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.