Saturday, October 22, 2005

From Wilhelm Waiblinger's essay: "Friedrich Holderlin's Life, Poetry and Madness" (1830)

[I attached this extract because I found it amusing in all sorts of ways. It is at once bland and factual but then again very funny...]

. . . Now if one were to step into this unfortunate man's house, he certainly would not expect to meet a poet who had merrily wandered along the Ilyssus with Plato; but the house is not ugly, it is the dwelling of a prosperous carpenter; a man who has an uncommon degree of culture for a man of his standing, and who speaks about Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Novalis, Tieck and others. One inquires after the room of Herr Librarian - for Hölderlin still enjoys being addressed by title - and then comes to a small door. Talking can already be heard inside, and one assumes that Hölderlin already has company, but is then told by the honest carpenter that H. is completely alone and talks to himself day and night.
One ponders, wondering whether or not to knock, and feels a sense of uneasiness. After finally knocking, a loud and forceful "Come in!" can be heard. Opening the door, one finds a haggard figure standing in the middle of the room, who bows as deeply as possible and will not stop bestowing compliments, and whose mannerisms would be very graceful were there not something convulsive about them. One admires the profile, the high forehead heavy with thought, the friendly, lovable eyes, extinguished but not soulless; one sees the devastating traces of the mental illness in the cheeks, the mouth, the nose, above the eyes where an oppressive and painful wrinkle has been etched. With regret and sadness, one observes the convulsive movement which sometimes spreads throughout the entire face, forcing his shoulders to jerk and his fingers to twitch. He wears a simple jacket and likes to keep his hands in his pockets. One says a few introductory words which are then received with the most courteous obeisance and a deluge of nonsensical words which confuse the visiting stranger. Gracious as he was and, for the sake of appearance, still is, H. now feels obliged to say something friendly to the guest, to ask him a question. One comprehends a few words of his question, but most of these could not possibly be answered. Nor does Hölderlin in the least expect to be answered. On the contrary, he becomes extremely perplexed if the visitor attempts to follow up a train of thought. More about that later, when we discuss our conversations with him. For now, our concern is simply with the fleeting appearance. The visitor finds himself addressed as "Your Majesty", "Your Holiness", and "Merciful Herr Pater". Hölderlin, however, is extremely upset; he receives such visits with the greatest displeasure and is always more disturbed afterwards. For that reason it was always against my own will whenever someone requested me to lead them to Hölderlin. Yet, I would rather do this than let one visit him unaccompanied. The visit would be too upsetting for the lonely man, who is shut off from all associations with people, and the visitor would not know how to treat him. Hölderlin would soon begin to thank the visitor for the visit and would again bow, whereupon it would then be best for one not to tarry any longer.
Nor does anyone stay with him longer than this. Even his earlier acquaintances found such conversation too uncanny, too oppressive, too boring, too senseless, for the Librarian was at his most eccentric in his behavior toward them. Friedrich Haug, the epigrammatist who had known him for a long time, once came to visit. He, too, was addressed as "Your Royal Majesty" and "Herr Baron von Haug". Though the old friend assured H. that he had not been ennobled, H. positively would not cease bestowing him with distinguished titles. Toward complete strangers he speaks absolute nonsense. But first of all, we shall describe the outer appearance he presents of himself, and then we will consider this in greater detail.
He wrote a lot at first and filled every sheet of paper which was handed to him. There were letters in prose or in free Pindaric metrics addressed to his dear Diotima, others more frequently in alcaics. He had adopted a thoroughly peculiar style, the contents of which were: remembrance of the poet, struggle with God and celebration of the Greeks. As for his current train of thought, nothing has appeared yet.
At the beginning of his stay with the carpenter, he still broke out in attacks of madness and rage many times, which forced Zimmer, as a last resort, to strike the frenzied man with his sturdy fists. Hölderlin once chased the man and his whole family out of the house and locked the door.
He instantly became enraged and convulsive whenever he saw anyone from the clinic. Since he often wandered about at liberty, he was naturally exposed to the jeers of the dreadful people who can be found everywhere, and to whose bestial nature such a frightfully spirited unfortunate becomes an object of ignorant viciousness. Now when he realized this, he would become so wild that he would throw stones and dung at them; and one could be certain that he would still be furious the following day. With deepest regret we were forced to acknowledge that even university students were animalistic enough to taunt and enrage him. With regard to this subject, we can only say that of all the wicked traits which laziness engenders in the universities, this is certainly one of the most worthless.
The carpenter's wife or one of his sons or daughters often took the poor man into the garden or vineyard, whereupon Hölderlin would find a rock to sit on, waiting until they would go home. It is notable that persons in his company had to act as if they were with a child, if he were not to be made restless.
If he leaves the house, he must first be reminded to wash and tidy himself, as his hands are usually dirty from having spent half of the day tearing grass from the ground. Then, after he has dressed, he must be led, for he positively will not lead. He wears his hat pulled down to his eyes, and if he is not too deeply withdrawn into himself, he will raise it in greeting to a two-year-old child. It is both praise- and noteworthy that the people in the city who were familiar with him never made fun of him but quietly let him go his own way, while they often said to one another: Ach, how bright and educated this gentleman

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