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

by Clarise Samuels

Table of Contents

Chapter 9: Where Is Utopia? Celan’s Artistic Resolution

CELAN’S POETIC IMAGERY IS much like those images that can be found in surrealist paintings. The influence of the surrealist painter Edgar Jené can be seen in Celan’s essay “Edgar Jené und der Traum vom Traume,” where he introduces the reader to an exhibit of Jené’s surrealist paintings. When Celan discusses Jené’s painting Das Blutmeer geht über Land (The Sea of Blood Covers the Land), he says:

Entvölkert und ergraut sind die Hügel des Lebens. Auf nackten Füßen durchwandert das Gespenst des Krieges die Länder. (3:160)

Depopulated and gray are the hills of life. On naked feet the specter of war wanders throughout the land.

In this description of a bleak Jené landscape, Celan could easily be describing his own forlorn vision of cataclysmic landscapes overwhelmed by fire, water, and ice.

But Jené is not the only surrealist painter that makes one think of Celan. Celan easily comes to mind when observing the disconsolate landscapes painted consistently by Yves Tanguy. The strange objects scattered like debris in a landscape that looks deserted and ruined are repeated continuously in such Tanguy paintings as The Five Strangers, The Doubter, The Palace of the Windowed Rocks, and The Furniture of Time, to name just a few. Hans Richter inadvertently gleaned the nature of the similarity between Celan and Tanguy when he gave this description of Tanguy’s art:

Before an endless horizon, the overgrown and corroded remnants of more hopeful times from which all life has long disappeared. The traces of color mercilessly garish and hard in a landscape without atmosphere, where in the distance as in the foreground, objects occupy their place with equal clarity. In the infinite space, nothing can hide itself from the sharpest eye of all modern painters, yet there appears to be nothing hopeful. A surrealist? Yes! An existentialist? If existentialism means life without unseemly hope, then Tanguy was the only existentialist among modern painters, even though he would have denied such a classification like any other.1

Richter describes Celan’s own “landscape without atmosphere” when he describes the work of Tanguy and accurately observes that Tanguy is both a surrealist and an existentialist. Celan’s own pessimistic vision is discernible again in the chaos and destruction of the landscape painted by Max Ernst in Europe After the Rain. The incongruousness of disparate, illogically connected parts is reminiscent of Celan in the works of René Magritte, most noticeably where Magritte paints a large rock, an important motif for Celan, standing in the foreground of a balcony overlooking a seascape in The Invisible World. Magritte’s use of mundane objects from everyday reality to portray an alter reality, so similar to Celan’s, is evident in the painting Personal Values, where a giant comb, wineglass, match stick, eraser, and paintbrush overwhelm a small bedroom. Magritte’s innocent-looking cannon standing in a room and aimed at a panel painted to look like a window with clouds in On the Threshold of Liberty brings into play the same ludicrous displacement of objects embraced by Celan, the same negativity conveyed by its destructive quality, and the same inquiry regarding the illusory nature of reality. Celan’s preoccupation with time, thought, and such concepts as eternity are evoked in Salvador Dali’s surrealist painting of the melting clocks in The Persistence of Memory.

Just as Breton hoped his surrealist art would shock and expose the superficial bourgeois world of his day, Celan, too, hoped that the poem would shock and expose. He envisioned this process as a continuing one, one that was forever unfolding itself. Like existence, the poem projected itself into the future; it was, as Celan put it in his speech at Darmstadt, on its way. He felt that the poem was searching for a place that was almost utopian in nature, “im Lichte der U-topie,” as he said, a place that he imagined as being open, empty, and free (3:198-99).

Such a description of “U-topie,” however, is too vague to be adequate. It exists in Celan’s poetry as a wistful streak of optimism permeating the atmosphere of anguish here and there, but it appears to be as imponderable as truth itself. Instead of portraying any variety of blissful utopian landscapes, Celan depicts a recurring vision of perpetual annihilation. Far from being utopia, this is The End of the World.

Yet Celan’s fantasy utopia, however subtle, is present in his work. To start, Celan’s use of a Heideggerian-style hyphenation in the spelling of the word utopia serves to emphasize that in 1516, when Thomas More invented the name using a Greek derivation, he called it “utopia,” meaning no place, and not “eutopia,” the good place, or for that matter any other selection of “topia’s” that More could have chosen. For Celan such a spatial designation would be appealing partly because of the mystical qualities regarding the negating concepts of nothing, no place, and no one, and partly because of the transcendent qualities that a “no place” possesses, somewhere in the infinity of space, somewhere in eternity.

As Northrop Frye points out, in order to answer the question “Where is utopia?” it must be realized that in both reality and the etymology of the word, utopia is not a place. Utopia is an ideal that transcends society, and since the society it is supposed to be transcending is to be found everywhere, utopia must be found in the space that is left over. That space is invisible, some nonexistent point located somewhere in the center of space. The answer to “Where is utopia?” is the same as the answer to “Where is nowhere?” says Frye, and the answer must be “here.”2

This is borne out by Celan’s subtle and brief references to his incipient utopian vision. A fleeting suggestion of this can be observed in the phrase “irdisch-unsichtbare Freistatt” (earthly-invisible sanctuary) (2:147), with its play on the homonym “Freistaat” (free state), that he mentions in one of his poems. As a surrealist Celan was tenuously embracing Marxism, and Marx advocated his own utopian vision of a proletarian society that had finally gained control of the means of production. Yet Celan was no revolutionary; he defined political revolution as a conflict to be fought within the individual, because it was individuals who peopled the society that would aspire to be utopian in nature. This is much like H. G. Wells’s own vision of a modern utopia, when Wells says “The State is for Individuals, the law is for freedoms, the world is for experiment, experience, and change.”3

But if Frye settled the question “Where is utopia?,” there still remains some question as to the exact nature of utopia. Celan’s social consciousness had been raised to the utmost degree by his personal experience with crimes against humanity under a totalitarian government. His preoccupation with injustices indicated his desire for a perfected political regime that would promote truth, justice, and equality. These are among the standard utopian ideals that date back to the ancient Greeks: tolerance, quality of education, women’s rights, natural religion, communal living, the brotherhood of man, a concern for virtue and justice, statism, and a hatred for tyranny.4 The most typical model for utopia, dating back to Plato’s Republic, was that of the ideal city-state. Frye notes that there were basically two kinds of city-states, Thomas More’s state emphasizing an ideal political structure, and Francis Bacon’s emphasizing technological power.5 During the Renaissance the pastoral life as a utopian ideal gained popularity and presented an alternative to the city-state.6

But H. G. Wells admonishes that in a modern utopia there is no place for the restrictions imposed by the geographical boundaries of the city-state. The isolationism of ancient times is no longer applicable to a modern utopian vision, and any working model must account for the entire planet; therefore, Wells concludes that it is only appropriate to speak of a world-state.7 Celan himself expresses a vague awareness of this problem with his recurrent earth motif, and it becomes more suspiciously obvious in such compound words as “Weltstein” (world stone).

Nevertheless, Celan paid tribute to the vision of the city-state as a utopian ideal, and this tribute is evident in his multiple but passing references to cities: Rome, Paris, Ithaca, Troy, Frankfurt, Prague, and Jerusalem are all rich in history, and were all great centers of civilization. Ithaca and Troy are particularly noteworthy for their importance in ancient Greek civilization - Ithaca as the legendary home of Odysseus, and Troy for the account of the Trojan War in Homer’s Iliad. These references to classical Greece have their romantic underpinnings, since the German romantics always looked nostalgically to civilizations of a bygone, golden era to obtain their own idealistic models.

When Celan does makes an inadequate attempt to portray a utopian vision poetically, as he does in the poem “Eis, Eden” (Ice, Eden), he seems to veer off into an uncharacteristic romantic foray:

Es ist ein Land Verloren,
da wüchst ein Mond im Ried,
und das mit uns erfroren,
es glüht umher und sieht.
Es sieht, denn es hat Augen,
die helle Erden sind.
Die Nacht, die Nacht, die Laugen.
Es sieht, das Augenkind.
Es sieht, es sieht, wir sehen,
ich sehe dich, du siehst.
Das Eis wird auferstehen,
eh sich die Stunde schließt. (1:224)
There is a Lost Land,
where a moon grows in the marsh,
and that which froze there with us,
glows around and sees.
It sees, for it has eyes,
which are bright earths.
The night, the night, the lyes.
It sees, the eye child sees.
It sees, it sees, we see,
I see you, you see.
The ice will rise from the dead,
before the hour closes.

The utopian vision is alluded to in the title of the poem, because Eden is, of course, paradise and therefore an ideal state of some kind. The ice motif, normally portraying a forlorn and desolate landscape, in this particular instance superficially attempts to create a fairy-tale aura of a lost, magical kingdom. The abab rhyme scheme and the iambic meter, so unusual for Celan, continue to underscore the poem’s romantic, fairy-tale aspects. Celan’s “Augenkind” (eye child) of the poem is suggestive of Goethe’s poem “Erlkönig” (Elf King), where a child senses danger from a supernatural source that adults cannot perceive. In Celan’s poem there is the same element of a vague supernatural threat to be observed in a pair of omnipresent eyes that “glows around and sees.” The magic is filled with a dangerous negativity, and there is present in the last lines the ominous but ambiguous threat of the ice that will rise from the dead.

Another fairy-tale utopia is suggested in a stanza from Celan’s poem “La Contrescarpe” (The Counterscarp):

wie heißt es, dein Land
hinterm Berg, hinterm Jahr?
Ich weiß, wie es heißt.
Wie das Wintermärchen, so heißt es,
es heißt wie das Sommermärchen,
das Dreijahreland deiner Mutter, das war es,
das ists,
es wandert überallhin, wie die Sprache,
wirf sie weg, wirf sie weg,
dann hast du sie wieder, wie ihn,
den Kieselstein aus
der Mährischen Senke,
den dein Gedanke nach Prag trug,
aufs Grab, auf die Gräber, ins Leben (1:285)
what is it called, your land
behind the mountain, behind the year?
I know what it is called.
It is called like the winter’s fairy tale,
like the summer’s fairy tale,
the three-year land of your mother, that it was,
that it is,
it roams far and wide like language,
throw it away, throw it away,
then you have it again, like the pebble,
the stone from
the Moravian lowlands,
which your thought carried to Prague,
onto the grave, onto the graves, into life.

There is a whimsical magic of the secret land behind the mountain, and the fairy-tale aspect (“winter’s fairy tale,” “summer’s fairy tale”) is openly declared in the poem. Nevertheless, the stanza ends on a negative note with the repetition of the grave image in the last line. And the “three-year land” appears to be a reference to the Third Reich, so that the fantasy ideal of a fairy-tale realm quickly dissolves into a land of fascism and tyranny, the very antithesis of utopia.

Celan’s ambivalence about utopia makes itself felt in these examples; that is, in order to imagine utopia, he is obliged to go to the romantic extreme of envisioning a golden paradise that is essentially magical and mystical. In the end, such a vision fails; it is not realistic. There will be no paradise, no Eden. Instead there must be some practical, working model for utopia. Utopia is, as Frye said, nowhere, and since nowhere is everywhere, it must be here. Celan hoped to explore the possibilities of this existent but invisible utopia through his poetry.

Precisely how the art of poetry could eventually lead the way to a utopia is a complex phenomenon. Celan, of course, is not the first author who thought he could change the world with literature. Sartre and Brecht, among others, thought they could do the same. Celan apparently envisioned that the process of exposure would reveal the essential nature of the universe, which he equated with a search for truth. Truth then would lead to a new reality, or at least point the way. According to Wiedemann-Wolf, the Rumanian surrealists, under whose influence Celan developed, had the same purpose in mind. She writes that from the Rumanian texts flowed themes of destruction, filth, threat, and chaos. Through these elements the Rumanians attempted to construct a new reality that contained the synthesis of the contradictory forces. The wartime destruction surrounding the Rumanian surrealists lent their utopian ideal its justification. The chaos would lead to the destruction of false illusions and fixed ideas, and would thus forge more authentic values and a more utopian society. In this way chaos was liberation.8

Janz feels that Celan’s despair regarding the existing state of reality was occasionally so radical, particularly in his early poetry, that transcendence into a utopian realm meant nothing less than death and the afterlife. She observes that Celan used the dream device for the anticipation of a better world to come.9 Implicit in this is Freud’s pleasure principle, and Freud’s belief that the dream is the vehicle of the unconscious mind for wish fulfillment. Even a nightmare, according to Freud, is just a form of negative wish fulfillment, the very opposite of what the dreamer desires. Since utopia is an ideal, or in actuality an unrealistic wish, it follows that a utopian vision would be permeated with a dreamlike quality. The Holocaust universe with its nightmare aura is the stark antithesis of that utopian ideal. The complete contradiction of the two worlds, existent reality and ideal reality, is inherent in the dialectical principle of surrealism.

Celan was mindful of the apparent irreconcilability of the two states. In 1948, as part of an invitation to a surrealist art exhibit and poetry reading in Vienna, he coauthored a surrealist text with Edgar Jené called “Eine Lanze” (A Lance). Describing surrealism as a creature “no longer resembling humans,” the text contains a strange conversation between two people discussing the source of a black river. After this brief dialogue, the scene shifts to an idyllic shore that is almost a parody of utopia. The two conversationalists “rejoice” at the scene: “Durch die Luft einer schon gegenwärtigen Zukunft aber schießen die Regenbogenfische” (Through the air of an already present future shoot the rainbow fish).10 In this early text, Celan was capable of gently mocking his own faint optimism.

Celan, like the Rumanian surrealists, believed his images of ruination and chaos could aid in the destruction of an inauthentic reality. His vision of the Holocaust universe was intended to serve this purpose. Such a universe is a violent upheaval of a comfortable, smug reality, without ever quite becoming the Marxist revolution called for by Breton in the second manifesto of surrealism. It would be a rational, inner revolution among individuals, constituting the enlightenment of the masses. To carry out this process, Celan attempted to preserve in literature the antithetical qualities of the Holocaust universe. The inmates of this universe, like the exhausted, droning voices of the inmates in “Todesfuge,” are resigned and passive. They are not revolutionaries. In this world vision, there is no uprising of the proletariat, but there is an aura of obliteration, a destruction of the existing social order.

There are small indications that Celan might have reserved the right to resort to revolution in extremis. There are oblique but infrequent hints of it in such poems as “Corona,” where the ominous repetition of the phrase “Es ist Zeit” (It is time) (1:37) may be the heralding of the day of the revolt. It occurs again in the words “Es ist gekommen die Zeit” (The time has come) (2:205), the opening line of a poem in Fadensonnen, where a battlelike scene with a suggestion of revolution is recounted.

Hints of warlike activity in various poems belie Celan’s pacifism and his confidence in the final rational triumph over the forces of evil. Nevertheless, the residents of Celan’s Holocaust universe are peaceful, and in their passiveness they have become victims who cling to a stoic faith, a confidence that ultimately resurrects them. The Holocaust universe, the result of a destructive event of international magnitude, turns the world into a wasteland and is a complete negation of the present social order. It is the antithesis that seeks to nullify the status quo in order to yield a more rational world order, a state of authenticity whose essence is utopian. Celan never really attempts to describe utopia. He only describes the harshness of the brutal forces that will destroy the present order so that a utopian society, or rather a utopian state of mind, can be molded to replace it.

The planetary destruction envisioned by Celan is depicted in images of fire. The aftermath of the destruction leaves an icy, wintry wasteland. The annihilation and the chaos that the Holocaust universe leaves behind are more than just barrenness and desolation. It has, in a way that is more devastating than the Dadaists could have ever hoped for, destroyed all traces of bourgeois respectability. There is no longer a place where the bourgeois individual can passively recline to enjoy the small comforts of middle-class society. Society must start over with an entirely new vision, a new aesthetic that demands that each individual create his own meaningful layer over the chaos of the essence of reality. In this way utopia begins with the individual and is different for each individual.

Celan has depicted an existentialist universe described artistically in surrealist terms. The purpose of this vision is to shock and destroy so that society can renegotiate its structures, its values, and basic social relationships. Entering the Holocaust universe through Celan’s poetry enables the individual to apprehend the brutal forces that unmask and expose. These are influenced most conspicuously by the genocide perpetuated at the German concentration camps, and to a lesser extent by other historical events of atrocity, such as Vietnam, Hiroshima, and the Spanish civil war, all of which were of concern to Celan.

By reconstructing the Holocaust universe, Celan has preserved its antithetical qualities in an artistic form. His poetic vision of the Holocaust universe allows each individual effectively to enter it and presumably undergo an interior transformation. Celan’s annihilating universe, after clashing with the routinized, unquestioning values of middle-class society, erupts in a dialectical explosion that he feels must forever change any individual who experiences it. That is the staging of Celan’s revolutionary impulses; its outcome is still an imperfect reality but the best that one can hope for. The resolution to Celan’s vision of the Holocaust universe lies in its artistic evaluation. Art will allow the individual to explore the human condition and the anguish of being, resolve the anguish of freedom, the anguish of the here and now, and the conflict with the Other. For Celan the Holocaust universe is all-encompassing and all-consuming. Out of the chaos of its destruction, the world will begin anew.

  1. Richter, Begegnungen von Dada, 199-200 (my translation).
  2. Northrup Frye,"Varieties of Literary Utopias," in Utopias and Utopian Thought, ed. Frank E. Manuel (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966), 49.
  3. As cited in Glenn Negley and J. Max Patrick, eds., The Quest for Utopia: An Anthology of Imaginary Societies (College Park, Maryland: McGrath, 1971), 233.
  4. Negley, Quest for Utopia, 257-58.
  5. Frye,"Varieties of Literary Utopias," 27.
  6. Frye,"Varieties of Literary Utopias," 41.
  7. As cited in Negley, Quest for Utopia, 228-29.
  8. Wiedemann-Wolf, Antschel Paul, 119-20.
  9. Janz, Vom Engagement absoluter Poesie, 57-58.
  10. Glenn,"Paul Celan in Wien," 103-04.

Copyright © 1993 by Clarise Samuels

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