Reading Paul Celan
According to George Steiner, reading Paul Celan will change your life and it has to be said that this is not an outrageous claim. In the last decade of his life Celan produced a body of work that many consider to be the finest poetry of the 20th century. The poems are usually short, invariably terse but packed with meaning and contain some of the most startling images ever written.
The work is notorious for its extreme ambiguity and for its refusal to compromise. Paul Celan was many things and we can prioritise these in different ways:
- a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust;
- a son whose parents were both murdered by the Germans;
- a mentally ill man prone to bouts of severe depression and despair;
- a brilliant translator of many great works;
- an admirer of the work of Martin Heidegger but also of Martin Buber;
- a husband and father;
- a French resident who felt compelled to write in his mother tongue which was German
- a disillusioned socialist with anarchist leanings.
Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe has identified 4 key strands that inform Celan's work-
- The German cultural belief that the German language is somehow closer to Ancient Greek and that German identity is thus bound up with this privileged link to the founding civilisation;
- Celan was born in Bukovina which was occupied by the Soviet Union, by Germany and Romania and then again by the Soviet Union. Even though Celan's mother tongue was German, he was always at the edge of 'Mitteleuropa' and was always the 'Other';
- Celan's work can be seen as an attempt to engage with the German culture and ideas of utopia that led directly to the Holocaust;
- The poetry can also be seen as an attempt to address the possibility of existence in the 'shadow' of the Holocaust.
I'm not of the view that you can encapsulate the work in this way, I'm not confident that my list of roles/identities listed above is in anyway helpful but I would rather start with what the man was rather than what he thought because it is these aspects that seem to underpin the work.
The work can be seen as a struggle for survival, that each poem can be read as a gasping for breath, as an extended cry in the hellish light of day. This gives the impression that this is a bleak and unforgiving realm but they also open up immensely productive trains of thought in the attentive / careful reader. I think that I need to be clear that this isn't therapeutic verse, none of these poems contain easy or soothing answers but they do demand/initiate a completely different way of thinking. Given Celan's background this isn't by any means a comfortable process but it's what probably what Steiner meant with his 'life changing' quip.
The work shows us, like no other, what poetry can and must achieve. Set out below is 'Go Blind' published in the 'Atemwende' collection in 1967:
Go blind now, today:
eternity also is full of eyes -
drowns what helped images down
the way they came,
fades what took you out of language,
lifted you out with a gesture
which you allowed to happen like
the dance of the words made of
autumn and silk and nothingness
I can't claim to have a full understanding of this but it is a poem that has stuck under my skin for the last forty years. I find it beautiful, terrifying and compelling and I don't want anyone to tell me what it may 'mean'. This is just one of many intense experiences that I've had with Celan and when reading him I know (as with Milton) that I'm in the presence of greatness. I could, for example, spend the next five thousand words exposing the brilliance of "drowns what helped images down / the way they came" and another five thousand on what might have helped images (back) down and why 'drowns' is absolutely correct.
Starting to read Celan
Celan rewards both care and attention but the work also requires a tolerance of ambiguity and an acceptance of the secret or hidden. Some of the questions that might be asked of 'Go blind' might be:
- are the first three words a command- what else might they be?;
- why is today used, isn't it superfluous?;
- who is the 'you';
- is there more than one you, is the you who allowed things to happen a different you from the one that is commanded to go blind and the you that is taken out of language?
- does the second 'in them' refer to images or eyes or both?;
- what might it be like to be lifted out of language?;
- how can the dancing words be made from the three elements on the last line?.
The above list is just a starting point for where an attentive reading may (or may not) take us and many people will be deterred by the absence of obvious or even feasible solutions- this is inevitable but this does not in anyway detract from the brilliance and magnitude of the material.
The translation problem.
For those of us that aren't fluent in German, the choice of translator is very important. Celan had a keen interest in the origins of words and the way that meanings change over time, he also used double and treble meanings to maintain a level of ambiguity in his work. Whilst it is important to recognise that each translation in effect creates an entirely new poem, there is a need with Celan to try and maintain this level of ambiguity and to reflect the way the lines sound in the original. Michael Hamburger and Pierre Joris have probably managed this with the greatest skill but it is up to individual readers to select the translations that they are most 'comfortable' with.
For a specific example of the translation dilemma, please see the Celan in translation page and also Pierre Joris' insightful and helpful essay on the challenges facing the translator with particular reference to 'Todtnauberg'.
Celan and ambiguity
The ambiguous nature of Celan's work has been the subject of much debate. 'Todtnauberg' is one of Celan's best known poems and yet the critics are divided as to its meaning. The title is the name of the village where Martinn Heidegger had his famous hut and the poem commemorates Celan's visit there in 1966. The debate is about whether this is a poem of reconciliation or of continued disappointment. Celan was a keen reader of Heidegger's work yet was deeply troubled by his membership of the Nazi party and the poem refers to his hope that Heidegger would address this troubling connection. Both sides of this divide have put forward strong arguments but the poem remains stubbornly elusive.
This level of ambiguity pervades all of Celan's later work and readers perhaps need to accept that meaning can operate at two or three levels at the same time.
Celan likened his poems to messages in a bottle stating that only the few readers that found them would be able to fully grasp their meaning, he also rejected the charge that they were hermetic.
Anders Olsson quotes Celan in conversation with Hugo Huppert:
And as regards my alleged encodings, I would rather say: ambiguity without a mask, is expresses precisely my feeling for cutting across ideas, an overlapping of relationships. You are of course familiar with the manifestation of interference, coherent waves meeting and relating to one another. You know of dialectic conversions and reversals - transitions into something akin, something succeeding, even something contradictory. That is what my ambiguity (only at certain turning-points, certain axes of rotation present) is about. It stands in consideration to the fact that we can observe several facets in one thing, showing it from various angles, "breaks" and "divisions" which are by no means only illusory. I try to recapitulate in language at least fractions of this spectral analysis of things: related, succeeding, contradictory. Because, unfortunately, I am unable to show these things from a comprehensive angle.
I think this is a more than adequate riposte to those who stumble over the radical ambiguity of the later work because life is messy and does contain many, many 'facets in one thing' and nobody can find the 'comprehensive angle' or truly panoptic view of these simultaneously occurring facets. Celan should nevertheless not be criticised for attempting this task by means of his maskless ambiguity. Of course, 'without a mask' is itself packed with a number of competing meanings....