Paul Celan, "You may"

The simultaneity of horror and happiness emerges in Celan's lyric through the semblance of gesture.

Paul Celan, "You may"


Welcome to "Encouragement." In this newsletter/blog, I'm trying to understand our contemporary situation with an eye to art and the thought of the past.

That sounds like a pretty useless task, but yesterday I heard a few times from colleagues who bluntly asserted that thinkers from 300 BCE have workable solutions to what ails us. The hubris behind this sentiment is hard to fathom: it not only dismisses those who've been through similar problems we face, but it places in the remote past an unassailable, unchangeable wisdom which we can only fall away from.

To be thoughtful about our situation requires incredible care. Whatever object we believe speaks to us has to be treated at some length on its own, then slowly worked into political theory or philosophy. It won't necessarily contain answers, but show an area where I may need to exercise more respect, more caution. Below I've written a few words about a poem of Paul Celan's where horror and happiness not only go together, but share some of same forms and gestures. I can't take this and immediately write about memory and loss in Celan and Heidegger, or draw up a list of things in political life which present themselves as good but are actually denials of the pain of others. But if the poem doesn't affect my thought and work from now on, then what kind of scholar—not to mention person—am I?

I have benefited greatly from Chase Berggrun's comment on "You may" in Jewish Currents' latest issue. Some of her insights are quoted below. I can't recommend it or the introduction to Celan's life enough. Grateful to Pierre Joris for his translations and work on Celan. I have a copy of his "Paul Celan: Selections" which I have not begun to do justice.

Paul Celan, "You may"

The simultaneity of horror and happiness emerges in Celan's lyric through the semblance of gesture. "You may confidently / serve me..."  reminds me of lovely times I've been a guest. Invited, indulged, then asked what more I would like. A puzzle of giving and receiving. How to ask, as a guest, for what keeps joys flowing? What makes the moment memorable for us?

"Snow" breaks the spell. "You may confidently / serve me snow." As Chase Berggrun notes:

Is snow even snow at all? Might it be the ash spewed by Nazi crematoria? Or precipitation mixed with smoke—as in the early poem “Black Flakes,” an elegy for his mother, in which the Ukrainian winter serves as an emotional and physical backdrop for his grief? There is no single answer.

It's hard to not stop reading here. An atmosphere strewn with a horror witnessed, lived through, and still not fully realized. Trauma blankets one's tastes; hides to strike at most vulnerable moments; makes trust that much more difficult. Marjane Satrapi's description of visiting a friend badly disfigured on the front lines seems apt to mention. He could only make jokes and laugh. It was all he had left.

You may
Paul Celan (tr. Pierre Joris)

You may confidently
serve me snow:
as often as shoulder to shoulder
with the mulberry tree I strode through summer,
its youngest leaf

There's a temptation to believe being alone helps with some of the worst things we face.

Celan brings his host to a time he was alone: "shoulder to shoulder / with the mulberry tree I strode through summer." This recalls, for me, the figure of the wanderer. Away from civilization, away from most of mankind, instead confronting Nature and the self. Berggrun speaks of an impression "of safety, of company" in these lines. There can be a powerful safety in choosing to wander, and even a sort of company in choosing to fully experience whatever you encounter.

This also does not suffice. Some ghosts must remain. "Its youngest leaf / shrieked." Berggrun mentions Pyramus and Thisbe, the lovers "who killed themselves beneath a white mulberry tree and forever stained the fruit with their blood." I cannot speak to a loss, a grief, a horror as enormous as the Holocaust. I can say this much: eros and the most profound, personal pains are mixed together in ways we'd rather deny.