April 17, 2007

The Grubbing Reach

Little remains of Theodor Adorno's 1949 declaration that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” and that “this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today.” L'art pour l'art found its parallel paralysis in a "self-satisfied contemplation."

Adorno himself tempered that early postwar claim in Negative Dialectics (1966):

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.
If Adorno was simply refining the question of what survival meant--for individuals as well culture--he had also been reading Paul Celan's attempts to ground art in the uncertain realities of the Holocaust's wreckage.

As Adorno would later remark, Celan's extreme discretion results in a poetic extension of critical engagement. His voice is that of "the dead speaking of stones and stars," the coldness here not of a self-satisfied subjectivity, but of horror's remains. The sharded bits of broken testimony transpose into linguistic processes the increasing abstractions of landscape. In other words the coldness of nature becomes the destruction (and hope) of language.

Celan described his attempt to give a topographical weight to his poetry this way:
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.
Crafting language that would work against the grain of mere speech and the given world was in order, he says, “to orient myself, to find out where I was and where I was meant to go, to sketch out reality for myself.” As a poet seeking some path other than the accustomed formulation, he is perfectly in line with Adorno's argument that ensuring Auschwitz never returns requires, above all, “the power of reflection, of self-determination, of not cooperating.”

Such claims for language as interior guidance play out in the very descriptions of landscapes Celan makes into burial grounds. These are reflections of the world that devoured the human body and are in turn devoured by memory, interiorized, ingested as the ashen remains of season and history. In Celan there looms the promise of an eventual, choking drowning, deepinsnow, or in the waves of a night sky, icy and indifferent.

The uncertainty of what language might yield of the strickening reality leaves the poet afloat, alive to the suffering:

like memory's wound,
the eyes grub toward you
in a Crownland bitten
bright by heart's teeth--
it remains our bed:

through this shaft you must come--
you come.

In the seed's
the sea stars you out, innermost, for ever.

An end to the granting of names,
over you I cast my fate.”

Grubbing eyes, instinctual and blind in the soil, reach toward. A bed of burial and bliss. The lostness of the universe, for ever. From within the tumult there remains the necessary search across the cold sky of signs; searches for the bearings of constellations from the convolutions of troubled perspective. But in spite of it all, or because of all, there is a meeting. You come.

The Polish survivor Tadeusz Borowski ( best known for his searing portrait of a death factory, This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen) adopts nothing like Celan's silent scream. His poetry holds together two ideas without the stringent arrangements. First, the plaintive appeal to the sky, as if there were some escape in the simple play of light and vision, as if love could move one past "the circumstances." Celan touches the choking earth, while Borowski seems to recall the touch of the lover, the outside. But such gestures of an otherwise come always from within the camp's stain. Consequently, the blurring spectrum of seasons and sea colors in the clouds is the collapse of times, selves, deaths, and memories.

“You remember the sun of Auschwitz
and the green of the distant meadows, lightly
lifted to the clouds by birds,
no longer green in the clouds,
but seagreen white. Together
we stood looking into the distance and felt
the far away green of the meadows and the clouds'
seagreen white whithin us,
as if the colour of the distant meadows
were our blood or the pulse
beating within us, as if the world
existed only through us and nothing changed
as long as we were there. I remember
your smile as elusive
as a shade of the colour of the wind,
a leaf trembling on the edge
of sun and shadow, fleeting
yet always there. So you are
for me today, in the seagreen
sky, the greenery and
the leaf-rustling wind. I feel
you in every shadow, every movement,
and you put the world around me
like your arms. I feel the world
as your body, you look into my eyes
and call me with the whole world.”

(“The Sun of Auschwitz”)

Two poems from the land of loss: history's stark coldness and the world's continuation in relief. Between the two poets we see the flux of the look, and the laying out of a language that holds to the changed world, and, as Adorno felt necessary, the truer, tentative sense of the strickening reality.