Rebuke: from trope to event in Paul Celan's "Zahle die Mandeln".
In the attempts to come to terms with Paul Celan's poetry, many scholars read the poem as an event, occurrence, act, or experience. This critical attention to the performative dimension of Celan's poetic language was perhaps inaugurated by Peter Szondi, the eminent literary critic and friend to Celan, who in 1971, shortly after Celan's death, began to turn his work on the poem "Engffihrung" into a longer, publishable essay. (1) According to Szondi's reading, Celan's poems do not simply represent; they enact. He writes of "Engfuhrung," for instance, "das Gedicht [enthullt] sich als eines, das das Vorangehen selbst ist, statt es zum Thema einer Beschreibung oder Reprasentation zu machen" (2:364). Rather than merely describe an event, it constitutes that event through its language, which is why one finds verbs such as "aktualisieren," "realisieren," and "verwirklichen" throughout Szondi's interpretation. One of the essay's strengths lies in the programmatic ambition of Szondi's literary hermeneutic: Szondi realizes as clearly as anyone that the arguments he makes about reading a particular poem are also, at the same time, arguments about how Celan's poetry ought to be read, especially given that it seems to evade traditional interpretive methods. And from the essay's outset, he argues that the poetry demands, "dass nicht so sehr der Sinn der Worter in Betracht gezogen werde als ihre Funktion" (2:363).
More recent scholarship continues this line of thought about enactment in poetic language. Aris Fioretos, for example, writes that Celan's poetry
weniger schon gemachte Erfahrungen darstellt oder auch mitteilt, als vielmehr in actu vorfuhrt, wie diese in Sprache geformt oder transformiert werden, um sich selbst dementsprechend als textuelle Ereignisse zu konstituieren. ("Finsternis" 156)
Both Szondi and Fioretos establish a tension between representation and actualization. Their statements take the form "not a, but rather b": not description, but rather progression itself; not the sense of words, but rather their function; not representing an experience, but rather constituting experience. The point ofthis critical perspective is that the poems undermine their representational dimension for the sake of a performative dimension. (2) Why is Celan's poetry so obscure, so hermetic? Because, on this view, the reader must attend primarily to what occurs within the poem, to what its language enacts, rather than to what it describes. (3)
This tension between representation and enactment forms a crux in the interpretation of the early poem "Zahle die Mandeln." Commentators seem to agree that the counting of almonds, which occurs in the first stanza, is"the key metaphor of this poem" (Colin 105). But that is where broad consensus ends, as scholars have suggested a variety of referents for which the metaphorical almonds might stand: the Jews, Martin Buber's theodicy, the poet Osip Mandelstam, the dead, Jewish mysticism, the experience of the Holocaust, suffering in general, the bread and cakes that Celan's mother baked, even the odor of Zyklon B, the gas used in Nazi extermination camps. (4)
While most interpreters see the primary locus of meaning in the extratextual thing to which Celan's images refer, I argue in the following essay that a Szondian attention to the function of words, to the act they constitute in poetic language, is essential to understanding "Zahle die Mandeln." My reading presents a concrete example of an event that materializes in Celan's poetry, and it seeks to show that this textual event is exemplary precisely because it embodies the tension between representation and performance and stages, within language, a passage through silence. By objecting to, by suspending, the communicative power of instrumental language, Celan's poem forces itself to pass through a self-interruption in which words liquefy and run together. Despite this attention to the negativity inherent in Celan's poem, I try to counter the potential suspicion that a reading of language as event cannot take into account "the realities conditioning the poetry--loss, death, Jewishness" (Felstiner 71). I argue, rather, that the poetic event presents what Fioretos calls "a radicalized conception of the relationship between literature and history" ("Nothing" 296). Using images to represent loss, death, and suffering metaphorically is one way for poetry to relate to history, but Celan offers a more radical means of literature's engagement with history: it inscribes the effects of that history--which, in Europe during the 1950s, means primarily the aftermath of war and extermination--in language itself. The poetic event, as it materializes in "Zahle die Mandeln," lies at the heart of Celan's attempt to write poetry, to write what happened, to write the Holocaust, loss, death, and Jewishness. The acerb stringency of his poetic practice in fact forced him to undertake this movement from trope to event.
"Zahle die Mandeln," the final poem in the 1952 collection Mohn und Gedachtnis, stages a conflict between two opposed forces of signification--between, on the one hand, that which structures language and makes it possible and, on the other, its tendency to destructure itself and fall silent. For communication to be possible, language requires an organization with distinct forms and stable referents. At the same time, however, one observes in Celan's poems a self-undermining counter-movement toward dissolution and a loss of distinct forms. "Zahle die Mandeln" situates the opposed tendencies of differentiation and undifferentiation in a dialogic tension between Ich and Du. The process of destructuring in the poem centers on solid matter becoming liquid, the fixed becoming fluid, and on objects merging with one another.
ZAHLE die Mandeln, zahle, was bitter war und dich wachhielt, zahl mich dazu: Ich suchte dein Aug, als du's aufschlugst und niemand dich ansah, ich spann jenen heimlichen Faden, an dem der Tau, den du dachtest, hinunterglitt zu den Krugen, die ein Spruch, der zu niemandes Herz fand, behutet. Dort erst tratest du ganz in den Namen, der dein ist, schrittest du sicheren Fusses zu dir, schwangen die Hammer frei im Glockenstuhl deines Schweigens, stiess das Erlauschte zu dir, legte das Tote den Arm auch um dich, und ihr ginget selbdritt durch den Abend. Mache mich bitter. Zahle mich zu den Mandeln. (1:78) (5)
Before one tries to determine whom the poem is addressing or what these almonds represent, one can say with confidence that the poem moves within a frame of counting and countability. It begins and ends with a command to count. Counting can be understood as the act of differentiating things so that a particular label, a name, may be used to identify each of them. If one is to "Zahle die Mandeln," one must separate or distinguish each individual unit so that markers such as "one," "two," and "three" each refer to a particular almond. This act of individuating is the natural precondition of labeling and, in turn, of references in general. The objects must be held apart so that the signifier refers to this particular object and not another. In this sense, counting has the same condition of possibility as linguistic signification: the reference must be singular so that it may be repeated. The need for differentiation resembles Ferdinand de Saussure's notion of delimitation, the idea that, in order for signification to take place, both the signified concepts and the sounds used to represent them must be accurately divided into units (104).
Since the command to count is spoken to an other, the poem projects the Du into the role of differentiator, the one who insists on the formedness of words and the particularity of language. In fact, the possessive pronoun "dein" comes up three times in the poem--"dein Aug" (line 3), "den Namen, der dein ist" (line 9), and "Glockenstuhl deines Schweigens" (line 11). In each instance, what the you possesses is an interval of space. Its eye is opened up, its name is a space into which one can step, and even its silence finds spatial representation as the openness of a bell-cage. The you of the poem, as the tendency to differentiate, holds the spaces between distinct forms--between almonds, between words--and thereby ensures the boundaries of their forms.
But something happens to the words of the poem within this framework of differentiation. The Ich seeks out the spaces opened up by the Du and undoes the separation with a secret thread: "Ich suchte dein Aug, als du's aufschlugst und niemand dich ansah, / ich spann jenen heimlichen Faden." It finds the intervals of difference and effaces them by threading them together. Indeed, this is the thread "an dem der Tau, den du dachtest, / hinunterglitt zu den Krugen." The dew in line six is the direct product of thought. In this dew, the vapor of experience condenses into particles of linguistically expressible thought. And it is only on the space of the thread that the discrete particles can slide together, returning to undifferentiated fluid.
The tendency toward formlessness can be observed, first, in the transition from almonds to dew. When the poem begins with a frame of counting and differentiation, it begins with almonds, whose shells maintain a discrete form. As the movement of the poem undoes this differentiation, however, the well-defined almonds are replaced by drops of dew, which lack such a protective exterior or impermeable boundary. Though still discrete units, they contain the constant possibility of merging into one fluid.
As if to preview this transition from almonds to dew, the command to count in the first stanza becomes progressively weaker: it shifts from "ZAHLE" to "zahle" and finally to "zahl." This diminution of the command to count corresponds with diminishing countability: the first and strongest articulation of this imperative has as its object almonds, which one can easily count. The second iteration says to count "was bitter war und dich wachhielt," something that has no number and thus cannot be counted. The final, diminished "zahl" does not even mean "to count" in the same sense, as the verb "zuzahlen" in this context means something closer to "count or include me among," "assign me to." (6) In the first stanza, then, the verb "zahlen" takes a contranymic turn. At first it means to differentiate a group into nameable individuals, but with "zuzahlen," it turns into its opposite: to undifferentiate, to submerge the individual within the group. Through the semantic ambivalence of the verb "zahlen," the first stanza previews a move from individuation to undifferentiation that will recur throughout the poem.
The tendency toward undifferentiation occurs more strikingly at the level of language. The line that speaks of dew, "an dem der Tau, den du dachtest," enacts the holding apart of distinct units: it consists almost entirely of monosyllabic words separated by the alliterative hard stops of "d" and "t." In fact, even "dachtest," the only two-syllable word in the line, is split by a "t" in its center. The words, like the particles of dew, remain separate from one another. In the next line, however, the thread disrupts this differentiation. It allows the particles to slide together such that the mostly monosyllabic line is followed by "hinunterglitt," the poem's only four-syllable word. The word for "hinuntergleiten" enacts the very movement it describes: it instantiates the motion of sliding together, as the particles of language slip into each other, and the hard stops of the previous line relax into nasals, twice an "n," and the softer consonants "gl." Rather than try to read these lines figuratively, to discern the thing outside the poem to which the dew and the thread refer, one can read them performatively, as an event that occurs in the poem's language. "Hinunterglitt" describes a movement that might refer to nothing but the movement that the word itself is. When juxtaposed with the monosyllables of the preceding line, it produces a slippage that did not exist before the utterance.
If this threading together of words occurs on the surface of language, we should read the line "ich spann jenen heimlichen Faden" as yet another reference to a linguistic event within the text. Does the poem contain other instances of threads that undo the discrete forms of language and slide syllables into one another? One finds such an instance in line seven, which describes the condensation pooling together in "den Krfigen." The words allow here for a combination through paranomasia, in which, as Werner Hamacher writes, "durch eine minimale Alteration der phonetischen oder graphischen Gestalt eines Wortes, das selbst nicht erscheint, ein anderes erzeugt [wird], das als verzerrtes Echo des ersten fungiert" (341). If we take the secret thread in "Zahle die Mandeln" as an intratextual reference, we can imagine a thread spun between "den" and "Krugen," such that the words pool together, as the line describes, to produce "denKrugen" or "Denknigen," rebukes of thought. Thus, through the spinning of secret threads within the poem's language, the lines can also read: "der Tau, den du dachtest, / hinunterglitt zu Denkrugen." The dew that you thought slid down into rebukes of thought, into its own rebuke. (7) The thread runs the syllables of neighboring words together and combines them by disrupting the space that holds words apart.
At this point, some readers might wish to apply a brake, complaining that mine is an obscure reading dependent upon a word--"Denkrugen"--that, strictly speaking, never occurs in Celan's text. My argument for the soundness of this interpretation will proceed via coherence and correlation within the work. In short, many of the more recalcitrant lines make sense once one recognizes the slippage from "den Krugen" to "Denkrugen." (8) First, though, it is helpful to point out other readings that uncover this kind of play with the material of language in Celan's poetry. In "Stimmen," the first poem of Sprachgitter, for example, Hamacher finds a similar instance of paranomasia in the lines "Wenn der Eisvogel taucht, / sirrt die Sekunde:" (1:147). He reads in "die Sekunde" the possibility of the words being reorganized into "diese Kunde," such that the message, or "Kunde," of time--instability, constant change and alteration--manifests itself through the alteration of the temporal word "Sekunde" (341-43). (9) In another instance, Fioretos interprets a key stanza from the poem "Blume":
Wir waren Hande, schopften die Finsternis leer, mir fanden das Wort, das den Sommer heraufkam: Blume. (1:164)
Fioretos focuses on the word "leerschopfen" and argues that, if one applies this action to "Finsternis" and empties out the word itself, one "finds the word" Stern (Finsternis), or star, which is alluded to in the first stanza as "Der Stein in der Luft" (1:164). Furthermore, one finds the word "stern" surrounded by "Fin-" and "-is," which together make finis, the end implied by an empyting out that turns darkness into starlight. (10)
How do these readings, which also rely on words that exist only latently in the text, justify themselves? First, both authors argue that the poems prepare for the linguistic event and suggest how the latent word is to be brought to light. Hamacher, for instance, draws on the image of the diving kingfisher--it splits and disrupts the surface--and on the phonetic "contamination" that issues from the word "sirrt," which establishes the combinatory affinity of s and i and suggests a corresponding combination of le and Se into "diese" (342). Fioretos notes that "Stein in der Luft" is another way of saying "star" and that the line "wir schopften die Finsternis leer" gives instructions on how to produce the latent "Blindenwort." Second, both authors argue that subsequent lines in the poem confirm the interpretive moves they have made. For Fioretos, the sentence "wir fanden / das Wort" correlates with the operation of bringing a latent word to light. For Hamacher, the paranomastic turn from "die Sekunde" to "diese Kunde" is the subject of the subsequent lines:
Was zu dir stand an jedem der Ufer, es tritt gemaht in anderes Bild. (1:147)
The paranomasia creates a new word by bringing together what was separate and by cutting (mowing) the "second" into a different image.
These examples are suggestive of the kind of paranomastic reading that I pursue in "Zahle die Mandeln" by tracing the transformation of "den Krugen" into "Denkrugen." This poem too creates a phonetic precedent for the combination of words: their running together is suggested by the shift, in the same line, from a seiles of monosyllabic words to the polysyllabic "hinunterglitt." Moreover, the poem speaks explicitly of a secret thread that makes things run together, a description that the words themselves will embody. But the rebukes of thought or Denkrugen also hold a logical place in the poem: on the printed page, they appear directly below "du dachtest." What is thought, what is condensed into the formed particles of thought, slides down and merges into a rebuke to itself. (11) This thematic thread continues in the stanza's next line, which refers back to the paranomastic merger. It describes denKrugen, "die ein Spruch [...] behutet." The pooling together of language is protected by "ein Spruch," by a saying or utterance that hides the contents of denKrugen. In fact, the language that guards the rebukes of thought is the very language of the poem's line, the words "zu den Krugen." It is not just that a saying protects the jugs, but rather that the jugs themselves constitute the saying that both veils and unveils the rebukes of thought. One must unsettle one level of meaning, the description of dew sliding down a thread into jugs, in order for another level of meaning to emerge.
But even this "Spruch" that protects the pooling of language becomes contaminated by the event in the preceding line; it too succumbs to the contraction of difference. With another secret thread, the poem weaves together the two halves of "ein Spruch" to make "einSpruch." Hefe, the rebuke of line seven is echoed by another negative gesture, an objection. In addition to the phonetic contamination of discrete syllables merging into polysyllabic combinations, one also finds a semantic contamination traveling through the related meanings of rebuke and objection. "Einspruch" thus continues the semantic chain already established within the poem: "du dachtest"--"Denkrugen"--"Einspruch."
This second combinatory event is also prepared for in the poem. The stanza's first line suggests how the saying becomes an objection to itself: "Ich suchte dein Aug, als du's aufschlugst und niemand dich ansah." As Szondi and Fioretos have suggested, one should not overlook the possibility that the poem's language embodies what it describes. The "'s" of "als du's aufschlugst" can be a contraction of the pronoun es (even in referring back to the eye it contracts the space of difference), but it also represents the letter s. "Ich suchte dein Aug, als du s aufschlugst und niemand dich ansah." The problem, the line notes, is that no one notices this subtle opening of the threshold letter "s," a boundary that invites its own suspension and allows the entire "Spruch" to mutate in an "Einspruch." The task of reading, then, is to see the porous border at the edge of speaking, (12) to notice the thread that weaves words together and produces its own text. In the same moment that the you of the poem opens the space for individuation and thus the site of naming and signification, it also opens the possibility of undifferentiation. This instance captures succinctly the conflicting tendencies within the poem's language--the act of producing distinct, particular forms simultaneously plants the seed of its own undoing.
In both these combinations, "Denkrugen" and "Einspruch," the original words that get rearranged are themselves significant. The meaning of "Spruch," for instance, should not be overlooked: its paranomastic turn suggests the open border of potentially any saying. It represents the inherent possibility of language to slip from "Spruch" to "Einspruch," the word's possibility of becoming its own Gegenwort. "Spruch" can also refer to a kind of thoughtless, conventional speaking--precisely the kind of speaking that becomes empty and commonplace through the habit of a "Spruch" as a saying or aphorism. (13) The "Einspruch," then, can be understood as an objection to hollow, idle speaking. (14) In this context, the concrete meaning of "Ein-spruch" is noteworthy. It relates, through its prefix, to words like "Einbruch," a break-in or breakthrough, as when Celan writes similarly in Eingedunkelt, "Einbruch des Ungeschiedenen / in deine Sprache" (3:150). An "Einspruch" is thus not simply an objection but a speaking that infiltrates and disrupts another's speech. It is a speaking that erupts, like these word combinations, through that which is undifferentiated and indistinguishable.
There is, of course, a common German maxim (Spruch) to which the jug, or "Krug," belongs: "Der Krug geht so lange zum Brunnen, bis er bricht." The line "hinunterglitt zu den Krugen" brings the jug--and, indeed, the Spruch itself--to the point of breaking. That is, the representation of dew sliding down into jugs functions until the jug itself breaks, until the forms of words no longer hold. Before he wrote "Zahle die Mandeln," Celan had already given particular thought to this saying. In the aphoristic collection Gegenlicht of 1949, he breaks the saying by inverting it: "So lange geht der zerbrochene Krug zum Brunnen, bis dieser versiegt ist" (3:163). In Celan's recasting, there is no moment at which thejug breaks because the jug is broken from the outset. "Kruge" are essentially vessels, instruments for transferring, and thus, according to the etymology of "metaphor," they are instruments of metaphor itself. Celan's brokenjug becomes a metaphor for a dysfunctional process of metaphor. "Kruge" are the image proper of figurative language, of a metaphorical reading that "transfers" or "carries over" reference from the image to its extrinsic tenor. (15) The poem, however, stages an event in which words merge together such that the potential metaphor dissolves into its own rebuke. This apparently emphatic turn from extrinsic reference to textual event is what makes "Zahle die Mandeln" a powerful example. It is not just that "Faden" and "hinunterglitt" refer to something inside the poem; it is also and more importantly that what emerges through the event destroys the Krug and rebukes the mode of thought based upon it. The Krug, the commitment to a metaphorical reading of language as the referential vehicle of thought, turns into a rebuke of thought, a rebuke of itself, just as the Spruch, the saying or saying as such, turns contranymically into its opposite.
This assertion could appear unnecessarily negative: we should believe that a poem as rich in obscurely suggestive images as "Zahle die Mandeln" denies--or better: rebukes, rejects--the communicative power of tropes such as metaphor. But it is important to keep in mind Celan's own steadfast suspicion of metaphor. Celan addresses the topic in his "Meridian" speech when he describes the poem as the "Ort, wo alle Tropen und Metaphern ad absurdum gefuhrt werden wollen" (3:199). Even by itself, this passage is germane to the consideration of a poem that pushes, as I maintain "Zahle die Mandeln" does, its potential metaphors to the point of absurdity, that is, to the point of their self-negating reversal. But the notes Celan generated as he prepared this part of his address have more to say. In an earlier draft, the passage continues, "das Gedicht hat, glaube ich, noch da wo es am bildhaftesten ist, einen antimetaphorischen Charakter." According to Celan, even where the poem is richest in images, it still stands in opposition to metaphor. And at one point, he precedes the "ad absurdum" passage with this: "Das Bild? Die Metapher? Sie sind das Geschehene, Wahrnehmbare, sie haben einen phanomenalen Charakter" (Meridian 74). In these notes, Celan connects a phenomenal character with an anti-metaphorical character. The true poetic image for Celan is something that happens or occurs, something that is phenomenal in that it appears and can be perceived--and in this very act of appearing, it exposes its anti-metaphorical nature. The rebuke, the objection, that presents itself to perception in "Zahle die Mandeln" exemplifies Celan's notion of the phenomenal image through which the poem suspends the operations of metaphor.
There is a final point to make regarding the saying/objection in the last line of the second stanza. This is einSpruch, "der zu niemandes Herz fand." One could read this line as a negative statement, such that one would render it accurately as "the saying/objection didn't find its way into anyone's heart." But one can just as easily read the line as a positive statement: the saying/objection found its way into the heart of no one, into the heart of niemand. (16) And at this point, it emerges that the line could function similarly to "wir schopften die Finsternis leer" in Fioretos's reading of "Blume," that is, as a statement that applies to the word itself. The objection arrives at the heart of niemand, and there, at the word's heart, one finds ni-eman-d, eman, the palindrome of Name. A poem from Lichtzwang refers to "Die ruckwartsgesprochenen Namen" (2:312), and in "Zahle die Mandeln" it is no coincidence that Namen, spoken or read backwards, approximates the word niemaNd. By finding its way into the heart of "niemand," the objection locates the name embedded within it; it brings forth a new sound from a space that was previously empty--occupied by no one. This produces yet another contranymic twist in the poem, another word that mutates into its own Gegenwort. Here, nobody turns out to be somebody; that which is nameless acquires a name that can be perceived, even if its name is as negatively abstract as a rebuke or objection.
Once one begins rearranging letters or letting words merge with one another, the possibilities for combination seem to gain a momentum of their own. Fritz Breithaupt has noted that, when one reads for anagrams and word associations in Celan's poetry, "gibt es per definitionem keinen Halt mehr: jedes Wort kann als Anagramm, Palindrom etc. gelesen werden" (642). (17) For Breithaupt, there is an all-or-nothing quality to this kind of reading; once one starts, it is difficult to know where to stop. One runs the risk of reading wordplay into the text rather than out of it, or, more fundamentally, the risk that one can never decide between language used for its material associations and language used as a more straightforward image. In "Zahle die Mandeln," too, one could continue to spin this thread of reading. One could note, for instance, that when the poem speaks of dew sliding together "an dem [Faden]," the prepositional phrase "an dem" is a close anagram of both "Mandel" and "Name" and is not too far from "niemand," either. The reading remains on firmer ground, though, when it confines itself to those instances of paranomasia and emergent words that are suggested by the text itself, bolstered by lines that speak directly of a "heimlichen Faden" and "niemandes Herz." There may be no end to the possibilities for wordplay and association, but one is less likely to invent examples ifone restricts the investigation to instances in which the poem itself draws attention to the event.
The third stanza, for instance, offers more support for this reading of paranomastic events in "Zahle die Mandeln" as it responds to the mergers of the second stanza. The introductory "Dort erst," which signifies a break or a new beginning that occurs only at a particular place, locates the second stanza's events and gives instructions for perceiving them. The "Dort erst" of the first line modifies each of the following verses that begin with a verb, so that the phenomenon of the name in the second stanza brings about each of these consequences. Only once the thread transgresses the space between words does the Du step into its name and to itself; only there does its true name come to light: Denkrugen, Einspruch.
In line eleven: only there, on the secret thread, do the hammers swing freely in the belfry of your silence. The image of hammers swinging in a belfry calls to mind the cross-section of a bell's frame, an open space that is delimited on two sides by metal walls. The hammers traverse this space of silence and make the bell ring by striking against each side of its frame, so that the belfry's open space corresponds to the interval of silence between the walls of words, that moment of pause that gives each word its discrete identity. And just as a bell's hammer creates sound by spanning an open space and touching each side, so the thread within the poem spans the moment of silence and touches against the framing edge of each word, thereby letting a new sound emerge. (18) In his notebooks, Celan wrote, "Es gibt ein 'Gedicht im Gedicht:' es ist in jeder Wortfaser und jedem Intervall" (Meridian 103). It is of course suggestive to think of every "wordthread" contributing to a secret poem within the poem, but the term "Intervall" is also telling in this context: it derives from the Latin inter-vallum, literally the space between two ramparts or walls. It is thus a word that reiterates the meaning of the "Glockenstuhl" in Celan's poem--an image of generating sound by bridging an empty space and connecting the walls that frame it.
Celan uses several different terms to indicate this pause between words: "eine Wortlucke ists, eine Leerstelle ists, du siehst alle Silben umherstehen" (3:170), and he begins a poem from Fadensonnen with"Kleide die Worthohlen aus" (2:198). The poem "Kleide die Worthohlen aus" consists of a seiles of such imperatives, the last of which reads: "und lausch ihrem zweiten / und jeweils zweiten und zweiten / Ton." Petuchowski takes these imperatives as "a plea to experiment with words, letters, parentheses, and prefixes" (645), and I maintain that the second stanza of "Zahle die Mandeln" responds to precisely the kind of readerly engagement that these lines demand. (19) Taken together, the two commands provide a program for how to read for paranomastic combination: one must pull the thread across the gaps between words (Worthohlen) in order to hear the second sound that emerges. (20)
"Lauschen"--the attentive listening required in "lausch ihrem zweiten [...] Ton"--is particularly apt for discussing "Zahle die Mandeln," as the subsequent lines refer to "das Erlauschte" to reinforce the idea that this second sound can be heard only once the thread undoes the intervals between words. (21) "Dort erst," only there:
stiess das Erlauschte zu dir, legte das Tote den Arm auch um dich und ihr ginget selbdritt durch den Abend.
The verb "stossen zu" means approximately "to meet up with" or "to bump into," and it is only on the thread that, first, the words bump into one another and, second, that the true sound of the poem--"das Erlauschte"--emerges. These last three lines describe a tripartite union among "das Erlauschte," "das Tote," and "dich," which results from the connections that take place in the previous stanza. If "das Erlauschte" represents the second sound or name that presents itself through paranomastic combination, then "das Tote" represents the individual words--words like "Krugen" and "Spruch"--that succumb to the thread's work and cease to function as they normally should.
When I write about poetic language breaking down and ceasing to function, or about a poem that interrupts the movement of reference beyond itself, I am sensitive to a potential criticism--namely, that this is yet another reading "patiently noting the signs of language's negativity" in Celan's poetry. (22) Although "Zahle die Mandeln" undoubtedly evinces a significant negative element, by attending almost exclusively to the poetry's acknowledged "starke Neigung zum Verstummen" (3:197), one risks overlooking signs of Celan's counterbalancing assertion: "Aber das Gedicht spricht ja!" (3:196). Moreover, ifone asserts that Celan's poetry finds it difficult to speak intelligibly about anything but itself and its own language, one risks condemning the poetry to muteness and obscurantism; one denies the work any way to speak of history, loss, death, and suffering.
Yet the suggestion of the "second sound," of the rebuke and objection that emerge when normal speaking suspends itself, provides a way to rescue the reading of negativity and to navigate between the poem's tendency to fall silent and its need to speak, nevertheless. It allows for, as Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe puts it, "a way between silence and discourse, between mutism's saying nothing and the saying too much of eloquence" (56). For when the poem's language in "Zahle die Mandeln" interrupts itself, the alternative to the imagery of the jug is emphatically not silence. It is another sound, another kind of speaking--terse and bitter, to be sure, but a speaking that nonetheless presents itself to perception. Celan's name for this other, emergent speaking, for this Gegenwort that frees itself through an act of resistance, is "Dichtung"--literature, poetry (3:190). Lacoue-Labarthe, reflecting on this very section of Celan's Meridian address, writes that "[p]oetry occurs where language, contrary to all expectations, gives way" (49). But in the case of "Zahle die Mandeln," what must be emphasized is that the negativity inherent in such giving way (giving way, that is, to rebuke and objection) does not break meaning down into nothing; it produces something out of that emptiness, just as the new name is generated from the empty space of nobody.
Celan outlines this process of language giving way and yet reconstituting itself in a well-known passage from the Meridian address: "das Gedicht behauptet sich am Rande seiner selbst; es ruft und holt sich, um bestehen zu konnen, unausgesetzt aus seinem Schon-nicht-mehr in sein Immer-noch zuruck" (3:197). As familiar and suggestive as these lines may be, it has never been entirely clear what they mean for understanding Celan's poetry in practice. And yet, asserting itself on the verge is what "Zahle die Mandeln" does: it exposes itself to the danger of silence and the erosion of meaning, and it exists on that brink. Although the poem conveys the constant possibility of language suspending itself, its interruptions never overtake the text or submerge it in formless chaos. Instead, the words that become fluid and pool together immediately harden--"Ungeschriebenes, zu / Sprache verhartet" (1:251) --into fixed gestures of rebuke and objection, gestures that exist only in their negation of discrete, particular forms. Whenever the poem suspends its own communication, it always scrapes itselfback together in order to communicate its rebuke. One sees this tendency in the latent words that the poem brings to light, as well as in the recurrence, in the final stanza, of the discrete forms of almonds and the strict notational order of "zahlen." It should be noted, though, that the poem does not simply leave off where it began. It never returns to counting per se; it returns, rather, to "zuzahlen," to submerging the individual in the whole of the group. In other words, it returns to the other kind of naming that occurs only by disrupting the conditions that make conventional naming (and counting) possible. (23)
Fioretos writes that Celan's poetry constitutes rather than communicates experience. "Zahle die Mandeln" generates such an experience when its language interrupts itself in self-rebuke--especially when one understands the word "experience" as Lacoue-Labarthe does, through its Latin derivation, "ex-periri, a crossing through danger" (18). Thus, when Lacoue-Labarthe describes poetry "as experience," he conceives of poetry as an event that exposes itself to danger and crosses through danger to arrive at the other side. "Zahle die Mandeln," which begins with a mechanical form of labeling, naming, and reference, exposes itself to the danger of incommunicability and yet eventually returns to countable objects. It constitutes the danger of incommunicability by disrupting its own language and, at the same time, conveying the act of disruption as a meaningful rebuke.
Alluding to the Holocaust and the difficulties of writing in his historical context, Celan said in 1958, in what must be the most frequently cited passage from any of his addresses, that language musste [...] hindurchgehen durch furchtbares Verstummen, hindurchgehen durch die tausend Finsternisse todbringender Rede. Sie ging hindurch und gab keine Worte fur das, was geschah; aber sie ging durch dieses Geschehen. Ging hindurch and durfte wieder zutage treten, "angereichert" von all dem. (3:186) (24)
I return to this famous passage because it justifies, better than any other lines I know, the reading of a move from trope to event in Celan's poetry. This passing through silence, through danger, was not simply Celan's vivid but abstract image for his poetic practice; one sees it at work in "Zahle die Mandeln." The poem gives no words for what happened; in fact, it rejects the attempt to use imagery as a vessel to carry thought beyond the poem's language. For some writers, failing to take, say, the command "zahle" as an allusion to the head counts in concentration camps or, more distantly, the almonds as an allusion to Zyldon B means refusing to acknowledge the realities of Celan's life and work. (25) And yet, by combing through the poem, looking for words that might encode aspects of Celan's experience of the Holocaust, this metaphorical mode of reading makes poetic language do exactly what Celan says it does not do--give words for that which happened. It is this act of labeling, of giving a proper name, that Celan critiques in his addresses and rebukes in his poem.
In the context of postwar literature, Celan was certainly not alone in his suspicion of conventional literary language or poetic figuration, a suspicion that was especially urgent among German-speaking intellectuals. Writing in the language of both his mother and the Nazi perpetrators, Celan worked during a period of intense concern about whether German had been irredeemably contaminated by the vocabulary of the Third Reich, and whether literature--poetry in particular--was an absurdly inadequate response to the atrocities committed in the name of civilization. (26) These concerns found their most memorable expression in Adorno's oft-cited and truncated statement, "nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch" (30). But one can read similar misgivings in lines like Hans Magnus Enzensberger's "lies keine oden, mein sohn, lies die fahrplane: / sie sind genauer" and "sei wachsam, sing nicht" (85), or in Gunter Kunert's description, in a poem read for the Gruppe 47, of language "die / Mehr zur Luge taugt denn zur Wahrheit," "Die mehr scheinen will als sein" (Neunzig, 314).
Celan was, to some extent, a part of this milieu--he studied Adorno, was close to Ingeborg Bachmann, and once presented his work, albeit unsuccessfully, to the Gruppe 47--and he was deeply invested in the ethical function of poetry in relation to history and remembrance. And yet, he also stands apart from other postwar authors, in part because he is a dispossessed Romanian Jew, living in Paris and writing in German, (27) but also because of the degree to which he gives the poem agency and a performative dimension. Here the breakdown of linguistic representation appears not as a motif, but rather as an event. (28) Celan is able to produce poetry, in German, by pursuing the concerns about language's inadequacy and contamination as poetological principles. (29) He writes the violence done to language into his poetry and stages there its self-suspension and rebuke.
Ulrich Baer hits on this very point when he writes that Celan's poetry centers on "the paradoxical effect of relying on language in order to account for a loss in language" (176). (30) Baer asks, in other words, how language can reliably express a loss that language itself has experienced. "Zahle die Mandeln" offers a tentative answer to Baer's question: via the transformations of paranomasia, it exemplifies how poetry can use language to demonstrate what happened to language. Only through the negative gesture of rejecting any easy way to represent loss and death can the poem most fully and radically represent loss and death. "Zahle die Mandeln" relates to history by performing its own event or Geschehen, its own passage through silence. Once the din of conventional speaking gives way, there appears a new name that objects to the first.
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(1) On the genesis of Szondi's works on Celan, see Bollack's foreword to Celan Studies and Konig's "Reflections of Reading."
(2) J. L. Austin's distinction between constative and performative utterances famously excludes literature flora the realm of effective speech acts (22). When I discuss a performative dimension in Celan's poetry, I employ a broader notion of speech acts and borrow a basic working definition from J. Hillis Miller: in a performative, "the saying or the writing of the words in some way or other does what the words say;" it is language "that acts, rather than describes" (2).
(3) In her introduction to The Discourse of Nature in the Poetry of Paul Celan, Rochelle Tobias succinctly summarizes and critiques Szondi's reading of "Engfuhrung." While, from Szondi's perspective, Celan's poetry is not figurative because it "embodies what it says" (5), Tobias makes a strong case for focusing on metaphors that present language as a space or terrain.
(4) For various interpretations of almonds, see: Glenn 57; Colin 105-07; Del Caro 101; Schulze 5-21; Neumann 29-31; Poggeler 38, 71-73; Seng 138-39; and Felstiner 63-64. The list of referents enumerated above should not suggest a great deal of" conflict among competing interpretations, although Poggeler is pointedly critical of attempts to connect the imagery too easily to Celan's biography (77). Many of these writers cite earlier interpretations approvingly and most accept a meanings.
(5) Unless otherwise noted, citations of Celan's works refer multiplicity of possible to the Gesammelte Werke. References to the Tubinger Ausgabe are indicated by volume title.
(6) Felstiner's translation captures something of this shift by rendering "zahl mich dazu" as "count me in too," which has the advantage of retaining the repetition of the verb while also bending its sense toward inclusion and assignation (63).
(7) I call this occurrence in Celan's text "paranomasia" to highlight its affinity to what other readers have found in the poetry. Szondi, noting the rhyme of "zusammenschmieden" with "geschieden" in Celan's translation of "Shakespeare's sonnet 105, describes paranomasia as "die phonologische Fastidentitat" (2:338). One could also argue, though, that the polysemous slippage from "den Krugen" to "Denkrugen" represents a form of synaloepha. From the Greeksynaleiphein, meaning to melt or smear together, synaloepha is the figure for the contraction and coalescence of neighboring syllables. Lausberg describes synaloepha as a "Phanomen des phonetischen Wortkontaktes" ([section] 493, 264).
(8) It is perhaps worth noting that the metaphorical readings of "Zahle die Mandeln" also rely on words that never appear in the poem--Buber, for instance, Mandelstam, Celan's mother, or the Holocaust--and that such readings often struggle to correlate the assumed meaning of the almonds with the rest of the poem.
(9) For another example of Celan's tendency to fragment and reorganize words, to seek out "potential collisions of meaning in homophones," see Derek Hillard's careful reading of the later poem "Huhediblu" in Poetry as Individuality (85). For an analysis of the figure of metathesis (transposing the parts of a whole) in Celan's poetry, see further Christoph Perels, "Erhellende Metathesen."
(10) This light--or lumen--is also implicit in the word "Blume" (Fioretos, "Finsternis" 175). Following Szondi's attention to the phonetic repetitions in the poem, such as "bl" (2:440), Fritz Breithaupt has noted that the line "blattert hinzu" can also read "B lettert hinzu," which speaks to the connecfion of lumen and B-lumen, light and flowers (639).
(11) Similar juxtapositions can be found in other poems. In "Bei Wein und Verlorenheit" (1:213), for instance, the word "Neige," German for "dregs" but also French for "snow," stands above the word "Schnee" in the next line. Elizabeth Petuchowski notes this translational juxtaposition in a study that uncovers numerous bilingual "Wortspiele behind the visual images, especially behind those that cannot be resolved as metaphors" (639, 641).
(12) "[P]oros, spongios: das Gedicht es weiss um die Erosionen, denen es sich aussetzt" (Meridian 163).
(13) Derrida explores, via Heidegger, the various possible meanings of "Spruch": "saying, maxim, decree, decision, poem, in any case, a saying that is not a theoretical or scientific statement and that is tied in a singular and 'performative' way to language" (84).
(14) Hollow speaking might call to mind George Steiner's 1959 essay "The Hollow Miracle," in which he argues that the German language has been infected by Nazism, that its words have become "conveyors of terror and falsehood" (101). In this sense, one could also say that Celan sets the poem as Einspruch, as rebuke or objection, against the compromised shell of language in postwar Germany.
(15) The "Krug" in "Zahle die Mandeln" has also been interpreted as a metaphor. Cohn, for example, asserts that it signifies suffering, as it is a "vessel containing tears and the ashes of the dead" (106). See further Del Caro, for whom the entire second stanza refers "specifically to the poet's work in remembering" (101), and Neumann, for whom the jug represents an urn or "Aschenkrug" (29).
(16) Neumann, too, notes here "die Erhebung des Pronomens zum Nomen" (30). He connects it to the occurrence of "niemand" in line 4 and to the first stanza of "Psalm" (1:225).
(17) Thomas Schestag's article "buk" offers an extreme example of this anagrammatic, associative mode of reading, as it pursues a series of phonetic and semantic associations that course through Celan's work.
(18) This line "schwangen die Hammer frei" reveals a deeper connection between "Zahle die Mandeln" and "Blume." "Blume" cites the eadier poem when it closes with the lines: "Ein Wort noch, wie dies, und die Hammer / schwingen im Freien" (1:164). Not only do both poems bring hidden words to light, they also both allude to the aural event through the image of swinging hammers. See Seng, paraphrasing Bernd Witte, 214.
(19) On "Kleide die Worthohlen aus," see Behl, who agrees that the lines present instructions for reading but connects the command more specifically to the reading practices of Jewish mysticism (171).
(20) Among the examples of"second sounds" in the poem, one could include the word "Mandeln" itself. The Tubinger Ausgabe follows several scholarly commentaries in noting that the line "zahle, was [...] dich wachhielt" alludes to Jeremiah 1:11 and the vision of the almond branch. The Hebrew word for almond, shaked, can also be read as shoked, meaning to wake or to watch, depending on its vocalization (Mohn und Gedachtnis 123). The poem thus begins by foregrounding how a slight change in sound activates another meaning. While many readings take the almonds metaphorically, the Biblical allusion highlights the formative role that translation can play in Celan's production of what appear to be obscurely suggestive poetic figures. See again Petuchowski's reading of "Neige" as a translation of "Schnee" in "Bei Wein und Verlorenheit" (641).
(21) On the specificity of "lauschen," see Del Caro 102.
(22) Fioretos, "Nothing" 303.
(23) On the cyclical structure of the poem and of Mohn und Gedachtnis as a whole, see Seng 138-41.
(24) Maurice Blanchot writes of the language referred to in Celan's passage: it is "the language through which death came to him, to those dose to him, to millions of Jews and non-Jews, an event without response" (238). Perhaps this is why the event in Celan's poem gives no intelligible response; it offers only the purely negative reaction of rebuke and objection.
(25) See, for example, Felstiner, Paul Celan 63-64.
(26) On the National Socialist contamination of German, see, in addition to Steiner's essays in Language and Silence, as well as Victor Klemperer's LTI and Aus dem Worterbuch des Unmenscben.
(27) Stephan Braese explores the position of Jewish writers in postwar West Germany and characterizes it "im Gegenuber zum Gros der deutschsprachigen Autoren und ihrer Arbeit" (29), including those involved in the Gruppe 47.
(28) Amir Eshel sees this agency as constitutive of Celan's poetic ethics. He summarizes several of Celan's reflections, writing, "Precisely because the poem itself is the event, and precisely because the event 'happens' in the poem, it can give voice, [...] can speakin the name of [...] 'an altogether other'" (65, citing the "Meridian" address).
(29) John Zilcosky seeks to complicate a conventional reading, according to which Adorno institutes a "ban" on poetry after the Holocaust, and Celan's poems prove him wrong. Zilcosky outlines, in contrast, "Celan's own Adornian critique of lyric" (675).
(30) From Baer's perspective, what language has lost is a way to organize experience and make sense of the world. See Remnants of Song 169-210.
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|Publication:||The German Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2013|
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