Getting Inside Sophocles' Mind Through Holderlin's Antigone
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Getting Inside Sophocles’ Mind Through Hölderlin’s Antigone
Translated by (Translated from the French by Edward J Shephard Jr.

Readers of Hölderlin are familiar with the truly tragic circumstances surrounding his translations and commentaries on Sophocles’ tragedies. 1 The young poet, impressed with the beauty of Johann Heinrich Voss’s translations of Homer and influenced by Goethe’s cautions against excessive philosophical abstraction, endowed his translations with both poetic sensibility and theoretical insight 2 in equal proportion. The negative reception they received, especially the rejection and ridicule at the hands of the philologist H. Voss (the great translator’s son) seems to have precipitated Hölderlin’s mental breakdown. Voss’s review must be read carefully to understand the deep sense of isolation which Hölderlin must have felt in the face of the profound chasm that separated his own outlook and thinking from that of the philologist. Apparently impartial and objective at first, Voss’s appraisal grows increasingly savage while his mocking criticism veils his own erroneous assumptions and the theoretical biases on which they rest—for example, the commonly held notion that the tragic poets were representatives of the “clear” and “rational” Greek thought, expressing itself through the “clearly defined characters” of the classical gods, which were supposed to be immediately understandable to the “common sense.” 3

Hölderlin’s treatment of the logical structures of mythic thought underlying classical poetry was remarkably insightful. However, his rather obscure formulations as to the links between Sophocles’ rational discourse and the ancient, mythical contexts offended Voss’s notions about the nobility and rationality of the divine and human characters in classical Greek tragedy. Extremely sensitive to the logical, intellectual and “reasoning” (“pensantes”) implications of the figurative movement in poetry and myth, Hölderlin detected in the Sophoclean tragedies certain wordplays based entirely on the production of meaning through stylistic contrasts. These contrasts operate at the level of affective and emotional relationships that are charged with latent or virtual cognitive signifiers. In another article I investigated the relationship between Hölderlin’s philosophical fragments and his reading of myth and [End Page 107] tragedy which is at once both emotional and rational. 4 Let us briefly go over the major points of Hölderlin’s attempt to get at the implicit (non-discursive) thought of poetic form. This figurative mode of expression avoids the limitations of abstract, conceptual thinking, which is inadequate in the domains of aesthetics and of practical, active life.

Hölderlin’s starting point is Kant’s philosophy or, to be more precise, a critique of the scholarly application of Kantian concepts to aesthetic and artistic reality, such as Schiller’s aesthetics. Like Goethe, who saw abstract ideas as the horizon of experience, 5 Hölderlin tried to move away from the abstraction of discursive and conceptual propositions by broadening the Kantian notion of “free play of the faculties of the soul.” 6 In the Critique of Judgment Kant’s distinction between moral ideas, scientific knowledge and aesthetic judgment derives from a single a priori faculty that is the intellectual foundation of all three types of rational activity. This new centrality of aesthetics is the starting point for Hölderlin’s examination of the role of the senses and of feelings in the realm of theoretical, intellectual activity. Hölderlin introduces the idea of an “interior intensity” (das Innige, that is, the intuition of an all-embracing unity prior to the distinctions of experience and of conceptual thinking). 7 According to Hölderlin, our aesthetic sense conceives of this principle in a “divinatory” manner, and (tragic) poetry furnishes the figures of this pure wisdom: it is the “metaphor of an intellectual intuition.” Thus Hölderlin conveys to poetry a theoretical status: it becomes the link between concrete experience and abstract ideas, a link which is independent from practical reason.

This substructure encompasses all our sense and intellectual activity at the level of aesthetic experience and operates through gradations of rhythm, tone, and Stimmung, giving a melodious cohesiveness to propositions 8 that are not necessarily logical, coherent, and rational in themselves (that is to say, considered independently without regard to the whole). Translating...