Good criticism should make us want to read (or re-read) the work being written about. Last week I read and wrote about J H Prynne’s essay on huts and, as a result, I’ve spent the weekend with Celan and Heidegger.
I’ll start with what Prynne sees as the contradiction in the hut as the site of primordial language and as the site of impoverished squalor and desolation. In support of this assertion he points to Paul Celan’s ‘Huttenfenster’ as an example of abridging this ‘deep latent contradiction’ and also states that the poem shows greater understanding than Heidegger because Celan is “a poet and has more complicated links with language and reality than ever a philosopher can attain”.
This isn’t to say that Prynne is critical of Heidegger- he speaks of reading Heidegger’s work with ‘ardency’ (a Prynne word) and of making a kind of pilgrimage to the iconic ‘hut’ at Todtnauberg.
In the interests of putting this bold assertion to the test, I’ve now re-read the Celan poem with renewed interest. It is a poem that I’ve found difficult because translators have translated ‘hutten’ as either ‘tabernacle’ or ‘cottage’. Prynne says that he prefers the more literal translation as hut. Substituting hut for tabernacle in the Michael Hamburger translation makes everything much clearer. It now begins-
The eye, dark:
as hut window. It gathers,
A number of objects are then referred to in the poem; stars, letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the town of Vitebsk. John Felstiner’s brief notes to the poem give Vitebsk as the birthplace of Marc Chagall (which it was) but it is extremely unlikely that Celan is referring to Chagall because another line has “goes to ghetto and Eden, gathers…” A quick glance at the net tells me that Vitebsk was indeed the site of a Jewish Ghetto in the Second World War al of whose inhabitants (about 16000) were killed by the Germans.
As most people know there were many Jewish ghettoes that suffered an identical fate in Eastern Europe so why does Celan refer specifically to Vitebsk? I dug a little further and came across this-“On September 30, 600 Jews of the Vitebsk Ghetto were shot in a ravine. The children were buried alive”. I knew that Jews were shot, gassed and beaten to death but I did not know that the Nazis buried children alive. Celan’s reference to Vitebsk reads:
down by the head, with
the black hail that
fell there too, at Vitebsk,
Is Celan here using ‘black hail’ as a metaphor for death or is it being used for something much more sinister. When you bury someone alive you throw soil over them until they are completely covered. I think that the hail stands for the soil that was used to murder these children. This is, of course, a terrible image standing for a terrible deed.
Heidegger couldn’t begin to do this because he would have to acknowledge his own role in legitimising the Nazi regime. Prynne is also right that philosophy is unable to risk itself in order to attain this kind of exposure. It could be argued that Celan is no ordinary poet and that only poets with his exceptional abilities can take these risks.
On a human level, I now know what Prynne means by the power of good poetry to be breathtaking and startling. I also have greater insight in what it must mean to feel the need to bear witness to terrible events.
In his eulogy to Heidegger, Prynne speaks of two works- ‘Off the Beaten Track’ and ‘What is Called Thinking?’ At the moment I only have access to the second tome so I’ve started with that. Over the years I’ve developed a strategy with regard to reading Heidegger which is similar to how I used to read CPGB manifestos. This consists of reading each paragraph very slowly to ensure understanding and then pausing to consider whether I agree with what has been said.
My reading is at an early stage but I am surprised/appalled at how much I can actually see the point of. I’m more than happy to accept that we think wrongly and that we’ve been doing this for a very long time. I’ll also concede that “what is most thought-provoking shows itself in the fact that we are still not thinking”. I begin, as ever, to fall over when He cites Holderlin as proof of beauty’s proximity to truth and when he says that there is a relationship between a noun and the thing that it names.
However, Heidegger also has this: “Only when we are so inclined toward what in itself is to be thought about, only then are we capable of thinking”. I’d previously ascribed Prynne’s use of “inclined” to Celan’s Meridian Address, I no longer think this is the case. It is more likely that they both stole it from Heidegger.
I still remain more than a little perplexed by the relationship between poetry and philosophy and I still find some of Heidegger’s assertions about poetry to be groundless but the Prynne essay has given me the opportunity to consider again the role of verse in exploring the contradictions that surround us. I’m also pleased that he didn’t use ‘dialectic’ once.