Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Petronius and Paul Celan

As we said in an earlier post, Paul Celan left his home in Bukovina for Bucharest in 1947. Bucharest was only a way station because Celan intended going on to Vienna.
However, because it was difficult to obtain a visa, Celan ended up spending two years in Bucharest.

During the two years in Bucharest he supposedly had numerous amorous experiences.

Israel Chalfen writes that “The taboo of the feminine, established in his childhood, began to lose its force, and he no longer struggled against the experience of his own sexuality. From time to time, he would complain to a friend that the easy girls with whom he came into contact were awfully primitive, but this fact did not keep him from their company.” Israel Chlafen, Paul Celan: A Biography of his Youth, Persea 1991.

In Czernowitz, Celan had fallen in love with Rosa Leibovici and he, later, persuaded her to join him in Bucharest. However, once there something happened and they broke up after a few months.

With this historical or biographical context, we will explore a few of the Romanian poems that purportedly deal with love.

John Felstiner said of these poems that they were looser and perhaps happier. I am not quite sure that this summary is accurate. In a prose piece written during this time intimations of the suicidal Celan are present and within the context of poems of love we see image after image that foretell doom and destruction.

For instance, in Those were Nights, the “I” of the piece says ”those nights it was cumbersome to open your veins, while the flames engulfed me.” He goes on to say, “I was Petronius and spilled my blood again among the roses.”

This reference to Petronius is enlightening, considering what we know about Celan’s future actions.

Petronius was a Roman writer during the time of Nero and his one famous work is the Satyricon.

According to Tacitus, Tigellinus was jealous of Petronius’s lifestyle and success. He made an accusation against Petronius to Nero and Petronius was compelled to commit suicide.

According to an entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica: “He did so in a way that was in keeping with his life and character. He selected the slow process of opening veins and having them bound up again, whilst he conversed on light and trifling topics with his friends. He then dined luxuriously, slept for some time, and, so far from adopting the common practice of flattering Nero or Tigellinus in his will, wrote and sent under seal to Nero a document which professed to give, with the names of his partners, a detailed account of the abominations which that emperor had practised.”

As we work through some of the Romanian poems, let's remember this image of Petronius.

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