May 2008

Elizabeth Bachner


Hyperion by Friedrich Hölderlin, translated by Ross Benjamin

Sometimes it seems like all of the great German philosophers and poets of a certain era were sickly and miserable. Goethe spent a year and a half of his twenties being nursed by his mother and sister. Schiller was fine until he dropped dead of tuberculosis at age 45. Hegel had some sort of gastrointestinal trouble that might or might not have been cholera. Friedrich Hölderlin, not too surprisingly, suffered from severe hypochondria. He might not have been sick, but he went nuts. He spent thirty-six years as a recluse in a tower overlooking the Neckar valley. His work, according to translator Ross Benjamin, was largely overlooked during that time -- if he garnered any interest, it was because of his “derangement” or Umnachtung (literally meaning “beknightedness,” but invoking a “soul overtaken by internal darkness”).

Hölderlin wrote Hyperion before he really went off the deep end, but the edge of the abyss hovers on every page, all the more poignantly because the novel is a celebration of beauty, passion and life. Hölderlin should not be overlooked -- he was Nietzsche’s favorite poet, and his work helped Paul Celan find a way to render the unspeakable in the German tongue. He wasn’t a happy guy, just as German history wasn’t happy. Hyperion spans the extremes of death and life, sorrow and bliss, sometimes uniting them in impossible moments. Reading it is like listening to heavy, dark music -- with sudden, uplifting crescendos -- alone in a room.

The semi-autobiographical protagonist in Hyperion is a Greek of the eighteenth century, lamenting the death of the beauty of ancient culture, who writes letters to his German friend Bellarmin after returning home from an unpleasant sojourn in Germany. The name comes from Hyperion, the Titan of light, who had a great fall, and who was potentially the subject of several lost poems. Of the great classical works on the Titanomachy, or War of the Titans, only Hesiod’s Theogony survived. There are also references to Hyperion in the fragments left over from Orphic hymns. Hölderlin’s Hyperion falls madly in love with Diotima, a “perfect being” who knows how to merge with “the All of nature,” and takes part in a Greek uprising against the Ottomans.

The allusions to the poet’s own life are rich -- Diotima is based on his employer’s wife, Susette Gontard, with whom he had an affair and exchanged impassioned letters for years. That Diotima’s name is taken from the priestess in Plato’s Symposium who offered up a groundbreaking, metaphysical thesis on love is fitting. In the Symposium, too, Diotima is exalted but absent, alive only in Socrates’s stories of her teachings. Hyperion struggles to experience the beauty of unity -- of love, art, nature and spirit -- all the while tortured by the experience of separation:

“Beauty of the world! you indestructible, enchanting beauty! with your eternal youth! you are; what, then, is death and all the woe of men? -- O! many empty words have been uttered by the strange beings. Yet all ensues from pleasure, and all ends with peace.”

Hyperion is an Orphic epic, and every touch -- from the epistolary structure to the rhythm of the lines and sentences -- serves to highlight its musicality. Even the themes -- of unity, of the beauty of death, of the descent to the underworld, of the ideal of perfection and the intense pain of its loss, of revolution, of the uses of art, of the tension between memory and forgetting (drinking from the river Lethe) -- seem more musical than literary. Reading Ross Benjamin’s excellent translation made me realize that a good, dark, beautiful piece of music doesn’t have to be translated. You can listen to it, and while you might not intellectually understand the lyrics (if there are any), it transcends the awkwardness of language.

Hölderlin’s work, like Celan’s after him, is a practice of creating the universality of music out of the treacherous medium of words. The frisson of this practice is an impossible, and irresistible, place to live and die. Like Orpheus, Hyperion keeps looking back. And like Orpheus, Hölderlin the poet relives the moment of his lost love in a melodious, maddening loop.

Hyperion by Friedrich Hölderlin, translated by Ross Benjamin
Archipelago Books
ISBN: 0979333024
170 Pages