Using Celan to read Celan

I’ve used ‘I know you’ as an example of what a short poem can do and now I want to try and use Celan’s notes for ‘The Meridian’ to think bit more about this remarkable poem.

I’m going to use the Pierre Joris translation of the poem because it makes ‘sense’ and the Felstiner doesn’t. This is the German followed by the Joris-

(ICH KENNE DICH, du bist die tief Gebeugte
ich, der Durchbohrte, bin dir untertan.
Wo flammt ein Wort, das fur uns beide zeugte?
Du-ganz, ganz wirklich. Ich - ganz Wahn.)

(I KNOW YOU, you are the deeply bowed
I, the transpierced, am subject to you.
Where flames a word, would testify for us both?
You - all, all real. I - all delusion.)

Joris’ note to the poem states that it was written in 1965 for Gisele, Celan’s wife and that it has been the subject of much critical attention and analysis. I haven’t read any of this so I may be about to unwittingly say what has already been said.

If we take the poem as an address to Gisele then the above can be read as referring to Celan’s mental illness and the effect that this has had on their relationship. Closer examination however reveals several other elements that need to be thought about but I’d like to start with the obvious first.

By 1965 Celan’s mental illness was reasonably well-established and he was receiving electro-shock treatment as a way of reducing the severity of the episodes. Since about 1960 Celan and Giselle had periods of living apart primarily because of his ‘difficult’ behaviour which included bouts of paranoia.

So, Gisele is the one who is deeply bowed or weighed down by the poet’s illness and behaviour, he is the one who is fixed and defined by his condition whilst remaining devoted to Giselle. There is a problem about acting as witness to the difficulties that exist between them. In the final line Celan contrasts his own symptoms with his wife’s sanity and groundedness.

I’ve already said that this superficial reading speaks to me because of my bipolarness and the effect that this has had on my marriage so I think (or I like to think) that I can identify with the tone of the address and with the circumstances that these things may have been said. I also think that the poem strikes another blow for those of us who wish to see Celan taken out of the Holocaust and Heidegger boxes beloved of so many critics. In fact I’d like to claim Celan for madness and Kropotkin in thinking about the later work.

Of course, as with all things Celan, things are rarely straightforward. There is the brackets problem, the choice of adjectives, the ‘you’ problem and the incredible complexity of the third line. Some of these are helped, but not resolved, by the Meridian notes and we’ll need to start with the notion of the encounter.

The Brackets.

We know from the notes and the address itself that Celan thought of the poem as the opportunity for an encounter and that this encounter is both personal and tactile (conversation and handshake). A poem written by husband to wife at a time of marital stress carries more than a degree of intimacy and this may explain the brackets within which the entire poem is placed- as if these four lines are marked off or in some way removed from the rest of the collection. If this is the case, and it may very well not be, then there is the decision to publish problem. If we are to read this as a quiet cry of desperation which acknowledges the pain caused by madness and the brackets as a sign of privacy then publication does seem a bit odd.

Brackets are also used to enclose information that isn’t essential to what surrounds it but serves to add additional context or clarification. In the above paragraph I could have let ‘personal and tactile’ stand without further qualification but chose to add two of the specific examples that Celan provides to make his point. I think I did this for two reasons- the first being to justify my paraphrase, especially my use of ‘tactile’ and the second was to clarify that by ‘intimate’ I was not intending any kind of sexual connotation. I think that I chose brackets rather than commas to indicate that this element wasn’t essential to my argument or train of thought and should be seen as additional or supplementary.

With regard to this poem, it may be that the brackets here also denote information which is not essential for reading the rest of ‘Atemwende’ but which nevertheless ‘informs’ elements of the other poems. It could be that Celan was trying to indicate that his mental anguish and the difficult relationship with Gisele underlay the other poems in the volume or that he was trying to amplify one particular theme that occurs in other poems.

Some people may feel that I’m paying too much attention to something that may simply be a rather mannered device but Celan never did things without giving them careful consideration and it is very unlikely that the brackets are where they are just for ‘effect’.

The You Problem

There are many yous in Celan’s work and the addressee can be God, his parents, a lover, other victims of the Holocaust or a combination of these. You can also refer to friends and acquaintances. The yous are rarely identified in the poems and their identity has to be worked out by the rest of the poem and this isn’t always possible. In this instance things make a lot more ‘sense’ if we identify all four yous as referring to Giselle although this might not be the case with the you that Celan is subject to. As with most of Celan’s later work, things may only become a little clearer if the rest of the poem is placed under the closest scrutiny.

I Know You.

The seems like a very direct and unambiguous statement until we ask whether a wife would need to be told that her husband (for the previous twelve years) knew her. So perhaps we need to consider what kind of knowledge this might be and the reasons for placing it at the start of the poem. The phrase could signify that the poet knows all there is to know about Gisele and this could then be seen as some kind of threat- I know all of your secrets and I’m now going to divulge these to the world. The phrase may also indicate the start of an encounter triggered by this recognition. If we recognise a friend that we haven’t seen for a long time then we may start this encounter with a handshake so Celan may also be indicating that this is the start of a specific and real encounter rather than the idealised one that his poetry usually aims for (the message in a bottle motif from the Bremen Prize speech).

The other intention may be to announce the poet’s credentials in saying what he is about to say- I know you and my knowledge of you leads me to say these things. Of course, some of these things appear to be contradictory.

The Bowed Subject problem.

If this poem is in part ‘about’ mental illness then the description of Gisele as ‘deeply bowed’ may refer to the pressure that Celan’s condition has placed upon her and weighed her down. At the beginning we therefore have an acknowledgement of the damage that Celan’s behaviour and irrationality has caused- in the early sixties Celan had to move away from the family home because of fears for the safety of Gisele and Eric, their son. Ths seems to be contradicted a little by the second line where the poet declares himself to be ‘subject’ to Gisele. So, if this second ‘you’ is his wife then there is some kind of paradox- my behaviour oppresses you and wears you down yet I (who am mad) remain your subject and will therefore do your bidding. Of course ‘subject’ has many other connotations and meanings but it does seem that at a primary level this apparent paradox is being expressed.


I’ve said before that this describes for me the experience of mental illness, the feeling of being both wounded and immobilised at the same time, the sense of being slowly robbed as the episode intensifies until I arrive at the point where nothing can be done/thought/said. Because I’ve received a lot of attention from mental health professionals over the last five years, I’ve had many attempts at summing up the experience of being severely depressed but I’ve never come close to anything as accurate and telling as this.

The Witness Problem.

Jacques Derrida has written at length about the meaning of Celan’s question about witnessing for the witness at the end of ‘Aschenglorie’ and the third line seems to take us in the same direction but closer examination reveals that the question here is of a completely different order. ‘Where flames a word’ isn’t asking about who will witness or how this will be done but about the place in which a word/language will be born that will testify for them both which is asking something much more specific and personal. Is it this word that Celan the poet is searching/questing for? Is this why the poem is published?

I’m taking the last line at face value, referring to the difference between the afflicted poet and his mentally healthy and grounded wife but I do have to ask if the last two lines are in the right order. It does seem that the there are a series of statements in lines one, two and four but that line three poses the question that arises from these statements. As I said at the beginning, line three is wonderfully complex and brilliantly crafted and (with my fondness for great endings) I’m puzzled as to why Celan should order thing in this way.

The Notes to the Meridian are published by Stanford University Press and are widely available.


8 responses to “Using Celan to read Celan

  1. Minor: typo in “untertan”. Also “für”, if you want.

    One way to read the opening is in contrast to not knowing her — i.e. “(I’ve been so far gone as to seem not to know you, but) I do know you.” And I read the last line as simplistic in the way of such extravagant apologies — “you are all real and I am all mania”, black and white.

    I agree that the third is a more powerful line, but I don’t find the fourth weak as an ending. It explains why it’s hard to find the word that would testify — it provides another, starker unpacking of the tension between “uns beide”.

    • Typo now corrected, thanks.
      I think there’s a number of ways that the first line can be read, there’s the possibility that it’s an accusation that she is trying in some way to deceive him. With regard to delusion, have just come across these two entries in the Meridian notes-

      “delusional character of poetry??
      A reminder that we are not only that which we believe we are?”


      “Through what the fantastic and the halucinatory-delusional are separated.
      I have no answer for”

      which may or may not add another dimension (delusional poet content in this because delusion is inherent to the poem)

      Also think I might have to re-do the you problem….

  2. I do not know the longer poem. I hesitate to share this, but I like this idea based on what I have read and I think something you said may have sparked it earlier when I read your piece.
    It occurred to me that the “you” may be himself, an address to the self that experiences the illness from some part that observes, is still there even when that self is transpierced (which you helped me understand better). Hence a need for words that speak for both, the transpierced and being a subject of that self – you can observe but remain transpiereced – and maybe as an address to self it would be in brackets, an internal aside?
    Excuse me if you considered this, I read your piece in 2 chunks with an interruption. I’ve also had a lot of therapy and this was just an idea that jumped out to me that spoke of that experience where I have moments of such awareness of this self that is experiencing the issue from some other vantage point.

    • Thank you for this which has set off a further set of thoughts-
      1. The blurring that goes on between the one we love (who is sane) and the sane ‘I’ who watches the illness unfold- I think this may echo in and around the last line.
      2. The self as ‘other’ which was a big theme for Celan inspired in part by Martin Buber, and the first three words which are both a cry of recognition and a challenge.
      3. I don’t want to get into psychopathology but there’s something about transpierced that has echoes in the sane/not sane aspect or doubling of the last line.
      What I think I did was to over-identify with the poem because of my own experiences and those of my long-suffering and eternally supportive wife.

  3. I’m glad you like it, it really works for me.

    I think reading it like this also works for the enjambment in line one/two – I think that “I” relates backwards and also forwards (perhaps, if that is possible).
    I really like the idea that this self that observes may be delusional/subject to flights of fancy(?) that the self that suffers does not but that that self may be very realisitic. I seem to remember one researcher interested in the realistic nature of the thoughts of depressed people.

    I think you’re right about point three. The Buber link is fascinating, I always mean to read him more, his dialogue with Carl Rogers is fascinating. This poem and conversation is inspiring me to read more Celan. Love this blog and your other site, having known them less than a day – I liek how you share your thinking, very generous and helpful. I think what you wrote can also work. Over identifying I also know.

    • I come back to this poem a lot since I found it here and in light of these thoughts.
      Today I am reading it with faith in mind and again as an internal dialogue on faith, two parts of self with different clarity on this, or as words to God.

      • Anthony, thank you for reminding me that the ‘you’ in Celan’s work is always the most difficult to get hold of. The last line in particular here may be read in several ways but an expression of faith or the struggle with faith can be seen as another facet of his marriage as well as his relationship with God. Food for thought indeed…..

  4. yes indeed, I reread your paragraph on his “you”, and for me again it may also be himself regarding faith.

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