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

by Clarise Samuels

Table of Contents

Chapter 6: Eternity and Remembering:
Representations of Time, Persons, and Action

WHILE CELAN’S REPRESENTATIONS OF space paint a landscape of the imagination that characterizes a poetic, alter reality, there remains for the existentialist individual stranded in such a desolate milieu the necessities of time, persons, and action. Time motifs are related to historic dates, the seasons, the months, or even the time of day or night. The persons who emerge in the poem include the poetic persona, that is, the poetic voice of the poem, as well as proper names of historical and biblical significance, and personal references to everyday people. In Celan’s poetry there is additionally the omnipresent “Thou,” the silent interlocutor to whom the poetic voice often seems to be speaking, a phenomenon much discussed in the critical literature on Celan and often attributed to the influence of Martin Buber. Action motifs in the poetry are verbs that describe any activity such as writing, eating, thinking, and remembering, to name just a few.

Like the space motifs, time has a peculiar, if not forlorn, quality in Celan’s poetry. Its importance is highlighted in the title of Celan’s last volume, Zeitgehöft (Time Farm), published posthumously in 1976. Celan’s preoccupation with the concept of time often involves a sense of perpetual night, the endless winter of the icy landscape, and an eternalness that is necessarily bound up with the infinity of space. The poetic persona strives to transcend time, to project itself into the malleable future where there is still hope, and to escape the unalterable past that is marked by bitter memories. The existentialist frustration regarding the dilemma of the here and now is palpable. There is a need to escape the unchangeability of the past and the limitations imposed by the present. Sometimes the poetic voice is merely suspended in a timeless vacuum.

The poetic persona endeavors to conquer time. In the poem “Corona,” for instance, from the Mohn und Gedächtnis collection, the time motif is established in the first line - it is autumn. Autumn, the antithesis of spring, birth, and renewal, establishes from the outset a tone that promises to be disharmonious. Yet devoid of all irony and with something akin to quiet resignation, the lyrical voice of the poem says of this season, “We are friends”:

Aus der Hand frißt der Herbst mir sein Blatt: wir sind Freunde.
Wir schälen die Zeit aus den Nüssen und lehren sie gehn:
die Zeit kehrt zurück in die Schale.

Im Spiegel ist Sonntag,
im Traum wird geschlafen,
der Mund redet wahr.

Mein Aug steigt hinab zum Geschlecht der Geliebten:
wir sehen uns an,
wir sagen uns Dunkles,
wir lieben einander wie Mohn und Gedächtnis,
wir schlafen wie Wein in den Muscheln,
wie das Meer im Blutstrahl des Mondes.

Wir stehen umschlungen im Fenster, sie sehen uns zu von der Straße:
es ist Zeit, daß man weiß!
Es ist Zeit, daß der Stein sich zu blühen bequemt,
daß der Unrast ein Herz schlägt.
Es ist Zeit, daß es Zeit wird.

Es ist Zeit. (1:37)

Autumn is eating its leaf out of my hand: we are friends.
We shell time from nuts and teach it to go on:
time turns back into the shells.

Sunday is in the mirror,
sleeping is in the dream,
the mouth speaks the truth.

My eye moves downward to the sex of my beloved:
we gaze at each other,
we say dark things to each other,
we love each other like poppy and memory,
we sleep like wine in the seashells,
like the sea in the blood beam of the moon.

We stand embracing in the window, they see us from the street:
it is time that they knew!
It is time that the stone brought itself to bloom,
that the heart beat with restlessness.
It is time for it to become time.

It is time.

Glenn observes that in its imitation of Rilke’s poem “Herbsttag” (Autumn Day), Celan’s poem mimics Rilke’s famous formulation “Herr: es ist Zeit” (Lord: it is time).1 But time in this context documents a preoccupation with temporal problems that is not necessarily restricted to the autumn. In the first stanza, the problem of time is one where the poetic voice appears to be fixated on the past. In order to go on with life, one must “shell time from nuts,” a tedious and laborious process. The lyrical voice of the poem laments that time must be taught how to go on, or to “walk,” and implies that time is something that requires transcendence. Yet all the effort is in vain. Time refuses to go on, it turns itself back into the shells, and the fixation on the past remains. This persistent hold of the past has a haunting, alienating quality, an eternal quality that infuses the poem with a sense of despair rather than hope for the future.

In the second stanza of “Corona,” time is alluded to more specifically. Sunday is mentioned, and its presence in the mirror is a comment on the illusory nature of existence. The mention of a dream and sleeping makes specific reference to the night, a perpetual night that is permeated with timelessness. The entire third stanza reinforces a murky aura established by the temporal framework. Night is alluded to by the lovers saying “dark things” to each other as though their words were incomprehensible, even to each other. They love each other like “poppy and memory,” an opiated state that juxtaposes forgetting and remembering. They sleep like “wine in the seashells,” another drugged state suggesting an eternal, Dionysian exhaustion. Finally, there is a last reference to the night, the sea reflecting the “blood beam of the moon,” creating an uneasy image of a serene moon that casts a blood-red beam of light, paradoxical in nature. The eternal quality related to the endless night and to the general temporal framework continues to be negative throughout the poem.

The night is one of Celan’s favorite time motifs, and it is used often. It is related to sleeping, dreaming, remembering, death, and negation. Its associations in his strophes have the consistent quality of a night that is both disturbing and threatening. He speaks of feverish nights, malicious nights, starless nights, the wine of the night, and “devilish tongue-jokes” of the night: “Nachts ist dein Leib von Gottes Fieber braun” (1:12); “Boshaft wie goldene Rede beginnt diese Nacht” (1:35); “die Nacht braucht keine Sterne, nirgends” (1:197); “der den Wein seiner Nacht trank, den Wein der Elends-, der Königs-vigilie” (1:282); “Die teuflischen Zungenspßäse der Nacht” (2:147).

Other motifs related to the night are repeated references to the moon and the stars, as well as references to dreaming and sleeping. The dream motif is particularly pronounced in Celan’s earlier work, but there continue to be scattered dream references throughout Celan’s later volumes, however infrequent. Celan’s direct references to the dream, as well as to Freud, show his awareness of the dream as the surreal device designed to unearth the subconscious impulses, the hidden impulses of the mind that have to be revealed. Janz points out that in two of Celan’s poems (“... auch keinerlei” and “Wirf das Sonnenjahr”) from Fadensonnen, there are references to an essay by Freud on the pleasure principle.2 She also feels that for Celan the dream motif was an anticipation of a better world to come, and that it stood in stark contrast to existing reality, much like utopia contrasted to existing reality, or life to death.3

Celan’s dream motif leads the reader into the time zone of the perpetual night, but his haunting vision of eternity erupts again in his depiction of the seasons. Autumn and winter are cited most often. The autumn is the traditional poetic season for dying, and in “Corona” Celan associates the autumn with the past. It is a season of nostalgia for a secure, authentic existence, whose meaningfulness does not have to be questioned.

A further suggestion of this is found in the poem “Stumme Herbstgerüche” (Silent Autumn Smells):

Stumme Herbstgerüche. Die
Sternblume, ungeknickt, ging
zwischen Heimat und Abgrund durch
dein Gedächtnis.

Eine fremde Verlorenheit war
gestalthaft zugegen, du hättest
gelebt. (1:223)

Silent autumn smells. The
marguerite, unbent, went
between home town and abyss through
your memory.

A strange forlornness was
tangibly present, you would have

Autumn elicits memories of short-lived happiness, memories that are then destroyed by a contrary-to-fact subjunctive tense that brings the poetic voice abruptly back to the present reality. There is a sense of mournfulness; there is also an alienating quality of loneliness and forlornness, the characteristic existentialist feeling of abandonment. The nostalgic aspect of the autumn gives vent to bittersweet memories, and it serves to underscore the emptiness of the present. In other poems, the autumn may bring back memories of a French love song, a sense of death, or a reeling sense of despair: “Er weiß ein französisches Lied von der Liebe, das sang ich im Herbst” (1:31); “einmal im Herbst, wenn das Jahr zum Tod schwillt, als Traube” (1:140); “es stürzt den Dezember zurück, den November” (2:336).

If autumn conjures up a melancholy vision of dying, winter becomes desolation incarnate, a frozen-over landscape in which death predominates. The winter motifs include references to ice, frost, snow, cold, and the months of November, December, and January. All of the time motifs, the endless night, the recurring autumn with its memories and sentiments of a lost existence, and the desolation of an endless winter involve a distinguishing sense of perpetuity. To transcend time the poetic voice must stand outside of it and be indifferent to it. The lyrical “I” of the poem is a persona who is suspended in time and space, and the timelessness of that vacuum produces the most enduring time motif in Celan’s work: Ewigkeit (eternity). The concept of eternity denotes a realm extending well beyond human comprehension, one that relates in its temporal aspect to the spatial dimension of infinity, and one that creates with its immeasurable vastness Celan’s poetic universe.

An early poem in Mohn und Gedächtnis is entitled “Die Ewigkeit” (Eternity). In it the motifs of autumn and night are combined to depict Celan’s own peculiar vision of eternity:

Rinde des Nachtbaums, rostgeborene Messer
flüstern dir zu die Namen, die Zeit und die Herzen.
Ein Wort, das schlief, als wirs hörten,
schlüpft unters Laub:
beredt wird der Herbst sein,
beredter die Hand, die ihn aufliest,
frisch wie der Mohn des Vergessens der Mund, der sie küßt. (1:68)

Bark of the night tree, rust-born knives
whisper to you the names, the time and the hearts.
A word, which slept, as we heard it,
slips under the leaves:
eloquent will be the autumn,
more so the hand that gathered it in,
quick like the poppy of oblivion, the mouth that kisses it.

Here the night is conjured up with the image of the “night tree,” and a dread quality makes itself felt in the form of rusty knives that whisper names, an eerie process that echoes Holocaust memories of long lists of numbered victims. The ancient rusted knives, instruments of death, and the act of ceaseless whispering are Celan’s particular rendition of the perception of eternity. To this is added the autumn motif, the season of dying, and words that are heard but manage to slip away into the autumn foliage are a reference to Celan’s preoccupation with the evasiveness of truth. The action of sleeping augments the sense of being suspended in time. Eternity is bound up with the unconsciousness of sleep, the realm of night, and death itself. Yet an optimistic note prevails, for although the autumn is a poetically sad season, there is hope for the future; there is hope for an “eloquent” autumn that has been kissed by a mouth that is like the “poppy of oblivion,” a drugged state of forgetfulness for which the poet longs.

There are many examples of the way in which Celan expresses the particular ambience that he associates with the quality of eternity. There are references to the foam of eternity, an ever-expanding eternity, a blood-black eternity, and the paradoxical constraints of eternity: “wir schossen hinab in die Tiefe, aus der man der Ewigkeit Schaum spinnt” (1:93); “So mehrst du die Ewigkeit” (1:133); “Und die Ewigkeit blutschwarz umbabelt” (2:339); and “Die Ewigkeit hält sich in Grenzen” (2:415).

Eternity is presumably a way for Celan to make comprehensible the relentless passage of time, a phenomenon that he occasionally visualizes in the form of sand. The sand image enables him to develop a consciousness of the nature of eternity, its very composition, a temporal motif reduced in terms of its smallest possible unit. His awareness of the relentlessness of time is apparent: “eine Stunde verstößt eine Stunde” (one hour rejects another) (3:91), or as he formulates it in the following lines from “Brandung” (Surf):

Du, Stunde, flügelst in den Dünen.

Die Zeit, aus feinem Sande, singt in meinen Armen:
ich lieg bei ihr, ein Messer in der Rechten. (1:69)

You, hour, wing your way into the dunes.

Time, out of fine sand, sings in my arms:
I lie by her, a knife in my right hand.

Each grain of sand represents an hour, the innumerable hours that loom up in the poetic mind, each grain by itself a finite unit, but together comprising the materialization of eternity. While the poetic voice, the “I” of the poem, claims that time is singing in its arms, a deceptively positive image, it also has to lie at time’s side with a knife in hand as though poised to kill. The sense of danger mingled with an atmosphere of eternity produces a quality of anxiety, a free-floating dread.

The ideas of sand and time are often juxtaposed. For example, Celan makes reference to a boat on the “river of sand,” rather than the river of time, and he speaks of a strange “everness” associated with sand: “Hier - das meint jenes Schiff, auf dem ich den Sandstrom heraufkam” (1:113), and “vom Sand (oder Eis?) einer fremden Zeit für ein fremderes Immer” (1:159). These combined time and space motifs of eternity and infinity produce an aura of nothingness that has mystical connotations.

The person motifs in Celan’s work are individuals as well as specific groups, a motif category that is not usually prominent in lyrical texts, with the exception of such lyrical forms as epic poetry. While there is always to be recognized a persona in the lyrical text, from the obvious to the subliminal, the latter is more often the case in Celan’s poetry. The use of a poetic “Thou” that is directly addressed or implied by the poetic voice of the poem occurs the most often, after that of the voice itself occurring in the singular or the plural (“I” or “we”).

Donna Elaine Robinson discusses the problematic relationship between the “I” and the “Thou” in Celan’s poetry. Robinson feels that the “Thou” is a loved one, in particular the poet’s deceased mother. She notes that there is present the guilt of the survivor toward those lost loved ones, and that this guilt is instrumental in the failure of the lyrical “I” to extricate himself from the dilemma of the “I-Thou” relationship.4 Hans-Georg Gadamer, on the other hand, takes the “I” of Celan’s poetry out of any specific historical context such as the Holocaust, and places it in a more universal, existentialist one. He feels that the poetic voice should be associated not just with the poet himself, but with “that individual,” a Kierkegaardian concept that each one of us may represent. Gadamer concludes that the answer to the question “Who am I and who are you?” is provided by each poem each time the poem raises the question.5

This “I-Thou” interaction appears to be occasionally transmuted in Celan’s work into the motif of the lovers. The lovers appear in “Corona” and are found scattered in other poems. In “Die Jahre von dir zu mir”(The Years from You to Me), for example, Celan writes:

Wir sehen uns zu in den Spiegeln der Tiefsee und reichen uns rascher die Speisen:
die Nacht ist die Nacht, sie beginnt mit dem Morgen,
sie legt mich zu dir. (1:32)

We watch each other in the mirrors of the deep sea and hand ourselves the food more quickly:
the night is the night, it begins with the morning,
it lays me down next to you.

The lovers are placed in the time dimension of the perpetual night, and the infinity of their spatial context is depicted by the endless mirroring of the sea rather than the vastness of outer space. The urgent need for food is a suggestion of earthliness, a reminder of the physical world. Like the sex act itself, the corporeal need for sustenance pulls the spiritual union of two lovers out of the empyrean, hindering their celestial flight and forcing them to become mundanely earthbound.

The lovers appear again in these stanzas from “Lob der Ferne” (Praise of the Distance):

Im Quell deiner Augen
treib ich und träume von Raub.

Ein Garn fing ein Garn ein:
wir scheiden umschlungen.

Im Quell deiner Augen
erwürgt ein Gehenkter den Strang. (1:33)

In the fountain of your eyes
I rush and dream of rape.

A net caught a net:
we part embracing.

In the fountain of your eyes
a hanged man strangles the rope.

Here the hint of eternity is to be found in the soul of the lover, the unfathomable eyes, while the dream reference evokes the perpetual night. As in a dream, there are illogical parts being juxtaposed, such as the image of the hanged man who strangles the rope rather than the other way around. The lovers, who would lose themselves in each other’s eyes in another attempt at spiritual transcendence, are surrounded by worldly danger. There are snares, there is a hanging, and the lover himself is thinking of rape. The absurd illogic of the dream acquires some of the dread of a nightmare.

Appearing much less often than the “I-Thou” motif are the person motifs where Celan employs the names of historic personalities. Although used sporadically, these person motifs elicit a consciousness of the continuing dialectical processes of history. The historical layer of reality, like the empirical layer of Celan’s poetry, is a layer whose factual nature allows it to be observable; therefore, it is a mode for comprehending truth. Some examples are references to Esther, Freud, Henry IV, Michael and Gabriel, Géricault, Brecht, Petrarch, Ossietzky, Rembrandt, and Absalom. These persons, together with the historic place names used as space motifs, evoke a Hegelian consciousness of the importance of history. The dialectical qualities of these motifs infuse them with some hope for the future.

There is still another representation of persons that is typical for Celan’s poetry, and that is the recurring reference to masses of people. By contrast, in “Todesfuge” (Death Fugue), the mention of the Faustian Margaret is a general symbolic reference that represents the blonde-haired, blue-eyed German woman, and the mention of Sulamith in the same poem is a parallel representation of the dark-haired Jewess. But the use of specific names to represent a large faction of people is not typical for Celan. He is more inclined to use a common noun that draws attention to the quantity and the anonymity of such masses, such as the recurring use of the words names and souls to represent masses of people.

Such person motifs call forth images of the deceased masses of the Holocaust. Sometimes Jews are specifically mentioned, such as: “Menschen-und-Juden, das Volk-vom-Gewölk” (1:278); “der Jüdin Pallas Athene” (2:154); and “der maltesische Jude” (2:374). Consider the persons depicted in the following poem from the Sprachgitter collection entitled “Mit Brief und Uhr” (With Letter and Clock):

Ungeschriebenes zu siegeln,
das deinen Namen
das deinen Namen

Kommst du nun, schwimmendes Licht?

Finger, wüchsern auch sie,
durch fremde,
schmerzende Ringe gezogen.
Fortgeschmolzen die Kuppen.

Kommst du, schwimmendes Licht?

Zeitleer die Waben der Uhr,
bräutlich das Immentausend,

Komm, schwimmendes Licht. (1:154)

to seal the unwritten,
that guessed
your name,
that encodes
your name.

Are you coming now, swimming light?

Fingers, waxen also,
pushed through strange,
painful rings.
The tips melted away.

Are you coming, swimming light?

Emptied of time the honeycomb clock,
bridal, the thousands of bees,
ready to depart.

Come, swimming light.

The “Thou” is present in this poem, although it is embodied in the form of a floating light. The apostrophic invocation of the floating light has an ethereal, almost divine aspect to it. The unknown identity of the “name” reinforces the sense of anonymity that preoccupies the poet. This is further underscored by a discreet reference to anonymous masses in the form of thousands of bees, who are ready to depart for some unknown destination.

Another interesting motif is the concept of “niemand” (nobody), highlighted in the title of the collection Die Niemandsrose. The use of “nobody” as a person motif is bound up with Celan’s predilection for negating concepts, such as nothingness and nowhere. These evoke an existentialist dimension of estrangement and alienation, and the Sartrean idea of man as a “nihilating nothingness.”

Celan uses the empirical data for space, time, and person motifs to grasp perceptible reality with a vocabulary that is easily at hand to depict it. But these depictions have associations that are existentialist in nature, and only on a superficial level are they bound up with the material reality of objects, places, and events. This superficial layer is a reality that the senses can perceive, but these concrete objects are to point the way to a deeper, more genuine reality, whatever that may be. Celan’s action motifs bear this out by relating often to the five sensory perceptions - the senses of touch, taste, sight, hearing, and smell.

Actions involving the sensory perceptions are often found in Celan’s frequent references to such parts of the body as mouths, lips, tongues, eyes, hands, and fingers. These physical body parts relating to sensory perception are some of the most frequently recurring motifs in Celan’s work. Eyes, in particular, are mentioned continuously, with references to gleaming eyes, candlelike eyes, drunken eyes, the wine of the eyes, eyes as blind as stones, and “eyelessness”: “Augen: schimmernd vom Regen, der strömte” (1:67); “Laß dein Aug in der Kammer sein eine Kerze” (1:94); “O dieses trunkene Aug” (1:118); “Sie herbsten den Wein ihrer Augen” (1:140); “Dein Aug, so blind wie der Stein” (1:164); and “Vom grossen Augen-losen aus deinen Augen geschöpft” (2:35).

Of the five sensory perceptions, sight is particularly important, for it is the seeing eye that perceives the layer of observable reality, even though it may be ever changing and in a continuous state of flux. Celan is searching for truth, and the most obvious reality, the truthfulness of which may be questioned by either the poet or the philosopher’s metaphysical inquiry, is that reality which we see. The word “Wahrheit” (truth) appears a significant number of times in his poetry, and its intentness is evident in such phrases as “alles ist wahr und ein Warten auf Wahres” (everything is true and a waiting for trueness) (1:218); “du meine Leise, du meine Wahre” (you my quiet one, you my true one) (1:255); and “die Wahrheit gibt Nachricht” (the truth reports) (2:67). Harald Weinrich comments that for Celan, the truth is constantly a presence hovering in the background, and it is for the sake of truth, or what Weinrich calls the “utopia of truth,” that Celan writes such poems.6

If what the eye perceives is not the truth, that is, if it is communicating a false layer of external reality, then what the eye is perceiving must be a mirage or an illusion. Because of this the idea of “Wahn,” meaning illusion or delusion, with its implications of madness, is also important. Celan invents such words as “Wahnfahrt” (illusion trip) (2:199) and “Wahngänger-Augen” (illusion-walker’s eyes or mad-walker’s eyes) (2:319) in his attempt to deal with the antagonism of a false reality that is inherent in a perceived reality.

The issue of truth versus illusion becomes an object of fascination for a poet in search of the essence of reality. The two are fused in a poem from Fadensonnen that begins with the words “Die Unze Wahrheit tief im Wahn” (the ounce of truth buried in delusion) (2:128), a line which, though pessimistic in its tone, still holds out hope for the discovery of truth. Celan unarguably seeks to expose the thin, external veneer of object and phenomenon, and its linguistic counterpart, in order to uncover truth through combination and juxtaposition. Celan felt and said that poetry itself is an apt vehicle for achieving this exposure. As he put it very simply, “La poésie ne s’impose plus, elle s’expose” (3:181). One significant image that occasionally appears in Celan’s poetry is that of the mask, which directly summons forth the actions of both concealing and exposing. Additional motifs related to Celan’s truth seeking are the mouth and lip motifs. They serve a dual function in that, besides being a reference to the sensory perception of tasting, they are the parts of the body that seek to communicate, yet have been rendered powerless by the horrifying reality that they have encountered:

— Entmündigte Lippe, melde,
daß etwas geschieht, noch immer,
unweit von dir. (2:36)

— Incapacitated lips, report,
that something is happening, still,
not far from you.

Many of these mouth and lip motifs, though seemingly powerless, in actuality have the ability to impart knowledge and wisdom, as when Celan writes that lips are knowing, “Lippe wußte. Lippe weiß” (1:180), or when he speaks of a mouth that can only stammer the truth: “wahr-gestammelten Mund” (2:42).

Communicating, the attempt to communicate, or even the illusion of communication is an important action motif in Celan’s poetry. It includes such activities as letter writing, a well-known example being the letter-writing activity of the Gestapo officer in the poem “Todesfuge.” This communication aspect in Celan’s work elicits the observation made by Lyon that the dashes at the ends of the lines, those words and sentences that break off in the middle, are the poet’s obvious and anguished attempts to speak.7

The importance of the mouth in the communication process is that the mouth, like the eye, can communicate the nature of reality. It has the ability to pronounce the truth: “der Mund redet wahr” (1:37). The mouth becomes a yardstick with which one can measure the truth and communicate that truth to others. Speaking by way of a dialogue is therefore a highly significant action for Celan, even though the nature of the Sprachgitter (speech-grille) motif, used in both the title of one of his volumes and one of his poems, implies that language also can be an impediment. Alfred Kelletat notes that the speech-grille may refer to the fenestra locutaria, a grilled opening in a door or wall through which nuns are allowed to speak to visitors from the outside world, thus making the speech-grille both a facilitating and delimiting device for communication.8 Kelletat feels that we are always speaking through figurative grilles and that language itself can be considered to be such a grille. He also observes the poetic presence of the “Thou,” the silent partner whose existence is implied because of Celan’s emphasis on dialogue.9

As a result of this partner, the silent interlocutor, the resulting dialogue in the poetry leads directly to Celan’s most significant person motif, the “Thou.” Sieghild Bogumil restricts the definition of the “Thou” by excluding the living and most of the world, and limiting it to the absent one, that is, the mother or the sister, a general feminine presence.10 Celan insisted that the poem is dialogical, and poetry that is conducting a dialogue necessarily has to address someone. But the partner called upon in Celan’s dialogical lines appears to be remote, unreachable, absent, silent, or dead. If Celan is following the model established by Martin Buber, the silent interlocutor, the “Thou” of the poetry, may be God.

Beyond the concern for the activity of communicating, there is a preoccupation with activities that ensure the survival of a human being, such as eating, drinking, and breathing. Breathing is especially of interest, and this motif is highlighted in the title of the collection Atemwende. The action of breathing is enhanced by many occurrences of lung images. Eating and drinking actions are often suggested with references to bread and wine. In the poem “Die Krüge” (The Jugs), a metaphysical dimension presents itself in the image of the gods at their board, where the act of drinking is a conspicuous motif: “Sie trinken die Augen der Sehenden leer und die Augen der Blinden” (They drink the eyes of the seeing empty and the eyes of the blind) (1:56). Bread, the staff of life, is the most basic food to sustain existence. The act of breaking bread, one that is at the core of civilization, is mentioned whimsically in the line “der Herr brach das Brot, das Brot brach den Herrn” (the Lord broke the bread, the bread broke the Lord) (2:191).

Eating, drinking, and breathing are not only necessary to sustain life but, like the plants and stones of the space motifs, are suggestive of reality at its most elemental level. These are activities that keep humans rooted to their earthly environment and restrict the possibility of transcendence into a higher, metaphysical realm. On the other hand, they also allude to that other realm. As Holthusen commented, the acts of eating and drinking are in the end mystical symbols for life and death.11 Bread and wine images also call to mind the significant symbols of the Passover Seder, as well as the Last Supper, but in Celan’s case without any of the joyous celebration of the former, or the hope of salvation of the latter.

The most telling group of action motifs is the one that deviates the most dramatically from sensory perception: actions involving thought, which include thinking, remembering, forgetting, and dreaming. The actions related to thought processes are diametrically opposed to the actions that sustain life. Unlike those actions that are the most basic for mere survival, it is thought that elevates humans above other life forms and gives them the potential for transcendence. At this transcendent level, the essence of reality is no longer merely object-oriented, since the perceived objects must be interpreted by the thinking individual. At this level the essence of reality is an abstraction. This shows an almost Cartesian emphasis on the thought processes and their importance in the conscious and self-conscious reflection upon existence. Celan is inclined to use a few innovative thought-related words such as “Fingergedanken” (finger thought) (1:251), “Denkspiel” (thought game) (2:221), “Gedankenschatten” (thought shadow) (2:66), and “Gedankenfaden” (thought thread) (2:91), which all allude to an alternative state of perception existing within the realm of thought.

Elizabeth Petuchowski observes that in the poem “Argumentum e Silentio,” published in Von Schwelle zu Schwelle (From Threshold to Threshold) in 1955, the title of the poem is technical terminology borrowed from the field of logic. Petuchowski feels that Celan’s awareness of this shows that he is addressing himself to the reader’s logic and the reader’s mental capacity for thought. She notes that the poem is in the tradition of a type of Hebrew prayer called the piyyut, a prayer which is primarily a mental game based on wordplay. Celan’s poem, like the piyyut, is a linguistic puzzle, an intellectual game that is designed to bewilder those who utter it and induce them to think.12

Remembering, like thought, is used for the function of transmuting reality and providing alternative terms for perception, as in the poem “Stumme Herbstgerüche” (Silent Autumn Smells) cited earlier, where the autumn smells stimulate the memory of someone who is dead, someone who seems so palpably present for a moment that the person “would have almost lived.” Dreaming, of course, is a thought dimension that definitively describes an alter reality, which is the surreality embraced by Breton. Collectively, the thought motifs comprise the conceptual basis, the existentialist level of Celan’s work. Through dreaming, thinking, and remembering, there exists the possibility of exposing the external layer of a misleading reality and permeating the inner reality that comprises truth.

In the following poem from Fadensonnen, there are repeated allusions to thought in every stanza. Glenn interprets this poem as being a song of celebration following the Israeli victory in the Six-Day War of 1967:13

Denk dir:
der Moorsoldat von Massada
bringt sich Heimat bei, aufs
allen Dorn im Draht.

Denk dir:
die Augenlosen ohne Gestalt
führen dich frei durchs Gewühl, du
erstarkst und

Denk dir: deine
eigene Hand
hat dies wieder
ins Leben empor-
Stück bewohnbarer Erde

Denk dir:
das kam auf mich zu,
namenwach, handwach
für immer,
vom Unbestattbaren her. (2:227)

Think of it:
the bog soldier of Massada
makes a home on that
which is inextinguishable,
contrary to
every barb in the wire.

Think of it:
the eyeless ones without shape
lead you freely through the crowd, you
get stronger and

Think of it: your
own hand
has held this
of inhabitable earth,
once again into life
borne upwards.

Think of it:
it approached me,
awakened name, awakened hand,
from out of the unburiable.

The actions taking place in the above poem are unusually aggressive and optimistic. They consist of thinking, bringing, leading, strengthening, holding, and approaching. The repetition of the verb “to think” is a subdued action of triumph. That triumph is the materialization of an abstract concept, from Zionist theory to the physical State of Israel, not only into present reality but into a transcendent reality of immortal quality. It is also a triumph over the attempted genocide of the Jewish people. The words “namenwach, handwach” (literally meaning “name-awake, hand-awake”) refer to the Israeli memorial to Nazi victims, called “Yad va-Shem,” which means “hand and name.”14 Remembering is present here also. As Glenn notes, the joy of the poem is restrained by the memory of the dead, the “eyeless ones,” whose sufferings made possible the final victory.15

All of these actions are dependent upon empirical and experiential qualities, but they all possess by themselves and in their context negative existentialist aspects. A brief selection of verbs from the various texts substantiates this: to lose, to make hollow, to incapacitate, to rave, to pain, to plunge backwards, to separate, to strangle, to encode, to overwhelm, and the list goes on. These verbs have an experiential quality and are often anchored in perception, but as they appear in their syntactic context, their meaning begins to uncover a truth that is both negative and overwhelming. It is in the examination of the syntactic context of the object-oriented motifs that Celan’s surrealism is to be found.

Proceed to Chapter 7...

  1. Glenn, Celan, 61.
  2. Janz, Vom Engagement absoluter Poesie, 42.
  3. Janz, Vom Engagement absoluter Poesie, 58.
  4. Donna Elaine Robinson, “Paul Celan's Ich-Du Dilemma: Its Relationship to the Themes of Poetic Language and the Holocaust” (Ph.D. diss., University of Cincinnati, 1977), 3, 10.
  5. Hans-Georg Gadamer, “Wer bin ich und wer bist Du?” in Über Paul Celan, ed. Dietlind Meinecke (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1970), 260, 264.
  6. Harald Weinrich, “Kontraktionen,” in Über Paul Celan, ed. Dietlind Meinecke (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1970), 222.
  7. Lyon, “Poetry and the Extremities of Language,” 56.
  8. Alfred Kelletat, “Accessus zu Celans ’Sprachgitter’,” in Über Paul Celan, ed. Dietlind Meinecke (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1970), 116.
  9. Kelletat, “Accessus zu Celans 'Sprachgitter,'” 120-21.
  10. Sieghild Bogumil, “Celans Wende: Entwicklungslinien in der Lyrik Paul Celans I,” Neue Rundschau 93, no. 4 (1982): 87.
  11. Holthusen, Ja und nein, 163.
  12. Elizabeth Petuchowski, “A New Approach to Paul Celan's 'Argumentum e Silentio,'” Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 52 (1978): 118-19.
  13. Glenn, Celan, 150-52.
  14. Petuchowski, “Argumentum e Silentio,” 123.
  15. Glenn, Celan, 151-52.

Copyright © 1993 by Clarise Samuels

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