Celan, Derrida and bearing witness

This might take some time as I have a number of things that I need to say and a number of other things that I need to throw up in the air to see how they land. Whilst this piece is prompted by Derrida’s essay “Poetics and Politics of Witnessing” which focuses on a poem by Paul Celan, I also want to talk about the creative possibilities that the process of bearing witness offers.

I’m one of those sad obsessives who take an interest in public inquiries. I’m fascinated by the way that the State seeks to exonerate itself when bad things happen and by the way that the State will use inquiry findings as an excuse to act in a draconian manner. I have been tangentially involved in one such inquiry (into the Cleveland child abuse fiasco) and the final report did not tally with what actually occurred during the crisis. At the time, I put this down to the State having its own agenda which was to introduce new legislation but, having now read primary material on the BSE inquiry and the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday, I can see that it is the process of giving evidence (bearing witness) that is flawed.

The last lines of Celan’s poem are “No one / bears witness for the / witness.” Paul Celan was a Holocaust survivor and both his parents died at the hands of the Germans. Throughout his life Celan felt compelled to act as a poetic witness to the Holocaust and Derrida rightly points out this task is in itself impossible. He substantiates this with- “That comes down to saying – always the same paradox, the same paradoxopoetic matrix – that as soon as it is guaranteed, certain as a theoretical proof , a testimony can no longer be guaranteed as testimony.”

I’ve said before that Derrida is the finest reader of Celan that we have and his reading here of ‘Aschenglorie hinter’ underlines his honesty and intelligence in stating within the text and confronting its challenges head on. Before I get on to discussing these issues I do want to expand a bit on the witness/testimony problem. There are a number of stages in the ‘official/judicial’ bearing witness process. The first is the point at which the witness becomes aware of the bad thing that has happened. We all perceive and make sense of things differently so witnesses to the same event can produce materially different accounts of the same event, neither of which is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. The second part of the process is the making of the statement which is usually done in the presence of a friendly/sympathetic official and provides the witness with an opportunity to recount what they have witnessed. The third part of this phase consists of repeating this as part of a judicial process and the fourth occurs when the witness is cross-examined by lawyers for other interested parties.

My personal experience of both civil and criminal cases bears this out and also underlines the deterioration that occurs along every step of the way as outlined above. I once spent three days being cross-examined in a child abuse case and all of this consisted of having to defend my personal and professional integrity rather than on the veracity of what I had witnessed. In this particular instance, what convinced me that a very bad thing had occurred arose from a chance conversation with a young person with quite profound learning difficulties who was trying, as bet he could, to communicate to me that he was the victim of sexual assault perpetrated by a colleague of mine. Professionally I knew that this witness could not actually bear witness but the truth of what he said remains with me to this day (there were 22 other victims and my colleague was jailed for seven years).

Contrasting the witness statements with Lord Phillips’ final report into BSE is a further illustration of how veracities get lost along the way. There is one veterinary pathologist who is convinced that BSE (‘scrapie in a cow’) was first identified 12 months before the ‘official’ date, she knows this because she carried out the autopsy. The final report flatly contradicts this without introducing any meaningful evidence and does this (as Phillips admits) in order to dispel media speculation that the British state had known about BSE for a year without taking any action.

We now come to Bloody Sunday and I’m aware that I’m writing this prior to publication of Saville’s findings. There are however some aspects of witness testimony that won’t find their way into the final report. A teacher who was on the march recalls seeing a soldier crouched down on one knee with his rifle sight to one eye and realising that very similar poses are struck in army recruitment brochures. The report will ignore this and in doing so will occlude one person’s ‘truth’ of the moment. Bernard Mcguigan was shot in the head by soldier ‘F’ who happened to be crouched on one knee- this will be in the report but will be missing was that Barney (as he was known) was seen having a ‘crafty’ smoke as the march began and that his wife didn ‘t like him smoking. Other details will also be missing, that his wife had soaked an orange cloth in vinegar to ward off the effects of tear gas, that she was cooking bacon and/or sausages when her brother called to tell her that Barney was dead. These are all truths taken from just two of the hundreds of witness statements that were made.

The point that I’m trying to make is that bearing witness is a complex and tricky business and that Derrida is absolutely correct about the damage that is done once witnesses encounter an official domain.

Poetry has the potential to act as witness in a way that is less mediated/corrupt. Our finest poets (Prynne, Hill and Sutherland) have all produced work which stands as witness to bad things that have occurred. Prynne has done this brilliantly with the multiple viewpoints of ‘Refuse Collection’ whereas ‘Triumph of Love’ is Hill’s magisterial take on the various excesses of the twentieth century. Finally ‘Stress Position’ manages to be both a searing indictment of Western atrocities in Iraq and a technical exercise in perspective. All of these poets are compelled (creatively and morally) to bear witness and do so in a way that should jolt us out of our complacency.

Celan really struggled with his compulsion, he saw the Holocaust as such a terrible scar, such an omniscient tragedy, that putting it into language of any kind gave him enormous difficulty. This poem is a truly terrible poem to read and must have been agony to write but it stands today as the finest example we have of bearing witness.

The other point of writing this is to think aloud about my latest creative ‘project’ which will probably be a long and fairly dense conflation of Bloody Sunday and BSE as expressed in witness statements and expert evidence. For the first time ever I’ve done research, I’ve learned about proteins that misfold and about the difference between an entry and exit wound.  I’ve also tried to work out in detail the motives of the British state in both of these events.

I’m trying out different forms and different voices (primarily because I’m bored with writing/sounding like RS Thomas) and have thus taken note of how the best do it (bear witness). I have to say that the early results have pleased me and, as I write to please myself, that’s all that really matters. I’m thinking of calling it “The Ballad of Barney and Beast 142” which has a bit of and echo of Sutherland’s “honest account of Ali whoever’ from Stress Position.

I’d also like to take this opportunity to have a bit of a rant about John Felstiner who chooses to translate ‘glorie’ as ‘aureole’. This is perverse in the extreme- ‘aureole’ may be a subsidiary definition but there is nothing to suggest that this was Celan’s intention- every other translator into French and English gives ‘glory’ as does Derrida. Given the status of the Felstiner collection shouldn’t more of us be pointing out that there are far better translations out there? I’m thinking in particular of Hamburger and Joris both of whom have published their own poems whereas Felstiner hasn’t.

Finally, in a 1994 discussion Derrida defined the ideological difference between Heidegger and himself. He said that Heidegger was concerned in gathering things together whilst he was concerned with scattering them. Inquiries are concerned with the gather whilst the truth lies in the scatter.

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6 responses to “Celan, Derrida and bearing witness

  1. wow… such a wonderful post…
    outstanding balance of lines and words….
    Learnt a lot from you….

    visit mine… & plz plz plz post your comments….

    Thank you…

    I’ll be in touch…

  2. Hi — just a detail: the people who killed Celan’s parents were most likely Romanian Nazis — his father in fact died of typhus in a work camp mainly run by Ukrainians, it would seem. — Enjoying reading you on Prynne, Celan, et alii. On the question of “witness” in Celan, I’ve just published an essay on those matters in my book “Justifying the Margins.”
    best, Pierre Joris

  3. Pierre,

    That’s more than just a detail, I’ll probably need a few days to absorb it. My memory tells me that his mother was shot- is this correct? Or don’t we know?
    I’m really pleased that someone of your talent and sensibility is enjoying the Prynne stuff. I enjoy writing it and I hope that shows.

    Thanks, John

  4. Yeah, she was shot when sick — “Genickschuss”, shot in the back of the head.
    & I must say I liked that you gave Hamburger & me koodos for our translations as against Felsteiners. Thanks, Pierre

  5. Pierre,

    I speak as I find, Hamburger was my first introduction to Celan (in my mid-teens) but both of you a clearly more ‘authentic’ and honest and faithful in attempting to convey what Celan, as a poet, was/is about. I remain appalled that Felsteiner gets the plaudits – what’s that about?
    Thanks

    John

  6. Pierre,

    Incidentally, I’ve just ordered your book- looking at the essay titles it looks as though we may share the same interests.

    Thanks

    John

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