Tag Archives: the holocaust

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,
the
Maltese Jew, big-
lipped-him
the bone jumped, abrupter
than I, the bone
that someone already from tomorrow threw-,
you
should not
look up to heaven, you left
him then, as he you,
stranded
side-lit

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

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.

Addendum

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.

Paul Celan: some wordwords from Timestead

For those who don’t already know, the bebrowed view is that Paul Celan is the greatest poet of the twentieth century and his later work stands far above that of any other poet since 1900. I’m not going to expand or justify this point as I’ve already done this elsewhere. What I am going to do is hopefully illustrate this brilliance by attending to his abiding interest in language as shown in Timestead, his final collection which was published posthumously in 1976, six years after he took his own life.

Before we get on to the poems, a few points might be useful:

Before proceeding, it’s probably as well to throw into the mix some of what the Address and the notes for it have to say about language. I’m going to select a few that I find most helpful in my ongoing involvement with the work. So this is entirely subjective, my only defence is that I don’t have space to attend all of those that might be pertinent.

As with the poems, I’m using the English translations of Pierre Joris simply because I find his to be the most reliable. This is a key passage from the Address:

But language actualized, set free under the sign of a radical individuation, that at the same time, however, remains mindful of the language draws and of the possibilities that language opens up for it.

The always-still of the poem can indeed only be found in the work of the poet who does not forget that he speaks under the angle of inclination of his Being, the angle of inclination of his creatureliness.

The the poem is – even more clearly than previously – one person’s language-become-shape, and, according to its essence, presentness and presence.

These are from the Poem and Language section of the notes:

This pictorial is by no means something visible, it is, like everything else connected with language, a mental phenomenon. Language is not that an encounter with an invisible. It is, even in what is furthest from the voice a question of the accent; in the poem the perception of its sound pattern also belongs to the perceived image. By the breath-steads in which it stands. you recognize it by the crest-times. That is by no means the same as this or that cheap impressionistic tone painting, timbre etc. It is, here too, a manifestation of language, a speech-art that has to be hear in the written, i.e. the silent, ( the language-grille which is also the speechgrille, makes this visible.)

and:

The poem is inscribed as the figure of the complete language but language remains invisible; that which actualizes itself – language – takes steps, as soon as that has happened, back into the realm of the possible. “Le Poeme”, writes Valery est du a l’état naissant; language in statu nascendi, thus language in the process of liberation.

As with any great work, Celan’s output has been the subject of fierce critical debate, most of which is sufficiently obfuscatory to deter even the most attentive of fans (me). So I’m going to leave these kerfuffles to one side and present my view of the deployment of language in one particular late poem that hopefully will demonstrate the sense of involvement and fascination that this stuff triggers in the soul.

 The whisperhouse,
open on leapday,

handed on
on jute, surface-
deep,

it naturalizes 
the fricatives,

the lallation-stage
is taken care of 
by the lip-
pegs,

―does the 
other snap in,
on time?―

this, yes this
glacierscreaming
of your hands,

the network of the dead 
helps to carry the firnice,

the moon,
poles reversed,
rejects you, second
earth,

at the restheaven, deathproud, the
starthrong
takes the hurdle.

We’ll get the trickier words out of the way with the help of the OED-

Fricative= “Of a consonant-sound: Produced by the friction of the breath through a narrow opening between two of the mouth-organs”, English examples include ‘v’ and ‘f’

Lallation = ” An imperfect pronunciation of r, by which the sound of that letter is confused with that of l” or “childish utterance”.

The definition for firnice comes from Wikipedia- ” is partially compacted névé, a type of snow that has been left over from past seasons and has been recrystallized into a substance denser than névé. It is ice that is at an intermediate stage between snow and glacial ice. Firn has the appearance of wet sugar, but has a hardness that makes it extremely resistant to shovelling. Its density generally ranges from 550 kg/m3-830 kg/m3, and it can often be found underneath the snow that accumulates at the head of a glacier.”

The first line is close to my heart in that I’ve just incorporated the Loud Whisper into my own performance work. What I’ve found fascinating is this activity as halfway, or thereabouts, between speaking and breathing. Whispering loudly also involves a conscious effort to empty the voice of all its sonority which is really difficult to sustain over a long period.

Four occasions when we whisper come to mind:

  • when we are in a religious building, as a mark of reverence;
  • in libraries, museums and arts venues where we don’t want to disturb the concentration or enjoyment of others;
  • when we want to keep something secret and we don’t want to be overheard;
  • when we are in hiding and in danger of being discovered.

So, the ‘house’ suffix may be a place of worship, study, entertainment, display, secrecy or hiding or a mixture of any of these.

Whispers are also nouns, the sound we make when we whisper or a sound made by something else that sounds like a whisper. Bearing mind how the poem proceeds, the escape of gas can sound like a whisper which might have us leaping to the idea of the whisperhouse as a gas chamber, a place of industrialised slaughter. This may or may not be conjoined with any of the above, ambiguity being a recurring device in Celan’s work. Here I’m going to make use of J H Prynne on the poetically ambiguous:

In very summary form we may describe the effect like this. In strictly local context the surrounding sense may point strongly to one word-meaning rather than to another, different meaning of the same word. But in larger context within a poem a less “probable” meaning may also open a semantic possibility that can give the overall meaning a richer sense, even (or especially) by irony or contradiction, so that often a very wide range of different senses can be found to be active and having an effect, maybe on different levels or discoverable in different stages of the poem’s development.

Of course, outside the field of contemporary cultural endeavour, this quality is frowned upon precisely because it is inexact, imprecise and generally wooly in a world in which clear answers and meanings ‘matter’ more than anything else. The ambiguous, an expression that might point in two or three ways at once, is not tolerated even though the quantum world appears to be characterised by this kind of uncertainty.

It might be worthwhile to give some attention to the less likely meanings which in order to see whether any of them do provided these additional aspects. There are a few that spring to mind:

  • a house is also, in English at least, a place of government (Houses of Parliament, House of Representatives etc.) and thus might point towards the way in which the political elite in Germany acquiesced in the political ascendancy of the Nazis, who made no secret of their virulent hatred of the Jews;
  • a whisper, in this sense, could also signify the way the Holocaust was accepted but not discussed by the German people during the war, the extent of this knowledge is still an issue of quite fierce scholarly debate but I think Celan’s body of work shows that he felt that the German people were at the very least complicit in this calculated genocide;
  • this whisper may also about the fact that the Nazi regime was intent on keeping the fact of mechanised slaughter a secret from the allies as a way of avoiding blame for their deeds;
  • a whisperhouse may also be a house where Jews were hidden during the war and needed to remain quiet in order to evade discovery.
  • the house may carry some of whatever it was that Heidegger may have meant in his Building, Dwelling, Thinking.

All of these might be completely wrong, they may well reflect what I want them to signify rather than Celan’s intentions. However I feel that the above possibilities demonstrate Prynne’s ‘richer sense’.

It appears to me that much firmer ground is reached when we get to the fricatives and the lallations. Fricatives involve the lips, lip pegs may suggest an impairment of the lips thus making speech very difficult indeed, perhaps reducing it to a ‘childish utterance’. The main stumbling block to this set of tentative assumptions is the gas chambers ‘naturalising’ the fricatives. In its wider sense, this verb relates to the turning of something or person foreign or alien into something native. In a secondary sense, the OED has ” To introduce or adopt (a word, phrase, etc.) into a language or into common use; also in extended use”.

Plants are one of the things that can be made native in a number of different senses.

This, as might be expected, sets your humble servant on a whole new round of re-ambiguation, starting with the fact that Celan was born in Romania but his mother tongue was German, he became a translator in Paris after the war, working across many different languages. One of the aspects noted by many critics is that he wrote his poems in German, the language of those responsible for the Holocaust and the death of his parents. I’m of the view that this facet is given too much prominence but I can’t deny that translation has something to do with putting things foreign into a more usable form. I also have to recognise that Celan was a keen amateur botanist.

These pegs may be used to hold the lips together thus denying/preventing speech except for humming. So, is this a confirmation of the then widely held view that the fact of the Holocaust renders all creative expression impossible? Todesfuge, an early and most famous poem was heralded as demonstrating how such expression is possible. His later work suggests that this process of bearing witness to the unspeakable proved exceptionally difficult and emotionally destructive as the years went by.

This noise made by the glacier is also a sound without meaning, a sound of fear and pain but one that doesn’t speak with words, in language. I would thus, provisionally and tentatively, that one of the ‘threads’ running through this brilliant poem relates to the destructive effect of the gas chambers on our ability to put anything into language.

In conclusion, I hope I’ve given at least some indication of the fruits that close attention to Celan can bring and that some readers may feel encouraged to have a look for themselves. Breathturn into Timestead is available from Amazon at fifteen and a half of your finest English pounds and for free from a number of those criminal free books sites. For new readers, the second option is probably preferable to the first.

Paul Celan, Osip Mandelstam and fateful language

Plough match 2012 # 17 Julian Winslow

The last post on Celan’s term ‘the angle of inclination’ attracted some debate and a very helpful contribution from Pierre Joris (Celan’s best translator who also spent seven years of his life producing the English version of the notes for the Meridian), I thought that I’d return to this issue and add a few more elements into the ‘mix’.

For those unfamiliar with Celan’s work, it is probably sufficient to say that he was the greatest poet of the 20th century and that his later work embodies much of what poetry must be about. The notes made in preparation for the Meridian offer a crucial insight into Celan’s poetics- the Meridian address is the only time that he expressed his views on poetry in any depth. I’ve paid intermittent but close attention to the notes since last summer and have learned a number of things which appear to be reasonably central to Celan’s practice:

  • the poem comes from a primordial darkness and this blackness is “congenital” to the poem;
  • the poem carries the potential for an encounter and the encounter between reader and poem is both tactile and intimate;
  • the poem is described as being “under way” en route to some “other”.

I’m reasonably confident of the above but there are many other aspects that are resistant to ‘easy’ interpretation. One of these is the use of the ‘angle of inclination’ which I speculated about in the last post. To recap this is what Celan said in the address:

This always-still can only be a speaking. But not just language as such, nor, presumably, not verbal “analogy” either.

But language actualized, set free under the sign of a radical individuation that at the same time, however, remains mindful of the borders language draws and of the possibilities language opens up for it.

This always-still of the poem can indeed only be found in the work of the poet who does not forget that he speaks under the angle of inclination of his Being, the angle of inclination of his creatureliness.

The the poem is – even more clearly than previously – one person’s language-become-shape and, according to its essence, presentness and presence.

Last time I speculated that this angle may refer to being leant forward so as to pay close or respectful attention to something. In response, Courtney Druz suggested that this might refer to a “bending under pressure” whilst Tom D’Evelyn made this observation- ““Inclination” may point to the intersubjective understanding of otherness. The I is opened to the other by transcending itself, the self that is “intended” in time towards an object, and this transformation of the self creates a space where Being may show its “otherness” as inclination: a point of entry into this space. The pressure Courtney mentions is a “pull” that co-operates with the opening self to open the space.” Pierre Joris put forward a Deleuzian perspective- “I’ll confess to problems with the translation of Celan’s term “Neigungswinkel” — which I eventually returned to its most literal translation as “angle of inclination”. For many years —the whole book took 7 years (meager? fat?) to translate — I used the term “clinamen” which in its Deleuzian inclination had seemed useful & accurate to me & my own thinking about PC. Vagaries & vanities of translation.”

In responding to these I came across a more detailed paragraph which I should have included in the initial post:

The poem that I have in mind is not surface-like: nor is this changed by the fact that even recently, with Apollinaire or with Chr. Morgenstern, one had the shape poem, rather, the poem has the (complex a double spatial depth of the soul of the) spaciality of the who demands it of the soul and indeed a complex one: the spaciality and tectonics of the one who demands it of himself and the spaciality of the of his own language ie (language which) not simply of language as such but of the language which configures and actulizes itself under the special angle of inclination of the one who speaks and thus the poem is fateful language.

(The words in brackets are the ones that Celan crossed out in his notes.)

The next paragraph expands on ‘fateful’:

“Fateful”: a highly contestable word, I know; but let it function at least as an auxiliary word; as auxiliary word for ex., for the description of an experience: that one has to emulate one’s poem, if it is to remain true; that concerning this or that poem one has to ask oneself if it hadn’t been better to have left it unwritten; that (one) even (the) most (pronounced, most articulated) literal irreality form speaks the language of the imperative: “You must pass through here, life!”

(The words in brackets are again the ones that Celan crossed out in his notes.)

So, there are now some additional words and phrases that we need to think about. I’m taking ‘the one who speaks’ to be the poet or the maker of the poem and that the poem actualizes itself because it is made by the poet who has this ‘special’ angle of inclination. It is because of this process that the poem is said to be ‘fateful’ language.

Let’s give some consideration to this ‘highly contestable word’, fateful has five definitions in the OED:

  • Of a voice or utterance: Revealing the decrees of fate; prophetic of destiny;
  • Fraught with destiny, bearing with it or involving momentous consequences; decisive, important. Chiefly of a period of time;
  • Marked by the influence of fate; controlled as if by irresistible destiny;
  • Bringing fate or death; deadly;
  • Having a remarkable fate; of eventful history.

Given what we know about Celan, it is likely that this contestable word is being used as a combination of both the first and second definitions although the fourth definition may also be intended, the notes have “Death as the principle creating unity and limits, this its omnipresence in the poem.” but we do have to tease out whether this is Celan the follower of Heidegger or Celan the depressive…..

With regard to “You must pass…”, the notes contain “poems are narrows: you have to go through here with you life – ” with an additional comment that was put in later- “…..not all the poems one writes: no one is a poet through and through…”. So poems carry or are laden with fate/destiny and also carry death and that the poet has a kind of duty to ’emulate’ the poem- in another version of the ‘fateful’ paragraph this is “one has to live according to one’s poems”.

The Notes also contain Celan’s radio-essay on “The poetry of Osip Mandelstam” which contains this: “These poems are the poems of someone who is perceptive and attentive, someone turned toward what becomes visible, someone addressing and questioning: these poems are a conversation.

Celan was a fervent admirer of Mandelstam’s work and had translated it from the Russian, here I think the idea of turning towards something that becomes visible may also provide context for ‘inclination’.

I think Courtney is right that the leaning forward is also experienced as a burden, as a responsibility to bear witness for the other- which requires an openness and careful attention. The imperative to bear witness to the fate of the Jewish people is a recurring theme in Celan’s work which is made more difficult and complex by the fact that his mother tongue was German. “Tenebrae” has ‘we’ going to look at the bodies in mass graves but it is also set out as a prayer that addresses God directly.

So, inclination may combine- attention, reverence, the burden of responsibility toward the other or otherness and may also be concerned with all of the above working to expose an aspect of truth or reality.

As always with Celan all of this has to be provisional and I haven’t begun yet to address Pierre’s ‘clinamen’ and the Deleuzian Celan but I do find it very useful to try and think these things through.