Paul Celan and Martin Heidegger: An Unresolved Conversation, 1951–1970 (review)
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Paul Celan and Martin Heidegger: An Unresolved Conversation, 1951–1970. James K. Lyon. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. pp. xi + 249. $55.00 (cloth).

Reading Lyon's book might dissolve some scholars' fundamental beliefs about Paul Celan and Martin Heidegger, in a way similar to the discovery that a careful reading of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" turns up not a retrospectively lamentable choice of one road over another, but the narrator's claim that either road would have done the job. The world of scholarship about Celan and Heidegger consists largely of people who have decided already that Heidegger represents the forces of darkness, and Celan the forces of light. To use Marjorie Perloff's condensation, the pair of names in Lyon's title is the subject of a "conflicted relationship between Jewish poet and once-Nazi philosopher."1 From that viewpoint flows a sea of unsurprising hermeneutical exercises. Even an astute a reader as Perloff recapitulates the standard interpretation that uses Celan's poem "Todtnauberg" (a reference to Heidegger's cottage in the Black Forest) as its [End Page 589] prooftext. The upshot of this standard interpretation, given by numerous well-known critics, such as Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe, is that Celan's poem "pinpoint[s] Heidegger's grand refusal to acknowledge the Holocaust."2

The power of Lyon's account consists partly in his slow and detailed account of an alternative view that culminates in a declaration: "There is not a shred of documented biographical evidence from their entire time together that Celan condemned Heidegger" (169). It turns out—if you did not notice before reading Lyon's scholarship—that Celan used Heidegger's works as catalysts for his own poetry. In fact, the use of Heideggerian language by Celan qualifies as extensive, and Lyon maps out carefully the territory, almost to the point that he sometimes seems incapable of seeing other possibilities, such as when Lyon mentions the word "Einbahnstrassen" (115), and fails to consider Walter Benjamin instead of Heidegger in connection to that word. Then again, when a scholar is immersed in juxtaposing the work of two writers, such near-sightedness seems understandable.

Celan's extensive appropriation of Heideggerian language causes some problems for the standard view of Celan and Heidegger mentioned above. If one presupposes a connection between Heidegger's works and his political views (views that place Heidegger with the forces of darkness, a darkness more pervasive and subtle than most critics imagine—see, for example, the writings of Geoff Waite), then anyone's appropriation of those works would mean a concomitant complicity in that darkness. How does one maintain Celan's ideological purity when Celan was so clearly captivated by Heidegger's works? Furthermore, the breadth of Celan's appropriation of Heidegger as laid out by Lyon suggests that scholars might want to rethink the accusations by Yvan Goll's widow, who charged Celan with plagiarizing her husband's poetry. This sounds more shocking than it should be, thanks to postmodernism, and our ability now to yawn, for instance, at Duchamp's appropriation of a urinal as an item for reflection at a museum. Modernism, according to Gerald Bruns via Stanley Cavell, is characterized by fraudulence (see Bruns's On the Anarchy of Poetry and Philosophy [2006]).

Further down this same road, entering Celan's world means that one is obliged to make some decisions about madness. Celan's family and friends became concerned about his mental health as he grew older. For example, Otto Pöggeler reports an event in 1960 that took place when he and Celan were traveling together. Celan was quiet for some time, and then announced that "Washington and Moscow were on the phone conspiring about how they might eliminate him [Celan]" (136). Seven years later, Celan's mental health continued to be a factor, but Lyon takes pains to point out how critics overlook that aspect of Celan's life. "Almost no one has observed that when Celan visited Heidegger in Freiburg on July 24–25, 1967, he was on a leave of absence from confinement in a psychiatric clinic" (160). Unfortunately, scholars must wait for crucial details...