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Wasen: On Celan’s “Todtnauberg”
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On Celan’s “Todtnauberg”

Speak, you too

When Paul Celan declined to contribute to the publication commemorating Martin Heidegger’s seventieth birthday in 1959, his refusal did not apply to the philosopher whom the book would honor. It was meant for the editor and publisher Günther Neske, who had not asked Celan himself for permission to include his name on the list of contributors; it had to do with the attempt to fix his name and his language in a place—on a list and in a book—without the named having agreed; and it applied to the impertinent demand to provide on short notice a poem that, as Celan wrote, “could appear in the Heidegger volume.” Celan’s refusal was a response to the misuse to which his name, his language, its place and time, would have been subjected, and it had to do with the double misunderstanding through which his poetry could be tossed off as an ornament for the celebration of a philosopher who read lyric verse in his spare time. “Also, I cannot do hackwork,” as Celan explained in a letter to Neske (with an expression that implies ‘to start a quarrel’), “really, no, that would be completely unserious—and Heidegger demands seriousness and deliberation.”1 The poem that the publisher expected from Celan and that he had in mind for the next seventy-fifth birthday edition was to be an answer to a demand—and indeed also a challenge—through Heidegger, as a thoughtful [End Page 15] response “by a thinker” who grasped another thinker’s work and attempted to meet this challenge.

Celan’s explanation for his refusal, in his letter of 10 August 1959 to Ingeborg Bachmann, held back judgment about Heidegger “today,” without leaving doubt about his indignation toward the author of the Rector’s Address. Celan wrote, specifically:

Heidegger remains. As you know, I am certainly the last who can gloss over the Rector’s Address and other missteps; but I also tell myself, especially now, since I have had the most personal experience with such patent anti-Nazis as Böll and Andersch, that whoever chokes on his past transgressions, who doesn’t act as if he never made a mistake, who doesn’t hide the stain that sticks to him, he is better than the one who established, with utmost comfort and advantage, irreproachability in his time (and was it, I really must and with good reason ask, was it in every way irreproachability?), so that he, here and now—free in the “private” and not public sense, since that would stain his prestige—can play the most blatantly dirty tricks. In other words: I can tell myself that Heidegger may have recognized a few things; I see how much malice can lurk in an Andersch or a Böll […]. This, my dear Ingeborg, I see, I see today.2

What Celan cannot overlook and what he clearly sees in this cautious presumption “today, here and now,” is that Heidegger “has perhaps recognized a few things,” that he “doesn’t hide his stain,” that he “chokes” on his past errors, and that therefore a judgment on him is not permissible. With this reluctance to judge, Celan concedes that Heidegger “today,” 1959, is perhaps someone other than he was at the time of the Rector’s Address, that at the time he might have been someone different, namely someone who would have wanted to be the person he may be now; Celan allows for the modest possibility that Heidegger could have had a real encounter with himself in his own history, that he could have been open to something other than his own will to power.

While Celan hardly had qualms about linking his name with Heidegger’s, he rigorously foreclosed a tie with other contributors to Heidegger’s birthday volume: He suspected that “this or that previously unmentioned name could be in the commemorative book, about to go to press (even Friedrich Georg Jünger is not one of the most appealing …), whose company I can by no means endorse…”3 The “company” of such “names” means for Celan as much physical as spiritual...