Bearing Witness: Events of Poetry in Gadamer and Derrida

By Pirovolakis, Eftichis | Philosophy Today, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Bearing Witness: Events of Poetry in Gadamer and Derrida


Pirovolakis, Eftichis, Philosophy Today


One of the recurring metaphors in HansGeorg Gadamer's writings on art and specifically poetry is that of "testimony" and "bearing witness." In "The Artwork in Word and Image: 'So True, So Full of Being!'" (1993) from the early nineties, he asserts that the "truth that we seek in the testimony of art is the truth that can be attained in art's fulfillment."1 Already in 1971, in one of the articles collected in The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays (1977), Gadamer claims that "[the poetic word] bears witness to itself and does not admit anything that might verify it."2 Whether poetry and art themselves or one's response to them is in question, the motif of "bearing witness" persists throughout Gadamer's work. In his philosophical commentary on Paul Celan's cycle of short poems "Breath-crystal" [Atemkristall], while referring to his own experience of reading Celan's hermetic and demanding lyrics, whose content Celan delineated in terms of a "message in a bottle," Gadamer writes: "In bearing witness here to an extended acquaintanceship, this reader [i.e., Gadamer] believes he has found 'sense' in these dark characters - not always an unambiguous sense, not always a 'complete' sense."3 Celan himself apparently endorsed such an alignment of poetry with testimony in the poem "Etched Away" whose final words are precisely "your irrefutable witness."4 Pointing out that the phrase is attributed to the poem itself which Celan compares to a breathcrystal, Gadamer's analysis concludes:

[One] should also perceive here a contrast between the encircling walls of ice and the tiny crystal of breath, this most fleeting existence [Dasein] of the geometric miracle that is the delicately marked snowflake fluttering alone in the air of a cold winter's day. This tiny detail is, nonetheless, witness. The poem calls it "irrefutable witness," apparently in stark contrast to the perjurious testimonies of "fashioned" ["gemachter"] poems. "You" are what it testifies to ("Your" witness) - the intimate, unknown You which, for the I that here is the I of the poet as well as the reader, is its You, "wholly, wholly real." (GC 1 25-26)

Gadamer's overall approach to poetry and its relation to testimony here may be interpreted in four distinct ways. First, his hermeneutics is often held to promote a traditional and even Aristotelian poetics. Second, some critics, drawing attention to his intense interest in and analyses of Mallarmé 's, Rilke's, and especially Celan's poetry, have argued instead that his theory does not operate within a conventional hermeneutic framework. Timothy Clark, for example, underlines Gadamer's affirmation of openness and singularity, and points out his metaphorical portrayal of poetry as the sole truthful and responsible witness to what it says. On this basis, Clark associates Gadamer's philosophy with Derrida's thinking. Third, as I will show, Gadamer's poetics, in adopting the dichotomy between true and false testimony, relies too much on the received semantics and pragmatics of the institution of testimony, thereby organizing Ideologically all poetic testimony but also subordinating its singularity to the higher demand for proof and truthfulness. Derrida, in contrast, in his examination of bearing witness in Celan's poetry, in contrast to this, we may then say insists on a certain hiatus between the concept of "testimony" and the discursive act of testifying, between the a priori singular responsibility of the former and the latter's generalizability. When applied to literature, this hiatus reveals an essential possibility of perjury as the aporetic condition that splits the here and now of the writing and reading efforts and complicates their interpretation in terms of either truthfulness or perjury. Finally, I will briefly go back to Gadamer's text on Celan to suggest that, despite his declarations, there are traces in his study gesturing towards the originary aporia of testimony that Derrida's analysis has brought out.

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