Thursday, January 18, 2007

Brief Notes on Paul Celan, Difficulty, and Meaning

In response to an interesting and provocative comment from Nicholas Manning regarding my post on difficulty in poetry, I don’t presume that meaning is always a good thing (I propose, for one thing, that understanding can often be excruciating painful). I’m not quite sure what it would mean to do so, or conversely to presume that meaning is a bad thing. What would "good" or "bad" mean in such a context? One may have a positive or negative response to a particular meaning one derives from a poem, but that would not apply to meaning itself, which simply is.

Poetry offers many other pleasures and possibilities than meaning. But meaning is one of the possibilities that poetry offers, a not inconsiderable one, and poetry cannot help but offer it. That possibility cannot be evaded or denied, because poems, even the most aleatory or rigorously procedural, are products of human intention, including the intention to write an aleatory or procedural poem from which individual intention will be evacuated. (One could put this as “I intend not to intend.” Or, more precisely but more verbosely, “I intend that my intention will not determine the outcome of the process of writing this poem.”)

A throw of the dice will never abolish chance, as Mallarmé wrote, but it is the human hand that tosses the dice and the human mind and will that decide the meaning of that dice toss’s outcome. As human productions, aesthetic objects are infused with what Kant calls purposiveness, though aesthetic purposiveness is a paradoxical purpose without a purpose, without, that is, any practical or instrumental aim. As Adorno writes in Aesthetic Theory, “In art, the true point of reference continues to be the subject” (63).

To assert that Paul Celan was not interested in meaning or communication is to evade or shrug off the work of actually reading his poems: it is to trivialize those poems, to erase their working at and working through. Celan, who insisted that his poetry was “absolutely not hermetic” (Ganz und gar nicht hermetisch, as he inscribed in Michael Hamburger’s copy of Die Niemandrose), often questioned the possibility of saying, but never its value or its necessity. As Michael Hamburger writes, “If Celan had set out to write hermetic poems, his work would be less difficult than it is, because it would not require us to make the kind of sense of it that we know it can yield” (“Introduction,” The Poems of Paul Celan xxv). Celan did not set out to babble in or play with language. Celan's work is not “experimentation” in the sense which Adorno condemns as “chimerical and specious: on the one hand [the most recent experimental procedures] are tinged with subjectivity; on the other they suppose that art can divest itself of its subjectivity through experimentation, becoming at last what it has always pretended to be, namely a being in itself free of appearance” (Aesthetic Theory 36).

Celan writes in his 1958 speech on receiving the city of Bremen’s literature prize that “In this language [he is referring specifically to the German language, stained and scarred by the enormity of the Holocaust] I have sought…to write poems so as to speak, to orient myself, to find out where I was and where I was meant to go, to sketch out reality for myself.” As he writes later in the same speech: “A poem, as a manifestation of language and thus essentially dialogue, can be a message in a bottle sent out in the—not always greatly hopeful—belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps. Poems in this sense too are underway: they are making toward something.” Despite and by means of their difficulty, Celan’s poems seek, desperately and perhaps hopelessly, communication, contact, connection, even if not in the here and now: as he writes in the poem “Threadsuns” (Fadensonnen), “there are/still songs to sing beyond/humankind.” There is almost always a “you” to whom his poems are directed, to whom his poems try to speak. “Without a You,” the brainless, Youless hordes rush in, with their meaningless words. The message may not reach anyone, and if it does, it may not be apprehended, comprehended. But the possibility, the likelihood even, of failure makes more acute the will to attempt contact, to try to make a connection.

In 1961’s “The Meridian,” his longest and best-known piece of prose, Celan writes that:

“The poem wants to reach an Other, it needs this Other, it needs an over-against. It seeks it out, speaks toward it.

“For the poem making toward an Other, each thing, each human being is a form of this Other.

“The attentiveness a poem devotes to all it encounters, with its sharper sense of detail, outline, structure, color, but also of ‘quiverings’ and ‘intimations’—all this, I think, is not attained by an eye vying (or conniving) with constantly more perfect instruments. Rather, it is a conversation that stays mindful of all our dates.

“A poem—under what conditions!—becomes the poem of someone (ever yet) perceiving, facing phenomena, questioning and addressing those phenomena; it becomes conversation—often despairing conversation.”

Far from disdaining meaning, reference, or communication, Celan is the textbook example of the modern poet who, in Eliot’s description of his activity, “must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning” (“The Metaphysical Poets”). He must wrestle with, deform and be deformed by language (the angel from the struggle with which one rises lamed but blessed, renamed) to make it mean anew, to make it mean again. In particular, Celan attempts to speak the unspeakable, to redeem by reinventing (and rebuking) a language permanently tainted by the incommensurable horror of the Shoah. He seeks to remove “the veil/over road-weary/mouths” (“White noise, bundled”/“Weissgeräusche”), the mouths which can no longer speak and the mouths which, despairing and overwhelmed, will no longer speak.

Even when one doesn’t derive an immediately paraphrasable statement from his poems, one feels the urgency, one is struck by the vivid imagery, immersed in the miniature worldscapes Celan conjures. The poems never seem to be about nothing, though they sometimes brood on the void of Nothing. They are always, in the words of “Wet from the world” (“Die abgewrackten Tabus”), “pursuing/meaning, fleeing/meaning”: fleeing the easy meanings, the always-on-offer lies, seeking a deeper, more hard-won meaning.

Celan was passionately committed to what Nicholas Manning calls “the entire edifice of meaning and reference itself.” He often asked himself “How assemble meaning?” (every poem of his asks that question), but never “Why assemble meaning?” As Michael Hamburger writes in The Truth of Poetry, “His artistic purism is content with nothing less than ‘raids on the inarticulate.’ It would be impertinent to speculate how much of Celan’s later practice is due to extreme experience, how much to the artistic rigor of an unrepentant modernist. What is certain about Celan’s later poems is that they explore the limits of language and the limits of consciousness, groping their way towards a communion that may be religious or mystical, since their starting-point is total solitude and their destination [‘beyond humankind’]” (295).


Henry Gould said...

Reginald, I think another aspect of Celan's approach to meaning - which also underscores his desire to communicate - is the fact that his poems are deeply layered with allusions and responses to other poems, poets, philosophers... He's in conversation with them - he revises and criticizes them. It's not only a matter of wrenching meaning in order to approach the unsayable. It's also saying things "slant", as E. Dickinson has it. It's a form of play.

Andrew Shields said...

I was also struck by Nicholas's remark; he has written extensively about Celan on his blog in the past few months.

My reaction was to pick a poem by Celan entirely at random (using the random number generator at This led me to:

Was geschah? Der Stein trat aus dem Berge.
Wer erwachte? Du und ich.
Sprache, Sprache. Mit-Stern. Neben-Erde.
Ärmer. Offen. Heimatlich.

Wohin gings? Gen Unverklungen.
Mit dem Stein gings, mit uns zwein.
Herz und Herz. Zu schwer befunden.
Schwerer werden. Leichter sein.

John Felstiner's translation:

WHAT HAPPENED? The stone stepped from the mountain.
Who awakened? You and I.
Language, language. Fellow-star. Earth-cousin.
Poorer. Open. Homeland-like.

Where it went? Toward not expiring.
Went with the stone, and with the two of us.
Heart and heart. Weighed and found sinking.
Growing more heavy. Taking on lightness.

It was kind of uncanny to come across this poem at random, because it actually comments on Celan's relationship to meaning quite directly: he wants to know what happened. But what happened is something inexplicable, something too vast for words: "Sprache, Sprache." Here, I always hear that double "ach" in there, the moment when language no longer manages to express the experience that is seeking expression. But experience is still seeking expression here, and the poem allows the reader to experience that seeking as well.

Dagobert of Tacoma said...

Reginald, your last questions, about Celan's experience vs. his aesthetics, intrigue me.
How much of a danger is there in romanticizing him? It would be inhuman to discount his experience, but to read his life story into the poems also seems a potential short-cut around (or short-circuit of) his arduous meaning-making
project. I worry about this w/my own readings of him.

I think the Felstiner biography navigates these issues very well.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

Poems cannot escape meaning because they are constructed of what I like to call "meaning objects", that is, words. The meaning objects may clash and contradict one another but that does not evaporate the meaning.

We are pattern-seekers. If we can find a reading that makes sense, we will. We do this for weather, we do this for dreams, we do this for the scatter of stars in the sky. How much less possible is it to create non-meaning using meaning objects? It may be that most/all readers would end up coming to differing conclusions as to THE meaning of a work but many of us can agree on the meanings of the objects which make it up.

I have read some Celan in translation and whatever he achieves in the original I have found English versions that achieve meanings I would not expect from their familiar words. And some I like very much.

Nicholas Manning said...

“I’m not quite sure what it would mean to . . . presume that meaning is a bad thing.”

Perhaps it might help to think of linguistics for a moment. According to a more or less Saussurean model, language is apparently always a reduction: put simply, there are many objects in the world, infinitely divisible into finite elements, and yet the dictionary always contains only a finite number of signs to take account of this diversity.

“Regard” in French, but in English “gaze”, “look”, “stare”,
“regard”. (There are of course reciprocal examples of comparative lexical poverty or richness.)
Moreover, when words label the world or the world’s objects, they “fix” them in a sort of stasis. Language does develop to take account of changes in the world, but it is usually playing catch-up. (An I-Pod is invented before the term to designate it).

This is then the vision of language as Limit, a limit deeply felt by a poet like Mallarmé (or Celan): it is the inability to take account of the world, because, on the one hand, of language’s *finitude*, and on the other, its *stasis* – i.e. we cannot constantly invent neologisms, because language is after all a sort of communal accord or agreement. It is thus the fixing of the world by an epistemological schema, by a way of understanding. However, Mallarmé’s response to this limit of language was, I think, paradoxical: it was not to do away with language, because of its weaknesses, but rather to make of language an absolute, and perhaps the only true universe: to make of our “way of understanding” reality itself.

These are some reasons then, I think, why meaning may be "bad": meaning often fixes the diversity and movement of the world, making out of this unicity and stasis.

So, to try to answer your question Reginald, that’s what I think those terms “bad” and “good” might mean in this context.

Coming to Celan. I didn’t at all mean to present Celan as a sort of hermeneutic nihilist, as someone who sets out to “destroy” or raze the edifice of reference: rather, I wonder if it is not more suitable to see Celan as a poet who questions the foundations of this edifice to a very profound, even dangerous, point. I’m skeptical though of the entirely or primarily positive, feel-good readings of Celan: Celan is not all affirmation, I think. There are abysses

Nazism, taking as it does absolute or universal principles as its basis (e.g. the denial of general [“subjective”] human values in favour of the absolute values of the Volkdeutsch ) can thus be compared to certain aspects of language’s universalism. This is what Roland Barthes no doubt meant, in part, by his famous debut at the Collège de France: “Language is fascist.” (La langue est fasciste.)

This is perhaps the "hegemony of meaning", of which I was talking, which may be perceived as a negative.

Celan’s relation to this aspect is of course complex:

”To assert that Paul Celan was not interested in meaning or communication is to evade or shrug off the work of actually reading his poems: it is to trivialize those poems, to erase their working at and working through.”

Certainly. But I wasn’t asserting that at all. I simply think that it’s possible to locate in Celan what might be called an “anxiety of meaning”, to twist Bloom a bit. To this extent, I would disagree that Celan does not ask the question “Why mean?” Perhaps Celan decides in the end that meaning *must* be preserved, in spite of its apparent or occasional absolutisms.

Like you Reginald, I think he probably does decide this: the evidence is strong. But I maintain that the “why” in “why mean?” is, for Celan, crucial.

One could not mean at all, and perhaps avoid the potential horrors of language and history.

It is an important, seductive, and perhaps dangerous, temptation.

Central Mexican Cusine said...

Hi Reginald,
Am enjoying your blog. You have have an interest in my visual collage poetry. see here:

Central Mexican Cusine said...

I like to think that we are in a transgenertional dialog and that we as artists and poets speak to each other across the centuries. Like mystics, we know that our work will have a lasting resonance and that we will inspire and prod and console certain souls of future generations as we have been by those who we study and rever.

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