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Michalle Gould on Paul Celan

Paul Celan’s Collected Prose, trans. by Rosmarie Waldrop


Paul Celan’s prose writings, translated by Rosmarie Waldrop and published by The Sheep Meadow Press, provide a different perspective on his work and even his tragic death to those (probably most) of us who are generally far more familiar with his poetry.  This slim volume (at only 67 pages) is divided into four sections: an introduction by Waldrop; a selection of eight prose writings of various lengths, ranging from a collection of poetic fragments to a reply to a poll by a German newspaper; three speeches; and a brief set of introductions to his own translations of the famous Russian writers Alexander Blok and Osip Mandelstam.


Predominant throughout is a focus on what it means to write as a stranger or an outsider, as well as whether language can meaningfully express the truth about the world, and if so, how? In “A Conversation in the Mountains,” which describes a meeting between two Jewish cousins, one of the two (it is interesting that in the conversation, the speaker is never identified out of the two, who are described only as ‘older and taller’ vs. ‘younger and shorter’) states that “Who speaks does not talk to anyone, he speaks because nobody hears him.” And yet, at the same time, the cousins feel compelled to talk, perhaps by the very silence of the world of nature that surrounds them, which Celan describes as “nothing but a pause, an empty space between the words.”  

Earlier, in his essay on the work of his friend, the surrealist painter Edgar Jené, Celan declares himself as “a person who likes simple words” and describes how he wants to get back to the original meaning of things, to a vision of the world that has been “purified of the slag of centuries of hoary lies about the world.”  Although it is clear that he doubts that it is possible to do this, through his reaction to Jené’s paintings, his description of Jené as “the one expected” with “eyes” that have “seen what all have seen, and then some” and as having created paintings that “know more” than even what Celan was able to perceive in them, we can tell that Celan believes that ideally, at its best, art can help us to find that better vision of the world.   

However, later, in a letter in response to an invitation to participate in a literary anthology, Celan also reveals an almost refreshingly familiar set of doubts, letting out a rant that will be familiar to many poets, describing how he had “the occasion to witness and later, to watch from a certain distance how ‘making’ turns by and by into ‘making it’ and thence into machinations.” As far as I could tell (although I could be wrong - it is not completely clear), he was turning down the invitation to contribute to the book, because of his belief that the hands which make a poem must “belong to one person, i.e. a unique, mortal soul searching for its way with its voice and its dumbness.” This solitary vision of the writer is consistent with his description of Alexander Blok as dying famous and lonely and Osip Mandelstam’s poems as “risen out of the ruin of a ruined man.”  

Nearly every piece deals in some way with Celan’s views on what language can and can’t do, with its turbulent relationship to reality and to its potential readers. This also ties in to the distinction made in the introduction between “talking” and “literature” and in Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” between talking and speaking. Different words are not doing the same thing or fulfilling the same function. This fits with the contrast that exists in Celan’s own style in the two halves of the book between the more poetic and lyrical and often elusive style of the prose writings and the much clearer language of his speeches.  


In her introduction to the book, Rosmarie Waldrop makes a statement which will probably surprise many, that “Literature belongs to those who are at home in the world.” The more familiar idea is the opposite, that literature, particularly “great” literature, literature that stands the test of time, is most often made by and for those who do not or cannot feel at home in the world, the outsiders, the strangers, as she characterizes Celan himself. But here, I think Waldrop must have been using literature in a particular way, perhaps to describe those works whose greatness has become so commonly accepted that time has worn off some of their rough edges. But for Celan, for the stranger, who she says “always finds himself face to face with the incomprehensible, inaccessible, the ‘language of the stone,” it is necessary to do something else, something rawer and sharper.  


The final work chronologically in the book is Celan’s speech “Address to the Hebrew Writers Association,” which was given about half a year before his death.  It opens “I came to you, to Israel, because I needed you.” Soon afterward, Celan states that “I believe I have an idea of what Jewish loneliness means” and his penultimate sentence is “And I believe I have encountered the calm and confident resolution to hold on to what is human.” No matter how willing Celan was to challenge language and its limitations, it seems clear that nonetheless he had the very human desire to connect with others, perhaps even more particularly others with a similar background to his own. Although it would be simplistic to think that we could find an explanation for his tragic suicide in these writings, they do offer an important insight into his own perception of the struggles he faced as a writer and as a man.   

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