In a courtyard gathering at NYU’s Deutches Haus, Martin Rauchbauer and Deike Benjoya sat down with Ross Benjamin, Alfed Goubran, and Richard Sieburth last month to discuss the life and work of Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843). The idyllic setting of trees, birds, food, wine, and of course, books, was a perfect backdrop to discuss this Romantic writer. The panelists discussed the literary inspirations and life experiences behind Hölderlin’s work. Benjamin and Goubran even serenaded the audience with song and guitar after the discussion. Benjamin sang a tribute to Bob Dylan and Goubran sang a song he wrote himself. Overall the event was a thoughtful celebration of Hölderlin and his ongoing influence on contemporary literature and culture.
Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin is known today as one of the pillars of German lyricism, though he was relatively obscure in his time. He studied theology at the Tübinger Stift along with Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, and Isaac von Sinclair. After leaving the church, Hölderlin became a private tutor and in 1793, began writing the epistolary novel Hyperion (his only book of prose), and poetry. Hölderlin also found work in Switzerland and France and eventually traveled from Paris back to his home in Nürtingen by foot. In 1805 Hölderlin’s friend Sinclair was arrested for treason and Hölderlin was suspected to be a co-conspirator. He avoided punishment when he was declared mentally ill and taken to a clinic. He lived out the remaining 38 years of his life in the care of others. Hyperion translatorRoss Benjamin wanted to emphasize that despite his impact, Hölderlin had a relatively short creative period and Hyperion was the last project he finished before being taken to the clinic.
Benjamin chose to translate Hyperion because the prose seemed more approachable than much of Hölderlin’s poetry, but it contains the same dramatic mood swings and tone differences as the poetry. Benjamin said in translating Hyperion he wanted to bring out the strangeness of Hölderlin’s writing, of how his German was like no one else’s German at the time.
Austrian writer Alfred Goubran, who also talked about Hölderlin’s unique voice, said he considers himself a writer in the tradition of Hölderlin: “I believe in inspiration, in muses…I’m not a materialistic writer.” This point of view informs an organic and mystical style of writing, and Goubran pointed out the inherent challenge: “When you have these beliefs, it’s hard to live in this world, so you criticize.” But the criticism of authors like Hölderlin and Goubran is not the type of criticism that tears things apart into complete destruction because, said Goubran, “poets criticize to make things better.”
Another Hölderlin admirer and translator Richard Sieburth quoted the poet: “I can think of no people more divided within themselves than the Germans.” For Sieburth, Hölderlin carried that same division within himself, often writing from dramatically different moods. There may be an unpredictability in his work, but Hölderlin found ways to create harmonies between his inner divisions. Sieburth also discussed the theme of exile. Hölderlin was an indentured servant to a winemaker in Bordeaux, where his thoughts about exile may have stemmed from. He became very familiar with the process of making wine, which at the time was sold by the barrel immediately after it was made, then often sent abroad to age. Every once in a while, filled bottles would come back again, well-aged and better than when they left. This, according to Sieburth, was how Hölderlin may have seen his own exile from his homeland, with full appreciation only after he’d left it behind.
Though each of the evening’s presenters saw Hölderlin a little bit differently, there was unanimous recognition of his monumental impact on not just German literature and culture, but world literature in general. He is as relevant today as when he was rediscovered near the beginning of the 20th century and his work rings as true to us now as it did when it was first written. To see him work through personal struggles poetically is also an interest and inspiration to today’s writers. Hölderlin remains a vital force, especially for the writers and translators who continue his work.