The Monkey, the Automaton, the Medusa’s Head: Home Thoughts From the Uncanny
I once had a long conversation with an elderly woman who in 1944 at the age of 21, on a lovely, sunny day in May, had been shipped off from her small town in what is now Romania to Auschwitz. Her survival there was largely a matter of chance, her suffering and losses almost unspeakable. While we drank coffee and talked she told me about her husband, Hugo,another Auschwitz survivor. Unlike her, he came from an urban, German-speaking background, and as a talented musician he was part of an orchestra which included Jews and Gentiles, a group bound together by the love of music and performance. On the day that he was put on a train to the death camp he saw one of his fellow musicians, a non-Jew with whom he was very friendly, at the teeming station. The other man was upset at seeing him. They spoke. The other man helped him onto the train. His last words to Hugo were “Ah, if only all Jews were like you.”
In May 1960, living in Paris, Paul Celan (born Paul Antschel in 1920 in Czernowitz, Romania) was informed by the German Academy of Language and Literature that he had won Germany’s most prestigious literary award, the Georg Büchner Prize. Only sixteen years separated him from the day in 1944 when he somehow managed to get out of a Nazi labor camp in Romania; about nineteen years and a dark eternity separated him from the deaths of his parents in aTransnistrian camp, his father by typhus, his mother by a bullet to the head.
There was a certain improbability in Celan receiving the Büchner Prize. He was not German as far as nationality goes, nor was German in any simple way his mother tongue, though it was
, profoundly, his mother tongue. In his German poetry the language is characterized by dense compounds, neologisms, syntactic breakage, sometimes a word order influenced by Hebrew and Yiddish, ellipses, diction drawn from specialized and obscure sources, vocabulary drawn from Middle High German, foreign words…This was a language and a kind of poetry which irritated part of the German literary establishment. As Amir Eshel tells us only a few months before Celan received notice of the Büchner Prize, the distinguished critic Günter Blöcker reviewed ‘Language Mesh’ (Sprachgitter, 1959) and observed that Celan’s “freedom” vis–à-vis the German language “may lie in his ancestry” — another way to say that the poet is not a native speaker, is not from here, is other, is a Jew.[i]
Celan was deeply disturbed by this and other examples of a barely concealed and sometimes overt anti-Semitism, and in preparing his acceptance speech for the prize he went through what was, he wrote to a friend, “a dark summer”.
Who were these people who were now bestowing honors on him? Eshel describes Celan’s audience as follows: He knew that many of the attending dignitaries had participated knowingly or involuntarily in the Nazi endeavor and that most belonged to the conservative cultural elite of Adenauer’s Germany. He knew, furthermore, that many of them rejected everything his poetry stood for…[ii]
How was he to address them? Could he even
address them? What could he possibly say that would reach across to them from out of the experience of what he sometimes simply called “das was geschah”, “that which happened”? Was it even decent for a Jew to speak of poetry on soil where high culture had accompanied unspeakable barbarity?
Over the dark summer Celan accumulated more than 300 pages of notes for what was to become ‘The Meridian’, a 16 page speech which is one of the most important documents of poetics ever written, a speech he delivered on October 22nd
, 1960 in Darmstadt, a speech where he talks of art, of poetry, of language, of silence, of the other; of places and dates and journeys and routes; where he speaks of a kind of homecoming.
is hardly a text to be justly summarized; rather it is a text that one approaches and sees exfoliate as it engages a large number of other texts, both cited and uncited. To read the text of the delivered speech in conjunction with the preparatory notes is to get a sense of how concentrated it is in language and reference, and to realize that even with the notes to hand one’s process of unpacking all of its ramifications has just begun.
Celan begins by talking about the notion of art in its broadest possible sense, using the work of Georg Büchner himself to frame his ideas. Art he asserts is “a puppet-like, iambically five-footed and…a childless being”, a fundamentally sterile activity. There is also in the world a great deal of conversation about
art. He refers to such a conversation happening within Büchner’s ‘The Death of Danton’ and goes on to remark that this kind of conversation “could be pursued endlessly”. Something, however, interferes with it.
Celan waits to tell us what that interference is, and in the meantime “art returns”. It returns in Büchner’s ‘Woyzeck’ “presented by a carnival barker”, “in the shape of a monkey” wearing “a coat and trousers”. And in Büchner’s ‘Leonce and Lena’ art comes back to where “time and lighting have become unrecognizable. For here we are ‘in flight toward paradise,’ ‘all watches and calendars’ shall soon ‘be shattered,’ even ‘forbidden’…”. And in the presence of “ ‘two world famous automatons’” and a man who says he may be “‘the strangest of them all’” the spectacle before us is “‘Nothing but art and mechanics, nothing but cardboard and watchsprings!’”. Arguably it is naturalistic art and propagandistic art that are being engaged in these quasi-parables. All told, in a few paragraphs, Celan has launched a stealth attack on some of the main currents of the Western artistic tradition, especially in its German form. But where is all this going?
Art still remains “an eternal problem”, Celan says, but “[i]t is easy to talk about art”. However, whenever art is talked about there is inevitably someone who doesn’t know what’s being talked about.
Someone who, nevertheless, “hears the speaker, who ‘sees him speak’, who perceives language and shape, and…breath, that is, direction and destiny.” For Celan, this is the situation of the character of Lucile in Büchner’s play ‘The Death of Danton’ as she watches Danton and Camille go to the scaffold during the Terror after the French Revolution. As they go joyfully to execution they are bathed in their own rhetoric—“many artful words”, “much talk”—while the onlookers think the whole performance is “old hat and boring”. Lucile, however, is “blind to art” and when “all around Camille pathos and sententiousness confirm the triumph of ‘puppet’ and ‘string’” (rhetoric, knotted to real political action and consequences) “…Lucile for whom language is something person-like and tangible” comes out suddenly with ‘Long live the king’”. And this, Celan says, “is the counterword, it is the word that cuts the ‘string’, the word that no longer bows down before ‘the bystanders and old war-horses of history’”. It is the interference he spoke of earlier. “Homage”, he says, “is being paid”, not to some historical monarchist ideal but “to the majesty of the absurd as witness for the presence of the human.” And then, “…I believe that this is…poetry”.
At this point in the speech Celan admits to being “stuck”. He is stuck on an exclamation of Camille in ‘The Death of Danton’: “ ‘—oh, art!’” In order to move forward Celan says he has to put what he calls “the acute [accent] of today” rather than “the grave [accent] of history” or “the circumflex…of the eternal” on ‘—oh, art!’ It takes a while for Celan to amplify the meaning of this but when he does we become aware that it is the present itself that requires a “truly radical calling-into-question of art”. Furthermore, Celan makes a distinction between art (Kunst) and poetry (Dichtung) and asks how they might be related in the present day. And so he turns to and turns over another work of Büchner, the novella ‘Lenz’.
In the passage from ‘Lenz’ that Celan deals with, the title character, an 18th century visionary poet who went mad, walks into the mountains on the 20th of January. In the novella, Lenz describes his desire to capture a scene he witnessed while walking: the vision of two peasant girls sitting on a rock moved him so much that “ ‘[at] times one wishes one were a Medusa’s head in order to turn a group like this into stone, and call everybody over to have a look.’” This is an art which desires to efface its difference from nature; it is an attempt to “grasp the natural as the natural with the help of art!”, as Celan puts it. It is expansive, if not totalitarian, in its aspirations.
“This is”, Celan continues, “a stepping beyond what is human, a stepping into an uncanny (unheimlich) realm turned toward the human—the realm where the monkey, the automatons and with them…oh, art too, seem to be at home”. It is an art which causes estrangement and self-forgetting; human beings forget themselves in the forms which art represents, forms which mimic the human but which are fundamentally unhuman, and even, perhaps inhuman, especially when placed under the acute accent of the present.
But poetry. Present poetry. Poetry is an art isn’t it? How might it differ from the art about which Celan has been speaking?
Celan sets against the Unheimliche, the self-estrangement of human beings in art, a concept of poetry which he will place under the signs of event, individuality and singularity. Rather than an art which enlarges, poetry, which remains uncanny, asks you, the unique individual you, to “go with art into your innermost narrows. And set yourself free.” Poetry shelters the human, not some capital H Human generality but this singular individual here and now. The poem is “one person’s language-become-shape”.
Poetry, then, becomes the art of an individual “who does not forget that he speaks under the angle of inclination of his Being, the angle of inclination of his creatureliness.” This unique “angle” can be thought of as all those circumstances that have led the poet to be who she is right now, personal inheritance and history shaped and warped by History. The language of the poem runs into difficulties here because such an individuality can hardly make itself heard in the words we have at hand. That is why Celan stresses the poem as an event, as being “en route”. The poem is obscure because it is traveling from what has no likeness, and “perhaps it is exactly here that the Medusa’s head shrinks, perhaps it is exactly here that the automatons break down—for this single, short moment”. Art is countered by an Atemwende, a breathturn, where our breath and words are taken away. The poem suspends language and the poem is a singular event occuring in the pure suspension of speech. The poem dangles over an abyss. Under the acute accent of the present (and the Shoah is present) the poem knows a “terrifying silence” into which it is always in danger of falling.
Where do we go from here? Where, precisely, is the poem traveling to?
Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe puts it this way:
In the place (without place) of the elsewhere, an “other” occurs, that is, a singular existent in whose name… the poem maintains the hope of speaking. Estrangement yields ground to the encounter.[iv]
The encounter; a mystery is how Celan describes this encounter. “The poem is lonely. It is lonely and en route. Its author remains added to it.” The author too is lonely and en route, moving towards an encounter with another human being and the creatures of the world in all their mysterious otherness. And so the poem is a kind of dialogue where the poet travels through the uncanny to encounter an other, and in the journey discovers also her-self, him-self; the poem is fastidious in its attentiveness to the specificity of its own angle of inclination and that of the other. “It becomes a conversation—often a desperate conversation”, Celan says. And as authentic conversation is doesn’t impose, it exposes. As an attentive reader of such a poem one is always a unique addressee, exposed too in one’s singularity.
Journeys, journeys, journeys. They are everywhere in the ‘Meridian’, marking the poet and the poem:
Does one take, when thinking of poems, does one take such routes with the poems? Are these routes only re-routings, detours from you to you? But they are also at the same time, among many other routes, routes on which language becomes voice, they are encounters, routes of a voice to a perceiving you, creaturely routes, blueprints for being perhaps, a sending onself ahead toward oneself, in search of oneself…A kind of homecoming.
We have come to the word “homecoming”. There could scarcely be a more burdened word for Celan. Under the Nazis Celan had lost his physical home, his parents, his native land, his history. His home had been literally wiped off the map. On the 26thJanuary, 1958, Celan, accepting a literary award in Bremen said following:
The landscape from which I—by what detours! but are there such things: detours?—the landscape from which I come to you might be unfamiliar to most of you. It is the landscape that was home to a not inconsiderable portion of those Hasidic tales that Martin Buber has retold for us all in German. It was, if I may add to this topographic sketch something that appears before my eyes now from very far away—it was a region in which human beings and books used to live. There in this former province of the Hapsburg monarchy, now fallen into historylessness…[v]
There is no going home to this; it exists as a landscape but much of its human history has gone up in smoke. After such loss all that was left to him, Celan says, is language, the German language common to “us all” (as he addresses his German listeners with what must surely be horrifying irony):
It, the language, remained, not lost, yes in spite of everything. But it had to pass through its own answerlessness, pass through frightful muting, pass through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing 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.[vi]
Is his language, then, Celan’s only home? If it is, it is a most uncanny home, for the journey creates both the “I” who is on the way home and the home itself, an “I” who is as familar and strange as the language of the poem-conversation, perhaps an “I” who is always coming home, always on the way, never quite at home.
There are two poems from ‘Sprachgitter’ , “Heimkehr” (“Homecoming”) and “Unten” (“Underneath”) which walk right beside each other and talk back and forth about home and language.
Schneefall, dichter und dichter,
taubenfarben, wie gestern,
Schneefall, als schliefst du auch jetzt noch.
Weithin, gelagertes Weiß.
die Schlittenspur des Verlornen.
stülpt sich empor,
was den Augen so weh tut,
Hügel um Hügel,
heimgeholt in sein Heute,
ein ins Stumme entglittenes Ich:
hölzern, ein Pflock.
Dort: ein Gefühl,
vom Eiswind herübergeweht,
das sein tauben-, sein schnee–
farbenes Fahnentuch festmacht.[vii]
Snowfall, denser and denser,
dove-coloured as yesterday,
snowfall, as if even now you were sleeping.
White, stacked into distance.
Above it, endless,
the sleigh track of the lost.
what so hurts the eyes,
hill upon hill,
fetched home into its today,
an I slipped away into dumbness:
wooden, a post.
There: a feeling,
blown across by the ice wind
attaching its dove– its snow–
coloured cloth as a flag.[viii]
Heimgeführt ins Vergessen
das Gast-Gespräch unsrer
Heimgeführt Silbe um Silbe, verteilt
auf die tagblinden Würfel, nach denen
die spielende Hand greift, groß,
Und das Zuviel meiner Rede:
angelagert dem kleinen
Kristall in der Tracht deines Schweigens.[ix]
Led home into forgetting,
the guest-conversation of our
Led home, syllable by syllable, divided
among day-blind dice, which
the playing hand grips, large,
in the awakening.
And the too much of my speaking:
heaped up around the small
crystal in the garb of your silence.[x]
In the first poem the whole notion of a homecoming is complicated from the opening stanza by our uncertainty (typical of Celan) of who the “you” addresses. Perhaps it is you and me and all of us in our own time, but if so, it is also a “you” who is of Celan’s own time, a you whose sleeping, whose unawareness of his complicity in all that has happened, necessitates a denser and denser accumulation of language (dichter, denser, puns on Dichter, poet) so that there’s some medium, however impermanent, in which the merest trace of the lost can be inscribed for now.
Perhaps it is only by repressing the reality of “what happened” that you can be at home here—for anyone else attempting to come home the present is pressed upon painfully by the absence of the murdered; dead bodies and possessions that were mounded up for all to see are now invisible. Is the “I” who slips away into dumbness perhaps every individual silenced by murder, silenced by the murder of authenticity through the Nazification of language, as well as those whose condition of being at home is to stay dumb?
And the poem ends in ambiguity—“a feeling”, a word of such Romantic provenance, but detatched from any human person, a generic feeling, not articulated through any human breath but stirred by the coldest wind, dominates the “There”, the place of repression and invisibility. Is the raising of the flag an act of possession, of repossession, of communication, or surrender? Dove-colored, it might be the sign that re-establishes a covenant; snow-colored, it might be a sign of defeat.
Around and within this poem swirl Celan’s intricate relationships with home and homecoming as the Western, and especially German, literary and philosophical traditions have thought about them. Martin Heidegger, a thinker of huge and fraught importance for Celan, had engaged with the concepts of home and homeless throughout his career. In Being and Time, Heidegger’s existential understanding of Dasein, the human Being, reveals that Dasein is uncanny, unheimlich, “not-at-home” as Being-in-the-world, the awareness of which is the source of Angst, anxiety in the face of our finitude. But it is especially in his writings on Hölderlin that Heidegger teases out the connections between home, dwelling and a special understanding of poetry itself.
“Poetically man dwells”, Heidegger claims in an essay of that name, quoting Hölderlin’s poem ‘In Lovely Blue’. Over against the crisis of modernity, of modernity’s instrumentalization of everything, including and perhaps especially language, Heidegger sets human beings in a relationship with nature that is non-manipulative, non-dominating; it is a relationship of authentic dwelling on this earth, and humans beings can be summoned to it by an equally authentic poetry which lets us hear the echos of a lost sacred engagement with the earth hidden by other human modes of being, such as the technological orientation towards the world. Poetic language is an invitation to dwell on earth as safekeepers of “the coming to presence of truth”, not as producers, consumers, and “human resources”.
And yet, for Celan, there is something deeply problematic about Heidegger’s notion of dwelling. In ‘Poetically Man Dwells’ the philosopher says that the “dwelling” he has in mind has nothing to do with the “dwelling conditions” we experience as human beings in society. He speaks, rather, of an abstract, ontological condition; what poetry gives us access to is “a homelessness in which not only human beings but the essence of the human being stumbles aimlessly about”, as he puts it in his ‘Letter On Humanism’. He continues
Homelessness so understood consists in the abandonment of beings by being. Homelessness is the symptom of oblivion of being. Because of it the truth of being remains unthought. The oblivion of being makes itself known indirectly through the fact that the human being always observes and handles only beings.[xi]
Absent from this is the actual homelessness and uprootedness of millions of people after World War II
. The terrible pathways back home, if they even exist, are dissolved into a kind of poetic transcendence. And Celan, as Eshel writes, “alluded…to the fact that for the philosopher, despite the experience of two world wars, the pathway remained comforting and ‘at home’ [heimisch] in its ‘inexhaustible power of the simple,’ a path always leading back to one’s own language, to the solitude and supremacy of the self.”[xii]
For Celan, the uncanny homelessness of the present stems from an historical catastrophe, not some rupture in Being.
Turning to the other poem, ‘Underneath’, here Celan goes down into the “below, hidden” of ‘Homecoming’. To be led home presupposes an inability to go home under one’s own power or an inability to find the way home by oneself, perhaps because of blindness. But it is an unreliable leading (it is easy to hear Führer in –geführt “led”) that leads to forgetfulness when home should surely entail remembering. It is not being at home in what was or is home, and here the phrase “guest-conversation” condenses several ambiguous orientations: it suggests the polite sociability of being in someone else’s home, it suggests being a stranger whose temporary belonging is predicated on a forgetting of differences, it suggests a language whose bare functionality supercedes its meaningfulness.
In the second stanza being led home is (or ought to be) a syllable by syllable path to awakening, to consciousness, to the linguistic fullness of speech. And yet every syllable is spoken under the powers of contingency and chance, and words do not have a straightforward correspondance with a reality that is scarcely graspable.
That is why, to those who would forget, the language of the poem, a Celan poem, is “too much”. Syllable after syllable the poem leads down beneath the superficilaities of an unproblematic sense of home, the poem’s words a denser and denser snow around the cold, clear understanding of “what happened”, not concealing the “crystal” so much as indicating its existence; what really conceals it is “der Tracht”, the traditional Bavarian costume whose folksy homeliness is a cover for the history that many Germans would rather forget.
Homecoming? The word itself was appropriated by the Nazis in a propaganda film commissioned by Goebbels: Heimkehr, directed by Gustav Ucicky, was released in 1941 and showed the tribulations of ethnic Germans living in what was then a part of Poland, their imprisonment, their waiting for execution, their rescue by the German army, and finally their “homecoming” to the Reich.
Syllable by syllable Celan, over many poems, under many different guises, takes thatkind of homecoming apart.
What kind of homecoming is a poem? In Celan’s sense the emphasis must surely be on home–coming, on the journey that is undertaken in the hope of, but not the confidence in, an arrival. Already in his Bremen speech Celan had said that
A poem, being an instance of language, hence essentially dialogue, may be a letter in bottle thrown out into the sea with the — surely not strong — hope that it may somehow wash up somewhere, perhaps on a shoreline of the heart. In this way, too, poems are
en route: they are headed towards.[xiii]
In ‘The Meridian’ he goes further into the notion of dialogue, the poem which counters and encounters, the poem as conversation, “often a desperate conversation”. It’s important to realize that the conversation Celan has in mind here as a figure for the poem has little to do with a simple linguistic exchange; it is nothing like the “guest-conversation” where horror can be concealed under politeness and custom. In the first place there is something strange about the modern poem; as he tells his audience in ‘The Meridian’ “…it is common today to reproach poetry for its ‘obscurity’.” But, he goes on, “This is, I believe, if not the congenital darkness, then however the darkness attributed to poetry for the sake of an encounter from a –perhaps self-created—distance or strangeness.” Remarkably, the poem’s strangeness exists not just for the sake of the reader, this other whom it asks to approach with deep attentiveness and the distancing of self that enables a genuine conversation, an encounter, to occur. It exists for the writer too. “[P]erhaps there are two strangenesses”, says Celan, “—close together, and in one and the same direction.” The other strangeness belongs to the poet, for the poem sets out from the poet’s own date and place, gathers a “you” around “the I addressing and naming it”. The poem acquires meaning on the way to the other and the accretion of meaning is also a manifestation of the other. Simultaneously the poem is mindful of its “dates,” (January 20th , when Lenz walks into the mountains, January 20th, date of the Wansee Conference codifying the systematic destruction of European Jews), markers of the poem’s historical time, but also mindful of the multiplicity of readers’ dates from each of which the poem may be experienced anew.
To describe poems then, as Celan does, as “routes on which language becomes voice…encounters…routes of a voice to a perceiving you, creaturely routes, blueprints for being perhaps, a sending oneself ahead toward oneself, in search of oneself…” is to burden poet and reader together with the same demand to “go into your innermost narrows” where you are strangest to yourself. As a reader, you are exposed in all your self-distancing otherness, just as the poem, lonely and on the way, accompanied by its poet, is. In the chance encounter of meeting you might come home together, an I and a you on the same path, in conversation.
Beyond Celan’s own poetry is there a message in a bottle thrown towards our post-modern now in the form of ‘The Meridian’?
Our contemporary images of the uncanny as un-heimlich, as not-being-at-home, are no longer the monkey in human clothes, the automaton, the dopplegänger, the head of Medusa; rather they are the genetically modified organism, the clone, the cyborg, the zombie. These images point to our anxiety in the face of technologies that blur the distinction between what is natural and human on the one hand and what, on the other hand, present themselves as seemingly natural and human but are not, a topsy-turvy world where corporations are legally people and strawberries contain genes from fish. They point to a global cultural anxiety that everything is spinning out of control—governments, corporations, cybernetics, climate.
We have words that are descriptive enough for all of this—genocide, global warming, terrorism, ecocide—and yet these things continue apace. People are still being helped, politely or otherwise, onto death trains. If as poets and readers of poetry we were to think through to the end the challenges given by Celan, what would be required of us in the face of our catastrophes, both looming and underway, our loss of home, whether through climate change, ecosystem destruction, or the uprootedness of millions by these and by war after war after war? Can we honestly say that a January 20th stands above the poems we write and our reading? Are we ever brave enough to make that turn to the stranger without and within ourselves, to open the authentic conversation with the unknown other who is moving towards us? What kind of poem would we, now, have to write to make this possible?
There is a very late poem of Celan from the posthumously published book Schneepart(‘Snowpart’) which we might take as our talisman:
Steinschlag hinter den Käfern.
Da sah ich einen, der log nicht,
heimstehn in seine Verzweiflung.
Wie deinem Einsamkeitsstrum
glückt ihm die weit
Rockfall, at the beetles’ back.
I saw one there, who didn’t lie,
stand the ground of his brokenness.
The ground of our brokenness may not be the same as Celan’s. We cannot be at home there, but surely it is the only place from which we can write our way homewards.[xvi]
Eshel, Amir, “Paul Celan’s Other: History, Poetics, and Ethics”, New German Critique, No. 91 (2004), p.59
Eshel, Amir, ibid. p.59
All references to ‘The Meridian’ are from ‘The Meridian: final version, drafts, materials’ ed. by Bernhard Böschenstein and Heino Schmull, translated by Pierre Joris, Stanford University Press, 2011.
Lacoue-Labarthe, Phillipe, Poetry As Experience
, translated by Andrea Tarnowski, p59, Stanford University Press, 1999.
Felstiner, John, Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan
, p. 395, W.W. Norton, 2001.
Celan, Paul, Gesammelte Werke,
Erster Band, p. 156, Suhrkamp, 2000.
Translated by Michael Hamburger in Poems of Paul Celan
, p.111, Persea Books, 1989.
Celan, Paul, Gesammelte Werke,
Erster Band, p. 157, Suhrkamp, 2000.
Translated by Shira Wolosky in Language Mysticism: The Negative Way of Language in Eliot, Beckett, and Celan
, p. 172, Stanford University Press, 1995.
Heidegger, Martin, ‘Letter On Humanism’, in Pathmarks
, ed. by William McNeill, p. 258, Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Eshel, Amir, ibid. p. 70
Felstiner, John, ibid. p. 395
Celan, Paul, Gesammelte Werke,
Zweiter Band, p. 400, Suhrkamp, 2000.
Translated by Ian Fairley in Snowpart
, p. 125, The Sheep Meadow Press, 2007.
This essay is dedicated to my late friend and colleague, Aliza Mizrachi Keddem 1930 – 2012.