Saturday, August 29, 2009

Normative Philhellenism and its fate

“Fair Greece! sad relic of departed worth! Immortal, though no more.” Lord Byron.


My interrogation of the fortunes of philhellenism begins in medias res, so to speak--with the figure of Hölderlin. Neglected through most of the nineteenth century, Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843) is now recognized as one of the greatest German poets. Demanding and difficult, his poems offer a special kind of transcendence, unavailable, as far as I know, in any other modern language

Of an overly sensitive nature, Hölderlin's mental state deteriorated after 1802, partly due to his mother's incessant pressure that he become a minister. He was briefly confined to a mental institution in 1806 and spent the rest of his life in the care of Ernst Zimmer, a carpenter living in Tübingen.

Hölderlin studied protestant theology at Tübingen, where his fellow-students included G. F. W. Hegel and Friedrich Schelling. It was probably Hölderlin who brought to Hegel's attention the ideas of Heraclitus about the union of opposites, which the philosopher would develop into his concept of dialectics. While the poet resisted family pressures to become a clergyman, it seems that at this time Hölderlin developed a pronounced mystical tendency. This gave his enthusiasm for the ancient Greek gods a holistic and nonconfrontational quality that is intrinsic to the fascination of his poetry. His hymnic “Bread and Wine” posits a synthesis of Christianity and paganism.

In 1793-94 Hölderlin met Schiller and Goethe and began writing his epistolary novel "Hyperion." During 1795 he enrolled for a while at the University of Jena where he attended Fichte's classes and met Novalis. He was thus thoroughly embedded in the brilliant constellation of German thought and creativity of the years around 1800.

As a tutor in Frankfurt from 1796 to 1798 he fell in love with Susette Gontard, the wife of his employer, the banker Jakob Gontard. Susette figures in his poetry under the name of Diotima. Their affair was discovered and Hölderlin was harshly dismissed.

At the end of 1800 he found employment as a tutor in Hauptwyl, Switzerland, and then, in 1802, in Bordeaux, France, in the household of the Hamburg consul. After a few months, however, he returned home on foot via Paris (where he saw Greek sculptures for the only time in his life).

In many ways, Hölderlin was a man of his time. In his youth at the Tübingen seminary he was an early supporter of the French Revolution. Joining with some colleagues to form a "republican club," they planted a Tree of Freedom in the market square, prompting a rebuke from the grand-duke himself. Like Beethoven, the poet was at first carried away by Napoleon, whom he honors in one of his lyrics.

Together with Goethe and Schiller, his older contemporaries, Hölderlin was a fervent admirer of ancient Greek culture, but he cherished a very personal understanding of it. Much later, Friedrich Nietzsche would recognize in him the poet who first acknowledged the Orphic and Dionysian Greece of the mysteries, which he would fuse with the Pietism of his native Swabia to produce a highly original religious ethos.

Unlike Goethe and other contemporaries, Holderlin refused to relegate the Greek gods to the status of a mere literary device, for he experienced them in deeply personal terms. This approach has been termed aesthetic paganism. He understood the Greek idea of the tragic fall, which he expressed movingly in the last stanza of his "Hyperions Schicksalslied" ("Hyperion's Song of Destiny"). Hölderlin's hymnic style--dependent as it is on a genuine belief in divinity--creates a deeply personal fusion of Greek mythic figures and romantic nature mysticism, which can appear both strange and enticing.

The purpose of this post is to exhibit the poet’s Hellenism as a prism whereby to address the status of philhellenism, its rise, efflorescence, and (especially in these latter days) its twilight.

We turn now to his epistolary novel “Hyperion, or the Hermit in Greece,” which appeared in two volumes in 1797 and 1799. In this prose work the outer events are subordinate to a lyrical evocation of the hero’s sensibility. In his letters to his German friend Bellarmin, Hyperion looks back on his earlier life. He grew up in southern Greece in the middle of the eighteenth century. There he was early impressed by peace and harmony of nature. While his wise teacher Adamas introduced him to the world of the Greek gods, his patriotic friend Alabanda drew him into the cause of national independence. In Kalaurea he met his muse Diotima, whose support gave him the courage to act. The uprising against the Ottoman Turks failed, and Hyperion fled to Germany. Finding life there unsympathetic, he returned to Greece, where he lived as a hermit.

The novel offers a revealing insight into Hölderlin’s youthful idealism, in which nature appeared as suffused by the presence of the gods The depiction of Greece (which of course the writer had never seen) blends past and future, dream and expectation. He sought to measure contemporary Germany against this imagined ideal of Greece, finding his own nation wanting.

Although Hölderlin responded to the French Revolution, he did not follow its lead in transposing his Hellenism into a political register in the manner of Jacques-Louis David. And for good reason, as an important feature of the political role of Antiquity in the nascent revolutionary society of France is that it combined Greece with Rome. The continuing relevance of Rome in France is underlined by the career of Napoleon, initially First Consul, and then Emperor, both Roman titles. The American example was somewhat similar in that guidance was sought from Rome as well as Greece. (On this subject, see Caroline Winterer, “The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780-1910,” Baltimore, 2002.) For their own part, from the late eighteenth century onwards German thinkers simply assumed that ancient Greece was sui generis, so much so that it took an English scholar, Eliza Marian Butler to explain the matter, which she did in her invaluable 1935 monograph, “The Tyranny of Greece over Germany.”

As is well known, the Italian Renaissance saw the revival of the normative concept of Antiquity. Yet the Antiquity that was evoked was not a simple unity, but consisted of a quartet of Rome, Greece, Etruria, and Egypt. (For the importance of Egypt--despite the fact that the hieroglyphs were misunderstood--see now the substantial work of Brian Curran, “The Egyptian Renaissance: The Afterlife of Ancient Egypt in Early Modern Italy,” 2007.)

With the demonstration that the “Etruscan” vases were actually Greek, that component fell by the wayside. The extraction of ancient Egypt was more complicated, but the development was eventually confirmed by Champollion’s decipherment of 1822, which vanquished the fanciful earlier interpretations of the hieroglyphs. With the severing of Etruria and Egypt, the four became two--and in Germany most often one only.

The German exaltation of the ancient Greeks is due in the first instance to the archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768). This monism quickly rose to dominance in Germany, influenced in part by the association of ancient Rome with France, from whose domination Germans sought to escape.

The exclusivism was occasionally mirrored elsewhere, as in the outspoken Hellenism of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). Viewed with today’s sober lenses, the English poet’s propagandistic zeal, sadly contrasting with Hölderlin’s subtlety, misses its mark. In her monograph “Shelley and Greece” (1997), Jennifer Wallace argues that Shelley’s apparent assurance masked deep anxieties about Greece. As is often the case with such bravado, the elevation of the grandeur and magnificence of an inimitable past, which the present can never equal, engendered an inferiority complex. Moreover, Shelley was torn between his longing to affirm normative Hellenism and his tendency to challenge authority. British elites of his day rallied to Neoclassicism (one need only recall their reception of the Elgin Marbles) because they saw it as buttressing their conservative model of permanence. While seeking to retain the normative principle, Shelley simultaneously cherished the disruptive potential of Hellenism as the catalyst for dissenting politics, religious skepticism, and subversive sensualism. There was also the problem of the orientalism and purported degradation of contemporary Greece in contrast with its awesome legacy. Like most philhellenes of his day, Shelley never traveled to Greece, so that, apart from some travelers’ reports, he had to rely mostly on ancient Greek literary texts, ignoring evidence that could be gathered on the spot. As one commentator observes, he was “unable to detach himself completely from his mainstream, culturally dominant, British education, and deal with an Eastern Europe that [did] not conform to the marble-white standards incorporated in British intellectual culture.”

Distinctly different were the Greek enthusiasms of J. A. Symonds, Oscar Wilde, and some other Victorian Philhellenes, whose homoeroticism played a major part in the allegiance. In this they looked back to the example of Winckelmann, who was also homosexual. On this trend, see Linda Dowling, “Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford,” Ithaca, NY, 1994.

The “Greece-alone” principle did not triumph everywhere. As Edgar Allan Poe’s mantra “the glory that was Greece, the grandeur that was Rome” (“To Helen,” 1845) shows, the old coupling of the two leading classical cultures was not extinguished. In many quarters it long continued, supported as it was by the continued teaching of Latin, always more popular than Greek.

A decisive step in undermining the normative status of ancient Greece was taken by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in his "The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music" (Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik, 1872).

Originally trained as a philologist, Nietzsche posits an intellectual dichotomy between the Dionysian and the Apollonian. He presents life as suffused by a struggle between these two elements, each battling for control over the existence of humanity. In Nietzsche's words, "Wherever the Dionysian prevailed, the Apollonian was checked and destroyed.... wherever the first Dionysian onslaught was successfully withstood, the authority and majesty of the Delphic god Apollo exhibited itself as more rigid and menacing than ever." Yet neither side can ever prevail because each harbors the other in an eternal natural check, or balance.

Nietzsche argues that the tragedy of Ancient Greece was the highest form of art due to its fusion of Apollonian and Dionysian elements into one seamless whole, allowing the spectator to experience the full spectrum of the human condition. The Dionysiac element came to the fore in the musical chanting of the chorus, while the Apollonian element was found in the dialogue.

In ancient Greek culture, the Dionysian element burst forth in the wild revelry of festivals and drunkenness. Its most important embodiment, however, was in music.

Challenging the typical Enlightenment view of ancient Greek culture as noble, simple, elegant, and grandiose, Nietzsche held the Greeks were grappling with pessimism, which they strove, with only partial success, to keep at bay. The universe in which we live is pervaded by great interacting forces; but we are precluded from adequately observing or knowing these as such.

Initially, “The Birth of Tragedy encountered great resistance in the world of professional scholars of Greek literature. For daring to assert these unwelcome truths, Nietzche paid a huge personal price. “The Birth of Tragedy” presented a view of the Greeks so alien to the zeitgeist and to the established ideals of scholarship that it blighted Nietzsche's entire academic career.

Even today, some cling to the older unitary notion of the ancient Greeks as creatures of sweetness and light. That is to say, they perceive only the Apollonian aspects. Most who have pondered the book, however, agree that Nietzsche had made an essential contribution by exposing the dark side of ancient Greece. In setting forth his binary conception, he made it much more difficult to exalt ancient Greece as a unique and imperishable model. To be sure, maintaining a balance between the Apollonian and Dionysian forces is a perennial problem. However, each age must strive to achieve this fragile synthesis on its own terms.

Another challenge came from archaeology. During the 1880s German excavators working at the Athenian Acropolis began to uncover masses of early statues that did not conform to the idealized beauty characterizing the familiar works of the fifth and fourth century. With its almost strident directness the harsh stylization of this work, which came to be dubbed Archaic, struck a chord with Europeans who were beginning to appreciate the rise of abstraction and expressionism in their own culture. Even earlier and more abstract were the Geometric objects that began to appear at various sites. These discoveries upset existing notions of the unity of ancient Greek art. An art that exhibited such diversity could no longer be regarded as a model because it did not speak with one voice. (For the role of these discoveries, see Suzanne L. Marchand, “Down from Olympus: Archaeology and Philhellenism in Germany, 1750-1970,” Princeton, 1996.)

By 1910 or so, the old Hellenism had come to seem stale and outdated. Progressive architects like Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier ruthlessly eliminated classical components from their repertoire. In the schools both Greek and Latin had to yield before the advance of modern languages, deemed essential for business, diplomacy, and travel. In the global context the exclusive Eurocentrism of earlier times seemed inadequate. The rise of Japan, in particular, showed that neither Christianity (pace Max Weber) nor the Classical heritage were required for economic and military success.

The rapid pace of archaeological discovery in Egypt and the Middle East eroded the earlier perceptions of the “Greek miracle” as self-generating. The older civilizations provided much for the Greeks to draw on, a mass of influences that even today has not been fully evaluated.

While the Winckelmannian idealization of Greece lingered in some quarters, the subversive critique of Friedrich Nietzsche had done its work of eroding the foundations. In due course, modern ethical standards began to be deployed, pointing up some further unpleasant realities of ancient Greece. While slavery was not exclusive to ancient Greece, the sophistic defenses of it found in Aristotle and other writers tended to undermine the authority of the purported cultural ideal. The rise of the women’s movement pointed up the fact that ancient Greece was an overwhelmingly patriarchal society, and therefore, in the eyes of many, deeply misogynistic. The labeling of virtually all foreigners as “barbarians” revealed the fatal flaw of ethnocentrism.

To this roster of drawbacks many would add pederasty--though that is something that must be mentioned as little as possible. That silence, which seems to mask a deep disapproval, prevails even now among the remaining proponents of the “Greek miracle.” Needless to say, I do not agree with this particular condemnation. However, my views are beside the point, as many see pederasty as an unfortunate legacy, a legacy further tainted by its perceived association with misogyny.

Taken together, these critiques have served to "normalize" ancient Greece, as one civilization among many. Like them it possesses its strengths and weaknesses. But ancient Greece no longer looms as a unique, unsurpassable paragon.

TEXTUAL NOTE. The situation regarding the text of Hölderlin's poems is complex, even baffling. Only in the twentieth century did editors begin to cope with the problem of producing a "final text." That goal may be impossible to achieve, because the poet kept revising his texts, even during his years of mental impairment (which may have not been so impaired after all). A first multivolume effort was made by Beissner and Beck (the Stuttgart Edition). Then when this monster was found wanting, D.E. Sattler began an even more ambitious undertaking (the Frankfurt edition), which has now reached its 20th volume. More information about these editions will be found in a review by Charlie Louth, which appears in the August 7 issue of the Times Literary Supplement. As Louth observes. the Frankfurt edition reproduces Hölderlin's major manuscripts in color facsimiles "whose clarity of definition perhaps exceeds the originals and [which] show how much care Hölderlin bestowed on the fair copies of his poems: they are things of beauty, their balance and proportion intrinsic to their meaning."

I am thinking of digging deep, and ordering this set. For the present I am making do with a volume of the Collected Poems edited by Jochen Schmidt for the prestigious Deutscher Klassiker Verlag. This book of more than 1100 pages is now available as a bargain paperback for only 20 euros.

Because of the difficulty of the poems I sometimes resort to an English crib. In my experience the best of these is the Penguin bilingual book produced by the poet Michael Hamburger. The texts therein, I suppose, are hopelessly dated. Also useful is the French Pleiade edition of most of the poet's work (French only) edited by the Germanist Philippe Jaccottet.

Eleven years ago Charlie Louth published a monograph on the problems of translating Hölderlin. This task is tempting, but ultimately impossible.

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