He wanted to be perfect, because he survived; because he was the dead’s monument? To fulfil the lost life and genius of a devastated community; the unbearable guilt of never being good enough…
The danger of any man’s life, particularly one that is tragic, is to turn it into a symbol; thus missing the concrete peculiarities, a person’s individual needs. No poet suffers from this more than Paul Celan.
A poet who works in metaphor, who creates symbols of the world inside and around him, how easy to extend his working methods to the poet himself. At a recent talk at the LRB bookshop one of the Anczel family said from the floor that he had to be perfect for the survivors. This could be true; though it needs to be unpacked a little more. However, it seems to conflate the man with the poet; and from the correspondence quoted (with the poet Ingeborg Bachmann) it is clear that Celan did not uphold these standards in his daily life – too sensitive about himself, he could be a tyrant to others.
The poet, though? A different scenario. A poet of Celan’s stature will need perfection; which in turn will create doubt, maybe agony over its accomplishment (is perfection with words even possible?) Looking at the artist as an artist, and what drives him, surely this must be the key to any understanding of his aims, and his difficulties. A word wrong in a short lyric – it can take years to find the right one -, does this not drive one a little crazy? That beautiful melody inside the head, but the language out of tune: are there even words to capture it? But then, so easy to use the outward signs of his life to ask the big questions: can there be poetry after Auschwitz?
In the little I know about Celan it doesn’t appear he would have wanted this – the sophisticated ease, often the emptiness, of such ideas would have made him suspicious. Indeed, such ideas can often become more important than the person; he simply their exemplar. Surely, like any artist he wanted to connect with what was real, buried in the earth, fused with our feelings; authenticity is how the translator, Wieland Hoban, described it in the talk. But this need will pull away from the international discourse of big ideas, of Holocaust Poetry and Survivorship.
To be made a martyr when you did not suffer a martyr’s death; to represent the millions slaughtered, when you yourself were not slaughtered; to be made into icon; so as not to be read, not to be understood. Is this what a poet wants? A poor one maybe; but surely not one of the first rank.
Ideas are important; meaning too – the translator made this point. Too often in the 1950s German critics praised his technique, which for Celan was an excuse for ignoring the content; it suggested they were still hiding their Nazi past (interestingly Truffaut made a similar point about his films – critics tend to concentrate on the form and mechanics, and downplay the meaning; though for the artist meaning is all!). But understanding the point of a poem, grasping its ideas, is not the same as turning them into world-historical abstractions, which obliterate both the work of art and the poet. This is the difficulty – it’s a question of balance and control; not an easy thing for intellectuals, perhaps, where their drive to abstraction is irresistible. The translator was refreshing here, often bringing Celan’s words back to the material changes of his life; his later financial security. The poet should not be made into a saint; even if his work bears the stamp of a higher world.