Sunday, December 17, 2006

Nicholas Manning on Celan

Nicholas Manning made some interesting points about Paul Celan and interpretation (with three beautiful photos of Celan, one with his wife Giselle). My comments:

1) The worst thing you can do when teaching Celan is what Gerhard Sauder did on the first day of an otherwise wonderful Celan seminar I sat in on in Saarbrücken years ago: "Es freut mich, dass so viele gekommen sind, um diesen schwierigen Lyriker mit mir zu lesen." Once you declare Celan difficult, you've closed off the students to direct access to the poems' beauty. Perhaps I say this because when I first read Celan in a "Literature of the Holocaust" course with John Felstiner, John did not say anything about difficulty, and I read Celan, and the stunning effect of the poems was utterly clear. In terms of reference, the poems had opacities, of course; but as I was able to get right to them as works of art.

2) I find that Celan can be read using careful close-reading techniques as long as my starting point is that I take things literally. The poems may not be referential in the sense of describing realistic scenes, but they do describe scenes.


Andrew Shields said...

The extensive comments on Nicholas's original post are rich and fascinating.

Brian Campbell said...

It's probably not pedagogically wise to declare anything you're teaching difficult...

Andrew Shields said...

Here's the further posted on Nicholas's site:

Since Arne refers you to Badiou, I'll refer to Peter von Matt's book "Die verdächtige Pracht. Über Dichtung und Gedichte," not because he outlines my methods, but because of how he presents his ideas. In the long opening essay, he does a brilliant job of summarizing his two basic points: poems want to be beautiful, and they want to be immortal. (He wonderfully addresses the problem of ugly poems that apparently don't want to be immortal.) At several points in the essay (which began as a lecture), he does lovely close readings -- but when he does, he apologizes for them, saying things like "I'm sorry that I have to be a philologist for a moment." I discussed this with Urs Engeler (a poetry publisher in Basel with an absolutely wonderful list of authors), who was once a student of von Matt's, and Urs said that PvM does that in order to defend his power as the one who does the specialist stuff.

So what Arne and you are doing, Nicholas, is working with the students to avoid that kind of power game. Keep it up!

As for Celan and literalness: let me take a random example that just crossed my mind:

Aus der Hand frißt der Herbst mir sein Blatt: wir sind Freunde.

This may be a strange image in many ways, but take it literally and it is completely clear: the speaker is holding out leaves to autumn, who is eating the leaves out of his hand. This makes them friends.

Obviously, when I say it is clear, I am being a bit tricky, but at least the main issue of the line is clear: autumn is being not personified but at least "animalified." The next two lines do something similar (again, not quite personification, something for which there is not a word, really) with time, but as long as you keep taking it literally, the scene that is described is clear.

And once you have done that, you can begin to ask, "What is autumn here? What is time? What does it mean for the speaker and autumn to become friends because the speaker feeds autumn out of his hand? What does that say about their relationship?

I guess you could call this "respecting the image" rather than "taking it literally."

Andrew Shields said...

Indeed, Celan did persistently refuse to accept the concept "hermetic" when applied to his poems.

The idea that they were "hermetic" certainly had to do with the "defenses" of his German-speaking audience in the 50s and 60s. Consider the difference between Reinhard Baumgart's response to him in the 60s and his rave review of the "Nachlass" in 1997: while discussing Celan as one of the two great German-language poets of the 20th century (the other being Rilke), Baumgart ought to have been honest enough to mention that one of the long, vitriolic poems in the "Nachlass" was written in response to Baumgart's own extremely negative review of one of Celan's books in the early sixties (including the idea of "hermetic" poetry, if I remember correctly).

But as a friend said to me back then, German essayists and reviewers are not in the habit of admitting their own implication in whatever discourses they get involved in.

Duncan, send me an email!