- Poetry of Bringing about Presence: Paul Celan translates Osip Mandelstam
“I recall one superb pun anyway: qui vive la pietà quando è ben morta.” She said nothing. “Is it not a great phrase?” he gushed. She said nothing. “Now” he said like a fool “I wonder how you could translate that?” She still said nothing. Then: “do you think” she murmured “it is absolutely necessary to translate it?”—Samuel Beckett
On the first page of his radio essay about Osip Mandelstam’s poetry, Paul Celan writes: “It is known, among other things, that Osip Mandelstam has studied philosophy in Heidelberg and presently raves about Greek” [Philosophie studiert hat und gegenwärtig für das Griechische schwärmt] (“Die Dichtung Ossip Mandelstams” 215).1 The editor of the radio program, Wilhelm Asche, was puzzled by the unusual sequence of tenses in this sentence and put both verbs into simple past: “studierte” (“studied”) and “schwärmte” (“raved”). After reviewing the page proofs containing the editor’s corrections, Celan asked Asche to reverse the changes: “On page 1, line 13 of the manuscript which you kindly have sent me I find that the perfect and the present I have placed are being replaced by a preterit, ‘studied’ and ‘raved’ instead of ‘has studied’ and ‘raves.’ Please let the originally placed tenses enjoy their rights again in both cases” (Celan, Mikrolithen 884–85). Celan’s insistence on the use of the specific verb forms suggests that [End Page 1108] his choice is defined by more than just a grammatical convention. With the use of the perfect tense, “studiert hat” (“has studied”) Celan indicates that Mandelstam’s studies in philosophy are a well-defined set of past actions, already undertaken and completed at a prior time.2 With the use of the present tense in “presently raves about Greek,” Celan makes clear that the present he has in mind is not reducible to a date—neither 1960, the year of Celan’s radio essay, nor 1913, the year of publication of Mandelstam’s first book. Further, this present is not reducible to a “timeless” presence of a published text stored in archives and libraries.
Celan does not merely make mention of Mandelstam’s Greek lessons but, more importantly, clarifies Mandelstam’s relation with the classical tradition. Mandelstam, says Celan, raves or daydreams about Ancient Greece, schwärmt, and yet daydreams in full presence of mind and sober attentiveness, gegenwärtig. With this remark, which might seem to serve no other purpose than to provide some biographical information about a Russian poet hardly known in Germany at the time, Celan introduces here his notion of presence, Gegenwart, as the essential premise of poetry. The poet’s speech establishes a relation to the past—in other words, to the poetic tradition—and, in transforming it, makes the distance to the past perceptible. This distance—by no means a mechanical implication or imitation of tradition—provides a poem with a time index which is, again, legible only at a distance. The transformation of tradition in the poem is a matter of language rather than of the automatism of chronometric time. The perplexity of the editor who attempts to homogenize the tenses in Celan’s sentence has its origin in an implied model of time as a succession of calendar dates. In his response, Celan tries to explain that the tenses are defined by the intention of his essay, not by the timeline. When he says, “the perfect and the present I have placed,” his intention is to place, to posit [setzen] time in speaking. The present placed by Celan is the present of his encounter with Mandelstam and with Mandelstam’s Greece.
In his essay, “On the Conversation Partner” (“О собеседнике”),3 Osip Mandelstam proposes that all poetry be addressed to an undefined conversation partner in the future. Mandelstam puts the accent on what he calls ““юридическое взаимоотношение, которым сопровождается акт речи,” “the juridical relationship” of any speech: “I speak: that means, someone listens to me, not for nothing and not as a favor but under an obligation” (2: 234). This obligatory aspect is easily forgotten in poetry, says Mandelstam, if the poet addresses a particular and [End Page 1109] familiar public. The poet needs...