Academic journal article German Quarterly

Near the End: Celan, between Scholem and Heidegger1

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Near the End: Celan, between Scholem and Heidegger1

Article excerpt

Paul Celan's "Nah, im Aortenbogen" expressed his reaction to Martin Heidegger and Gershom Scholem, a sense that between the German and the German-Jewish a fissure might divide the wall of words. In 1967 Celan brought his two idols together in a short poem, not even two dozen words long.

Here it is:

Nah, im Aortenbogen

im Hellblut:

das Hellwort.

Mutter Rachel

weint nicht mehr.


alles Geweinte.

Still, in den Kranzarterien,


Ziw, jenes Licht. (Gesammelte Werke 2: 202)2

Celan is describing a sick body during its last moments of life. He leads from the specific location of the problem, "Near, in the aorta's arch," to an image of collective mourning in the second stanza, and in the third to what appears to be a metaphorical, mystical image of the moment just before death vanquishes life.

But a close reading reveals a series of tensions that take the poem in a direction that defies the most literal interpretation. The frame story is jettisoned in the last line of the poem: there a Hebrew word is explained by a German phrase: "Ziw, jenes Licht." The word Ziw means "glow" or "luster"; jenes Licht means simply "that light." I believe that Celan signaled in this extremely compressed line his position vis-à-vis two cultures, which is to say vis-à-vis Gershom Scholem and Martin Heidegger. But can this German-Jewish finale suggest a set of oppositions at odds with those implied in the first two stanzas? Can life and death, mourning and forgetting, the individual soul and the communal convention be understood through the fusion of Hebrew and German?

The answer may be found at the grammatical sign that divides two spheres in the last line of Celan's poem: the comma that separates the Hebrew from the German, the mystical statement from its literal explanation, is both boundary and binding. I hope to show that this comma occupies a crucial place in the poem's intertextuality, not only between languages and texts, but between traditions and images as well. To put it differently, the comma, "relational" in its very grammatical essence, is the only element capable of bringing together the Hebrew and the German, life and death, mourning and forgetting, the individual and the communal. It incorporates the simultaneity of an opposition and a dialogue. Scholars of Celan have usually referred to it within the framework of a "German-Jewish symbiosis."3

A large body of literature has discussed the duality of the "and," standing between the "Geimanand Jewish." As Paul Mendes-Flohr pointed out, the discussion began with Moses Mendelssohn, and reached a culmination with Franz Rosenzweig's critique of Hermann Cohen. Celan's comma expresses an alternative: in contrast to the verbal conjunctive "and," it expresses its dual separating-connecting nature through silence, the absence of speech. But one could proceed a step further. Beyond the existing-nonexisting, "positive" or "negative" value of any given moment of historical symbiosis, this comma is a mark of an ontological and an aesthetic absence, the beginning point for both the separation and fusion of the two traditions. It is signifying the relation between "nothingness" and the remains of the light. Only when we appreciate that absence and the remains, can the comma also function asa sign of realization and fullness, of the full existence of nothingness, close to the heart of language itself. Celan, in other words, is transcending here the mere choice between the German and the Jewish, not in favor of a third entity, but rather of its lack, a darkness in the middle.4 This is the place his poetry is searching for.

In what follows I trace the literal and metaphorical history of the poem. At the end of the day, the true object of Celan's poetics is the ontological status of the word itself, even of a mute punctuation mark. This is the sign of time and the breath of life. …

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