Maria Valkama abstract

Maria Valkama: Das gewaltige Element.
Hölderlin and the natural ground of poetry

In the context of 17th-18th century German Frühromantik, the conceptand experience of nature was a topic even more crucial than today. Although the theme of conceptualizing nature is easily conceived as theoretical, the German intellectual Friedrich Hölderlin approached this motif most incisively in his poetry. In this address I aim at casting light on a relevant conceptual formulation: the conflicting relation between nature (die Natur) and spirit (der Geist) or art and skill (die Kunst), that is, on the dialectical opposition of aorgisch and organisch.

For die Frühromantiker, “aorgic” was a label to everything uncontrollable, chaotic, elemental and inconceivable. As its antithesis, “organic” was a name for all things consisting of or organized comprehensibly as functional components that form a balanced, sensible, rational whole. This opposition is illuminated blatantly in Hölderlin’s rather early poem “Natur und Kunst”. It is obvious that for Hölderlin being human means being caught in the middle of elementary, titanic Saturn and the reasoning and organizing Jupiter – and belonging and owing to both.

Thus, based on Hölderlin’s commentaries on Sophocles, Greek tragedy itself can be seen as an experiential relation between aorgic fate and organic art (of reason or representation). In Hölderlin’s thought, the working principle of tragedy is expressing this Zweigestalt of human substance and experience. His theory of caesura as the organizing structure tragedy is a theory about expressing the dissonance of organic and aorgic, the stroke of fate, in perceptible form. Here, paradoxically, fate is experienced in the form of rupture in experience. In fact, taking Hölderlin’s conception further, tragedy can be understood as a way of both organizing the experience of uncontrollability and impenetrability of fate, and of bringing this incommensurability of fate and understanding to focus in the central form of caesura. A tragedy, as a piece of art, is organic, but aorgic fate is its driving force, and this duality is its essence.

From the idea of stroke of fate we get back to Saturn and Jupiter, that is, the question of elemental violence and/or the violence of reason. Violence is essentially attributed to elemental forces of nature due to their irresistibility. Even Hölderlin writes of “das gewaltige Element”. But, thinking more closely, how can violence be attributed to nature itself – what, outside itself, can nature violate against? The titan Saturn is accused of being uncontrollably violent, but nevertheless, it is Jupiter who violates his father. It remains to be asked, why Juppiter has to do this? In the end, violence seems originally to be a reaction to the inevitable disparity of organic spirit and aorgic nature, projected to asubjective nature by conscious spirit (cf. Chiron’s göttlihces Unrecht; göttliche Untreue). Thus, in a way, nature can be seen as the progenitor of violence in that it is also the ground of spirit’s consciousness (as its opposing and limiting force – we will come to this shortly), but only the conscious spirit can be the subject of violence.

From the point of view of the consciousness of spirit the question of violence must be reiterated. What is, for Hölderlin, the sense of being cut loose from the harmonious unity of nature, and in what way does it induce consciousness? It may be of use to consider that Hölderlin’s schoolmate, Hegel, seemed to think that the work of the organic and organizing spirit consists essentially of negation (examples), while only the elementary, creative power of nature keeps things alive and growing. The basis of Hölderlin’s dialectical thinking lies exactly in the Heraclitean harmonious dissonance between nature and spirit. It is also noteworthy that the structure of Hölderlin’s poetic dialectics corresponds quite accurately to the ground of Hegelian logics, that is, the difference between pure being and nothingness (example). What remains is what is essential: the sheer difference without accidental properties, and the demandingly, forcibly productive work of becoming that is put in motion by this difference. In Hölderlin’s thought, nature is forced by spirit and spirit is enlivened by nature, but each one is ineffective, incompetent and futile without the other. Without dissonance nature is asleep, infertile and desolate (as in “der Wanderer”, quote), but “ist im Waffenklang erwacht” – the dissonance of spirit embellished in the ground of nature itself awakens it.

Put concisely, my interpretation of Hölderlin’s idea of aorgic nature and organic consciousness is this: 1) The unity of nature is unconscious; 2) being cut loose from it by being restricted by it, as in being exposed and opposed to the forces of nature, creates consciousness by negation; 3) consciousness and human subjectivity is tragic. Thus, what remains to be done, is resolving violence in dialectics – mediating the natural ground, the element, and the skill and intellect of organizing it. And, as I have tried to show, for Hölderlin, a relevant example of a successful mediation is found in Greek tragedy. (Here we can also assert that the origin of Hölderlin’s dialectical thought is in the opposition of aorgic and organic.)

How exactly is violence resolved? In Hölderlin’s interpretation of the tragedies of Sophocles, the central character is left with the burden of reconciling a fatal imbalance rooted in the harmonious dissonance between Jupiter and Saturn, spirit and nature – between acting knowledgeably and akon, between the law of polis and the possession of divine justice ad between suffering and fatelessness (dysmoron), mortality and divinity, müssige und reiβende Zeit (examples). The split between incommensurate parts is the transcendental condition of perceiving and recognizing meanings and meaningful unities in the light of a higher measure (explication of Hegels absolute measure and qualified measure; relative difference in spirit vs. essential difference in nature).