Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

"Poetry and Society - after Adorno" by Hatto Fischer

Goethe Institute in Athens

1.June 1993


Ladies and Gentlemen,

We come together this evening not to celebrate poetry, or stress the need of celebrating something by honoring it with a poem, but to reflect.

In recent times we have seen at the inauguration of President Clinton the powerful use of poetry. It speaks out an intellectual commitment over and beyond the political dividing lines which separate societies as much as the individuals within. I am referring here, of course, to Maya Angelou and her poem “With Hope, Good Morning.” The presence of a poetess reminded everyone of Robert Frost’s spirited improvisation at the inauguration of J.F. Kennedy.

However, I do not intend to talk about the relationship between poetry and politics, for the latter is always a given as a kind of boisterous loudness, but which allows hardly the human voice be heard and which poetry searches for. Rather focus will be on what allows poetry to go beyond the given, while retaining the ability to listen to the lyrical ‘I’ as the defining scope of poetry itself.

You will understand better this theme once three brief remarks have been made.

As a first remark, I would like to cite Peter Brook’s reply to his being awarded with the Onassis prize. He said something about that ‘poetic voice’ having been present in Ancient Greece, in the tragic theatre at that time, while modern theatre is but a mere rearrangement of fragments, until for just a tiny moment this ‘poetic voice’ reappears before disappearing again. The reason Peter Brooks gives for its disappearance is two folded: for one, we, that is our present societies, do no not deserve such a voice, and for another, there exists no longer that kind of polis which is prepared to listen as to what a ‘poetic voice’ has to say. One conclusion to be drawn out of this could be an explanation as to why poetry has gone completely ‘subjective’, that is, why it has turned inwards. Perhaps it wishes to hover there in silence, in order to make it possible to listen, if that voice returns. Naturally all depends upon a poet’s choice of words, and once chosen and expressed, whether or not they can go beyond dividing lines to reach others. It seems what we deserve, that this depends upon the conditions which we have chosen to live under. Poetry would be, therefore, more often than not a lonely expression of agony because no one listens, and moreover no one wishing to hear those elements of truth only the human voice can convey. Thus we depend in turn upon being freed from the pretentious postures of a society trying to be something, rather than being prepared and free to listen.

The second remark concerns both critical and reflective principles which touch upon the relationship between poetry and society. For instance, Sigmund Freud pointed out that poetry is a source of mythology which can be seized upon by someone seeking to hold the power over that society. He does so by communicating through poetry a specific world view (“Weltanschauung”), and thereby can establish his specific rule of the law he wishes to impose. Somewhat differently was the explanation given by the philosopher of religion, namely Klaus Heinrich, who interpreted Ovid’s ‘Metamorphosis’ as a particular logic according to which society and forms of production shall be organized. This sense of logic reappeared in R.D. Laing’s powerful suggestion that human relationships end up being entangled in ‘knots’. To undo them, poetry is needed as it follows quite a different logic than the usual analytical one, and thereby allows for human relationships to regain trust in one another. This idea caught on especially in the aftermaths of the student movement, that is in a period when subjective disillusionment meant also more and more a willingness to confront psychological problems. Not at all surprising is, therefore, that the philosopher Michel Foucault could make his impact be felt. His book about the ‘history of insanity’ is very much about society’s assertion of reason leading to people being declared as insane if not willing to follow such a reason, and hence are locked away in some asylum because society is unwilling to understand their different approach to life. Foucault tried to create conditions for articulation such as prisoners making their own newspapers and thereby objectivizing opinions of all inmates about conditions in the prison, or what awaits them once outside again. He wanted that people speak up by themselves, and hence he would say even the one who stutters may be closer to the truth than someone capable of holding a smooth speech. He urged others to cross over that lake of silence which can be at times a secretive, equally deeply disturbing mirror for the self. German academic philosophers denied this philosophical approach although so much richer in content than the usual text interpretations about Kant or Hegel. Of course, self-understanding is hardly self-understood as Adorno would outline at the beginning of his aesthetical writings. One of the key sentences in Michel Foucault’s approach to poetry is famous saying, that “we have to discover the places of silence before the lyrical protest covers them up!” In short, a poem should not be taken as a representative sign for personal feelings, as if a flag, symbol or gesture of something which replace the efforts needed to find one’s own word and identity. Thus everything must be undertaken by all, so that the human voices form together a human language. The fact that during First World War many soldiers used poems by Rilke to declare their feelings when writing home to their girlfriends, is but a massive sign for how easily poetry can be misused for representative purposes when the soldiers did not really find their own voice. This remark would by itself lead to a further discussion about the limits of poetry or what limitations poetry must set itself, in order to set free the human voice.

The third remark is about cultural differences and particular backgrounds. In mentioning Maya Angelou and Robert Frost, I refer naturally to the tradition of poetry in the United States of America, and would include further poets such as William Carlos Williams who was a doctor who wrote poems the moment his patients had left his office. He would through poetry contrast the medical-scientific perception with the anthropological, human viewpoint when describing a patient of his as someone sprinkling the lawn in front of his house and being just a normal human being in midst of society. Obviously, there are cultural differences in perception, especially when speaking here in Athens, and then in reference to both the Ancient Past and a difficult to identify ongoing present. We refer to modern Greece since Second World War and the German occupation, followed by civil war 1945-48, and then interrupted again by the military dictatorship 1967-74 as being mainly a continuity of discontinuity. There come to mind poets like Elytis or Ritsos who are very much connected to that painful history implying divisions, false voices and above all the inability to listen to what Michel Foucault had called also the ‘voice of reason’. Speaking from a position of being an outsider to Greek society, and yet close enough to be a bit within, it is important to make to transform this third remark into a critical hypothesis. If poetry is to go beyond the mere given, responses to ongoing changes are just as important, if not more so, than the constant references to the Ancient Past. Cultural adaptation proves itself through an ability to work with changes. Only then a continuity of this search for the ‘poetic voice’ can be upheld despite all the other discontinuities. As there seems to be prevailing quite a different viewpoint when it comes to look back in time, into the immediate past, there is no need to mention, for example, the vast difference between Germany seeking to come to terms with what had gripped the country during National Socialism, and which ended in the Holocaust as an industrial denial of human lives, and Greece which suffered under German occupation as shown among many others by Elytis in his “To Axion Esti”. But rather than looking more closely as to what is happening in terms of poetry right now in both Greece and Germany, I want to say something about the title I have given to this brief presentation: “From Hoelderlin to Adorno”.

From what I have said already so far, certain associations can be made as far as both Hoelderlin and Adorno are concerned. For instance, Hoelderlin’s poems are full of searches for possibilities to celebrate life. When he turns repeatedly to Ancient Greece, then with an often bewildered enthusiasm shared by many who marvel at that past while being disgusted with their own ‘present’ times. Hoelderlin expresses this very clearly in his famous poem “Bread and Wine”: at first he finds himself to be in a dream-like state of mind and sees himself being back in Ancient Greece amongst people who celebrate, dance, sing and drink once the market and work itself is over; then, reality fetches him back into what looks like a friendly small town like Stuttgart or Tuebingen, but when he reaches the market just after six and therefore closing time, he finds instead of people celebrating life together, that everyone has gone home, so that the silent order to things has been restored. In such a situation, he finds himself as a poet outside of society in which the apparently successful ones with job, family and house, locked themselves away by withdrawing into their houses. It is like that in all of the paintings by Vincent Van Gogh: all doors and windows of the houses are shut and the only path to walk along is the one leading past the last house and out into the fields with the horizon meeting the earth at a distance to signal already ‘a life after death’.

Hoelderlin longed more and more from some relief from this agony. It is a pain in need to be understood. He ended up due to not finding any cure or relief spending the second half of his life in a tower in Tuebingen. The tower was not a prison or a psychiatric ward nor a museum where Nietzsche was placed by his sister in a shop window, but clearly a confinement not only by the walls. For no one really understood what he was trying to say in his fragments of poems and writings. Still, he was a master of the comma and use of the German language.

Hoelderlin seized upon the figure of Empedocles due to a wish of his. He wanted to turn poetic voices of Ancient Greece into ‘seeing poetry’ in the present. Prophet like he wanted to see beyond the walls of the tower and that of the houses of the village, but there was no real sign that the society at his time was ready for a revolutionary change. He searched and searched for that poetic voice, and found it more often close by in someone like Diotima, but then for just a moment before it slipped, so to speak, again out of his hands. It is most interesting that Hoelderlin lets Manes, the wise man, say to Empedocles “why do you not come down from that peak of the Etna and live amongst us, by doing your chores like peeling potatoes and playing with the children, rather than wait up here, in that cold, just because you want to keep waiting for some kind of inspiration!”

In other words, practical wisdom expressed best through poetry can begin an interesting dialogue between a poetic life, imagined or real, and the philosophical seizure of great ideas. Hoelderlin was a close friend of Hegel and Schelling, later on of Fichte. Consequently he seized upon a kind of philosophical poetry which differs, however, from let us say, Homer’s Odysseus, and yet in all of Hoelderlin’s writings appears a vain attempt to imitate the model of Ancient Greece even though he imposed upon it due to his religious upbringing what he thought would bring everything together in the ‘one’. It was, however, a projected ideal upon a past not really lived personally but merely imagined and interpreted according to the available texts. This ancient past has been an unsatisfied longing of many German poets and philosophers all ending up to be some kind or another Idealist, and at the same time Romanticist. It is important that this duality of philosophy and poetry is understood in Ancient Greece has left as a sort of heritage for future generations to come. One of these paradoxes is that Hoelderlin admired Plato despite of the latter declaring poetry should not be a part of the academy, for it is not a valid source of truth. Hegel was to repeat that argument. In principle this leads to banishment with a figure like Empedocles ending up in exile. Later on it was practiced by the Romantics who were always the wanderers, that is in search of a society which would take them in, rather than leave them stranded or else send them off on a ‘ship of fools’ (Brant). This practice had by the way many implications, especially for a philosophical concept like ‘Reich der Freiheit’ – empire of freedom. Hoelderlin shared this concept with Hegel, and thus it influenced his choice of form and contents with the political implications going well beyond what Hoelderlin himself was able to anticipate. For instance, his poem “Fatherland” in which he declares that he does not wish to die an ordinary death, but he would not mind to die in a fight for freedom of the fatherland, was seized upon by Hitler to entice especially the use to join his war efforts.

The more real and far more serious implication of this Idealism linked to concepts begins, however, with the denial of the immediate present, and therefore with what can be seen, tasted, smelt, heard and touched, in short felt by means of sense perception. Consequently it ends with being a prisoner of the very own concept one has sworn allegiance to. Hence the contradiction between empire and freedom is not really noticed. The non-reconcilable antagonism between wishing to be ‘one’, that is being together with the others and celebrating life, and the experience of constant separation from real life as imagined in reference to Ancient Greece, transformed this poetic affinity to abstract formulas super-seeding life into a dangerous potential for the future. Today this potential is called ‘latent violence’. It is a force which is no longer prepared to listen, to hear different ideas, but which wants to see only actions, actions which take place, however, outside language and cannot, therefore, be reflected upon to know what is going on. At the same time the paradox manifests itself because the action aims to be totally in conformity with the concept of being one with that action. The saying, actions speak louder than words, underlines that, but those who believe that do not realize that any personal identity will destroy itself by giving itself such a concept which allows the identification with the action (i.e. Hegel saying “Das Ich geht im Begriff zugrunde.”)

Adorno is known for his statement that “no more poetry is possible after Auschwitz.” This sad fact about what happened during the Holocaust made Guenter Grass pick the color ‘grey’ as aesthetical declaration, yet was Adorno fully aware of the deeper implications when poetry and philosopher try to mix, or philosophy seeks to intervene in poetic writing. It can lead, if not to an explosive mixture, to still greater misunderstandings as was the case between him and Paul Celan. Adorno did, however, try to reverse that.

In his famous lecture about poetry and society, Adorno begins by trying to overcome the suspicion in the audience or even mistrust and fear, that a philosophical reflection will end up in mere categorization of poetry. That fragile entity called poetry to be treated by heavy philosophical concepts, that can send shivers down the spine. Indeed, Adorno is and has been criticized by many for his reflective use of language, since for many most difficult, if not impossible to understand. But that is exactly what Adorno would recommend as a first moral principle when it comes to writing down things. In 'Minima Moralia" he recommends 'to write down everything that one does not understand.' In other words, overcome yourself that built-in mechanism of defense society has given to you and which can be called either protection against the unknown or censorship. In either case the risk is that everything shall be reduced to the already known, so that all expressions end up being but tautologies, or else familiar pretensions to know something when not really true and finally possibly as well a mere cult, a ritualized form of mystified knowledge subject to rituals beseeching such source of know-how, as in the case of Rilke. Thus one practical step for Adorno is to recognize the fact that every poetic expression reflects the antagonistic conditions inherent in society. In short, a poem is not merely subjective, but there is something objective about a poetic expression, and which is in need to be discussed.

Hence there is a difference between succumbing to the given or else in finding such a form which resists that. As Adorno would put it aptly a good poem is like an imagined possibility of flying over all the impossibilities. For a poem to be good, there must be a lucky moment in which sounds and form come together, so as to lift everything over and beyond the mere constructed. It makes the voice otherwise unheard be heard, that is despite all divisions, borders, walls, confinements etc. In his interpretation of the German poet Morike, Adorno identifies on key different to Ancient Greece: while Homer would start by saying, "be still" to himself, so that 'the Muse can speak through him', the modern poets will only at the end of the poem look back, in order to catch a glance of the Muse or of the poetic voice. In brief, Adorno sees a need for a critical awareness of this nostalgic tendency towards glorification of the past, while the real problems exist elsewhere. One of these problems is that once society has entered industrial production, technical organizations, then the 'immediate present' cannot any longer be easily reproduced by poetry. This thesis does remind of Walter Benjamin's thought of art having entered the phase of mere reproduction. In such a living form the subject stands to experience only the loss of being 'unique'. The same goes for the art work which misses out on the 'sui generis', something of great importance to Adorno. He added another key concept so as to appraise the quality when he applies the criterion of 'sublimation', so that what is being expressed can take you into the future. A prime condition for that to happen is that the art work has become 'articulated' throughout its entirety, that is each component adds to the overall expression. This would complement James Joyce's notion of a good poem, for as the case with Shakespeare, the thought and not the rhythm moves the idea through the poem.

I let it be for the moment at this open wondering about the poet and the philosopher, if they can be one or can a poem be both poetic and philosophical at one and the same time? If so, then the human being would be listening again to the 'poetic voice' speaking to the lyrical 'I' in all of us!


Note: The opening lecture by Hatto Fischer was given when the 'Touch Stone Group' presented itself at the Goethe Institute.


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