November 26, 2006

Doing Things with Words

In his essay, "The Meaning of Working Through the Past," (1960) Theodor Adorno teases out the systems of avoidance at work in West Germany after the war. One aspect of denying the past its due consideration is a language of obfuscation that denies the past its immediacy. This language interferes with the critical self-reflection necessary to truly engage with the causes of the murderous disaster. For Adorno, the "mitigating expressions and euphemistic circumlocutions" turn the means of making the past present into a "hollow" discourse, or the death's head of thought. Forgetting becomes a thing done with words and not just a matter of their absence. More than for anything else, Adorno's fame or infamy can be traced back to his 1949 observation that culture turned rancid in the wake of Auschwitz. Then, he wrote:

“Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today. Absolute reification, which presupposed intellectual progress as one of its elements, is now preparing to absorb the mind entirely. Critical intelligence cannot be equal to this challenge as long as it confines itself to self-satisfied contemplation.”

Later he revised this suggestion, tempering it with the admission that torture demanded its scream, horror its poetic response:

“Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems. But it is not wrong to raise the less cultural question whether after Auschwitz you can go on living—especially whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living. His mere survival calls for the coldness, the basic principle of bourgeois subjectivity, without which there could have been no Auschwitz; this is the drastic guilt of him who was spared. By way of atonement he will be plagued by dreams such as that he is no longer living at all, that he was sent to the ovens in 1944 and his whole existence since has been emanation of the insane wish of a man killed twenty years earlier.”

Perhaps no figure has been as closely associated with the phrase "poetry after Auschwitz" than the survivor, Paul Celan. His poetry's euphony may well still strike some as something transcendent if not barbaric. His insistence, however, is on the formulations of language that the dangerous talk of destruction and denial--which Adorno himself recognizes as a primary harbor of fascist tendencies--left in its wake. Accepting the Literature Prize of Bremen in 1958 Celan said of that which remained in the aftermath of "death-bringing speech":
"A poem, as a manifestation of language and thus essentially dialogue, can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the—not always greatly hopeful—belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps. Poems in this sense too are underway: theyare making toward something.

Toward what? Toward something standing open, occupiable, perhaps toward an addressable Thou, toward an addressable reality.

Such realities, I think, are at stake in a poem. And I also believe that ways of thought like these attend not only my own efforts, but those of other lyric poets in the younger generation. They are the efforts of someone who, overarced by stars that are human handiwork, and who, shelterless in this till now undreamt–of sense and thus most uncannily in the open, goes with his very being to language, stricken by and seeking reality."

Picking up the shards of language, Celan's poetry was never an attempt to return to some lyricism that managed to dwell outside history. Rather it was to move lyricism through the destruction Adorno insisted upon acknowledging. Celan becomes, in this light, a muse of reckoning, a means of making words carry one toward seeing the past in its horror.