Friday, May 17, 2013

The Last Habsburg Poet: Marjorie Perloff on Paul Celan

Richard Strier was already a few minutes into his introduction when I & my colleague Josh Corey stumbled into a packed room in the University of Chicago's new Logan Center to hear Marjorie Perloff talk about Paul Celan yesterday afternoon.  We slipped into the very last seats, just behind Michael Anania, Simone Muench, and Garin Cycholl, and next to Ray Bianchi.  Chicu Reddy was perched across the aisle.  Just as I cracked open my notebook and took in the large map of the Habsburg empire, Marjorie began her talk.

At first, I was a little surprised by the direction she took: I'd been expecting Big Ideas, but what we were getting was a mixture of biography and geography.  Marjorie talked about Celan's birth in Czernowitz, an outpost of the West far, far from the German or French spheres, more oriented toward the Ottoman Empire than Paris or London, and about the polyglot, multiethnic nature of the place: Romanian but not Romanian, Christian, Jewish, with an endless number of languages, including a German quite different from the German of Berlin.  She then talked in great detail about Celan's poetry, but not the poetry most known to American readers.  She described his early Surrealist poems, his Romanian poems, and, above all, his love poetry—something he wrote for many years, and used in his role as expert seducer, often presenting the same poems to different women, with generally successful results.

I wasn't at all sure where this was all leading, but when Marjorie said it was a version of material that would form the epilogue to a book on Austro-Modernism it all began to come into focus.  And, indeed, it all began to seem part of a very Big Idea indeed, and a good one.  This wasn't just a ramble in poetic biography: the point of all of the context and focus on Celan's particular brand of Austrian German language was to recontextualize Celan entirely, and, in so doing, to propose not just a new way of understanding Celan, but a new way of understanding a whole branch of modern European literature.

We tend to see Celan almost exclusively in the context of Holocaust writing, with John Felstiner's Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew as the great explanatory text.  Celan certainly is a Holocaust poet—plausibly the greatest of Holocaust poets—but we are wrong to think that this exhausts his meaning and the range of his achievement.  In focusing on Celan's early life and his love poetry (which he continued to write after the war) Perloff showed us a fuller, less iconic, more humanized figure, a Celan who wasn't just a Survivor, but a man, with all the foibles and idiosyncrasies one might expect in a somewhat coddled aesthete raised by adoring and indulgent parents (Jean Daive has been working on something along these humanizing lines as well).

Not only did Perloff reveal this Celan to us: in stressing the differences between his German and the German spoken in Frankfurt or Berlin (and, indeed, in stressing the vast geographic removal of Czernowitz from Germany proper) she showed us Celan as a representative of a culture quite distinct from that of Germany: the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the traditionally Habsburg (alternately Hapsburg) lands.  The Empire's German was distinct, and Marjorie was quite convincing in demonstrating that many of the legendary 'difficulties' of Celan's poems are actually quite clear, at least to one hearing "with an Austrian ear."  And the Empire was by no means an Empire of German:  it was a polyglot culture of many languages, and no one spoke just one.  Indeed, the multicultural Imperial identity, in which many peoples felt equally enfranchised, was utterly different from German identity, and it showed in the culture: "There is no way Wittgenstein could have been a German writer," Marjorie said, "and no way Heidegger could have been an Austro-Hungarian one."

Celan the product of this multicultural and polyglot sphere, to which belong the works of Robert Musil, Elias Canetti, Sigmund Freud, Karl Kraus, Joseph Roth, and Franz Kafka—but he was the product of this world in a special way, because he was the product of that world's dissolution.  Born just two years after the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he came of age in the penumbra of loss, with a sense of the ghostliness of his own multicultural and polyglot identity.

In the end, Marjorie wasn't just telling us that we would do well to think of Celan in the broad context of the dying Habsburg culture: she was telling us that we have a great deal of work ahead of us in reconstructing the lost Empire as a cultural field, and in finding the meaning of its writers not in some generalized Germanic tradition, but in the shadows and fragments of a dying polyglot state.  We would be as wrong to discuss Musil or Kafka or Celan outside this context as we would to discuss William Carlos Williams without reference to his Americanness.  This, I thought, is a big idea—it proposes not just a new understanding of Celan, but a new field of literary study.

The room in the Logan center was full of bright looking young graduate students.  If they had their ears open, they now know they've got their work cut out for them.


  1. Sweet home Bucovina, my family homeland. Glad to hear about the talk; sorry I missed it. Thanks for the report!

  2. Second that! There's a fine new history of lead-up to WW I - "The Sleepwalkers", by Christopher Clark - has fascinating section on culture & state of pre-war Austro-Hungary. Book challenges many preconceptions about that period, Balkans, great-power maneuvering, etc.

  3. Thank you very much for the writeup - it must have been a fascinating lecture. I am far more of a Celan enthusiast than a Celan expert, but some of what was brought out in the lecture has definitely been in the back of my mind (in a rather vague way) when I've been reading Celan. The sense that he was an aesthete from a dying world... (The detail about him presenting the same love poems to different women, with similar results, is fascinating. All the affairs make me feel a bit annoyed with him sometimes!). On the personal level I tend to think of Celan mainly as someone hyper-hyper-sensitive in difficult situations, but I think the kind of context described here is essential. It seems to me that reading and study of Celan is often either intellectualized to such an extent that it closes him off to less scholarly readers, OR he's known just as a sort of one-hit wonder for Death Fugue...