Tuesday, January 22, 2008


Die Kunst ... bildet ... den Gegenstand einer Unterhaltung, die in einem Zimmer, also nicht in der Conciergerie stattfindet, einer Unterhaltung, die, das spüren wir, endlos fortgesetzt werden könnte, wenn nichts dazwischenkäme.

Es kommt etwas dazwischen.

Paul Celan, "Meridian"

In John Felstiner's translation:

Art forms the subject of a conversation that takes place in a room, not in the Conciergerie prison, a conversation that could go on endlessly, we feel, if nothing intervened.

Something does intervene.

Beautifully, when Celan identifies art as "the subject of a conversation," he chooses the word "Unterhaltung" and not the word "Gespräch" (which he does use later in "Meridian"). You see, "Unterhaltung" can also mean "entertainment." Celan is not usually identified as someone whose poetry one reads and thinks about for entertainment, but I have always derived the greatest possible intellectual entertainment from reading, thinking about, and discussing his work with people. It can be a harrowing experience, discussing Celan, but harrowing experiences are part of what constitutes art—as the age-old concept of tragic catharsis makes clear.

The scene Celan is referring to is in Büchner's "Danton's Death," and the conversation involves several revolutionaries (including Danton) who have been condemned to death. So what "intervenes" here is a death sentence.

There are many ways to read this intervention, but all of them involve a recognition that although art is a matter of "Unterhaltung" in the sense of both conversation and entertainment, art works provide the best material for "Unterhaltungen" when they recognize the imminence of interruption, of "intervention," of death sentences.

Poems can be "lighter than air," but at their best, their lightness points towards something unbearable, harrowing, cathartic.


brian (baj) salchert said...

This is a singular post.

Andrew Shields said...

Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed it!