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  • February 13:Paul Celan’s Political, Spiritual and Poetical Anarchies
  • Antti Salminen (bio)

The decisive moment of human development is continually at hand. This is why those movements of revolutionary thought that declare everything preceding to be an irrelevance are correct – because at yet nothing has happened.

– Kafka, Zürau-fragment 6

In his Meridian speech (1960) Paul Celan (1920–1970) pays homage to a dissident tradition, speaking of himself as one “who grew up with Peter Kropotkin’s and Gustav Landauers’ writings” (GW 3 190).1 In his biography John Felstiner briefly mentions Celan’s affiliation, noting that the poet soon relinquished his communist sympathies but stood loyal to the ethoi of socialism and anarchism (8). This holds true as a point of departure, but a detailed analysis of Celan’s anarchistic impulse is lacking and often downplayed as a youthful lapse with only very minor affinity to Celan’s mature poetics and philosophical reflections.

Notwithstanding, Celan’s letters, fragments2 and poetical allusions,3 for instance, document his sympathies and ideological ties to social anarchism throughout his life. In the pages to follow, Celan’s anarchistic verve is understood not only as a politic, but also a poetic, ontological, existential and religious gesture that is highly original even in the high-eccentricity standards of this too-little studied shadow tradition of political thought. Correspondingly, my argument is that Celan’s poetics are underpinned by anarchic sensibility, but what may be even more important is that the anarchistic thinking as a method of political change also has some lessons to learn from Celan.

The tradition of political anarchism has been historically diverse and perhaps the only common denominator is the accompanying anticipation of state and its institutions. My definition of anarchism in politics and aesthetics runs counter to Gerald Bruns’ recent plea that under the name of (poetic) anarchy, “anything goes and nothing is forbidden” (xxv). This laissez-faire definition of anarchistic tradition neglects the existential, ontological and spiritual aspects of anarchy. After all, Bruns’ idea that anarchism “forbids nothing” gives us only a mode of accelerated [End Page 120] late-modern libertarist sovereignty. The view adopted here is based on the inverted assumption that proper anarchy operates, especially in Celan, within the double horizon of political impossibility and ontological nothingness. I can agree with Bruns that “anarchistic poetics” – if such there be – should rely on the singularity of a work of art, that is, for me, its pre-conceptuality, experientiality and non-reducibility to given aesthetic categories. But Bruns cannot have it both ways: he cannot demonstrate how sheer singularity and aconceptual experience could stem from an “anything goes” attitude that gives poetic nihilism a bad name. Against the background of my negative definition it is argued that the anarchistic tradition that Celan adopts and transforms is radical in its rootedness to most demanding philosophical foundations that stem from different traditions -- from Rheinischen Mystik and Lurianic Kabbalah to Heideggerian fundamental ontology — and are bound in his poetry to historical events such as major general strikes and the Spanish Civil War.

The proposed characterization of Celan as a “mystical anarchist” may seem first a contradiction in terms as there are many barriers that have historically kept mystical and anarchistic traditions separate: the atheism and action based politics of classical anarchists is not easily merged with the apolitical nature of a mystical world-view. A distinctive and paradigmatic link between the two is to be found in the work of Gustav Landauer (1870–1919), one of the leading theorists of communal (in the parlance of his time, “socialist”) anarchism in Germany. Landauer, the anarchist, was an almost forgotten figure in Germany until recently, whereas his Shakespeare studies and translations have lived on, unlike his political thought. His “philosophical manifesto” Skepsism and Mystik (1903) is of particular interest, dovetailing anarchist ideas with mysticism – especially Meister Eckhart’s,4 whose selected sermons appeared in Landauer’s translation the same year. A distinctive feature of Landauer’s skepticism and anarchism was his markedly critical view of language and its possibilities to give a reliable view of the world in the vein of Fritz Mauthner’s Sprachkritik. In “Der Sozialist,” 1897, Landauer wrote: “Die...


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