Academic journal article German Quarterly

The rhetoric of originality: Paul Celan and the disentanglement of illness and creativity

Academic journal article German Quarterly

The rhetoric of originality: Paul Celan and the disentanglement of illness and creativity

Article excerpt

The mythical link between creativity and illness is like a cat with multiple lives: in the 18th century, as some German writers first codified it in a modern framework others attacked it. Yet even ideological struggles against this link have often had the effect of rejuvenating its mythical force. Both the writings of genius and madness have traditionally appeared as articulations of a basically original and irreproducible nature. In this sense, the concept of origin is key to the cult of the irrational genius. Indeed, origin and originality power not only the discrete discourses of madness and writing, irrationality and creativity, but also their very coupling. Art, it seems, relies on the irrational aura that origins lend it. Yet what happens if aesthetic production does not root itself in the determined unreason of creative origins, but in imitation, semblance, and repetition?

In its 18th-century form, the link between madness and creativity responds to French Enlightenment arguments that classical, rationally comprehensible models are the true originals that must be emulated. In the logic of rhetoric, origins serve to legitimize the positions that speakers take. Western Europe had long justified particular, historically determined forms of politics, society, and art by elevating them to superhistorical models with privileged origins. Monarchs ruled because they descended from heroic precursors; society took a hierarchical organization because it traced itself back to divine patterns; aesthetic norms prevailed because they derived from classical models. Yet as 18th-century writers like Herder noticed, the use of origins for legitimacy becomes absurd when a plurality of aesthetic, social, and political phenomena exists, each with its own origin.1

This plurality of origins caused writers to confront extensive implications that ultimately generated the figure of the irrational genius as an explanation for origins. Yet, the most significant factor in this shift is something very different from a plurality of origins: at stake was the very event of originality itself. Within their proper discursive fields, aesthetic and sociopolitical models now had to posit their own origins. Poetic and poetological texts took on the role of positing origins. Herder, comparing the original, authentic poet with divinity, makes this clear. For him, the artist who eavesdrops (belauschen) on nature and produces from it art is "der eigentliche Mensch, and da er selten erscheint, ein Gott enter den Menschen. Er spricht and tausende fallen ihm nach."2 Herder contends that the genius, with his initially incomprehensible works, explains how culture generates products that cannot be deduced from models.

A detailed consideration of the way this curious historical shift came about would be an interesting undertaking but would exceed the scope of this study. What interests me here is the way the connection of genius, madness, and origin is again at stake in the wake of 20th-century totalitarian politics. I locate the reexamination of this connection in two poems by Paul Celan-"Tubingen, Janner" (1961) and "Ich trink Wein" (1969). These poems invite and address the question of what happens when aesthetic production is not rooted in the unreason of creative origins, but rather in imitation, semblance, and repetition?

My discussion places these poems in the context of the discursive history of madness and genius, and investigates Celan's critique of this culturally constructed link. Particular attention will be paid to the poetic technique of repetition and semblance, and to Celan's recitation of Holderlin. These poems seek to undermine the notion of prophecy and origins at the center of the genius ideology. In them, Celan returns to the coupling of illness with writing not only to disentangle them but also to redeem madness by removing it from a psychological discourse. Thus, for Celan, writing provides neither access to origins nor one-to-one correspondences to external, non-linguistic things, rather it produces illusions and words that will be repeated and altered. …

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