Friday, January 25, 2013

two mouthfuls of silence | Jean Daive's Under the Dome: Walks with Paul Celan

Near the beginning of his memoir Under the Dome: Walks with Paul Celan (Burning Deck, 2009), first published as Sous la Coupole in 1996 and recently translated by Rosmarie Waldrop, Jean Daive writes:

Being incapable of speaking had long made my life impossible when I met Paul Celan, who had written Sprachgitter (1959): a grid, language. Not of words or images, but gathering the world into a grid to elucidate it. (14)

Since I first encountered Celan's work a year and half ago, I'd been almost entirely focused on the serial, or cyclical, procedures of Breathturn and the volumes following it, written in the late 1960s and translated by Pierre Joris. Daive's account of Sprachgitter, or Speech Grid, as it appears in Waldrop's translation of the memoir, sent me back, however, to that earlier volume.

Both Joris and John Felstiner translate the title as Speech-Grille. This seems a significant difference. Perhaps it is Jean Daive's translation of the title and its associations into French, or Waldrop's translation of those into English, that creates the alternate take. "Speech-Grille" grates, literally; it connotes obstruction, defense, even paranoia. "Speech Grid," on the other hand, implies an order, a clear attempt to comprehend, in the space of the poem, the world. It implies a network, a nexus, which is to say, a community and, within it, communication.

The poem he wrote in the street and then telephones to her [Gisèle] from a public phonebooth. (14)

I imagine the poems of Sprachgitter, Speech Grid, telephoned this way and written along the Seine. (14)

The Seine, into which Celan ultimately leapt to his death, shadows Under the Dome. Celan and Daive repeatedly pass it on their walks. Like silence, the river seems to underscore all that they manage to say (or are unable to muster). Alongside Celan's evident hunger for constructing poems out of language—

Paul Celan chews a word like a stone. All day long.... (8)

Paul Celan's joy on discovering a word—Windgalle. He burrows into words. (8)

We are working at his big table in Avenue Emile-Zola. He is very concentrated, very precise. He loves words. He erases them as if they should bleed. (17)

He weighs his words carefully. Every moment he evaluates the word. I should add: every moment he evaluates silence. (37)

—there is the seemingly ruthless tendency to excise, to cut out, to cancel:

He sorts. Always. He tears up. I've surprised him in his office sorting letters and papers with feverish exasperation. He sorts. He tears up letters, papers with extraordinary violence, other sheets, flyers, advertisements with rage, passion, fury, despair, revolt. His waste basket overflows with torn paper, but not crumped into balls as with others I know. (50)

The moment that are most chilling in Under the Dome are the ones that reveal this penchant of Celan's for erasure. On his return from the fateful (or fatefully inconclusive) 1966 trip to Germany during which he visited Heidegger in Todtnauberg, Celan tells Daive:

... Man wants to conquer and conquest wants gold. I've always thought the poem should cross out the world. You know engravers are supposed to cross the plates once the edition is printed. Yes, the poem should cross out the world. The poem is a diagonal that crosses out the world .... (102)

Perhaps the poems don't elucidate the world. Or they do and yet it is crossed out. Yet here it is. Or was it only the engraver who crossed himself out? It's all very unclear. After reading Under the Dome, and rereading it, the repeated, doubling fragments continue to add up to little more than a deepening hallucination.

image: manuscript of "Es Wird Noch Ein Auge Sein" [detail]