Poetry And Lived Experience

Dilthey wrote innumerable literary studies which have now been collected in such volumes as Die große Phantasiedichtung (The Great Poetry of the Imagination), Von deutscher Dichtung und Musik (Of German Poetry and Music), and volumes 15 and 16 of the Gesammelte Schriften. The only volume of literary essays that was published by Dilthey's students during his own lifetime was Das Erlebnis und die Dichtung (Poetry and Lived Experience). It appeared in 1906 and contains Dilthey's four best-known literary essays: "Gotthold Ephraim Lessing," "Goethe and the Poetic Imagination," "Novalis," and "Friedrich Hölderlin." The volume was instantly acclaimed and established a model for the geistesgeschichtliche approach to literary history that was subsequently developed by Hermann Nohl, Rudolf linger, Emil Ermatinger, and Julius Petersen. Undoubtedly it also influenced such works as Ernst Cassirer's Idee und Gestalt (Idea and Gestalt) and Georg Lukdcs' Soul and Form.

We have selected the two essays in Das Erlebnis und die Dichtung which have the most direct bearing on poetic theory: those on Goethe and on Hölderlin. Goethe provides Dilthey with the ideal illustration of his Poetics, and Hölderlin forces Dilthey to move beyond his own initial standpoint.

The Goethe essay is a central work for several reasons. Not only does one of its sections provide the title for the whole volume in which it appeared, but also its history is intimately tied to Dilthey's Poetics. Just as the original 1877 form of the Goethe essay contains the seeds of Dilthey's Poetics, so the final 1910 form translated here stands as a last, somewhat more expression-oriented formulation of the same theory. The special affinity between the Poetics and the Goethe essay lies in the fact that both have as their core a theory of the poetic imagination. It was Goethe's extraordinarily powerful visual imagination and his reflections on the quasi-organic vitality of intuition that led Dilthey to the physiological studies on which he hoped to ground his own aesthetics. The concept of metamorphosis, developed in Goethe's studies in botany and zoology, had been refined by the German physiologist Johannes Miiller, and two of the laws of the metamorphosis of poetic imagination clearly bear the mark of this influence.

Throughout his life Dilthey manifested a keen interest in Goethe and a particular sympathy with his vision. The diary of the nineteen-year-old student of theology in Heidelberg starts off with a kind of typology of world-views where the pantheism of Goethe and Spinoza plays an important role. Some years later he included in his book on Schleiermacher a central chapter on German literature as the formation of a new world-view. There Goethe is given the prominent role of initiating a new method of "Anschauung" (intuition). This idea was also expressed in Dilthey's public lecture of 1867 in Basel where he claims that "Goethe's searching eye still directs what we are doing today"11—an allusion to his own endeavor to sum up the achievements of what he called "the literary and philosophical movement in Germany between 177.0 and 1800."

There is, however, another line of thought which connects Dilthey's ideas on poetics to Goethe. When Dilthey holds up the "totality of human nature" against any kind of "truncated" account put forward by one-sided intellectualism, it is Goethe above all whom he is championing. In fact, a good number of concepts through which Dilthey tried to express the fullness and vitality of concrete human experience are derived from Goethe, who coined most of Dilthey's terms, beginning with Lebeti: i.e., Lebenserfab-rung (life-experience), Lebensbezug (life-relation), Lebensgefiihl (feeling of life), and so forth. The life-root in all these terms points to the "togetherness" of man and his world in lived experience. Although the key term in this line of Dilthey's thought, namely Erlebnis (lived experience), is not of Goethean origin, it epitomizes Goethe's holistic approach. The word itself is a comparatively late derivation of the verb erleben (similar to erfabren = experience) and comes into use around the middle of the nineteenth century. Dilthey makes use of it occasionally after the early 1870s, but adopts it as a technical term only in the last decade of his life when he speaks of the triad Erlebnis, Ausdruck, Versteben (lived experience, expression, understanding). In his early epistemological inquiries,

in his reflections on the method of the historiographer, and above all in the first sketches of an aesthetic theory, the words Erlebnis and Nacherleben, are not strictly defined, but they suggest various ideas: the idea that an experience can be a kind of unity with its own immanent teleology; the idea that such a unity can be communicated in such a way that we are able to re-experience and relive to a certain degree what has been experienced and expressed by other people even generations ago; and, finally, the idea that the conception of a work of art is rooted in a particularly intense kind of contact with reality where a unification of outer and inner experience takes place.

Despite his subsequent efforts to introduce stricter definitions for some of his basic concepts, Dilthey never overcame a certain vagueness and even an ambiguity in his use of the concept "lived experience." This is in part due to his efforts to use terms which are still rooted in everyday experience and language. Because the Goethe essay contains passages from various stages in Dilthey's development, it discloses several inconsistencies in terminology which have already been shown to exist in the Poetics.'* They especially concern the question whether lived experience is an inner process involving feeling, emotion, and mood, or whether it is to be understood as that unity of inner and outer in which a mutual reinforcement of the inner life of feeling and the outer reality of the world takes place. In fact, both interpretations are correct, depending on the meaning of "inner" and "outer" that one applies. In the Poetics, Dilthey compares the process of experiencing to that of breathing: "Just as our body needs to breathe, our soul requires the fulfillment and expansion of its existence in the reverberations of emotional life. Our feeling of life desires to resound in tone, word, and image. Perception satisfies us fully only insofar as it is filled with such content of life and with reverberations of feeling. This to and fro of life at its fullest, of perception enlivened and saturated by feeling, and of the feeling of life shining forth in the clarity of an image: that is the essential characteristic of the content of all poetry" (see p. 59). This comparison with the breathing process is more than a vague analogy: the "totality of lived experience" (p. 106) is not a static relationship of inner and outer, but a dynamic process moving to and fro between acts of enlivening

" See Frithjof Rodi, "Grundzüge der Poetik Wilhelm Diltheys," in Beiträge zur Theorie der Künste im 19. Jahrhundert, ed. by H. Koopmann and J. A. Schmoll, gen. Eisenwerth (Frankfurt a.M.: V. Klostermann, 1971), p. 81 f.; and Makkreel, Dilthey, pp. >47ff.

outer experience and visualizing inner feeling. It is here that Dilthey distinguishes between (i) poets who usually start with a vivid experience of situations, actions, and characters which they then enliven with their own feelings, and (2) poets whose major achievement lies in finding perceptual analogues that help to give shape to their inner life. Although Dilthey gives a vivid description of the typical differences between writers such as Shakespeare and Dickens on the one hand and Rousseau and Goethe on the other (a typifi-cation that is one of the earliest ideas of his poetics), he again and again emphasizes that every great work of art must be rooted in the totality of lived experience and must contain, as it were, both the inward and outward movements of the breathing process.

In this natural context the words "inner" and "outer" refer to two realms of reality and, accordingly, to two ways of experiencing which give rise to the creative process. But a second sense is added as soon as we speak of lived experience as expressed in a work of art. The expression as the objective structure of the poet's lived experience cannot be referred to as "outer" in the same way that we speak of the poet giving shape to his inner emotional life through visual images. We must distinguish more sharply than Dilthey between the two aspects which one might call the integration of lived experience (unity of inner and outer experience) and the meaning relationship between lived experience and expression. The claim that the meaning of the poet's lived experience (as something inner) can only be ascertained through its expression in the literary work (as something outer) is central to Dilthey's later hermeneutical theory. But this expression can be related back to the various ways in which the poet brings together his inner and outer experience. This integrative aspect is dealt with above all in those passages of the Poetics and the Goethe essay where the short sketches of Shakespeare and Rousseau serve to illustrate the contrast between objective and subjective poets.

By distinguishing between these two senses of inner and outer it is possible to avoid misunderstandings which might occur if the reader does not take into account the different phases of Dilthey's development in which the essays in this volume were written. In the Poetics, for example, Dilthey speaks of "the constant translation of lived experience into form and form into lived experience" (see p. 45). A contextual analysis can easily show that here Dilthey refers to the two acts of "breathing" within the totality of lived experience and not to the meaning relationship between lived experience, expression, and understanding. But when we read in the

Goethe essay about the structural nexus between lived experience and its expression, where it is said that the poet can express his personal experience fully and totally without any reflection intervening between lived experience and expression, Dilthey is considering poetry from a hermeneutical perspective. It should also be noted that Dilthey's final aesthetic reflections are not so much oriented toward the paradigm of the metamorphosis of images as to that of musical expression and its relation to the lyrical.

This important shift can be seen in the essay on Goethe, but even more so in the one on Hölderlin. Both essays focus on the nature of lyric poetry and explore how the poet makes visible—or rather, audible—the inner flux of his moods and feelings through the melody of his verses. Here the two senses of inner and outer overlap. Dilthey speaks of the inner or "personal" experience which is to be given shape through the poem, and he concentrates on the power of objectifications and their "inner form" to disclose the typical structures of lived experience. The essay on Hölderlin gives especially good examples of Dilthey's analysis of this structural relationship between lived experience and the form of the poem. His literary criticism is by no means limited to a "philosophical" approach in the narrow sense of the word: he is not interested merely in "ideas" but in the particular way the poet gives expression to his lived experience. In the case of Hölderlin, what is expressed is predominantly the poet's inner experience. Hölderlin belongs to the family of subjective poets, in contrast with objective poets such as Shakespeare and Dickens. He is described by Dilthey as a "musical genius," but Dilthey emphasizes that by "musicality" he does not mean simply the "treatment of language or of verse, but also the particular form of the inner processes and their structure" (see p. 374). In Hölderlin and his Romantic contemporaries (above all Novalis and Tieck) Dilthey sees the beginning of a new lyric poetry, "which expresses the exuberance of feeling, the nonobjective power of mood which arises from the inner recesses of the mind itself, the infinite melody of a psychic movement which seems to emanate from indiscernible distances only to disappear in them again" (see P- 376).

The passage just quoted is from a section of the Hölderlin essay entitled "The Poems," which contains the outlines of a theory of lyric poetry. It is an important supplement to the Poetics where Dilthey was obviously more interested in problems of drama and the novel than in those of lyric poetry. In one of the concluding passages of the Poetics, Dilthey claimed that the "theory of the novel is the most immediate, and by far the most pressing and important task of contemporary poetics" (see p. 172.). The essay on Hölderlin, written some twenty years later, reveals a subtle understanding of the possibilities of modern lyrical language. Dilthey draws a line from Hölderlin to the "rhythmical style of Nietzsche" and to the poetry of Verlaine, Baudelaire, and Swinburne—poets of his own generation whom he had not yet recognized in his earlier aesthetic writings. His analysis of Hölderlin's poems therefore aims not so much at emphasizing Hölderlin's singularity, but rather at disclosing the possibilities of modern poetry in general.

His main points are the following: the lyric poem is rooted in a "psychic process that has been lived through" (see p. 372) and objectifies its "teleological" structures, the rising and falling of moods, the contrast of tension and resolution, the rhythm of unrest and tranquility. But the objectification is not normally an immediate verbal expression of inner movement (in this regard Goethe is an exception). The "musical" poet, like the composer, gradually articulates the rhythm of moods and feelings by artistic means which are not directly rooted in our inner life in the way that gestures and exclamations stem from our emotions. Just as the composer makes use of technical means such as repetition, variation, change of key—means which have been developed through centuries—the poet has at his disposal similarly refined linguistic devices such as the sophisticated economy in the use of particular words, the deliberate use of stressed and unstressed syllables in accordance with their semantic value, the application of historically developed meters, and so forth.

Apart from these direct contributions to poetics, the essays on Goethe and Hölderlin contain a number of biographical observations which can be considered as illustrations of Dilthey's theory of world-views. This again is not philosophy in the narrower sense of concentrating on the philosophical content of a literary work and classifying it as a particular type of thought. Literary criticism as it is displayed in Dilthey's essays examines the poet's attitude toward life, the ways in which a poet relates to the present moment, either submitting wholly to it and giving full expression to his immediate feelings (Goethe), or living in the shadow of "the great past of the Greeks" and longing for a better and purer life in the future (Hölderlin). These attitudes are of interest philosophically as far as they can be interpreted as different modes of articulating the meaning of life. Hölderlin, who is said to have lived always "in the totality of his inner life" (see p. 370), tends toward a poetry which expresses "the rhythm of life itself." This "rhythm" happens to be very similar to the law of historical growth and unfolding that Hegel used as the basic formula of his philosophy. But in Hölderlin, according to Dilthey, it is not expressed by an abstract idea or applied to history in order to give unity to the multiplicity of cultural phenomena: it is the very structure of his poetry. Hölderlin "saw how an initial state of feeling unfolds in its parts and ultimately returns to itself, and no longer with its initial indeter-minateness. By recollecting the process of its unfolding, the feeling can be integrated into a harmony in which the individual parts resonate" (see p. 373). This process of unfolding and recollecting is like the musical progression from the explication of lived experience to its final implication that we mentioned in our discussion of the "Fragments for a Poetics." But the implication of experience should not be treated as a definite result. Neither in music, nor in poetry, nor in life itself do we reach a conclusion from which a definite meaning can be abstracted. Here Dilthey is in full agreement with Nietzsche who mocked those who considered the final chord in music as the telos of musical development. The meaning is implied and modified at every single stage, but there are moments where the implications produce an expression by which the fullness of lived experience can be communicated to others.

The implications of lived experience should not be seen as final solutions, but must be interpreted in light of what was said earlier about the presence of the past in the present. From this perspective the alternative between Goethe's submitting wholly to the present and Hölderlin's inability to cope with the present is not exhaustive. It is possible to be interested in the past without extinguishing our feeling for the present. Hölderlin's intense awareness of the past could have enriched, rather than detracted from, his present. However, his despair at the failure of the French Revolution led him to conclude that the ideals of humanity as first expressed by the Greeks had died with them. Thus Hölderlin's ideals are not alive in history, but are buried in nature.

Although the momentary present for Hölderlin is normally overshadowed by the past, there are also special moments as described in Hyperion which are enjoyed. They are enjoyed not as the fulfilling presence of the past, but as a kind of presence of the divine in nature. Thus Hölderlin speaks of a moment of love in which Dio-tima appears to Hyperion as a disclosure of the infinite in the midst of finitude, the divine in time. He then compares it to "the light of the southern noontime sun" poured out in "moments in which life itself seems to stand still" (see p. 341). This account of presence clearly prefigures similar passages in Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zar-athustra.

But Hyperion's joy in the present already contains within it the consciousness of mortality. "In the moment of greatest happiness when Hyperion first touches the lips of Diotima, he already knows this happiness will end" (see p. 344). Love can only be realized through a harmony with nature and, ultimately, the willingness to die.

Although Dilthey was often critical of Nietzsche's philosophy and its contemptuous attitude toward history, it seems fair to claim not only that Hölderlin influenced Nietzsche, as Dilthey points out, but that works such as the Birth of Tragedy and Zarathustra served in turn to heighten Dilthey's sensitivity to Hölderlin's poetic achievements. Dilthey refers to the theme of duality in Hölderlin that marks all individual existence, the tragic feeling of mortality that must permeate even a life-affirming pantheism. Is Nietzsche's Apollonian-Dionysian polarity being anticipated here? Certainly the other main figure of Hölderlin's literary imagination, Empedocles, fits the mold of a tragic Dionysian hero. He is, as Dilthey says, ready to sacrifice his life to revive his lost happiness. Empedocles' superhuman heart "feels nature's vitality so intensely that it no longer fears a return to her" (see p. 364).

Dilthey points to another affinity between Hölderlin and Nietzsche: they both felt "the great antithesis between a higher, future humanity ... and the vulgarity surrounding them and the hundred ways in which it has deformed the human psyche" (see p. 350). On the one hand, this seems to be an admission that the Goethean ideal of full integration, which is so attractive to Dilthey, may no longer be possible for man in the twentieth century. On the other hand, Dilthey preserves the hope that a poetic style can be found that moves beyond the antitheses dwelt upon by Hölderlin and Nietzsche. "Their dithyrambs are poems in prose, and through their irony they play a sovereign artistic game with their enemies" (see p. 350). Irony may be an artistic device, but it is a destructive weapon, and therefore cannot be productive or poetic in the true sense. Although Dilthey's account of the Hölderlin-Nietzsche aesthetic is surprisingly sympathetic, Dilthey finally concludes that figures such as Hyperion and Zarathustra are ahistorical shadows. A genuine poet or novelist must be able to give his figures a lasting visibility grounded in historical facticity. In this respect, Dilthey remained true to one of the central claims of his Poetics.

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  • Iago
    What does it mean as poetry as a lived experience?
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