By developing an intricate archive of metaphors and tropes ciphered to the most distant borders of legibility, Celan explores vast territories shared by the spectres of memory and those of language. His gesture is one of resistance to the effacement of both matter and memory; his poems have the ‘unbearable lightness’ of ash and smoke—and it is not by accident that these are two of most common images to be encountered in the thin air of his lyric. Celan uses the blind mechanics of repetition as another textual device to cut his way through a language that is at once familiar and foreign. The cuts are sharp and deep, sometimes violently dividing a verse or a word, making room for the unspeakable. The silence of “unwritten things, hardened / into language” becomes audible; its ghastly flow is rendered visible. While trying to identify and describe such textual practices, the following sections aim to (re)trace, at least partially, Celan’s poetic rituals of recollection.
THINKING-BACKWARDS: THE PAST TENSE OF MEMORY AND LANGUAGE
In relation to the poetry of Paul Celan, this paper conceives the question of memory as an alchemy of opposites, built on the incessant interplay of a series of paradoxes. In this sense, memory is referred to as a discontinuous, porous structure inhabited in equal measures by remembrance and oblivion, presence and absence, full and void. Just as the past is at once eternal and ephemeral, memory is shown to be both solid and inconsistent, both remembering and forgetting.
Ancient Greek mythology embodies this unbreakable duality in the figures of Mnemosyne and her counterpart Lesmosyne, the two facets of the Greek goddess of memory who is also the mother of all muses—including those of poetry. Martin Heidegger rephrased this forgotten link between memory and poetry, stating that “poetry is the water that at times flows backwards toward the source, toward thinking-back” (11). In Heidegger’s terms, this thinking-back translates as An-denken, meaning “commemorative thought”, one of the many possible descriptions of Celan’s tone.
In Giorgio Agamben’s chronology of thinking possible interrelations between memory and images, the concept of oblivion (understood as the act or an instance of forgetting, the condition or quality of being forgotten) is most often seen as menacing for the continuity of the lived experience. According to the Italian author, in a tradition of thought hearkening back to Claude Lévi-Strauss, oblivion is seen as opening fractures into the otherwise uninterrupted flow of the “has-been” (Agamben 50). The tradition of thinking memory as an alternative sequence of flows and gaps echoes the dialectic movement between presence and absence that stands at the very core of philosophical reflection. As Parmenides advises: “Gaze on even absent things with your mind as present and do so steadily” (60). In other words, memories may be retrieved from their state of virtual latency by means of a gesture of re-actualization, be it spontaneous or intentional. In the same lineage, Henri Bergson conceives philosophic speculation as making use of the void to think the full (Creative Evolution 289); therefore, recollection as form of thought would be making use of forgetting to delineate that which is remembered, from a past too vast to be remembered in its entirety. Other thinkers of modernity have reflected upon this interdependency of the two facets of memory. In the Freudian tradition, Edward Casey claims that a certain kind of forgetting “shows itself to reside actively in the heart of remembering like an insidious virus, ready to do its destructive work there” In her Economy of the Unlost, Anne Carson questions the nature of remembering itself, reaching similar conclusions:
What is remembering? Remembering brings the absent into the present, connects what is lost to what is here. Remembering draws attention to lostness and is made possible by emotions of space that open backward into a void. Memory depends on void, and void depends on memory, to think it. Once void is thought, it can be cancelled. (Carson 38)
There is a memory of places, there is a memory of time, and there is even a body memory: “nothing is not memorial in some manner; it might even be that things can remember us as much as we remember them. Perhaps they even remember themselves.” (Casey 311)
The matter of memory and the memory of matter have long been subjects of both philosophical and literary speculations. Agamben, along with Plato, situates the origin of oblivion in the unabridged gap that opens darkly between myth and literature, between the spoken and the written word. In a famous fragment from Phaedrus, Plato warns that not only is literature powerless against forgetting, but also that it may be, in fact, one of its causes (Plato 85, 275a). Concerning the relationship between memory and its unfolding into logos, one should also not forget that certain repetitive and automatic features of memory allow for the use of language itself. On the other hand, converting recollection into words is a process that carries the inevitable imperfections and betrayals of translation.
As Carson puts it, “Paul Celan is a poet who uses language as if he was always translating. […] Strangeness for Celan arose out of language and went back down into language” (28). He is an exiled inhabitant of his own language and his poetry is a ciphered archive of this intimate alienation. However, what does intimacy or alienation mean to one estranged from that which is most familiar to him, to an “I” so familiar with its radical Otherness? Memories are at once “other-ed and other-ing” (Casey 243), ash-like traces of an unspeakable loss, which may be conveyed not by, but through language—and not just through any language. In his Bremen speech, Celan—a Romanian Jew born in today’s Ukraine, living in Paris and writing in a very personal German—describes his choice of writing in the language of his mother and of the murderers of his mother:
Reachable, near and unlost amid the losses, this one thing remained: language. This thing, language, remained unlost, yes, in spite of everything. But it had to go through its own loss of answers, had to go through terrifying muteness, had to go through the thousand darknesses of death-bringing talk. It went through and gave no words for that which had happened; yet it went through this happening. Went through and was able to come back to light enriched by it all. In this language I have tried, during those years and the years after, to write poems… (Selected Poems 33-37).
To utter words that are at the same time necessary and forbidden, to try to speak from within the “compact void of the unspeakable”, to faithfully attempt at bringing back to presence a legacy of absences that escape or exceed representation—this is, according to that often dissolves speech into silence in the literature of Holocaust survivors. Each word is at once insufficient and de trop: “Of too much was our talk, of / too little” (Celan, Selected Poems 67). Therefore, oblivion and the possibility of remembering cancel the possibilities of speech or writing.
On reading Celan’s poems, Jacques Derrida writes: “There was already in this first reading a certain experience of apophatic silence, of absence, the desert, paths opened up off all the beaten tracks, deported memory—in short, mourning, every impossible mourning” (122). Maybe here it would be useful to mention that in the Jewish tradition there are two different prayers to be uttered in mourning: Kaddish and Yizkor. Even if it is used for commemorative purposes, Kaddish is less a word of memory and more a covering “over the memory of human loss with praise of God’s glory. Yizkor does not cover over, it insists on remembering; indeed it insists that God do the remembering alongside us—‘May He remember’” (Carson 37).
Celan’s poetry insists too on remembering, thus being closer in tone to Yizkor (in Hebrew, literally ‘remember’) in this respect. There is a consistent religious reading of his poems; however, it is never the only valid one. The encoded, versified rituals of this recollection often imply summoning or questioning a You and an Other to remember along with the I. It would be restrictive to read these unidentified personal pronouns only in their religious sense; within a poem, you might just as well refer to a woman addressed in love, to the reader, to a deity, or to an alter ego. Since these spectres enter the text without any introduction or explanation, they cannot be charged with significance or meaning outside the poem itself. We are assuming here the famous Derridean approach: “There is no outside-text” (Derrida, Of Grammatology 158).
In the following pages, this paper will reveal some of the textual practices and means of encoding that Celan deploys to “give shade” to the question of memory in writing. Without forgetting their interrelations, for clarity purposes—even though “clarity troubles”, as we are warned in Zurich, the Stork Inn—, a separate section is dedicated to each of the identified figurative itineraries of written memory. All the poems I will refer to are cited in Michael Hamburger’s translation from the Selected Poems edition (Celan 1972), and to avoid redundancy, they will only be referenced by their titles and page numbers.
“OF THE YOU / AND YOU-AGAIN”: MEMORY, RETURN, REPETITION
Repetition is one of the most ancient acts of resistance to oblivion. It stands at the basis of language itself and it is inseparable from any ritual which, by definition, is a ceremonial observance that must be performed more than once: “It must already have been enacted on previous occasions or allow for the possibility of future enactments, even if the form is not precisely the same throughout. Moreover, its own internal structure often includes repetitive elements: repetition-within-repetition” (Casey 224).
This ritualistic bringing-into-present (and thus to presence) is always the symbolic return of the moment of origination of primordial plenitude, outside of and beyond any historical chronology, in remembrance of the time without fracture that reigned before a traumatic event; a time when “things lost were not things lost” (Afternoon with a Circus and Citadel 76).
By renewing in this way the paradoxical relationship between the singularity of the event (of death, even) and its inevitable repetition, rituals and texts—because there is always a text written or enacted in a ritual—serve as commemorative vehicles:
These early senses of the word imply that in acts of commemoration[,] remembering is intensified by taking place through the interposed agency of a text (the liturgy) and in the setting of a social ritual. The remembering is intensified still further by the fact that both ritual and text become efficacious only in the presence of others, with whom we commemorate together (Casey 218).
From this perspective, the symbolic return of a commemorative (re)enacting necessarily includes the possibility of a return through language. When language returns upon itself in repetition, it opens multiple and potentially infinite series of re-presentations of the past and inserts them into the present of its utterance or writing. The usual consequence is that repetition intensifies the remembrance of unique, historically unrepeatable events that return disquieting, haunting, rarely comforting—as in this excerpt from Radix, Matrix (74):
you, you that long ago, you in the nothingness of a night, you in the multi-night en- countered, you, multi-you—: At that time when I was not there, at that time when you paced the ploughfield, alone.
That particular night, “that time”, “that long ago” has never been forgotten, despite its never being witnessed (“I was not there”). Instead of fading into oblivion and decay (in Sand from the Urns, 25: “Green as the mold is the house of oblivion”) this memory gap is not filled, but presented as an absence and multiplied by uncertainty. The night becomes a multi-night—just as the individual, singular ‘you’, now absent and addressed, is being remembered and repeated as a multi-you, after the irreversible event of the en-counter. This principle of fractalic repetition is not accidental in Celan’s work—the accumulation is endless and uncountable; in Go Blind Now (86), for example: “eternity is also full of eyes”. Moreover, shapes and hours have (or are remembered as lacking) ‘twins’, ‘sisters’—as in The Straitening (57): “Go now, your hour has no sisters”. This perpetual de-doublement of shapes also draws grey, imaginary fractals in Alchemical (71):
Great, grey sisterly shape near like all that is lost.
The doubling and the metaphor of very similar, if not identical, siblings is repeated even with colors, in Shibboleth (41): “remember the dark / twin redness / of Vienna and Madrid”. It is also the case in The Straitening (57): “Go now, your hour has no sisters, you are – / at home.” Other times, repetition is deliberately denied, in an attempt to forget something that refuses to disappear—as it is the case of the indefinite, unnamed ‘no one’ in An Eye, Open (56): “The no more to be named, hot, / audible in the mouth. / No one’s voice, again.”
Counter-intuitively, the mechanics of repetition may be deployed as an instrument of effacement, of blurring contours of precise events or faces; in Below (47), the reader is being “Led home, into oblivion, / […] Led home, syllable after syllable”. When its rhythm is fractured, repetition becomes heavy and imperfect, replacing what should have been familiar with a feeling of estrangement; for example, one reads in the bizarre poem, There was Earth (66):
There was earth inside them and they dug. They dug and they dug, so their day went by for them, their night. And they did not praise God who, so they heard, wanted all this, who, so they heard, knew all this. They dug and heard nothing more; they did not grow wise, invented no song, thought up for themselves no language. They dug. There came a stillness, and there came a storm, and all the oceans came. I dig, you dig, and the worm digs too, and that singing out there says: They dig. O one, o none, o no one, o you: Where did the way lead when it led nowhere? O you dig and I dig, and I dig towards you, and on our finger the ring awakes.
The obsessive repetition of various forms, past and present, of the verb “to dig”—a verb already sending to the process of burial, of disappearing underground—echoes in smaller scale repetitions of personal and impersonal pronouns (“who”, “one”, “this”) and words connected with song and hearing: immateriality impregnating the matter. Another verb is repeated in So Many Constellations (68), ending with a contradiction pointing to an absent presence in the past:
I know. I know and you know, we knew, we did not know, we were there, after all, and not there.
According to Agamben (69-70), modern times have witnessed four great thinkers of repetition: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Deleuze. All four of them have proved that repetition is not simply the return of the same: something past never returns as such, in a form identical to itself. The force and the grace of repetition—the novelty it puts forth—is the return of the possibility of the same. Repetition renders the has-been possible again. Therefore, repeating something is rendering it possible, one more time. This is what brings repetition close to the question of memory, for memory cannot reproduce exactly what has-been, either. That would be unbearable, for the vast territories of the past would suffocate the present to the point of saturation. What memory returns to the past is precisely its possibility. On the other hand, it returns its impossibility as well, since the very act of remembering changes what is remembered; there is both identity and difference between “the You” and “the You-Again” in Zurich Stork Inn (67). In Casey’s words:
The situation is such that remembering transforms one kind of experience into another: in being remembered, an experience becomes a different kind of experience. It becomes ‘a memory’, with all that this entails, not merely of the consistent, the enduring, the reliable, but also of the fragile, the errant, the confabulated. Each memory is unique; none is simple repetition or revival. The way that the past is relived in memory assures that it will be transfigured in subtle and significant ways (xii).
A particular kind of repetition is the doubling, the ‘twin’, the ‘twice’, the ‘sisterly shape’, that which happens ‘again’. The present mirrors the past to the point of fully blurring the distance between them, and the complete annulment of the singular; in Illegibility (105), for example: “Illegibility / of this world. All things twice over”. In Celan’s poems, one does not hear one chant only—even the song is doubled, repeated, as in Shibboleth (41):
Flute, double flute of night: remember the dark twin redness […]
When there is no song to be heard, the silence too is double, echoing in two mouths, as in Language Mesh (50): “two / mouthsful of silence”. Sensorial repetition also takes over the reign of colours: the “twin redness”, “the red of two mouths” (Night 51), “his eye, still blue, will assume / a second, more alien blueness” (In Memoriam Paul Eluard 40).
The underlying mechanics of either perfect or imperfect repetitions is imperative and imposing formal constraints. However, as we have seen, it may be a condition for both remembering and oblivion; in the first case, In another poem, In the Daytime (77), a voice speaks: “I too, remember, / dust coloured-one, arrived / as a crane.” Remembering is double, shared (“Together with me recall” in Memory of France 27), and so is oblivion: “that, too, is forgotten” (All Souls 54). Just like the moment of death, the moment of creation is ontologically unrepeatable. By destroying the force of a negation, by naming the un-nameable and by re-presenting its absence after the blank breath of silence, Celan manages to turn its singularity into a multiple, iterative event (‘again’), as in Psalm (70):
No one moulds us again out of earth and clay, no one conjures our dust. No one. Praised be your name, no one. […]
Through a constant play of repetition and return, the layers of present visible in Celan’s poems may be read as encapsulating metonymies of the past: memory speaks, ‘again’, endlessly, even in haunting silence.
ON DATES, CODES, AND THEIR MADNESS
As shown in the previous section, a series of textual devices such as repetition allows for the possibility of an impossible event: the eternal return of the unrepeatable. This section will follow the traces of Derrida in reading Celan through a filter of coded references that structure an entire mnemonic archive deployed by the poet in his verse. These references are either temporal (calendar dates), spatial (topology), or personal (signatures, names). I shall group them all under the larger category of dates, for they all exhibit some common characteristics: their memory is rooted in the singularity of an event, place, or person, and this singularity allows for multiplication in the dynamic of repetition. By ‘dates’ I mean temporal, spatial, or personal deictic references, invested with the ability to be indexed, archived, and therefore recovered from the past, and thus somehow kept away from and outside oblivion. Moreover, despite their apparent specificity, they hide a certain degree of imprecision:
A date affixed to a memory characteristically exhibits a basic ambivalence of being unspecific with regard to what lies within its limits but quite emphatic as to what is to be excluded as lying beyond the same limits. In fact, it is only in exceptional cases that we remember a past event or experience along with its date as a temporal marker. For the most part, we are not aware of any appropriate, much less exact, date for what we remember but only of what James calls ‘a general feeling of the past direction in time’ (Casey 73).
This vague general feeling of their mnemonic presentation is trifold. According to Bergson in his Matter and Memory, the mental representation of a memory consists of its specific content: a so-called “memory frame”, and an “aura”, a “zone of indetermination” (23). This undefined and indefinable area bridges between the solidity and the gaps of memory, and has the half-inconsistent consistency of a balanced mixture of forgetting and remembrance. As noticed by Eugène Minkowski, “whatever the slice of the recalled past may be, whatever the depth of the recall that characterizes it, there is always a vast but obscure zone around it, from which it emerges and which serves as support” (155-156).
The geometrical place of the interplay between the irreversible singularity of the past moment and its return through remembrance is precisely in this zone of indeterminacy. The disappearance of a date is disquieting; it disorients and its loss is a heavy burden: “And once (when? that too is forgotten)”, one reads in All Souls (54). Elsewhere, in So Many Constellations (68):
O this hour, that weighed nights over for us into the burden of our names.
Derrida explains that Celan’s poems each carry their dates in manuscripts. It was the poet’s wish, however, that these dates wouldn’t show up in the published version. Their inaccessible presence nevertheless allows anniversary, commemoration, and return, despite the complete disappearance of that which is dated, commemorated, or blessed—as one reads in Alchemical (71):
All the names, all those names burnt with the rest. So much ash to be blessed […]
It is a repetition witnessed by nobody. It is how, in Matière de Bretagne, “a shrub / of transience, beautiful, admits / welcoming your memory” (52)be it is in these parallel, multiple, uncountable layers of present and past hidden behind a poem that true memory and the intensity of its enchantment lies. According to Anne Carson, Celan sees poetry as “an act of memory that carves its way between sand art and snow art, transforming what is innumerable and headed for oblivion into a timeless notation” Derrida will later rephrase this observation:
This is the gift of the poem, and of the date, their condition made up of distress and hope, the chance and the turn […] This annulment of the return without return. […] The destiny of a date is analogous to that of every name, of every proper name. Is there another desire than that of dating? of leaving a date? of fixing a date? (40).
A date is an undetachable trace, a mark, an inscription anchored in the historical reality and simultaneously allowing for a return. It repeats itself as itself, being every time other: the name is a stable trace of instability, as in All Souls (“named / after an oath which silence annulled”, 54). This particular state of spectral and virtual latency, never irrecuperably lost and yet never irreversibly kept, can also be identified in the use of language based on the two inseparable principles of repetition and difference, of identity and otherness. A similar interplay links recollection and oblivion, through dates: “The ideality of the date carries forgetting into memory, but it is the memory of forgetting itself, the truth of forgetting. A date is mad, that is the truth. And we are mad for dates. For the ashes that dates are” (Derrida 35).
A missing date is also a trace—all losses are marked on the surface of snow: “Above it, endless, / the sleigh track of the lost” (Homecoming 46). The presence of their absence is painful, even if invisible, in the same poem: “Bellow, hidden, / presses up / what so hurts the eyes, / hill upon hill, / invisible.” The choice of verbs (“mark”, “press”) suggests the forming of imprints that can or cannot be seen; their existence, however, witnesses of past events whose dates are missing. When a singular event is repeatedly re-actualized through memory, the danger of oblivion arises in the very midst of remembrance: the original point of reference may become lost or altered through its multiple recollections, every time other. This may be an explanation for the choir of rhetorical interrogations that whisper sometimes in the dis-quiet silence of Celan’s poems: “How did we live here?” (Tallow Lamp 22), and “Did we not stand / under one trade wind?” (Language Mesh 50). Resting mainly on a kind of oblivion manifested as lack of recognition, as estrangement towards the most familiar, the questions become puzzling: “Did you know me, / hands?” (Matière de Bretagne 52). Other times, events from the past, re-actualized through memory, are deemed forgotten, spontaneously or by silent agreement (The Straitening 59):
How did we touch each other—each other with these hands? There was written too, that. Where? We put a silence over it, stilled with poison, great, a green silence […]
Forgetting appears manifest for a wider set of references, not only for dates (“how?”, “where?”). The study of this entire question of ‘questioning’ memory deserves a more in-depth analysis that exceeds the purposes of this paper and should be treated separately. Therefore, I shall conclude this section with the observation that the poems considered here make use of interrogation devices to point towards the forgetting that takes place in the very heart of a gesture aimed at recovering a traumatic past from the Holocaust times. They also function as marks of indeterminacy which, even if cancelling the precision of dates and traces, highlights their referential void (since their deictic function is null), and turns it into a trace of its own. In retracing these traces, one may wonder, as Celan does: “Where did the way lead when it led nowhere?” (There was Earth 66).
SMOKE, ASH, AND THE QUESTION OF TRACES
Trace is, according to Agamben, that which speaks of an origin in the very moment in which its disappearance is being witnessed (59-60). As prolongation of its object, which it gets to substitute symbolically, it functions on the principle of metonymy, thus following a semiotic structure similar to that of dates. A trace is both spatial and temporal in nature, and serves equally as a reminder (mneumona, following Aristotelian denominations in De Memoria et Reminiscentia) and as a remainder: “commemorating thrives on indirection; it lives from unresolved, unimaged remainders, it is, altogether, a phenomenon of ” (Casey 220). Edward S. Casey uses the word restance—a French borrowing from Barbara Johnson’s English translation of Jacques Derrida’s Dissemination (1981; 8, 9, 11)—to describe an idea of “resistance as well as remainder”(Casey xi). More than once, oblivion is assimilated in Celan’s poetry to a process of ‘burning out’. A good example is in this excerpt from So Many Constellations (68):
our eyes whirred comet-like towards things extinguished, in chasms and where they had burnt out, splendid with teats, stood Time on which already grew up and down and away all that is or was or will be.
Oblivion is also depicted, metaphorically, as melting-away, as silhouettes dissolving in rain, fading into darkness or fog. However, in the larger context of Holocaust writing (whose historical dimension we chose to leave aside for the purposes of this analysis), this “burning out” is charged with a very specific layer of figurative meaning: “Most brightly of all burned the hair of my evening loved one”, writes Celan in Night Ray (30). Together with hands (“handful of hours”) and eyes (“the eyes that see and the eyes that are blind”), hair plays an important part in the anatomy of the spectres haunting his poems (such as the “you” and the “other” mentioned a while back), and there are several delicate rituals honoring body memory. In Alchemical one reads: “so much ash to be blessed […] / Fingers, insubstantial as smoke. Like crests, crest of air / around” (71). Even more poignantly, in Fugue of Death: “your ashen hair Shulamith he plays with the serpents / […] and as smoke you / shall climb to the sky” (33).
Without restricting my analysis to the traumatic historical reality that would too readily claim to decipher these verses, I would nevertheless like to stop at the metaphors of ash and smoke, so frequently “en-countered” in my choice of poems as (still) visible traces of the signified “spectral body”. Ash and smoke are a visible form of material memory; unstable, they already indicate their effacement. Their consistency is that of shadow, their attempt at being-present resides on an absence:
There is ash, perhaps, but an ash is not. This remainder seems to remain of what was, and was presently; it seems to nourish itself or quench its thirst at the spring of being-present, but it emerges from being, it exhausts, in advance, the being from which it seems to draw (Derrida 43).
And there is indeed a gesture of drawing, a re-tracing of shapes and contours, rendering visible the efforts of recollection or signs to aid-memory, “indicative signs” (Anzeichen) in Husserlian terminology. This gesture is recognizable in On the White Philactery: “looking for you, smoke trail / above me, you, / in the shape of a woman” (85).
Sometimes, sand and snow replace smoke and ashes as the matter of the corrosive or dissolving agency of remembrance and oblivion. Here, too, the gestures of drawing and re-tracing of a portrait (ritratto, translating as both “portrait” and “withdrawal”) continues, as it is the case in Sand from the Urns (25):
[…] With a festering toe in the sand he traces your eyebrow. Longer he draws it than ever it was, and the red of your lip. You fill up the urns here and nourish your heart […]
Other times, the burning-out takes place at the level of meaning and not of memory; the remaining ashes are almost alchemically transforming words into inexpressive, lifeless equivalents. In Edgar Jené and the Dream about the Dream, Celan elaborates on this view:
What could be more dishonest than to claim that words had somehow, at bottom, remained the same! I could not help seeing that the ashes of burned-out meanings (and not only those) had covered what had, since time immemorial, been striving for expression in man’s innermost soul (1986. 6).
One may wonder then what happens with unremembered memories, which are nevertheless not forgotten. What is the shape taken by the traces of these fragments of past abandoned in the virtuality of memory, but never brought to present or to presence, not even in the past moment that would have allowed, in Deleuzian terms, for their proper realization? In Celan’s poems, one sees them dissolving, fading, melting or drifting together with the text that tries to approximate them. This is the case of the invented compound word “deepinsnow”, which fades under our eyes, little by little, like the snow it refers to, until becoming, a few lines later, the shrunken and illegible “eepinnow”, already deprived of meaning and awaiting for its complete evanescence. Keeping the snow imagery in mind, one discovers silent repositories of this non-actualized memory in locked ‘houses’ (archives) that are sheltering their disappearance: “With a variable key / you unlock the house in which / drifts the snow of that left unspoken” (With a Variable Key 39).
SOLVE ET COAGULA. ALCHEMIES OF MEMORY AND SPACE
Thinking of memory and language in terms of space and territory is neither a modern practice nor a product of the so-called ‘spatial turn’. As early as the Babylonian incipit to the story of Gilgamesh, the hero is seen carving his memories on a block of burnt clay identical with the bricks laid down in the foundation and the walls of the city of Uruk itself. Reading St. Augustine’s Confessions centuries later, one is confronted with marvelous sights of mnemonic architecture: “I come into the fields and spacious palaces of my memory, where are the treasures of countless images of things of every manner” (98).
Certainly, conceiving memory as a vast, unmapped p(a)lace serves a purpose of orientation. But place should not be seen, from this perspective, as simply a surface. In Aristotle’s Physics, one finds it defined as “the innermost motionless boundary of what contains” (208 b 33); moreover, Casey notes that “place is thought to be a kind of surface, and as it were a vessel, i.e., a container of the thing. Place is coincident with the thing, for boundaries are coincident with the bounded” (181).
Aware of a similar relation of identity that can be established concerning the spatiality and boundaries of a poem, Celan reads, in his Meridian speech: “The poem holds its own on its own margin. In order to endure it constantly calls out and pulls itself back from an ‘already no more’ into a ‘still here’” (1986. 49). Situated on the sharp edge that separates the “already no more” and the “still here”, the momentum of Celan’s poetical recollection (even one of his volumes reunites in its title, Poppy and Recollection, the opposite principles of oblivion and remembrance) is familiar with two gestures: Solve and Coagula, ‘separate’ and ‘recombine’. These Latin imperative verbs give the titles of two poems written by Celan on the occasion of Rosa Luxembourg’s assassination, in explicit reference to two stages of the alchemical process. The first one, called nigredo because within it the elements turn black and undergo a symbolic ‘death’, is the phase of an initial separation of the elements. The other phase, rubedo, takes place after a symbolic ‘resurrection’ and is a final stage of coagulation and solidification of the matter.
His late writings abide these two imperatives in their progressive, continuous, ever-more-ciphered encoding. The imperfect and alienating character of language discloses the betrayal of words, in On the White Philactery: “on the other side of dividing words, through / which I saw you walk” (85). For they are dividing, they may be divided. Celan will undergo, not only once, painful “incisions in the body of language” (Derrida 63). He opens interstices in the heart of the words, filling with novel meanings the gap therein: “en-countered” (Radix, Matrix 74) shades the encounter with a tension so intense that it separates the word not only through a hyphen, but also in two different lines of the poem.
The violence of these lexical sharp incisions cuts merciless through words and disintegrates their primary meaning, since more often than not the separation inaugurates or cancels a negation. For example, in Leap-Centuries (102):
unasylumed, un- archived […] A- live?
In other poems, this practice of word-division is an echo of the disintegration of the matter they refer to; already reduced to whirling, chaotic particles, the matter is subject to even further divisions: “gales, whirl of part- / icles, there was / time left” (The Straitening 57). The reader of Largo (107) may be confused by changes in the meaning of a word at each end of a line—reading itself becomes an experience of remembrance and return, for any new line requires a re-reading of the previous ones, in a perpetual movement of challenging semantic actualization, until the final breath ends in suffocation:
more-than- death- seized we lie together, the time- less one teems […] meta- stases
After the separation, the pulverized text is enriched by the troubling interplay between the meaning of the whole and the individual connotations of the bits and pieces.
By means of these blanks, fractures, ellipses, caesuras, the poems are scattered on the page— “sand-art”, in the words of Celan himself—but it is important to notice how in their apparently hazardous arrangement, nothing is accidental. The text performs itself: it melts when it speaks about snow, grows shorter and shorter, restrained in The Straitening (57-63). It points to a moment of crisis and testifies of its ontological frailty: “you my words being crippled / together with me, you / my hale ones” (Plashes the Fountain 73). Is there any other way to speak the unspeakable?
Remembrance is, in its nature, fragmentary. In an attempt to fill the gaps of this incomplete puzzle and to compensate for the insufficiency of language, Celan is always in need of new words, words able to “keep yes and no unsplit”, to “give shade”. Writing in German is welcoming, in this aspect, due to the infinite possibilities of accumulation and juxtaposition of words in compound forms. English preserves this feature only partially; however, even in German, sometimes, these invented (because necessary) nouns, verbs, or adjectives resemble, in their subtle approximations, an effort of translation. One may feel a sense of an ending in “lateland” (Night Ray 30) and may fear the hazard of a “dayblind dice” (Below 47).
More frequently, these compound constructions are simultaneously coagulated and fractured, brought-together and split, through hyphenation: “the conversations, day-grey, / of the water-level traces” (The Straitening 62), “prayer-sharp knives / of my / silence.” (Plashes the Fountain 73). It is also a technique for the inauguration of antonyms, symptoms of a negative ontology: “between / there and not-there”, “where my pulse dared the counter-beat” (All Souls 54), “the hundred– / tongued pseudo-poem, the noem” (Etched Away From 84). It has the ability to cancel stable proper names, or even render a presence anonymous: “No-One.” “You-Again”. Last but not least, Celan often deploys hyphenated composition as a painterly device, at hand in describing strange realms of visibility: “dust-coloured” (In the Daytime 77), “May-coloured” (An Eye, Open 56), “dove-coloured” (Homecoming 46).
Dividing words, signaling fractures in meaning or cancelling the void of the white spaces between them are poetic gestures putting forth, among others, the question of boundaries and spatiality of writing. Therefore, the en-counter between the discontinuities of memory and the ones of language ‘takes place’, literally. When there is no place to be ‘taken’, a terrifying suspension of meaning, a ‘semiotic apocalypse’ cuts its way through.
TOWARDS A CONCLUSION
Memory and its textual approximation have been shown to share a porous structure. While the former consists of interstices of remembrance and oblivion, the latter is haunted by spectres of absence and presence, past and present, the singularity of the utterance and its perpetual return. By virtues of their ritualistic intensities, repetition and return are devices frequently deployed to bring the past back to present, to re-present it in written, poetic form. Along a series of metaphors of frailty and instability approximating the vague contours of memory, Celan also makes use of a labyrinth of enigmatic dates and signatures, functioning simultaneously as traces, mementos, and reminders. Eventually, to supply for the lack of a language able to transcribe that which refuses to be put into words, Celan generates almost alchemically its own unmistakable poetic dialect.
A disquieting feeling of intimate estrangement breathes through the perfect imperfections of language. Even so, the “welcoming of memory” into “the house of oblivion” is never fully achieved. Remembrance and forgetting reach a point of equilibrium, ambiguously en-countering the other, halfway, where the boundaries between absence and presence, in all their earthly or unearthly forms, are dissolved.
University of Bucharest
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