To Give Saying Its Shadow

Celan’s Poetry and the Politics of Language


<i>Memory Rose into Threshold Speech: The Collected Earlier Poetry</i>. By Paul Celan. Translated from the German by Pierre Joris.On June 28, 1942, Victor Klemperer wrote in his diary, “Even if I hated Germany, I would not thereby become un-German, I could not tear what was German out of me.” A Protestant convert of Jewish parentage, Klemperer had been forced out of his position as a professor of Romance languages at the Technical University of Dresden following the Nazi “dejudification” of the civil service. His car had been confiscated; his cat, euthanized; his house, “Aryanized.” He and his wife, Eva, were forced to move into a Jews’ House, where they roomed with a number of other families, all of whom were subject to constant surveillance and harassment by the Gestapo. He performed forced labor in a segregated factory, and lived on the brink of starvation. 

Klemperer was one of the lucky ones. Because Eva was Aryan and because he had been a combat veteran, Klemperer’s status was officially “privileged”—meaning he had been granted the privilege of not being immediately deported to Theresienstadt or Auschwitz. Deprived of access to libraries, he could no longer complete his professional research. So the former philologist instead turned his attention to the language around him: the language of Hitler and Goebbels, of the Jews’ House and the factory, of birth announcements and reports from the front, of his Aryan neighbors and the friends and former colleagues from whom he had become estranged, one by one, as they embraced Nazism. In his diary, he kept meticulous notes on this material for a project he cryptically called LTI.

The same day Klemperer was recording his conflicted emotions about his national identity, some eight hundred miles to the east, a student of Romance languages and literature named Paul Antschel was rushing home through the streets of Czernowitz. For centuries, Czernowitz had boasted a significant German-speaking Jewish community, which, like so many others in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, balanced local religious and cultural traditions with a secular, cosmopolitan outlook influenced by trends in Vienna. But control of the town had been transferred to the Kingdom of Romania in 1920, the year of Antschel’s birth, and it was now under the administration of a Nazi puppet-state. That month, SS-Einsatzgruppen and local police had begun to round up Jews and other “undesirable elements,” sending them on cattle cars to concentration camps in Transnistria. 

The details on where Antschel had spent the previous night are unclear. According to some accounts, he’d been hiding in a cosmetics factory after failing to persuade his parents to take refuge with him there. Others claimed that he’d simply been visiting friends until past curfew and had to stay the night. Wherever he in fact woke up, his biographer John Felstiner writes, one thing seems definite: When he returned home, he found “the front door sealed, his mother and father gone.”

It was to be the defining trauma of his life. One month later, he was arrested and deported to a concentration camp in Tăbăreşti, where he learned that his father had died—most likely of a typhus outbreak—in a camp in Nazi-occupied Ukraine. His mother, declared “unfit to work,” had been shot. Antschel did hard labor—mostly “shoveling,” he later recalled, but also writing poetry, in German, whenever he had the time, energy, and presence of mind to do so—until the camp was liberated by Soviet troops in February 1944. He returned to Czernowitz, and then headed off for Bucharest in the back of a Red Army truck.

On the day the remaining Jews of Dresden were scheduled to be deported to Theresienstadt, Allied bombers reduced the city to rubble. The Klemperers survived the firebombing; as soon as the air raids stopped, they rushed to the center of the city, where they saw the smoldering ruin of the Gestapo headquarters. Klemperer ripped the hated yellow star off his coat, took an assumed name, left a suitcase containing the pages of his diary with friends for safekeeping, and together he and Eva traveled on foot to Munich to meet the advancing American forces. 

Though his diary would not be published in full for another fifty years, in 1947 Klemperer published a preview whose title revealed what LTI stood for: Lingua Tertii Imperii, the Language of the Third Reich. Subtitled “A Philologist’s Notebook,” LTI is an investigation into the “characteristic expressions” and distinctive “stylistic features” of the Nazi idiom. Embedded in a moving memoir of his life during the Third Reich, Klemperer catalogs the Nazis’ numerous impoverishments and debasements of the German language—the neologisms, acronyms, nominalizations, simplifications, superlatives, euphemisms, sentimentalities, clichés, tropes, and recontextualizations—which, through sheer repetition and overexposure, even infected the language of those who opposed Hitler, including Klemperer himself. 

The same year, in Bucharest, a poem appeared, in Romanian translation, in the literary journal Contemperanul. Part invective, part dirge, the frenetic repetitions and unpatterned rhymes of its unpunctuated lines play a violent game of tug-of-war between opposing images. A morning glass of milk—symbolizing the mother, nourishment, youth—has turned black. Sour and rotten, the collective speaker of the poem is forced to drink it nevertheless, at all times of day, in sickening quantities. There are graves dug in the earth, where those who have been shot with lead bullets are buried, but also “graves in the clouds,” the final resting place of those who have been incinerated in the Nazi crematoria. Golden-haired Margarete—the heroine from Goethe’s Faust—is paired with ashen-haired Shulamit—the heroine of the Biblical “Song of Songs”—and both are forced to dance for Death, the blue-eyed snake-handler, the “master from Deutschland,” the country that has turned everything—above all, good and evil—upside down.  

“Tangoul Morƫii”—“Todesfuge,” in the original German, “Deathfugue” in English—was quickly recognized as a major work. It remains one of the most anthologized, analyzed, and celebrated poems about the Holocaust, and its author has come to be regarded, along with Rilke, as one of the great German poets of the twentieth century. Yet perhaps just as significant as the poem’s debut was that, beneath the title, there also appeared, for the first time, the nom de plume by which he is known: Paul Celan.

Of all German poets, Celan has been particularly fortunate in his English translators. Besides Felstiner, his work has been translated by the likes of Michael Hamburger, Rosmarie Waldrop, and Christopher Middleton. But even among this distinguished group the translations of the Luxemburgish-American poet Pierre Joris stand apart. With the addition of Memory Rose into Threshold Speech: The Collected Earlier Poetry to its companion volume Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry Joris has now translated all of Celan’s published poetry, the culmination of fifty years’ labor. Memory Rose into Threshold Speech contains Celan’s first four collections—Poppy and Memory (1952), Threshold to Threshold (1955), Speechgrille (1959), and NoOnesRose (1963)—with the original German en face, and Joris’s extensive commentary in the back.

Although their publication was timed to coincide with Celan’s centennial—and also the fifty-year anniversary of his suicide, by drowning, in the Seine—the appearance of Memory Rose into Threshold Speech in the United States is timely in another, unintentional, and entirely unfortunate way. Since Joris published his last major Celan translations, Americans have gotten a bitter taste of what it is to live in a totally politicized society, subject day in and day out to what Klemperer called “the language of the victors” and Celan called “murderous speech.” The Trump administration has already changed what it means to be an American, down to our ways of thinking and speaking, coining new terms, introducing jargon from the ideological fringe into the mainstream, and, in saying the quiet part out loud, revealing the bigotry that was always already there. 

One of the great controversies of our time is whether and, if so, to what degree, the Trump administration deserves to be called “fascist.” Perhaps the greatest similarity between the two can be found in their uses and abuses of language. Fundamentally “oral” in mode, even when it appears in written form, Trump has taken advantage of the new media available to him—cable television and Twitter—just as expertly as Hitler and Goebbels used the film reel and the radio. Administration rhetoric relies on the same hypocritical and projective sense of victimhood (“voter fraud,” “fake news,” “witch hunt”), the same use of racist modifiers (“Mexican judge,” “Muslim ban,” “China Virus”), the same bad-faith relativizations of meaning to the political allegiance of the speaker (“religious freedom,” “freedom of speech”), the same oxymoronic jargon (“alternative facts,” “deep state,” “anarchist jurisdictions”), the same messianic narcissism (“I am the chosen one,” testing positive for COVID-19 is “a blessing from God”), the same delight in brutality (hecklers should get “carried out on a stretcher,” police officers should “rough [people] up more”), the same shameless mendacity (about everything from inauguration crowd sizes, to the trajectory of a hurricane, to the dangerousness of a once-in-a-century pandemic), and the same abuse of superlatives (“the best people,” “the best words,” “historic legislation,” “the greatest election of all time”) that Klemperer diagnosed in the language of the Third Reich. Klemperer liked to emphasize how much the LTI owed to American advertising and business language—with its abbreviations and its acronyms, its confusion of the qualitative with the quantitative, its obsession with record breaking and uniqueness—but Trump has gone out of his way to return the favor. There have been direct borrowings, such as when Trump calls journalists “enemies of the people” or when his followers refer to business and cultural elites as “globalists,” or when he takes his slogan, “America First,” from the name of a party headed by Nazi sympathizers who opposed entry into World War II. Euphemisms have been employed to give the misleading impression of distance from Nazi history, such as the designation of ICE facilities as “detention centers” rather than concentration camps—which, as Klemperer notes, was itself a historical borrowing meant to cover up what was really happening at extermination camps like Auschwitz. 

America’s greatest talent has always been sweeping the ugliness of its history under the rug of its optimism. Trump did not invent this ugliness; he has merely swallowed the rug. A reckoning with American history, old and new, is already underway, and will be our responsibility long after he exits the White House. This reckoning is unavoidable, but even if it is successful, it will not thereby deliver us from being Americans, from the history of which he is now forever a part. Klemperer’s and Celan’s predicament—with regard to history, cultural identity and, above all, to language—has become our own. It, too, has been translated into English.

Like Klemperer, Celan found himself unable to “tear what was German out of [him].” Celan, who spoke or read ten languages, knew German as the language of his mother as well as his mother’s murderers. To renounce it would have been to renounce her as well, even if to speak it meant continuing to carry some of its poison in his mouth. Though he would leave Romania in late 1947 for Vienna, and Vienna for Paris about six months later, becoming a French citizen in 1955, the “Czernowitz meridian,” as he called it, would always run down his tongue. “Only one thing remained reachable, close, and secure amid all the losses,” he later said of his experiences in the camps: “language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss.” “But,” he added, “it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech.”

The LTI, in Klemperer’s view, was fundamentally a language of “mass fanaticism… whose sole purpose is to strip everyone of their individuality, to paralyze them as personalities, to make them into unthinking and docile cattle.” Celan took a similar position. In his famous Meridian lecture, given on the occasion of his receipt of the 1960 Georg Büchner Prize, Germany’s most prestigious literary award, Celan told his audience that in order for the German language to “pull itself from an ‘already-no-more’ into a ‘still-here,’” in other words, in order for it to be a survivor of Nazism, it had to be “set free under the sign of a radical individuation.” Here, however, their approaches diverged. For Klemperer, the moderate humanist scholar, diagnosing the problem was enough. For Celan, the mystical poet, the German language required a more fundamental intervention. In “And the Beautiful,” he addresses the Nazis directly: “And the beautiful you tore out, and the hair / you tear out: / what comb / combs it smooth again, the beautiful hair? / What comb? / In whose hand?” One answer: the comb of poetry, in his own hand.

Celan’s artistic path was not an easy one: It was marked by numerous false starts and tormenting recalibrations. “Through / the sluice I had to go, / so as to save the word, back  / to and across and over the saltflood,” he writes in “The Sluice.” A review of Poppy and Memory—by a critic who, as Joris notes in his introduction, had been an SS officer—which praised “Deathfugue” for the “dreamy surrealism” that allowed language to “escape the bloody chamber of horrors of history and rise up into the ether of pure poetry,” alerted Celan to the fact that the language of his early poems, in many ways still bound by traditional forms, were thereby susceptible to deliberate misreading and neutralization.

To save the word, Celan came to understand, it was not enough to comb it smooth again. He needed a “‘greyer’ language, a language which wants to locate even in its ‘musicality’ in such a way that it has nothing to do with the ‘euphony’ which more or less blithely continued to sound alongside the greatest horrors.” He needed, to use a term he coined in the Meridian lecture, an Atemwende, that is, a “breathturn” away from the merely “poetical,” merely “transfigurative” music and imagery of his first book, not to mention from the poisonous gas of the LTI. 

If there is one operative principle in all of Nazi ideology it is that of a one-way separation: specifically, the separation of Aryan and Jew. This manifested itself in physical separation—of the ghetto, the Jews’ House, and ultimately the death camp—as well as an ontological separation—of Aryan and Jewish character, Aryan and Jewish books, Aryan and Jewish wars, Aryan and Jewish pets, and even Aryan and Jewish “German.” (Goebbels’s phrase, “When a Jew speaks German, he lies,” had attained the status of a proverb during the Third Reich.) The Nazi horror of mixture—at its core a horror of race mixture—was evident, as Klemperer noted, in many of its most distinctive expressions, from the adjective artfremd (foreign to the species), to the verb entjuden (to dejudify) to the noun Der Jude (“the Jew”—an abstraction separate from concrete Jewish human beings). And separation, in theory and practice, was merely preparatory to the distinctive Nazi crime: genocide. Or in the euphemism of the LTI: the Endlösung, or Final Solution, to the Judenfrage, or Jewish Question.

Celan’s gray language can be read as a subtle undermining of this principle of separation. Over the course of the four books collected in Memory Rose into Threshold Speech, there is a noticeable shift from a poetics of making-smooth to a poetics, as the color gray suggests, of entanglements, intertwinings, braids, weavings, mixtures. Although he once claimed that he did not believe in “bilingualism in poetry,” his poems have a distinctly international character, which is hardly surprising for a Romanian-born, German-speaking Jew working as a literary translator in Paris. (“International” was negatively connoted in the LTI and along with the adjective “global” it was frequently associated with Jews.) Many of his poems have foreign words as titles, or contain foreign words in them—French mostly, but also Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian—each of which can be read as a “shibboleth” “cry[ing] out” in the “homeland’s alienness” (“Shibboleth”). The borders between identities and languages do not always lie between individual people or individual words; sometimes they lie within them. In his poems, Celan stands inside himself and the German language, “naming on the thresholds / what enters and leaves” (“Together”). 

The threshold, along with its cognates, the door and the gate, which recall the sealed-off door to his parents’ house, are frequent images in his work. So, too, are braided hair and candles, especially the braided Havdalah candle, which, extinguished in wine, closes out Shabbat prayers and signals the start of the new week. In “Crowned Out,” for instance, he writes: “I braided, / I unbraided, / I braid, I unbraid, / I braid,” an action that is later echoed in “The Syllable Pain,” where “wordfree / voices” are “mixed / and unmixed / and again / mixed” and “numbers”—in this case the number six million—are “interwoven with the / uncountable”—what has been lost along with each of their lives. 

What Celan is best known for, however, is his remarkable use of the German compound noun to create an entirely new poetic vocabulary. His coinages are legion—“heartwall,” “Sickledunes,” “lightspume,” “bloodsail,” “speechgrille,” “NoOnesRose” to name only a few—and his tendency to use them becomes more pronounced starting with the last two books collected in Memory Rose into Threshold Speech. Because the compound noun is more central to German than to English—indeed, it is perhaps the most recognizable feature of the language—it is difficult to convey the effect of Celan’s coinages on the German reader. For the English reader, they still have the quality of a “poeticism,” especially as the technique, thanks in part to Celan’s influence, has entered English poetry. For the German reader, however, they are deeply uncanny, that is, ünheimlich, the disquieting feeling, as Freud reminds us, of being both familiar and strange, of being at home and not at home. 

In Celan’s hands, compound nouns become highly ambivalent combinations. Fusing two words does not cancel out their individual meanings, or resolve them into some higher, tension-free synthesis. A “speechgrille,” to take one example, keeps out some meaning as it lets some in. The component words of Celan’s compounds retain their identities even as their proximity changes them, just as two people do, and two peoples. 

The thorn is “in league” with the rose as Celan observes in “Silence!” a poem in which two lovers drink a mixture of “the Yes and the No,” which “taste[s] like bile” even if it “foam[s] like wine.” Later, in his rethinking of that poem, “Speak, You Too,” he will write, “Speak— / But do not split the No from the Yes / Give your saying also meaning / give it its shadow.” Because we are beings born in and of the shadows of histories not of our making, we cannot resolve our complex, heterogeneous identities into simple, contradiction-free categories; nor can we free our language from ambiguity or paradox. Whenever we have succumbed to the temptation to try to do so the result has always been horror and tragedy. 

Then, as now, the political principle to be defeated is the one Klemperer identified: hardened borders and forced separations, physical and ontological. Celan’s experiences taught him that, like it or not, we cannot definitively stand on one side of a threshold, nor can we ever erase it. To open Memory Rose into Threshold Speech in the closing months of 2020, with Celan’s German on the left page and Joris’s English translation on the right, is to be presented with a vivid image of this state of affairs. “Translate,” as is well known, means “to carry across” the thresholds of language and historical circumstance, but what is less well known is that it replaced the Old English “awendan,” derived via Proto-Germanic from a verb that means “to turn, to wind, to weave.” Even after one of the most divisive elections in living memory has brought an end to one of the most divisive presidential administrations in American history, we remain, as a nation, less E Pluribus Unum, than, as Celan himself might have put it, “Togetherseparated.” 


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Published: December 3, 2020