Paul Celan, Jacques Derrida and deconstruction

In the Anglo-Saxon world, Jacques Derrida often gets a bad press. He’s usually considered to be either a complete charlatan or to be unreadably obscure. I’ve never been brave enough to tackle either ‘Of Grammatology’ or ‘Glas’ but I was terribly impressed by the notorious ‘differance’ essay- so impressed that I copied out the last few paragraphs. I was also impressed by Derrida’s reading of Heidegger’s use of the term ‘spirit’ although less impressed with his analysis of the rectorship address.

Derrida in 1994 said of deconstruction ” It is an analysis which tries to find out how their thinking works or does not work, to find the tensions, the contradictions, the heterogeneity” and “deconstruction is something which happens and which happens inside”. This was an attempt to refute the charge that deconstruction has no respect for the text and seeks to reduce everything to the same level.

One can argue whether deconstruction is appropriate for philosophy and this is a debate that I’m happy to leave to others. It is however clear to me that it is entirely fitting for the reading of ‘difficult’ poetry and indeed may be the only way to read challenging verse.

I have written on this blog before about the poetry of Paul Celan (who has also been accused of unreadable obscurity) and my belief that his work is the most important poetry of the last 50 years. Celan is a source of constant joy for academics, they tend to seize on one aspect of his work (usually his admiration for Heidegger) and extrapolate to the nth degree. In my view this doesn’t clarify any aspect of the work but does enable critics to construct their own pet theories ad absurdam. I acknowledge that Celan is a complex figure and one has to reconcile his relationship to philosophy, religion, German literature as well as the holocaust and his consequent mental health issues but that doesn’t mean that we should seize on one particular strand as proof of his intentions.

Further meat for academics is provided by two speeches that Celan made (The Bremen Address and the Meridian) in which he sets out a personal manifesto for poetry. These two have provided critics with endless hours of fun in picking over key phrases to the exclusion of the whole.

It is therefore with some trepidation that I approached ‘Shibboleth for Paul Celan’, a 1986 essay in which Derrida tackles several key themes in Celan’s work. The first thing that can be said is that it is neither unreadable nor obscure, there are no references to people that you’ve never heard of nor are there any foreign phrases that will bee unfamiliar to the lay reader. The essay stays within Celan’s work and looks especially at the concept of ‘date’ and the use of the Hebrew word ‘Shibboleth’ and the practice of circumcision.

What I like about this essay is that Derrida treats the texts with complete respect, he doesn’t indulge in flights of fancy and extrapolate things that aren’t actually there. The essay starts with a long discussion of the nature of cirmcision and what it may signify, the circular nature of the wound itself, the wound as a sign of admission to a community and ‘the experience of blessing and of purification’.

In the Meridian, Celan says ‘Yet the poem does speak! It remains mindful of its dates, yet – it speaks’. Derrida starts from this to consider the role of the date in Celan’s poetry, pointing out the importance of commemoration and mourning in the work and also the fact that the date on which the poem was written always returns the following year. The fact that poems carry two dates (the date on which it was written and the date of the event which it describes) and the notion that each date carries within it its own destruction leads to Derrida to point out the inherent madness of the date. Some would say that this is an example of over-reading or of finding things that aren’t actually there but I found myself following this line of argument and can see its merits.

In the Old Testament the story is told of a victory over the Ephraimites. In order to prevent the defeated soldiers from escaping, each was required to say the word ‘shibboleth’, the Ephraimites were known for being unable to pronounce this word and thus gve themselves away. Derrida extends the use of this word to consider the access that it may give to a poem and also the role of passwords as rallying cries to political action.

I realise that the above doesn’t do justice to the nuances of the essay but I hope it conveys the sense that deconstruction can treat the text with appropriate respect and that challenging work almost insists on this working from within. This particular essay will also enrich the experience of anyone with an interest in Celan.


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