Epilogue: All Candled Things
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120 E P I L O G U E All Candled Things As a child Paul Celan liked to draw burning candles. To capture with pen and ink the successive phases of flame and extinction preoccupied him intensely.1 “I did not love it, I loved its burning downandyouknowIhaven’tlovedanythingsince,”sayshisprotagonist Klein near the end of Conversation in the Mountains. To witness themortalflame,burningandburningdown,isapoet’swork.Celan refers to this work, in a poem written on his birthday in 1967, as: Lesestationen im Spätwort, Sparflammenpunkte am Himmel. . . .2 [Reading stations in the late word, saving flamepoints in the sky. . . .] Whom do “saving flamepoints” (Sparflammenpunkte) save? Perhaps themselves. The German verb sparen means “to be thrifty.” And Lesestationen im Spätwort plays upon the term Spätlese, a “late gleaning” of ripe grapes. Certainly Celan knew better than anyone how to go about gleaning the word. Yet in the end he despaired of the task. On the day he took his own life by drowning (April 20, 1970), he left open on his desk a biography of Hölderlin with part of a sentence underlined: Sometimes this genius goes dark and sinks down into the well of the heart.3 In a poem written some weeks earlier, he seems to describe his own sinking down: 1 Chalfen (1991), 68. 2 Celan (1983), 2:324.13–15; (1988), 312–13.13–15. 3 Felstiner (1995), 287. EPILOGUE: ALL CANDLED THINGS 121 DIE EWIGKEITEN fuhren ihm ins Gesicht und drüber hinaus, langsam löschte ein Brand alles Gekerzte. . . .4 [The eternities drove at his face and beyond it, slowly a fire extinguished all candled things. . . .] We cannot assimilate this despair but we should study it. For a poet’s despair is not just personal; he despairs of the word and that implicates all our hopes. Every time a poet writes a poem he is asking the question, Do words hold good? And the answer has to be yes: it is the contrafactual condition upon which a poet’s life depends. We have looked at the ways in which this condition informs ancient Greek attitudes to poets and poetry—built into Homer’s blindness and Simonides’ avarice, sleepshaped in the story of Danaë, deathcolored on the ship of Theseus, quickchanging as a longwinged fly, sudden as a collapsed roof. We have seen Simonides estranged from his fellows on account of this condition ; we have seen him recognize, resent and negotiate his estrangement ; we have seen him transform it into a poetic method of luminous and precise economy. We have not seen him despair. Simonides’ lack of despair is noteworthy. Do words hold good for him? Yes they do and, on the basis of this goodness, he invented a genre of poetry. Epinikion means “upon the occasion of a victory.” It is the Greek name for a formal praise poem, or epinician ode, in honor of a victor in the athletic games. The Olympic Games were the most illustrious of these athletic occasions, held at Olympia every four years and attended by people from all over the Greek world. But many other ancient cities (including Delos, Corinth and Nemea) 4 Celan (1983), 2:283.1–5; (1988), 298–99.1–5. EPILOGUE: ALL CANDLED THINGS 122 had contests and held festivals to celebrate victors. Epinician odes were part of these celebrations. The odes were given in choral performance—combining music, song and dance—to an audience that might include the victor, his kinsmen, fellow competitors , fellow citizens and other spectators. It would be hard to overestimate the social, ethical and epistemological importance of these performances to the community in which they took place. Indeed community is constituted by such acts. Games are for winners . They stand alone. Community comprises all the rest of us, who do not win, but watch and recognize the victor’s separate struggle, finding a way to praise it. Praise poetry addresses itself to an individual who has chosen to test the limits of human possibility and momentarily succeeded. His flame is burning very bright. Looking at it we feel both love and hate. Hate because he has surpassed us, love because his light falls on our hopes, enlarging them. Ancient Greek epinician poets are candid about the natural human ambivalence that greets excellence in other people, and they take seriously their own function of counterbalancing private emotion with communal reasoning. The poet’s voice pulls order out of agonistic chaos and forms it into an object of common...