Getting a bit deeper in with Celan and Levinas

As I seem to be doing this with greater frequency (well, this week anyway) I thought it might e a good time to reiterate the two bebrowed positions that are unlikely to change, the first is that David Jones is unjustly neglected and the second is that Paul Celan produced the best (in every sense) poetry of the twentieth century. Unlike most of the tentative and provisional posturings expressed on this blog, I can and do argue both of these positions from a number of positions and am entirely comfortable in doing so.

Before we get to Levinas I want to recognise that there are more than one Paul Celan, there’s the botanist, the anarchist (socialist utopian ranch), the husband and father, the translator, the disciple of Martin Heidegger, the poet, the Jew, the german speaker, the follower of Martin Buber, the devotee of Jewish mysticism, the existentialist, the anguished mad man, the lover, the witness. All of these are mixed up in my head and various aspects come to the fore as I read the work and all those that have paid attention to this remarkable material will have there own ‘blend’ of the above.

The above is the conciliatory approach along the lines of: “it’s good and proper that everyone should have their own views and respect the views of others”. Unfortunately this is the world of poetry where consensus and rationality feature was down in the pecking order. One major piece of discord is over the relative importance of Martin Buber’s strand of Jewish thought and the existentialist teachings of Martin Heidegger.

Last August I drew attention to Celan’s use of ‘wholly other’ in the Meridian address and linked this with the Buber/Levinas side of the argument.

The ‘point’ of the above is to announce that I have recently fallen across a 1978 Levinas essay, ‘Being and the Other: On Paul Celan’, which quite fiercely claims Celan as a member of the Buber gang. He also goes on to add his own partisan reading of the Meridian which seems to throw up some tricky questions for the makers and users of poetry.

Here’s the claim:

The poem goes toward the other. It hopes to rejoin it, free and unoccupied. The solitary work of the poet carving the precious stuff of words is an act of “ambushing” a “vis-a-vis.” The poem “becomes conversation – it is often futile conversation . . . encounters, a voice’s paths to a thou capable of perception” – Are Buber’s categories to be preferred then? Are they to be preferred to so much inspired exegesis to the benefit of Holderlin, Trakl, and Rilke, that descends in majesty from the Black Forest in order to show poetry opening the world in Being, between heaven and
earth, where man finds a dwelling place? Are they to be preferred to the aligning of structures in the intersidereal space of Objectivity -the precariousness of which, in Paris, the poet rightly senses, having the good or bad luck to align himself, be longing, with the entirety of his being, to the very objectivity of these structures? Poetics of the avant-garde where the poet has no personal destiny. Buber is without question preferred to them.

So, that’s fairly unequivocal and I don’t want to dwell on it too much except to note that its far more caustic about the majestic Heidegger than it is about the Parisian avant garde. This might appear odd as Levinas ws instrumental in bringing all things Heidegger to Paris in 1931.

Levinas then goes on to construct a further model around his version of Celan’s poetics. The general thrust of this is that the poem’s quest for an encounter involves a loss of the self. The evil that springs from self-interest is central to Levinas’ thought- this fixation prevents from paying attention to the needs of the Other and he sees Celan’s idea of the poem as a loss of self sovereignty in order to attend to those needs.

Of course the argument is much more detailed nd better put than that but that seems to be the main gist of it. This loss of self brings to mind ‘Unlesbarkeit’ which ws published in the posthumous ‘Schneepart’ collection in 1971:

    ILLEGIBILITY
    of this world. All things twice over.

    The strong clocks justify 
    the splitting hour,
    hoarsely.

    You, clamped
    into your deepest part,
    climb out of yourself
    for ever.

The last four lines here (as well as Celan’s notes for the Meridian) would seem to bear this out, self interest keeps us clamped into ourselves and we need to clamber out of this state in order to ttend to the ‘wholly other’> of course the bebrowed slant would wnt to throw in the possible references to suicide as a mens or release from this clamping and the previous six lines describing the experience of mental anguish. To add a bit more credence to this, it can be pointed out that many of us with experience of severe depression contemplate and ttempt suicide to avoid going through the anguish, to which we feel episodically tethered, ever again. I might also need to mention that the brain/self is ‘clamped’ when we receive ECT.

However, Levinas then makes use of the term ‘Meridian’ to instill some kind of hope/salvation into this loss of self:

In this adventure where the I dedicates itself to the poem so as to meet the other in the non-place, it is the return that is surprising- a return based not on the response of the summoned relation, but on the circularity of the meridian-perfected trajectory of this movement without return?, which is the “finality without end” of the poetic movement. As if in going toward the other, I were reunited with myself and implanted myself in a soil that would, henceforth, be native; as if the distancing of the I drew me closer to myself, discharged of the full weight of my
identity?a movement of which poetry would be the possibility itself, and a native land which owes nothing to rootedness, nothing to “prior occupation”: a native land that has no need to be a birthplace. Native land or promised land? Does it spew forth its inhabitants when they forget the course of one who goes off in search of the other. Native land on the meridian – which is to say: a here which is also the everywhere, a wandering and expatriation to the point of depaganisation. Is the earth habitable otherwise?

I’m regretfully of the view that this is a step too far, there’s nothing in my reading of Celan to suggest that one meets the self in the act of going toward the other, indeed I can point to many instances where this kind of movement is made in the knowledge that there can be no return to the self and it is this loss that must be borne. I’m not suggesting that all of this essy is flawed but this quite central point says more about Levinas than it does about either Celan or poetry. It has prodded me into re-reading the work, which is always a Good Thing.

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