Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Hölderlin's Empedocles


Das Leben suchst du, suchst, und es quillt und glänzt Ein göttlich Feuer tief aus der Erde dir, Und du in schauderndem Verlangen Wirfst dich hinab, in des Aetna Flammen. So schmelzt' im Weine Perlen der Übermuth Der Königin; und mochte sie doch! hättst du Nur deinen Reichtum nicht, o Dichter Hin in den gährenden Kelch geopfert! Doch heilig bist du mir, wie der Erde Macht, Die dich hinwegnahm, kühner Getödteter! Und folgen möcht' ich in die Tiefe, Hielte die Liebe mich nicht, dem Helden


You search for life, search, and it expands and glows
Like some godly fire from deep inside the earth upon you
And once you are gripped by horrific desire
You throw yourself into the flames of the Etna.

So melt in the wine's pearls of over zealous courage
of the Queen, and if she wants now; if only you had not
sacrificed your wealth, o poet,
by throwing it into that fermenting cup.

But you are holy to me like the earth's power
who took you away, you courageous one who has been killed,
and I too want to follow you, if only
I would not be held back by love, the real hero.

Translation: Hatto Fischer



                     Hölderlin angebracht im Tübinger Stift



Hölderlin's poem about Empedocles is, to say the least, quite unusual. Yet it sets already the stage for what became a key theatrical piece. For the third fragment of Empedocles which Hölderlin left behind was performed by the Schaubühne when still at the Hallesche Ufer in West Berlin. Michael Grüber was its director.

I saw the performance on a cold November day in 1976. It was my first time I had come to Berlin West and to where I moved permanently one year later.  At that time I was visiting merely a good friend of mine, namely Christine Holste. We had studied together 'political iconography' under Reinhard Kosseleck at Heideldberg University in 1972-73. She was the one who suggested that I should see this play. Till today I cannot thank her enough for that recommendation.

After having been at the Schaubühne that evening, I went back to her apartment and sat down to write immediately about what I had just seen. As the writing progressed, it became more and more an epic poem. Retrospectively speaking, it was not an attempt to imitate Ancient Greek Drama but rather seeks to describe what I witnessed as part of the audience.

While watching the play, and even more so afterwards, I asked myself how Hölderlin would have responded to this division of Germany?

The epic poem I wrote down almost spontaneously in 1976 is, therefore, deeply embedded in the impression Berlin made upon me at the time. It was then more than just a divided city, for it made explicit the fate of post war Germany or what had consequences due to what Germany did during Second World War.

Not everything Hölderlin wrote can be understood easily, never mind is unconditionally acceptable. There is after all his strange poem 'death for the fatherland / Tod fürs Vaterland'. The poem seeks to link aspirations for reform with the spirit of the French Revolution to bring about a new unity in society. Highly problematic is, for instance, a statement made by Hölderlin in that poem, namely that the number of those who died is of no importance when compared with the significance of a real sacrifice for the 'fatherland'. Yet what does 'sacrifice' mean? How can something like this be justified, or even be morally legitimized?

The philosopher Jürgen Habermas reminds rightly so 'human rights' are intricately linked to the basic moral premise that 'human dignity is untouchable'. Both rule out 'human sacrifice' which war often demands by contracting perception of possible choices to a fatal 'either leave behind the two wounded soldiers and jeopardize the entire unit or else sacrifice the two in order to save the rest of the unit from an immanent attack!' These are called ethical conflicts when decisions need to be made but without bothering about how everyone got into a war situation in the first place. Therefore, it is up poetry to widen the options. This task can be fulfilled by taking humanity out of the front line drawn often by a rigorous, equally false 'either/or'!

There is something else which stands in the way of making humans sacrifice themselves for the fatherland. Kant had already introduced the moral imperative as a category not to be commanded, but practiced, insofar as no human being should be used as a means to another end. Hence ends have to be ethical and which can never justify the means, if in conflict or in contradiction with this ethical vision. That is why the death penalty has been abolished and why killing of another can never be justified. Hölderlin in his poem seems to transgress all of that by taking everything on a higher, indeed upon the lofty plain of poetic contemplation. Still the question remains if this is a fair interpretation of what he wrote back then in his 'fatherland' poem?

Moreover, no proof can ever be ascertained if everything depends on an untested future. Since both the means and the outcome of man's decisions and actions are of equal importance in terms of moral legitimacy, what can be justified, what not, has to take on a poetic and philosophical discourse. To this has to be added the consideration of potentials sighted but not realized due to all kinds of wrong denials and losses of opportunities which could have altered the course of history.

Already poets of Ancient Greece made it clear that it is no easy task to bring about a just society and thus poetry becomes a measure for things to come. That is in a proper sense a possibility to mediate between what is being strived for and what seems possible at any given moment. Insofar as poetry upholds the dream of mankind, continuity shall be upheld despite all set-backs and discontinuities incurred in practice.

A show of practical wisdom is to acknowledge if something does not work out right away, then it has a reason and should not be overrun with force. Like water runs around a tree or stone, there is no point of going through a thick wall. Learning out of such a reason, and here poetry can further the knowledge as to why, implies a willingness to work with resistance. The same applies to a willingness to challenge power especially if threatening to become unjust. To know what should be demanded means to remember what was said at the outset.

Precisely out of this reason memories play an important role. This is where 'cultural heritage' comes in. It includes remembering not only the things achieved in the past, but as well what potentialities have been sighted in the past and which should be made into intangible 'memories for the future'. As insights in potentialities yet to be realized, they prompt a development towards conditions which will allow their realization.

It used to be the case that generations worked for the future of their grandchildren as they knew not everything can be achieved within their life time. The notion of time linked to a distant future when things not now possible but to be realized then, that has almost disappeared. So has the need for heroic actions.

Today culture has become a search for truth. Poets like Hölderlin continue to make their contributions towards that. Poetry embedded in a certain culture which is receptive to practical wisdom depends, therefore, on how all these poetic impulses become inspirations to go on while being willing to learn from the mistakes made in the past.

Nevertheless, it cannot be disputed that Hölderlin expresses himself in the poem dedicated to the fatherland in a most doubtful way. Hence the poem could be misused by Fascist ideology. One plausible explanation for that is Hölderlin's definite preference for a heroic way to end life. By the same token, he despised an ordinary death. Presumably this brought him ever closer to Empedocles who sought his own end by leaping into the flames of the vulcano.

At least, the search for a 'heroic death' could stand as a thesis to contemplate and to interpret Hölderlin's Empedocles, where it not for a huge contradiction in Hölderlin's own writing. In his Fragment he lets Manes, the man from Egypt, say to Empedocles: 'don't stay up in those lofty heights and remain there to be but a lonely hero; rather come down, and be like one of us, just ordinary people.' Hölderlin introduces here a significant contradiction to what figures generally as hero. Instead of glorification of heroship, he suggests that things can be understood as well the other way around! With that Hölderlin begins upsetting, poetically speaking, the philosophical concept of contradiction.

Contradiction as a concept figured predominantly in the philosophy of Hegel. Interpretation has it there can be a contradiction in the concept, in reality or else in the relationship between concept and reality. To resolve all three possibilities, Hölderlin suggests through the voice of Manes that rather than striding on the high road towards lofty heights as preferred by the 'absolute spirit' of Hegel, the low road can be equally of value. That then needs further explanation as it sets a strong contra point to his poem about the 'fatherland.'

Hölderlin's Empedocles is of great interest because of being a fragment. Even in his third attempt he never succeeded in completing it. In that third fragment appear poetic reflections about Empedocles. They reveal a meaning in life can be gained by turning things upside down. As a poetic credo Hölderlin seems to suggest that not lofty heights should be sought, but the common ground with other people. For there contradictions can be resolved differently. It begins already by sharing nuts to eat with the others who all sit around the fire on their hind legs to keep their bodies close to the ground. And Hölderlin's dream does not end there. He aspires to partake in fruitful discussions initiated by the people themselves and thereby shall be able to resolve the most important political question, namely how to govern themselves. For freedom can be found when not dependent upon a leader!

When I picked up again my epic poem fourty years later on, Berlin had changed in the meantime. The wall had come down in 1989. As made explicit at the conference about 'Europe performing' held at Toronto University in 2009 and organized by Pia Kleber, the interesting question exits how these changes have manifested themselves in theatre? How different are now performances, and interpretations of basic texts, since reunification has taken place?

Needless to say, reflections about my epic poem have become a part of ongoing 'memory work'. I use it to notice what else has changed, what not and this not only in Berlin, but as well in the world. To this can be added experiences made with poetry and philosophy while in Greece. I have started to stay and to write in Athens from 1988 onwards.

Writing is for me a kind  of 'memory work'. It is best guided by one crucial cultural value, namely that of consistency. This needs to be and can only be gained over time. Since it entails working through conflicts and contradictions, while sorting out different interpretations and standpoints, it serves the purpose of constituting the 'democratic self'. By observing how contradictions between then and now can evolve out of reality while seeing how people respond to them, it becomes crucial to observe how all are disposed to go conform in the long run to already laid out structures. That can be linked to what Klaus Heinrich said about Adorno when the latter attempted to lay open his self reflection to being just subjective, but then realized that he would never succeed to become entirely free from these pre-determined structures.

Keeping that in mind, along with other thoughts about what is possible or not in Berlin and or else vice versa in Athens then but not now, Hölderlin's Empedocles can be read by taking this epic poem of mine to see what holds in both cases - before the wall came down and thereafter?


1. The Setting

Indeed, one could say that trust was gone in Berlin West 1976, and not only there. The need to regain trust was more than urgent, but that proved to be most difficult. The psychoanalyst Mitscherlich explained why in his book 'Die Unfähigkeit zu trauern'. He stated while a period of mourning must take place after all the losses suffered during Second World War before there can be any trust, things are made worse because Germans seem unable to mourn.

Trust can mean many things, including openness to other people, in particular strangers. A prerequisite for that is often overseen, namely the need to trust oneself before being able to be open to others. To this added Horkheimer and Adorno the Right to mistrust as a healthy form to keep a distance from what might be a manipulative practice not only in politics, but equally in business.

There is something else which is peculiar to Germany. It is a nation based on federalism. Basically it means there are many specific cultural localities or regions like Baveria or Baden Württemberg with their own distinctive dialects. Many trust themselves to say things when they stay within their respective dialect while High German as a language seems to them to be too abstract to be really trusted. That has to be taken into consideration, and has many ramifications on how poets understand and enrich the German language through their own way of bridging the gap between two different kinds of 'Unmittelbarkeit' (immediacies: the local dialect and the high German language).

Jean Amery, a survivor of Auschwitz, stated in his book about redemption that there was something like a dialectic between perception and trust to be experienced much more within the own dialect. Things were named as they are. It meant primarily a freedom from a manipulative use of language. Naturally this does not explain why so many claimed that they did not see the Jews disappear. Their statements and silence about what happened really let many post war generations grow up with a lack of trust in their elderlies.

There was something else. Hölderlin searched for a 'political' trust was based on valueing the moment of coincidence. 'Zeitgleich' - something which should happen at the same time. Since that could not be forced by the cold iron law of 'necessity', he understood it more as an art of influencing through writing to all the wish for a simultaneous development. It can be re-interpreted as the art to bring about a coincidence. For Hölderlin wanted everyone to act at the same time, all at once, as had been the case in the French Revolution. He wrote to many letters to urge everyone to act but since these letters did not arrive all at the same time, no such coincidence in history came about. Therefore, actions were delayed and already many started to hesitate again when others were still contemplating if they would be prepared to challenge the system. It meant the orgininal belief in revolution as the only way to change the system never translated itself into a moment all could experience as a turning point in history.

Roger Servais in front of his Hölderin-Biermann Painting (1976)

Some coincidences come about when something else is needed and yet you do not know where to find it until it comes upon you unexpectedly. There is the famous saying by Adorno about society without coincidence being dictatorship. It would be aweful to have everything predetermined while anything unexpected would be mistrusted because a stranger to the system. Any coincidence presupposes trust in the unexpected as not meaning disorder, but a valuable moment that alters things and at the same time can be accommodated and adapted to continue life under a very different premise. This would fulfill the meaning of a truthful reform about which Hölderlin thought a lot.

I had such a coincidence when in Berlin during November 2011. I visited my friend, the painter Roger Servais who lives just next door. I had wanted to ask him if he could see the paintings of Jad Salman who had come from Paris to visit me in Berlin. Roger was an incredible painter who knows how to break colours into many more shades than what we normally see due to our limited vocabulary. And we had taught together at the Free School of Arts called ETAGE. But rather than bringing Jad with me, Roger and I wanted to have first a moment to ourselves. So we sat in his kitchen to drink some tea, in order to exchange the latest news. He told me then Biermann had just received the award of honorary citizen of Berlin. Roger had known many of the opposition in East Berlin and East Germany since he had lived there for some time. So he knew as well Biermann. Since it was customary that such an award goes with having your portrait being painted. I asked immediately Roger if he would get the nod to do such a portrait of his friend. Roger informed me that someone else had been awarded already to do this task. But, he added, that he made a portrait when Biermann was ousted from East Germany, that is in 1976, the same year when I had come across Hölderlin at the Schaubühne. Come, he said to me, I will show you the painting as I am just touching it up. Roger Servais is known as a gifted painter who knows how to break colours and so I was curious what sort of portrait he had made. To my astonishment he showed Biermann sitting at a table with Hölderlin, the Berlin wall in the background and the sun setting to signal the coming of a new day and therefore freedom. It was a startling discovery that both Roger and I had been linked to Hölderlin in 1976, each in his own specific way, he with his paint brush and I with my epic poem. More than anything else Roger Servais's painting can mark the setting of Berlin as it was back then in 1976.

1.1 Hölderlin's mourning and the task of poetry

Interestingly enough Hölderlin relates mourning to a kind of poetic contemplation made possible by the muse watching over the fallen heros of the past. Included are Achilles, Ajax and many more who have died. The poet describes their death as being akin 'to taking off the coat when evening light loosens the hair before going into an eternal sleep.' Hölderlin calls them the 'heavenly ones' who demonstrate a special kind of unwillingness especially towards those who do not take care of their souls in a gentle way. If this is not done, then mourning would go immediately astray or never touch the soul.

In the preface to Empedocles (part of the third fragment) Hölderlin links this explanation to the mother of all muses, namely 'Mnemosyne' or what makes memory work:

Himmlische nemlich sind
Unwillig, wenn einer nicht
Die Seele schonend sich
Zusammengenommen, aber er muß doch; dem
Gleich fehlet die Trauer.
Heavenly ones are as a matter of fact
when somone is not gentle with his soul
by getting a hold of himself, but he still has to; for
soon shall be missing the mourning.
    (transl. by author)  

Alone in these few lines the prophetic vision of Hölderlin's poetry can be truly felt. It was back then an awesome feeling when I read and heard simultaneously these lines being spoken by the actors on stage. I took them in like a natural breathing, but without realizing the full dimension thereof at the time, that is in 1976. I had to wait many more years before I could recognize what Hölderlin had written back then.

Due to Mitscherlich and the subsequent debate, but not only, it was clear by 1976, that the post war generations faced a huge challenge. They had to confront above all the silence of their parents and of society in general. A terrible truth began to sink in. For it dawned on many that Second World War could not be understood without coming to terms with First World War. There was the thesis of Thomas Mann in 'Zauberberg' (Magic Mountain) that then it was sheer boredome that prompted many to march cheerfully into war without any anticipation whatsoever what awaited them in the trenches of Verdun. And taking up this, meant confronting what happened before under Bismarck who used the creation of artificial enemies to incite war as a way to forge the nation together. Throughout it became clear, that if no mourning had taken place in the past, and the various war monuments testify to that, the very absence despite what happened especially between 1933 and 1945 made things far worse. It affected seriously the ability of the younger generations to trust the older ones. The fact that Günter Grass stayed silent about his SS-past for sixty years only testifies one more time this negative conspirarcy against any wish to know the truth.

Something has to be realized: a generation without deep human trust risks letting doubt about the integrity of parents and older generation be transformed into a 'wild' or untamed fear. Such a fear can become far more negative once transformed into a conviction that far worse things were still to come, if not corrected by entering a phase of mourning! This negative expectation with regards to the future was based on what had taken place in the past. It meant a special vulnerability was felt. For instance, while the establishment tried to trivialize Hitler as a mere accident despite 6 million Jews having been killed and so many more died on the battle fields, those who were critically inclined, they saw that such abuse of power was by no means a mere accident, but had its deeper roots in all kinds of failures. There was no revolution worthy to speak of in German history and resistance as known to Polish people hardly known. Instead parents would advise their children if the police would arrest them, they had but one thing to do, namely obey! All that could lead to an ever deeper pessimism about mankind, especially if found alone, exposed to power while the others just watched in silence and let things happen. The preturbing feeling was to be surrounded by political cowardice and even worse by a readiness of the others to betray one to the authorities.

Out of this pessimism, or lack of faith in mankind, there developed a political fear. That was certainly a key factor as to why a failed student protest movement of '68 could turn to the RAF and adopt a form of violence underlined by a readiness to assassinate representatives of the system. Such violence is not explainable without reference to platforms on trainstations. For once without trust, fear can play havoc with the mind. It made possible the transformation of ordinary train stations into powerful metaphors for deportation to Auschwitz. Many truly thought back then that they could be easily the next ones in line. They saw that the state with its 'Notstand Gesetz' was ready to use all out its power to suppress any kind of opposition.

Characteristically any opposition was considered by the state to be dangerous. That has always lead to the justification of extreme measures despite such an opposition being not even close to challenging the system. What was new in post War Germany is the realization to be in opposition meant already doing things differently by simply not going conform with the system. Mitscherlich himself said Hitler was only satisfied when all marched past him in the same uniform as he was most frightened by true differences and a lively diversity. Something similar reappears nowadays in Right Wing rhetorical speeches which declare multi-culturalism as being no longer a viable option, but dead.

The demand to be 'politically correct' has a history. Hölderlin himself had been repeatedly advised not to speak out loud his positive opinion about the French Revolution, and his friend Sinclair was imprisoned on the charge of high treason. In the end, it seems plausible that Hölderlin himself knew no longer where to turn to, when to cry and how to continue writing under such severe conditions of constant suppression and suspicion. Especially after Susette had died, he seemed no longer to have a liveable love in sight, one which could have sustained his poetic writing despite a public not inclined to recognize his lyrical achievements. Finally he must have been completely tired out from literally wandering from city to city, country to country and still not finding the support he needed - even Goethe and Schiller refused to support him when he wanted to start a Poetic Journal. In the end, he collapsed, literally speaking.

There are many theories about Hölderlin's health during the second part of life which he spend exclusively in the tower beside the Neckar river. Much has been speculated about him. His having become sick or mentally being unable to take care of himself, can be illuminated upon by reading Michel Foucault's 'history of insanity'. Indeed, much closer to the truth may come the simple fact that after all the twists and turns he had to go through, social and political conditions around that time made him so unsure what was still proper to be said and written. In the end he may have preferred a withdrawal rather than continue to expose himself. He was by then an already deeply wounded soul which could not stand further conflictual situations.

In addition, Hölderlin must have crossed many borders others would not have dared at his time. If Goethe can illustrate with his Faust one kind of transgression, Hölderlin must have crossed others when writing his poems. Such borders are not crossed merely out of fear of reprisal, but because of the insights to be gained once on the other side. For the new experience and knowledge gained would make it nearly impossible to reconcile the difference with the others, on how they lived. Hölderlin was very much disgusted by the business people who would surround Susette whenever her husband gave one of those parties. Like Kafka would later write to Felica that he could not exist amongst such businessmen, since he merely exists in-between the lines he writes, this mechanism of excluding oneself a priori must have affected as well Hölderlin. Moreover once his philosophical and other friends were no longer able or willing to accompany and support him, Hölderlin must have felt to be left alone with this specific fear of the others. It was a political fear for what the others stand for and would do if the situation would allow them. Since childhood Hölderlin did not like the coarse talk of the men and instead much preferred the imaginative dialogue with the Gods.

The German language was for Hölderlin both a help and an obstacle when it came to keep a distance to the others. Skillfully he could exercise the art of ambivalence without trying to oversimplify things. He made his subtle points by leaving things unsaid at the right moment. With this method he could safeguard himself against censorship or a malicious political way of reading something into his expressions as if a hint of a complott, and therefore an excuse for the authorities to make an arrest. Still, as shown later in history, it did not protect him against misunderstanding and therefore potential misusages. Interesting is that Adorno did make some critical remarks about this risk of ambivalence. He saw it as being inherent in the structure leading up to Fascism.

Alone how many were taken in by Hitler's initial ideological position of National Socialism underlines this inherent danger. Often what seems at the outset a good idea may entice people to follow someone without realizing until too late this was a huge mistake. Rather than listening to their fears and being careful in whom they give support, they end up risking giving too much power to one person. They are thereby not merely determined in their destiny by an over dependency upon state and power structures to appear strong themselves, but would end up hating anyone displaying human weakness. Rather then seeing in human vulnerability a true strength, they would give up the ability to uphold democracy. The latter is only alive as a system when no one can get a hold of too much power over all the others and everyone ready to question power as part of an act of solidarity with all others. The latter is a guarantee that everyone stays free and lives according to his or her own conscience.

A deep shock in the world was felt after 1945, that is once the full extent of the Holocaust became known. No one had thought previously Germany as a nation of poets and thinkers would be capable of such hideous crimes against humanity. Many had internalized German culture by reading Thomas Mann or Goethe while listening to Beethoven. That meant the full trust and confidence in the German culture was gone after 1945 or rather many felt being thrown into a painful contradiction between what they had admired and what they had to confront as a horrific truth. To date there has not been offered any convincing explanation or is there any real relief in sight to calm this deeply felt anxiety. Instead there prevails a fear that it could very well happen again.

When Greek protesters  against the austerity measures burn the German flag and carry posters showing Chancellor Merkel in Hitler's uniform, then that can be understood as a kind of reflex stemming from the traumatic experiences made in the past. They have not really healed even if World War II ended in 1945. That underlining fear determined as the setting of 1976. Due to fact that no real mourning had taken place, trust seemed impossible.

With that in mind, taking care of the soul becomes a poetic task. Here the relevance of Hölderlin becomes apparent. He shows what would make mourning first of all possible, namely to treat the soul gently. Since the German word for mourning, namely 'Trauer' could be translated as well with sadness, it matters how such an emotional state is experienced, perceived and narrated. For sadness overcomes one not only due to a simple loss. Rather such poetic remorse says aside from man's own risk to run afoul, things are only to be experienced in full, i.e. with all the human pain, when aknowledging that life does not stand still. As 'lived time', everything passes by and becomes a part of that past which can never be fully recovered. A small consolation may be that lived through experiences can be retained in 'memories', even if only a fragment thereof can be kept.

This notion of incompleteness and uncompleteness, as expressed best by something remaining a mere fragment, became apparent when we read Hölderlin's Empedocles while witnessing the theatrical performance at the Schaubühne in November 1976.

1.2 The role of the Schaubühne in Berlin West (before 1989)

Schaubühne am Halleschen Ufer


To restore trust by making memories flow through novel performances, that was exactly the role of the Schaubühne back in 1976. Peter Stein and Michael Grüber developed an alternate way of doing theatre. Many who went to see the performances understood it immediately as a contribution towards the formation of a new political identity. This alternate effort was linked to stimulating performances and other reflections made possible by having afterwards discussions between actors and audience.

At that time there was no better experimental field for the search of a new identity than in West Berlin. It might seem trivial but was an important reason for Berlin West to be such a free zone was that this divided city was not ruled by German politicians alone. Rather this one part of city and enclosed by the wall was under the auspices of the Four Powers: USA, Russia, France and Britain. At the same time, there could be experienced at daily level the sharp contrast of two ideological different systems as exemplified by West and East Berlin. When the wall came down in 1989 and the Four Powers were set to leave, the daily newspaper, 'der Tagesspiegel' expressed the hope that this moderate political line would be maintained. It was a late admittance that this presence of the Four Powers had prevented consistenly German politicians from taking more extreme decisions.

No wonder that a potential for a new identity, never before realized in German history, took on contours in Berlin West (but not in Berlin East/East Germany or in West Germany). Here Adorno's influence was felt. The philosopher had circumscribed it best by saying any identity included at the same time a non-identity. Based on a negative dialectic, such an identity was to be kept open ended by being defineable only as something undefineable.

By transforming performances in theatre into a new receptivity of basic texts best done by engaging the audience, the Schaubühne set examples. That became most explicit on hand of Hölderlin's Empedocles since as a 'fragment' it could reflect these broken times in a way never thought of before.

Something about the relationship between the parts and the whole became explicit in this alternate way of doing performances. Since any incompleteness asks for an imaginary answer to conceive the whole, it allows the audience to participate and thereby catch a glimpse of humanity in the making. At the same time, reference to a fragment was used as a kind of negation of the perfect world. That matters on how human reality is to be regarded, namely not as a stiff order into which everyone has to fit into but now as one which is imperfect and open to decisions. Humanity can be shown then as struggling to be free. Decisions are also not automatic or need to follow the strict logic of pure necessity. Instead theatre can show what can be another course of action once such wisdom is heeded which is gained out of practical insights as to what matters most.

The performance at the Schaubühne under the direction of Michael Grüber made the entire theatrical performance into a realistic perception as to what can and should constitute the doings of man. Most crucial is the realization of freedom as a liberty in which not everything can be demanded from the human being. All too often there exists in Germany a risk to be over demanded (Ulrich Sonnemann), and thereby become inhuman.

Hölderlin shows this best in the dialogue between Manes and Empedocles. The two reveal a difference between demanding things from the other compared to judging whether or not the other can fulfill, never mind is willing to fulfill such a demand. The challenge of Manes to Empedocles to become like one of us, that alters the usual saying of 'know yourself'. If heeded, it does help to avoid the need to become a hero before being recognized by society or history.

In the past, demands had meant even to sacrifice one's own life as suggested either by dictatorship or by the need to show allegiance to the 'fatherland'. The latter gave a pretaste to Patriotism as new form of Nationalism. By 1976, demands made by a Western orientated economy meant as well to follow the dictates of technology and therefore another kind of perfect world. Again man was not the measure of all things, poetically and philosophically said. Rather what counted was the capacity to out distance and out produce the other. The Socialist economy vulgarized this norm as shown in A. Wajdas' films with the award given by the regime to the worker who laid the most bricks in one day, week or month. In the Western system speed mattered not only on the road but how quickly an idea could become a real product. It was thought such innovation gave the Western system a competitive edge over the Eastern challenger.

Seen from a perspective in Berlin West, both systems had their faults and each demanded to sacrifice something specific. The Eastern system did so with regards to economic reality and broke down eventually; the Western system lost on the contrary sight of the need for human measures and solidarity by being orientated solely on maximization of profits. The billions earned as a result were without any relation or proportion to people who walk the streets daily. Most telling was as well that West Germany build up very quickly its destroyed houses and factories but the book shelves stayed empty for a long time. Consequently any alternate identity to both systems was given but little, if no chance at all to substantiate itself. The eventual emergence of the GREENS as a new political party managed to take up that alternate challenge only partly and ended up with an identity going nearly conform with the system as soon as they lost touch with the alternative movement. Johannes Agnoli, author of 'Transformation of Democracy' had clearly predicted that fateful course of adaptation to rules of the system according to which a party could constitute itself.

Many people visiting the Schaubühne at that time were conscious of the fact that a new identity could only be gained through a non identification process with the system while regaining texts like the one left behind by Hölderlin. Since Fascism had distorted these identification sources, such a text was in need to be liberated from the historical building which had collapsed in 1945.

No wonder that the Schaubühne became increasingly so a threat to the political establishment seeking to retain a traditional German identity. Alarmed by what was heard about those discussions, this extraordinary way of doing theatre proved to be a different challenge from what had been the case of the Student Movement. It followed that the political reaction was to be very different. Instead of ousting the theatre by depriving it of funds, it was not only praised but offered at the same time a new building on the K'dam. It proved to be a clever move. By offering better conditions, the political aspect of making theatre as a public space for dialogue about history and identity was swallowed up by the new premise. At the new space, there was offered the latest art in stage technology. Moreover it offered three stages, one of which was a rotating one. Consequently technology began to over dominate any performance as was the case of society altogether. It demonstrated how any reflection of spoken words to make a text come alive can be silenced by use of technological gadgets.

At that time, West Germany and West Berlin as show case of the West were bent on neutralizing political and ethical demands linked to confronting the war crimes and what had led to Hitler. Everything was silenced in favor of rebuilding the economy. Something similar happened in theatre. Once an overuse of technology as practical disposition determines the performance, then the dramaturgical freedom alters. Also it so happened that the actors in the new Schaubühne wanted no longer to stay on after the performance to discuss with the audience what they had just seen. Practically by restoring the seperation of the actors or artists and the audience, it ended what had been a promising dialogue as long as the Schaubühne was at its old location of Hallesche Ufer.

Reflecting now the staging of Hölderlin's Empedocles back in 1976 may be a way to gauge what this new Germany is all about. But while many wish to attribute the changes to the coming down of the wall in 1989, this was not really the case. Already well before Berlin became again the capital of a re-unified nation state, but now one with a claim to be one member state within the European Union, there were already certain tendencies evident that restauration was under way.

When Richard von Weizsäcker campaigned in 1981 to become mayor of Berlin West, he did so with the slogan become 'either German or leave'. Habermas had named that as posing the false alternatives. Weizsäcker had picked up simply the rallying cry of Berliners demanding to know 'when Kreuzberg shall belong to us again'. Meant by those deeming themselves to be German citizens was a wish to know when would the Turks leave again. The tendency to negate diversity for the sake of a uniform identity posed an inherent danger for the alternate identity. In 1981 itr was linked no longer so much with the Student Movement and its legacy, but with the squatters who had occupied many houses standing empty. The Restauration of the old order ready to protect private property reduced the shared spaces which had sprung up everywhere. Once Weizsäcker was elected, Berlin West went into a regression. While houses were returned to private ownership and restored with the consequence that rents went up, solidarity of West Berliners who share one fate due to the wall was replaced by a growing polarity between the poor and the rich. It opened up already an economic decisive divide eight years before the wall came down and left the alternate identity nearly voiceless even if the Greens managed to get into German parliament.

Since the Schaubühne was located still at that time at the entry point to Kreuzberg, those who knew about the precarious nature of the alternate identity were alarmed when the theatre decided to accept the offer and moved to its new location on the K'dam. Since then, it never really looked back again even though something was silenced as a result.

1.3 Staging Hölderlin's Empedocles in 1976

The stage sub-divided into two parts

The stage was sub-divided into two parts. On the left side, there could be seen a waiting hall of a train station with no trains arriving, no trains departing. On the right side, there could be seen the mountain peak of the Etna on top of which stood Empedocles. At times, the one side was kept in darkness while the other was illuminated upon. The presence of the other side was always felt. It heightened the dramatic effect of such a stage design.

The fact that no trains departed or arrived, it left the travelers stranded. More so, the performance in the context of what Empedocles was about made them represent people still waiting for the leader to return. People waiting for a word from the great man reminded strongly of Nietzsche's 'Thus spoke Zarathustra'.

For sure, the dependency upon a leader or great man had not vanished in the minds of many Germans in 1976 and it continues to play a role still today on how things are structured, namely hierarchically with one person at the top. It is a saying that hierarchy is one of the biggest, equally unresolved problems of philosophy. The translation of energy needed in order to survive is still organized in a way that those at the bottom have to serve first of all those at the top who hand down their commands. Even modern organizations cannot do without. They speak about being flat hierarchies as if it is impossible to do without rank and file.

Important to add is the fact that those caught within a hierarchical structure develop the 'slave language' by masking their real motives when speaking with someone placed higher up the ladder. The philosopher Ernst Bloch referred first to this phenomenon and cited 'the poor man's preacher' as promoting just as well this speaking with a mask.

Practically a hierarchical structure in favor of a leader is reinforced whenever there is a dispute and a discussion threatens to get chaotic. The demand is then quickly made that someone should lead the discussion. While in English it sounds less harmful, in German the demand is made that 'jemand soll das Gespräch führen'. With that the concept of 'Führer' re-enters almost automatically the round and leaves no possibility to let a diversity of content speak for itself.

It seems that even if people realized that their dependency upon a leader like Hitler had brought them to the brink of disaster and defeat, they have not learned to take things into their own hands. Rather they are frightened by a diversity of opinions. Rather than strengthening them in their opinion, interesting is to observe who then makes the demand for an unity based on one opinion overruling everything else. In public opinion, the lead for this is taken by the media i.e. a certain press. The argument is often very simple: when someone reports about a movement and mentions many names, immediately the editor would say but who could remember all of them. He demands that the reporter just names one who stands for the entire movement. This is how Lech Walesa became famous as if the person who stands for the entire Solidarnoscz movement in Poland when it erupted 1979-80.

Again this example is an indication how complexity is reduced to the norm what common people can remember. The consequence is a kind of oversimplification which does not allow giving due recognition who made altogether something possible. It plays as well into the hands of power which prefers to negotiate only with the leaders of a movement and therefore can very quickly create mistrust between these selected spokesperson suddenly enjoying privileges and the rest of the movement which does not see any real changes happening as originally demanded. In turn, it confirms the suspicion of most that power only corrupts or a delegation to the top means if not a sudden death, then such a negative change in character that there is no longer any continuity worthwhile to speak of in reference to the goals shared originally by all.

As already said the stage design made possible the contrast between the left and the right side. While the audience would focus on the one side, the other hovered in darkness and therefore in silence. As the performance continued, the shadows grew longer and at times seemed to creep even over to the other side.

The drama of the performance can be summed up as 'words casting their own shadows'. Everything said cooled immediately despite feeling the heat and the pressure of life upon the body and soul. That became obvious as the performance continued. The audience realized that not only Empedocles stood there all alone atop the cold Etna, but equally all those waiting in the hall started to be cold as no real human contact seemed possible between them. All the travelers seemed to be by themselves. Their contacts to the others were at best muted, if at all existing. It is like Sonja Skarstedt would describe it in her plays about people living side by side without ever developing the notion of an open neighborhood, everyone would eye the other with suspicion. There was no empathy between them. It left the entire atmosphere in the theatre to a freezing cold similar to the one the audience had experienced when making their way to the Schaubühne at the Hallesche Ufer on a dark November day in Berlin West 1976.

The audience as 'imaginary witness'

Ofter a lot is read into something being performed especially if people in the audience feel this something is missing in real life. The Schaubühne tried to reverse that by making reality on stage to be a replica of what takes place in real life. The direction was to do so without drama as an added effect. The soberness communicated by such a performance seemed to heed therefore the philosophical notion that an activization of all senses would bring everyone much closer to such a demand for truth.

It was as if the theatre was siding with Hölderlin in his dispute with Hegel that neither poetry or the senses could claim to be a source of truth. As such it was a response by the theatre to see what will happen once one does away with myths. The aim was to let people see with their own eyes what was the case. To remind, it was Hegel who had claimed people without myth are blind. He varied thereby a saying by Kant that concepts without perception were blind.

Being a part of an audience and yet distinctively set apart, alientation between actors on stage and audience sitting in the dark was broken down. As the play unfolded, it was an experience to be remembered that people no longer just sat side by side indifferently, but began to share the text and how it was visualized through the performance.

Hölderlin's Empedocles was given as program to everyone who had entered the Schaubühne. It was an invitation to read the text together. As a result it made the audience into an 'imaginary witness' of how well performed the actors up on the stage, and how the entire performance managed to bring the text home by motivating everyone to read his text more carefully than ever before. As it turned out to be a crucial motivation for me to write afterwards an epic poem to record what I had just witnessed, it meant a significant link between my and Hölderlin's world became the case of an ever present memory as to what took place on that stage of the Schaubühne in Berlin 1976.

It seemed as if the left side of the stage spoke directly to the audience. It was concrete: the abandoned travelers, each one stranded. Among them was the typical American who had traveled within six days to twenty or more cities. To prove it he had put up some of his maps beside the ticket counters now closed. He had pinned the maps on the woolen blankets which covered the counters. The blankets reminded what the Red Cross uses during war time or at the very least during post-war refugee time when taking care of the wounded and of the abandoned soldiers or refugees.

The term 'imaginary witness' stems from Adorno who says truth may not be bestowed to the people but can only be to an imaginary witness. He doubted that people could not be trusted to tell the true stories as to what had taken place during the war. There was the general excuse by everyone that they had not seen the Jews disappear. Yet 'imaginary witness' means much more. For the moment the imagination is involved, then the ability to perceive and to remember is intensified. Like the blow up of photo taken, more details can come to light than what was noticed when at the scene. In that sense, the epic poem of mine can be understood as an attempt to tell the real story of what not only what took place but was to be brought out, in order to comprehend the full impact of Hölderlin in such a scene as Berlin presented then as now to any person. The 'imaginary witness' prompts one to take things further than being just a passive viewer. Naturally this depends upon subsequent reflections, questions asked and other experiences made before putting any interpretation into written form.


Empedocles as Fragment

Hölderlin's Manuscript - taken from 'Die Nymphe' as part of the Mnemosyne

The fragment of Hölderlin's Empedocles was reproduced by the Schaubühne and given instead of a program to visitors of the performance in 1976. Beside copies of the original hand written version, there was shown how the editors had deciphered his hand writing, in order to bring about a viable and plausible text.

Hölderlin made three attempts to complete his treatment of Empedocles, but like the previous ones the third one remained a fragment. Many questions exist why? One possible answer hints at his previous failure to come to terms with the demanding form of an Ancient Greek drama. When he did not succeed in following in the footsteps of Sophocles, he turned to Empedocles. Again many theories abound why Hölderlin took up this philosopher, poet, man of the world. It is suggested that Hölderlin saw in him an ideal type who could unify many more strands of talents and capacities, but again this projection about multiplicity within unity should not be taken all too seriously. Closer to what came out by writing the epic poem is the notion that Hölderlin wishes to show how difficult it is to emancipate both people and leader from their fatal dependency upon each other while stuck nevertheless in a hierarchy.

Since more shall be said later about the relationship between poetry and philosophy, it suffices here to remind once more about the dispute between Hölderlin and Hegel. The latter denied poetry to be a source of truth. It is doubtful if a dialogue between these two spheres was really taken up by the two. Hegel entered a dispute about this subject matter, but primarily with Jacobi who upheld the notion of the senses being a source of truth. Whether or not he ever discussed this matter with Hölderlin, this is not known to me at this moment. It would require further research.

There are further topics in need to be explored when seeking to understand Hölderlin and his fragment about Empedocles. There is the dream about the South but which is not to be equated with the idealization of Ancient Greece to which many others with less knowledge than Hölderlin succumbed to, and which created the false impression ideals could be used to drive home an opposition to a horrible immediacy or the reality back home. Still, this contrast and suffrage under lack of light and bad weather in the North has created such a longing for the South that it still prevails even today. Yet is one thing to understand thoughts taken from one cultural sphere and transported into another, and still another to go to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin and see the locked in cultural heritage of the past as a reminder of what Klaus Heinrich calls the imperial collection. Linked to the latter is how things can be justified by laying claim to cultural heritage.  Both Prussia and then Germany prompted by Winkelmann and others used these evidences to prove that their state was civilized and not barbaric. The same applies to the British Museum which lays claim to the Parthenon marbles named otherwise after Elgin. The latter took them from the temple in Athens to sell them to the British Parliament, which gave it in turn to the British Museum to 'keep'. And the British Museum makes the claim to these marbles as if only it can provide access to world heritage. But these are mere reflections of deeper issues involved in what has made Western Civilization into such a precarious undertaking as made evident by its many wars and constant aggression towards outsiders.

Hölderlin wrote before, during and after the French revolution. He lived through these times and realized what was at stake if thinkers would not endorse this urge for freedom from arbitrariness. By not standing on the side of the people who felt suppressed, they sided really with the oppressor or with power. That may have kept them outside of jail but it can never be forgotten that instead of coming to terms with violence, it was internalized till it exploded formally in the Holocaust at the terrible cost of those whom Hegel had already identified as Cosmopolitan who do not give their allegiance to the state, but instead try to live and to be world citizens. That was, however, the key credo of the French Revolution. Hölderlin does not thematize this directly in what constitutes a free citizen but the fact that they asked Empedocles to return to their Polis and the latter replied with a 'No' on the ground that they could govern themselves better without them does put out this question of governance by citizens themselves. It is a most modern question still in need to be answered.

As shown by Jean Pierre Faye in his analysis 'Totalitarian Languages', politics is also a language issue: how things are named. A modern example is while trade unionist would call it making people become unemployed, modern managerial talk would call it 'personal adaptation'. As this alters not merely the substance of meaning but also the need to respond or not, it does matter whether or not people feel themselves to be truly free or are just told that while they live supposedly in a democracy, they must obey orders and accept the decisions made within the state by the leading figures of the day.

This touches then upon a topic mentioned already before, namely how to emancipate from the slave language. Again it is a language issue but of a different order. Here Hölderlin provides several clues which need to be taken up such as why men who speak coarsely are not preferred by him, but only the imaginative dialogue with the Gods? It is a shortcoming of German literature and philosophy to have rarely stood on the side of the common people. Even Martin Luther fled to the count when the farmers revolted and only Thomas Münzer sided with them but at the cost of his own life. This has made many internalize the terrible lesson never to be forgotten, namely so far no revolution in Germany has been successful. The laughter about this goes always at the expense of these people who feel the pain the strongest. That is not a myth but a truism to realize to be free it is best to govern oneself.

Political but also personal traces can be found in both writings at that time and what moved mainly persons like Hegel, Schiller, Goethe etc. not to side with Hölderlin who was one of the few German intellectuals and poets to endorse the French Revolution. Some say, he was punished for that in the way no one could anticipate his life would end, namely to live the second half of his life in just a tower. There can be applied this term 'political correctness' in retrospect but is it really just to reconstruct the personal and political dilemmas of those times in such an overt way?

1.4 Performance as invitation to the audience to read Hölderlin

How Hölderlin's Empedocles was performed by the Schaubühne back then in November 1976, it has naturally very much to do with how Michael Grüber directed it. It was a kind of an invitation to the audience not to watch only a peformance, but also to follow what the actors were saying by reading parallel in Hölderlin's Fragment. That was made possible by giving to the audience not a program but the entire text, in reality a fragment, including the Mnemosyne part. Michael Grüber directed the staging of such a collective reading with the aim to create something like a possible reflection of the break between then and now. After what happened during 1933-45, continuity was inconceivable. Nothing could remain as it was before. This would have to include the way Ancient Greece and its wealth of poetic and philosophical works would be interpreted and used to strengthen certain 'conclusive perceptions' (Auffassungen) in the present. A central assumption was the need of people of a leader who could ensure governance.

Unfortunately these Ancient thoughts and poetic inscriptions had been idealized and misused by Fascism, so that no continuity or innocence could be claimed thereafter. Even Hölderlin was misused in that sense. That includes the question as to how Heidegger interpreted Hölderlin. Prone to all of this is the role the Myth of Ancient Greece played in the over idealization of the perfect human being, and which had become by Nietzsche the 'Übermensch' or the 'superhero' as the case in his 'Thus spoke Zarathustra'.

In 1976 Michael Grüber seemed to be aware that the piece had to reflect the times then, when Hölderlin lived and Europe was held its breath due to the French Revolution, and now, that is after Second World War and Germany being no longer unified but split into two. As this was a deliberate act by the Four Powers ruling Berlin West and East to make sure lessons of history are going to be learned, it meant as well confronting the Cold War and all seeming contradictions between the West and the East.

All this and more made the theatre, and especially the Schaubühne into a special location for not so much political experiments, but for reading basic texts anew. Already the Student Movement had brought about a change in theatre. Peter Weiss had caused a kind of revolution in theatre with his 'Marat-Marquis de Sade' piece, and which prompted Simone de Beauvoir to link sexuality with violence as if it had never been perceived before to be 'the' basic problem of man's attitude towards women. To this the Schaubühne with Peter Stein added the belief Ancient Greek drama revolutionized already the link of theatre to democracy by being based on a text to be enlivened by a special performance. Thus theatre became under his and Michael Grüber's direction a trying out of a new political identity. Steeped in the humanistic tradition but freed from the pitfalls of Romanticism perceived as having contributed very much to this misuse of Hölderlin and of Ancient Greece by ideological forces in support of Fascism, the 'reading of Hölderlin's text' was comparable to a soul searching on stage.

No longer the ideal mattered so much in such a context of discontinuity. Rather the pertinent question was how to get out of this dilemma between classical ideals and what took place despite of them or rather because of them in reality? It mattered to know where did something take place although highly misleading, or where started the misinterpretation? For many until then it was most difficult to make out what form of poetry and philosophy had contributed to this basic misunderstanding. Only slowly it dawned on some that the yearning for heroic deeds could mislead easily to making such fatal sacrifices for a 'fatherland', that it meant if not contributing directly to the Holocaust, then to stay at the very least silent about it.

That silence had yet to become a major theme in the life of many, but the student movement had already dared to break with the past. The daughter who exposed her father about to preside as judge over a trial of the one who had attempted to assassinate Rudi Dutschke, that he had been in fact a Nazi Judge and therefore was forced to step down from the bench, she expressed only the wish to her following generations, that they would not have to break with their parents as hard as she had to. In many families these linkages to the Nazi regime were not talked about and thus the post war generations had to confront a special kind of silence. It was underlined by the writer Günter Grass revealing only sixty years onwards that he had served voluntarily as a seventeen year old in the SS.

At that time, the play seemed to define a new destiny for becoming a responsible citizen or more precisely, it made visible the dilemma as a split between people and philosophical form of governance, and with poetry caught in between these two poles. Therefore the performance of Bruno Ganz as Empedocles conjoins with the acting of Edith Cleaver as one of the many stranded in the waiting hall of a train station where no more trains arrived or departed. The split stage design with here the train station, there the peaks of the Etna make concrete a powerful confrontation between two separate, but also inseperable truths.

While reading the basic text of Hölderlin and viewing the performance at the same time, there emerged a double truth to be formulated as critical question: what if the people were still waiting for a word from a leader like Hitler since alone they could not govern themselves? Interestingly enough, Hölderlin added to this the extra dimension but what happens to leaders like Empedocles, if the latter is unable to free himself from his slave even if he is able to recant his role as leader by refusing to return to the Polis of Agrigento and instead does claim that the citizens of the Polis can govern themselves better alone, that is without him? That dilemma was captured very much by the famous Hegel formulation of the 'suspension of the state' or 'Aufhebung des Staates'. It influenced many Communists and Marxists insofar as they believed once society had become a just one, then the state would prove to be superfluous and disappear. The reality spoke naturally quite another language especially with Stalin doing everything to introduce still another version of totalitarian logic and ideology.

a) How to recognize oneself in the other?

Taking the play as a model of reflection and with the stage having been sub-divided into two parts, what can be said about the symbolic significance of people still waiting in 1976, so it seems, for the word from the leader as they themselves did not know where to go and maybe some of them have even forgotten where they came from. For to be without cultural heritage - memories based on intangible meanings - leaves anyone devoid of personality and therefore identity. It is not merely the broken heart, but the self destruction of the 'I' when it comes to give recognition first of all to the state and only then secondary to the own personal self. Is that what Hölderlin was searching for?

Popular wisdom
Change of mind
Waiting for the word
Ruled by what laws
Memory and present
Know thy future

Wise man from Egypt
Deception as art
Hierarchical dilemmas
Breaking of rules
Distortion of the past
Without any future

To return to the poem by Hölderlin, if love holds him back from doing likewise, then love is the anti hero to what Empedocles symbolized back then to the people of his Polis of Agrigento, and what a leader supposed to stand for even today, despite the Arabic spring and what took place in Egypt to oust Mubarak.

Poetically speaking it is as if never heard of again,

and only water murmurs when licking the wounds

of the river bed gone dry when deserts swallow men.

It means the end of the Nomads and all those who retain an independent identity by being orientated towards the earth as centre of gravity and not yet integrated into the urban maze, or for that matter some kind of stage design using sets to configure deception and context. This means it is not historical when turning to nature as is the case when building on forces like water, earth, fire and air. The philosophies of Ancient Greece recall these elements as basic principles to know what each of them is meant for when seperated from the other and still together on this earth.

The poetess Katerina Anghelaki Rooke would intervene here and ask what if the earth as eternal burial ground will not last forever, are we then not worse of than our ancient forefathers and mothers who knew they would be buried in the earth meant to last forever? That lasting impression is drowned out by the siren when bombs are dropped and let the earth tremble as if hell broke out. It is quite something else to experience an earthquake to know how shaken are the feelings once the earth is no longer stable, a common ground for everyone!

b) Pantomime, or the language of gestures

Acting without words, as performed by Marcel Mourceau, is not the same as the usual slogan that "actions speak louder than words". Das ist ein Irrtum! That is a mistake to believe this. To begin with there is the famous question by Shakespeare in 'Hamlet', and not what everyone usually quotes as if the question is to be or not to be; rather the real question put forward by Shakespeare is 'whether the words suit the action or the actions the words'. Adapting things till reality fits not necessarily the concept, but at least the image, that tendency does prevail in almost all states and companies for no one wishes to appear anything but in being 'successful'. If that means many things are put into the shadow or silenced, then only Pantomime can step out of this darkness and make people trust what they see and understand through gestures, even when the actor paints an invisible frame in the thin air, and then proceeds to look at it as if there is a picture to be seen. Tapping into this imaginary power is still an art and has to be free if to become something going beyond the narrow confines of daily life. It may be captured or not by the term 'creativity', but the imaginative power is there to question reality without having to deny what is there. That simultaneous dialogue between the real and the imagined is still the main prerequisite for changing something in reality and for identifying what is afterall a contradiction not merely in terms of previous commitments to undertake something and then in not having done it, but above all in terms of human aspiration and lived through experiences. And here each human being has a story to tell, the sum of which amounts to the history of mankind to be told on stage, in the classrooms, in the streets and through a poem like the one Hölderlin tried to write about Empedocles but never succeeded in completing it. Therefore, the fragment itself stands out as evidence over and beyond anything said within the lines written and which have been retained to date. Significantly he ends his treatment of the death of Empedocles by letting the final be said by a chorus, while in theatre that is being done by means of gestures.

Simple human gestures compared to heroic ones

The action of Edith Cleaver in the play: she was packing and unpacking a suitcase with one memory piece re-appearing - the photo of her son who was in a German soldier's uniform and which indicated that he would not return from the war front. That act alone draws the borders of what vanishes once war over dominates the lives of people. Trapped in such a repetition of recollecting and confronting the pain in the present of him never to return, that marks the bitterness of life and determines, and if not that, then it does alter all other dispositions towards life.

Leaving no memory traces or the stranded American tourist with his maps where he was
The deed of Empedocles: freeing from Polis easier than from his slave and thus the jump into the Etna while leaving a sandal behind

There may be some historical memory traces to remind historically about the myth of the Argonauts and how it functioned over time to retell this story. To date there is no evidence left behind. However, legend has it that something like a sandal was left behind when the Argonauts set out to search for the Golden Fleece. This myth is so powerful that a child growing up in Volos will after hearing this story at school go out and search for this sandal. It indicates the power of a historical truth lasting over time and which means the human being is convinced some evidence can be found if only one would search ever harder.

c) Voices and history

Michel Foucault would say rarely the voice of reason is recognized in history when it finally decides to speak up. This was the case when an ordinary man watching and listening to the Assembly of Athens debating whether or not to go to war with Sparta. He warned them that such a war would mean a double defeat for both sides would not be victorious but also the defeat would spell the end of what was Athens till then an active Polis due to its citizens partaking in politics and in the arts like the theatrical plays being performed. No one listened to him since he had no official role within the ranks and files who had assembled at that time. The consequence was disasterous.

Reflecting on such a tragic outcome, and everyone must keep that in mind when referring to Ancient Greece as the birthplace of democracy, then Hölderlin might well have come closer to the truth by letting 'The Death of Empedocles' terminate with the final chorus saying:

The Death of Empedokles

Neue Welt

  und es hängt, ein ehern Gewölbe
der Himmel über uns, es lähmt Fluch
die Glieder den Menschen, und die stärkenden, die erfreuenden
Gaben der Erde sind, wie Spreu, es
spottet unser, mit ihren Geschenken, die Mutter
und alles ist Schein -
O wann, wann
schon öffnet sie sich
die Flut über die Dürre.

Aber wo ist er?

Daß er beschwöre den lebendigen Geist.


In English, this conclusion meant to be a mere draft, goes something as follows:

New world

and there hangs, a foremost vault

the sky above us, while the curse lames

the limbs of the human being, and the invigorating, the rejoiceful

gifts of the earth are, like chaff, it

mocks us, with her gifts, the mother

and everything is appearance -

Oh when, when

after all opens up itself

the flood over the draught.

But where is he?

That he beseeches the lively spirit.

(transl. by author)

What more needs to be said in times when a human voice no longer suffices, when shouting will not do or any other attempt to call for attention that there are things which matter most? Silence usually rules after the authority has bashed a few to set an example and then looks with challenging eyes into the round to ask, if there is someone else to has something to say? In theatre this mark of history is implied when something trails off till only silence remains as lone actor on stage.

When it comes to using 'your' voice, significant is the difference between shouting in the street or when things are sold at the fish market. Robert Payne describes in his book 'Ancient Greece' that in Athens things are still very much the same now as then! One needs only to go down to the main market and hear all the voices. He equates it with a love to hear one's own voice as do all Athenians. They can be indeed a noisy crowd.

The crowd in the street or on a market differs from a chorus in the theatre. The chorus makes explicit both the public as audience which witnesses these changing times and as force of the prevailing collective wisdom, but which is not as of yet audible or if not heeded by the politicians and decision makers. What Ancient Greek drama makes explicit, is that it requires a poet to make the chorus be heard. The form of a chorus is conducive to bring out the best in mankind. Collective wisdom means giving good advice. It not heeded, then it shall be for sure the actor's own downfall. And if when still acting as if alone, autonomous and ready to decide according to the free will, then fate or hubris shall set in especially when certain things are not heeded. It puts the poet into an autochratic control of the flow of discourse. It comes into focus when everyone understands this speech is but of a foolish man, for no one else would deride the others for what wisdom they have chosen to follow. It makes explicit what happens when not prepared to listen to the 'voice of the chorus'.

At this point, it might be important to just remind what Robert Payne said about the role of the chorus when discussing Sophocles in his book 'Ancient Greece':

"The role of the chorus is curiously ambivalent, but only in the sense that a pair of scales is ambivalent. Its function is to keep the balance even, to ward off the inevitable tragedy, and to safeguard the working of the heavenly laws. The chorus is therefore both actor and spectator, being the link between the audience and the actions on stage. It warns, pleads, and extols, and it is continually asking question sof the characters while raising more questions in the minds of the audience." (Robert Payne, (1964), Ancient Greece. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, p. 274)

How different this is to a voice shouting out a command, or even just a challenge: Who goes there? The challenge may be shouted by a soldier guarding an entry or an exit, but already it means the one who passes by has not been identified as of yet. Once military commands are set up and this along borders and at border crossings, then it means power has installed a system of discrimination. Not everyone is allowed to pass through, not everyone can go in and out. Brecht realized this fore mostly when saying not the human being exists, but only the pass port. Without proper papers passing through is forbidden. Interestingly enough, Mrs. Moltke when narrating what happened to her when traveling through post war Germany, that is immediately after her husband who had founded the Kreisau Circle had been executed by Hitler in January 1945, she did manage to pass through Russian and Polish guards due to a hand written note saying simply 'her husband has been killed by the Nazis'. Her passport was a belief in the goodness of mankind. Together with her husband she had practiced no discrimination of anyone. It made her courageous without being over zealous.

Naturally finding your own voice, and the ability to speak up in public, is but one side of what Michel Foucault would claim to be the case throughout history, namely 'rarely the voice of reason would be recognized once this voice speaks up'. This was the case when deliberations in Ancient Athens brought about the fateful decision to enter war with Sparta. It lead to the absolute defeat of both Sparta and Athens, which, in combination, had contributed greatly to what is perceived in retrospect as the classical period when human thought was articulated through poets and philosophers but more so through theatre.

2. Philosophy and poetry

In human and social terms, upheavals come with revolutions. More subtle are the ones taking place first in poetry and later on stage as theatrical performances. They can and do reflect the changes in time.

Peter Stein says a revolution happened in Ancient Greece when theatre was created. It was not merely the drama on stage but the fact that there were playwrights like Sophocles. They gave to theatre texts which are still today relevant. The art of making theatre is to bring these texts to life. A test for being a good text is that the voice of the actor can carry the speech to be heard by a wide audience even it he does not speak out loud but nearly in whisper. Bent your ears, listen to what I have to say! Curiosity will sharpen not only the ears, but also the tongues. There is teasing involved without yet a dramatic love story. In Shakespeare the audience always knew why love was much to do about nothing.

Incredible was the Ampitheatre of classical times. Like an ear every sound made could be heard. It was like listening to the rush of the sea when holding the ear to a sea shell found along the beach. Bachelard would identify such a poetic space as containing million of light years. It was both a measure of distance but also what could be suddenly close by. This is the case when history comes with a stride and before turning the corner has changed already the setting.

Most important for further going reflections is the need to identify what constitutes the relationship between poetry and philosophy and, therefore, what is Hölderlin's relationship to Hegel. The latter is famous for saying that poetry cannot be a source for truth. Hegel put poetry on the same footing as sense impressions which he denied as well as having any legitimate ground for claiming truth. Hölderlin must have suffered under that negative judgment of his former student friend. Both had studied together at the Tübinger Stift, at a time when there were other philosophical minds around: Fichte, Schelling, but also poetic philosophers like Schiller and Goethe. That place of studies was put under severe surveillance once the French Revolution had erupted in 1789 to challenge the established order throughout Europe. The curtailment of free spirits became noticable on hand of the fate of his friend and publisher Daniel Schubart who was imprisoned from 1777 until 1787 due to his publishing activities. He died in 1791. It was a call in the air for poets to reflect 'the spirit of these times'. Hölderlin answered with a first series of poems dedicated to the muse.

It seems that Hölderlin turned to Empedocles to respond to that question, but what is a philosopher for him? If poet and the philosopher are two seperate, equally conjoined figures, then Hölderlin sought to instill Empedocles with more virtures, and this in combination with above all some of the political wisdom he was missing in the case of the other philosophers. It could have well been a dreamt or conjured up figure, except that Hölderlin knew the history of Ancient Greece quite well and could, therefore, base his conjectures on some reliable evidence. This was underlined by Klaus Heinrich's reference to Hölderlin's translation of 'dust' into 'deadly dust' when working on Sophocles' Antigone. (Klaus Heinrich, "Der Staub und das Denken". Frankfurt am Main: Roter Stern, p. 52 - 55)

When all this and more comes together within one theatrical space, the tragic moment transgressed into an enlightened one. Sitting in the audience, it seemed to me Hölderlin passed by to join the actors up on the stage or later he would slip amongst the audience to motivate further reading of his text, a fragment at best. And justice was done to the Fragment since the performance showed within both a present and far away context how the same poetic and philosophical thoughts about life and politics can be shaped by different figures in other times. It was not so much a fight to reveal the true being as Heidegger wanted, but a reflection of a mental and emotional struggle with decisions in need to be taken at the edge of life. The quest in all of this was to be free from any kind of slavery or false dependency.

This relationship between poetry and philosophy was partly discussed at a symposium held in Munich at the beginning of 2012. Held in honor both of Dieter Henrich celebrating his 85th birthday and of his work about Hölderlin, one key aspect was touched upon, and what Dieter Henrich considers to be the key to German Idealism, namely that 'being and judgment' are linked. This is, however, only the case when perception and 'Auffassung von Realität' (concept of reality as something perceived beyond literature) are conjoined, in order to go in an illusionary way beyond politics. The mistake of German Idealism was to focus on the 'being' as did Heidegger as if something which would not reveal itself voluntarily and therefore would have to be forced out into the open by a dangerous entanglement i.e. in a fight equals war. Such an interpretation of the being would give the wrong message and reinforce false heroship. Rather Hölderlin lets intuitively as the poet he is speak out not so much a prejudgment but a way of recognizing as to who is the real hero.

Naturally this internal academic philosophical discussion, including what Heidegger made out of Hölderlin or why Hannah Arendt never mentioned the poet officially but did so in her love letters to Heidegger, needs some decoding before critical things can be said about whether or not Hölderlin has really been understood or misunderstood by philosophers. Certainly it has many philosophical as well as political implications as to why Fascism could make use, for example, of his poem about 'death for the fatherland'.

Unfortunately too often the political consequences or that problematic side of a philosophical idea is being systematically ignored by philosophers. Always there is this academic insistance to talk only about Heidegger as philosopher, and this despite it being quite obvious that he affirmed in his book 'Time and Being' the 'Führer' or 'leader'. For instance, Heidegger claims only a leader is prepared to take risks while common people shy away from responsibilities. It follows that because of these extra risks the leader assumes or takes upon his shoulder, Heidegger deduces, that he should have the Right to make mistakes. Such philosophical nonsense cannot be ignored. Not only did it give explicit support to the rise of Fascism soon to be identified with Hitler as 'the' leader but the denial of the masses of people as being irresponsible is where anti-Humanism becomes explicit.

Hölderlin-Symposion in München Seher ist kein geschützter Beruf 

18.01.2012 ·  Dieter Henrich zum 85. Geburtstag: Eine Münchner Tagung über Hölderlin betrachtete den Dichter auch außerhalb des literarischen Kontextes. 
Von Jürgen Kaube 

Since academic philosophy as experienced at the Heidelberg Seminar 1972-75, and especially as represented by Fulda and others to solidify German Idealism, meant an unwillingness to take up a self-critical dialogue with reality, the prospect of finding a new political identity free from the structural dispositions towards Fascism had to be sounded out elsewhere. It was one of the reasons I went to Berlin.

2.1 Upheavals and laws written in dust

When Klaus Heinrich gave his lecture about 'the dust and the thinking' (der staub und das denken), he refers to Antigone by Sophocles. Dust meant primarily two things: disobedience of the law imposed by the king that Antigone's brother was not to receive a burial by laying to rest underneath the earth but instead his dead body remain exposed to the open air and winds; dust as reminder to where life comes from and to where it goes back to. Literally speaking, it means laws are written in the dust before anyone else had managed to put them on paper or chistelled them into a stone as the case with Moses and the ten commandments. What is written in dust is equal to what has been left behind once the armies have moved on after they have devasted the city. It is also in dust that time gathers itself even if fully exposed to the sun. For dust endures.

The fragment of Parmenides entails such poetic observations that both philosophical and physical reflections can be made. For instance, he describes how the wood of the hole in which the axe is rotating as the chariot moves out of the city begins to smoulder. The observation shows that already then there was known a notion of friction.

At another level, poets of Ancient Greece articulated such poetic measures by which it became possible to gauge what difficult tasks lie ahead when seeking to bring about the 'just society'. No orientation is sufficient to understand and to comprehend what are 'fair' measures. They have to be just to man and still demand changes within a reality within which everyone needs orientation along the sense of justice. Over and again poets of Ancient Times warned not to treat the stranger any differently from a citizen. For justice implies equality in front of the law.

If this is not followed upon or not heeded, then society will experience 'shocks and vibrations' like never before felt and experienced during an earthquake. Thucydides relates great historical upheavals with change in weather and earthquake related activities. They happen when the many incurred injustices will hit home in varied ways. It is the fate of Ancient Empires to fall to dust.

Constance de Volney asked those ancient ruins how come once so proud they could so easily crumble to dust. His answer given to the French Assembly after the French Revolution the form of advise what to include in a future constitution with the aim to prevent in future war, pointed out at the source of all problems is the still unresolved question of hierarchy linked to religion. This leads to people no longer say the truth to each other, for within any hierarchy people would mask themselves when speaking with someone placed higher than themselves. Also religion would claim this is 'my table', so that before sitting down one would have to ask for permission. It meant no more equality and a fatal deduction at work with each religion able to claim it had the sole truth with the proof being that man was still willing to die for this religion. Proof for what the religion claims was based therefore upon sacrifice of what was the greatest gift to man, namely his or her life. If this sacrifice was brought about by a lie, it meant as well a loss of honesty. Reality became then like a bottom less pit filled with poisonous snakes. It swallows everything and in particular the basic orientation man has in terms of knowing what is truth.

Since arbitrariness sparked the French Revolution, to bring about a new legal system, constitution plays a role in politics and in governance. At the same time, disappointments and the failure of practical discourse to realize a new orginal text prompted some societies to seek again salvation in religious law. Chomeiny's return to Iran in 1979 falls in that period before the wall came down. That should not be forgotten. It was prompted by the belief at least some common system has to apply to everyone. Yet it reversed the dialectic of securalization based on a seperation of state and church, politics and religion. To take up this challenge, the crucial link between poetry and law has to be taken up anew.

Da, vom Kreuze redend, das
Gesezt ist unterwegs einmal
Gestorbenen, auf hoher Straß'
Ein Wandersmann geht zornig,
Fernahnend mit
Dem anderen, aber was ist diß?
There, talking about the cross, the
law is under way once 
someone died, in the middle of the road
A wanderer goes angrily,
sensing distant land with
the other, but what is this?
                (transl. by author)
Note: most difficult is to translate 'Gestorbenen' since not clear if the law itself is implied by Hölderlin. 

Interestingly enough Hölderlin does pick up this difference between daily changes and an over arching law linked to the heavens. He sees in the sky the place where a dialogue with the Gods seems possible. He envisions the possible case that law, once under way, may suddenly die along the high road to leave the permanent wanderer going off angrily with someone else. Here Hölderlin detects that arbitrariness for it will not bring about a real change.

2.2 Aesthetical reflections within a culture as search for truth

It may have been an urge behind writing this epic poem of mine to create out of such a fragment a possible text which is compelling enough to ask these hard questions. In that sense it seeks to fulfil the aesthetical norm of Adorno's philosophy. The latter is based on a refutation of Hegel's definition of truth, insofar as Adorno said that 'the whole is not the truth'. In that sense, Hölderlin's fragment comes much closer to that demand than many other works or forms of expression.

If something is real despite being both incomplete and uncomplete (Michel Angelo), then its claim as form of expression is indeed quite powerful. It gives space to think about how the part could serve as a model to imagine the whole. A similar act is entailed when seeing a few remaining pillars of a temple which stood there in Ancient Times as the case at Cap Sounion outside of Athens.

Such an incomplete and uncomplete truth is something much more to be preferred to a philosophy claiming to be absolutely perfect and thus giving the concept of truth all the right to determine reality. Too often reality had been denied for the sake of upholding a fake concept or ideology as has been the case from Hegel to Heidegger.

Michael D. Higgins would say 'culture is afterall a search for truth'. If lost, then it has to be figured out what comes next. Proust exemplifies this search but only for the time lost when perceiving it while looking out of the room of his grandmother when sitting beside her at the bedside and seeing the church tower at a distance. That reminds of Beethoven seeing one day the bells moving in the church tower and he realized suddenly that he had grown deaf as he heard no longer those bells. Later on he had a friend, a young blind boy, who went with him on walks through the forest. They walked over moos as Beethoven could not take many vibrations if stepping on hard ground. And while walking the blind boy would tell him what he heard but could not see and vice versa Beethoven accounted to him what he saw but could not hear. That beautiful cross-over of the senses is what opens the door. It leaves human perception altogether a miracle since the fortitude is love but too often that is forgotten and therefore elongates like the growing shadow once the people are gone and a kind of coldness fills the streets instead.

2.3 Human language and Human Self-Consciousness

Hölderlin's language and French Revolution
K. Marx: human self consciousness
Günter Grass: Meeting in Telgte
Martin Luther and the translation of the Bible
Slave language (Ernst Bloch)
No more poetry after Auschwitz (Adorno)
Developments in post war Germany until 1989

It is a major thesis to ask if Hölderlin's poetic language had entered mainstream would it have prevented Fascism? For only the one who does feel him- or herself as a human being grows afraid of power and instead of questioning the development towards total power before it is too late, the person succumbs not only to power, but to silence.

2.4 Ancient Greece and Dream of the South

To understand Hölderlin, many more things need to be said. Outstanding was his affinity and love for Ancient Greece. Literally he was haunted by the sharp contrast in life by the so-called dream of the South. He imagined thereby not only the Greece of the Ancient Times, but a different way of life. As made explicit in his poem 'Bread and Wine', he dreamt about people staying around after work had been completed on the market, in order to converse and to enjoy life. Instead once shops close, the pavement of a city like Stuttgart appeared to him as being swept clean of people.

Indeed such absence of life is most disturbing to a poet's eye and not only for him. It can be circumscribed as a kind of loneliness which succumbs one when feeling this is not what life is meant to be. It is also more than a mere wish to be amongst people. For them to be alive they must be free to become human beings in the eyes of the poet. Hölderlin's Hyperion is all about this contrast between his concept of a human being and what he sees in a largely fragmented reality. Interestingly enough he describes reality as if he would anticipate Picasso's use of Cubinism to paint Guernica.

Since I had been in Greece for the first time in 1966 and fell then in love with the Aegean sea which reflects the blue of the sky, I can understand this dream of the South. There is a special light only to be found in Greece. Moreover, its diverse landscape makes every glance into a new experience. And there is song in the air when the wind strokes through the fir trees and the leaves on the olive tree glitter in the sun like a school of fish swarming underneath the surface of the sea. It explains also why I decided to move to Athens, Greece as of 1988, but I never have given up my linkage to Berlin often called the Athens of the North.

This affinity to Greece, specifically to the Ancient Greek language, was unique by Hölderlin, and at the same time his dilemma! As this might be the reason why even his third attempt to cast his thoughts about Empedocles in the form of an Ancient Drama remained a Fragment, that dilemma needs to be explored.

3. An epic of changes

Since 1976 or at the latest after 1989 when the wall came down, it became noticable that resistances against changes were at work. Or to put it differently, amazing was to see how old continuities knew how to assert themselves in a new context. For instance, the new capital of Berlin is not really re-united as it seems to uphold a new, more intangible divide. This may be due to different socializations as emphasized above all by Johanna Schall. Lack of change may also be due to a still greater problem.

Again Klaus Heinrich at the Institute for Science of Religion of the Free University of Berlin warned his students after having completed a five year colloquium about Fascism following conclusion: 'Fascism had not been defeated in 1945, but had learned to mask itself better!' Since East Germany had never dealt with the reasons for the defeat of democracy in the same way as had West Germans and West Berliners to undergo, there may have been a latent structure which resurfaced once the wall had come down. Certainly anti foreigner or xenophobic forces seem to promote everything from Neo Nazis to a simple exclusion of anything creating fear, and this would be fore mostly the stranger.

One thing every East German had to learn when crossing over to the West as long as the wall was still standing (all sorts of deals were made by the West German government to buy even free political prisoners and which became a lucrative business for the East German government eager to obtain Western currency, in particular D-Marks), and that was to learn how to come to terms with 'existential fear'. That was unknown to those who had grown up in the East. Those in the West heard in turn when they criticized the Capitalist system, "if you do not like it, then go 'rüber' (over the border)".

Much more could be said about this 'other reality' when East Germany and East Berlin was perceived through Western eyes, but with the intent to consider that other reality on its own terms as expressed best by writers and poets. Much later and long after the wall had come down the film 'In the Life of the Others' attempts to reconstruct a bit of that different atmosphere prevailing when the Stasi was still watching.

When seeking to compare or to describe the difference in real terms, then sometimes just one element suffices to show something: many of those who lived in East Berlin would stretch their necks when the street car was passing by the wall; they did so in order to catch just a glimpse of the other side. Sometimes they would be able to see on television some images of the Western world. All what they wanted is to verify what they heard mainly with their own eyes. They had never imagined that the wall would come down, never mind they would be unified and they could travel freely into the West. Still the price they had to pay was huge. Before too long everything they had learned to survive with had vanished while the pillars of their trust had crumbled to dust. That too is an odd contradiction to the Pergamon Museum still standing there in what was once stricly East Berlin and is now the precious Island of Museums to be reached by walking from Brandenburg Gate down 'Unter den Linden'. It is a street in search of its once famous atmosphere. Yet that seems to be in vain. The street seems to be no longer as convincing as it was before 1939 and the start of Second World War. Already the Guggenheim Museum has announced it shall be moving out. Phases in Berlin can vanish even before they made any history.

As this poses the question about continuity in life despite changes in history, one good example to cite would be Uwe Johnson's novel 'Diary of Days in a year', in which he shows characters how they were in the Weimar Republic, Third Reich and finally under Communist regime. He seems to suggest continuity is to be found at the level of the human being, while characters and their corresponding masks can change according to whoever is in power.

Another way of asking the same question is about the legend of Hölderlin. Answers to that need to be given in terms of what is taking place today in Europe. Now that Germany has been re-united, and Europe has entered a crisis of governance due to many factors, there are numerous new challenges ahead. They include insurmountable budgetary deficits affecting almost all member states while making the overall governance more difficult, but not only. For Jürgen Habermas is right when he defines the key problem as being still the arbitrariness with which 'law' is being applied while the European Union is but a transitatory model for the future world governance. This alters immediately the relationship between 'identity' and 'nation' while poetry wishes no longer to be confined to a national or local setting, but aspires to become truly 'world poetry'. That is the challenge of the global age.

3.1 Memory and Imagination

For any epic poem, it is crucial how hind- and foresight bring about a convincing text. This means history and anticipation are linked by memory. For the reader being present in what is being described means to become a witness at to what changes take place in front of one's own eyes. Stepping outside the text by means of the imagination to link the content to already 'lived through experiences' (Jean Paul Sartre) can make explicit which of the things said did bring about changes. It is important to know what did really take place when looking back as much as to know what lies ahead. Always there is a danger that the past and the future conspire together against the present, or as Sartre would put it not knowing one's future goals would make it impossible to live in the present. That then touches upon what makes possible human self-consciousness.

Crucial for a poet like Hölderlin was to gauge reality, or more precisely what it takes to protect the soul. Since the soul was more than just hurt by everything that happened, Hölderlin tried in vain to evoke a deeper sense of meaning as to what was needed. As said already, if there is no mourning, people will go astray due to a lack of trust, and then a true happiness can never be attained.

Since reflections of Hölderlin's Empedocles was experienced first as a theatre play in 1976, the memory work which has taken place since then can be considered as a gentle way of working through contradictions. Time is given to especially philosophical positions in needed to be challenged. Also only over time can a true characterization of Hölderlin be achieved. Hence this epic poem of mine reveals a growing tension between the original version written at one stroke and what other understanding of the text takes on some importance as other aspects became known.

At the very core of the epic poem, there is at work a poetic method by which another logic comes to word. Such a logic is derived from philosophy being really an art of asking further going questions, the unfolding thereof revealing in the process that kind of logic. Trust is also given in what may be just at first sight a kind of intuitive guess as to what was there, in reality, when Hölderlin left Sophocles and turned finally his full attention to Empedocles. It is said that he had given up the attempt to write in the form of an Ancient Drama a similar text. That is of importance when seeking to understand Hölderlin's Empedocles.

Things become epic in dimension once philosophical prose turns poetic. It is like wandering out, onto those open fields called in German 'Gefilde' and meaning literally the heaven filled with stars. There might be possible to discover what Hölderlin's fragment about Empedocles is really about. Like the many scattered stars, they can be put together once perceived as making up a certain constellation. The latter comes into existence once the form is given a name. Indeed, whether the 'big bear' or 'wagon', such a name given to a constellation of stars, can show that the universe has been touched by the signs of life on earth by mankind. It is felt that once this cosmic wonder is allowed to influence the interpretations, then arbitrariness in understanding can be overcome. This is how not only Hölderlin's texts, but all poetry should be approached.

3.2 1976 and 2012: can they be compared?


Photo from Black Star Collection at Ryerson Cultural Centre, Toronto

Of course, these two periods can be compared, but as said by Jürgen Habermas, once the wall came down, forces in the West became convinced history has given them full justification to continue implementing their neo-liberal ideas about the economy and about life in general. That makes it much more difficult to reconstruct the time known as the 'Cold War Period', except what takes places in James Bond movies or what is still remembered today in linkage to Check Point Charlie where Soviet and American tanks stood once vis a vis each other.

Such a face off was not the only incidence in which the East and the West stood at the brink of another war. After all, there was the Cuba crisis and the 'Bay of Pigs' disaster along with how J.F. Kennedy had perceived and responded to such a crisis, or else the stationing of the Pershing rockets in West Germany with them being pointed at East Germany, including both West and East Berlin, to highlight the absurdity of these nuclear protective measures.

That politicians signed on is more than just a puzzle. Given the promise 'never again war', conformity to demands made by NATO and other structures of power does not suffice as explanation. For they had to be convinced themselves that they were doing the right thing. Adorno may generalize too much, but he has a point when saying 'Germans cannot lie, for they have to convince themselves that they are saying the truth'. That explains immediately the 'Überzeugungstäter' or the man who does things out of convinction.

Closer to the truth comes, however, the possible drowning of the conscience. It is best done in a flood of words and with such arguments which pretend to be the 'voice of reason', when in fact they are not. Rather it is a technical manipulative art. It is often used in public relations but also exercised a twisted way by philosophy. And one comes closer to reality and the truth of the matter when hearing that even those close to Hitler would seem concerned what is within the Hague Convention or not once persecution of the Jews became a wide spread practice. The outright killing of Jews was not as of yet a fully legitimized. However, it became a decision to be implemented after the Wannsee Conference had taken place on 20th of January 1942.

It is a question what lessons had been learned out of these previous periods of confrontations leading to war. In 2012 there is naturally the problem of Syria while Berlin as Capitals is linked not only to Afghanistan with German troops being stationed there, but as well many Greeks believe the economic crisis in their country is not going to be resolved by what Merkel and Schäuble advocate as strict austerity measures. Spyros Mercouris wonders out loud when thinking how Germany was helped after the war by the Marshall Plan to reconstruct its economy, why not the same applies to a country like Greece?

All this is to say an imaginative memory trip into the past is just one indication that a border meant something else in 1976 as it was visible demonstrated by the Berlin Wall. In 2012 there new borders such as the Green Line running through Cyprus or the wall along the Mexican-American border, and not to forget the wall Israel is constructing to protect the Jewish population from the Palestinians who are forced to live and to exist within the shadows of this elongated wall.

Europe prides itself to be a continent of open borders. At the same time, Sarkozy has threatened during his re-election campaign for President of France in 2012 to undo the Schengen Agreement, in order to control the flow of people more often called unwanted migrants. Indeed, the open border system prevailing now throughout Europe, in order to ease the mobility of goods and people, is being challenged in many ways.

It might not answer the question what can be compared, what not, but it does give an indication as to how times have changed especially with regards to borders. Differences in systems indicate that. Kapuscinski begins his description of the aftermath of the Soviet Union by wondering how much barbed wire had to be produced to secure these borders?

Hauptbahnhof - the new train station of united Berlin

3.3 Empathy

It is said within Kids' Guernica, the imagination is a prerequisite for understanding the other.  Such empathy can be considered to be the basis for any dialogue. To what extent, feelings enter as well as the need for accommodation and extra-polation, as described by Piaget, is another matter. Certainly intercultural dialogues presuppose there is a minimum of understanding given to the other so that communication is at all possible. But empathy is more crucial when considering how parents accompany their children or the emphatic makes really explicit where friendships begin. Not many more words are needed. It suffices to say then: 'yes, I understand why you need to take that decision'. The development of empathy for others is not a given fact. It needs to be encouraged and brought about through education, including reading the literature of the other. At the nexus of all of this is the so-called 'self-understanding' or what is presumed by the self as something shared with others. Here Adorno warned rightly so and advised that the only self-understanding to prevail should be that there is no such self-understanding. The presumed logic of understanding the self and the other is not that easy to be made explicit. That is why poetry brings out a different or the other way of understanding the human being. Often it is revealed as a dialogue between the 'I' and the 'self' in the mirror of words and languages others use to address certain things. The smaller shadow underneath all of these is a figurative speech expressing doubt, insofar that 'cannot be me' when perceived by the others like this. Usually it means such perceptions by others of the self seems to be without any empathy and therefore would be devoid of any sign of the human language. The latter differs from how a boat would drift down a river if ruderless, no one inside, it had freed itself from its mooring.


4. Hölderlin's Legacy

Hölderlin's tower (in yellow color) in Tübingen

In 1807 the carpenter Ernst Zimmer takes Hölderlin into his house along the Neckar River. The poet will stay there until he dies on 7th of June 1843. His plans for 'Empedocles' were already realised in 1797, that is ten years before him withdrawing to the tower and one year before it came to the eklat in the household of Gontard due to his relationship with Susette.

In 1895 the Cotta Publishing house took over the publication of his "Hyperion", the same year when his friendship with Isaac von Sinclair begins and he has a meeting with Fichte and Novalis.

4.1 Intuitive Interpretations

There are certain themes in need to be taken up so that interpretation of Hölderlin can be furthered. Intuitively said, his life displays a certain freedom from beliefs in luck or fate. He idd not seem to suggest man is a master of his own life, but he also would not give in blindly to forces which could determine everything. He seems to suggest, however, if you don't behold your luck, faith will not help. That might be an expression of Hölderlin's own brand of 'Lyrical Romanticism' or rather it can be said he had a clear vision of his fate. At times, this included playing even the clown. He loved to fob visitors who came to marvel at him for staying permanently in the tower. Sometimes he would sit down to play the piano. At other times, he would discuss. It was not so that he had a single mission in mind, but developed over time a gentle art of staying in touch with the outside world through the visitors who came to him. And like all preoccupied minds with other things, not all were welcome or a pleasant surprise to see them at the doorstop.

Klaus Heinrich emphasized in his lectures his poem 'Bread and Wine'. Any interpretation thereof can be linked to this dream about another life being possible in the South, there where light is linked to people simply enjoying life. It is a heavy burden for any poet if he feels to be alone. He cannot give other people such an uplift that they turn to life rather than perpetuate themselves in sheer misery. It is an art what to take lightly, what not and how to let things play out. Some practical wisdom is already gained by watching the winds. Sailors know how to use the natural forces and when there is no point to stem against them.

If anything can be said about Empedocles, it seems a vigorous effort was made by Hölderlin to give a restitution to the 'spirit' broken by Hegel. Without understanding Hegel's 'absolute spirit', there cannot be known what it felt once the 'negation of the negation' drew the border first of the abstract system and then in reality the border of an absolute state. Hölderlin could not name all the ramifications of such a philosophical system. For sure, he must have felt intuitively more than what he could name, but then he was also knowledgeable of the kind of thinking Hegel had displayed when they studied together at the Tübinger Stift. And both made similar experiences when teaching in private households for want of another way to earn money. It must have been for both a kind of humiliation difficult to comprehend from a distance. It suffices to say such minds need to be engaged and not work as sub-servants in the household of a business man. Especially Hölderlin suffered when working in a household where he had to witness how Susette would smile at all the guests who were nothing but aloof of Hölderlin's existence. As house teacher his status was even below that of the servants of the household and he could not link the Susette he saw greeting these horrible guests with that lovely creature who would listen with love to his thoughts about poetry when the two were alone. It is difficult at times to share such a special audience with others. Intimacy may be but one explanation, another is that few understood Hölderlin and even less recognized him as a poet.

If revolution can be understood not as a political uprising, but at personal level more as an act of self emanicipation, then surely there were many failures. They made it difficult thereafter to seperate the political from the personal failures and vice versa.

4.2 Misunderstandings Misuse or Piracy

Hölderlin experienced during his long and secluded stay in the Tower something which is the equivalence of piracy, and even worse. In 1826 there were published "Hölderlin's poems" without his knowledge. What made it worse is that the editors Uhland and Schwab had 'edited his poems, even though he could have done that very well all by himself'. Hölderlin was unique in terms of setting commas or any other punctuation. These things matter for how something is meant to be and said. Needless to say, pirarcy has not the same meaning when something has been published without consent as was the case with Hölderlin.

4.3 The human being compared to the hero: then and now

Certainly in the debate about the current state of affairs in Europe, the reception of Hölderlin can play a role to distinguish between Nationalism and the kind of Patriotism poets and philosophers in his time thought to respect the spirit of their times. Retrospectively alone Hölderlin's relationship to Sinclair and preoccupation with Empedocles can indicate to what extent the poet saw that language, poetry, philosophy and people go hand in hand with a definite 'Auffassung' or concluding perception as to what constitutes the human being.

If 'unable to straighten out bend wood', as Kant put it, then this sort of perception of the human being leads to a kind of pessimism which justifies a definite political attitude. The latter became explicit, for instance, when Joschka Fischer held his famous speech about Europe at Humboldt University. For he evoked again the need for elites and thus for a kind of leadership which deems itself to be over and beyond any demand for democracy.

Interestingly enough, there seems to converge in that search to go beyond politics something which is picked up by a popular saying when describing someone becoming a hero as the one who proceeds to go ahead to do his deed: 'er schreitet zur Tat'. Jean Pierre Faye described in his analysis of totalitarian languages how in the Weimar Republic there sprung up everywhere these 'Tat'-Kreise: circles of the deed. That is equally to those who sought to go beyond literature and politics, while still wishing to realize 'heroic deeds'.

The problem of all these over zealous efforts is that they leave the normal individual aside, and even worse exposed to silence. The latter seems to be like the creeping shadow up the mountain side when the sun sets. In seeing how light passes, it can explain as geographical configuration why there is so often in heroic literature, but also in the aspriation of politicians this urge, equal readiness to claim some loofty heights! Is it because up there, where only immortals converse about the state of affairs and decide human destiny, light still prevails when everything else has fallen prey already to those creeping shadows upon whose heels darkness follows?

Something can be found that is akin to former heros like Achilles and Ajax! Hölderlin names the two in his preface to Empedocles, namely in the 'Mnemosyne'. And he continues to name the real hero as the one who hardly needs the law to change things daily. Implicit in that time zone of changes or what is deemed to be possible within one day, is the dimension of the revolution. Something is not merely afoot, but altogether things can be altered if galvanized into being so free that something truthful can happen.

Interestingly enough, Hölderlin ends his poem about Empedocles by not following the hero just described as having been gripped by an over zealous, indeed horrific desire and thus threw himself into the vulcano's mouth. Rather he, the poet, has been held back by love to do the same. Hölderlin states then in one short phrase the most amazing factuality: not the hero but love is the real hero. That is an outstanding testimony for times which tend to forget what holds us back is more to be valued then what prompts us to seek fame elsewhere, in the far strechted and foreign world. That is the case when we steal ourselves away from home, out into the cold and into strange lands, if only to imitate Achilles. The latter tried to gain an immortal name by joining the other heros on the battle fields of Troy, and there, as Homer would describe him, he smelled for the first time the grass when already mortally wounded and therefore about to die. To realize this tragic death of a hero is ever more important for what is entailed as well in the sacrifice for the father land, as described by Hölderlin in that controversial poem of his.

Conclusion: Performing in 'Creative Europe'

Consistency over time takes on an own value, but it would be very cumbersome to reaccount how this working through contradictions reached a kind of frantic search for the new. It made Adorno say in 'minima moralia': 'the new seeks only the new and therefore does not escape its fate, for it will be forced to flee back into the old'.

Brecht had understood this in the tradition of political identity being kept over time would require both the old and the new. How then to combine the two when either the old retires and fades or rather blends into the elongated shadows of history and the new does not enter a dialogue with the present, but moves on, ignoring the past. The latter means as has become most explicit in Post Modernism that contradictions can be left aside. Its newest slogan may be an unconscious refutation that every creativity presuppposes an ethical vision, when claiming that 'creativity is still possible even under dictatorship' (Lutz Engelke). Such a claim can only be upheld if creativity is free from the need to be based on an ethical vision of mankind. Since that is most doubtful, the question of George Steiner he posed in 'Language and silence' still remains to be answered.

At times, it seems as being and becoming creative means but the same, namely to be as much the hero as the anti-hero, who manages nevertheless in a very clever way to survive within the system, while not forgetting simple things such as being able to drink fresh water from the tap.



Hatto Fischer

Athens in March 2012


These notes were written in anticipation of the conference 'history, theatre and memory' held in Ottawa April 19 - 21, 2012. I was to give there a paper about Hölderlin's Empedocles, but due to the situation in Greece decided not to attend.



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