Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Monkey, the Automaton, the Medusa’s Head: Home Thoughts From the Uncanny [On Paul Celan]

The Monkey, the Automaton, the Medusa’s Head: Home Thoughts From the Uncanny
by Ger Killeen
 I once had a long conversation with an elderly woman who in 1944 at the age of 21, on a lovely, sunny day in May, had been shipped off from her small town in what is now Romania to Auschwitz. Her survival there was largely a matter of chance, her suffering and losses almost unspeakable. While we drank coffee and talked she told me about her husband, Hugo,another Auschwitz survivor. Unlike her, he came from an urban, German-speaking background, and as a talented musician he was part of an orchestra which included Jews and Gentiles, a group bound together by the love of music and performance. On the day that he was put on a train to the death camp he saw one of his fellow musicians, a non-Jew with whom he was very friendly, at the teeming station. The other man was upset at seeing him. They spoke. The other man helped him onto the train. His last words to Hugo were “Ah, if only all Jews were like you.”
 In May 1960, living in Paris, Paul Celan (born Paul Antschel in 1920 in Czernowitz, Romania) was informed by the German Academy of Language and Literature that he had won Germany’s most prestigious literary award, the Georg Büchner Prize. Only sixteen years separated him from the day in 1944 when he somehow managed to get out of a Nazi labor camp in Romania; about nineteen years and a dark eternity separated him from the deaths of his parents in aTransnistrian camp, his father by typhus, his mother by a bullet to the head.
 There was a certain improbability in Celan receiving the Büchner Prize. He was not German as far as nationality goes, nor was German in any simple way his mother tongue, though it was, profoundly, his mother tongue. In his German poetry the language is characterized by dense compounds, neologisms, syntactic breakage, sometimes a word order influenced by Hebrew and Yiddish, ellipses, diction drawn from specialized and obscure sources, vocabulary drawn from Middle High German, foreign words...This was a language and a kind of poetry which irritated part of the German literary establishment. As Amir Eshel tells us
 only a few months before Celan received notice of the Büchner Prize, the distinguished critic Günter Blöcker reviewed ‘Language Mesh’ (Sprachgitter, 1959) and observed that Celan's "freedom" vis-à-vis the German language "may lie in his ancestry" - another way to say that the poet is not a native speaker, is not from here, is other, is a Jew.[i]
 Celan was deeply disturbed by this and other examples of a barely concealed and sometimes overt anti-Semitism,  and in preparing his acceptance speech for the prize he went through what was, he wrote to a friend, “a dark summer”.
 Who were these people who were now bestowing honors on him? Eshel describes Celan’s audience as follows:
 He knew that many of the attending dignitaries had participated knowingly or involuntarily in the Nazi endeavor and that most belonged to the conservative cultural elite of Adenauer's Germany. He knew, furthermore, that many of them rejected everything his poetry stood for...[ii]
 How was he to address them? Could he even address them? What could he possibly say that would reach across to them from out of the experience of what he sometimes simply called “das was geschah”, “that which happened”? Was it even decent for a Jew to speak of poetry on soil where high culture had accompanied unspeakable barbarity?
 Over the dark summer Celan accumulated more than 300 pages of notes for what was to become ‘The Meridian’, a 16 page speech which is one of the most important documents of poetics ever written, a speech he delivered on October 22nd, 1960 in Darmstadt,  a speech where he talks of art, of poetry, of language, of silence, of the other; of places and dates and journeys and routes; where he speaks of a kind of homecoming.  
 ‘The Meridian’[iii] is hardly a text to be justly summarized; rather it is a text that one approaches and sees exfoliate as it engages a large number of other texts, both cited and uncited. To read the text of the delivered speech in conjunction with the preparatory notes is to get a sense of how concentrated it is in language and reference, and to realize that even with the notes to hand one’s process of unpacking all of its ramifications has just begun.
 Celan begins by talking about the notion of art in its broadest possible sense, using the work of Georg Büchner himself to frame his ideas. Art he asserts is “a puppet-like, iambically five-footed and...a childless being”, a fundamentally sterile activity. There is also in the world a great deal of conversation about art. He refers to such a conversation happening within Büchner’s ‘The Death of Danton’ and  goes on to remark that this kind of conversation “could be pursued endlessly”. Something, however, interferes with it.
 Celan waits to tell us what that interference is, and in the meantime “art returns”. It returns in Büchner’s ‘Woyzeck’  “presented by a carnival barker”, “in the shape of a monkey” wearing “a coat and trousers”.  And in Büchner’s ‘Leonce and Lena’ art comes back to where “time and lighting have become unrecognizable. For here we are ‘in flight toward paradise,’ ‘all watches and calendars’ shall soon ‘be shattered,’  even ‘forbidden’...”.  And in the presence of “ ‘two world famous automatons’”  and a man who says he may be “‘the strangest of them all’”  the spectacle before us is “‘Nothing but art and mechanics, nothing but cardboard and watchsprings!’”. Arguably it is naturalistic art and propagandistic art that are being engaged in these quasi-parables. All told, in a few paragraphs, Celan has launched a stealth attack on some of the main currents of the Western artistic tradition, especially in its German form. But where is all this going?
 Art still remains “an eternal problem”, Celan says, but “[i]t is easy to talk about art”. However, whenever art is talked about there is inevitably someone who doesn’t know what’s being talked about.
Someone who, nevertheless, “hears the speaker, who ‘sees him speak’, who perceives language and shape, and...breath, that is, direction and destiny.” For Celan, this is the situation of the character of Lucile in Büchner’s play ‘The Death of Danton’ as she watches Danton and Camille go to the scaffold during the Terror after the French Revolution. As they go joyfully to execution they are bathed in their own rhetoric—“many artful words”, “much talk”—while the onlookers think the whole performance is “old hat and boring”. Lucile, however, is “blind to art” and when “all around Camille pathos and sententiousness confirm the triumph of ‘puppet’ and ‘string’” (rhetoric, knotted to real political action and consequences) “...Lucile for whom language is something person-like and tangible”  comes out suddenly with ‘Long live the king’”.  And this, Celan says, “is the counterword, it is the word that cuts the ‘string’, the word that no longer bows down before ‘the bystanders and old war-horses of history’”. It is the interference he spoke of earlier. “Homage”, he says, “is being paid”, not to some historical monarchist ideal but “to the majesty of the absurd as witness for the presence of the human.”  And then,  “...I believe that this is...poetry”.
 At this point in the speech Celan admits to being “stuck”. He is stuck on an exclamation of Camille in ‘The Death of Danton’: “ ‘—oh, art!’” In order to move forward Celan says he has to put what he calls “the acute [accent] of today” rather than “the grave [accent] of history” or “the circumflex...of the eternal” on ‘—oh, art!’  It takes a while for Celan to amplify the meaning of this but when he does we become aware that it is the present itself that requires a “truly radical calling-into-question of art”. Furthermore, Celan makes a distinction between art (Kunst) and poetry (Dichtung) and asks how they might be related in the present day. And so he turns to and turns over another work of Büchner,  the novella ‘Lenz’.
 In the passage from ‘Lenz’ that Celan deals with, the title character, an 18th century visionary poet who went mad, walks into the mountains on the 20th of January. In the novella, Lenz describes his desire to capture a scene he witnessed while walking: the vision of two peasant girls sitting on a rock moved him so much that  “ ‘[at] times one wishes one were a Medusa’s head in order to turn a group like this into stone, and call everybody over to have a look.’”  This is an art which desires to efface its difference from nature; it is an attempt to “grasp the natural as the natural with the help of art!”, as Celan puts it. It is expansive, if not totalitarian, in its aspirations.
 “This is”, Celan continues, “a stepping beyond what is human, a stepping into an uncanny (unheimlich) realm turned toward the human—the realm where the monkey, the automatons and with them...oh, art too, seem to be at home”.  It is an art which causes estrangement and self-forgetting; human beings forget themselves in the forms which art represents, forms which mimic the human but which are fundamentally unhuman, and even, perhaps inhuman, especially when placed under the acute accent of the present.
 But poetry. Present poetry. Poetry is an art isn’t it? How might it differ from the art about which Celan has been speaking? 

Celan sets against  the Unheimliche, the self-estrangement of human beings in art, a concept of poetry which he will place under the signs of event, individuality and singularity.  Rather than an art which enlarges, poetry, which remains uncanny,  asks you, the unique individual you, to “go with art into your innermost narrows. And set yourself free.”  Poetry shelters the human,  not some capital H Human generality but this singular individual here and now. The poem is “one person’s language-become-shape”.
Poetry, then, becomes the art of an individual “who does not forget that he speaks under the angle of inclination of his Being, the angle of inclination of his creatureliness.” This unique “angle” can be thought of as all those circumstances that have led the poet to be who she is right now, personal inheritance and history shaped and warped by History. The language  of the poem runs into difficulties here because such an individuality can hardly make itself heard in the words we have at hand. That is why Celan stresses the poem as an event, as being “en route”.  The poem is obscure because it is traveling from what has no likeness, and “perhaps it is exactly here that the Medusa’s head shrinks, perhaps it is exactly here that the automatons break down—for this single, short moment”. Art is countered by an Atemwende, a breathturn, where our breath and words are taken away. The poem suspends language and the poem is a singular event occuring in the pure suspension of speech. The poem dangles over an abyss. Under the acute accent of the present (and the Shoah is present) the poem knows a “terrifying silence” into which it is always in danger of falling.
 Where do we go from here?  Where, precisely, is the poem traveling to?
 Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe puts it this way:

In the place (without place) of the elsewhere, an "other" occurs, that is, a singular existent in whose name... the poem maintains the hope of speaking. Estrangement yields ground to the encounter.[iv]

  The encounter;  a mystery is how Celan describes this encounter.  “The poem is lonely. It is lonely and en route. Its author remains added to it.”  The author too is lonely and en route, moving towards an encounter with another human being and the creatures of the world in all their mysterious otherness. And so the poem is a kind of dialogue where the poet travels through the uncanny to encounter an other, and in the journey discovers also her-self, him-self; the poem is fastidious in its attentiveness to the specificity of its own angle of inclination and that of the other.  “It becomes a conversation—often a desperate conversation”, Celan says. And as authentic conversation is doesn’t impose, it exposes.  As an attentive reader of such a poem one is always a unique addressee, exposed too in one’s singularity.
 Journeys, journeys, journeys.  They are everywhere in the ‘Meridian’, marking the poet and the poem:

Does one take, when thinking of poems, does one take such routes with the poems? Are these routes only re-routings, detours from you to you? But they are also at the same time, among many other routes, routes on which language becomes voice, they are encounters, routes of a voice to a perceiving you, creaturely routes, blueprints for being perhaps, a sending onself ahead toward oneself, in search of oneself...A kind of homecoming.


 We have come to the word “homecoming”. There could scarcely be a more burdened word for Celan. Under the Nazis Celan had lost his physical home, his parents, his native land, his history. His home had been literally wiped off the map. On the 26th January, 1958, Celan, accepting a literary award in Bremen said following:

The landscape from which I—by what detours! but are there such things: detours?—the landscape from which I come to you might be unfamiliar to most of you. It is the landscape that was home to a not inconsiderable portion of those Hasidic tales that Martin Buber has retold for us all in German. It was, if I may add to this topographic sketch something that appears before my eyes now from very far away—it was a region in which human beings and books used to live. There in this former province of the Hapsburg monarchy, now fallen into historylessness...[v]

 There is no going home to this; it exists as a landscape but much of its human history has gone up in smoke. After such loss all that was left to him, Celan says, is language, the German language common to “us all” (as he addresses his German listeners with what must surely be horrifying irony):

It, the language, remained, not lost, yes in spite of everything. But it had to pass through its own answerlessness, pass through frightful muting, pass through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech. It passed through and gave back no words for that which happened; yet it passed through this happening. Passed through and could come to light again, “enriched” by all this.[vi]

    Is his language, then, Celan’s only home? If it is, it is a most uncanny home, for  the journey creates both the “I” who is on the way home and the home itself,  an “I” who is as familar and strange as the language of the poem-conversation, perhaps an “I” who is always coming home, always on the way, never quite at home.
 There are two poems from ‘Sprachgitter’ , “Heimkehr” (“Homecoming”) and “Unten” (“Underneath”) which walk right beside each other and talk back and forth about home and language.


Schneefall, dichter und dichter,
taubenfarben, wie gestern,
Schneefall, als schliefst du auch jetzt noch.

Weithin, gelagertes Weiß.
Drüberhin, endlos,
die Schlittenspur des Verlornen.

Darunter, geborgen,
stülpt sich empor,
was den Augen so weh tut,
Hügel um Hügel,

Auf jedem,
heimgeholt in sein Heute,
ein ins Stumme entglittenes Ich:
hölzern, ein Pflock.

Dort: ein Gefühl,
vom Eiswind herübergeweht,
das sein tauben-, sein schnee-
farbenes Fahnentuch festmacht.[vii]

Snowfall, denser and denser,
dove-coloured as yesterday,
snowfall, as if even now you were sleeping.

White, stacked into distance.
Above it, endless,
the sleigh track of the lost.

Below, hidden,
presses up
what so hurts the eyes,
hill upon hill,

On each,
fetched home into its today,
an I slipped away into dumbness:
wooden, a post.

There: a feeling,
blown across by the ice wind
attaching its dove- its snow-
coloured cloth as a flag.[viii]


Heimgeführt ins Vergessen
das Gast-Gespräch unsrer
langsamen Augen.

Heimgeführt Silbe um Silbe, verteilt
auf die tagblinden Würfel, nach denen
die spielende Hand greift, groß,
im Erwachen.

Und das Zuviel meiner Rede:
angelagert dem kleinen
Kristall in der Tracht deines Schweigens.[ix]


Led home into forgetting,
the guest-conversation of our
slow eyes.

Led home, syllable by syllable, divided
among day-blind dice, which
the playing hand grips, large,
in the awakening.

And the too much of my speaking:
heaped up around the small
crystal in the garb of your silence.[x]

 In the first poem the whole notion of a homecoming is complicated from the opening stanza by our uncertainty (typical of Celan) of who the “you” addresses. Perhaps it is you and me and all of us in our own time, but if so, it is also a “you” who is of Celan’s own time, a  you whose sleeping, whose unawareness of his complicity in all that has happened, necessitates a denser and denser accumulation of language (dichter, denser, puns on Dichter, poet) so that there’s some medium, however impermanent, in which the merest trace of the lost can be inscribed for now.
 Perhaps it is only by repressing the reality of “what happened” that you can be at home here—for anyone else attempting to come home the present is pressed upon painfully by the absence of the murdered; dead bodies and possessions that were mounded up for all to see are now invisible. Is the “I” who slips away into dumbness perhaps every individual silenced by murder, silenced by the murder of authenticity through the Nazification of language, as well as those whose condition of being at home is to stay dumb?
 And the poem ends in ambiguity—“a feeling”, a word of such Romantic provenance, but detatched from any human person, a generic feeling, not articulated through any human breath but stirred by the coldest wind, dominates the “There”, the place of repression and invisibility. Is the raising of the flag an act of possession, of repossession, of communication, or surrender? Dove-colored, it might be the sign that re-establishes a covenant; snow-colored, it might be a sign of defeat.
 Around and within this poem swirl Celan’s intricate relationships with home and homecoming as the Western, and especially German, literary and philosophical traditions have thought about them. Martin Heidegger, a thinker of huge and fraught importance for Celan, had engaged with the concepts of home and homeless throughout his career. In Being and Time, Heidegger's existential understanding of Dasein, the human Being, reveals that Dasein is uncanny, unheimlich,  "not-at-home" as Being-in-the-world, the awareness of which is the source of Angst, anxiety in the face of our finitude. But it is especially in his writings on Hölderlin that Heidegger teases out the connections between home, dwelling and a special understanding of poetry itself.
  “Poetically man dwells”, Heidegger claims in an essay of that name, quoting Hölderlin’s poem ‘In Lovely Blue’. Over against the crisis of modernity, of modernity’s instrumentalization of everything, including and perhaps especially language, Heidegger sets human beings in a relationship with nature that is non-manipulative, non-dominating; it is a relationship of authentic dwelling on this earth, and humans beings can be summoned to it by an equally authentic poetry which lets us hear the echos of a lost sacred engagement with the earth hidden by other human modes of being, such as the technological orientation towards the world. Poetic language is an invitation to dwell on earth as safekeepers of “the coming to presence of truth”, not as producers, consumers, and “human resources”.
 And yet, for Celan, there is something deeply problematic about Heidegger’s notion of dwelling. In ‘Poetically Man Dwells’ the philosopher says that the “dwelling” he has in mind has nothing to do with the “dwelling conditions” we experience as human beings in society. He speaks, rather, of an abstract, ontological condition; what poetry gives us access to is “a homelessness in which not only human beings but the essence of the human being stumbles aimlessly about”, as he puts it in his ‘Letter On Humanism’. He continues

 Homelessness so understood consists in the abandonment of beings by being. Homelessness is the symptom of oblivion of being. Because of it the truth of being remains unthought. The oblivion of being makes itself known indirectly through the fact that the human being always observes and handles only beings.[xi]
 Absent from this is the actual homelessness and uprootedness of millions of people after World War II. The terrible pathways back home, if they even exist, are dissolved into a kind of poetic transcendence. And Celan, as Eshel writes, “ the fact that for the philosopher, despite the experience of two world wars, the pathway remained comforting and ‘at home’ [heimisch] in its ‘inexhaustible power of the simple,’ a path always leading back to one's own language, to the solitude and supremacy of the self.”[xii] For Celan, the uncanny homelessness of the present stems from an historical catastrophe, not some rupture in Being.

 Turning to the other poem, ‘Underneath’, here Celan goes down into the “below, hidden” of ‘Homecoming’. To be led home presupposes an inability to go home under one’s own power or an inability to find the way home by oneself, perhaps because of blindness. But it is an unreliable leading (it is easy to hear Führer in –geführt “led”) that leads to forgetfulness when home should surely entail remembering. It is not being at home in what was or is home, and here the phrase “guest-conversation” condenses several ambiguous orientations: it suggests the polite sociability of being in someone else’s home, it suggests being a stranger whose temporary belonging is predicated on a forgetting of differences, it suggests a language whose bare functionality supercedes its meaningfulness.
 In the second stanza being led home is (or ought to be) a syllable by syllable path to awakening, to consciousness, to the linguistic fullness of speech. And yet every syllable is spoken under the powers of contingency and chance, and words do not have a straightforward correspondance with a reality that is scarcely graspable.
 That is why, to those who would forget, the language of the poem, a Celan poem, is “too much”. Syllable after syllable the poem leads down beneath the superficilaities of an unproblematic sense of home, the poem’s words a denser and denser snow around the cold, clear understanding of “what happened”, not concealing the “crystal” so much as indicating its existence; what really conceals it is “der Tracht”, the traditional Bavarian costume whose folksy homeliness is a cover for the history that many Germans would rather forget.
 Homecoming? The word itself was appropriated by the Nazis in a propaganda film commissioned by Goebbels: Heimkehr, directed by Gustav Ucicky, was released in 1941 and showed the tribulations of ethnic Germans living in what was then a part of Poland, their imprisonment, their waiting for execution, their rescue by the German army, and finally their “homecoming” to the Reich.
 Syllable by syllable Celan, over many poems, under many different guises, takes that kind of homecoming apart.


 What kind of homecoming is a poem? In Celan’s sense the emphasis must surely be on home-coming, on the journey that is undertaken in the hope of, but not the confidence in, an arrival. Already in his Bremen speech Celan had said that

 A poem, being an instance of language, hence essentially dialogue, may be a letter in bottle thrown out into the sea with the - surely not strong - hope that it may somehow wash up somewhere, perhaps on a shoreline of the heart. In this way, too, poems are en route: they are headed towards.[xiii]

In ‘The Meridian’ he goes further into the notion of dialogue, the poem which counters and encounters, the poem as conversation, “often a desperate conversation”. It’s important to realize that the conversation Celan has in mind here as a figure for the poem has little to do with a simple linguistic exchange; it is nothing like the “guest-conversation” where horror can be concealed under politeness and custom. In the first place there is something strange about the modern poem; as he tells his audience in ‘The Meridian’ “ is common today to reproach poetry for its ‘obscurity’.” But, he goes on, “This is, I believe, if not the congenital darkness, then however the darkness attributed to poetry for the sake of an encounter from a –perhaps self-created—distance or strangeness.” Remarkably, the poem’s strangeness exists not just for the sake of the reader, this other whom it asks to approach with deep attentiveness and the distancing of self that enables a genuine conversation, an encounter, to occur. It exists for the writer too. “[P]erhaps there are two strangenesses”, says Celan, “—close together, and in one and the same direction.” The other strangeness belongs to the poet, for the poem sets out from the poet’s own date and place, gathers a “you” around “the I addressing and naming it”. The poem acquires meaning on the way to the other and the accretion of meaning is also a manifestation of the other. Simultaneously the poem is mindful of  its "dates,"  (January 20th , when Lenz walks into the mountains, January 20th, date of the Wansee Conference codifying the systematic destruction of European Jews), markers of  the poem’s historical time, but also mindful of the multiplicity of readers’ dates from each of which the poem may be experienced anew.
 To describe poems then, as Celan does, as “routes on which language becomes voice...encounters...routes of a voice to a perceiving you, creaturely routes, blueprints for being perhaps, a sending oneself ahead toward oneself, in search of oneself...” is to burden poet and reader together with the same demand to “go into your innermost narrows” where you are strangest to yourself. As a reader, you are exposed in all your self-distancing otherness, just as the poem, lonely and on the way, accompanied by its poet, is. In the chance encounter of meeting you might come home together, an I and a you on the same path, in conversation.


 Beyond Celan’s own poetry is there a message in a bottle thrown towards our post-modern now in the form of ‘The Meridian’?  
 Our contemporary images of the uncanny as un-heimlich, as not-being-at-home, are no longer the monkey in human clothes, the automaton, the dopplegänger, the head of Medusa; rather they are the genetically modified organism, the clone, the cyborg, the zombie. These images point to our anxiety in the face of technologies that blur the distinction between what is natural and human on the one hand and what, on the other hand, present themselves as seemingly natural and human but are not, a topsy-turvy world where corporations are legally people and strawberries contain genes from fish. They point to a global cultural anxiety that everything is spinning out of control—governments, corporations, cybernetics, climate.
 We have words that are descriptive enough for all of this—genocide, global warming, terrorism, ecocide—and yet these things continue apace. People are still being helped, politely or otherwise, onto death trains. If as poets and readers of poetry we were to think through to the end the challenges given by Celan, what would be required of us in the face of our catastrophes, both looming and underway, our loss of home, whether through climate change, ecosystem destruction, or the uprootedness of millions by these and by war after war after war? Can we honestly say that a January 20th stands above the poems we write and our reading? Are we ever brave enough to make that turn to the stranger without and within ourselves, to open the authentic conversation with the unknown other who is moving towards us? What kind of poem would we, now, have to write to make this possible?
 There is a very late poem of Celan from the posthumously published book Schneepart (‘Snowpart’) which we might take as our talisman:

Steinschlag hinter den Käfern.
Da sah ich einen, der log nicht,
heimstehn in seine Verzweiflung.

Wie deinem Einsamkeitsstrum
glückt ihm die weit
ausschreitende Stille.[xiv]

Rockfall, at the beetles’ back.
I saw one there, who didn’t lie,
stand the ground of his brokenness.

Happy—like your storm
of solitude—his far
carrying calm.[xv]

The ground of our brokenness may not be the same as Celan’s. We cannot be at home there, but surely it is the only place from which we can write our way homewards.[xvi]


[i] Eshel, Amir, “Paul Celan's Other: History, Poetics, and Ethics”, New German Critique, No. 91 (2004), p.59
[ii] Eshel, Amir, ibid. p.59
[iii] All references to ‘The Meridian’ are from ‘The Meridian: final version, drafts, materials’ ed. by Bernhard Böschenstein and Heino Schmull, translated by Pierre Joris, Stanford University Press, 2011.
[iv] Lacoue-Labarthe, Phillipe, Poetry As Experience, translated by Andrea Tarnowski, p59, Stanford University Press, 1999.
[v] Felstiner, John, Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan, p. 395, W.W. Norton, 2001.
[vi] ibid. p. 395
[vii] Celan, Paul, Gesammelte Werke, Erster Band, p. 156, Suhrkamp, 2000.
[viii] Translated by Michael Hamburger in Poems of Paul Celan, p.111, Persea Books, 1989.
[ix] Celan, Paul, Gesammelte Werke, Erster Band, p. 157, Suhrkamp, 2000.
[x] Translated by Shira Wolosky in Language Mysticism: The Negative Way of Language in Eliot, Beckett, and Celan, p. 172, Stanford University Press, 1995.
[xi] Heidegger, Martin, ‘Letter On Humanism’, in Pathmarks, ed. by William McNeill, p. 258,  Cambridge University Press, 1998.
[xii] Eshel, Amir, ibid. p. 70
[xiii] Felstiner, John, ibid. p. 395
[xiv] Celan, Paul, Gesammelte Werke, Zweiter Band, p. 400, Suhrkamp, 2000.
[xv] Translated by Ian Fairley in Snowpart, p. 125, The Sheep Meadow Press, 2007.
[xvi] This essay is dedicated to my late friend and colleague, Aliza Mizrachi Keddem 1930 – 2012.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Monkey, the Automaton, the Medusa's Head: Home Thoughts from the Uncanny

My thoughts on Paul Celan's 'Meridian' and poetry as homecoming are in the new issue of Elohi Gadugi Journal.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Irish Language: Hard Questions, Harder Answers, and Hope Through the Words of a Poet

 One of the most thumbed-through of the books I own in the Irish language is a dictionary: An Irish-English Dictionary compiled and edited by The Rev. Patrick S. Dinneen in 1904. I have other Irish-English dictionaries which are more useful to me than Dinneen’s, dictionaries that are printed in standard Roman type, unlike Dinneen’s which retains the half-uncial lettering and unreformed spelling in which Irish was written for centuries; dictionaries which have kept up with the times and can tell me the Irish words for “injection mould” and “file transfer protocol”; dictionaries laden with all the serviceable, civil service-concocted words necessary for communicating the intricacies of the bureaucratic machinery running the modern Irish state. These are all valuable dictionaries in their own right and I depend on them almost daily. But I don’t love them the way I do Dinneen’s; I don’t take as much pleasure in them; and they are not nearly as heart-breaking.
  I open Dinneen at random and my eyes are drawn to the word cairríneach which I’m told is the word used in West Kerry for “a frail scythe”. I flip on, and come across luch meaning “shreds of extraneous matter in tallow that is being melted down”. And further along there’s tothbhuarach “rushes pounded and prepared for the making of a spancel”.
Personally, I’ve never heard anyone in the present-day Gaeltacht, the Irish-speaking areas of Ireland which lie mostly along the Northwest, West and South-West coasts, use any of these words in ordinary, everyday conversation. They are among many hundreds, perhaps thousands of words which, though they have a dictionary existence, are passing or have passed from the living speech of native Irish speakers. These particular words come from a world that was pre-industrial, isolated, and conservative in custom and religion; they lived on the tongues of people who farmed smallholdings of fairly poor land, of cattle-raisers and sheep-herders, of fishermen and carpenters, of thatchers and farriers.  And they join whole classes of words that have gone silent in the speech of the Gaeltacht—the names of plants, of weather phenomena, of finely observed character traits. They join too the traditional songs, poems and stories that are forgotten or half-forgotten by living people and have gone to their rest in the archives of the heroic collectors of folklore and language data.
 “To imagine a language”, says Wittgenstein, “is to imagine a form of life”. And the form of life conjured up from a survey of Dinneen is so remote from the life of the present-day Gaeltacht, never mind the rest of Ireland, that the language itself seems almost as alien as Sanskrit. Long gone from the daily life of the Gaeltacht are the net weavers, the tailors, the cobblers and the blade sharpeners along with their rich hoards of specialized craft terminology. As far back as  1921 the great Blasket Island writer Tomás Ó Criomhthain took pride in the fact that a deal was struck at a market through the medium of Irish. “The farmer sold the big bullock through the language of his country and the buyer bought it through the same language. Though I’m not rich I’d rather be listening to these two worthy men making a bargain in the language of my country than have a pound of yellow gold”, he says, adding that the young farmer who sold the beast used his profits to come to the Blasket to improve his Irish. “It’s a pity I don’t hear the same sort of thing from every fair”, laments Tomás who was undoubtedly hearing the passing of a world where the earthy banter of a bullock’s selling was now as likely to be in English as it was in Irish, even in the Gaeltacht. As for our own day, you can forget about anything as inefficient as the aonach, the market fair, Tomás was referring to.  Bullocks tagged and tracked by computers are shown and auctioned off in a matter of minutes, ownership transferred to and from farmers who know nothing of each other, hardly a word of real English passing their lips, let alone a word of real Irish.
 At this point now the sociologically-minded person might produce a sheaf of woeful statistics about the status of Irish as a spoken language, and depending on her relationship to an Ghaeilge might prophesy its imminent disappearance with the kind of equanimity historical linguistics reserves for Tocharian or Gaulish, or, might fall romantically into the idiom of pure lament: “Mo mhíle trua, mo bhuairt, mo bhrón...” “Och, ochón!”  (My thousand pities, my grief, my sorrow...Alas, alas!)
 I, however, am going to call to my side a different spirit, one canny enough to understand how endangered the Irish language is, and yet one uncannily bold enough to try to turn the wake into a wedding. I’m going to take a look at a few poems of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, one of the foremost contemporary Irish language poets, and see what they might mean for us as learners and speakers of Irish, see if there’s inspiration and strength we can draw from them.
 To set a bit of context I want first, however, to quote you something written about 10 years ago by the very fine Irish poet Gréagóir Ó Dúill from an essay in Poetry Ireland called ‘The Language Shift’ which he followed by a poem of the same name. In the essay Ó Dúill confessed, with a lot of obviously sincere handwringing, that he was abandoning, by and large, his Irish language writing for English. As a writer he says,
I do not think that my own experience is unique. I now find that, after eight collections, a selected, two anthologies, a collection of short stories, a literary biography and much editing,
reviewing and adjudicating in Irish I have started to write in English. I am still sorting out the reasons. One is the erosion of ideology, or the form of ideology which underpinned my daily decision to go on writing in Irish. Maltese has more status even in the Gaeltacht area in which I spend most of my time. Another reason, more importantly, is a recognition that English is my maternal language. A professional writer must see his or her maternal language as a key resource, and English as a particularly rich one, a resource deserving to be exploited. English is also the maternal language of much of my actual and potential market.
He then follows statements such as this with a poem in English ‘The Language Turn’
[Listen to him read it here]
 Beside this I want to set the opening paragraph from an essay Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill wrote in 1995 in The New York Times Book Review called ‘Why I Choose To Write In Irish; The Corpse That Sits Up and Talks Back’:
Not so long ago I telephoned my mother about some family matter. “So what are you writing these days?”, she asked, more for the sake of conversation than anything else. “Oh, an essay for The New York Times,” I said as casually as possible. “What is it about?” she asked. “About what it is like to write in Irish,” I replied. There was a good few seconds’ pause at the other end of the line; then, “Well, I hope you’ll tell them that it is mad.” End of conversation. I had got my comeuppance. And from my mother, who was the native speaker of Irish in our family, never having encountered a single word of English until she went to school at the age of 6...Typical.
 But here’s a poem of Ní Dhomhnaill’s that might give us a whole different take on what a writer might feel about working in a language that even her own mother thinks it’s crazy to write in :
Féar Suaithinseach  Miraculous Grass, trans. by Seamus Heaney
There you were in your purple vestments
half-way through the Mass, an ordained priest
under your linen alb and chasuble and stole:
and when you saw my face in the crowd
for Holy Communion
the consecrated host fell from your fingers.

I felt shame, I never
mentioned it once,
my lips were sealed.
But still it lurked in my heart
like a thorn under mud, and it
worked itself in so deep and sheer
it nearly killed me.

Next thing then, I was laid up in bed.
Consultants came in their hundreds,
doctors and brothers and priests,
but I baffled them all: I was
incurable, they left me for dead.

So out you go, men,
out with the spades and scythes,
the hooks and shovels and hoes.
Tackle the rubble,
cut back the bushes, clear off the rubbish,
the sappy growth, the whole straggle and mess
that infests my green unfortunate field.

And there where the sacred wafer fell
you will discover
in the middle of the shooting weeds
a clump of miraculous grass.

The priest will have to come then
with his delicate fingers, and lift the host
and bring it to me and put it on my tongue.
Where it will melt, and I will rise in the bed
as fit and well as the youngster I used to be.

 One way of reading this poem, obliquely enough, perhaps, is to see the ‘host’, ‘an abhlainn bheannaithe’ as the numinous body of the Irish language itself, a tongue fallen into the most unpropitious of circumstances, fallen out of the hands of official and officious and hypocritical male-dominated cultural practices. But here the language of humiliation and pain, as Frank McGuinness has called it, is transmuted into the language of celebration, sensuality, delicious deviancy. Why not, the suggestion seems to be, make some kind of a virtue out of linguistic marginality, even transgression? Why not go for broke in the faithful expectation of miracle? And why not a woman poet to accomplish it?
 It’s not that Ní Dhomhnaill is completely sanguine about all this. In her New York Times article she talks about the current language situation in Ireland:
At some level, it doesn’t seem too bad. People are warm and not hungry. They are expressing themselves without difficulty in English. They seem happy. I close my notebook with a snap and set off in the grip of that sudden pang of despair that is always lurking in the ever-widening rents of the linguistic fabric of minority languages. Perhaps my mother is right. Writing in Irish is mad. English is a wonderful language and it also has the added advantage of being very useful for putting bread on the table. Change is inevitable, and maybe it is part of the natural order of things that some languages should die while others prevail.
 And yet, and yet...
 And yet, and yet, indeed. On some level I sometimes think we allow a certain unconscious belief in absolute historical determinism to color our views of future possibilities. The Irish language in a globalized economic system and a global iPod culture, surely it’s all down hill from here?
 And yet, and yet... Frank O’Connor claimed that Gaelic culture could be characterized by “the backward look”, an Irish tendency to retrospective anticipation, to looking at the past (not the present) as indicator of the future. Of course it depends on where exactly you look. Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill sometimes looks back, reaches back, into the amazing Irish poetic tradition for tropes and hopes of the flowering of the vastly improbable. She has often mentioned, for example, as one of her poetic forebears Eibhlín Dhubh Ní Chonaill, the 18th Century poet who composed one of the greatest love poems and elegies in Irish ‘Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire’, ‘The Lament for Art O Leary’. Composed at a time when Irish was on the verge of being abandoned by large sections of the population, this poem is a miracle of lyrical intensity, a fully realized sumsumption of the entire Gaelic tradition of the caoineadh, the lament, and a miracle of survival, living on well into the 19th century in the oral tradition of West Kerry, indeed all of Munster:
            Mo chara thú is mo thaithneamh!
            Nuair ghabhais amach an geata
            D’fhillis ar ais go tapaidh,
            Do phógaís do dhís leanbh,
            Do phógaís mise ar bharra baise.
            Duraís, ‘A Eibhlín, éirigh i d’ sheasamh
            Agus cuir do ghnó chun taisce
            Go luaimneach is go tapaidh.
            Táimse ag fágáil an bhaile,
            Is ní móide go deo go gcasfainn.’
“My friend and my delight, when you went out the gate you came back quickly and kissed your two infants. You kissed me on the tips of my fingers and said ‘Eibhlín, stand up and put your work aside fast and soon, for I am leaving home and I might never be returning.”

 Listen to the echos of this (and much more) at the end of a poem called Dún ‘Stronghold’ by Ní Dhomhnaill:
            Ach níl in aon ní ach seal
            i gcionn leathuaire
            pogfaidh tú mé i mbarra éadain
            is casfaidh tú orm do dhrom
            is fágfar mé ar mo thaobh féin
            don leaba dhúbailte
            ag cuimhneamh faoi scáth do ghuailne
            ná tiocfaidh orm bás riamh roimh am.
“Everything lasts but a moment. In half an hour you’ll kiss the top of my forehead and you’ll turn your back to me, and I’ll be left on my own side of the double bed, remembering in the shade of your shoulders that death will never come to me before my time.”

 With a poem like this we can be certain that death will never come to the Irish language itself before its time, and there’s an energy and musicality in Ní Dhomhnaill’s poem that while full of literary nuance is also full of the vigor of the spoken, everyday language. Anyone who has spent a night in a pub in Ballyferriter or Spiddal knows that spoken Irish has a vital, earthy, fluent existence that really can’t be captured in the “native speaker” statistics such as those piled up in Reg Hindley’s book ‘The Death of the Irish Language’.  The numbers game isn’t the whole story.
 Ní Dhomhnaill wonderfully and humorously and bitingly catches something of the continued vitality of the spoken language and its importance for literature in a poem called ‘Claoninsint’,  literally, ‘Indirect Speech’:
            Tá’s againn, a dúradar,
            cár chaithis an samhradh, a dúradar,
            thíos i mBun an Tábhairne, a dúradar,
            cad a dheinis gach lá, a dúradar,
            chuais ar an dtráigh, a dúradar,
            níor chuais ag snámh, a dúradar.
            Canathaobh nár chuais ag snámh?
            Mar bhí sé rófhuar, a dúradar,
            rófhuar do do chnámha, a dúradar,
            do do chnámha ‘tá imithe gan mhaith, a dúradar,
            bodhar age sámhnas nó age teaspach gan dúchas
            gur deachair dhuit é a iompar, a dúradar.
“We know, they said, where you spent the summer, they said, down in Crosshaven, they siad, what you did every day, they said, you went to the beach, they said, you didn’t go swimming, they said. Why didn’t you go swimming? Because it was too cold they said, too cold for your bones, they said, for your bones that are turned to no good, they said,  not able to cope with hardship, with your unnatural high spirits, it was hard for you to handle, they said.”

 Here and elsewhere in the work of Ní Dhomhnaill, and indeed in the work of many other Irish writers who choose to be mad enough to continue writing in Irish, the corpse is certainly sitting up and talking back, even singing back. From the margins, from the scarcely acknowledged gaps and discontinuities in the mainstream anglophone culture in Ireland, is coming a whole range of discourses that in refusing to shut up or be shut up opens up a profound questioning of cultural values and to some extent is producing, in literature, at least, a kind of hybrid vigor as English language Irish writers try to take in the insights of such a critique. Issues not only of language, but of gender, of colonization, of genre, of the social position of the writer—all these are informed and deepened by the practice of poets like Ní Dhomhnaill.
 Central to it all are the problems and opportunities presented by translation. For many people in Ireland and for the vast majority of Americans interested in Irish literature it is through translations that much of present day Irish language writing becomes available. Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill has actually translated some of her own work into English, and a great number of poets from Seamus Heaney to Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin to Medbh McGuckian to Paul Muldoon have produced often stunning versions of her poems in English. Muldoon, in particular, seems to have a sensibility that is congruent with Ní Dhomhnaill’s literary playfulness and linguistic caprice.
 Though it’s through translation that Ní dhomhnaill has garnered a large international readership, it probably goes without saying that in poetry in particular something is always lost when it enters another language. In the case of Irish and its somewhat endangered status it really matters what it is that’s lost. I want to put before you a poem by Nuala called ‘Ceist na Teangan’, literally ‘The Language Question’; here it is in Irish and even for those of you that have little or no Irish I’d ask you to listen carefully to the sounds and rhythms:
            Cuirim mo dhóchas ar snámh
            i mbáidín teangan
            faoi mar a leagfá naíonán
            i gcliabhán
            a bheadh fite fuaite
            de dhuilleoga feileastraim
            is bitiúman agus pic
            bheith cuimilte lena thóin

            ansan é a leagadh síos
            i measc na ngiolcach
            is coigeal na mban sí
            le taobh na habhann,
            féachaint n’fheadaraís
            cá dtabharfaidh an sruth é,
            féachaint, dála Mhaoise,
            an bhfóirfidh iníon Fhorainn.
[‘The Language Issue’ trans. by Paul Muldoon]
I place my hope on the water
in this little boat
of the language, the way a body might put
an infant
in a basket of intertwined
iris leaves,
its underside proofed
with bitumen and pitch,
then set the whole thing down amidst
the sedge
and bulrushes by the edge
of a river
only to have it borne hither and thither,
not knowing where it might end up;
in the lap, perhaps,
of some Pharaoh’s daughter.

This is a brilliant poem in English, and my intent here is not at all to disparage it on the level of literary achievement. But here is Ní Dhomhnaill’s poem in very literal English:
            I set my hope floating
            in the little boat of the language
            like you’d lay an infant
            in a basket
            that would be woven together
            from iris leaves
            with bitumen and pitch
            plastered on its bottom

            then to have laid it down
            among the reeds
            and fairy women’s distaff
            by the side of the river
            seeing, you don’t know,
            where the current will take it
            seeing, like the story of Moses,
            will Pharaoh’s daughter save it
For all its poetic faults, this literal version points up a couple of things that got buried in Muldoon’s poem—the specificity of the plant name coigeal na mban sí ‘fairy women’s distaff’ and the earthy solidity of the phrase ‘cuimilte lena thóin’ ‘rubbed or plastered on its bottom’, among others. I personally think, on the pure linguistic level, that’s a loss, that these are things I’d rather keep alive on whatever tongue they’re translated to, as they’re still alive on the Irish tongue.
 Anyway, as I reach the end of this talk, I realize that whatever questions I’ve raised here, I haven’t so much given answers to them as much as align myself with a series of hopes I find compellingly interlinked in the poetry of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. Among them would be the hope that out of the maelstrom of postmodernity the vivifying differences of languages, cultures, genders and spiritualities can retain their unique virtues without descending into chauvinsim and exclusivity. Is it too much to hope for a reasonably bilingual Ireland a generation from now?
We can hope anyway, on a day like today. How improbable is it that in Portland, Oregon, scores of people have gathered to meet the Irish language? I give Nuala the last word. This is from her poem Feis:
            Osclaíonn rós istigh im chroí.
            Labhrann cuach im bhéal.
            Léimeann gearrcach ó mo nead.
            Tá tóithín ag macnas i ndoimhneas mo mhachnaimh.

            A rose opens in my heart.
            A cuckoo calls in my mouth.
            A fledgling leaps from my nest.
            A porpoise is playing in the depths of my thinking.

[A Talk Given At Marylhurst University’s Irish Language Day (c) Ger Killeen]