(Credit: Eduardo Rodriguez Calzado, 2011)
Nov 30th, 2018
In his essay Fugal Provocation in Paul Celan’s ‘Todesfuge’ and ‘Engführung,’Leonard Olschner provides a detailed analysis of Todesfugein close reference to Paul Celan’s personal life. Instead of merely focusing on syntax and poetic rhythm, Olschner brings historical context and personal opinions, both Celan’s and his critics’, to the picture. The focus of the essay smoothly progresses through the numerous counterpoints and possibilities of interpretation, and eventually arrives at the conclusion that the artistic style “takes on significance beyond that of a simple musical metaphor…it becomes…an articulated manifestation of the fractures and dissonances which incessantly accompanied the poet…” Certainly, the characteristics, experiences, and heritage of Celan play a pivotal role in Olschner’s understanding of Todesfuge.
The first theme addressed by Olschner is the title Todesfuge, which translates as Death Fugue. Regarding the possibility of “writing literary ‘fugues,’” the author explains the difficulty of expressing the convoluted “polyphonic textures”characteristic to Baroque music. He insists that attempting to imitate the complexity would only result in “a sequence of dense semantic clusters”that is barely comprehensible. With the literal interpretation struck out, the author then brings up fugue’s original Latin meaning of “flight” and escape as another possibility of interpretation, but quickly rebutted the point by pointing out Celan’s keen “memory and remembrance of the dead.”Then he considered the possibility of the title Todesfugebeing a “facile…arbitrary nomenclature.”Yet, considering the relevance of the poem’s topic to Celan’s life, with both of his parents fallen victims to the Nazi regime and him spiritually shattered, Olschner argues against assuming Celan’s “frivolousness,”and understands the “fugue” in the poem’s titles as an expression of the poet’s inner struggle.
The second point of analysis is how Celan conveyed the “systematic, relentless and impersonal slaughter of millions of Jews.”According to his analysis, “the text consists of four distinct sections”with four major motifs. The first motif, which marks the beginning of each section, begins with “Black milk of daybreak,”which symbolizes the incinerated remains that are “drunk as morning nourishment.”The second motif “we shovel a grave in the air where you won’t lie too cramped”repeated itself in several different forms to emphasize the ordeals underwent by Jews. While the third motif “A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes,”depicts the Nazi regime and the deaths their bring, the fourth motif of the golden-haired Margareta and the ashen-haired Shulamith contrasts the Aryan and Jewish cultural symbols.Through analyzing the aesthetic details, Olschner effectively displays the suffering and cruelty that Celan intended to convey.
To imitate Olschner’s methodology in understanding Tenebrae, another one of Celan’s poems written in 1959, it is imperative to pay attention to the poem’s title, its syntax and rhythm, and the poet’s personal life and experiences. Tenebrae, or “darkness” in Latin, stands for the three days of Christ’s death before his resurrection in Roman Catholic tradition. On the surface, the title might seem to imply that the poet is making an attempt to embrace Catholicism. Yet, given Celan’s Jewish heritage and the apathy displayed by the Churches towards the Holocaust, it would be quite reckless to come to this conclusion. Instead, another possibility must be considered: Celan, a man traumatized by countless deaths, horrors, and losses, intends to transcend his pain through the seemingly paradoxical connection between the Jewish suffering and the Biblical promise of salvation.
As one moves on from the title to the poem itself, it would not take very much effort to spot elements shared by both Judaism and Christianity underneath the verses that seemingly only depict sceneries of death and agony. Surely, the sincere plead in the first stanza “Near and we, Lord, near and graspable”and its inverted repetitions in the third and last stanzas could refer to the near-death state of the tortured Jews (near the world beyond, where the Lord resides). Yet, beneath the sentiment of grief and sadness, a more hopeful undertone might be found, as the text’s emphasis of “nearness” reflects Christ’s teaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”Situated in the juxtaposition of death and hope, Celan’s response to the divine promise transcends the desperation of the Holocaust.
Celan uses the same method to forge the imagery of the interlinked bodies in the second stanza. “Grasped already, Lord, / clawed into each other, as if / each of our bodies were / your body, Lord.” The deformed, stiff bodies clawed into each other inevitably invoke pictures of the victims of Nazi death camps. Yet, the description of “as if / each of our bodies were / your body, Lord” closely resembles St. Paul’s teaching of “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is part of it.”Alluding to the Bible, Celan makes an ostensible effort to connect the suffering of Jews to that of Messiah, as if the torment and anguish could be sustained and nullified by a divine, merciful power.
“Wind-skewed we went there, / went there to bend / over pit and crater.” Here, the poignant imagery almost certainly refers to the incinerated remains of murdered Jews. Yet, the descriptions of “wind-skewed” and “bent” does not merely depict the floating bone ashes, but also loosely connects to a description of Messiah that appears in both Jewish and Christian religious texts: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” (Isiah 42:3) In this masterful depiction of the appalling death and annihilation, Celan implores his Messiah, who “will bring forth justice,”to acknowledge and alleviate the pain and suffering of his chosen people. Through Celan’s reference to King David’s poem in the next stanza, this request is continued and elaborated: “Went to the water-trough, Lord.” The phrase “water-trough” establishes the familiar metaphorical image of the Messiah being the shepherd, and his believers his sheep. Here, Celan, speaking with six million lost souls, plead their Messiah to lead them to their resting place “beside quiet waters.”
Celan continues his plead to the Lord in his juxtaposition of death and the “blood” and “image” of the Lord in the last few stanzas. “It was blood, it was / what you shed, Lord.” As this description perfectly fits the image of Christ, the identity of the Herr is now conclusive. On the other hand, the description of “eyes and mouth stand so open and void” undeniably point to the agony suffered by the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Yet, the blood that “cast image into our eyes” and “drunk” by the dead bodies paradoxically connects suffering to a divine salvation, and thus transcends death with everlasting peace: “Whoever…drinks my blood has eternal life…whoever…drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.”
The two repetitions of “Pray, Lord” differs from the rest of the poem due to the inversion of roles. While the poem overall could be categorized as a pleading or prayer to a higher power to resolve pain and suffering, the command given towards the Messiah to “pray to us” does not fit with any Biblical or Jewish texts or any religious notion. Regardless of St. Paul’s teaching, which loosely resembles Celan’s statement, “Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us,”the phrase “pray to us” still differs in the verb’s subject, “us” instead of “God,” when compared to “interceding for.” Perhaps, by concluding the poem with such an intriguing inversion, Celan claims that the Lord owes salvation and protect to “we” due to his omnipotent and omnibenevolent attributes, or perhaps the poet only seeks to underscore the merciful nature of Messiah before the end of his prayer.
Celan, Paul. Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan. Translated by John Felstiner. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001.
Olschner, Leonard. “Fugal Provocation in Paul Celan’s ‘Todesfuge’ and ‘Engführung’.” German Life and Letters 43, no. 1 (October 1989): 79-89.
Leonard Olschner, Fugal Provocation in Paul Celan’s ‘Todesfuge’ and ‘Engführung’,(German Life and Letters 43, no. 1 (October 1989): 79-89), 80.
Paul Celan, Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan, Translated by John Felstiner, (New York: W. W. Norton, 2001), 31.
1 Corinthians 12:27