On not talking to a close friend (4)

Hegel to Hölderlin:

«Your image, My Beloved, passes before me along with the joy of days gone by;                      yet soon it yields to sweeter hopes of our reunion.
The scene of our long-sought and ardent embrace depicts itself even now before my eyes.
Then the questions, the scene of more secret and mutual searchings,
what in the attitude, expression, temper of the friend has meanwhile changed-                    the bliss of certainty, of finding the loyalty of the old bond still more solid, more ripened
– of this bond no oath has sealed, to live but for the free truth,
never, never to make peace with the decree that regulates feeling and opinion.                  Now the wish which, over mountains and rivers, carried me to you lightly negotiates with more sluggish reality
– yet soon a sigh announces their discord,
and with it flies away the dream of sweet fantasies.»                                                                                   (excerpt from the poem “Eleusis,” Hegel:  The Letters, 1984, p. 46)

In August 1796, instead of seeking a teaching assistanship in Tübingen, Hegel is persuaded by Hölderlin to join him in Frankfurt and accelerate their exhilarating friendship, which goes back to 1788.  Hölderlin has been working as a private tutor and hopes to find a similar position for his close friend.  Hegel is inspired by the prospect of their reunion and writes him a Hölderlinian hymn, “Eleusis,” where he imagines the two of them as initiates of the Eleusinian Mysteries.  Soon, Hölderlin does find him a tutor’s position similar to his.  They continue to correspond, exchanging passionate affirmations of their mutual feelings and collaborative plans.  Hegel moves to Frankfurt in late December 1796, and they immediately resume philosophical conversations that go back to their student days at the Theological Seminary. Before long, their friendship is over, its attunement broken. They were both 27 years old.

Total silence ensues.  “After arriving in Frankfurt, Hegel never again mentions the poet’s name in his letters – except in response to Schelling or von Sinclair.  Hölderlin’s name never appears in Hegel’s published works” (51). In light of the poet’s singular impact on the philosopher’s thought, this is astonishing.  “Hölderlin provided the philosopher Hegel with his most important and final formative impetus. … Before his encounter with Hölderlin in Frankfurt, Hegel was a critic of the church and a historical and political analyst with connections to the Gironde.  Only in relation to Hölderlin, and by the latter’s influence on him, was he to become the philosopher of the age” (Dieter Henrich:  The Course of Remembrance and Other Essays on Hölderlin, 1997, 139).  Why did Hegel obliterate his closest friend from his life and work?  Why did he act in his remaining thirty four years as if he never knew Hölderlin?  It is one of the major biographical enigmas of Western philosophy.   Meanwhile, “Eleusis” remains a hymn to one of its most creative friendships.

February 15, 2019

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