In Jena, in 1806, in the wake of Napoleon’s crushing victory, these three events: Hegel, while looking out his window saw "the world-spirit on horseback." Carl von Clausewitz, the great Prussian military strategist, drew near the "god of war." And Friedrich Holderlin, unable to bare the anguish of his own mind, entered into "his madness."
Hegel perfected his dialectical theory which was adopted by Karl Marx. Clausewitz wrote On War, a book still read by Generals the world over. And Holderlin withdrew.
Holderlin’s "madness" was precipitated by the proximity of the gods. His torment was acute. He oscillated between self-glorification and self-repudiation. The gods were never at a proper distance.
Holderlin desperately wanted to be like his mentor and poet friend, Schelling. Along the way however he became conscious of his own "insatiable ambition" and knew his desperate campaign for the world’s affection, represented by the affection of a few, would destroy him. He rented a tower from Mr. Zimmer, a Tübingen carpenter, moved in and set up living there for 40 years. He paced, recited poetry and would lay prostrate for hours at a time.
He withdrew into silence; still, he received guests. Most thought him mad, but those who visited knew him to be lucid and engaging. (I like to think that his friends Schelling and Hegel visited, but there’s no record.)
He saw that a God that could be appropriated was a God of destruction; he gave up believing in the Absolute, and found his way by finding the right distance from God.
And he wrote. He wrote through the red sunrise and east wind of self-loathing—wrote through the starry nights, electric and voluptuous—his mind rising above the world. By years of practice he endured the prodigious swings.
He kept an internal Farmer’s Almanac and was able to forecast a poem. He saw when a line was ripe for harvest and when a single word needed weeding; he waited on his body to inform his meter. He knew fairly well, the time for planting a notion.
His conversion came slowly—40 years of walking and lying prostrate. He returned to a simple form of Christianity; a reverence for Christ. Having suffered from his mentors, and from the pressure of friends and fashion he entered a relationship that was without rivalry. Rising to the nobility of silence; he found a presence in absence that was not present in proximity.
Settling into a mysticism of hope, Holderlin wrote these words:
and difficult to grasp, the God.
But where danger threatens
that which saves from it also grows.
(This post was gleaned primarily from the book, Battling to the End – Rene Girard)