- Embodied Nothings:Paul Celan’s Creaturely Inclinations
Ich sage [das], weil mich dieseInfragestellung der Kunst—um nicht zusagen: diese [latente] Kunstfeindlichkeit—anspricht: das Gedicht = Atem = Kreatur–
Among the notes that Paul Celan took in preparation for his 1960 Büchner Prize acceptance speech, Der Meridian, we find a striking observation: “das Gedicht = Atem = Kreatur” (116).1 Rendered in the form of a quasi-mathematical formula, this sentence posits a strange equation, immediately provoking several questions circling around the equal sign. Does this symbol imply interchangeability here or merely a deep kinship? Is it possible for the direction of the equation to reverse? Can it be read right to left, as in Hebrew? Most importantly, what might it mean for the poem to be equal to, or perhaps even be, a creature? And what could the significance of such creatureliness be for the distinction between art and poetry that Celan develops throughout Der Meridian?
The relevance of these questions does not remain limited to Celan’s notes, but extends to the final version of the speech, where the creature and its relation to the poem appear time and again at crucial junctures. Most saliently, the poem, as Celan envisions it, must be written by a poet “der nicht vergisst, daß er unter dem Neigungswinkel [End Page 791] seines Daseins, dem Neigungswinkel seiner Kreatürlichkeit spricht” (9). Despite its prominence, however, the notion of the creaturely has received little attention in the literature on the Meridian, which typically reads Kreatürlichkeit as an intensification of human mortality or embodiment, without any critical elaboration on its relationship to the conception of poetry that the speech develops.2 Following the creature’s traces throughout the speech and Celan’s notes, I offer here an alternative approach that opens up the possibility of comprehending the creature as a being that puts human sovereignty itself into question by fashioning a vantage point outside of, yet not entirely separate from, the human, or, as Celan writes in Der Meridian, “einen dem Menschlichen zugewandten und unheimlichen Bereich” (5). If the self-reflexivity of Celan’s poems can be said to point toward the limitations of the language that constitutes them, that is, its inevitable distance from its referents, it also exposes the human passivity that emerges as a consequence of having to live and die within these constraints. According to Jacques Derrida, this subjection to language as a system “exceed[s] the opposition ‘human/nonhuman’” and therefore unsettles the traditional understanding of the capacity for logos as a line of demarcation that separates us from other animals (63).3 Under the angle of inclination of our creatureliness, the poem contests the [End Page 792] perimeters of language, extending expression beyond the verbal and therefore complicating the notion that language ends with its words. As the creaturely poem continuously questions its own conditions of possibility, it stretches the limits of language toward the corporeal in the shape of ellipses and punctuation marks such as the equal sign, and thus conjoins the subjection to language with an awareness of physical finitude, revealing the kinship of the human with all other creatures within this twofold vulnerability.
The creature appears early on in the Meridian, among the many delineations of art that set up Celan’s nuanced distinction between “Kunst” and “Dichtung.” As throughout the speech, here, too, Celan draws on Georg Büchner, the namesake of the prize Celan was receiving, this time referring to the play Woyzeck:
Dieselbe Kunst tritt, auch in dieser ganz anderen Zeit, wieder auf den Plan, von einem Marktschreier präsentiert, nicht mehr, wie während jener Unterhaltung, auf die “glühende”, “brausende” und “leuchtende” Schöpfung beziehbar, sondern neben der Kreatur und dem “Nix”, das diese Kreatur “anhat”,—die Kunst erscheint diesmal in Affengestalt, aber es ist dieselbe, an “Rock und Hosen” haben wir sie sogleich wiedererkannt.(2)
Büchner’s text, as Celan indicates, presents us with a strange image of art: a monkey in soldier’s garb, complete with a saber and standing on two feet. Art is an anthropomorphized animal proudly presented by a carnival barker. As such, it emerges as the artistic, and thus artificial...