- Holocaust Visions: Surrealism and Existentialism in the Poetry of Paul Celan
Samuels’s thesis is that Celan’s poetic work in its entirety can and should be understood as a comprehensive and unified philosophical system, in which each poem is assigned its place. This system is not outlined in terms of its organizing principles, but rather in its topography of three superimposed layers. The top layer (which an empiricist would consider foundational) mirrors an “objective” reality and is informed by finehoned observation, whereas the middle layer constitutes an “ideological program” that “attempts to establish a socio-political value system” (p. 2), while the supporting bottom layer offers an “existentialist epistemology.”
Despite her stress on systematicity (obsolete since Hegel), Samuels identifies surrealism (particularly the strand deriving from Breton) and existentialism as the formative influences on Celan’s poetics; and she carefully explores the interrelations of these movements of thought with the heritage of French symbolism, and with Dadaism and Marxism. She does not, however, use guiding concepts, such as “epistemology” or “ideology,” in any precise philosophical sense. By “epistemology” she seems to mean a fundamental concern for reality and truth, coupled with the belief that truth is accessible beyond [End Page 382] social constructions of meaning, whereas “ideology” is used in the various senses of revolutionary program, utopian vision, structure of ideas, or even just ideation (as in “On the ideological level, the Holocaust fulfills the surrealist intention of entering the individual’s subconscious,” p. 108).
On the basis of her analyses of surrealist and existentialist thought, Samuels examines Celan’s poetry and poetics with a view to his search for an “alter reality” that would transcend, but not negate, the “Holocaust universe.” She first researches Celan’s syntactic structures, such as the “genitive phrase,” the elliptical sentence, or the fragmentation (and recombination) of words, to move on to a discussion of his tropes, which she arranges broadly into “representations of space, time, persons, and actions” (p. 39). Her discussion of Celan’s spatial tropes, particularly of his devastated imaginary landscapes and places of loss (unfortunately “space” and “place” are not distinguished), is especially compelling. It is further enriched, in the final chapter, which seeks to elucidate Celan’s notion of utopia and to locate utopia in art, by reference to the visual work of Tanguy, Ernst, and Magritte.
The book as a whole is meticulously researched and includes extensive discussions of the secondary literature, with a slant toward Germanistik rather than philosophy, and with perhaps a particular debt to Marlies Janz. Its weakness is, in a way, tied to its strength: in her discussions of philosophical concepts and movements, Samuels seems to rely largely on (somewhat dated) secondary literature, so that her philosophical understanding is frequently a confused amalgam. For instance, she links Sartre’s in-itself to the Kantian noumenon (p. 20) and goes on to locate it, not only in the “universe,” but also “at the core of the human self,” so that the for-itself contrasts with it as a “superficial” construction, a sort of artifact that needs to be “controlled.” She assimilates the nihilating character of Sartrean consciousness to a “principle of nihilism” that supposedly characterizes existentialism, while nevertheless interpreting Sartre’s humanism as a turn toward “the eternal aspect” of mankind. Heidegger is cast as an existentialist in search of a literalized authenticity, while his critique of Sartrean humanism is simply ignored.
In treating Celan’s poetry as systematically coherent and as, in some sense, ideological, Samuels not only disregards the striking stylistic changes that characterize its various phases, but she also does not try to unravel its intricate textual fabric of allusions (notably to Hölderlin and Trakl), to analyze textual structures such as the displaced re-inscription of the date (notably Büchner’s Jänner), or to respond to its unleashing of the semantic energies that lie latent beneath the surface of ordinary language. Sometimes she overlooks her own inchoate interpretive insights, as in her two discussions of parts of...