Sabine Doering, literary scholar and President of the Hölderlin Society, has been awarded a renowned fellowship at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study (NDIAS). In this interview she talks about her research goals and explains what she finds so fascinating about the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin.
Ms. Doering, a question for you as President of the Hölderlin Society: Does Hölderlin have anything to say to today's society?
DOERING: Absolutely! Friedrich Hölderlin (1770 – 1843) is one of the most translated German poets. Many of his major poems were inaccessible for his contemporaries; his forms and themes were regarded as too modern, too audacious at the time. Not until the 20th century did people develop a growing understanding and admiration for the quality and uniqueness of his poetry. Hölderlin consistently explores the question of where the modern "ich", the self, can find orientation in a world in which the structures we have grown used to are constantly changing.
Did he find any answers?
DOERING: He looked for broad, binding answers and withstood the strain of not always having a fitting solution at hand. Hölderlin created breathtaking scenarios in the philosophy of history that combine the Ancient World with the present and establish connections between the world of the Greek gods and Christianity. This has become especially interesting now that we are experiencing, in an entirely different constellation, the conflicts that arise from the clash between different world views. Besides, more than perhaps anyone else, Hölderlin was convinced that our modern, sober-minded world urgently needs art and poetry. He formulated this with the famous question: "What use are poets in times of need?" Naturally this is still a burning issue, not only for cultural policy. And also very important is that in Hölderlin's poetry we find some of the most accomplished, artistic and beautiful poems we have in the German language.
You prevailed against 1,000 fellow applicants to win a prestigious Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study (NDIAS) fellowship at the University of Notre Dame (Indiana, USA). What does that mean to you?
DOERING: It is a great honour and acknowledgement of my research, and for now I'm simply delighted about it. At the same time it is also a major commitment and an incentive to concentrate on my work, because being selected for this fellowship entails great responsibility. I also see it as clear confirmation that German studies is truly an international field of study. I have been working for a long time with colleagues from different countries, and in particular from the US. So I'm looking forward very much to an intensive intellectual exchange with highly committed and distinguished colleagues from different disciplines at the University of Notre Dame, which is known for its strong research policy. And naturally I'm also a little proud of the fact that our Carl von Ossietzky University has a good reputation at one of the USA's leading universities.
You will be working on the topic "Concepts of the blessing in Hölderlin's poetic works" at the University of Notre Dame.
DOERING: I have been passionate about this topic for a long time. Hölderlin received an excellent education in theology, but he never wanted to be a Protestant pastor and he never served as one. Yet no matter how much he distanced himself from many Christian dogmas or how unconventional his thinking was on many subjects, his view of life was never worldly. For him, there was always a sphere beyond our empiric world that eludes human influence. He often reflected on how dangerous it can be to come too close to the divine. On the other hand, for Hölderlin the blessing was the sign of a successful bond between human beings and what lies outside or above and beyond our world. These are the ideas that I want to examine more closely and understand in a theological and literary-historical context.
How important are methodological questions for you here?
DOERING: Very important. How can one talk about the concepts and experiences of the Christian blessing in the modern world of experience? What are the possibilities for referencing acts of blessing and experiences of blessings today, also in view of the encounters and confrontations between the different systems of belief? When does the talk of blessings become a metaphor and when is it just a meaningless phrase? What role can modern poetry in particular play in conveying different experiences of blessings, and how can interpretations that are supposed to be accepted by readers from different backgrounds react to this? These are questions that have a lot to do with Hölderlin, yet at the same time lead far beyond him. And by the way, the topic "Hölderlin and religion" is very current right now. This June, we, that is to say the Hölderlin Society, are holding a big international conference on precisely this topic in Constance.
With the fellowship you will be able to spend four months doing research in the USA. What results and insights are you hoping to gain from your stay?
DOERING: The working conditions there are ideal, simply because of the generous and intensive support on all practical issues, and also the extensive university library, which is particularly well-endowed in the humanities, and above all in theology and related areas. But even more important will be the regular exchange of ideas with other Fellows and colleagues there. Regular transdisciplinary exchange among the researchers who work there is a key part of the NDIAS's concept. I am sure that this will open up new perspectives for me, and that by being together in an inspiring environment, each of us reaches results which would have been difficult to attain on our own. I find the NDIAS approach very appealing: it supports projects that are open to broad and fundamental questions, and even questions of normative relevance. That includes the question of how religious experiences can be discussed in poetry, as well as how religion and art relate to each other. This is why I already know that the stimulating atmosphere there will bring my work forwards.