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In the Midst of Losses

Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew

John Felstiner
Yale University Press, 344 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan

translated from the German by John Felstiner
Norton, 426 pp., $29.95

Glottal Stop: 101 Poems

Paul Celan, translated from the German by Nikolai Popov and Heather McHugh
Wesleyan University Press/University Press of New England 147 pp., $24.95

Breathturn

Paul Celan, translated from the German by Pierre Joris
Sun and Moon Press, 261 pp., $12.95 (paper)

Threadsuns

Paul Celan, translated from the German by Pierre Joris
Sun and Moon Press, 272 pp., $13.95 (paper)

Paul Antschel was born in 1920 in Czernowitz in the territory of Buko-vina, which after the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 had become part of Romania. Czernowitz was in those days an intellectually lively city with a sizable minority of German-speaking Jews. Antschel was brought up speaking High German; his education, partly in German, partly in Romanian, included a spell in a Hebrew school. As a youth he wrote verse, revered Rilke.

After a year (1938–1939) at medical school in France, where he encountered the Surrealists, he came home on vacation and was trapped there by the outbreak of war. Under the Hitler– Stalin pact Bukovina was absorbed into the Ukraine: for a brief while he was a Soviet subject.

In June of 1941 Hitler invaded the USSR. The Jews of Czernowitz were driven into a ghetto; soon the deportations commenced. Apparently forewarned, Antschel sought hiding the night his parents were taken. The parents were shipped to labor camps in occupied Ukraine, where both died, his mother by a bullet to the head when she became unfit for work. Antschel himself spent the war years doing forced labor in Axis Romania.

Liberated by the Russians in 1944, he worked for a while as an aide in a psychiatric hospital, then in Bucharest as an editor and translator, adopting the pen name Celan, an anagram of Antschel in its Romanian spelling. In 1947, before Stalin’s iron curtain came down, he slipped away to Vienna and from there to Paris. In Paris he passed his examinations for the Licence ès Lettres and was appointed lecturer in German literature at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure, a position he held until his death. He married a Frenchwoman, a Catholic from an aristocratic background.

The success of this move from East to West was soon marred. Among the writers Celan had been translating was the French poet Yvan Goll (1891– 1950). Goll’s widow Claire took issue with Celan over his versions, and went on to accuse him publicly of plagiarizing certain of Goll’s German poems. Though the accusations were malicious and perhaps even crazy, Celan brooded over them to the point of convincing himself that Claire Goll was part of a conspiracy against him. “What must we Jews yet endure?” he wrote to his confidante Nelly Sachs, like him a Jew writing in German. “You have no idea how many should be counted among the base, no Nelly Sachs, you have no idea!… Should I name names? You would stiffen with horror.”

His reaction cannot just be put down to paranoia. As postwar Germany began to feel more confident, anti-Semitic currents were again beginning to flow, not only on the right but, more disturbingly, on the left. Celan sensed, not without reason, that he had become a convenient focus for the campaign for the Aryanization of German culture that had not given up in 1945, merely gone underground.

Claire Goll never relented in her campaign against Celan, pursuing him even beyond the grave; her persecutions poisoned his days and contributed heavily to his eventual breakdown.

Between 1938 and his death in 1970 Celan wrote some eight hundred po ems in German; in addition there is a body of early work in Romanian. Recognition of his gifts came soon, with the publication of Mohn und Gedächtnis (Poppy and Memory) in 1952. He consolidated his reputation as one of the more important young German-language poets with Sprachgitter (Speech Grille, 1959) and Die Niemandsrose (The No-One’s Rose, 1963). Two more volumes appeared during his lifetime, and three posthumously. This later poetry, out of phase with the leftward swing of the German intelligentsia after 1968, was not quite so enthusiastically received.

By the standards of international modernism, Celan’s work up to 1963 is quite accessible. The later poetry, however, becomes strikingly difficult, even obscure. Balked by what they took to be arcane symbolism and private references, reviewers called the later Celan hermetic. It was a label he vehemently rejected. “Not in the least hermetic,” he said. “Read! Just keep reading, understanding comes of itself.”

Typical of the “hermetic” Celan is the following posthumously published poem, which I give in John Felstiner’s translation:

You lie amid a great listening,
enbushed, enflaked.

Go to the Spree, to the Havel,
go to the meathooks,
the red apple stakes
from Sweden—

Here comes the gift table,
it turns around an Eden—

The man became a sieve, the Frau,
had to swim, the sow,
for herself, for no one, for everyone—

The Landwehr Canal won’t make a murmur.
Nothing
stops.

What, at the most elementary level, is this poem about? Hard to say, until one becomes privy to certain information, information supplied by Celan to the critic Peter Szondi. The man who became a sieve is Karl Liebknecht, “the Frau…the sow” swimming in the canal is Rosa Luxemburg. “Eden” is the name of an apartment block built on the site where the two activists were shot in 1919, while the meathooks are the hooks at Plötzensee on the Havel River on which the would-be assassins of Hitler in 1944 were hanged. In the light of this information, the poem emerges as a pessimistic comment on the continuity of right-wing murderousness in Germany, and the silence of Germans about it.

The Rosa Luxemburg poem became a minor locus classicus when the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, defending Celan against charges of obscurity, gave a reading of it through which he argued that any receptive, open-minded reader with a German cultural background can understand what it is important to understand in Celan without assistance, that background information should take second place to “what the poem [itself] knows.”1

Gadamer’s argument is a brave but losing one. What he forgets is that we cannot be sure that the information that unlocks the poem—in this case, the identities of the dead man and woman—is of secondary importance until we know what it is. Yet the questions Gadamer raises are important ones. Does poetry offer a kind of knowledge different from that offered by history, and demand a different kind of receptivity? Is it possible to respond to poetry like Celan’s, even to translate it, without fully understanding it?

Michael Hamburger, one of the most eminent of Celan’s translators, seems to think so. Though scholars have certainly illumined Celan’s poetry for him, Hamburger says, he is not sure he “understands,” in the normal sense of the word, even those poems he has translated, or all of them.

[It] asks too much of the reader,” is the verdict of Felstiner on the Rosa Luxemburg poem. But, he continues, “what is too much, given this history?” This, in a nutshell, is Felstiner’s own response to accusations of hermeticism against Celan. Given the enormity of anti-Semitic persecutions in the twentieth century, given the all-too-human need of Germans, and of the Christian West in general, to escape from a monstrous historical incubus, we can ask what memory, what knowledge is it too much to demand? Even if Celan’s poems were totally incomprehensible (this is not something that Felstiner says, but it is a valid extrapolation), they would nevertheless stand in our way like a tomb, a tomb built by a “Poet, Survivor, Jew” (the subtitle of Felstiner’s recent study), insisting by its looming presence that we remember, even though the words inscribed on it may seem to belong to an undecipherable tongue.

At stake is more than a simple confrontation between a Germany impatient to forget its past and a Jewish poet insisting on reminding Germany of that past. Celan was made famous by, and is still most widely known for, the poem “Death Fugue”:

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at noon death is a master from Germany
we drink you at sundown and in the morning we drink and we drink you
death is a master from Germany his eyes are blue
he strikes you with leaden bullets his aim is true
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
he sets his pack on to us he grants us a grave in the air
he plays with the serpents and daydreams death is a master from Germany

your golden hair Margerete
your ashen hair Shulamith

(I quote from the last part of Hamburger’s translation because Felstiner’s version of the passage, quite as strong in its own way, is controversial out of context.) “Death Fugue” was Celan’s first published poem: it was composed in 1944 or 1945 and first appeared, in Romanian translation, in 1947. It absorbs from the Surrealists everything that is worth absorbing. It is not entirely Celan’s brainchild: here and there he takes over phrases, among them “Death is a master from Germany,” from fellow poets of his Czernowitz days. Nevertheless, its impact is immediate and universal. “Death Fugue” is one of the landmark poems of the twentieth century.

Death Fugue” has been widely read in the German-speaking world, anthologized, studied in schools, as part a program of what is called Vergangenheitsbewältigung, coming to terms with, or overcoming, the past. At the public readings Celan gave in Germany, “Death Fugue” was always in demand. It is the most direct of Celan’s poems in naming and blaming: naming what went on in the death camps, blaming Germany. Some of Celan’s defenders argue that he is labeled “difficult” only because readers find the encounter with him too emotionally bruising. It is an argument that needs to account for the reception of “Death Fugue,” a reception with (apparently) open arms.

In fact, Celan himself never trusted the spirit in which he was welcomed and even fêted in West Germany. In the line that German critics took with “Death Fugue”—to quote one eminent critic, that it showed he had escaped “history’s bloody chamber of horrors to rise into the ether of pure poetry”—he sensed that he was being misinterpreted, and, in the deepest historical sense, willfully misinterpreted. Nor was he pleased to hear that in the classroom German students were being directed to ignore the content of the poem and concentrate on its form, particularly its imitation of fugal structure.

When Celan writes in this poem of the “ashen hair” of Shulamith, he is invoking the hair of Jews that fell as ash on the Silesian countryside; when he writes of “the sow” bobbing in the waters of the Landswehr Canal, he is referring, in the voice of one of her murderers, to the body of a dead Jewish woman. Against pressure to claim him as a poet who had turned the Holocaust into something higher, namely poetry, against the critical orthodoxy of the 1950s and early 1960s, with its view of the ideal poem as a self-enclosed aesthetic object, Celan insists that he practices an art of the real, an art that “does not transfigure or render ‘poetical’; it names, it posits, it tries to measure the area of the given and the possible.”

  1. 1

    Hans-Georg Gadamer, “Epilogue,” in Gadamer on Celan, translated and edited by Richard Heinemann and Bruce Krajewski (State University of New York Press, 1997), p. 142.

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