Yesterday, I talked about the poetry of Paul Celan and I surmised that he was undergoing a psychological fight with darkness and the shadow during the period that he was writing the poems that came to be the collection, entitled Lichtzwang.
In thinking about my statements, it dawned on me that some people might ask how he could kill himself at the very moment that psychological change was occurring.
The answer is that transformation is not easy; it is painful, and the first step-the nigredo-is perhaps the worst. James Hillman stated that the nigredo “speaks with the voice of the raven, foretelling dire happenings.” (“The Seduction of Black.” In Fire in the Stone: the Alchemy of Desire, ed. and introduction by Stanton Marlan, 42-43, Wilmette, Il.: Chiron, 1997.)
The nigredo stage is often described metaphorically as a descent into the underworld and the alchemists coined a code word to explain this step-vitriol.
Vitriol is a shiny crystalline substance such as copper sulphate, but it is also an acrostic: Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultem Lapidem, which means visit the interior of the earth and by rectifying find the hidden Stone.
Readers of the Harry Potter books know that the Stone is the philosopher’s stone or in psychological terms-the Self. To reach the Self or find the Philosopher’s Stone means visiting the interior of the earth, undergoing and surviving the heat there, rectifying the information you obtain, and then finding the Stone. This journey is similar to the hero’s journey.
On the night of April 19, 1970, Paul Celan threw himself into the Seine from the Pont Mirabeau.
Bertrand Badiou and Eric Celan, the poet’s son, in their commentary to the letters of Paul Celan and Gisèle Celan-Lestrange (Correspondance, Seuil 2001) point out that the last poem in the collection Die Niemandsrose, entitled Und mit dem Buch aus Tarussa, written in 1962, contains the following lines:
Von der Brücken-
quader, von der
er ins Leben hinuber-
von Wunden, -vom
From the bridge’s
paving stone, from it
he rebounded into Life
flying from his wounds- from
Martine Broda stated in Dans la Main Personne. Essai sur Paul Celan, Les Editions du Cerf, 1986, pp. 92-94 that the poem was an instance of “auto-divination.”
Poetically speaking, if the heat of the nigredo is burning the physical man, causing such heat that he can no longer stand the pain, would he not seek water to extinguish the burning?
As an aside, when the authorities examined Celan’s billfold they found two tickets for Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot that he had planned to attend with his son at the theater Récamier. On April 16, 1970, three days before his suicide, he met with his son for the last time and cancelled their trip to the theater.