Jacques Derrida on Paul Celan and bearing witness

In the English speaking world Derrida remains a controversial figure, usually attacked as (horror of horrors) a charlatan and a relativist but by others extolled for his critical brilliance. Celan is an equally divisive figure. His later work is viewed by some as too austere and thus unpoetic (the not-poetry camp) and by others as the greatest work of the 20th century.

I'm not going to attempt a view on Derrida here but freely admit to holding the second view re Celan's work. I intend to mull over, as tentatively and provisionally as possible, whether or not Derrida's essay on Aschenglorie is a helpful reading of one particular poem.

I think I've said before that he is wrong when he emphasises language as the 'genius' of Celan's writing. The thing about Derrida is that his occasional wrongness comes up in the midst of brilliant observations and this is certainly the case here. Of course, having different interests and experiences, I'm of the view that Celan's genius springs, first and foremost from his humanity and honesty without which skill, knowledge and ability don't seem to add up to much.

Poetics and Politics of Witnessing is a detailed reading of Celan's Ascenglorie which first appeared in the 1967 Atemwende collection:

    Ashglory behind
    your shaken-knotted
    hands at the threeway.

    Pontic erstwhile: here,
    a drop,
    on the drowned rudder-blade,
    in the petrified oath,
    it roars up.

    (On the vertical 
    breathrope, in those days,
    higher than above,
    between two painknots, while
    the glossy 
    I dug myself into you and into you.)

    glory behind
    you threeway 

    The cast-in-front-of-you, from
    the East, terrible.

    bears witness for the 

At first, some years ago, I wasn't overly keen on this because of the last sentence which appeared to be a bit self-pitying. a plaintive cry from the poet that nobody bears witness as he bears witness for others. I'd also foolishly ignored the use and repetition of "ashglory" because I got carried away with breathropes and hands.

Good criticism should enable the reader to look at a poem in different ways and to think along alternative routes. Derrida does this here and Prynne does the same, albeit in much more detail, with George Herbert's Love III. The 'opening up' for me occurs at two different but linked points. There's this on the opening word:

This glory of ashes, this glory of ash, this glory which is that of the ashes but is also of ash, in ashes - and glory, at the very least, the light or shining brightness of fire - here sheds light on a poem that I shall not even attempt to interpret with you. Light is also knowing, truth, meaning. Now this light is no more than ashes here, it becomes ash, it falls into ashes, as the fire goes out. But (and the mobile and unstable articulation of this "but" will become important for us) ashes are also of glory, they can be renowned and renamed, sung, blessed, loved, if the glory of the renowned and renamed is not reducible either to fire or to the light of knowing. The brightness of glory is not only the light of knowing [connaissance] and not necessarily the clarity of knowledge [savoir].

This, for me, is an example of criticism at its very best because it has effect of pushing the reader into a range of different and more involving ways of paying attention to it. Initialyl I took the glory to be about the right of the Holocaust victims, who were incinerated and turned to ash, to glorification in the religious sense. For many years I was reasonably confident in this reading but the above paragraph hefted me into a reconsideration. Ash does indeed speak of death and annihilation but it is also a sign, a still-present trace of that destruction. The presence of ash may indicate that the fire is going out but the glory within (if that's where it is) may also suggest that the fire won't die. The 'glory' which is a celebration is also something that sheds its light so that things may be seen more clearly. It's a loaded term, full of ambiguities in itself which set off further ideas with regard to ash. The ash may not exist but the glory, in all its connotations, that it has initiated carries on to be this backdrop, this thing that stands behind ths threeway meeting or encounter.

I've given some thought to the assertion that light "is also knowing, truth, meaning" and need to take issue with the broad 'sweep' of this because I can see how light can enable these things but I cannot work out how light can 'be' these things. However, Celan took a keen interest in Jewish mysticism which can occasionally equate light with God. I think that if the above definition is derived from these ideas then we ought to be told. As you might expect, Derrida uses his words carefully and here the use of 'renowned' gives cause for some further pondering, especially in conjunction with the giving of new or different names.

I think at this point it might be appropriate to meet the relativism argument head on, the assertion is that Derrida's reading of texts as something shifting, transient and essentially an endless series of metaphors has given rise to the idea that everything has these qualities and that this implies that the world doesn't contain any objective truth and/or reality. It is then usually pointed out that relativism leads directly to nihilism which is a Very Bad Thing indeed.

Now, I'm of the relativist disposition (A N Whitehead faction) and I'd love nothing better than to claim Derrida as 'one of us' but I can't find anything in the small portion of what I've read that would fall into this increasingly specific category. The essay usually cited in this pigeon hole is 'Differance' with:

"There will be no unique name, even if it were the name of Being. And we must think of this without nostalgia, that is, outside the myth of a purely paternal or maternal language, a lost native country of thought. On the contrary, we must affirm this in the sense in which Nietzsche puts affirmation into play in a certain laughter and a certain step of the dance."

This seemed stunningly insightful and 'new' when I first read it thirty years ago, now it just seems self-evident, something we've known for ever. Either way, it's not a relativist position.

As with many great poets throughout history, Celan makes use of ambiguity to the extent that his critics say that there is too much uncertainty and not enough 'meaning' in his work. In response, Celan justified his use of this device by saying that he found many things in life to be ambiguous and that this was his way of expressing the things that he saw and experienced. Again, I don't see this as a relativist position because ambiguity doesn't bring objective truth into question.

So, a fruitful and wide-ranging commentary whose depth is further elaborated with the idea of witnessing. Being of the view that bearing witness is the central feature / facet / aspect of European literature in general and poetry in particular, the poem, it seems to me, is particularly good / effective at memorialization, whether this be of a person, a place or a period in time and this involves acting as a witness to these things, either at first or second-hand. Witnessing, carrying out this act of authentic description and / or statement, seems to me to be even more slippery than most acts. Derrida ties in this act with the twice-mentioned 'three' pointing out that the witness is the third person who is present and sees what occurs between two protagonists. He also indulges in an unnecessary bout of etymology which doesn't seem to advance his argument.

If you think about acting as a witness for longer than about 10 seconds then it will become apparent (if it was ever unclear) that witnessing is not the same as proving. Derrida goes to some lengths to emphasise this. Having spent three days in the witness box in a criminal trial and managing other civil proceedings, I've found that witnesses (rather than victims and alleged offenders) have this absolute need to give their account and a secondary need to be believed. A recent example is the amount and tone of witness statements taken from witnesses after the horrific shootings at Sandy Nook Elementary School in 2013 where all of those involved are determined to leave nothing out of their account even when it conflicts with others.

Derrida does spend a lot of time on the witness as liar and the nature of perjury but I don't see this as relevant to the poem which seems deeply enmeshed in the inescapable fact of the Holocaust. He also employs a typically Gallic approach (dense, repetitive, unduly gnomic) to provide us with the brilliant insight that no-one can witness for the witness in the act of witnessing- he goes on to discuss the fact that those exterminated by the Germans are incapable of providing accounts and that others are simply reporting what they have been told. This is a paraphrase of his argument but I think it gets away from the original 'point' about the impossibility of witnessing for the witness.

Celan's own biography is redolent of some of these difficulties, he appears to have spent most of the war in Nazi labour camps, both his parents died in captivity and it is claimed that our poet was consumed with guilt due to his failure to persuade his parents to go into hiding when the Nazi round-up in Czernowitz began.

What's great about this kind of 'sympathetic' reading is that it does prod the reader (me) into different understandings. I've had to reconsider on a much deeper level what it must have been like to write work that is scathingly critical of the German state only to find your work lauded by German critics in their attempt at some kind of redemption. I've also had to think much harder about the ways in which testimonies can be made and preserved. I've looked again at Claude Lanzmann's magnificent 10 hour documentary which consists entirely of witnesses - both perpetrators and victims and I've read first-person accounts of the mass murders carried out in Soviet Russia. All of this leads me to believe that it is possible to bear witness / testify for the witness.

Derrida suggests that this 'for' might indicate that the evidence which no-one can give might be that which is provided, spoken in front of or on behalf of the witness. At which point my small brain gives up on the convolutions which are thus implied.

I think it's important to make clear that Im not a fan of any kind of lit crit academifying, nor do I have much patience with discussions or analyses that are more difficult to comprehend /grasp than the work itself. Maybe I'm naive but I don't get the impression here that too much lit crit is going on, indeed the essay reads very much as a personal response albeit skewed according to the writer's interests (language, etymology, translation) so I don't think we are being beaten over the head with all things deconstruction. I'm sure most of us will be able to strip out the material that isn't of direct relevance anyway. There are a few sentences that should have been cut such as this on the difference between witnessing and proving: "the entire problem stems from the fact that the crossing of such a conceptual limit is at once forbidden and constantly practiced" - this is the kind of dismal emptiness that gives this kind of work a bad name.

To those not familiar with the idioms of French academic debate since 1930, this stuff might feel unduly complicated but I would argue that this is much more about the way things are phrased than what they say. The essay does contain its own convolutions and occasionally oversteps into over-embellishment but it does in general read as an honest attempt to be as clear as possible about something that is very complex indeed.

I need also to mention Derrida's reading of the second and third sentence, he misses the repatriation of the Greek speaking inhabitants of Pontus on the Black Sea back to Greece and the difficulties that they had communicating with speakers of 'ordinary' Greek. He then suggests that the third sentence refers to the suicide of Marina Tsvetaeva in 1941, which is reasonable but only one of many plausible readings.

We now come to the Heidegger problem. Part of Derrida's reputation is built, for good and bad, on his reading of Heidegger. Celan is known to have admired Heidegger's work. There is a page or so here of discussion as to the philosopher's assertion that "belief has no place in thinking", in the context of the witnessing / proving divide. I remain of the view that insufficient weight is given to the influence of the Jewish faith in general and the work of Martin Buber in particular and it is a pity that Derrida pays little attention to the religious and mystical aspects of bearing witness.

What all of this gives me is the opportunity to go back to the work and decide to what extent my initial reading of the final sentence has changed from "I bear witness but nobody bears witness for me" to something else. It also provides me with the chance to modify my view on the repeated 'three' which I'd taken to stand for the poet and his dead parents but now I feel might have something to do with the witness being the third party in an incident between two others. The other prod has been to reconsider the many facets of glory and ash. All of this leads me to different conclusions about witnessing as translating an account or narrative into a testimony and what might this involve as well as the differences between witnessing and memorialising.

So, I'm not suggesting that this reading provides a lucid and coherent reading, it's far too skewed and partial for that, but it does push me into thinking in different ways about the poem and also about the very real dilemmas that it raises.