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.

Jesus as gardener in the landscape. by Gerardo Muñoz

A reproduction of Titian’s early work “Noli Me Tangere” (~1514) cannot do justice to its majestical prudence if contemplated directly on the walls of the National Gallery. To use the terms “majestical prudence” might be a bit of a misnomer, but at least it allows to be slide into what entails the central enigma of the picture: its underemphasized contours of the biblical encounter from John 20:15, in which the resurrected Christ appears to Mary Magdalene as a gardener. A lot has been made about the Giorginesque influence on the picture, but it seems to me that the underemphasized composition speaks to the real triumph of Titian’s masterpiece. This is a triumph achieved not so much through the imports of allegory and pagan motifs, but rather as a complex web of distances untangled in the picture: the distance between Christ’s gaze with Magdalene’s upward look, but also the solitary tree inclined leftward, which compensates for the downwards light jerk movement of Christ as he takes distance to escape touching.

I have said nothing of the deep and overpainted deep blue sea in the background; or the receding landscape in the distance with a flock of sheep, high grasesses, barns, and a modest castle to the upper right side of the picture. A little man walks his dog, and we guess he is moving towards the sheep. Or perhaps not. The underemphasized and inconspicuous composition of the picture is precisely in the formulation of distances; invisible distances that allows the gathering of proximity. Only in this minimalist case can the painting be described as giorgenesque. Herbert Cook in his monograph on Giorgione captures this balance by what he calls invisible threads: “Peculiar, however, to an artist of genius is the subtlety of composition, which is held together by invisible threads, for nowhere else, perhaps, has Giorgione shown a greater mastery of line.” [1]. This is also a fair treatment of what holds up the elements in Titian’s picture.

Now, the invisible threads in “Noli me Tangere” do not merely substantiate the networks of lines; rather they also bring the picture to a point of a distant presence. This is what we are able to perceive when confronted with the painting in the walls of the National Gallery. There is another more straightforward way of stating the same: there is something “earthy” to Titian’s rendering of John 20:15, and by “earthy” we attempt to point to point at the distribution of distances between earth, sky, and landscape. This also implies how bodies move in it. It does not take much to document it: one could start by attending to Magdalene’s merciful arm raising to Christ’s cloaked body, followed by his holding of the hoe, which immediately swayes us to the tree. Magdalene’s left hand on an ointment vase reinstates the dowards movement to the ground. The earthly character is the tension elaborated by these distances – a very modern sensation that we will not get in the later pictures of resurrection in the glorious skies of redemption, as noted by Erwin Panoksky [2]. The earthly deposes the relieves of both glory and incarnation. Titian wants to give us the picture of a resurrection in a world that passes by as it retains its tranquility, which painting can only provide us through a non-emphatic incorporation of its distancing.

This could very well account for the assumption that “Noli Me Tangere” becomes a decisive “stepping stone in the evolution of modern culture…from the Byzantine theology to Pantheism and spiritual freedom” [3]. The fact that Renaissance painting was absorbent to the pagan myths is something that has been studied by the major art historians of the twentieth century, so one could also take Richter’s thesis somewhere else. Pantheism is not about the symbolic restitution of specific iconography or motifs, but it is rather the exposition of a particular experience: Jesus as gardener services the disclosure of an unmediated world granted by the perception of distances. The mistaken perception of Jesus as gardener can only be understood, even if momentarily, as undoing the work of Adam, only to be resumed and “served” (ābad) by the Savior [4]. But this might be reading too much “meaning” into the picture, which is deliberately underemphasized in its avoidance to allegorical weight.

To any modern attentive observer, it becomes impossible not to bring into the picture the early modern dispute between gardeners and architects. This opposition does not justify Titian’s “Noli Me Tangere’”, but it does serve (at least it serves me) to insist on the open relation between gardening and the disclosing of an unmediated world, which stands as a theological idiom of the picture. It is most definitely a picture of a resurrected life that is only apprehended by the possibility of immersing itself in the rhythms of the invisible that pertain the world. So, we do not have to wait for the late mysterious and dark Titian to find a full coincidence between painting and thought. “Noli me Tangere ” seems to tell us that there is thought whenever there is earthy grounding in the bifurcation between bodies and things in space.

And so, we can return to the thin blue sea on the left side of the painting, which magically brings all the earthly elements to the forefront. It is the ultimate distance, as well as the unbreachable region where all elements converge (pay attention to the vegetation and the clouds literally becoming blue) sharply on the horizon. It is also the most emphatic instance of the picture; the lacunae that guarantees the masterful structure of invisible threads that ultimately pins its intimate proximity to natural dissolution.




1. Herbert Cook. Giorgione (George Bells & Sons, 1900), 41.

2. Erwin Panofsky. Problems in Titian: Mostly Iconographic (NYU Press, 1969), 40-41.

3. George M. Richter. “The problem of the Noli Me Tangere”, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, V.65, July 1934, 10.

4. Nicolas Wyatt. “When Adam Delved: The Meaning of Genesis III 2″, Vetus Testamentum, Vol.38, 1988, 121.

Hölderlin in Agamben. by Gerardo Muñoz

There is no question that Hölderlin occupies a central place in Giorgio Agamben’s work, although he always appears within a specific strategic deployment. Of course, it might be the case that Hölderlin is always present in instances where he is not directly cited or thematized, but in the following note I want to record four instances where Hölderlin appears in different phases of Agamben’s thinking. These notes are preliminary for a larger work in progress that looks at the status of the comic as a potential force for a transfigured politics, which is informed, although not limited by Hölderlin’s work. Hölderlin occupies, after all, the entry point to L’uso dei corpi (2014) in relation to the well-known maxim “the use of the proper”; the territory where the (modal) ontology will be measured. However, esoterically Agamben’s incorporation of the German poet suggest a ‘way out’ from the tragic politicity of modernity. It might useful here to recall Schmitt’s annotation in Glossarium about what Hölderlin symbolized in the larger picture of modern German thought: “Youth without Goethe (Max Kommerell), that was for us since 1910 in concrete youth with Hölderlin, i.e. the transition from optimistic-ironic-neutralizing genius (genialismus) to pessimistic-active-tragic genialism (genialismus). But it remained within the genialistic framework, yes, deepened it into infinite depths. Norbert von Hellingrath is more important than Stefan George and Rilke.” (18.5. 1948) [1]. To overturn Hölderlin as the figure of the tragic caesura and witness to the crisis of “distance” in modernity is most definitely at stake here in order to avoid (subjective) conditions for something like an Enlightenment renewal. More broadly, it could be productive to think of Hölderlin as the poetic site that grants Agamben a possibility of thinking the event beyond the dependency of messianism and history, now displaced by the relation between language and world. 

a) As early as in Stanzas (1977) Agamben writes about Hölderlin: “The name of Hölderlin – of a poet, that is, for whom poetry was above all problematic and whom often hoped that it could be raised to the level of the mēchane (mechanical instrumental) of the ancients so that its procedures could be calculate and taught – and the dialogue that with its utterance engages a thinker who no longer designs his own mediation with the name of “philosophy”, are invoked here to witness the urgency, for our culture, of rediscovering the unity of our own fragmented word” (xvii) [2]. Hölderlin occupies here the site of antiphilosophy, in which the event of language does not longer coincide with a structure of the subject, but of the potentiality of “saying”; a sayability in which fragmentation removes any commanding closure of language. The event of appearing and bring to conclusion (in the book on Paul, Agamben will associate it with the rhetorical figure of the enjambment in the poem) gains primacy over formalization. 

b) In another early book, L’uomo senza contenuto (1994) Agamben takes up the question of fragmentation of language in Hölderlin but this time provides a specific category: rhythm. On the chapter about the original structure of the work of art he writes: “Everything is rhythm, the entire destiny of man is one heavenly rhythm, must as every work of art is one rhythm, and everything swings from the poetizing lips of the god”. This statement was passed down to us by Hölderlin’s own hand. […]. What Hölderlin’s sentence says appears at first blush too obscure and general to tempt us to take into consideration in a philosophy query on the work of art. However, if we want to submit to its proper meaning, that is, if we want, in order to corrupt to it, to make it first of all into a problem for us, then the question that immediately arises is: what is rhythm, which Hölderlin attributes to the work of art as it original characteristic?” (94) [3]. So, the category of rhythm “holds men” epochally as a form of incommensurable distance with the world, which Agamben relates to an-archic original structure of dwelling. For Agamben this step-back to the “original site” vis-à-vis rhythm releases “art” as poesis from a productivist “destiny”. So, it would be obvious to say that rhythm, insofar it abolishes the production, it also thematizes the ethical life as the form of life (which is why Agamben also attaches Hölderlin as a counter-figure of the notion of “vocation”) [4]. There is no form of life without rhythm in nearness to the common ground. 

c) In Autoritratto nello studio (2017), Agamben glosses (a) and (b), that is, he recognizes the importance of Von Hellingrath reconstruction of the late Hölderlin of the Pindaric translations and the fragmentary syntax, but now situates him at the center of modernity. Agamben writes: “Walser noted, as Hölderlin before him, that the world had become simply unhabitable. And there was not even the possibility of amending it…I am convinced that Hölderlin in his last thirty years of this life was not unhappy, as some professors of literature tend to describe him. On the contrary, Hölderlin was able to dream at his house without worrying about duties. The Tubingen tower and the clinic of Herisau: these are two places that we should never cease to reflect upon. What took place behind these walls – the rejection of reason by these two poets [Walser and Hölderlin] – is the most powerful rejection against our civilization” (140-141) [5]. So here Hölderlin, like Walser, is an epochal gestalt capable of generating the separation between thinking and doing, world and experience, which became totalized in the legitimacy of the modern. What could be interpreted as ‘domestic interiority’ for the poet becomes a symptom of a radical form of dwelling at the end of reason subsumed by nihilism.

d) Finally, in a recent essay published this year entitled “Hölderlins antitragische Wendung”, Agamben goes a step further to qualify Hölderlin’s breakthrough, taking radical distance from his relation to the tragic and identifying him as a poet that must be read in a comic register. This is all the more surprising given that, as Agamben himself notes, there is almost no mention of comedy in Hölderlin’s prose, except in the review of Siegfried Schmid’s play The Heroine. And although it is true one could argue that Hölderlin undertook a destruction of the tragic poet in The death of Empedocles, as far as I am aware there has been no interpretation of Hölderlin as opening to the “comedy of life”, except for a brief mention, almost in passing, about his laughter by the Italian poet Andrea Zanzotto [6]. Agamben concludes his essay suggesting that: “With this concept of “ordinary life” I should like to conclude my reflections, at least for the time being. Isn’t it precisely this ordinary life, what in the thirty-six years in the tower, Hölderlin’s life and poetry – or his “poetry” – have persistently sought to carry it out in an exemplary and funny way? And isn’t “ordinary” life the same as the “living” life (to live according to habitus and habits), which is distant and perfect in the last tower poems: When people go into the distance, living life …?” In any case, if Hegel defines the idyll as “the half descriptive, half lyrical poems […] and mainly nature, the seasons, etc., the subject matter”; then the tower poems – this extreme, incomparable poetic legacy of the West – are an idyll of the genre” (40) [7]. And here Hölderlin appears not just as another figure in “the age of the poets” (and the genialismus‘ commanding force), but rather as the moment in which the problem of life opens to its inoperosità. The unity of humanity now navigates the fragmented reality not through the subject, but rather through the singular form of life. Comedy, then, in the idyll genre in which life is freed from both desire and liberty.




1. Carl Schmitt. Glossarium: Aufzeichnungen aus den Jahren 1947 bis 1958 (Duncker & Humblot, 2015). 114.

2. Giorgio Agamben. Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture (University of Minnesota Press, 1993).  

3. Giorgio Agamben. The Man without Content (Stanford U Press, 1999). 

4. Giorgio Agamben. “Vocazione e voce”, in La potenza del pensiero (Neri Pozza, 2005). 77-89.

5. Giorgio Agamben. Autoritratto nello studio (nottetempo, 2017). 

6. Andrea Zanzotto. “Con Hölderlin, una leggenda”, in Friedrich Hölderlin: Tutte le liriche (Mondadori, 2001). i-xxiv.

7. Giorgio Agamben. “Hölderlins antitragische Wendung”, Studi Germanici, 17, 2020. 27-40.