Tearing Up Grass: on Holderlin’s Life and Madness

Hesperus Press are just about to publish Will Stone’s eminently readable and wonderfully grounded translation of a contemporary account of Friedrich Holderlin’s madness. This is a long essay by Wilhelm Waiblinger, written in Rome during the winter of 1827/8. It’s an astonishing and very moving document for those interested in German Romantic and Modern poetry or in early accounts of mental illness or – as I am aware is my own case – for those who will instantly recognise, in these brilliant and detailed observations, some of the behavioural elements of what we now loosely refer to as dementia.

Holderlinturm
Holderlinturm

The essay first appeared in 1831, ironically only a year after its author’s death, though still a dozen years before its subject’s demise. Stone’s excellent introduction tells us that Waiblinger was an up-and-coming poet of the 1820s, “a rebel, a wayward fellow and a liberal maverick”. He studied at the same Protestant seminary (the ‘Tubinger Stift’) where Holderlin had studied from 1788 with Schelling and Hegel (imagine that team on University Challenge). But by 1806, the older poet had been confined to his tower in Tubingen (the ‘Holderlinturm’) because considered incurably mad. Waiblinger began visiting him in the summer of 1822. For four years, he saw Holderlin close-up, walking with him, trying to talk with him and enduring some pretty wild-sounding piano playing too.

41+WrUaV5pL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_Waiblinger was a real Holderlin fan. The older poet’s novel, Hyperion, had appeared in 1822 (I review a recent translation of it here) and the younger man found it “saturated with spirit: a fervent fully glowing soul swells there” He was swept away: “Holderlin shakes me to the core. I find in him an eternally rich form of sustenance”. The mad poet in his tower was not often amenable to being visited, but Waiblinger, for some reason, proved an exception: “This lunatic, sitting at the window [. . .] is far closer to me”, the young man wrote, “than the thousands out there who are said to be sane”. Stone makes it clear that Waiblinger not only admired Hyperion but voiced the need for Holderlin’s other poetry to be re-published. Gradually, having fallen into obscurity, “his special hymnic style, fusing Greek myth and Romantic mysticism” eventually started to attract new admirers including Nietzsche, Schumann, Brahms, Rilke, Hesse, Trakl, Benjamin and Celan.

Initially, Waiblinger seems to have intended to document: “It is not my place to offer some profound psychological insight, but rather to limit the quest to simple observation, a modest character sketch”. Filling in Holderlin’s earlier years he notes the uniqueness of his work in his “enthusiasm for Greek antiquity” which “left [its] mark on the tonality of his own creations” and led to a sense “of discontentment with the land of his birth”. This kind of sentiment dominates Hyperion and Waiblinger (sounding a bit prissily patriotic here) finds it elicits in him “a certain repugnance”. Waiblinger also reminds us of Holderlin’s doomed affair with the already-married Susette Gontard (the model for the Diotima figure in the poems and Hyperion). He sees the termination of the affair as the main contributory factor in Holderlin’s decline: “The coddled youth, lulled by the sweet intoxication of this love entanglement, was suddenly pitched back into bitter reality”. From here on, Holderlin was to carry “a fracture in his heart”, a wound barely transformed in Hyperion which Waiblinger reads as documenting “an unnatural struggle against destiny, a wounded mawkishness, a black melancholy and an ill-fated perverseness [that] cleaves a path into madness”.

Wilhelm_Waiblinger
Wilhelm Waiblinger

No doubt the end of the affair did deeply affect Holderlin, but Waiblinger’s drawing a direct line from it to the ‘Holderlinturm’ is probably a bit simplistic. Sheltered from the “bitter reality” outside the tower, Holderlin continued to write letters in prose and verse. Given the period, it’s not surprising to hear Waiblinger describe the mockery of locals who caught Holderlin out walking – and good to hear that the old poet responded with mud and stones thrown at his attackers. Yet his behaviour was often like that of a small child: “When he leaves the house, they have to remind him in advance to wash and groom himself, for his hands are habitually soiled from spending half the day tearing up grass”. This tearing up grass seems to have been a common occupation as does, while out walking, flapping his handkerchief against fence posts. All the while, “he talks incessantly to himself, questioning and responding, sometimes yes sometimes no, and often both at the same time”.

One of Holderlin’s other occupations in his madness was re-reading his own Hyperion. He would read aloud, exclaiming “Wonderful, wonderful!” then go on, pausing only to remark, “You see gracious sir, a comma!” In true Romantic style, Waiblinger notices that the mad poet is more calm and more lucid in the open air: “he spoke to himself less [. . .] I was convinced this unceasing monologue with himself was nothing more than the disequilibrium of thought and his inability to gain significant purchase on any object”. For those who have witnessed a relative or friend suffering from dementia, this is a familiar thought and familiar also, perhaps, is the recourse to the phrase “It’s of no consequence to me” which Waiblinger heard repeatedly from the chattering Holderlin.

Playing a piano still gave him some pleasure it seems, beginning in childish simplicity, playing the same theme over and over hundreds of times. On other occasions, almost in spasmodic fits, he’d race across the keyboard, his long, uncut fingernails making an “unpleasant clattering sound”! He would also sing with great pathos – though not in any identifiable language. Holderlin’s family had completely abandoned him in his madness, but Waiblinger records him writing to his mother in the style of a child, “who cannot write in a fully developed way or sustain a thought”.

friedrich-hoelderlin-1-sized
Friedrich Holderlin

In fact, Waiblinger suggests that Holderlin’s difficulties lay in mental weakness rather than full-blown insanity. He is “incapable of holding a thought, of giving it clarity, of following it and linking it to another by way of analogy and thus to articulate a distant idea in a regular consistent sequence”. He has another go at describing what he imagines must be going on: “He wishes to affirm something, but since reality [. . .] does not concern him, he refuses it at the same moment, for his spirit is a realm which sustains only fog and what is feigned”. This is partly evident because of Holderlin’s habit (in his madness) of thinking out loud, so Waiblinger believes he can hear a thought being consumed even in the moment of its conception. In the grip of such fluidity and terrifying fog, Holderlin then would shake his head and cry out ‘No, no!’ and begin “firing out words without meaning or any signification, as if his spirit, in a sense overstretched by such a drawn-out thought, could restore itself only by having his mouth issue words which bore no relation to any of it”. Holderlin retreats from his own incoherence into the comfort of sheer random association.

untitled
Will Stone

The results are inevitable for the patient and (again recognisably) yield up a fierce, walled-in, self-involvement. Waiblinger describes a “complete lack of participation in and interest for any events outside himself”, and this, alongside an “incapacity to wish to grasp, recognise, understand, to allow in another individuality other than his own”, means there is no possibility of rational communication with the patient. And such solitude – experienced from the inside – results in such boredom that “he needs to speak to himself”, though lacking the ability to follow one thing with anything coherent, the result is “diabolical confusion” and mere “gibberish”. So it’s with some surprise that we find Waiblinger ending his essay with any thought at all of Holderlin’s recovery. He admits it’s unlikely – but does allow himself (surely consoling himself) with imagining an occasional “momentary restoration”, though even this might only be brief, perhaps no more than a fleeting prelude to the moment of death.

But perhaps such imagined lucid moments are less than consoling to those who spend time observing such distress. Leafing through his papers, Waiblinger says he discovered a quite terrifying phrase. Holderlin at one moment had scrawled down, “Now for the first time I understand humankind, because I dwell far from it and in solitude”. It is almost unbearably moving to imagine such flashes of conscious insight coming to the old poet in the midst of so much mental confusion and perceptual fragmentation. What Waiblinger here describes feels bang up to date and yet must be as old as the hills. Will Stone has done an important job in bringing this essay into English.

5 thoughts on “Tearing Up Grass: on Holderlin’s Life and Madness

    • Hi Frank – you won’t be disappointed with Will Stone’s translation. From your own blog I see your interested in Rilke -I spent 15 years or so on his Elegies and Sonnets so he’s deep in my blood too! You are right about suddenly seeing Holderlin through RMR when one had taken the latter to be something of a one off. Fascinating stuff. Best wishes

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  1. If Holderlin had he been born into the Ancient Roman world he would be honoured with the status of ‘soothsayer’, or ‘necromancer’. He had the ability to communicate ‘beyond the veil of Maya’: the poet’s privilege.

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