Tag Archives: witnessing

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that, when ill, we’re incapable of making decisions and these have to be made by our partner, we’re also very, very withdrawn.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.

Paul Celan’s Testimonies

Since all my recent attempts of re-enchantment with poetry have fallen flat on their face, the only book I took with me on a recent trip to Bolivia was the Pierre Joris translation of Celan’s Atemwende and was thus able to give some unfettered attention to the themes and issues raised in that collection. As with Prynne, Celan’s later work has an ability to completely absorb me and, on this occasion, for the first time in 30 months, I became well and truly hooked.

Amongst many things, my eye was caught by the references to testimony and testifying in three successive poems at the end of the first section of the collection. I’ve written before about what Derrida has to say about witnesses and evidence with regard to Ashglory from the first collection but I noticed other aspects with these three that I’d like to expand upon here.

The first poem of the three is Wortaufschuttung which begins with;


    WORDACCRETION, volcanic,
    drowned out by searoar.

Celan worked as a translator and one of his main creative concerns was language and its many uses. Here, accretion seems to point towards some kind of organic or natural accumulation and ‘volcanic’ could point to either an eruption or to lava flows Initially I took ‘word’ literally, as the collection of nouns, verbs and other parts that go to make up a single language but I’ve now more or less come round to the noun referring to individual languages with the image of the Tower of Babel at the back of my head.

The second line is slightly more awkward, to drown something out is to make a noise that prevents the original thing from being heard (although it is still making a noise. However, to drown someone is to immerse her in water until she dies. The last compound word would seem to point both these possibilities.

The other point that I’d like to make is Celan’s view that The Poem has its roots in the absolute blackness, in a kind of enveloping dark. In an unusually lit crit moment, I’ve had a glance at Celan’s notes for the Meridian Address and now want to throw this into the mix as a way of making a little more sense of what might be going on;

Thickness to be understood from the geological, and thus from the slow catastrophes and the dreadful fault lines of language – – –

This is from a section entitled Opacity of the Poem and may indicate that ‘accretion’ may be exclusively geological rather than everything organic or natural. Sadly things aren’t made any easier with the next part of the poem;


    Above,
    the flooding mob
    of contra-creatures: it
    flew a flag - portrait and replica
    cruise vainly timeward.

These are the kind of lines that have given Celan a reputation for Extreme Difficulty but I would maintain that paying some focused attention can reap rewards. It’s usually helpful to work out what is apparently being said. In this instance, there’s a flooding group of opposing creatures that may or may not be above the accretions. This mob raised a flag or standard as it proceeded. An unspecified portrait and replica move without success towards time. The flying of flags is a symbol of territorial identity and pride, the raising of a national flag can be the prelude to a military flag. The lose the flag in battle is a sign of defeat. On the other hand, ‘mob’ usually denotes an unruly and violent group intent on violence and destruction. The adjective may describe the way in which a large mob can suddenly occupy city streets and squares, as in the French and Russian revolutions.

The quality of being a creature appears at a crucial point in the Meridian Address;

But language actualized, set free under the sign of a radical individuation that at the same time, however, remains mindful of the borders that 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.

I’m reading, provisionally and tentatively, ‘contra creatures’ as those things which are against creatures and its quality which seems to be bound together with the business of poetry making. Being with a capital b is always a worry for me as, in this instance, is ‘timeward’ because they are both likely to refer to the work of Martin Heidegger and I don’t want to think too hard in that direction. Suffice it to say that Celan was a keen reader of Heidegger and his work also drew on various strands of mysticism. The two cruising objects are much more promising. We refer to a figurative portrait as a likeness and replicas are, by definition, perfect likenesses of their original. The questions here seem to be; what exactly are the originals of these two objects and why are they cruising in vain?

I now have a further confession to make, as well as being a Heidegger sceptic, I get a little bit irritated by Celan’s use of the dash which would appear to indicate different things in different places. In this particular stanza there is also a colon that should probably be a semi-colon. This is less than helpful.

The final stanza offers some clarifications of the above but also adds its own challenges;


    Till you hurl forth the word-
    moon, out of which
    the wonder ebb occurs
    and the heart-
    shaped crater
    testifies naked for the beginnings,
    the kings-
    births.

We’re now dealing with big things and with Celan’s never-specified yous. The word-moon is said to somehow produce this special ebb in conjunction with an unusual crater. This particular kind of moon has similarities with the accretion in line one but also has the ‘normal’ lunar ability to create tidal movement. The crater bears witness for the birth of kings. This would seem to indicate some parallels with the birth of Christ and perhaps other sagas and myths relating to royal babies. The ‘you’ addressed here could be:

  • God;
  • his parents who died in the Holocaust;
  • all the victims of the Holocaust;
  • a lover;
  • Giselle, his wife;
  • the reader.

It’s reasonable to suggest that testifying is a key concern in the last decade of Celan’s life. I’ve written before about the judicial and historical aspects of this act and its crucial role with regard to the Holocaust but here I’d like to think about other connotations. The first is religious, the OED informs me that ‘testimony’ also used in the Old Testament to denote “the chest containing the tables of the law and other sacred memorials” which I will return to shortly. The other straw to be clutched is geological in that the accretion of material is how rocks are formed and how strate can contain fossils and other indications of past events. Craters are formed by and thus testify either to the impact of meteorites on the earth or the eruption of volcanoes.

I must stress that I’m not trying to minimise the place of the Holocaust in Celan’s work, I just think that there are equally brilliant poems that attend to other matters. For WORDACCRETION I now seem to have a satchel’s worth of ideas and potential links. In assessing these it’s usually as well to bear in mind Celan’s self-confessed penchant for ambiguity.

The most apparent ideas seem to relate to beginnings and violence. There are several references to geological and cosmological processes and these are set alongside hurlings, drownings and floodings as well as volcanoes and a turbulent sea. When I was in primary school I was shown illustrations of what our early world might have looked like. This quite frightening image has stayed with me and is again evoked in this poem. Reluctantly I have to ask whether cruising ‘timeward’ is an indication of a period before time was created by the big bang or whether it relates to the more esoteric state of timelessness.

We then come to signs: words; replicas; portraits and heart-shaped craters all ‘stand’ for something else. perhaps the replica is the exception because they can be dismissed as fakes or used by forgers for financial gain. A volcanic eruption is a sign of a break or rupture in the earth’s crust. If ‘volcanic’ refers to the accretion of words then we would appear to have something violent and dangerous emerging in the form of language. These contra creatures could be those things that are not creatures, ie don’t have creatureliness, rather than things that are simply opposed to creatures. As I understand it, the idea of things having creaturely qualities is tied in Heidegger’s demarcation of those things which have Being and those that don’t.

The crater is in the shape of a heart and heart shapes generally stand for and relate to love which leads me tentatively and provisionally to suggest that some kind of redemption is going on. It is just about possible to read the first two lines as being about the Tower of Babel and the punitive creation of different languages so that people (beings) would lose their arrogant claims to be equivalent to God. I’d point to the portraits and replicas as being religious works of art depicting Christ and gracefully skim over both the word moon and the wonder ebb.

In addition, I’d also like to point out that secondary meaning of testimony and its role as the ‘keeper’ of the Mosaic laws and traditions. There’s also the practice of testifying your faith in some evangelical churches.

Of course, this is my subjective evaluation and should never be thought of as definitive. Hopefully it does offer a way of thinking about this material in a way that is helpful and rewarding. From my perspective, being able to become absorbed in this level of obduracy is a major indication that the process of re-enchantment has begun.