Nothing to Talk About

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“Gilles Deleuze
53 rue de Colombier
Lyon 7ème

Dear Francois [Châtelet],

Thanks for your letter. You know that I would be happy to write for La Quinzaine, if the chance arose. Unfortunately, I can’t for Painter*. I am like you, I find the book atrocious and meaningless, and poor in its principle. And I do not want to do an article “against” something or “savaging” it (here again, I think I am like you, since as far as I know you have never done an article solely to say something was bad). To be able to write, you have to have some small amount of esteem. Painter was vaguely detective, vaguely ethnographer, vaguely erudite American shit . . . there is nothing to talk about. I will be in Paris at the end of the month and would be happy to see you if you have time.

Friendship and wishes,

Gilles”

*A reference to Painter’s Marcel Proust: A Biography, a nasty, gossipy, psychoanalytical-type biography, all that I loathe in biographies, as compared to the magnificent Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew by John Felstiner, or David Gilmour’s The Last Lepoard, a biography of Lampedusa. For the same reasons as Deleuze, I think I only wrote one post here about a book I found vaguely bad, to which the author, also a vaguely erudite American shit wrote to correct some points. I don’t remember the author or book and think I deleted the post.

Flashes of An Eye (Paul Celan)

Gisèle Celan-Lestrange, 1975

Ian Fairley translates Paul Celan’s Augenblicke as follows:

Instants whose eyewink
no brightness sleeps.
Increate, in every place,
gather yourself,
stay.

Whereas Pierre Joris:

Eye-glances, whose winks,
no brightness sleeps.
Undebecome, everywhere,
gather yourself,
stand.

Reading this the first few times, I thought increate a neologism, but the OED tells me it means “not created, uncreated: said of divine beings or attributes”, and quotes Milton’s Bright effluence of bright essence increate (Paradise Lost). In the original the word is unentworden. Where Fairley makes a recondite choice, Joris goes for undebecome, a neologism, presumably a literal translation of the German. In her book on Celan, Beckett and Eliot, Shira Wolosky opts for Un-dis-becoming. Fairley’s choice of ‘increate’ seems an elegant choice, especially with its Miltonian reference to uncreated Beings.

Esther Cameron, a poet who studied and was influenced by Celan: “I have seen a postcard, written in the last months of [Celan’s] life, whose message consisted of one word: ‘Standing’.”

As a poem I think I prefer Fairley’s translation (with some hesitation around eyewink), though I cannot attest to how much of Celan remains. It doesn’t seem that Michael Hamburger or David Young translated this poem. Celan’s often abstruse poems, like Montale’s, raise the question as to how much a translator needs to understand a poem to be able to retain the poet’s intention. I try to read as many translations as I am able to get a sense of what Celan intended.

Celan’s work comes unannotated, without footnotes, so reading his prose and letters is important to get something from the poems. He cared immensely about etymology and forces an attentive reader to do the same, or perhaps attracts readers with such tendencies. It is possible to spend hours pursuing a phrase or a single word, which is part of the pleasure of the encounter with this poetry.

In his Meridian speech, Celan said, “the poem holds on at the edge of itself; so as to exist, it ceaselessly calls and hauls itself from its Now-no-more back into its Ever-yet”. Celan’s frustration with language pushes him out of language, a reflection that the fundamental reality of being human is itself beyond expression.

Evolutionary Translation

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“Yet with lyric verse as charged as Celan’s, the translator enters its evolution. Hölderlin knew this vis-à-vis Sophocles, Rilke vis-à-vis Valéry, to name the German poets whom Celan prized. In After Babel George Steiner writes about translation at its fullest, saying the process culminates in restitution: something is given back to the source in return for what is lost. After all, the act of translation repeats an original poem with a difference: each line of verse in English, reflecting backward towards its origin, is scrolling one line closer to the future.”

John Felstiner, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew

Marianne Moore’s Sinuous Truths

Moore writing at her desk.

Paul Celan translated several of Marianne Moore’s poems into German for a 1952 German edition of Perspectives USA, a short-lived magazine started by New Directions founder, James Laughlin. In his Celan biography, John Felstiner writes, “[Celan] responded to her verbal acumen with his own, and without mind-bending exertion. The first two poems went into German cleanly, though without her intricate rhyming and syllabifying. And What Are Years? had a clear call on him . . . Moore’s sinuous truths fit Celan’s own ever-aggravating struggle.”

It is the first poem that kindled my appreciation of Moore’s poetry, though it isn’t necessarily characteristic of her writing. Felstiner presents a truncated version of the poem in the Celan biography, which includes the question mark after the title, surely as Celan would’ve also come to know the poem. Moore did not like the question mark

“Miss Moore told me that she did not want the question mark after the title. “In my ‘What Are Years’ the printers universally have insisted on putting a question mark after the title: ‘What Are Years?’ It’s not that at all! It’s a meditation: ‘What Are Years. What Are Years.’ You’re thinking about it, not asking anyone to come and answer you. But they won’t have it that way.”

It has been too long since I reread Moore, who may be underappreciated today, so I take this opportunity to quote her compelling poem, without the question mark.

What Are Years

What is our innocence,
what is our guilt? All are
naked, none is safe. And whence
is courage: the unanswered question,
the resolute doubt, —
dumbly calling, deafly listening—that
in misfortune, even death,
encourage others
and in its defeat, stirs
the soul to be strong? He
sees deep and is glad, who
accedes to mortality
and in his imprisonment rises
upon himself as
the sea in a chasm, struggling to be
free and unable to be,
in its surrendering
finds its continuing.
So he who strongly feels,
behaves. The very bird,
grown taller as he sings, steels
his form straight up. Though he is captive,
his mighty singing
says, satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
This is mortality,
this is eternity.

Acceleration and Standstill

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Man on a Rope (c. 1858), Honoré Daumier

“The general de-temporalization leads to the disappearance of temporal sections and caesurae, the thresholds and transitions which create meaning. The feeling that time passes more quickly now than before is also due to the absence of a pronounced articulation of time. This feeling is intensified by the fact that events follow each other in quick succession without leaving lasting traces, without becoming experiences. Because of the missing gravitation, things are encountered only fleetingly. Nothing carries weight. Nothing is incisive, nothing final. There are no incisions. When it is no longer possible to decide what is of importance, then everything loses importance. Doe to the excessive number of possible connections, i.e. possible directions, things are rarely ever completed, Completion requires a structured, organic time. Within an open and endless process, by contrast, nothing is ever completed. Incompletion becomes a permanent condition.”

— Byung-Chul Han, The Scent of Time, (trans. Daniel Steuer)