Book Review: “The Notes” by Ludwig Hohl – “Everything that ever was created was a fragment. “


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By Alexandra Sattler

Ludwig Hohl belongs to the line of lucidly controversial thinkers like Karl Kraus, Pascal and Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, commentators whose writing oscillates between the traditions of literature and philosophy.

Notes or on non-premature reconciliation by Ludwig Hohl. Translated from the German by Tess Lewis. Yale University Press, 392 pages, $ 37.50.

The notes is the magnum opus of Swiss writer Ludwig Hohl (1904-1980), and we must celebrate it: it is wonderful that this volume of his compact and aphoristic observations has finally arrived in English. Tess Lewis’ triumphant translation is also to be applauded, given the demands imposed by Hohl’s complex prose compression. He is unknown here, but Hohl has assembled a diverse group of international admirers, including Max Frisch, Peter Handke, Elias Canetti, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Bertolt Brecht, George Steiner and the philosopher Hans Saner. As Lewis notes in his acute introduction, “Hohl remained a writer-writer, if not a writer-writer-writer.” A sincere compliment which, for some suspicious readers, indicates an author of a forbidding difficulty. In fact, Hohl belongs to the line of lucidly controversial thinkers like Karl Kraus, Pascal and Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, commentators whose writing oscillates between the traditions of literature and philosophy. Among his literary influences: Gide, Proust, Goethe, Katherine Mansfield, Balzac, and Valéry.

Unlike a number of those other writers on these lists, Hohl made an effort to talk about current events in his prose. His discipline is impressive. He wrote The notes while he lived from 1934 to 1936 in the Netherlands in voluntary exile. He never mentions National Socialism. Although Hohl does not address politics directly, he condemns fascism and, due to his own poverty, has a shrewd awareness of social inequality.

The notes is a book about the purpose of life in the face of death. Given the inevitability of the finality, what to do? “Human life is short.

It is a fatal error to believe – or, more exactly, to preserve the childish belief – that life is long…. In order for our actions to be worthwhile, we must take them with full awareness of the brevity of life.

From this keen sense of mortality stems Hohl’s conviction that doing something, working, is the only thing that gives meaning to life. By work, he does not mean the daily 9 to 5 routine, but an exploration and application of his own creative abilities to the fullest. It could mean artistic creation or any other non-alienating, life affirming activity whose purpose is to strengthen self. If there are challenges – practical or financial – then the most important task is to reduce those barriers. With this goal in mind, The notes can be read as a sort of instruction manual on how best to develop one’s creative powers. Hohl exalts the powers that the mind needs to pursue this quest, such as imagination, choice, self-confidence, courage, and patience. (In his allegiance to self-improvement, he was greatly influenced by Gide.)

The notes are part of what is called Hohl’s note work (Notizenwerk), written which includes the middle part of a previous book titled Shades and Details and a later work, Invasive margins: the posterior notes. (None have been translated yet.) The notes, Hohl published a few short prose plays, a journal and a memoir. Overall, his writing took the form of the note, which varies in length from a short sentence to more than a few pages. He avoids irony and pretension – Hohl inevitably draws inspiration from lived experience. The strength of his prose is generated by the epiphanies crystallized in his compact and skillfully formed statements. The notes are meticulously ordered; there is a well-known photo of him arranging them on a clothesline, until he is satisfied. This obsession with order is manifested in the detailed index drawn up by Hohl; it was a way for him to rework and re-explain continuously throughout his life his thoughts on work. Lewis describes this nested intellectual structure beautifully: “Reading the resulting work is like stepping into the skeletal structure of a literary and philosophical geodesic dome: the notes are closely interwoven in patterns that repeat themselves with variations and form an elegant whole punctuated by light and openness. They are, in a sense, the inventory of one man’s soul.

Hohl insisted on the book’s unity, its systematic character, even if this unity is not immediately obvious. We can perhaps better see this harmony as the reflection of the author’s main idea: driven by his awareness of the brevity of life, man cultivates his creative powers to the point of reaching a stage of serenity. , or what Hohl called “not premature reconciliation.” “

it will help to read The notes with an understanding of the meaning of non-premature reconciliation, one of Hohl’s favorite ideas. The subtitle of the book may not be fully understood by viewing The notes alone. Only in the Subsequent Notes the author gives his most accessible definition of the term. He wrote there: “When a person achieves reconciliation in a non-premature way: it means with open eyes, in full knowledge of our conditions and the cruel facts of reality – for example the enormous law of waste – then a no one sees the Real. Two aspects of this statement are important. First, that non-premature Reconciliation is reconciliation with life and the world, a state of serenity which is not premature because it can only be achieved after reconciliation has recognized the cruelty of life. Thus, Hohl’s notion of work is essentially an affirmation of life. You might argue that not premature reconciliation is Hohl’s expression of amor fati. Second, there is the sense of the Real. Hohl distinguishes two different realities. In German they are expressed by the words Wirkliches and Reales. (English does not offer these distinctions, a sampling of the awesome difficulties Lewis had to face.) For Hohl, Wirkliches is the reality of everyday life. Reales is discovered in our fleeting intimacies of the inexpressible, moments when we experience transcendent intuitions through encounters with art that are of the utmost importance to us. But the Real is not accessible all the time, our experience of it is fragmentary. From this stems Hohl’s deep belief in the fragmentary nature of being, and this is what perhaps led him to use the note as a form of communication. The notes inevitably draw from this vision of the disjoint. Hohl never wrote a treatise on non-premature reconciliation: he explained the concept through several notes and in the course of several books. He takes this same cumulative approach to build all of his main ideas.

Swiss writer Ludwig Hohl. Photo: Prabook

Which brings us to why this translation is problematic; he commits the crime of abridgement. It’s especially tragic because Lewis is an incredibly likeable translator. In the German original, The notes consists of not quite 1100 notes. The Yale University Press volume contains just over 800 notes, so just under a quarter of the notes were omitted. This means that about a third of the original text is missing. (Usually, most of the longer notes have been cut.) Of the 12 chapters here, only the first is complete. In her introduction, Lewis confesses that she was reluctant to shorten The notes. She decided to omit the notes she deemed outdated so as not to undermine the central theses of the book on art and life. Mainly missing are the notes that discuss Hohl’s negative experiences with the Dutch as well as his considerations on dialect or obscure Swiss writers. However, there are more serious omissions – for example, a number of notes in which Hohl explains the nature of the fragmentary have also disappeared.

The abstract raises other uncomfortable issues. First, it is (ironically) a repeated injury to Hohl’s work. When the writer first wanted to publish The Remarks, its publisher at the time only published half of the text. Hohl continued, and this landmark case would ultimately strengthen authors’ rights. A decade later, the second half of the volume was published. Second, these omissions could well lead to misinterpretations of Hohl’s thought. For example, George Steiner states in Grammars of creation, his Gifford Lectures of 1990, that Hohl regards communication with others as incidental: “Communication with others is a secondary function, almost inevitably suspect. In fact, Hohl’s views are quite the opposite: for him, communication is still vital and essential. Although some of the notes dealing with communication and life affirmation have been preserved in this translation, it should be noted that Hohl’s fuller note, which contains his most detailed explanation of these issues, has been omitted. , and that’s a shame because this excision can lead to a limited understanding of one of his most fundamental ideas.

However, this translation, however short it may be, is a marvel. Better to have incomplete Hohl, reminding us through its fragments of what gives meaning to life, than not to have any Hohl at all.


Alexandra sattler wrote the first doctoral thesis in English on Ludwig Hohl.

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