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  • The Dear (le tout cher)
  • John W. P. Phillips (bio)

Mon cœur est un luth suspendu, Sitôt qu’on le touche, il résonne.

—Pierre-Jean de Béranger, II, 2151

Glänzende Götterlüfte   Rühren euch leicht,     Wie die Finger der Künstlerin       Heilige Saiten.

— Friedrich Hölderlin, Sämtliche Werke I, 7442

The Dear I

“Mein Karl!” Friedrich Hölderlin writes to his half brother from Hauptwil in March 1801, “I feel we no longer love one another as before and have not done for a long time, and this is my fault. I was the first to introduce the cold tone” (Werke 897/Essays 198).3 Already several themes are introduced. A provisional outline of some of them will help to separate several layers that have been merged. Once we have worked on them a bit—a lighter note here, a warmer tone there, an increase in emphasis or contrast elsewhere—we may merge them again.

The first concerns the relation of address. Someone addresses another. We need not assume that this layer identifies a genre, although a corresponding layer, under the rubric of genre, would signal an epistolary tradition to which Hölderlin was acutely sensitive. But taken independently of the epistolary tradition, the structure of this address to a friend and brother takes shape as indispensable for our reading of it, whether we become aware of it or not. For the addressee at the present time—and therefore in principle at any time—cannot be identical with the one who reads it. Two implications follow. The structure of the address identifies as its addressee a singular named individual but at the same time inscribes, as excessive to the name, a kind of potential that cannot be cancelled by an act of writing or reading. This potential gives rise to an interminably novel addressee, always over and above, or at least to one side of, anyone that we might wish to identify as the letter’s reader. The effects of such a structure, which are as common as anything, include the sense that in a critical idiom we are reading over Karl’s shoulder (the critical fiction by which the critic becomes fictional). The second implication, though, rips epistolary effects like the one I’ve just evoked from the specifics of the letter itself and from the specifics of even the epistolary form. And while these effects might be less clear in other genres, they nonetheless can [End Page 89] easily be seen to apply there too. In the lyric poem, for instance, a writer can construct, in a potential multiplication of further layers, the supposed fiction of addressees either named or unnamed ad infinitum. The epistle, in the specifics of its address structure, shows how this fiction is possible, but only at the cost of erasing the distinction between the fictional and real addressee for any text. A reader at the most minimal level of possibility implicates himself in a structure of address that distinguishes the addressee a priori from itself, and situates it as irremediably divided. These two implications cannot be separated, however, for the specificity of the address here, as we read it in the present (now, more than two centuries from its date of inscription, and now in the perpetual present tense of its linguistic construction), gives its structure to every text, not only in the form of exemplar but also in the form of mere exception. The exception, in this case, proves the rule. The one is the proof, justification and argument for the other. And vice-versa.

In the formal structure of an address, whether for a personal letter, a conference paper, a manifesto or a lyric poem, writers make at least implicit use of an idiomatic resource of their language. That is, they may address identifiable individuals, whom they sometimes call by name. Addressees might be imagined or merely implicit. They can be singular or plural, or amount to singular groups or communities. Writers address the gods, a muse, fate or, in any of many examples of the apostrophe, the dead or inanimate objects. This formal structure does not alter between instances regarded...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2095
Print ISSN
0049-2426
Pages
pp. 89-104
Launched on MUSE
2011-11-05
Open Access
No
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