Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth Powers’

Was Hölderlin nuts? The jury is out. Maybe.

Tuesday, September 11th, 2018
Share

He preoccupied interesting men.

One statement had been repeatedly spray-painted onto a turret in Tübingen, beginning way back in 1981, as an unusually bitter winter warmed into spring. Over the years, the words, in Swabian dialect and usually written in the old Sütterlin script, became a part of the tourist attraction, so no one scrubs off the paint anymore. “Der Hölderlin isch et verrückt gwae” translates roughly into “Hölderlin wasn’t nuts.”

The insanity of Friedrich Hölderlin (1770–1843), who died in obscurity but who has since become a towering presence in German poetry, had long been accepted—so the idea that he was in his right mind was still a minority opinion. But the cause found an unlikely champion in René Girard. He had never taken much of an interest in poetry, except for a short-lived interest in Saint-John Perse at the beginning of his career. He would finish his life with Hölderlin.

So begins the fourteenth chapter of Evolution of Desire: A Life of René GirardAnd my point was, well, René Girard really thought Hölderlin wasn’t nuts. But he wasn’t the only man to round out his life with the German poet. A fellow poet, Wilhelm Waiblinger, was another.

Waiblinger visited the older poet and wrote a record of his visits. Friedrich Hölderlin’s Life, Poetry and Madness has just been republished by Hesperus Press (translated by Will Stone) – the the third time the Waiblinger biography has been translated in recent years.

Elizabeth Powers writes about him in “When Winter Comes: A Poet’s Descent into a ‘Twilight Existence,'” in the August 21 Time Literary Supplement, where it shares a smashing double-page spread with Hans Christian Andersen and Sigrid Unset.

René Girard’s life story was long and unusually serene. The Waiblinger story, however, didn’t have a happy ending. Waiblinger’s misfortune and mishaps ended the life of “a man of considerable native refinement, unworldly sensibility, and an absolute lack of self-parody,” according to Powers.

She writes:

Like many German writers, Waiblinger was the son of a parson. By 1822, when he was eighteen, he too displayed considerable gifts in the Greek and Latin classics and began to study philosophy and theology at the same Tübingen seminary where Hölderlin had studied alongside Hegel and Schelling. Waiblinger was ambitious and not lacking in self-belief, but it was the age of Metternich, a quiet time for geniuses. He began to visit Hölderlin regularly, perhaps drawn by a perceived relationship between the genius and madness. (Hesse’s “In Pressel’s Garden House” of 1914 charmingly recreates one of their outings.) The visits ceased when Waiblinger was expelled from the seminary in 1826 for apparently reprehensible conduct. He departed for Rome where he wrote accounts of Italian sites and a novella called “The British in Rome”, as well as transcribing the notes he had made of his visits to Hölderlin. Having climbed Etna and contracted malaria in the Pontine marshes, he suffered a lung infection. Eight haemorrhages and fourteen bloodlettings later, Waiblinger died in Rome in 1830 at the age of twenty-six and was buried near Keats and Shelley in the Protestant Cemetery. Friedrich Hölderlins Leben, Dichtung und Wahnsinn was published a year later.

The link is here, but it’s behind a paywall. Enjoy the first one-and-a-half paragraphs, then look for the August 21 Times Literary Supplement, with Andersen and Unset thrown in for good measure.