Poet of the Impossible: Paul Celan at 100
Among the most innovative poets of European modernism, he forged a new path for poetry after the terrors of the twentieth century. Do we still know how to read him?
November 23, 2020
Nov 23, 2020
27 Min read time
Among the most innovative poets of European modernism, he forged a new path for poetry after the terrors of the twentieth century.
Memory Rose into Threshold Speech: The Collected Earlier Poetry, A Bilingual Edition
Paul Celan, translated by Pierre Joris, with commentary by Pierre Joris and Barbara Wiedemann
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $45 (cloth)
Under the Dome: Walks with Paul Celan
Jean Daive, translated by Rosmarie Waldrop, with an introduction by Robert Kaufman and Philip Gerard
City Lights, $15.95 (paper)
Microliths They Are, Little Stones: Posthumous Prose
Paul Celan, translated by Pierre Joris
Contra Mundum Press, $26 (paper)
Is poetry still possible? The question may strike us as impertinent: of course it is still written. But in some sense it remains a real question what poetry can do—and how it should be—at a time of suffering and hatred. The problem looms large in discussions of poetry written after World War II, and it hangs especially heavily over the legacy of Romanian-born, German-language poet Paul Celan, among the most innovative poets of European modernism.
After Friedrich Hölderlin and Rainer Maria Rilke, no one else in the tradition of German lyric poetry composed works of such evocative force, testing the limits of language and courageously opening a new path in aesthetic experience. It was Celan, most of all, who proved that to write poetry after Auschwitz is not only possible but necessary: that it must take on the accumulating weight of modern catastrophe and register something like shame for the fact of its existence. Like Celan himself, modern poetry is a survivor—wounded, traumatized, haunted. It can persist, but only if it turns against its own pretensions to transcendent meaning and breaks with inherited ideals of beauty. In Celan’s work this requirement yielded a new idiom, as enigmatic and rough-edged as the world itself. And yet Celan seemed to know that the burden of responsibility might prove too great, and that poetry might simply vanish. “The poem today,” he observed in 1960, “shows a strong tendency towards silence.”
Like Celan himself, modern poetry is a survivor—wounded, traumatized, haunted.
Celan was born a century ago today into a German-speaking Jewish family in Romania, and he died in France fifty years later—a few months shy of his fiftieth birthday—when he threw himself into the Seine. Publishers have seized the occasion of the double significance of 2020—centennial of his birth and semicentennial of his death—to revisit Celan’s legacy and to produce new English translations. In 2014 Luxembourg-American translator Pierre Joris published Breathturn into Timestead, superb renderings in a bilingual edition of the five volumes of Celan’s poetry originally published after 1963. This year Joris completed his life-long encounter with the poet’s oeuvre by publishing a companion work, Memory Rose into Threshold Speech, which contains the four volumes of Celan’s earlier poetry. Joris has also translated a fascinating volume, Microliths They Are, Little Stones: Posthumous Prose, including the poet’s aphorisms and critical notes on literature. Beyond Celan’s work we also have a new English translation of the memoir Under the Dome: Walks with Paul Celan by Jean Daive, a French-language poet and close friend of Celan’s during his final years. The outpouring of new volumes demands our attention, but it also raises a question: Are we capable of reading his work?
Celan is too often categorized as a “Jewish” poet, an epithet suggesting merely parochial interest. His poetry certainly springs from the particular trauma of modern European Jewry, but it has inspired writers well beyond the usual circuits of modern Europe, reaching, for instance, the Martinican poet Monchoachi and the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. There is no escaping the fact that European life at midcentury made Jewishness a matter of life or death, and nearly all of Celan’s work reverberates with the memory of a genocide that he typically left unnamed, preferring instead only an oblique reference to “what happened.” But his nine volumes of poetry are not transcripts of an identity or an event, nor can we confine them to a single literary tradition. Their lexicon comes freighted with a bottomless supply of references, from Martin Luther and Meister Eckhart to the Hebrew Bible and the Kabbalah. We say the poems are written in German, but no native reader can escape the sense that they are not of German. Even in the original Celan’s poems feel as if they were written in another language—a mark of his estrangement from the language of the Nazis, but also his inventiveness to go on writing poetry in the wake of disaster.
• • •
The name Paul Celan was itself a linguistic invention, the poet’s way of twisting his birthname, Paul Antschel, into a pseudonym. (He used several pen names as a young man.) An only child, he was born in Czernowitz (Cernăuți in Romanian). The city lies in the region of Bukovina at the Eastern edge at what had been the Austro-Hungarian Empire, at Celan’s birth part of the Kingdom of Romania and today part of Ukraine. Known at the time as little Vienna, Czernowitz was celebrated for its cosmopolitan spirit—it was Romania’s third most populous city—and its bustling mix of Jews, Romanians, Poles, Austrians, and Ukrainians lived cheek by jowl in a babel of language and religions and cultures.
Even in the original Celan’s poems feel as if they were written in another language—a mark of his inventiveness to go on writing poetry in the wake of disaster.
Celan’s family spoke German—his mother, Fritzi, had a deep love for German literature and insisted German be spoken at home—and he always considered German his Muttersprache. But necessity combined with natural talent equipped him with an astonishing multilingualism: he also spoke and read Romanian, Russian, French, Hebrew, Yiddish, Portuguese, Italian, and English. Already in his twenties he was making German translations of Shakespeare, Guillaume Apollinaire, and William Butler Yeats, and later he would translate Emily Dickinson. He identified strongly with Franz Kafka, another German-speaking Jew born into the twilight of Austria-Hungary. Above all he adored Rilke, whose poems he could recite by heart. And it was not only his literary imagination that brimmed over with far-away material; in his political consciousness too he was cosmopolitan, embracing socialism as a global cause. He read Pyotr Kropotkin and Karl Marx and helped to raise funds for the anti-fascist struggle in Spain.
War came in late 1939, and a year later Northern Bukovina, including Czernowitz, fell under Soviet control. For a time the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact—codifying non-aggression between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union—meant that Celan and his parents were relatively safe from the anti-Semitic policies then spreading across the Third Reich and its allied countries (even as the Soviets deported tens of thousands, mostly ethnic Romanians, to Siberia). But in 1941, when the Nazis launched a massive attack on the Soviets and regained Czernowitz, the town’s Great Synagogue was burned and Jews were made to wear the yellow star. Celan was put to forced labor—much of the time he was shoveling rocks—and one night his parents were deported to a camp at Transnistria in German-occupied Ukraine. He received news that his father had died from typhus, and, sometime in the winter of late 1942 or early 1943, he was told by a relative who had escaped the camps that his mother, deemed unfit for work, had been shot.
The experience left a wound that would never heal, and it became an obsessive theme in his work. It appears in his earliest and surely most famous poem, “Todesfuge” (“Deathfugue”), probably written late in 1944 or some time in 1945 after the liberation of the camps. The first version of the poem was published in 1947 in Romanian translation as “Tangoul Mortii” (“Death Tango”), a name that may be more suitable to its delirious rhythms and macabre imagery:
Black milk of morning we drink you evenings
we drink you at noon and mornings we drink you at night
we drink and we drink
we dig a grave in the air there one lies at ease . . .
The poem bears all the marks of surrealism, as do most of the other poems in Celan’s first collection, The Sand from the Urns, published in Vienna in 1948. A man “plays with snakes,” and is transformed into an allegory: “Death is a master from Deutschland.” But to speak of the poem as surrealist is to avoid the unsettling fact that in the camps the surreal became real. Celan’s biographer John Felstiner reminds us that an orchestra in Auschwitz actually performed tangos, and at other camps the music played when prisoners were shot was generically called a death tango. For the German version of the poem Celan substituted for “tango” the more serious “fugue,” but the metaphor is not entirely apt for a poem that keeps hammering away at the same terrifying phrases with only minor variations, as if the reader were locked away with the prisoners in an unending nightmare. The image of “black milk”—infusing life with death, maternal nourishment with poison—is repeated three times; twice he repeats the couplet that ends the poem: “your golden hair Margarete / your ashen hair Shulamith.”
The symbolism is almost too overt. Margarete is the quintessential heroine of German literature, the eternal feminine from Goethe’s Faust, but she is also an incarnation of the Lorelei who combs her golden hair in the dreamlike poem by Heinrich Heine—one of the most anthologized poems in German. Shulamith is Solomon’s “black but comely” lover in the Song of Songs, a daughter of Israel magnified into a symbol for her entire tribe. Her dark hair is now “ashen,” shadow to the “golden” light of German Romanticism and a cruel reminder of “what happened.”
The idea of writing a “grave in the air” became a metaphor for Celan's own poetic creation.
Though “Deathfugue” is the best known work by Celan, it is also in some ways the least characteristic. Celan never again indulged in the accessible rhythms and rhymes that earned it acclaim as the poem of the Holocaust, its text memorized by schoolchildren throughout Germany and set to music by several composers. Its phrases even adorn paintings by Anselm Kiefer, the celebrated “rebel” of postwar German art. This attention left Celan uneasy, and eventually he refused to include the poem among the works he offered for public readings. It held a more personal meaning that could not be exploited. Years later he told the poet Ingeborg Bachmann, who had been his lover, that “Deathfugue” was “a tombstone epigraph and a tombstone. . . . My mother too has only this grave.” The idea of writing a “grave in the air” became a metaphor for his own poetic creation.
After the war, Celan lived for a brief while in Bucharest and then moved to Vienna, but he soon left for Paris, where he arrived in the summer of 1948 and would spend the rest of his life, writing poetry (still in German) and eventually securing for himself a post as a teacher of German language and literature at the École Normale Supérieure. His first major collection was published in 1952 as Mohn und Gedächtnis (Poppy and Memory); it concludes with the enigmatic poem “Count the Almonds.”
Count the almonds,
count what was bitter and kept you awake,
count me among them:
I searched for your eye, when you opened it and no one looked at you . . .
Celan’s mother, it seems, had almond-shaped eyes. In the 1954 poem “Andenken,” (“Remembrance”), Celan imagines a dialogue with Hölderlin (who had written a poem with the same title), interlacing naturalistic scenery with a grim reminder of “the dead one’s almond-eye.” Elsewhere the shape of an almond reappears as candle flame and as Celan’s own figure of the eternal feminine he had lost. This passage is from the 1953 poem “In Front of a Candle”:
Of chased gold, just as you bade me, mother,
I shaped the candlestick, from which
she darkens up to me amidst
your deadness’s daughter.
A slender figure,
a slim, almond-eyed shadow,
mouth and sex,
danced around by sleep creatures,
she floats out of the gaping gold,
she soars up
to the peak of Now.
Celan pays homage to the Sabbath—specifically to the ritual, traditionally performed by a woman, of lighting the candle to mark the beginning of the day of rest. The poem is at once pledge and monument. Like many survivors, Celan never overcame a sense of personal guilt for his parents’ death, and he even figured himself among the dead: “Make me bitter. / Count me among the almonds.” A poem from 1954 is called “Cenotaph”—empty tomb—as if he recognized that his poems were memorials in words.
• • •
Joris’s latest set of translations, Memory Rose into Threshold Speech, comprise nearly 200 poems Celan originally published between 1948 to 1963. Readers may find them more congenial than his more famously difficult later work: they rely, more or less, on usual conventions of syntax, and unlike much of the later poetry, one usually feels confident one has grasped what they are about. But the feeling is deceptive. Even these early poems are dense with poetic allusion—biographical, literary, theological, and philosophical—that demands a concordance all its own. As in the volume of later work, Joris has supplied a massive apparatus of endnotes—filling nearly a third of the book—that help us to hear the echoes, multilayered and multilingual, that resound through almost every word. In this respect, at least, Celan is a distant cousin to James Joyce; each poem can seem like a miniature Ulysses. But where Joyce makes each sentence into joyful abundance, with Celan the density of reference only plunges his lines further into darkness, and no explanations can undo the enigma of his language.
Where James Joyce makes each sentence into joyful abundance, with Celan the density of reference only plunges his lines further into darkness.
By 1959, when Celan published the collection Speechgrille (Languagemesh), he had already begun to test the limits of established forms. The allusions reach a point of opacity that has led many critics to call his work “hermetic.” The charge is unfair, though it is true that Celan seems to have lost his trust in language, and he was experimenting with a vertiginous poetic idiom, as if the bottom has dropped out of the world. His language grows spare, inelegant, even harsh. Every poem becomes a shipwreck, the aftermath of an explosion. Among the most powerful is “Engführung.” Joris calls it “Stretto,” borrowing the musical meaning of the German word, which designates a portion of a fugue when the voices leap swiftly one after another, interlacing into a cascade of sound. But the German particle “eng” also means “narrow,” and it recalls the line from “Deathfugue” in which prisoners dig a grave in the air, where they will not lie too narrowly—“nicht eng.” (Joris renders this more loosely as “there one lies at ease.”) In his 1980 selection from Celan’s work, the British poet Michael Hamburger translates the title as “The Straitening,” which loses as much as it gains: it ignores the musical meaning of the word, though it helps us to hear “straits” as “a narrow passage.”
The poem is a meditation on memory and absence, returning us to regions marked by death. The first word, “Verbracht,” can also mean “Deported.”
with the unmistakable track:
Grass, written asunder. The stones, white,
with the stalks’ shadows.
[. . . .]
The place where they lay, it has
a name—it has
none. They didn’t lie there.
The English reader may hear an echo of “Grass,” Carl Sandburg’s poem on the memory of war:
Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work—
I am the grass; I cover all.
[. . . .]Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?
Like Sandburg’s travelers, Celan’s find themselves displaced into a landscape that has lost its signposts. We see at least one sign of past horror—the “bullet trap on the ruined wall.” But the gravesites are uncertain, and grass has obscured the memorial stones. The poem can be read as a rejoinder to “Deathfugue,” a farewell to its facile rhythms and its macabre imagery. Celan has even shifted the temporality of his language. Where “Deathfugue” was written in an eternal present, “Stretto” reflects on the irrecoverable past. He probes memory for the wound that will not heal:
Years, years, a finger
feels down and up, feels
seams, palpable, here
they gape wide open, here
it grew together again—who
covered it up?
The poem is less a description of past events than a meditation on the work of time. Graves in the air are now denied as false consolation:
. . . no
noplane table, no
smokesoul rises and plays along.
In Hamburger’s translation, “smoke” (Rauch) and “soul” (Seele) are separated, preferring English lucidity over German compression. Joris leaves the two conjoined, a trace of German’s distinctive capacity to forge new meanings from compound terms. (He often preserves such compounds but is not consistent in this practice: just above, “Flugschatten” becomes “flight shadows.”) In an essay on the poem, the Hungarian-born literary scholar Peter Szondi, a friend of Celan who facilitated a great deal of critical engagement with his work, observes that German compounds defy easy interpretation: one cannot always know with certainty which term modifies the other. Does Flugschatten mean “flying shadow” or “shadow of flight”? And does Rauchseele mean “a soul composed of smoke” or “the soul or essence of the smoke”? Celan’s work offers all these meanings.
Celan composes not by exposition but compression: nouns assume a hard, rock-like character, while the verbal phrases by which words are sewn into sentences are simply torn apart.
At a writer’s conference in 1958, Celan explained that “Stretto” was written as a response to the contemporary debate over German rearmament and what he called “Atomtod,” atomic death. This is just one of the revelations of Joris’s endnotes. But there is an irony to these decodings, since so much of Celan’s work is concerned with the decay of signs and the breakup of stable references—with resisting easy reference rather than supplying it. Especially in the later work he composes not by exposition but compression: nouns assume a hard, rock-like character, while the verbal phrases by which words are sewn into sentences are simply torn apart. Consider the 1961 poem “Le Menhir,” whose title is borrowed from a Breton name for the upright stones that date from the bronze age:
less you, stone-gaze, with which
earth brought us forth, human,
on dark-, on wild-rosemary-paths,
evenings, in front of
you, heaven’s abyss.
The stark particularity of things stands out on an empty stage. Celan’s landscapes, much like the scenes in Samuel Beckett’s plays, appear post-apocalyptic, void; the marks of humanity of have been burned away. Although he felt drawn to mystical and Kabbalistic imagery, Celan was not a man of faith. God, too, had vanished in the ongoing catastrophe. In his 1961 poem, “Psalm,” we read, with an idiosyncratic, forceful rendering of the German word Niemand, that “NoOne kneads us again of earth and clay, / noOne conjures our dust. / Noone.”
Celan took to heart the idea that modern catastrophe would require a form of art commensurate with its horrors.
Celan won much praise in the fifties and sixties for his poetry as well as his many translations. In 1955 he was invited to write the German text for the documentary film Night and Fog by the French director Alain Resnais. The film shows grass fields, and camps that have been closed. But the narrator offers scant consolation: “And there is ourselves, we who look at these ruins and sincerely believe that race-madness was buried in them forever, we who see this image fading and act as if we had cause for hope again, as if we really believed that it all belongs to only one time and only one country, we who overlook what’s happening around us and do not hear that the scream never falls silent.” These words are not really Celan’s, but they capture his own sense of ongoing catastrophe, his refusal to accept the bland assurance that what had happened would never occur again and was safely consigned to the past. His humanism is lined with pessimism.
This insight had a transformative effect on Celan’s understanding of poetic possibility. In 1951 the German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno had pronounced that to write poetry after Auschwitz would be barbaric. But the famous dictum has often been misinterpreted; in the very next sentence Adorno hastened to explain that poetry had become “impossible” not because of the horrors of the Holocaust but under the pressure of capitalist commodification. The very idea of culture itself was being destroyed from within, he wrote, and with its collapse went the promise of redemption through art. Like Adorno, Celan knew that in the midst of ongoing horror the old values of lyricism and transcendence could not persist. At some point in 1967 or 1968 Celan wrote down a small observation that can now be found in Microliths. “No poem after Auschwitz (Adorno),” he notes. “What concept of the ‘poem’ is being presented here? The arrogance of the one who dares hypothetically-speculatively to contemplate or poetically describe Auschwitz from the nightingale- or lark-perspective.”
Like Adorno, then, Celan took to heart the idea that modern catastrophe would require a form of art commensurate with its horrors. Poetry could still be written, but it had to be as fissured and fractured as the world itself. Celan introduces this thought in his lecture for the 1958 literary prize in Bremen, insisting that poetic language must pass through “terrifying silence” and through “the thousand darknesses of murderous speech.” The same theme is deepened and developed in “The Meridian,” Celan’s acceptance speech for the 1960 Georg Büchner Prize. The modern poem has “an awakened sense of ellipsis,” he observed, and a “faster flow of syntax.” It turns away from the lyricism of nightingales and descends into a darkened silence where it is “freighted with world.”
Poetry could still be written, but it had to be as fissured and fractured as the world itself.
Such claims alert us to the deep affinities between Adorno and Celan. (Szondi had even tried to arrange for them to meet.) Celan wrote a prose-piece, “Conversation in the Mountains,” that imagines a curious dialogue between two characters, “Jew-Klein” and “Jew-Gross,” casting himself as the first and Adorno as the second. (He knew that Adorno was half-Catholic.) Adorno was so taken with Celan’s work that he even entertained the possibility of devoting an essay to the critical analysis of Celan’s “Stretto,” and in his Aesthetic Theory (1970) he lavishes praise on Celan’s poems for achieving the impossible: “Permeated by the shame of art in the face of suffering,” they turn language against language and try “to speak of the most extreme horror through silence.” His poems become seismographs of catastrophe, and through them we hear “the dead speaking of stones and stars.”
• • •
By external standards Celan’s life in France should have brought him some measure of contentment. He married Gisèle Lestrange, a graphic artist. Though the couple’s first son, François, died shortly after birth, their second, Eric, would also become a poet. His post at the École Normale gave him financial security, and over the years his work gained increasing fame. He traveled and gave readings of his poems around Europe; the philosopher Martin Heidegger, whose works inspired Celan despite his Nazi past, once said: “I know everything of his.” In 1967 he gave a reading at the University of Freiburg with Heidegger in attendance, and the next day the two met at the philosopher’s hillside retreat. Celan recalls their meeting in the poem “Todtnauberg,” which begins by intoning the names of forest plants. “Arnica,” the poem’s first word, refers to an herb traditionally used to cure wounds.
But some wounds would not heal. Awards and public acclaim did little to quiet Celan’s inner demons, and he often fell into depression. A plagiarism charge brought by the widow of the late poet Yvan Goll, though wholly unfounded, continued to plague him, and he was consumed with the sense that critics, especially in Germany were eager to deny that his work was truly his own. In 1965 he placed himself in the hands of psychiatrists at Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois, a clinic on the southern outskirts of Paris.
Celan and his wife agreed that it would be best if they lived apart, and he moved to a one-room apartment. He felt increasingly embattled and alone. The year he began attending the clinic he struck up a friendship with Jean Daive, a French poet from Belgium who was some twenty years younger than Celan and obviously held him in high esteem. The two would often meet at the Place de la Contrescarpe, a square not far from Celan’s flat and populated with cafés where Celan would often burrow himself away to write. The poem “La Contrescarpe” records his days there. Daive and Celan would wander the streets of Paris, discussing poetry and remarking on their surroundings. Some twenty years after Celan’s death, Daive composed a tribute to their friendship, Under the Dome, first published in French in 1996 and then in English translation by Rosemarie Waldrop in 2009, reprinted this year by City Lights with a superb introduction by Robert Kaufman and Philip Gerard. Its title refers to the canopy of chestnut trees and paulownias that arch over the square.
Celan was a committed anti-fascist, but he also possessed a keen sense of irony that restrained him from the ideological passions of the time.
The book’s form aptly mirrors Celan’s own: it is composed in short fragments, its style is hallucinatory and obsessive. Daive revisits the same scenes over and over. He wrote the memoir on an island in the Cyclades overlooking the Aegean sea, and the scenery only enhances the sense of elsewhere-and-long-ago: “In the solitude of the island, the donkey’s presence sometimes rends the air. He cries, he weeps, he brays. I hear him. And I hear within me a still living mass fall into the sea, into the Seine.” We know from the beginning of the book that Celan will eventually drown himself: all that happens is interlaced with the sadness of the poet’s end. Every time the two men part Celan makes the same excuse, that he cannot invite Daive into his flat because “the cleaning woman did not come today.” Even this simple phrase assumes a quality of ritual and mystery. At one point Celan asks if Daive might attempt a translation of “Engführung,” though the young poet confesses (to the reader, but maybe not to Celan) that he does not understand it at all. “Why this poem?” he silently wonders. Daive feels honored, but also burdened, as if he has been asked to decipher an “ars poetica for the end of time.” And though it is steeped in melancholy, the memoir also shows Celan absorbed in the quiet happiness of his work. Daive watches from a distance and leaves him undisturbed. On another occasion Daive comes upon him at a café on the rue des Grands Augustins:
I surprise Paul on an impressive Provençal chair—a throne?—peeling a peach, with the juice running all over him who is taken aback by this overabundance. I see his hands encumbered, his lips the color of peach, his eyes laughing, knife and fork crossed, his hazel eyes, the wrinkles on his forehead and embarrassment like a sugar cube on the table.
Some of these memories date from May 1968, when Paris was in the grips of rebellion. Celan was a committed anti-fascist, and he instinctively loathed authoritarianism in all its forms. But he also possessed a keen sense of irony that restrained him from the ideological passions of the time. Though he was an early affiliate of Group 47, the collective of postwar German writers that included Bachmann, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, and Heinrich Böll, he did not share their engagé temperament. He could never have written an overtly political poem such as Enzensberger’s “Ode to Nobody,” with its litany of modern horrors such as “slaughterhouses,” “refineries,” and “the carcinoma of high finance.” Daive recalls a stroll he took with Celan during the student demonstrations, past the Luxembourg gardens, where they saw the slogan: “We are all German Jews.” Celan said nothing, but his face registered a mocking smile. Celan also visited Israel and was received there as a long-absent son. He responded with gratitude and, like many survivors, saw in Israel the possibility of a Jewish life without fear. But unlike his father, Leo Antschel, he could not fully identify with the Zionist cause and saw himself as a child of the diaspora. Jews were not people of land; in his poems they were “die Schwebenden,” the floating ones. After Israel declared independence in 1948, he sent a letter to relatives who had settled there that he would take a different path. “Perhaps I am one of the last,” he wrote, “who must live out to the end the destiny of the Jewish spirit in Europe.”
“One of the last”—it is a phrase that attaches to Celan in many ways. In 1970 he cast himself into the Seine from the Pont Mirabeau, a bridge that Apollinaire had eternalized in a poem on the eve of World War I. With Celan’s death it was the entirety of modernism that seemed to have drowned. Celan completed the tradition of literary experimentation that spanned the twentieth century in two senses: he fulfilled it and also ended it, exhausting its possibilities and leaving the world to its brokenness and indirection. Upon receiving the news of his friend’s passing, Daive found that Paris had been reduced to “a web of streets and pain.” The disorientation was not his alone. Celan ended his life as Europe was losing economic and global power, its boundaries tested by its own exclusions and its record of colonial violence.
Celan did not surrender the promise of an experience of art that both shatters and transforms.
Modernism’s passing can be both celebrated and mourned, but especially in the Anglophone world the difficulties of reading Celan have only increased with time, not least because of a growing hostility to the very idea of aesthetic difficulty. In his introduction to the volume of Celan’s later work, Pierre Joris remarks on what he calls “the present episteme of American poetry,” according to which poetic language should conform as much as possible to the cadences and syntax of colloquial English. The translator, Joris warns, may feel compelled to bend language Celan’s language toward the everyday, like an immigrant who adopts a name that natives will find easier to pronounce. Celan knew that his poetry would not be easily absorbed; he once characterized his work as a “message in a bottle,” as if in the hope that at some point in the future it would meet with more comprehending readership. In the winter of 1968 he had written a clairvoyant poem that describes not only his work but the spirit of the times:
Unreadability of this
world. Everything doubles.
The strong clocks
agree with the fissure-hour,
You, wedged into your deepest,
climb out of yourself
Celan composed this poem at the Spaltstunde or “fissure-hour,” when he feared that the world was growing as illegible as his own work. His fears were not misplaced. Modernism had once been a program, a demand that the reader (or auditor or spectator) rise to the challenges of the artwork instead of having the artwork descend to one’s needs: we were asked to climb out of ourselves to be equal to its claims. Rilke saw this injunction in the archaic image of Apollo: “You must change your life.” To be sure, this demand may not be especially modern at all. Plato thought of the experience of beauty as a metanoia, a wrenching-free of the everyday and a turning toward the purity of the Forms. With Celan this ideal is reversed and we are plunged back into worldly suffering, but he did not surrender the deeper promise of an experience that both shatters and transforms.
In this respect Celan may have been wrong. Today things have not grown illegible; they have grown too legible. They are laid out before us without the least hint that they could be otherwise than they are. In this regime of total transparency not only Celan but the entire canon of high modernism has begun to age; its greatest works have acquired the patina of tradition, as if they were no more our contemporaries than the paintings of the old masters. They gaze at us as if through cracked varnish and have grown nearly mute. But when on the rarest of occasions we succeed in hearing what they say, they still have the power to leave us shattered, and to rouse us to possibility:
above the grayblack wastes.
grasps the light-tone: there are
still songs to sing beyond
While we have you...
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
November 23, 2020
27 Min read time