Friday, December 22, 2006

Pyramus, Thisbe, and Paul Celan

One of the first poems of Paul Celan's that I translated was Wir Lagen, a short poem found in the collection entitled Lichtzwang, Suhrkamp Verlag (Frankfurt am Main, 1970). It is this poem that provides the title to the collection and which, I believe, evokes one of Celan's primary themes-the inability to connect with the other in the face of extreme longing. The other in these poems is unidentified and usually simply appears as "Du." However, the other could be a lover, the mother, God, the Self (in Jungian terms), or Being (in Heideggerian terminology). It is not really important who the "Du" is; instead, the emotions that weld up within the poems, arising from desire, loss, sehnsucht, or mystical yearning, illustrate an almost transcendental need to connect. Similarities in theme exist in the poetry of Rumi and, perhaps more importantly and precisely, to The Song of Solomon.
The following is my translation of Wir Lagen:
We lay
already deep in the shrubs, when you
finally crawled along
but we could not
darken over to you:
it ruled
In Celan, some barrier always exists that frustrates the "ich's" seeking for and uniting with the "Du." In this regard, I believe that the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe provides an important metaphor or trope for Celan and I further believe that he alludes to the myth in the poem, Du Darfst, the first poem in the collection, entitled Atemwende, SuhrkampVerlag (Frankfurt am Main 1967), in order to prepare the reader for an employment of one of his major themes.
The myth of Pyramus and Thisbe emphasizes desire, the frustration of desire, confusion, misunderstanding, loyalty, and the proximate relatedness of thanatos with eros. These themes are established quickly as illustrated by the following quotation from Thomas Bullfinch:
Pyramus was the handsomest youth, and Thisbe the fairest maiden, in all Babylonia, where Semiramis reigned. Their parents occupied adjoining houses; and neighbourhood brought the young people together, and acquaintance ripened into love. They would gladly have married, but their parents forbade. One thing, however, they could not forbid- that love should glow with equal ardour in the bosoms of both. They conversed by signs and glances, and the fire burned more intensely for being covered up.

In the wall that parted the two houses there was a crack, caused by some fault in the structure. No one had remarked it before, but the lovers discovered it. What will not love discover! It afforded a passage to the voice; and tender messages used to pass backward and forward through the gap. As they stood, Pyramus on this side, Thisbe on that, their breaths would mingle. "Cruel wall," they said, "Why do you keep two lovers apart? But we will not be ungrateful. We owe you, we confess, the privilege of transmitting loving words to willing, ears." Such words they uttered on different sides of the wall; and when night came and they must say farewell, they pressed their lips upon the wall, she on her side, he on his, as they could come no nearer.
As we progress in our discussion of Celan's poetry, we should remember the wall separating the lovers and the crack in that wall that provides the means of communication, imperfect though it might be.

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