Treasure of the earth: on Elizabeth Sewell’s The Orphic voice: Poetry and Natural History (2022). by Gerardo Muñoz

Written at a time when the sciences of biological life were becoming fully integrated to technological and procedural social experimentation, Elizabeth Sewell’s 1960 The Orphic voice (nyrb, 2022) dared to pose the question of poetic myth as the mirror of scientific transformation of the modern world. Given that myth reopens the question of poetry and the natural world, for Sewell the modern exposure entails a profound misunderstanding: it is not that myth has eclipsed from the developments of scientific regime, but rather that science is incapable of absorbing it through its formal explorations in a system of subdivisions, classifications, and applicabilities. But for Sewell, it is myth itself that conditions scientific activity, providing ground for the discovery of situations and play in the world of forms. In other words, it is the persistence of myth in biological imagination the real forgotten path in the crisis of the transmission of tradition in a world aligned by the movement of scientific objectivity. For Sewell’s understanding of myth, there is no positive dialectical movement between myth and calculative rationality; rather, myth is what stands for the irreducibility of life in the cosmos. It is the very mystery of the anthropogenesis of creation as pure metamorphosis of forms. Why Orpheus, then? For Sewell, the orphic figure becomes “myth as a living thought and the very type of thought in action, and for all those other self-reflecting forms; for the human organism as an indivisible whole trying to understand itself….for biology reflection on the whole span of life in which thinking man appears as the last enigmatic development” (41). Orphism is the natural prehistory of becoming. This implies nothing less than reminding modern science of its “mistaken mythology”; as it is poetry – not mathematics or a scientific theory of language – the proper site for the adventure of life.

The strange career of orphism in the modern age is one of struggle, according to Sewell. A “struggle” that accounts for change, process, organism, and life” in an epoch that thinks of itself as definite and irreversible; completing the demythologization of the old gods and the ultimate achievement of secularization. Unlike for Oskar Goldberg for whom the civilizational regime of fixation of humanity is a matter of thousands of years (at least since Cain); for Sewell it has only bern a couple of centuries that has led to an esoteric experimentation with natural history in the wake of his postmythical substitution. At bottom, her task is to bring together, once and for all, the voice of Orpheus and “natural history and poetry, had not parted company and it only remains to try to bring them, after their long and wintry estrangement, back to one another” (48). This is the central task of the modern poet, Sewell seems to tell us: to wrestle the potentiality of myth to craft the a “model of thought” that transfigures the logical framework of rational thought into a “flexible and plastic” (beweglich und bildsam) play between form and formlessness that becomes inalienable from the metamorphosis of nature. This does not mean that all modern poets are orphic; and, I am not sure that Sewell will go as far as to accept that all orphism comes in the form of poetry (this will be of scarce persuasion). What the Orphic voices are saying “is that the poet and his world is part of natural history…it is postlogic” (153). The postlogic stands a tenuous and loose term to avoid the supreme autonomy of reason of scientific modernity. Rather than a tool to understand the causation of natural processes, or a set of artificial strategies for representation, the postlogical poetics is the music of a world as being transformed through experience and immersion. It is no doubt strange that Sewell calls postlogical method to account for the permanent overflowing of the orphic voice; although it becomes clear that she wants to think of it as a utensil inseparable from the form that it makes. In other words, the “method” stands for the possibilities of use through the attunement with worldly phenomena. Postlogical method wants to give substance to how well we construct and tailor the potent infinity of form. As Sewell writes: “The method, the lute strung with the poet sings, consists in the use of the self, and mind, heart ,as well as intelligence, as an instrument of wider interpretation, with language assisting in the process” (168).

The free use of one’s own is surely the hardest task for the poet, as we already know from Hölderlin who grasped the crisis at the outset of Romantic modernity. The capacities of the orphic poet wants to wrestle the force of expression from the stage of history into the methodology of forms. This is what Sewell reads positively in Goethe’s Urworte and Urpflanze as the “methodology of transformations…the key to all the signs in nature” (274). It is noteworthy that Sewell does feel the need to revise Hölderlin’s poetological attempt at the insufficiency of the tragic poet embedded in the play of Empedocles mediation between the material craft of art and the aorgic excess of nature. And it is too bad that she does not (alas, Hölderlin remains the missing key for many of these problems). But it might be that for Sewell the orphic voice is not a transfigurative element, but rather the acoustic composition of the play between creation and decreation. In this sense, the bios orphikos is, not merely of this world, but also the immemorial journey to the infraworld sidestepping tragic overflowing. It is very late in her book that Sewell defines this pathways that transcends all form and contours of scientific vitality:

“The origins of all our bodily and mental powers are in an exact sense with the dead, in heredity and tradition; thus the dead are not wholly dead here within the living body. The heart and the center of the kingdom of the dead to which Orpheus goes in search of Eurydice is also the penetralia of the individual human life which pulsates and thinks…Anthropology suggest that the labyrinth of primitive man, the maze emblem and the real mazes of the caves, were capable also of being the body, and the site of a journey between the two worlds of living and dead. The orphic search here goes past Orpheus back into immemorial antiquity.” (326-327). 

Immemorial antiquity – these are the wonderful markers of everything that Sewell’s book does not accomplish or flesh out in its voluminous 400 plus plages. But, it is only at this point that we are capable of understanding that what Sewell calls “biological thinking” has nothing to do with the basic mental capacities that dispenses the anthropological density of the modern reserve to self-assertion (in Blumenberg’s unsurpassed definition), and everything with a tradition of the immemorial that is creation’s most intense point of bifurcation between the living and the dead. The passage to this region becomes testament to the validity of one’s experience. This is also why the orphic voice cuts through the the subdivision of the polis and the modern autonomy of art; as it takes life through the fleeting instance of the freedom of forms in its non dependency with historical necessity and domestication, as Gianni Carchia lucidly reminded us [1].

The orphic immemorial will not appeal to a morality of nature based on its fictive aura of normative order, but rather, it will supply the potentiality of the taking place of language. Hence, it is no surprise that the taking place of the voice (its postlogical status) lifts the human outside of itself, at the same time that it retains its most absolute nearness to the symbolic strata of myth. Commenting on Wordsworth, Sewell writes: “…the first provisional conclusion on method in the poem: that each language is a treasure of the earth but that poetry is the more valuable (as if our word, postlogic, might here receive additional justification)” (358-359). The voice has never been an organ or a specific faculty that belongs properly to the human; it is the passage between humanity and its constitutive exteriority in the world. Like the harmony of the spheres, the voice registers tone in the wake of the impossibility of communicating in the murky waters of physis.

If at the turn of the century Aby Warburg had shown how modern technical civilization had ended up soaking the mythical force of the serpent from the stormy sky of the Pueblo Indians (and thus the luminous space of contemplation of man in the cosmos); Sewell’s extremely idiosyncratic essay shows, between lines and amidst rhetorical inflation, that the echoes of the mythic imagination are still an integral part of the sliding amore fati, whose “aim is the discovery of the world” (405) [2]. The lesson in our epoch becomes easily adapted: the ethical standard does not prove itself by appealing to norms and substitute fictive authorities, but rather in terms of how well one is able to attend to the incoming vibrations of forms. One can even go as far as contradict Sewell post factum and say that this is no longer a request to be made on science, which has fully ascended to the place of prima philosophia as prima politica. So, it is perhaps love (that figures so poorly in Sewell’s book in relation to the centrality of cerebral intelligence, barely making an appearance in the very last page) the symbol of the highest riches transfiguring myth into a voice that outlives the specter of humanity and the futility of the machine. If orphism means anything, it is that the voice implies withdrawing from the cacophony of a world that has imprisoned the living in the blistering entertainment of their own wrongdoing. “Flebile lingua murmurat exanimis”, signs Ovid — right, but who is still able to listen?




1. Gianni Carchia. Orfismo e tragedia: Il mito trasfigurato (Quodlibet, 2019), 

2. Aby Warburg. “A lecture on Serpent Ritual”, Journal of the Warburg Institute, April 1939, 292. 

Lezama Lima and the Etruscan way. by Gerardo Muñoz

Towards the end of his life, poet José Lezama Lima will mysteriously begin to sign the letters to his friends and family as “the Trocadero Etruscan”, a “member of the Etruscan religiosity”, and even the “man who lives in the Etruscan village” [1]. Why call himself an “Etruscan” in this particular moment of his life, and what could it possibly mean? The question about the meaning of the Etruscan authorial mask has been so thoroughly ignored by the literary critics that commentators at their best have noted that “being Etruscan” merely stands for his “cosmopolitanism” and “well-learned Europeanism”. Of course, this explains little to nothing. A sophisticated poet such as Lezama Lima, who ruminate over every single word he would write, could not have ignored that the Etruscans, unlike the civilized Romans and the Latin authorities, was a remnant to the very civilizational enterprise; a prehistoric people poor in written culture, achieved expressivity by the whole outlook of their form of life. And as in the case of Hölderlin’s adoption of different nom de plume (Scardanelli, Killalusimeno, Scaliger Rosa, etc), Lezama’s becoming Etruscan points to something so fundamental that if underscored we would fail to grasp the endgame of his vital poetic experience. The transfiguration of the name does not merely stand as a metaphor; rather it points to a distant figure that will finally dissolve him so that his immortal voice could continue to live on.

Indeed, the self-identification as an Etruscan for Lezama became a subterfuge to flee a political reality – his political reality, entirely structured by the revolutionary gigantic productivism and subjectivism – through a poetic refraction that would free an ethos from the overpowering of alienated autonomous space of the linguistic reproduction of social life. If at first glance it seems like a paradox that Lezama will adopt the Etruscan figure for his antisocial ethos – a civilization lacking written records or high literary achievements, a religious community known for its necropolis – this strangeness will ultimately prove that behind the Etruscan name there was no poetic exclusivity of the poet’s genius, but rather, as he claims in “A partir de la poesía”, the possibility for a divinization of reality to retreat from the historical epoch. In fact, Etruscan culture for Lezama was not a mere archeological ornament, but one of the “imaginary eras” of the West; that is, a stage of condensed and unnumbered imaginative possibilities resistant to griping subsumption and totalization of values. The Etruscan was the mythic remnant through the pantheistic divinization between language and the world. As Lezama writes glossing, in passing, Vico:

“Vico cree que las palabras sagradas, las sacerdotales, eran las que se transmitían entre los etruscos. Pero para nosotros el pueblo etrusco era esencialmente teocrático. Fue el más evidente caso de un pueblo surge en el misterio de las primeras inauguraciones del dios, el monarca, el sacerdote, y el pueblo unidos en forma indiferenciada … .les prestaba a cada una de sus experiencias o de sus gestos, la participación en un mundo sagrado. […] Pues en aquel pueblo, el nombre y la reminiscencia, animista de cada palabra, cobran un relieve de un solo perfil” [2]. 

The divinization of the Etruscans stubbornly insisted on the wonder of things. The human participation in divinity is no longer about founding a new theocracy or a “theocratic politics” in the hands of a ‘mystic accountant’ that would finally put the nation back in track (into the res publica), as Lezama would solicit out of desperation in the 1950s diaries [3]. On the contrary, for Etruscan people the fundamental tonality was the divine music of experience. Of course, we know that D.H. Lawrence captured this when claiming in his Etruscan Places (1932) that “the Etruscans are not a theory or a thesis. If they are anything, they are an experience. An experience that is always spoilt” [4]. And this experience (like every true experience) needs to be necessarily spoiled, which ultimately means that it cannot be mimetically rendered, arbitrarily modified, or subsumed into the order of idealization. But all of this is merely redundant, since the Etruscan inscription is what accounts for the limit to civilization, becoming the impossibility of the destruction of myth in the arrival of modern aesthetic autonomy. Thus, for Lezama the Etruscan way had something of a persistent cure against the ongoing civilizational disenchantment, even if it does not cease to appear in the modern attitude. In fact, Lezama writes that: “Rimbaud is the best reader of the Etruscan liver” (“hígrado etrusco”) to describe the dislocated position of the poet in the modern world of technology [5]. In the Etruscan cosmology, the liver was a symbolon of the vision of the cosmos registering the divisions of the spheres in the sky through the divine naming of the gods; it is the figure by which the poet guards the desecularizing remnant of the prehistoric inception of myth [6]. But this does not mean that Lezama will look at himself in the mirror of Rimbaud’s symbolist alchemy.

Rimbaud as an Etruscan is the poet who descends into hell because his lyricism can bear the pain in the disruption of language after the archaic peitho. Does the possibility mean a travel back in historical time? Not the least, as Lezama knew how to let go of storytelling and historical necessity. This is why Etruscans stand for an image or a sort of handwoven picture (the hand will make a comeback, as we will see) to gain vision. And this is one case on point: the Etruscan stands paradigmatically to the “sufficient enchantment” (“la cantidad hechizada”) , which discloses a higher knowledge of the soul (psychê) in the taking place of poetic errancy: “Sabemos que muchas veces el alma, al escaparse de su morada, tripulaba un caballo inquieto, afanoso de penetrar en las regiones solares” [7]. To wrestle against the historical reduction of autonomy of the modern age means to find this enchanted sufficiency necessarily for myth remnant to elevate itself against the aesthetic mediation that, in the words of Gianni Carchia, had become a consoling surrogate of the emptied historical time [8]. An entirely other conception of freedom is firmly implicated the Etruscan way: the gathering of the enchanted poetic dwelling to dissolve a reality that had become too thick in the business of brute force purporting to call ‘what’s out there’. The Etruscan reintroduces a divine nominalism of pure exteriority.

However, the Etruscan way does not commute with things of the world; rather, his soul unbinds the empirical limit of death to overcome death, and learn to live as if it were already dead. The trespassing of death through the poetic enchantment – which Lezama will also call an ‘potens etrusca’, or the Etruscan potentiality- will multiply the invisible possibilities against the rhetorical closure of reality legitimation. By accepting the thick of the dead as an illuminated presence, the Etruscans draw out the most important consequence: learning to live among the dead as the ultimate form of a dignified life. This is why D.H. Lawrence reminds us that the underworld of the Etruscans – their refusal of reality, the embrace of their dead, the augurium – was after all “a gay place…For the life on earth was so good, the life below could but be a continuation of it. This profound belief in life, acceptance of life, seems characteristic of the Etruscans. It is still vivid in the painted tombs. They are by no means downtrodden menials, let later Romans say what they will” [9].

If civilization is a construction that takes place at the crust of the Earth as some have claimed; the way of the Etruscan is a downward declination away from the architectural reduction of world sensing [10]. For Lezama the Etruscan dreams of a civilization submerged in the depths that only an acoustic totality that bear witness to its sensorial gradation: “Esas civilizaciones errantes por debajo del mar, sumergidas por el manteo de las arenas o por las extensivas exigencias…reaparecen, a veces, en los sueños de los campesinos” [11]. Hence, the fundamental dignity of poetry resides in the mythical homecoming that guards the possibility for what remains inexistent: “this is why the poet lives in the Etruscan world of the birth of fire” [12]. And although the Etruscan stands as one of the worlds in possession of an imaginary epoch (the other two for Lezama being the Catholic world and the feudal feudal Carolingian Empire), it is only in the Etruscan where the resurrection had taken the transubstantiation in the name itself; even if the price was its own liquidation as a historical people that refused to be incorporated into the doxa of postmythical order [13].  

The fiery force of the mythic peitho outlives and predates the political epoch of the nomos of fixation organized as “One People, One State, One Language” [14]. As Lezama explains in “La dignidad de la poesía”: “…el odio en la polis contra el daimon socrático, hizo que la nueva doxa no logra sustituir a cabalidad el período mítico….Si por lo mitos, los dioses se irritable con la felicidad de los de los mortales, pero al menos, se interesaban por sus destinos; en la nueva doxa, la poesis se extinguía – el daimon individual reemplazando al destino individual liberado de la polis” [15]. The primacy of myth as orientation to happiness should make clear that for Lezama the poetics of naming follows the overflow of its permanent modalization [16]. The Etruscan way marks the path for the irrevocable retreat from the space of the polis where civilization will be erected on the grounds of deliating ethos and daimon, polis and poesis, and ultimately life and death as a rubric of a new science of separation. The fact that the civilization of social reproduction has been erected on the basis of the destruction of the chthonic underworld speaks to the systematic erasure from the dead as a vital extension of life [17]. The poetic natality of the Etruscans will only be cultivated, as Aby Warburg suggests, from the assumption of deep superstition in the face of the placement of political autonomy, which allows for the persistence of the image as inseparable from the needs and uses of the living [18]. And only persistence could prepare the final triumph over death.


Towards the later phase of his work, the poet seems to never want to abandon the Etruscan inframundo. Lezama returns to the Etruscan scene towards the end and unfinished novel, Oppiano Licario (1977), in which the central character Fronesis describes at length the mutation of reality following the footsteps at a distance of Ynaca Licario slowly merging into the Tarquinia necropolis painted wall, which is accompanied by a visual reproduction of the Etruscan tomb:

“El sacerdote, en el lateral izquierdo, hace gestos de ensalmo en torno a una espiga de triga. Un pájaro que se acerca queda detenido sin poder posarse en el ámbito hechizado de la hoja. En el lateral derecho, el sacerdote repite idéntico rito, pero ahora de la raíz colorida hace saltar la liebre que cavaba en las profundidades. El aire cubría como unas redes de secreta protección en torno de la mutabilidad de las hojas y de la inmovil jactancia de los troncos. Una indetenible pero resguardada evaporación alcanza aquella llanura con los muertos …La conversación subterránea era el símbolo del vencimiento de la muerte. [20]

The ongoing conversation (the shared word koina ta philōn) in a mysterious divine language had triumphed over death because it had overcome death and the sight of death. It is no longer the transposition of a historical sublime that must protect experience from the fixity of the human corpse, since the soul can escape the limit of form. In passing through and embracing death, the Etruscan validated their passions for mirrors and the palm, which according to Lezama is the true keep of the appearance of the uttermost revealing of the face in its own irreducible ethos. The possibility (potens etrusca) of defeating death while in life finds in the Etruscan appearance Lezama’s most intimate poetic arcana: the persistence of the anima renounces symbolic legibility as too innocuous and ornamental; where the flags of victories now resembled an accumulation of well settled defeats nurtured in the name of the muteness over “life”.

The Etruscan distance mysterium validated myth as the affirmation of the cosmos as based on the potentiality of contemplative imagination [21]. Lezama will call this distance the “eros de la lejanía” (Eros of distance) in the experience of the inframundo that will break through by affirming the possibilities of divine naming as a correlative causation in the world [22]. As Lezama tells his sister in a letter from 1966, he had already assumed to have crossed the bridge between the dead and the living: “Para mi ya ha sucedido todo lo que podía tocarme….Pues creo ya haber alcanzado en mi vida esa unidad entre los vivientes y los que esperan la voz de la resurrección que es la supresa contemplación” [23]. Or yet again: “El que está muerto en la muerte, vive, pero el que está muerto en la vida, es la única forma para mi conocida de la vida en su turbión, en su escala musical, en su fuego cortado” [24]. To scale up life to the higher music is the final trope of happiness as already dead. The Etruscan dirita vía of descension – “a weight going down” of stepping into the Earth, as Ruskin would have it – achieves the arrest of the divine contact between the voice and the dead [25]. It is for us to raise this mirror before our impoverished and fictive unswerving reality.




1. José Lezama Lima. Cartas a Eloísa y otra correspondencia (1939-1976) (Verbum, 1998), 230.

2.  José Lezama Lima. “A partir de la poesía”, in Obras Completas, Tomo II (Aguilar, 1977), 831.

3.  José Lezama Lima. Diario (Verbum, 2014), 87.

4. D. H. Lawrence. Etruscan Places (The Viking Press, 1957),  90.

5. José Lezama Lima. “La pintura y la poesía en Cuba”, in Obras Completas, Tomo II (Aguilar, 1977), 968 

6. Gustav Herbig. “Etruscan Religion”, in Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Volume V (Dravidians-Fichte, 1912), 533.

7. José Lezama Lima. “Introducción a los vasos órficos”, Obras Completas, Tomo II (Aguilar, 1977), 861. 

8. Gianni Carchia. Orfismo e tragedia (Quodlibet, 2019), 81.

9. D.H. Lawrence. Etruscan Places (The Viking Press, 1957), 31.

10. Amadeo Bordiga. “Specie umana e crosta terrestre”, in Drammi gialli e sinistre della moderna decadenza sociale (Iskra, 1978). 

11. José Lezama Lima. “Estatuas y sueños”, in Obras Completas, Tomo II (Aguilar, 1977), 449.

12.  José Lezama Lima. “La dignidad de la poesía”, in Obras Completas, Tomo II (Aguilar, 1977), 774. 

13. Ibid., 776.

14. Erich Unger. Die staatslose Bildung eines jüdischen Volkes (Verlag David, 1922).

15.  José Lezama Lima. “La dignidad de la poesía”, in Obras Completas, Tomo II (Aguilar, 1977), 777.

16. Monica Ferrando. “Presentazione”, in Hermann Usener, Triade: saggio di numerologia mitologica (Guida Editori, 1993).

1176.  Giorgio Agamben. “Gaia e Ctonia”, Quodlibet, 2020 

18. Aby Warburg. The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity (Getty, 1999), 189.

19. Image included in Chapter VII of Oppiano Licario (Cátedra, 1989), 375. 

20. José Lezama Lima. Oppiano Licario (Cátadra, 1989), 374.

21. Aby Warburg’s treatment of the symbolic mediation between myth and distance appears at the center of his essay on Pueblo Indians. See, Aby Warburg, El ritual de la serpiente (Sexto Piso, 2022), 66.  And also, Franz Boll, Vita Contemplativa (Heidelberg, 1920), who connects contemplari to the augur’s spatiality of the templum.

22. José Lezama Lima. Cartas a Eloísa y otra correspondencia (1939-1976) (Verbum, 1998), 411.

23. Ibid., 109.

24. Ibid., 266. 

25. John Ruskin. The Letters of John Ruskin (George Allen, 1909), 133.

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.

An epoch unmoved (III). by Gerardo Muñoz

I find myself returning to Ramón Williams’ photograph “The Iceberg” (2013). It is a rather simple composition, but one that builds a strange and uncanny sense of place. It liberates a vista, but it cut through a solid structure that forecloses the horizon with a harsh juxtaposition. This rocky texture becomes one with the sea. Interior and exterior, forefront and background appear at a level of proximity that the movement of de-structuring assists in framing. Williams’ picture draws us towards a non-object: the very possibility of view. It is an experiment with a sense of surface that recalls another geological time; a sense that all too quickly recoils back to earth. It puts us near the matter of view. By liberating the eye, a clear sense of the world takes place.

Now, to be moved in an epoch of closure means that we narrow on the constraint. This is Williams’ challenge: the all too rocky surface bestows a sense of distance, and thus, an outside. This is no longer an abstraction of the medium or an effect of ‘theatricality’. Presumably, all of that is dissolved under the condition of the view. We are standing somewhere; not precisely in water, nor in the city. “The Iceberg” is a farewell to the metropolis at the moment in which desertion is no longer an aspiration but a taking place. There is no horizon and no time either leaving or coming. We are in a lapsus of inhabiting a fragment of the world. Here I experience the outside. Is not this what remains on the other side of the unmoved? I take this to be the question prompted by Williams’ picture.

I want this photograph to speak to me about desertion from the world unmoved. We can recall that Agamemnon uses a specific word to describe his conundrum: lipanous. Specifically, he asks: “How should I become a deserter (pōs liponaus genōmai)?” As it has been explained, the condition of lipanous is not just anyone, but a deserter from a ship. It is no longer how I can lead myself astray from the tasks of the heedless navigator, nor if I can pretend to be an ally in a ship possessed by a silent mutiny. The lipanous, on the contrary, moves beyond alliance and helpless dissensus towards a movement that experiences the clear. This means that the task of a deserter in thought is facilitated by the view. It is no longer language as an exteriority of things; it is how things become irreducible to the language in a decentered image without objects. Whereas in the city I can identify volumes; as a lipanous I am granted a new vision.

Here poetry assists us in a movement towards self-recension. Jana Prikyl writes in a wonderful verse: “Appian way, autobahn – those folks’ wildest dreams too were escape routes.” Obviously, these roads cannot longer prepare a flight. The Appian road and autobahn are civilizational tracks of a world now lost. This is at the heart of Williams’ craft: the course of de-civilization begins with lipanous at the level of the most apparent; not in the sea and most definitively not at ground level. Prikyl writes in the next verse: “with maybe a girl in evening dress waking onboard that takes vision.”

This little thought experiment doubles Williams’ phototactic concern by asking the following: how do we take a vision of a lighted world as a natural element for inclination? What ‘moves’ here is no longer the instantaneous stimulus of the waking to the vision. It is a via di uscita. But a vision of a particular kind, in which I am forced to be a deserter – chipped from the mast of the world into the melody with the true things (étuma).




*Image: Ramón Williams, “The Iceberg” (2013). 

Notas sobre encuentro “Parodia, Dictadura, Metafísica, y Revuelta”, Academia de Santiago, Enero-Marzo 2020. Segunda sesión. Por Gerardo Muñoz

¿Qué puede la parodia hoy en un tiempo sin epokhe? O tal vez deberíamos alterar levemente la pregunta: ¿cómo puede la parodia desde la lluvia de la imagen? Primero, la parodia ya no está contenida paragonalmente en un concepto, sino como forma de vida. La parodia ya no tiene fuerza para parodiar una “cabeza” o un “centro” una vez que aceptamos la hipótesis cibernética, pues ahora se trata de la organización del poder a partir de la administración de los flujos. Y segundo, tampoco la parodia es violencia que destituye la sobrecarga de la data lingüística como ‘objetualidad’ de la lengua. En realidad, este fue el problema de Hölderlin en la aurora de la modernidad: ¿cómo volver a deponer la lengua del sujeto hacia lo informe de la poesía? Empédocles como experimento en esa dirección. ¿Empédocles como nuevo Cristo arcaico? ¿Qué funda un sacrificio que tan solo quiere entrar en relación con lo aorgánico, y que en modo absoluto quiere formar cuerpo místico? Dejamos la cuestión en suspenso para otro momento, aunque habría que suponer que el gesto ateológico de Hölderlin es una transfiguración que no coincide con una inversión cristológica, sino que la ex-carna. Y en esa ex-carnación hay un paso atrás con respecto al momento moderno de la auto-afirmación política (y de toda política revolucionaria post-1789).

Por eso no hay articulación posible entre poesía y política. Esa relación abismal es la que hay que superar dejando a un lado la subjetividad de la filosofia de la historia y sus ‘coeficientes políticos’, como les llamó Simón Villalobos. El poema hace otra cosa con la política; otra cosa que escapa a la ‘contra-hegemonía’ que abastece en su negatividad. Al final, este es también el problema de la categoría de la multitud como zona de multiplicidad (‘subjetividad aglutinante’, como se ha dicho en ocasiones), pues una cosa es la infinitización de las posibilidades del singular, y otra muy distinta es la multiplicación de la subjetividad como fuerza de una orientación interna a la conducción de la historia. Si algo nos ex-pone el poema en su potencia de voz es la caída misma de lo múltiple hacia sus encuentro. Una multitud o una plebe, ya no como sombra del pueblo del Uno, figura en los modos en que el singular experimenta sus posibilidad en el encuentro. Pero esto ya no es necesariamente político, ni prepara ninguna fase hacia un poder “constituyente”. Por ahí solo repetimos el viejo paradigma del liberalismo, ahora desde conceptos subsidiarios como ‘hegemonía’ o multitud o subjetividad o esfera pública. Ser testigo del desfundamento de lo político supone abandonar la gramática de la subjetividad; pensar en el otro del sujeto moderno. Al final en eso consiste la tarea de la destrucción tras el fin de la legitimidad.

En realidad, proclamar el fin de la legitimidad supone afirmar que la ‘representación’ ya no da más en política, y por lo tanto en ninguna de las prácticas de la vida humana. La situación es de parábasis: el teatro se suspende y la persona ahora deviene un cualsea. Ya de nada vale entrar en una nueva economía del saber de la ironía; por el contrario, la interrupción de la representación del teatro nos abre a la experiencia aquí y ahora en un proceso de des-realización. Y en la des-realización tomamos partido por las imágenes que constituyen nuestros hábitos y ritmos. Asegurarse que eso permanezca en el tiempo pudiera servir como condicion para una institución de lo impropio. Esto ya nada tiene que ver con el “común” apropiativo y produccionista del comunitarismo contemporáneo. El fin de la representación teatral nos devuelve a todos un carácter (ethos) sin destino (fines). Al final, lo que está en juego en la apertura de la parábasis que destruye la forma paródica es esto: mi forma de vida que ya no aspira a ser un cualidad que participa de una eidos superior, sino los modos de lo que ya puedo ser. Ajens recoge una mínima definición de Werner Hamacher ligada a la filología: “la filología es la parodia del lenguaje, porque muestra pero no significa”. La forma de vida es aquello que muestra los gestos de cada forma de vida.

En su compleja intervención Andrés Ajens recuerda de la importancia de vigilar sobre las cesuras que organizan el topoi de la parodia: comedia contra tragedia, serio contra cómico, pero también uno pudiera decir guerra contra juego, persuasión contra retórica, o carácter contra acción. Por eso es importante preguntarnos cómo pensar una vida paródica y no su uso instrumental, lo cual se mantendría completamente ajeno a la interrupción de la economía entre pensar y acción de la representación. Si el poder hoy es paródico (y produce efectos irónicos) es porque en la volatilidad de la carcajada busca la provocación. Y en la provocación se “exige” que el singular se revista de sujeto que “debe actuar”. A partir de la provocación se fomenta la movilización. En este sentido, lo que emerge tras el fin de un principio común de contrato social es un deber compensatorio. Es lo que se ha llamado culpa. Por eso es que la parábasis pudiera tener consecuencias desicivas para lo que entendemos por una forma de vida que ya no puede definirse (trágicamente) mediante sus acciones. Esto lo ha visto bien Giorgio Agamben en Pulcinella ovvero divertimento per li regazzi (2015):

“La commedia antica ha conservato il suo nucleo originario nella parabasi. Il termine – che significa letteralmente latto di camminar di lato, deviare, trasgredire – denotava il momento in cui, dopo che l’azione si era interrotta e gli attori erano usciti di scena, il coro si toglieva la maschera e, rivolgendosi direttamente agli spettatori, ridiventava quel che era in origine: komos, un allegro, tumultuoso, insolente corteggio dionisiaco. La parabasi non era, in questo senso, soltanto un’interruzione o una deviazione: era un’interrzuione in cui di colpo appariva l’origine – o, se si vuole, un’origine che si manifestava infrangendo e scompaginando lo svolgimento scontato dell’azione. […] Nella vita dellig uomini – questo e il suo insegnamento – la sola cosa importante e trovare una via d’uscita. Verso dove? Verso l’origine. Perche l’origine sta empre nel mezzo, si da solo como interruzione. E l’interruzione e una via d’uscita. Ubi fraccasorium, ibi fuggitorium – dove c’e una castrofe, la c’e una via di fuga”. (45).

Pulcinella es la figura o el mito que aparece una vez que los principios políticos ya no pueden organizarse desde la legitimidad, la distribución de poderes en el mundo entre gobernados y gobernantes. Esa es la des-articulación que la demanda busca suturar. Por eso es que hablamos de un momento experiencial o de una anarquía de los fenómenos. La parábasis, en resumidas cuentas, no es un movimiento retórico en el plano del discurso y de la justificaciones, sino la transfiguración del sujeto una vez que es dispensado de la dimensión paragonal de la representación. Pulcinella es el resto que vive lo invivido sin culpa y sin pena; tal vez ajeno a la pulsión de muerte. Aquí se juega otro sentido de la errancia que excede a la densidad conceptual de lo que los modernos y los antiguos entendieran por “libertad”, ese oscuro supuesto encarnado en toda actio.

Dos últimos apuntes: en la medida en que la parábasis destruye la parodia, toda parodia del poder termina siendo una mera inversión del poder que nutre el rendimiento de la máquina (algo así como el anti-trumpismo que termina contribuyendo a una parodia incluso más efectiva que la del propio el trumpismo). Y segundo: en el caso chileno, se debiera recordar que la escritura de una constitución tiene algo de ejercicio paródico en la medida en que suprime la parábasis desde la disponibilidad de l dispositivo del poder constituyente. Como saben muy bien los historiadores del constitucionalismo anglosajón, nada es más misterioso que el origen de una written constitution. Y no por el hecho de haber sido escrita, sino porque sabemos que la historia efectiva y material del constitucionalismo en realidad se termina decantando por una serie de normas, precedentes, configuraciones institucionales, desiciones delegadas, y modos de excepción que permanecen unwritten en la carta magna. La constitución taponea el vacío que la constituye en su dinamismo eterno. Emprender un camino hacia de salida, en cambio, ya no constituirá destino, sino que expone carácter. Es lo hace el propio Pulcinella desde su voz y entonación.

Some Notes Regarding Hölderlin’s “Search for the Free Use of One’s Own”. By Gerardo Muñoz.

In what follows, I want to comment on Martin Heidegger’s reading of Hölderlin’s well-known dictum from his 1801 letter to his friend Casimir Bohlendorff, “the free use of the proper is the most difficult thing”. Heidegger devotes a whole section to this enigmatic phrase in the recently translated 1941-42 Hölderlin’s Hymn “Remembrance” (2018) seminar, which dates to the years in which he was confronting Nietzsche’s work, and also more explicitly and for obvious reasons, the issue of German nationalism [1]. In the wake of recent conversations about nationalism and patriotism in political rhetoric, it seems like a fitting time to return to Heidegger’s comments on Hölderlin’s work. This also marks a turn in Heidegger’s thinking of the poetic in the strong sense of the term, which has been analyzed widely in the literature.

Heidegger begins by claiming that the “free use of one’s ownmost” requires a direct confrontation with “the foreign” but that at the same time, it is the easiest thing to miss (Heidegger 105). What is difficult is that which is already one’s own and nearest, and because it is intuitive, it is easy to overlook it. What is difficult is not due to some kind of epistemological overcapacity that today we would associate with the complexity of technical density, but rather, it is an immediate inhabitation, a mood of our belonging that is grasped beyond consciousness and propriety. Hence, it is easy to discard it in a gesture of dismissal due to its familiarity. It happened even to the Greeks.

Heidegger quotes Hölderlin’s verses referencing the loss of the ‘fatherland’: “Of the fatherland and pitifully did / Greece, the most beautiful, perish” (Heidegger 105). Following an obscure Pindar fragment on the “shadow’s dream”, Heidegger shows that the absence is the most important element to illuminate the unreal as it transitions to the real. And this is what the poet does. Indeed, the poet can establish a “footbridge”, or rather it came bring it forth, to initiate a transition towards “what is historically one’s own” (Heidegger 109). If anything, what Greece and Germania point to in Hölderlin’s poetry is this otherwise of historical presencing, which Heidegger admits has nothing to do with historiographical accumulation or cultural metaphorcity (Heidegger 109). At times it is all too easy to dismiss what is at stake here. In the beginning of the twentieth century, for instance, E.M. Butler wrote a book titled The Tyranny of Greece over Germany (1935), which studied the “classical influence” of all things Greek since Winckelmann and German Idealism. Many do not cease to repeat the cliché that Heidegger’s thinking – even Schmitt in Glossarium laments the fascination with Hölderlin over Daubler, which is also the controversy between the critique of logos and a Christological conception of History – is a flight back to Greek ruminations for a new German beginning.

Obviously, this is not Heidegger’s interest in reading the holderlinian use of one’s own. There is no cultural equivalence between the German and the Greek sense of belonging; rather it seems that what Heidegger is after is another way of thinking the historicity of the people, which is fundamentally a problem with the relation with time: “A humankind’s freedom in relation to itself consists in funding, appropriating, and being able to use of what is one’s own. It is in this that the historicality of a people resides” (Heidegger 111). The poet is the figure that, by asking the question about the most difficult thing (one’s use of the proper), can discover this task. Only he can take over the business of founding it (Heidegger 112). The task of the poet is always this “seeking”, which is already in Hölderlin’s first fragment in his novel Hyperion: “We are nothing: what we seek is everything” (Heidegger 113). The task of seeking opens itself to what is the highest and the most holy, which for Hölderlin is the “fatherland’. It is “holy” precisely because it is forbidden and the most difficult to retain.

We are far away here from the sacrificial structure of Hölderlin’s “Der Tod Furs Vaterland” (“To Die for the Homeland”), which Helena Cortés Gabaudan has read in light of the archaic Horacian trope of ‘dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’; a staging of the heroic ethos against the backdrop of the aporetic conceit between thinking and action, the sword and the pen, the poet and the warrior in the early stages of the artist fallen into the age of revolutions [2]. Something else is going on in “Remembrance” use of one’s own at the level of the very transformative nature of historical time, in so much as that which is most holy is nothing that resembles a past principle (a work of art stored in a museum, or the poem as an artistic medium), but rather an atheology, which is never negation or lack; it is always nearness to one’s own as the encounter with what’s “holy” (Heidegger 117).

This atheology suspends any given theistic structure in the act of poetizing. (Is it even correct to refer it as an “act”?). And this poetizing is the task as passage is the inscription of the impossible relation with one’s use here and now. But where does the “political” fit in this picture, one could ask? Is Hölderlin’s turn towards the “use of the national” (Vaterland) entirely a question driven by a political vocation of some sort? This is a poet, one must remember, frustrated by the belated condition of nationhood that sealed Germany’s destiny in the wake of the French Revolution. Hölderlin is first and foremost a poet of political disenchantment and a witness to how politics cannot escape this tragic fate. Indeed, only the poet can actually look straight at this predicament, unlike the political thinker who fantasies with a programmed “assault on the heavens”. In an important moment of the analysis, Heidegger touches this problem:

“What is more obvious than to interpret the turn to the fatherland along the lines of a turn to the “political”? However, what Hölderlin names the fatherland is not enchanted by the political, no matter how broadly one may conceive the latter…The turn to the fatherland is not the turn to the political either, however“. (Heidegger 120).

Undoubtedly, this is a Parthian arrow directed at the political essence of the national understood as a gigantism of state, culture, and history as it was conjuring up in the European interwar period. It is also takes a distance from any given “standpoint” of the national becoming. In this sense, I am in agreement with poet Andrés Ajens’ suggestion that, against the dialectics of locational “alternative histories”, the problem of the national is that of an infinite task of the “desnacional” (this is Ajens’s own term) under erasure, in relation to the “foreign”, in preparation for the “passage of learning to appreciate one’s own” (Heidegger 120) [3]. What we cannot grasp in the national is precisely what bears the trace of the task of ‘denationalization’ as the homecoming of “the clarity of presentation” in its discrete singularity (Heidegger 122). This last line is also from the letter to Bohlendorff.

It is interesting that every time that the form of denationalization has been referred to in strictly political terms, it entails the overcoming of politics by an exogenous force that liquidates the capacities for its own limits. This is, indeed, the realm of the political in the strong sense of the term, in line with the emergence of sovereignty that Hölderlin’s poetic thought wants to curve toward an otherwise of the national. This use of the national wouldn’t let itself be incubated by the supremacy of the political. Let us call this an infrapolitical kernel of patriotism.

This is why at the very end of this session Heidegger mentions that Hölderlin, unlike Nietzsche, must be understood as a “harbinger of the overcoming of all metaphysics” (Heidegger 122). We wonder whether the emphasis on the “People”, however fractured or originary, does not carry a residue of metaphysical rouse. Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly true that Hölderlin aims at something higher. Perhaps he aims at an “inebriation that is different from the “intoxication of enthusiasm” (Heidegger 125); that is, a distance from Kant who elevated the perception of the French Revolution as an anthropological affection.

The step back of the singularity is driven by the “soul” – which Heidegger connects to the polysemic usage of the word Gemüt (at times translated as disposition or gathering) – as other than politics, since it sees through the offering of the dark light and keeps thinking in the human. Transposing it to our discussion, we can say that a politics is irreducible to Gemüt, and that only Gemüt is the excess in every politics. The use of one’s own, vis-a-vis the national (or the process of denationalization), is a resource to attune oneself with this “disposition”. No human can bear to be human without it. Hölderlin seeks to reserve this poverty as the primary task of the poet as a radical neutralization of all techno-political missteps. Or, in the last words in the session: “…it is the while of the equalization of destiny” (Heidegger 131).





  1. Martin Heidegger. Hölderlin’s Hymn “Remembrance”. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2018.
  2. Friedrich Hölderlin. Poesía esencial, ed. Helena Cortés Gabaudan. Madrid: Oficina de Arte y Ediciones, 2018.
  3. From a personal exchange with Andrés Ajens.