The century-old cold comforts of Paul Celan
The life and work of Paul Celan is a convergence of what many readers and most human beings would simply prefer to avoid. There is an almost mystical opacity to the themes and language of his later poetry, famous for its difficulty, according to people who can actually read it in the German original. Celan himself was born in a Romanian-ruled town in present-day Ukraine to German-speaking parents murdered by the Nazis. The poet, who fled east before the deportations began, survived a German forced labor camp. “Running away from deathhis famous 1945 poem, is based on the horrors he witnessed himself. Happy the man who was not Paul Celan.
After the war, Celan, literate in more than half a dozen languages including Hebrew, wandered the physical and civilizational ruins of Bucharest and Vienna before finally settling in Paris, where he settled committed suicide in 1970, at the age of 49. Despite and also because of his insistence on writing in German, Celan refuted the comforting fiction that there could be a clean or easy reconciliation with the unfathomable recent past, or with the human phenomena that had caused it.
In 2020, translator, literary critic and poet Pierre Joris and composer Daniel Kaufman pondered the question of how to commemorate the centenary of a writer who endures as a monument to all kinds of difficulties. Their response, as seen in a pandemic-delayed concert and reading at the Jewish Museum in New York on May 1, was to sugarcoat nothing, while emphasizing that the dark tragedies and paradoxes of Celan’s work should not not be confused with empty pessimism. Finding light and even hope within Celan without alleviating disquiet or otherwise belittling or mutilating his work, all within the limited space of a two-hour event aimed at a non-expert English-speaking audience, is almost an impossible challenge. But as Joris and Kaufman acknowledge, music can fill aesthetic and emotional voids, guiding listeners to the places Celan intended to take them.
The event opened with a short lecture by Joris, one of Celan’s main translators into English. Joris characterized Celan’s work as “a map where the unexplored sections outweigh the parts that have been sketched out”, noting that his poetry is often treated as a “hypercomplex landscape” or an “impregnable fortress”. However, Celan is interested in subjects almost all the opposite of obscure. The Holocaust and the problem of evil were not abstractions for him, and he did not want to make them any easier for anyone to understand, refusing to illuminate the true nature and meaning of his own concrete experiences. His work is “caught up in this dynamic of amorous struggle”, said Joris, an unstable unity communicated by the poet’s highly innovative German, a language which, in Celan’s hands, “binds[s] together the murdered and the assassin.
It was up to Kaufman and the six other musicians of his famous Barbez ensemble to show what the poet’s universe consists of. Kaufman and his band performed a 55-minute song cycle titled “Force of Light,” a series of musical settings for Celan’s poetry written and recorded in 2007. The work began with a reading of “There Was earth within them,” a terrifying vision of a mindless human race destroying itself to appease a higher power:
“They dug and dug, so did
their day go, their night. And they did not praise God,
who, they heard, wanted all this,
who they heard knew all about it.
The music became a slow-building jazz chant, the melody coming from the icy howl of a theremin, low-pitched vibraphones creating a thin but necessary layer of aural sweetness. “My mother’s hair was never white,” the audience heard between the fearsome harmonies of violin and clarinet. “My yellow-haired mother hasn’t come home… Door open, who knocked you off your feet?” My sweet mother can’t come back.
Celan harbored lifelong guilt for failing to convince his parents to flee the Nazis. While some writers argue that the creative act is inherently redemptive, with the art itself proof that personal and national wounds can heal, Celan’s comfort is much colder and more opaque than we are used to. . “Drop your flag at half mast, memory,” we heard as Kaufman played a skeletal gypsy jazz phrase on an acoustic guitar. “Set it today and forever.” The music felt like the expression of a wounded, unshakable memory, but Kaufman’s playing didn’t come across as dark, or even as sad. “I, on my way to myself, here,” read the last lines of a 1959 composition by Celan, which in Kaufman’s work was accompanied by the deep breath of the theremin guiding the melody under strange bursts of drum, guitar and bass clarinet. .
True to the spirit of his inspiration, which held nothing back, Kaufman does not avoid the reality that Celan’s journey to himself ended in suicide – the cycle ends with the words: “The death that you still owe me, I accomplish it. The circumstances of Celan’s death are neither a cheerfully understated footnote to his poetry, nor the only key to unlocking what his life and art might have really meant. As Jaris explained in his opening speech, Celan’s work was a “counterattack” against a world and a civilization that sought to exterminate him. But it was also much more than a celebration of mere survival. His poetry looked to deeper, perhaps even transcendent, possibilities that lingered beyond the confines of tragedy. Joris quoted Celan’s reflection on whether writing could ever be “a form of prayer”. Perhaps, the poet allowed. But: “That doesn’t mean the writing comes first. You can’t write with your hands together.