Forgetting Ourselves (3)

This is the last of a series of three posts.

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“Expand art? [Die Kunst erweitern?],” asks Celan rhetorically toward the end of “The Meridian.” Has he been trying to do something of the sort in his Büchner Prize acceptance speech itself? “No,” he answers emphatically. “Rather,” he says, he is challenging himself and his listeners, not to expand art, but to narrow it, by “tak[ing] art with you into your own innermost narrowness [Enge].” Take art with you—or perhaps, as we shall see, it would even be possible to say “let art take you”—into that, your own innermost narrowness, Celan says,“[a]nd set yourself free.”

At rare times, what we call art provides us with a moment when we can at last forget ourselves in just such a truly liberating way. At those rare moments, art catches us up short, and opens before us at just that moment the opportunity to forget ourselves and to “set ourselves free”—free from ourselves, and thereby free at last just to be ourselves. It does so, according to Celan, at those moments when we are so suddenly and unexpectedly struck by a work of art, or something at work in that work, that it “takes our breath away,” as we commonly yet accurately say. We encounter “breath-taking beauty,” as we also say.

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Long before reading Celan’s Büchner prize acceptance speech, I myself wrote about an experience of my own that happened even longer ago, an experience in which I suddenly and unexpectedly found my own breath literally taken away, at least for a moment, by a work of art. It was the first time I ever really experienced what I later read Heidegger describe as the “shock” (Stoss) with which the work of art at its greatest suddenly strikes those who are brought to experience it, which is to say to undergo it. That is the shock, as Heidegger says, that such a work simply is—that any such thing could be at all! 

I will not take the time to tell you the story of my own breath-taking (and eye-opening) first experience of that shock of the artwork. Those of you who are interested for any reason are welcome to read my account of it in my book The Stream of Thought (New York: Seabird Press, 1984--copies of which can be purchased directly from me). The only other remark I want to make about the episode here is that it happened when I was still a teenaged student in secondary school, and five years before I first read Heidegger’s account. Reading that account actually brought me a second, lesser shock of its own: the shock of recognition of what Heidegger was describing when he spoke of the shock with which the great work of art can strike those who allow themselves to be brought before it.

Having made that final remark about my own, teenager’s first experience of art’s breath-taking nature, I will now return to Celan, and to his remarks on that very same topic in “The Meridian,” most especially those remarks insofar as they relate to the art that Celan himself practiced, the art of poetry.

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What Celan says, in effect, is that poetry, at least in its purest form, is the art of bringing all the noise, bombast, and grandiloquence of art itself to . . . silence—and thereby setting art itself free, including free to let us who encounter it set ourselves free in turn! Thus, as Celan suggests at one point in his Büchner Prize acceptance speech, “art would be the way that poetry has to put aside behind itself—no less, no more”—in order to become the pure poem. Art would be the way that poetry has to go, in order to free not only itself but also art as such. Free from what, for what? Once again, free from itself, in order to become itself.

In other words, poetry is art gone all the way through to the end of artifice, breaking through grandiloquence into silence, a frightful silence, one from which there remains no more exit, no further escape. What the poet says in pure poetry is “no longer a word,” says Celan. “It is a terrifying silence”—one that “takes [the poet’s]—and our—breath and words away.”

In accord with that idea, he goes on to say this:

Poetry: that can signify a catching of the breath [Atemwende, a term that went on to become the name for one of the collections of Celan’s mature poems]. Who knows? Perhaps poetry lays aside behind itself the way—including the way of art—for the sake of such a catching of the breath. [. . .] Perhaps here, with the I [ich]—with the I set free here and estranged in that fashion—perhaps here yet an other becomes free.

Perhaps it is hence that the poem is itself . . . and that only so can it go again and go further along its other ways, including the ways of art, too.



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