A Personal Dictionary

literature: n; 5.

We measure a great book by the quality of its shade. Terrible literature hurts our eyes precisely because of a lack of shade.

from A Personal Dictionary


An Unresolved Conversation

Paul Celan and Martin Heidegger :
An Unresolved Conversation (1951-1970)

by James K. Lyon

249 p
2006; Johns Hopkins University Press
ISBN 0-8018-8302-4

   In his introduction to Paul Celan and Martin Heidegger: An Unresolved Conversation (1951-1970) James Lyon states, “What some may also consider a limitation of this study is the question— which I do not answer to my satisfaction and probably not to that of many readers— of what drew Celan to someone who in many ways was his polar opposite. I have not so much refused to answer this question as I have concluded that it probably cannot be answered”.

   And so, I will propose an answer. In fact, I have had the answer. It was only this book that was missing.

   And it is a book filled with treasures, unexpected treasures. The subject of the relationship between Celan and Heidegger has had to bear many instances of criticism that proceeded from often dubious personal biases. Here, Lyon’s analysis issues not from some historical, cultural, or aesthetic critique but primarily from the (available) correspondence and the detailed notes and marginal comments Celan made during his reading of Heidegger’s works. It is refreshing to find someone who is not uncomfortable with what is, while also maintaining an admirable sense of when to refrain from allowing their arguments to proceed from what should be, or what should have been. (I should also mention that I also find it irresistible to discover what my favorite writers have read, and to read how they read).

   I am going to pass over the details of my own decisive encounter with Celan, just as I will bypass the history of my often treacherous entanglements with Heidegger. Let me only say that Heidegger taught me the immanent critique of all being— the basis for the understanding that every creative activity will always seek to overcome itself. And as for Celan— all the weight of experience, of being-in-the-world where language has betrayed, where the language has been an accomplice in all that is terrible, where language can only be held with the greatest scepticism— this is the weight that the poem must bear. A poem is then an effort, an almost impossible, futile effort. Such a burden is too much for any poem to bear and so during the poem's emergence there is a buckling and then inevitably, a collapse. What remains is what we (as readers) encounter as the poem. What remains is what is resistant in language. Such poems as these are poems of foundation.

   I have always thought that Celan’s poetics was the best fit for Heidegger’s thinking. And I always thought that Heidegger also knew this; yet, for reasons that may be repugnant, or innocent, he used Holderlin, George, and Trakl as his exemplars.

   Simply put: For Heidegger the Jewish poet both radically complicated and decisively informed (his, German) thinking and Being; for Celan, the German thinking and Being both radically complicated and decisively informed (his, Jewish) poetics.

   More specifically: The problematic involvement of Celan and Heidegger was ontological in nature. Heidegger, being a thinker and not a poet, recognized the poetic world that Celan inhabited. He approached it in thought but could get no closer than that. He forgot, or did not know, or did not want to believe that the final, decisive steps must always be more than merely-thought… they must be lived. Celan, being a poet, recognized in Heidegger one who was approaching his world in thought. He understood that in Heidegger was the possibility of encountering one who spoke the same language. The problem was that for Celan, one’s poetic being was prior to one’s thinking, as it was to one’s actions. One’s thoughts, one’s life, must necessarily follow from one’s poetic orientation. As difficult as this might be to achieve it was still the only possible ontology. And so, for Celan, it was bewildering and enraging that Heidegger could think his position but could not live it, could not be it.

   Life is a complicated undertaking. And no more so than when a poet is thinking, or when a thinker journeys into poetry. When two such people meet, even if they are thoroughly acquainted with each other’s work, it will not be surprising if they encounter each other as strangers— and this only because they cannot help but greet each other with their burdens of generative confusions and exasperated certainties. Speaking a language so similar, or speaking from a language so similar, they can hear only echoes. For each it is as though there is no one else speaking. For each it is as though an encounter never took place.

   At times I feel it may be fortunate to remain a stranger to those who are the most influential and captivating. Regret is often an inflection of relief. Sometimes distance, even that of decades, or of cultures, is a gift that enables a conversation to not only persist, but to find a resolution.

Celan: n; 2. His resistance is the resistance of having everything to say and only language with which to say it.
(A Personal Dictionary)

   And so... this is an answer.

   Not the answer, but a response.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A difference in speech, knowledge, epistemological, ontological and being genres (in the Bahktinian sense of the word), although genre is probably not the most exact word, sorry. I wonder if it might have been, as you state, the lack of knowledge, the knowledge and/or the purposeful denial of choosing not to know or, the inability to un know or, perhaps, the lack of a significantly robust self efficacy belief for the task at hand? You often hear that a “balance” is needed in some matters. I this case I wonder if such a thing is possible, should be considered or is merely laughable. Would the import of either’s work have been diminished or in some way neutralized by such a balance or would a larger consideration help to alleviate what you call “their burdens of generative confusions and exasperated certainties”? In any case, insightful (I originally typed gooed! instead of good) thinking on the matter.