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  • Hölderlin and Blanchot on Self-Sacrifice
  • Simon Thomas (bio)
Joseph Suglia , Hölderlin and Blanchot on Self-Sacrifice. New York: Peter Lang, 2004 (Currents in Comparative Romance Languages and Literatures, Vol. 139). ISBN 0-8204-7273-5.

As Joseph Suglia deftly summarises in his introduction to this comparative study of the sacrificial economies of Blanchot and Hölderlin, the point of departure for his thesis conjures an ironical paradox. For what Hölderlin's modern reception, in Suglia's reading, has conspicuously neglected to address is the performative failure of sacrifice in Hölderlin's Empedokles texts, insofar as sacrifice itself, being an unstageable event, must submit to its own sacrificial logic. According to the author, this paradoxical riddle, that of sacrifice's 'possible impossibility', is what Blanchot himself, notwithstanding his theoretical proximity to Hölderlin's poetics of tragedy, ultimately failed to grasp. Hence we must rather start out, in defiance of much of what he labels 'German-nationalist' Hölderlin criticism, from 'the absence of sacrifice' (1) in order to grasp its operational role in the work of both writers. Pointing to Hölderlin's abandonment of all of what Suglia terms his 'sacrificial projects' – including The Death of Socrates, to which the poet referred in letters to friends, and a possible second abortive tragedy, Agis – he conceives this absence of the sacrificial stage as all the more striking when annexed to Hölderlin's theoretical writings on tragedy, exceeding as they did the reach of what the dramatic texts themselves enact. However, the subtlety of Suglia's position in fact constellates a double paradox, since, in regard to the latter, he considers – the double quotation marks highlighting the irony – that their '"failure"' might be 'tied in an enigmatic way' to their '"success"' (2). Though Blanchot falls misguidedly into line with an orthodox reconstruction of Empedokles as driven by a fantasy of unbridled romanticism, [End Page 422] restoring the pre-established harmonies of 'art' and 'nature', 'heaven' and 'earth', 'self' and 'world' in an act of infinite suicide, it is the proto-modern legacy of Hölderlin's tragic fragments which Suglia reads as anticipating Blanchot's notoriously recalcitrant 1941 novel, Thomas L'Obscur, just as the latter serves retrospectively to shed upon them its dark light.

It is thus what Suglia rather coyly evokes as 'a certain interpretive distress' (6), a hermeneutic anxiety occasioned by the absence of a definitive Empedoklean scene of self-immolation, which signals the opening chapter of his Hölderlin discussion. The classic reconstruction of the tragic hero as a shattered mediator of the hitherto irreconcilable oppositions of German idealism only displays criticism's 'hermeneutic desire' for closure (6). However, as Suglia argues, it is rather the 'appearance of reconciliation' (11) – not its consummation – which the later versions of Hölderlin's project throw into relief. To do this, Suglia takes up a philological argument advocating the inseparability of the three extant versions of Hölderlin's tragedy from the Grund zum Empedokles (1799), rather than reading the latter text as their external legislator. It is here, he suggests, that we discern 'the immediate ground of Empedokles' sacrificial decision' (15). Hölderlin here evokes 'in pure life' (im reinen Leben) the merely harmonious (nur harmonisch) opposition of 'nature' and 'art', held together in a relation of paradoxical unity and separation. In a Schellingian vein, art 'perfects' nature in fashioning her chaotic productions, through which she is mortally raised to a divine power. Nature herself conforms to Hölderlin's category of 'the aorgic', which is poetically immeasurable. This dynamic tension, however, undergoes its own estrangement, polarising itself until it can exchange its properties out of their alterity. In this drastic antithesis is effected a kind of tragic reversal, whereby each term takes on the features of the other. Out of the reconciliation of their violent opposition through exchange and inversion, an excessive intimacy (Übermass) is generated as the locus of tragedy's monstrous self-knowledge. My own 'interpretive distress' concerning Suglia's thesis here centres on Hölderlin's conception of 'pure life', the alleged obscurity of which – and hence responsibility for – Suglia appears to project onto Hölderlin himself...


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pp. 422-426
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