Art After the Holocaust (3)

This is the third of a series of posts.

*     *     *

As I hear them, the poems of Paul Celan, who survived the Holocaust himself, gives us a definitive example of a poetry that truly comes after the Holocaust both substantively and chronologically. Before going on to make some observations about Celan and post-Holocaust poetry in general, however, I want to give one example from his works, an example of special relevance, I think, in relation to the challenge that such figures as Freud and Améry specifically pose. That example is Celan’s poem “Psalm.”

The poem in question is the one from which the title of the entire Niemandsrose (“No-one’s Rose”) collection of Celan’s poems comes. Here it is, first in the original German:

Niemand knetet uns wieder aus Erde und Lehm, 
niemand bespricht unsern Staub.


Gelobt seiest du, Niemand.
Dir zulieb wollen
wir blühn.

Ein Nichts
waren wir, sind wir, werden
wir bleiben, blühend:
die Nichts-, die

dem Griffel seelenhell,
den Staubfaden himmelswüst,
der Krone rot
vom Purpurwort, das wir sangen
über, o über
dem Dorn.

Now in Michael Hamburger’s English translation:

No one molds us again out of earth and clay,
no one conjures our dust.
No one.

Praised be your name, no one.
For your sake
we shall flower.

A nothing
we were, are, shall
remain, flowering:
the nothing-, the
no one’s rose.

With our pistil soul-bright,
with our stamen heaven-ravaged,
our corolla red
with the crimson word which we sang
over, O over
the thorn.

This poem can be read, and certainly has frequently been read, as expressing the despair of the absence of God, an absence often said to be manifest especially in and by the Holocaust. Thus, it is heard as sounding the hard and cold note of the despair of those who, one way or another, found themselves “without God” in the Holocaust, to use again Jean Améry’s term. 

As Améry himself maintained, not all who went into Auschwitz or the other camps or killing fields where the Holocaust was enacted experienced themselves that way, namely, as being “without God.” Améry even expresses an appreciation of how such a thing as unwavering “faith,” whether in “God” or in something such as the inevitable march of history toward an eventual worldwide classless society, made it easier to survive such places as Auschwitz. Such faith, he says, definitely made it easier for those who had it to survive Auschwitz and its like, easier than it was for someone such as himself, who had no such faith.

As I have already said, Celan’s poem “Psalm” certainly can and has been read as expressing the despair, the hopelessness, of just such victims of the Holocaust who found themselves, like Améry, “without God,” that is, unable to have “faith” in anything, to “believe” in anything, that would transcend the horrific reality of the Holocaust. So read, the title of the poem, “Psalm,” is bitterly ironic. It is used to name what is really an anti-Psalm, in effect. 

  To my own ears, however, the poem has never sounded with the note of such despair, such hopelessness. Rather, to my ears, it has always communicated the very opposite.

*     *     *

Celan’s poem “Psalm,” as I always hear it, communicates—shares out to and with its readers—an altogether new, truly post-Holocaust hope. That is a hope beyond hope in any ordinary sense, any traditional, pre-Holocaust sense, as it were. I would even go so far as to say that “Psalm” sounds the note of an altogether new sort of faith, a faith beyond anything that has typically, before the Holocaust, been called by that name. Such post-Holocaust faith does not attempt to close the wound of the Holocaust. Rather, such faith absolutely insists on keeping that wound open. Truly post-Holocaust faith would be a faith that held onto the wound that is the Holocaust, having full knowledge that the wound can never be closed, just as Jean Améry held onto what he called his “resentments,” knowing full well that they would never be stilled.

As I have already indicated above, Améry in no way rejected or belittled the faith of those whose faith is of one traditional, pre-Holocaust sort or another, whether Jewish, Christian, Communist, or whatever. No more does Celan’s “Psalm,” as I read it, reject or in any way belittle such pre-Holocaust faith.

However, pre-Holocaust faith is of no use to such Holocaust survivors as Améry, or for that matter Celan himself. Such Holocaust survivors as they require a different sort of faith. The faith they require is not a faith holding out any hope that the horrific suffering of the Holocaust might someday, somehow be miraculously redeemed. They do not require a faith holding out hope that the Holocaust will somehow, someday, in some mysterious way be “justified” by anything that may eventually come after it—come either in or outside of “history.” Rather, the only faith that would give such survivors as Celan and Améry any real hope would be faith that the gaping wound that is the Holocaust will forever remain truly memorialized, which is to say forever held gapingly open.

Just that is what I see Celan’s “Psalm” doing: memorializing that gaping wound itself, in the very erecting of a monument of refusal to hold out hope of ever “making sense” out of the Holocaust. Moreover, it is precisely by being itself irresolvable between the two diverse ways of reading or hearing it that I have just sketched that “Psalm” erects itself as such a memorial. That is, it is by leaving “undecidable”—to use a term popularized through Derrida’s writings—in just which of these two incompatible ways it is to be taken: as expressing the deepest despair, or as expressing the highest hope.

Celan’s poetry, not just in “Psalm” but in his other mature poems as well, builds a permanent place for just that undecidability, that irresolvability, that yawning gap—the original meaning of the Greek chaos—itself to take. His poems build places for just such chaos to take, and then to hold, its own place. In that way, Celan’s poetry itself is precisely a Niemandsrose:  a flower that blooms for no one, in a place that itself claims no clear place, but is never more than a yawning gap, a chaos.

*     *     *

To be continued.