The Poetic Experience of Language and the Task of Thinking: Derrida on Celan

By van der Heiden, Gert-Jan | Philosophy Today, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

The Poetic Experience of Language and the Task of Thinking: Derrida on Celan


van der Heiden, Gert-Jan, Philosophy Today


In Manifeste pour la philosophie, Alain Badiou argues that the work of thinkers such as Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida "sutures" philosophy to poetry. In general, he defines suture as the binding of thought to one of the four "procedures" of truth he distinguishes: politics, science, love, and art.1 Such a binding would "block" philosophy's genuine task, which for Badiou consists in thinking the "compossibility" of the truths invented in these four domains.

Although Badiou's analysis is rather bold, it is nevertheless concerned with a typical characteristic of both hermeneutic and deconstructive thought. Even though "suture" is perhaps not the most appropriate word to describe the relation between philosophy and poetry, it is clear that for both hermeneutics and deconstruction, poetry and the poetic experience of language provide important guidelines for rethinking the question of what thought is. Using the words of Paul Ricoeur we could say that hermeneutic and deconstructive thought derives from the experience through which poetic language "gives rise to thought" (donnera penser).2 The poem is not only a gift to thought in the sense that it asks for a thoughtful interpretation, but, as it elicits and quickens thought, it provokes thought. This implies that the disclosure of thought refers back to an inaugurating poetic moment as its condition of possibility. From this brief description one might be inclined to agree with Badiou and affirm that this poetic orientation of hermeneutics indeed sutures philosophy to poetry. Yet, before giving any assent to Badiou's claim, it is important to examine what this poetic orientation amounts to.

In this essay, I want to carry out part of this examination by studying Jacques Derrida's readings of Paul Celan.3 The choice for Celan is not an arbitrary one. It is motivated by two observations. In the first place, Badiou claims that poetry is experienced from Hölderlin's work onward as the field in which the question of being is kept and manifested most primordially. Therefore, Hölderlin's work would inaugurate the "Age of Poets" in which philosophy is sutured to poetry. The work of Celan, however, would end this age. For Badiou, Celan's poetry is the event that gives rise to the necessary "de-suturation" of philosophy.4 His argument for this claim is rather brief and limits itself to Heidegger's work. He concludes, "Paul Celan's work states ... the end of the Age of Poets. Celan completes Heidegger."5 Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, who is also counted among the philosophers who are said to suture philosophy to poetry, argues that Badiou's characterization of Heidegger is more or less correct since Heidegger understands poetry as myth. However, according to Lacoue-Labarthe, this does not imply that philosophy could and should be detached from poetry: it should only be detached from poetry as myth.6 This raises the question of how Celan is read by the other thinkers whose work Badiou characterizes as suture: Could Derrida's reading of Celan be considered as an alternative way of letting philosophy be guided by poetry?

The second observation is the following. Derrida's reading of Celan and his comments on Celan's famous acceptance speech Der Meridian provide us with the material to reconstruct Derrida's conception of the relation between poetry and philosophy as well as the task or the chance of thinking implied by this relation. The main part of this essay is devoted to this reconstruction along the following three lines of inquiry: (1) In the first place, I want to demonstrate that and how Celan's poetry provides Derrida with the means to criticize philosophy as metaphysics of presence as well as to propose an alternative, poetic conception of time. (2) The second question to be addressed is how Derrida interprets the poetic experience of language. The analysis of the time of the poem discussed under (1) has implications for Derrida's understanding of the poetic dimension and experience of language. …

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