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Holocaust Visions:
Surrealism and Existentialism
in the Poetry of Paul Celan

by Clarise Samuels

Table of Contents

1: From the Concrete to the Abstract: A Critical Overview

AFTER PAUL CELAN’S DEATH in 1970, scholars in both Germany and North America began to analyze his complex and disturbing images in earnest. The literature regarding Celan’s work has continued to proliferate as scholars have sought to classify his work by genre, period, style, and philosophy. These critical attempts to interpret Celan’s elusive and sometimes enigmatic lyrics have run the gamut of nearly every conceivable literary viewpoint, including mysticism, hermeticism, reader-response studies, and many others, prompting critic Jerry Glenn to comment that there are as many approaches to the poetry of Paul Celan as there are critics.1

Despite the varying viewpoints, it is still possible to regard the entire body of Celan’s work as a comprehensive and unified philosophical system. To do so, it is important to include rather than discount many of the prevailing critical perspectives, since they all have their place within the philosophical superstructure of Celan’s work. This superstructure arises even when Celan’s poetry is viewed as a complete body of work, rather than scrutinized in terms of his early, middle, and late work, which is so often the case in Celan scholarship. The philosophical structure that becomes evident when each poem is viewed as a single piece of an all-encompassing system is one that has both an ideological and an epistemological foundation. Celan’s poetry can be interpreted as a multilayered system with each layer revealing an ever deeper universal meaning.

The top layer that can be found in every Celan poem is detailed and specific, consisting of named objects, persons, and places in the individual poems, motifs that occur repeatedly and that are often embedded in Celan’s personal experience. These are external motifs, empirical objects taken over from reality. Their concreteness and their objectivity are deceptive in their realism, while at the same time they are constant reminders of Celan’s preoccupation with reality. It is through this top layer of object-oriented motifs that Celan’s epistemological inquiry makes itself felt, as he seeks to examine the true nature of reality and his knowledge of that reality.

The second or middle layer underlying the empirical layer of the poetry is the ideology that supports these empirical motifs and makes them relevant. Celan’s ideological program attempts to establish a sociopolitical value system that relates to his quest for an ideal society with an ideal political structure. At this ideological level, Celan takes his empirical objects of the top layer and carefully arranges them in surrealist juxtapositions, so that he creates images that are deceptively absurd and illogical, even though they are syntactically arranged in a meaningful context.

Finally, the bottom layer of Celan’s poetry delineates the epistemology, that is, the philosophy that supports his politics and his social program. This epistemology, expressed in terms of Celan’s existentialism, comprises the poet’s knowledge and perception of reality, and how he acquires such knowledge. The epistemological question “how do we know?” is approached by Celan in his examination of the sensory perception of reality, an empirical examination of everyday objects that he hopes will point the way to the eternal truths that he wants so desperately to clarify. It is therefore possible to abstract from Celan’s poetry an existentialist system that reveals not only a consistent style, but a consistent theme. This theme is expressed in recurrent motifs, recurrent visions, the most telling of which is Celan’s vision of the Holocaust, and the one for which he is most noted.

The Holocaust motif is traditionally interpreted at face value in terms of its historical and documentary function, as well as its emotionally expressive aspect. This documentary function, which often serves an almost autobiographical purpose, is the manifest function for any historical motif, and cannot be ignored. Nevertheless, it becomes evident with analysis that Celan had a multiple purpose in mind for his Holocaust theme, which he develops so that it becomes the central symbol for his existentialist universe.

The surrealist style that Celan uses to express this universe is one that has already been noted and analyzed by a number of scholars. As early as 1954, Hans Egon Holthusen commented on the French surrealists’ influence on Celan’s lyrics. He observed the abstruseness, the illogical contradictions of such lyrics when he described the understandability of Celan’s poetry as a kind of irrational contact between author and reader, wherein the author possesses an unabandoned freedom of fantasy.2 Another early observer of Celan’s work, Siegbert Prawer, noted Celan’s surrealism and his early obsession with the surrealist genitive metaphor (evident in such phraseology as “house of forgetfulness”), in addition to an influence that Prawer identified as post-Symbolist. Prawer also remarked upon the conscious Jewishness of Celan’s poetry.3

Celan’s surrealist style of juxtaposing illogical parts for the sake of contradiction and paradox has made many of his poems so enigmatic, so disjointed and difficult to access, that some scholars have been led off on a tangent of studying the hermeticism in Celan’s work. Critical interpretation often describes the poetry as being “dark” or “obscure.” Amy D. Colin noted that heterogeneous, chopped words, contradictory concepts joined together, as well as coined words, new metaphors, unusual and daring images, and incomprehensible associations are all characteristic of Celan’s style.4

Such incomprehensible associations are probably the most significant when describing characteristics of hermeticism. Yet Celan had a fervent desire to unmask reality and to express a truth that would be comprehensible to his reading audience. But in this attempt to address truth, Celan’s poetry becomes increasingly difficult, with allusions and references that are at times inaccessible to the reader. The etymology of the word hermetic derives from Hermes Trismegistus, the Greek name for the Egyptian god Thoth, who was associated with alchemy, magic, and was regarded as the author of all mysterious doctrines. Hermetic is used in this fashion to describe Celan’s poetry because it is closed, sealed off, unable to be opened with conventional critical tools.

These mysterious references so prevalent in Celan’s poetry also can be viewed as private, secret symbols alluding to the author’s inner world. Such a view has often led scholars to another esoteric categorization for the interpretation of Celan’s work: symbolism. More evidence for the symbolist influence in his work can be seen in Celan’s many translations of the symbolist poets into German, including St_phane Mallarm_, Aleksandr Blok, Arthur Rimbaud, and Paul Val_ry. He was also a student of Rainer Maria Rilke, a poet very much associated with German symbolism.

Although scholars have commented on these obvious symbolist influences, very few have discussed Celan’s symbolism in much detail. James K. Lyon observed that a number of Celan’s poems are reminiscent of Rilke’s Dinggedichte (thing poems), and that Celan, like Rilke, sought out the Innenleben (inner life) of an object. But Lyon also acknowledges that Celan differs greatly from Rilke with respect to the monological, metaphysical qualities of Rilke’s poetry, as well as the fact that Celan occasionally wrote nonsense verse, something Rilke was not capable of. What Lyon inadvertently touches upon here as a major point of disparity between the two poets was Celan’s experimentation with Dada, which was more in keeping with the exploration of a surrealist, not a symbolist, style.

If the documentation on Celan’s symbolism is scanty, it is because, as Holthusen pointed out, Celan had lifted the symbolist principle and developed it in a way that was decidedly surreal. Evidence for Celan’s surrealism is more obvious both in terms of the poetry itself and Celan’s development as a poet. Celan participated in the literary surrealism movement in Rumania, where he grew up and attended university, and was later very influenced by the surrealist art of Viennese painter Edgar Jen_, whom he befriended in 1948 during the brief period that he lived in Vienna. Celan’s respect for Jen_ was evident in a 1948 letter to Alfred Margul-Sperber, where he wrote that Jen_ was different, that Jen_ had been exceptionally nice to him, and that Jen_ was the pope of Viennese surrealism.

Lieselotte Anne Pretzer’s study of Celan’s surrealism analyzes the motif and function of the dream, image structures, phonetic rapprochement, the genitive metaphor, and various other grammatical constructions in Celan’s poetry. Pretzer looks for antecedents of Celan’s surrealist devices in the manifestoes of Andr_ Breton, as well as influences to be found in other surrealists such as Yvan Goll and Paul Eluard. She favors the more formalistic analysis of surrealist style where the emphasis is on the dissection of linguistic structures rather than its ideological implications. In Celan’s surrealist dream imagery, for example, Pretzer is particularly struck by the influence of Goll, who developed the dream motif into a more formalistic device that the poet uses to impose a unifying framework upon the otherwise chaotic flow of surreal images. This differed greatly from Breton, whose use of the dream as an artistic device stressed its importance as a primary source and inspiration for art.

Barbara Wiedemann-Wolf discusses Celan’s very early poetry written in Rumanian, examining in detail the early influence on the young Celan of the surrealism movement that developed in war-time Rumania. She notes that Celan’s work always differed from French surrealism because of the theme of his tragic personal experiences, while French surrealism was generally marked by the surrealists’ relatively carefree life-styles. This is not so, however, when Celan is compared to the Rumanian surrealists. As resistors to the war-time Fascist government of Rumania, the Rumanian surrealists, like Celan, had experienced harsh times. Enduring war-time sentiments were portrayed in their work, and they often used death as a central motif in their poetry.

There were two surrealist groups that developed in Bucharest during the war: one favored the French poet Eluard, who contended that surrealism rested solely upon a program of formal stylistic techniques; the other favored Breton in viewing surrealism as a more political movement that involved social revolution and political engagement, and not just a stylistic, verbal revolution. Yet both groups were revolutionary in nature. Even the more formalistic surrealists had sympathy for the Communist International and a desire to change society through the destruction of existing dogmas.

Wiedemann-Wolf sees a combination of both schools of surrealism in Celan’s work. Celan’s stylistic structures show his training in the more formal school, but his stylistic forms are based on contradictory images that have philosophical and ideological substance. The contradictions are juxtaposed and have the effect of presenting a linguistic thesis and antithesis, whose synthesis creates a new image and ultimately points the way to an emerging philosophy. This dialectical principle was the modus operandi for all Rumanian surrealism. Through the contradiction posed by such literary devices as the oxymoron and the paradox, the dialectical principle would reconcile the real and the imaginary: their synthesis would be a utopia prophesied by the surrealists.

Amy Colin observes that Celan’s early surrealism was an important part of a larger exploration of the avant-garde, including not only various literary movements that were dominating Western Europe, but also Russian futurism and formalism, which he was aware of long before they were generally known. This sort of experimentation was an indication of Celan’s acute awareness of the contemporary literary scene and his sensitivity to prevailing ideas and ideologies. Surrealism was for Celan a useful, even necessary, style for his representation and his arrangement of concrete objects. But under the surrealist layer, the bottom layer of Celan’s poetry shows his awareness of philosophical issues and concerns, and the more intangible realm of the abstract. That awareness is expressed in terms of existentialism.

Ulrich F_lleborn notes that Celan was a famous student of Martin Buber, whose existentialist God-seeking found its way into Celan’s work. But when commenting on Celan’s existentialism, such critics as Dietlind Meinecke prefer to use linguistic techniques to unearth it, either through Martin Heidegger, or through such theorists as Roland Barthes and Edmund Husserl. Others have noted a more general, rather than linguistic, existentialism regarding the human condition to be found in Celan’s work. A comparison between Celan and Sylvia Plath undertaken by Waltraud Mitgutsch made note of marked existentialist tendencies in both poets. Mitgutsch observes that they both view death or the theme of Weltverlust (world loss) as a phenomenon that overwhelms empirical reality, where the presence of death has actually eliminated any sense of empirical reality for the poet. Mitgutsch claims that the death experience is the point of departure for all of Celan’s poetry and that all reality is measured by this. It is the poetic experience of Weltverlust that results in the isolating and alienating existentialist experience.

The sense of alienation in Celan’s poetry is also present because Celan, like Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, and many other German writers at the time of the Nazi regime, was a political exile. John Felstiner points out that Celan’s predicament could be viewed as a triple exile: an exile from Bukovina, his native province in Rumania; an exile from Jerusalem, as all Jews from the time of the Diaspora are thought to be according to Zionist belief; and, having settled in Paris after the war, an exile from the German language, Celan’s mother tongue and the language he chose to write in.

However much the exile situation itself influences the productivity of the poet, it is not surprising that the poetry of the political exile often assumes political content, and there are a number of scholars who regard Celan as a poet of political or “engaged” literature. Marlies Janz notes the influence of fascism on the content and formal structure of Celan’s early work, and observes that the esoteric nature of many of his poems prohibits the investigation of their exoteric terms. Silvana de Lugnani views much of Celan’s poetry as being political in nature. Pointing out that Celan’s poetry makes reference to the Vietnam War, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the student revolt of May 1968 in Paris, Lugnani remarks that the politically engaged theme runs “like a red thread” through Celan’s work, and that it adheres, despite its moments of resignation and despair, to an optimistic belief in the future of humanity. Lugnani denigrates the theory that there exists a dichotomy between art that is engaged and art that is “absolute,” and points out that the political slant of poetry by such poets as Friedrich H_lderlin, a German romantic, is likely to be forgotten by those who favor such a division.

Taking this one step farther, Lugnani explores still another approach to the poetry of Paul Celan - a Marxist one, related to the ideological layer in Celan’s work. Lugnani is not convinced that Celan was a revolutionary, and most would agree that Celan never advocated revolution in the Marxist sense. His search for truth, however, and his desire to create a utopian reality did suggest a need for radical social change. Lugnani draws attention to a general question posed by the editors of the German magazine Der Spiegel, asking “Is a revolution unavoidable?,” where Celan answered that revolution had to begin at the level of the individual, whose way of thinking had to change.

As evidence for Celan’s Marxist leanings, it was noted that Celan spent part of his youth studying the works of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Piotr Kropotkin, and Gustav Landauer, and that this fundamental way of thinking had impressed itself upon him. Lugnani interprets the continuing dialogue between the poetic voice and an unnamed interlocutor, the “Thou” that is so often observed in Celan’s poetry, as an attempt by the poet to communicate his political message to society. In this way the poem fulfills the function of being the desperate message in the bottle that Celan speaks of in his 1958 speech upon acceptance of the Bremen literary prize.

Hiroshima, Vietnam, the Spanish civil war, the October Revolution of 1917, and other historical events were all relevant topics for Celan’s watchful political consciousness. Yet as thematic material for Celan’s poetry, these events were superseded by still another event that loomed largest in Celan’s memory, as well as his creative imagination - the Holocaust. The Holocaust motif is perhaps the best indication that Celan wrote engaged literature and that his political consciousness had been raised to the highest degree. But the Holocaust motif introduces an aspect of Celan’s work that defines his politics and his political engagement, and that is the fact that Celan is a Jewish author.

To what degree this element of Celan’s work must be considered important is another matter of contention among scholars. Peter Mayer writes that Celan’s work is pervaded with the concerns of the Jewish author and can be regarded essentially as the poetry of a Jewish author. He points out that Jewish symbols and references abound in Celan’s poetry and cites the Holocaust as the crisis that made Celan aware of his own Jewishness. Celan was suddenly confronted with his own Jewishness and at the same time with his alienation from Judaism. Mayer concludes that Celan’s poetry had its impetus and its roots in the annihilation of the Jewish people. Celan himself referred to the Jewishness of his work in a letter written in 1948 to Alfred Margul-Sperber. When he spoke of a meeting with Ludwig von Ficker, editor and friend of the Austrian poet Georg Trakl, Celan wrote that he was especially pleased that Ficker had noticed the Jewish element in his poetry, adding, “you know how important this is to me.”

Yet Alfred Hoelzel raises doubts about Celan’s status as an “authentic” Jewish author. Although Hoelzel concedes that Celan has made an important contribution as a Jewish author, he points out that Celan was never religious and had rebelled against his father’s attempts to raise his Jewish consciousness. Hoelzel claims that although the Holocaust changed Celan’s early alienation from Judaism, it appears that a certain ambivalence remained and that Celan never fully defined himself in terms of his Jewishness. Hoelzel views Celan’s Jewishness as being predominantly bound up either generally with the Jewish Leidensgeschichte (history of sorrow), or specifically with the Holocaust. He notes that Celan devotes particular attention to the treatment of death in his poetry. When resorting to Hebrew or Yiddish phrases, Celan chooses words relating to death and mourning, such as yahrzeit, kaddish, and yiskor. Yet Hoelzel is quick to remind us that “Celan had suffered as a Jew, ergo in that sense he was a Jew.”

Celan’s preoccupation with the Holocaust reveals his involvement as a Jewish poet, but in literature the use of the Holocaust as a motif qualifies it specifically as Holocaust literature. The term “Holocaust literature” refers to literature serving almost a documentary function in regard to the Holocaust, sometimes touching the periphery of journalism or autobiography. It is usually, but not necessarily, the literature of Jewish authors, and it is dedicated to the recounting of the atrocities. Brian Murdoch remarks that whether genocide is ever a proper theme for art is a question in itself, a question already grappled with by the German cultural critic Theodore Adorno, who gave the memorial function as a partial justification. Murdoch also notes that although other atrocities have been recounted in literature, few have produced a similar literary tradition, not even Hiroshima.

The memorial or documentary function of Holocaust literature has led Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi to speak of the Holocaust writer as a historian par excellence. Ezrahi asserts that Holocaust literature is both an artistic and faithful historical reconstruction in the form of the documentary novel, poem, or drama, and describes this form of documentary literature as one that tends to avoid symbols and metaphorical language. Celan, it would appear, is a major exception. Nevertheless, it is unusual to ascribe to fiction the primary function of factual documentation, and Ezrahi seems to mitigate this judgment when commenting that such documentary art is not just an artistic reconstruction of the factual past, but an exploration of new possibilities for human behavior that historical precedent has given us. Alvin H. Rosenfeld also emphasizes the historical function of Holocaust literature, but sees it as a piecemeal literature whose fragments reveal innumerable aspects of a great historical tragedy.

Although Celan is often included among the cited authors of Holocaust literature, it is difficult, if not impossible, to regard him in the capacity of a historian. His unusual metaphors, paradoxical images, and disconnected associations would seem to go beyond the limitations of that sole purpose. In Celan’s poetry the Holocaust motif appears to serve the additional purpose of delineating the existentialist philosophy that he desperately needed to establish in order to structure the chaos and the pain of the Holocaust experience. As Rosenfeld noted in a discussion of one of Celan’s poems, the Holocaust is not mentioned directly, but it is felt throughout. This can be said of much of Celan’s poetry. The Holocaust motif is embedded in surreal images that together with it yield Celan’s existentialist view. Celan is a Jewish poet, he is a Holocaust poet, and he is an existentialist poet. In order to analyze the existentialism that is embedded in Celan’s Holocaust visions, it is necessary first to trace the surrealist ideology of Celan’s poetry.

1 Jerry Glenn, review of Paul Celan: Magie der Form, by Winfried Menninghaus, World Literature Today 55 (1981): 315.

2 Hans Egon Holthusen, Ja und nein: Neue kritische Versuche (Munich: Piper, 1954), 156.

3 Siegbert Prawer, “Paul Celan,” in Essays on Contemporary German Literature, ed. Brian Keith-Smith (London: Oswald Wolff, 1966), 163, 177.

4 Amy D. Colin, “Nonsensgedichte und hermetische Poesie: Ein Vergleich am Beispiel der Gedichte Paul Celans,” Literatur und Kritik 142 (1980): 91.

To be continued...

Copyright © 1993 by Clarise Samuels

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