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December 13, 2008

"Speaks true who speaks shadow"

Reading John Felstiner’s remarkable Paul Celan:  Poet, Survivor, Jew,* I came across the following passage about a review of Celan’s 1952 collection, Mohn und Gedächtnis (“Poppy and Remembrance”).  It recounts an episode from Celan’s life that illustrates how a reviewer can subject a book to ideological distortion and even marshal it into the service of contemporary political agendas – or amnesias – while pretending to talk about its strictly “literary” qualities.  The review, writes Felstiner, appeared in a 1954 issue of “the respected monthly Merkur”:

Billing itself “A German journal for European thinking,” it ran essays by Buber, Adorno, Toynbee, Jaspers, Eliot, Habermas, fiction by Beckett, and later, in 1954, some poems by Celan.  The April issue featured Gottfried Benn, Germany’s senior poet, whose ideas on poetry as artifice – not to mention his early Nazism – did not sit well with Celan.  The issue also contained the review “Five Young Poets.”

Hans Egon Holthusen, an influential poet and critic, devoted six pages to Mohn und Gedächtnis, welcoming a talent that “translates certain principles of modern French lyric into the German language . . . Here one sees language taking fire not from an object confronting it, but from itself.”  Readers of this review came upon one word more than any other, Phantasie – “imagination,” “fantasy,” “fancy.”  In Celan’s writing Holthusen saw “fantastic associations” and “unqualified arbitrary lyric imagination” working on “the reader’s fancy.”

Holthusen did mete out praise, citing Celan’s paradoxes – “Blacker in black, I am more naked . . . a hanged man strangles the rope” – which “mock the complacency of logical thinking, mobilizing dream truth against reality.”  Yet this review could still be describing something by the author of “Jabberwocky” or “A Child’s Garden of Verses.”  Though Celan’s volume ends by saying “Render me bitter / Number me among the almonds” (from a poem that Holthusen had anthologized), the critic dwelt on “playful freedom,” “self-inspired, purely lexical configurations,” “not meaning but form,” “absolutely musical effects,” “Mallarmé . . . Mallarmé . . .  Mallarmé.”  Again, as with Group 47, Celan became a whipping boy in the dispute between “engaged” and “pure” poetry.  Admittedly Mohn und Gedächtnis harbored plenty of fantastic imagery and verbal music, but this critique disengaged them from their basis in exile, loss, and mass death.

To Holthusen’s credit, he closed his review by celebrating “Todesfuge,” in which “instinct and suffering coincide with the kairos [opportune time] of a great motif.”  Yet, designating the Jewish catastrophe with “kairos,” a term steeped in Christian theology – “when the fullness of time was come, God sent forth his son” (Gal. 4:4) – betrays a careless ear.

Celan has “mastered” a technique of repetition, says Holthusen, disregarding the use of “master” in "Todesfuge."  He is congratulated for “singing” a ghastly event, even as the commandant tells his Jews to “sing up and play.”  The poet has “overcome” a staggering theme – here Holthusen’s verb is bewältigen, as if Celan were part of Germany’s Vergangenheitsbewältigung (“overcoming the past”).  This gruesome theme “can escape history’s bloody chamber of horrors to rise into the ether of pure poetry.”  But it was the Jews in Celan’s poem who rose into ether, never the poem; not “Todesfuge” but its German readers who wanted to “escape history’s bloody chamber of horrors.”  Thus they apotheosized Celan’s poem: “one of the grandest poems for our time,” said Holthusen.

According to Felstiner, Celan “felt used within Germany’s cultural recovery after the Third Reich,” and in response to this review wrote the poem “Sprich auch du” (“Speak you too”), which ended with the line “Speaks true who speaks shadow.”  Holthusen left the shadow out of his account of Mohn und Gedächtnis, and thus did not speak true.

Holthusen grotesquely enlisted Celan’s poetry in the ideological project of German auto-exoneration.  The reviewer’s rhetoric appeared to celebrate the achievement of a Jewish poet, but did so in a way that swept national complicity under the rug – or rather evaporated it into the air that was still cloudy with human smoke.  But the smoke had been alchemized into the filigree of Art, courtesy of Holthusen’s construal of Celan’s work, so German readers could enjoy it with a clear conscience and even a little self-congratulation.   

I wish to make two points about this.  The first is that Holthusen need not have been conscious of his whitewashing operation; there’s no need for either Felstiner or us to imagine him curling his mustache-ends and giving an evil cackle as he sets out to write his review.  Any degree of awareness is hypothetically possible (and self-serving rationalization is always available to help with situations of partial awareness), but, in the main, ideology works best when it works invisibly and simply frames the way its subjects see. 

My second point is the corollary of the first:  Holthusen’s rhetorical strategy would have been invisible to most of his German audience as well.  They would have read his review and seen that he had acquitted himself of his duties as a reviewer of literature, having addressed himself to the literary qualities of the text at hand.  No doubt those readers would have been offended if someone had happened to tell them otherwise, and whoever had done the telling would’ve be arraigned on charges of importing extra-literary matters.  For many it is only hindsight that makes Holthusen’s creepy apologetics so immediately transparent.

Cynthia Ozick once heralded James Wood’s arrival on the scene by calling for a “forest of Woods.”  But the forest was there all along, and flourishing well before the current incarnation was even a sapling.  Holthusen, at least in what Felstiner quotes from this review, comes across as more of an arch-aestheticist than Wood (with the latter's concern for so-called “lifeness”), but at the more general level of ideological apologetics there’s a striking similarity.  Keeping Holthusen’s 1954 review of Celan’s Mohn und Gedächtnis in mind, I urge readers to take another look at Wood’s 2007 review of Roberto Bolaño’s Savage Detectives, which I’ll address in a follow-up post.


* Remarkable because, while superficially a “literary biography,” it calls its own genre into question by pushing the conventional procedures of literary biography into a zone of extremity, along the way throwing into crisis facile distinctions of “extrinsic” versus “intrinsic.”

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