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BLOGS & ESSAYS

Poet Afric McGlinchey's diary of the Lockdown
in the form of fragments, lyrics & prose poems,
updated daily at africmcglinchey.com

***

Writer & Editor, Sarah Byrne, shares a weekly
series of personal essays on her favourite writer,
Paul Celan to mark the fiftieth anniversary
of his death in April 2020:

Week 1: In Praise of Distance
Week 2: In Praise of Scale
Week 3: In Praise of Version
Week 4: In Praise of Home

 

celan

 

In Praise of Home
Sarah Byrne

For like the plant that fails to take root within
Its native ground, the soul of that mortal wilts
Who with the daylight only roams, a
Pauper astray on our Earth, the hallowed.

Too strangely always, heavenly heights you pull
Me upward; gales that rage on a sunny day
Bring home to me your clashing powers,
Mutable gods, and they rend, destroy me.

Extract from ‘My Possessions’ by Friedrich Hölderlin (trans. Michael Hamburger)

In the introduction to his Hölderlin translations, Hamburger quotes Zimmer who said of Hölderlin: ‘it’s the too much he had in him that cracked his mind’. Emotional excess may be expressed, repressed, or depressed. In matters of creative excess, the combination of physical, emotional, and intellectual movement can prevent a mind from cracking. The act of walking is almost synonymous with the act of writing. Hölderlin went from a moving person (he once walked from Bordeaux to Neckar, over 1000km) to a man who lived in a tower owned by local cabinetmaker, Zimmer, for over thirty years. My preferred description of this shift is contained in the title of a song by composer, Nicholas A. Huber, called An Hölderlin’s Umnachtung. The German word, Umnachtung now means derangement but is literally translated as ‘surrounded by night’. In ‘My Possessions’ (extract above), we’re inclined to think about the conditions a plant needs to survive by day and night. How does the night come to surround us and to be in us? A plain-speaking response to Hölderlin’s early life would identify probable causes as paternal bereavement, neglect, maternal rejection, and a proximity to people who do not seem to rest until he fulfils their expectations of him. So, he rested instead. Perhaps his movement away from writing was his only way of surviving a hostile native ground.

 

Holderlines Tower
Hölderlin’s Tower, Tübingen, Germany

 

In Konstanz, which Hölderlin travelled through in 1801, my flatmates all had a native language they could speak outside of German and English. The more obscure the language, the safer their secrets were. I was often asked about ‘my’ language and why it wasn’t heard in the hallway when I called home on the communal telephone. I was ashamed that I couldn’t explain what happened to the Irish language with any certainty, nor could I speak it fluently. It had always been a dark language for me. Most of my Irish teachers at secondary school had shrill voices that were used to berate students when they made errors both in life and in the language. The teachers had sad, dark faces and I came to think that the sadness and hostility I experienced in those classes lived inside the language and not in the individuals who taught it. When I told people what happened to the Irish language in history, they either reacted ambivalently or as if I had pushed my own child into oncoming traffic. My Romanian boyfriend at that time would ask for the equivalent names of things in Irish. I ordered a dictionary and began to re-learn the language. When I heard him later repeat the words I had taught him, it was the first time that the language seemed alive.

When I returned to Trinity after my year in Germany, I applied to live in a Scéim Chónaithe house. I was accepted to the scheme which involved living in an exclusively Irish-speaking residence. I suddenly had to form sentences from the words I had foraged from a dictionary. One evening, I was invited to an Irish event at the German cultural centre, the Goethe Institut. It was the launch of a trilingual (German, Irish, English) poetry collection by the recently deceased German poet, Hilde Domin. I stared at these languages on the rectangular pages, shaped to accommodate three versions of the same text. I realised that who I was, and who I wanted to be, need not be in constant conflict. I began to learn to live with (especially in relation to my national & individual identity) what I think is best described by Ernst Cassirer as ‘an irreducible plurality’.

It took eleven more years for me to see Paul Celan’s words alongside the Irish language. In 2019, a selection of Celan’s poems (Dánta le Paul Celan) was translated by Isobel Ní Riain and published by Coiscéim. In her introduction, Ní Riain describes the mental states of Celan by juxtaposing ‘galar dubh’ (melancholy) with a more modern clinical description, ‘paranóia’. She lets these emotional states exist inside of and beside one another like two different time zones. In January 1961, Paul Celan visited Hölderlin’s tower home. His poem, 'Tübingen, Jänner / Tübingen January' reflects on this visit. It’s a complicated response and one that considers the distance and proximity of Hölderlin’s work to 20th century German national identity. The Nazi regime held Hölderlin’s work in high regard and Celan’s mention of blindness at the poem’s beginning seems to ask what happens to a language (and the user of that language) when it is co-opted for an ideology. Does the darkness already exist in the language (or in the author?) or are these projections created by the reader. Or are both (and more) considerations possible?

 

Translations
Isobel Ní Riain Translation

 

In her translation of 'Tübingen, Januar/ Tübingen Eanáir', Ní Riain makes a series of inversions. She opens with ‘Súile’ (eyes) instead of ‘Blindheit’ (blindness). She translates ‘Rätsel’ (riddle), as ‘rún’ meaning secret in English, which fortifies the relationship with the reader. The sound also recalls the Rhine, which is implicated in the original German text as a Hölderlin reference. Celan said in his Meridian speech that he saw no difference between a poem and a handshake. Perhaps Ní Riain’s translation can be taken to mean a secret handshake. Rún can also be translated as ‘rune’, which has its origin in Proto-Germanic. An obsolete meaning of rune is a female confidant. By using this word, as opposed to ‘tomhas’ which would usually denote ‘riddle’ in Irish, she points us back to the source language of German, and to a possible willing recipient of an offered secret handshake. In Ní Riain’s hands and eyes, Celan’s compound nouns liquify giving them the quality of water, rather than stone. But is it easier to see into a river than a tower? The eye will catch different things depending on where its attention falls.

A tower, eyes, a river are components of larger areas like the face and a landscape. They exist as a unit but become more powerful embedded in a larger structure. In the case of the poem, this can even be a single vowel. An umlaut (meaning sound) in German is an example of a sound change (apophony); in this case, the back vowel becomes a front vowel. It’s a type of harmony that contains a grief and a gain. In the Irish translation of ‘Tübingen, Jänner’, we encounter the síneadh fada, a diacritic that indicates vowels must be lengthened. Throughout the poem, we wade and wait longer with Celan in the Irish language (‘lapaireacht agus lapaireacht’). The poem is closed by the words ‘Pallaksch, Pallaksch’. This was a phrase Hölderlin spoke that meant both ‘yes’ and ‘no’, depending on the context. It could have been a response to the muchness in his head and his surroundings.

Paul Celan ended his life in the Seine in 1970. He left a copy of Hölderlin’s biography open on his desk with this sentence underlined: ‘sometimes this genius goes dark and sinks down into the bitter well of his heart’. He does not highlight the rest of the sentence, which although may not redeem the first half, certainly entertains an irreducible plurality: ‘but mostly his apocalyptic star glitters wondrously’. Celan may have considered the second half tautological. Aren’t stars already dead when we see them, so their apocalypse is inherent? We all wander through many places and its associated languages to find a stillness, a place to call home. Every animal has its own home range, the area where it lives, eats, procreates, travels and dies; the components needed to survive.

 

Works Mentioned

Symbol, Myth, Culture (2009) by Ernst Cassirer, trans.Donald Phillip Verene
Poems of Paul Celan (1996) by Paul Celan, trans. Michael Hamburger
Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan (2002) by Paul Celan, trans. John Felstiner
Dánta le Paul Celan (2019) by Paul Celan, trans. Isobel Ní Riain
Bittersüsser Mandelbaum: Ausgewählte Gedichte: Bitter-sweet almond tree: selected poems: Crann almóinní milis agus searbh: Rogha Dánta (2007) by Hilde Domin, Irish trans. Gabriel Rosenstock
Selected Poems and Fragments (1998) by Friedrich Hölderlin, trans. Michael Hamburger
An Hölderlin’s Umnachtung composed by Nicolaus A. Huber
Goethe Institut Ireland

 

***

 

In Praise of Version
Sarah Byrne

Once, I was in love with two hours. The two that used to come after GMT+ and now follow UTC+. I loved them because, for a time, I measured my life by them. In the beginning, I lived seven steps from his bedroom door in the student flat we shared in Konstanz. On my first day there, I made a cup of Barry’s tea in the communal kitchen and added some evaporated milk that my mother had packed for me in case there was no milk in Germany. The powder mixture tends to leave a scab of itself at the bottom of vessels if not mixed properly. I rinsed the cup and went to my room. A few minutes later, a knock on my door. He waved the cup in his hand. I hope, he said in a vibratoed English, you’re not going to be the kind of flatmate who doesn’t wash dishes properly. Then he asked me to go for a walk. I declined. Who was this asshole telling me how to wash mugs on my first day! On the third evening, I obliged. He was seven years older than me, had been in military high school and was excessively handsome. He copied a CD of Depeche Mode’s album, Violator, for me. I was five in March 1990 when this album was released, and communism had ended in Romania just three months prior.

 


‘Enjoy the Silence’ by Depeche Mode
Cover Version by Sylvain Chauveau & Ensemble Nocturne

 

He was a linguist, from Romania, and spoke terrible German. I spoke awful French, his second language, so we conversed in English. I told him about Paul Celan, a poet of his country, he played Georges Brassens for me. Bucharest, he said, is the Paris of the East, as if that was the best thing a city could be. I copied CDs of Nina Simone and Jaqueline du Pré for him. He complained of their sorrow. He gifted me Cheerleader for a Funeral by Nina Cassian. I was studying Karl Marx, Communism and The Jewish Question. I would quote Marx to a man who had lived through Ceausescu’s regime. During our final week in Germany, he spent hours photocopying an obscure Ukrainian book about Paul Celan for me, even though I could barely read the Cyrillic alphabet. To add to the store, he said. We returned to our respective homes, just over 41 million steps from one another. What is happening when we ask someone we love to listen to this song or to read that book? It always marks a return for one person in the exchange—someone has already been there. I think we are asking the other person to trust in the reality of our material. Perhaps the poet demands an extreme version of this, of herself and of the reader.

 


‘I Put a Spell on You’ by Jalacy ‘Screamin' Jay’ Hawkins made famous by Nina Simone
Cover Version by
Fanfare Ciocărlia

 

I’m trying my best to go in a circle so I can make a line for you, to paraphrase Moran in Beckett’s Molloy. The two hours I mentioned that I was in love with happen somewhere in the middle of this story. Hegel thought that there were two types of time: Greek and modern. The future has already completed but that is different from it being pre-set. The psychoanalyst Catherine Malabou writes of discovering the significance of the word ‘plastic’ in Hegel’s writings. In German it means both ‘capable of shaping’ and ‘capable of being shaped’. Perhaps one of those hours was ancient, the other contemporary even if they lie together to denote ‘time difference’ when my lover and I had to love later, at a distance. Where and how far does Anne Carson want us to go with her in Economy of the Unlost, her book on Paul Celan and Simonides of Keos? I don’t think that the work is explicitly about time difference despite Celan having lived in 20th century Europe, and Simonides' life spanning 556–468 BC in Ancient Greece. Georg Simmel wrote that ‘the purpose of establishing a distance is that it should be overcome’. Distance constitutes a linguistic negative, loosely di-stance, as in not where you stand, standing apart.

There are two systems lensed in Economy of the Unlost, one of language, the other of finance, but they plait together. Carson writes about the commerce of words, their weight, absence and exchange value. Many of the sections on Simonides reference the fiscal aspects of poetry. How much is a poem (and a poet for that matter) worth? On two occasions that Carson reports, Simonides is made to feel unworthy by his hosts. At a feast with Hieron, he is deprived of a portion of hare with his meal, and at another social setting is not offered snow to cool his drink in the sweltering heat (All other guests present are). Simonides wryly responds to an afterthought offering of hare with ‘Wide it was but not wide enough to reach this far’. Carson excels at illuminating the contours of shame of and between people in ancient settings. She hosts Celan and Simonides in her book. What does a good host do for their guests? Besides attending to their food and drink, they go to the trouble of seating two guests together that might get along. A host arranges and is often invisible throughout the course of an event. They must make sure that you have enough. A good host detects draughts in the room and in conversations. She keeps an eye on the time.

Carson also asks variedly throughout the text, what happens when we waste words? But is it possible to waste words (both verbally and textually) on people? Simonides' self-economy was one that created a temporal (he lived until 90), financial and artistic abundance. Celan’s was characterised by diminution, compression and depression. It is worth quoting E.M. Cioran’s impression of Celan at length:

'I recall a summer afternoon spent at his wife's lovely country place, about forty miles from Paris. It was a magnificent day. Everything invoked relaxation, bliss, illusion. Celan, in a lounge chair, tried unsuccessfully to be light-hearted. He seemed awkward, as if he didn't belong, as though that brilliance was not for him. What can I be looking for here? he must have been thinking. And, in fact, what was he seeking in the innocence of that garden, this man who was guilty of being unhappy, and condemned not to find his place anywhere? It would be wrong to say that I felt truly ill at ease; nevertheless, the fact was that everything about my host, including his smile, was tinged with a pained charm, and something like a sense of nonfuture.’

 


Élégie in C minor Op. 24 (1883) by Gabriel Fauré
Cover Version by Jaqueline du Pré, accompanied by Daniel Barenboim

 

I find Celan’s meetings with Martin Heidegger and Martin Buber (both mentioned in Economy of the Unlost) curious. Surely, he must have anticipated distance in these two deeply distant figures. Plato described love as ‘an intermediate state between possession and deprivation’. It’s not always clear where our affinities lie. But is Celan adding to a storage of distance with his poems inspired by his meetings with Heidegger and Buber? Carson isn’t pitting Simonides and Celan against each other, but she facilitates an encounter by placing them in the same room (that’s not to say disagreements won’t take place). It is a project of astounding generosity, a book that demands rereading especially as something of the Celan diminuendo continues.

This month, April 2020, marks the 50th anniversary of his death, but no public events can be held to commemorate this. Celan is buried at Thiais cemetery, an extramural graveyard 10km from Paris. The extramural relates to the final Celan poem Carson mentions, which is ‘Le Contrescarpe’ (Place de la Contrescarpe was located near Celan’s home and work and he often took coffee there). A counterscarp is an outer side of a ditch in fortifications often encased in stone, although only fragments of the counterscarp structure in Paris are extant:

'Breakout the breathcoin
From the air around you and the tree:
so
much
is required from him
whom hope carts up and down
the heartthumpway—so
much

at the turning'

(Extract ‘Le Contrescarpe’ trans. Pierre Jorris)

The hole in the middle of a compact disc is the exact size of a ten cent guilder. A former Dutch coin, it was called a dubbeltje, meaning double. The head of Philips, the company who developed compact disc technology, placed the coin in the centre of the disc to determine the size of the space. In Dutch, there is a saying which references the coin that translates as ‘that was a double on its edge’ or a narrow escape. The ‘breathcoin’ in ‘Le Contrescarpe’ is a Celanian compound. The most immediate way to clean a scratched compact disc is by fogging the surface with your breath and wiping it with your sleeve. A CD can sometimes be a breathcoin. A price. A gift. A double, on its edge.

 

Works Mentioned

Molloy (1955) by Samuel Beckett (English edition trans. by Samuel Beckett & Patrick Bowles)
Economy of the Unlost (1999) by Anne Carson
Cheerleader for a Funeral (1992) by Nina Cassian trans. Brenda Walker
Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry: A Bilingual Edition (2014) by Paul Celan trans. Pierre Joris
The Collected Works of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (2019) by Hegel
The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, Temporality & Dialectic (2004) by Catherine Malabou trans. Lisabeth During
‘Encounters with Paul Celan’ (1988) by E. M. Cioran
The Philosophy of Money by Georg Simmel trans. David Frisby

 

***

 

In Praise of Scale
Sarah Byrne

“Everything depends on the order in which reality is cut and reassembled to become your own”
– Jean Cocteau (From The Art of Cinema)

“Light and darkness, brightness and obscurity, or if a more general expression is preferred, light and its absence, are necessary to the production of colour… colour itself is a degree of darkness”
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (From Theory of Colours)

“When Mephistopheles is just beneath
And he's reaching up to grab me
This is one for the good days
And I have it all here in red, blue, green, in red, blue, green”
- Radiohead (‘Videotape’ from In Rainbows)

I was cycling through the forest, on my way to the high-secure psychiatric hospital where I worked in 2009. As I prepared to dismount my bike, a fawn appeared on the path. The pine trees had been recently felled so the deer took centre stage. In The Divided Self, Laing writes ‘considered biologically, the very fact of being visible exposes an animal to the risk of attack from its enemies, and no animal is without enemies’. I stood about 300 metres from the hospital, which held men who had committed crimes such as murder, rape and arson, but were too mentally ill to stand trial. Yet on the path that led from the forest to the hospital, I posed the most immediate threat to the deer. The fawn looked terrified and was oblivious to the violent narratives nearby. We stared at each other; its body vibrating with fear. I tried to go closer to the animal, but a car approached, and the deer dissolved.

At that time, I lived ‘in the middle of nowhere’ as my Dad likes to call some of the places I’ve resided, to which I always retort ‘nowhere is in the middle of somewhere’. One weekend, I left nowhere to visit The Tate Modern in London. I’d been before but had never noticed a painting they hold since 2002 called Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom by Anselm Kiefer. The work depicts a statue of Chairman Mao gesturing what resembles a Nazi salute. The painting’s title comes from an incorrect quote attributed to Mao, who suggested a smaller scale of growth in his use of the metaphor (‘let a hundred flowers bloom’). Mao’s invitation, which expired after six weeks, called upon artists and writers to contribute to the cultural ecology of China in 1957 so that it would ostensibly flourish and contain diverse voices. It was a method that in fact exposed Mao’s enemies, and many of those who responded during this period were executed.

 

painting
Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom (2000) by Anselm Kiefer
Oil, shellac resin, wood, metal string and screws on canvas | Tate Modern

 

After my trip to the Tate Modern that weekend, a look online at Kiefer’s body of work revealed that he has been preoccupied with Celan’s poetry for most of his career. Kiefer was born in Donaueshingen, Germany in 1945 to an unsealed landscape. When I lived in Germany, I wrote to my mother ‘I think that they’ve ironed the fields here’. I was used to the more unkempt landscapes of Ireland. Kiefer’s hometown had been destroyed during the 1940s, and his playground contained the internal and external ruins of the war. Like Celan’s, his artistic responses are not restorative attempts. Bachelard writes ‘when the image is new, the world is new’. Kiefer frequently returns in his work to the classical elements and these concepts appear as syncopated and transitional. His art often considers cosmology and alchemy. In the early 1980s, Kiefer undertook a painting series that responded to Celan’s poem ‘Todesfuge’ (Death Fugue):

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at morning and midday we drink you at evening
we drink and we drink
A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair
     Margareta  
Your ashen hair Shulamith we shovel a grave in the air
     where you won’t lie too cramped

(Extract. Trans. John Felstiner)

In this poem, Celan challenges the concept of linear time and creates a narrative cycle. ‘Margareta’ represents the Aryan ideal of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed female, cemented by Germany mythology. Shulamith, a Hebraic character from The Old Testament’s Song of Songs, acts as a counterpoint. We do not see these figures’ faces but are shown their hair. Human hair is a fossil—the visible strands are already dead. We often take its volume for granted, but you will notice when you pull a single hair from your scalp. Hair is also a record of time; it is in fact made of time. When we cut and dye it, we can interfere with its biography. Ash however is an absence or excision of biography. It contains no DNA, no stories, except those of its minerals such as potassium, sodium and calcium. It’s not possible to identify an individual by their ashes, although there may be trace elements which can confirm that the substance was once living.

 

painting
Margarethe (1981) by Anselm Kiefer
Oil and bundles of straw on canvas | Saatchi Gallery

 

In Margarethe, Kiefer has formed thin towers of straw to convey the golden hair of the eponymous character. The straw cuts into the name ‘Margarethe’ three times reminding us of what can be done ‘in the name of’ an ideology. The stalks point away from the ground, much like the Heil salute directed attention away from the individual towards a perceived common goal. Straw, like hair, is flammable and is another material Kiefer uses to reorder time.

 

painting
Sulamith (1983) by Anselm Kiefer
Oil, emulsion, shellac, acrylic paint, woodcut, and straw on linen
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

 

Whilst Margarethe is on canvas which contains PVC, Sulamith, completed in 1983, is on a natural linen uncontaminated by chemicals. This painting is an impasto and depicts what appears to be a brick oven. The name ‘Sulamith’ is inscribed in white on the left-hand upper corner against a cavernous backdrop. Because of the materials used, such as lead, glass, straw, wood and dried flowers, the work is in a constant state of unsealing in the artist's absence.

The hospital where I worked at in 2009 contained individuals that would stay there indefinitely. It was a place made of circular time and diachronicities. Patients often communicated with me by letters that were walked across the complex by a security guard who was tasked with checking the contents. One patient wrote to me weekly, requesting not reading material or his case file, but asking for pictures of fractals that he wanted me to print and bring to his ward on my visit. This man used to write the word ‘sealed’ in pencil across the seal of the envelopes he sent me. Naturally, his inscription was always broken as the letter had to be checked by an intermediary first. This man was locked in time and space. I remember he dressed like a teenager in his forties. Before I met him, I had never heard of the word fractal. When I asked him what it was, he told me that fractals were complex patterns, self-similar across different scales.

 

*Gratitude to my friend, the scientist and artist, Sonia Agüera Gonzalez, who patiently helped me to understand the chemistry of ash for this article.

 

Works Mentioned

The Poetics of Space (1994) by Gaston Bachelard, trans Maria Jolas
Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan (2002) by Paul Celan, trans. John Felstiner
The Art of Cinema (1992) by Jean Cocteau, trans. Robin Buss
Theory of Colours (2020) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, trans. Charles Lock Eastlake 
Margarethe (1981) by Anselm Kiefer
Sulamith (1983) by Anselm Kiefer
Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom (2000) by Anselm Kiefer
The Divided Self (2010) by R.D. Laing
Videotape (2007) by Radiohead

 

***

 

In Praise of Distance
Sarah Byrne

“The distance of separation wipes away the features of a beloved person. Only then does the desire arise in me to say to him that important thing I could not have said to him when I had his image before me in the fullness of its reality”
– Osip Mandelstam (From ‘About an Interlocutor’ in Osip Mandelstam: Selected Essays)

“We are emigrants from the homeland of our childhoods. It may be then that the natural place to meet ourselves as children is ‘abroad’ and that includes the foreign country of our growing up and aging”
– Georgi Gospodinov (From The Story Smuggler)

“You can get nearer and nearer, so to speak, to reality; but you never get near enough because reality is an infinite succession of steps, levels of perception, false bottoms, and hence unquenchable, unattainable”
– Vladimir Nabokov (From Strong Opinions)

Every animal has its own home range, the area where it lives, eats, procreates, travels and dies; the components needed to survive. A deer’s is around one square mile. Technology and increased freedom to choose (as well as the lack thereof) means that a contemporary human being’s home range varies wildly and is generally incalculable. In 2002, I went to study German & Sociology at Trinity College Dublin, 160 miles from my family home in Co. Cork. Towards the end of my second year, I encountered Paul Celan’s work when my professor played a recording of him reading his most famous poem ‘Todesfuge’ (Death Fugue). The cadences in his voice sounded Latinate and softer than the German I was used to hearing. My lecturer told me that Celan was a Romanian Jew who was born in the German-speaking region of Bukovina, which had once been part of the Kingdom of Romania. It’s now a Ukrainian territory. During the war, Celan worked in a labour camp and after his parents died in a concentration camp, he emigrated to Paris in 1948. He drowned himself in the Seine in April 1970.

 

Glitched Maps by Christian Carley
Glitched Maps   |   Credit: Christian Carley

 

It’s not easy to explain why you come to respond to a writer that’s had such a disparate biography from your own. Irish people, in particular, sometimes feel a cultural distance from WWII narratives. As part of my degree, I moved to Konstanz in the German province of Baden-Württemberg in autumn 2004 and brought with me the Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan translated by John Felstiner. I lived with twelve other students in a converted army barracks called ‘East’. Konstanz, split by the Rhine river, shares a border with Switzerland and because of this was not bombed during World War II. On clear days, the Alps rise beyond the lake like a cardiograph. On my first day, I learnt that my flatmates were from France, Germany, Romania & Ukraine. The following weekend on a university outing to Strasbourg, an Israeli girl sat next to me on the bus. She spoke fluent German that sometimes snagged on her twin native tongues of Russian and Hebrew. In just one week, I had met a person from every country with which Celan was affiliated linguistically.

Paul Celan was born Paul Antschel (Ancel in Romanian orthography) in 1920 and changed his name when he started to publish poetry after the war. He saw that writing offered reconstructive and transformative potentialities: “Reality is not simply there, it must be searched and won”. One of the first distances Celan enacted was towards his own name; he made of himself an anagram. When his name appeared in future, it would not be on lists documenting war prisoners, it would be on the books he constructed with a name he had chosen himself. At the University of Konstanz, I ended up taking Romanian & Russian classes and attended philosophy workshops with jarring titles when translated into English, such as ‘Karl Marx & the Jewish Question’ & ‘Nietzsche and the Nazis’, the latter taught by Holocaust Studies scholar, Rolf Zimmerman.

 

Sarah Byrne in Germany, 2004
Sarah Byrne in Germany, 2004   |   Credit: Sarah Byrne

 

My flatmates and I were all broke, so our weekend excursions were usually limited to catching a ferry to nearby islands on the lake or walking to Switzerland which was five miles away. One weekend, we took a longer trip and visited Donaueschingen, the source of the Danube and also the birthplace of artist, Anselm Kiefer (although I didn’t know this at the time). My Romanian friend told me that I should visit him someday in his town near the Black Sea as it was where the river ended. The Danube coursed through the countries of my friends who stood there with me.

I also didn’t know during my visit to the river that I was just an hour away from philosopher Martin Heidegger’s summer home at Todtnauberg. Heidegger became a member of the Nazi party in 1933 and his response after the war was characterised by its absence in print during his lifetime. I thought about what it means to walk the same land where acts of catastrophic violence and exquisite beauty had occurred. I think these hodological rituals feed writers and their work. Many authors visit other writers’ graves to connect with them off the page. I’ve come to think this habit might rest with native English speakers. When I visited Nabokov’s grave in Montreux in 2018, the graveyard was empty save for a few water sprinklers and birds. A grave attendant came along and stopped to speak to me in Russian asking me whether I was a Nabokov. I did not grow up in a country where we just walk in and out of one another’s languages with ease. I know that there’s probably nobody in my hometown able to speak Russian or French with a random graveyard visitor.

In 1967, Celan had an opportunity to visit Heidegger at his hut. After the meeting, he wrote the poem ‘Todtnauberg’, which was akin to naming the poem after the philosopher as the location was synonymous with Heidegger. He chose a place in order to name a distance in a person and the distances between people:

Arnica, Eyebright, the
drink from the well with the
star-die on top,

in the
hut
into the book
—whose name did it take in
before mine—

(trans. John Felstiner)

Arnica and eyebright are herbs that both offer restoration and healing. They are positioned in the poem to nudge at a potential reconciliation. But how do you reconcile with someone you’ve never met? We can educate ourselves in botany, grow near to plants and know their healing properties, but we cannot apply these principles to a face-to-face encounter with a stranger. Celan surely knew that previous visitors to Todtnauberg must have included members of the Nazi party. The poem ends with a reference to dampness. The alluvial terrain was not stable in this setting nor in the contours of these two figures. William H. Gass writes that Plato viewed the neck as “a kind of isthmus between the head, which houses the higher soul, and the damper, softer regions given to the appetites and passions”. The isthmus between Heidegger and Celan was not fortified, the latter in receipt of neither a heartful or headful appraisal of Heidegger’s (and Germany’s) recent history.

 

Lake Konstanz, Germany
Lake Konstanz, Germany   |   Credit: Sarah Byrne

 

What distance have we travelled when we grow close to a writer we will never meet? When I returned from Germany to continue my studies at Trinity, I began my thesis on prisons which informed my decade-long career working in prisons and psychiatric hospitals. I interviewed prison chaplains in prisons all over the country to understand their dual role as keyholder and secret-bearer. I was thinking (and still am) about the nearness and distance experienced by individuals in prison (I met many prisoners later in my work who wanted to change their names). I built my undergraduate thesis study from a single word I found in the work of philosopher and prison reformer, Jeremy Bentham. The word was ‘propinquity’ meaning nearness. It originally meant a nearness to kin but is now used in social psychology to denote emotional proximity or affinity, particularly based on geographical closeness. I had in fact met this word before but had no memory of it until I wrote this piece. It features in King Lear, which I studied for my Leaving Cert in 2002. Lear says, “Here I disclaim all my paternal care/ Propinquity and property of blood”.

You don’t know a word until you need it. It’s difficult to think of a more diffuse, despairing and discordant work of art than King Lear. In addition to his own writing, Celan translated Shakespeare’s sonnets, as well as poetry by Emily Dickinson and Paul Éluard. He chose to translate poets whose writing never settles but dashes between sites of restoration and destruction. Celan had to ingest so much loss in his own biography, and yet he managed to transect reality with his poems and maintain an exquisite nearness to himself, for a time.

 

Works Mentioned

The Works of Jeremy Bentham Vol. IV (1843) by Jeremy Bentham
Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan (2002) by Paul Celan, trans. John Felstiner
‘The Evil Demiurge: E.M. Cioran’s The Temptation to Exist (1968) by William H. Gass
The Story Smuggler (2016) by Georgi Gospodinov, trans. Kristina Kovacheva
Osip Mandelstam: Selected Essays (1977) by Osip Mandelstam trans. Sidney Monas
Strong Opinions (1973) by Vladmir Nabokov
King Lear by William Shakespeare

 

 

   

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