Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Celan, Surrealism, and "Encounter"

Celan’s poem, “Encounter,” demonstrates certain surrealist elements. Images such as “your hair dripping out of the mirrors” and “with a hand of frost, I’ll set an autumn on fire” remind one of surrealist art.

Surrealism attempted to express the workings of the unconscious through the use of fantastic images and strange alliances of content. André Breton was one of the main proponents of the movement and Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Lautréamont were its precursors.

Celan was aware of the surrealists as early as 1938 and he read Verlaine and Rimbaud, while in high school.

Later, while a medical student in Tour, he was exposed to the surrealists.

Israel Chalfen, in his Paul Celan, A Biography of his Youth, Persea, 1991, postulates that Celan’s introduction to French surrealism was through a French literature student that Celan called the Trotskyite.

Chalfen writes that he was “also aware of the connection between the surrealists and Trotsky; indeed, André Breton and Trotsky met in 1938, and in the same year the Féderation de L’art révolutionary indépendent was founded.”

Celan left France and returned to Czernowitz when the war began.

By 1945, the Soviets controlled his hometown.

In order to escape the Russians, Celan traveled to Bucharest in April 1945.

John Felstiner, in Paul Celan, Poet, Survivor, Jew, Yale University Press, 2001, states that the “Years in Bucharest, from April 1945 until December 1947, were not wholly wilderness years. Paul saw them as a transition, a time to earn money toward resettling in Vienna.”

As soon as he arrived in Bucharest, Celan found himself attracted to the thriving community of surrealists working in the city.

Chalfen reports that he “experienced the highpoint of his social relations in the circle of Bucharest surrealists around Ghérasim Luca, D. Trost and Paul Paun. Whereas Luca, who founded the circle in 1939 after his return from Paris and maintained contact with André Breton, published theoretical books in French, Paun wrote Romanian verse.”

“Encounter” was obviously written under the influence of the surrealists.

As Felstiner says of the poem, “chalk dunes might have appeared in Celan’s earlier poetry, and wine and bell, but not green chalk dunes or wine in a dead man’s mouth or bells with a human tongue.”

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