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Psychoanalysis and the Mad Artist: Hölderlin’s Empty Center

Posted By Daniel Tutt On January 2, 2012 @ 8:55 am In Poetry and Poetics | 2 Comments

Psychoanalysis is a good system for those of us that like structure. Even the unconscious, that vast cauldron of libidinal dreams and desires, is structured like a language as Lacan reminds us. After all, there are but three psychical structures in psychoanalysis: the pervert, the psychotic, and the neurotic. I must admit that I find the psychotic the most interesting when considering the artist. It was after all James Joyce, the psychotic artist par excellence that gave Lacan the material to discover that, “the unconscious is the real”, an insight that foregrounded the symptom as both the source of knowledge and ultimately as that which defies interpretation, as it is always caught within the real.[1]

But I don’t wish to look at Joyce. I’m interested in first looking more generally at the idea of the psychotic artist. If we take these structures seriously, we should pause to situate them as a part of all psychical reality. It is only by varying quantity that we experience their structures. Freud makes this claim as early as his work on Dora, the hysteric whom he and Breuer diagnosed in the late nineteenth century.

As Foucault developed towards the end of his great work, Madness and Civilization, following the enlightenment, madness represents a privileged source of truth. To break with the regime of rationality became the source of creative activity, and truth always involves accessing the inverted side of the rational social order. But we ought to be careful not to fetishize the “artist as madman”, wandering adrift yet in touch with the invisible forces of nature, in touch with some form of truth that is inaccessible. After all, truth has “the structure of fiction” for Lacan, and as such, any interpretation must ultimately be a construction out of the repressed core of the subject’s symptom, which is the source of all knowledge. Of course the mad artist has had their day (Artaud, Andre Gide, Jack Kerouac, Nietzsche).

At the outset, it’s important to distinguish the neurotic artist from the psychotic artist. At some point, I want to generate a list of psychotic and neurotic artists. Of course to statically situate an artist as either psychotic or neurotic is misleading: many exhibit both structures, but I’d assume that it’s fair to suggest that individual poets experience these two structures, not poetic or artistic movements. I want to suggest that the distinction is helpful as it enables us to operationalize some deeper structural tendencies for all artistic production and aesthetic truth, and subjectivity.

The Psychotic and the Neurotic: What’s the Difference?

The neurotic seeks a harmony that does not exclude dissonance, while the neurotic is able to approach dissonance through analytic procedures and discern the disorder in nature, metaphysics, etc. One always writes for the other under neurotic complexes, but under psychoses, one writes for oneself.

The goal of the psychotic artist is to develop an absence of the morbid state, while the neurotic artist approaches their problems psychoanalytically, constantly trying to figure their problems out through others, by creating characters, for example that represent elaborate problems and the solving of those problems in their art. For the psychotic, the subject is usually a closing, not an opening, as we find in the neurotic. The psychotic artist reproduces an inner universe, which is why the surrealists referred to psychotic art as realist. Yet as Lacan comments, the psychotic is unable to produce poetry. We find with one of the most famous and well-studied cases of psychoses, that of the early twentieth century German Judge Daniel Paul Schreber. Schreber’s Memoirs of My Mental Illness was the basis of Freud’s formulation of psychosis as a repressed homosexual desire, and for Lacan, psychosis became a result of strained Oedipal relations.

Hölderlin and Psychosis: Filing the Empty Center

Friederich Hölderlin’s psychosis should be read universally. As the psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche comments in his authoritative text on Hölderlin, Hölderlin and the Question of the Father: “the question whether he is schizophrenic because he is a poet or a poet because he is schizophrenic loses its meaning, if it ever had one”.[2]

Hölderlin emerges as a young poet and novelist in Germany during a period (1790 – 1796) of ripe intellectual and poetic collaboration, entering as he did on the heels of the Sturm und Drang movement. This late Romantic Movement consisted of poets and philosophers in Germany who placed intense emotions and a focus on inner states at the center of their art.

Key to understanding their rejection of the enlightenment’s rationalism was the concept of Bildung, or the desire for an education rooted in experience, beauty, and artistic maturity. Bildung is the tendency to give form, to ripen oneself. Like all German idealists, bildung is a central goal of the artist, and as Hölderlin comments in his novel the Hyperion, it also presents a dialectic that is traceable in individuals and civilizations. Hölderlin’s obsession with this idea of conflating the inner self with society, revealed the way that his schizophrenia would prevent him from completing this dialectic, it would prevent him from completing the fully formed subject of romantic education and maturity.

By looking closely at Hölderlin’s Oedipal object relations, we see that he suffered from a strained libido because of intense pressure he developed through two figures in his young artistic life: Friederich Schiller and Johann Gottlieb Fichte. In Oedipal terms, Fichte came to represent the law with his mastery over a perfect metaphysical system, which was the pinnacle of philosophical achievement for the German idealists in pre-French revolution Europe. Hölderlin attended his lectures with great admiration at the precision of his totalizing system of thought. Schiller represents the father for Hölderlin, with his unmatched greatness, poetic achievements, and his ability to go beyond what Fichte was able to achieve in what Hölderlin perceived as an overly rational system of thought.

But Hölderlin placed the law not in Fichte, but in Schiller. Eventually the law (symbolized by Fichte’s metaphysical system) broke down, and Hölderlin fell into what psychobiographer’s refer to as his “Jena depression”. This anxiety of influence built up so intense that he was forced to flee Jena and live with his mother. Jena is a university where he and these figures lived in central Germany. Even though the Jena period gave him access to minds and spirits such as Hegel, Goethe, Schiller, and Fichte, his life was filled with utter despair. This hole in his psychical composition is what Laplanche has referred to as Hölderlin’s “center” – the place of the dead father.

Fleeing Jena and his depression, Hölderlin would fill this empty center in his psychical life in his penetrating novel, Hyperion. This lack of a center is filled over at times in a completely imaginary relation, which is precisely what ends up leading to his schizophrenic outbursts. At other times, Hölderlin was reliant on a dual system between the law and the father (Fichte and Schiller), what we might refer to as good and bad object relations, using Melanie Klein’s concepts. The lack in his center (distance from Schiller) that Hölderlin continually sought to fill over, became the basis of his concept of proximity.

It is this proximity that Hölderlin would develop towards the center that led his artistic creation following his post Jena period, and it enabled Hölderlin to persist without Schiller’s proximity. As he writes his most famous novel, the Hyperion, his schizophrenia developed rapidly. The psychoanalyst Paul Matussek, the space of the empty center involves the absence of any space between the object of anxiety (in this case Schiller) and the imaginary object. Once Hölderlin escapes the proximity to Schiller, his paternal object collapses and he no longer requires the same degree of proximity. Without Schiller, Hölderlin would have to sublimate the absence of the lack.

We can generalize this specific tendency to fill over the lack of the psychical center to the idea, which we find in Harold Bloom, of the anxiety of influence. Once the psychotic artist is able to develop a certain proximity to the absent center, I would argue that a pride of influence replaces the anxiety of influence. The pride of influence refers to the way in which you can enlarge yourself by admitting others into your own conversation in imaginary ways, even though you have distanced yourself from your source of influence, i.e. even though you have distanced yourself from your anxiety.

Hölderlin, lacking an object to fill his center after fleeing Jena and developing distance from Schiller, sought to fill the center with his mother, which eventually grew to replace the position of the father. In his published correspondence with his mother, it’s clear that Hölderlin sought to fill the empty place with the love from his mother, a love that would expand to represent nature, totality, and salvation in the Hyperion. The obsession to fill the center, yet being at peace with the reality that the center can never be filled opens up Hölderlin’s conception of infinity and the unlimited. This desire to fill the center into a totality was of course embodied by Diotima, who becomes the figure in the Hyperion that Hölderlin would use to cover over the lack of the center.

What we find occurring in the proximity to the center is also highly significant for Hölderlin’s work on the Gods. The Gods as they have come to be understood by humanity are, according to Hölderlin, “another humanity by which humanity devotes itself”, and as such, Gods are invented in order to escape from what is too difficult for man to think – its own contingency in the universe. This inability to think contingency is, one might suggest, the inability for humanity writ large to think the center.

Yet, it was also the twilight and darkness that nature (the mother) aroused in Hölderlin, a darkness that he refused to walk away from in his writing. This passage from the “Thalia Fragment” is telling of the proximity that Hölderlin suffered from in his writing:

Then, one day recently, I saw a boy lying by the roadside. His mother, who was watching, had carefully spread a covering over him, so that he should sleep in soft shadow and not be dazzled by the sun, But the boy did not want to stay there and tore off the covering, and I saw how he tried to look at the friendly light and tried again and again, until his eyes smarted and, weeping, he turned his face to the earth. Poor boy, I thought, others fare no better; I myself almost resolved to desist from this audacious curiosity. But I cannot, I must not! It must out, the great secret that will give me life or death.

This passage shows the conflict of the empty center and the merging of the symbol of the mother enveloping it with that of nature, and the casting of the night all the while refusing to succumb to the tragedy of what it portends.


[1] Thurston, Luke. Re-inventing the Symptom. In the Wake of Interpretation: “The Letter! The Litter!”  Other Press, New York, 2002.

[2] Laplanche, Jean. Hölderlin and the Question of the Father. ELs Editions Publishing, 2007 Pg. 118.

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