Poetry, Prayer, and Memory (2)

This is the second in a series of posts. 

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The God we encounter in Paul Celan’s poems in his Niemandsrose collection, the God to whom such poetry after the Holocaust calls us to pray, would be a God to whom even such “pure” Jews as Sigmund Freud and Jean Améry could pray.

By “pure” Jews I mean Jews whose Jewish identity consists of no identification with any special Jewish religious or cultural practice. “Pure” Jews are those who, like Freud, are just Jews at the level of a pure essence that they probably cannot even express, as Freud himself once put it.

Such pure Jews still do pray, however. They pray pure prayer. They pray pure prayer whenever they concentrate attentively.

In that sense, the only one finally relevant to my own real concerns, Freud prayed when he concentrated attentively on his own and other dreamers’ dreams and what they called the dreamer to attend to. In turn, Améry prayed when he concentrated attentively on to his own and other Holocaust survivors “resentments,” and the response they called for from those at whom they were directed.

If to pray is to be attentive (as Malbranche by way of Walter Benjamin by way of Paul Celan in "The Meridian" says it is), and if to pray is also to raise one’s mind to God, as an ancient Christian definition by Evagrius of Pontus has long had it, then to pray, to raise one’s mind to God, is not to raise one’s mind to anyone or anything in particular. It is to raise one’s mind to no one. It is, therefore, to raise one’s mind to that God who lies beyond all possibility any longer of any sort of idolatry. 

The pure prayer that prays to such a pure God as such pure Jews as Freud and Améry might pray to, is prayer after the Holocaust. Such pure prayer, the only sort of prayer that is truly “after” the Holocaust substantively and not just chronologically, is this alone, and nothing but this alone: attention itself.

The only God to whom one still has any right to pray after the Holocaust is born in the individual soul whenever attention flowers there. That God, the only one, true God after the Holocaust, is no less born in the one upon whom such attention concentrates.

Attention sees all things with the eyes of love, which is to say—at least if the John of the Christian Gospels is to be heard—with the eyes of God. At the same time, to modify a bit another formula from Meister Eckhardt, the eye with which God sees us is the same as the eye which sees God, so that wherever God’s eye looks, it sees itself looking back at it. God looking anywhere sees only God looking back, wherever God looks.

To remember the Holocaust is to answer the call to pray, to pray in just such a way to just such a God. That means that to remember the Holocaust is to become attentive.

Attentive to what?

To one another, and to everything we share in the world about us.

To remember the Holocaust is to forget ourselves and let ourselves be borne up to pure God in pure prayer.

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The poet after the Holocaust is called to the task of catching the breath and attention of those who encounter their poems. In turn, the task to which the encounter with the solitary poems of such singular poets calls those who do so encounter them, is that of growing attentive themselves. In that way, poetry after the Holocaust calls all of us, both poets and those who read their poems, to join together into one great community of attention—which is to say of prayer, at least if we are mindful of Malebranche’s definition of prayer, as Celan calls upon us to be in “The Meridian.” 

What is more, if prayer just is attention, we can pray anonymously, as it were. That is we can pray without ever even thinking of what we are doing as praying. Nor is there anything sacred, if I may put it that way, about that very word prayer, such that it is the only, or even the best, word to name what we are doing.

Similarly, in such anonymous prayer to whom or what we pray can also remain anonymous, even in the most heartfelt prayer. If we still choose to use the word God in that case, to name the intended recipient of our prayer, then we use that word solely as a marker of a very specific determinate absence or nothingness, one free of all idols.

We might well say that the God to whom such anonymous prayer prays must be an anonymous God. Indeed, given the sources with which we are working, the truest, purest prayer is surely just such anonymous prayer to such an anonymous God.

What is more, that anonymous God is a God who, as the proper recipient of such pure prayer, always answers our prayers. That anonymous God is a God who answers “here I am,” even before we ask, as we are promised by the God of the Psalms and elsewhere in the Bible. That God is one who, most especially, grants to us the prayer we can pray with Meister Eckhardt, the prayer to God please to free us from God. 

How could one’s prayer possibly be more purely and essentially Jewish, in just the way that Freud and Améry remain purely and essentially Jewish, than such pure, anonymous prayer to such a purely divine, which is to say absolutely non-idolatrous, anonymous God? What other way of praying could possibly go further toward honoring the most definitively Jewish of all commandments, the very commandment against idolatry? To be so concentrated in our attention to one another and to all the gifts of nature or creation that surround us that we forget ourselves altogether, even our names and what we are doing, no less than we forget anything in or about the object of our concentrated attention that might separate us from that object, anything that makes it “different” from us—what could be more immune against idolatry in any form?

That God is the answer to all our prayers, if only we keep our attention focused.

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To be continued.