Theodor Adorno and Paul Celan appear almost as mirror images. Adorno’s work might be said to be the theory of which Celan’s poetry is the practice. Or, not to prioritize theory over praxis, it might equally be said that Celan’s poetry, addressing and enacting what Michael Hamburger in The Truth of Poetry calls “the question of what can still be said or no longer said in poetry” (290), is the practice of which Adorno’s work is the theory. Celan and Samuel Beckett are the only two contemporary writers Adorno discusses in his posthumously published Aesthetic Theory. As Celan’s biographer John Felstiner notes, “Finding such stringency [in their work], Theodor Adorno thought Celan the only authentic postwar writer to stand with Samuel Beckett and made copious notes in his copy of Celan’s Sprachgitter [Speech Grille]” (107).
Adorno wrote that Celan was “the greatest exponent of hermetic poetry in present-day Germany.” However, in the same discussion, Adorno pointed out that Celan’s poems “give rise to the question of just how hermetic they are,” because in them “the experiential content of the hermetic is the opposite of what it used to be” (Aesthetic Theory 443, 444). As Celan insisted, his poetry is not at all hermetic (ganz und gar nicht hermetisch), certainly not in the traditional sense of the escapist religion of art. “His poetry is permeated by the shame of art in the face of suffering that escapes both experience and sublimation” (Adorno, op. cit. 444). Rather than turning away or averting its gaze from historical suffering, Celan’s poetry faces it with its own Medusa gaze.
Allen Grossman says in an interview in the Harvard Advocate that “A strong poetry would be a poetry that discerns and finds a poetically adequate means of bringing to mind the catastrophe of history.” This bringing to consciousness of the catastrophe (Walter Benjamin’s storm of history) which both forms and deforms us is one of the many tasks that Celan’s poetry sets itself.
Adorno’s dictum on poetry after Auschwitz has become famous, or infamous. On the last page of his essay “Cultural Criticism and Society,” written in 1949, first published in 1951, and collected in Prisms in 1955, he writes that “Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter. Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today” (Prisms 34).
Despite Adorno’s high opinion of Celan’s work, Celan believed that Adorno’s stricture was directed against his poem “Todesfuge” (Death Fugue) (which Hamburger calls “perhaps the only decisive proof that poems could be written not only after Auschwitz but about the cold horrors perpetrated there” ), although Felstiner points out that Adorno was probably not aware of the poem at the time (139). It wasn’t published in Germany until 1952, when Celan’s collection Mohn und Gedächtnis (Poppy and Memory) appeared.
Adorno revisited and considerably modified his position on the possibility of poetry after Auschwitz in his 1961 essay “Engagement,” collected in the posthumous two-volume collection Notes To Literature. In the edited collection Aesthetics and Politics, published by New Left Books in 1977 and currently available from Verso , this essay is translated as “Commitment.” It is this translation from which I quote here. The essay is primarily a polemic against Brecht and Sartre’s demands for a committed literature or a littérature engagée. In it Adorno reaffirms his original statement about the barbarism of writing poetry after Auschwitz while also complicating it in such a way as not only to allow literature’s continued existence but to require it. This can be considered an Hegelian sublation of his original dictum, canceling it out while raising it up to a higher, more complex level.
In “Commitment,” Adorno asserts that “I have no wish to soften the saying that to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric; it expresses in negative form the impulse which inspires committed literature. The question asked by a character in Sartre’s play Morts Sans Sepulture [translated as Men Without Shadows], ‘Is there any meaning in life when men exist who beat people until the bones break in their bodies?’, is also the question whether any art now has the right to exist; whether intellectual regression is not inherent in the concept of committed literature because of the regression of society.” However, Adorno goes on to admit that German poet and polemicist Hans Magnus “Enzensberger’s retort also remains true, that literature must resist this verdict, in other words, be such that its mere existence after Auschwitz is not a surrender to cynicism. Its own situation is one of paradox, not merely the problem of how to react to it. The abundance of real suffering tolerates no forgetting; Pascal’s theological saying, On ne doit plus dormer [One should not sleep anymore], must be secularized. Yet this suffering, what Hegel called consciousness of adversity, also demands the continuing existence of art while it prohibits it; it is now virtually in art alone that suffering can still find its own voice, consolation, without immediately being betrayed by it. The most important artists of the age have realized this. The uncompromising radicalism of their works, the very features defamed as formalism, give them a terrifying power, absent from helpless poems to the victims of our time” (Aesthetics and Politics 188-189).
Adorno goes on to discuss Arnold Schoenberg’s 1948 composition A Survivor from Warsaw, which evokes the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, pointing out the inevitable tension between artistic stylization and the claims of justice, two incompatible necessities. So this point, at which he reaffirms his statement, is also the point at which he turns that statement on its head. (By selectively quoting so as to leave out the substance of Adorno’s statement, Felstiner distorts Adorno’s meaning in this passage, framing it as an implicit criticism of Celan.)
Thus, Adorno’s complication of his stricture against writing poetry after Auschwitz not only makes room for art, but specifically for the kind of art that Celan made. In Aesthetic Theory, Adorno goes so far as to write that, far from being barbaric after the horrors of the Holocaust,“art may be the only remaining medium of truth in an age of incomprehensible suffering. As the real world grows dark, the irrationality of art is becoming rational, especially at a time when art is radically tenebrous itself” (27).
John Felstiner’s biography Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew is almost infinitely useful in identifying, describing, and untangled the complex fabric of Celan’s poetry. But it is also a bit tendentious. Felstiner identifies too much with Celan’s paranoia and sense of isolation—he wants to construct Celan as alone and lonely, perpetually misunderstood, persecuted, and unappreciated. There was enough genuine pain in Celan’s life (both his parents died in the Holocaust and he drowned himself in the River Seine) without the need to manufacture it for the sake of narrative melodrama.
Felstiner seems to harbor an active animus toward Adorno. He calls Celan’s reaction to the news of Adorno’s death—“I am struck, dismayed”—“not quite his strongest words” (263), and mentions a slighting reference Celan made to Adorno, “who I thought was a Jew,” referring to Adorno’s adoption of his Catholic mother’s rather than his Jewish father’s surname, Wiesengrund (139).
In Negative Dialectics, Adorno writes that “Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as the tortured have to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems” (362). After describing this passage as a recantation of Adorno’s earlier dictum (which is a simplification to say the least), Felstiner comments rather snippily that “This came rather late, as Celan’s verse had exercised that right for some time” (232).
Moreover, Felstiner crucially fails to cite the rest of the passage in question. “But it is not wrong to ask the less cultural question whether after Auschwitz you can go on living—especially whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living. His mere survival calls for the coldness, the basic principle of bourgeois subjectivity, without which there could have been no Auschwitz; this is the drastic guilt of him who was spared. [This sentence can be read as a highly particularized and even personalized example of the paradox of the dialectic of enlightenment, in which the logic of instrumental reason leads enlightenment into its opposites, domination and barbarism.] By way of atonement he will be plagued by dreams such as that he is no longer living at all, that he was sent to the ovens in 1944 and [that] his whole existence since then has been imaginary, an emanation of the insane wish of a man killed twenty years earlier” (362-363).
Adorno is obviously writing here of himself and his own survivor guilt at having escaped the fate that overcame so many millions of other Jews, but this description also sounds like Celan to the letter. It is to the letter that both Adorno and Celan are faithful, and by the letter that each wrote.
Adorno, Theodor W. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. C. Lenhardt. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984.
Adorno, Theodor W. Negative Dialectics. Trans. E.B. Ashton. New York: Continuum, 1973.
Adorno, Theodor W. Prisms. Trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981.
Aesthetics and Politics. Translation Editor: Ronald Taylor. New York: Verso, 1980.
Felstiner, John. Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.
Hamburger, Michael. The Truth of Poetry: Tensions in Modern Poetry from Baudelaire to the Nineteen-Sixties. New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1972.