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.


The Legitimacy of the Modern Age

The Legitimacy of the Modern Age
by Hans Blumenberg

677 p
translated by Robert M. Wallace
1983; MIT Press
ISBN 0262021846

   This book sat, slouched, reclined, and finally slept on the shelf above my desk for over six years. I made a start at it once but immediately realized that I was incapable of engaging it. There were requirements that I did not possess. My papers were not in order. Not knowing what I was lacking I returned the book to its purgatory and read Blumenberg’s much more modest Shipwreck With Spectator. Years passed and my literary wandering continued until I reached Hans Vaihinger and The Philosophy of What If ? From this I was delivered into The History of Materialism by F.A. Lange. Suddenly, that presence on the shelf above my desk, instead of mocking me, seemed to welcome me. I was ready.
   And so I set out into The Legitimacy of the Modern Age. Its demands are not slight. It is not a book that can be picked up and then abandoned. To participate in Blumenberg’s expansive view of history, and to accompany his arguments rather than try to catch up to them, one must dedicate one’s time. Silence helps. Being in a foreign country by yourself for a month is also useful.

   The proposal that modernity, and its attendant idea of progress, are the secularization of eschatology is what Blumenberg denies. His arguments issue from his detailed analyses of the intellectual and theological history that begins with the Greeks and continues through the Middle Ages and into the early Renaissance. Much philosophy of history seems too clean. Dreams are clean; life is a bloody and imperfect spectacle. In reading Blumenberg’s account of spiritual and intellectual history I understood that the intellectual exhaustion that besets certain individuals is symptomatic of a spiritual exhaustion of their corresponding culture. As well, his conception of history, so deceptively simple, is undeniably fertile. As Blumenberg argues, the continuity of history is a “continuity of problems rather than of solutions, of questions rather than of answers”. Moreover, once a certain question is posed “it becomes unavoidable”. It is precisely such possibilities of being, such survivors of questions, which I recognize as companions.

epoch: n; In the history of ideas, in the accounts of the intellectual battles and the corresponding successes and failures, what is not recounted is that within any epoch there are those who have thought through, partially or fully, the contradictions which characterize and haunt their age. In an individual the end of an epoch can be reached and the subsequent transcendence of their particular age may be, if not achieved, then at least attempted. A process that may take a culture hundreds of years can be achieved within the intellectual development of a single person. And yet, it is as though only the small, hesitant steps can be followed. For a culture the giant strides that lead irreversibly elsewhere are not enticing. Understanding, at the level of a culture, is less a matter of arriving somewhere than it is a question of maintaining cohesion. It would seem that the less understanding the better, as though understanding itself has a dissipative effect, as though any epochal conception is culturally ruinous. (A Personal Dictionary)

   The question is not important for the answer which may succeed it, but for the possibility that will survive it.

   I will leave it at that.


Follow the words

   A book is a fever that should be followed… because it wants to be followed.

book: n; 4. When we read a book the book also reads us. And often, with nothing but platitudes and banalities before it, it is the book which closes us and sets us aside.
(A Personal Dictionary)

   A writer who does not read has never written anything.

   I read. I have always read. It may not be hyperbole to suggest that in books reside everything that I seek and everything that seeks me.

   I follow words into often miraculous places yet I am always surprised to find little evidence that others have made a similar journey.

   And so, perhaps I should make some noise, attract some attention. Perhaps I should alert people, or at least remind them, that here there may be something of interest…


   I discover books almost entirely through reading other books: the recommendation or denunciation by an author I love; a chance mention of an author who resembles one I admire; the possible futures to be explored in an extensive bibliography; the identification of similar concerns in the publisher’s catalogue listings, etc. Suggestions from friends usually go unheeded. Book leads to book— that is how it has always been.

   And so, in these pages some of my literary wandering will reveal itself. Neither advertisement nor critique, I will merely send some words forth from my reading. And rather than fill my days attempting to detail everything I read I will focus on those places where I have found few signs of others.

   The fragments that can be found here will be of no value to the non-reader. They are for those who read, for those who live with their language and follow its course through the thinking of others so that they may think their own way through the life that confounds and enchants, enrages and encourages, everyone who cares to approach it.

   What follows are not reviews or exhaustive accounts, but glimpses of one who has wandered, of one who has been and now is elsewhere.

   You might call these efforts paths.

   Then again, they may be love letters.