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Poetry and history

The identities of Paul Celan

One afternoon, Paul Celan and Yves Bonnefoy sat in Bonnefoy's living room, chatting about Roman architecture. Celan: 'All of you are at home, in your language, your allusions, among the books and works you all love. But I'm on the outside…' Published in La Revue des Belles-Lettres in 1972, it appears in Bonnefoy's homage to Celan, two years after Celan's body was found washed up on the first of May by a fisherman, ten kilometres from Paris.

By Adam Thirwell

Lenin's first minister Anatoly Lunacharsky wrote that Trotsky constantly observed himself in the mirror of history. Celan, too, was morbidly self-aware. He constructed many self-portraits. The problem is to reconcile the many versions of Celan. There are two conflicting impulses in his poetry. On the one hand, there is its obscurity - the result often of an insolubly opaque subjectivity. On the other hand, there is its simplified, schematic narrative of the holocaust - the result of Celan's acceptance of his exemplary status as a Jew. He was, he said, 'perhaps one of the last who must live out to the end the destiny of the Jewish spirit in Europe.' We read the poems and encounter at once local obscurity and historical obviousness - the given of the holocaust.

One difficult question presents itself immediately - as a witness, did Celan have the authority of experience? Could he be a convincing exemplary figure? The question seems to have worried Celan himself and to have driven various aesthetic decisions. His career is a succession of attempts to undermine the 'aesthetic', which Celan opposes to true sincerity, the authority of a witness. It is a Romantic dilemma. In reality, of course, the truth-value of poetry isn't crucial, as Browning's dramatic monologues demonstrate. Sincerity isn't an aesthetic criterion. The Ring and the Book is convincing and its source is second-hand - the yellow book that Browning found in Piazza San Lorenzo at Florence. But this aesthetic commonplace - the validity of imaginative truth - did not hold for Celan. It is the progression of Celan's various attempts to invent a personalised realism that I will trace in this essay.

His self-portraits are geographically haunted: in 1957 he laments: 'I've become neither European nor western.' A 'posthumously born Kakanier…', he also writes, invoking Robert Musil's 'vanished Kakania' of Austrian nationalist kitsch in The Man without Qualities. And the self-portrait is almost true. Celan was born 23 November 1920 in Czernowitz in Bukovina, on the eastern edge of Europe, once part of Romania, now part of the Ukraine. His childhood was polyglot. His parents were both Jewish: his father Orthodox and Zionist, his mother assimilated. Celan spoke German at home, and was sent to a Hebrew school when he was seven, and a Romanian school when he was ten. He also knew Yiddish. In 1940 the Russian army invaded, and in 1941 Nazi Romanian troops entered and set up a ghetto. In June 1942 Celan's parents were deported. They never returned. A month later Celan was sent to a labour camp in Tabaresti, in Wallachia, run by the Romanian army with the Todt Organisation of German military engineers. Twenty years later Celan remembered his 'war years, which off and on I "spent" in so-called labour camps in Romania.' People asked him what he had done. 'Shovelling', he replied. Some time by February 1944 he returned to Czernowitz, which the Russian army reoccupied in March.

In late April 1945 Celan left for Bucharest, where he stayed until December 1947, when he travelled further west, to Vienna. He stayed in Vienna until July 1948, two months after Israel was formed, and ended up in Paris. His first collection of poems was published in 1948 - The Sand from the Urns. Misprinted and shoddy, it was immediately disowned by Celan. In Paris he took the licence in German literature and in 1950 began graduate work on Kafka, abandoned in 1952. In 1952 he published his second collection Poppy and Memory, and married Gisèle Lestrange, from an aristocratic Catholic family. Their first child, a boy, died after a day. Gisèle's mother was so upset by her daughter's marriage to an orphaned Jewish poet that she eventually retreated into a convent, only communicating through a grille. Celan remained in Paris until he died, at 49. All his published poetry is in German, his own muttersprache and that of his parents' killers: 'I do not believe in bilingualness in poetry', he wrote in 1961.

But the saddened self-portrait of the dispossessed self is not simply personal. It is also a literary genre: the Romantic elegy for the self. Celan, 'on the outside', is a belated version of the 'disinherited' Gérard de Nerval's 'El Desdichado' (which Celan pointedly translated):

Je suis le Ténébreux, - le Veuf, - l'Inconsolé, Le Prince d'Aquitaine à la Tour abolie: [I am the man of shadow, the widowed, the unconsoled, the Prince of Aquitaine at the ruined tower.] The story of Celan's poetry is the coincidence of the rhetoric of Romanticism with a rhetoric of history.

He was a connoisseur of self-consciousness. Even his name is fashioned. Originally Paul Antschel, in Bucharest he acquired a Romanian spelling, Ancel, from which he formed the anagram Celan. With emigré fastidiousness, in Paris he insisted on a French pronunciation - 'Selon', masking the Bukovinan 'Chelan'. The name is a construct. It marks a loss. He signed one letter in three languages: Russian, bastardised Latin and German: 'Pavel Lvovitsch Tselan/Russki poët in partibus nemetskich infidelium/'s ist nur ein Jud-' - 'Paul, son of Leo, Tselan/Russian poet in the territory of German infidels/'tis but a Jew-' - humorous and maudlin, heartfelt and untrue.

* * * * *

In the May 1947 issue of Contemporanul, published in Bucharest, a translation in Romanian appeared of a poem, first written in German, by Celan. It was his first, and most famous, publication. In blocked out white letters against a black background appeared the title: 'Tangoul Mortii'. Beneath this, an expressionist drawing of sinewy arms and hands rummaging in blurry loops of dust. Beneath this, the author's name, 'de PAUL CELAN', in bold. Beneath this, a note in italics: 'The poem we are printing in translation is constructed on the evocation of a real fact. In Lublin, as in many other 'Nazi death camps', one group of the condemned were forced to sing nostalgic songs while others dug graves.' Beneath this, the poem - in normal case, the space often too cramped for the lines - 'Death Tango', a title Celan would change to 'Death Fugue'. I quote the second and third stanzas:

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night we drink you at morning and midday we drink you at evening we drink and drink A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margareta Your ashen hair Shulamith we shovel a grave in the air where you won't lie too cramped

He shouts dig this earth deeper you lot there you others sing up and play he grabs for the rod in his belt he swings it his eyes are so blue stick your spades deeper you lot there you others play on for the dancing
It soon became a textbook piece for German students - which is not, perhaps, surprising. It isn't only the repetition in 'Death Fugue' that reminds one of opera, there is something stylised and baroque here. It is not reportage. Its irony is grandiose and stagey. 'Death Fugue' is overblown compared to the flat irony of Tadeusz Borowski's This Way to the Gas Chambers, Ladies and Gentlemen!:

Slowly, behind the crowd of people, walk the SS men, urging them with kindly smiles to move along. They explain that it is not much farther and they pat on the back a little old man who runs over to a ditch, rapidly pulls down his trousers, and wobbling in a funny way squats down. An SS man calls to him and points to the people disappearing round the bend. The little old man nods quickly, pulls up his trousers and, wobbling in a funny way, runs at a trot to catch up. You snicker, amused at the sight of a man in such a big hurry to get to the gas chamber.

Or compare 'Death Fugue' with the bleak facts of Claude Lanzmann's great film Shoah: 'just at the moment we were passing, they were opening the doors of the gas chambers…and people fell out like potatoes.' In Celan, crematoria are not described. They are alluded to. The poem's fugal repetitions mask a sentimental undertow, a lurid melodrama. There is pathos in the prose gloss: 'constructed on the evocation of a real fact. In Lublin, as in many other "Nazi death camps", one group of the condemned were forced to sing…' The prose is a necessary certificate of authenticity. It reassures the reader. But it is also an admission of artistic defeat. Without it, Celan is vulnerable to accusations of aestheticising his material. That faltering, that reliance on the prose gloss, signals Celan's unease with the fugal form he has chosen. But since the documentary mode lay outside Celan's experience, he should have trusted form and its special clarity.

'Death Fugue''s distressed conflation of the formal and the emotional assured its centrality in the confused artistic debates of the 50s and 60s. In 1949, the Marxist and half-Jewish critic Theodor Adorno wrote, famously: 'Nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben ist barbarisch': 'Writing a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.' Adorno glossed his apophthegm in 1961: 'Through the aesthetic principle of stylisation…an unimaginable fate still seems as if it had some meaning: it becomes transfigured, something of the horror is removed.' According to Adorno, form transfigures, it stylises the horror - it sentimentalises. Adorno's use in 1961 of the word 'transfigured' may allude to Celan - who, in a 1958 interview, said: 'In my first book I was still transfiguring things - I'll never do that again!' In a questionnaire the same year, Celan wrote that his new poetry 'does not transfigure, does not 'poeticise', it names and posits…'

By 1966 Adorno had recanted: 'Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as the tortured have to scream, hence it may have been wrong to say that no poem could be written after Auschwitz.' Revealingly, Adorno's original formulation has shifted, too. Originally, he maintained that no poetry should be written after Auschwitz. In 1966, the auxiliary verb has changed - to could. In his re-formulation, language inherently fails reality - a neo-Romantic theory of language's inadequacy to the inexpressible extremity of the Sublime. The holocaust is the historical fact of extreme loss - an inexpressible anti-Sublime. His argument, then, is double: the holocaust is not to be aestheticised; the holocaust cannot be expressed. For Adorno, writing the holocaust is morally repugnant and linguistically impossible. And it is a stance related to a third position: for others the holocaust is simply unimaginable. This is a diary-entry of a woman living near Mauthausen: '"They are forced to dig their own graves," people whisper. "Their clothing, shoes, shirts are taken from them. They are sent naked to their death." The horror is so incredible that the imagination refuses to accept its reality. Something fails to click. Some conclusion is simply not drawn…Such indifference alone makes continued existence possible.'

The proper position is surely that Auschwitz is not unimaginable, nor inexpressible. It is offensive to state that it is. Nor is it morally repugnant to write about it. Style does not falsify or transfigure: only bad style does that. But Celan himself had already aligned himself with Adorno - among the Romantics. He revealingly described his 'silence which was a not-able-to-speak and thus believed itself an ought-not-to-speak'. Artistic inadequacy presented itself as a moral scruple.

Another slant on the same issue - of an aesthetic of sincerity - can be seen in Günter Grass's May 1985 speech to the Academy of Art in Berlin, forty years after Nazism. Grass mused on the debate between 'objective' and 'non-objective' art in the early 50s. Non-objective, abstract art, Grass concluded, was a form of repression - a way of not representing a national defeat and the guilt of genocide. On the other hand, there is Primo Levi's assertion, 'we, the survivors, are not the true witnesses'. By this he meant that his own testimony was partial. He did not enter the gas chamber. The 'objective' is bound to be limited and contested, often with crudely convoluted results. Grass was a floating member of the German Group 47, to whom Celan read 'Death Fugue', among other poems, in May 1952. The Group dismissed Celan as non-objective, as 'not engagé' - its organiser, Hans Werner Richter, describing Celan's poetry as 'singsong straight out of a synagogue'. Celan's delivery seems to have been problematic: another member stated, 'You even recited in the tone of Goebbels.' 'Oh yes, those soccer players', Celan later commented. Realism is territorial. But Celan was a soccer player himself. Ironically, he shared their mistrust of the aesthetic - ultimately, because he was a child of the Romantics. They were judging him by their common vexed standards.

Compare the Schlegel brothers' Athenaeum: fragment 116 advises its reader that it is the 'particular essence' of romantic poetry 'that it should forever be becoming and never be perfected'. Friedrich Schlegel's 'Critical Fragment' number 4 welcomes 'the vast quantity of poetical sketches, studies, fragments, tendencies, ruins, and raw materials.' Theories are depressingly repetitive.

By courtesy of Arete Magazine

23. Oktober 2001

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