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Horst Janssen | Hölderlin at 16 and 72


I. Introduction

The study that follows concerns two tragic plays that treat the emergence and aftermath of a single global revolutionary horizon which included both the French and the Haitian revolutions. As the tragic genre suggests, Friedrich Hölderlin’s The Death of Empedocles (1799) and Aime Césaire’s And the Dogs Were Silent (1956) stage reflections on the initial successes and subsequent defeat of their respective revolutionary moments. What can tragedy or art offer to thinking that wishes to confront revolution and political conflict in general? As I will argue, the poetic function of tragedy – tragic insight – is to make space for the possibilities opened up in revolutionary caesuras to flourish in the event of their foreclosure. The tragic is a means of refusing to forget the utopian visions that were banished by reactionary political orders. As I elaborate in the conclusion, the artistic function understood according to this schema is primarily destructive rather than creative. To trace out the political – or antipolitical   dimension of tragedy we will turn, as both of our poets did for much of their careers, back to ancient Greece. A brief reading of Nicole Loraux’s book The Mourning Voice will give us the tools to make sense of the origins of the tragic.

In our brief tour of ancient Greece we will stumble upon Hölderlin’s protagonist Empedocles, whose intimacy with nature makes him an enemy of his hometown in Italy. An allegorical figure for the German Idealist and Romanticist worldview, Empedocles represents a way of living that transcends the division between nature and culture which founds the political order of his time. Lamenting the separation from nature he is forced to endure in his city, Empedocles finds no meaning in his singular existence and casts himself into a volcanic abyss where he seeks consolation in a more universal dimension symbolized by the primordial unity of nature. In Césaire’s play And the Dogs Were Silent, written more than 150 years later, the beautiful nature Empedocles dreamt of returns as a monstrosity. The landscape and natural geography of  Césaire’s play have been – like Césaire’s protagonists himself – entirely contained and manipulated by the Western colonial order. In order to access any of its redeeming and healing qualities, nature must first be released from its asphyxiation by this colonial order. Césaire’s play will help us see the shortcomings of the enlightenment’s ambitions, represented in Hölderlin’s play, from an anti-colonialist perspective. It is from Césaire’s play that we will draw the final insights tragedy has to offer.


II. Tragedy and the Antipolitical

Nicole Loraux’s book The Mourning Voice: An Essay on Greek Tragedy seeks to restore the tragic genre with some of its original components. In her reading of ancient Greek tragedy, Loraux argues that the tragic genre was irreducibly antipolitical: “We know how wary civic legislation was of excessive expressions of mourning, especially that done by women. By emphatically giving a large role to mourning, tragedy lays claim to a logic different from the solely political logic of civic ideology” (Loraux 2002, 87). This excessive mourning presented a challenge to the political logic of the city, which relies on the stability of logos to dispense order and meaning. Grieving loss disrupted the “ideology of the city state – the idea that the city state must be one and at peace with itself” (ibid, 26). Loraux’s remark here must be read in tandem with her seminal study The Divided City. Loraux opens this book with the tale of how the Athenian polis was united after the bitter strife wrought by years of civil war:

“after the final defeat in the Peloponesian War, after the oligarchic coup of the Thirty Tyrants and the abuses they inflicted, there is the victorious return of the democratic resistance, whose members reunited with their fellow citizens – their recent opponents – and swore an oath with them to forget the past in a harmonious consensus” (Loraux 2006, 15)

Through an enticing etymological investigation, Loraux reveals that the amnesty granted between sworn enemies implied amnesia: actively repressing conflict in order to restore concord to the city. As a result “the polis becomes ideology for the divided city because it denies the very possibility of thinking about real divisions” (Loraux 2002, 30). Since irreconcilable conflict was incompatible with the civic ideology of peace in the polis, real division would have to be staged in the theater, that “alien enclave” (ibid., 25) outside the city center where the ban on mourning was uplifted and those recently slain in battle could be remembered, honored, and thus momentarily restored. In his book Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm, Giorgio Agamben provides a helpful summary of and amendment to Loraux’s thinking about amnesty and amnesia:

“The Athenian amnestia is not simply a forgetting or a repression of the past; it is an exhortation not to make bad use of memory. Insofar as it constitutes a political paradigm inherent to the city, which marks the becoming-political of the unpolitical (the oikos) and the becoming-unpolitical of the political (the polis), the stasis is not something that can be forgotten or repressed; it is the unforgettable which must remain always possible in the city” (Agamben, 21).

Agamben’s reading traces an ellipsis whereby the political is depoliticized and repressed by civic ideology. According to this shift, we can try to read how theater and artwhose functions are so often depoliticized in our day and age – serve as a subterfuge for negotiating the political outside the sphere of politics, a site to perform remembrance of what must be banished to oblivion in the city. The hierarchies and divisions which carved up the polis, deciding which bodies were allowed to participate in politics (property owning men) and which were banished to the oikos (women and slaves), were momentarily suspended when people entered the theater, and a new sense of common destiny was restored  amongst equals. Loraux states “If the spectators experience in the theatre implied a sense of belonging to a community of mortals, it may be that this experience abolished the boundaries so carefully drawn in ancient Greece to define the individual and communal spheres” (Loraux, 2002 89). Whatever or whoever is excluded from the bonds of belonging instituted by the polis can be redeemed in the theater where, as we will see in this study, no matter how mighty and eternal a given human order may claim to be, the tragic hero is capable of discerning its ephemeral nature. If tragedy puts out of operation the political distinctions that govern civic ideology, it also re-stages – or stages for the first time – a vision of life that explodes those very distinctions. From all this we can infer that Plato perhaps had good reason to banish poets from the city after all.

With Loraux’s claims in mind, we can read tragedy in terms of the shortcomings and failures of civic ideology, since what unfolds in the theater is always in excess of this sphere. This will have important consequences when it comes to thinking about political conflict and/or revolutionary transformation, the topic of this study. More precisely, tragedy will provide us with a register for thinking revolutionary transformation in a way that doesn’t end up quarantining it to a mere rearrangement of the political or the social, but rather entails the re-invention of the human and its environs. Politics, for all its promises to lead the human community to salvation, will be an obstacle to this more foundational ontological transformation of the world.


III.  A Tale of One Tragedy in Two Different Plays

Hölderlin’s play Der Tod des Empedokles centers around the ancient Greek philosopher and poet Empedocles. In the course of the play he is banished from his hometown Acragas for various transgressive acts. Despairing over his fated exile, Empedocles wanders to the outskirts of the city to the volcano on Mt. Etna, where he vows to commit suicide by jumping in. Finding no sense of belonging in the city, his leap into the crater of Mt. Etna will return him to the primordial unity of nature and free him of the hardships he encountered in the human world. Aime Césaire’s play Et les Chiens Se Taiseint centers around a character named the Rebel, an embodiment of Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution. The entirety of the play takes place the day before the Rebel’s death in prison, where he is incarcerated for killing his slave master and inciting a slave insurrection. Confined to his cell, the Rebel is visited by wraith-like beings and mythological creatures who hail him from the underworld. As he approaches death and decomposition, his mortal senses fail him and in the company of extra-worldly beings his visionary capacities are rejuvenated.

What merits a comparison between these two plays whose heroes, despite sharing a Promethean archetype, have divergent and even incommensurable ethical motivations? Surprisingly, both plays center around the same historical moment: the turn of the 17th century and the French and Haitian Revolutions, which unfolded as a part of the same global revolutionary Zeitgeist. Césaire and Hölderlin will both treat the closure of this revolutionary period and the foreclosure of the emancipatory possibilities inaugurated in the name of liberté, égalité, fraternité. This closure can be traced back to a single moment: Napolean’s coup d’etat in November of 1799, which toppled the Directory. Napolean’s rise marked the suppression of the Jacobin ideals Hölderlin was partial to. For Toussaint, the character depicted in Césaire’s play, Napolean’s rise threatened to “restore pre-revolutionary colonial rule and perhaps even reinstate slavery” (Wilder, 188). In both cases, a revolutionary process is unleashed and then thwarted, and a counterrevolution follows in which the clock is turned back. Both Hölderlin and Toussaint lived through the beginning of a new era that was not allowed to come fully into fruition. This single event of counterrevolution, this rent in time, will be the central pivot point for both plays considered in this study.

For Hölderlin as for Toussaint, the turn of events in the sphere of politics, originally promising to do away with the old and make room for the emergence of a new world, instead birthed anachronistic forms of despotism. Politics exhausts itself and becomes an obstacle to rather than a means for the realization of utopian dreams: this is the double bind of politics. When this is the case the radical imagination is forced to take flight outside of the sphere of politics. The tragic transport performs the remembrance of a revolutionary transformation whose every last trace was threatened with oblivion at the hands of counter-revolution. In these two plays, transformation is not imagined as being restricted to a change of political or social forms, it will unfold at an ontological scale and treat the transformation all forms of life, human and non-human alike.


IV. The Death of Empedocles

Hölderlin worked on Der Tod Des Empedokles from 1798 to 1799. The play is accompanied by four theoretical essays which sketch out a poetics of the tragic. In his book Hölderlin und die Französische Revolution [Hölderlin and the French Revolution] Pierre Bertaux argues that the play was intended to be an accessory to the French Revolution, which threatened to permeate the border into Swabia, the region where Hölderlin was born. Had it been successful in doing so, the French Revolution would have brought about a transition from the Holy Roman Empire, a constitutional monarchy, to a more egalitarian republic in Hölderlin’s hometown. The play was conceived as a “Festspiel der jungen Schwäbischen Republik” [play for the young Swabian republic] (Bertaux, 84), marking the birth of a new age after the fetters of the Holy Roman Empire – the King’s arbitrary powers, his court of princes and the parasitic feudal constructions – had been cast off. But as indicated above, after Napolean’s coup the prospects of a Schwäbische Republik were dashed forever. The foreclosure of this possibility signaled the conclusion of the revolutionary horizon that Hölderlin used to orient himself and his work. Hölderlin abandoned working on the play in 1799; it survives in three fragmented versions, a failure that corresponds with the failure of the French Revolution itself.

The play is a classic Trauerspiel that delineates the mythology of the life and death of Empedocles. Doctor and healer, poet and skilled rhetorician, Empedocles was born around 495 B.C in Acragas, Sicily. The first version of Hölderlin’s play does the most legwork to develop Empedocles as a character and frame his transgression. Hölderlin characterizes Empedocles by his kinship with nature, even “the plants gaze up at him as he walks by” (Hölderlin 2008, 38). In the first act he brings a woman named Panthea back from the dead. Though he is acclaimed a hero by a select few, Empedocles’ talent for healing will not merit a favorable reputation in the city of his birth. Empedocles laments the impossibility of realizing himself in his homeland: “captive to a nation such as this/ A pious life will find no rest” (ibid., 65). His intimacy with nature counts as an abnormality rather than as keen sensitivity, and will eventually be the cause of his banishment. Already in the second scene, Panthea’s father and the local priest Hemocrates, who represents the old order, begin to connive against Empedocles. After brief deliberations, they apprehend him and inform him of his expulsion from the city, exclaiming And to his banishment in barren wasteland,/ That there, never to return again,/ He’ll pay, and dearly, for that evil hour he/ Made himself a god” (ibid., 46). In this version of the play, Empedocles’ hubris was to refuse confinement to the lot cut out for mortals by daring to extend his reach into the divine realm of healing, ordinarily preserved for immortals. Upon receiving notice of his banishment from the city, Empedocles deserts the city and climbs to the top of Mt. Etna. The rest of the play culminates around this final act of suicide, where Empedocles would leap into the crater of the volcano, though the play never narrates the actual leap.

Up on Mt. Etna, the citizens of Acragas come in search of Empedocles. They offer him forgiveness and ask him to return to the city and become king. He rejects the offer, stating “The time of kings has passed forever” (ibid., 87). Ahead of and against his time, Empedocles is featured as a markedly political character called upon to lead the passage from one way of living to another for an entire society. He proselytizes:

“As though imprisoned in a sickly body the spirit

Of Acragas is yearning now to slough off the old ways.

So dare it! Your inheritance, what you’ve earned and learned.

The narratives of all your father’s voices teaching you,

All law and custom, names of all the ancient gods,

Forget these things courageously; like newborn babes

Your eyes will open up to the goodness of nature” (ibid., 90)

With his people’s well-being in mind Empedocles the healer fulfills a political function by calling for an exodus of sorts, encouraging people to decide to leave the political forms of the old world behind. The kingship, old wealth, legal and political allegiances would all have to be renounced. This ancient political apparatus held mankind and nature separate; no antidote could neglect naming it an obstacle to cure. Empedocles castigates the citizens of Acragas for desiring a king “Shame on you,/ That you should still want kings!” (ibid., 88). Empedocles’ ideal of change was more substantial than a mere change of kings, it entailed a transformation in the ontological composition of mankind as indexed by its degree of intimacy with the realms of the natural and the divine. In all his speculation, Empedocles the character becomes but a mortal vessel embodying the unity of man and nature, and this unity destroys his character. It is ultimately for this that he will perish. One lifetime is not enough to bear witness the complete and total transformation of the whole world. Through his act of suicide he seeks to absolve himself of human time and let his soul wander in other dimensions. By leaping into the crater he would fuse himself with earth’s liquid fire. According to the Earth’s unforeseeable patterns rather than the human calendar, he would eventually rise from the depths as volcanic ejecta and persist as mineral substance, as geology, as the very ground the future world would be built upon – this is the only immortality he could hope for in such a sick city.

With each successive version of the play, Hölderlin cuts out more and more of the narrative detailing Empedocles’ transgression, suggesting that Empedocles is less a individual being punished for his actions and more of a symbol for his age that must be sacrificed to mark the turning of the times. By the third version of Der Tod des Empedokles the entire pretext of Empedocles’ transgression is disregarded and the play begins at the crater of Mt. Etna. In scene three, Empedocles talks with Manes, an Egyptian who makes his premiere only in this final scene of the play’s final version. While he at times appears to challenge Empedocles, at other times their speeches seem to overlap or interfere with one another, becoming indiscernible. The two discuss the metaphysical subtleties that accompany of the passage from one age to the next. As Manes expounds:

“The lord of time, grown apprehensive of his rule,

Looms with glowering gaze above the indignation [Empörung].

His day extinguished, his lightning bolts still flash, yet

What flames on high is inflammation, nothing more;

What strives from down below is savage discord” (ibid. 184, translation modified)

The characters probe the question of a political order that is no longer capable of promising the good life to the human community. Its flames stem from infection and sickness rather than as evidence of any mastery of skill or as a symbol of might. In contrast to the workings of this order, Empedocles tends towards the subterranean forces of the earth, or “savage discord” [wilde Zwietracht]. What comes about in the exchange between these two characters is a long, frantic meandering about a host of philosophical and existential matters. The climactic moment comes when Empedocles narrates the story of the political transformation he saw in his city:

“Far more violent

Than inundating waters, savage waves of humankind

Came crashing down against my breast; in all that din [Irrsaal]

I came to hear the voice of my poor people.

And while I paced in silence in my halls

At midnight rose in tumult their lament

They stormed across the fields, and weary unto death

With frenzied hands they tore down their own homes,

They razed their desecrated and abandoned temples;

When brother fled from brother, when lovers passed

Each other by in ignorance, when fathers failed

To recognize their sons, when human words no more

Were understood, nor human laws, that was when

The meaning of it all assailed me and I trembled:

It was my nation’s parting god!” (ibid., 185)

The speeches Empedocles and Manes share in this final scene might be some of the most fantastic verse ever captured in the German language, so elegantly rendered here by Krell’s translation. A return of Irrsaal, one of Hölderlin’s favorite words, begins the passage. Irrsaal suggests literally wandering or erring, but here is used to describe something like the return of an-archy or non-foundationalism (Krell translates it as din). Only first in this uproar does Empedocles hear his “poor people.” What follows describes a domestic insurrection that upends all forms of belonging and attachment. “Poor people”, presumably weary from overwork and malnutrition are pictured “storming across fields” and razing obsolete religious structures. The fact that the protagonists “[tear] down their own homes” suggests a city at war with itself. Whatever has been unleashed leaves no relationship untouched: it pertains to the domestic and familial (to the oikos) as much as to the political (the polis). It is not unlikely that this scene bears reference to the bread riots that were so frequent amongst the French peasantry in the times leading up to the French Revolution. The reference to “abandoned temples” evokes the important role the institutionalization of the cult of the Supreme Being and the persecution of atheists played in the the ‘freezing’ of the French Revolution. Once religion, fraternity, love and kinship had been spoiled, there was nothing left for human law and language uphold, and they perish as well. Precisely when the bonds and categories that usually provide meaning fail and breakdown, our narrator Empedocles recognizes that the nation itself will be the sacrificial victim.

“To mortals I belong no more. O the termination of my time” (186) are Empedocles’ parting words as the play approaches its non-conclusion, its expiration. His death corresponds with the death of an era. The chorus that closes the play leaves us with only shards of what will come after:

“New World

and it looms, a brazen vault

the sky above us, curse lames

the limbs of humankind, and the nourishing, gladdening

gifts of earth are like chaff, she

mocks us with her presents, our mother

and all is semblance –

Oh when, when will the flood open up

across the barren plain.

But where is he?

That he conjure the living spirit” (ibid., 188, translation modified)

A new world looms on the horizon, but the scalar mechanics of its arrival are not for humans, lamed by the curse of death, to speculate on. That is why “when will the flood open up” is punctuated by a full stop rather than a question mark, since it must remain unasked by mortals. This unforseeable new world will take shape according to a temporal register that makes a mockery of any human attempt to contain it in a rational or logical form. “But where is he?” Who is he? Which absent god or hero promises to return and avenge us? Who will lead us to salvation? We do not know, yet the commandment to “conjure the living spirit” closes out the play and rings like an echo wandering through an abyssal terra incognita in search of this name.


V. And the Dogs Were Silent

If Hölderlin stages the reconciliation of the singular in the universal, Césaire stages a different way of negotiating these coordinates. Aime Césaire’s play And the Dogs were Silent was published in a definitive version in 1956, the same he quit the PCF (Parti communiste français), criticizing the party for its narrow focus on class analysis, its failure to address questions concerning race and thus its emaciated universalism, and most importantly its “reluctance to enter into the path of de-Stalinization” (Césaire, Letter to Maurice Thorez). In November 1956, the USSR crushed the anti-Stalinist revolution in Hungary, signalling that the Soviet Union had taken a definitively authoritarian turn. Writing in Discourse on Colonialism just six years earlier, Césaire had named the USSR as an “example … we can look to” (Césaire 2001, 52) for a model of an emancipated society. Césaire discerned a historical parallel to this political context in the totalitarian turn that took place in the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution. His 1963 play The Tragedy of King Christophe centers around King Christophe, who was born a slave, became a military leader in the Haitian army under Toussaint, and went on to establish a monarchical rule in the northern region of Saint Domingue from 1807-1820 after Toussaint and Dessalines died. Christophe orders the construction of grandiose building projects that ruthlessly exploit the workers and consolidates a new division between rich and poor. Widely despised as a tyrant, Christophe commits suicide in the face of popular unrest. This play is evidence that Césaire knew that replacing the old colonial forms with new, black leaders “yet continuing in the same way – that is, on the backs of us blacks” (Césaire 2015, 51) would be insufficient to the task of providing lasting freedom. This task required life to be completely re-constructed from the ground up and would depend on the invention and persistence of new languages, new art forms and new ways of configuring the political that were non-identical with the colonial world’s racist conception of the human.

As a precursor to this long downturn of the Haitian revolution, Césaire presents the figure of Toussaint as the Rebel in Et Les Chiens. The Rebel narrates his own tragedy: “I am a man of good thirst circling madly around poisoned ponds” (Césaire 2017, 219). His tragic situation concerns more the limits of the sphere of politics – the “poisoned ponds” – than his individual character. He sets out with good intentions and intervenes in politics in order to free the people of his country from slavery. Once the institutions of slavery had been defeated it was necessary for new political forms to be deployed to guarantee a lasting condition of emancipation. Yet in the course of his lifetime, Toussaint’s political ambitions will land him in prison rather than allow him to fulfill this heroic role. His thrust towards the universal ends with him sequestered in isolation from the rest of the world.

On the first page, the Echo introduces “the blue eyed architect”, “builder of a pestilential world” (ibid., 169) who will serve as the Rebel’s foil. The Echo describes him as a character whose worldview is built on a disavowal of the natural world “Architect deaf to things as clear as the tree but enclosed like armor each of your steps is a conquest and a spoilation and a misconception” (ibid., 169). We infer that the natural landscape of the Rebel’s homeland was burdened by one of the blue eyed architect’s monstrous projects. This encounter has devastated the land and stained it with the psychic trauma of colonialism: “the hill is dragging its hawsers” (ibid., 175). Here the hill is equipped with tow ropes usually reserved for ships, and we might imagine a range of hills on the horizon made entirely of broken hulls representing the catastrophe of the Atlantic slave trade. The ocean is “the great sea of black blood, the great swell of sugarcane and profits” (ibid., 193). Part of the strategy of the colonial project was to make itself seem as ahistorical and as natural as the earth itself. The blue eyed architect is an archetype for Western colonial reason: his imperial gaze calculates everything it sees, ordering the world and beings into neatly packaged categories that enable him to manipulate, confine and marshal whatever he comes across, be it nature or a ‘barbarian’ civilization, so that his ‘voyage’ of progress carry on without a hitch. If the blue eyed architect’s mythos is based on seizing the world and forming it to suit his own narrow interests, the Rebel seeks to unbind the hold that this telos of human calculation has over phenomena, thereby allowing different kinds of life to flourish according to a multiplicity of different ends and temporalities.

The curtain is raised in the first scene and we find the Rebel “In the barathrum of terror, a vast collective prison populated by black candidates for madness and death; the thirtieth day of famine, torture and delirium” (ibid., 171). Illness, pain and madness dispose our tragic hero to a volatile sense of self. The play is situated in a transitory state, somewhere between a life on the verge of death and its resurrection in another form. In the play’s opening lines an Echo announces the Rebel’s death “Surely he is going to die” (ibid., 169). The Rebel’s fate has been sealed at the play’s beginning and the drama that follows will not see him lamenting this verdict as much it will be him making sense of his imminent dispossession (his death). As time closes in on the Rebel, the “obsolete calendar” (ibid., 283) which represents the passage of time in the architect’s world assails him “the minutes parade around me/ like a pack of emaciated wolves/ like a herd of lashing whips” (ibid., 233). Rather than unfolding the story of his transgression, trial and punishment, the play suspends linear narrative altogether. In lieu of narrative progression, the play advances and retreats according to a multiplicity of temporal registers that overlap above and beyond a human scale without contradiction. Movement accords with meteorological phenomena, plant and vegetative life, animals and mythical structures of time. The play was originally intended as an oratorio, emphasizing the musical quality which characterizes the play’s texture.

The play proceeds as a katabasis into the dark vaults of the Rebel’s psychic geography. The Rebel converses with and is visited by a motley cast of characters including but not limited to two madwomen [Folle], two lovers, celestial voices, bishops and vulgar kings, apocalyptic horsemen, a jailer and his wife, and “fantastic beasts with deformed faces” (ibid., 207). Some of the play’s episodes clearly represent flashbacks to events that happened during the Rebel’s life, such as when the Jailers appear to sentence him. Yet characters such as the madwomen emerge from another dimension full of ritual splendor and magical allure. The madwomen are accompanied by the “dog-headed gods” (ibid., 187), which refer to the Egyptian god Anubis, tasked with recomposing the body of Osiris after his death and making preparations for him to rise again as king of the dead. Anubis represents the transition from one way of living to another, a departure from the old world and the arrival in another world. Like Osiris, the Rebel’s body is envisioned by the madwomen as “dismembered, scattered about” (ibid., 293), and in their ceremony they “prepare the house for the fair triumphant guest” (ibid., 199) and prophesy his resurrection “Arise O King!” (ibid., 199). The intoxicating rhythm of their quasi-liturgical chanting propels the play forward.

The play’s most discernible plot element details the Rebel’s unforgettable act of transgression, the moment of kairos when “at the red hour of miracles, I discovered Freedom” (ibid., 215), which he recalls with serene clarity even in his dilapidated psychic state. In an episode highly reminiscent of Nat Turner’s Confessions, the Rebel leads a troop of insurgent slaves as they lay siege to his white slave master’s house, exchanging gunfire and forcing the doors to enter:

“I went in. It’s you, he said to me very calmly. . . It was I, it was indeed me, I said to him, the good slave, the slavish slave, and suddenly his eyes were two cockroaches frightened on a rainy day . . . I struck, the blood spurted: that’s the only baptism I remember today” (ibid., 225).

We could read this murder as the hero’s greatest feat, as the revolutionary act par excellence, representing an overthrow of the colonial order buttressed on denying some individuals (slaves) belonging in its universal categories (egalite). Yet it is precisely this passage that Fanon cites in The Wretched of the Earth, claiming that it demonstrated a problematic image of revolt. Fanon writes “The violence of the colonial regime and the counterviolence of the colonized balance each other out and respond to each other in an extraordinary reciprocal homogeneity” (Fanon, 46). Fanon is right to caution against placing all of one’s hopes for emancipation in a single act of revenge, which threatened to result in frustrated ressentiment. Total emancipation would require much more time, more substantial consideration and preparation. Immediately after the Rebel finishes telling of his heroic act, several voices call him an “Assassin” and plan their response “let’s gouge out his eyes” (Césaire 2017, 227). The Rebel’s pyrrhic victory over his master thrusts him into the annals of universal world history for a moment “the hour of miracles”, but the fallout from this event leaves him stranded at the singular, isolated in a cell where he finds no contact with the nation he “brought to a knowledge of itself” (ibid., 199).

The reference to eye-gouging might lead us to compare the Rebel to Oedipus, whose hubris was  to bring all things to light, but a more accurate comparison is with Antigone. Antigone seeks to give her slain brother the proper burial denied to him by king Creon’s official decrees and in doing so she honors the dead and leaves darkness inviolable. In death, the realm into which all mortals must eventually pass, the laws governing a particular modality of historical existence for humans in a society lose their binding force. Speculating on this coming dispossession (death) – in which all universal guarantors of meaning collapse – the vision lost in darkness is recovered in a moment of tragic insight where all the orders of the past, present and future that posture as eternal are rendered destructible and finite. As this becomes clear to him the Rebel is thrust back into that state of Irrsaal, forced to wander without any guidance from the emptied skies above. Like Antigone, the Rebel too has “made a pact with the night” (ibid., 205).

After being blinded the Rebel is shown as weak for the remainder of the play. Right before his death, the stage directions tell us “The prison is surrounded by a torch-bearing mob shouting and screaming insults” (ibid., 277), which consists not of white jailers, as we might expect, but the Rebel’s former “comrades” who accuse him of betrayal for leaving them with “the masters’ vengeance to deal with” (ibid., 277). According to this mob (who it must be admitted seem fickle as the wind, candidates for the first circle of Dante’s hell) the Rebel’s heroic act contributed to a deadly cycle of violence and brought more violence instead of emancipation. Shipwrecked, not only is he barred from the blue eyed architect’s world, even his rebel companions reject his leadership. We find countless ruminations on his failures and shortcomings. He laments “My children I am a king who possesses nothing” (ibid., 229). The Narrators of the play tell us that at a certain point the rebel goes into hiding, and he begins to cough and shiver as he describes recalls scenes of famine and torture at the hands of slave owners. “And now there remains only a man lost, tragic as a palm tree stump” (ibid., 263).  His pact with the night eventually leads him comes to terms with his dispossession “today is a day of complicity” (ibid., 249) and only then can he disengage his earthly concerns.

The King… repeat: the king

all the violence of the dead world

lashed with rods, offered to beasts

dragged in my nightshirt with a rope around my neck

doused with gasoline

and I waited in a san benito for the hour of the auto-de-fe

and I drank urine, trampled, betrayed, sold

and I ate excrement

and I acquired strength to speak

louder than rivers

louder than disasters (ibid., 287).

Isolated from the community, blinded and banished to death, the rebel confronts this dispossession fearlessly – he has no other choice. In doing so he is introduced into another dimension where he gains a new sense of strength. The light shines not where the Rebel realizes himself but where he defects, where he is incapable of acting or fulfilling his role as a leader. In this loss, there is also recovery, regeneration: “you see nothing amid the new grass?” (ibid., 263) he asks. As the play closes, the Rebel is finally dead. In his absence, the chorus finds solace in plants, fish, “decomposed light”, swarm of larvae. The unity arrived at in the play’s final words is indivisible from plurality and multiplicity “I am one with you, Islands” (ibid., 303).


VI. In the Beginning There Was Night

This study began with an excavation of tragedy’s elliptical relationship with politics and the political. We discovered that tragedy was originally a medium where unresolved conflicts – banished from the city’s collective memory to preserve the semblance of peace – could be revisited and remembered, transforming “the past into the eternal present” (Loraux 2001, 162). In re-assembling what was repressed and forgotten, this act of remembrance was not a melancholic escape into the past, but rather a prophesy on what threatened to return unannounced at any given moment as an interruption, breakdown, or failure.

Tragic insight turns defeat into strategy, casts a “backwards glance at the path that had to be traversed” (Hölderlin 2008, 154). In working through failures of the past, tragedy provides insight into the challenges we might face in the future. Loraux also emphasizes tragedy’s projectual qualities, stating that the memory it holds close tends “in the direction of a cosmic thought in which it is a scourge for the city of men, an irruption into the civilized world of a savagery often described as animal yet that threatens the human family from the inside” (Loraux 2001, 37). In threatening to unbind everything, the tragic upturns not only social relations but also the ontological categories that defined what counts as human and what counts as savage or animal. This force of non-forgetting – “dreadful wrath” as Loraux phrases it – makes it an ideal accomplice to the Rebel’s declared intentions: “I shall utter the great black scream so forcefully that the foundations of the world will tremble” (Césaire 2017, 253). This is an image of remembrance that doesn’t conserve, but rather makes what is foundational crumble “es/ Trümmert und wankt ja, wohin ich blicke” [whatever I look at wavers and breaks] Hölderlin wrote in his poem Zeitgeist.

Both of our poets resemble Walter Benjamin’s destructive character: “The destructive character knows only one watchword: make room. And only one activity: clearing away. His need for fresh air and open space is stronger than any hatred” (Benjamin, 541). This passion for the new is a way to salvage tradition from stagnation and petrification. It stems from the confidence that because life itself is indestructible, it can withstand downfall, defeat, and tragedy and is capable of reclaiming vigor through transformation and restoration in new forms that can’t be known in advance.

Both our poets, in their mutual admiration for destruction, loved to linger in the abyssal. Yet in his play, Hölderlin hesitates to cast Empedocles adrift into the abyss. The event itself remains suspended. Did Hölderlin look away from the abyss? If he was looking away, or if he had to repress what he saw there, then was it what he turned away from that returned to haunt him, ravish his mind and condemn him to 36 years of ‘Umnachtung’ [benightedness] confined in a tower overlooking the Neckar river? Is it the ghost of the Haitian revolution – untraceable in Hölderlin’s work – that caused his madness? Or was he blinded by intimating the monstrous destiny looming on his nation’s horizon “Der König Oedipus hat ein Auge zu viel vielleicht” [perhaps King Oedipus had one eye too many] (Hölderlin 1984, 253, translation modified).

For the Rebel, the abyss is not something he approaches towards the play’s end, it is where he finds himself at the beginning: in the “barathrum of terror” (Césaire 2017, 171). Barathrum [βέρεθρον], the word Homer used for the abyss. An ancient abyss which, despite all of the shimmering light of Hölderlin’s verse, never went away. It returned upon Europe in the 20th century as evidence of the failure of the enlightenment project. The universalist impulses championed by German Idealism or the French Revolution were coextensive with colonial projects that demonstrated the non-existence of these project’s self-declared ‘democratic’ ‘republican’ or ‘humanist’ goals. At one point in And the Dogs Were Silent the Rebel says “The statue we are trying to erect, comrades, the most beautiful of statues … “solitude” (ibid., 241), which we must read Césaire’s warning against letting weak universalism subsume and command what is most singular.

The poetic dagger – Césaire’s miraculous weapon – is engaged to thaw the ice that quarantines the free flux and abundance of earth’s natural resources. The blue eyed architect’s iron grip, the invisible hand that strangles, had to be defeated to let things unfold outside of its monotlithic grasp. What happened after he had achieved that left the Rebel “Wandering in exile from the gods/ trusting in mad strife” (Empedocles, 114). How to proceed in this case could not be planned. It was not for politics to delineate, but for poets to intimate. Reconciliation was not an option. Empedocles of Acragas tells the tale:

“To fall apart from one another to meet their fate

Most unwillingly, by dismal necessity

rotting; and for us who now have Love and Good Will

the harpies with the lot of death will <be with us.>

Alas that the pitiless day <did not destroy> me first

<before with my claws I practiced the terrible deeds of eating,

<But> in vain in that storm did I drench my cheeks,

for we are approaching, I think, <the whirl> with its many depths,

<and countless pains> will afflict our hearts against our will

But we shall again embark you on those accounts:

the tireless flame came about

bringing a blending full of woe

capable of reproduction, were born

even now the dawn beholds their remains

I went to the furthestmost place” (Empedocles, 144)


Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm. Stanford University Press, 2015.

Benjamin, Walter. Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings. Vol 2 Part 2. Belknap, 2005.

Bertaux, Pierre. Hölderlin und die Französische Revolution. Cited from Der Andere Hölderlin editied  by Beckermann, Thomas. Suhrkamp press 1972

Césaire Aimé. Discourse on Colonialism. Monthly Review Press, 2001.

Césaire, Aimé. “Letter to Maurice Thorez.” Social Text 103, 2010, abahlali.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/153945859-Aime-Césaire-Letter-to-Maurice-Thorez-1956.pdf accessed 12.12.2018

Césaire Aimé. The Tragedy of King Christophe: a Play. Northwestern University Press, 2015.

Césaire Aimé. The Complete Poetry of Aimé Césaire. Wesleyan University Press, 2017.

Empedocles. On Nature. Cited in Early Greek Philosophy. Penguin Classics, 2001.

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth: Frantz Fanon. Grove Press, 2004.

Hazan Éric. A People’s History of the French Revolution. Verso, 2017.

Hölderlin Friedrich, and David Farrell Krell. The Death of Empedocles: a Mourning-Play. SUNY Press, 2008.

Hölderlin Friedrich, and Richard Sieburth. Hymns and Fragments. Princeton University Press, 1984.

Loraux, Nicole The Divided City: on Memory and Forgetting in Ancient Athens. Zone, 2006.

Loraux, Nicole The Mourning Voice: an Essay on Greek Tragedy. Cornell Univ. Press, 2002.

Wilder, Gary. Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization, and the Future of the World. Duke University Press, 2015.

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