Poem by Paul Celan, 1955
Paul Celan's poetry represents an attempt to universalize the Holocaust. It seeks to invent a new language for a horror without precedent. For Celan it is not enough merely to bear witness, to recount the facts, because his experience is composed not only of real events, and real pain, but also of the agonizing emotional transformation these events have caused. For both the poet and the reader, the struggle to make sense of this transformation through poetry is arduous, even painful; the more personal the experience, the more deeply it is felt, the more difficult it becomes to express. The profoundly personal nature of Celan's poems, their multilingual quality, and their free use of obscure historical references turn the act of reading into a type of decoding in which the reader is compelled to formulate a distinct point of entry for individual stanzas, if not individual words.
Published in Von Schwelle zu Schwelle (1955), the poem "Shibboleth" both struggles to master this coded world and acknowledges the hopelessness of such a struggle. The derivation of the word is significant. It was first used in biblical times as a password by the soldiers of Jephthah during the defeat of the Ephraimites. Because the language of the Ephraimites did not contain a "sh" sound, the word "shibboleth" was unpronounceable, making them easy to identify when they tried to escape. This form of identification, rooted in ethnicity, finds its ominous echo in the Holocaust, where Jewish identity was the mark, predetermined by the enemy, that resulted in death.
In Celan's poem, utterance of the shibboleth constitutes a search for "homeland." Home is where memory, identity, and one's native language all intersect. For Celan this home was irredeemably destroyed when the Nazis occupied Romania and murdered his parents. In his exile the poet is seeking that one word, that secret code, that will restore him to familiar territory. The poem abounds with potential shibboleths, such as "February" and "No pasaran." On one level the interpretation of these words seems clear. February refers to the date of many of the events alluded to in the poem; "No pasaran" was a Republican slogan during the Spanish Civil War. And yet the transformative power of these phrases has been gutted by defeat. Instead, we find ourselves looking back, through the eyes of a prisoner, on the ruins of war: "remember the dark/twin redness/of Vienna and Madrid." The landscape is unfamiliar, foreign:
they dragged me out into
the middle of the market,
where the flag unfurls to which
I swore no kind of allegiance.
Amidst this destruction the poet struggles to find his "home-land," to reestablish his citizenship. But the only remaining territory is memory, ravaged by death:
Set your flag at half-mast,
today and forever.
Unable to become repatriated through the language of his surroundings, the poet turns to his heart and seeks from it the "shibboleth" that will reconcile him to this "alien home-land." But the heart can only repeat the old, vanquished phrases: "February. No pasaran."
In the last stanza Celan launches his search into the realm of myth. Having failed to elicit a response from his heart, he turns to a unicorn, insisting that it understands:
you know about the stones,
you know about the water,
I shall lead you away
to the voices
Here the poet is momentarily transported. Estremadura is a region in Portugal near southern Spain. It is close to the scene of disaster, but it is on the other side of the border, in a place where different "voices" can be heard. The fluid, exotic quality of the name itself suggests an escape from the harsh sounds of war. In this way the poet imbues the unicorn—as an image, as a word—with a sense of liberation. The bestowing of this quality becomes the definitive poetic act. And yet ultimately this gesture represents a capitulation, a turning away from history toward the impossible. The last stanza suggests real beauty, but it is purely imaginative, as elusive as the unicorn itself.