Tag Archives: emmanuel levinas

Encountering the Other with Celan and Levinas

Looking back through these pages I see that seven years ago I wrote something about these two and, in particular, Levinas’ essay Being and the Other: on Paul Celan. I’ve just re-read my meandering and have decided that it needs updating and extending, mainly because it’s not very attentive and it needs to be.

First of all we need a note. Emanuel Levinas was an important 20th century French philosopher who many have seen as the successor and main proponent of the work of Martin Buber and his concern with our responsibility towards the Other. Celan was a keen admirer of Buber’s work and this idea is incorporated, if that’s the right word into his poetry.

Regular readers will be delighted to know that I’m not going to trundle out again the Heidegger v Buber argument in terms of their relative influence on the work. Instead I want to look at one of the late poems in terms of the encounter and the other.

As there’s a ‘you’ in the poem that follows, it may be as well to quote this from Celan’s preparatory notes for his Meridian Address:

In the poem something is said but, in effect, so that the said remains unsaid as long as the one who reads it will not let it be said to him. In other words; the poem is not topical but can be made topical, That too is, temporally the ‘cathexability’ of the poem: the You, to whom it is addressed, is given to it on the way to this You. The You is there even before it has come. (That too is a sketch-for-being.)

The poem is Gillyflowers from the Snowpart collection which was published posthumously in 1971;

GILLYFLOWERS, cat-enfranchised.
With wife
on your right, this lawn.

Rod- and moonsickle-stalemate.

You shouldn't, thus, like you, behind bars, back then,
Maltese Jew, big-
the bone jumped, abrupter
than I, the bone
that someone already from tomorrow threw-,
should not
look up to heaven, you left
him then, as he you,

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Sister chestnut, multifoliate,
with our blank overthither.

This is Pierre Joris’ translation and his notes explain ‘cat-franchised’ as being given ‘the freedom to express oneself’.

Here we have a your. a series of yous and a couple of hims. If we take all five of the yous to refer to a reader and an encounter with a reader then the poem becomes a bit too concerned with itself. As with most of Celan’s later work, we are given very few footholds but it would seem that there may be two addressees in this, as in You shouldn’t, thus, like you…… One addressee would appear to being warned off imitating the behaviour/actions of another. It’s tempting to assume that both of these are the poet simultaneously in the present and after an encounter has taken is the one who has read in the future. This mostly because I’ve just read Levinas’ take on the other and the nature of the encounter:

As if in going toward the other, I were reunited with myself and implanted myself in a soil that would, henceforth, be native; as if the distancing of the I drew me closer to myself, discharged of the full weight of my identity – a movement of which poetry would be the possibility itself, and a native land which owes nothing to rootedness, nothing to “prior occupation”: a native land that has no need to be a birthplace. Native land or promised land?

The ‘you shouldn’t’ instruction may relate to the constraints (bars) that were in place before the encounter occurred. Given Celan’s fondness for multiple ambiguities, it may also be about the experience of the Jews in the ghettos throughout European history and the death camps during the second world war. I’d risk a guess that this meeting is also felt as a setting free from the horrors of the past, the sense of being haunted by Nazi extermination permeates the later work.

I have to admit that I’ve never read any Christopher Marlowe but I’m happy to concur with the reliable Joris that ‘the / Maltese Jew’ is Barabas in Marlowe’s The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta, a play for many years seen as exclusively anti-semitic.

The bone is incredibly tricky, 30 minutes with the interweb reveals that the Jewish tradition has it that, at the Resurrection the dead will have either their merits or their faults written on their bones and will be judged accordingly. there is also the Luz bone which is the small bone at the top of the spine which is said to be indestructible;

……this is the bone from which the body will be rebuilt at the time of resurrection, and share the idea (with the Egyptian and Greek cultures) that this bone does not decay….

The book of Ezekiel also has the valley of dry bones, standing for the Jewish people in exile, encounters God.

Here we need a brief digression, I’ve been reading and consequently staggered by Celan’s poetry since 1970 and have been aware that many (many) thinkers of the past fifty years have seized, there is no other verb, on one or two of his many ‘threads’ in order to take the work to an ideological/theoretical point where it really doesn’t belong. As an agnostic in such matters, I have to point out that the ‘point’ of Celan’s many ambiguities is that he tells us and/or points to what it might mean to be a human on this planet. He does this with self lacerating honesty and incredible courage but this act is so packed with contrasting stuff that it must not be put into a single ‘box’. I digress thus because I’ve realised that, by attending to Levinas, I’m in danger of committing the same error.

One of the less remarked upon facts about Celan was that he was an enthusiastic and knowledgeable botanist. The poem in its original German begins with ‘LEVKOJEN’ in which Joris hears ‘Lev’ as the “Russian version of Celan’s father’s name, Leo, corresponding in Hebrew to the word “heart”. However, what Pierre doesn’t mention and I didn’t know is that, according to the exotic flowers blog, the gillyflower “remains historically as one of the original “romantic” plants for lovers” and:

The gillyflower can also stand for accepting and enjoying the life you have been given, endless beauty, purity, adoration, a religious connection and even as a sign for the zodiac, Taurus.  In general, this flower represents a long lived life, luck and immense happiness so it’s a wonderful choice for weddings, births and special anniversaries.  

If we take at least some of this as being pertinent then it contrasts with the closing many-leaved chestnut tree if, as I would, suggest it is echoing Orwell’s use of the Chestnut Tree nursery rhyme in 1984:

Under the spreading chestnut tree
I sold you and you sold me:
There lie they, and here lie we
Under the spreading chestnut tree.

In the novel this is Winston’s betrayal of Julia, his lover, as a result of being tortured and is thus brought back under the control of the totalitarian state. This is bitterly ironic as the chestnut traditionally symbolises justice, honesty and chastity.

The inclusion of Barnabas throws up a number of possibilities. As with Buber and Levinas, Celan’s other is a universal figure and Barnabas would seem to epitomise many others at once, he is a Jew, he murders and betrays with impunity, he kills his own daughter he dies by a means of his own devising. The last of these is apparently a feature in a few Old Testament stories. My point is that even Barnabas is able to encounter and receive the gift of the poem.

I’m taking it that an encounter occurs with this grotesque invention and then ends (you left him), leaving both of these alone again. The lighting from the side may be about, a gesture towards, a face in profile. Marlowe’s play apparently makes frequents references to the bigness of Barabas’ nose.

The suggestion that the you should not look up to heaven may simply infer that we have to deal with life as it is for humans than look to any kind of spiritual reality. I’m never sure as to the nature of Celan’s mysticism although I do accept that it’s a major element in his work. On this occasion, I’m with Michael Hamburger in discerning a negative theology with an absent God who may or may not have abandoned us. To my mind, Levinas falls into the trap of over identification as in:

The act of the poem speaking to its neighbor precedes all evocation; but it is in poetic speaking outstretched toward the other that, as if by magic, things
assemble their qualities as things. The for-other precedes the perception of evidence. The poem thus leaves to the real the alterity which pure imagination erases.

The obvious response is “no it doesn’t” and the giveaway way is ‘as if by magic”. For me this is very disappointing because my admiration for Levinas’ work has grown over the last decade and it saddens me that he should appear to invest the brilliance of the poetry with his own predilections. As i indicated earlier, he’s by no means alone in this, Derrida captures the work for language, Steiner for Heidegger and Gadamer for both Heidegger and mysticism.

Over the years I don’t think I’ve written about staggeredness which is the Bebrowed technical term for the feeling you get when paying attention to Celan’s work, a sense of been knocked off your cognitive feet and returned to a different kind of world. To demonstrate this I’d simply point to the last line of the above poem and leave readers to give some consideration to the many connotations and dimensions that ‘blank overthither’ might provide.


DW, who is becoming a regular commentator tried unsuccessfully to post these useful insights with regard to Gillyflowers:

‘The You is there even before it has come.’

‘… the bone / that someone already from tomorrow threw-‘

Is this bone, with its religious connotations (religion so pervasive yet ambivalent in Celan), the “You”? The Luz bone is where the tefillin-knot rests. Luz in Hebrew means “almond” – ‘Render me bitter, / Number me among the almonds.’

‘… mit dienen blanken / Hierdrüben’ – literally, ‘with your blank / Here-over-there’. Blank passport, exilic wanderings-writings, empty book.

‘… you left / him then, as he you, / stranded …’ – Conflicting stories about the night Celan’s parents were taken. Who left whom? Did Celan storm out of the house after arguing with his father? Was Celan stranded somewhere that night, unable to return home? Did Celan clutch in vain through barbed wire for his father’s hand (‘like you, behind bars, back then’)? 

Then there is the first stanza, which would seem to be obviously about Gisèle – Celan’s tragic Other, his (always-and-never) ‘approachable you’. The Gillyflowers are free to express the unspeakable, what is unsaid in the wedding bouquet full of promise, bearing witness to the ‘Rod- and moonsickle-stalemate’ of a shattered yet never renounced marriage.

I’m sure that others will also find this useful, I’ll endeavour to respond to this and the Blanchot comment once I’ve worked out which WP gremlin is messing around with the comments gizmo.

Still haven’t worked the comments gizmo problem out, will try again later As for DW’s insights, I think that he’s right with regard to Gisele although i would add that Joris’ notes concede that he has missed the word mund (to give speech’ from his cat-enfranchised translation of ‘katsenbemunidgt’.

With regard to Celan’s father, John Felstiner (a not-entirely-reliable scholar) tells us that Celan always blamed himself for failing to persuade his parents to leave their home before the Nazis came to arrest them. Celan’s time spent in a labour camp is less well recorded, the idea of the clutching through the wire is attractive. However, I’d like to add the above reference to the You in order to render things oriented towards the Buberian other as well.

I’m reluctant to hang an explanation on to the last line except to suggest the ‘blank’ can also stand for nothing and consequently nothingness- a recurring condition in the later work.

Getting a bit deeper in with Celan and Levinas

As I seem to be doing this with greater frequency (well, this week anyway) I thought it might e a good time to reiterate the two bebrowed positions that are unlikely to change, the first is that David Jones is unjustly neglected and the second is that Paul Celan produced the best (in every sense) poetry of the twentieth century. Unlike most of the tentative and provisional posturings expressed on this blog, I can and do argue both of these positions from a number of positions and am entirely comfortable in doing so.

Before we get to Levinas I want to recognise that there are more than one Paul Celan, there’s the botanist, the anarchist (socialist utopian ranch), the husband and father, the translator, the disciple of Martin Heidegger, the poet, the Jew, the german speaker, the follower of Martin Buber, the devotee of Jewish mysticism, the existentialist, the anguished mad man, the lover, the witness. All of these are mixed up in my head and various aspects come to the fore as I read the work and all those that have paid attention to this remarkable material will have there own ‘blend’ of the above.

The above is the conciliatory approach along the lines of: “it’s good and proper that everyone should have their own views and respect the views of others”. Unfortunately this is the world of poetry where consensus and rationality feature was down in the pecking order. One major piece of discord is over the relative importance of Martin Buber’s strand of Jewish thought and the existentialist teachings of Martin Heidegger.

Last August I drew attention to Celan’s use of ‘wholly other’ in the Meridian address and linked this with the Buber/Levinas side of the argument.

The ‘point’ of the above is to announce that I have recently fallen across a 1978 Levinas essay, ‘Being and the Other: On Paul Celan’, which quite fiercely claims Celan as a member of the Buber gang. He also goes on to add his own partisan reading of the Meridian which seems to throw up some tricky questions for the makers and users of poetry.

Here’s the claim:

The poem goes toward the other. It hopes to rejoin it, free and unoccupied. The solitary work of the poet carving the precious stuff of words is an act of “ambushing” a “vis-a-vis.” The poem “becomes conversation – it is often futile conversation . . . encounters, a voice’s paths to a thou capable of perception” – Are Buber’s categories to be preferred then? Are they to be preferred to so much inspired exegesis to the benefit of Holderlin, Trakl, and Rilke, that descends in majesty from the Black Forest in order to show poetry opening the world in Being, between heaven and
earth, where man finds a dwelling place? Are they to be preferred to the aligning of structures in the intersidereal space of Objectivity -the precariousness of which, in Paris, the poet rightly senses, having the good or bad luck to align himself, be longing, with the entirety of his being, to the very objectivity of these structures? Poetics of the avant-garde where the poet has no personal destiny. Buber is without question preferred to them.

So, that’s fairly unequivocal and I don’t want to dwell on it too much except to note that its far more caustic about the majestic Heidegger than it is about the Parisian avant garde. This might appear odd as Levinas ws instrumental in bringing all things Heidegger to Paris in 1931.

Levinas then goes on to construct a further model around his version of Celan’s poetics. The general thrust of this is that the poem’s quest for an encounter involves a loss of the self. The evil that springs from self-interest is central to Levinas’ thought- this fixation prevents from paying attention to the needs of the Other and he sees Celan’s idea of the poem as a loss of self sovereignty in order to attend to those needs.

Of course the argument is much more detailed nd better put than that but that seems to be the main gist of it. This loss of self brings to mind ‘Unlesbarkeit’ which ws published in the posthumous ‘Schneepart’ collection in 1971:

    of this world. All things twice over.

    The strong clocks justify 
    the splitting hour,

    You, clamped
    into your deepest part,
    climb out of yourself
    for ever.

The last four lines here (as well as Celan’s notes for the Meridian) would seem to bear this out, self interest keeps us clamped into ourselves and we need to clamber out of this state in order to ttend to the ‘wholly other’> of course the bebrowed slant would wnt to throw in the possible references to suicide as a mens or release from this clamping and the previous six lines describing the experience of mental anguish. To add a bit more credence to this, it can be pointed out that many of us with experience of severe depression contemplate and ttempt suicide to avoid going through the anguish, to which we feel episodically tethered, ever again. I might also need to mention that the brain/self is ‘clamped’ when we receive ECT.

However, Levinas then makes use of the term ‘Meridian’ to instill some kind of hope/salvation into this loss of self:

In this adventure where the I dedicates itself to the poem so as to meet the other in the non-place, it is the return that is surprising- a return based not on the response of the summoned relation, but on the circularity of the meridian-perfected trajectory of this movement without return?, which is the “finality without end” of the poetic movement. As if in going toward the other, I were reunited with myself and implanted myself in a soil that would, henceforth, be native; as if the distancing of the I drew me closer to myself, discharged of the full weight of my
identity?a movement of which poetry would be the possibility itself, and a native land which owes nothing to rootedness, nothing to “prior occupation”: a native land that has no need to be a birthplace. Native land or promised land? Does it spew forth its inhabitants when they forget the course of one who goes off in search of the other. Native land on the meridian – which is to say: a here which is also the everywhere, a wandering and expatriation to the point of depaganisation. Is the earth habitable otherwise?

I’m regretfully of the view that this is a step too far, there’s nothing in my reading of Celan to suggest that one meets the self in the act of going toward the other, indeed I can point to many instances where this kind of movement is made in the knowledge that there can be no return to the self and it is this loss that must be borne. I’m not suggesting that all of this essy is flawed but this quite central point says more about Levinas than it does about either Celan or poetry. It has prodded me into re-reading the work, which is always a Good Thing.

Paul Celan, Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Blanchot and the ‘Wholly Other’

I need to than John Bloomberg-Rissman for drawing my attention to this review of ‘What are Poets for?’ By Gerald L Bruns. In normal circumstances I would have rushed to order this as it deals with Prynne, Matthias and Celan in ways that seem congruent with my own improvised and haphazard way of reading but the Bebrowed financial controller has made it clear that some of the recent acquisitions should be read first. There is however this paragraph that caught my eye:

“The highlight of the collection is a rather aphoristic essay on poetry and ethics centered around the work of Paul Celan and Emmanuel Levinas. For Bruns, Levinas’ ethics, which demand a sense of radical responsibility toward the other, find their literary expression in Celan’s desire to fill language up with strangeness. Just as Levinasian ethics demands that we disregard our own sense of autonomy or fulfilled obligations and allow our sense of self to be determined by the other beings we come into proximity with, Celan’s poetry forgoes having a unified, consistent speaking voice in order to fling itself into the void of otherness. Poetry, Bruns seems to be suggesting, is ethical in relation to the people and things it narrates because the form of selfhood it expresses comes into being as an attempt to reach out to the other; poetry is being-for-the-other, and therefore capable of having an ethics even when it seems to be at its most abstruse. The essay is delicately constructed and a delight to read, seeming to approach a central idea again and again through readings of different authors and texts (Celan and Levinas but also Charles Bernstein, Martin Heidegger, Osip Mandelstam, Maurice Blanchot, Jacques Derrida, and Samuel Beckett) without ever quite making contact.”

Ignoring the list of usual suspects at the end, I initially took issue with Levinas connection and his notion of our need to focus on the needs and demands of the universal other. I’m reasonably familiar (and agree) with the central Levinas position, especially as articulated by Blanchot, but I hadn’t thought of Celan’s references to the other as anything but a consideration of alterity and the ‘strange’. So this was going to be a robust denunciation along the lines of Celan’s concerns are primarily about the Jewish victims of the Holocaust which are a clearly defined group of ‘Others’ whereas Levinas is more concerned with the universal ‘Other’. I was going to illustrate this with suitable extracts from the later works and the Meridian and rest the bulk of my case on the frequent appearance of Martin Buber (more than anyone else) in the notes made in preparation for the Meridian address and the complete absence of any reference to Levinas. The I re-read the Meridian and fell over this:

“But I do think – and this thought can hardly surprise you by now – I think that it had always been part of the poem’s hopes to speak on behalf of exactly this strange – no, I cannot use this word this way – exactly on another’s behalf – who knows perhaps on behalf of a totally other.”

(I’m using the Pierre Joris translation because I trust it more that the others although Felstiner does have ‘wholly’ rather than ‘totally’.)

Now, the term ‘wholly other’ is how ‘tout autre’ is translated in Levinas’ ‘Time and the Other’ which was published in 1948 as in “through the diverse figures of the sociality facing the face of the other person: eroticism, paternity, responsibility for the neighbour as the relationship to the wholly other (Tout Autre)” which seems to get to the nub of the Levinas position.

Celan’s major philosophical interests in Heidegger and the distinctly Jewish aspect of Martin Buber’s thought is mirrored in Levinas so it is likely that Celan would have read ‘Time and the Other’ and that his use of ‘wholly other’ in italics is a reference to that work- or perhaps this is just because I want it to be.

In Celan’s poetry many poems are addressed to a ‘you’ without any clear indication of who this ‘you’ might be and it may be that some poems do address this universal Other. The notes seem to refer to both addressing the other (“it silences itself toward something foreign and Other imagined as a You”) and speaking on behalf of the other (“..to let the incommensurable of the other speak too”). I’ve chosen three of the likelier candidates from the later work. This is ‘Wirk Nicht Voraus’ from the ‘Lichtzwang’ collection published in 1970:

I’m using Michael Hamburger’s translation for all three poems.

Do not work ahead,
do not send forth,
into it, enter:

transfounded by nothingness
unburdened of all
microstructured in heeding
the pre-script,

I make you at home,
instead of all

This is ‘Mitt Der Stimm Der Feldmaus’ from the ‘Schneepart’ collection which was published in 1971:

With the voice of the Fieldmouse
you squeak up to me,

a sharp
you bite your way through my shirt to the skin,

a cloth
you slide across my mouth
midway through the words
I address to you, shadow,
to give you weight.

Finally, this is ‘Alle Die Schlafoestalin’ from the ‘Zeitgehoft’ collection which was published in 1976:

All those sleep shapes, crystalline,
that you assumed
in the language shadow,

to those
I lead my blood,

those image lines, them
I’m to harbour
in the slit-arteries
of my cognition-,

my grief, I can see,
is deserting to you.

For those who don’t know, Celan was a Holocaust survivor who committed suicide in 1970. I’d like to add the point made by Maurice Blanchot that our responsibility to the other is infinite, unbearable and strips us of our identity yet it is also impossible to ignore.

All three of the above poems can be read as being addressed to either a specific other or a universal other and it may well be that Celan is concerned here with both.

The first poem begins with a series of commands, followed by a description that may refer to the poet’s burden is responding to the other and ends with the poet ‘making home’ for the other. ‘Nothingness’ recurs as an active entity or participant in Celan’s work and it could be read here as equivalent to infinity ie something so vast that it becomes nothing at all, it could also be that there is no longer any need for prayer because Celan is answering this call or because these others are already dead- changed by nothingness.

To make someone at home is how the good host would respond to the needs of a guest. In English, we often say “make yourself at home” as in, “please feel free to behave as if your were in your own home” as a way of making a guest feel welcome. This gesture embodies a key virtue in virtually all cultures across the world. Celan’s ‘welcome’ is tempered by a recognition that the ‘you’ has already gone beyond any notion of rest and may actually be dead.

Trying to recognise and take into account my original bias, I’m still of the view that the ‘you’ in this poem is more likely to be those murdered during the Holocaust and this is not the exact equivalent of the Levinas ‘wholly other’ which is about every other in the world, living or dead.

The ‘Fieldmouse’ poem is much more straightforward (in my head, at least) in that it is a description of the demand made by the other together with Celan’s response. This makes more, albeit tentative, sense if we read ‘shadow’ as ‘neighbour’ and the last verse as the transforming/muting effect that this neighbour has on the poem which exists to transfound the nothingess of the shadow into something more substantial. The biting of the skin through the cloth of the shirt might refer to the real pain in our awareness of the nature of this responsibility.

As someone who has actively planned to kill himself on a number of occasions, I have a real problem with maintaining any kind of objectivity with the third poem which I read as an anguished cry from the soul about the intolerable/impossible burden that the dead impose on the poet and a foreshadowing of his own self-annihilation. I’d like to undertake a rational and attentive reading as with the other two but I can’t because all I can read is the personal pain and suffering that is expressed in these heartbreaking lines. I’m also not entirely comfortable that it was published posthumously without knowledge of Celan’s intention and feel a little queasy about this kind of material being made available without Celan’s consent. End of short speech.

Of course, the reviewer may have misread what Bruns was saying about Levinas and I’m actually arguing with no-one but it has at least enabled me to think (regardless of Blanchot’s extremism) about the possibility of creative responses to this impossible demand which brings to mind Prynne’s insistence on self-removal as part of the poetry-making business……….