Hölderlin on the serene life. by Gerardo Muñoz

In a letter from the beginning of 1799 addressed to his mother, Hölderlin makes a sort of confession that fully illuminates (in a multum in parvo fashion) what he understood as a quiet or serene life. Or at least, it allows to grasp how he comes to envision it and towards what end. At first sight, what is striking is its bare literalness, too strange for a poet, and too mundane if it were not for its intrinsic lyricism. It is a lyricism that comes forth effortlessly, which speaks to the quality of its furtive testimony. Literalness is also described in its engagement with the world – and, more fundamentally, the sufficient condition for sense to emerge. This is the fragment in question (from Helena Cortés’ translation of the correspondence):

“No quise rechazar de plano para tener por si acaso una vía de escape, y sobre todo puesto que se ofrece a buscarme una plaza que consiste en acompañar a la universidad a un jovencito. Conocer más mundo (conocer el pueblo alemán le es tan necesario, especialmente a todo el que quiera convertirse en un escritor alemán, como conocer el suelo al jardinero) es al fin y al cabo la única compensación que me puede ofrecer una situación tan fatigosa, y lo alejado del lugar, que de todos modos muy lejos no puede estar de alguna universidad, me parece más ventajoso que perjudicial durante un par de años en los que aun no puedo contar con gozar de una vida tranquila entre los míos”. [1]. 

There is little doubt that the world disclosed here is well within the bourgeois interiority: there is economic calculation and anticipation. At this time Hölderlin was being offered the position of a preceptor to a university student. But there is hardly only this. There is also the affirmation of fleeing from what this world has to offer – and this means quite a lot in the early quarters of the Enlightenment. Una vía de escape – for Hölderlin the way out is not merely from economic hardship, but also the possibility to retain a certain knowledge that he dares to qualify as “of the world”: “to know the world, which is the only compensation to a fatigued situation and the remoteness of place”. Loss of fixity to place demands access to the world.

This is not your expected aesthetic education of man. The subject of the Enlightenment – its commitment to historical abstraction and the possession of aesthetic form as mediation to totality – prevails at the epistemic register at the cost of rescinding the dislocation from nature. By contrast, the knowledge implicated in knowing thy world should be like that of the soil with the gardener (pay attention to how Hölderlin inverts subject and thing: it is the ground that becomes accustomed to the gardener, and not the other way around). But at the threshold of the eighteenth century, Hölderlin’s “vía de escape” was also compensatory to the fatigue of a nascent epoch of the subject. The compensation did not entail an excess of knowledge; it was rather knowledge a way to disengage with the presupositions grounding the historical epoch.

This seems to me the operation at work in Hölderlin’s epistolary confession. Carchia was right in positing Hölderlin’s poetological aspiration of spirit and nature was entirely pre-Olympian, which requires subtracting himself from the modern parody of cultic romanticism [2]. A way out appears in cleared space when serene life is finally realized between friends; that is, among those that I make as friends (“los míos”). Poetry and making are here at their closest proximity cutting through the thicket of experience. This is what it means to know thy world. At the center of Hölderlin’s ethics there is a sense of distance – the waiting for a serene life in which language will finally gather itself unto presence. Ultimately, this is the plain literalness that the 1799 letter offers us.




1. Friedrich Hölderlin. Correspondencia completa, traducción de Helena Cortés y Arturo Leyte (Libros Hiperión, 1990), 467.

2. Gianni Carchia. “Introduzione” to Walter Otto’s Il poeta e gli antichi dèi (Guida Editori, 1991), 8.

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