Poetry, Prayer, and Memory (4)

This is the fourth of a series of posts. 

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I’ve been arguing, following the hints given to me in poet Paul Celan’s work, that truly to remember something such as the Holocaust is to keep our attention concentrated upon on it, riveted to it in all its horror. However, as I’ve also just been suggesting, if we think that we will be able to keep that concentration, that remembering, going . . . well, then we are bound to be disappointed, because try as we might we will forget ourselves, by forgetting exactly what we have vowed always to remember, the Holocaust itself. We will always disappoint ourselves sooner or later—and the harder we try to make it later, the more likely it is to come sooner, since that very trying to remember will blot out what it is we are tying so hard to remember.

A brief personal anecdote can illustrate my point.

At various times throughout my youth, various friends or family members tried to teach me to play golf. They all made the same mistake: The all told me to concentrate on the ball. Well, what that made me do was to concentrate so hard on trying to concentrate on the ball that I couldn’t even see the damn ball any longer.

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In 1967, just three years before he committed suicide by jumping into the Seine River in Paris, Paul Celan paid his one and only visit to Martin Heidegger, whose writings had had a major impact on Celan’s thinking and his poetry. Celan went to visit Heidegger in the latter’s ski-hut on the slopes above the little Black Forest town of Todtnauberg-im-Baden, the very place where Heidegger wrote most of Being and Time and many later works. 

There was a little well near Heidegger’s hut, with a star carved into the crosspiece above the opening. Heidegger also kept a guest-book in the hut for visitors to write a line or two in when they visited.

We can gather the substance of what Celan wrote there when he visited from the poem he wrote to commemorate the occasion, a poem appropriately named “Todtnauberg.” Here is that poem, first in German, then in English (Michael Hamburger’s translation again):

Arnika, Augentrost, der
Trunk as dem Brunnen mit dem
Sternwerfel drauf, 

in der

die in das Buch
—wessen Namen nahms auf
vor dem meinen?—,
die in dies Buch
geschriebene Zeile von
einer Hoffnung, heute,
auf ein Denkenden
im Herzen, 

Waldwasen, uneingeebnet,
Orchis und Orchis, einzeln, 

Krudes, spatter, im Fahren,

der uns fährt, der Mensch,
der’s mit anhört, 

die halb-
beschrittenen Knüppel-
pfade im Hochmoor, 



Arnica, eyebright, the
draft from the well with the
star-crowned die above it,

in the

the line
—whose name did the book
register before mine?—,
the line inscribed
in that book about
a hope, today,
of a thinking man’s
in the heart,

woodland sward, unlevelled,
orchid and orchid, single,

coarse stuff, later, clear
in passing,

he who drives, the man,
who listens in,

the half-
trodden fascine
walks over the high moors,


Ever since “Todtnauberg” was first published, many have read that poem as expressive of Celan’s deep disappointment over his visit to Heidegger—the disappointment of never receiving the hoped-for thinker’s word in the heart, the word that would somehow say what needed to be said in response to the Holocaust itself.

Yet ever since I first encountered Celan’s poem, I have wondered just what conceivable word could ever possibly have answered to such a hope. Indeed, what essay, novel, poem, drama, film, or combination or series thereof, could ever possibly succeed in uttering, in saying, just what needs to be said in the face of the Holocaust?

Ever since I first read Celan’s poem, I have also always read it as saying just that very thing. I have read it as saying that any hope such as Celan himself presumably inscribed in Heidegger’s guestbook is one that is doomed to be disappointed. I have read the poem as also saying—and this is the most important thing it says, in my judgment—that it is finally only in the opening to, and accepting of, all the ongoing pain and suffering of having just such never-to-be-satisfied desire that real, pure, absolute hope lies.

Celan, I think, knew that. He knew it, at least, at the level from which his poems themselves came—those poems that come to the end of all art and artificiality, all craft and craftiness, and finally just break apart, giving voice to the silence.

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To be continued.