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

by Clarise Samuels

Table of Contents

Chapter 8: The Holocaust Universe

THE HOLOCAUST MOTIF, THOUGH at times obvious, usually exists as a subtle yet forceful presence permeating every linguistic structure in Celan’s poetry. In categorizing Celan’s empirical motifs into those of space, time, persons, and action, the Holocaust would have to exist separately as a thematic motif. The thematic motif creates a more generalized framework that encompasses all four of the other motif categories.

It is true that the Holocaust motif could arguably be classified as one of Celan’s spatial motifs. There is a distinct poetic vision of a Holocaust landscape, a consistent image, that Celan constructs again and again. It is bleak and filled with despair, an isolated universe whose occupants are imprisoned. There is no thin veneer of bourgeois society left in this universe; the veneer has been violently stripped away, exposing an interior core that inspires dread.

In the poem “Landschaft” (Landscape) from the Atemwende volume, Celan paints his Holocaust universe in images that are both manifest and apparent:

Landschaft mit Urnenwesen.
von Rauchmund zu Rauchmund.
Sie essen:
die Tollhäusler-Trüffel, ein Stück
unvergrabner Poesie,
fand Zunge und Zahn.
Eine Träne rollt in ihr Auge zurück.
Die linke, verwaiste
Hälfte der Pilger-
muschel - sie schenkten sie dir,
dann banden sie dich -
leuchtet lauschend den Raum aus:
das Klinkerspiel gegen den Tod
kann beginnen. (2:59)

Landscape with urn beings.
from smoke mouth to smoke mouth.
They eat:
the madhouse-truffle, a slice
of unconcealed poetry,
found tongue and tooth.
A tear rolls back in its eye.
The orphaned, left
half of the scallop-
shell - they gave it to you,
then they bound you -
illuminates the space listening:
the clinker game against death
can begin.

Smoke, urns, tears, and death are typical images to conjure up the Holocaust landscape. The last line is particularly telling when it speaks of the “clinker game against death,” where clinker, a hard, stony mass that fuses together in a furnace, suggests the ovens of the concentration camps. The consumption of a “madhouse-truffle,” an allusion to the insanity of this contained universe, also emphasizes the idea that truffles are buried in the ground, hidden the way truth is often hidden. The same stanza speaks of a “slice of unconcealed poetry,” a single bit of food, or truth, that managed to unearth itself, where it “found tongue and tooth,” a reference to speaking. The chaotic, topsy-turvy state of this world is characterized by a tear that “rolls back in its eye.” Imprisonment is intimated by the words “they bound you.”

Other Holocaust motifs in Celan’s poetry include frequent mention of ashes, burning, and various other fire images. There are additionally the person motifs that depict anonymous masses, and various references to grief, sorrow, and mourning. The following poem is from Die Niemandsrose, the collection whose poems Glenn has described as being “openly and aggressively Jewish”:1

Es war Erde in ihnen, und
sie gruben.
Sie gruben und gruben, so ging
ihr Tag dahin, ihre Nacht. Und sie lobten nicht Gott,
der, so hörten sie, alles dies wollte,
der, so hörten sie, alles dies wußte.
Sie gruben und hörten nichts mehr;
sie wurden nicht weise, erfanden kein Lied,
erdachten sich keinerlei Sprache.
Sie gruben.
Es kam eine Stille, es kam auch ein Sturm,
es kamen die Meere alle.
Ich grabe, du gräbst, und es gräbt auch der Wurm,
und das Singende dort sagt: Sie graben.
O einer, o keiner, o niemand, o du:
Wohin gings, da’s nirgendhin ging?
O du gräbst und ich grab, und ich grab mich dir zu,
und am Finger erwacht uns der Ring. (1:211)

There was earth in them, and
they dug.
They dug and they dug, so went
their day, their night. And they did not praise God,
who, so they heard, willed all of this,
who, so they heard, knew all of this.
They dug and heard nothing more;
they did not become wise, invented no song,
devised no kind of language.
They dug.
There was a silence, there was also a storm,
there were all the seas.
I dig, you dig, and there digs too the worm,
and the chanting there said: They dig.
Oh one, oh none, oh no one, oh you:
Where did we get, since we got nowhere?
Oh you dig and I dig, and I dig down toward you,
and on our finger the ring rouses us.

The action of digging (“graben”) is the most significant Holocaust reference in this poem and is mentioned repeatedly in a methodical, almost singsong monotone. The diggers, the main persons of the poem, are apparently digging a mass grave. The poem is pervaded with desperation and despair until the last line, where as always faith, symbolized here by the ring, resurrects these dying people.

There are similarities between motifs in this poem and those that appear in Celan’s most famous Holocaust poem, “Todesfuge” (Death Fugue). The repetition of the words “we drink” in “Todesfuge” is similar to the metric rhythm of “they dig.” In “Todesfuge” Celan employs the action of digging in a similar manner:

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken sie abends
wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts
wir trinken und trinken
wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng
Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt
der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland dein goldenes Haar Margarete
er schreibt es und tritt vor das Haus und es blitzen die Sterne er pfeift seine Rüden herbei
er pfeift seine Juden hervor läßt schaufeln ein Grab in der Erde
er befiehlt uns spielt auf nun zum Tanz
Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
wir trinken dich morgens und mittags wir trinken dich abends
wir trinken und trinken
Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt
der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland dein goldenes Haar Margarete
Dein aschenes Haar Sulamith wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng
Er ruft stecht tiefer ins Erdreich ihr einen ihr andern singet und spielt
er greift nach dem Eisen im Gurt er schwingts seine Augen sind blau
stecht tiefer die Spaten ihr einen ihr andern spielt weiter zum Tanz auf
Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
wir trinken dich mittags und morgens wir trinken dich abends
wir trinken und trinken
ein Mann wohnt im Haus dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Sulamith er spielt mit den Schlangen
Er ruft spielt süßer den Tod der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
er ruft streicht dunkler die Geigen dann steigt ihr als Rauch in die Luft
dann habt ihr ein Grab in den Wolken da liegt man nicht eng
Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
wir trinken dich mittags der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
wir trinken dich abends und morgens wir trinken und trinken
der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland sein Auge ist blau
er trifft dich mit bleierner Kugel er trifft dich genau
ein Mann wohnt im Haus dein goldenes Haar Margarete
er hetzt seine Rüden auf uns er schenkt uns ein Grab in der Luft
er spielt mit den Schlangen und träumet der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Sulamith (1:41)

Black milk of the morning we drink it evenings
we drink it at noon and at morning we drink it at night
we drink and we drink
we shovel a grave in the skies there one will not be restricted
A man lives in the house he plays with the snakes he writes
he writes after dark to Germany your golden hair Margaret
he writes and steps in front of the house and the stars twinkle he whistles for his dogs
he whistles for his Jews has a grave shoveled in the earth
he orders us now to strike up the dance
Black milk of the morning we drink you at night
we drink you morning and noon and we drink you evenings
we drink and we drink
A man lives in the house he plays with the snakes he writes
he writes after dark to Germany your golden hair Margaret
Your ashen hair Sulamith we shovel a grave in the skies there one will not be restricted
He calls dig the earth more deeply you there and you others sing and play
he seizes the iron in his belt he swings it his eyes are blue
dig the spades more deeply you there you others strike up the dance once more
Black milk of the morning we drink you at night
we drink you at noon and at morning we drink you evenings
we drink and we drink
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margaret
your ashen hair Sulamith he plays with the snakes
He calls play more sweetly the death death is a master from Germany
he calls stroke more darkly the fiddle then climb like smoke into the air
then you have a grave in the clouds there one will not be restricted
Black milk of the morning we drink you at night
we drink you at noon death is a master from Germany
we drink you evenings and mornings we drink and we drink
death is a master from Germany his eye is blue
he shoots you with lead bullets and an aim that is true
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margaret
he sets his dogs on us he gives us a grave in the sky
he plays with the snakes and dreams death is a master from Germany
your golden hair Margaret
your ashen hair Sulamith

“Todesfuge” is Celan’s most direct and blatant expression of his Holocaust theme. The spatial motif is obviously the confined microcosm delineated by the Holocaust universe, the physical bounds of the concentration camp, and there is a repeated longing for the open spaces of the sky where “one will not be restricted.” Death in this traumatized and tortured environment is a release from the imprisoned body, a release of the soul into a metaphysical dimension that is symbolized by the sky, “a grave in the clouds.”

John Felstiner notes the repetition of certain phrases, an indication of the unrelenting passage of mornings, afternoons, evenings, and nights.2 This singsong rhythm, monotonous and repetitive, suggests the prayerlike chanting of the workers and the rhythmic drudgery of the work. It also suggests the resignation of the anonymous masses who are condemned here. The identity of these masses is explicitly named. They are the Jews, the biblical people of Sulamith, whose hair is burnt to an ashen color as opposed to their golden-haired German counterparts. But “the man in the house” is another person motif, representing the blue-eyed oppressor. These are the masters of death from Germany who dominate in a hellish, perverse world where one is absurdly ordered to both play music and dance, and then to dig one’s own grave. Time is meaningless within this universe since every moment is agony, and the condemned victims long for the eternal peace that only death can bring. Death is presented as an ideal state, superior to life, a form of transcendent existence that is paradoxically utopian in nature.

The surreal absurdity of the poem is underscored by the contradictions established in the poem. The lucid blue eyes of the German officer are contrasted against the dark lead of his bullets, a symbol of his absurd and bestial behavior. The golden hair of the German Margaret is contrasted against the burnt hair of the Jewish Sulamith. The most notable contradiction is the oxymoron “black milk.” Theo Buck notes that the color black, devoid of all light, destroys and reverses the positive implications of the life-giving nourishment provided by milk.3

The directness of the theme in “Todesfuge” is sustained throughout the poem. Celan makes no attempt here to transcend locale or historicity in order to represent a macrocosm that extends itself into a more universal realm. Extending the metaphor of the Holocaust universe to include other transgressions against human rights, and to finally become a metaphor for existence, is something Celan attends to most noticeably in his later writings. Although Peter Horst Neumann comments that there are no identifying features in this poem to unequivocally mark the text as an image of Auschwitz per se,4 there is no mistaking, through action, person, and space motifs, a distinct representation of the concentration camp.

The following poem, “Windgerecht” (Windworthy), from the Sprachgitter collection contains Holocaust motifs that are more subtle and less emotional, as though the poetic voice has strangely distanced itself and is contemplating a more equivocal, and more inclusive, reality:

Tafelwand, grau, mit dem Nachtfries.
Felder, windgerecht, Raute bei Raute,
Leuchtassel klettert vorbei.
Augenstimmen, im Chor,
lesen sich wund.
(Ungewesen und Da,
beides zumal,
geht durch die Herzen.)
Schneewuchs durch alle Gehäuse, frei
ein einziges Feld,
das ein Lichtschein beziffert: die Stimmen.
Die Stimmen:
windgerecht, herznah,
brandbestattet. (1:169)

Board wall, gray, with the night frieze.
Fields, windworthy, rhombus by rhombus,
script free.
Fulgent wood louse shimmying past.
Eye voices, in unison,
read themselves sore.
(Nonexistent and Here,
at once both,
goes through the hearts.)
snow amassing through all the hollows, uncovered
one single field,
which a light ray numbers: the voices.
The voices:
windworthy, heartfelt,

The estranged objectivity of this Holocaust landscape is underscored by the abruptness of the elliptic sentences. The boundaries of the Holocaust universe are delineated by the spatial motifs of the wall and the fields, “rhombus by rhombus,” which correspond to the boundaries of the concentration camp. The action motifs include singing, reading, numbering, and incinerating. Some of these are the actions of the victims whose voices are lifted in prayer, while numbering and incinerating are the profoundly negative activities associated with the deaths of millions of camp inmates. Yet “the voices” contain a faint optimism by virtue of their forcefulness. The voice motif is repeated aggressively, and it is punctuated by a ray of light that points the way to a last utopian refuge, “one single field.”

In the poem “Zur Rechten” (On the Right), there is an initially direct reference to the Holocaust followed by a sharply surreal vision of the Holocaust landscape:

Zur Rechten - wer? Die Tödin.
Und du, zur Linken, du?
Die Reise-Sicheln am außer-
himmlischen Ort
mimen sich weißgrau
zu Mondschwalben zusammen,
zu Sternmauerseglern,
ich tauche dorthin
und gieß eine Urnevoll
in dich hinunter,
hinein. (2:167)

On the right - who? The deathly woman.
And you, on the left, you?
The journey-crescents in the
place beyond heaven
together become white-gray
moon swallows,
star swifts,
I plunge in there
and pour an urnful
down you,
inside you.

The first stanza’s mention of the right and the left are stark reminders of the way inmates were chosen either to be exterminated or to do forced labor at the German concentration camps. After that, the poem transcends the realistic vision of the concentration camp and transforms itself into an almost astrological excursion into the sky. Journey-crescents, moon swallows, and star swifts are Celan’s own absurd, zodiacal formations. He once again uses the vast realm of outer space as his spatial motif. Compared with the confinement of the Holocaust universe, it represents a utopian freedom, spiritual transcendence, and the afterlife. In the last stanza, the lyrical voice of the poem takes a drowning plunge into nothingness. It is a plunge into the immense abyss of outer space, where pouring the contents of an urn into the “Thou,” or the interlocutor, of the poem signifies ashes, cremation, and death.

Celan’s vision of the Holocaust landscape is a wasteland dominated by death, and this vision gradually pervades all of his work. The strong presence and viability of the Holocaust as a thematic motif have qualified Celan to be included among the authors of Holocaust literature, a genre defined by the historical fact of this specific event. But interpretation of Holocaust literature can be problematic. In order to reconcile the historical fact upon which this literature is based with the fiction that it proposes to be, such literature has been referred to by Ezrahi as documentary art. Ezrahi feels that beyond the actual testimony of survivors, the documentary novel, poem, or drama offers the most faithful historical reconstruction of the event.5

In documentary literature the empirical and historical data supporting the literature become the primary layer. Ezrahi notes that a Holocaust author can completely reject detached metaphor and symbolic figures. This kind of literature can be more concerned with reproducing accurate details such as accent, dialect, and jargon in speech rather than metaphoric language.6 In Ezrahi’s opinion, the artist of this genre becomes a historian using a fictional format to relay the horror of the actual events. Yet Ezrahi appears to mitigate the limitations that are implied by such a severe and unbending body of literature. There must be room in any fiction for interpretation, for some kind of literary exploration. In a discussion of a documentary novel, Ezrahi concedes that at some point the documentary novel is no longer dealing with human history but rather with human nature.7

No matter how faithfully the historical events are recorded in a documentary novel, the empirical elements are necessarily employed as a way to represent an ulterior reality. The fictive element that is introduced in the factual allows the author, if nothing else, to attempt to derive meaning from chaos. Although the tradition of Holocaust literature is inexorably linked to a specific historical event, fictional and lyrical texts that use the Holocaust as a motif attempt to extrapolate something from the Holocaust experience that is universal. It can be an exploration of human emotions, human nature, psychological states and conflicts, as well as a symbolic metaphor for individual existence, for society, or for the universe.

Perhaps the critic who comes closest to deriving an artistic meaningfulness from the Holocaust experience is Lawrence L. Langer. Langer calls Holocaust literature a “literature of atrocity,”8 and he interprets the world of the concentration camp as a metaphor for a universal reality that he calls l’univers concentrationnaire.9 In this death-filled universe, Langer investigates the existentialist aspects of the Holocaust. He compares the Holocaust experience to Camus’s statement at the beginning of The Myth of Sisyphus, where Camus remarks that the only true philosophical problem is suicide. In one particular passage by Camus, Langer notes that Camus describes an alienation of the individual that is not unlike the experience of the Holocaust victim.10 Camus writes:

But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.11

In describing the world of Auschwitz in Primo Levi’s Reawakening, Langer observes that it is almost as if the modern experience of Angst introduced by Kierkegaard and Kafka had “finally acquired a local habitation and a name.”12 Like Ezrahi, Langer remains bound to the factuality and the emotional impact of the Holocaust motif in literature, the horror and the disbelief that must envelop the reader. This emotional impact lures the reader into l’univers concentrationnaire, leaving him suspended for a time in a void that profoundly affects his perspective. Langer claims that the reader finds himself having unconsciously entered an alien territory where all familiar landmarks are gone; he becomes, if only temporarily, an inhabitant of l’univers concentrationnaire. In this way the reader collaborates with the artist in an endeavor to relive an extinct history that still exists as a reality insofar as it continues to make an imprint on both the memory and the imagination.13

The reader has thus attained the basis for an inquiry into l’univers concentrationnaire, a basis with which to penetrate the facade imposed by society and to gain access to a more authentic reality. This will perhaps enlighten the reader by forever changing his perspective. This philosophical process, which describes Celan’s intent, gives a more comprehensive purpose to Holocaust literature than one that works only, as Langer felt, to invite the reader into this universe so that it leaves a lasting impression upon the memory and the imagination. Such a philosophical inquiry helps to circumvent the reservation expressed by Brian Murdoch, who felt that genocide perhaps never can be a proper theme for artistic creativity.14

Rosenfeld begins to discern other literary functions of the Holocaust motif when he observes that the annihilation of the Holocaust was so vast and indiscriminate that death was robbed of all personal attributes, thereby transforming it into something essentially anonymous or absurd.15 This element of absurdity, macabre as it is, provides the well-defined surrealist dimension to the Holocaust motif. It is the surrealism of Celan’s imagery that allows the implementation of the artistic as well as the historical dimension. It is the artistic dimension that creates the epistemological layer of the Holocaust universe, an existentialist layer that permits the chaos of such a universe to attain some measure of philosophical order.

The existentialist basis of Celan’s poetry is not bound up with the Holocaust motif alone. There is a certain existentialist dimension that is implied by the modern Jewish experience itself. In his discussion of Celan’s story Gespräch im Gebirg (Conversation in the Mountains), Georg-Michael Schulz notes that the alienation that pervades the story has nothing to do with the generalized, modern dilemma of the identity crisis but is linked to the more specific crisis of Jewish identity and existence.16 As a Jewish poet, Celan could not avoid the existentialist alienation felt by the modern Jew. This alienation reaches a crisis during the Holocaust era but is further complicated by a more general alienation suffered by the existentialist individual in the modern age of technology.

But as both Jewish and existentialist individual, Celan creates l’univers concentrationnaire in an ostensible search for truth that might pave the way to an improved society. It is not clear how this is possible in this dramatic and adverse vision of the nature of reality, expressed in such images as ashes, urns, smoke, and a sweeping wasteland motif. Seen from the inside of the Holocaust universe, the wasteland motif becomes an inauspicious prophecy: existence must lead to ruinous annihilation. Within the Holocaust universe, the absurdity of Celan’s incongruous images takes on new and deadly meaning. If Celan’s surrealist technique is a dialectical process, there is no immediately accessible synthesis for such a brutally antithetical force as the Holocaust. It remains to be seen how Celan’s Holocaust universe, depicted with such surrealist incongruity, becomes a universal, existentialist metaphor for the understanding of reality.

On the purely ideological level, the Holocaust fulfills the surrealist intention of entering the individual’s subconscious. It is a dreamlike landscape, but in keeping with Celan’s negative vision, it is a dream that has gone awry. In fact, it is a nightmare.17 As an East European Jew, Celan experienced the Holocaust both as an inmate in a work camp and by his parents’ death in a concentration camp. The dream world most particularly expressed in his early poetry, and still felt subtly throughout his later poetry, is in part related to the often observed phenomenon that for the victims of the Holocaust, life had become a nightmare. As such, the literary vision of the Holocaust universe arises from the depths of the subconscious. The superficial layer of reality that is otherwise known as civilization, for Breton a bourgeois facade, for Sartre the projected layer of meaning that he called being-for-itself, is stripped away. As Sartre observed, this glimpse of the in-itself, or what is here a glimpse of the nightmarish landscape of the Holocaust universe, causes extreme anguish and nausea.

The Holocaust landscape of Celan’s poetry is peopled by anonymous masses or “names,” contains dismembered parts such as hands, fingers, lungs, eyes, tongues, and hair, and is characterized by a barren landscape overcome at various times by ice, water, desert, and fire. This landscape exists in a time vacuum that is eternal and often described as a void or an abyss that fills up the infinity of outer space. There are no seasons in the Holocaust universe, except perhaps for an autumn that gives way to a perpetual winter and a perpetual night. It is a universe where death is predominant and depicted by the recurring motifs of urns, ashes, and smoke.

Yet Celan sought meaning in this nightmarish expanse. He was preoccupied with a search for truth, the true nature of reality, within the macabre confines provided by l’univers concentrationnaire. Surrealistically, from the ideological, Freudian point of view, the method for dream interpretation would uncover that Celan’s bleak landscape is dominated by personal memories that tormented him. He had to depict the Holocaust universe in order to rid himself of his demons of the mind. But the Freudian examination of the subconscious also let Celan search for a genuine reality, for truth, within his own subconscious. This enabled an investigation of the inscrutable core, the id, without inhibiting that investigation by social decorum and social expectations, that is, the restrictions imposed by the ego and the superego. In the Marxist terms later embraced by Breton for the surrealist inquiry, the Holocaust universe is the perfect vehicle for the depiction of the exploited proletarian, imprisoned by an oppressive, dominating capitalistic class. Once the bourgeois facade is unmasked, the structures of middle-class society and its mechanisms are enraging.

Celan took a universe based on historical reality and extrapolated from it a model for the nature of reality as he saw it. It is through this perceptible universe that we can observe an epistemological framework that is existentialist in nature, and one that permits the examination of existence and our understanding of reality. The absurdity of the Holocaust universe is conveyed again and again by Celan’s incongruous images. The nature of the absurdity is underscored by the historical fact that the Holocaust was a phenomenon born of insanity, and perpetuated through hysteria and fear. It is a microcosm whose senseless destruction of human life makes a mockery of bourgeois society more effectively than any playful or witty Dadaist device ever could.

As a member of l’univers concentrationnaire, the individual is confronted with the anguish of being. He is thrown into a hostile, annihilating environment where he has been abandoned, and where the Nietzschean contention that God is dead has been fulfilled:

Die entsprungenen
lesen die Messe
in deinem Mund.
Du hörsts regnen
und meinst, auch diesmal
sei’s Gott. (2:269)

The escaped
gray parrots
read the Mass
into your mouth.
You hear it raining
and imagine, this time too
it may be God.

The absurd image of a religious mass being read by parrots, creatures known for their ability to mimic mindlessly without understanding, and where the congregants look in vain for any sign of God’s presence describes the hopelessness of the Holocaust universe. In the absence of God, the anguish of being becomes more acute because the absurdity of existence, its pointlessness, and its transience are felt more deeply. God’s absence heightens the sense of abandonment that envelops the individual in this environment. It is the existentialist feeling of having been thrown into the universe, forsaken in a world devoid of meaning:

Wurfscheibe, mit
Vorgesichten besternt,
wirf dich
aus dir hinaus. (2:267)

Discus, with
star-studded prenotions,
throw yourself
out of yourself.

The resident of this universe is a stranger, alienated by his own feelings of anguish and alienated from his environment:

Es ist
nichts herzumachen von euch,
du trägst eine Fremdheit zu Lehen. (2:367)

There is
not too much to be made of you,
you hold a strangeness in fee.

The inmate of the Holocaust universe has lost touch not just with God, but with society and perhaps even himself:

hat uns
verloren, das
hat uns
vergessen, das
hat uns — (1:219)

lost us, the
has forgotten
us, the
has —

Man is alone in this forsaken place, where he is confronted continuously with death. The Holocaust universe is a void, an abyss that threatens to swallow up the individual. It appears that the individual who is confined to this universe is perplexed, overwhelmed, even plunged into a kind of free fall. An example of this makes itself felt in the last lines from this poem, where the weak, distant assonance of the lingering vowels creates the impression of an echo that is dying away 18:

I - i - e. (2:39)

E - i - o.

Like Sartre’s “nihilating nothingness,” such a universe prevents any projected meaning from being fulfilled. As a landscape dominated by death, it confronts man with a final nothingness that puts an end to his attempt to find meaning by projecting himself into the future. Here there is no future. It is a universe that is implacable in its essence, horrific to gaze upon. The naked essence of civilization, exposed in this way, corresponds to the swirling, uncontrollable chaos of the subconscious mind or Sartre’s implacable in-itself. As Celan says in his essay “Edgar Jené und der Traum vom Traume” (Edgar Jené and the Dream about the Dream):

Ich schlug eine Bresche in die Wände und Einwände der Wirklichkeit und stand vor dem Meeresspiegel. Ich hatte eine Weile zu warten bis er zersprang und ich den großen Kristall der Innenwelt betreten durfte. (3:155)

I struck a hole in the walls and objections of reality and stood before the mirror of the sea. I had to wait a while until it cracked open and I could enter the great crystal of the inner world.

The “great crystal of the inner world” is an abstraction of the Holocaust universe, representing its rocklike, implacable essence. The speaker wishes to shatter and enter this core of authenticity by cutting through the “objections of reality,” or rather the objections of society.

Celan portrays the individual who resides in the Holocaust universe as one who feels most acutely another existentialist anguish, the anguish of the here and now:

ich weiß,
ich weiß und du weißt, wir wußten,
wir wußten nicht, wir
waren ja da und nicht dort,
und zuweilen, wenn
nur das Nichts zwischen uns stand, fanden
wir ganz zueinander. (1:217)

I know,
I know and you know, we knew,
we did not know, we
were here and not there,
and occasionally, when
only Nothingness stood between us, we
found our way to each other.

In such a universe, the confinement of the here and now is felt most critically since the Holocaust landscape itself is primarily an imprisonment from which there is no possible escape. With its misery, death, and torture, it is a vision of hell. In the following short poem, the poetic “I” is being ferried across a river as if Charon were leading the poet to Hades:

Stille, Fergenvettel, fahr mich durch die Schnellen.
Wimpernfeuer, leucht voraus. (2:170)

Quiet, ferry hag, pilot me through the rapids.
Eyelash fire, shine ahead.

As a self-contained universe based on a historical event, l’univers concentrationnaire dramatically confines the individual to a particular time and place, enforcing not just physical confinement but the psychological confinement associated with this type of anguish. The philosophical question “Why here and why now?” has a new and devastating meaning within the boundaries of this universe. The Marxist-humanist solution for this type of anguish, to live on through the masses, does not appear to be feasible in a universe in which the individual becomes aware of existence only in the face of annihilation. The future of the masses has been denied in a world that seeks to exterminate an entire race of people. Its inmates are inexorably tied to the transience of the passing moment, and extreme anguish is caused by the geographical confinement. There is apparently no physical escape, only a psychological or spiritual one.

The anguish of freedom, the third existentialist anguish, has no discernable place in a universe where there is obviously no freedom. The individual residing in the Holocaust universe has been stripped of all freedoms and is a prisoner awaiting death. Death has become the focal point of this universe:

Du warst mein Tod:
dich konnte ich halten,
während mir alles entfiel. (2:166)

You were my death:
you I could hold,
while everything dropped away.

But the anguish of freedom stipulates that one is free to choose and make decisions in life, and that one must take responsibility for these decisions. Man is condemned to be free, says Sartre,19 but as a prisoner of the Holocaust universe, there is only one apparent freedom. If the Holocaust universe is the essence of reality, exposed and unmasked in all its horror, the individual is free to construe whatever meaning he chooses by imposing another layer of reality over it, the for-itself. That layer of meaning is the individual’s self projected into the future with a project or a purpose in life, however short the remainder of that life may be in this death-filled universe.

The circumstances of the Holocaust in this manner parallel man’s existentialist condition, but this is not to undermine the historical significance of the event. For Celan, however, the historical element is only one layer of his poetry, the empirical layer, and he uses history to draw upon a personal experience that is filled with pain and emotion. The Holocaust provided for Celan empirical data, which he found could effectively portray a nightmarish universe whose dialecticism had the desired effect of upsetting bourgeois reality. The historical basis of the Holocaust lends the motif a truthfulness, a genuineness that Celan demanded from it. With the destruction of preexisting values and the displacement of the present reality effected by such a universe, Celan apparently hoped to forge the way to an improved universal condition for mankind.

It is at this point that Celan delves into an area that appears murky. In this confluence of surreal absurdity and existentialist despair, he is occasionally prone to the wishful thinking that such an improvement is possible. But he remains skeptical and never offers a firm resolution to the philosophical dilemma. It could be concluded that Celan’s only resolution for the hopeless dilemma of the Holocaust universe is an artistic one. Through art the individual creates a meaningful layer that can permeate the inauthenticity of bourgeois reality and perhaps lead the way to utopia. Art has liberating qualities and allows the individual to supersede the anguish of the here and now, possibly to participate in eternity. Since Celan believed that, as he put it, “art lives on” (3:200), there is the possibility that the spirit of the individual will live on with it.

Proceed to Chapter 9...

  1. Glenn, Celan, 21.
  2. John Felstiner, “Paul Celan's Todesfuge,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 1, no. 2 (1986): 260.
  3. Theo Buck, “Lyrik nach Auschwitz: Zu Paul Celans 'Todesfuge,'” in Datum und Zitat bei Paul Celan. Akten des Internationalen Paul Celan-Colloquiums, Haifa 1986, eds. Chaim Shoham and Bernd Witte (Bern: Peter Lang, 1987), 29.
  4. Peter Horst Neumann, “Paul Celan: 'Todesfuge'; Schönheit des Grauens oder Greuel der Schönheit?” in Geschichte im Gedicht: Texte und Interpretationen, ed. Walter Hinck (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1979), 236.
  5. Ezrahi, By Words Alone, 24.
  6. Ezrahi, By Words Alone, 44-45.
  7. Ezrahi, By Words Alone, 48.
  8. Lawrence L. Langer, The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975), 1.
  9. Langer, Holocaust and the Literary Imagination, 33. Langer borrows this expression from a work by David Rousset, entitled L'Univers concentrationnaire.
  10. Langer, Holocaust and the Literary Imagination, 78.
  11. Camus, Myth of Sisyphus, 5.
  12. Langer, Holocaust and the Literary Imagination, 52.
  13. Langer, Holocaust and the Literary Imagination, 72-73.
  14. Murdoch, “Transformations of the Holocaust,” 143.
  15. Rosenfeld, Double Dying, 3.
  16. Georg-Michael Schulz, “Individuation und Austauschbarkeit: Zu Paul Celans Gespräch im Gebirg,” Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 53 (1979): 476.
  17. Jerry Glenn, “Nightmares, Dreams and Intellectualization in the Poetry of Paul Celan,” World Literature Today 51 (1977): 522.
  18. Otto Pöggeler, “Kontroverses zur Æsthetik Paul Celans (1920-1970),” Zeitschrift für Æsthetik und allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft 25 (1980): 209.
  19. Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 567.

Copyright © 1993 by Clarise Samuels

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