La vie de l’esprit entre amis, la pensée qui se forme dans l’échange de parole par écrit et de vive voix, sont nécessaires à ceux qui cherchent. Hors cela, nous sommes pour nous-mêmes sans pensée. Penser appartient à la figure sacrée qu’ensemble nous figurons.

Comité, No. 1, October 1968, p. 31. A facsimile of the entire issue is available via the archives of Georges Sebbag website: “Comité numéro 1 – Octobre 1968”

Facsimile of a quotation by Hölderlin as it appears in Comité No. 1 October 1968. The quotation reads: “La vie de l’esprit entre amis, la pensée qui se forme dans l’échange de parole par écrit et de vive voix, sont nécessaires à ceux qui cherchent. Hors cela, nous sommes pour nous-mêmes sans pensée. Penser appartient à la figure sacrée qu’ensemble nous figurons.”
Reproduction of the bottom section of page 31, in Comité No. 1, October 1968.

The objective of this bibliographic note is not to discuss the very rich context (historical, cultural, social) in which the first issue of the short live journal (or “bulletin”) Comité came to be (following the events of May 1968, in France), but rather to document this single quotation, attributed to Friedrich Hölderlin. In the issue of Comité from October 1968, it is presented as shown above, only with the name “Hölderlin.” It belongs to a group of quotations –over a dozen– appearing throughout the issue alongside the main essays (a form of paratext, perhaps, as defined by Gérard Genette).

The motivation for this note is two-fold. First, the quotation played a significant role in Dionys Mascolo’s intellectual trajectory (see here: Dionys Mascolo: An annotated Bibliography), and will turn out to be influential for others as well (for Maurice Blanchot, but also for Gilles Deleuze). Second, although this importance is recognized, the quotation itself –aside from two recent exceptions– is never properly referenced. While it is usually attributed to Hölderlin –as it was already the case in Comité No. 1, in 1968– the source itself is not mentioned, or the quotation is presented as being without explicit reference, or again, as in Gregg Lambert’s book Philosophy After Friendship. Deleuze’s Conceptual Personae, its origin is presented as a mystery:

The full quotation is as follows: “Without the spirit of friendship, [the thoughts that form in the exchange of words, by writing or in person. Without that,] we are, by our own hands, outside thought.” However, the source of this quote remains a mystery, since I cannot find it in Hölderlin’s hymns. Mascolo himself acknowledges that it comes from a translation of one of Hölderlin’s poems, most likely “As When on a Holiday,” that reportedly Blanchot had translated and then published anonymously in the journal Comité in October 1968, perhaps in commemoration of the events of May ’68. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017, p. 167, note 10)

The comment is problematic on two fronts. First, because the source of the quote was documented at least since 2011, in an essay by Leslie Hill (see below). Second, because in the aforementioned essay, Hill informs his readers that Mascolo was fully aware of the origin of the quote (again, see below). However, we indeed know –at least since 1998– that Mascolo had confirmed the quotation used in Comité had been translated by Maurice Blanchot. He had mentionned it in a letter he wrote to Gilles Deleuze on September 28, 1988:

I have called this communism of thought in the past. And I placed it under the auspices of Hölderlin, who may have only fled thought because he was unable to live it: “The life of the spirit between friends, the thoughts that form in the exchange of words, by writing or in person, are necessary to those who seek. Without that, we are by our own hands outside thought.” (I would like to add that Mr. [sic] Blanchot did this translation and it was published anonymously in Comité, in October 1968). (Letter by Dionys Mascolo to Gilles Deleuze, September 28, 1988; in Two Regimes of Madness. Texts and Interviews 1975-1995, trans. Ames Hodges and Mike Taormina, New York: Semiotext(e), 2007, p. 331)

Below is the original version published in French, in 1998, in an issue of Lignes, where this correspondence between Mascolo and Deleuze was first made public:

Il m’est arrivé d’appeler cela communisme de pensée. Et de le placer sous le signe de Hölderlin, qui n’a peut-être fui hors pensée que pour n’être pas parvenu à la vivre: «La vie de l’esprit entre amis, la pensée qui se forme dans l’échange de parole, par écrit ou de vive-voix, sont nécessaires à ceux qui cherchent. Hors cela, nous sommes par nous-mêmes hors pensée.» (cette traduction, je tiens à vous le dire, est due à M. Blanchot, et a été publiée anonymement dans Comité, en octobre 68). (Lignes, Issue No. 33, 1998, p. 225; available online)

Also worth noting is how the content of this first issue of Comité was largely determined by Dionys Mascolo and Maurice Blanchot. Furthermore, in his essay “The Joy of Uprising and the Fear of the State: On Blanchot’s Insurrectional Writings (1968-1969),” Jean-François Hamel notes:

Blanchot’s archives at the Houghton Library of Harvard University contain an important file dedicated to the preparation of the bulletin, which reveals that it was Blanchot himself who chose most of citations reproduced in Comité (Hölderlin, Baudelaire, Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, etc.). (SubStance, Vol. 50, No. 2, 2021, Issue 155, p. 58, note 7)

Supporting this argument is the document reproduced below, which can be found in Écrits politiques: 1953–1993 (ed. Éric Hoppenot, Paris: Gallimard, 2008, p. 256). It is a facsimile of the table of content for the first issue of Comité, with handwritten additions by Blanchot. The word “Hölderlin” written by Blanchot at the bottom of the page indicates the position where the quote was inserted (below the short text “Lire Marx”). This facsimile is not reproduced in Political Writings, 1953-1993 (Fordham University Press, 2010).

Image of a facsimile of the table of content of Comité No. 1 (October 1968) annotated by Maurice Blanchot
Facsimile of the table of content for the first issue of Comité, October 1968. Reproduced in Écrits politiques: 1953–1993, ed. Éric Hoppenot, Paris: Gallimard, 2008, p. 256

As it will soon appear, the translation Blanchot offers is unique and takes some liberty with the original German text. This alone could partly explain how tracking back its source was made more difficult. Blanchot knew German very well, allowing him to read texts in their original form, and to translate them (see L’Herne Blanchot, Paris: Édition de l’Herne, pp. 34 ff.). An anecdote documented by Georges Bataille further suggests that Martin Heidegger was not only aware of Blanchot’s work on Hölderlin, but impressed by it1.

This is where a special mention should be made of Leslie Hill’s 2011 essay “‘A Fine Madness’: Translation, Quotation, the Fragmentary” (in Blanchot Romantique. A Collection of Essays eds. John McKeane and Hannes Opelz, New York: Peter Land, 2011, pp. 211-231). This is one of the exception mentioned earlier2, and it offers the most extensive discussion to date of the quotation by Hölderlin translated by Blanchot, which Hill’s describes as a “remarkable instance of rewriting” (Ibid.: 222). Along with a detailed comparative breakdown of Blanchot’s translation with the original German text (see specifically p. 224), Hill also provides his reader with an excerpt from a correspondence he had with Mascolo. In a letter addressed to Hill, dated from April 18, 1994, Mascolo shows he knows very well where the quotation originated:

Il peut vous intéresser de savoir que la traduction de l’admirable poésie de Hölderlin, à l’avant-dernière page du bulletin – pensée extraite de la lettre de H. à Böhlendorff (automne 1802) – cette traduction, donc, est de Blanchot (Ibid.: 222 n13)

Thus, the mysterious quotation is actually the concluding paragraph of a well-known letter written by Hölderlin to his friend, the German writer, poet and historian Casimir Ulrich Boehlendorff (alternate spelling: Böhlendorff), in late fall of 1802, while in Nürtingen (sometimes dated from December 2, 1802, sometimes from November: see below). This is the second of two letters Hölderlin sent to Boehlendorff, the first one being dated from December 1801. In the Große Stuttgarter Ausgabe (GSA) edition of Hölderlin’s complete work (Sämtliche Werke), it is reproduced in Volume 6.1 “Briefe: Text,” under the section “Stuttgart Hauptwil Nürtingen Bordeaux 1800 – 1804,” as Item No. 240 (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer Verlag, 1954, pp. 432-433, where the letter is not dated; available online). The specific part translated and quoted by Blanchot in Comité No. 1 appears on page 433, lines 53-57:

Image of the last paragraph of Hölderlin’s second letter (in German) to Boehlendorff (also spelled Böhlendorff), as it appears in the <em>Große Stuttgarter Ausgabe</em>, Volume 6.1 (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer Verlag, 1954, p. 433)
Last paragraph of Hölderlin’s second letter to Boehlendorff, as it appears in the Große Stuttgarter Ausgabe, Volume 6.1 (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer Verlag, 1954, p. 433)

Schreibe doch nur mir bald. Ich brauche Deine reinen Töne. Die Psyche unter Freunden, das Entstehen des Gedankens im Gespräch und Brief ist Künstlern nöthig. Sonst haben wir keinen für uns selbst; sondern er gehöret dem heiligen Bilde, das wir bilden.

English translations of the letter can be found in various editions. In Essays and Letters on Theory from 1988:

If you would just write to me soon. I need your pure tone. The psyche among friends, the origination of thoughts in conversation and correspondence is necessary for artists. Otherwise we have nobody for ourselves, but he belongs to the sacred image which we produce. (trans. Thomas Pfau, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988, pp. 152-153, not dated)

In Essays and Letters from 2009 (publisher website):

Make sure you write to me soon. I need your pure tones. Psyche among friends, the formation of thoughts in conversations and letters, is vital for artists. Otherwise we have none for ourselves; but they belong to the holy image we are shaping. (trans. Jeremy Adler and Charlie Louth, New York: Penguin Books, 2009, Item No. 110, pp. 213-215, also dated from November 1802; along with a contextual commentary)

In Selected Poems and Letters from 2019:

But write soon. I need your clear tones. Psyche among friends, and growth of thought in conversation and letter is needed by artists. Otherwise we have no thought for ourselves; but it belongs to the holy image which we are shaping. (trans. Christopher Middleton, Amsterdam: The Last Books, 2019, pp. 182-184, where it is dated from November 1802; along with a short contextual commentary)

In French, the letter can aso be found in a number of editions, including Correspondance complète (trans. Denise Naville, Paris: Gallimard, 1948, pp. 311-312: PDF; this translation is referenced by Leslie Hill in the essay mentioned above), Remarques sur Oedipe. Remarques sur Antigone (trans. François Fédier, Paris: Union générale d’édition, coll. “10/18,” 1965, pp. 104-109: PDF), as well as in Fragments de poétique et autres textes (bilingual edition, trans. Jean-François Courtine, Paris: Imprimerie nationale Éditions, 2006, pp. 365-372). In Oeuvres, from 1967, the translation by Denise Naville (slightly different than her 1948 translation) also contrasts with the one proposed by Blanchot:

La Psyché entre amis, la naissance de la pensée dans la conversation et la correspondance est nécessaire aux artistes. Autrement, nous n’avons aucune pensée pour nous-mêmes ; elle appartient à l’image sacrée que nous formons. (trans. Denise Naville, Paris: Gallimard, coll. Pléiade, 1967, pp. 1009-1011: PDF).

Hölderlin’s second letter to Boehlendorff was also included in Walter Benjamin’s collection Deutsche Menschen. Eine Folge von Briefen (Lucerne: Vita Nova, 1936; digital copy hosted by Internet Archive, see specifically p. 45; this time the letter is dated from December 2, 1802). This collection, published under the pseudonyme “Detlef Holz” while Benjamin was still alive, includes 27 letters written by German writers between 1783 and 1883, along with comments by Benjamin. This collection was later included in the Walter Benjamin Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. IV, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1991 (where the letter appears on pp. 171-173; see Wikisource for details). In the Selected Writings volumes, the letter to Boehlendorff (dated from December 2, 1802), along with Benjamin’s commentary (and the critical apparatus of this edition), appears in Volume 3 (1935-1938), on pages 180-182 (trans. Edmund Jephcott, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002). Here’s how part of Benjamin’s commentary accompanying the letter reads:

Among Hölderlin’s letters from the early nineteenth century, there is hardly one which does not contain phrases fully comparable to the lasting formulations in his poems. Yet their anthology value is not their greatest merit. This lies, rather, in their unique transparency, thanks to which these plain, devoted letters give us a view of the interior of Hölderlin’s workshop. The “poet’s workshop” —seldom more than a cliche— is here restored to its true meaning: in those years there was no linguistic act, not even daily correspondence, that Hölderlin did not perform with the masterly precision of his late poetry. The tension which this gives to his occasional writings makes even some of his most unremarkable business letters, not to speak of the letters to those close to him, documents as extraordinary as the following to Böhlendorf. (Ibid.: 180)

More important yet is how Hölderlin’s 1802 letter to Boehlendorff is included in full, and extensively discussed by Martin Heidegger in a conference titled “Hölderlins Earth and Heaven” (“Hölderlings Erde und Himmel”), a commentary on a draft of the poem entitled “Griechenland,” first delivered at the meetings of the Hölderlin Society in Munich on June 6, 1959, and later included in the Gesamtausgabe (GA) Volume 4. The volume titled Erläuterungen zu Hölderlins Dichtung gathers materials written between 1936 and 1968 (ed. by Friedrich-Wilhelm von Herrmann, Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1981, see specifically pp. 157 ff.; for reference).

In the English edition Elucidations of Hölderlin’s Poetry, the letter can be found on pages 182-184. In Keith Hoeller’s translation, the quotation under discussion reads as follow:

Please write to me soon. I need your pure tones. The Psyche among friends, the genesis of thought through conversation and letters is necessary to artists. Otherwise we have none for ourselves; but it belongs to the holy image we are forming. (New York: Humanity Books, 2000, p. 184)

Regarding the letter itself, Heidegger notes “We would need many days and favorable hours to reflect on this letter in an appropriate manner.” (Ibid.). Heidegger provides the letter with a substantial note, which similarly to Benjamin’s comment, also highlights its importance. The beginning of the note reads as follow:

Many of you are informed about how this letter, and especially the one written a year earlier to the same friend immediately before his journey to southern France, are cited in connection with the discussion of what has been named Hölderlin’s “occidental turn,” and what Hölderlin himself, although with a different meaning, considers under the title “the patriotic reversal.” We must, of course, hear Hölderlin’s discourse on the “patriotic” and the “national” according to the meaning of his thought, which means that we must free it from our current narrow representations. (Ibid.: p. 206)

In the French edition titled Approches de Hölderlin, the conference “Terre et ciel de Hölderlin” is translated by François Fédier. Here is again the relevant quotation:

Écris-moi donc bien vite. Il me faut tes pures intonations. La psychè entre amis, comment la pensée vient à être dans le dialogue et la lettre, est nécessaire aux artistes. Autrement, nous n’en ayons aucune pour nous-mêmes; au contraire, elle appartient à la constellation sacrée que nous formons. (Paris: Gallimard, 1973, p. 205)

To complement this bibliographic note, listed below are known references where Mascolo explicitly mentions, or alludes to Hölderlin’s quotation (see the annotated bibliography to track reeditions):

  • 1985. In “Aux heures d’un communisme de pensée” (L’Autre journal, Issue No. 9, November)
  • 1988. In a letter to Gilles Deleuze, dated from September 28, 1988. First published in Lignes, Issue No. 33, 1998, p. 225; available online
  • 1990. In “Sur les effets d’une approches rétrospective” (preface for the reedition of the three issues of Le 14 Juillet)
  • 1993. The quotation is used as the epigraph for the collection À la recherche d’un communisme de pensée: entêtements (Paris: Fourbis, p. 17).
  • 1993. In Haine de la philosophie : Heidegger pour modèle, Paris: Jean-Michel Place, p. 154
  • 1994. In “Autour de la rue Saint-Benoît: An Interview with Dionys Mascolo,” interview by Jane Bradley Winston, Contemporary French Civilization, Vol. 18, Issue No. 2, p. 199.

• • •

1. In December 1946, in Issue No. 7 of the French journal Critique (cover; table of content), Blanchot published an essay titled “La parole «sacrée» de Hölderlin” (pp. 579-596), later included in La part du feu (Paris: Gallimard, 1949, pp. 118-136). This essay was written in reaction to the translation into French of an address by Heidegger entirely dedicated to Hölderlin’s fragmentary “As When on a Holiday…” (“Wie wenn am Feiertage” see Große Stuttgarter Ausgabe, 2.1, p. 118), first delivered in 1939, and later included in Erläuterungen zu Hölderlins Dichtung (GA 4, see above for details). For the anecdote —where Heidegger wanted to praise Blanchot but got him confused with Bataille—, see again L’Herne Blanchot, pp. 109 ff., as well as Leslie Hill’s Maurice Blanchot and Fragmentary Writing: A Change of Epoch (New York: Bloomsbury, 2012, p. 104).↩︎︎

2. The other exception is a thesis by Luis Felipe Alarcón: La leçon du silence : littérature et relation sociale chez Maurice Blanchot. Philosophie. Université Paris sciences et lettres, 2019. See specifically pages 289-290, where the quotation is properly referenced, and Blanchot’s “rather extravagant” translation is discussed (without reference to Leslie Hill’s analysis of the same quotation).↩︎︎

• • •

Black and white image of a portrait of German poet Friedrich Hölderlin
Portrait of Friedrich Hölderlin by Franz Karl Hiemer, c. 1792. Collection Marbach am Neckar, Schiller National Museum. Permalink.

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