Going blind with Paul Celan.

Getting the blindingly obvious out of the way first, Paul Celan is the greatest poet of the 20th century and his later work is his best which makes it Very Good Indeed. I've spent some time here and on Bebrowed attempting to write about him in as straightforward a manner as possible as a kind of antidote to the vast majority of critics who tend to make Celan's work more difficult to grasp than it already is. What follows is an attempt to follow one fairly clear theme across a number of poems in a way that stays human rather than theoretical.

The theme is the eye and I've chosen four poems to give some attention to. Eyes are obviously important, being able to see the world and all the stuff in it is fairly key to our survival. This ability diminishes over time, I have fingerprint map dot macular dystrophy which is a sporadically painful condition that occasionally makes seeing anything very difficult indeed. For most of us, our eyes are the most vulnerable parts of our body and we are invariably squeamish about the thought of having our eyeballs touched. In my head, for example, the worst tortures that I could be subjected to involve injury to my eyes. My 94 year old mother is now registered blind and for the last ten years has been unable to read or sew, an impairment that has greatly damaged the quality of her life.

Celan had a specific view that The Poem came from, was born in, primordial darkness before light of any kind came into the universe. This is stated quite clearly in Celan's notes made in preparation for his Meridian acceptance speech. I was a bit startled when I first came across this in Pierre Joris' essential translation because it didn't 'square' with how I think about the work, hopefully playing attention to sight and the lack of it will help sort that out. Of course, as with all my readerly endeavours, this is a tentative and completely self-indulgent exercise for which I make no apology whatsoever.

I've fallen upon four poems from Celan's 'late' period which starts with the Atemwende collection of poems written between 1963 - 65 through to the posthumously and last published Zeitgehoft (Timestead) volume. I'm using the Joris translations because I find I can trust these the most. These are the poems;

GO BLIND today already:
eternity too is full of eyes-
drowns, what helped the images
over the path they came,
expires, who took you out of
language with a gesture
that you let happen like
the dance of two words of just
autumn and silk and nothingness.


SOULBLIND, behind the ashes,
in the holy-meaningless word,
the disrhymed comes walking,
his cerebral mantle draped lightly over the shoulders,

the ear canal irradiated
with reticulated vowels,
he deconstructs the visual purple,
reconstructs it.


palpable with feel-
words, at the departure-

Your face shies quietly,
when all at once
lamplike it lights up
inside me, at that place
where one most painfully says Never.

and, finally;

Two sightbulges, two
here too, straight across
the face,

a light, retrieved from
your first brands, a long
time outside,
slips into the 

I need to confess that GO BLIND has been a personal talisman since my mid teens even though it took me about forty years to discover that the final couple of lines is a lift from Mandelstam. Prior to then I'd been beguiled by the mysterious quality of the whole and the things that, as a hardened materialist, did to my head. The first line is an instruction rather than a description and the second refers to a place/state of being which is usually thought of as the realm of the dead. Eternity is tricky (technical term) in all kinds of ways but Celan's work seems to be concerned both with time and with the afterlife. Many of his poems are addressed directly to his parents and other victims of the Holocaust.

Celan rated Mandelstam above all other 20th century poets and I'm now taking it that GO BLIND is addressed to him mainly because of the many references to eyes and sight in the image-laden later poems. I've always felt that this weird eternity is a place of pure, primordial blackness where there is no need for eyes in the conventional sense but might be required for the making of The Poem. As a younger and much more serious reader, I read Celan in general as expressing frustration at the inadequacy of language and there may be a reference here to the work of Mandelstam transcending that particular constraint.

Pierre Joris' translation of the collected later poetry provides a couple of helpful notes with regard to SOULBLIND pointing out that this mysterious compound word refers to visual agnosia which usually occurs as a result of serious brain damage and entails the inability to recognise objects. In one of the drafts Celan quoted Mandelstam's In Petersburg in Russian "the blessed senseless word" before settling on "the holy-meaningless word". The "cerebral mantle" is glossed as "the layers of gray and white matter that cover the upper surface of the cerebral cortex in vertebrates" and "visual purple" is given as "Rhodopsin, a biological pigment in photoreceptor cells of the retina that is responsible for the first events in the perception of light".

A couple of things suggest themselves here: ash tends to stand for the Holocaust in the later work, ASHGLORY being the best known example; the Nazis stood behind / caused the industrialised murder of 6 million people. The initial adjective may thus be about those who can no longer see and recognise the human soul and it is this failure that enables them to commit these atrocities. One of Celan's major concerns was the failure of the German people after 1945 to admit their guilt and shameful complicity in these events and soulblindness may also point in this direction too. Celan readily admitted that his work was marked by radical ambiguity, explaining that this is how he experienced reality. To my attentive ear "comes walking" carries echoes of Celan's early Todesfuge which made him famous. The brilliant "disrhymed" suggests a person or group who have lost their ability to make both poetry and song but also those who have become unbalanced, out of kilter with the world.

The second line seems entangled with the disabilities and impairments that surround it. We appear to be back with language although the use of 'the' would seem to designate a specific word with specifically religious connotations. Meaninglessness is more extreme than 'senseless' and holy is more particular, in my head anyway, than 'blessed'. This absolutely negative quality is one that needs to be borne in mind as we proceed. It seems obvious to me, given Celan's background, that the disrhymed one is a Nazi perpetrator and that his mantle is also a military coat or cloak.

Coming back to 'soulblind' this could also relate to a soul that can no longer see, although the idea of being blind to the souls of others seems more appropriate, given the context. The German people's failure to act to prevent the destruction of the Jews and their refusal to acknowledge their complicity is a kind of cultural blindness. This is especially pressing at the moment with the rise of anti-semitic and Holocaust denying political parties gaining in popularity and influence across Europe. One of my major worries is the absence of any kind of effective response from European progressives and their supporters to this hideous, if predictable, development.

I'm not denying the more straightforward brain damage option, Celan experienced severe depression during the time these poems were written and was on occasion treated with ect- a process that uses electricity to 'jolt' the brain. I try to be aware of the dangers of over-identification but I've also been a victim of this less than subtle brutality and can vouch for the damage to memory, especially the short termish inability to recall the names of everyday objects. There's also the cognitive chasm that makes it impossible to 'place' your location beyond the hospital walls which is Very Weird Indeed.

Some critics have argued that Celan espouses a kind of negative theology, positing a God who still exists but who has forgotten/abandoned humanity. As an anti-Sawkins atheist, I have a few problems with this but I can afford to as my parents and extended family weren't slaughtered because of their beliefs and identity. If, however, we take the Holocaust as the sign of this abandonment then perhaps the godly meaninglessness becomes a bit clearer.

Hearing is the other major sensory aid to understanding and recognition but this irradiation suggests light rather than sound waves entering the ear and leaving the outlines of the five vowels etched in a net-like pattern either on the walls of the canal or the ear drum itself. Without too much over-identification, this might be about the importance of words spoken rather than read and the act of listening being crucial in our readerly encounter (Celanian term) with The Poem.

I CAN STILL SEE YOU is another poem that has accompanied me from the seventies and it seems to be much more personal and intimate than the others. The others speak of damage to the eyes but this one affirms that the addressee can still be seen, 'still' indicates that this ability has been sustained for some unspecified length of time in the past. The thing that can be seen is an echo, something that is normally heard and we then come to the problem of whether or not an echo can be seen and under what circumstances this can occur. For example, is the addressee some kind of recalled image, a memory of how a person once was? This is an echo that is capable of being touched by these enigmatic 'feel-words' which could be on the cusp of feel as in touch and feel as to experience an emotion. Either way, the addressee is experienced by language, is made palpable (real) by means of words. The site of this encounter appears to be at a raised point where goodbyes are said. The use of 'ridge' denotes to my untutored ear a fixed line of demarcation between two territories.

There would appear to be two quite different candidates for the addressees here. The first is Celan's parents and the second is his wife, Giselle. During most of the last ten years of his life, as his mental health worsened, Celan lived separately from his wife and son so this could be a particularly poignant address to Giselle. Of course he can equally be said to be carrying around the presence, in whatever form, of his dead parents. I've always taken this as a kind of lament for a failing relationship rather than an expression of grief, mainly because of the lyrical intimacy of the second stanza which is unusually direct. The obduracy of the final word is what leads me to over-identify because there has always been a lot of saying nevers in my life and these are two words that I've struggled against but have always felt the presence of since my mid-teens. Even now, when years of medication and psychotherapy have led to 7 straight years of being mentally well, it seems to be a bit of a permanent shadow. I'm therefore, entirely subjectively and tentatively, reading this as primarily, perhaps exclusively, to do with the failure of the marriage and the acceptance or recognition that a reconciliation won't occur. As additional evidence, I'd like to point out that severe psychological wounds can be very painful indeed.

I've only been attending to the fourth example since 2014 but it is utterly brilliant and a contender for the best single poem of the 20th century. I readily concede that this is a minority view given the current critical trends but I'll draw your attention first to 'glimpsed' which, as with 'ashglory' does what poetry does best in elevating poetry to the heights of precision and compression. Given that these lines are reasonably new to me, I'm not going to attempt an overriding meaning but it does appear that the first reference is to eyelids being sewn together and the signs of this act also extend to further disfigure the face. This absolute darkness is then somehow relieved by lit torches taken back from the result of either God's act of creation or the big bang. The light spends what may be aeons before entering a reality where something may become momentarily visible.

These few lines throw up many questions for this particular reader:

That may seem excessive but it does, at least, offer the opportunity to begin in a straightforward way to unravel what Might be Going On. I hope I'm not alone in feeling that the poem is dealing with at least a couple of things that are quite profound and foundational.

I hope that I've shown how completely absorbing Celan's later work is and to have gone some way to refute the charge of obscurity that his later work often attracts. i may also have indicated a few ways in which the absence of sight might figure in this remarkable work. Of course, none of these hazy but attentive meanderings may provide any kind of accuracy but I would claim that they are an honest account of my readerly experience and pleasure.