Commentary Magazine

Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew by John Felstiner

Out of the Past: 2

Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew
by John Felstiner
Yale. 344 pp. $30.00

There is a story about James Joyce and Finnegans Wake, at a glance the most incomprehensible work of fiction ever produced by a major author. When a frustrated admirer protested that it would take him ten years to understand the book, Joyce is said to have replied, “Ten years? I demand my reader’s whole life.”

Few of us, however, have even ten years to spare; and although Finnegans Wake, with the help of critical commentaries, can be read nowadays on a reduced time budget, our frustration remains and can be formulated in two questions. Practically speaking, why bother struggling with a putatively great work of art that is so uncooperative about yielding its secrets? And on a more theoretical level, can an art work, however caringly or cunningly constructed, be judged anything but a failure if, in and of itself, it offers an audience no apparent means of grasping its content and structure?

Although never explicitly posed by him, these questions hover over John Felstiner’s literary biography of Paul Celan. Deemed by many critics to be one of the great poets of our time and by many readers to be largely unapproachable, Celan forces us to ponder the relation between art and communication, between the inner world of the artist and the outer one of his society.

Born Paul Antschel in 1920, Celan grew up in a German-speaking, semi-traditional Jewish home in Czernowitz, the capital of Bukovina, a province of the Austro-Hungarian empire that became part of Romania after World War I and where Ukrainian and Yiddish were also heard daily in the streets. An only child whose parents were killed by the Nazis, he survived the Holocaust, resided briefly in Bucharest after the war, and then settled in Paris, where he lived until his suicide by drowning in 1970, at the age of forty-nine.

Although he was proficiently multilingual, knowing also some Hebrew and enough English and Russian to translate poetry from them, Celan chose to write his verse in his mother tongue. “There is nothing in the world,” Felstiner quotes him as saying not long after his arrival in Paris, “for which a poet will give up writing, not even when he is a Jew and the’ language of his poems is German.” Certainly his anguish, perhaps rage, at writing in the language of the murderer was part of what ultimately drove him to a style in which the very syntax and morphology of ordinary speech were savagely torn apart and refitted. As he told an audience in Bremen in 1958, German remained for him “not lost . . . in spite of everything” but rather a language that, in order for him to write in it,

had to pass through its own answerlessness, pass through frightful muting, pass through the thousand darknesses of death-bringing speech. It passed through and gave back no words for that which happened; yet it passed through this happening. Passed through and could come to light again, “enriched” by all this.

True, many of Celan’s more lyrical early poems, including his much anthologized Todesfuge or “Death Fugue” (which was said to have occasioned Theodor Adorno’s famous and foolish remark that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”), are not enormously difficult. Here, for example, is “Aspen Tree,” written in 1945 (the translations throughout are by Felstiner, unless otherwise noted):

Aspen tree, your leaves glance
  white into the dark.
My mother’s hair never turned
Dandelion, so green is the
My fair-haired mother did not
  come home.
Rain cloud, do you linger over
  the well?
My soft-voiced mother wept
  for everyone.
Rounded star, you coil the
  golden loop.
My mother’s heart was cut by
Oaken door, who hove you off
  your hinge?
My gentle mother cannot

In reading this poem it does help to know, as Felstiner tells us, first, that it is modeled on a genre of Romanian folk song in which natural and physical objects are summoned as witnesses to human grief; and second, that Celan’s mother was shot to death in a German labor camp in the Ukraine. Still, such extra-textual information is not crucial. That is no longer the case, however, with a poem like “Epitaph For François,” written in 1953:

Both doors of the world
stand open: opened by you
in the twinight.
We hear them beating and
and bear it uncertainly,
and bear the green into
  your Ever.

These lines have a foreboding power, but we can hardly understand them unless we are aware, as Felstiner but not the poet makes us aware, that François was Celan’s first child, who died shortly after birth. (Felstiner also points out that Celan had come across the images of the “gates of day and night” while reading the ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides, and that he had encountered a hasidic saying in the writings of Martin Buber about “man passing through two doors between this world and the next.”)

By 1957 we have poems like “Flower”:

The stone.
The stone in the air, which I
Your eye, as blind as the stone.

We were
we scooped the darkness empty,
  we found
the word that ascended summer:

Flower—a blindman’s word.
Your eye and my eye:
they look
after water.

Heartwall by heartwall
adds on petals.

One more word like this, and
  the hammers
will be swinging free.

Felstiner’s commentary on this poem observes, among other things, that Celan’s son Eric “was twenty months old in early spring of 1957 when he spoke his first word, fleur (‘flower’)”; that the “sudden turn, from the title ‘Flower’ to ‘stone’ in the first line, hardens the medium for speech and vision [and] also links ‘The stone in the air’ to Deathfugue’s ‘grave in the air’”; that “Celan’s You’ may be his mother witnessing the first word of her grandchild”; that “the ‘we’ then speaks for [Celan’s] wife and him”; that the German verb schoepfien, scooped, “suggests delivering a birth” and also “yields Schoepfung (‘creation’)”; that as for “darkness,” Celan “revised Dunkelheit to Finsternis, bringing [Martin Luther’s translation of] Genesis within earshot, scooping darkness for the advent of speech”; that “visionary tradition told [Celan] that ‘Flower—a blindman’s word’ was a speaking blindness, like that of Tiresias, Oedipus, and the vigilant dead”; and so forth. And even once we know all this, much escapes us.



Finally, there is the almost impenetrable decade of the 1960’s, when Celan’s verse tended toward an ever darkening obscurity in which the mold of language was more and more violently shattered. Passing over these last years quickly, Felstiner makes little attempt to explicate their poems, many short and untitled like the following two (in the translations of Katharine Washburn and Margret Guillemin):

Hour of the barge,
the half-transformed bear the
of one of the worlds,

cast from the throne, he turned
speaks among brows on the
rid of death, rid
of God.


To climb from marshy soil
into non-image
is blood
in the gun-barrel hope,
the target is within like impa-
  tience come of age.

Country air, rue Tournefort.

One late poem that Felstiner does dwell on at length, commenting on its use of medieval German and biblical Hebrew, reads:

You be like you, ever.
Ryse up lerosalem and
rowse thyselfe

The very one who slashed the
bond unto you,
and becum

knotted it new, in myndignesse,

spills of mire I swallowed,
  inside the tower,
speech, dark-selvedge,

Since by this time Celan was mentally unwell and suffering from bouts of clinical depression and paranoia, it is tempting to view his late verse as presenting a psychological rather than a literary problem. Yet apart from the philistinism of attributing to aberrancy whatever we fail to understand, these last poems do not reflect a fundamental change of direction. They are the product of an aesthetic assumption present in Celan’s work from the beginning—and not only in Celan but in a number of prominent modern poets, starting with Rimbaud and Mallarmé in late 19th-century Paris and best represented in English by the T.S. Eliot of The Waste Land and the Ezra Pound of the Cantos.

This assumption, connected with the strictly modern concept of the avant-garde, is that the grounds of our encounter with a work of literature can be shifted from the public arena we call culture, with its shared knowledge, memories, and symbols, to the private mental processes of the writer, with which it is the reader’s obligation to become familiar. No longer, in such a view, are writing and reading reciprocal acts engaging each other in a common space accessible to all; writing, rather, is esoteric wisdom, and reading, a devotional commitment separating the elect from the uninitiated.

There are well-known historical factors that helped shape this view, including the Romantic religion of art, the anti-bourgeois sentiment of a European intelligentsia seeking to dissociate itself from the middle class, and the rise of movements like surrealism, by which the young Celan was influenced. And yet certainly, the torment of having lived through and survived the Holocaust strengthened and deepened what was a natural bent in him. It is as though his verse wished to tell us, even before we begin to grapple with it, that it is speaking the unspeakable.

Nor is it, I think, a coincidence that Celan’s poems became more resistant and encoded as the Holocaust itself came to be more widely and more prominently treated in both literature and the media. There is in these poems a horror of being understood too easily, a horror that is undoubtedly a reaction to what was being understood too easily. Often, Felstiner shows, as Celan revised, each draft became not clearer, as generally happens with works in progress, but more opaque, key connections or clarifications being deleted to create deliberate lacunae of meaning. Like bridges blown up against an advancing army, these served to protect the inwardness of his verse against frontal critical assault.



Felstiner, who teaches at Stanford, approaches Celan’s poems with delicacy, teasing out their tightly wound (and often highly Jewish) strands of imagery, allusion, association, and polyglot wordplay while turning on them the magnifying glass of his own dilemmas and choices as a translator. More informative about the poetry than about the man who wrote it, he leaves us knowing less than we might like about Celan’s friends and habits, his relationships with his wife and son, and the record of his psychiatric treatment and hospitalizations. But this is surely as Celan himself would have preferred it, just as he would have been gratified by Felstiner’s painstaking demonstrations that even the most seemingly obscure of his poems, if only one works one’s way deeply enough into them, have their internal logic and decipherment.

Is the project worth the effort? Obviously it is for the small but dedicated groups of readers whom Celan enjoys today in many countries, and for whom his reclusive refusal to modify his voice for the sake of greater comprehensibility has made him a literary saint. But Celan did want to communicate—or at least that would seem to be the implication of his adamant and oft-quoted (though, on the face of it, rather strange) insistence that he was “absolutely not hermetic.”

Celan, according to Felstiner, feared that “if his poetry was seen as magically sealed off from understanding, this would relieve his readers of responsibility.” Which leaves pending the question: just how far does the responsibility of the reader have to go before it meets the responsibility of the writer?

About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.

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