Testifying with Paul Celan. Again.

Before moving on with the above, I need to add a personal note about mental illness. I’m type 2 bipolar and was in a relationship with my wife from the age of 14 until 61 when she died. Between 2006 and 2008 I had three particularly severe episodes of depression that required admissions to hospital. The second and third of these came very close to ending our marriage. I therefore probably over identify with this that Celan wrote for Giselle, his wife in 1963.

(I KNOW YOU, you are the deeply bowed,
I, the transpierced, am subject to you.
Where flames a word, would testify for us both?
You - all, all real. I - all delusional.)

I’m not claiming a precise parallel here but I do find these four lines to be packed with stuff that speaks to me. Our relationship was healed by means of counseling as a couple in conjunction with psychotherapy for me. Because of our professional backgrounds we were very good at obtaining NHS services so both of these went on for years rather than months. It may not seem apparent but both of these processes involve the subjects in providing testimony and bearing witness of themselves in the hope of some kind of redemption or expiation.

Apparently this poem has been written about many times by critics concerned with meaning. I think I’m more concerned with effect, whilst acknowledging that there may be many different levels of ambiguity and portent. I have always recognised that these line speak of mental health and the resultant dynamic between ‘us both’. This is because of Celan’s self-identification as both ‘the transpierced’ and delusional.

For me, Giselle is bowed down because of the behavioural difficulties that come along with this kind of illness whereas Celan is stabbed across his body, in a way that damages both his lungs and his heart. I’ve never been entirely clear as to the inclusion of ‘am subject to you’ unless it refers to the fact that, when ill, we’re incapable of making decisions and these have to be made by our partner, we’re also very, very withdrawn.

This flaming also presents a few problems because of the many ambiguities. What we know is that, by this stage, Celan’s work was becoming increasingly sparse with each word and phrase carrying a great deal of significance. The question could therefore be strictly one of poetics as in where would a single word come from that could ‘do justice’ to all the nuances of this crisis. This requires reading ‘flame’ as something springing to life although this isn’t to ignore the Old Testament speaking from the burning bush.

I therefore think that this kind of testimony is very different from the one used in WORDACCRETIONS that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. Most of the work is read as bearing witness to the horrors of the Holocaust. In this instance it does appear that something more intimate is going on. One of the indicators for this is the fact that the entire poem is in brackets as if cordoning it off from all the rest of the poems in the Atemwende collection. Writing about another poem (ASHGLORY), Derrida makes the slightly convoluted point that as soon testimony is made available then it ceases to be testimony. This is because, by its nature, testimony contains information that is only known by that individual. I like this particular convolution because it gives some emphasis to the essentially personal and intimate nature of providing this kind of material. It also points to the flaming as something destructive as well as creative.

There’s also some distancing going on in this line, it is a word that is testifying on behalf of the couple rather than they themselves. Without getting too lit crit, this is different from the final anguished three lines of ASHGLORY;

No one
bears witness for the
witness.

Here, there is no individual that bears witness of behalf of the witness instead of an element of language.

My own experience indicates just how hard it is for someone with this kind of illness to ‘open up’ about anything and how especially difficult it is for couples to collectively to disclose the very private and personal details of their lives together, particularly when these are in crisis.. In this respect the first statement is quite revealing perhaps saying that “I may be delusional, inferior to you and in all kinds of emotional and mental pain but I do know you like nobody else does”.

There is as well the ambiguity of the last line, if the poet is completely delusional then how is it possible for us to pay attention to his work and this poem in particular? This apparent self-abnegation might also be an angry retort to Giselle. One of the difficulties for the ‘sane’ partner is to know when the other is being delusional and when he/she is both rational and lucid. It is extremely unlikely that Celan, who may well have been very ill, was ‘all delusional’ all of the time but it is a barb that can be thrown by a partner as an expression of their exasperation and consequent anger.

To conclude, these four lines speak of a different kind of witnessing and testimony but make the same ‘point’ about how difficult and yet crucial it is that we perform this act.

Moving on, this is the last of the ‘testimony’ poems;

ERODED by
the beamwind of your speech
the gaudy chatter of the pseudo-
experienced - the hundred-
tongued perjury-
poem, the noem.

Evorsion-
ed,
free
the path through the men-
shaped snow.
the penitent’s snow, to
the hospitable
glacier-parlors and -tables.

Deep
in the timecrevasse
in the
honeycomb-ice
waits, a breathcrystal,
your unalterble
testimony.

As with WORDACCRETIONS, we appear to be dealing with geology and its processes but here there seems to be more about human activity. The poem’s addressee appears in the second line in terms of speaking and of language which wears away this false poetry. This ‘noem’ is said to be produced by many people or by many languages. In either respect this perjury could arise from the simple fact that no two eye-witnesses will give an identical account of the same event and a hundred people will contradict each other so much that it is difficult to establish what actually occurred. The same can be said for languages, one of the main skills of the translator of poetry is to tease out the intended meanings with all there nuances and put them into another language where a ‘like for like’ substitution may fail completely in conveying the full weight of what’s been said.

This ‘gaudy chatter’ indicates more than a degree of contempt for those who are chatting. Gaudy, for me implies something bright and colourful but at the same time tasteless and banal. To chatter is to spend time in trivial, unthinking conversation. I’m a cultural snob of the first order and have no time for either of these but I’m also well aware that part of this is a class foible, my bourgeois fear of and distaste for the crowd.

Perjury, however, is a deliberate act. It involves giving evidence, providing testimony, that you know to be untrue which it is why it is a criminal offence. This poem then is deliberately untrue rather than simply being the product of too many tongues.

We now return to geology. I was surprised to find that ‘evorsion’ isn’t in the OED but two minutes with the interweb tells me that it’s a geological term referring to “The formation of niches or potholes by erosion due to vortices of water”. We now have three different kinds of erosion: by sunlight; by wind and by water. Each of these reshape the landscape in a gradual and destructive way.

Snow and ice are recurring images in Celan’s work and ‘men’ is a loaded term in its angrily ironic reference to what the Nazi’s saw as the difference between the men of the Aryan race and the sub-human Jews. The penitent’s snow is completely new to me but another 20 seconds with the interweb tells me that it’s;

“Penitentes, or nieves penitentes (Spanish for “penitent-shaped snows”), are snow formations found at high altitudes. They take the form of elongated, thin blades of hardened snow or ice, closely spaced and pointing towards the general direction of the sun.

The name comes from the resemblance of a field of penitentes to a crowd of kneeling people doing penance. The formation evokes the tall, pointed habits and hoods worn by brothers of religious orders in the Processions of Penance during Spanish Holy Week. In particular the brothers’ hats are tall, narrow, and white, with a pointed top.

These spires of snow and ice grow over all glaciated and snow-covered areas in the Dry Andes above 4,000 metres or 13,120 feet. They range in length from a few centimetres to over 5 metres or 16 feet.

There is thus a path, big enough for a man to walk through, across a field of these strange structures which reaches these welcoming rooms. I am reasonably flummoxed ( lit crit term) by the hyphen or dash in front of ‘table’ because it’s unusual in Celan’s and suggests that the first part of a compound word is missing. Of course, that’s the only explanation that I can think of and I readily accept that there may be many others. It may be that the gaps there to indicate the repetition of ‘glacier’ from the beginning of the line but, in English at least, we understand that an adjective can refer to more than one noun.

Ice and snow have been taken to refer primarily to the harsh winters that his parents endured in labour camps in Ukraine. Ice also brings stasis, it prevents things from moving and causes pliable objects to become brittle. Glaciers, on the other hand, are mobile and transform the landscape significantly by means of erosion. A Crevasse in this instance is a deep and dangerous cleft in the ice which can move without any prior warning. Things temporal always disturb me a bit because the mention of time is likely to refer to the work of Martin Heidegger who I now see as both a vile anti-Semite and a charlatan.

However, on a reasonably superficial level, this crevasse could mark a split in time. Many victims of the Holocaust reported that they felt that history had simply stopped because of the unimaginable violence of what they were suddenly experiencing. The split, on this tentative and provisional reading could (might) indicate the temporal chasm opened up by the Holocaust.

Atemwende, the title of this collection translates as ‘Breathturn’ and this was of great importance to Celan. This is a note from 1960-

‘What’s on the lung, put on the tongue,’ my mother used to say. Which has to do with breath. One should finally learn also to how to read this breath, this breath-unit in the poem. In the cola meaning is often more truthfully joined and fugued than in the rhyme; shape of the poem: that is presence of the single, breathing one-

And this perhaps adds some context to the geological themes;

The stone is older than we are, it stands in another time; in the together conversation with it, the one facing us in silence, we set ourselves in relation to the space from which it stands towards us; from this direction, the direction of our speaking, our words are given their share of colour and reach (magnitude).

As the stone, as the other, the inorganic will

    resemble

that which in us is not plant and animal-like: it becomes the spiritual principle, it reaches down into the depths, it rises up.

So, if we take these into account, the rocks of the planet are like our spiritiual component and it is breath that carries the truth. Elsewhere in his notes Celan refers to ‘breath units’ as the essential components of the poem. It is possible here to see the breathcrystal as such a unit that has been turned to crystal by the cold. The last two lines make it clear that this particular formation is now set and cannot be changed.

I’m not entirely sure that I agree with this assertion. Bearing witness to even the most horrific event in our history is obviously essential but testimony, once it becomes evidence comes into a very fluid realm whereby the facts of any event can begin to shift and blend into something quite different.
I’m not suggesting that Holocaust deniers shouldn’t be stringently challenged but I’m not entirely convinced that criminal prosecution is the most helpful response.

In conclusion, I hope that I’ve shown some of the main ways that Celan writes about the different types of witnessing and testimonies and how these ‘fit’ with the rest of his hearbtreakingly brilliant work.

2 responses to “Testifying with Paul Celan. Again.

  1. Clark Allison

    A very appreciative and illuminating reading of Celan, who honed his use of language very carefully around difficult subjects. I do note what I might call an observance of emotional and intellectual truth. I am unsure about testimony, in the sense of whether that’s down to us; others have their ways of arriving at what they think of us, even if we might be confident of ourselves.

    • Thank you, I recognise both the absolute need that people have to bear witness by means of their testimony and the central importance of this in our collective memory. I’m just not sure that this act produces something fixed and permanent.

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