World Literature

Paul Celan

 

BORN: 1920, Czernovitz, Romania

DIED: 1970, Paris, France

NATIONALITY: Romanian

GENRE: Poetry, nonfiction

MAJOR WORKS:

‘‘Death Fugue’’ (1944)

The Sand from the Urns (1948)

Edgar Jene and the Dream of the Dream (1948)

Counter-Light (1949)

Poppy and Memory (1952)

‘‘Conversation in the Mountains’’ (1960)

 

 

Paul Celan. Imagno / Getty Images

 

Overview

Paul Celan (pronounced say-LAHN, the pen name of Paul Antschel), whom critic George Steiner has called ‘‘almost certainly the major European poet of the period after 1945,’’ is known primarily for his verse. Yet his reputation as a lyric poet overshadows a small but significant body of prose works that deserve attention both for their close links to his poetry and as independent creations.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Jewish Heritage and the Holocaust. Paul Antschel, the only child of Jewish parents Leo Antschel-Teitler and Friederike Schrager, was born in Czernovitz, capital of the Romanian province of Bukovina, on November 23, 1920. He grew up in a multilingual environment. German, the language spoken at home and in some of the schools he attended, remained his mother tongue throughout his life, and Vienna was the cultural center of his youth; but his language of daily speech was Romanian. Before his bar mitzvah, he studied Hebrew for three years, and by the time he began a year of premedical studies at the Ecole preparatoire de Medecine in Tours, France, in 1938, he was also fluent in French. Returning to Czernovitz shortly before the outbreak of World War II, he learned Russian at the university and, after Soviet troops occupied Bukovina in 1940, in the streets.

When German troops captured the city in 1941, Antschel’s parents were deported and shot, but he survived. After eighteen months at forced labor for the Germans, he escaped to the Soviet Red Army and returned to Czernovitz, which was again under Russian control. There, sometime in late 1944, he wrote ‘‘Death Fugue,’’ one of the most powerful poems written about the Holocaust. The work was based both on his own experiences in a labor camp in Romania and on reports he had heard of conditions in the harsher Polish concentration camps. The poem was included in his first two poetry collections, The Sand from the Urns (1948) and Poppy and Memory (1952).

Prose and the Surrealist Circle. Leaving Czernovitz in 1945 for Bucharest, Antschel joined a surrealist circle, became friends with leading Romanian writers, and worked as a translator and reader in a publishing house. For his prose translations from Russian into Romanian— primarily of Mikhail Lermontov, Konstantin Simonov, and Anton Chekhov—and for publication of his own poems, he used several pseudonyms before rearranging the letters of Ancel, the Romanian form of his surname, into Celan in 1947.

Sometime between 1945 and 1947, he wrote a two- page prose fragment that has survived under the title ‘‘A Stylus Noiselessly Hops...’’ (1980). This work is one of many that reveal his indebtedness to surrealism. Late in 1947, Celan went to Vienna, where he joined a circle of leading avant-garde painters, writers, and publishers. His friendship with painter Edgar Jene gave rise to a brief prose piece, ‘‘The Lance,’’ which he and Jene wrote jointly early in 1948 and circulated on photocopied sheets to announce a reading of surrealist texts as part of an exhibition of surrealist painters in Vienna.

A second prose piece, ‘‘Edgar Jene and the Dream of the Dream’’ (1948), written at about the same time as ‘‘The Lance,’’ purports to be a discussion of Jene’s paintings but is actually a confessional essay on what happens in the ‘‘deep sea’’ of the writer’s mind, the ‘‘huge crystal of the internal world’’ into which he follows Jene and where he explores his paintings. Leaving Vienna in July 1948, Celan settled in Paris and began studies in German language and literature. In March 1949 the Swiss journal Die Tat published a collection of his brilliant but enigmatic aphorisms— quick, pithy words of wisdom—titled ‘‘Counter-Light.’’

German Translator. Celan took his Licence des Lettres in 1950. In 1952 he married graphic artist Gisele de Lestrange, with whom he had a son, Eric, who was born in 1955. Though he wrote no original prose for almost ten years, the works Celan chose to translate into German were usually prose. He never gave up German as his mother tongue, telling a friend, ‘‘Only in one’s mother tongue can one express one’s own truth. In a foreign language, the poet lies.’’ Though all of these translations reflect Celan’s unique prose style, one reveals almost more of himself than of the original: his rendering of Jean Cayrol’s prose narration for Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog (1956), a film on the Holocaust that Celan endowed with an authentic Jewish voice for Germanspeaking viewers.

The address he delivered upon receiving the Bremen Literary Prize in 1958 (translated in 1969) is Celan’s most personal prose work. After referring to the Bukovinian landscape of his youth and his acquaintance with Martin Buber’s Hasidic tales in this world ‘‘where humans and books lived,’’ the address becomes a discussion of his relationship to the German language. This language, he says, ‘‘had to pass... through a frightful muting, pass through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech.’’ From its miraculous survival, he now attempts to write ‘‘in order to speak, to orient myself... to outline reality.’’

German Reader. In 1959 Celan became a reader in German language and literature at L’Ecole Normale Superieure, a position he held until his death. While in the Swiss Alps in July 1959 he was supposed to meet Theodor Adorno at Sils-Maria. Forced to return to Paris before they met, Celan composed ‘‘Conversation in the Mountains’’ (1960) the following month, a reflection on this missed encounter. He later called it a ‘‘jabber’’ or ‘‘schmooze’’ between himself and Adorno.

Suicide at Fifty. In early May 1970, Paris officials found Celan’s body in the Seine River. He had been missing since the middle of April. Sometime before his suicide, Celan produced his final prose work, a brief address delivered to the Hebrew Writers’ Association in October 1969 during a trip to Israel; it was published in the Tel Aviv magazine Die Stimme in August 1970. In the address Celan expresses gratitude for discovering in Israel an ‘‘external and internal landscape’’ conducive to creating great poetry in the surrealist style. In his address, he compares these two landscapes: ‘‘I understand... the grateful pride in every homegrown green thing that stands ready to refresh anyone who comes by; just as I comprehend the joy in every newly won, self-felt word that rushes up to strengthen him who is receptive to it.’’

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Celan's famous contemporaries include:

Shmuel Yosef Agnon (1888-1970): Hebrew fiction writer and Nobel Prize-winning writer laureate who contributed much to Hebrew literature.

Margaret Burbidge (1919- ): English astrophysicist known for several achievements, including discovering the nuclear process of stars and codeveloping the faint object spectrograph for the Hubble telescope.

Dorothy Dandridge (1923-1965): Actress, singer, and dancer; she was the first African American to be nominated for an Academy Award—for her starring role in Carmen Jones.

Nelly Sachs (1891-1970): German poet, playwright, and friend to Paul Celan, whom she called ''brother.'' She expressed the pain and suffering of the Jewish condition.

 

Works in Literary Context

The Salvation of Language. For Celan after the Holocaust, language was the only thing that remained “reachable.’’ Through language he sought to verify his existence. He felt the only way language could make sense of the world was by way of contradiction, paradox, or ambiguity. One way he felt he could achieve this was through surrealism. ‘‘The Lance,’’ for instance, consists of typical surrealist images: “rainbowfish” flying through the sky, a giant hammer in the air, and waves beating against treetops. It ends with speakers casting nets into the water—an image also found in Celan’s early poems. The work also contains a dialogue, the format that became a hallmark of his later prose works.

Creative extensions and elaborations of his poetry, Celan’s prose works also express the struggle to reclaim language in a nonpoetic age and the need for dialogue as a means of connecting oneself with and orienting oneself in the modern world. His Bremen Literary Prize acceptance speech given in 1958 and reproduced in The Meridian (1961) demonstrates these aims. It is written as a dialogue with his listeners, punctuated by reservations or uncertainties about the poet’s craft, leading the listener/ reader through a labyrinth of images relating to the poet’s quest for speech in an age when speech has become nearly impossible.

Influences. A speaker of several languages and a man of profound experiences, including great loss, Celan was influenced by many things. He had great appreciation for Israel and his Jewish heritage. He also carried an unshakable feeling of persecution after the devastation he experienced in Nazi labor camps. After he read the works of authors like Martin Buber and Franz Kafka, and with his knowledge of languages, he was inspired to develop one of his most important relationships—with the German language, one of the few elements of his spiritual existence that he did not lose and that he believed offered a security against further loss. As scholar Joan Peterson suggests, ‘‘The ways in which [his] poems represent mourning and address rage and despair place[s] [him] at the center of artistic response to the Holocaust, and [he] continues to influence those who write about it.’’

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Here are a few works by other post-World War II writers who were also deeply affected by the Holocaust:

Collected Later Poems (2003), a poetry collection by Anthony Hecht. In this collection of three volumes of poetry, the expressions of Hecht's experiences as a World War II liberator who witnessed the atrocities firsthand reveal an intense focus and profound sentiment.

Night (1955), a memoir by Elie Wiesel. In this brief but powerful memoir, the author recounts his experiences as a young Orthodox Jew imprisoned at Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

The Shawl (1990), a collection of fiction by Cynthia Ozick. In this small volume that includes two novellas, the author tells the intimate story of Holocaust survivor Rosa Lublin, who loses her children and her soul.

Man's Search for Meaning (1945), a nonfiction work by Viktor Frankl. In this nonfiction book, the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist retells his experiences as a Holocaust victim and puts forth a philosophy and a therapy of existential healing.

 

Works in Critical Context

Celan’s earlier poetry was harshly criticized by peers such as the members of Group 47, a postwar literary group that challenged modern conventions. That which he read aloud in a vocal style in the tradition of Hungarian folk poems, for example, was poorly received by his German audiences. But because it was difficult to write poetry after the Holocaust and equally difficult to approach it with any unaffected criticism, Celan decided that the best way to write was to set language free from history. As Books and Writers notes, Celan made the conscious decision and ‘‘went with my very being toward language.’’ Both his poetry and his prose work soon became not only respected but revered, known, adds Books and Writers, ‘‘for its broken syntax and radical minimalism, expressing his perception of the shattered world in which he lived.’’ By the end of his life, Celan had developed a reputation as a German surrealist writer, a linguistic craftsperson, and a poet of Jewish concerns with several awards to his credit—a reputation that continues today. These talents are demonstrated in such works as ‘‘Counter-Light,’’ as well as his most famous poem, ‘‘Death Fugue.’’

‘‘Counter-Light” (1949). In this collection, what are considered by some scholars as brilliant but enigmatic aphorisms appear surrealistic in their subversion of conventional time and of space and object relationships: trees fly to birds, hours jump out of the clock, a woman hates a mirror’s vanity. Behind them lies a Kafkaesque awareness that the world makes no sense. These pieces express Celan’s understanding that it seems that only in the paradox of new language combinations can the world be made coherent. Only in a dialectic of contradictions can truth be rendered.

‘‘Death Fugue’’. Despite the many works that followed, ‘‘Death Fugue’’ is widely considered Celan’s most powerful and most successful work. However, scholar Rex Last has described the poem as ‘‘somewhat untypical of his work at large, in that it is rhythmical, fluent and relatively accessible: image succeeds image in bold and fluent patterns which contrast strikingly with the sparse and almost inscrutable verses of the more mature Celan.’’ Last also states, ‘‘This incantatory, hypnotic fugue of death is one of the pinnacles of twentieth-century German poetry...The most notable negative assessment of the poem, in fact, comes from the author Celan himself, who in later years regarded it as too direct in its message.

 

Responses to Literature

1. Do an Internet search for cultural, historical, and political links that will enhance your understanding of the background and forces that influenced Paul Celan. For example, you may want to investigate the conditions in Romania during World War II. Or you may choose to research Group 47, the German literary association with which Celan was briefly associated.

2. Celan is considered a surrealist poet. Surrealism contains a number of unique characteristics, including:

• an intermingling of dreams and reality

• ‘‘impossible’’ environments that could not exist in the real world

• objects becoming animated or combined with other things

• objects appearing in unexpected places or in unexpected scale

3. Go to the Louvre Web site or another major metropolitan museum online. Look at surrealist art such as that of Salvador Dali, Giorgi De Chirico, Edgar Jene, or Max Ernst. Discuss with others what you  find to be surrealist about the work (or a particular work) of these artists. Then, using the same list of surrealistic characteristics, find as many examples of surrealism as you can in Celan’s work. For example, what is dreamlike in his writing? Discuss with others, noting examples that are different from the ones you came up with.

4. Visit the Museum of Jewish Heritage online. Investigate the artifacts, art, and diary entries found on the second floor, which features the Holocaust Memorial material. Decide on one particular aspect of the Holocaust that interests you and that you would like to become the group ‘‘expert’’ on. Each person in the group will do the same. Then, each person should print out information on the chosen aspect, print out a poem that has relevance, and write a preliminary report that will be shared with the group along with the chosen poem.

5. Write a poem influenced by a major event in your life or in your community. For instance, you may choose to write about the events of September 11, 2001, or express your feelings and opinions about the 2008 presidential race. Choose anything that you feel passionately about, much like Celan wrote with profound feeling about the genocide of his Jewish compatriots.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Celan, Paul. ‘‘Speech on the Occasion of Receiving the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen.’’ In Collected Prose. Riverdale-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Sheep Meadow Press, 1986, p. 34.

Colin, Amy. Paul Celan: Holograms of Darkness. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

Del Caro, Adrian. The Early Poetry of Paul Celan: In the Beginning Was the Word. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997.

Samuels, Clarise. Holocaust Visions: Surrealism and Existentialism in the Poetry of Paul Celan. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1993.

Periodicals

Lyon, James K. ‘‘Paul Celan and Martin Buber: Poetry as Dialogue.’’PMLA (1971): vol. 86, no. 1: pp. 110-20.

Peterson, Joan. ‘‘‘Some Gold Across the Water’: Paul Celan and Nelly Sachs.’’ Holocaust and Genocide Studies (2002): vol. 14, no. 2: pp. 197-214.

Steiner, George. ‘‘Songs of a Torn Tongue.’’ Times Literary Supplement. (September 28, 1984): pp. 1093-94.

________. ‘‘The Loud Silences of Paul Celan.’’ Jewish Quarterly (1980-81): vol. 4: pp. 49-50.

Web sites

The Academy of American Poets Poetry. Exhibits: Paul Celan. Retrieved February 24, 2008, from http://www.poets.org/.

Books and Writers. Paul Celan (1920-1970). Retrieved February 24, 2008, from http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/celan.htm.

Poetry Portal. Paul Celan. Retrieved February 24, from http://www.poetry-portal.com/poets43.html.