issue 30 > nonfiction > kuspit
The Suicide Of Language: Paul Celan’s Poemsby Donald Kuspit
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.
John 1, 14
Only when this intense individuation has been consummated, when the immediate intuition has been focused and, one might add, reduced to a single point, does the mythic or linguistic form emerge, and the word or the momentary god is created….At this point, the word which denotes that thought content is not a mere conventional symbol, but is merged with its object in an indissoluble unity.
Ernst Cassirer, Language and Myth (1)
I came gradually to the conclusion that one could differentiate between two kinds of symbol- formation and symbolic function. In one, which I have called symbolic equation, and which underlies schizophrenic concrete thinking, the symbol is so equated with the object that the two are felt to be identical. A violin is a penis; playing the violin is masturbating and therefore not to be done in public. In the second case, that of true symbolism or symbolic representation, the symbol represents the object but is not entirely equated with it. To the patient who dreamed of the violin, the violin represented the penis, but was also differentiated from it, so that it could both embody unconscious masturbation phantasies and yet be sufficiently differentiated to be used as a violin as well, to make music which could represent intercourse but not be equated to intercourse.
Hanna Segal, Dream, Phantasy and Art (2)
I had frequently encountered repressions in my experiments with word association; in response to certain stimulus words the patient had either no associative answer or was unduly slow in his reaction time. As was later discovered, such a disturbance occurred each time the stimulus word had touched upon a psychic lesion or conflict. In most cases the patient was unconscious of this. When questioned about the cause of the disturbance, he would often answer in a peculiarly artificial manner.
C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (3)
We, afflicted by ourselves,
gladly afflicting, gladly
needing to be afflicted.
We, who sleep with our anger
laid beside us like a knife.
Rainer Maria Rilke, “Antistrophes” (“Gegen-Strophen”)
you still owe me, I
Paul Celan. “Laden with Reflection” (“Abglanzbeladen”)
"Celan, like many poets, is concerned with thought, with philosophy," Pierre Joris writes. "In his work we find, as [Otto] Pöggeler puts it, Ausseinander-setzungen ["discussions"] with a variety of philosophers and thinkers: with Democritus in the poem "Einführung"; with Spinoza in the poems "Pau, nachts," and "Pau, später"; or with Adorno in his single prose work, " Gespräch im Gebirg."(4) But the language and shape of his poems—their use of portmanteau words, condensing a complex thought in a single (and sometimes singular) word, that German allows, and of stand-alone words used as a one-of-a-kind lines, and the increasing emptiness of the page on which the poem is printed (much more empty than anything Mallarmé imagined)—are more indicative of his mental state than any of his "takes" on various philosophers. He regarded Heidegger ambivalently, no doubt because he was a Nazi—"in Heidegger's Germany, there is no place for Paul Celan," Edmond Jabès wrote--and Spinoza more happily, perhaps because Celan admired his "pantheism," a "word coined by the deist John Toland in 1705, for an intellectual system stated by Spinoza in his Tractatus Theologico-politicus (1670)."(5) Celan's poetry is subtly pantheistic, that is, it involves, however subliminally, worship of the wonder that is nature, reminding us that he was an amateur botanist.
He was born Paul Ancel, "Celan" being an anagram of "Ancel," but also an allusion to celandine, a herb used to cure weak sight, perhaps strengthening the eye so that it could have insight. A "poppy-capsule" ("Mohnkapsel") appears in "Dream-Driven" ("Traumentrieb"), there's a "moss-offering" ("Moosopfer") in "For the Shadow of the Lark" ("Für den Lerchenschatten"), "self-kindling flowers" ("Selbstzündblumen") in "Under the Flood" (" Unter der Flut"), a "crocus" in the poem with that title, among other allusions to organic nature. Inorganic nature also appears in the form of "Stone from the fallow land," ironically "lark-shaped" ("Der lerchengestaltige Stein aus der Brach"), in "Wer schlug sich zu dir?" ("Who Got to Your Side?"). It is "the rock to death" ("den Felsen zutode") in "Wahnganger-Augen" ("Mad-farer's eyes"), ageless rock being the embodiment of timeless death, terminating life's time. Death endures, life passes away—Spring's crocus will perish as spontaneously as it grew, but however much "it is time the stone made an effort to flower" ("Es ist Zeit, der Stein sich zu blühen bequemt"), as Celan writes in the poem "Corona," it never will become the "shrub of transience" (" eine Staude Verganglichkeit") mentioned in "Matière de Bretagne."
Death, most famously as the "black milk" (" Schwarze Milch") of "Deathfugue" ("Todesfugue"), informs Celan's poetry. The melodic lines of "Deathfugue," with the refrain "we drink and we drink" ("wir trinken und trinken"), recurring as the third line in the first and second stanzas, and the third from last line in the fourth stanza, and its many lines, show Celan at his most formal, harmonious, and composed, even graceful despite the fact that he is dealing with death—he proclaims its epic presence with oratorical power and persuasiveness--in contrast to the eccentric, not to say erratic, peculiarly "decomposed," dissonant last poems, oddly truncated, delusionally lyrical, quick-witted flashes-in-the-pan of language, perhaps fool's gold from the unconscious, nonetheless a sort of slap in the face of consciousness, impulsively challenging it with their meaning.
"Death is a master from Deutschland" (" der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland") in "Deathfugue," and the master is a "strutting Nothingness" ("balzende Nichts") in "From the Sinking Whalebrow" ("Von der sinkenden Walstirn"). More intimately and brutally, he is "a boot full of brain" (" Einen Stiefelvoll Hirn") in "A Bootfull" ("Einen Stiefelvoll"). It is a Nazi boot full of Jewish brain, for Celan, a Jew who survived the living death of the Holocaust only to commit suicide many years later—as though death had at last caught up with him and he could face it without flinching--could not get the Nazi boot out of his brain. It is what finally crushes his poetry, pulverizing it into the "fragmented madness" ("zerscherbten Wahn"), as he calls it in "There Will Be" ("Es Wird"), of his last poems.
The Jews drink the "black milk" of death morning, noon, and night—it was their only meal—until the commandant of the concentration camp "whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground" ("er pfeift seine Juden hervor lässt schaufeln ein Grab in der Erde"), or "in the air where you won't lie too cramped" (" in den Luften da liegt man nicht eng"). Celan did not go up in smoke, but he did, in a sense, dig his own grave when he threw himself into the Seine in April 1970—described as a "Freitod" in a German edition of his works, meaning that he freely took his life (as though there was nothing compulsive about it). This suggests that he killed himself to finally become free of the suffering in which the Holocaust had imprisoned him. It also suggests that he had nothing more to say about it: he had run out of words, out of the need to write about it. The compulsive repetitions of "Todesfugue" and the impulsive "word-gestures" of the last poems had lost their purpose. The vanity of poetry could no longer sustain what little vanity the Holocaust had left him with. Language was no longer healing and helpful, leaving him stranded in helplessness and sickness—permanently afflicted ("gekränkt," to use Rilke's word). Language was no longer consoling; the theater of language was no longer a stage on which he could act; the strutting and posturing of language had become futile and useless as his life, the audience as meaningless and unnecessary as the Holocaust had finally convinced him he was.
Losing his compulsion to bear witness to the Holocaust he lost his compulsion to write—to "poetize" the Holocaust, as it were, and with that suggest that there was something "poetic" about suffering. Language, prosaic or poetic—he wrote prose as well as poetry—could no longer metabolize suffering, was no longer a means of working it through, an alembic in which the lead of suffering could be transformed and distilled into the gold of pure art, for art could never be pure, words could never be pure, but were always tainted by experience, which invariably involves suffering. Celan, who lived in Paris after the Holocaust, and was influenced by French poetry—he gave me his German translation of Rimbaud's "Le Bateau Ivre," along with his own " Mohn und Gedächtnis" ("Poppy and Memory"), and acknowledged a debt to the "Illuminations"—had lost his Proustian idealism about the emotionally redemptive power of art.(6)
Proust piled up words; Celan began to shed them. His last poems are flights of Icarian words, aspiring to the heights of pure expression but falling short, which is why they became shorter and shorter, and finally fell apart, shredding themselves as they moved in the vacuum of oblivion that was the page, as stripped bare as the poems, but not bare bone like them, but rather the nothingness in which they dissolved, like Jewish flesh that became dusty air. The futility of language expressed itself in hubristic ambition for it, which is why the last poems seem tragically flawed. Language could no longer mentalize, let alone communicate his feelings, his personal experience of the Holocaust, let alone its world-historical significance. Paradoxically, his last poems have something of the "strutting Nothingness" he attributed to Nazi-inflected Death, suggesting unconscious identification with the aggressor—the enemy. Celan invested his tenderness in nature, but the peculiar harshness and authority of his poems owes something, however unconsciously, to the authoritarian harshness of the Nazis. They also "fight to the death." Celan's obsession with death suggests that he had become incapable of love, and felt unlovable—a double crippling by the Holocaust. He is, in a sense, a victim of his own unconscious identification with the Nazis, masters of death.
The last emaciated poems brood on the nothingness of death, hang in the void—Celan's own word—of the page like a figure at the end of its tether, choking to death as its neck is broken. The blankness of the page suggests that the words that seemed like swift bullets that hit the mark in "Deathfugue"—they spread over the page, like the arrows of a vengeful, accusing angel of death, from which no Nazi can escape—have become blanks rather than bullets. The Nazis who hated and slaughtered the Jews, indiscriminately and indifferently—including his mother and father who were shot to death by the S.S. in 1942—have in fact escaped into the beyond of the Void. Language, finally, is inadequate to brutality and misery—sadism and masochism—leaving one hanging in the limbo of incomprehensibility.
First growing like grapes, as "Grapegrowers" (" Rebleute") suggests, from the "depths" ("Tiefe um Tiefe"), Celan's words withered on the vine of his suffering, becoming inedible and valueless, no longer fit to be pressed into the wine of tasteful poetry. He is no longer drunk on them, but stuck with their bitter taste. They become the stones Jews place on the graves of their dead relatives, tokens of mourning and remembrance—"the stone behind their eye, it recognizes you on the Sabbath" ("den Stein hinterm Aug, der erkennt dich, am Sabbath)." It is the pupil in the eyes of the dead, unseeing yet looking the living in the eye. Dead stone is the blind yet all-seeing eye of the dead, a sort of glass eye like his poem, helplessly reflecting the deathworld, the doubly dead world of Nazis and Jews, each dependent on death for their existence. And their meaning, for opposites—especially Hegel's master and slave, the dialectic of dominance and submission that he thought was foundational for society—need each other to be meaningful in themselves. For Jews the stones placed on the graves of dead relatives, in acknowledgement of a visit to their graves, are memento mori. The permanence of the stone is "proof" that they will never be forgotten, and the hardness of the stones suggests the determination of the Jews. They are, as the Roman conquerors who destroyed the Second Temple with a brutality worthy of the Nazis called them, a "stubborn people." The Jews of Masada preferred suicide to slavery and suffering. Celan was a slave in a Nazi work camp, stubbornly surviving despite the constant threat of death, and finally preferring suicide to the slavery of suffering.
The Jews are God's chosen people, which is why the Nazis chose to kill them, in ironical confirmation of their "chosenness." The Nazis, who endorsed Nietzsche's idea that instinct, which is "beyond good and evil"—uninhibited by conscience and law--is the healthy remedy for decadence and degeneracy, regarded the Jews as the embodiment of conscience and law—they gave the world the Ten Commandments that distinguished between good and evil—and thus inherently decadent and degenerate, that is, unhealthy. To restore health, physical and mental, one had to eliminate the unhealthy—a perverse attempt to restore the classical ideal of a sound mind in a sound body, for it called upon the death instinct to do the job. The Nazis, who thought they embodied Aryan purity and health, and with that the life instinct, relied on the death instinct to make their "healthy," "purifying" point, suggesting they did not know the difference between life and death. The same confusion/conflation of life and death—and good and evil--seems to occur in some of Celan's last poems. Thus a tender "benediction" ("Segenspruch") becomes a clenched "fist" ("Faust") in "The Spores" ("die Keime"), and "heaven hurls itself into a harpoon" ("der Himmel sturzt sich in die Harpune") in "From the Sinking Whalebrow" ("Von der sinkenden Walstirn"), killing the "six-legged [Jewish] star crouch[ing] in the foam" ("sechsbeinig hockt unser Stern im Schaum"). A benediction, blessing life, becomes a brutal weapon, and heaven, a place of eternal life—a place where the dead are eternal and eternally happy and at peace—commits murder.
Committing suicide is a way of forgetting while remembering—the Seine became the river Lethe for Celan (thus he suggests that death is "the hour of the Barge" ("Treckschutenzeit"), that is, Charon's boat, in the poem of that title). What Celan wanted to forget was death itself—the death he saw "in action" in the Nazi death camps, the death that was a daily occurrence, the death the Jews had to drink every day, the death in the perverse form of life-giving milk, the white milk of human kindness turned black as death, the indifferent, routine Triumph of Death in the death camps, one victim as good as another--and "the God Who Failed" to stop it, who seemed to be indifferent to his chosen people, to break his covenant with them, who was the devil in disguise, the commandant who "plays with the vipers" ("der spielt mit der Schlangen") before he goes about his business of death. The Jewish God was not the "rock of the ages" he was supposed to be, but so much smoke, not to say hot air. Celan's poems deal with his crisis of faith in God, traces of Whom he sometimes finds in nature, often "fossilized" like a dead flower. As he wrote, he was finally able to rid himself of God as well as Death ("Todes quitt, Gottes quitt") by committing suicide. They are clearly conflated/confused for him—condensed or concentrated into one person, the Nazi commandant God, God a Nazi commandant, by way of his indifference to his Jews, evident in letting them perish in the Nazi death camps. They didn't stand a prayer with him—and Celan's last poems are sort of hopeless prayers (he mentions hands held together in prayer in one of them)—so why should they continue to worship and believe in him. Celan's Jewish God is not the so-called hidden or obscure God, he just no longer exists. God is dead, as Nietzsche presciently declared, yet he, in all his authoritarian omnipotence—absolute power over life and death—and perverse glory, lived on in the Nazis, who killed him, that is, belief in him, to become like him, to appropriate his will to power. Apparently almighty and God-like, they demanded obedience, enforcing obedience by enslaving and finally exterminating the disobedient ("stubborn") Jews.
Celan's last poems are as "concentrated" as concentration camps, that is, attempt to concentrate in a word or phrase more meanings and experience than it could bear, so that it collapses into the peculiar meaninglessness of what Segal calls a symbolic equation. It becomes a species of concrete thinking, which is what the "pure word" that Celan, and other modernist poets, have been said to be in search of,(7) thus suggesting Celan's schizophrenia, more particularly, his paranoia.(8) He seemed stuck in what the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position—a "split personality" (half-Jewish by birth, half-German by identification) indeed--for all the "depressive" characteristics of his poetry. Paranoia is the viper that gnawed at his insides, tormenting him even when he sought refuge in nature, communing with it as though it could save him from himself, which it never did. Nature turns to dust in his last poems, which seem to render dust to dust, hang in the dead air of the page like smoke, so much ash from Jewish corpses incinerated in the death camp ovens. The last poems are a suicidal endorsement of death, seemingly preordained by the death camps, and a demonstration of the inadequacy of language, its inability to make convincing sense of life, let alone of God, and even death, in the end all meaningless words for Celan, so-called empty signifiers, passing and increasingly less plentiful and fanciful.
In the end Celan is at a loss for words. The few that remain seem like stutters or tics, which is what the last poems may be—a stuttering language of word tics. "In classical antiquity, speaking with a mouth filled with stones, an image in Celan for the poetic utterance, was the remedy of choice for stammering."(9) It was proposed by Democritus, but Celan's last poems stammer rather than remedy stammering, that is, they stumble along in uncertain search for the right word-stones with which to speak the unspeakable, words piled up in a poem that is a memorial to poetry, a kind of living death in the grave of Celan's mouth. He becomes speechless at last, speech petrified, for its word-stones are afflicted with the rigor mortis of reified language. Celan drowned himself in a river, but it is not the river of words that Joyce drowned himself in in Finnegan's Wake. But then Joyce's word associations also suggest "a psychic lesion or conflict," to allude to the Jung epigraph, if not as severe as Celan's in the last poems. Certainly the linguistic regression from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man through Ulysses to Finnegan's Wake is comparable to Celan's linguistic regression from the communicative clarity of "Deathfugue" to the labored obscurity of the last poems.
Celan survived the Nazi death camps, but it left him burdened with survivor's guilt. It unconsciously informs his poems, eventually to their detriment, for it led to his loss of faith in poetry as a means of communicating experience, especially the near-death not to say living death experience of being in a dehumanizing concentration camp—the radical existential experience of knowing that one's life could be destroyed at any moment, the self-alienating and self-defeating feeling that one's life was valueless and meaningless. I think the peculiar "devaluing" and "minimalizing" of poetry—its reduction to a few trenchant, telling, memorable words, supposedly of intrinsic, unique, epitomizing value--that occurs in his last poems, involves his attempt to minimize, reduce, and finally rid himself of his guilt. He never could, except by committing suicide, finally obeying his command to "throw yourself out of yourself" (" wirf dich aus dir hinaus) in "Discus" ("Wurfscheibe"). Paradoxically, his attempt to "perfect poetry," to create a kind of "extreme poetry," make the poem a sort of miraculous thing in itself, made it excruciatingly clear that poetry--language in general--could not perform miracles (however miraculous it seemed when one read it). Poetry was poor compensation for the extreme suffering caused by what existentialists call "extreme situations." They are unbelievable, and seem indescribable--however much the extreme situation of life in a Nazi death camp can be empirically described, as Primo Levi does—and poetry cannot make us believe that they actually happened, convince us that they are real, wake us up like an alarm clock to their reality, make us feel what it felt like to actually live for years in the extreme life-threatening situation of a death camp, when the poetry itself seems haunted by the feeling that the death camp was a bad dream. A poetic experience is, after all, not a life experience (especially when the poetry reeks of death). The barren subjectivity of Celan's last poems, which reflect his own rootlessness and uprootedness, bespeaks his feeling that language is not a shield against "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." His poetry in the end becomes a metaphor for the wasteland of the death camp, bringing with it the feeling that his life had become a wasteland. The wasteland of the last poems suggests that he feels that he wasted his life writing poetry, and that his life was a waste of time. The crippled poems lose their way in a fog of despair, not "fogged-in with [the] hope" ("übernebelnden Hoffnung") of the "island-meadow" ("Inselflur") he identified with in "Hatchet-Swarms" ("Beilschwarme"). The "long-muzzled axes" ("Tüllenäxten") cutting down the trees of the little island of paradise suggest that he felt there was no safe haven for him, let alone serenity, perhaps not even in death.
He was a "stranger on the earth," which is the way Van Gogh has been described, although Celan's earth was stranger than Van Gogh's. For Celan's words lost their earthiness as they became "pure," as they were treated, increasingly, as things in and for themselves, internalized by Celan as transcendentally real in themselves, objects that seemed sufficient unto themselves as though to signal his self-sufficiency. They became less and less able to function as symbolic representations of external reality, and with that peculiarly estranging, more off-putting than inviting, as the critic Adrian Stokes suggested art should be. Celan's last poems are extravagantly bizarre, suggesting they are the last gasp of a dying surrealism. They try to make age-old suffering shockingly new, but their "immediate absurdity," to use Breton's phrase, comes to seem forced. Some would say Celan's "minimalist" last poems are a stylistic innovation, but more to the point is the fact that they make "maximum" use of the empty page, which symbolically represents the feeling of emptiness behind the words, more pointedly, his increasing feeling of creative failure and sterility.
Finally, I want to suggest that Celan's " Todesfugue" is a fugue in more ways than one, a fugue in the musical sense, to be sure, but also, a fugue in the psychological sense, that is a kind of emotional flight. "Fugue" derives from "fuga," the Latin word for flight. Celan's poem is not only a sustained flight of fancy, as all eager poems are, but "a form of dissociation characterized by apparently purposeful travel outside one's normal range of movement, with amnesia during the period of travel."(10) Fugues are "often precipitated by a need to escape an intolerable situation."(11) Ripped out of his Romanian homeland and Jewish family, and forced to travel to a foreign land in which Jews were regarded as Untermenschen valuable only for the use to which they could be put—valuable only because they could be worked to death, like beasts of burden—was clearly an intolerable, traumatizing, "extreme" situation. His poetic re-experiencing of it makes his life seem like a long journey to nowhere. It made Celan peculiarly foreign, as though confirming the inherent "foreignness" of Jews. He vividly remembers the Nazi commandant, but he tends to forget his Jewishness, abruptly remembering token symbols of it—the Jewish star, the Sabbath. They appear, almost incidentally, in a few poems, like meteoric mirages that flash by, dissolving in flight, fading into the gloomy atmosphere of the poem. I suggest that what remains fixed in Celan's mind, in whatever metaphoric and hallucinatory form, is the death-head in the caps of the S.S. commandant who ran the Nazi death camp and the S.S. soldiers who murdered his parents.
The Nazi commandant was permanently installed as a bad object in Celan's psyche, continuing to threaten him with death, and uncannily shaping his poetry. The commandant lost the chance to line up Celan with his fellow Jews when he killed himself. Celan anticipates and prepares for his suicide in his last poems. The thin thread of the poem—hardly a life-line--often ends in an isolated word, suicidally poised above the abyss of the page, ready to plunge into its oblivion. "Lung" ("Lunge"), "treeward" ("bäumlings"), "birth" ("Geburt"), "out" ("aus"), "altitude" ("Höhe"), "hope" ("Hoffnung"), "you" ("dir"), "standpipe" ("Steigrohr"), "gold" ("Gold"), "fate" (" Schicksal"), "poem" ("Gedichte"), are some of these isolated words, each full of expectation of death, as though in anxious welcome of the relief it affords.
Celan was haunted by the fear of going mad; he is the "mad-farer" ("Wahngänger") on the "mad-road" ("Wahngang"). In his last poems he wrestles with madness, making them unforgettable. The Nazis drove him mad by cursing him with their evil. He was their victim, but they had branded him with their mark of Cain. His last poems are peculiarly brutal—punchy fists, shadow boxing--destructive, self-destructive, as snaky as the commandant's vipers. However often they shed the skin of their words with new ones they remain "deathly" ("tödlich"). They are compulsively repetitive, obsessed with death to the extent of becoming skeletal themselves. Celan's obsession with death led him to eschew love--it seemed absurdly out of place in the death camp--which is why there is little mention of love in his poems, apart from his hesitant love of nature. Virtually no loving human beings appear in them. Life was not enjoyable in the death camps, and there is no joie de vivre in Celan's poems. The analogies and metaphors in the last poems are mad and maddening. The words seem to dissociate rather than synthesize; their association is unsettling, their dialectic unresolved, indeed, seemingly unresolvable. Stone, after all, cannot flower, and words do not grow, however much they may grow on one like moss. The analogies and metaphors squirm with self-contradiction, suggesting that Celan was always in a state of self-doubt, torturing himself unreasonably. He is not a new Jacob wrestling with the angel of an old God in hope of a life-giving blessing, but resigned to the fact that the concentration camp number that must have been branded on his (writing?) arm has left its indelible deadening effect on his poetry and life.
(1)Ernst Cassirer, Language and Myth (New York: Dover, 1946), 57-58
(2)C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (New York: Vintage, 1961), 147
(3)Hanna Segal, Dream, Phantasy and Art (London and New York: Tavistock/Routledge, 1991), 35
(4)Pierre Joris, "Celan/Heidegger: Translation at the Mountain of Death," http://wings.buffalo.edu/epc/authors/joris/todtnauberg.html
(5)Alan Bullock and Oliver Stallybrass, eds., Harper Dictionary of Modern Thought (New York and London: Harper & Row, 1974), 454
(6)In "The Past Recaptured," the last in the series of novels that form Remembrance of Things Past (New York: Random House, 1932), 1020-21, Proust writes: "The intelligence does not recognize in life any closed situations without an outlet." Celan's poetry may seem like an "outlet," but it shows him imprisoned in the "closed situation" of his suffering, glimpsing bits of nature through the prison's windows. His poetry may be a window on his inner world, but it tells us little about the outer world, apart from what it tells us about the world of the Nazis. Proust adds: "It is true that grief, which is not compatible with happiness or health, is sometimes prejudicial also to life. In the end, sorrow kills." It killed Celan. "The dull ache at our heart can raise, as it were, a banner for each fresh sorrow, the permanent record of an inner image," so "let us accept the physical injury it inflicts because of the spiritual wisdom it brings." Celan seems to write poetry to keep his sorrow fresh in his mind. It is not clear that his poems show "spiritual wisdom"—that his suffering brought him spiritual wisdom, symbolized by the God he lost faith in, however much he celebrated the Sabbath, at least in his mind (another of the contradictions that pervade his poems)—unless spiritual wisdom means acceptance of one's lot in life, and finally resignation. Celan, like Spinoza, was too much of what T. S. Eliot contemptuously called a "free-thinking Jew" to accept any orthodoxy, finally perhaps even that of "pure art."
(7)Katherine Washburn, in her "Introduction" to Paul Celan: Last Poems (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985), xxi writes: "Following the example of Mandelstam, digging in the earth for the pure word under its damaged counterfeits, and of Mallarmé, whose poet is a seraph with a flaming sword giving 'a greater purity of meaning to the words of the group,' Celan found a temporary equipoise between speech and silence." But I think silence overtakes speech in his last poems—the speech of the poems submits to the silence of the page. The "absence" of the "bodiless" page dominates—almost overruns—the "presence" embodied by the poem's words. It is as though the blank, unmoving, grave-like page forces the poem back on itself—forces it to compress itself, reminding one of the truism that nothing concentrates the mind so well as the thought of death. The large empty page is more imposing, not to say intimidating, than the small poem, its words nihilistically parsed to a precious few, oddly inconsequential compared to the page, which we see before we read the poem. The visible poem implodes, but the page explodes with invisibility, a peculiarly airy, "mystical" foundation for the hard-bitten, hard-won words that form the poem. Is the white page the white milk that Celan missed when he lived on Nazi black milk? Does he dip his black words in it to spoil it as his life was spoiled? The empty space of the page, its whiteness overshadowing the black printed words that mark it with tentative meaning, has an immediate unconscious impact, compared to the spare poem, with its labored self-consciousness. The blank page proclaims the silence of death, the meager trickle of words the little life left in Celan.
Also, I venture to say that giving "a greater purity to the words of the group" removes them from the group, and/or creates misunderstandings in the group. They become less useful for social communication and with that group solidarity. It gives them an elite or aristocratic status that makes them unfit for democratic functioning. Hypostatizing a word as a mythical aesthetic end in itself—an autonomous abstract form regarded as meaningful in itself--ends up making it peculiarly meaningless and socially unfit, whatever emotional associations cling to it. The so-called "concrete poetry" of "pure words" is socially inept "concrete thinking," and rather limited in its choice of words. The "individuation" of the word in concrete "poetic" thinking involves a kind of psychotic reduction ad absurdum of language. Simply put, a word is not and never the thing it represents. To believe it is, is to be psychotically unrealistic—mad indeed.
The illusion created by the "pure word" is that meaning magically inheres in a word, but it is wishful thinking to believe that a word has an inherent meaning. It is given its meaning by the group—by social consensus. Its particular meaning can change, depending on the particular interests of the group. The group can change, and with it the meaning of the words it uses. A word often has many meanings, depending on the group it serves. "Rise up against multiple meanings" ("komm auf gegen der Bedeutungen Vielfalt") Celan writes in "Don't Write Yourself" ("Schreib dich nicht"), to follow "the trail of tears" ("Tränenspur") with its singular meaning, but the trail leads nowhere, to his suicide, which is one way of completely dropping out of the group. The word exists to serve the group, not to be worshipped by it. To worship it is to renounce one's allegiance to the group, indeed, announce one's alienation from it. Celan worshipped the pure word in order to purify himself, identified with language as though it could renew his being, indeed, as though it was pure being, the ultimate source of selfhood and community and salvation. He wrote poetry in an attempt to make good what was bad in his life, to purge the evil in his experience, but he came to realize he could never rid himself of it, it would always remain, if only in the form of the stumbling block of the pure word, incommunicable trauma incarnate in superficially communicative language. The evil in the past could not be changed; the Nazis were a hard fact of his life, like the rock they forced him to shovel. Thus he came to realize that his poetry was a form of self-deception, for it would always be tainted by his Jewish impurity, by the stigma of being a socially undesirable non-person. He had to stop writing poetry, he had to end poetry, it was causing him to be tongue-tied, almost struck dumb—stunned into silence. To stop writing poetry, to confirm that there was no longer any point to it, he had to stop his life, confirm its lack of purpose, the meaninglessness the Nazis had imposed on it. The trail of the tears inevitably led to death. Following it to the end, Celan could finally accept the death he was destined for by the Nazis. If Celan's poetry has a theodicean aspect, that is, if it tries to persuade us that God is just—that there is some bizarre divine logic—in tolerating, even turning a blind eye to the existence of evil in the world, especially the absolute evil of the Nazis—then it is a failure, for the good of his poetry is poor compensation for the evil, including the evil of suffering, which it addresses.
Words can lose their group meaning, becoming old-fashioned and even unfashionable, and many words have no meaning in a "foreign" group. To "purify" a word makes it peculiarly "foreign" to the group that ordinarily uses it, taking its meaning for granted, and thus undermines its usefulness, and finally its meaning, which becomes increasingly uncertain, finally uprooting the word from its group. It becomes peculiarly enigmatic, as though it was some sort of talisman, but also, as noted, a so-called "empty signifier" which one can arbitrarily fill with any meaning one likes, just as a madman imagines he is Jesus Christ or Napoleon, perhaps both at the same time. The pure word is a sort of scarecrow one can stuff with whatever absurd meanings one wishes.
The banal group meaning a word may have may not appeal to the "pure poet," but the magical power he thinks it acquires when he isolates it into purity is a narcissistic delusion. Michael Balint, among other British Object Relational psychoanalysts, argues, based on clinical evidence, that what Freud called primary narcissism is in psychological fact a defense against object relational failure. Freud's pleasure/unpleasure principle is secondary to the need for an object, the primary object being the mother. Celan lost his mother, along with his father, as a teenager; as noted they were shot by the S.S. in 1942, when he was 22. What he had left was language—his knowledge of Hebrew, Romanian, French, and later German, the language of the enemy in which he wrote his poetry, the language of the German philosophers he wrote about, and the language of the keepers of the concentration camp in which he was interned—the language of intellectual and military power and authority (not always easy to separate in German philosophy, which marches with Juggernaut-like authority over everything, an overpowering language that leaves little room for the spontaneity Celan struggled to achieve in his last poems, however compulsive they may seem. He seemed to totally identify with the German intellectual and military aggressor, as though unable to be himself and a poet unless he did so, for he had little Jewish self left to resist the aggressor. Hebrew and Romanian are not international languages, but certainly French is, arguably more than German, but then German is not a romance language, but the language of barbarians, so why not write in it to convey one's experience of them.
Language is not exactly a primary object; to be married to language is not necessarily to have a good marriage. It's no substitute for a human primary object; Celan's marriage, in the flesh and in the spirit, didn't exactly work out. Nor did Rilke's; like him, Celan preferred to live with language, which, no doubt, is easier than to live with another human being, however difficult it may be to marry words together in associations to form a poem, and however ill-formed or precariously constructed it may finally seem to be. No doubt poems afford a certain pleasure—what the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott wittily called an "ego orgasm"—but according to Freud that is not as great as the pleasure one gets from sexual orgasm. Frustration, despair, vulnerability are self-evident in his poetry, and finally a sense of hopelessness and impotence, no doubt in response to the strutting omnipotence of the Nazi commandant who ruled the concentration camp.
The English translations used in this essay are by Washburn and her colleague Margret Guillemin. The English translation of "Todesfugue" is by John Felstiner in Twentieth-Century German Poetry: An Anthology, ed. Michael Hofmann (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006), 236-39.
(8)Anthony Storr, Human Destructiveness (New York: Basic Books, 1972), 86 notes: "Directly our paranoid potential is aroused, it is as if we set foot in a mythological world inhabited, not by human beings, but by demons." One can say that Celan mythologizes the Nazi death camp, which clearly had a determining presence in his life, and its commandant, whose demonic character is confirmed by the fact that he plays with snakes, creatures from a hellish underworld. His last poems seem overtly paranoid, while in "Deathfugue" the paranoia seems under control.
(10)Andrew W. Coleman, A Dictionary of Psychology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 292
(11)Robert J. Campbell, Psychiatric Dictionary (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 256