Breathturn Into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry by Paul Celan (trans. Pierre Joris). $40.00, 736 pp. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
In his 1947 Letter on Humanism, German philosopher Martin Heidegger makes the famous claim that language “is the house of Being.” What he means by this is, as with nearly everything Heidegger wrote, a topic of debate. The letter itself produces a distinctly defiant, not to say polemical effect, reflective of those turbulent postwar years in Europe. Its target is the group of French intellectuals known as existentialists, lead by Jean-Paul Sartre, whom Heidegger feels has misinterpreted the philosophical project in his landmark Being and Time by using some of its claims as a foundation for a new metaphysics. He goes on to say that the “reversal of a metaphysical statement remains a metaphysical statement . . . [Sartre] stays with metaphysics in oblivion of the truth of Being.”
But, then, there are many other points at which Heidegger says essentially the same thing about Being and Time itself, and so the criticism of Sartre is equally a self-criticism. Following what scholars refer to as his “turn,” Heidegger will even stop referring to his own work as philosophy, instead preferring terms like “reflection,” and “deep thinking.” This turn is characterized by a deep engagement with poetry, particularly the German lyric poet Hölderlin. The cause for this turn is disputed, but it is undoubtedly connected to the thinker’s disillusionment with National Socialism, and that movement’s later collapse, an event which precipitated Heidegger’s brief but profound ostracization from the German philosophical community. The priority Heidegger placed on rootedness and authenticity in his early work (which, not incidentally, probably led him to embrace Nazism) underwent a shift in emphasis and he became focused on “dwelling.” It is in language, he writes in the Letter, that a human being dwells.
This later work helped to expand the thinker’s sphere of influence beyond academic philosophy and into all areas of humanistic inquiry, from the visual arts, to psychoanalysis, to the study of poetry itself. Many of those engaged in these fields even went to visit Heidegger in his secluded cabin in Todtnauberg, deep in the Black Forest. One such visitor was the poet and, shockingly, Nazi work-camp survivor, Paul Celan. Only one poem, titled simply “Todtnauberg,” deals with this encounter directly, but the deep, metaphysical anxiety that drove Celan to meet the philosopher in many respects animated his entire career.
Celan as a poet and as a man was, perhaps above all others, deeply engaged with the disaster of the mid-twentieth century, and with poetry as both the highest expression of that disaster and the possibility of a way forward. Fitting, then, he should have undergone a turn similar to Heidegger’s midway through his writing life, abandoning a great deal of what could be seen as the traditional elements of his poetic style and experimenting in dark, often strange tones, vocabularies, and structures as a means of pushing up against what he—and Europe as a whole—had witnessed. The results of this effort make up Breathturn Into Timestead, an extraordinary, bilingual edition of Celan’s books from the finals years of his brief, yet highly productive life.
Paul Celan was born Paul Antschel in Czernowitz, Romania (now Chernivsti, Ukraine) in 1920. Deeply aware of the collapse of the Habsburg Empire as an epochal shift in European history, Celan was from a young age fascinated with the continent’s traditions as embodied in its literatures. Apart from the High German spoken at home and what translator Pierre Joris calls in his introduction to Breathturn Into Timestead the “usual Czernowitz languages” of Romanian, Ukranian, and Yiddish, Celan studied Latin, Ancient Greek, French, English, Italian, Russian, and (until he stopped after his bar mitzvah to distance himself from his father’s Zionism) Hebrew. This extraordinary linguistic ability allowed Celan to complete a number of important translations throughout his life.
At eighteen years old, while travelling through Austria and Germany on his way to study medicine in France, the young poet witnessed the first major effects of the Anschluss on Germany and Austria’s Jews. It was not by any means his first experience with anti-Semitism, but it certainly marked a change, to say the least. One has a hard time imagining even a young Celan being possessed of wide-eyed idealism, but it is not unlikely that for a person so invested in language and literature, chief among the Nazi crimes was that they gave their orders for slaughter in the tongue of Goethe, Schiller, and Hölderlin.
Following a year in medical school, he went back to Czernowitz, and, unable to travel back to France due to the war, enrolled in his local university to continue his studies, not in medicine, but in Romance languages. It is from this time that his thirty-one years of surviving poetry begin, though none from this time was published until after his death in 1970. Two years later, following the Soviet occupation and subsequent Nazi invasion of his homeland, Celan’s parents were taken in the night and deported to concentration camps. The guilt at not having been there with them—he had been in a hideout which a friend had secured for him, and to which his parents refused to go, not wishing to abandon their home—haunted the poet for the rest of his life. The next year, while working in a labor camp, he discovered that Nazi guards had shot both his mother and his father. He spent the remainder of the Nazi occupation in the work camp and, in 1944, the Soviet re-invasion secured his freedom.
He travelled to Bucharest, then to Vienna, and, after several years in Paris, became a naturalized French citizen in 1955, all the while expanding his abilities and reputation as a poet and translator. He taught at the École Normale Superieure, summered in a country cottage. He was married in 1948, had a son in 1953, lost him, had another in 1955. In 1960, the death of a friend, Yvan Goll, spurred accusations of plagiarism from the friend’s widow against Celan, which caused a firestorm in the German literary press. Despite its falsity and speedy disproof, the scandal was a turning point for the already psychically unstable Celan. He became increasingly violent and threatened his wife on several occasions. When she asked for a separation, he attempted suicide, severely damaging his lung with a penknife, which missed his heart by inches. He was in and out of psychiatric institutes for the remainder of his nevertheless productive life, and, in 1970, he jumped into the Seine. His body was found several days later. Joris makes a note that bears reproducing:
On his desk Paul Celan had left Wilhelm Michael’s biography of Hölderlin, Das Leben Friedrich Hölderlins, lying open to page 464. He had underlined the following sentence from a letter by Clemens Brentano: “Sometimes this genius goes dark and drowns in the bitter wells of his heart.”
Throughout his life, Paul Celan was haunted by the experience of the Shoah, and his later works see him undergoing something analogous to the turn in Heidegger’s thinking. Until the publication of Breathturn (which marks the beginning of Breathturn Into Timestead), Celan was heavily influenced by both traditional poetry from a variety of languages and the surrealists with whom he spent much of his youth. Even his darkest poems, such as the famous “Todsfuge,” or “Deathfugue,” contain an element of metaphorical lightness, a pleasure in the play of images, despite the horror of their content.
A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margareta
he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling, he whistles his hounds to come close
he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground
he commands us to play up for the dance.
But, like Heidegger, Celan turned away from the traditional models of his field. This is not, of course, to say that he abandons the tradition of German poetry. If anything, despite his dissatisfaction with the trappings of an inherited poetics, Celan’s turn is his renewed attempt to carry through the Holocaust the central essence of that canon. There are some instances in which he appears to have followed the path out of the tradition and come full circle to the lyric beauty at its center, such as the poem “Highgate”:
An angel walks through the room—:
you, close to the unopened book,
Twice the heather finds nourishment.
Twice it pales.
The meaning here, at least partially, seems to be that even proximity to the book contains the possibility of redemption. But the book is unopened, and so the heather which finds nourishment nevertheless pales, weakens, becomes dim. But, presumably, a third visit to the person by the unopened book—or is it the angel? The unanswered question of the addressee here is of central importance—would yield a third momentary nourishment. What would the open book, or the speaker’s approach to even the unopened book, yield?
Joris writes that “[f]or Celan, art no longer harbors the possibility of redemption.” This is a difficult question, and one that a reader must address for herself. Obviously, the actuality of redemption is elusive. Celan, though steeped in religious questions, strikes me as a clearly atheistic poet and thinker. That is to say, the book is unopened and the heather pales. Death is an unavoidable fact. But the possibility of redemption? In my view, it remains in the work, and in the word.
Nevertheless, a turn in Celan’s poetics is evident throughout this collection. In one instance Joris cites, the poet seems to be refuting his own early work, specifically “Todesfuge,” in this untitled stanza from Breathturn:
the beamwind of your speech
the gaudy chatter of the pseudo-
poem, the noem.
In addition to the biting tone of self-excoriation, we see here also several characteristic marks of Celan’s late work. The lack of a title, the thin, chopped-up construction, the frequent use of neologism: all of these elements, which Celan employed throughout his work, come to dominate his later period. It is as if every utterance is halted by the memory of trauma, as if language, the “house of Being,” cannot withstand the storm of history. In some cases, the trauma is so strong that the poems become themselves fractures, that is, expressions of only the frustration of expression, as if verbal lacunae:
miened corbel stone,
in the eyeslit-crypt:
into skull’s inside,
where you break up heaven, again and again,
into furrow and convolution
he plants his image,
which outgrows, outgrows itself.
Such fragments present considerable difficulties to the translator, and it is to Joris’ immense credit that even here Celan’s elegance—which he could not rid himself of, no matter what he tried—comes across as organically as it does in the original German. A long section of his introduction to Breathturn Into Timestead is devoted to this question of translation and, needless to say, these poems benefit not only from Joris’ natural multilingualism, but also his long, intimate acquaintance with German literature generally and Celan in particular. As I have already mentioned, however, the translator seems just slightly too convinced of the poet’s declaration of cynicism, and one wonders whether, somewhere deep in the poetic structure of the works, this misinterpretation alters the finished product, and moves them just further into the dark than they ought to stand. The danger here is that this is precisely what must be corrected in the prevailing view of Celan. No doubt, the poet’s own life serves as a call to see these later works as expressions purely of despair, of the broken soul of Europe. But this seems in large part to miss the point of Celan’s work, which seeks not merely to lay out the wreckage for the world to lament, but to sift through it and see what can be salvaged.
Celan forms a crucial juncture between past and present—see Geoffrey Hill’s “Ovid in the Third Reich,” which addresses both Celan’s “Tenebrae” (an earlier poem which intimates the coming turn) and Hölderlin’s “Patmos,” of which “Tenebrae” is, in Joris’s words, a “carefully constructed refutation.” True though this is, refutation of traditional sources constitutes a continuation of the tradition, just as Heidegger said that the reversal of metaphysics remains metaphysics. And, just as poetry continues to engage with the tradition through the lens Celan helped to shape, philosophy continued to deal with questions of metaphysics, with the added clarity provided by Heidegger’s radical critique (though not, to be sure, by Sartre, but by much deeper thinkers as diverse as Emmanuel Levinas, Leo Strauss, and, in our own day, Jean-Luc Marion.) Where Heidegger saw himself as presenting a radical break with the tradition, Celan saw deeper, and his later work, despite formal and technical strangeness, evinces a commitment to helping to carry the soul of humanity through Europe and back to its home, wherever and whatever that may be:
Great, glowing vault
outward- and away-
burrowing black-constellation swarm:
into the silicified forehead of a ram
I burn this image, between
the horns, therein,
in the singing of the coils, the
marrow of the curdled
The world is gone, I have to carry you.
Jack Hanson (@jehanson774) holds degrees from the Suffolk University and the University of Chicago. His poems and book reviews have appeared in Bookslut, Clarion, the Inman Review, Open Letters Monthly, and The Quarterly Conversation (forthcoming March 2015). He has just completed his first novel. Born and raised on Cape Cod, he now lives in Chicago.
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