In what follows, I want to comment on Martin Heidegger’s reading of Hölderlin’s well-known dictum from his 1801 letter to his friend Casimir Bohlendorff, “the free use of the proper is the most difficult thing”. Heidegger devotes a whole section to this enigmatic phrase in the recently translated 1941-42 Hölderlin’s Hymn “Remembrance” (2018) seminar, which dates to the years in which he was confronting Nietzsche’s work, and also more explicitly and for obvious reasons, the issue of German nationalism . In the wake of recent conversations about nationalism and patriotism in political rhetoric, it seems like a fitting time to return to Heidegger’s comments on Hölderlin’s work. This also marks a turn in Heidegger’s thinking of the poetic in the strong sense of the term, which has been analyzed widely in the literature.
Heidegger begins by claiming that the “free use of one’s ownmost” requires a direct confrontation with “the foreign” but that at the same time, it is the easiest thing to miss (Heidegger 105). What is difficult is that which is already one’s own and nearest, and because it is intuitive, it is easy to overlook it. What is difficult is not due to some kind of epistemological overcapacity that today we would associate with the complexity of technical density, but rather, it is an immediate inhabitation, a mood of our belonging that is grasped beyond consciousness and propriety. Hence, it is easy to discard it in a gesture of dismissal due to its familiarity. It happened even to the Greeks.
Heidegger quotes Hölderlin’s verses referencing the loss of the ‘fatherland’: “Of the fatherland and pitifully did / Greece, the most beautiful, perish” (Heidegger 105). Following an obscure Pindar fragment on the “shadow’s dream”, Heidegger shows that the absence is the most important element to illuminate the unreal as it transitions to the real. And this is what the poet does. Indeed, the poet can establish a “footbridge”, or rather it came bring it forth, to initiate a transition towards “what is historically one’s own” (Heidegger 109). If anything, what Greece and Germania point to in Hölderlin’s poetry is this otherwise of historical presencing, which Heidegger admits has nothing to do with historiographical accumulation or cultural metaphorcity (Heidegger 109). At times it is all too easy to dismiss what is at stake here. In the beginning of the twentieth century, for instance, E.M. Butler wrote a book titled The Tyranny of Greece over Germany (1935), which studied the “classical influence” of all things Greek since Winckelmann and German Idealism. Many do not cease to repeat the cliché that Heidegger’s thinking – even Schmitt in Glossarium laments the fascination with Hölderlin over Daubler, which is also the controversy between the critique of logos and a Christological conception of History – is a flight back to Greek ruminations for a new German beginning.
Obviously, this is not Heidegger’s interest in reading the holderlinian use of one’s own. There is no cultural equivalence between the German and the Greek sense of belonging; rather it seems that what Heidegger is after is another way of thinking the historicity of the people, which is fundamentally a problem with the relation with time: “A humankind’s freedom in relation to itself consists in funding, appropriating, and being able to use of what is one’s own. It is in this that the historicality of a people resides” (Heidegger 111). The poet is the figure that, by asking the question about the most difficult thing (one’s use of the proper), can discover this task. Only he can take over the business of founding it (Heidegger 112). The task of the poet is always this “seeking”, which is already in Hölderlin’s first fragment in his novel Hyperion: “We are nothing: what we seek is everything” (Heidegger 113). The task of seeking opens itself to what is the highest and the most holy, which for Hölderlin is the “fatherland’. It is “holy” precisely because it is forbidden and the most difficult to retain.
We are far away here from the sacrificial structure of Hölderlin’s “Der Tod Furs Vaterland” (“To Die for the Homeland”), which Helena Cortés Gabaudan has read in light of the archaic Horacian trope of ‘dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’; a staging of the heroic ethos against the backdrop of the aporetic conceit between thinking and action, the sword and the pen, the poet and the warrior in the early stages of the artist fallen into the age of revolutions . Something else is going on in “Remembrance” use of one’s own at the level of the very transformative nature of historical time, in so much as that which is most holy is nothing that resembles a past principle (a work of art stored in a museum, or the poem as an artistic medium), but rather an atheology, which is never negation or lack; it is always nearness to one’s own as the encounter with what’s “holy” (Heidegger 117).
This atheology suspends any given theistic structure in the act of poetizing. (Is it even correct to refer it as an “act”?). And this poetizing is the task as passage is the inscription of the impossible relation with one’s use here and now. But where does the “political” fit in this picture, one could ask? Is Hölderlin’s turn towards the “use of the national” (Vaterland) entirely a question driven by a political vocation of some sort? This is a poet, one must remember, frustrated by the belated condition of nationhood that sealed Germany’s destiny in the wake of the French Revolution. Hölderlin is first and foremost a poet of political disenchantment and a witness to how politics cannot escape this tragic fate. Indeed, only the poet can actually look straight at this predicament, unlike the political thinker who fantasies with a programmed “assault on the heavens”. In an important moment of the analysis, Heidegger touches this problem:
“What is more obvious than to interpret the turn to the fatherland along the lines of a turn to the “political”? However, what Hölderlin names the fatherland is not enchanted by the political, no matter how broadly one may conceive the latter…The turn to the fatherland is not the turn to the political either, however“. (Heidegger 120).
Undoubtedly, this is a Parthian arrow directed at the political essence of the national understood as a gigantism of state, culture, and history as it was conjuring up in the European interwar period. It is also takes a distance from any given “standpoint” of the national becoming. In this sense, I am in agreement with poet Andrés Ajens’ suggestion that, against the dialectics of locational “alternative histories”, the problem of the national is that of an infinite task of the “desnacional” (this is Ajens’s own term) under erasure, in relation to the “foreign”, in preparation for the “passage of learning to appreciate one’s own” (Heidegger 120) . What we cannot grasp in the national is precisely what bears the trace of the task of ‘denationalization’ as the homecoming of “the clarity of presentation” in its discrete singularity (Heidegger 122). This last line is also from the letter to Bohlendorff.
It is interesting that every time that the form of denationalization has been referred to in strictly political terms, it entails the overcoming of politics by an exogenous force that liquidates the capacities for its own limits. This is, indeed, the realm of the political in the strong sense of the term, in line with the emergence of sovereignty that Hölderlin’s poetic thought wants to curve toward an otherwise of the national. This use of the national wouldn’t let itself be incubated by the supremacy of the political. Let us call this an infrapolitical kernel of patriotism.
This is why at the very end of this session Heidegger mentions that Hölderlin, unlike Nietzsche, must be understood as a “harbinger of the overcoming of all metaphysics” (Heidegger 122). We wonder whether the emphasis on the “People”, however fractured or originary, does not carry a residue of metaphysical rouse. Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly true that Hölderlin aims at something higher. Perhaps he aims at an “inebriation that is different from the “intoxication of enthusiasm” (Heidegger 125); that is, a distance from Kant who elevated the perception of the French Revolution as an anthropological affection.
The step back of the singularity is driven by the “soul” – which Heidegger connects to the polysemic usage of the word Gemüt (at times translated as disposition or gathering) – as other than politics, since it sees through the offering of the dark light and keeps thinking in the human. Transposing it to our discussion, we can say that a politics is irreducible to Gemüt, and that only Gemüt is the excess in every politics. The use of one’s own, vis-a-vis the national (or the process of denationalization), is a resource to attune oneself with this “disposition”. No human can bear to be human without it. Hölderlin seeks to reserve this poverty as the primary task of the poet as a radical neutralization of all techno-political missteps. Or, in the last words in the session: “…it is the while of the equalization of destiny” (Heidegger 131).
- Martin Heidegger. Hölderlin’s Hymn “Remembrance”. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2018.
- Friedrich Hölderlin. Poesía esencial, ed. Helena Cortés Gabaudan. Madrid: Oficina de Arte y Ediciones, 2018.
- From a personal exchange with Andrés Ajens.