Tag Archives: huts

Maybe and Perhaps in Prynne and Celan

I think it is reasonable to suggest that the two most accomplished poets since the Second World War might be quite good at prose. I’ve been re-reading Celan’s ‘Meridian’ address and Prynne on ‘The Solitary Reaper’ and it strikes me that they may both be using the same rhetorical sleight of hand but with slightly different aims in mind.

The devices that I have in mind are:

  • “it may be” and “maybe” (J H Prynne);
  • “permit me” and “perhaps” (Paul Celan).

These are chosen because they are used frequently and express emphasis rather than doubt.

Before going any further with this entirely whimsical speculation, it might be as well to identify some definitions. The OED provides a number of definitions for perhaps:

  1. A1. Expressing a hypothetical, contingent, conjectural, or uncertain possibility: it may be (that); maybe, possibly. A1a. Modifying a statement or question;
  2. B 1. An instance of ‘perhaps’ used to qualify a statement; an expression of possibility combined with uncertainty, suspicion, or doubt; a doubtful statement;
  3. B 2. Something that may or may not happen, exist, or be the case; a possibility.

The following are the non-colloquial definitions of maybe:

  1. (adv) Possibly; perhaps. Occas. with dependent that-clause;
  2. (noun). What may be; a possibility; a speculation, esp. (usually in negative contexts) about a possible alternative outcome;
  3. (adj) Which is or are possibly to come; potential, possible.

“It may be” is (certainly in Prynne’s usage) giving a bit more formality to the speculation or suggestion whereas “permit me” is ostensibly asking to be allowed to do or say something.

‘The Meridian’ is the fullest statement that we have of Celan’s poetics and has been the subject of endless debate by both lit crit and philosophy types (and those in between). I don’t intend to add any more to this but I do want to think about this:

“Poetry: that can mean an Atemwende, a breathturn. Who knows, perhaps poetry travels this route – also the route of art – for the sake of such a breathturn? Perhaps it will succeed, as the strange. I mean the abyss and the Medusa’s head, the abyss and the automatons, seem to lie in one direction – perhaps it will succeed here to differentiate between strange and strange, perhaps it is exactly here that the Medusa’s head shrinks, perhaps it is exactly here that the automatons break down – for this single short moment? Perhaps, here, with the I – with the estranged I set free here and in this manner – perhaps here a further Other is set free?”

Perhaps the poem is itself because of this … and can now, in this art-less, art-free manner, walk its other routes, thus also the routes of art – time and again?

Perhaps.

Perhaps one can say that each poem has its own “20th of January” inscribed in it? Perhaps what’s new in the poems written today is exactly this: theirs is the clearest attempt to remain mindful of such dates?

But don’t we all write ourselves from such dates? And toward what dates do we write ourselves?”

This passage is the part where Celan sets out the bones of his praxis before going into further detail. ‘Perhaps’ is used in other parts of the Address but nowhere near as frequently as this. Needless to say, perhaps here denotes certainty rather than doubt, in fact it has a blue flashing light on its head to make sure that we do pay attention to the very precise statements that are being made. The entirely deliberate single word paragraph underlines the point. Some might feel that Celan is over-egging the pudding but this is far from the case, he does want his audience to think about what poetry is and does and to emphasise in German to his German audience the crucial importance of January 20th- the date when the Germans drew up the plans for the Holocaust.

Prynne’s use of ‘maybe’ is less concentrated but frequent enough to be noticed. I’ll start with ‘Huts’ which was published in Textual Practice in 2008.

“This hut is a place of fear and oppression, but the narrator makes these visits as if compelled by a poetic vocation to do so. It is a more extreme recourse than the guidance which took the author of the ‘Ode to Evening’ to his mountain hut; and yet there is maybe a relation in both between the idea of elemental refuge and human speech at the wellspring of poetic origin.”

This ‘maybe’ should be read as ‘definitely’ in that the link as described here forms the basis of the essay’s argument.

When I started out on this particular diversion, I wasn’t aware of the next example and I’m not cainig that it proves my point but it is odd:

It is time to turn to a recurrent theme in Heidegger which left its mark on the thought of Celan and maybe also on some deep features of his composing practice. As is well-known enough, Heidegger’s conception of primal metaphysics is bound up with a poetic understanding of early Greek and subsequent language usage, and it is this element that attracted Celan to intense study of Heidegger’s work over a wide range and for many years. For example, ‘urspru¨ngliches Sprechen’ (‘primordial speaking’) emerges as a recurrent concern in Celan’s reading notes on Heidegger’s Was Heisst Denken (What is Called Thinking) first published in 1954. And during his intense reading in 1953 of Holzwege (Wrong Paths), first published in 1950,21 which I recall myself studying with great ardency
more than forty years ago, Celan encountered and marked up a primal idea stated thus: ‘Die Sprache ist der Bezirk [templum], d.h. das Haus des Seins. . .[der] Tempel des Seins’ (‘Language is the domain (templum), viz. the house of Being. . .[the] temple of Being’).”

This ‘maybe’ conceals a lot more than certainty, Prynne wants this Heideggerian theme to have made its mark on Celan’s practice because it made a similar mark on Prynne who was reading Heidegger with ‘great ardency’. Here is not the place for any kind of discussion on the nature of the Heidegger / Celan dynamic nor is their space for speculation on why Prynne should feel the need to place his personal experience here at this point in the essay. What is important is that ‘maybe’ is again being used (with a smaller flashing blue light) to make us sit up and pay attention.

In the interests of balance, this is the third and final instance from ‘Huts’:

“By this evidence the hut-place is not idyllic but is the site of alienation and its social costs. And as for
Heidegger’s upgrading of the hut or house to ‘the temple of Being’, recall the comment of Peter Shaw as cited by Johnson, that ‘the hand which cannot build a hovel may demolish a temple’; maybe they both were thinking of the history of Jerusalem.”

The history of Jerusalem isn’t taken any further and, of course, we will never know what either Shaw or Heidegger had in mind so perhaps this ‘maybe’ is being used in its ‘proper’ sense.

The final and rather amiguous example comes from the “Difficulties in the Translation of “Difficult” Poems” essay which was published in the third issue of the Cambridge Literary view. I think this might be a case of fluttering to deceive:

“If these many directions are developed so as to produce strong contradiction and self=dispute then the method may become a dialectic practice, in which poetic form and expression are brought into internal contest with themselves and with each other.”

The “may become” variation is used ostensibly to add and element of doubt as to whether contradiction and self dispute do become ‘a dialectic practice’ when Prynne knows that these elements define dialectic analysis. So, the phrase may be used here to add emphasis but it also adds a bit of distance for our author as this paragraph is probably the clearest statement we have of Prynne’s praxis.

I am tempted to go through the other recent essays but I have a feeling that they will confirm much of the above. I am going to return to the books on Herbert and Wordsworth to see if there are any further variations. I’ve also started to look at the notes to the Meridian for more instances of ‘perhaps’ And this is before I’ve made a start on the poems.

Incidentally, I’d forgotten just how good ‘Huts’ is even though I still only agree with about 7% of it.

Prynne, Celan and Heidegger part 2

Good criticism should make us want to read (or re-read) the work being written about. Last week I read and wrote about J H Prynne’s essay on huts and, as a result, I’ve spent the weekend with Celan and Heidegger.

I’ll start with what Prynne sees as the contradiction in the hut as the site of primordial language and as the site of impoverished squalor  and desolation. In support of this assertion he points to Paul Celan’s ‘Huttenfenster’ as an example of abridging this ‘deep latent contradiction’ and also states that the poem shows greater understanding than Heidegger because Celan is “a poet and has more complicated links with language and reality than ever a philosopher can attain”.
This isn’t to say that Prynne is critical of Heidegger- he speaks of reading Heidegger’s work with ‘ardency’ (a Prynne word) and of making a kind of pilgrimage to the iconic ‘hut’ at Todtnauberg.
In the interests of putting this bold assertion to the test, I’ve now re-read the Celan poem with renewed interest. It is a poem that I’ve found difficult because translators have translated ‘hutten’ as either ‘tabernacle’ or ‘cottage’. Prynne says that he prefers the more literal translation as hut. Substituting hut for tabernacle in the Michael Hamburger translation makes everything much clearer. It now begins-

The eye, dark:
as hut window. It gathers,

A number of objects are then referred to in the poem; stars, letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the town of Vitebsk. John Felstiner’s brief notes to the poem give Vitebsk as the birthplace of Marc Chagall (which it was) but it is extremely unlikely that Celan is referring to Chagall because another line has “goes to ghetto and Eden, gathers…” A quick glance at the net tells me that Vitebsk was indeed the site of a Jewish Ghetto in the Second World War al of whose inhabitants (about 16000) were killed by the Germans.
As most people know there were many Jewish ghettoes that suffered an identical fate in Eastern Europe so why does Celan refer specifically to Vitebsk? I dug a little further and came across this-“On September 30, 600 Jews of the Vitebsk Ghetto were shot in a ravine. The children were buried alive”. I knew that Jews were shot, gassed and beaten to death but I did not know that the Nazis buried children alive. Celan’s reference to Vitebsk reads:

down by the head, with
the black hail that
fell there too, at Vitebsk,

Is Celan here using ‘black hail’ as a metaphor for death or is it being used for something much more sinister. When you bury someone alive you throw soil over them until they are completely covered. I think that the hail stands for the soil that was used to murder these children. This is, of course, a terrible image standing for a terrible deed.
Heidegger couldn’t begin to do this because he would have to acknowledge his own role in legitimising the Nazi regime. Prynne is also right that philosophy is unable to risk itself in order to attain this kind of exposure. It could be argued that Celan is no ordinary poet and that only poets with his exceptional abilities can take these risks.
On a human level, I now know what Prynne means by the power of good poetry to be breathtaking and startling. I also have greater insight in what it must mean to feel the need to bear witness to terrible events.
In his eulogy to Heidegger, Prynne speaks of two works- ‘Off the Beaten Track’ and ‘What is Called Thinking?’ At the moment I only have access to the second tome so I’ve started with that. Over the years I’ve developed a strategy with regard to reading Heidegger which is similar to how I used to read CPGB manifestos. This consists of reading each paragraph very slowly to ensure understanding and then pausing to consider whether I agree with what has been said.
My reading is at an early stage but I am surprised/appalled at how much I can actually see the point of. I’m more than happy to accept that we think wrongly and that we’ve been doing this for a very long time. I’ll also concede that “what is most thought-provoking shows itself in the fact that we are still not thinking”. I begin, as ever, to fall over when He cites Holderlin as proof of beauty’s proximity to truth and when he says that there is a relationship between a noun and the thing that it names.
However, Heidegger also has this: “Only when we are so inclined toward what in itself is to be thought about, only then are we capable of thinking”. I’d previously ascribed Prynne’s use of “inclined” to Celan’s Meridian Address, I no longer think this is the case. It is more likely that they both stole it from Heidegger.
I still remain more than a little perplexed by the relationship between poetry and philosophy and I still find some of Heidegger’s assertions about poetry to be groundless but the Prynne essay has given me the opportunity to consider again the role of verse in exploring the contradictions that surround us. I’m also pleased that he didn’t use ‘dialectic’ once.

J H Prynne on huts (and Paul Celan)

In 2008 Textual Practice (an excellent comic) published a ‘discourse’ by Prynne entitled “Huts” which I’ve just come across. Of all Prynne’s prose that I’ve read, this speaks most directly to me because it addresses things that I care about. It also provides a reasonably clear insight into Prynne’s view of poetry and poetic practice. He starts off with a line from William Collins’ ‘Ode to Evening’ which was first published in 1746, together with a description of the cover of ‘Odes on Several Descriptive and Allegoric Subjects’ which contained the poem.

Readers of ‘Field Notes’ would at this stage be expecting a 22-page forensic analysis of the line but this is not the case, he does want to write about huts and their relationship to poetry. We get the etymology of the word and this is contrasted with ‘hovel’, we get Kropotkin’s description of the use of huts in Mongolia, Shakespeare’s use of ‘hovel’ in Lear and Wordsworth’s use of the term ‘hut’ in a poem from the end of the 18th century. There is also a description of mountain huts used by climbers in  the Alps.

The contrast is drawn between hut as place of contemplation and creativity and as the scene of wretchedness, madness and abject poverty. We also get the idea of the hut as man’s very first dwelling place. There is also an aside on Prynne covering himself in newspapers to keep warm in huts during National Service. Needless to say, the thought of Prynne (or Hill) doing National Service does require some time to process.

Then we get to Todtnauberg which is the name of the Black Forest village where Martin Heidegger had his ‘hut’ and is also the title of a poem by Paul Celan which Prynne quotes in full. The poem commemorates a meeting between Celan and Heidegger that took place on July 25th 1967 and has been the subject of controversy ever since publication.

The controversy arises because the poem alludes to Celan’s hope of an explanation of or apology for Heidegger’s past and then describes the two men going for a walk but does not disclose whether or not that apology was forthcoming. Prynne cites the work of Pierre Joris, Adam Sharr and James K Lyon before coming to the conclusion that some kind of understanding was reached between the two men. I’d like to consider each of these in turn.

Joris is the best living translator of Celan into English that we have and he is firmly of the view that there was no reconciliation and that ‘Todtnauberg’ is an angry poem of condemnation. As a translator, Joris bases much of his argument on the use of ‘orchis’ and ‘wasen’ to indicate that the walk taken was over the bodies of the dead. There’s a lot more to his argument but that’s the part that moves me to his camp.

The Sharr book is about the hut and Prynne is correct in saying that it’s not very hut-like. To my eye it’s more of a bungalow. The other point is that it isn’t surrounded by trees which is a shock because I’d always envisaged this retreat to be in the woods rather than at the edge of the field. Sharr’s book concludes with observation that “It is clear that the hut and its surroundings offered Heidegger things and events that, for him, prompted reflection and stimulated contemplation. Todtnauberg intensified his experiences and conditioned his emotive inclinations.”

I have many misgivings about Heidegger but readily concede that ‘Being and Time’ is the most important contribution to 20th century thought. I well recall being awe-struck when reading it for the first time over thirty years ago but that doesn’t mean that I’m equally impressed by his later work although Celan clearly was and Prynne is. There are many of the ‘provincial’ touches of the later Heidegger that I find a bit absurd – the woodland path analogy, the acorn in the lapel and the hut.

The Lyon book is about the relationship between Celan and Heidegger and I stopped reading it after the first 20 pages. This is very unusual for me as I’m normally avid for all the information that I can get but this particular tome made me feel grubby. It features in large part the notes and marks that Celan made in books that he owned and then extrapolates assumptions from these notes. I’m not normally squeamish but it is only reasonable to point out that these notes were private and made in the expectation that they should remain so. Shouldn’t we respect that privacy? The other qualm relates to what the notes may tell us, my copy of ‘The Faerie Queen’ is covered in scrawls made over three or four readings, most of these are an ongoing argument with Hamilton’s gloss and the rest relate to bits that were once of interest to me. Anyone going through this wouldn’t know when the notes were made nor would they know what my frequent use of exclamation marks actually meant. We make notes in books for all kinds of reasons but these a personal to us and of little use to anyone else. End of short rant.

I have now read Lyon on the meeting and am now offended by his account of Celan’s mental health and his regret at not being able to access the clinical records. His description of the very real mental anguish Celan experienced during the sixties is cursory and speculative. Unlike Prynne, I don’t find Lyon’s analysis of the meeting conclusive but then again I don’t think it matters what Heidegger said in private to Celan or anyone else and I prefer ‘Todtnauberg’ to remain as ambiguous as Celan intended.

Prynne continues with Heidegger by quoting the following from ‘Wrong Paths’-  ‘Language is the domain (templum), viz. the house of Being… the temple of Being’ and quotes from Lyon who describes Heidegger using the image of ‘language as a house or shelter for humankind.’

Prynne underlines to contrast between the two kinds of huts by calling upon Gautonomo, the Gulag and shanty towns around the world to make the point that huts are still the scene of utter degradation.

I’d like to end with a lengthy quote because of the insight that it gives into Prynne’s practice-

“The house of language is not innocent and is no temple. The intensities of poetic encounter, of imagination and deep insight into spiritual reality and poetic truth, carry with them all the fierce contradiction of what human language is and does. There is no protection or even temporary shelter from these forms of knowledge that is worth even a moment’s considered preference, even for poets or philosophers with poetic missions. Because the primal hut strips away a host of circumstantial appurtenances and qualifications, it does represent an elemental form, a kind of sweat-lodge; but it is confederate with deep ethical problematics, and not somehow a purifying solution to them. Yet the hut presents always a possible aspiration towards innocence, residual or potential, and towards transformation, so that a cynical report would be equally in error. Poets worth the attention of serious readers are not traffickers in illusions however star-bright, and entering by choice rather than necessity into a hut implies choosing the correct moment to come out again. Even Wordsworth manages to do this, in the poem I have cited. The house of language is a primal hut, is stark and is also necessary, and not permanent.”

Sounds like a bit of a manifesto to me….