J H Prynne on huts (and Paul Celan)

In 2008 Textual Practice (an excellent comic) published a ‘discourse’ by Prynne entitled “Huts” which I’ve just come across. Of all Prynne’s prose that I’ve read, this speaks most directly to me because it addresses things that I care about. It also provides a reasonably clear insight into Prynne’s view of poetry and poetic practice. He starts off with a line from William Collins’ ‘Ode to Evening’ which was first published in 1746, together with a description of the cover of ‘Odes on Several Descriptive and Allegoric Subjects’ which contained the poem.

Readers of ‘Field Notes’ would at this stage be expecting a 22-page forensic analysis of the line but this is not the case, he does want to write about huts and their relationship to poetry. We get the etymology of the word and this is contrasted with ‘hovel’, we get Kropotkin’s description of the use of huts in Mongolia, Shakespeare’s use of ‘hovel’ in Lear and Wordsworth’s use of the term ‘hut’ in a poem from the end of the 18th century. There is also a description of mountain huts used by climbers in  the Alps.

The contrast is drawn between hut as place of contemplation and creativity and as the scene of wretchedness, madness and abject poverty. We also get the idea of the hut as man’s very first dwelling place. There is also an aside on Prynne covering himself in newspapers to keep warm in huts during National Service. Needless to say, the thought of Prynne (or Hill) doing National Service does require some time to process.

Then we get to Todtnauberg which is the name of the Black Forest village where Martin Heidegger had his ‘hut’ and is also the title of a poem by Paul Celan which Prynne quotes in full. The poem commemorates a meeting between Celan and Heidegger that took place on July 25th 1967 and has been the subject of controversy ever since publication.

The controversy arises because the poem alludes to Celan’s hope of an explanation of or apology for Heidegger’s past and then describes the two men going for a walk but does not disclose whether or not that apology was forthcoming. Prynne cites the work of Pierre Joris, Adam Sharr and James K Lyon before coming to the conclusion that some kind of understanding was reached between the two men. I’d like to consider each of these in turn.

Joris is the best living translator of Celan into English that we have and he is firmly of the view that there was no reconciliation and that ‘Todtnauberg’ is an angry poem of condemnation. As a translator, Joris bases much of his argument on the use of ‘orchis’ and ‘wasen’ to indicate that the walk taken was over the bodies of the dead. There’s a lot more to his argument but that’s the part that moves me to his camp.

The Sharr book is about the hut and Prynne is correct in saying that it’s not very hut-like. To my eye it’s more of a bungalow. The other point is that it isn’t surrounded by trees which is a shock because I’d always envisaged this retreat to be in the woods rather than at the edge of the field. Sharr’s book concludes with observation that “It is clear that the hut and its surroundings offered Heidegger things and events that, for him, prompted reflection and stimulated contemplation. Todtnauberg intensified his experiences and conditioned his emotive inclinations.”

I have many misgivings about Heidegger but readily concede that ‘Being and Time’ is the most important contribution to 20th century thought. I well recall being awe-struck when reading it for the first time over thirty years ago but that doesn’t mean that I’m equally impressed by his later work although Celan clearly was and Prynne is. There are many of the ‘provincial’ touches of the later Heidegger that I find a bit absurd – the woodland path analogy, the acorn in the lapel and the hut.

The Lyon book is about the relationship between Celan and Heidegger and I stopped reading it after the first 20 pages. This is very unusual for me as I’m normally avid for all the information that I can get but this particular tome made me feel grubby. It features in large part the notes and marks that Celan made in books that he owned and then extrapolates assumptions from these notes. I’m not normally squeamish but it is only reasonable to point out that these notes were private and made in the expectation that they should remain so. Shouldn’t we respect that privacy? The other qualm relates to what the notes may tell us, my copy of ‘The Faerie Queen’ is covered in scrawls made over three or four readings, most of these are an ongoing argument with Hamilton’s gloss and the rest relate to bits that were once of interest to me. Anyone going through this wouldn’t know when the notes were made nor would they know what my frequent use of exclamation marks actually meant. We make notes in books for all kinds of reasons but these a personal to us and of little use to anyone else. End of short rant.

I have now read Lyon on the meeting and am now offended by his account of Celan’s mental health and his regret at not being able to access the clinical records. His description of the very real mental anguish Celan experienced during the sixties is cursory and speculative. Unlike Prynne, I don’t find Lyon’s analysis of the meeting conclusive but then again I don’t think it matters what Heidegger said in private to Celan or anyone else and I prefer ‘Todtnauberg’ to remain as ambiguous as Celan intended.

Prynne continues with Heidegger by quoting the following from ‘Wrong Paths’-  ‘Language is the domain (templum), viz. the house of Being… the temple of Being’ and quotes from Lyon who describes Heidegger using the image of ‘language as a house or shelter for humankind.’

Prynne underlines to contrast between the two kinds of huts by calling upon Gautonomo, the Gulag and shanty towns around the world to make the point that huts are still the scene of utter degradation.

I’d like to end with a lengthy quote because of the insight that it gives into Prynne’s practice-

“The house of language is not innocent and is no temple. The intensities of poetic encounter, of imagination and deep insight into spiritual reality and poetic truth, carry with them all the fierce contradiction of what human language is and does. There is no protection or even temporary shelter from these forms of knowledge that is worth even a moment’s considered preference, even for poets or philosophers with poetic missions. Because the primal hut strips away a host of circumstantial appurtenances and qualifications, it does represent an elemental form, a kind of sweat-lodge; but it is confederate with deep ethical problematics, and not somehow a purifying solution to them. Yet the hut presents always a possible aspiration towards innocence, residual or potential, and towards transformation, so that a cynical report would be equally in error. Poets worth the attention of serious readers are not traffickers in illusions however star-bright, and entering by choice rather than necessity into a hut implies choosing the correct moment to come out again. Even Wordsworth manages to do this, in the poem I have cited. The house of language is a primal hut, is stark and is also necessary, and not permanent.”

Sounds like a bit of a manifesto to me….


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