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Paul Celan's Todtnauberg.

Arnica, eyebright, the
draft from the well with the
starred die above it,

in the
hut,

- whose name did the book
register before mine? -,
the line inscribed
in that book about
a hope, today,
of a thinking man's
coming
word
in the heart,

woodland sward, unlevelled,
orchid and orchid, single,

coarse stuff, later, clear
in passing,

he who drives us, the man
who listens in,

the half-
trodden wretched tracks through the high moors,

dampness,
much.

(Translated by Michael Hamburger)

This poem has been a feeding ground for rival critics ever since it was written. This is primarily because it records Celan's only meeting with Martin Heidegger at the philosopher's rural retreat in 1966. Heidegger is considered by many to be the 20th century's greatest thinker yet his reputation is tarnished by his support for the Nazis and his refusal to atone for this after the Second World War. Celan was an avid reader of Heidegger and admirer of his work yet he was also a Holocaust survivor and so had a deeply personal interest in hearing what Heidegger had to say about his Nazi past.

So this poem can be seen as a 'perfect storm' which whisks around politics, philosophy and literature with the Holocaust as the unifying undercurrent. I'm in a fortunate position in that I don't agree with much of what Heidegger wrote but I do recognise his enormous influence and get more than a little irritated by the hysteria generated by both sides of the Heidegger argument. Another obvious but overlooked fact is that we will never know what transpired between these two men primarily because there were no witnesses and both have been dead for some time- this kind of inconvenient truth does seem to attract academic moths around the flame.

The 'Heidegger problem' is probably best resolved by acknowledging that being politically wrong (in every sense) does not automatically equate with being a poor or weak philosopher and it is probably significant that the backlash has been so vehement and far-fetched.

For a balanced overview of the current Heidegger and the Nazis depate, Pierre Joris has a clear analysis expressed in accessible language - a rare event when dealing with all things Heidegger.

The poem is a single sentence and reads like a series of notes for a longer piece, it is also sufficiently ambiguous for us to be uncertain whether Heidegger actually delivered the 'coming word'. The poem tells a fairly clear story- Celan arrives at the hut, notices eyebright and arnica dotted around and drinks from a well with the 'starred die' above it. He writes in the guest book, expressing his hope for some kind of explanation/apology. The two men go for a short walk but it is raining. On the way back in the car Heidegger utters some 'coarse stuff' which their driver hears.

There are those of us that would argue that 'Todtnauberg' is not a very good poem when compared with the rest of Celan's later work and that it doesn't much matter whether a kind of reconciliation was achieved. What this poem does is cause us to question whether any 'coming word' could ever be sufficient in the light of the industrial extermination of the Jews. Heidegger's complicity in this atrocity continues to be the subject of heated debate on both sides of the Atlantic but no-one can read his Rectorship Address of 1934 and doubt that he was fully immersed in Nazi ideology. Celan's adult life had been committed to bearing witness to the Holocaust and it is therefore extremely unlikely that anything that Heidegger could have said would in any way be sufficient.

In terms of interpretation, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe notes the poem's note of disappointment and exhaustion whilst Pierre Joris points to the word 'Waldwasen' (translated above as 'woodland sward') which 'one could nearly translate as "killing fields". On the other side of the divide, J H Prynne relies on the work done by J K Lyon to demonstrate that a reconciliation of sorts did actually occur and that the poem is a reflection of this.

I'm of the view that the reference to other names in the book is an allusion to the fact that Heidegger entertained his Nazi proteges in the hut and I'm also persuaded by the use of 'Waldwasen' to suggest that the two men were walking over the bodies of the dead.

On the other hand, in traditional medicine arnica is used to alleviate pain and eyebright can be used as a remedy for sore eyes and poor memory whilst salep, a drink prepared from the orchid, has been used as a strengthening and soothing agent. So, we start with poor memory, pain and problems with vision and move towrds the soothing and fortifying powers of the orchid. This may also be supported by the fact that Celan was a keen and very knowledgeable botanist.

Incidentally the 'starred die' above the well isn't any kind of die but a star shape cut from a single block of wood. This was clearly significant to Heidegger but no-one seems to know why.

Having just amended the above, I've just realised that I don't care whether this reconciliation took place or not and I do wish that Celan hadn't written a poem about it because it gets in the way of his better work.

Pierre Joris' translation is subtly different from the one above and he has written an enlightening essay on his take on 'Todtnauberg'and the process of translation.