The Washing of the World, the Washing of the World: Paul Celan and the Language of Sanctification

Article excerpt

In its communicative gesture to its listeners, in its movement "toward something open, inhabitable, an approachable you, perhaps, an approachable reality," Celan's poetry performs a sanctifying function. Such a function, however, finds its origin in the unique space of collapse and reconstruction, belief and despair, hope and vehement rejection of hope-inducing saving devices. This essay traces Celan's use of the term "waschen" (to wash) as a metaphor for his interpretation of Kiddush HaShem (sanctification of the divine name). Both a linguistic necessity and an ethical imperative, "waschen" symbolically directs the already communicative gesture of the poem toward the deliberate construction of an ethical system that accounts for and is grounded in loss. The marker of this "system" in Celan's project is "Schattensprache" -- a language of the shadows -- a language that tends toward silence at the same time that it incorprates the compulsion to speak and bear witness.

Paul Celan's poetry in many ways describes a process of sanctification, a movement from the profane to the sacred. His final poetic word, in fact, is Sabbath; his last verse, contained in a poem entitled "Rebleute," reads "der erkennt dich,/ am Sabbath" ("it knows you, come the Sabbath").(1) As if to punctuate his poetic endeavor with this final verse, he leaves as his aesthetic and, ultimately, ethical legacy a promotion of sacred time as set apart from the mundane. At the same time, the poems preceding this final statement often grapple with the legacy and implications of Nietzsche's death of God hypothesis, an hypothesis to which Celan grants legitimacy even as he works to overturn it. For Celan, then, the process of sanctification is a problematic and paradoxical one; it is a process that calls back into being a relation with a perished God, encouraging a position of God-consciousness; at the same time, however, it is a process that acknowledges and memorializes this perishing. As a process that circumscribes the boundaries and relation between sacred and profane, heaven and earth, Celan's notion of sanctification involves return and restoration, and these corresponding movements are enacted on both a linguistic and existential level. In this essay, I will consider Celan's use of the term waschen (to wash) as a metaphor for his unique interpretation of Kiddush HaShem (sanctification of the divine name). In Celan's poetry, sanctification itself -- the injunction to make holy by means of bearing witness -- remains a compelling force, even as the object of sanctification is called radically into question.

In the following poem, "Nachtlich geschürzt,"(2) Celan employs the term "waschen" as a linguistic imperative:

Nocturnally pouting

the lips of flowers

criss-crossed and linked

the shafts of the spruces,

turned grey the moss, the stone shaken,

roused for unending flight

the jackdaws over the glacier:

this is the region where

those we've caught up with rest:

they will not name the hour,

they will not count the flakes

nor follow the stream to the weir.

They stand apart in the world,

each one close up to his night,

each one close up to his death,

surly, bare-headed, hoar-frosted

with all that is near, all that's far.

they discharge the guilt that adhered to their origin,

they discharge it upon a word

that wrongly subsists, like summer.

A word -- you know:

a corpse.

Let us wash it,

let us comb it

let us turn its eye

towards heaven.

This imperative, outlined in the final stanza, consists of three components: "laß uns sie waschen,/laß uns sic kämmen,/laß uns ihr Aug/himmelwärts wenden" ("let us wash it,/let us comb it/let us turn its eye towards heaven"). Signalled by the phrase "laß uns" ("let us"), this tri-fold challenge is both collective and self-imposed; Celan commits himself to the task he sets before his readers. …