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  • Hölderlin after the Catastrophe: Heidegger - Adorno - Brecht
  • Tom Spencer
Robert Savage . Hölderlin after the Catastrophe: Heidegger - Adorno - Brecht. Rochester: Camden House, 2008. 234 pp. US$ 75. ISBN: 978-1-57113-320-5.

Robert Savage's book argues that the spiritual "catastrophe" of 1945 had an impact on the way German intellectuals - specifically Heidegger, Adorno, Brecht - cited literature. Hölderlin is not strictly necessary to this project, but offers rhetorical continuity in a tripartite analysis that could otherwise feel a little disconnected. Nonetheless, the narrative account of Nazi-era Hölderlin reception in the book's introduction is very engaging, and the epilogue's story about Hölderlin's waning political importance in the 1970s is also worthwhile.

The best and longest chapter contains Savage's reading of Heidegger. Although his "conversation" with the poet begins long before the first Hölderlin lectures (1934-45), Heidegger never mentions him in a public address until November 1934, eight months after becoming the (Nazi) rector of Freiburg University. This absence of Hölderlin - who was already a German hero - in the public rhetoric of the poet's future champion is conspicuous. Savage calls this Heidegger's "other silence" (the first being his postwar silence about Nazi genocide). The reason is that Heidegger's poet stood for a coming Germany that never corresponds with the political present. Hölderlin "replace[s] Hitler as the 'formative power' to which the Germans could looked for leadership" (45), because only the poet shows us that peculiarly German questioning of Being that looks beyond the given. Nevertheless, Heidegger's Hölderlin can be used to encourage political indifference or to abet the fascist spirit, as when Heidegger says that "true historical freedom [...] does not require the organized sham community of a 'League of Nations'" (47) and makes warfare into the "ideal condition [...] for learning who the German [are]" (55). Germans know themselves (as the knowers of Being) when they leave the native and go out into what Hölderlin calls the "foreign" (Fremdes), and the battle front provides the most extreme version of this experience.

After the "catastrophe," everything changes: on the philosophical level, Gelassenheit replaces the "German" onto historical striving for Being; on the political level, quietism replaces the Fronterlebnis; on the poetic level, "beautiful dwelling" replaces the voyage into the foreign. These interrelated changes appear most clearly in the unfinished dialogue "Das abendländische Gespräch" (1946-48), Heidegger's only sustained attempt at rhetorically overcoming the division of mythos and logos brought about by metaphysics. To be silent on metaphysics is to be silent on history, which is in turn a flight from the devastating events of 1945. This is the silent political motivation behind the relatively apolitical "topology" of Being in Heidegger's late work. Heidegger does not give up on "hidden Germany," but he learns to universalize it to the West. He also sees the dangers that attend prophets of the fatherland, and therefore heeds in earnest the Hölderlinian injunction: "About the Highest / I will not speak." The postwar Heidegger leaves Being to its own devices. [End Page 685]

Whereas Heidegger's reception of Hölderlin is "conversational," Adorno's reception in the essay "Parataxis" is "polemical," and that in a double sense. On an obvious level, Adorno is attacking Heidegger's reading of Hölderlin - and Savage gives a wonderful account of the paper's stormy reception at the 1963 Hölderlin Society convention - but on another level he is performing philosophy itself by way of the polemic. Since the "power of thought is [not] sufficient to grasp the totality of the real" (102), philosophy opens a "salvational" path to the real through the rejection of false totalizations. Adorno identifies this "true" philosophical process at work in Hölderlin, and he recapitulates it in the two-part structure of his own essay, which begins by toppling Heideggerian self-assurance and concludes by articulating the utopian possibility unleashed by this downfall. Just as the polemic limits itself to clearing the way for truth, philosophy limits itself to clearing away false representations of truth. The relation to truth in polemic and philosophy is thus always negative. Savage asserts that...


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