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Holocaust Visions:
Surrealism and Existentialism
in the Poetry of Paul Celan

by Clarise Samuels

Table of Contents

Chapter 4: Searching for Authenticity: Celan’s Poetics

CELAN BECAME FAMILIAR WITH the writings of the surrealists when he studied in France in 1938, and he was an active participant in the postwar surrealism movement in both Bucharest and Vienna. Although he lived in Vienna for only about six months in 1948, his activity in literary circles there was intense. Through Otto Basil, the editor of a periodical called PLAN, Celan was introduced to the Viennese painter Edgar Jené, a surrealist whom he befriended and with whom he collaborated. Jené was friendly with many important surrealists of his day, including André Breton.1

That Celan was enthusiastic about surrealism is evident by his activity during this period. When asked in an interview with Jerry Glenn if Celan would have called himself a surrealist poet, Otto Basil replied, “At that time, certainly.”2 After Celan moved to Paris later in 1948, Glenn observes that for reasons that are unclear, Celan began to distance himself somewhat from the surrealism movement and eventually turned away from it.3 Nevertheless, the surrealist style continued to make an indelible mark upon his work.

The socialist consciousness that is implicit in that surrealism was suggested when Celan referred to himself in a 1960 speech as someone who had grown up with the writings of Piotr Kropotkin and Gustav Landauer.4 Though Celan, it seems, never sought to explain the epistemology of his work, it becomes obvious that he was aware of this aspect when he remarked to Hugo Huppert in a 1966 interview: “As long as the offenders call themselves ‘concrete poets,’ I will call myself ‘abstract,’ even though I know for certain that in the epistemological sense, I don’t have the least to do with the abstract, that is, nonrepresentational art.”5

Celan hints at an epistemological basis of some kind, but he does not try to clarify the point. One reason for this may be because he was only remotely aware of its exact epistemological nature himself. He was not the best commentator on his own work — his theoretical remarks, like his poetry, are often elusive and opaque.

Theo Buck draws attention to some of the other remarks that Celan made to Huppert in the same interview, where Celan speaks of his “ambiguity without a mask,” his “spectral analysis of things,” and his “moments of realism.” Buck attributes those moments of realism to Celan’s aesthetic program and the concrete, reality-oriented objects on which it is based. He feels that it is because of this concrete basis that the existentialist framework for Celan’s work must be extended to include a social context, a context that implies a politically engaged reality.6 Celan’s “ambiguity without a mask” is not a return to philosophical idealism, but a desire to create a hypostatized, reality-oriented world in his poetry.7

Celan was certainly concerned, if not obsessed, with his poetic representation of reality. His desire to expose an authentic reality, to present it “without a mask,” was evident. In a 1958 reply to a questionnaire from the Flinker bookstore in Paris about his work and his plans, Celan writes: “Wirklichkeit ist nicht, Wirklichkeit will gesucht und gewonnen sein” (Reality isn’t; reality must be sought and won) (3:168). This remark is reminiscent of Breton’s assertion that reality was a surreality and that “it is in quest of this surreality that I am going.”8 Like Breton, Celan equated the search for reality with a search for truth. Breton wanted to expose false bourgeois values to gain insight into a genuine artistic aesthetic. Celan carried this one step farther — like Sartre, he sought a state of existential authenticity. His political awareness and social consciousness, combined with his tormented memories of the Holocaust, compelled him to seek a genuine reality, a universal state of truth, as well as a genuine artistic aesthetic.

His concern with truth is reiterated again and again. In a letter to Jean Firges, he writes that it is the ring of truth that concerns him, and not the ring of pleasant sounds: “Es geht mir nicht um Wohllaut, es geht mir um Wahrheit.”9 In a letter to Hans Bender, he says that only true hands write true poems (3:177). In response to a questionnaire from the Flinker bookstore, Celan complains that poetry appears, like truth, all too often to be going to seed (3:175), and in a letter to Gottfried Bermann Fischer he is slightly apologetic about going into detail, but feels it is necessary because “die Wahrheit sitzt im Detail.”10

The search for truth becomes for Celan synonymous with a search for reality. It is a search for “die schöne Wildnis auf der anderen, tieferen Seite des Seins” (3:155) (the beautiful wilderness on the other, more profound side of existence). It is a search for a genuine reality, perhaps even utopia, to the extent that utopia is attainable. Celan’s utopia emphasizes some vague but ideal form of government, since he was particularly horrified by his experience with a government that could betray and slaughter its own people. His poetic quest is often represented in his work by a preoccupation with political events, in particular a concern with Fascist regimes, political injustice, and humanity’s struggle for freedom. Gross injustices and crimes against humanity were dialectical states that stood in stark contrast to the ideal state of justice that the poet sought. Buck notes that Celan’s alert political consciousness recorded many of these injustices against humanity, whether it was the fate of Rosa Luxembourg, Carl von Ossietzky, the anonymous victim of the Vietnam War, or, most noticeably, the anonymous victim of the German concentration camp.11 Celan brooded over political crimes in general and often incorporated them as motifs in his poetry.

The Holocaust motif, in particular, represented the most destructive state of reality that could provoke the poetic search for truth. This was so not only because it was an event of total annihilation that epitomized the loss of individual freedom and the destruction of all preexisting values, but because it was the event that Celan experienced firsthand. The Holocaust was the overwhelming event that heightened Celan’s political awareness, compelling him to strive for a genuine artistic aesthetic in his poetry that would somehow be carried over to a state of truth in a larger, social context. Celan hoped that truth begun on a purely artistic level would lead to a universal truth for society. His poetry was, as he described it, his “Flaschenpost” (message in a bottle) (3:186) flung out to sea from the island of his own isolated creativity, a desperate attempt to communicate with society.

Addressing the realm of social and political problems can lead at some point, as it did with Breton and Sartre, to Marxist theory and the topic of revolution. On this topic, however, Celan was cautious. He stressed the importance of the individual in any attempts at radical change. In answer to a general question posed by the editors of the German magazine Der Spiegel, asking “Is a revolution unavoidable?,” Celan replied that he was always hoping for change and transformation, and not just in Germany. He said that the revolution, which he characterized as social and at the same time antiauthoritarian, was only thinkable in terms of such change, and that this change began in Germany then and there with the individual. He expressed concern about the future when he concluded that he hoped society would be spared a Fourth Reich (3:179).

Celan believed that every individual had to undergo change in order for there to develop an enlightened society that would strive to be more utopian in nature. His humanitarian instincts fit in well with Sartre’s adjustment to Marxism. Sartre recommended an existentialist project as a form of psychotherapy to maximize meaning in the life of the anguished individual. Celan’s project, it seems, was to communicate to society by way of his poetry. These poems would help his representation of an alter reality and the process of exposure that was necessary to unveil that reality. In his 1958 Bremen speech, Celan claimed that he wrote poems in order to speak, in order to orient himself, and, most important, in order to depict reality. He described poetry writing as a phenomenon that gave him a sense of happening, movement, transport. It gave him a sense of direction. Celan talked about poems being “on their way,” headed toward what he called a responsive reality. He went on to say that he felt the younger generation of poets was seeking that same reality, that their very being was headed toward it expressed in language that was both searching for and stricken by reality, “wirklichkeitswund und Wirklichkeit suchend” (3:186).

Celan seeks this reality through the language of poetry, and it is an anguished search because it is one that unmasks and exposes. The superficial layer of social reality resting upon authentic reality is like Sartre’s being-for-itself, a thin crust covering the in-itself, the essence of all things. When this thin veneer is exposed, the individual catches glimpses of the in-itself, causing a deep, sickening sense of nausea. For Celan the exposure causes one to feel an alienating strangeness that, as he says of the younger generation of poets in his Bremen speech, has a quality of being stricken. In his speech, The Meridian, upon the acceptance of West Germany’s 1960 Georg-Büchner prize for literature, Celan crystallizes his references to poetry as a search for truth, a perfected reality, when he speaks of the poetic ability to approach a free, open space that is close to utopia, “in die Nähe eines Offenen und Freien gelangt. Und zuletzt in die Nähe der Utopie” (3:200).

Celan continually searches for this utopia, and the poem appears to be the key to it. He clings to the poem as a kind of solution, but it is by no means a simple one. The absolute poem, one that might perhaps reveal authentic reality or truth, is a poem that Celan says does not exist: “Das absolute Gedicht — nein, das gibt es gewiß nicht, das kann es nicht geben!” (3:199). Yet Celan keeps searching; he is not devoid of hope. He describes the poem in strangely existentialist terms, calling it a desperate conversation and speaking of its here and now, its uniqueness that is tied to its present moment: “- das Gedicht selbst hat ja immer nur diese eine, einmalige, punktuelle Gegenwart” (3:198-99). It is a poem that is in conflict with an existentialist Other, an Other that it desperately needs: “Das Gedicht will zu einem Andern, es braucht dieses Andere, es braucht ein Gegenüber” (3:198). But he questions the origin and the direction of the poem, concluding that it is an open-ended, unresolvable phenomenon that searches for a place that he describes as having open, empty, and free spaces. Says Celan of this vast space, “wir sind weit draußen” (3:199).

Like Sartre’s for-itself, the poem eternally strives for something, yet Celan claims that in absolute terms it cannot exist. In this way the poem, like the for-itself, must be similar to Sartre’s idea of a “nihilating nothingness.” Such a paradox makes all poetry, like existence, absurd, since the place it searches turns out to be the place, he claims, where all tropes and metaphors are led “ad absurdum” (3:199). The poem, product of the here and now, in conflict with the Other with whom Celan continually converses in his poetry, and searching for some utopian place with its open, free spaces, ends up expressing the same irrationality that permeates the universe. Its value is in projecting itself toward that place. In its very attempt to achieve truth, it becomes a truth in itself.

Reingard Nethersole observes that for Celan the poem is like a conversation that continually reiterates that which has already been said, a conversation that adds nothing new because it is characterized by recurrence.12 The poem thus elicits a Nietzschean sense of eternal recurrence, which is characteristic of life, and which gives the poem the same pessimistic outlook.

For Celan the poem has its own life. Like man, it must be free. It cannot be reduced to a Medusa’s head such as the one Celan describes from Büchner’s novella Lenz, the head that creates art by turning a scene to stone and preserving it for posterity. Likewise, when Celan speaks of Lucile’s cry of “Long live the king!” from Büchner’s play Dantons Tod, a public declaration that meant certain death at the time of the French Revolution, Celan says simply that Lucile’s gesture is nothing less than an act of freedom. Art, like man, has its own freedom to impose any artistic meaning it wishes upon the in-itself. Art can never become a Medusa’s head, a way to reproduce a scene perfectly and then freeze-frame it, or Celan’s other word for the same phenomenon, an automaton. In order to escape Büchner’s harsh pronouncement on art as a strictly mimetic medium, Celan presents poetry as the liberating force, the revolutionary force in art, the force which, like Lucile, must proclaim “Long live the king!” and then suffer the consequences.

To distinguish this more vital kind of art from strictly mimetic art, Celan presents the concept of Dichtung (literature) as opposed to Kunst (art). Nicholas Meyerhoffer notes that Celan’s approval of Lucile’s defiance in the face of a penalty of death is a characteristic of Dichtung, and it is this characteristic that shows the presence of humanity. It has the flexibility that Kunst, the mimetic, plastic arts, lacks. This freedom in literary art serves to preserve “the majesty of the absurd.”13 It is Lucile’s defiance, symbolic of the defiance of all art, that will lead humanity to the openness and the freeness that Celan longs for, the freeness that is, as he put it, close to utopia.

Art, then, must be existentialist in its essence. Tied to the uniqueness of the here and now, that very limitation provides unbounded freedom to be distinctive and original. No other work will have been created at that very moment, at that very place, or by that particular artist. Art, like life, is absurd and can lead to absurd consequences. Yet art enjoys a dualistic nature that resolves the problems imposed by the here and now. Since art is a problem that Celan says is a tough one, one that is “langlebiges” (long-lived), unlike man, art is eternal (3:188). It has a quality of timelessness that permits it, as Celan said in his Bremen speech, to reach through time but not to go beyond it. Because of its eternal nature, art has the ability to transcend the limitations of the here and now and become an active part of the future; it can continue to exist. Such an eternal quality gives art the opportunity to resolve the poet’s existentialist dilemma. But exactly how poetry fulfills for Celan all of his expectations for art becomes more evident in the analysis of his poems and the aura that he creates, the specific artistic vision that he constructs in terms of space, time, persons, and action.

  1. Jerry Glenn, “Paul Celan in Wien,” in Die Pestsäule: In memoriam Reinhard Federmann, ed. Milo Dor (Vienna: Löcker & Wögenstein, 1977), 102.
  2. Glenn, “Paul Celan in Wien,” 102.
  3. Glenn, “Paul Celan in Wien,” 103-04.
  4. Paul Celan, Gesammelte Werke in fünf Bänden, eds. Beda Allemann and Stefan Reichert, vol. 3 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1983; paperback edition, 1986), 190 (hereafter volume and page number cited in text).
  5. Hugo Huppert, Sinnen und Trachten: Anmerkungen zur Poetologie (Halle: Mitteldeutscher Verlag, 1973), 31 (my translation).
  6. Theo Buck, “`Mehrdeutigkeit ohne Maske’: Zum ästhetischen Modus der Dichtung Paul Celans,” Text und Kritik 53/54 (1977): 3-4.
  7. Buck, “Mehrdeutigkeit ohne Maske,” 8.
  8. Breton, Manifestoes, 14.
  9. Jean Firges, “Sprache und Sein in der Dichtung Paul Celans,” Muttersprache 72 (1962), 266-67.
  10. Werner Hamacher and Winfried Menninghaus, eds. Paul Celan (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1988), 24.
  11. Buck, “Mehrdeutigkeit ohne Maske,” 6.
  12. Reingard Nethersole, “Kunstwirklichkeit, Engagement und Gespräch: Zum poetologischen Ort Paul Celans,” in Literatur als Dialog: Festschrift zum 50. Geburtstag von Karl Tober, ed. Nethersole (Johannesburg: Ravan, 1979), 102.
  13. Nicholas J. Meyerhoffer, “The Poetics of Paul Celan,” Twentieth-Century Literature 27 (1981): 74.

Proceed to Chapter 5...

Copyright © 1993 by Clarise Samuels

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