Paul Celan’s “Aspen Tree” in the Twenty-first Century, Karin Doerr April 2018.docx

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  1 Dr. Karin Doerr Concordia University, Montreal, Canada April 2018 Paul Celan’s “Aspen Tree”  in the Twenty-first Century “A poem is not timeless”  Celan 1   “Poetry … is the human voice , And are we not of interest to each other? ” “Loss is not felt in the absence of love.”   Elizabeth Alexander 2   Abstract  After decades of extensive Holocaust research and thousands of accounts, it is perhaps advantageous to concentrate on just one individual who was impacted by German National Socialist history. This personalized approach brings the genocide into sharper focus, particularly for the young generation of Germans who have been turning away from their country’s dark past.  They feel it is unduly haunting them after all these decades and affecting their identity as Germans. Paul Celan’s unresolved anguish about his mother ’s coldblooded murder, sustained fear for his own life, then finally the flight into exile, brought him lasting nightmares, anguish, and memories of horror. With his extraordinary poetic gift, he used the German language to convey how, post-trauma and post-catastrophe, he endured surviving the Holocaust. I wish to offer re- entry to Celan’s early poem “Aspen Tree” by means of a close focus on his particular use of the German language and idiom, thatidiom that (for the most part) is significant for German speakers. Notably, i t is reflected also in the poet’s references to botany. All this, together with his choice of words and grammar, signal his main theme, the  judeocide . This poem raises familiar questions, such as what does it mean for an individual to lose a loved one, a family, a home, a country? In reference to the difficulty of articulating the substance of genocide, “Aspen Tree” alludes to these questions of personal loss as it circles the cruelest truth: the perpetrators of the Holocaust intended to eliminate all those whom they deemed unworthy of life. Article  From the distance and perspective of the twenty-first century, the post-Holocaust poetry of Paul Celan offers insights into the suffering of one person as a consequence of genocide. This is particularly pertinent for young Germans who still need to acquire in-depth knowledge of their country’s dark past. Many have benefited from Holocaust education to the point that they wish to be freed from its continuing embrace. Theirs is often a non-verbalized resentment rooted in feeling  2 stigmatized as young Germans. Many prefer to bury Germany’s  crimes safely in the dustbin of history while resenting a world which continues to define their country precisely by them. With the words of one poet’s voice, I wish to bring the genocide into sharper focus and to “turn the numbers back into people.” 3  Th e hope is that by reading Celan’s poem “Aspen Tree , ”  young people will find the life story of one survivor evocative and affecting. Through him the reader may ask what it means to lose one’s mother  suddenly, to lose an entire family, and to be deracinated from a once sheltering home and country. A mother’s death , whatever the cause — be it accident, sickness or old age — is difficult to bear at all times. In genocide, however, the intent of the enemy to kill the beloved (mother) for the “crime” of existence causes deep despair as well as rage. Deprived of the comfort of the social rituals of mourning, the bereft is left in a state of helplessness. And since the community was destroyed as well, there was no recourse to the denial of solace. The lingering effect was increased anguish and enduring traumatic memories. Moreover, in the perilous world of the Holocaust, the survivor had a justifiable fear of persecution and threat to his own life. For the fortunate few, survival signaled a dangerous flight into exile. Paul Celan suffered all these traumas and, adrift in a foreign land after the war, used his extraordinary poetic gift to convey to us what it means to survive these calamities. Or did he? It is with “Aspen Tree”  that I hope to answer some of the pertinent questions raised above. He wrote it in 1944 with feelings and scars of the ordeal still fresh in his consciousness. Although Theodor Adorno maintains, “Celan’s poems wish to express an acute horror by remaining silen t, ” 4  we can, with close examination, locate the historical and personal actuality behind the screen of metaphor. In order to grasp the larger theme that emerges from his deeply private verse, the reader must bring to it the knowledge of the Holocaust. Young Germans have acquired that knowledge but they  3 must also inquire about the specificity of the poet’s life, since "reality is not simply there; it must be searched for and won." 5  Here, they need to know that Celan was born Paul Antschel in 1920 as the only child of German-speaking Jews from Czernowitz, in Northern Bukovina, then part of Romania and now the Ukraine. This most eastern place of the Habsburg monarchy contained a now vanished German-Jewish culture that is palpable today only in its literature and poetry .  While the young Celan was briefly absent from home in 1942, the Germans deported and then murdered his parents. After the war and exiled in Paris, he lived in the perpetual shadow of this personal loss and suffered pain to the point of paranoia until his suicide in 1970. His French-sounding name “ Celan ”  reflects his then new country and is the anagram of his Jewish birth name in Romanian, Ançel. Celan ’s  actual name, Antschel, disappeared with the transport that carried his parents to their death and with it, the life he had known. In a similar gesture, the German-Jew, Hanns Chaim Mayer, writer and Holocaust survivor, chose the French name Jean Améry to efface his German srcin. Conventional literary criticism tends to emphasize the aesthetic and linguistic dimensions of Celan’ s poetry, which, if widely analyzed and interpreted, sometimes appears to have been at the expense of the poet’s wounded voice. 6  By contrast, some German artists and writers have tried to engage seriously with his verse as a means to assume the weight of responsibility for the historical past. For example, in “Death Fugue" ( Todesfuge ), the renowned painter Anselm Kiefer has created more than thirty works that refer in their titles, inscriptions, and depictions to Celan’s principal poetic testament to the  judeocide . From this work, Kiefer has inscribed “Your golden hair Margareta/ Your ashen hair Shulamith” (“ Dein goldenes Haar Margarete/ dein aschenes Haar Shulamit  ”)  on these particular paintings as cryptic messages to those who try to decipher them.  4 This poem, having been integrated into the German school curriculum and featured on commemorative occasions, may have lost its intended impact when it first addressed the perpetrator nation. Kiefer seems to lift it out of its ritualized state with a visual juxtaposition of two iconic women, Margarete and Shulamith. These names carry a commanding presence in German and Jewish tradition respectively. The artist symbolizes the "golden hair" of Margarete, the heroine in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s (1749-1832)  Faust  , with the synecdoche of dry yellow sheaves of wheat. While wheat is sustenance, straw is dead texture and may here stand for the hollow German cliché of Nordic perfection. By contrast, Shulamite, the “maiden” from the Bible’s   “Song of Songs,” is depicted as a figure with dark hair in a desolate surrounding. These images on Kiefer ’s canvases  embody the contrasting realities of German life and Jewish death during the Holocaust, which the artist hopes we will recognize. This counteracts the widely-held German interpretation of Celan’s   “Death Fugue" as a symbiosis of German and Jew and/or as a sign towards reconciliation. This is despite the fact that Celan ’s verse mimics how Germans once mocked the plight of the suffering Jews, of whom he was once one, with the words, he whistles his Jews out has them dig a grave in the ground he orders us start up the dance music now  er pfeift seine Juden hervor läßt schaufeln ein Grab in der Erde er befiehlt uns spielt auf nun zum Tanz 7   This underscores the poet’s much broader statement that “Death was a master of Germany”  (for millions of Jews). While Celan deals with the larger view of the Holocaust in “Death Fugue ," in “Aspen Tree, ”  the focus is on one life lost in the genocide and what this entails for the person left living with this mental burden. In this poem, Celan relies primarily on German idiom, language, and structure. Yet German Studies ’  use of didactic methods tends to turn this individual life event and what it entails in German  5 collective memory, into the general, i.e. the loss of a mother. Although the universal is always present when we deal with matters of life and death, my argument centers on the genocidal aspect of the death of Celan’s beloved mother who  was shot by the Germans who deemed her unfit to work. 8  I shall show how th e poet’ s use of language and form in this early poem encapsulates the essence of his anguish and immense, helpless frustration at what Germans had done. As the sole surviving family member, guilt about his escape from death formed part of his agony. But first, when dealing with Celan’s  poetry, we must consider his famed acceptance speech, “Meridian , ” upon receiving the prestigious Georg Büchner Prize in Germany, in 1960. 9  It is filled with wordplays, allusions, historical reminders, references to German literature — all intended to gesture toward the Holocaust or, to “that which happened,” as  he preferred to call it cryptically. An informed audience does not fail to recognize this pervasive subject in his speech, which is also the hallmark of his poetry even if it was masked by encoded images and recollections. Celan as Holocaust survivor, spoke foremost to Germans in the guise of sceptical historian, exile, and Jew. Once deciphered, his poetic utterances are informed by post-catastrophe thought and personal trauma. The reason for his emphatic use of the German language is not only because it is “infused with the experience, the consciousness of the Holocaust” 10  but also because he insisted on German as his mother tongue. This is unlike Eli Wiesel, Auschwitz survivor from the same area, who “wrote in French as a gesture against the language of the perpetrator .” 11  Celan, i n his “Meridian” speech, said famously , “It, language, remained unlost, yes, in spite of everything. But it had to pass through … the thousand darknesses of death-bringing sp eech.” 12  In the words of scholar Barbara Galli, “Celan had faced the evil itself and stretched the German language … into the speech of the murdered and of the survivors.” 13  Norman Ravvin adds that Celan’ s “ poetry raises the major question of postwar German
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