BORN: 1920, Czernovitz, Romania
DIED: 1970, Paris, France
GENRE: Poetry, nonfiction
“Death Fugue” (1944)
The Sand from the Urns (1948)
Edgar Jené and the Dream of the Dream (1948)
Poppy and Memory (1952)
“Conversation in the Mountains” (1960)
Paul Celan (pronounced say-LAHN, the pen name of Paul Antschel), whom critic George Steiner has called “almost certainly the major European poet of the period after 1945,” is known primarily for his verse. Yet his reputation as a lyric poet overshadows a small but significant body of prose works that deserve attention both for their close links to his poetry and as independent creations.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Jewish Heritage and the Holocaust Paul Antschel, the only child of Jewish parents Leo Antschel-Teitler and Friederike Schrager, was born in Czernovitz, capital of
the Romanian province of Bukovina, on November 23, 1920. He grew up in a multilingual environment. German, the language spoken at home and in some of the schools he attended, remained his mother tongue throughout his life, and Vienna was the cultural center of his youth; but his language of daily speech was Romanian. Before his bar mitzvah, he studied Hebrew for three years, and by the time he began a year of premedical studies at the École préparatoire de Médecine in Tours, France, in 1938, he was also fluent in French. Returning to Czernovitz shortly before the outbreak of World War II, he learned Russian at the university and, after Soviet troops occupied Bukovina in 1940, in the streets.
When German troops captured the city in 1941, Antschel's parents were deported and shot, but he survived. After eighteen months at forced labor for the Germans, he escaped to the Soviet Red Army and returned to Czernovitz, which was again under Russian control. There, sometime in late 1944, he wrote “Death Fugue,” one of the most powerful poems written about the Holocaust. The work was based both on his own experiences in a labor camp in Romania and on reports he had heard of conditions in the harsher Polish concentration camps. The poem was included in his first two poetry collections, The Sand from the Urns (1948) and Poppy and Memory (1952).
Prose and the Surrealist Circle Leaving Czernovitz in 1945 for Bucharest, Antschel joined a surrealist circle, became friends with leading Romanian writers, and worked as a translator and reader in a publishing house. For his prose translations from Russian into Romanian— primarily of Mikhail Lermontov, Konstantin Simonov, and Anton Chekhov—and for publication of his own poems, he used several pseudonyms before rearranging the letters of Ancel, the Romanian form of his surname, into Celan in 1947.
Sometime between 1945 and 1947, he wrote a two-page prose fragment that has survived under the title “A Stylus Noiselessly Hops…” (1980). This work is one of many that reveal his indebtedness to surrealism. Late in 1947, Celan went to Vienna, where he joined a circle of leading avant-garde painters, writers, and publishers. His friendship with painter Edgar Jené gave rise to a brief prose piece, “The Lance,” which he and Jené wrote jointly early in 1948 and circulated on photocopied sheets to announce a reading of surrealist texts as part of an exhibition of surrealist painters in Vienna.
A second prose piece, “Edgar Jené and the Dream of the Dream” (1948), written at about the same time as “The Lance,” purports to be a discussion of Jené's paintings but is actually a confessional essay on what happens in the “deep sea” of the writer's mind, the “huge crystal of the internal world” into which he follows Jené and where he explores his paintings. Leaving Vienna in July 1948, Celan settled in Paris and began studies in German language and literature. In March 1949 the Swiss journal Die Tat published a collection of his brilliant but enigmatic aphorisms— quick, pithy words of wisdom—titled “Counter-Light.”
German Translator Celan took his Licence des Lettres in 1950. In 1952 he married graphic artist Gisèle de Lestrange, with whom he had a son, Eric, who was born in 1955. Though he wrote no original prose for almost ten years, the works Celan chose to translate into German were usually prose. He never gave up German as his mother tongue, telling a friend, “Only in one's mother tongue can one express one's own truth. In a foreign language, the poet lies.” Though all of these translations reflect Celan's unique prose style, one reveals almost more of himself than of the original: his rendering of Jean Cayrol's prose narration for Alain Resnais' Night and Fog (1956), a film on the Holocaust that Celan endowed with an authentic Jewish voice for German-speaking viewers.
The address he delivered upon receiving the Bremen Literary Prize in 1958 (translated in 1969) is Celan's most personal prose work. After referring to the Bukovinian landscape of his youth and his acquaintance with Martin Buber's Hasidic tales in this world “where humans and books lived,” the address becomes a discussion of his relationship to the German language. This language, he says, “had to pass… through a frightful muting, pass through the thousand darknesses of death-bringing speech.” From its miraculous survival, he now attempts to write “in order to speak, to orient myself… to outline reality.”
German Reader In 1959 Celan became a reader in German language and literature at L'École Normale Superieure, a position he held until his death. While in the Swiss Alps in July 1959 he was supposed to meet Theodor Adorno at Sils-Maria. Forced to return to Paris before they met, Celan composed “Conversation in the Mountains” (1960) the following month, a reflection on this missed encounter. He later called it a “jabber” or “schmooze” between himself and Adorno.
Suicide at Fifty In early May 1970, Paris officials found Celan's body in the Seine River. He had been missing since the middle of April. Sometime before his suicide, Celan produced his final prose work, a brief address delivered to the Hebrew Writers' Association in October 1969 during a trip to Israel; it was published in the Tel Aviv magazine Die Stimme in August 1970. In the address Celan expresses gratitude for discovering in Israel an “external and internal landscape” conducive to creating great poetry in the surrealist style. In his address, he compares these two landscapes: “I understand…the grateful pride in every homegrown green thing that stands ready to refresh anyone who comes by; just as I comprehend the joy in every newly won, self-felt word that rushes up to strengthen him who is receptive to it.”
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Celan's famous contemporaries include:
Shmuel Yosef Agnon (1888–1970): Hebrew fiction writer and Nobel Prize–winning writer laureate who contributed much to Hebrew literature.
Margaret Burbidge (1919–): English astrophysicist known for several achievements, including discovering the nuclear process of stars and codeveloping the faint object spectrograph for the Hubble telescope.
Dorothy Dandridge (1923–1965): Actress, singer, and dancer; she was the first African American to be nominated for an Academy Award—for her starring role in Carmen Jones.
Nelly Sachs (1891–1970): German poet, playwright, and friend to Paul Celan, whom she called “brother.” She expressed the pain and suffering of the Jewish condition.
Works in Literary Context
The Salvation of Language For Celan after the Holocaust, language was the only thing that remained
“reachable.” Through language he sought to verify his existence. He felt the only way language could make sense of the world was by way of contradiction, paradox, or ambiguity. One way he felt he could achieve this was through surrealism. “The Lance,” for instance, consists of typical surrealist images: “rainbowfish” flying through the sky, a giant hammer in the air, and waves beating against treetops. It ends with speakers casting nets into the water—an image also found in Celan's early poems. The work also contains a dialogue, the format that became a hallmark of his later prose works.
Creative extensions and elaborations of his poetry, Celan's prose works also express the struggle to reclaim language in a nonpoetic age and the need for dialogue as a means of connecting oneself with and orienting oneself in the modern world. His Bremen Literary Prize acceptance speech given in 1958 and reproduced in The Meridian (1961) demonstrates these aims. It is written as a dialogue with his listeners, punctuated by reservations or uncertainties about the poet's craft, leading the listener/ reader through a labyrinth of images relating to the poet's quest for speech in an age when speech has become nearly impossible.
Influences A speaker of several languages and a man of profound experiences, including great loss, Celan was influenced by many things. He had great appreciation for Israel and his Jewish heritage. He also carried an unshakable feeling of persecution after the devastation he experienced in Nazi labor camps. After he read the works of authors like Martin Buber and Franz Kafka, and with his knowledge of languages, he was inspired to develop one of his most important relationships—with the German language, one of the few elements of his spiritual existence that he did not lose and that he believed offered a security against further loss. As scholar Joan Peterson suggests, “The ways in which [his] poems represent mourning and address rage and despair place[s] [him] at the center of artistic response to the Holocaust, and [he] continues to influence those who write about it.”
Works in Critical Context
Celan's earlier poetry was harshly criticized by peers such as the members of Group 47, a postwar literary group that challenged modern conventions. That which he read aloud in a vocal style in the tradition of Hungarian folk poems, for example, was poorly received by his German audiences. But because it was difficult to write poetry after the Holocaust and equally difficult to approach it with any unaffected criticism, Celan decided that the best way to write was to set language free from history. As Books and Writers notes, Celan made the conscious decision and “went with my very being toward language.” Both his poetry and his prose work soon became not only respected but revered, known, adds Books and Writers, “for its broken syntax and radical minimalism, expressing his perception of the shattered world in which he lived.” By the end of his life, Celan had developed a reputation as a German surrealist writer, a linguistic craftsperson, and a poet of Jewish concerns with several awards to his credit—a reputation that continues today. These talents are demonstrated in such works as “Counter-Light,” as well as his most famous poem, “Death Fugue.”
“Counter-Light” (1949) In this collection, what are considered by some scholars as brilliant but enigmatic aphorisms appear surrealistic in their subversion of conventional time and of space and object relationships: trees fly to birds, hours jump out of the clock, a woman hates a mirror's vanity. Behind them lies a Kafkaesque awareness that the world makes no sense. These pieces express Celan's understanding that it seems that only in the paradox of new language combinations can the world be made coherent. Only in a dialectic of contradictions can truth be rendered.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Here are a few works by other post–World War II writers who were also deeply affected by the Holocaust:
Collected Later Poems (2003), a poetry collection by Anthony Hecht. In this collection of three volumes of poetry, the expressions of Hecht's experiences as a World War II liberator who witnessed the atrocities firsthand reveal an intense focus and profound sentiment.
Night (1955), a memoir by Elie Wiesel. In this brief but powerful memoir, the author recounts his experiences as a young Orthodox Jew imprisoned at Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
The Shawl (1990), a collection of fiction by Cynthia Ozick. In this small volume that includes two novellas, the author tells the intimate story of Holocaust survivor Rosa Lublin, who loses her children and her soul.
Man's Search for Meaning (1945), a nonfiction work by Viktor Frankl. In this nonfiction book, the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist retells his experiences as a Holocaust victim and puts forth a philosophy and a therapy of existential healing.
“Death Fugue” Despite the many works that followed, “Death Fugue” is widely considered Celan's most powerful and most successful work. However, scholar Rex Last has described the poem as “somewhat untypical of his work at large, in that it is rhythmical, fluent and relatively accessible: image succeeds image in bold and fluent patterns which contrast strikingly with the sparse and almost inscrutable verses of the more mature Celan.”
Last also states, “This incantatory, hypnotic fugue of death is one of the pinnacles of twentieth-century German poetry….” The most notable negative assessment of the poem, in fact, comes from the author Celan himself, who in later years regarded it as too direct in its message.
Responses to Literature
- Do an Internet search for cultural, historical, and political links that will enhance your understanding of the background and forces that influenced Paul Celan. For example, you may want to investigate the conditions in Romania during World War II. Or you may choose to research Group 47, the German literary association with which Celan was briefly associated.
- Celan is considered a surrealist poet. Surrealism contains a number of unique characteristics, including:
- an intermingling of dreams and reality
- “impossible” environments that could not exist in the real world
- objects becoming animated or combined with other things
- objects appearing in unexpected places or in unexpected scale
- Go to the Louvre Web site or another major metropolitan museum online. Look at surrealist art such as that of Salvador Dali, Giorgi De Chirico, Edgar Jené, or Max Ernst. Discuss with others what you find to be surrealist about the work (or a particular work) of these artists. Then, using the same list of surrealistic characteristics, find as many examples of surrealism as you can in Celan's work. For example, what is dreamlike in his writing? Discuss with others, noting examples that are different from the ones you came up with.
- Visit the Museum of Jewish Heritage online. Investigate the artifacts, art, and diary entries found on the second floor, which features the Holocaust Memorial material. Decide on one particular aspect of the Holocaust that interests you and that you would like to become the group “expert” on. Each person in the group will do the same. Then, each person should print out information on the chosen aspect, print out a poem that has relevance, and write a preliminary report that will be shared with the group along with the chosen poem.
- Write a poem influenced by a major event in your life or in your community. For instance, you may choose to write about the events of September 11, 2001, or express your feelings and opinions about the 2008 presidential race. Choose anything that you feel passionately about, much like Celan wrote with profound feeling about the genocide of his Jewish compatriots.
Celan, Paul. “Speech on the Occasion of Receiving the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen.” In Collected Prose. Riverdale-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Sheep Meadow Press, 1986, p. 34.
Colin, Amy. Paul Celan: Holograms of Darkness. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.
Del Caro, Adrian. The Early Poetry of Paul Celan: In the Beginning Was the Word. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997.
Samuels, Clarise. Holocaust Visions: Surrealism and Existentialism in the Poetry of Paul Celan. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1993.
Lyon, James K. “Paul Celan and Martin Buber: Poetry as
Dialogue.”PMLA (1971): vol. 86, no. 1: pp. 110–20.
Peterson, Joan. “‘Some Gold Across the Water’: Paul Celan and Nelly Sachs.” Holocaust and Genocide Studies (2002): vol. 14, no. 2: pp. 197–214.
Steiner, George. “Songs of a Torn Tongue.” Times Literary Supplement. (September 28, 1984): pp. 1093–94.
———. “The Loud Silences of Paul Celan.” Jewish Quarterly (1980–81): vol. 4: pp. 49–50.
The Academy of American Poets Poetry. Exhibits: Paul Celan. Retrieved February 24, 2008, from http://www.poets.org/.
Books and Writers. Paul Celan (1920–1970). Retrieved February 24, 2008, from http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/celan.htm.
Poetry Portal. Paul Celan. Retrieved February 24, from http://www.poetry-portal.com/poets43.html.
Pseudonym for Paul Antschel. Nationality: Romanian. Born: Czernovitz, Bukoviana, 23 November 1920. Education: Studied medicine, École Préparatoire de Médecine, Tours, France, 1938; studied German philology and literature, Licence des Lettres, Paris, 1950. Family: Married Gisele de Lestrange in 1952; two sons (one deceased). Career: Forced laborer in Southern Moldovia during World War II; worked as a psychiatric field surgeon after the war; moved to Bucharest, 1945, and worked as a translator of Russian literature and a reader in a publishing house; lived in Vienna, December 1947 to July 1948; moved to Paris, 1948; reader, German language and literature, Ecole Normale Superior, Sorbonne University of Paris, 1959-70. Awards: City of Bremen literary prize, 1958; Georg Büchner prize, 1960. Died: Suicide, April, 1970.
Gedichte: Eine Auswahl [Poems: A Selection]. 1959.
Ausgewählte Gedichte: Zwei Reden. 1968.
Ausgewählte Gedichte. 1970.
Selected Poems. 1972.
Gedichte (2 vols.). 1975.
Paul Celan: Prose Writings and Selected Poems. 1977.
Paul Celan: Poems. 1980; revised and enlarged as Poems of Paul Celan, 1988; revised and enlarged, 1995.
Gesammelte Werke (5 vols.). 1983.
65 Poems. 1985.
Gedichte: 1938-1944. 1985.
Last Poems. 1986.
Collected Prose. 1986.
Das Frühwerk, edited by Barbara Wiedemann. 1987.
Paul Celan: Die Gedichte aus dem Nachlass, edited by Bertrand Badiou, Jean-Claude Rambach, and Barbara Wiedemann. 1997.
A Voice: Translations of Paul Celan. 1998.
Glottal Stop: 101 Poems. 2000.
Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan. 2001.
Der Sand aus den Urnen. 1948.
Mohn und Gedächtnis [Poppy and Memory]. 1952.
Von Schwelle zu Schwelle [From Threshold to Threshold].1955.
Sprachgitter [Language Grid]. 1959; as Speech-Grille and Selected Poems, 1971.
Die Niemandsrose [The Nobody Rose]. 1963.
Atemkristall. 1965; as Breath Crystal, 1976.
Atemwende. 1967; as Breathturn, 1995.
Fadensonnen. 1968; as Threadsuns, 2000.
Todesfuge (reprint of a poem in Mohn und Gedächtnis ). 1984.
Edgar Jené und der traum vom traume [Edgar Jené and theDream of the Dream]. 1948.
Ansprache bei Verleihung des Bremen Literatur-Preises an Paul Celan (acceptance speech for City of Bremen literary prize). 1958.
Der Meridian (acceptance speech for Georg Büchner prize, Darmstadt, October 22, 1960). 1961; as The Meridian, 1977.
Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs: Correspondence, edited by BarbaraWiedemann. 1995.
Translator, Un erou al timpului nostru, by Mikhail Lermontov.1946.
Translator, Wie Man wünsche beim Schwanz packt: Ein Drama in sechs Akten, by Pablo Picasso. 1954.
Translator, Hier irrt Maigret: Kriminalroman, by GeorgesSimenon. 1955.
Translator, Maigret und die schrecklichen Kinder: Kriminalroman, by Georges Simenon. 1955.
Translator, Die Zwölf, by Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Blok.1958.
Translator, Gedichte, by Osip Mandelstam. 1959.
Translator, Drei russische Dichter: Alexander Block, Ossip Mandelstamm, Sergej Jessenin. 1963.
Translator, with Adelheid Christoph and Rainer Kirsch,Gedichte, by Sergei Aleksandrovich Esenin. 1965.
Translator, Einundzwanzig Sonette, by William Shakespeare.1967.*
"Bibliographie zu Paul Celan: Werke und Sekundärliteratur," in Zeitschrift für Kulturaustausch, 3(32), 1982, pp. 245-87; "Bibliographie zu Paul Celan," in Text + Kritik, 53/54 July, 1984, pp. 100-49 (second, enlarged edition), both by Christiane Heuline; Paul Celan Bibliographie by Christiane Bohrer, 1989; Paul Celan: Ein Bibliographie by Jerry Glenn, 1989; Paul Celan: A Bibliography of English-Language Primary and Secondary Literature 1955-1996 by Jerry Glenn, 1997; Paul Celan: Die Zweite Bibliographie by Jerry Glenn and Jeffrey D. Todd, 1998.
Paul Celan by Jerry Glenn, 1973; Paul Celan section, edited by Jerry Glenn, in Sulfur, 11, 1984, pp. 5-99; "Paul Celan: The Strain of Jewishness," in Commentary, 79, April 1985, pp. 44-55, and Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew, 1995, both by John Felstiner; Argumentum e Silentio, edited by Amy D. Colin, 1986; Paul Celan: A Biography of His Youth by Israel Chalfen, translated by Maximilian Bleyleben, 1991; Paul Celan: Holograms of Darkness by Amy D. Colin, 1991; Holocaust Visions: Surrealism and Existentialism in the Poetry of Paul Celan by Clarise Samuels, 1993; "The Problem of Language and National Identity for Holocaust Poet, Paul Celan" by James M. Van der Laan, in History of European Ideas, 16(1-3), January 1993, pp. 207-21; Word Traces: Readings of Paul Celan, edited by Aris Fioretos, 1994; Pathways to Paul Celan: A History of Critical Responses As a Chorus of Discordant Voices by Bianca Rosenthal, 1995; The Early Poetry of Paul Celan: In the Beginning Was the Word by Adrian Del Caro, 1997; "Language and the Holocaust: Reflections on the Poetry of Paul Celan" by Emery George, in Michigan Quarterly Review, 36(1), Winter 1997, pp. 475-83; "Writing after/about Auschwitz: Paul Celan" by Peter Horn, in Pretexts (South Africa), 6(2), November 1997, pp. 159-65; "Paul Celan: Poet of the Shoah" by Alain Suied, translated by Steve Light, in New Literary History, 30(1), Winter 1999, pp. 217-19.* * *
Paul Celan is widely considered the most ambitious and complex author to write poetry after Auschwitz. His international reputation results principally from his early poem "Todesfuge" (1948; "Death Fugue," 1967). After that poem's publication, Celan abandoned most direct references to the Holocaust and wrote increasingly abstract lyric verse in German, the language taught to him by his mother and spoken by her murderers. In much of his later work, specifically in the volumes Sprachgitter (1959, "Language Grid") and Atemwende (1967; "Breathturn," 1995), he investigates the capacity of language to express a traumatic and fundamentally inaccessible reality and the capacity of German in particular to permit testimony to German crimes and Jewish suffering. For Celan the Holocaust was not a topic to be selected or dismissed; it unavoidably cast its shadow on all of postwar culture and existence. He considered poetry—after Auschwitz and because of Auschwitz—to have become more fragile and, by necessity, more prone to take risks in its search to convey irremediable loss.
Celan was born Paul Antschel, the only child of assimilated Jewish parents in Czernowitz, Romania. After the Nazis' invasion of his native country, he was forced to work in a labor camp, while his parents were deported to concentration camps where his father perished under uncertain circumstances, and his mother was fatally shot by the Germans. When Soviet troops occupied Czernowitz in 1944, Celan moved via Budapest and Vienna to Paris.
While an astute observer of politics, Celan insisted that the Holocaust needed to be considered in other terms. Invoking ethical considerations, he regarded it primarily as a breach in human relations. For this reason, he stressed the dialogic nature of poetry in opposition to a tradition of German verse that he nonetheless acknowledged as formative. He insisted that any attentive reader could understand his poems, in spite of their appearance of hermetism. In response to criticism, he defended the opacity and difficulty of his later work as necessary to address the reality of the Holocaust and what he considered the discouraging persistence of anti-Semitism, the denial of responsibility, and a generally repressive politics in postwar Europe. Beginning with the collection Die Niemandsrose (1963; "The Nobody Rose") dedicated to the poet Osip Mandelstam, Celan identified himself increasingly as a Jewish poet and added to his sources in German culture and French modernism further references to Jewish mysticism and Jewish precursors—gleaned primarily from readings in adulthood. In his correspondence, he insisted that anti-Semitism is a form of anti-humanism. His complicated relation to the German language and his German readership found poignant expression in an ultimately ineffective confrontation (chronicled in the poem "Todtnauberg") with Martin Heidegger, the philosopher who had been a Nazi party member and whose work Celan nonetheless greatly admired.
In speeches delivered upon receiving several prestigious literary awards, Celan stressed his belief in the survival of the German language as a means to access even extreme reality. At the same time, his poems syntactically and semantically pry open this language to reveal overlooked or repressed signification, and to expose what he considered its potential for inauthentic speech. In the important "Straitening" (1959), Celan strikingly interlaces the search for the traces of annihilation at the sites of Nazi crimes with a dissection of German words and sentences. Celan further inserts references to the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki into this poem to compel his readers to reflect on the relation between different modes of mass destruction. Much of Celan's poetry of the 1960s is written under the impact of severe mental suffering that resulted in suicide attempts, forced hospitalization, medication, and the separation from his wife and son, whose lives he had threatened. Poetry became for Celan a means of survival, allowing him to design a "search for reality" which increasingly eluded him. Whether his mental illness and eventual suicide were direct results of his experiences and losses under the Nazis remains open for debate.
Celan's work offers a plethora of syntactically compacted terms that refer, often obliquely, to Jewish culture, Eastern European sites, acts of testimony, and graphic images of suffering. Since these references are so tightly embedded in a linguistic context that is often far removed from the Holocaust, critics disagree whether they can be interpreted as Holocaust references or whether they signal the difficulty of having unambiguous references to what Celan ultimately considered an incomprehensible event. Recent critics largely reject a reading of Celan's oeuvre as exclusively Holocaust-themed. In light of the publication of Celan's correspondence with his wife and friends, postwar events such as an unfounded but highly publicized plagiarism charge in the 1960s (which Celan attributed largely to anti-Semitism) are now considered equally important factors shaping his work.