Tag Archives: emmanuel levinas

Getting a bit deeper in with Celan and Levinas

As I seem to be doing this with greater frequency (well, this week anyway) I thought it might e a good time to reiterate the two bebrowed positions that are unlikely to change, the first is that David Jones is unjustly neglected and the second is that Paul Celan produced the best (in every sense) poetry of the twentieth century. Unlike most of the tentative and provisional posturings expressed on this blog, I can and do argue both of these positions from a number of positions and am entirely comfortable in doing so.

Before we get to Levinas I want to recognise that there are more than one Paul Celan, there’s the botanist, the anarchist (socialist utopian ranch), the husband and father, the translator, the disciple of Martin Heidegger, the poet, the Jew, the german speaker, the follower of Martin Buber, the devotee of Jewish mysticism, the existentialist, the anguished mad man, the lover, the witness. All of these are mixed up in my head and various aspects come to the fore as I read the work and all those that have paid attention to this remarkable material will have there own ‘blend’ of the above.

The above is the conciliatory approach along the lines of: “it’s good and proper that everyone should have their own views and respect the views of others”. Unfortunately this is the world of poetry where consensus and rationality feature was down in the pecking order. One major piece of discord is over the relative importance of Martin Buber’s strand of Jewish thought and the existentialist teachings of Martin Heidegger.

Last August I drew attention to Celan’s use of ‘wholly other’ in the Meridian address and linked this with the Buber/Levinas side of the argument.

The ‘point’ of the above is to announce that I have recently fallen across a 1978 Levinas essay, ‘Being and the Other: On Paul Celan’, which quite fiercely claims Celan as a member of the Buber gang. He also goes on to add his own partisan reading of the Meridian which seems to throw up some tricky questions for the makers and users of poetry.

Here’s the claim:

The poem goes toward the other. It hopes to rejoin it, free and unoccupied. The solitary work of the poet carving the precious stuff of words is an act of “ambushing” a “vis-a-vis.” The poem “becomes conversation – it is often futile conversation . . . encounters, a voice’s paths to a thou capable of perception” – Are Buber’s categories to be preferred then? Are they to be preferred to so much inspired exegesis to the benefit of Holderlin, Trakl, and Rilke, that descends in majesty from the Black Forest in order to show poetry opening the world in Being, between heaven and
earth, where man finds a dwelling place? Are they to be preferred to the aligning of structures in the intersidereal space of Objectivity -the precariousness of which, in Paris, the poet rightly senses, having the good or bad luck to align himself, be longing, with the entirety of his being, to the very objectivity of these structures? Poetics of the avant-garde where the poet has no personal destiny. Buber is without question preferred to them.

So, that’s fairly unequivocal and I don’t want to dwell on it too much except to note that its far more caustic about the majestic Heidegger than it is about the Parisian avant garde. This might appear odd as Levinas ws instrumental in bringing all things Heidegger to Paris in 1931.

Levinas then goes on to construct a further model around his version of Celan’s poetics. The general thrust of this is that the poem’s quest for an encounter involves a loss of the self. The evil that springs from self-interest is central to Levinas’ thought- this fixation prevents from paying attention to the needs of the Other and he sees Celan’s idea of the poem as a loss of self sovereignty in order to attend to those needs.

Of course the argument is much more detailed nd better put than that but that seems to be the main gist of it. This loss of self brings to mind ‘Unlesbarkeit’ which ws published in the posthumous ‘Schneepart’ collection in 1971:

    ILLEGIBILITY
    of this world. All things twice over.

    The strong clocks justify 
    the splitting hour,
    hoarsely.

    You, clamped
    into your deepest part,
    climb out of yourself
    for ever.

The last four lines here (as well as Celan's notes for the Meridian) would seem to bear this out, self interest keeps us clamped into ourselves and we need to clamber out of this state in order to ttend to the 'wholly other'> of course the bebrowed slant would wnt to throw in the possible references to suicide as a mens or release from this clamping and the previous six lines describing the experience of mental anguish. To add a bit more credence to this, it can be pointed out that many of us with experience of severe depression contemplate and ttempt suicide to avoid going through the anguish, to which we feel episodically tethered, ever again. I might also need to mention that the brain/self is 'clamped' when we receive ECT.

However, Levinas then makes use of the term 'Meridian' to instill some kind of hope/salvation into this loss of self:

In this adventure where the I dedicates itself to the poem so as to meet the other in the non-place, it is the return that is surprising- a return based not on the response of the summoned relation, but on the circularity of the meridian-perfected trajectory of this movement without return?, which is the "finality without end" of the poetic movement. As if in going toward the other, I were reunited with myself and implanted myself in a soil that would, henceforth, be native; as if the distancing of the I drew me closer to myself, discharged of the full weight of my
identity?a movement of which poetry would be the possibility itself, and a native land which owes nothing to rootedness, nothing to "prior occupation": a native land that has no need to be a birthplace. Native land or promised land? Does it spew forth its inhabitants when they forget the course of one who goes off in search of the other. Native land on the meridian - which is to say: a here which is also the everywhere, a wandering and expatriation to the point of depaganisation. Is the earth habitable otherwise?

I'm regretfully of the view that this is a step too far, there's nothing in my reading of Celan to suggest that one meets the self in the act of going toward the other, indeed I can point to many instances where this kind of movement is made in the knowledge that there can be no return to the self and it is this loss that must be borne. I'm not suggesting that all of this essy is flawed but this quite central point says more about Levinas than it does about either Celan or poetry. It has prodded me into re-reading the work, which is always a Good Thing.

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……….