Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Synecdoche, Abtasten, Paradox in Paul Celan

The second poem of Paul Celan’s collection, Atemwende, Suhrkamp Verlag (Frankfurt am Main 1967), begins with a paradox and a nod at the etchings that his wife includes in the work. The first line -Von geträumtem geätzt (from the undreamed etched)- presents the first problem of the poem. We go on to read that the undreamed etches out the Lebensberg from Brotland. The image of a Brotland/breadland refers back somewhat obliquely to the Maulbeerbaum of the previous poem, especially when we remember that the mulberry belongs to the same family as breadfruit. So from this image of bread and food, we are also reminded of paper and the poet, which makes sense in light of the fact that the first line also transports us to the realm of fairytales. The first paradox lies in the fact that fairy tales are the product of dreams; however, it is the undreamed images that etch Brotland and create the Lebensberg. Undreamed images must be experienced images, images experienced while awake. However, the “ich” of the poem is asleep and he is attempting to awaken himself.

Before we continue, I think it is important to make some associations and to identify certain allusions, which I will not fully explore in this post. Brotland seems to indicate a physicality, an image that relates to the body-either as a living entity or a corpse. Celan was a great student of both the Jewish Bible as well as the Christian and I believe that Brotland refers to the sacrament of the body and the use of unleavened bread as a substitute for the body-not of Christ’s body here but of the bodies of those who died in the Holocaust. Further, I believe that Lebensberg is both an allusion to Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg and a reference to Heidegger’s Lebensphilosophie. Finally, Brotland is the land of the dead, where the dead wander sleeplessly and un-dreaming. Ironically, the Lebensberg emerges from the land of the dead, a land from which the "ich” struggles to awaken.

The first line then seems to signal the struggle of the dead to reawaken and, in effect, be resurrected to life; however, this transformation must be “sussed out.” This symbolic reading must be refined because it is not the dead that arises but the poet. It is the poet who must probe with his fingers to awaken toward the “du.” Consequently, in further investigations, we must focus on the poet and his “sussing out” the darkness of Brotland and the caverns of the Lebensberg. To do this involves an investigation of the methodology of un-concealing the concealed, which involves ultimately transformation or rebirth. This process is contained in Celan’s use of the verb abtasten, which means to feel, to scan, or to suss out. It has a further meaning, which might be used effectively here, and that is "to palpate." To palpate the body fits our view that Brotland is the body or corpse, where body acts as a synecdoche for a people.


David said...

I don't see how "the undreamt" necessarily originates in what you call "experience," which I assume you, vaguely, are connecting to something like empirical perception. Why is the latter the opposite of dream? Such a dualism seems thoughtless, exactly the sort of easiness a poet's work undoes.

Vogel said...

Dear David:

I would be very interested in your expanding your statement--"Such a dualism seems thoughtless, exactly the sort of easiness a poet's work undoes."

For my part, I don't necessarily believe the undreamt arises from empirical perception. I do believe once the undreamt is made visible or known, whether real or otherwise, it becomes a fact of the dreamer.