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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Celan's Suicide in the Seine - Wandering Words, Shrinking Language

Avital Ronell … suggested a study of diacritical marks in her seminar on finitude (European Graduate School, August 2009) using parallel German (original) and English (translation) texts of Heinrich von Kleist’s “The Marquise of O—” (1808).

Cf. Warren Montag’s (1999) discussion of Spinoza’s critique of Scripture (chapter 1).

The question becomes whether the text is complete and is wholly designed or whether it is fragmented ab initio and has further suffered the vagaries of time and translation.

Let us take the example of Paul Celan’s poem, Sprich Auch Du.

In the original German, the poem opens thus:

Sprich Auch Du

Sprich auch du,
sprich als letzter,
sag deinen Spruch.

In two English translations:

The Felstiner translation—

Speak You Too

Speak you too,
speak as the last,
say out your say.

Celan, Paul (2001). Selected Poems of Paul Celan (Trans. by John Felstiner). New York: W.W. Norton, p. 77.

The Hamburger translation—

Speak, You Also

Speak, you also,
speak as the last,
have your say.

Paul Celan: Selected Poems (Trans. by Michael Hamburger and Christopher Middleton with an Introduction by Michael Hamburger). Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, p. 43

In French translation:

Le Dernier à Parler

Parle, toi aussi,
parle le dernier à parler,
dis ton dire.

Celan, Paul, Le Dernier à parler, Trad. Maurice Blanchot, Montpelier, Fata Morgana, 1984, p. 47.

How much weight can be placed on a comma! How pregnant that pause!
The Felstiner English translation better reflects the look and sound of German on the page.

As with Blanchot’s French translation, the Hamburger English translation that we English readers have lived with for almost 30 years introduces a comma, not written (or at least not marked) in the original German. Only with Felstiner’s translation and dual-language edition did I pause on that pause. Just how we are to construct Celan’s “sprich auch du” (literally: speak also you) is left to us, much as Spinoza’s argument about Scripture and the later diacritical and other textual additions and adornments are embellishments to the incomplete and imperfect original.

This, I believe, gets us closer to Celan’s challenge. He does not leave things out for lack of mastery of the German language. On the contrary, critics have emphasized his total mastery of the very roots of German (see Hamburger and Felstiner). What is left out is conscious and as much part of the text as what is written. Fernando Pessoa said that for lesser artists, language dictates what they say but for great artists, it is the poet who dictates to the language. In both Pessoa and Celan, holding a position as insider-outsider poets, their art dictates to the language and not the other way around. In Celan’s case, it is not so much he who is in question as his experience, the language itself, German, to which (in which/with which) he spoke upon winning the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen (see Celan, 2001).

Let us not jump to a conclusion; neither on the page, nor in life. The hackneyed phrase “a pregnant pause,” as I described the added comma at the beginning, is in fact a misdirection. This punctuation that implies a relation is not. This non-relation will not give issue; it is a pseudocyesis: a false pregnancy. This letter that was never sent will not arrive at its destination (cf. Lacan). It is not pronounced, even in its absence; this non-shibboleth marks no difference, nothing (cf. Derrida). More: it refuses to mark and to signify. What is the missing mark and what is the absent signifier? I suggest that the mark is the mark of the covenant, the sign of the flesh, circumcision. (Isn’t a comma much like a moyel’s knife? You will forget the pain of circumcision, but this knife will leave a mark to give you pause for the rest of your days.) And its absence, returning us to a pre-Judaic humanity, invokes another mark, the mark of Cain. The poem is neither with nor without it. A refusal to mark, to distinguish, to discern. And the absent signifier? It could be as much language itself that is invited to speak as any possible human interlocutor.

And the invitation is at least guardedly hopeful:

Speak (even) as the last
Have your say (Hamburger launches the challenge)
Say out your say (Felstiner clarifies, suggesting patience: we’ll hear you out, you’ll have your day in court)

But there are conditions:

But keep yes and no unsplit
And give your say this meaning:
give it the shade.

As much shade as between midday and midnight!

Be careful, the interlocutor is warned:

He speaks truly who speaks the shade.

The poem ends on deeper warnings.
Speak shades, nuances, which are huge, as large as day and night.
But the very place where you stand is shrinking!
Where will you go?
You grope your way up.
But you go lower. And end up on (shifting) sand dunes of wandering words.

It is no longer the Jew himself who is wandering, marked and signified, but language itself. All we have, shifting and shrinking. Words.

And we are taken to the Paris where Paul Celan wrote and Sameul Beckett asked:

Que voulez-vous, Monsieur? C’est les mots. On n’a rien d’autre.

What would you have, Sir? They're words. We have nothing else.  
(my translation)

The same Paris where Celan, finally despairing of wandering words, committed suicide in the Seine.


Derrida, Jacques. Sovereignties in Question: The Poetics of Paul Celan.

Hawkins, Beth (2003). Reluctant Theologians: Kafka, Celan, Jabès. New York: Fordham University Press.

See: Chapter 3: Toward a Logic of “Both/And,” pp. 69-75


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