Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

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.

4 comments:

  1. Steve, thanks for the link to the Celan translations. And thanks, for suggesting that one not rush to judgement regarding Celan's supposed Zionism.
    I'm not sure if I understand your reference to the 'critical halo protecting Celan'? I'm sure that you are aware that Celan has had a "fair share" of criticism, quite often savagely disparaging and dismissive.

    I have to admit to being at a loss in knowing what to call the Ellis Sharp post that you linked to. Criticism is not the word that comes to mind.

    As you suggest, by referring to the Meridian address, 'the connective which, like the poem, leads to encounters', it is possible to offer counter-readings to the one proposed by ES, if indeed he attempted to read at all. It is only by obliterating the 'connective', the poem, which Celan sought to write and ariculate, that one manages like ES to posit an identification of a people, nation, state. In the Meridian address, Celan quotes Lucille's line from Buchner's 'Danton's Death' as an instance of poetry, as a counter-word: 'long live the king.' Perhaps ES would infer that Celan is a monarchist?! Again, in the Meridian address, Celan also writes of having 'found' a meridian 'here' with 'you'. This is in Darmstadt, Germany. Perhaps ES would infer that Celan was reconciled with 'Germany' because they offered him a literary prize, the highest they offer?
    How can the connectives, the poems, of Paul Celan be determined by a logic of identification, when they ceaselessly write of 'grass written asunder', 'chewed over by writing teeth'?
    How very strange to read ES making Celan's 'habitable earth' a parroting of earth, homeland, etc., so dear to the Nazis. But then, ES begins his post by by positing an equivalence between Heidegger and the Nazis, Celan and Israel, which perhaps I am not the only one to find appalling. Who is this "we" that finds it so possible to judge in good conscience, in obliterating the attempt to bear witness, connect, write a poem.
    Steve, sorry for the lengthy, and hasty, comment, as I know you prefer brevity. If ES had a comments box, some of this would have gone there.

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  2. The critical halo would more easily be ascribed to Levinas, whose essays on Israel's higher purpose are not often talked about, because so counter to many political sensibilities.

    I'd agree with amie that ES's piece contains appalling equivalences.

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  3. Thanks Amie, in particular. You say if ES had comments, you'd have posted most it there. Well, if you'd have written before, I would have posted it instead of my blog.

    I haven't read much negative criticism of Celan, except the usual philistine "it don't rhyme or make sense" complaints.

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