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Hyperion’s symposium: an erotics of

reception
Joshua Billings*
Ho¨lderlin’s Hyperion is both a reception of Plato’s Symposiumand a reflection on the
process of reception. Fundamental to Ho¨lderlin’s reading is Socrates’s description
of Eros: the god exists in a state of constant oscillation between lack and fulfilment.
This dialectical nature makes erotic desire unstable and forces it to turn away from
the pursuit of transient possession to the production of lasting beauty. Hyperion
shows the erotic dialectic in relation both to physical desire and to desire for the ideal
of ancient Athens. The title character turns from his initial romance with Diotima to
the civic goal of reviving the culture of ancient Greece in the modern world. Themes
and verbal echoes of the Symposiumstructure the first book of Hyperion and suggest
that desire for the presence of the past is conditioned by the Symposium’s dialectic
of poverty and resource. Recognizing this structure leads to an understanding of the
process of classical reception as essentially dialectical, characterized both by
absence and presence; this calls for an increased attention to the ‘erotics
of reception’.
Beauty is momentary in the mind –
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.
(Wallace Stevens, Peter Quince at the Clavier)
Diotima
Diotima of Mantinea is a present absence in Plato’s Symposium. Her words form the
most important of the symposium’s encomia to Eros, but she does not speak them
herself. Socrates, her former pupil, relates her lesson in erotics to the assembly. She
remains a mysterious figure: her name —‘honoured by god’ —and her city, cognate
with mantis, place her somewhere between human and divinity.
1
Though the main
narrative of the Symposium is doubly framed — it records the words of Apollodorus
who recounts what he heard from Aristodemus — Diotima is still further removed
from the literary present. She exists (if she exists at all) as a liminal, ambiguous
being. But this is appropriate to her subject: Eros, a god characterized by perpetual
incompleteness.
*Correspondence to Joshua Billings, Merton College, Oxford University, Oxford OX1 4JD,
UK. jhbillings@gmail.com
I am grateful for the perceptive comments of Constanze Gu¨thenke and the editors of CRJ.
1 Rowe (1998: 173).
Classical Receptions Journal Vol 2. Iss. 1 (2010) pp. 4–24
ß The Author 2010. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.
For Permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oxfordjournals.org
doi:10.1093/crj/clq003

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The Diotima of Friedrich Ho¨lderlin’s Hyperion or the Hermit in Greece (Hyperion
oder der Eremit in Griechenland), too, seems poised between being and non-being. As
the title character’s beloved, her existence forms the hinge of the entire narrative, yet
the pages in which she appears are relatively few and in them, she is most often
passive and silent. Most formative for Hyperion, indeed, is her seemingly unmoti-
vated death, reported at second-hand. The form of the novel, a series of retrospec-
tive letters from Hyperion, serves to heighten her absence just as the Symposium’s
framing places its narrative in a doubly-remembered past. Ho¨lderlin’s Diotima, like
Plato’s, exists in eternal mediation, suggesting that Hyperion’s desire cannot be
fulfilled, his ideal never realized.
This is the lesson of Diotima in the Symposium. In contrast to the previous
speakers, Socrates emphasizes not the positive qualities of Eros, but the poverty
that drives the god to seek beauties he does not possess. Socrates reports the speech
of Diotima, who disabused him of the notion advocated by his friends. The Eros
described by Diotima is liminal, neither beautiful nor ugly, and neither man nor god.
He is a daimoˆn, whose existence is defined by his place between opposing realms. His
power is
. . . interpreting and carrying to gods things from humans, and to humans things from gods:
from humans, the entreaties and sacrifices; from gods, orders and exchanges for sacrifices.
He is in the middle of both and fills the space between, so that all is bound by him.
2
Eros is always relational, a mediation between two elements.
3
This is a consequence
of his birth, as the child of Penia and Poros, need and resource. Like his mother, he is
unattractive and perpetually impoverished, yet he has the skills of his father that
allow him occasionally to attain his desire. This makes him a paradox, poor but able
to become rich, immortal but able to die: ‘sometimes he flourishes for a day and lives,
whenever he has resources, and sometimes he dies, but is brought back to life again
through the nature of his father.’
4
Eros is not a happy mediumof his two parents, but
an unstable oscillation between states of euporia and aporia.
5
Eros’ dialectical nature makes him philosophical, and distinguishes him from his
parents. Those who are wise (like Poros) feel no need to philosophize, while those
who are ignorant (like Penia) cannot comprehend their need. Eros’s philosophical
2 Symposium 202e: ‘JE,jgveNov ko1 dio¬o,±jeNov ±eo8y t1 ¬o,’ 2v±,Þ¬xv ko1
2v±,Þ¬oiy t1 ¬o,1 ±e8v, t8v je;v t1y de–oeiy ko1 ±to0oy, t8v de; t1y e’¬it0neiy
te ko1 2joi[1y t8v ±toi8v, e’v jŒoN de; 4v 2juotŒ,xv otj¬zg,o8, 7ote t1 ¬Rv
o2t1 o3tM otvdedŒo±oi.’ All translations are my own and aim for transparency at the
(considerable) expense of elegance.
3 Markus (1971).
4 Symposium 203e: ‘tote; je;v t8y o2t8y 3jŒ,oy ±0zzei te ko1 ¸I, 7tov e2¬o,–o:,
tote; de; 2¬o±vAokei, ¬0ziv de; 2vo[iÞoketoi di1 t1v toN ¬ot,1y u0oiv.’
5 Sheffield (2006: 58).
H Y P E R I O N ’ S S Y M P O S I U M
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nature is based on reflection; it results from the recognition of his own ignorance.
Philosophy is a state of intellectual poverty that uses resource to gain insight:
Being a philosopher he is between a wise man and an ignorant. The cause of this is his birth:
for he is from a wise and resourceful [euporos] father, and an unwise and unresourceful
[aporos] mother.
6
Socratic philosophy and erotic desire are parallel;
7
both begin in a state of reflective
aporia and strive towards euporia. Socrates’s self-conscious ignorance makes himthe
exemplary erotic seeker. In this respect, it is particularly important that the figure of
Diotima is absent in the dialogue: erotic and philosophical fulfilments are deferred,
set off in a mysterious past. Furthermore, Socrates (like the speakers who frame the
story) is simply repeating an earlier conversation rather than engaging in his usual
dialectics. What remains for the symposiasts as for the reader of the Symposium is a
mediated presence that relates knowledge without being able to answer for it.
The connection of philosophy and desire suggests a productive nature of Eros, a
way it escapes the constant oscillation between want and fleeting fulfilment. As we
have already learned, Eros is unable to possess what it desires permanently. Instead
of possession of the beautiful, Eros seeks to reproduce with the beautiful:
-Eros, Socrates, she said, is not of the beautiful, as you think.
-But what then?
-Of begetting and bringing forth on the beautiful.
-Let it be so, I said.
-It is so absolutely, she said. And why is it of begetting? Because begetting is eternal and
undying as far as it is possible for a mortal. From what we have agreed, it is necessary that
with good one desire immortality, if indeed eros is of the good being one’s own always. It is
necessary from this very account that eros be also of immortality.
8
The account of Eros’ activity here changes abruptly: Eros finds a way out of lack, to a
creative activity.
9
This also necessitates a redefinition of Eros as desire, not for the
6 Symposium 204b: ‘uiz0oouov de; 5vto jeton1 e9 voi oouoN ko1 2jo±oNy. o2t0o de;
o2tMko1 to0txv 3 gŒveoiyÁ ¬ot,1y je;v g1, oouoN e’oti ko1 e2¬0,ot, jgt,1y de; o2
oou8y ko1 2¬0,ot.’
7 Osborne (1994: 93–101); Sheffield (2006: 59–66).
8 Symposium 206e: ‘e!otiv g0,, P* SÞk,otey, e! ug, o2 toN kozoN 3 e!,xy, 3y o1 o4 ei.
+zz1 t0 j–v;
S8y gevv–oexy ko1 toN t0kot e’v tM kozM.
E9 ev, 9v d’ e’gÞ.
P0vt je;v oBv, e!ug. t0 d1 oBv t8y gevv–oexy; 7ti 2eigevŒy e’oti ko1 2±0votov 3y
±vgtM 3 gŒvvgoiy. 2±ovoo0oy de; 2vogko8ov e’¬i±tje8v jet1 2go±oN e’k t8v
3jozoggjŒvxv, e4 ¬e, toN 2go±oN e‘ottM e9 voi 2e1 e!,xy e’ot0v. 2vogko8ov d1
e’k to0tot toN z0got ko1 t8y 2±ovoo0oy t1v e! ,xto e9 voi.’
9 Rowe (1998: 184).
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beautiful or the good, but for an eternal existence. In place of possession, Eros turns
to production.
10
This is the crux on which Ho¨lderlin’s reading of the Symposiumwill
focus, as nostalgia for a lost ideal is transformed into the realization of future pos-
sibility. This dynamic constitutes what might be termed an ‘erotics of reception’.
Desire, according to Socrates, necessarily turns from the transient present
towards an infinite future. In reporting Diotima’s words, Socrates enacts this tem-
poral reorientation, making her absence the basis for philosophical production. He
leads his companions, as erotic desire leads the philosopher, on the ascent to higher
forms of beauty, and ultimately, to the idea. This is an increasingly contemplative
act, in which desire for a beautiful body yields to desire for a beautiful soul, and
ultimately, to knowledge of the essence of beauty:
Beginning from these very beauties, for the sake of that highest beauty he ascends eternally,
just as if employing the rungs of a ladder, from one to two, and from two to all beautiful
bodies; from beautiful bodies he proceeds to beautiful pursuits, from pursuits to beautiful
sciences, and fromthese sciences arrives at that science which is concerned with the beautiful
itself and nothing else, so that finally he comes to know what the beautiful is.
11
The end of Eros is philosophical fulfilment, conceived as a reflection on immortal
beauty. The ascent to the eternal form is parallel to the immortality of giving birth:
both begin with a pregnancy of the soul that seeks a beautiful object. Fromthe aporia
of mortal bodies, philosophy fashions the euporia of wisdom. The figure of Diotima,
an absence that produces knowledge, represents this progress to fulfilment through
loss. In the Symposium, as in Hyperion, Diotima’s very pastness makes her the object
of an erotic dialectic.
Hyperion
Friedrich Ho¨lderlin’s Hyperion, published in two parts in 1797 and 1799, continues
the Symposium’s reflection on erotics. Hyperion, a young Greek of the eighteenth
century, recounts the story of his life and wanderings in sixty letters. He seeks
fulfilment in love and war, traversing the Mediterranean, and venturing as far
north as Germany before resigning himself to the life of a hermit. The novel
begins with a letter announcing Hyperion’s return to Greece and narrates the
story retrospectively to his German friend Bellarmin. Though Hyperion takes
10 Sheffield (2006: 110).
11 Symposium 211c: ‘2,c0jevov 2¬1 t8vde t8v koz8v e’ke0vot e2veko toN kozoN 2e1
e’¬oviŒvoi, 7o¬e, e’¬ovo[oojo8y c,Þjevov, 2¬1 e‘v1y e’¬1 d0o ko1 2¬1 dto8v e’¬1
¬0vto t1 koz1 oÞjoto, ko1 2¬1 t8v koz8v oxj0txv e’¬1 t1 koz1
e’¬itgde0joto, ko1 2¬1 t8v e’¬itgdetj0txv e’¬1 t1 koz1 jo±–joto, ko1 2¬1
t8v jo±gj0txv e’¬’ e’ke8vo t1 j0±gjo tezett8ooi, 7 e’otiv o2k 4zzot 4 o2toN
e’ke0vot toN kozoN j0±gjo, ko1 gvM o2t1 tezett8v 6 e! oti koz0v.’
H Y P E R I O N ’ S S Y M P O S I U M
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much from the traditions of the Bildungsroman and epistolary novel, its philosophi-
cal concerns and rhapsodic language make it a unique and enigmatic work. Ho¨lderlin
revised the novel repeatedly, and his changes suggest the importance of Plato: he
changes the name of Hyperion’s beloved from Melite to Diotima, and adopts the
framing device of the prose letter after a metrical version and a simple first-person
narration. Both of these decisions bring the work closer to the structural mediations
of the Symposium, and a late version of the prologue ends with an acknowledgement
of Ho¨lderlin’s debt: ‘I believe at the end we will all say: holy Plato, forgive! We have
sinned against you mightily.’
12
Hyperion emerges from the early ferment of German Idealism, the philosophical
movement conceived with Ho¨lderlin’s schoolmates Schelling and Hegel at the end
of the eighteenth century. The importance of Plato to Ho¨lderlin and Idealism gen-
erally is well known: Platonic dialogues, particularly the Symposium, Phaedrus, and
Timaeus were a favourite reading material at the Tu¨bingen Stift.
13
The trace of
Platonic and neo-Platonic ideas is obvious in early formulations of Idealism,
though its extent disputed.
14
Plato seemed to offer a way beyond the dualism of
Kantian philosophy, which had rigorously distinguished between unconditioned
knowledge and the mediate, phenomenal knowledge that can be gained from
sense and cognition.
15
Idealism sought to show that subject and object were not
divided by an absolute gulf, but that both categories were created by a previous
unity, the absolute. Where Kant argued that human reason could not access the
noumenal realm of the Ding an sich, the ‘aesthetic Platonism’ of early Idealism saw
earthly beauty as a foretaste of absolute knowledge.
16
Art appeared as the mediumin
which the apparently opposed drives of existence were unified, and a means of
making sense of worldly chaos.
17
In Hyperion, Plato’s influence is literary as well as philosophical: the relations and
conflicts of the Symposium serve to structure the novel to an extent that has not
previously been recognized. Attention to Hyperion’s reception of the Symposium
suggests a profound and detailed engagement with Plato’s text, and establishes an
erotic dialectic through which to understand the protagonist’s ‘eccentric path’.
18
12 Friedrich Ho¨lderlin: Sa¨mtliche Werke und Briefe, ed. by Jochen Schmidt, 3 vols
(Frankfurt: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1992–4); cited as SWB. Here: SWB II, 257:
‘Ich glaube, wir werden am Ende alle sagen: heiliger Plato, vergib! man hat schwer an dir
gesu¨ndigt.’
13 Franz (1993); Jamme and Vo¨lkel (2003: I, 134–68); Lampenscherf (1993).
14 Du¨sing (1981); Henrich (1992: 147–54); Port (1996: 61–8).
15 Harrison (1975: 57); see also Ho¨lderlin’s letter in SWB III, 157, which suggests that the
Phaedrus may help to revise Kant’s concepts of the sublime and beautiful.
16 Du¨sing (1981: 109).
17 Engel (1993: 339).
18 SWB II, 177: ‘exzentrische Bahn.’
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Most secondary literature on the novel has sought to determine whether this path
is ultimately developmental, and to what extent Hyperion’s experiences are educa-
tive.
19
Reading Hyperion’s desire through the Symposium suggests that a kind of
reconciliation does take place, though not necessarily on the level of plot or char-
acter. Rather, just as the dialogue is philosophically productive through interpretive
indeterminacy, so too is Hyperion’s search for meaning realized through the staging
of various, dialectically related, possibilities. Ho¨lderlin does not leave the reader
with an answer any more than Plato does, except that the process of reflection —
writing or philosophizing — is itself an end.
One can understand the Platonic influence in terms of the contrast between
Aristophanes’s and Socrates’s accounts of eros in the Symposium.
20
Aristophanes
explains eros through a story of fall and redemption: originally one body, humans are
divided by the gods for an act of hubris. Eros is the search for one’s other half. Erotic
love appears as the path to earthly fulfilment by a return to the original state of
union: ‘[It is eros] that in the present benefits us most by bringing us to our own, and
gives the greatest hopes for the future, that if we offer the gods reverence, he, having
returned us to our ancient nature and healed us, will make us happy and blessed.’
21
Though Aristophanes’s account is rendered comic by its descriptions of clumsy
half-bodies seeking one another, Ho¨lderlin signally ignores its irony and fixes on
the possibility of redemption. He understands desire as a yearning to return to a
primal state, and holds out an Aristophanic hope for this fulfilment. In the final
letter, Hyperion writes that ‘The dissonances of the world are like the quarrel of
lovers. Reconciliation is in the middle of conflict, and all that has been divided finds
itself again.’
22
Hyperion and Aristophanes both seek to find a means of returning to
one’s own, and thereby transcending the division and chaos of existence.
Ho¨lderlin understands Aristophanes’s narrative as holding the promise of a
return to an originary state of union. Yet, as is obvious in the preface to the
19 Ryan (1965), still a seminal study, argues for a kind of learning through suffering, and is
followed broadly by Engel (1993) and the narrative analysis of Stiening (2005).
Aspetsberger (1971) sees little development through the novel, and Bay (2003) explicitly
rejects any reconciliation.
20 When referring to the particular god of Socrates’s account ‘Eros’ is capitalized; when
used abstractly, I leave in lower-case—though slippage is inevitable.
21 Symposium 193d: ‘6y e!v te tM¬o,0vti 3jRy ¬ze8oto 2v0vgoiv e2y t1 o2ke8ov 4gxv,
ko1 e2y t1 e! ¬eito e’z¬0doy jeg0otoy ¬o,Œcetoi, 3j8v ¬o,ecojŒvxv ¬,1y ±eo1y
e2oŒ[eiov, kotoot–ooy 3jRy e2y t1v 2,co0ov u0oiv ko1 2oo0jevoy joko,0oty
ko1 e2do0jovoy ¬oi8ooi.’
22 SWB II, 175: ‘Wie der Zwist der Liebenden, sind die Dissonanzen der Welt. Verso¨hnung
ist mitten im Streit und alles Getrennte findet sich wieder.’
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penultimate version of Hyperion, the path to this reunion is elusive:
To end the eternal conflict between our self and the world, to restore the peace of all peace,
which is higher than all reason, to unify us with nature in one infinite whole —that is the goal
of all our striving, we may understand ourselves or not.
23
The final clause echoes a crucial point of Aristophanes’s speech: the divided humans
are drawn to one another without understanding why, or being able to articulate
their desire. It is not sexual satisfaction that they seek, ‘but it is clear that the soul of
each is wishing for something else, which it is unable to say, but rather divines what
it wants and speaks in riddles’.
24
The inchoate desire of Aristophanes’s beings also
characterizes Hyperion, who seems unable to satisfy his restlessness. The notion of
eros presented in Aristophanes’s speech holds out the possibility of a redemptive
telos, but makes the means of attaining it obscure. Though Hyperion never realizes
it, the novel’s reading of the Symposium implies that both Aristophanic and Socratic
accounts of eros are in some way aporetic.
Hyperion is guided by an Aristophanic ideal of reconciliation, but he repeatedly
finds himself in the reality of Socrates’s dialectic. He grows up on an island in the
Greece of the eighteenth century, immersing himself in the heroic tales and phi-
losophy of antiquity, guided by his teacher Adamas. Hyperion compares their rela-
tionship to that between Plato and his pupil Stella (the name of the beloved in a
Platonic epigram), suggesting an erotic dimension.
25
Hyperion, though, soon
becomes restless, and ventures to Smyrna, where he is disgusted with the cultural
philistinismof modern Greeks. There, he is attracted to the revolutionary Alabanda,
and their relationship seems to suggest the possibility of reconstituting society after
the ancient model. But this, too, reveals itself as wanting, as they quarrel and part,
and Hyperion retreats to solitude. In both these relationships, the ideal of Greece is
linked to erotic fulfilment, which Hyperion strives in vain to attain. The
Aristophanic dream of return to a natural state is undermined by the uncertainty
of how to achieve it.
It is only after two male relationships fail himthat Hyperion meets Diotima on the
island of Kalaurea. For the rest of the text, she will represent one side of an erotic
dialectic, an idealized retreat from the active life represented by Alabanda.
26
Her
naı ¨ve, unearthly beauty seems to offer the return to nature Hyperion had sought;
23 SWB II, 256: ‘Jenen ewigen Widerstreit zwischen unserem Selbst und der Welt zu
endigen, den Frieden alles Friedens, der ho¨her ist, denn alle Vernunft, den wiederzu-
bringen, uns mit der Natur zu vereinigen zu Einem unendlichen Ganzen, das ist das Ziel
all’ unseres Strebens, wir mo¨gen uns daru¨ber verstehen oder nicht.’
24 Symposium 192c: ‘2zz’ 4zzo ti [otzojŒvg e‘kotŒ,ot 3 wtc1 d–zg e’ot0v, 6 o2
d0votoi e2¬e8v, 2zz1 jovte0etoi 6 [o0zetoi, ko1 o2v0ttetoi.’
25 Roche (2002: 91); SWB II, 19.
26 Engel (1993: 340).
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indeed, the modern name of the island is Poros.
27
In Hyperion’s succession of
infatuations, one can recognize an ascent similar to that described in the
Symposium. Hyperion’s Diotima exists on an entirely different level from his pre-
vious attractions. She represents to Hyperion the essence of beauty, a realization of
the unity of self and nature: ‘do you know its name? The name of that which is one
and all? Its name is beauty. [. . .] Diotima, Diotima, divine being!’
28
The description
seems inspired by Plato’s notion of anamnesis, the recollection of beauty’s pure form,
which Ho¨lderlin would have found connected to eros in the Phaedrus.
29
Diotima is
an ideal that seems only partially embodied in reality.
The relationship does not bring with it the passion of Hyperion’s earlier attrac-
tions; indeed, at first they do little but sit in silence. A direct echo of Aristophanes’s
speech occurs in Hyperion’s description of his early times with Diotima, when the
earth appeared as ‘originally perhaps more intimately unified with [the sky], then
however cut off from it through an all-ruling fate, so that [the earth] seeks, comes
close, distances itself and with desire and mourning, ripens to full beauty’.
30
The
passage suggests a bridge between Aristophanes’s and Socrates’s speeches: it imag-
ines the telos of reunion as unattainable, but at the same time sees a kind of redemp-
tion in the unending dialectic of distance and nearness to the ideal. The fall from
innocence establishes the possibility of a new, mature form of fulfilment that would
synthesize nature and culture.
31
Through the figure of Diotima, Hyperion imagines an ascent fromhuman to ideal
beauty, and from sensory to intellectual apprehension. The Platonic echoes of the
shift from homosexual to hetero-, though essentially asexual, desire are undeniable,
though have not been noted before.
32
The passionate eros of Hyperion’s earlier,
male relationships is subordinated to the contemplation of metaphysical beauty,
guided and embodied by Diotima.
33
Ho¨lderlin’s description of the process is sur-
prisingly equivocal. Hyperion, in forgetting his own mortality, experiences a kind of
death: ‘she was my Lethe, this soul, my holy Lethe, from which I drank forgetful-
ness of existence, so that I stood before her like an immortal.’
34
Loss — as death
or forgetfulness — becomes a necessary moment in experiencing the beautiful.
27 Gu¨thenke (2008: 82).
28 SWB II, 62: ‘wißt ihr seinen Namen? den Namen deß, das Eins ist und Alles? Sein Name
ist Scho¨nheit.[. . .] O Diotima, Diotima, himmlisches Wesen!’
29 Du¨sing (1981: 109).
30 Stiening (2005: 323); SWB II, 63: ‘urspru¨nglich vielleicht inniger mit ihm vereint, dann
aber durch ein allwaltend Schicksal geschieden von ihm, damit sie ihn suche, sich na¨here,
sich entferne und unter Lust und Trauer zur ho¨chsten Scho¨nheit reife.’
31 Lacoue-Labarthe (1989: 243).
32 On the Platonic ascent, see Vlastos (1981: 38–42).
33 Bassermann-Jordan (2004: 36).
34 SWB II, 68: ‘Sie war mein Lethe, diese Seele, mein heiliger Lethe, woraus ich die
Vergessenheit des Daseins trank, daß ich vor ihr stand, wie ein Unsterblicher.’
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Yet Hyperion is at first unaware of how his desire is conditioned by lack. He dares
to hope, in explicit refutation of Socrates in the Symposium, that he will ‘not see
the poverty of love’.
35
Having found what he believes he was seeking, Hyperion
feels himself in the state of union promised by Aristophanes, and unaffected by the
poverty of Socratic eros.
Eros, as Hyperion learns, cannot exist without Thanatos. This is emphasized by
the novel’s retrospective narration, which allows Hyperion to tell the story of his love
while simultaneously reflecting on his loss. Fromthis perspective, euporia and aporia
are inextricable:
Wherever I flee with my thoughts, into the heaven above and into the void, at the beginning
and the end of times, even when I throw myself into its arms, that which was my last refuge,
which otherwise consumed every care, which otherwise burned up all desire and all the
pains of life with the flame of fire in which it showed itself — the glorious, secret soul of the
world —when I dive into its depth as down into the bottomless ocean, even there, even there
the sweet terrors find me out, the sweet, confusing, killing terrors, that Diotima’s grave
is near me.
36
In looking back, Hyperion cannot but recognize the dialectical nature of eros and the
elusiveness of Aristophanic reunion. Even in the moment of erotic fulfilment, there
seems to be something missing — though only Diotima recognizes this lack at first.
Early on, she prophesies that love cannot provide the principle whereby Hyperion
reconciles himself to the world: ‘Do you know [. . .] what you are mourning in all
your mourning? [. . .] It is a better time you seek, a more beautiful world.’
37
Eros, as
Aristophanes’s speech predicted, cannot provide the ultimate orientation. It drives
Hyperion on, but without knowing his goal. Diotima urges Hyperion’s desire
beyond her own beauty, to the ‘better time’ of ancient Athens, a utopian ideal
that Hyperion will seek to realize through the rest of the novel.
38
Diotima’s role as catalyst for Hyperion’s search echoes that of the Symposium’s
mantic teacher. Despite a recent interest in Ho¨lderlin’s Diotima, the Platonic roots
35 SWB II, 75: ‘die Armut der Liebe nicht sehn.’
36 SWB II, 69: ‘Wohin ich auch entfliehe mit meinen Gedanken, in die Himmel hinauf und
in den Abgrund, zum Anfang und an’s Ende der Zeiten, selbst wenn ich ihm, der meine
letzte Zuflucht war, der sonst noch jede Sorge in mir verzehrte, der alle Lust und allen
Schmerz des Lebens sonst mit der Feuerflamme, worin er sich offenbarte, in mir ver-
sengte, selbst wenn ich ihmmich in die Arme werfe, demherrlichen geheimen Geiste der
Welt, in seine Tiefe mich tauche, wie in den bodenlosen Ozean hinab, auch da, auch da
finden die su¨ßen Schrecken mich aus, die su¨ßen verwirrenden to¨tenden Schrecken, daß
Diotima’s Grab mir nah ist.’
37 SWB II, 76: ‘Weißt du denn [. . .] um was du trauertest in aller deiner Trauer? [. . .] Es ist
eine bessere Zeit, die suchst du, eine scho¨nere Welt.’
38 Bay (2003: 146).
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of her character have not been fully explored.
39
Like Socrates’s Diotima, Hyperion’s
often seems more an absence than a presence in the text. She can seem a bloodless
ideal, her character undefined.
40
She appears in the text only briefly, and her death,
though the trauma of the second half of the novel, is reported to Hyperion only in
letters. Yet there is an important difference in the two absences. Where the
Symposium presents Diotima as mediate because factually absent, Hyperion’s
Diotima is rather an image of pure immediacy (with nature, with the form of
beauty) that in the course of the telling becomes more and more remote.
Diotima’s absence in Hyperion is not the result of spatial difference but of an abso-
lute temporal alterity. Even when present in the narrated time of the work, she
belongs more to the ideal world of antiquity than to modern reality. In this, she is
analogous to the Greece that Hyperion longs for. Both are divided fromthe narrative
present by a temporal gap that cannot be bridged, except partially through the
medium of language.
41
Hyperion’s recollections of Diotima and ancient Athens
are conditioned by the same impossibility. His desire is thus even more fundamen-
tally predicated on absence that Socrates’s eros. Hyperion stages the confrontation
between Aristophanes’s teleological desire for return to one’s own, and Socrates’s
unending dialectic of aporia and euporia. For Hyperion, eros reveals itself as a pro-
cess of mourning.
Athens
Hyperion’s desire is directed towards the ancient past. The famous ‘Athens letter’
recounts Hyperion’s journey with a group of friends, including Diotima, to the city.
Onthe way, they discuss the ‘excellence of the ancient Athenianpeople, fromwhere it
comes, in what it consists’.
42
Though many interpretations of the novel see this as the
crux of the whole work, it has not been noticed that the form is borrowed from the
Symposium. Members of the group offer competing eulogies of Athens, though the
discussion serves mainly as prelude to Hyperion’s speech, which, like Socrates’s,
seeks to correct the mistakes of his friends:
One said, the climate did it; another, art and philosophy; a third, religion and form of
government.
Athenian art and religion, and philosophy and form of government, I said, are blossoms and
fruits of the tree, not ground and roots. You take the effects for the cause.
43
39 Bassermann-Jordan (2004); Jeorgakopulos (2003).
40 Jeorgakopulos (2003: 17–23).
41 Schmidt (2001: 132).
42 SWB II, 88: ‘Trefflichkeit des alten Athenervolks, woher sie komme, worin sie bestehe.’
43 SWB II, 88: ‘Einer sagte, das Klima hat es gemacht; der andere: die Kunst und
Philosophie; der dritte: Religion und Staatsform.
Athenische Kunst und Religion, und Philosophie und Staatsform, sagt’ ich, sind
Blu¨ten und Fru¨chte des Baums, nicht Boden und Wurzel. Ihr nehmt die Wirkungen
fu¨r die Ursache.’
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In place of such simplistic answers, Hyperion proposes a genealogy of the city, an
account of its development into the ideal. His speech blends individual and collec-
tive growth, emphasizing the freedom of early Athenians from foreign influences or
powers. They seem to exist in a Rousseauist state of nature, before the differenti-
ation of subject from object.
44
This pre-societal existence is similar to that experi-
enced by Hyperion and Diotima earlier, and the descriptions of Athens’s early
history echo those of Kalaurea. Hyperion’s imagination of Athens is essentially
linked to his ideal of erotic fulfilment: both are utopian states of original nature.
The Athenians initially exist in perfect harmony with their surroundings, una-
ware of their own humanity. From a childish mind without self-consciousness, they
advance to a mature understanding of difference. This differentiation, we learn,
comes from man’s natural creative tendency, which leads him to artistic creation:
The first child of human, of divine beauty, is art. In it, divine man makes himself young and
reproduces himself. He wants to feel himself; therefore he sets his beauty in opposition. So
man gave himself his gods. Because in the beginning man and his gods were one, when,
unknown to himself, he was eternal beauty.
45
Works of art initiate the process of reflection through which the ancient Greeks
began to distinguish themselves from the world around them. Consciousness of the
gods results from man’s drive to posit something outside of himself. By creating a
beautiful object in opposition, man becomes aware of his own humanity and, simul-
taneously, the beauty of the human form.
Differentiation for Hyperion is a necessary moment in beauty — as expressed in
Heraclitus’s motto, e•v diouŒ,ov e‘ottM (‘one, differentiated in itself’). Later in the
speech, Hyperion describes this as the ‘ideal of beauty’.
46
Ho¨lderlin would have
found the phrase quoted, although uncomprehendingly, in the Symposium as a
description of music.
47
The metaphor of harmony — which Ho¨lderlin borrows
throughout Hyperion — is essential to his concept of beauty.
48
Harmony is seen
as the coincidence of opposites, the formation of a whole from disparate elements.
This can be understood as a reformulation of Aristophanes’s eulogy that accepts the
basic pattern of thought, but denies the necessity of a fall from grace. It is the
apprehension of difference within unity that creates beauty. Where Aristophanes
44 Stiening (2005: 340).
45 SWB II, 90: ‘Das erste Kind der menschlichen, der go¨ttlichen Scho¨nheit ist die Kunst. In
ihr verju¨ngt und wiederholt der go¨ttliche Mensch sich selbst. Er will sich selber
fu¨hlen, darum stellt er seine Scho¨nheit gegenu¨ber sich. So gab der Mensch sich seine
Go¨tter. Denn im Anfang war der Mensch und seine Go¨tter Eins, da, sich selber unbe-
kannt, die ewige Scho¨nheit war.’
46 SWB II, 94: ‘Ideal der Scho¨nheit.’
47 Symposium 187a.
48 Schmidt (1992–4: II, 1038).
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had posited division only as something to be overcome, Hyperion finds a way to
positively value difference.
Hyperion ascribes this knowledge to Diotima: ‘I have it from you.’
49
Erotic and
philosophical knowledge are inextricably interwoven in the eulogy of Athens.
Hyperion goes on to elaborate a neo-Platonic conception of philosophy:
From simple reason comes no philosophy, since philosophy is more than the blind demand
for never-ending progress in uniting and dividing a certain material.
But if the godly ev dioue,ov eottNshines forth, the ideal of beauty for striving reason, then
reason does not demand blindly and knows why and to what end it demands.
50
The beginning of philosophy, then, is an aesthetic experience, not a process of
reasoned deduction. This implies a rejection of Kantian critique in favour of
Idealism’s attempt to found knowledge on a pre-rational basis.
51
Like Plato’s
Diotima, Hyperion understands beauty as orienting the quest for philosophical
truth. It is at this point that the group arrives in Attica. In recognizing, through
Diotima, the centrality of beauty to intellectual contemplation (a conviction that
Ho¨lderlin certainly shared), Hyperion reaches the height of philosophical and erotic
euporia.
The dialectical nature of eros, though, immediately reasserts itself. As the
group approaches the city, Hyperion imagines ancient Athens as a dead friend,
returned to life:
It is beautiful that it is so difficult for man to believe in the death of what he loves, and there is
probably no one who has yet gone to his friend’s grave without the quiet hope of actually
meeting the friend. The beautiful phantom of ancient Athens grabbed me, like the face of
a mother who returns from the dead.
O Parthenon! I yelled, pride of the world!
52
Though Hyperion recognizes that his ideal image of the ancient city is no longer
valid, he cannot help but be caught up in it. His desire is so strong that it brings
49 SWB II, 90: ‘Ich hab’ es von dir.’
50 SWB II, 94: ‘Aus bloßer Vernunft ko¨mmt keine Philosophie, denn Philosophie ist mehr,
denn blinde Forderung eines nie zu endigenden Fortschritts in Vereinigung und
Unterscheidung eines mo¨glichen Stoffs.
Leuchtet aber das go¨ttliche ev dioue,ov eottx [sic], das Ideal der Scho¨nheit der
strebenden Vernunft, so fodert sie nicht blind, und weiß, warum, wozu sie fodert.’
51 Ryan (1965: 141).
52 SWB II, 95: ‘Es ist scho¨n, daß es dem Menschen so schwer wird, sich vom Tode dessen,
was er liebt, zu u¨berzeugen, und es ist wohl keiner noch zu seines Freundes Grabe
gegangen, ohne die leise Hoffnung, da dem Freunde wirklich zu begegnen. Mich ergriff
das scho¨ne Phantomdes alten Athens, wie einer Mutter Gestalt, die aus demTotenreiche
zuru¨ckkehrt.
O Parthenon! rief ich, Stolz der Welt!’
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ancient Greece back from the dead. To his companions’s surprise at his vision-
ary transformation, he cries ‘Do not remind me of the time!’
53
The fragility of
Hyperion’s ideal becomes clear: his account of ancient Greece is entirely
ahistorical.
54
Hyperion’s reverie continues until they reach the ruins of the Acropolis, where he
comes face to face with historical reality. Ancient Athens, reborn in his imagination,
dies again in his vision:
I looked, and could have passed away from the all-powerful sight.
Like an immeasurable shipwreck, when the hurriances are quiet and the mariners fled, and
the corpse of the shattered fleet lies unrecognizable on a sandbank, so Athens lay before us,
and the decayed columns stood before us, like the naked roots of a forest which still had been
green at evening and in the night went up in flames.
55
Ancient Athens is figured as a shipwreck and a corpse, the dead friend Hyperion had
expected to meet. What he finds, though, is not pure absence, but the presence of
absence, a vision of living death. The shock at the city’s ruins is particularly stark
because it had so recently seemed alive to himin imagination. In the ruins of Athens,
Hyperion comes face to face with the aporia of erotic fulfilment: the beautiful always
exists historically, and the ideal can only be experienced in passing.
56
As in the
Symposium, it is Diotima who shows the way beyond such ephemeral possession:
‘Whoever has a certain spirit, said Diotima consolingly, to him Athens still stands
like a blooming fruit-tree. The artist easily completes the torso.’
57
Though her
words hold an obvious echo of Winckelmann, Diotima suggests a more active role
for modernity than imitation: it must complete and thereby regenerate the ideal.
The progress of desire is the same as that described by Plato’s Diotima: from trying
to possess a transient ideal, Hyperion will turn to the production of immortal beauty.
The rest of the Athens letter dramatizes the difficulty of this turn for Hyperion.
He seems, like Socrates, to be a rather slowpupil, clinging to the transient fulfilment
of bodily eros. At first, he sees his love for Diotima as a possible escape from the
53 SWB II, 95: ‘Mahne mich nicht an die Zeit!’
54 Aspetsberger (1971: 65).
55 SWB II, 96: ‘Ich sah, und ha¨tte vergehen mo¨gen vor dem allma¨chtigen Anblick.
Wie ein unermeßlicher Schiffbruch, wenn die Orkane verstummt sind und die
Schiffer entflohn, und der Leichnam der zerschmetterten Flotte unkenntlich auf der
Sandbank liegt, so lag vor uns Athen, und die verwaisten Sa¨ulen standen vor uns, wie die
nackten Sta¨mme eines Walds, der am Abend noch gru¨nte, und des Nachts darauf im
Feuer aufging.’
56 Nancy (1993: 76).
57 SWBII, 96: ‘Wer jenen Geist hat, sagte Diotima tro¨stend, demstehet Athen noch, wie ein
blu¨hender Fruchtbaum. Der Ku¨nstler erga¨nzt den Torso sich leicht.’
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degraded world in which he lives: ‘What do I care for the shipwreck of the world, I
know nothing but my holy island.’
58
Kalaurea had seemed an existence outside of
time, and it represents the possibility of living forever in a natural state. Yet Diotima
tells him that this too is impossible: ‘There is a time of love, said Diotima with
friendly earnestness, just as there is a time to live in the happy cradle. But life itself
drives us out.’
59
Historical change, contra Aristophanes, cannot be redeemed.
Caught between an impossible antiquity and an unbearable modernity, lost nature
and degraded culture, Hyperion must seek a third path of synthesis. Diotima guides
him away from mourning and on to his new role:
You must go from here, like the ray of light, like the all-refreshing rain, you must go below
into the land of mortality, you must illuminate, like Apollo, shake, enliven, like Jupiter,
otherwise you are not worthy of your heaven. I beg you, go to Athens again, one more time.
60
Hyperion’s return to Athens is an entrance into the historical life of modern Greece.
Diotima suggests that the ancient ideal can be realized through practical action. In
the moment of lack, Hyperion discovers his own resource.
Instead of passive possession, Hyperion will strive for active production. This is
an important revision of the Platonic narrative. Whereas for Socrates ascending the
erotic ladder leads to increasing philosophical knowledge, Hyperion’s goal is not
mere contemplation. His desire is reconstituted, turned from asocial pleasure to
civic enlightenment: ‘From the roots of mankind the new world will sprout! A new
godhead will reign over them, a new future show itself in front of them.’
61
Though
earlier he had hoped to regress to childhood, he nowaccepts the necessity of living in
his own age. This leads him to a still-undefined mission as a creator: ‘I am an artist,
but I am not ready. I imagine in my spirit, but I do not yet know how to lead my
hand.’
62
Hyperion’s path will go beyond intellectual images to create sensory expres-
sions of his ideal.
Hyperion’s goal is a fusion of Socratic and Aristophanic narratives: a begetting
anew that is also a recreation of past unity. The physical space of ancient Greece
58 SWB II, 98: ‘Was ku¨mmert mich der Schiffbruch der Welt, ich weiß von nichts, als
meiner seligen Insel.’
59 SWB II, 98: ‘Es gibt eine Zeit der Liebe, sagte Diotima mit freundlichem Ernste, wie es
eine Zeit gibt, in der glu¨cklichen Wiege zu leben. Aber das Leben selber treibt uns
heraus.’
60 SWB II, 99: ‘Du mußt, wie der Lichtstrahl, herab, wie der allerfrischende Regen, mußt
du nieder in’s Land der Sterblichkeit, du mußt erleuchten, wie Apoll, erschu¨ttern,
beleben, wie Jupiter, sonst bist du deines Himmels nicht wert. Ich bitte dich, geh
nach Athen hinein, noch Einmal.’
61 SWB II, 100: ‘Aus der Wurzel der Menschheit sprosse die neue Welt! Eine neue Gottheit
walte u¨ber ihnen, eine neue Zukunft kla¨re vor ihnen sich auf.’
62 SWB II, 100: ‘Ich bin ein Ku¨nstler, aber ich bin nicht geschickt. Ich bilde im Geiste, aber
ich weiß noch die Hand nicht zu fu¨hren.’
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provides the link between past ideal and present possibility.
63
Hyperion envisions
the ruins of Athens as the basis for a revival of ancient fruitfulness:
I stood over the wreckage of Athens like a farmer over a fallow field. Just lie quietly, I
thought, as we went back to the ship. Just lie quietly, sleeping land. Soon young life will
grow from you, and increase towards the benedictions of heaven. Soon the clouds will not
rain in vain, soon the sun will find its ancient pupils again.
64
The natural cycle suggests that barrenness is only a prelude to growth, but Hyperion
now understands that this rebirth must be qualitatively different from the previous
flowering. The first volume ends with the vision of a reunification of what history
has divided: ‘there will only be one beauty, and man and nature will come together
into one all-encompassing divinity.’
65
Hyperion’s desire has turned from the past to
the future: action, he hopes, will realize the ideal anew.
The second volume radically undermines Hyperion’s dream of renaissance. It
announces its turn to tragedy in an epigraph adapted from Oedipus at Colonus: ‘Not
to be born surpasses all account. But once one has seen the light, the second best by
far is to return as quickly as possible whence one has come.’
66
The bitter rejoinder to
Aristophanes’s teleology sees the only return to nature in death. In the two years that
separate the volumes of Hyperion, Ho¨lderlin was working simultaneously on his
own, never-completed tragedy, The Death of Empedocles, and on translations of
Sophocles, and the themes and outlook of those works permeate the second
volume of Hyperion. It descends further into disaster, as Hyperion reunites with
Alabanda to fight against the Turks, only to be deserted by his comrade-in-arms.
The loss brings to bear another echo of the Symposium: Alcibiades’s late entrance to
the gathering, which takes place shortly before he will lead the disastrous Sicilian
expedition. Alcibiades and Alabanda represent similar erotic objects, martial and
homosexual alternatives to the philosophical, heterosexual Diotima. Furthermore,
they both endanger the protagonist — Alcibiades by casting suspicion on Socrates
and Alabanda by leading Hyperion into a hopeless battle. Alcibiades’s disgrace, like
Socrates’s execution, is not mentioned in the Symposium, but suggests that both
narratives are filtered through catastrophe suffered after the fact.
63 Gu¨thenke (2008: 75).
64 SWB II, 101: ‘Ich stand nun u¨ber den Tru¨mmern von Athen, wie der Ackersmann auf
dem Brachfeld. Liege nur ruhig, dacht’ ich, da wir wieder zu Schiffe gingen, liege nur
ruhig, schlummerndes Land! Bald gru¨nt das junge Leben aus dir, und wa¨chst den
Segnungen des Himmels entgegen. Bald regnen die Wolken nimmer umsonst, bald
findet die Sonne die alten Zo¨glinge wieder.’
65 SWB II, 101: ‘Es wird nur Eine Scho¨nheit sein; und Menschheit und Natur wird sich
vereinen in Eine allumfassende Gottheit.’
66 SWB II, 104: ‘jg utvoi, tov o¬ovto vikG zogov. to d1e¬ei uov: / [gvoi kei±ev, o±ev
¬e, gkei, ¬ozt dette,ov xy tocioto’ [sic] cf. OC 1225–7.
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The greatest blow is reported to Hyperion in letters from Kalaurea, which he
encloses with his own: Diotima dies from an illness that wastes her away to nothing.
Her last letter cautions Hyperion against trying to understand her death: ‘Whoever
thinks to fathom such a fate ends by cursing himself and everything.’
67
Hyperion’s
philosophical nature now seems a danger, as too much questioning would lead him
into despondency. Seeking to avoid this abyss, Hyperion leaves Greece and journeys
to Germany, where he finds himself miserable among ‘barbarians from ages back,
who have become through diligence and study and even through religion more
barbaric’.
68
Hyperion’s tirade against contemporary Germans suggests that his ide-
alism has not been extinguished by catastrophe, though it has become deeply embit-
tered. The dialectic of desire does not vanish completely in the second volume, but its
euporetic side is present only in fleeting moments of hopefulness. While the first
volume is saturated with Platonic echoes, classical allusions in the second drawmore
on tragedy. The only consolation seems to be the process of reflection that
Hyperion’s epistolary recollections allow. The novel closes with the enigmatic
words ‘So I thought. More soon.’
69
Like the Symposium, Hyperion ends without recon-
ciliation or synthesis, but with an image of the philosopher continuing on his path.
Socrates’s eulogy of eros establishes the philosophical basis for the dialectic of
hope and despair portrayed in Hyperion. The novel can be understood both as a
product and as a depiction of Diotima’s narrative, which turns from seeking to
possess a fleeting ideal to the production of a lasting work of reflection. Hyperion
emerges from the dialectic of desire, passing through the experiences of poverty and
resource before arriving at the task of representation. This does not restore, in
Aristophanic fashion, a fractured wholeness, but it does show a way beyond the
unhappy instability of the erotic subject. Ho¨lderlin’s representation, to be sure, does
not synthesize the dialectic any more than Plato’s does, but it nevertheless turns the
experience of aporia into a kind of euporia. In Hyperion, the loss of an idealized
antiquity becomes productive; the novel itself is a means of ‘begetting and bringing
forth on the beautiful’.
Towards an erotics of reception
Ho¨lderlin’s reading of the Symposiumcontains within it a reflection on the process of
reception. Hyperion continually poses the question of the presence of antiquity in the
modern world. The novel is the result of a quest to make ancient soil fruitful again.
This is as true for Hyperion as for Ho¨lderlin, whose poetic and philosophical project
was centred on ancient Greece from its beginning. Hyperion represents his first
sustained attempt to conceptualize the interplay of antiquity and modernity.
67 SWB II, 160: ‘Wer solch ein Schicksal zu ergru¨nden denkt, der flucht am Ende sich und
allem.’
68 SWB II, 168: ‘Barbaren von Alters her, durch Fleiß und Wissenschaft und selbst durch
Religion barbarischer geworden.’
69 SWB II, 175: ‘So dacht’ ich. Na¨chstens mehr.’
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The Symposium’s discussion of eros leads Ho¨lderlin to figure the dynamics of a
relationship to ancient Greece as a dialectic of lack and resource. Hyperion’s reflec-
tions on the presence of the past thus articulate an erotics of reception.
One can trace an erotic dialectic through Ho¨lderlin’s writing on ancient Greece,
as a tension between elegy and appropriation.
70
In Hyperion, ancient Greece seems
overwhelmingly an object of mourning, as in the famous words of the poem ‘Brod
und Wein’:
Aber Freund! Wir kommen zu spa¨t. Zwar leben die Go¨tter,
Aber u¨ber dem Haupt droben in anderer Welt.
Endlos wirken sie da und scheinens wenig zu achten,
Ob wir leben, so sehr schonen die Himmlischen uns. (SWB I, 289).
(But, friend! We come too late. The gods still live, but over our heads above in another world.
They act there infinitely and appear to care little whether or not we live, so much do the
heavenly ones spare us.)
The gods of antiquity seem to have left the modern world a cold, empty place. Yet
there is nearly always a sense of possibility attending such lament, an attempt, as in
Hyperion, to renew the ancient ideal. Though Hyperion’s project ultimately leads to
desolation after the failure of his societal transformation and the death of Diotima,
he maintains an Aristophanic hope throughout the work. Similarly, ‘Brod und
Wein’, conflating Greek and Christian divinity, sees the earthly presence of the
eucharist as a foretaste of a return of the gods:
Darum denken wir auch dabei der Himmlischen, die sonst
Da gewesen und die kehren in richtiger Zeit,
Darum singen sie auch mit Ernst die Sa¨nger den Weingott
Und nicht eitel erdacht to¨net dem Alten das Lob. (SWB I, 290)
(Therefore we think of the heavenly ones, who once were here and who will return at the
right time. Therefore the singers sing with earnestness to the wine-god, and the praise does
not sound empty to the ancient one.)
Much of Ho¨lderlin’s poetry performs this expectation, fulfilling the task of ‘Dichter
in du¨rftiger Zeit’ (SWBI, 290: ‘poets in a destitute time’). Writing becomes the locus
of antiquity’s presence in the modern world, and the guarantee of its future return.
71
There is also in Ho¨lderlin’s work, and particularly in his later writings, a more
active engagement with ancient Greece, which sees a productive tension in the
relation of antiquity and modernity. This is only incipient in Hyperion, and repre-
sents the second stage of Socratic eros, in which desire for the ancient ideal leads to
new creation. Ho¨lderlin comes to see the engagement with the foreignness of
70 Lacoue-Labarthe (1989).
71 Heidegger (2002).
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antiquity as constitutive of modernity’s self-consciousness. As he writes in a letter of
1801: ‘The proper must be learned as well as the alien. Therefore the Greeks are
indispensable to us.’
72
For the later Ho¨lderlin, the experience of non-identity is
essential to finding ‘the proper’ (t1 o2ke8ov, das Eigene). The path to self-knowledge
is not the reconstitution of a previous unity, but the creation of a reflective dialectic
of similarity and difference.
For Ho¨lderlin, modernity comes to know itself only through antiquity. Ancient
Greece represents neither an origin nor an endpoint for modern artists, but a
defining alterity.
73
This relation to antiquity is also clear in the last work
Ho¨lderlin published, the notes to his translation of Oedipus the King and Antigone,
which declares that ‘the national forms of our poets, where such exist, are to be
preferred [to those of the Greeks] because they do not simply exist in order to learn
to understand the spirit of the times, but to hold it fast and to feel it, once it is
grasped and learned’.
74
Ho¨lderlin describes Greek art not as an end in itself, but as a
means of understanding the historical condition of modernity. This concept of
reception no longer seeks to possess or recreate antiquity, but views it as one element
of the dialectic through which modernity (re)produces itself.
Both aspects of Socratic eros, lack and resource, are simultaneously present in
Hyperion as throughout Ho¨lderlin’s works. Indeed, their dialectic forms one of the
essential features of German philhellenism’s relation to antiquity and, more impor-
tantly, of the formative notions of modernity that emerge from this engagement.
75
One could trace a similar erotics of reception in the earlier eighteenth century,
76
throughout Schiller’s works,
77
or in Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’.
78
The ancient
world seems at once an unrecoverable ideal and a source of timeless wisdom. The
passage of time that divides modernity from antiquity is lamented as well as cele-
brated; out of this dialectic emerges the literature of classical reception. Loss and
restitution are essential moments in modern self-definition through antiquity,
elements of a powerful and ambiguous desire.
The example of Ho¨lderlin’s Hyperion suggests that, parallel to a hermeneutics, we
need an erotics of reception. Such a perspective would be sensitive not only to the
ways the classical world is present in modernity, but also to the ways it is experienced
as absent. It would understand engagement with the untimeliness of antiquity — not
72 SWB III, 460: ‘Das eigene muß so gut gelernt sein, wie das Fremde. Deswegen sind uns
die Griechen unentbehrlich.’
73 Szondi (1978: 358).
74 SWB II, 921: ‘Die vaterla¨ndischen Formen unserer Dichter, wo solche sind, sind aber
dennoch vorzuziehen, weil solche nicht bloß da sind, um den Geist der Zeit verstehen zu
lernen, sondern ihn festzuhalten und zu fu¨hlen, wenn er einmal begriffen und gelernt ist.’
75 Gu¨thenke (2008: 40).
76 Parker (2008).
77 Alt (2006).
78 Ferris (2000: 52–84).
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its timelessness or universality —as the genuinely productive force in classical recep-
tion. The reflection on alterity establishes a dialectic of lack and resource that leads to
a productive relation to antiquity. One can figure the negative element of this erotics
in many ways: misremembering and erasure,
79
historical incompleteness,
80
the
impossibility of translation,
81
traumatic loss and repression,
82
or, as Ho¨lderlin
does, mourning. What unifies these approaches is a close attention to the complex
ways ancient works are appropriated, experienced as alien and made into one’s own.
The process, these studies show, is always conditioned by a desire that makes
the relation to the ancient past simultaneously an imperative and an impossibility.
Classical receptions begin in a desire for what is absent. This is not merely because
erotics is one of many possible modes of relation to the ancient world. Though this is
obviously the case, one could go further, and argue that erotics is a condition of
classical reception. That is to say, an essential difference between the receptions of
ancient Greece and Rome and the receptions of Hamlet or Hollywood film, is the
dialectic of absence and presence that antiquity cannot but evoke. This is not, it is
important to realize, a hermeneutic point: fromthe reader’s point of view, there is no
fundamental difference between classical texts, texts that ‘receive’ the classics in one
way or another, and texts with no discernible classical engagement. They are all
encountered in the same way, their meaning ‘realized at the point of reception’.
83
Though ‘iterability’ may be the defining quality of a classic, it is as applicable to
Shakespeare as to Sophocles.
84
If the term ‘classical reception’ has any particular
meaning (and if its study belongs in departments of the Classics), it is because there
is something of interest in the specific way that ancient texts are reiterated.
85
The erotic dialectic helps to formulate the specificity of classical receptions, as
conditioned by a play of distance and proximity, or in Platonic terms, of lack and
resource. This relation is infinitely flexible but it is always self-conscious.
86
Antiquity is, as Uvo Ho¨lscher writes, ‘the closest other’ (‘das na¨chste Fremde’) of
modernity, and this consciousness cuts across national literatures and the hetero-
geneity of receptions.
87
The dialectic of absence and presence forms the basis for an
understanding of classical receptions as a comparative field, in which different tra-
ditions converge around a central experience.
88
What marks classical receptions is
their engagement with the antiquity of the ancient and the modernity of the modern.
79 Burrow (2004).
80 Prettejohn (2006).
81 Lianeri (2006).
82 Leonard (2008).
83 Martindale (1993: 3).
84 Martindale (1993: 28).
85 Porter (2008: 474).
86 Budelmann and Haubold (2008).
87 Ho¨lscher (1994: 278).
88 Revermann (2008).
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The Greeks (and one could say the same for the Romans) are ‘indispensable to us’
because they initiate a dialectic of desire. Ho¨lderlin teaches that modern reflection
emerges from the alterity of antiquity: ‘the proper must be learned as well as the
alien’. It is the interplay of difference and similarity in the formation of modernity
that makes the field of classical reception a potential meeting-place for different
disciplines, periods, and traditions. Attention to the erotics of reception can help us
to probe the encounters through which modernity comes to know its own ‘proper’.
Yet it is only by recognizing the absence at the heart of classical reception that we can
fully understand antiquity’s presence.
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