Silent Consonants of the Named

[The following was written in preparation for the “Literature Argues?” conference held at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, on October 2017. I offer here my very warm thanks to Karl Pollin, Victor Udwin, and Huiwen Zhang for the invitation to participate and for the great hospitality and friendship they showed me then. Taking up again my research from 2011 (see In Light of U-topia), this paper is an attempt to explicate in greater detail Paul Celan’s poetics, as he articulates them in his ‘Meridian speech’ and in the draft materials for that speech. The study is supplemented with a reading of his poem ‘Schliere’ and various meditations on the relation between literature and silence.]

Silent Consonants of the Named

A word of refusal, but also of absolute commitment, forging its bonds of silence in the unfathomable silence of the bond. —Edmund Jabès

To write poems so that they remain attuned, if not to our talking, then to our silence, to our keeping-silent-with-the-named; so that we only silence ourselves before a most-foreign You as consonants [Mitlaute]—and give it a chance. —Paul Celan

The following reflections will explore the idea that literature “argues” for or from silence. Or, to put it more modestly, that literature issues from silence and has the power to restore us to it: a silence to which the work responds, defending and transforming it. Let us offer a working hypothesis: literary works suspend normal modes of discourse, seeking a language uniquely their own. They construct their own imaginative context or discursive space “subtracted” from everyday speech, forming an exception to it. Although this subtraction can be undertaken in different ways, literary works—both at their point of origin and of reception and in order to accomplish their exceptionality—impose silence upon the general noise of the world. They induce us to draw back, to reappraise the world and our immersion in it. This withdrawal inevitably involves a silencing, albeit for the sake of contacting a power of language that is perhaps neither known nor practiced elsewhere.

Let us characterize the problem as follows: everyday speech and discourse is “noisy” because it occupies itself with representing and communicating what there is in the world, the hubbub of objects, whereas literary works seek to express that there is a world—whether it be real or possible, dream or future. In its deployment, if not in its content, the work does not busy itself with merely discussing what is “the case.” This is one aspect of its refusal: it is never satisfied with established significations, with known judgments about things, with the norms of the situation, calculations of immediate value, and so on. The labor and hope of the work is more profoundly to express the inexpressible that there is of a world, that we are, or to make this ontological affirmation possible. This is its absolute commitment: to say what cannot be spoken in the language of consensus, and to say it once each time, with a singular speech isolated from the world. And yet, this speech is capable of forging human bonds where formerly only the general noise prevailed—bonds of silence that are perhaps stronger than any bond that could be spoken (or represented politically, for example).

To paraphrase Wittgenstein, the presence of a world—that which in the present is irreducible to reality—is that about which one cannot speak, that whereof one must be silent. Literature does not betray this silence so much as it betrays this limitation. It refuses to ratify the category of the “unsayable” or to put its faith in the repetitions of the mystical. Rather, it makes of this silence an imperative for its own speech, for its fabulation of that whereof propositional logic must remain silent: objectless presence.[1] For propositional logic deals in objects, our knowledge of them and how we can string knowledges together to form arguments about objects. Seeing what poetry could conjure without this mediation, Plato deemed it just to expel the poets from the city. Why? Because by operating a complete “dis-objectification” and proffering a thought that goes “straight to presence,” the poem ruins dianoia, discursiveness, the foundation of reason and dialogue. As Alain Badiou writes, “The poem is the exemplary instance of a thought obtained in the retreat and subtraction from everything that sustains the faculty of knowledge.”[2] According to him, the poem either gives us nothing (subtraction: the lack of any object) or the excessive equivalence of objects (dissemination: the object dissolved in pure multiplicity). Poetry is thus most readily opposed to journalism, which naively believes it responsible to “get the story straight” and communicate the current state of things objectively. Poetry is instead a conversation with the power of language at the point where it is no longer an instrument for the babble about objects, nor the negotiator of meanings, but delivers a thought of the presence of a world, of a “we” that nothing discursive could guarantee. Badiou characterizes the operation of the poem thus:

Folded and reserved, the modern poem harbors a central silence. This pure silence interrupts the ambient cacophony. The poem injects silence into the texture of language. And, from there, it moves towards an unprecedented affirmation. This silence is an operation… The poem is a halting point. It makes language halt within itself. Against the obscenity of ‘all seeing’ and ‘all saying’ – of showing, sounding out and commenting everything – the poem is the guardian of the decency of speech.[3]

On this account, poetry, explicitly arguing “for” nothing (no being), implicitly makes of this very “nothing” (of Being) an argument—a nothing destined to foil what is. In this sense, Blanchot is right to say that, “silence and nothingness are the essence of literature.”[4] The same sentiment is registered by Borges when he avows, somewhat disconcertingly, “I do know that literature is an art that can foresee the time when it will be silenced, an art that can become inflamed with its own virtue, fall in love with its own decline, and court its own demise.”[5] Whoever has spent time with literature, especially with the difficult act of writing it, knows what silences are required for even the least line to flow, and the extent to which creative work takes place on the edge of the void (or, as Blanchot might say, on the edge of death). As Sylvie Germain tells us, “To write is to descend into the grave of the prompter to learn to listen to language respire there where it silences itself, between the words, around words, sometimes at the heart of words.”[6] That said, it would be abusive to talk about all of literature in this way. Were we to accept these characterizations, we should concede that there are varying degrees of “purity” here. Some works are more “talkative” than others, if talkative means being busy with what is the case, as opposed to the enigmatic that there is or that we are. If we uphold, on the one hand, that all literary works in one way or another issue from silence, or require silence for their composition, on the other hand, in the work itself the degree of subtraction from the general noise and its interests lies on a spectrum. (To be clear, this is less a matter of content than of inclination; Shakespeare’s works are more than occupied with worldly happenings, but it is how he conveys them toward the infinite power of language, by holding them close to their ironic or tragic point of collapse (“all the world’s a stage”), that makes them literature.)

To investigate and deepen all these remarks, I will turn now to the poetry of Paul Celan, who certainly lies far to one end of the spectrum. His work exerts an extreme suspension not only of language as a means of argument and communication, but also of language as a means of lyrical expression and historical narration. The main goal in what follows is to illustrate the reasons why, as he tells us in his Meridian speech, “the poem today… has a strong tendency to falling silent” [eine starke Neigung zum Verstummen].[7] But before embarking upon a reading of one of his poems, it is important to clarify specifically what we mean and do not mean by silence.

Silence is no univocal sign. The silence at stake in the literary work is not the silence of having nothing to say, nor of having something to say and not saying it. If it in some manner conjures a silence, it is not one that is straightforwardly speechless; rather, it is superposed with its saying. Although the work is perhaps born of an experience of the futility or weakness of words, and thus of an insight into the inanity not just of argumentation but of every telling word, it does not give up on what Badiou calls the “imperative of saying.” That would be the essential temptation: either to concede despairingly to the absolute failure of saying (thus giving up on language altogether, and so on humanity) or else to affirm the advent of a pure “nothing” (thus ascribing to silence the sovereign power to present pure presence all on its own).[8] Blanchot also rejects these two temptations when he writes, “silence no more marks the failure of [the poet’s] dreams than it signifies an acquiescence to the ineffable.”[9] Silence does not mean that language betrays us, and so it does not mean that we should betray language, especially not if we wish to evoke the world as presence. Commenting on Celan, Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe puts it this way: “the poem must clear the way between silence and discourse, between mutism’s saying nothing and the saying too much of discourse.”[10] On this account, the poetic act is “catastrophic,” “an upsetting relation to what is an upset, in being, in the direction of no-thingness (the abyss).”[11] Discourse’s normal servitude to ‘what is’ is disrupted in the direction of what is not, or is not yet: the unknown, the other, that which is to come; the unprecedented presence of a new ‘world’ of light between poet and reader, who encounter one another through the new language opened up by the poem. For Lacoue-Labarthe, too, the poem or poetic act thinks the present’s presence as the other of what is present; phrase philosophically, this is the place-without-place of the advent of Being, where the experience of Being is the experience of (the alterity of) the You. This implies the subversion and interruption of every automatism in speech, a radical breaking of linguistic habit, a rarefication and condensation of language that attains, “the muted resistance where one recognizes a voice that is singular.”[12]

But there is another aspect of silence that we must factor in here, namely, the silence of the other, which can be assumed but never directly accessed. It is the unknowable quantity which meets in silence what is said. It can hardly be factored in and yet it is the first factor. The other who is silent before the work is “there” in absence, imposing upon the creator a passiveness with regard to their own work, forcing them to listen to the silence at the heart of the work in order to create it. In a book clearly influenced by Celan, Blanchot thematizes these silences under the heading of the “disaster.” The disaster, which threatens us with imminent silence and death, is immemorial. It separates us from ourselves in such a way that the other “besieges” us with its absence and infinite distance. The consequence of thinking the disaster is that, “ordinary silence—where speech lacks— [is replaced] with a separate silence, set apart, where it is the other who, keeping still, announces itself.”[13] Consequently, this is a silence for the other: the work makes room for the other’s reception and voice, even lets them hear their voice and affirms their right to “speak too.” Whoever would think and write after the disaster must pass through this separation, this speculative silencing of all discourse and the announcement of the absent other in one’s own word. Such a passage organizes what we might call, following Laruelle, a stance of the Last Instance. As Blanchot himself stresses, to write is to “exempt oneself from the cosmic order.” It is to know oneself silenced by death in the last instance and so in advance, and thus to be exposed passively to the void or emptying of sense—that whereof nothing can be said. Saying this “nothing,” however, is the poetic imperative: halting the machine of meaning, becoming a language of pure names and events. It makes any encounter worthy of the name possible, as Celan writes:

and at times when
only the void stood between us we got
all the way to each other.

und zuweilen, wenn
nur das Nichts zwischen uns stand, fanden
wir ganz zueinander.

Such a vigilance before the void could be said to be the essence of Celan’s poetics, which can be summarized by the basic three stages: 1) estrangement from oneself, confrontation with death, one’s mortality, creatureliness, and finitude; 2) the opening of an instance of otherness from within, an other with or for whom the poem will attempt to speak, through the interval of the void of sense; 3) the poem itself as place of encounter, as the naming of the infinity of the encounter’s chance, attuned to the other before whom it falls silent. The poem is thus written in a “language of awaiting” which, without separating speaking and silence, “makes of silence already a kind of speaking… [saying] in silence the speaking that silence is.”[14] Such a language roots itself in attentiveness to the unknown other to whom and for whom it tries to speak. The work itself is the vessel of this attentiveness and this wait. Breaking with all utterances, running the risk of being received by no one, it is surrendered to a finite-infinite patience.[15] As Celan puts it, the poem has entered a phase of “total You-darkness.” The You is given to the poem only on the way to this You.

We immediately see the need to travel a path. The plan for what follows is to read Celan’s poem Schliere alongside his major poetic statement, the Meridian speech, and the draft materials for the speech. I believe that what is presented to us in this poem Schliere is a “scene” of poetry, of poetry’s creation and reception. At the same time, it testifies to the poem’s nature, to its being-for-the-other qua sign. Let us read:


Schliere im Aug:
von den Blicken auf halbem
Weg erschautes Verloren.
Wirklichgesponnenes Niemals,

Wege, halb—und die längsten.

Seelenbeschrittene Fäden,
und nun
vom Augen-Du auf dem steten
Stern über dir
weiß überschleiert.

Schliere im Aug:
daß bewahrt sei
ein durchs Dunkel getragenes Zeichen
vom Sand (oder Eis?) einer fremden
Zeit für ein fremderes Immer
belebt und als stumm
vibrierender Mitlaut gestimmt.


Streak in the eye:
from glimpses of half-
way beheld Lostness.
Really-spun Never,
come back.

Ways, half—and the longest.

Soulpursued threads,
and now
from eyes’-You on the constant
star above you
veiled over white.

Streak in the eye:
that preserved may be
a sign through darkness borne,
animated by the sand (or ice?) of a strange
Time for an even stranger Forever
and tuned like a silently
vibrating consonant.

Everything centers around the perception of the Schliere. A term borrowed from the natural sciences, the German Schliere has a more specific sense than the English “streak.” First, in geology, Schlieren designate irregular dark or light streaks in igneous rocks which differ in composition or texture from the principle mass. Similarly, Schlieren is the term for visible regions of an invisible medium, such as a flowing gas, which become visible because their densities differ significantly from the bulk of the medium and thus refract light in a noticeable way: a visual phenomenon caused by an irregularity in the flow of an otherwise invisible medium. To observe these natural inhomogeneities in the gas rising from a burning flame, or those made in the air by something traveling through it at high speeds, scientists use a special sort of photography. Both types of Schlieren suggest poignant images for the nature of the poem itself, and together they grapple with its contradictory nature as both “set in stone” and yet unstable, hard to grasp, and “airy” (also in the sense in which they ask for breath’s passage through them). Although the poem draws from the mass of language, with which it shares an identity of substance (and whether igneous rock or gaseous material, in both cases it is a heated, flowing, turbulent substance, like language), it does not have the same density, texture, or composition as the bulk of the substance. Furthermore, it refracts light—natural light or the light of the eye or soul—in a unique way. But to see this special refraction pattern, it is necessary to use a special apparatus developed for this purpose. This hearkens the “attentiveness” to the poem that is required for it to exist, as well as the fragility of its apparition and the encounter it makes possible.

The tension in the perception of the Schliere is concentrated between the Never of the first stanza and the Forever of the last—between the Losing [das Verloren] and Preservation [daß bewahrt sei]. This can be characterized as a transition from the poem’s being a mere passing phenomenon, lost in monotonous reality, to its being a sign. But we will have to see how exactly it becomes a sign and what sort of sign it is, since it is certainly not as simple as a sign that represents a reality.

In the first instance, the streak is glimpsed half-way on the way to disappearance, or it is half-way vanished the very moment it is glimpsed, lost before it is seen or simultaneously with seeing it. With this fading of the streak—an irregularity that breaks the monotony of substance—, it would seem that everything is lost, and not just the streak: das Verloren refers not to a thing lost, but to Losing as such. For, in fact, the streak could be the figure for anything in the poem: a thought, an emotion, a chance happening, a prolonged trauma, a memory. The poem is not even able to say what presents itself before it is thrust into registering that what presents itself disappears. It passes over in silence whatever might have streaked; it is immediately in the element of loss and of an equivalence among what is lost. Accordingly, the first record of the streak signifies the return of the Never. This Never is “truly-spun” or “actuality-spun”: the Wirklichkeit it invokes is the threatening “nothing takes place but the place,” the recurrence of what never changes. This Never is also “really crazy,” if we hear in gesponnenes another meaning of the verb spinnen. It is Lostness glimpsed, near futility of vision. Here there is madness and silence, not yet silence preserved, but silence assimilated to non-being, to the impossibility of the poem and literature, and so of experience and life. In yet another sense, what has streaked is the unrepresentable as such, the unique and inimitable (presence, no-thingness, the “one-time” of the encounter, of its perception). This marks the tragic dimension of poetry: it is aligned against mimesis, imitation of nature, reproduction, etc., because what it wants to “imitate” is the inimitable; and it can only do that by hollowing out the images, distrusting the “poetic” even though it gets carried away in poems that try to approximate the one-time each-time unique.[16]

I believe that this first stanza speaks to the poem in the process of creation, or rather, in its moment of emergence, and to the improbability of it finding the language appropriate to the fleeting “streak” it wants to name. As Celan tells us, “The god of the poem is indisputably a deus absconditus” (87). A streak passes in the eye: this is a veritable event, it could even denote presence as event (behind which any manner of memories or happenings could lie), but it has no existence at all yet. It is as airy as an irregularity in air, hardly a puff, essentially indiscernible. It is only “there” in disappearance, in receding, which the poet sees “on the half-way.” Put otherwise, the streak only “is” in the eye of the one who intuits its absence, who sees its absence the very moment it is beheld, and perhaps only in that moment. For it to be retained, for it to have any chance of existing, it must be named. Yet, as Schliere illustrates, already by the moment of inscription there might be nothing left but an empty, generic name “streak” for whatever comes to the eye, to attention, to perception as such.

The absence of the poem’s source at its own source, its groundless ground, is what draws us toward the second one-line stanza, which testifies to the poet’s own involvement in this scene. There is a shift in orientation here which must be viewed as decisive for the poet’s activity: from the half-way beheld Lostness [auf halbem Weg], the first streak which results in the recurrence of the Never, we shift to half-traveled ways [Wege, halb], half-paths which are no less the longest for being half. It is along these half-paths that the poet will seek, if not to perceive, then at least to register the Schliere otherwise, and to retain in this movement a trace of that which is threatened with impossibility. To go the longest half-way is to tarry with the poem’s not-yet-existing, to bear the lost streak across the Never. The poet must enter the night of the poem, its stony silence, and attend with the greatest patience to its “empty form,” which Celan identifies in an incredible image as, “the poet’s heart waiting for the poem” (144). The poem’s language is “fateful” in the sense that, “one has to emulate one’s poem, if it is to remain true”; it is a whole-souled effort (118). Far more than a linguistic novelty statically representing something that happened in the past, a poem is a sketch for existence to be followed, a narrow route one must pass through with one’s life. They bear names “watered/ by every exile,” and which demand fidelity.[17] To name is an existence-long endeavor, with no escape routes, no hiding places—indeed, with never a sufficient name, with only inconsistencies to lean on.

This second line focuses our attention on some key motifs in Celan’s poetics, above all, his conviction that literature is a matter of traveling a path, of listening in a certain direction, and of discovering language as “form, direction, and breath.” What we learn from the Meridian materials is just how far such a conception is from the paradigm of language as information, communication, representation, and “programmatic explanation,” which he denounces. To this paradigm, poetry raises an objection, a counter-word [Gegenwort]. In his Bremen address, Celan confides that language was the one thing that, “remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses.” Though it gave him no words for what happened to him, and though it had to undergo, “the thousand darknesses of murderous speech,” it was language that came through somehow enriched. What must be emphasized is the purpose: “I tried… to write poems, in order to speak, to orient myself, to find out where I was, where I was going, to chart my reality. It meant movement, you see, something happening, being en route, an attempt to find a direction.”[18] It is entirely a matter of, “which sense is clockwise,” and how the poem can reach across time to claim the infinite. More than anything, poems are gifts that bear “destinies” [Schicksal mitführende Geschenke].[19] But it is no less true that this search for direction and destiny takes place in the dark, pursuing streaks through Lostness. Celan gives us ample reason to dwell upon the congenital “darkness” [Dunkelheit] of the poem, named in the last stanza, which is inseparable from its tendency to fall silent. My hope is to show to how poetry suspends the faculty of knowledge upon which argument is based, while at the same time “hammering-free” a truth that is for all:

—The poem is, “born dark; it comes, as the result of a radical individuation, into the world as a piece of language, thus, i.e., as far as language manages to be world, laden with world.” But it only gains world insofar as it becomes world-free; the wish for the world is simultaneously the wish to be free of it, or to open it to an unforeseen freedom for world. Here lies the subtle difference between an affirmation of the world as it is and what is in it—whatever the natural use of language could shed light on—and the u-topia or non-place in light of which poetry undertakes its research. Celan pairs together, without contradiction, the darkness of the poem and this utopia-seeking “light.” No image or metaphor in the poem reaches it; the poem is only invested with the hope of helping us go in its direction, for it wants to go in that direction itself. The poem is the shape the I’s yearning takes: language become the moving presence of a person (no longer an indifferent medium). But it remains an open question whether it will meet what it yearns for, if it manages to break into the world.

—The poem is “illegitimate” in the sense that nothing in the outside world legitimates it, not even the cult of poets and poetry. To say that nothing in the world legitimates the poem is to emphasize that its true destination is in the objectless presence of the here and now, the sudden one-time of encounter. “It presents itself without references”: it is neither message, nor information, nor sign system. Not only does the poem not come with proofs or keys for its interpretation, but even to speak of the poem in terms of its metaphors is to betray an unwillingness to carry the poem forward. For it is unbearably heavy [das Unübertragbare] and thus hate-worthy: “He who finds only the metaphor in the poem, apprehends nothing in the poem” (159). To whatever extent it is culturally attached, the poem is unfree inside, “sold to the unfree from birth” (162). One note even suggests that the poem’s “precise/small place” is “hostile to civilization /without origin—.” The smallness of its words—which Celan suggests is the essence of the heartfelt—contrasts with the largeness of the discourses on poetry, critical or otherwise, and with “lyrical potpourri.” He is hostile to art’s expansion, and approves of art only to the extent that one carries it through one’s “innermost narrows” [deine allereigenste Enge] and sets oneself free for the encounter. This implies a different conception of rhythm altogether: it is not a matter of word-formations, but the relation between voice and voicelessness, the exploration of sounding and silencing; it cannot be determined, only “released”; it gives the voice a direction that can stand-for-the-Other, “in a shrinking place, the poem” (151). What matters is to “see-in-One” [In-eins-Sehen] the I of the poem and the You given along with it. Celan’s hostility to art, aesthetics, lyricism, expression, “the beautiful,” and even “words,” bears upon this rejection of the poetry’s worldly “legitimacy,” of it being anything at all to talk about. Poetry eyes are “world-blind, in the fissure of dying,” in the sense that they disobjectify everything, seeking only a presence and a place freed of its objectified condition. [20] The only ‘argument’ for the poem is that, in its small place, the I set free into that strangeness is congruent or consonant with the greater strangeness of the wholly-other You to whom it speaks.

—The poem is dark because it does not know the morrow towards which it moves. To the extent that the poem “borders” the morrow, it possesses darkness. This darkness, moreover, should not be assumed to be the darkness before dawn, and the poet never triumphantly overcomes it. The ways traveled remain “half,” for they seek completion only in that addressable You toward which they head. Celan can only designate this open space as “the strange” [das Fremde], “very far out” [weit draußen]. At the same time, he makes very clear that, “the direction in which the route to the ‘unknown’ unrolls, helps to constitute this unknown” (94). The longest half-ways become in Schliere “soulpursued” or “soul-betread” threads and “glasstraces”: the path through reality meets the poet’s attempt to set themselves free. But although pursued forward, they roll “back” to You, whose sighting of them gives them their true chance. This is a “turning back,” a communion with the other as with the self, which allows for a home-coming in the strange (199). Not a return to the familiar, but the self finding itself in the Other, where all falls silent before the majesty of what has been named: the absurd mortal infinitude of humankind, ever on the edge of nothingness. In yet another sense, this is the gift of the poem itself, as if the You had rolled it back in time to the poet from its future. Yet nothing guarantees that, in a future time, you will see into the poem and let it vibrate with your time. Thus the fear that both, “the causa materialis and the causa formalis could no longer be present in an altered genotype”—that poetry might one day be bred out of us. Going forward in time, reaching the morrow, is never certain. It demands our fidelity to the poem, to carrying it in “your” name.

—The poem also bears a darkness with regard to its composition, since it is not created at the will of its creator, but begins in the mystery of an encounter. Firstly, this means that it is forced into tracks, into sound and syntactical formations which lead it out of the realm of “actuality.” For actuality only co-determines its necessity; the other co-determinate is the future which it lacks, the addressable You it seeks to speak-with, the “reality” at stake in the poem and which is announced in silence. Between the found and the discovered, the poem remains “discoverable,” each time with prescriptions specific to it insofar as each poem is radically individual, untransferrable and present. There even exists a language-taboo specific to the poem. It knows the argumentum e silentio (87). All this, Celan suggests, is known by “insight” and not “logically determined courses.” What the poem leaves unspoken is as important as what it speaks; the poet listens for it in the direction of this unspoken, held in an ellipsis that is not just a trope or a style. Such is why the poem is an “endless vigil” before the unknown, an attempt to open the evanescent to the “the most everlasting,” “the openness of the not-yet-existing,” or again, to let the finite show itself compatible with the infinite, through the infinite naming power of language. But what it “presents” is neither apparent nor real; it is the inconspicuous, the not-appearing, and it only draws near to the eye open to it, the eye close-by. This coming-close-to-see, which is the same labor for author and reader, is not a seeing through, nor even perhaps a “reading,” but a more breath-suspending looking at. The poem has a thickness which Celan thinks of in geological terms (it is a stone in the air, standing “For-nothing-and-no-one… /Unrecognized /for you/ alone”). Standing opposite us like the inorganic, it is, “an erratic language-block, it faces you with silence.” At the same time, it is a wordscape, something porous and subject to erosions. Thus, it can be occupied, inhabited, traveled through. As much as this is an encounter between I and You, it is an encounter between estranged gaze and eternal stone.

—The poem is dark because, “like man, [it] does not have sufficient ground.” At the same time, the poem is grounded in itself and shows us its grounds, yet in discontinuity and insufficiency. Put otherwise, its grounds are the questioning of its grounds, a darkness that cannot be expunged. It confronts us with a question which, as the Meridian speech puts it, “’remains open’ and ‘does not come to an end’, which points into openness and emptiness and freedom.” The poem remains the question of its where and whither [Woher und Wohin]; and in that it seeks a non-place that is neither equal nor comparable to any given place, its path remains a path into darkness. To paraphrase another fragment which puts the matter in its most aporetic form: perhaps if we leave the poem its darkness it will finally shed that excessive brightness which provides, “shade in which man can reflect on his humanity.” Not the subject matter of the poem, but the poem in its very being is “a school of true humanity: it teaches to understand the other as other, i.e., in its otherness” (130). And, as Celan instructs us, “man as information… can be confronted only by man as silence” (161).

—The poem’s darkness is the darkness of death (89). This does not mean that the poem is opposed to life, just that it speaks to life’s urge to return to the inorganic. It brings these opposites together without conflating them. Though it is crossed out in his notes, Celan flirts with the idea that each poem is epitaph: a sign that commemorates one life but exists in order to speak towards another life. First and accidental things are spoken of, and morphed into, last things, rendering the poem itself “last-thingly” [letztdinglich]. In an important equivocation, to stand in the light of last-thing-ness is to stand in the light of u-topia (we see here again how the event emerges from the fatal). The poem’s darkness, in this sense, is but the shadow cast by this light. The conversation of things becomes possible by simultaneously being-with-them-at-the-ends [Mit-ihnen-Zuletztsein] or their end-being-going [Letztsein-Gehens] (146), or again, the assumption of a final silence that nonetheless, through the poem’s manner of reaching through time, becomes a silence for others and thus a silence that lets them speak.

—The poem is also dark because it, “comes into being with something that remains invisible to us: through intercourse with language” (105). It is undertaken both despite and with all speakers, “laid bare to the thinking of anyone” (which Celan opposes to those with a “program”). Celan quotes Valery who writes that, “The poem is language à l’etat naissant,” in statu nascendi and in the process of liberation. Its darkness is its infancy. For this meeting with language remains a meeting with the invisible. As Badiou writes, “language, as an infinite power devoted to presence, is precisely the unnameable of poetry”; and it would be Evil to ever force the name of this power absolutely, which is why for Celan there can be no “absolute poem” even if each poem contains this “incredible demand” to name or invoke the place of this meeting. Poetry becomes a passionate conversation with language due to its ethic of inadequation between the presence it wishes to preserve, or the encounter it wishes to make possible, and the finite words it must use to do so, the “said” which it knows can never stand on its own. Yet another reason why poetry is not “word art” but rather “a listening and obeying [ein Horchen und Gehorchen],” where the strictest measure is the highest freedom (147, 155).

—The poem is dark for one last all-important reason: it only opens to the one who is ready for the encounter with the strange. Perhaps expectedly, Celan rejects the superficial accusation that his or a poet like Mandelstam’s poems are “hermetic,” and he often returns to Pascal’s line, “Ne nous reprochez pas le manque de clarté puisque nous en faisons profession!” It is necessary that the poem be understood in its darkness if it is going to let the “incommensurable of the other” speak too. But it is also necessary that the other—you—let the incommensurable speak too—the wholly other. For poems are, “wide open for the eye that tries to understand them in the totality of their temporal depth” (141). Only via this strangeness does the poem become occupiable by the other, and not in the way that the reader occupies the same space and time as the author, but in the way that the poem lets the time of the other speak. “For in the poem each thing enters into an event [Geschehen], an event that is determined by the one who steps toward it” (144). The darkness of the poem is essential to its desire to be subtracted from any designable situation, to render itself permeable to all situations in the sense that, in each situation, it will prove itself in excess. Celan speaks of the “cathexability” of the poem, its occupiability [Besetzbarkeit], meaning that the poem can become “topical” for the You to whom it is addressed, even though it in itself is not topical. Paradoxically, its cathexability is at its most extreme right where there is no fixed relation between I and You: where the other is left to its freedom-for-world and for-language. As Levinas writes, the poem is, “a sign made to the other, a handshake, a speaking without speech,” that lets the other’s time participate in the conversation: a Saying that given beyond Signification as For-the-other.[21] Through the poem, the I gives itself over to strangeness, “as consonant [Mitlaut] into another time.”

In sum, the poem is the attempt by the poet to give the I completely over to this consonance without remainder, a total usurpation of the reflective cogito for the sake of thinking the poem’s non-place (“Where I forgot myself in you /you became thought”). The question haunting Celan’s conception of the poetic act is how this self-estrangement is held together with the imperative that the poet never forget that he speaks “from the angle of inclination of his own existence.” This apparent contradiction is allayed immediately if we take into serious consideration the darkness of the poem as a silent invocation of the unknown. Before it is anything else, the poem is an invocation of a shared destiny in time. Through this invocation, the I in conversation with the other awakens, drawn away from whatever it is and toward its being-for-the-encounter. The autobiographical element is submitted to the trial of this experience and transformed by it. For the poem attests only to the “here and now” of mankind, to its absurd presence as both finite mortality and open to infinity: “only with the trace of the mortal you follow the track of the everlasting.” The poem remains “mindful” of its dates (which streak by into Lostness…); it is language become presence, one person’s “language-become-shape.” But it also re-destines its creator on its way, effacing its date in light of a coming date; the poem sets out on a path all its own, to speak its own individual cause: “to speak in the cause of… a wholly Other.” We who write and read it are swept up by the winds of this wholly Other cause which the poem—going on apart from us both—transmits to anyone and all, generically.

By enumerating all the poem’s darknesses, I have tried to show the many aspects involved in Celan’s ultimate formula for the poem, which he provides toward the end of the Meridian speech: “the poem stands fast at the edge of itself; it calls and brings itself, in order to be able to exist, ceaselessly back from its already-no-longer [Schon-nicht-mehr] into its always-still [Immer-noch]” (8). It should now be clearer how to read the second half of Schliere, at least if we continue to entertain the hypothesis that it portrays a “scene” of poetry, with its central tension between Never and Forever, Lostness and Preservation. To bring the poem back from its no-longer requires so many “soulpursued threads,” which carries an important ambiguity: it could be that souls are being pursued, that the threads are being pursued by the souls, that souls are tread upon, or that “soulpursuit” is its own sort of activity, which would be consistent with the poet’s yearning to bring voice to language. At the same time, it is a glasstrace; this speaks to their fragility, to their being both transparent as glass and yet still “missing” qua trace. Until, that is, they roll backwards—like a tear rolled back into the eye—and now [nun] are seen by that which will bring them toward preservation. You overcome impossibility and light up the I of the poem, as another poem attests: “Your face shies quietly, /when all at once /lamplike it lights up/ inside me, at that place/ where one most painfully says Never.”

The third stanza once again invokes the gesture of seeing, but now it is no longer the plural glimpses [Blicken] which only half-see Lostness. Instead, there is a singular sighting: the eyes’-You [Augen-Du] upon the constant star above “you” [dir], which veils the threads/traces over white (auf dem steten Stern contrasting with the earlier auf halbem Weg). The grammar here tells us it is the most difficult moment of this scene to clarify. These instances of “you” are also highly ambiguous. Two possibilities are worth examining: it could be the poem referring to itself, or it could refer directly to the writer/reader. In the first case, the eyes of the You would stand always above the poem, returning it to white, blank silence. This is not, however, the total silencing of the poem; it lets it be occupied and speak otherwise. Once occupied, it points beyond itself toward the unoccupiable place (u-topia). The poem calls to the You and the You graces the poem, granting it existence. In the second case, a wholly-Other—an Other other to us both—would hang above us like a constant star, guiding both our half-ways, threads and traces, while also lightly hiding us in white. Perhaps we could say this u-topic light floods the memory-wounds, the dark markings on the page, like the world-washing light mentioned in the final poem of Breathturn: “Light was. Salvation.” No name names it, for it is a name above all names, and yet our consonance with it, “knot[s] us under the /in-song-to-be-stiffened /lighttent” [knotet uns unters /steifzusingende /Hellzelt].[22] At the same time, this veiling-over could be seen as “quieting” or elevating of the half-ways. Perhaps it is how soulpursued threads become threadsuns (Fadensonnen, title of a later collection). As always in Celan’s work, white, like the snow which lends it a material image, is a symbol of mourning, but also of consolation and rest. It honors by covering, concealing tracks while presenting itself ready for new ones. This star could be compared to images in other poems too, like “the Bright-Once-More which no one /needs to weep or to name” [das Abermals-Helle, das niemand /zu weinen braucht noch zu nennen], or later, “your over-starry Always” [dein über/ sterniges/ Immer].[23] Although this Once-More, this Always-Still of the poem escapes both our gazes, it is nonetheless seated in eyes that see. The Meridian speech formalizes this by conceiving of a meeting between the wholly-Other and an other not far removed, that is near. A poem in Threadsuns speaks of two de-scarred bodies, two deathleafs, two de-realized faces that are “Pulled onto land by /the whitest root /of the whitest tree.” Another poem announces the star’s light thus:

Groß kam eine Sonne geschwommen, hell
standen ihr Seele und Seele entgegen, klar,
gebieterisch schweigen sie ihr
ihre Bahn vor.

Great a sun came drifting, bright
a soul and a soul confronted it, clear,
masterfully their silence mapped out
an orbit for it.[24]

We could find other poems that testify to how two finite creatures, by engaging the infinite of language under this constant star of the present encounter qua poetry, “where my world summoned/ yours, forever,” find themselves liberated into a free space—like one which speaks of “urncreatures” engaged in “conversations /from smoke mouth to smoke mouth,” who eat, “a chunk of unburied poetry” and let “the clinker game against death begin.”[25] Celan’s images often seek such a portrayal: two disoriented existences mysteriously encounter each other, and by supplementing it once more with a name (for poetry never rests), they are “furthered” to a future encounter’s chance, blooming in No-one’s-Rose. And although Schliere speaks of the star in the singular, poems from a later period affirm, “There are two suns, you hear,” and conjure the image of a, “co-sun, twixt/ two brightshots/ abyss” [Mitsonne, zwischen/ zwei Hellschüssen/ Abgrund]. What matters is that whoever sees the streak also “set it in stone” (one poem reads, “Your course and mine was the boulder’s flight. Heart and heart…”).[26] However we interpret this star and the whiteness it casts, it is enough to know [weiß] that the poem names its possibility, that it shines above “you,” and that our silences make a road for it. It makes possible the preservation of a sign in the here and now of our presence in this light—even if it signals that the writing of such a sign is exposed to an infinite demand to carry it and to name the event-encounter once again: to go the path of poetry.

The poem seeks the infinite through its finite travel, along its unending route. It seeks the mark of the everlasting through the traces of the momentary, which the poem elevates into last things and which ask to be carried to the end (“Think of it: /this came towards me, /name-awake, hand-awake /for ever, /from the Unburiable.”). Finally, we arrive at the potential safekeeping, the second instance of the streak in the eye, which is perhaps the same instance only perceived in a different light—in light of You. This sign is characterized in three ways. First, it is “carried through darkness,” as we have discussed: now, we see it lit up by the star that, from its inception, beckoned it. Second, the sign is animated, brought to life, or even resuscitated by [belebt von] the sand (or ice?) of a strange Time. This is the erratic hope of the poem, that it be present once more in light of u-topia, enlivened by the eyes that look upon it now. But the strange time that brings it back to life is for an even stranger eternity. Once again, two strangenesses meet: the strangeness of the time in which you encounter the sign, see the streak, and reckon it not lost in the Never; and the stranger Forever for which this sign “is,” the always-still or infinity of the poem as name of an encounter that wants our faith. Third, the sign is “tuned” like a silently vibrating consonant [stumm vibrierender Mitlaut]. This is how the poem carries forward the chance it gives to You. The streak no longer assents to the tragic Never, but is perceived as the potential guarding of a trace of the “eternal,” yet a mortal eternity composed of sudden passages and meetings which halt time as we know it: literature as breath-turn. The Mitlaut named here is more than an element of speech; it is the sounding-with-the-Other that the poem aspires to be. In a profound sense, the distance that the I must travel, the estrangement it must undergo to give itself over to language’s becoming-voice, is dedicated to the poet’s transformation into a Mitlaut for the other—that the poet might enter into this desperate conversation in search of a free place. Across the abysses of silence, madness, and death, two creatures reach and fall together, saying in the passages, “We were. We are. We are one flesh with the night.”[27] In the now-wordless time as caesura, what is named in the poem, “tenses… into an exciting presence” (99).

Let me close with a few comments phrased in the manner of conclusions, but with the intention of situating what can be learned from Celan’s poetry in a broader perspective.

Literature is the transformation of the silence behind phrases, their unspoken, into phrases that honor the silence that remains in them. Never adding up to be done away with, silence is a language-constant spoken in a language of-the-last-instance, a language superposed with its falling-silent. Literature’s longevity, its lasting value for humanity, its immortality, is rooted in the sense it has for the last instance. Its speech is held on the edge of itself, between its mutely-vibrating “forever” and its faint “no-more.” Embracing final silence: that would be to see the world, perhaps all worlds, even those current and future, sub specie aeternitatis, and all words and logics as a priori consumed in silence. Humans rarely give thought to final silence, no more than they do to death, but literature introduces it into speaking’s essence. If there is a poetic imperative, perhaps it is to allow speech to issue from silence, to wield words in its defense against whatever would deny or cover it up. The thinking arts of literature, poetry and philosophy do not just draw from reasoning and imagination, but equally or more from a passive exposure to silence, the space for which they also create, in honor of you who will shed light upon them and think further. Without being altered or determined by these outflowings, silence co-generates epiphany, surprise and inspiration, all things associated with the mind as listening and receptivity, instead of as task-masker, memorizer and arguer. Literature, at its most emergent point, is patience “enlanguaged.” Works are written in a language of awaiting that is constructed for the purpose of receiving hearing’s potential and which will grow as it hears more until silence fills and seals it—the same moment the work is able to say what it is, to convey the event it detains, and to reveal the fullness of listening to itself, with silence at every interval. Language of awaiting, language of hope, it prays-without-prayer, praying to no one: may the word stand consonant for the encounter it names, with the void alone in between:

KOMM, leg die Welt aus mit dir,
komm, laß mich euch zuschütten mit
allem Meinen,

Eins mit dir bin ich,
uns zu erbeuten,

auch jetzt.

COME, lay out the world with yourself,
come, let me fill you all up with
all that’s mine,

One with you I am,
to capture us,

even now.


[1] Alain Badiou, Theoretical Writings, p. 240.

[2] Ibid., p. 238.

[3] Ibid., p. 234-5.

[4] Maurice Blanchot, “Literature and the Right to Death,” trans. Lydia Davis. Reprinted in The Work of Fire, trans. Anne Smock, California, Stanford University Press, 1995, p. 309.

[5] Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Non-Fictions, ed. Eliot Weinberger, New York, Viking Penguin, p. 55.

[6] « Écrire, c’est descendre dans la fosse du souffleur pour apprendre à écouter la langue respirer là où elle se tait, entre les mots, autour des mots, parfois au cœur des mots. » Sylvie Germain, Magnus, Paris, Gallimard, 2005, p. 14.

[7] Paul Celan, The Meridian: Final Version—Drafts—Materials, trans. Pierre Joris, eds. Bernhard Böschenstein and Heino Schmull, California, Stanford University Press, 2011, p. 8. Further quotations from this edition have been put in parenthesis in the text.

[8] This was Georges Bataille’s problem: how to reintroduce, “the sovereign silence which interrupts articulated language,” a silence which is non-servile, insubordinate, and free; which betrays both discourse and nondiscourse; which tolerates no relations and keeps itself outside sense and syntax. This problem can be treated dialectically (silence subjugates language, progressively overtaking it; but then silence would lose its free character and would progressively accrue a meaning and a telos) or non-dialectically (silence without interiority, accumulation, or recognition, an each-time-unforeseeable interruption of self, discourse, and the established world, at the limit of a final silence; but now we tend toward a renunciation of discourse altogether, where the imperative to write presents itself as madness, a “futile rumination”; this is thought buried alive, an expenditure without reserve). I do not believe this was Paul Celan’s problem at all. He was not concerned with bringing sovereign silence to disrupt the space of philosophical reason, to force the latter toward the useless negativity of the former. There is, in effect, a difference between an ultimate silence which consumes language in nothingness and the falling-silent of the poem which lifts language into a medium of encounter and address which says, “Speak you too, /speak as the last, /have your say.”

[9] Blanchot, The Work of Fire, p. 34.

[10] Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe, Poetry as Experience, trans. Andrea Tarnowski, California, Stanford University Press, 1998, p. 56.

[11] Ibid., p. 67.

[12] Ibid., p. 56.

[13] Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, trans. Ann Smock, Lincoln and London, University of Nebraska Press, 1995, p. 12-13.

[14] Ibid., p. 59.

[15] Ibid., p. 51.

[16] Lacoue-Labarthe, Poetry as Experience, p. 68-69.

[17] Paul Celan, Poems of Paul Celan, trans. Michael Hamburger, New York, Persea Books, 2002, p. 187.

[18] Paul Celan, Collected Prose, trans. Rosemary Waldrop, New York, The Sheep Meadow Press, 1986, p. 34.

[19] Ibid., p. 26.

[20] Celan, Poems of Paul Celan., p. 97.

[21] Emmanuel Levinas, “Being and the Other,” trans. Stephen Melville, Chicago Review, Vol. 29, No. 3, Anthology of Contemporary Literature in German, Winter, 1978, p. 18.

[22] Paul Celan, Threadsuns, trans. Pierre Joris, California, Sun & Moon Press, p. 256-7.

[23] Paul Celan, Breathturn into Timestead, trans. Pierre Joris, New York, Farrar, Sraus, and Giroux, eBook edition, 2014.

[24] Celan, “With all my thoughts,” Poems of Paul Celan, p. 144-5.

[25] Celan, “Landscape,” Poems of Paul Celan, p. 225.

[26] Celan, “What Occurred?”, Poems of Paul Celan, p. 183.

[27] Celan, “Snow-bed, Poems of Paul Celan, p. 97.

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