My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Friedrich Hölderlin is considered one of the most influential and epochal European poets. He was a friend and contemporary of Hegel, Schlegel, and Schiller; his scant literary career spanned the revolutionary decade after 1792. His lyrics in praise of mad poets, his call for a revival of pagan antiquity in literature (he translated Pindar and Sophocles) and in politics (he favored democracy), make him an exemplary Romantic. Neglected in his own time—he went “mad” at 36 and spent the second half of his life in an admirer’s tower—he was nevertheless praised by Nietzsche and then “revived” in the early 20th century, when he became an influence on literary and philosophical modernism (Rilke, Heidegger, Celan). Nevertheless, in the English-speaking world, he remains neglected, upstaged not only by comparable English poets (Shelley, Keats), but also by French proto-modernists like Baudelaire.
If poetry is, as the proverb holds, what’s lost in translation, then fiction might offer a more welcoming approach to this crucial German Romantic poet’s themes and obsessions. His sole novel, Hyperion (published in two volumes in 1797 and 1799), still presents challenges to the modern reader, however. We have inherited a theory and practice of fiction that goes back to Flaubert: it calls for the novelist to dramatize vivid scenes and describe particular settings in precise and visually-evocative language, all under the sign of irony, because the writer and the reader are in a position to measure the gap between the characters’ desires and the reality of the world. An earnest rhapsody like Hyperion is curiously unreadable by these standards. Hölderlin’s novel is the passionate outpouring of its narrator, more concerned to chart the development of his feeling than the outward facts of the world. As his character develops, he becomes highly aware of and articulate about the ironies to which fate has subjected him. Irony is built into the novel’s world—life does not give Hyperion what he wants or expects—but not its literary form.
Hyperion is an epistolary bildungsroman. The titular protagonist writes a series of letters to a German friend, Bellarmin, retrospectively narrating the experiences of his life from childhood to his present isolation. (Since Bellarmin never replies, and since Hyperion’s narrative is essentially unbroken, it is only nominally a novel-in-letters, perhaps Hölderlin’s concession to the most prominent fictional style of time in such writers as Richardson, Rousseau, and the early Goethe.)
Hyperion is a Greek of the late 18th century, growing up in what he regards as a poisonous period in a country bereft of its antique glory, languishing as a backwater under Ottoman rule. In his childhood and youth, however, he is inducted into the splendors of nature and antiquity, which allow him to transcend, if only in his mind, these grim circumstances. His first tutor is a wandering sculptor named Adamas (“he wanted men, and he had found his art too poor to create them”), who introduces him to the Greek past before leaving for “the depths of Asia” where “a people of rare excellence was said to be hidden.” He tells Hyperion before he departs, “There is a god in us.”
Then, and more consequentially, Hyperion meets Alabanda, a beautiful and promising youth with whom he shares a kind of Platonic—in every way—love affair:
We had gone to the countryside together, sat intimately embracing in the dark shade of the evergreen laurel, and looked together in our Plato, where he speaks with such wondrous sublimity of growing old and rejuvenation, and our eyes rested now and again on the mute, leafless landscape, where the sky played more beautifully than ever with its clouds and sunshine around the autumnal, sleeping trees.
Unfortunately, Hyperion discovers that Alabanda is a member of a radical secret society, the League of Nemesis, and breaks off their relationship. The novel never quite makes clear what these illuminati stand for or propose to do, but Hyperion appears to recoil, in his sole meeting with them, from their rhetoric of radical destruction, foreign at this stage of the narrative to his pacific and lyrical sensibility:
Then we would say to you that we are here to clear the earth, that we gather the stones from the field and smash the hard clods of earth with the hoe and dig furrows with the plow, and grasp the weed by the root and cut it through at the root and tear it out together with the root, so that it may wither in the sun’s blaze.
Hyperion, in keeping with his Platonism, poetically intuits that our divine souls are stranded in a hostile world of alien matter: “We dwell here below like the diamond in the mine.” After Alabanda, though, Hyperion falls in love with a woman named Diotima. Together they explore the wonders of nature; under her influence, he modifies this earlier gnostic-style hostility toward nature and comes to see it as a cosmic unity of which we are all a part. Diotima tells him,
I like best to think of the world as a house of life, in which each being, without exactly thinking about it, reconciles itself to the other, and in which we live for the pleasure and joy of one another, simply because it comes thus from the heart.
He concludes that we, with our idealism, are not stranded in nature, but rather that “the ideal is what nature was.” In other words, through the creative and aesthetic agency of human consciousness, nature becomes the ideal. The children of nature, we create the ideal—a motif readers will recognize from Hegel’s philosophy. Also Hegelian is the novel’s Hellenism. Hyperion and Diotima visit the ruins of Athens, and Hyperion dilates in situ on the glories of the unity in classical Greece of art and religion:
But it is certain that one nonetheless mostly finds mature man in the objects of their art. There is not the pettiness nor the monstrousness of the Egyptians and Goths; there is human mind and human figure. They run less than others to the extremes of the supersensual and the sensual. Their gods remain in the beautiful mean of mankind more than others.
If Hölderlin’s Hyperion is named for a somewhat shadowy Greek Titan who fathered the sun and moon, Diotima’s namesake is the prophetess of Plato’s Symposium, who instructs Socrates on the ascension of love from body to spirit (Diotima, by the way, was also what Hölderlin called his paramour, his employer’s wife, during the doomed love affair that partially inspired this novel). Appropriately, then, Diotima asks Hyperion to be “the educator of our people.”
He chooses a different and more fateful mission, though: suddenly, Alabanda writes to Hyperion and asks him to join the war to liberate Greece from the Ottoman yoke. Brimming with self-reproaches for his lyrical inactivity and isolation (“Because you did not like doing servile work, you did nothing, and doing nothing made you morose and dreamy”), he throws himself into combat. Where one he had hymned nature and art, he now praises the dissolution of the individual in redemptive collective violence:
Servitude kills, but just war brings every soul to life. Gold attains the color of the sun when one throws it into fire! A man first attains his whole youth when he breaks fetters! He is saved only when he sets out and tramples the viper, the crawling century that poisons all beautiful nature in the bud!
On one of his first major campaigns, however, the soldiers under his command fall to plunder and rapine—the dream of an emancipatory war dies in him then. He tries to throw his life away by joining the Russian army in their assault on the Ottoman fleet, but is strangely spared. He plans to return to Diotima, yet she has pined unto death in his absence. In a letter—which, for me, is the novel’s high point—she reproaches him for his war-like abandonment of poetry, but asks him not to mourn her, since her oncoming death is only her soul’s freeing itself from nature:
Your maiden has wilted since you have been gone, a fire in me has gradually consumed me, and only a small remnant is left. Do not be appalled! All that is natural purifies itself, everywhere the blossom of life wrests itself freer and freer from coarser matter. […] O take the all-attempting men, take the fugitives back into the divine family, take them into the home of nature from which they have escaped!
With her death, he escapes to Germany, which gives Hölderlin the opportunity to decry the deficiencies of his own native land as a place opposite ancient Athens, a land where duty sunders body and soul:
I can think of no people more divided within itself than the Germans. You see artisans, but no men, thinkers, but no men, priests, but no men, masters and slaves, youths and adults, but no men—is this not like a battlefield on which hands and arms and all other limbs lie dismembered in heaps while the spilled life-blood seeps aways in the sand?
By the novel’s conclusion, he has returned to Greece, where he lives as a hermit and recounts his life to his German correspondent. His ending would seem to be despair, yet the novel’s final words are a promise to Bellarmin: “More soon.” He may prove an educator yet.
The narrative structure of the bildungsroman as a genre is stadial, progressive, Hegelian: its protagonist reaches higher and higher planes of consciousness. Each previous stage of development is circumscribed by each new stage. Hyperion grows from a poetic love of beauty to a desire to act in the world; then experience teaches him the futility of action and the repose of nature, and he again retreats. The process only concludes with death; while he lives it cannot be finished, hence “More soon.” Just before this promising sign-off, Hyperion expresses his final Heraclitean-Hegelian epiphany. At the end of the novel, he sees that violence and contradiction are needed to realize development—he grasps, that is, the necessity of the often excruciating experiences he has undergone:
The dissonances of the world are like lover’s strife. In the midst of the quarrel is reconciliation, and all that is separated comes together again.
Hölderlin is an archetype of the unsung genius, a writer misunderstood by his contemporaries and championed only long after his death. Predictably enough, then, Hyperion is a novel well ahead of its time. Its intensely inward and subjective mode of narration and its portrait of the artist as a young man transcend the 18th-century epistolary novel to look forward to modernism. Hyperion’s initial ecstatic praise of revolutionary violence, and his eventual disgusted recoil from the resulting carnage, anticipate the careers of so many 20th-century artists and thinkers.
The novel’s style may admittedly be too heightened and abstract to please the contemporary reader. In his afterword to the Archipelago Books edition, the translator Ross Benjamin observes, “Stylistically, the text of Hyperion illustrates this drawing together of what is divided through a plethora of similes.” But Hölderlin uses the novel’s many similes not to vivify the settings or characters, as contemporary writer would; rather the tropes illuminate the philosophical abstractions Hölderlin wants to communicate. For example, “I truly let the appearances of the world pass by like fog in autumn”—a simile meant to let you understand what Hyperion thinks, rather than to allow you to see what he sees. As eloquent as Benjamin’s translation is, the novel’s full verbal merit in German necessarily remains unavailable in English, which puts the Anglophone reader at a disadvantage. Since I don’t read German, I can only guess that the prose’s verbal texture in its native language embodies Hölderlin’s ideas so sensually that descriptions aren’t needed. (An Anglophone corollary might be Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean , also a lyrical bildungsroman with an antique theme, also a philosophical and slightly abstracted fiction, but one of the most beautiful novels in the English language nevertheless.)
Even in translation, though, Hyperion deserves to be read for its precise notation of the poet’s inner state, for its dithyrambs to ancient splendor and its futurist revival, for its radical songs of nature and death. Read it, too, to make the acquaintance of a writer too little appreciated, to this day, in the English-speaking world, a writer whose protagonist, ironically, commends the very end of language—an end that may not be silence but poetry:
Believe me, and consider what I say to you from the depths of my soul: language is a great superfluity. The best always remains for itself and reposes in its depths like the pearl at the bottom of the sea.