Monday, March 13, 2006

Oblivion stands between us

It's impressive that Ellis Sharp has exercised his considerable critical attention on an instance of Paul Celan's apparent moral inattention. It's not something one sees very often. Celan has a critical aura of protection about him. One cannot read his long account of the poet's brief relationship to Israel without unease. He begins with Celan's more famous - and more famously ambiguous - relationship with Heidegger, the lapsed-Nazi. We hold him to account for his actions - that almost goes without saying in critical circles - so what about Celan?

Well, if the attention is for sound reasons, the only useful and meaningful way to do hold a poet to account would be to hold him to account according to poetry, just as the only meaningful way to hold Heidegger to account would be according to philosophy (as many have done - Timothy Clark for instance).

Sharp approaches this by insisting that one poem (Denk Dir) despite being "a cryptic, elusive poem ... is surely in essence a Zionist poem", one that "under its abstractions and ambiguities" is "on the side of Israel, and hence of imperialism and sectarian persecution". He extracts John Felstiner's analysis to confirm what seems to me, in both, a rush to judgement. Ian Fairley, in his knotty introduction to Fathomsuns, reads the abstraction and ambiguity of the same poem as essential to its meaning rather than obstacles to it. He suggests - though my understanding is fraught with uncertainty - that the poem is an implicit warning to Zionism and, more generally, the yearning for a homeland; a similar yearning - for clarity, for certainty, for an impossible homecoming - that we experience in reading poetry.

Instead (i.e. instead of a homestead), he writes that we must live in "the conflicted liminality of ... an unhousing which demands that we live ... with, or in, what is without." This seems to locate the brutalism inherent in patriotic utopianisn and enacts, instead, an imaginative engagement with a meridian - "the connective which, like the poem, leads to encounters". Denk dir; think of it.

What Sharp doesn't address, and which perhaps might offer more pertinent insights arising from his critique, is why someone else - anyone else - someone with apparently impeccable ethical credentials, is not automatically a very good artist; often quite the opposite?

PS: And speaking of Celan, I was intrigued to discover through Buzzwords that a young writer called Donari Braxton has, in addition to writing prolifically his own work, translated Celan's collection Die Niemandsrose. He extracts one of my favourites Soviel Gestirne, translated here as So Many Stars.


Please email me at steve dot mitchelmore at gmail dot com.

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