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Paul Celan: Return to the Cabin in the Woods


We’ve been making a trek through time and space with some frequency to a peculiar destination. It is a fairly primitive cabin in the woods, a Waldhütte. It’s not much, but on the map of European intellectual history of the last century, it’s a major destination. It lies about 17 kilometers from the town of Freiburg in the Breisgau, in the southwestern corner of Germany, very close to the French frontier and to Switzerland. It was home to Martin Heidegger and a spot to which many philosophers and men and women of letters trekked to seek Heidegger out. First we visited it through the eyes of Leland de la Durantaye, a Harvard English professor (“The Cabin Between Being and Time”). Then we explored the cabin’s relationship to a tower on the Neckar River, the home of Friedrich Hölderlin, together with Hölderlin’s poem “Patmos,” the construction of which plays a crucial role in Heidegger’s writings (“The Tower Between Being and Time”.)

This evening I received an unexpected and welcome visit from one of my young readers, a student from Freiburg passing through New York en route to an internship in Toronto. It was time, I thought, for a return visit. Metaphysically at least.

And today’s visit (I started to call it a pilgrimage, but that word, I think you’ll agree, doesn’t quite fit) comes courtesy of Paul Celan. I don’t think Celan is particularly well known in the United States, which is a shame. He was one of the most talented German-language lyrical poets of the twentieth century. He possessed a stunning command of language, and indeed of many languages. And Celan is a representative of another important phenomenon, namely the German-language artist who is not remotely German. Celan was a Jew from Bukovina, a classical European borderland which belonged at various points to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Romania, the Soviet Union, and today is divided between Romania and Ukraine. Celan spent much of his youth in a Nazi slave labor camp. His parents and many relations succumbed in the holocaust. Why, you might wonder, would such a person choose the German language as his medium for artistic expression. There is a sort of celestial irony about that. In particular about a Holocaust survivor from the Balkans being the best post-war lyrical poet in the German language (I think it’s reasonable to stake that position for Celan).

But Paul Celan is a philosopher-poet in a curious way. He is that in a conventional sort of way, that is, his poems are often about very deep themes. Often they require a philosophical approach to be understood. Often they’re not the sort of poems which can be understood from some “pretty” outer motifs and decorations. They require the philosophical depth. But Celan is also a poet who engages with philosophers. Much of his writing reflects an intellectual engagement with philosophical writings—with Nietzsche or Adorno, for instance, or with Martin Heidegger.

The Celan relationship with Heidegger is bittersweet, and that’s what this poem is all about. I have read and puzzled over this poem for some years, and wondered how it can be rendered into English. There are many paths, and none is obvious. It’s a brilliant construct, and it can be read and understood many different ways. But I see it, quite literally, as a walk in the woods to Heidegger’s Waldhütte. The hiker (and here the word is to be understood in the Nietzschean sense of Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, namely a person parting with social convention for the purposes of forming independent and deeper judgments of “moral” issues) is contemplating Heidegger, his writings and his life, in the process. There is a strong sense of irony.

That starts with the title, “Todtnauberg.” Well, of course, that is the name of the mountain on which Heidegger’s little cabin rests. But the elements of this name are powerful, and Celan is not giving us a geography lesson. “Todt” is an archaic form of the word “death,” and “berg” of course means mountain. It is a mountain of death he is visiting. And when we arrive at the end it becomes clear that it is that: memories of a slave labor camp.

Heidegger is full of volkstümlich nonsense, drawn heavily on the language and imagery of early German Romanticism. But Celan follows in this wake, taking an almost clinical and terse approach to what he sees, eschewing the cliché-ridden imagery of the Romanticist poet. Some of this language is literally a description of the hiking path up to the cabin. The well is there, and the well does in fact have a roll star die sitting on top of it. This element is there for a reason, I suspect. It’s a key to a small club of initiates: those who have actually, physically, made the hike out to the cabin.

But the focus is on precision. And the vocabulary he uses is very strange, words not in common circulation. Like Heidegger, Celan is recoining these words. He draws on an old sense; he imparts a new one. As for the old sense, indeed, you’d need to be a botanist to know them. Words are chosen for symbolic, and perhaps also for sonic value. But they give pause. A fluent German speaker would stop, hesitate, question. “Waldwasen,” he writes, but a modern German speaker would instantly think something simple: “Waldwiesen,” namely, fields in the woods. Has he slipped and corrupted that word? Is he really drawing on the word “Wasen,” which is archaic, referring to a clump of soil, ripped from the ground? Is he not in fact mocking Heidegger and his word games? That’s the spirit I see in the background. The attitude is not deferential. Certainly it’s questioning. And yes, there is a clear undercurrent of bitterness. How could there not be?

The two words at the outset, for instance: “arnica” and “eyebright.” These are two flowers, and they can be found in the Black Forest. The first is a relative of the sunflower, it has yellow blooms; the second is a flower with small pale blueish flowers. Arnica is known for its home remedy properties: to salve a bruise or sore. Eyebright has no such use, but its name in German (Augentrost) suggests that it is a comfort to the eyes. So Celan begins his journey with images suggesting the need to heal, to find reconciliation. But he concludes it with “moist,” “much.” That is still a mystery to me. But certainly the reconciliation is failed. I imagine the “moisture” as welling tears, of disappointment and lament.

But of course there is a well-known incident in the background that materializes through the poem. Celan had sent Heidegger a bibliophile edition of his poems. Clearly he expected to have some meaningful conversation. The subject would I think be clear to imagine: Celan would have asked Heidegger to offer an apology for his life. How could a philosopher (the “thinker” here, the “human being,” who “hears it with us”) write profound works of metaphysics and yet embrace the Nazis? And while this was bad enough, how could he continue in silence in the face of the Holocaust? Is this not the obvious question of a Holocaust survivor? And was it not the obvious question the post-War generation put to Heidegger? But in response, Celan received a perfectly perfunctory letter of thanks. It was nothing, a non-answer. And so the hiker’s path wanders, around the question and to the answer. To an unsatisfactory answer to an important question.

And at the end, the hiker recalls the labor camp in which he was confined. He sees trees fallen at the side of the road, but the word he uses for this is something very unusual, namely Knüppel, which also means a stick used for beating, a cudgel. Celan is recalling his inhuman mistreatment at the hands of a system which Heidegger helped “to drive.”

This poem is not a tribute to Martin Heidegger. It is a challenge, an admonition. And it’s one of the greatest poems of the last century.

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