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

by Clarise Samuels

Table of Contents

Chapter 7: Poetic Syntax and the Surreal Image

THERE IS SOMETHING OF David Hume’s empiricism in Celan’s depiction of a reality that is dependent upon concrete, object-oriented motifs. Hume referred to that which we perceive with our senses as impressions, sensations encompassing that which we see, hear, feel, love, hate, desire, or will. When we reflect upon these impressions, we are experiencing thoughts or ideas, a phenomenon that is once removed from the original perception of the reality.1

Celan’s empirical perspective is similar, as he defines the surrounding world in terms of empirical data based on a posteriori knowledge rather than on intuitive or innate ideas. For Celan sensory perceptions generate the raw data, that is, the motifs, for a superficial, observable layer of reality corresponding to Hume’s impressions. But the exploration of how we know this reality begins with the analysis of our thoughts or ideas about reality, our interpretation of what we have observed. In Celan’s poetry this analysis of the nature of reality begins with the syntactic organization of his motifs, the observable phenomena, and the meaningfulness of their placement.

The grammatical and syntactic organization of Celan’s motifs is the key to understanding the surrealist ideology, the middle layer of his poetry. Although this organization has a pronounced empirical quality, it is not empirical reality that is of interest here. An alter reality is being constructed by the poet, bit by bit, with each syntactic unit acting as another building block. In keeping with surrealist techniques, an air of incongruity persists, and it is this incongruous aspect that defines the nature of the poetic reality.

Celan’s surrealist style is less carefree than the French school of surrealism, having been colored by his more sober life experience. Wiedemann-Wolf found that this more serious style is in keeping with that of the Rumanian surrealists, who shared Celan’s wartime experience of harshness and brutality under a Fascist regime. Like Celan, the Rumanian poets allude to impressions of war in their Bucharest texts, and death as a theme is prevalent.2

As a result, Celan’s surreal images often lack the wittiness, playfulness, and ridiculousness which had predominated in the French school of surrealism. Glenn noted that for Celan, reality is just as terrible as it is absurd, so terrible and absurd that Celan resorts to images and words which superficially seem to confuse and distort, rather than clarify reality.3 Celan’s absurdity is necessarily darker, more morbid, even horrific at times. He made occasional uncharacteristic attempts to experiment with Dadaistic rhyme and nonsense syllables in such poems as “Abzählreime” (Counting Rhyme) (3:133) and “Grosses Geburtstagsblaublau mit Reimzeug und Assonanz” (Great Birthday Blue-blue with Rhyme Nonsense and Assonance) (3:134). Nevertheless, as Weinrich noted, there is again nothing of Dada’s wit to be found there.4 Yet Dada’s influence is still to be discerned in many poems in the attention to rhythm, an untraditional rhythm practiced early in Celan’s work that tends to rely on the rhythm of normal speech.5

The apparent lack of wit does not preclude Celan’s ability to indulge in humour noir in his imagery, an effective device for introducing an uncanny perspective, as well as bitter irony. Nevertheless, Celan’s poetic use of the surreal image is for the most part a negative one influenced by his life experience and his disposition. It is the surreal image that produces the sense of absurdity, the jarring, disquieting alter reality that is sometimes so convoluted and distorted it seems to be inaccessible. The intensity and the focus of such images can easily be mistaken for the secret symbols of hermetic poetry, but upon closer inspection they adhere to the formalism established by Breton.

The surreal image, as described by Breton, has very distinct characteristics. These include contradiction, negation of physical properties, concealment, sensationalism, hallucinatory aspects, an ability to impart abstract properties to the concrete or vice versa, and the ability to provoke laughter.6 All of these characteristics, except perhaps the last, apply to Celan’s surreal images. Rather than provoke laughter, Celan’s images can still possess an incongruity that is produced by the disparity of the image’s elements. This incongruity summons forth an air of the ridiculous that has Dadaistic echoes; even if it is lacking in humor, the image is still absurd.

Celan’s incongruity manifests itself in a number of literary devices including paradox, oxymoron, chiasmus, catachresis, hypallage, enallage, and contradictio in adjecto. These result in, as Kelletat observed, “astounding, terrifying, and shocking formulas,” whose linguistic structures are based on inversion and obfuscation.7 Colin observed that the Franco-Rumanian surrealists, under whose influence Celan developed, attempted to destroy previous literary traditions with avant-garde techniques that combined familiar images and poetic devices into strange configurations. This would lure readers into first associating these constructions with known literary traditions, only to have their expectations destroyed.8

All of these literary devices have the same effect: they produce disparate elements, which when synthesized are the essence of Celan’s incongruous images. The images often appear in the smallest possible grammatical unit, the compound word. Pretzer refers to such a grammatical construction as a “composite” and defines it as “the forcing together of the strange with the even stranger,” as the two parts reflect back upon each other and work together synergistically within the same word.9 The compound word is usually formed with two words joined as one, or two words joined with a hyphen, in a way that is not typically used in the German language. Within this compound unit, Celan juxtaposes incompatible elements, whose incongruity serves consistently to produce an atmosphere of absurdity. Not all of Celan’s compound words produce images that are merely absurd. Some are new coinages or novel constructions that may lend tangible, concrete properties to the intangible, as in the words “Ewigkeitsklänge” (2:320) or “Ewigkeitszähne” (2:61), where the concept of eternity is given the physical attributes of having sound and teeth.

In the word “Aschenblume” (ash flower) (1:55), for example, there are subtle ideological and epistemological implications. The flower motif, normally reminiscent of spring and life, is combined with ashes, a motif that evokes images of destruction, death, and the Holocaust. Such a contradiction is a reminder that the German death camps often contained bizarre contrasts with nature and civilization that included garden paths and music playing within the camps. This bizarre incongruity, which defied words, existed as an aura, palpably present yet always intangible. Celan grasps this intangibility and makes it perceptible again by embodying it in a new coinage, an “ash flower.” This kind of coinage has the effect of creating a sensory experience, an empirical object out of that which was present only as something psychological, a mood within an interior reality. With compound words of this nature, Celan takes this interior reality and externalizes it so that it is defined once again by the world of perceptible objects or phenomena.

In this fashion concrete properties are applied to the abstract, which assists the process of creating the absurdity of the incongruous. By externalizing interior moods, there materializes a vision of an inner, alter reality, a kind of surreality. This process is seen again in the use of compound words such as “Fingergedanken” (finger thought) (1:251). A thought is a concept, highly intangible and elusive, without any material evidence or manifestation. A “finger thought,” however, becomes something concrete, that which can be visualized. It has a specific shape and texture, and it can presumably grasp objects, touch them, and be touched as would a real finger. The intangible thought has been given form and shape so that it exists in the observable universe. Nevertheless, it is highly incongruous to envision a thought in the shape of a finger (a similar compound word is to be found in the word “Feuergedanken” or “fire thought” [2:44]), and such an image has an absurd aspect to it.

In the compound word “Blutzucker-Erbse” (blood-sugar pea) (2:415), a food staple is presented in a novel construction that has a vague air of the ridiculous. It is less nonsensical when we attempt to envision the implications of a pea that has blood sugar, or a pea that is diabetic. Perhaps it is a pea that was cultivated in an environment that could not provide the proper nutrients for its growth. Such a pea could be the product of a wasteland in the aftermath of nuclear holocaust, the product of a sick society, or simply that of an absurd existence. The clinical observation that is implicit in the use of a medical term lends a certain coldness, a detachment that is alienating, if not bizarre.

There is in particular frequent use of compound words describing parts of the body, where incongruous images are created with such words as “Aschenlid” (ash lid) (1:73), “Lungen-schwelle” (lung-threshold) (2:403), and “Erden-münder” (earth-mouths) (2:71). The image of an ash lid is a macabre visualization of a human eyelid burnt to ashes, while a threshold made of a lung or even in some way resembling a lung is no less incongruous. An earth that possesses gaping mouths has threatening implications. Rather than being a nurturing planet, this is an earth whose plowed fields are absurdly lined with mouths that can devour. Perhaps it is the same earth that produces diabetic peas, a food of sustenance that has been strangely distorted. Other images that are compounded with words relating to parts of the body and have subtly negative connotations include “Lippen-pflöcke” (lip-plugs) (3:83), “Kometen-brauen” (comet-brows) (2:36), and “Rauchmund” (smoke mouth) (2:59).

The word “Selbstzündblumen” (self-igniting flower) (2:315) has a fantastic quality to it, dreamlike in essence. The self-igniting flower, not indestructible or divine like the burning bush, destroys itself, and is capable of igniting itself and becoming a self-devouring flame. It is the poet’s imaginary but transient attempt to realize the intangible by way of the material. The material flower and the magical, self-igniting flame represent the bridge between the world of objective appearance defined by empirical objects, and the world of psychological appearance defined by dreams, thoughts, and illusions.

In “Steinatem” (stone breath) (2:70), we find the stone motif that is so prevalent in Celan’s work. The stone is the earth compacted into its hardest, most enduring unit. Whether as common rock or as gemstone, the stone exists as a naked essence that is akin to the exposed in-itself. But in this compound construction, Celan imagines a stone breath, an absurd image of a stone that has life. The incongruity of a lifeless stone pulsating with the inhalation and exhalation of air is absurd, but in its representation as existence exposed, it acquires a quality that is frightening and almost monstrous. A similar image appears in the compound word “Atemkristall” (breath crystal) (2:31).

Compound words, however telling their associations may be, are only the first step in the building blocks that constitute Celan’s complex images. Although many of Celan’s incongruous images are compressed with the economy afforded by the compound word, the image can be extended in the form of a phrase, an elliptic sentence, a stanza, or the length of an entire poem. The genitive phrase, or the genitive metaphor, is a grammatical construction that Pretzer notes is very common in Celan’s earliest volumes but appears infrequently in later volumes.10 Like the compound word, the genitive phrase can often take an empirical concept, that is, a concrete image, apply it to the abstract, and vice versa. The early genitive phrases sound more conventionally poetic than incongruous. They include such formulations as the hills of the depths, the house of forgetfulness, the black holes of the sea, the shadows of love, and the breath of night, images that are both poetic and romantic.

It is the later genitive phrases that appear to be more venturesome. These images are, as always, incongruous and absurd, with parts that are not logically connected and without a cause and effect relationship. As Kurt Oppens noted, Celan’s use of bizarre imagery is the destruction of the irrational through the absurd, an impossible imagery that produces the “fiction of all fictions.”11 For example, the genitive phrase “die Doggen der Wortnacht” (the hounds of the word night) is of questionable meaning given that the word night is an inexplicable phenomenon. Yet there is something negative and menacing about the dogs of the word night, especially when the image is examined within the context of its full sentence:

Die Doggen der Wortnacht, die Doggen
schlagen nun an
mitten in dir:
sie feiern den wilderen Durst,
den wilderen Hunger. (1:117)

The hounds of the word night, the hounds
begin barking now
within you:
they celebrate the fiercer thirst,
the fiercer hunger.

The dogs described in this poem are dangerous, they bark aggressively, and they are voracious. Oppens has speculated that they are angry demons of the mind that are plaguing the poet,12 and they do seem to be internalized or imaginary, appearing “within you.” But there is also a pagan quality about the image, a display of Dionysian fervor. These dogs are conducting pagan rites in a drunken and orgiastic frenzy. Like Dionysus, they appear to be capable of a frightful vengefulness, perhaps even murder. The original image of the dogs of the night expressed in the genitive phrase, somewhat neutral in its implications, has been expanded within the confines of a full sentence to something much more threatening.

A more incongruous image occurs in another genitive phrase “das Hörnerlicht deiner rumänischen Büffel” (the horn light of your Rumanian buffalos). This uncanny phrase, when divorced from its context, conveys a meaninglessness and incongruity that border on the playful. But when reexamined in the light of the sentence in which it appears, the playfulness dissipates:

Und das Hörnerlicht deiner
rumänischen Büffel
an Sternes Statt überm
Sandbett, im
redenden, rot-
Kolben. (2:83)

And the horn light of your
Rumanian buffalos
in place of the stars over the
sand bed, in the
speaking, red-
ash powerful

Now the absurd buffalo horns appear in the sky having replaced the stars. In the illogical form of talking, red-ash designs, they resemble either a mace or in the vulgar sense of the German word “Kolben,” the male sex organ. What originally gave the impression of a winsome thought about the serene night sky over the beach has been transformed into something horrific. The image of red ashes of dead animals whose parts have been transposed to the sky is permeated with the poet’s memories of the Holocaust.

In another genitive construction “Waben der Uhr” (honeycomb clock) (1:154), the concrete image of the honeycomb is applied to the more abstract concept of time. When the entire line is analyzed, “Zeitleer die Waben der Uhr” (emptied of time is the honeycomb clock), a paradox is created by the image of the honeycomb, usually representing fullness and wealth, being emptied and depleted. The hollow emptiness of the honeycomb harks back to the wasteland motif, describing a planet that is no longer nurturing and that exists in a universe that has run out of time.

Incongruity and negativity are combined once again in the genitive phrase “Eiterzacke der Krone” (pus point of the crown). The normally majestic and noble symbol of the crown has been rendered absurd by the image of its points being filled with pus, as though the ruling monarch or governing power is riddled with disease and infestation. The absurdity increases when the image is examined within the context of the full stanza in which it appears:

die näher-
Eiterzacke der Krone
in eines Schief-
geborenen Aug
dänisch. (2:78)

the on-
pus point of the crown
in a crooked-
born’s eye
writes poetry
in Danish.

The initial impression is one of playful wittiness - a crown is approaching and writing poetry in Danish while being reflected in an eyeball. The playfulness is greatly reduced, however, by the mention of pus and the unnatural image created by the eyeball’s being part of something that is genetically deformed or “crooked-born.” Celan’s incongruity is consistently bound up with a bizarreness bordering on the macabre and containing threatening implications. His images, far from being humorous ones that tickle the poetic imagination, are images that, like the dogs of the night, haunt and torment.

In addition to the genitive metaphor, Pretzer documents other types of grammatical phrase constructions used by Celan, such as the “as” comparisons (Wie-Vergleiche), “as/when” constructions (Als-Appositionen), and prepositional phrases; she also identifies the “zweckentfremdete” verb (a verb used differently from the way it was intended to be used) as a linguistic phenomenon in Celan’s work.13 Another grammatical unit of importance in terms of stylistic complexity is the elliptic sentence. Elliptic sentences, or rather sentence fragments, are frequently used by Celan to convey parts of his incongruous images. These fragments produce a choppy disconnectedness that is in keeping with the conscious juxtaposition of illogical elements. They are, moreover, another stylistic link to the Rumanian surrealists. As Wiedemann-Wolf noted, even the prose texts of the Rumanians were filled with similarly unclear associations, fragmented syntactic constructions, and what she calls “verbless word confrontations.”14 An example is the following line which appears by itself as an entire stanza in the poem “Chymisch” (Chymous):

Große. Graue. Schlacken-
lose. (1:227)

Great one. Gray one. Cinder-

With these three elliptical sentences, Celan continues to portray his vision of the wasteland. The one-word sentence is a dramatic form of Celan’s ellipsis. Its brevity is jarring, but the imagery is nevertheless compelling. The elliptic constructions are often more ominous than absurd as they convey in their abrupt uniqueness a sense of loss, alienation, or destruction, as though the lyrical “I” of the poem is as disconnected as the fragment itself. These phenomena are evident in such phrases as “Wir waren. Wir sind” (We were. We are) (1:168) or the following lines:

Sprache, Sprache. Mit-Stern. Neben-Erde.
Ärmer. Offen. Heimatlich. (1:269)

Language, language. Fellow-star. Nearby-earth.
Poorer. Open. Like home.

Despite the fragmentation there is a representation of outer space in these lines, with the presence of language as a mystical element that is poetically capable of almost anything, an interplanetary foray or the penetration of an alter reality on a nearby planet. The forced use of the hyphen contributes to the sense of disconnectedness. But the elliptic phrase may paint an image that is incomplete as well as incongruous, such as this fragmented sentence that speaks of a “whorish otherness”: “Huriges Sonst” (2:339). Another example is the following elliptic phrase that contains a genitive phrase: “Die Spur eines Bisses im Nirgends” (the trace of a bite in Nowhere) (2:117).

Celan puts the elliptic sentence to good use not just for the purpose of incongruous imagery, but to continue to convey his generally negative vision of the universe:

Über der grauschwarzen Ödnis. (2:26)

Thread suns
above the gray-black wasteland.

Wortaufschüttung, vulkanisch,
meerüberrauscht. (2:29)

Word heap, volcanic,
overwhelmed by the sea.

Schlickende, dann
krautige Stille der Ufer. (2:99)

Slimy, then
overgrown silence of the shore.

These elliptic sentences not only convey the alienation and disorientation of the poetic voice, but also use disparate elements to signify the image of the desolate no man’s land that is so preponderant in Celan’s work.

Although Celan’s short, choppy phrases are extremely efficacious for the type of imagery that he sought, complete sentences are not wholly disregarded. There are early examples of these that typify surreal absurdity with such images as crunching iron shoes in a cherry tree, “Ein Knirschen von eisernen Schuhn ist im Kirschbaum” (1:24), or losing the pupils of the eyes while playing cards, “Wir spielten Karten, ich verlor die Augensterne” (1:28). But the seemingly playful absurdity of an iron shoe grinding away in a cherry tree will always be overwhelmed by an absurdity that is entirely negative, if not morbid, in its essence: “Im Wein, den sie über dich gossen, schwimmen die Toten zu zwein” (In the wine that they poured over you, swim the dead by two’s) (1:101); or the incongruous image present here: “Eine Träne rollt in ihr Auge zurück” (a tear rolls back in its eye) (2:59). There is a muted sense of the ridiculous in the image of a tear that rolls up instead of down, yet the tear is the conventional sign of grief and mourning, and is permeated with negativity.

A thoroughly negative vision is easily conveyed within the syntax of the complete sentence. Celan’s negativity is almost always blatantly communicated with the use of traditionally negative images such as blood, blackness, night, and death. But sometimes the negativity is enmeshed in more subtle images, such as this one: “Ich höre, die Axt hat geblüht” (I hear that the ax has bloomed) (2:342). While the act of blooming is innocuous, an ax can be an instrument of destruction, and an incongruity necessarily arises from the image of an ax that can bloom like a flower. A similar example describes a depleted lung that blooms on a porch: “Im Windfang die leer-geblasene Lunge blüht” (2:42). The action of blooming on a porch could be harmlessly ascribed to any plant, but the blooming of a detached lung is macabre, and a lung emptied of air is an allusion to death.

Celan sometimes extends his complete sentences so that a sentence comprises a full stanza, emphasizing that the sentence often contains complete images in itself and maintains a certain amount of autonomy, both in and out of context:

Die Uhr
stiehlt sich die Zeit beim Kometen,
die Degen
der Name
vergoldet die Finten,
das Springkraut, behelmt,
beziffert die Punkte im Stein. (2:116)

The clock
steals its time from the comets,
the rapiers
the name
gilds the feints,
the touch-me-not, helmeted,
numbers the points in the stone.

This paratactic, one-sentence stanza contains several incongruous images. That this is a representation of a hypocritical society becomes evident with the oblique action of the name that “gilds the feints.” “Gilding” is an act of applying gold leaf to produce a beautiful but false veneer that only serves to hide an uglier underside, or what is really unpleasant reality. For Celan the “feints” are the equivocations, the shams, of a society that lies to itself so that it will never have to face its own hypocrisy. Further negativity concerning such a society is to be discerned from the critical lack of time, the aggressive posture of the rapiers, and the incongruous image of the otherwise innocuous touch-me-not sporting what may be a military helmet, a sign of aggression and warfare. The last line of the stanza speaks of a rather monotonous activity, the process of numbering “points in the stone.” The stone is, as always, an implacable, irreducible unit. It is the hard core, the essential truth of existence, as opposed to the thin, false veneer of the gold leaf. The numbering is a dreary, tedious task that is related to the Holocaust motif and the counting of the millions who died.

The following is an interesting example of a one-sentence stanza that is actually an entire poem:

Abends, in
Hamburg, ein
unendlicher Schuhriemen - an
kauen die Geister -
bindet zwei blutige Zehen zusammen
zum Wegschwur. (2:68)

Evenings, in
Hamburg, an
endless shoelace - the
chewing on it -
tying two bloody toes
to vow to go on.

The image is ludicrous, almost playful: ghosts chewing on an infinite shoelace that binds two bloody toes together. Yet there is present here some of the same negativity that was to be found in previous examples. Ghosts are mere reflections of humans. They are empty, hollow, and, of course, they are dead. The incessant chewing is a weak attempt to somehow get to the end of this infinite object, to make it finite again, to give it a clearer definition and a new reality. It is fruitless, endless labor carried on not by people, but by abstractions. The image of bloody toes suggests that they are being worked to exhaustion. They work at night in the city of Hamburg, once glorious in its history for the formation of the Hanseatic League, once destroyed by fire in the nineteenth century.

The vow for which these desperate creatures labor remains undefined, but it is a vow that has caused them only misery and suffering. This theme of underlying faith and commitment in the face of adversity recurs in Celan’s poetry, and it often refers back to the Holocaust and the stubborn faith of the Jews. Hamburg’s particular history of having been destroyed by fire is a suggestion of the Holocaust motif, as well as a suggestion of hope for reconstruction and renewal.

In his early poetry, Celan was more inclined to use multiple complete sentences within a stanza to convey a series of images, as in the following example from Mohn und Gedächtnis:

Ein schöner Kahn ist der Sarg, geschnitzt im Gehölz der Gefühle.
Auch ich fuhr blutabwärts mit ihm, als ich jünger war als dein Aug.
Nun bist du jung wie ein toter Vogel im Märzschnee,
nun kommt er zu dir und singt sein französisches Lied.
Ihr seid leicht: ihr schlaft meinen Frühling zu Ende.
Ich bin leichter:
ich singe vor Fremden. (1:31)

A lovely boat is the casket, carved from the wood of feelings.
I also drifted in it downstream in blood, when I was younger than your eye.
Now you are young like a dead bird in the March snow,
now it approaches you and sings its French song.
You are light: you will sleep until the end of my spring.
I am lighter:
I sing before strangers.

There are a number of disparate pieces within this stanza, with little logical order in these disconnected images to enlighten the reader. The stanza contains a compound word (“blutabwärts” or “downstream in blood”), a genitive phrase (“wood of feelings”), and a simple comparison (“like a dead bird in the March snow”). But the various parts are disconnected in the same way a dream may present a sequence of seemingly disconnected events. Isolating the motifs manages to provide a unifying negativity, where the images of a casket, a dead bird, strangers, going downstream in blood, and sleeping to the end of spring are all pervaded with negative associations.

The boat that is a casket carved from feelings, spoken of in the first line, juxtaposes emotions and death, as if the poetic “I” had suffered great pain. The floating sensation implied by the drifting boat creates the impression that time has been suspended, that the voice is drifting because it is stunned. The disconnected eye is, as always with Celan, alienating, and the alienation is reinforced by the words “I sing before strangers.” The disparate parts are in this way unified by the sense of negativity, as well as the dreamlike aura. The lightness attributed to the poetic voice and the voice’s interlocutor furthers the vague impression of floating bodies, suspended in time and space. The singing of a French song connotes a bizarre frivolity that simply cannot exist. But the images, no matter how disparate, are always contained within the framework made possible by the peculiar logic of the dream.

Another early example of this kind appears in the same volume, but it is a style from which Celan increasingly strayed in his later poems:

Wir spielten Karten, ich verlor die Augensterne;
du liehst dein Haar mir, ich verlors, er schlug uns nieder.
Er trat zur Tür hinaus, der Regen folgt’ ihm.
Wir waren tot und konnten atmen. (1:28)

We played cards, I lost the pupils of the eye;
you lent me your hair, I lost it, he struck us down.
He stepped out the door, the rain followed him.
We were dead and we could breathe.

Within each complete sentence, incongruous images are juxtaposed, such as playing cards immediately followed by losing the pupils of the eyes. The last line appears to be starkly illogical: we were dead and we could breathe. Janz comments that the paradox between life and death in this line represents Celan’s theme of reality versus utopia. The relationship of the utopian concept of life to death is a criticism of the conditions of present reality. It marks the impossibility of life in the world as it is, a world in which one cannot breathe. But rather than saying that such a life is like death, Celan inverts it and says death is like life, it enables one to breathe, and is therefore preferable.15

Celan continues here to use the contradictory logic of the dream to structure the sequence of events, so that the incongruity itself provides the organization for the disparate parts. A negative view is apparent in the use of specific actions: “lost,” “struck us down,” “were dead,” as well as the image of hair no longer attached to a body.

These multiple-sentence stanzas where the dream sequence is obvious become less and less frequent in Celan’s later poetry. After Mohn und Gedächtnis, the one-sentence stanza with its compound words and elliptic phrases gains in importance. Whole poems are construed in this style:

Was uns
schrickt auseinander,
ein Weltstein, sonnenfern,
summt. (2:246)

What threw us
frightens apart,
a world stone, far from the sun,

The above example displays phrases paratactically arranged within one sentence to build an entire poem, however short. Two beings are thrown together by an unknown force. Afterwards, they are pulled apart suddenly in a way that is frightening and startling. The “world stone,” the planet earth, then takes its orbit according to the laws and physics of the universe, almost as though its conception had been preceded by a cosmological explosion. The earth begins its repetitive and eternal rotation, a process so monotonous and routine that it hums. The planet is being observed in its essence, the stone as an irreducible unit that signifies the in-itself. Like the existentialist, the world has been thrown into the universe. It spins without purpose in a vast infinity of space, far away and alienated from its life-giving force, the sun.

In the following example, Celan builds an entire poem out of a series of elliptic sentences:

... Auch keinerlei
Graunächte, vorbewußt-kühl.
Reizmengen, otterhaft,
auf Bewußtseinsschotter
unterwegs zu

Grau-in-Grau der Substanz.
Ein Halbschmerz, ein zweiter, ohne
Dauerspur, halbwegs
hier. Eine Halblust.
Bewegtes, Besetztes.
Camaïeu. (2:201)

... And no kind of
Gray nights, foreseeably cool.
Stimulus values, viperish,
on the consciousness gravel
on the way to
memory spots.
Gray-on-gray of the substance.

A half pain, a second one, without
a trace of duration, halfway
here. A half desire.
Moving, engaged.

The poem does not contain any complete sentences, only elliptic phrases. The fragmentation produced by these structures contributes, as always, a disjointedness that is vaguely alienating. An incongruity arises from the image of cool, gray nights followed by the image of what may be the inside of the brain (“stimulus values,” “consciousness gravel,” “memory spots,” and “gray-on-gray of the substance”). The brain matter, like the night, is gray. Rainer Nägele notes that within the poem, consciousness appears to be in the form of fragments, and that there unfolds a description of the brain’s system for consciousness and perception.16

The gray brain unfavorably perceives a gray world that gives it no peace, a mechanistic world that is constantly in motion (“moving, engaged”). The brain experiences vague, inchoate longings (“half pain,” “half desire”), and the world it distinguishes ultimately appears as a cameo, an etched relief that, like the for-itself, only exists on the surface of things. The brain, or consciousness itself, perceives a superficial existence where certain negative behaviors are doomed to be repeated (“recidivism-cameo”). This perceived universe is gray, dull, and mechanistic. A sense of alienation is sustained by these perceptions arising from the brain’s gray matter, rather than the more abstract and interpretive vision of the mind. The brain, like Celan’s other space motifs, is a dreary landscape, whose images appear in the language of broken, elliptic phrases and are often compressed within the syntactic unit of the compound word.

Nägele observes that there is Freudian vocabulary in this poem. The “Reizmengen” (stimulus values), that which excites the consciousness and causes sexual arousal, were for Freud the unknown “X” of the psychic system. Nägele feels that when Celan refers to these impulses as being “otterhaft” (viperish or snakelike), he is relegating such impulses to the animal world as if they were amphibian and slippery. As snakelike impulses they are organic and alive, as opposed to the inorganic “gravel” of the brain matter, which they must stimulate.17 But they are also elusive and unpredictable, if not dangerous. The elliptical structure of the poem mimics the fragmentation and the incoherence of the brain’s unconscious impulses and desires.

A hierarchy of increasingly complex linguistic structures continues to develop Celan’s pessimistic, existentialist outlook:

Huriges Sonst. Und die Ewigkeit
blutschwarz umbabelt.

von deinen lehmigen Locken
mein Glaube.
Zwei Finger, handfern,
errudern den moorigen
Schwur. (2:339)

Whorish otherness. And eternity
babbles around blood-black.
by your loamy locks
my faith.

Two fingers, far away from a hand,
row toward the swampy

The poem is filled with the overwhelming nothingness of eternity, the fickleness of reality that is conveyed in the incongruous phrase “Whorish otherness.” The compound word “blood-black” negates the usual conception of eternity and equates eternity with a violent death. Two fingers that are “far away from a hand” are incongruous and at the same time display the typical surreal image of a dismembered figure. In the second stanza, hair saturated with mud (“loamy locks”) is juxtaposed with the faith of the poetic “I.” This faith is anchored in place by the gruesome image of human hair being used as ropes, a general reference to the Holocaust dead. The faith that Celan speaks of is once again an allusion to the commitment and belief required by the Jewish faith. In the last stanza, the action of fingers rowing to reach a vow that is choked and drowning in a swamp is a desperate image that is superficially nonsensical, but suggests the pain and despair experienced by the Jews in their stubborn determination to survive.

The above poem contains an elliptic phrase and a complete sentence in the first stanza, an elliptic phrase in the second stanza, and a complete sentence in the third stanza. Starting from the most basic level with the two compound words “handfern” (literally “hand-distant”) and “blutschwarz” (blood-black), Celan moves from phrase, to stanza, to sentence, and then to the entire poem in order to construct this surreal waterscape.

The surreal incongruity of compound word, phrase, stanza, and poem provides the underlying, syntactic organization of Celan’s poetry. It is an organization that gradually develops the imagery into the despair of an abandoned, desolate universe. In the style of the surrealist, the images are jarring, they create alienating associations, and they destroy conventional expectations. They may sometimes seem ludicrous, yet there is no humor. This is Celan’s ideological structure, and it rests upon its existentialist, epistemological base. In the same way that he builds a complex hierarchy of images, Celan builds a multilayered hierarchy of meaning. The incongruous organization in the surreal image conjures up a universe that is traumatized, bleak, and sterile. It is the disastrous aftermath of an Armageddon that has produced no decisive victory. This universe is existentialist in nature, surreal in portrayal, and thematically bases its expression on the central motif of Celan’s poetry, the Holocaust.

Proceed to Chapter 8...

  1. David Hume, On Human Nature and the Understanding, ed. Anthony Flew (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 33-34.
  2. Wiedemann-Wolf, Antschel Paul, 125.
  3. Glenn, Celan, 32-33.
  4. Weinrich, "Kontraktionen," 225.
  5. Klaus Weissenberger, "Mystische Formgebung in der Dichtung von Paul Celan," in Akten des V. Internationalen Germanisten-Kongresses, Cambridge 1975, vol. 2, eds. Leonard Forster and Hans-Gert Roloff (Bern: Herbert Lang, 1976), 263.
  6. Breton, Manifestoes, 38.
  7. Kelletat, "Celans 'Sprachgitter,'" 119.
  8. Colin, Holograms of Darkness, 77.
  9. Pretzer, "Surrealistische Aspekte," 319.
  10. Pretzer, "Surrealistische Aspekte," 338
  11. Kurt Oppens, "Gesang und Magie im Zeitalter des Steins: Zur Dichtung Ingeborg Bachmanns und Paul Celans," Merkur 17 (1963): 176, 188.
  12. Oppens, "Gesang und Magie," 189.
  13. Pretzer, "Surrealistische Aspekte," 317-22.
  14. Wiedemann-Wolf, Antschel Paul, 120.
  15. Janz, Vom Engagement absoluter Poesie, 57.
  16. Rainer Nägele, "Paul Celan: Konfigurationen Freuds," in Argumentum e Silentio: International Paul Celan Symposium, ed. Amy D. Colin (Berlin & New York: de Gruyter, 1987), 258.
  17. Nägele, "Konfigurationen Freuds," 255, 258.

Copyright © 1993 by Clarise Samuels

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