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  • Poetics of Silence in the Post-Holocaust Poetry of Paul Celan
  • William Franke (bio)

Paul Celan’s poetry dwells obsessively on the experience of annihilation, referring everything to “my 20th of January” the date the Nazis in conference at Wannsee decided upon the “final solution”—to liquidate the Jewish race. Read in the context of his oeuvre, almost every poem seems to generalize the historical catastrophe of the Holocaust in negative—and in various ways self-negating—images that find this annihilation lurking everywhere and in everything, at the threshold of speech. Celan’s unmistakable voice vibrates in the unflinching naming of nothing—or even the negating of naming altogether—in the evocation of a screaming silence in the most intimate core of every experience. This penetrating silence at the same time makes the words of Celan’s poetry peculiarly recalcitrant to interpretation. Aris Fioretos suggests, “What remains incomparable, today, in Celan’s poetry, are its traces of words—its remnants of expatriated meaning—which cannot be assimilated successfully in the ‘digestion’ of any interpretation.”1

Celan was recognized early on as the creator of an original poetry and poetics in which words verge upon silence. Decades ago, Theodor Adorno influentially wrote that “Celan’s poems attempt to express the most extreme horror [das äuβerste Entsetzen] through remaining silent [durch Verschweigen]. . . . Their truth-content itself becomes something negative.”2 Not long thereafter, Maurice Blanchot, in his book on Celan, commenting especially on the lyric “Sprich auch du,” powerfully intuited and provocatively expressed the negative poetics of silence and absence at the heart of Celan’s poetry in suggesting that blanks, stops, and pauses are constitutive [End Page 137] of a “nonverbal rigor” that substitutes a void for meaning, a void that is not a lack but a saturation, a saturation with emptiness:

And what speaks to us in these usually very short poems, where terms, phrases seem, by the rhythm of their brevity, undefined, surrounded by blankness, is this blankness itself; the arrests, the silences are not pauses or intervals allowing for respiration in reading, but belong to the same rigor, which authorizes very little relaxation, a nonverbal rigor that is not destined to bear sense, as if the void were less a lack than a saturation, a void saturated with the void.3

However, widely divergent ways of interpreting the silence generated by Celan’s language have emerged in the critical literature. On the one hand, his poems are said to evoke a utopic, pure language born from silence (die reine, aus dem Schweigen heraus geborene Sprache), which does not exist except as an unheard claim (unerhörten Anspruch) in every poem.4 And they are read, accordingly, for their “intentionality focused on language.”5 On the other hand, the silences of his poems can also be read as deixis, as pointing dumbly in the manner of an index to contextual circumstances unsayable in their concreteness.6 Enormous effort thus has also gone into searching out historical and biographical keys to what Celan cryptically leaves unsaid.7 So, while Celan has become more and more widely recognized as the poet of unspeakability par excellence, the bases and thrust of this poetic of silence remain in the highest degree controversial. Is Celan’s language mystic or antimystic? Is it a dissolving of reference or an absolute intensifying of reference in relation to history and specifically the Holocaust?8

The very marked mystical affinities are routinely underscored, for example, in readings by Dietlind Meinecke, in Wort und Name bei Paul Celan, who concentrates especially on the mystery and magic of the Name, while they are made the key to reading Celan by Joachim Schulze in Celan und die Mystiker.9 This mystical background is acknowledged by Shira Wolosky but she insists that, in keeping with Jewish mysticism and the Kabbalah, as against Christian mysticism directed toward silent union beyond language, Celan conserves the highest regard for language as the dimension in which the divine is encountered: “This metaphysically positive attitude towards language, and the structure implied by it, in which, as [End Page 138] Scholem writes elsewhere, ‘language constitutes the medium in which the spiritual life of man is accomplished...


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