"A Nothing, if it could be thought:" Shadows of Diotima in Susette Gontard's Letters to Friedrich Holderlin

By Augst, Therese Ahern | German Quarterly, April 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

"A Nothing, if it could be thought:" Shadows of Diotima in Susette Gontard's Letters to Friedrich Holderlin


Augst, Therese Ahern, German Quarterly


Du batest mich auch, Dir einige meiner Gedanken und Ideen zu Worten zu bilden. lieber! alle meine Außerungen gehoren nur Dir. Mein Geist, meine Seele spiegeln sich in Dir, Du gibst, was sich geben laßt, in so schoner Form, als ich es nie konnte, und der Genuß, daß ich den Beifall fuhle den man Dir geben muß, ist mir mehr als die Befriedigung meiner ganzen Selbstliebe

(Letter 5, Beck 49).1

O sage! Wo finden wir uns wieder? (9:64)

The autobiography that is writing, as Eva Meyer asserts, is perhaps nowhere more indelibly inscribed than in love letters - in the attempt to let writing convey the essence of the self across distances, to send the self as script (Meyer 69). But to what extent can that same writing also bear the trace of another? More precisely, how does it bear another's absence, particularly if that absence is unbearable?

The unbearable absence of the beloved, along with the desire to give love a personal signature by becoming its one and only author, both take concrete shape in the complex movement of exchange that correspondence constructs. Love is "territorialisiert," taking place "in einer Weise, wie es sie außerhalb der Briefe gar nicht gibt" (Meyer 66): it is authored by a singular subject who must write to an absent other, and yet it only expresses itself where its author is not. Thus the letter's sentiment must constantly be given not in the ecstasy of pure connection but in separation. The subject who writes love letters speaks to an absence, not knowing whether his words will ever reach the proper hands, but heeding a compulsion to give voice to a passion that longs for response; meanwhile, as Rilke's Malte knew, the reader of letters traffics with another who is now no longer the writing subject, or with a writing subject who is no more.

Ich will auch keinen Brief mehr schreiben. Wozu soll ich jemandem sagen, daß ich mich verandere? Wenn ich mich verandere, bleibe ich doch nicht der, der ich war, und bin ich etwas anderes als bisher, so ist klar, daß ich keine Bekannten habe. Und an fremde Leute, an Leute, die ich nicht kenne, kann ich unmoglich schreiben (Rilke 10-11).

Despite an author's best intentions, letters may not always arrive; and even when they do, they always retain something of their non-arrival (Meyer 69). Writer and reader cannot entirely recognize one another, for the other that was once known has already receded into the distance.

The exchange of letters thus always lags behind the other's disappearance, so that the writer of love letters may eventually begin to address not the beloved but rather his absence. Such is the situation in which Susette Gontard, the wife of a Frankfurt banker and mother of four children, writes to the poet Friedrich Holderlin at the end of the eighteenth century. Once her son's tutor and briefly her lover, he is now the absent one whose image, as she acutely realizes, is rapidly disappearing from her mind's eye. While in his prodigious literary hands, she is being immortalized, idealized, ossified in the feminine subjects who inhabit his poems and his novelHyperion, in their epistolary dialogue she can do little more than lament the gradual starvation of their love as absence takes hold.

So much has been written about this particular exchange of love letters that the ill-fated affair memorialized in Gontard's pages has long been the stuff of legend and hyperbole; indeed, her words themselves have continually been overshadowed by the sensational events they describe. In this sense, the letters are a product of their age - an age in which famous and not-yet-famous authors corresponded voraciously with women who knew and read them, an age for which the letter has traditionally retained the status of a privileged window into the lives and psychological states of its writer and reader (Hahn 13). For most critics, Gontard's words retrospectively construct a secret love in which Holderlin's poetry is also deeply immersed. …

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