Paul Celan, Osip Mandelstam and fateful language

Plough match 2012 # 17 Julian Winslow

The last post on Celan’s term ‘the angle of inclination’ attracted some debate and a very helpful contribution from Pierre Joris (Celan’s best translator who also spent seven years of his life producing the English version of the notes for the Meridian), I thought that I’d return to this issue and add a few more elements into the ‘mix’.

For those unfamiliar with Celan’s work, it is probably sufficient to say that he was the greatest poet of the 20th century and that his later work embodies much of what poetry must be about. The notes made in preparation for the Meridian offer a crucial insight into Celan’s poetics- the Meridian address is the only time that he expressed his views on poetry in any depth. I’ve paid intermittent but close attention to the notes since last summer and have learned a number of things which appear to be reasonably central to Celan’s practice:

  • the poem comes from a primordial darkness and this blackness is “congenital” to the poem;
  • the poem carries the potential for an encounter and the encounter between reader and poem is both tactile and intimate;
  • the poem is described as being “under way” en route to some “other”.

I’m reasonably confident of the above but there are many other aspects that are resistant to ‘easy’ interpretation. One of these is the use of the ‘angle of inclination’ which I speculated about in the last post. To recap this is what Celan said in the address:

This always-still can only be a speaking. But not just language as such, nor, presumably, not verbal “analogy” either.

But language actualized, set free under the sign of a radical individuation that at the same time, however, remains mindful of the borders language draws and of the possibilities language opens up for it.

This always-still of the poem can indeed only be found in the work of the poet who does not forget that he speaks under the angle of inclination of his Being, the angle of inclination of his creatureliness.

The the poem is – even more clearly than previously – one person’s language-become-shape and, according to its essence, presentness and presence.

Last time I speculated that this angle may refer to being leant forward so as to pay close or respectful attention to something. In response, Courtney Druz suggested that this might refer to a “bending under pressure” whilst Tom D’Evelyn made this observation- ““Inclination” may point to the intersubjective understanding of otherness. The I is opened to the other by transcending itself, the self that is “intended” in time towards an object, and this transformation of the self creates a space where Being may show its “otherness” as inclination: a point of entry into this space. The pressure Courtney mentions is a “pull” that co-operates with the opening self to open the space.” Pierre Joris put forward a Deleuzian perspective- “I’ll confess to problems with the translation of Celan’s term “Neigungswinkel” — which I eventually returned to its most literal translation as “angle of inclination”. For many years —the whole book took 7 years (meager? fat?) to translate — I used the term “clinamen” which in its Deleuzian inclination had seemed useful & accurate to me & my own thinking about PC. Vagaries & vanities of translation.”

In responding to these I came across a more detailed paragraph which I should have included in the initial post:

The poem that I have in mind is not surface-like: nor is this changed by the fact that even recently, with Apollinaire or with Chr. Morgenstern, one had the shape poem, rather, the poem has the (complex a double spatial depth of the soul of the) spaciality of the who demands it of the soul and indeed a complex one: the spaciality and tectonics of the one who demands it of himself and the spaciality of the of his own language ie (language which) not simply of language as such but of the language which configures and actulizes itself under the special angle of inclination of the one who speaks and thus the poem is fateful language.

(The words in brackets are the ones that Celan crossed out in his notes.)

The next paragraph expands on ‘fateful’:

“Fateful”: a highly contestable word, I know; but let it function at least as an auxiliary word; as auxiliary word for ex., for the description of an experience: that one has to emulate one’s poem, if it is to remain true; that concerning this or that poem one has to ask oneself if it hadn’t been better to have left it unwritten; that (one) even (the) most (pronounced, most articulated) literal irreality form speaks the language of the imperative: “You must pass through here, life!”

(The words in brackets are again the ones that Celan crossed out in his notes.)

So, there are now some additional words and phrases that we need to think about. I’m taking ‘the one who speaks’ to be the poet or the maker of the poem and that the poem actualizes itself because it is made by the poet who has this ‘special’ angle of inclination. It is because of this process that the poem is said to be ‘fateful’ language.

Let’s give some consideration to this ‘highly contestable word’, fateful has five definitions in the OED:

  • Of a voice or utterance: Revealing the decrees of fate; prophetic of destiny;
  • Fraught with destiny, bearing with it or involving momentous consequences; decisive, important. Chiefly of a period of time;
  • Marked by the influence of fate; controlled as if by irresistible destiny;
  • Bringing fate or death; deadly;
  • Having a remarkable fate; of eventful history.

Given what we know about Celan, it is likely that this contestable word is being used as a combination of both the first and second definitions although the fourth definition may also be intended, the notes have “Death as the principle creating unity and limits, this its omnipresence in the poem.” but we do have to tease out whether this is Celan the follower of Heidegger or Celan the depressive…..

With regard to “You must pass…”, the notes contain “poems are narrows: you have to go through here with you life – ” with an additional comment that was put in later- “…..not all the poems one writes: no one is a poet through and through…”. So poems carry or are laden with fate/destiny and also carry death and that the poet has a kind of duty to ’emulate’ the poem- in another version of the ‘fateful’ paragraph this is “one has to live according to one’s poems”.

The Notes also contain Celan’s radio-essay on “The poetry of Osip Mandelstam” which contains this: “These poems are the poems of someone who is perceptive and attentive, someone turned toward what becomes visible, someone addressing and questioning: these poems are a conversation.

Celan was a fervent admirer of Mandelstam’s work and had translated it from the Russian, here I think the idea of turning towards something that becomes visible may also provide context for ‘inclination’.

I think Courtney is right that the leaning forward is also experienced as a burden, as a responsibility to bear witness for the other- which requires an openness and careful attention. The imperative to bear witness to the fate of the Jewish people is a recurring theme in Celan’s work which is made more difficult and complex by the fact that his mother tongue was German. “Tenebrae” has ‘we’ going to look at the bodies in mass graves but it is also set out as a prayer that addresses God directly.

So, inclination may combine- attention, reverence, the burden of responsibility toward the other or otherness and may also be concerned with all of the above working to expose an aspect of truth or reality.

As always with Celan all of this has to be provisional and I haven’t begun yet to address Pierre’s ‘clinamen’ and the Deleuzian Celan but I do find it very useful to try and think these things through.


10 responses to “Paul Celan, Osip Mandelstam and fateful language

  1. Thanks for your always interesting comments about Celan. I love reading the thoughts of others on his work since it opens me to a wider perspective beyond my very personal, emotional view. I have started reading Mandelstam a little bit recently, coming to him through Celan’s evident reverence for his work.

    The idea of “a special kind of attention” (Michael Hamburger’s words on reading Celan, I think), as well as dialogue and an encounter between the creator/their work of art and the participant in the artistic experience, seems to me generally essential in art, and particularly with a poet like Celan.

    • It occurs to me this paying attention mularkey might require a bit more consideration. I find that different poets seem to require different kinds of attention and that other kinds of art often have an immediate and quite visceral effect on me that poetry doesn’t.

  2. Yes, very useful to try and think these things through, thank you – and for spurring me on to think on them myself. I hope I can say a couple of things, without simply writing my own version of your post saying them same thing in my own words.
    When I was studying counselling I remember a tutor mentioning the idea that the angle of inclination of the counsellor to the client had been a matter of research as an indicator of effectiveness. Thinking now I am not sure he wasn’t joking, and cannot find any reference on it through google scholar. I am sure it’s obvious how we may incline to someone when we listen intently to them.
    There is a richness to what he is saying that invites us each to illustrate our own version, to bring it to life. Part of my reaction is also to simplify away from these complexities (complexities I have too, I have written half a page of notes about how I may respond) – but to remind myself that maybe there is also something simple about the angle of inclination and also the creatureliness; that these may be ways of indicating the unique thought/feeling/behaviour response of the poet (another word – attitude?) to what is being observed and described (hence clinamen?) and I wonder if that is part of what we step towards through the journey of the poem, and if it is also part of how the poem came to be. A synthetic aspect as well as analytic and also something that is related to a very immediate sense/feeling/bodily reaction that may indeed be a response to much study/thought or perhaps dwelling within on a subject as Polanyi I think or at least heuristic research (Moustakas) may have it. I guess that’s what I’d like to say, and it’s not meant to detract or quibble with what you are saying, I think it’s part of it. As to the fatefulness it also seems to me that this is about this response not being an easy superficial one (maybe they are not always easy themselves!) but a hard won working out of the poet’s experience of the matters of the poem, a laden with fate sense of truth or reality, and yes again I feel like saying a step towards an answer or reaction to that reality, perhaps this can be transcendence sometimes. But I think I may now be just putting what’s been said into my own words, hope that’s ok – I guess my point is about simplification and synthesis.

    • This is very thought-provoking stuff. I’d like to start with the therapeutic aspect of the angle of inclination- leaning forward to listen to someone speak indicates both attention and a degree of care or interest in that person’s well-being. Obversely, the torturer may also lean forward to make sure that he hears the confession. If this angle is the one that the poet adopts to focus attention/care on his subject then the picture becomes more nuanced because Celan’s major subject was the Holocaust and the murder of his loved ones. So, we have care and respect for the dead and an implacable hatred of their murderers.
      Perhaps I’m making too much of the idea of the encounter but I think it is this rare event that transcends the everyday readerly experience. ‘m beginning to think that I read poetry in the hope that such encounters may come my way.

      • Yes there is angle of inclination and then there is angle of inclination, temtpting to say internal and external or maybe its about connectedness and openness and love — or maybe if I get back into character I’d remember that I place a lot of faith in Rogers’ core conditions. Hope the rest wasn’t too everyday, but important to me. And encounter and daring to try, seem important to me, in reading and otherwise for me. As you do here.

      • I now realise that I’ve been avoiding/deferring the love aspect as part of the experience of creation and expression- especially when expressed on behalf of or in the place of the other- but this also involves a kind of suffering, doesn’t it?

      • I’ve been thinking about this, your suffering comment. Straightforwardly of course we all know that love, relationship love, may bring suffering. Then I might think passion means a sort of suffering from Latin, especially with reference to Christ. But this sort of thing is obvious. Another step maybe to think of Ecclesiastes “in much wisdom is much grief” (as I remember it). But really I was thinking how Rogers’ core conditions might lead to suffering – I think of them as signposts, I also like how some researchers, especially Campbell Purton, have likened them to the root theory in Buddhism (or at least the empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard parts, if not the further points Rogers makes about other core conditions) — and of course suffering and it’s recognition is fundamental for Buddhism. I can see how suffering may be experienced in tending towards exhibiting each of these three principles – e.g. empathy for grief may be a sort of grieving with? congruence may only be tended towards with some pain? unconditional positive regard may cause pain when tested by dislike, or someone that has caused us pain — I can only wonder at the view of someone like Celan for that idea, it feels almost an improper question, I suppose I have been looking for hints of his answer in his poems, but do not know them well enough yet to have it, or maybe I have a sense of the unbearable – its a question I will have in mind as I read on, I have not been able to complete the Breathturn poems yet. Where the torturer goes, is that a place it is impossible to respond to in this way, or to suggest to anyone to try — part of me may feel so, understand that, part of me wants to challenge it, I can only speak for myself, and I do not know that pain. I hope I have not gone too far down the counselling route for you, perhaps the core conditions offer a route towards bearableness through the mutuality they guide towards, that may be tested by unbearable things.

      • I think in Celan’s case there were several elements of suffering that we can identify. The first relates to survivor guilt and the very real horrors (in the fullest sense of the word) of the Holocaust. The second stems from the experience and treatment (ect in a primitive/barbaric form) of depression which may or may not be endogenous. The third element of torment was due to Sophie Goll’s incessant and irrational accusations of plagiarism. It could be argued that the later work can be read as an exploration of bearing or living with the unbearable.

  3. John, thank you for reopening this discussion!

    I see I didn’t manage to convey what I had intended in my earlier comment, though I am grateful for your interpretation as it constitutes a necessary next step.

    First, allow me to clarify that by “pressure” I meant specifically a push and not a pull, though the complementary pull you describe adds a significant component to the action of inclination which I was missing. The pull is the action of the other, to which the pulled one inclines his ear, eye, being. But the push is the direct force of one’s own mortality upon oneself, the imposition of one’s specific suffering. This is, I think, the meaning of “radical individuation” as Celan goes on to elaborate: the condition in which the creature finds himself. While this condition includes both the wounds made by others and those resulting innocently from illness of the mind or body, it also, and more essentially, pertains to the intrinsic pain of the human condition, the human fate. Thus, “fateful language” is discovered by radical attention to one’s own fate, to the position one is pushed into.

    Now comes the next step, for this true self-witness has the ability to awaken compassion, witness for the other. This is the pull you wrote of—though I do think Celan sees it as secondary in origin to the push. Indeed, the direction of Celan’s verse bears out this sense that ability to witness for another person is fully dependent on inner fidelity, and not on a kind of documentary impulse.

    • I think you might be right but I don’t think either of us have paid enough attention to Celan and mortality, I’d like to think that his references to death inhabiting the poem has a little to do with whatever he means by primordial darkness being a congenital element in the poem. This isn’t to say that I’m dismissing the notion of the push but I need a little time to think about its source.

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