Books: Cultural Amnesia — Paul Celan |
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Paul Celan was born in 1920 in Romania and committed suicide in Paris in 1970. A thumbnail sketch of his life would include two main facts: he was a slave labourer under the Nazis, and he wrote the single most famous poem about the death camps, “Todesfuge” (Death Fugue). A more detailed account of his life opens up into one paradox after another. Anybody can understand “Todesfuge,” but to become acquainted with the bulk of his other poetry is a much harder task, even though there are admirers who say that the difficulties have been exaggerated, and that he is hard to understand only because he understood so much. But there are times in his work when a purportedly deep penetration of reality looks exactly like taking refuge in obscurity. Though the truth can’t always be told by sales figures, it is interesting that his first collection of poems, Der Sand aus den Urnen (The Sand from the Urns), published in 1948, sold twenty copies in three years. If one of the poems in it, “Todesfuge,” hadn’t eventually caught on, the world might have heard much less of him: and one of the reasons it caught on was surely that it was, for him, so unusually direct. He himself loathed the idea that his most famous poem had become a media event. He thought that too many Germans were using it to ritualize guilt. On the other hand he had time for Heidegger, who saw no cause for guilt about his own conduct under the Nazis. There is an excellent critical biography by Celan’s chief translator John Felstiner, called Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew. There is also a question, however, to be asked about that word “survivor.” If we can conclude that the only way he had not to be mad was to be dead, can he truly be said to have survived? He certainly survives as a poet, but one does not necessarily belittle him by saying that it all depended on one poem. Mervyn Peake, who was present for the liberation of Belsen, wrote a courtly love poem to one of its dying girls. The discrepancy between subject and vocabulary worked its ironic trick, but finally the properties and cadences of the nineteenth-century romantic heritage obtruded. Celan wrote a twentieth-century poem. He found a way of injecting the inescapable sweetness of the musically constructed poem with the necessary bitterness to fit the time in which it was written, thereby obeying the following instruction to himself.

* * *
Number me among the almonds.

AT THE TIME I noted this instruction down, I couldn’t resist the unwritten addition: “And call me a nut.” But I knew that a mental defence mechanism was at work to fend off the sense of being underrehearsed that one is bound to have when reading about someone upon whom history came down with its full weight, thereby justifying any amount of eccentric behaviour later on. Celan’s example will always be daunting to other poets. For one thing, it included suicide, which critics understandably tend to regard as a mark of seriousness. They would have thought him serious anyway, because most of the time his work was almost impossible to make sense of. It courts philistinism to say that Celan’s best poem, “Todesfuge,” is also his most accessible, but there is no way around the risk. Celan’s usual hermeticism, his obliquity that amounts to an insoluble encryption, was a necessity for the poet, not the poetry: there was never any reason poetry written in the dark light of the Holocaust should be indecipherable, and he wrote at least one poem to prove it. In “Todesfuge” you can tell exactly what is going on. He is titrating the language of the visione amorosa against the imagery of the giudizio universale. The poem is an amorous vision of the Last Judgement. To put it more simply, it is a love song from hell. When we pick its entwined melodies apart, which the poem demands that we do, we find that there are two kinds of amorous vision: one the exultant vision of the perpetrator, the other the anguished vision of the slave. Hence the fugue. Scholarship (but only scholarship: not the poem itself) tells us that the fugue started as a tango. In Majdanek the camp’s pitiable tango orchestra was forced to play endlessly while the doomed prisoners were selected for the various ways in which they would be worked to death. The German masters were rather partial to the tango, perhaps because it was the smart music of the socially pretentious: Hitler and Goebbels were both entertained by a tango orchestra in 1941. Celan would have heard about the death-camp tango. He would have heard about it, but he would not have actually heard it. We should remember that he was never in Majdanek or in any Vernichtungslager as such, although as a forced labourer in Romania he might as well have been. Majdanek was liberated by the Russians in 1944 and Celan probably heard about its sinister tango immediately afterwards. After he had the idea for the two contesting visions of love, however, it had to be a fugue.

The “Death Fugue” (strictly, the death’s-fugue, because Todes is possessive) is, if you like, the last love song. In that sense, Adorno’s remark about the impossibility of poetry after Auschwitz is all too dreadfully true: after such knowledge, there might be forgiveness, but no more innocence. There could be no return to the joyful. But Adorno’s remark was also false, in the sense that no such return had ever been possible at any time in the historical world. There had been Holocausts throughout history, which probably featured slaughter as its first multicultural activity. The Holocaust, “our” Holocaust, seemed to be unique for having emerged from culture itself. But that was a misreading: a misreading from professional readers, from whom emerge the misreadings of the most tenacious kind. Culture and the Holocaust were separate things, both of which emerged from history. In the long view—admittedly easier for us who had the privilege of growing to our intellectual maturity after the event—the two things are so separate that they define each other. George Steiner echoed Adorno’s opinion, but didn’t act on it. Emotionally, Steiner might, had he wished, have embodied the silence into which he suggested (in his early book Language and Silence) that language ought to beat a retreat. With a highly developed awareness of the richness of European culture, he had a sensitive knowledge of how extensive the damage was. But none of that stopped him becoming a student of Celan; a course which, logically, ought not to have been available to him; if there could be no poetry after Auschwitz, why look for it? Steiner’s answer possibly lay in his seeming conviction that Celan’s real poetry was in the encryptions, the meta-language that proclaimed, by its obscurity, the impossibility of dealing directly with the event. Leaving aside the consideration that academics might always favour poetic difficulty—it makes them indispensable—Celan’s difficulty, and Steiner’s endorsement of it, amount to a double endorsement for Adorno.

But “Todesfuge” undoes the whole thesis. The idea that lyric poetry might be rendered nugatory by an enforced awareness of evil will always have its validity as an emotional response. As the world goes, it would be a damned soul who did not feel the idea to be true every few hours: how can we write of love when women are being tortured? But to think it true is to defy reason. Even within the one man, there can be the capacity to see the world at its most destructive and still create. Celan proved it with “Todesfuge.” Though we are bound to say, and say in a hurry, that a beautiful poem is not the only thing it is, the poem would not be there at all if the tradition of courtly love had not at least been remembered—so the remembering of poetry is still possible, even in the light of the oven. Compounded with the echo of a biblical psalm, a new kind of courtly poem, embracing a more tragic concept of beauty, arises from the memory. Steiner was right about the death of tragedy as a form, but only to the extent that tragedy became formless by getting into everything, in the same way that the ash from the chimneys got into the landscape.

With “Todesfuge” the tragic ash got into the lyric poem. It always had done, by implication—there was never a poem about the idea of love that didn’t get its force from the fact of death. (Anthony Burgess, in Nothing Like the Sun—one of the few books about Shakespeare that a young student should read while he is first reading Shakespeare—paints a convincing picture of Shakespeare being inspired to lyric composition while watching an execution at Tyburn.) But no poem ever got quite so much force, from quite so much death, as “Todesfuge.” There are no points to be scored by calling it a great poem: of course it is. What is harder is to risk opprobrium by saying that Celan might have written more poems of its stature if he had not written so many poems about himself. His hermetic poetry no doubt reflected, and possibly controlled, his mental distress. Judging from his biography, it was a sufficient miracle that he could concentrate at all. But “Todesfuge,” by reflecting the physical destruction of its beautiful girls, got him out of himself. It got him away from the condition that Mario Vargas Llosa usefully calls ensimismamiento (being wrapped up in yourself), and Hannah Arendt defined as the tendency to identify one’s own mind with the battlefields of history. Paul Celan had a perfect right to inhabit that condition, but it worked against his best talent, and might even have have helped to convince him, in the long run, that his best talent was not the best part of his mind, thus leaving his conscience free to condemn his own survival. There are no simplistic rules for poets: if there were, any duffer could write poetry. There are, however, rules of thumb, and one of the best is that getting the focus off yourself gives you the best chance of tapping your personal experience. For anyone with a personal experience like Celan’s, of course, detachment from the self would be an impertinent recommendation. But it remains fascinating that in this one instance he achieved it, and wrote the poem by which most of us define him: the man who came out of the flames with a love song that redeems mankind in the only way possible, by admitting that there is no redemption.