Constellation without Stars

Poetry as Cesura − The Poetological and Historical Dimensions of a Figure of Speech in the Works of Martin Heidegger and Paul Celan

(Last modified March 2002)

The starting point for this project was the rather irritating fact that Paul Celan - whose writing as a whole is marked by the experience of the Holocaust - was preoccupied throughout his life with the work of Martin Heidegger, despite the fact that Celan was aware of Heidegger's activities in support of National Socialism. This is a unique phenomenon in the biography of Celan, a German-speaking Jewish writer, and even more astonishing if one considers that the great distance between the Jewish poet from the Bucovina region and the philosopher from Freiburg was not only marked by Heidegger's involvement in National Socialism and his silence with respect to the Holocaust. Heidegger's approach to poetry would also appear, at first glance, to be of little use in understanding Celan's poetry. For in the eyes of most scholars, Heidegger's interpretations of Hölderlin, begun in 1934 after he resigned as the president of the University of Freiburg, must be seen as quite simply pre-modern. According to Heidegger's interpretations, the aim of Hölderin's poetics was to revive an religion of art based on the models of classic antiquity and thus restore a meaningful center to modern society, which had lost its point of reference. With such a concept, Heidegger would indeed disregard essential aspects of modern aesthetics, in particular, the acknowledgement within modern poetics that any claim to validity can be partial at best and can only reveal itself in confrontations with rival systems of meaning. Furthermore, this religion of art program must be questioned with respect to its hidden political implications. For the utilization of art as a key element in the production of socially binding meaning not only revives classic art models, it also provides links to National Socialist concepts of a ethnic myth, a Volksmythos. Thus, Heidegger's new preoccupation with the arts after 1934 might reflect not only a renunciation of practical politics, but perhaps also a continuation of his former politics under the label of aesthetics.

The study proceeds from this double tension in the spheres of poetry and history to investigate the changing interplay of community, language and history in Heidegger's philosophical writings and Celan's critical confrontation with these concepts. The common starting point is the analysis of the term cesura in the works of Hölderlin. This concept was developed by Hölderlin around 1800 in his theory of the tragedy and incorporates a poetological element of interruption and syncopation as well as a historical element, the revolutionary turning point. Whereas interruption, as an element of language, can be found in both Heidegger's poetics of the in-between [Zwischen] and in Celan's concept of poetry as a breath-turn, [Atemwende], the historical aspect of this figure marks the gulf between Heidegger's and Celan's respective concepts of language, history, and community. Heidegger regarded Hölderlin's works as a possible answer to the »unpropitious times« of modernity, with the promise a new historical opening. For Celan, with his experience of the Shoah as a decisive cesura, the question of finding meaning has changed fundamentally. Whereas in Heidegger's poetics reference to the past, in the form of »remembering poetry« [andenkendendes Dichten], was capable of evoking an element of the future in the present, for Celan the very question of memory becomes a problem. For how can one remember an event which steadfastly resists being integrated into meaningful interpretative schemes and thus refuses to fulfill the prerequisite for historical processes which determine identity? And given the impossibility of integration, how can one nonetheless guarantee that the dead are not forgotten and represented in one's writing? Celan answers these two questions about the feasibility of remembering and representating with his poetics of the breath-turn. Here, the poetic concept of the cesura, as a brief interruption of speech, with its origins in the work of Hölderlin and Heidegger, is revived and developed. The interruption of narration enables the poet to refer to the past, without, however, ascribing meaning to past events in the course of speech. The aim of Heidegger's concept of remembering poetry is a language capable of shaking the foundations of instrumental reason; poetic language is seen as a means of opening up a new experience of time, which will allow people to become historical beings. Celan, in contrast, strives for »mindful poetry« [eingedenkendes Dichten] which takes place within the poem but is not itself expressed by language. In spite of the fundamental differences, by using this figure, Celan takes up Heidegger's interlinking of language and historicity. Rather than applying it to the question of opening in the future, however, Celan focuses on the possibilities of using language to represent memories of a event which cannot be fixed and which resists all attempts to ascribe meaning.