Anatoly Lunacharsky 1931


Written: 1931
First published: 1931 (Foreword to the Russian translation of The Death of Empedocles), Moscow-Leningrad, Academia Publishing House
Source: Lunacharsky Archive
Translated by: Anton P.

Before the World War, some unknown or little-known Hoelderlin is recorded in the notes of the history of Western European literature, generally, as a footnote to the Romantic school in Germany, somewhere between Sturm und Drang, Klopstock and the Romantics, somehow he is pushed into a corner next to Goethe and Schiller, it is written that he was a poet, it is written that he went mad, that he lived mad for a long time, almost forty years, and died somewhere in the footnotes of a great historical life, like a small footnote of a literary life, about a hundred years.

This is how Hoelderlin was evaluated by literary historians.

And suddenly the apotheosis is given to the poet after the war. Friedrich Hoelderlin is nationalized, canonized, internationalized by Europe: Hoelderlin is suddenly a world poet!

For this reason Hoelderlin cannot but be of interest to our reader. While Expressionism flourished in Germany, Hoelderlin rose to the heights of that country’s greatest poets. He was hailed as a sage and prophet. Now this overestimation has somewhat diminished, but Hoelderlin remains for almost every educated German among the ten or twelve literary geniuses of the nation. A truly gigantic bibliography has been about him, considering his work from the philosophical and cultural-historical, formal-literary and psychiatric sides.

Hoelderlin lived in a remarkable time of high spirits among the German bourgeois youth. This movement was particularly strong on the Rhine and in southern Germany. Those sons of patricians like Goethe, common mortals like Schiller, pastors like Hoelderlin, all these Schellings, Hegels, and after them hundreds of others well-known, lesser known, and unknown names, boiled under the influence of ideas that penetrated from neighboring France, and they responded with a storm of feeling and thought about politics, that is, the real, practical storm of the French Revolution.

Germany was not yet ripe for a bourgeois revolution at that time, still less for those extreme revolutionary conclusions drawn by the Jacobins and Babouvists who looked even deeper into the future. Germany’s intellectuals remained intellectuals. They were given neither the power of the bourgeoisie trying, in its upper strata, to become the ruling class, nor the power of the feelings of the agitated masses of the people. They hung in the air, and this somehow crippled their thinking: it went deeper, into poetic and philosophical paths. Unintentional isolation from the possibility of influencing practical life gradually led to a denial of the primacy of practice and even to a contemptuous attitude towards it.

The German people precisely at that time became “a people of thinkers and poets.” Such a definition means a people without political or industrious figures. Of course, princes, priests, nobles, magnates, and even ordinary people, that is, the petty bourgeoisie, the peasantry, labored – “did their work.” But it was not a creative, progressive work, it was a micro-entrepreneur job, some kind of work “for a living”. The intellect could not come to terms with that. It protested loudly, sharply. It dreamed of revolutionary actions and, feeling that the time was not ripe for revolution, unwittingly, in its despair, fell upon some half-conscious revolutionary impulses, ideas of a predatory character.

In this respect, Schiller’s Karl Moor and Hoelderlin’s hero Hyperion are in many ways brothers in both ideology and fate.

Hoelderlin, a colossally gifted, internally musical man, with lyricism that easily developed into metaphysics, perceiving reality as a chord of cosmic harmony, painfully experienced the fragmentation of the surrounding social life. He lived in a dream of a different, better world, the prototype of which he found in idealized Greece. There reigned a deep harmony between nature and man! There art was born by itself, it was, so to speak, a spontaneous expression of man’s contact with nature. From this immediate, semi-conscious, semi-passive, semi-creative act grew mythology, giving birth to art, poetry, philosophy, and finally religion: the one in ideas, the other in living symbols, images, systematized the only integral representation and sense of man and nature itself. The “Spirit” embraced the entire culture, the entire daily life of the ancient Greeks. This is how you should live.

The development of reason forced humanity away from this blissful totality. It humiliatingly tortured the human soul with its disharmony. Hoelderlin did not, however, experience this as eternal damnation. He believed that precisely from the difference between man and nature, from his broken life, would grow a new “top” of the tree, i.e. the ideal. The ideal is a project, a program for the best part of humanity. Now the point is to put it into practice, to intelligently claim the lost “place” of unity on some path.

The reader sees that Hoelderlin’s reasoning in its spirit is very reminiscent of the Hegelian way of thinking, and, incidentally, in many respects coincides with that monumental passage–which has seemed unexpected to some–from the introduction to Marx’s Critique of Political Economy concerning with art in ancient Greece.

It is only natural that Hoelderlin, who is far removed from the masses and therefore regards with horror the possibility of mass activity, should believe much more in the genius and the hero. A genius and a hero is a prophet, a leader of the best part of humanity in its effort to resurrect the lost unity of life. Hoelderlin himself dreamed of being such a genius and leader. In the lyric novel Hyperion, wonderful in its style, depth and clarity of thought, Hoelderlin, who never tried to engage in practical activities, depicts first the rise and then the fall of the leader, inspired by the reality of the defeat of Hyperion in the revolution for the restoration of the freedom of Greece. Hyperion and his friend Alavandas, in protest against the social order, must rely on robbers, like Karl Moor, and, again like Karl Moor, realize in the end that this support is useless.

To what conclusion does Hyperion’s tragic death lead? The laws of life–the laws of slavery–strangle man and provoke his protest. But if you break these laws, you may find yourself in a society of gross criminals, you yourself become such a criminal. Thus, all the paths to the moral reformation of life are ordered to Hyperion according to his plans.

The immense confidence instilled in Hyperion by Diotima (a reflection of Hoelderlin’s own painful love) crumbled. It is true that Hyperion sees salvation in something higher, or rather, in faith in the inexhaustibility of the process of life, and therefore in the inevitability of a brighter future. In reality, however, this hope was not justified.

Hoelderlin revealed attempts at messianism exclusively in the field of poetry. It seemed to him that he would at first have a few, and then an increasing number of followers, surrounded by disciples who understood the sonorous secret hymns in which he would preach his new religion. It seemed to him, that the thought often seriously occurred to him that he was some kind of new Christ or Antichrist, who was brotherly to his predecessor (see the wonderful, though in many ways dark Hymn of Christ), in general, he came to restore ancient paganism. But instead of this grand mission, Hoelderlin found in life a few measly bits of some semi-loose character. Hoelderlin’s prophetic ambition, the musical creative pressure in the realm of thought and the sphere of form raged within him, and every meeting of the waves of this inner boiling up close, within the limited framework of the surrounding society caused unbearable pain. Finally, Hoelderlin’s consciousness, which sometimes fades, sometimes flashes, is completely extinguished and for several decades he lives defeated by schizophrenia in a state of insanity.

A great deal of controversy later took place over Hoelderlin’s disease itself. The thought comes involuntarily to the mind to accept it as a social phenomenon. But psychiatrists say that schizophrenia is a purely hereditary disease that manifests itself in the same way in all life relationships.

In my long lecture at the Communist Academy on pathological and social factors in the history of literature I took Hoelderlin as an example to prove that pathological phenomena in literature characterize only a certain series of apparently perverted organs, which prove very suitable for perverted, sick times. I mean: healthy times get healthy writers as preachers. In such times patients die, no one listens to them. Pathological times, which strongly experience the cruel collapses of hopes, find their best exponents precisely in pathological, strongly emotional, ecstatic artists. Healthy people in such times seem to the representatives of the declining class to be rude, boring and non-expressive. But next to this, I pointed out in my exposition that the social element (the classes in their struggle), taking one or another human organ into its hands, processes them, completes its type, sometimes breaking the person himself. The social element pours into the most appropriate channel and then changes that channel with its flow. I was very pleased that in the studies (as yet unpublished) of Academician Ivan Pavlov, who recently dealt with questions of dementia, there is an idea, communicated to me by one of his knowledgeable associates, that the manifestations of temporary and sometimes even terminal dementia, to a large extent can be understood precisely as a social phenomenon, that is, as an excessive inhibition with which the body reacts to the excessive discomfort of a heightened thought, a tortured emotion. This explains from a social point of view why, so often, righteous thinkers and poets, who express the dissonances of the times in their keenest disharmony of protest and bewilderment, turn to delusional statements and fade completely into the night of dementia. If Academician Pavlov is right, we could tell the psychiatrists that what we have here is not some kind of social unsustainable process in which such and such an artist was struck down by such and such an internal disease of the collapse of the entire neuro-brain system, which would proceed with him under all conditions. No, we would have a purely social event here. The resulting dementia could be seen as the result of social disharmony, social struggle, without of course forgetting that heredity can play an important role here, creating a place of least resistance, a condition for destruction.

Hoelderlin’s fate apparently leads to such thoughts. Already his contemporaries – Goethe, Schiller and Hegel – watched this fate with anxiety and responded to it in a strange way. Schiller mentions in a few words about people like Hoelderlin, about their dreams, about their fruitlessness, and it is assumed that the fatal end, which, according to Schiller, arises from their very nature, does not make Schiller to condemn them, but rather to feel bitterly sorry for them. From these crashes, which followed as a result of the insolence of the spirit, there rings in Schiller something that inspires him with respect. Hegel took a deeper look at this phenomenon. No doubt he had Hoelderlin in mind when he spoke of the sacrifices of the great, too uncompromising spirit. According to Hegel, it turns out that, of course, such a protester deserved his end, was guilty of it, but to a certain extent, his guilt is at the same time his merit, if we are allowed a pun here. The mistake of these people is that they did not bend, they did not come to terms with reality, that they wanted to move on, but that is also their achievement. They perish, but some bright gleam remains of them, which can show the way to others. Under the motto of “renunciation” (Entsagung), Goethe all his life was majestic and fruitful, but still steadily receded, retreated. Schiller retreated and Hegel retreated, each in his own way. Hegel was particularly perceptive in his compromise with reality. He undoubtedly created the conditions for scientific socialism, which is full of realism, objectivity and, at the same time, revolutionary activity and creative spirit. Hegel could not fully realize this wider synthesis in which the developing thought of Belinsky had been struggling for so long under the same conditions. But he made giant strides in that direction.

However, in his life, within the limits of his worldview, these were steps that retreated before nature and especially social nature. And it was no longer the people who were devoted to him, but the representatives of the young proletarian class, which, it is true, learned from him, made from this retreat a sudden leap in the right direction.

Not Hoelderlin. He immediately set himself an absurd task. Being a poet-messiah, a harbinger of peace, a fighter for new paths that seemed clear to him, paths of enthusiastic romanticism, merging with the essence of existence and a culture built on it, not inferior to anyone and anything, but impractical, foreign to all, like a rare metal, unable to enter into any chemical combination with others, Hoelderlin perished. But he died a great man. And from his grave grows a living tree, to which many now go to worship.

Hoelderlin portrayed his fate in the most tragic way in the surviving unfinished drama Empedocles. It is dark in many ways, but in general, however, its main line is defined: Empedocles is a man of pride, a man of Greek hubris, against which the Greek tragedians fought. This pride is kind and fertile in Empedocles, as it is in Prometheus in the surviving part of Aeschylus’ famous trilogy. After all, Aeschylus conceived his Prometheus to make him the ultimate measure of rebellion, with the best arguments for it, to force him to bow before the world of power, before the principle of universal order: Zeus. But time has incinerated those places where the song of peace is sung and left the place where the song of rebellion is heard. And in this, Aeschylus collected such a mass of arguments for his opposition, for his rebellion, that Prometheus became for centuries the great representative of the revolutionary principle.

Hoelderlin is not like that. Hoelderlin shows Empedocles already at the height of victory (Nietzsche very subtly distinguished this type of crime: it is der Frevel, active crime, and not die Sunde, passive sin). Now nature’s retribution begins: symbolically speaking, the gods do not tolerate man taking on a divine mission to become a beneficent leader of mankind and change the course of time. Empedocles himself is frightened by his boldness, but at the same time the crowd, favored by him, lays hands on the leader who has risen too high, and its petty and weak leaders poison him. Internal and external collapse approaches, and a great personality, having escaped the natural course of existence, tries to go to nature, to unite with it by any act. Empedocles rushes into the crater of Etna.

As I have already said, the Russian reader should familiarize himself in more detail with Hoelderlin’s remarkable works.

It is difficult, however, to say to what extent this finest and purest poetry could find a more or less wide readership among us at this time. Therefore we did not venture to speak of Hyperion at present, we did not turn to our poets to translate Hoelderlin’s wonderful verses.

For the first time we offer the reader these passages from Empedocles, which are highly characteristic of the German poet.

Ya. E. Golosovker very lovingly translated the rest of the author’s work into Russian. The thoughtful notes with which he provided his translation will help the reader understand Hoelderlin’s thoughts.