Postmodern Hölderlin

Ashley Woodward (Lead / Corresponding author)

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    Jean-François Lyotard, the principal philosopher of the postmodern, referred to Hölderlin at some key points in the elaboration of this idea. These references centre on Hölderlin’s ‘Notes on the Oedipus’. While brief, they index a number of key points which it is my aim in this paper to elaborate. Lyotard’s references to Hölderlin index a crisis – that of the postmodern – and aid him in articulating this crisis, in relation to the ancient and the modern, through two separate but connected modalities: history understood as narrative, and aesthetics. First, Lyotard draws on Hölderlin’s idea of the structure of tragic narrative in order to characterise how meaning can be given to history, and what constitutes a crisis. Lyotard points to Hölderlin's suggestion that the deepest point of crisis is indicated not by Oedipus Rex but by Oedipus at Colonus, in which there are no longer any dramatic stakes and little happens. This is then taken to characterise the deepening nihilism of the postmodern condition. Second, Lyotard uses Hölderlin in riposte to Martin Heidegger, a riposte which bears on the most appropriate response to this crisis, and which is elaborated in terms of aesthetics. As is well known, Heidegger sees an ontological danger in modern technology and proposes art and poetry as remedies. Heidegger frequently takes inspiration from Hölderlin in dramatizing the contemporary condition in terms of a flight of the gods and a need, in some sense, of their return (‘Only a God can save us,’ in his famous words). In his essay ‘The Question Concerning Technology,’ Heidegger invokes Hölderlin's phrase “But where danger is, grows / The saving power also.” This saving power is precisely that of art and poetry, linked to an originary meaning of technē, contrasting with modern technology . Lyotard responds to Heidegger by choosing a different phrase from Hölderlin: “At the outer limits of distress there remains nothing more than the conditions of time or space.” Lyotard links these conditions in postmodernity with the sublime, which allows an aesthetic not opposed to technology, but which creatively exploits the new conditions opened by technoscience for the creation of new arts. Beyond Lyotard’s own elaborations of Hölderlin, I will argue that Lyotard’s distinction between modern and postmodern aesthetics allows us to see, not only the influence of Hölderlin on the postmodern, but dimensions of the postmodern aesthetic already at play in his poetry. This is evident through the unconventional aspects of his use of language, the joy in invention which Lyotard suggests places an accent on the postmodern, in contrast to the nostalgia of the modern. These inventive aspects include formal dimensions such as parataxis, as writers like Adorno have highlighted, as well as his unusual choice of wording and grammar, which, in Lyotard’s terms, constitute a ‘material’ invention. In these ways, I will suggest that Hölderlin can be read as a touchstone not only of the modern but of the postmodern, one of the integral notions of 20th century aesthetics.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)107-120
    Number of pages14
    JournalAesthetica Preprint
    Publication statusPublished - 23 May 2022


    • Friedrich Hölderlin
    • the postmodern
    • Jean-François Lyotard
    • Tragedy
    • Aesthetics


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