Sunday, 26 December 2010
"I take your dark head in my hands"
This is a book that was certainly the most important for me in 2010, read extensively and excessively, many times, in long bath lies, in bed, on my way to various places, as if I didn’t want to separate from it for too long. It was supposed to be unpublished until the 2023, but the heirs decided differently, and it was published in German in 2008 and then Polish and English in 2010. I have bought copies in three languages.
This is a testimony of great love between Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann, two poets I rate among the most important for me, if not the most important, really; a two orientation points as long as the post war poetry or writing as such is concerned (Bachmann important for me rather as a prose author), examining the limits of the language, testing the very possibilities of what can be said. This all sounds very Wittgensteinian, and no wonder that in a film adaptation from 1990 by Werner Schroeter of the final, astonishing novel by Bachmann, Malina, published in 1971, in which she’s paying a homage to her lover, dead of 1 year ( Celan chosen “the loneliest of deaths” in 1970 by throwing himself to the Seine after years of struggle with mental illnesses and personal crisis), the heroine, played by the very Isabelle Huppert, is attending a course on Wittgenstein’s philosophy in Vienna. How very proto Haneke's The Piano Teacher (Elfriede Jelinek's Klavierspielerin appeared in 1983), probably my favorite film ever – where again, Huppert played a desperate and lonely to the bone woman with artistic aspirations, which were brutally diminished, displaying her usual indefinable charm and aura of sexual complexity.
In both those cases, adaptations of books written by Austrian female authors, we have a woman, who eventually finds it impossible to live after a one way or another unrequited or failed love for a man. In Bachmann’s novel, at the end the heroine says: “I loved him more than my life. He was my life.” – whereas her lover, the title’s Malina, is believed to have died in mysterious circumstances, just as did Celan. In this unfinished novel, stopped by her tragic death after the fire appeared in her flat in Rome only at the age of 47, she finally closes their lifetime long, incessant relationship, love, friendship, correspondence, that sometimes muted for years, included few attempts of getting back together, always paid for by even greater pain and bitterness. But first, why should we care about it at all?
Because what it gives you an inquiry into is to what kind of depths of despair and intensity can love lead and especially if you were lucky enough to experience it in your own life, it is a proof that all this really is possible to put on paper, within a letter. Being in a relationship that lead me to frequent separations with the person I love, I also frequently have to rely on letters, and sometimes have nothing but letters, although we can't escape the fact we live in the era of internet. But even in the times of a quick internet connection one can still experience all kinds of doubt, longing, waiting, anticipation, desperation and loneliness. And this collection of letters is dearer to me than anything published in years, and it leaves me speechless and even more in love, because it helps me to name what love actually is about, although I couldn’t possibly explain it to you.
Celan has become everyone’s darling now, Libeskind channeling his Radix, Matrix poem to his drawings, songs cycles being composed to his Todesfuge (Death Fugue), him being a model tormented 20th century poet. He inspired a Polish poet Andrzej Sosnowski in his seminal long poem After the Rainbow and many uncountable others. I cant possibly write about Celan’s poetry in a piece of a blogpost space. It overwhelms me, although I strongly believe, that Celan, a poet of notorious obscurity, was rather a poet of an absolute lucidity, clearness and quite impossible distillation. He was a poet, he could only be a poet, and this is what he was doing for all his life.
Born as Paul Antschel (1920), a survivor of Holocaust, of course – but you know all this story already, do I really have to tell this again – a native of Czernowitz, Bukovina in Romania, born only few years after the dismantling of the Austrian-Hungarian empire, of which it was a part, he was invariably a product of its culture and politics. Member of Jewish diaspora there, he spoke Romanian at school, and a high literary German at home, mainly because his mother, Fritzi, was in love of German literature and was keen of passing her son the same passion. She is frequently referred to in his poems, tragically killed, in a Nazi camp, shot in her head, as he later found out, but the father, a more orthodox Jew, remains a dark and obscure figure. He insisted on the Talmudic education of his son, and therefore Celan spoke Hebraic also at a quite early age, so the inheritance of Jewish culture was quite strong in him. This whole constellation of languages, plus Yiddish, which he got as well, created the rich polyglot ambiance, in which the poetic mind of Celan matured and flourished – although probably it wouldn’t mature but for the inevitable, tremendous Jewish fate. He was a poet of this fate, of the civilization after 1945, who, as much as Bachmann, was trying to remap the world anew, to see the possibilities of saying something. And one will see, that his poems, after a brief initial period of quasi-surrealist stylization, strive to describe actually real situations, although it happens in the most condensed, reduced, dense way. There was not and there wont be any poet like him, ever, because the situation, in which he wrote and that made him write, is unique and uniquely tragic.
I can really only recommend jumping into his poems now, immediately, as you read this post. I remember studying his poetry in the University Library in Warsaw, transcribing his poems, as I couldn’t afford to pay for the Xerox, also, because I wanted to memorize its lines. I wrote in German and in Polish (had a bilingual translation) and although I didn’t know the German, I could read them, deciphering his cryptic, words overloaded with layers and layers of meaning. They are incredibly personal, in fact, and much has been written (Szondi, Gadamer) about the meaning of the Celanesque “Du”, that is “You”. “Du” appears there hundreds of times, testifying about the despaired attempt to link or to find this other being, and this “Du” was very frequently Ingeborg Bachmann herself.
Because the reason those letters are so tremendous is mostly due to Bachmann. Who was always investing more in this affair, and then difficult friendship, who was endlessly patient, careful, delicate, human, ready to give. This book show her as someone, who maybe recognized the weight of this love way too late, and then for the rest of her life was trying to recover from it.
Bachmann is now renowned mostly as a novelist, but she was an astonishing poet as well, her poetry being an examination of damages of war on the culture and possibility of speaking, of expressing human emotions. After becoming a successful writer in the 50s, she disrupted this image, publishing various experimental novels & short stories, and radio plays, that included strong inspiration by Celan. They’ve met when she was nearly 22 and him 28, in a post-war, divided Vienna in 1948, and almost immediately, well, just fell in love with each other (but my hand hesitated whether I can use such a bland expression to describe it). Her a daughter of a Nazi officer, born in 1926 in a very "brown" Klagenfurt, was studying philosophy there, preparing a very critical, as it was to occur, doctoral thesis on Heidegger. He was a man without a land, feeling increasingly alienated and haunted in a former Nazi country.
He leaves quickly for Paris, she stays. They try to meet again, but for some reasons, it doesn’t work out. Their attempt of mutual life end up “a la Strindberg”, in her words. As it occurs quite often, two very individualistic creative personalities are better in tragic loving that in the everyday routine. But there’s something more: he cant forgive her belonging to the culture, who killed his parents, she desperately tries to fulfill his expectations all her life, and finally fails. What is striking sometimes is Celan being demanding to the extremes to see the impossibility of his situation, and at the same time his lack of sensitivity, frequent blindness to anyone else’s traumas or problems than his own, whereas it is Bachmann, who is careful with every word she writes to him. Poverty stricken, she has to devote her time to non-intellectual jobs, starts to write excessively, he, married to a rich family, can mostly devote to the writing. Both of them suffer from numerous breakdowns, with, mostly Bachmann’s, constant trials to sort out their relation. Also, even when he appreciates her poetry, it is always connected with her person, his love to her, her charm etc., as if he was incapable of seeing her as a poet, a writer.
Their relationship was becoming more and more difficult with the years. Celan was suffering increasingly from his illness (it is difficult to say was it a mounting schizophrenia or recurring depression) and one’s own demons can be very possessive sometimes, to the degree they overwhelm and makes us blind to the suffering of the others. After another outburst of feelings and unsuccessful attempt to be together again around 1957, they embarked on a rather dry relation, as far as the letters go. Bachmann was changing, she was experimenting with writing, she published various novels, a cycle called Todesarte, The Arts of Dying, where she was among other things, settling accounts with Holocaust’s legacy in Austria. Also, her attempt to settle after Celan, was always doom-stricken. It seems that she just couldn’t be happy after him. Her white relationship with a gay composer Carl Werner Henze, although the lack of sexual tensions made her very happy, obviously wasn’t a solution, then she started to be with a renowned Swiss writer Max Frisch, an ex-architect, some may be interested to know (the exchange between him and Celan, also included in the tome, gives an incredibly funny tragicomic image of impossible dialogue between harmed, obsessed Jewish poet, seeking consolation after attacks, and a bit humourless, still crazily jealous, overly indulgent with his ego Frisch), who only left her four years later, after what she had to be hospitalized. Relation with Celan was even more harmful, as he was only capable of demanding from her and accepting only total agreement. He never was a help for her. He was too much obsessed with his demons, as Bachmann said, he was always a victim and died as one.
The peak of his deterioration was of course the so called Goll-Affair, when Celan, an increasingly renowned translator, after translating some of Ivan Goll poetry, is accused by his wife of plagiarizing her husband in his own poems. Then there were hostile reviews of his poetry in Germany, where, especially in the infamous Blocker review, he finds strong anti-Semitic undertones. He seeks consolation, mainly from Bachmann’s, she does whatever she can, but the distrust is there and after that Celan does not recover anymore. After several attempts to kill his wife and son put into an institution (what the letters are not saying), then released, he finally commits suicide. “Every day is a burden, what can be called my “health” will never come back, it seems, the damage reaches the very core of my existence…I can be cured only in pieces.” he written briefly before his death to his Israeli friend, an old, late rediscovered youth friend from Czernowitz, Ileana Shmueli (their moving correspondence was published several years ago in French).
This is an excrutiatingly beautiful testimony of few people loving each other. Because there was also Gisele, Celan’s French wife, who did almost everything for him one can do. Her letters to Bachmann, in which she confirms that “she understands” her relation with her husband, are heart breaking. This leads to the most touching letter Bachmann ever wrote to Celan, which remained unsent (like many others), where she concludes: “You are everything to her with your suffering, but she with her suffering would never be enough for you. What injustice.” Read this one and then the real letter that she’d sent to him instead. This captures her infinite delicacy, her turmoil and her consciousness of the delicate balance between them, that, at some point, just didn’t resist. “Je n’ai pas su l’aider come je l’aurais voulu”, “I couldn’t help him the way I wanted”, concluded Gisele informing Bachmann about Celan’s death. This is also a testimony of women whose love is terribly betrayed by the men's egos. And everything fades in a horrible, deadly silence.