These were the first words I read from The Meridian, a speech given by Paul Celan on October 22nd 1960 in the German city of Darmstadt on reception of the Georg-Büchner-Prize, as quoted by Maurice Blanchot in The Writing of the Disaster, translated by Ann Smock. The excess of specification is deliberate. On a provincial train twenty years ago I read the words in the dizziness of discovery and recognition. At that time it was fragment of a speech not readily available in full – at least not available to me – found in amongst the dizzying fragments deconstituting Blanchot’s own work. Blanchot understands this enigmatic juxtaposition to mean that “the final nothingness ... occupies the same plane as the expression which comes from the infinite, wherein the infinite gives itself and resounds infinitely.” This would then afford poetry an extraordinary lightness as its social weight evaporates.
The same dizziness occurred with the line of Rene Char’s that Blanchot also quotes: The poem is the realized love of desire still desiring. Years of familiarity may have calmed the dizziness, and the sediment of acquired understanding buried recognition, but each time I read these sentences, the vertigo of those moments returns like a jolt of a train and a green light from the countryside.
Does it have to be these words precisely? In Carcanet’s Collected Prose, until this year as far as I know the only English version of speech available, Rosmarie Waldrop translates the line as: Poetry, ladies and gentleman: what an externalization of nothing but mortality, and in vain. James K. Lyon, in his study of Celan’s dialogue with Heidegger, translates it in passing as: this endless speaking of nothing but mortality and gratuitousness, and in Pierre Joris’ extraordinary new edition entirely dedicated to the speech – not only a new translation of the speech but of its drafts and materials, based on the German critical edition – the line is: Poetry, ladies and gentleman: this infinity-speaking full of mortality and to no purpose!
When I read these new translations, the experience is one of distance. It is certainly not a problem of translation; the fidelity of each is not in question – try putting Die Dichtung, meine Damen und Herren -: diese Unendlichsprechung von lauter Sterblichkeit und Umsonst! into Google Translate. It happens with Char’s line too: both Kevin Hart and Susan Hanson translate Le poème est l'amour réalisé du désir demeuré désir as The poem is the realized love of desire that has remained desire. Nor is it a problem of amended meaning: the lines that moved me do not necessarily assert a demonstrable, objective truth that any fair translation or paraphrase can repeat with ease. So why this distance? Is it anything other than the melancholy romance of nostalgia?
The Meridian itself may offer an answer in that it addresses specific people on a specific date and in a specific place. What follows then is an attempt to summarise the speech in all recognition of the violence of such an attempt.
Celan begins the speech by using words and metaphors from three plays by the author after whom the prize is named to situate art as the subject of a conversation taking place within works of art. For Celan it is an eternal problem that in Danton’s Death, the French Revolutionaries Camille and Danton are able to string together word upon word just as he can in this speech: “It is easy to talk about art”. Such is the complacency into which culture can fall, to be welcomed by art-peddlers – those who Celan compares to carnival barkers. “But whenever there is talk about art,” he goes on, “there is also always someone present who ... doesn’t really listen”. In Danton’s Death it is Lucile, who, upon seeing her husband led to scaffold, cries “Long live the king!” thus guaranteeing her own execution. For Celan, her cry “is the counterword, it is the word that cuts the ‘string’ [...]. It is an act of freedom. It is a step.”
This, ladies and gentlemen, has no name fixed once and for all, but I believe that this is ... poetry.He is quick to distinguish the precise, political meaning of the words from their authenticity in face of what Lyon calls “the empty rhetoric and poetizing of the revolutionaries”. The point is: “Homage is being paid to the majesty of the absurd as witness for the presence of the human.”
Against mere wordplay
The speech seeks such witnessing. Celan admits one can read the words “Long live the king!” in various accents, accents one may place over or under a letter: the acute of today, the grave of history, and the circumflex of literary history. The latter places an obstacle to Celan destination in the speech so, to follow Lucile, he says: “I give it–I have no other choice–the acute.”
To explain further he turns to another work of Büchner’s. In Lenz, the title character, in the midst of a breakdown, relates a vision of two country girls which sometimes prompts him wish to have Medusa’s power to turn the vision to stone so that others might experience it. The obstacle is how Celan may be seen to be orientating himself within the folds of a movement between Idealism to Naturalism that is present in Lenz’s own words. But this is no literary-historical debate. He wonders instead if with this example Büchner may be calling art into question, the art of automata, “wooden puppets”, a “stepping beyond what is human” into “an uncanny realm turned toward the human” and where art seems to be at home. The art-peddlers would be the first to call us to see the tableaux of country girls. He accepts the idea of Büchner’s intention may be far-fetched. Still, Celan asks where, against the route of automata, can poetry instead move toward this realm without losing its humanity?
His suspicion is that it can move with Lenz himself, the person who “on 20th January walked into the mountains” and who was sometimes annoyed that “he could not walk on his head”. On this date and in this state of mind, the authentic human being steps into literature. For someone who walks on his head, Celan reminds us, the sky is an abyss. The narrative itself is Lenz’s “Long live the king”. Reading Lenz today we notice an extraordinary modernity for a novella from 1835, thus perhaps obscuring its radical expression. However, this is an example of what moves poetic art away from elegant wordplay or social realism in favour of finding the words for an authentic human moment. The poem might then be "one person’s language-become-shape …[in its] presentness and presence”. We may compare this moment with Blanchot’s “writing of the disaster”, in which the disaster is a rare and hopeful act of communication.
And it should be noted what Celan need not: January 20th was decisive for him and so many others in that it is also the date of the Wannsee Conference.
Towards an encounter
Despite this connection with Lucile's cry, Büchner’s Lenz has, Celan says, gone a step further: “His ‘Long live the king’ is no longer a word, it is a terrifying falling silent, it takes away his–and our–breath and words”. I presume this is because the story is one of mental breakdown and the narrative describes Lenz’s walk into such a land without authorial knowingness or narrative redemption. Celan thinks this may be where the Medusa’s head shrinks and the automatons break down if only for a “single short moment”. And it is here Celan introduces his famous neologism, later used for a title of a collection, to describe such a moment: Atemwende, a breathturn. Such moments still demand a certain turning away from the self toward a certain darkness. “The poem wants to head toward some other, it needs this other, it needs an opposite”. In Under the Dome, his memoir of his friendship with Celan, Jean Daive observed how this need affected the man and his poetry: “The impenetrable–inhuman–distance between him and the Other. A distance where the remains of the world may accumulate”.
In an implicit response to the impatient reaction to his own poetry, Celan says turning away is a submission for the sake of such an encounter. “Attention”, he says, quoting Benjamin’s essay on Kafka, “is the natural prayer of the soul”. Impatience speaks only for itself.
For an example of such attention, read Peter Szondi’s remarkable essay Eden on Celan’s transfiguring of personal experience in an untitled poem about his brief visit to Berlin in 1967.
The route of the impossible
What Celan has argued for then is simply the inclusion of the human in poetry; that is poetry in which the poet speaks within the puppet show of art “under the angle of inclination of his Being, the angle of inclination of his creatureliness”: “The attention the poem tries to pay to everything it encounters … is a concentration that remains mindful of all our dates.” Jean Daive again: “Paul always kept his watch on his wrist. He told me: the day I take off my watch I’ll have decided to die.”
This emphasis on “radical individuation” leads to the end of the speech and a memorably declarative line: “Enlarge art? No. To the contrary: go with art into your innermost narrows. And set yourself free.” Public art lives on, yet inside it the breathturn is its poetry “due to the attention given to thing and being” in which “we also [come] close to something open and free. And finally, close to utopia. Poetry, ladies and gentlemen: this infinity-speaking full of mortality and to no purpose!”.
Perhaps I should now see this line as slightly and cheerfully sarcastic. The purpose, after all, he suggests, is a kind of homecoming. Yet included in the new edition is a draft of a letter to the president of the prize committee with another version of the same line: Celan asks:
Aren’t words, especially in the poem, aren’t they–aren’t they becoming and–decaying–names? Aren’t poems exactly this: the infinite-saying of mortality and nothingness that remains mindful of its finitude? (Please excuse the emphasis: it belongs to that dust that sets free and receives us and our voiceful-voiceless souls.)So not sarcasm but awareness of the double movement recognised by Blanchot.
Celan ends the speech by expressing a wish to avoid misreading Büchner – something that I will have to express here with regard to The Meridian as I have no doubt warped the speech in trying to summarise it – and by emphasising the impossibility of talking about the breathturn. However, he adds:
I find something that consoles me a little for having in your presence taken this impossible route, this route of the impossible. I find something–like language–immaterial, yet terrestrial, something circular that returns to itself across both poles while–cheerfully–even crossing the tropics: I find ... a meridian.***
Celan’s reluctance to assert, almost to the point where hesitation, qualification and doubt undo the occasion of a prize rewarding mastery, reminds me of Blanchot’s observation about Celan’s poems: that however hard, strident and shrill his language, it “never comes to produce a language of violence, does not strike the other, is not animated by any aggressive or destructive intention: as if the destruction of self has already taken place so that the other is preserved, or so that a sign borne by obscurity is maintained” (translated by Charlotte Mandell).
Pierre Joris’ edition of The Meridian, translated over seven years, reveals to us how much learning, reflection and patience went into maintaining such a permeable presence. It is a staggering document in that regard alone. In the drafts we can read innumerable versions of familiar passages from the final speech, and many more that did not find their way there. Of the latter, in writing of the encounter with the poem:
It is ... the second at the core and in the casing of your desperation.–The first name needs no explanation but second is Claire Goll, the woman who persecuted Celan with falsified evidence of plagiarism spelled out in a German literary magazine. It was enough to trigger the mental breakdown that led eventually to his suicide. We need not consider its deletion from the final version as ironic or contradictory because The Meridian is not a call for the confessional but for the pursuance of the single short moment of dizziness of discovery and recognition. What is exceptional about The Meridian is that it continues this work of poetry, Celan's poetry, rather than being merely an adjunct to it.
It stands with you against infamy. It stands against Goebbels and Goll.–
UPDATE: I've since been reminded that John Felstiner's Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan from 2000 has a translation of The Meridian. The specific line as discussed above is: “Poetry, ladies and gentlemen–: this speaking endlessly of mere mortality and uselessness!” and that Jerry Glenn produced the first translation in the early 1970s. I presume in this rare edition.
See also my review of The Celan-Bachmann Correspondence.