Forgetting Ourselves (1)

This is the first in a series of posts.

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 “Those who have art before their eyes and on their minds [. . .] have forgotten themselves. Art draws away from the I. Art here demands a certain distance in a certain direction, on a certain path.”[1]

The poet Paul Celan made those remarks some fifty-six years ago in “The Meridian,” his acceptance speech for the Georg Büchner Prize for literature. That was on October 22, 1960—only fifteen years after the end of World War II and, with it, the Holocaust. Celan was born as Paul Antschel into a Jewish family at Czernowitz, which was then part of the Kingdom of Romania but now belongs to the Ukraine.  Deported into the Nazi concentration camp system in 1942, he survived the Holocaust, in which both his parents died. As pronounced in Romanian, “Celan,” his chosen pen name, is a transposition of the syllables of Antschel.

Such transposition, translation, or transformation also occurs in the case of another survivor of the Holocaust, another who, like Celan, went on to become an important writer, though primarily as an essayist rather than a poet—at least in the narrow sense of that term, the sense in which Celan was primarily a poet. That other case is Jean Améry, born as Hans Mayer in Vienna in 1912 to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, who raised him in that faith. He grew up imbued with German culture and began his career as a writer, before history happened to him personally.

Though he grew up without any self-identification with Judaism himself, in 1935 the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws made Hans Mayer into a Jew, as Améry himself later wrote, forcing that identity upon him even in his native Vienna after the German Anschluss with Austria in 1938. He fled to The Netherlands after the Anschluss, but was eventually arrested there once Germany occupied that country early in World War II. He was imprisoned, tortured, and soon sent to Auschwitz itself for having the very identity that had been forced upon him, the identity of a Jew.

Liberated from the Nazi camp system at the end of the war, the man who had been born Hans Mayer returned to The Netherlands, where he adopted the name Jean Améry, from the French for Johann, of which Hans is a short-form, and a French anagram of Mayer. By his own account, the Germans themselves had robbed him of his own German heritage and the German identity into which he’d been born, and forced him to be a Jew, despite the fact that he had not been raised as one and had no self-identification, before or after Auschwitz, with Jewish culture or religion. What he’d been left with, once all the identity into which he’d been born had been thus stolen from him, was no more than a singular absence of all identity as it were, a void where “Hans Mayer” once had been. He chose “Jean Améry” as a name suited to mark that very absence, that living void, that sheer nameless nothing that remained—just the sort of determinate nothingness that Sartre, whose work had a strong influence on Améry’s thought, says “consciousness” is—what Sartre (borrowing from Hegel) also calls “the for-itself,” his term for “that being that each of us is” (to borrow a way of speaking for myself in turn, this time from Heidegger).

Just as Hans Mayer was robbed of the identity into which he was born in Vienna, so was Paul Antschel robbed of the identity into which he was born in Czernowitz.  Each was left only with his own determinately indentifying absence--two vacuums of identity, marked by the two transposed, translated, and transformed names of Améry and Celan.  All that each was left of who they had once been, as each recognized and said in his own way, was the language each was born into speaking, the “native language” for each, the language that would have been “natural” to each, if either had been allowed to retain any “nature” (all those words—native, natural, nature—deriving, of course, from the Latin natus, “birth”). For both, that was the same language: German.

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In the lines I cited at the beginning of this reflection, as well as in various other passages both in “The Meridian” itself and in his other prose writings, Celan speaks of how art allows those who experience it to “forget themselves.” As that speech itself makes very clear, Celan is very aware of the ambiguity in talk of “forgetting oneself.” 

On the one hand, to “forget oneself” can mean to be set free of what, in a prayer from the book Alcoholics Anonymous that is familiar to all members of AA and other so-called “Twelve-Step” addiction-recovery groups, is aptly called “the bondage of self.” To forget oneself in that sense would be to be released from the bonds that make one focus obsessively and insecurely always on oneself, seeking to fulfill one’s own self-attributed needs, desires, wants, wishes, and ambitions, all the while trying to compensate for one’s own self-perceived flaws, faults, limitations, grievances, and inadequacies. To “forget oneself” in such a primarily positive sense is to find oneself freed from just such compulsive, obsessive self-concern. 

Paradoxically, so freed from oneself in the sense of such self-preoccupation, one is finally set free to be oneself. One is set free to be one’s self just as one is—to be that in all humility and honesty, no longer needing to cling to any grand pretensions and the grand talk that goes with them. One can, as it were, relax about oneself, and let down one’s defenses: let fall all the walls one has built and maintained around oneself in protection against any intrusion by all that is other, strange, alien.

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To be continued.

[1] This and all other citations I will give from “The Meridian” are my own translations from the German original.