I’ve just spent a week or so with ‘Wordtraces’ which was edited by Aris Fioretos and published in 1994. It’s a collection of critical essays on Celan’s work and it strikes me that there are a number of competing schools of thought that are vying for the right to claim Celan as one of their own. This is perfectly understandable given his place in the European canon together with his terse and difficult style. The claims arise mostly from what is known about his interests so existentialism and the work of Martin Heidegger takes some priority, there’s also claims made for Jewish mysticism.
Celan’s biography produces a number of narratives- the Holocaust survivor, the only child whose parents were killed in the Holocaust, the Jew in exile, the translator, the husband and father, the poet whose mother tongue was the same as the nation that destroyed his people, the author of Todesfugue which showed that art was possible after the holocaust, the devotee of Heidegger who followed his work even as it descended into mysticism, the intellectual who took an increasing interest in Jewish mysticism, the depressive who threw himself into the Seine at the age of 49.
From my perspective all of these are valid in that they give us some insight into some of the poems but I think there’s also a danger that some of these can be over read for stuff that may not be there. Much is made of the Meridian address given in Bremen but in that Celan is also being willfully obscure. Much is also made of the later phase of the poetry which is seen by some as inferior to the earlier stuff. I would wish to put forward a counter-argument with an example of one particular later poem that makes sense to me.
In the late sixties there was a view that reduction was good, that the task of the artist (in any genre) was to distill complex and profound ideas into their essential components. Their was also an acknowledgment that to do this would risk falling into silence. Celan refers to this risk in the Meridian address, he also talks of the poem in relation to its Other which would sem to imply that the poem must become ‘strange’.
Samuel Beckett (a Celan admirer) published ‘Sans’ in 1969 which attempted to sum up the human condition in as few words as possible. I think that this shows that Celan wasn’t entirely alone in producing sparse and pared-down lyrics and that his later poems were more ‘mainstream’ than is now imagined.
I recognised this aspect in both Beckett and Celan in my late teens and felt instinctively that their approach epitomised the best of European literature, I did not need to know about Celan’s interest in Jewish mysticism nor Beckett’s love of cricket. I was just grateful that writers of stature were proceeding in this way.
The poem below is from Fadensonnen which was published in 1968. The translator is Michael Hamburger and the poem is the only poem about depression that treats its subject with the insightful objectivity that it deserves. Only Paul Celan could have written this-
…..AND NO KIND OF
Grey nights, foreknown to be cool.
Stimulus dollops, otter-like,
over consciousness gravel
on their way to little memory bubbles.
Grey-within-grey of substance.
A half-pain, a second one with no
lasting trace, half-way
here. A half desire.
Things in motion, things occupied.
Of compulsive repetition.
As a depressive, I may be reading too much into this but I think it captures the essential features of a depressive episode without making it unduly miserable or exotic. The opening lines nicely portray the unremitting quality of depression. The play on ‘half’ captures the desensitising effects and compulsive repetition expresses the fear we all have of the next episode.
So, there may be multiple meanings in Celan’s work and his choice of words may at times be deliberately misleading but at least he risked the silence.