Saturday, 17 March 2012

Johannes Hoffmeister (1907-55), a Hegel Scholar in Paris

This post reviews a book (not the above) on Friedrich Hölderlin edited by German Hegel scholar Johannes Hoffmeister and published in Paris in 1943 when Hoffmeister was teaching German literature there, with contributions from a range of German and French scholars, including Maurice Boucher and Martin Heidegger.

Johannes Hoffmeister in Paris

Johannes Hoffmeister (1907-55) was a German Hegel scholar who many of us have probably come across in various roles. For example, he published the important book Documents on Hegel’s Development (Stuttgart, 1936) that many biographers rely on. He also began two editions of Hegel which were not completed in his lifetime and edited the Jena Realphilosophie, Philosophy of History and an edition of Letters to and from Hegel in the 1950s. He also wrote books on Goethe and Hölderlin in relation to Hegel. The relations between Hegel and Hölderlin have also been studied more recently by Dieter Henrich.

T.M. Knox mentions Hoffmeister favourably in his article "Hegel and Prussianism" in the journal Philosophy (January, 1940). He is not mentioned in the thesis on Hegel and the Right Hegelians by Hubert Kiesewetter (published as From Hegel to Hitler, Hamburg, Hoffman, 1974) except in footnotes for his edition of the letters and once for his pamphlet on The Issue of the League of Nations in Kant and Hegel (1934).

Hoffmeister and the Hölderlin Commemoration in Paris

I recently learned that Hoffmeister taught German literature in Paris from 1942 to 1944 and edited a book in French that was published in Paris in 1943 for the centenary of Hölderlin’s death of which I recently found a copy. At least one of the contributions is based on a contemporary talk given  in Paris.  The book reads like a collection of contributions to a conference. There are a range of contributors and I would like to share some impressions of it. The title is:
"Friedrich Hölderlin, in commemoration of the Centenary of his Death, 6 June 1943" (Paris, Sorlot, 1943)
Unlike modern French books which just have a depot legal, there is also an authorisation number (19,248), so it was presumably approved by a censor, though who that might have been I am not sure.

The book starts off with bilingual versions of poems on facing pages including Archipelagus and has some letters between Hölderlin and Suzette Gontard. Hoffmeister contributes an introduction and a chapter on Hölderlin and Hegel. The other chapters are by the following French and German scholars: Kurt Hildebrandt, Maurice Boucher, Martin Heidegger, Wilhelm Michel and Norbert von Hellingrath.

Hoffmeister's Introduction

Hoffmeister begins in the introduction by observing that Hölderlin was at first regarded as a minor figure in German romanticism but became a major influence during the Kaiserreich and is thus a central figure for interpreting modern German culture in a European context. He has thus collected a variety of material to help inform French interpretations. He argues that Hölderlin was a significant influence on both Schelling and Hegel. Their friendship:
"oriented Hegel, who was struggling painfully with the flat rationalism of the movement of Enlightenment, towards his study on the Spirit of Christianity, where the philosopher breaks for the first time, in a step that retains all its value, the narrow restraints of reasoning and opens his eyes freely on the destiny and history of the mind of the world" (pages 16, 17).
Hoffmeister sees Hölderlin as a patriotic figure who opened a new world of thought to the Germans in terms of their inheritance from the Greeks.

Kurt Hildebrandt on the Spirit of Germany and Europe

Next, Kurt Hildebrandt contributes an essay on "The German Spirit and the European Spirit" that analyses the poem Archipelagus. This is identified as from a talk given at Paris on 20 November 1942 and starts with some remarks in praise of Paris. In the talk, he gives Wilhelm Dilthey credit for seeing inner experience more than aesthetic form as a key to poetry. He argues that Hölderlin derived a sense of natural religion from childhood experience. Hildebrand sees Hölderlin’s reliance on the Greeks as making him and the Germans who live by his image as fundamentally European in their thinking and opposes this to an Asiatic standpoint that lacks the precision of rational thought that we look back to the Greeks for. He rejects the idea of Rousseau as a mediating figure. He writes:
"However, we must recognise that the direct influence of Rousseau on Hölderlin was weak. In his youth, his thought was formed by Klopstock, by Herder, by Goethe and Schiller and, in an indirect way, above all by Leibniz and by Winckelmann." (page 88)
It is interesting to know this about someone so close to Hegel. The poem Archipelagus invokes the god the sea. Hildebrand interprets the poem as referring to Themistocles and the battle of Salamis where the Greeks defeated the Persians in a sea battle and won the independence of Greece and thereby Europe. He disclaims any intention to relate the poem to the current day but ends with condemnation of the air raids that were destroying the cities of the Rhine and their inhabitants. He writes:
"Who believes in the persistence of an innocent and peaceable happiness without heroic trial and who knows no other aspiration than to doze away in the enjoyment of modest personal joys is not worthy to read the poems of Hölderlin." (page 103)
He concludes hopefully that as Athens was destroyed and rebuilt better than before, so will Germany be.

Maurice Boucher on  Hölderlin and Mythic Lyricism

As against this, there follows perhaps the best essay in the book by a French scholar. Boucher sketches a theory of poetry based partly on music as being conceptually imprecise but evoking a primordial feeling by means of words that may have other meanings and relations than the one that brought hem to the mind of the poet. He then tries to identify the feelings that distinguish Hölderlin and comes to the conclusion that the sensibility he is expressing is fundamentally Christian. His Aether for example in its omnipresence is God the Father, the gods are like saints or angels and the embodiment of the Olympic gods is in some measure Christlike. He writes:
"Above all, if one considers well, as one needs must, the fundamental tone of his religiosity, that is to say this confident submission, obedience (which does not exclude the strength of will and the acceptance of tests) the abandon in love and the filial piety in accomplishing orders from on high, one finds oneself in a fully Christian atmosphere." (page 128)
This fundamentally challenges the interpretation of Hildebrand. Boucher went on to write books on on National Feeling in Germany (1947), German reactions to the French Revolution (1954) and The German Novel (1961). The approach to aesthetics which Boucher's contribution embodies is easily combined with philosophical reflection. He sounds like an interesting writer though more on general literature than philosophy. In relation to French Hegel-scholarship, Jean Wahl acknowledged his help in Le malheur de la conscience dans la philosophie de Hegel (1929, 12n). I’m not sure if he is the same person who wrote on Debussy on the 1930s but he seems very knowledgeable about music.

Martin Heidegger on Hölderlin and the Essence of Poetry

Once Boucher has cleared everything up, it is the turn of Martin Heidegger to muddy the waters again with his essay on Hölderlin and the Essence of Poetry, which is reproduced from a book What is Metaphysics? (Paris; Gallimard). He begins with a dedication to Norbert von Hellingrath, who fell at Verdun on 14 December 1916 and was also editor of the first edition of Hölderlin. Heidegger contrasts the view of poetry as:
"the most innocent of all occupations"
(which of course is ambiguous in French) with the view of it as a dangerous gift, both ideas being found in Hölderlin. It is innocent because it engages only the imagination, but dangerous because it uses language, which has a capacity for both truth and lies. He goes on to say that history, meaning I think compelling narrative, is created by poets who bring into being a community of those who hear them. Hölderlin said:
"Was bleibet aber, stiften die Dichter.
But what remains, the poets establish."
So a community requires and is constituted by those who hear poetic speech. The thought rather gives up the ghost at this point with what is to be heard left undetermined and the poet said to wander from country to country in sacred night.

Hoffmeister on Hölderlin's Image of the Philosopher 

Next comes an essay by Hoffmeister titled The Image of the Philosopher in the Work of Hölderlin. Hoffmeister argues that the image of a philosopher corresponds to Hegel. So it is of Hegel that he says:
"His virtue is understanding, his goddess necessity."
Hölderlin moves to a more positive estimate of philosophy in some of his later poems and this evinces a road towards articulacy similar to the preface to the Phenomenology where Hegel writes of the need to spell out and apply an intuition to the concrete detail of life. However, this was at the close of 1806 when the literary career of Hegel was still beginning and that of Hölderlin had stalled.

Wilhelm Michel on Hölderlin in German Spiritual Life

There follows "The Place of Hölderlin in German Spiritual Life" by Wilhelm Michel taken from a book The Life of Friedrich Hölderlin (Bremen, 1940). Michel thinks that Hölderlin can be distinguished from German Romanticism by his objectivity. He is not concerned primarily about feeling and in this sense is classical rather than romantic in his mode of thought. Michel sees the division of Germany into different states or different parties as having inhibited the thought of Empire. His thought wavers between political and theological interpretations of the impasse in Hölderlin’s life that contributed, he thinks, to his madness.

Norbert von Hellingrath on Hölderlin's Madness

This continues in the last chapter, by Norbert von Hellingrath on The Madness of Hölderlin, though mental infirmity might be a better translation [of demence]. Hellingrath you will remember was the first editor of Hölderlin, who fell at Verdun. This is taken from a biographical book and is probably included because of its account of a possible visit of Hölderlin to a family in Paris, though he never identified himself by name in the testimony Hellingrath relies on. Hellingrath attributes his dementia to an inability to realise a childhood intuition in the social forms of his day.


One point that I think is worth making is that several of the contributors rely on the idea of concepts as expressing the ideals or intuitions of youth. This was first found in the essay on The Young Hegel by Wilhelm Dilthey who was a key influence in organising publication of the early manuscript material some of which Hoffmeister edited. The talk of remaining true to the ideas of youth makes sense as putting the middle-aged world of work in its place and retaining a sense of the unity of experience. This is not true to Hegel however as Hegel also saw an incremental wisdom of age that needs to be understood on its own terms and recognises the achievements of the past. We ought to be suspicious of interpreting Hegel on the model proposed by Dilthey. The practice of reading opens the mind progressively to new ideas and subjects and this aspect of scholarship is perhaps something that is less open to someone who expresses themselves purely in poetry. The possibility of an organic cause for the later mental state of Hölderlin is also an obvious consideration that the contributors mysteriously overlook.

All in all, I think Hoffmeister might be ranked as a cultural Right Hegelian or at least Middle Hegelian if there is such a thing. The book shed some light for me on the cultural situation of Germany at the time and the sense they had of its continuity was notable. The history of the Hegelian Right is probably deserving of greater study, for example with regard to important figures like for example that most diligent of Hegel scholars, Hermann Glockner.