Last week I discussed the new Wim Wenders film, Don’t Come Knocking, and in my discussion I talked about Howard Spence’s appearing in Butte Montana after many years, unaware of the passage of time, hoping or perhaps really only fantasizing that he could pick up the thread of time at the moment he dropped it.
I told a friend that Howard Spence was like Rip van Winkle. Thirty years before, he fell asleep and then awoke when he was sixty ready to live his life.
Perhaps the character, Howard Spence, resonates for me because I often have the impression that I have been asleep most of my life. Sometimes I walk through my home and wonder how I came to be there. Who paid for it? How did such a kid as I do it. But the truth is, I am not a kid. I paid for the house while I was sleepwalking through life.
As I was thinking about Howard Spence and his plight I remembered a poem by Paul Celan, entitled “Es war Erde in ihnen,” which appeared in his collection Die Niemandsrose (1963).
Jerry Glenn in his work Paul Celan, Twayne Publishers, Inc. New York 1973, writes that the collection marks “a return to Judaism.” He goes on to say that from 1948 to 1959, Celan attempted through his collections of poetry from Von Schwelle zu Schwelle to Sprachgitter “to leave behind the traditions of his Jewish heritage” (ibid. p. 111). However, in Die Niemandrose he picks up the thread by referring back through images and themes to his most famous poem Todesfuge.
There is an obvious reference in the poem to the Holocaust; however, I believe that the poem transcends the historical tragedy and looks forward to a more universal theme.
The poem could be simply Celan connecting with his heritage and with his parents who died ; however, although I see that message in the poem I also believe the poem is talking about mankind’s struggle to connect.
In a previous post, I discussed a Celan poem, where the “Ich” tried to crawl through the darkness to the “Du”. In this poem, we have the “Ich” trying to “dig” through the earth to the “Du”.
As the last two lines state: “O du gräbst und ich grab, und ich grab mich dir zu, und am Finger erwacht uns der Ring.” (Oh you dig and I dig, and I dig toward you, and on the Finger the ring awakens us.)
I believe the poem illustrates the actual existential purpose of life, a struggle toward connection. The struggle can be described as a movement between a man and woman, between man and God, between the Ego with the Self, or between man's acceptance of both life and death.
No matter the interpretation, the work is hard-it is like digging- and it is peculiarly a human task, which the first line illustrates by alluding to the Hebrew Creation myth in Genesis. “Er war Erde in ihnen.” (There was earth in them.)
We are made out of clay. We shall return to the earth from whence we came.
In the poem, they dig and dig in this earth that is in them and through the digging they reach a marriage announced by the ring with the other. Through their labor they reach a connection of some sort.
The poem seems to be an expression of a type of Lebensphilosophie. Man is alone to struggle through hard work toward the goal of connection.