Cathy Caruth, "Introduction"

Introduction [1] 

Cathy Caruth
Cornell University

1.         This volume of Romantic Circles Praxis takes its inspiration from the writings on tragedy, translation and twentieth century literary theory by the late comparatist Thomas J. McCall, who died suddenly in January 2011 after returning from a mountain trekking trip in Nepal. [2]  Tom McCall was a highly respected Romanticist and literary theorist whose important early work on Friedrich Hölderlin’s translations of Sophocles ultimately developed into a broader critical speculation concerning the theoretical stakes of Hölderlin’s translations, and his poetics, for German romantic thought and for twentieth century theory more generally. Assembled here are three of McCall’s essays from across his abbreviated career: on Hölderlin’s translation of Antigone, on Walter Benjamin’s early essay “Two Poems of Friedrich Hölderlin,” and on the notion of “allegorical” translation as it can be interpreted from Hölderlin’s writings and translations of both Oedipus and Antigone as well as their inflection in Benjamin’s work. (This last piece was a later reconsideration of Hölderlin that remained unplublished at the time of McCall’s death.)  [3]  These essays are the point of departure for three accompanying critical pieces by Romanticists and literary theorists who have been engaged with McCall’s work: my own reflections on McCall’s early writing on Hölderlin, Ian Balfour’s skillful explication of McCall’s reading of Benjamin in relation to Benjamin’s and Theodor Adorno’s thoughts on philology, and David Ferris’s moving tribute to McCall’s work on tragedy in the form of a meditation on the elegiac tradition and a reading of Shelley’s elegy for John Keats, a Romantic writer whose life was also cut short. The three pairs of essays, taken together, underscore the crucial role of Hölderlin’s notions of translation and poetics in Romantic theory and in contemporary thought, in particular as his ideas have been transmitted through the work of Walter Benjamin. These critical explorations also help us understand the importance of Tom McCall’s work in proposing a radicalized, Hölderlinian theory of tragedy and translation that lingers on in twentieth- and twenty-first century theoretical writing.


2.         What binds McCall’s three essays—on translation and tragedy, on poetry and poetics, and on an “allegorical” tradition of translation and critique—is a single thread that emerges from a dramatic scene. McCall’s critical endeavors begin with the struggle over a corpse: the conflict between Antigone and Creon over the burial of her brother, Polyneices. At the site of the exposed body, McCall suggests, in the question of Polyneices’ burial at the heart of this Greek play, Hölderlin locates a problem of translation—the passage between mortal and divine. In Hölderlin’s rendering of the play, this problem of passage or translation will ultimately bind the Greeks’ interpretation of the burial’s (and non-burial’s) significance in the play with the Germans’ attempt to find their own significations of the Greek text. What arises in the Greek play as a problem of passage (or lack of passage) from one realm to the other will thus become, in Hölderlin’s rendering of the play, the very problem of translation from Greek to German; the struggle over a (Greek) burial is translated as a problem of German destiny. In this sense the question of contact with the divine is bound up, for Hölderlin, with the problem of another kind of encounter: the encounter that may or may not take place in the translation of the Greek play into another language and another time; the very possibility—or impossibility—of contact with the Greek in the modern German text. What would it mean to take account of this struggle, of the risk of exposing this corpse, in the very act of translation?

3.         It is this problem of contact that is central to McCall’s surprising and evocative reading of the self-allegorizing dimension of Hölderlin’s Antigone translation, as I suggest in my reading of “The Case of the Missing Body,” and it also serves as a figurative and conceptual crux of interpretation that leads across McCall’s writing in this volume. Indeed, in his later essay on Benjamin’s poetics as they emerge from Hölderlin’s poetry and theory, this question of contact takes another turn. Here the difficulty of translation is reiterated, somewhat differently, in the critical problem of approaching the “untouchable Middle” of the poem, the incalculable heart of a poetic text determined through calculable law. What is a criticism, McCall asks us to consider, that both approaches this center and dares not to touch it?

4.         In his final return to Hölderlin’s translations, which are inflected by his reading of Benjamin’s Origins of German Tragedy, McCall names, or rather renames, this literary and critical undertaking that is both a mode of translation and a poetics; he calls it “wrathful translation” ("Wrathful Translation" par. 33). This enterprise takes its name and its significance from McCall’s own translation and appropriation of Hölderlin’s Zorn, the word the poet uses to describe Oedipus’s wrathful quest for what is “more than consciousness can bear or grasp” (par. 16). “Wrath,” McCall suggests, “signals the nonendingness of the process of disowning the signifier” (par. 17), a critical engagement with textuality that emerges from a specific Romantic reading of its classical past. This quest beyond any assimilable meaning—which arises, for the wrathful translator, in the act of encountering foreign texts—extends beyond the specific problem of translation. At the heart of this practice is the refusal of a translator, a critic, or a reader to grasp too eagerly for (a final) sense; that is, to secure the literary tradition by interring it in its symbolic aesthetic and moral significance. In searching, endlessly, beyond signification, the critic’s hold on sense is “loosened” and the encounter with the text repeatedly estranged. “It could even be argued that ‘criticism’ tout simple,” McCall proposes, “has to do with the critical disarticulation of the symbolic core of tragedy, especially after this complex genre, considerably simplified through such lucid mimetic models as Aristotle’s, renders itself to critical judgment” (par. 12) In the critical act, as in the act of translation, there is a struggle over the very possibility of contact with a literary text no longer conceivable in a symbolic mode.


5.         This reformulation of criticism puts McCall’s readings of Hölderlin, Ian Balfour suggests, in an alternative line of thinking that accompanies and questions the modern aesthetic tradition of literary criticism, an alternative tradition that Balfour calls “extreme philology” ("Extreme Philology" par. 2). Extreme philology emerges from the Romantic critics (including such writers as Friedrich Schlegel) and extends into the twentieth century in thinkers such as Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and Paul de Man. McCall’s essay on Benjamin’s “Two Poems of Friedrich Hölderlin” likewise insists on the importance of this early work of the German critic as an important contribution to an anti-aesthetic or anti-symbolic criticism, a tradition of “poetic calculation” (rather than “poetic inspiration”) that pays close attention to the “mechanical” operations of a poem and the resistant details of poetic language. Starting with the description of the “calculable law” (a notion taken from Hölderlin) and the “functions” of the poem that operate according to this law, Benjamin ultimately ends up, McCall explains, at an incalculable core: “To surpass the sublimity of the sublime,” he remarks, “is to become something wholly prosaic [. . .] in an inversion that Benjamin precisely specifies as an ‘untouchable sober-prosaic figure’ and that he links to a poetological term called a ‘Caesura’” ("Plastic Time" par. 11). This Hölderlinian use of the term, McCall elaborates, “is a means to thematize the real resistance of such ‘untouchability’ to critical appropriation” (par. 21). The Benjaminian notion of the caesura—the site of a significatory break or gap—is drawn from Hölderlin’s “Remarks on Oedipus,” and exemplifies another way in which tragedy passes into its translations—from Greek to German, from drama to poetry to criticism—at the very site of its own lacunae: at the places where it cannot simply be grasped or touched.

6.         The end of McCall’s essay on Benjamin could be said both to exemplify, and to allegorize, this work of extreme philology, when the argument turns to Benjamin’s citation of the final lines of Hölderlin’s “Blödligkeit” (“Timidity”) as an example of the “striking caesura,” of the “untouchable middle” of the poem. Benjamin writes:

How much [Hölderlin] signifies the untouchable middle of all relation is embodied most powerfully in the last two verses [. . .] “and (we poets) bring one of the heavenly ones. And ourselves we bring capable hands.” So the poet is no longer seen as form, but only still as principle of form, the Delimiter, the one still carrying even his own body.  [4] 
These enigmatic lines of Benjamin, for McCall, illustrate the caesura of the poem in the peculiar Hölderlinian parallel by which the poet brings both “one of the heavenly ones” and “capable hands,” a juxtaposition that estranges, and indeed literalizes, the hands of the poet, as if they were something that could be merely carried or “brought.” It is “the juxtaposition of the theophanic and the technological (capable hands, which Hölderlin elsewhere calls the mechane),” McCall suggests, “that constitutes the caesura, which here strikes the reader as the Hölderlinian-Benjaminian project to realize, always only imperfectly, the complete separateness and distantiation that the perfectly ‘sober’ unity of lyric demands” (par. 22). In McCall’s reading, we might elaborate, the point of possible contact—between the god and the poet, whose hands, writing the poem, would seem so close to the divine—is the place where any contact by means of sense becomes impossible, as the poetic figure of “hands” becomes literally unrecognizable. Yet the realization of this “sober” dimension of the poem is also “holy”—a “holy-sober” style that might be seen as an imperative for the poet, for the translator, and, somewhat differently, for the critic.


7.         What does it mean for this act of translation, of poetic composition, or of criticism to be given the name of “wrath,” an affect that, in his final essay in this issue, McCall associates with a line of critical affects including Kant’s Wohlgefallen (satisfaction) and Benjamin’s Trauer (mourning)? In translating McCall’s “Wrathful Translation” in his own title, “Mournful Translation,” David Ferris suggests that this question can only be approached through another passage: not from ancients to Romantics, or from Greek to German, but from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries, from Greek to (Hölderlinian and Benjaminian) German, or in this case, from German to English. In the modern elegy, which Ferris illustrates with Shelley’s “Adonais,” the affect of mourning effectively translates the endless wrathful quest of the tragic hero and, like Hölderlinian translation, puts into question its own mournful yearning for sense. “Wrath” and ”mourning” could perhaps be said to take part in a history of affects that are always engaged with their own translation, with the attempt to pass over that both drives and frustrates the aesthetic and poetic endeavours.

8.         Wrathful translation, as McCall defines it, is indeed a quest that refuses to settle on any signification, a self-staging and self-questioning “allegorical” process—a term McCall borrows from Benjamin’s discussion of the Baroque mourning-play and from Paul de Man’s reformulation of the distinction between allegory and symbol. To translate in wrath is not to consolidate, but rather to disperse sense, even as one seeks to translate the text at hand. “[The translation’s] senses are played out so fast, made and unmade so often” McCall writes, “that [it] serves as a metacommentary on its own acts of sense-making, and stages, beyond itself, the genesis and erasure of sense” ("Wrathful Translation" par. 32). It is this dispersal of sense that is passed on in “mournful translation,” in its modulation of the tragic legacy. [5]  Mournful translation fervently engages with, but ultimately resists, the longing to “translate” (a) death into a knowable name or subject, to confer on it sense and a delimitable place in time so that grief might be purged in a poetic act of catharsis. In its own elegiac quest, the mournful translation is thus most effective—and affective—in its refusal to conclude at this place of rest. Shelley’s “Adonais,” in Ferris’s own mournful reading, can be said to “translate” grief most powerfully through its very withholding of the mourned one’s name in its ultimately unreadable title, and in its transferring of mourning onto the name of the “sad Hour” that the poem calls up and through which it denudes time itself of the comforting conclusion to grief.


9.         In this context, it is perhaps significant that all of the essays in this issue can be said to center around, and convey, literary and critical acts of mourning: the attempt of Antigone to bury her dead brother; the unstated mourning of Benjamin in his essay “Two Poems of Friedrich Hölderlin” which, Ian Balfour suggests, is “intimately bound up with the then recent death of his friend, Friedrich Heinle” (par. 10); and Shelley’s elegiac response to the death of John Keats. These scenes have now also become, for those of us writing in this volume, the textual sites of a very present mourning, in our own attempts to pass between the living and the dead. This wrathful yearning and this frustrated mourning may be the only way, indeed, that translation ever takes place, in the passing on of an affect that refuses to be grasped. The precariousness of such a passage may also find, perhaps, its own allegory in the fate of the mourners about whom we all have written here: the early death of Antigone in the tomb to which she was consigned by Creon; the suicide of Benjamin during WWII that strangely repeats, though in very different circumstances, the suicide in WWI of Friedrich Heinle; and the early death of Shelley, just one year after “Adonais”—a poem that uncannily anticipates, in the lines of its final stanza, his accidental death at sea. The translation from dramatist to poet, from poet to critic, and from theorist to theorist, takes place through the precariousness of a grief, and a textual transmission, that, as Shelley laments in his poem, may “itself be mortal.” It is indeed this mortality, McCall has revealed to us, that incites the yearning (the wrath, the mourning) of translation, and what prevents it from ever coming to an end.

10.         In this context, too, we might also return to McCall’s careful elucidation of the quest for contact that Hölderlin passes on to us from the heart of tragic drama. The critical endeavor (in its wrath or grief) can never simply grasp or hold onto what lies before it, but may nonetheless pass on what Sam Weber has called the “touch of translation,” [6]  a phrase inspired by Benjamin’s own figure for “the relation between translation and original”:

As the tangent fleetingly touches the circle only in one point and as it is this contact, not the point, that governs its trajectory into the infinite, so the translation touches the original fleetingly and only in the infinitely minute point of its meaning, in order to pursue its own course following the law of fidelity, in the freedom of the movement of language. [7] 
It is this touch and this freedom of language, this “law of fidelity” in its faithfulness and its betrayals, to which Tom McCall’s life work was dedicated and that the essays in this issue attempt to pursue.

Works Cited

McCall, Tom. “Plastic Time and Poetic Middles: Benjamin’s Hölderlin.” Studies in Romanticism 31.4 (1992): 481-99. Print. Reprinted in this volume with the kind permission of the Trustees of Boston University.

---. “The Case of the Missing Body.” Le pauvre Holterling. Blätter zur Frankfurter Hölderlin-Ausgabe, Nr. 8. Stroemfeld/Roter Stern, Frankfurt am Main/Basel, (1988): 53-71. Print. Reprinted in this volume with the kind permission of the Press.

---. “Wrathful Translation: Hölderlin’s Sophocles.” Unpublished Manuscript. The selection included in this volume is part of a longer essay that will be included in a future volume of McCall’s essays.

Weber, Samuel. “A Touch of Translation.” In Sandra Bermann and Michael Wood, eds. Nation, Language, and the Ethics of Translation. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005, 65-78. Reprinted as “Translatability II: Afterlife,” in Samuel Weber, Benjamin’s –abilities. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008: 79-94.


[1] This issue originated in a panel at the 2012 Modern Language Association, “Tragedy, Translation and Theory: A Tribute to the Work of Thomas J. McCall.” I am grateful to Deborah White for her assistance in moving the panel from presentation to publication at RCP. I also want to express profound thanks to Professor Kevin McNamara, Tom McCall’s colleague and good friend, who took salvaged Tom’s papers after his death and provided both materials and endless assistance in gather together Tom’s work. I would also like to note the support of Tom’s sister Terry McCall, who also provided invaluable support and materials before and after the panel. Additional materials were provided by Cynthia Chase, Andrzej Warminski, David Ferris, and Ian Balfour. Luke Donahue gave excellent editorial advice for the entire issue. Tom’s writing on tragedy, translation and violence is being edited by me and Kevin McNamara under Tom’s chosen title Vortexts: Essays on Tragedy, Translation and Violence, as well as a manuscript he had completed before he died entitled Romantic Origins of Theory. BACK

[2] Tom McCall was born in 1952 and died on January 25, 2011. He received his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at Yale University and was teaching at the University of Houston-Clear Lake at the time of his death. BACK

[3] Ackowledgments for permissions to reprint Tom’s two essays in this issue appear with the individual articles. BACK

[4] Walter Benjamin, “Two Poems of Friedrich Hölderlin,” Hölderlin,” cited and translated by McCall in “Plastic Time and Poetic Middles: Benjamin’s Hölderlin.” BACK

[5] Ferris argues that the elegiac mode both precedes and succeds tragedy in a complicate their intertwined relation and cultural significance. BACK

[6] Sam Weber, “A Touch of Translation.” BACK

[7] Walter Benjamin, “Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers” (“The Task of the Translator”), cited and translated by Sam Weber in “A Touch of Translation.” BACK