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  • Literature and the Politics of Madness: On the Twentieth-Century Reception of Friedrich Hölderlin in France and Germany
  • Shane Weller (bio)

In the final chapter of his Histoire de la folie, Michel Foucault turns to the relation between unreason (déraison) and the work of art, his contention being that this relation undergoes a fundamental transformation at the end of the eighteenth century: ‘Depuis la fin du XVIIIe siècle, la vie de la déraison ne se manifeste plus que dans la fulguration d’œuvres comme celles de Hölderlin, de Nerval, de Nietzsche ou d’Artaud.’1 Not only, then, does Foucault here accord an absolute privilege to art since the age of Romanticism, but the poet Friedrich Hölderlin (1770–1843) becomes a decisive figure in the history of madness, since he inaugurates this new epoch (our own) in which the sovereign labour (travail souverain) of unreason occurs only in art.2 Crucially, however, this labour does not take the form of a presentation, representation, expression, or imitation of madness in art: Foucault is not claiming that madness has become the predominant subject-matter of art. Rather, with Hölderlin, madness for the first time constitutes an absolute break (rupture) with the work of art; madness is the absence of the work (absence d’œuvre) – or, more paradoxically, the reiterated presence (présence ressassée) of that absence.3 Furthermore this rupturing of art inaugurates ‘le temps de sa verité’.4 The particular truth at stake here is far from being limited to the aesthetic or the pathographical. Indeed, Foucault claims that the interruption of the work by madness is precisely how that work engages with the modern Western world, provoking ‘un déchirement sans réconciliation où le monde est bien contraint de s’interroger’. The world now finds itself compelled to undertake ‘la tâche de rendre raison de cette déraison et à cette déraison’.5

Both the reasons for, and the nature of, the privilege accorded to the work of art in the modern era by Foucault become clearer in his [End Page 193] review-essay on Jean Laplanche’s Hölderlin et la question du père (1961). Here, Hölderlin’s inaugural role in the history of madness is directly related to that event which Nietzsche identifies as the beginning of modern European nihilism, namely the devaluation (Entwertung) of the highest values that is first announced in Die fröhliche Wissenschaft/La Gaya Scienza (1882) as the ‘death of God’. According to Foucault, Hölderlin occupies ‘une place unique et exemplaire’ because:

il a noué et manifesté le lien entre l’œuvre et l’absence d’œuvre, entre le détour des dieux et la perdition du langage. [. . . ] À l’unité épique qui régnait encore chez Vasari, le langage de Hölderlin a substitué un partage constitutif de toute œuvre dans notre culture, un partage qui la lie à sa propre absence, à son abolition de toujours dans une folie qui, d’entrée de jeu, y avait part.6

Now, this conception of Hölderlin, and of the connection between the work of art, a language of division, madness, and nihilism – conceived philosophico-religiously by Nietzsche and psychoanalytically by Laplanche as the default or absence of the father – owes a scarcely calculable debt to Maurice Blanchot’s 1951 essay on Hölderlin, ‘La Folie par excellence’. In its turn, Blanchot’s essay draws on the chapter on Hölderlin in Karl Jaspers’s Strindberg und Van Gogh (1922). However, Blanchot’s general conception of Hölderlin, including his 1946 essay ‘La Parole “sacrée” de Hölderlin’ and his remarks on the poet in L’Espace littéraire (1955), are above all indebted to the approach not of Jaspers but of the other major German philosophical commentator on Hölderlin of the interwar period, Martin Heidegger. For, in what Geert Lernout terms the ‘Heideggerian orthodoxy’ of Hölderlin studies in post-war France,7 Blanchot plays a role even more decisive than does Jean Beaufret. Thus it is to Jaspers, Heidegger, and Blanchot that we must turn in order to grasp the reasons for, and the implications of, Foucault’s...


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pp. 193-206
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2009
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