Sunday, June 12, 2011


Horst Janssen: Hölderlin at 17 and 72.

Inspired by the Werner Herzog cave movie described in a recent post, and by my re-reading of Gustaf Sobin's marvelous Luminous Debris and my current study of the 9th-10th Carolingian annales histories, I have been contemplating the role played by imagination in the writing of history. It seems to have peaked at the very outset with Herodotus, the mother of historians, and then run slowly downhill before almost disappearing  in the course of the 18th century, only to be revived in recent decades in the wake of postmodernist influences.

Such an inquiry concerns the application of literary values to the historiographic process, but since it gets quite complicated trying to explain what "literature" really means—cf for example Derek Attridge: The Singularity of Literature (2004) —I suggest instead a deficit in creative imagination: why don't we require historians to take courses in writing poetry as an antidote to the hamster-driven, data-parading assaults upon factuality thrust upon us in graduate school? Has the historicism of past generations become so shameful that it precludes any real thinking about historical events?

Going further, which poets have written about writing history? My favorite is Friedrich Hölderlin, and his poem Mnemosyne which I translate as follows:

                                   (Third version)

The fruits are ripe, dipped in fire,
Cooked and sampled on earth. And there’s a law,
That things crawl off in the manner of snakes,
Prophetically, dreaming on the hills of heaven.
And there is much that needs to be retained,
Like a load of wood on the shoulders.
But the pathways are dangerous.
The captured elements and ancient laws of earth
Run astray like horses. There is a constant yearning
For all that is unconfined. But much needs
To be retained. And loyalty is required.
Yet we mustn’t look forwards or backwards.
We should let ourselves be cradled
As if on a boat rocking on a lake.

But what about things that we love?
We see sun shining on the ground, and the dry dust,
And at home the forests deep with shadows,
And smoke flowering from the rooftops,
Peacefully, near the ancient crowning towers.
These signs of daily life are good,
Even when by contrast something divine
Has injured the soul.
For snow sparkles on an alpine meadow,
Half-covered with green, signifying generosity
Of spirit in all situations, like flowers in May —
A wanderer walks up above on a high trail
And speaks irritably to a friend about a cross
He sees in the distance, set for someone
Who died on the path... what does it mean?

My Achilles
Died near a fig tree,
And Ajax lies in the caves of the sea
Near the streams of Skamandros —
Great Ajax died abroad
Following Salamis’ inflexible customs,
A rushing sound at his temples —
But Patroclus died in the King’s armor.
Many others died as well.
But Eleutherai, the city
Of Mnemosyne, once stood upon
Mount Kithaeron. Evening
Loosened her hair, after the god
Had removed his coat.
For the gods are displeased
If a person doesn’t compose
And spare himself.
But one has to do it,
And grief is soon gone.

*    *   *

The poem demonstrates Hölderlin’s ability to develop his thoughts in a succession of metaphors and images, which is characteristic of his later writing. This technique of metaphorical thinking surfaced decades later in the writing of Rainer Maria Rilke, and more allegorically in the stories of Franz Kafka. It is an agenda imagined by Kant, who famously stated that images without concepts are blind, (a fair description of the current state of affairs in modern poetry).

The question Hölderlin presents is whether it is and how it might be possible to retain historical memory of past events, exemplified by the deaths of the Greek heroes. Mnemosyne is the goddess of memory. She slept with Zeus and gave birth to the nine Muses, whose activities are also by nature historicizing.

Hesiod writes of Mnemosyne:

Them [the Muses] in Pieria did Mnemosyne, who reigns over the hills of Eleuther, bear of union with the father, the son of Kronos [Zeus], a forgetting of ills and a rest from sorrow. For nine nights did wise Zeus lie with her, entering her holy bed remote from the immortals. And when a year was passed and the seasons came round as the months waned, and many days were accomplished, she bare nine daughters, all of one mind, whose hearts are set upon song and their spirit free from care, a little way from the topmost peak of snowy Olympus. [Theogony 53-63, Penguin Classics.]

And again, he [Zeus] loved Mnemosyne with the beautiful hair: and of her the nine gold-crowned Muses were born. [Theogony 915-917.]

Pindar also writes about Mnemosyne:

If success crowns a man’s venture, sweeter then than honey the libations he pours into the Mousai’s [Muses’] stream. But lacking the songs to praise them, the mightiest feats of valour can but find a sorry grave a deep darkness. But for fine deeds a mirror to establish, one way alone we know if Mnamosyna’s [Memory’s] shining diadem will grant recompense for their labours, in the glory of music on the tongues of men. [Pindar, Nemean 7, ant1.]

In the poem’s first strophe, the “fruits” are simply the deeds or events of history. Their memory disappears from us the same way that snakes crawl away into cracks in the floor, or between rocks. We need to remember things, but our memory is often faulty and can lead us astray like horses on crooked paths. Also there exists a tendency and a willingness to let things slide into oblivion. We should stay nested in the present and not run away to the past or the future.

But what about the experiences of daily life, the common things we treasure, even after we make contact with something that signifies and transcends earthly life? It is like a cross planted in an alpine meadow, an act of generosity by whoever placed it, and a reminder, permitting wayfarers to speculate from a distance about what happened there.

The last strophe places us in the mythic environment of Greece. The heroes at Troy died in various ways, and we owe our knowledge of them to the circumstance that Zeus slept with Mnemosyne on Mt. Kithaeron—“loosening her hair” is a sexual metaphor in older literatures.

Thus historical memory itself is ordained by the gods. When friends or heroes die, we need to pull ourselves together and conquer sorrow by creating a record of what happened. This is perhaps the closest we may approach eternity.



  1. Never thought I'd see "Mnemosyne" as anyone's favourite anything! Good on you James - it's always been my favourite something.... but what do snakes do - do they crawl exactly? Trying to remember the original.... "Schlangen gleich"? - I think our Fritz tried to duck out of that one...

  2. The idea seems to be that time moves slowly forward like snakes do, not rapidly advancing in a direct line, but crawling around from place to place, hiding under rocks like our shadowy memories of past events.