Paul Celan, Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Blanchot and the ‘Wholly Other’

I need to than John Bloomberg-Rissman for drawing my attention to this review of ‘What are Poets for?’ By Gerald L Bruns. In normal circumstances I would have rushed to order this as it deals with Prynne, Matthias and Celan in ways that seem congruent with my own improvised and haphazard way of reading but the Bebrowed financial controller has made it clear that some of the recent acquisitions should be read first. There is however this paragraph that caught my eye:

“The highlight of the collection is a rather aphoristic essay on poetry and ethics centered around the work of Paul Celan and Emmanuel Levinas. For Bruns, Levinas’ ethics, which demand a sense of radical responsibility toward the other, find their literary expression in Celan’s desire to fill language up with strangeness. Just as Levinasian ethics demands that we disregard our own sense of autonomy or fulfilled obligations and allow our sense of self to be determined by the other beings we come into proximity with, Celan’s poetry forgoes having a unified, consistent speaking voice in order to fling itself into the void of otherness. Poetry, Bruns seems to be suggesting, is ethical in relation to the people and things it narrates because the form of selfhood it expresses comes into being as an attempt to reach out to the other; poetry is being-for-the-other, and therefore capable of having an ethics even when it seems to be at its most abstruse. The essay is delicately constructed and a delight to read, seeming to approach a central idea again and again through readings of different authors and texts (Celan and Levinas but also Charles Bernstein, Martin Heidegger, Osip Mandelstam, Maurice Blanchot, Jacques Derrida, and Samuel Beckett) without ever quite making contact.”

Ignoring the list of usual suspects at the end, I initially took issue with Levinas connection and his notion of our need to focus on the needs and demands of the universal other. I’m reasonably familiar (and agree) with the central Levinas position, especially as articulated by Blanchot, but I hadn’t thought of Celan’s references to the other as anything but a consideration of alterity and the ‘strange’. So this was going to be a robust denunciation along the lines of Celan’s concerns are primarily about the Jewish victims of the Holocaust which are a clearly defined group of ‘Others’ whereas Levinas is more concerned with the universal ‘Other’. I was going to illustrate this with suitable extracts from the later works and the Meridian and rest the bulk of my case on the frequent appearance of Martin Buber (more than anyone else) in the notes made in preparation for the Meridian address and the complete absence of any reference to Levinas. The I re-read the Meridian and fell over this:

“But I do think – and this thought can hardly surprise you by now – I think that it had always been part of the poem’s hopes to speak on behalf of exactly this strange – no, I cannot use this word this way – exactly on another’s behalf – who knows perhaps on behalf of a totally other.”

(I’m using the Pierre Joris translation because I trust it more that the others although Felstiner does have ‘wholly’ rather than ‘totally’.)

Now, the term ‘wholly other’ is how ‘tout autre’ is translated in Levinas’ ‘Time and the Other’ which was published in 1948 as in “through the diverse figures of the sociality facing the face of the other person: eroticism, paternity, responsibility for the neighbour as the relationship to the wholly other (Tout Autre)” which seems to get to the nub of the Levinas position.

Celan’s major philosophical interests in Heidegger and the distinctly Jewish aspect of Martin Buber’s thought is mirrored in Levinas so it is likely that Celan would have read ‘Time and the Other’ and that his use of ‘wholly other’ in italics is a reference to that work- or perhaps this is just because I want it to be.

In Celan’s poetry many poems are addressed to a ‘you’ without any clear indication of who this ‘you’ might be and it may be that some poems do address this universal Other. The notes seem to refer to both addressing the other (“it silences itself toward something foreign and Other imagined as a You”) and speaking on behalf of the other (“..to let the incommensurable of the other speak too”). I’ve chosen three of the likelier candidates from the later work. This is ‘Wirk Nicht Voraus’ from the ‘Lichtzwang’ collection published in 1970:

I’m using Michael Hamburger’s translation for all three poems.

Do not work ahead,
do not send forth,
stand
into it, enter:

transfounded by nothingness
unburdened of all
prayer,
microstructured in heeding
the pre-script,
unovertakable,

I make you at home,
instead of all
rest.

This is ‘Mitt Der Stimm Der Feldmaus’ from the ‘Schneepart’ collection which was published in 1971:

With the voice of the Fieldmouse
you squeak up to me,

a sharp
clip,
you bite your way through my shirt to the skin,

a cloth
you slide across my mouth
midway through the words
I address to you, shadow,
to give you weight.

Finally, this is ‘Alle Die Schlafoestalin’ from the ‘Zeitgehoft’ collection which was published in 1976:

All those sleep shapes, crystalline,
that you assumed
in the language shadow,

to those
I lead my blood,

those image lines, them
I’m to harbour
in the slit-arteries
of my cognition-,

my grief, I can see,
is deserting to you.

For those who don’t know, Celan was a Holocaust survivor who committed suicide in 1970. I’d like to add the point made by Maurice Blanchot that our responsibility to the other is infinite, unbearable and strips us of our identity yet it is also impossible to ignore.

All three of the above poems can be read as being addressed to either a specific other or a universal other and it may well be that Celan is concerned here with both.

The first poem begins with a series of commands, followed by a description that may refer to the poet’s burden is responding to the other and ends with the poet ‘making home’ for the other. ‘Nothingness’ recurs as an active entity or participant in Celan’s work and it could be read here as equivalent to infinity ie something so vast that it becomes nothing at all, it could also be that there is no longer any need for prayer because Celan is answering this call or because these others are already dead- changed by nothingness.

To make someone at home is how the good host would respond to the needs of a guest. In English, we often say “make yourself at home” as in, “please feel free to behave as if your were in your own home” as a way of making a guest feel welcome. This gesture embodies a key virtue in virtually all cultures across the world. Celan’s ‘welcome’ is tempered by a recognition that the ‘you’ has already gone beyond any notion of rest and may actually be dead.

Trying to recognise and take into account my original bias, I’m still of the view that the ‘you’ in this poem is more likely to be those murdered during the Holocaust and this is not the exact equivalent of the Levinas ‘wholly other’ which is about every other in the world, living or dead.

The ‘Fieldmouse’ poem is much more straightforward (in my head, at least) in that it is a description of the demand made by the other together with Celan’s response. This makes more, albeit tentative, sense if we read ‘shadow’ as ‘neighbour’ and the last verse as the transforming/muting effect that this neighbour has on the poem which exists to transfound the nothingess of the shadow into something more substantial. The biting of the skin through the cloth of the shirt might refer to the real pain in our awareness of the nature of this responsibility.

As someone who has actively planned to kill himself on a number of occasions, I have a real problem with maintaining any kind of objectivity with the third poem which I read as an anguished cry from the soul about the intolerable/impossible burden that the dead impose on the poet and a foreshadowing of his own self-annihilation. I’d like to undertake a rational and attentive reading as with the other two but I can’t because all I can read is the personal pain and suffering that is expressed in these heartbreaking lines. I’m also not entirely comfortable that it was published posthumously without knowledge of Celan’s intention and feel a little queasy about this kind of material being made available without Celan’s consent. End of short speech.

Of course, the reviewer may have misread what Bruns was saying about Levinas and I’m actually arguing with no-one but it has at least enabled me to think (regardless of Blanchot’s extremism) about the possibility of creative responses to this impossible demand which brings to mind Prynne’s insistence on self-removal as part of the poetry-making business……….

5 responses to “Paul Celan, Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Blanchot and the ‘Wholly Other’

  1. I may be making a big mistake in continuing this line (from my comments on ‘I know you’ previously) but reading the extracts you selected I also wonder if the ‘you’ could again be a self dialogue — the first I could see almost as instruction towards what is often called mindfulness, the second about a relationship with another part of self, the third too though that is less clear perhaps about different responses of selves to the past. I need to read them all fully. In light of what you say it also, perhaps far too much of a stretch, makes me think of (other?) parts of self as wholly other, or past selves. But I also get what you’re saying, so am confused — but I like all these possibilities, though like may be an unfortunate word to use, i need to work on hwo to express appreciation of such things whilst respecting all they may relate to. Hope you don’t mind this psychological thinking, I do feel guilty respondign without readign them fully, so wish to be cautious and have a disclaimer.

    • I think you are absolutely right to follow this line of reasoning, which I didn’t think about whilst writing this but there is this from the Meridian notes- “The You of the poem = (infinitely) near and infinitely distant (spatially and temporally)”. I’m reading this as the relationship between the self and the universal other. Incidentally, Blanchot was of the view that we lose our individuality or sense of self when we attend to the other.

  2. John, I think this is fascinating and great to read that Meridian note — puts me in mind of Carl Rogers and the idea what is most personal is most general. I like the idea of the universal other and this idea of Blanchot. Must work at doing this! Sorry for the late reply, I’ve been on holiday and then the dreaded catching up at work this week. I also pulled out my Hamburger and saw I had read the poems complete already. This has all been a most profitable line of thinking for me and in fact has already been prompting me towards refreshing my attention to the other and also towards Celan, thank you for prompting it.

  3. Thanks for this thought-provoking post. Your concern over the posthumous publication of Celan’s harrowing final poems reminds me of my reaction when I first saw Michael Hamburger’s translation of the suppressed poem “Wolf’s-Bean”: feeling, on one hand, that Celan’s choice not to publish the poem, which is explicitly addressed to his dead mother, mentions his son and is (for him) fairly direct in its desperation and need, had been violated and, on the other, deeply moved and grateful. Hamburger writes that powerfully feelings of recognition drove him to translate the poem, despite (it is implied) his better judgment. I wonder about this: does important art have a right to existence and attention in itself, perhaps even trumping the mere suffering person who has created it, or not? If author’s final intentions were always respected, we wouldn’t have the works of Kafka, or The Aeneid. This seems to echo the issue of the “other” as Levinas, and Celan, explore it: art as, whomever its “local addressee” (and, to complicate things further, many of Celan’s poems are addressed to a particular, specific “you” rather than, as I agree is also often the case, himself, or the Jewish dead), something directed to any
    unknown potential auditor: an excessive gift, impossible to reciprocate.

  4. Pingback: In Front Of A Candle By Paul Celan | Renard Moreau Presents

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