Poetry, Prayer, and Memory (1)

This is the first in a series of posts. 

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At one point in “The Meridian,” his acceptance speech for the 1960 Georg Büchner Prize for literature, poet Paul Celan remarks that “the poem today,” which in his case especially means a day that dawned only after the night of the Holocaust (a day that is still passing by us), “shows, as cannot help but be recognized, a strong tendency toward holding its tongue.”  The German term at issue at the end of that quotation is Verstummen, which means to keep quiet, stop talking, become mute (stumm)—a tendency highly evident in Celan’s own poetry. 

The poem today “asserts itself,” Celan says, “at the fringes of itself, to be able to stand [. . . as] actualized language, set free under the sign of an individuation that is certainly radicalized, but at the same time mindful of the limits imposed upon it, the possibilities opened to it, by language.” Such linguistic individuation is an individuation that is radical in going to the extreme limits of language.

Yet such individuation at the extreme limits of language still remains mindful of its roots in language. In that sense it also remains “radical” in the etymologically original sense of “going to the roots.” That is another, though still related, sense to that of “radical” as “extreme,” “going to the limit”. To put the two together: Such individuation is radical in going to the limit in going to its roots. It brooks no compromise.

Such doubly radical linguistic individuation cannot be found in the chatter of the chatterboxes, including the grandiloquence of the flashiest orators, the fanciest writers. It “can only be found,” Celan says, “in the work of poets who do not forget that they speak from the corner of inclination of their own existence, the center of inclination of their own creatureliness.” Thus, it can only be found in the work of poets who do not forget themselves in the shameless, shameful sense.

So conceived, the poem becomes indeed “the language come-to-form of a singular individual [eines Eizelnen]—and, in accordance with its innermost essence, presence and the present.” Thus, Celan continues:

     The poem is solitary. It is solitary and underway. The one who writes it, comes given along with it.
     But doesn’t the poem precisely thereby also stand, here, in an encounter—in the mystery of an encounter?

     The poem wants others. It needs others. It needs neighbors. It seeks them out. It speaks itself to them.
     To the poem, which counts on the other, every thing, every person is a form of this other.
     The attention [Aufmerksamkeit] the poem strives to dedicate to all who encounter it, its sharper sense for detail, for outline, for structure, for color, but also for “winks” and “hints”—all that is, I believe, no achievement of the daily more perfected apparatuses of competitive (or complicit) eyes. Far rather is it a concentration that remains mindful of all our dates [including, I’ll interject, dates such as September 11 of 2011 or November 9-10 of 1938—Kristallnacht—to give just two examples].
     “Attention”—if you will permit me here to cite a word from Malebranche as given by Walter Benjamin [himself a Holocaust victim, at least in a broad sense: he committed suicide to escape the Nazis] in his essay on Kafka—“Attention is the natural prayer of the soul.” 

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According to Paul Celan, the poem today, a day that dawns after the night of the Holocaust, is an attentive call to all those who have become inattentive, calling them all to turn back and to . . . become attentive. But that means, at least given Celan’s encounter with Malebranche by way of Benjamin, that the poem after the Holocaust is a call to prayer.

If one were to read Celan’s poetry emerging from his survival of the Holocaust and heard in it only the bad news of the despair of those who find themselves utterly bereft of God, and then not long thereafter were to read “The Meridian,” and hear in it, as I do, that for Celan poetry is a call to prayer, one might find one’s breath, at least one’s mental breath, taken away for a moment. The ordinary rhythm of one’s thoughts might be interrupted, one’s ordinary lines of thought broken, and, as it were, something new might appear under the sun. One might all of a sudden begin to hear Celan's post-Holocaust poetry differently, as bringing the good new of a hope beyond hope, a hope arising in hopelessness itself.

Not only that. One might then also begin to hear the good news of the approach—at last, at long last—of a God truly beyond all idolatry. That is to say, one might even begin to hear the good news of the approach at last of a God who is truly, radically Jewish.

What better memorial to the Holocaust could possibly be imagined?

That God would also be a God beyond God, as Meister Eckhardt puts it. As Philippe Lacoue-Labarth said thirty years ago, in his own discussion of Celan’s Niemandsrose ("No-one's Rose") poetry collection, it would be a God who answered, and answered to, Meister Eckhardt’s own prayer when Eckhardt prayed: “Oh God, keep me free of God!”

Furthermore, the “obedience,” the attentive listening (that listening “with the ear of the heart” that a “loving master” entreats us to practice in the opening words of St. Benedict’s Rule, for instance) that such a God demands is no more and no less than just that: obedience, attentive listening, itself.  That, in fact, accords not at all badly with the Johannine equation of God with love, and the idea that, therefore, “the one who loves lives in God, and God lives in that one.”

After all, to love is to be attentive to the other, the beloved, and to forget oneself in the best, most positive sense, in order to honor and serve the beloved, one’s eyes fixed on what is good for the beloved alone. If we love someone, then it is only when we forget ourselves in a different way than the way of love, an un-loving way, that we lose for a time our “concentration” (to use one of Celan’s own words from “The Meridian”) on the wellbeing of the other, and let our selfish concern for our own wellbeing sneak in ahead of our concern for that other, shaming ourselves and our love. Then we need to ask the beloved for forgiveness.  

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To be continued.