When you’re forced to explain something you don’t understand, you call it an accident. What you are saying is that the phenomenon has a demonstrable existence, yet stands outside the causalities reason can comprehend. When you follow this route, you will be repeating the procedure developed more than two hundred years ago by the Rationalists, Enlighteners, Encyclopaedists and whatever else they called themselves. They created the procedure because they had to eradicate destiny from human reality. Destiny must not exist in a world in which God equals transcendental reason and where reason shows an inexorable tendency to be reduced to the pragmatism of everyday living. On the other side, an explanation had to be offered for the phenomena that had palpable existence even while incomprehensible to reason. That is how accident came to explain the incomprehensible, and was presented to us as a substitute for destiny.
I admit that I prefer destiny as an explanation for the incomprehensible. It is more elegant and it is more spiritual. It promises meaning, and by virtue of that promise extracts from me at least tacit acceptance of the incomprehensible events that have befallen me.
An accident, on the other hand, is raw mechanical force. Or, if you prefer, destiny is exalted, sublime and pathetic, while accident is derisive, anonymous and cynical. Accident abolishes all meaning, even the possibility of meaning. I think I could accept death as part of some larger and meaningful undertaking, if my death were written in a great “Book of the World”. That would be death dealt by destiny. But how can I accept a death caused by stupid fact—a falling flower pot cracking my skull as I pass beneath someone’s balcony? That is death by accident: anonymous, stupid, senseless demise without profound cause or spiritual dimension.
I prefer destiny because it is at least aesthetically superior to any accident. It calls upon us to create a literature. Accident, on the other hand… well, I cannot quite see what kind of literature accident would create, with the exception of cynical and pleonastic lamentations to the effect that while the world and life are without meaning or reasonableness, all are splattered with filth. This may be why I have the hunch that the sense of existential terror we now live with is rooted in rationalism, or more accurately, with rationalism’s mechanical conception of the world. The modern epoch is inextricably tied to the fear Blaise Pascal found himself drowning in after having faced the indifferent, endless silence of cold, dark space.
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The very same notion of accident the Rationalists offered as a substitute for destiny gave us, in the brief five or six years at the beginning of the 19th Century, Heinrich von Kleist and Friedrich Hölderlin. These two men, who had nearly everything in common but yet were virtual opposites as writers, probably make a unique case in world literature.
Let’s remind ourselves of the biographical facts. In 1800, von Kleist began his literary career with his outlines of The Family Ghonorez and Penthesilea at a moment when the thirty-year-old Hölderlin was already at the midpoint of his literary
production. In 1806, Hölderlin withdrew from social life, the same year von Kleist withdrew from the state service—at the midpoint of his literary production. Over the intervening six years they were contemporaries in the fullest sense of the word, sharing the same language, culture, field of action and confronting the same issues and questions.
Those few years were a watershed not merely because one century was ending and another beginning. In that brief period a spiritual, intellectual and cultural epoch definitively ended and another began. The beginning and the end were so complete and total that even those alive at the time became aware of it.
In an 1806 letter to Rühle, von Kleist wrote: “The time appears to be bent on bringing about a new order of things, but all we are able to do is experience the overthrow of the old…” In this single sentence von Kleist describes the boundary: an eminently dramatic phenomenon of two identities in the process of acquiring their ultimate form from their engagement with one another. In that moment, the old and new order of things existed simultaneously, side by side. But those living through the moment are likely to recognize only the collapse of the old order of things—and experience only its downfall.
In any circumstance people recognize only their own side of the dramatic, dialogical being of fundamental change: the side that offers completion to their own identity. They do not recognise what is on the other side of the boundary, or the linked identity that is a part of the change. They have to discover and comprehend it the way one comprehends anything that is not part of one’s own self. How the recognition comes—how people address that other side of the boundary and relate to it—depends on the character of those involved and their experience of the world, which is always inextricably linked to their experience of themselves.
It is possible to address the other side of such fundamental boundaries by treating it as an abstract subject matter, or by attempting to understand it within an I/thou relationship, through dialogue in which two subjects discover one another. It can also be addressed antagonistically, which is another instance of a dramatic relationship, but of a kind that takes the drama prematurely towards an end. Such open conflict abolishes the tension which is the foundation, the condition sine qua non of any drama. Likewise, it is possible to understand the other identity that belongs to the double being of a boundary within the framework of an I / it’ or subject / object relationship as well. It can also be done in still other ways, but these are issues of a possible Poetics of The Boundary which I cannot deal with here. What is essential here is that von Kleist recognised and described the moment he lived in as Hölderlin’s contemporary both acutely and precisely as a boundary between epochs.
Let us remind ourselves of those years. Napoleon was conquering Europe and Englishmen were conquering the rest of the world, providing content for notions such as colonialism and imperialism. One part of that content was the belief that Europe and the world were profoundly one, that Europe stood at the centre of a circle made up of the rest of the world, and that every point in the circle was defined by its relationship to this centre. At that time, in other words, Europe definitively ceased to be equal to itself and became more than the sum of its parts. At the same time, the accelerated decomposition of Turkey relegated Islam to the status of Buddhism—that of a great religion and culture without political significance and without any possibility of political articulation. The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation—founded in 962—also formally ceased to exist in 1806.
In addition, the great project of registering and classifying everything that exists, started much earlier with the publication of the first encyclopaedia, was nearing completion. Classification is the procedure by which an external order in tune with the classifier’s logic is imposed upon a segment of reality—or upon reality as a whole. At the moment we are speaking about, only life itself had managed to remain beyond the rationalist system of classification. During the years while von Kleist and Hölderlin were contemporaries, Alexander von Humboldt was circling the world describing and classifying life in its particular forms, completing the undertaking that would suborn the whole of reality to the single meta-reality the new age recognised: reason.
By the time that undertaking was complete, humanity had separated itself from the Great Chain of Being (as the ancient esoterics called it), from the Created forms of existence (as the great Creationist religions conceived things), and from Mother Nature (as pantheists of all ages had it). Having appropriated the right to impose rationalist logic as the principle of classification for all that exists, humanity separated itself from the world and assumed the position previously occupied by God—but with an essential difference: god created—beyond, behind or within all forms of existence, and as the source of all existence (with variations dependent on specific conceptions of the world)— in harmony with existence. Always.
By contrast, rationalist humanity had to position itself against all other forms of existence. Because it does not confer the gift of existence, and yet strives to order it, humanity necessarily resorts to violence in order to gain control. The long process that transformed humanity’s relationship with the rest of the world—from belonging to antagonism—was brought to completion in this six year period.
Moreover, in this same six year period a new form of human-created existence came into being. Since 1799, a steam engine had been operational in Berlin. Sounds, smells, shapes, forms of behaviour–all those and everything else that characterises a steam engine differ from everything that had existed in the world prior to its advent. The noise produced by this machine is different from that of any naturally-produced sound—and from the kinds of acoustic experience available to human beings to that point in time. The same or very similar can be said about virtually every other characteristic of the steam engine. Beyond that, there is the most radical of the novelties it brought about. Compared to the single question it inevitably raises, all the other characteristics of the steam engine pale to negligible importance: Does the machine function?
This was the first time in human history that existence, meaning and purpose had been rendered mutually coincidental, supplanted as they were by “functioning”, which is to say, by the production of mechanical, measurable energy.
There is, of course, an almost infinite number of possible choices between countless sets of facts and events that could be used to characterise the beginning of the 19th century. But my choice leads to the conclusion that the beginning of the 19th century marks the boundary between two epochs. Before that boundary was crossed, diverse concepts of the world coexisted side by side. Encyclopaedists and the Inquisition, Pantheism, Christianity and rationalism each coexisted and sometimes complemented each other, sometimes clashing, other times in agreement. But at the moment we are trying to understand—the moment when Hölderlin and Von Kleist came together within the framework of a single language and literature—the choice of an exclusive singular possibility, a single pathway and a single concept of the world was being irrevocably made. The new order of things von Kleist wrote of is, properly defined, the concept of the world as a machine, a world in which existence and function are the same thing, where reality is deprived of its own characteristics, because mechanical efficiency has become the sole criterion for determining what is true, good and beautiful.
I have noted that an infinite number of choices could be made from the countless facts that infused the moment we are talking about. Each of them might enable an understanding of that moment, as each defines a possible perspective by perception and
interpretation. But because I am a human being, I am decisively interested in the perspective of human beings living at that time. In other words, I am interested in knowledge and in facts that help me to answer questions such as these: How did human beings of that era experience themselves? How did they see the world? How did they understand and treat the relationship between themselves and the world?
Now, I also believe that literature is the highest form of cognition in the sphere of human issues and that it provides the most reliable knowledge about human beings and their position in the world at any given time. That is why I think that the beginning of the 19th Century can best be comprehended and understood from the literature written at the time. It so happens that the nature of that period, its deep internal division and the exciting drama of the epochal watershed that so forcefully characterises it, came together most clearly and completely in the relationship between Hölderlin and Von Kleist—so much so that I feel compelled to claim that a comparison of these two writers, an understanding of their relationship, offers the most precise possible spiritual cipher of the period. Read Hölderlin and Von Kleist in sequence and you will understand the nature of the transitional boundary our epoch commenced with. You will uncover it and understand it the way only literature makes possible – as if you had experienced the period yourself, and now were reflecting upon it.
A fully detailed and systematic comparison between two authors like Hölderlin and Von Kleist is impossible here, of course. Fortunately, it is also unnecessary, because we are dealing with authors who have been studied thoroughly. It is therefore sufficient to remind ourselves of several known points of comparison. One of those is the displacement that so prominently marks the lives and work of both authors. It provides grounding for comparison by acting as a sum of common traits that simultaneously provide meaning to differences and make comparison possible. Alternately, consider their common dream of tragedy; their passionate and persistent thinking and rethinking of tragedy; their striving to understand the tragic as a spiritual condition and to revivify tragedy as a literary form as an accurate and emblematic expression of their era. There is also their common interest in antiquity and their mutual belief in an essential correspondence between their time and that of antiquity.
Yet in the very kernel of what is common to them, differences begin to appear. What Hölderlin ties to antiquity is his dream of the unity of all existence, while von Kleist’s Panthesilea “articulates the dark side of antiquity” which was only discursively thematized by Nietzsche much later in the century. It may have been precisely due to his recognition of this dark side of antiquity that von Kleist was so successful in writing tragedy, while neither Hölderlin’s Empedocles nor his translations of Sophocles were a clear success.
It is on the basis of this kernel of common traits that differences between von Kleist and Hölderlin acquire meaning and form. It is on the basis of that kernel that comparison between the two authors becomes a comparison of opposites: between one who is the last of his kind, and one who is the first of his kind.
Hölderlin is last of his kind. The things that end and die with him are many. For instance, he is the last in a line of authors whose work and attitude towards writing constitute a particular type or a paradigm in European literature. “This work is
based on a conviction that the poetry of Hölderlin is of a different kind from the poetry that has developed in modernity,” says Romano Guardini at the beginning of his book on Hölderlin, where he claims that “Hölderlin belongs to a line of descent that includes such names as Dante, Aeschylus and Pindar.” I would venture to add to this list Sophocles, Francis of Assisi and a few German mystics literary historians ignore for reasons that are unclear to me. The list of names make it clear that with Hölderlin ends that paradigm of European literature which understands writing as an integrated spiritual exercise, an essential human activity which, similar to ritual, unifies within itself religion, philosophy, practice and art, magic and science. Hölderlin was the last writer of this kind and his writing is the last example of such writing in European literature.
Any writing that integrates within itself religious, philosophical and artistic experiences presupposes a deep faith on the part of the writer in the unity of truth, goodness and beauty. Someone who relates to writing in Hölderlin’s way cannot accept a world in which beauty could also be evil and false. In that sense he was the last writer in European literature to seriously advocate the philosophy of unity (Einheitsphilosophie) with conviction and dignity. He was the last writer to know that his poetics at once obliges him ethically, logically and as a citizen, and he testified to that knowledge with his work and with his life.
Hölderlin was the last proponent of the philosophy of unity in yet another sense. His work was the final attempt, in the framework of European culture, at a literary articulation of the pantheistic vision of the world as a permanent Chain of Being, a linkage in which the particular forms of existence are mutually and inextricably connected not merely by mutual dependence, but by love. From Hesiod and Plato, through Eriugena and Francis of Assisi, to Goethe and Hölderlin, that experience of the world inspires the esoteric lineage of European cultural tradition.
But it inspires no more. That line, in its classical form, ended with Hölderlin. He was the last European writer who could put into Diotimina’s letter this sentence: “How can I separate from the whole that holds all beings together?” He was the last writer who could write that sentence as a declaration of character, a declaration that expresses his experience of the world and of existence and not as a manneristic allusion. After Hölderlin no writer was capable of creating characters who experience their own existence as an integral part of the unbreakable and endless Chain of Being—character who, like Francis of Assisi, really feel kinship with wolves and with the wind. No writer after Hölderlin created characters who, like Hyperion, talk to God: “- Do you love me, good Father in Heaven? – I asked softly, and felt his answer so certain and sublime in my heart.” There were no such writers after Hölderlin to do this because writers able to do this ceased to be possible in the world that came after him. Of course, skilled writers can create characters able to operate well enough within the confines of a literary text, but such characters nonetheless remain artificial, because today, in our world, such characters cannot exist the way Hölderlin’s did.
In our world, it is impossible to know what will happen after death, as his Diotima knew, or to know what death is, as his Empedocles knew when he said: “To be alone and without gods is death.” In the world that has taken shape since Hölderlin and von Kleist marked their boundary in time one can have no shared meanings of any kind, because in our world we are alone. We are not merely bereft of gods, we are simply bereft.
Aloneness and loneliness bring our discussion to von Kleist, Hölderlin’s contemporary who begins one literary tradition as Hölderlin’s ends another. One of the most prominent characteristics of von Kleist’s new paradigm is individualism. His characters are fundamentally on their own, his texts are inhabited by lonely people. If any of them has a relationship, the other person either dies or otherwise leaves the hero bereft. Lisbeth thus dies at the very beginning of Kolhaas, Marquise von O… is abandoned by her family, Littegarde from the story “Duel” is practically excluded from her family.
In European literature before von Kleist, characters mostly used to belong somewhere. They had families, friends, co-travelers or loved ones, so that they were able to confront their destiny while leaning on others. Von Kleist’s characters are separated from all profound social ties, awaiting their destiny in total aloneness. Only Racine’s characters measure up to those of von Kleist in the degree of their loneliness, but even Racine did not develop their aloneness so persistently and intentionally, and it does not play so decisive a role in the shaping of his work. Racine’s characters may happen to find themselves alone, but von Kleist’s are abandoned, both literally and figuratively speaking. They are not given aid by any community, they are abandoned by other people, and they are even abandoned by their principles, those values which are supposedly common to all, equally obliging all and equally belonging to everyone.
Kolhaas believes that he fights for justice – for a principle, that is—yet he abandons his robber friends without asking what is just for them and with no feeling that either they or justice oblige him in any way. Thus what Kolhaas believes to be justice (a fundamental value, a principle), crumbles into a mere right.
In the creation of the character of Marquise von O… a very important part belongs to allusions to the Virgin Mary. The parallels between the two characters stress the innocence of the Marquise on one side, while at the same time dethroning’ Virgin Mary by reducing her to a lost and hurt woman. Even technical values cease to be absolute
and unequivocal, so that Prince von Homburg’s shining victory ultimately results in his condemnation.
The complete aloneness of von Kleist’s characters, abandoned by others and by their principles, by God and by the community, leads them to a uncertainty that is absolute. The first and most obvious form of that uncertainty is ignorance—of other people, of the world, of its values. In von Kleist’s works there is nothing one can know for certain about the “objective” givens that are external to individuals. His world, quite simply, is a world without reliable knowledge. His characters cannot even know themselves. Marquise von O… does not know that she is pregnant, even though as a mother she has had the experience of pregnancy, and when she finally recognises that she is pregnant, she does not know how she became pregnant or by whom. Littegarde knows, true enough, that Count Jakob der Rotbart did not sleep with her, but she has no opportunity to prove that. So, even when von Kleist’s characters do have knowledge, they remain hopelessly alone with what they know and are with the possibility of receiving confirmation of their knowledge, either in someone else’s voice or through an objective event.
Because there is no reliable knowledge and because God, principles, and values do not recognize von Kleist’s characters, and because it follows that the stable point Archimedes sought does not exist—von Kleist’s characters cannot know what they are doing, cannot do what they want to, and can’t refrain from doing what they don’t want to do. The poor Judge Adam in The Broken Flagon conducts an investigation which ends up being directed against himself. Similarly, Antonio Piachi in The Foundling does everything to bring about his own undoing. And so on, and on. While von Kleist was writing, the new world could only be glimpsed. He may not have personally recognised or experienced the new order of things, as he feared he wouldn’t in the letter of his quoted earlier, but he described that new order and the world created by it with terrifying precision.
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I hope that this brief comparison makes it clear that the six years Hölderlin and von Kleist spent together in literature represent an incontrovertible watershed. The boundary between one epoch and the next is so clearly traced out by the relationship of these two writers that it cannot be missed. But why is it important to understand this watershed in the first place? Why should Hölderlin, von Kleist and the boundary they mark be of concern to us?
Hölderlin and von Kleist ought to matter even to those of us who have no interest in the area of Germanic studies. No human activity affords so many insights and such qualitatively superior knowledge, especially about human beings, as good literature does. Hölderlin and von Kleist represent great, not merely good, literature. Still, why should their relationship be of any concern to anyone else in the world? Why should we be concerned with the boundary in time that these two writers drew so clearly? Is anything really going to be learned if we compare them instead of treating them separately?
Take a look at the era in which we’re currently living. Europe is again out of measure with itself. This time, it is less than it ought to be, forcibly divided into the European Union and “the Rest”—and nobody knows what to do with the rest. Two centuries ago, the medieval Holy Empire of the German Nation ceased to exist. In our time the German Republic has reunited as one of the constitutive parts of a European identity still waiting to be fully constituted. Two centuries ago, the conquest of the world by a handful of European states was underway. In our time, the last remnants of their colonial empires are liberating themselves, and Europe has withdrawn into itself.
That withdrawal could be a homecoming, if we were able to keep in mind that today’s Europe now represents more than sum of the continent’s economic wealth and political influence. Two centuries ago, two great cultures, Buddhism and Islam, were losing their political dimension, including the possibility of articulating themselves in practical political terms In our own time, both of those cultures are again striving to regain their political dimension, and in the case of Islamic countries it is often being done in an unfortunate and clumsy fashion.
Quite apart from this, a new form of existence has come about in our time, new in the way the steam engine was new to the past. This newness is represented by the cybernetic machines and their “virtual realities”. If what little I understand of these machines is correct, they could make it possible for us to have an immediate sensual reception of that which exists ideally—the way geometric figures or literary works exist. If I am right and that is indeed what they are capable of, I am prepared to be very receptive to these new machines, because they might enable us to have an immediate perception of a triangle, or an angel, or some of the many other things that once signalled ideal existence. Imagine the conversation you could have with, for instance, the unfortunate Nathaniel from E.T.A. Hoffman’s Der Sandmann!
Judging by the signals I have been apprehending, one might consider that we are again standing before a boundary in time, this time at the exit point of the epoch Von Kleist described while standing at its entrance point. That is why it is exceptionally important to read Hölderlin and von Kleist together to gain an understanding of the boundary they marked. Such an understanding might help us to understand the boundary we are facing now. It might also help us do what is necessary to make the return of Europe to itself a true homecoming.
( 4461 w. Translated by Slobodan Drakulic and Brian Fawcett)