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  • De/Constructing Friedrich HölderlinThe Year in Germany
  • Tobias Heinrich (bio)

Der große Unbekannte, the big unknown in German literature, is how Rüdiger Safranski introduces Friedrich Hölderlin (1770–1843) in his new book on the contemporary of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the protégé of Friedrich Schiller, and the schoolmate of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. On the occasion of Hölderlin's 250th birthday, the German publishing house Hanser has put out two books on the poet's life and his legacy that couldn't be more different from each other. Yet at the same time, they both revolve around the Geheimnis, the mystery, that surrounds Hölderlin's literary work as well as his tragic fate. While Safranski's interest in that respect is mainly biographical and thus he discusses the poet's decline into madness, Karl-Heinz Ott traces the dazzling afterlife of Hölderlin's enigmatic oeuvre. The title of Ott's book, Hölderlins Geister, is deliberately ambiguous, as Geist can translate to either spirit, mind, or phantom. The plural form of the noun indicates that it is not just one Hölderlin that we encounter in Ott's extensive essay, but several, ranging from the herald of Greek mythology to the Jacobin revolutionary or the icon of German nationalism. In accordance, the book's five chapters are entitled Tübinger Visionen, visions of Tübingen, Der bräunliche Hölderlin, the brownish Hölderlin, alluding to the brown uniforms of the Nazi's paramilitary troops, Die Wahnsinnsmaske, the mask of madness, Griechisches Licht, Greek light, and Forever Young (in English). Hölderlin thus appears as the often only vaguely discernible center of a wider circle of spiritually akin figures like Friedrich Nietzsche, Stefan George, and most notably Martin Heidegger. From Ott's perspective, this panorama of German philosophical thought is predominantly, if not exclusively, male, which comes as a surprise, taking into account that Bettine von Arnim, one of German Romanticism's sharpest minds and arguably its most prominent female voice, was largely responsible for the fact that Hölderlin's poetic work would not be forgotten.

While Ott's critical acknowledgment spreads out and around Hölderlin and his legacy, Safranski opts for a more conventional narrative. This is in accordance [End Page 76] with his books on E. T. A. Hoffmann, Martin Heidegger, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Friedrich Schiller, which have all become bestsellers and turned the author into one of Germany's most distinguished living biographers. In the first chapters, one learns about Hölderlin's childhood in Würtemmberg, in the southeast of Germany. As he lost both his biological father and stepfather quite early on, his mother became the dominant figure in his family, and she remained a central, yet problematic character until the end of the poet's life. Part of the reason is that she administrated her son's considerable inheritance, which she refused to pay out to him until he took up a secure profession, ideally the respected post of a country parson, and found a family of his own. To her great dissatisfaction, Hölderlin had very different ideas for his life. After he graduated in 1793 with a degree in theology, he worked as a private tutor, among others for the son of Charlotte von Kalb, a close friend of Friedrich Schiller's. Through this connection, he was able to publish parts of his epistolary novel Hyperion in Schiller's periodical Die neue Thalia. At this time, Hölderlin also frequented the lectures of Johann Gottlieb Fichte at the University of Jena. Building on the ground-breaking realignment of philosophy by Immanuel Kant, Fichte, through his exploration of the self and human consciousness, became one of the founding fathers of German Idealism. The other two names usually associated with this movement, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, had studied with Hölderlin in Tübingen, where they had become a tight-knit group of friends, united in their adoration of Greek antiquity and their fascination with the political upheavals in nearby France. While both Schelling and Hegel would eventually embark on successful academic careers, Hölderlin...


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pp. 76-79
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