character of our existence. Amidst the tragic absolute, of the One and All, the truth of mortal existence is expressed not only as an indication of our fundamental predicament, but also as a return of the self in such remembrance. It is a remembrance of mortality. Holderlin’s Sophocles will be the focal point.

5. The Poetics of Being and Existence

Mortal thought, in this way, is a tragic poetics of Being and existence, one which seeks to remind those who pretend at ‘infinite thought’ of its own hubris and its mortal character. In this chapter, I will lay out Holderlin’s philosophy as expressed in his essays, and juxtapose his mortal, poetic thought with the mathematical, infinite thought of Badiou.

B. Hölderlin’s Child: Nietzsche

6. Hyperion and The Birth of Tragedy

In this chapter, Holderlin’s Hyperion will be considered together with Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. The intimacy of Holderlin’s regard for the Greek Independence movement of his and later in Bryon’s time, as well as his attempts to bring the Greeks into Germany through his translations of Sophocles, will be brought into dialogue with Nietzsche’s engagements with academic classics and slightly later with Wagner in the context of his own attempt to contribute to a rebirth of the tragic.

7. Tragic Poetry and the Thread of Ariadne

In this chapter, I will read examples of tragic poetics in Holderlin an7 Nietzsche. For the latter, I will read his Dionysos Dythrambs. For the former, we will consider his translations of Sophocles, and his poems ‘Homecoming’, ‘Mnemosyne’, ‘Patmos’, and ‘Remembrance’. I will disclose through the readings not only the philosophical significance of their respective poetics, but also their orientations within the tragic poetic cosmos.

8. Empedocles and the Death of Zarathustra

In this chapter, I will read two more texts by Holderlin and Nietzsche, The Death of Empedocles by the former, and Thus Spoke Zarathustra, by the latter. I will place emphasis upon the respective deaths of the two protagonists, one, Empedocles, who dies due to his hubris and the double bind of the law, and the other, Zarathustra who dies in innocence (only to open up his eyes again, with the next recurrence). Zarathustra signifies Nietzsche’s departure from the Greeks and from gods to a novel constellation of fate.

C. Hölderlin and Contemporary Thought

9. Hölderlin and the Frankfurt School

In this chapter, I will explore Hölderlin’s influence upon the Frankfurt school, with a focus upon the figures of Walter Benjamin and Theodore Adorno. I will first consider Benajmin’s ‘The Concept of Criticism in Early German Romanticism’ with respect to his interpretation of the doctrine of reflection in Novalis and Schlegel, his clarification of the meaning of ‘criticism’, and his pregnant reference to Holderlin at the end of the essay. I will next turn to Adorno’s ‘Parataxis: on Hölderlin’s Late Poetry’ in which he thematises the use of parataxis in the later poetry of Hölderlin and its relation to the expression of disconnection and disruption – breaks in the continuity of existence. Hölderlin’s critique of consciousness underlines the emphasis placed by Benjamin and Adorno on the cultural reproduction of ideology and power.

10. Heidegger and the Question of Being

In this chapter, I will explore the affinities between Hölderlin’s philosophical innovation in Urteil und Seyn and Heidegger’s re-articulation of the question of Being. Emphasis will be placed upon the isomorphism of Gefuhl and Stimmung, as that which breaks through determinative and reflective consciousness in the event of the tragic sublime, as the breach which allows for the disclosure of Being, which for both, is tragic existence.

11. Heidegger’s Poetic Turn

The implicit relationship of Heidegger and Holderlin becomes explicit with the former’s turn to thought, as the metontology of the topos of finitude. I will consider Heidegger’s work on Holderlin in the context of his distinction between thought and poetic thought, in which poetics is the articulation of the disclosure of the ways and manners of being, as a poetic phenomenology of finite existence, while thought persists in its meditation about Being.

12. The Poetics of Deconstruction

This chapter will explore the influence of the Holderlinian destruction of ‘consciousness’, of science, morality, and taste, upon Poststructuralism with respect to language, power, meaning and identity. I will examine the relationship between the implications of Holderlin’s poetic thought and Derrida’s motif of differance, each of which places consciousness into question, which, as it was for Heidegger, is a word laden with metaphysical baggage, a metaphysics of the worst sort, that of dogmatism, despotism, subjectivism, and logical identity.

13. All in All: The Poetics of Intimacy

With the deconstruction of Cartesian consciousness and the metaphysics of order, the barriers of rational delineation and the pathos of distance of Reason become disoriented in the play of the tragic (or comic) sublime, of mortal existence, in which the hegemony of an order has been placed into question, is challenged and overthrown, displaced. In this case, that which is being displaced is the incarceration of windowless turrets, divisions, the fragmentation of modernist thought. These constructs are cast away disclosing the inescapable intimacy of mortal existence in the openness of Being.

Epilogue: The Revolution of the Mortal

In this Epilogue, I will reflect upon the implications of the intimacy of mortal thought for the planetary existence of human beings. What must be emphasised in this reflection is the utter fragility of human existence, and of the physical eco-systems in which we dwell. In light of the deconstruction of consciousness, of the hegemony of reason, which in this era is Capital and Technology, the emphasis of thought and action must be to build a radical and equitable reconfiguration of human existence with an emphasis upon openness and mutual aid.

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