MLN 121.3 (2006) 790-794
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The writings of Friedrich Hölderlin invite us to read against the grain. Are we up to the task? Or does criticism tend to overlook what is fundamental to his writings? Hölderlin's works are rigorous because they reflect upon reading and writing, as the famous conclusion to the hymn "Patmos" illustrates: . . . der Vater aber liebt, / Der über alles waltet / Am meisten, daß gepfleget werde / Der feste Buchstab, und bestehendes gut / Gedeutet. Dem folgt deutscher Gesang. As these lines suggest, Hölderlin regards selfless devotion to language as a precondition for poetry, and it is hardly surprising that his late works often refer to such terms as Gesang, Zeichen, and Wort. However, if these writings live up to the standard of genuine poetic stringency by keeping in view the question of what it means to poeticize, the question remains whether criticism has upheld its part of the bargain by adequately recognizing Hölderlin's efforts to provide an account of the specificity of literary language. [End Page 790]
It is worth bringing such matters to bear upon "Es bleibet aber eine Spur / Doch eines Wortes," an anthology edited by Christoph Jamme and Anke Lemke. Upon first glance, this volume is striking on a number of counts. The list of contributors spans a number of generations, and it also includes both European and American scholars—a welcome development in view of a certain lack of communication that has prevented a more productive exchange of ideas between German, French, and American Hölderlin commentators. Focusing on Hölderlin's late poetry and theory of tragedy, these articles take on some of the most difficult texts produced by this writer. Most strikingly, this volume aims to establish a new agenda for the interpretation of Hölderlin's writings.
In order to elaborate this last point, let us consider Jamme's introduction, which sets the tone for the articles that follow. There he declares that this anthology addresses "ob Hölderlin diesseits oder jenseits des Idealismus zu vororten sei." For those readers who are familiar with his previous contributions, this remark will call to mind the title of the anthology that he co-edited with Otto Pöggeler, Jenseits des Idealismus. Hölderlins letzte Homburger Jahre (1804–1806) (Bonn: Bouvier, 1988). "Es bleibet aber eine Spur" picks up where Jenseits des Idealismus left off: as Jamme notes, scholars had only started to raise the question of Hölderlin's position vis-à-vis German Idealism at the close of the 1980s. The present volume therefore represents a collective effort to cut a path through intimidating terrain, and it is no surprise that Jamme concludes on an almost programmatic note. "Versucht man die Ergebnisse des Bandes zusammenzufassen, so wird deutlich, daß sich Hölderlins später Weg als Zeichentheorie deuten läßt," he writes. "Der späte Hölderlin spricht nicht mehr aus der Vollmacht des Geistes, bringt nicht mehr die Totalität von Natur und Geschichte zum Bewußtsein, sondern traut sich nun mehr zu, die Zeichen und Winke Gottes in der Welt zu deuten." This citation is noteworthy, not simply because of Jamme's willingness to take a stand on the matter of how to characterize Hölderlin's late writings, but also because his claim returns to the question of language. Not only that: what we are dealing with in Hölderlin's late works, according to Jamme, is an attempt to articulate a "theory of the sign" in relation to history. To cite the introduction once again: "Dem Dichter verhüllt sich, anders als Philosophen des Idealismus, das Absolute, und er sieht sich auf 'Buchstaben' und 'Bestehendes' verwiesen, um Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte zu entziffern." Referring to "the philosopher of Idealism," this remark has the additional merit of raising another question: what understanding of language...