In the spring and summer of 1968 Paul Celan addressed a number of poems to his son Eric, the second of his sons and the only one still alive. His first son, François, had died shortly after birth in October 1953 and his passing is commemorated in Celan's poem “Grabschrift für François” (“Epitaph for François”) published in the 1955 collection Von Schwelle zu Schwelle (From Threshold to Threshold).1 Celan and his wife, the artist Gisèle Celan-Lestrange, were deeply marked by the devastating loss of their first child. We know from their correspondence that the child's name had been agreed upon very early on in their courtship.2 Indeed, for the poet described by his future wife's family as “un juif . . . apatride . . . de langue allemande” (“a stateless . . . German-speaking . . . Jew”) (Celan and Celan-Lestrange II: 72) the name François seemed to carry a promise of repatriation associated with the naturalization papers he had filed at this time along with a request to have his surname [End Page 1014] “Antschel” francisé as “Celan.”3 In the name François he thus seems to have imagined his own translation into a French citizen with an officially recognized French name.
Yet, as a poet Celan remained deeply attached to the German language. A brilliantly accomplished translator of poems from French, Slavic, and Anglo-American traditions, Celan always insisted that his own poems be written in German—even if, as he put it, these poems could no longer “speak the language which many willing ears seem to expect” (Celan, Collected 15); even if, one might add, these poems sometimes bore French titles or were arranged as multi-lingual citational compositions.
There was, however, one poem Celan wrote entirely in French, a poem addressed to his thirteen-year-old son, Eric, in the summer of 1968. Unlike the two written in German shortly beforehand, both bearing the dedicatory title “Für Eric” (“For Eric”) and included in the collection Schneepart (Snow Part), this French poem remained untitled and unpublished during his lifetime.4 Appearing only in a posthumous edition of his work, the text of the poem is accompanied there by a photograph of the page—or rather the feuille—on which it was written (Celan, Die Gedichte 327). My reason for insisting on the French term will become clear in a moment. But before turning to the poem and examining the photograph, it is necessary to speak first about the other two poems Celan addressed to his son.
All three were, as has been noted, written in the late spring and summer of 1968. Among the questions to be explored in what follows are: Why at this time was Celan writing poems to his son? What was his relationship to poetry and to his son at this time? In what ways are these poems addressed to his son about time—or more specifically about “this time”? To what does the deictic “this time,” ce temps, appearing in the French poem point? What is the relationship between this temporal index and the figure of the “arrowing hand” with which the first of the two German poems addressed to Eric closes? Why, finally, was the only poem Celan ever wrote entirely in French addressed to his son?
These are fairly specific questions raised about poems that until now have received little critical attention. Yet in posing them I want to begin to approach a much larger and more troubling issue. Throughout [End Page 1015] the 1960s Celan suffered from increasingly debilitating mental breakdowns which were often associated with violent acts committed by him or which he feared were going to be committed against his loved ones. These acts included an attempt to kill his wife with a knife in the night of November 23–24, 1965 after which he was taken to a hospital and placed in a straightjacket (Celan and Celan-Lestrange II: 264). In a letter of December 9, 1965 written from the clinic to which he had been confined he confided to Gisèle that he found himself faced with a terrible alternative, the precise nature of which he did...