Leavetaking and Vanishing Point by Peter Weiss


“I read of the world of the Russians and the French, of the English and Americans and Scandinavians, and nothing stopped me feeling at home there. I was akin to Gaugin in Tahiti, to Van Gogh in Arles, to Myshkin in St. Petersburg, to Lieutenant Glahn in the Norwegian forests and to Fabrizio in the Charterhouse of Parma.”

Being exiled is a training ground for a dedicated reader, rootless, inwardly alone and never without the lonely good company of a book. In Leavetaking and Vanishing Point, the twentieth century as the age of alienation finds eloquent expression. Peter Weiss writes: “For me there were no lost home and no thoughts of return, for I had never belonged anywhere.”

Cosmic and social unity is gradually displaced by commodification and selfish individuality, transformations accelerated during the industrial revolution. The wars of the twentieth century and the continuing aftermath: perpetual crisis, wars and persecutions make rootlessness a common experience for countless individuals. But even those fortunate to lead relatively settled lives are, to borrow Camus’s term, irremediable exiles.

Peter Weiss’s two autobiographies are possibly the best I’ve read on the emotional and intellectual manifestation of that feeling of not belonging and its concomitant desire for security, yet fear of loss of freedom. Like many lonely wanderers, Weiss turns to literature, both as reader and a writer. In these two spiritual autobiographies he recollects his tentative beginnings as an artist and reflects on the literature and experiences that provided a formative substratum. Without a home, all literature is foreign, but in what is strange or unfamiliar we can feel alive.

The Name Had Found Me

Quote

The secluded, the mysterious, this hiding away with myself and my games, that is still with me and stirs within me even to this hour, it makes itself felt every time when I get deep into my work. I was my own master, I created the world for myself. But somewhere lingered the premonition of a calling, of the calling that would at once resound, that would roll across the garden toward me. The expectation of this calling was always present somewhere and even today the calling persists, even today the fear persists that everything could suddenly come to an end.

Peter Weiss, Leavetaking, translated by Christopher Levenson

Blessed Longing (Selige Sehnsucht)

Quote

Tell it only to the wise,
For the crowd at once will jeer:
That which is alive I praise,
That which longs for death by fire.

Cooled by passionate love at night,
Procreated, procreating,
You have known the alien feeling
In the calm of candlelight;

Gloom-embraced will lie no more,
By the flickering shades obscured,
But are seized by new desire,
To a higher union lured.

Then no distance holds you fast;
Winged, enchanted, on you fly,
Light your longing, and at last,
Moth, you meet the flame and die.

Never prompted to that quest:
Die and dare rebirth!
You remain a dreary guest
On our gloomy earth.

J. W. Goethe, translated by Michael Hamburger

Nocturnal Worlds

“A popular tradition warns against recounting dreams the next morning on an empty stomach. In this state, though awake, one remains under the spell of the dream. For washing brings only the surface of the body and the visible motor functions into the light, while in the deeper strata, even during the morning ablutions, the grey penumbra of dream persists and, indeed, in the solitude of the first waking hour, consolidates itself. He who shuns contact with the day, whether for fear of his fellow men or for the sake of inward composure, is unwilling to eat and disdains his breakfast. He thus avoids a rupture between the nocturnal and the daytime worlds-a precaution justified only by the combustion of dream in a concentrated morning’s work, if not in prayer; otherwise this avoidance can be a source of confusion between vital rhythms. In this condition, the narration of dreams can bring calamity, because a person still half in league with the dream world betrays it in his words and must incur its revenge. To express this in more modern terms: he betrays himself. He has outgrown the protection of dreaming naivete, and in laying hands on his dream visages without thinking, he surrenders himself. For only from the far bank, from broad daylight, may dream be addressed from the superior vantage of memory. This further side of dream is attainable only through a cleansing analogous to washing, yet totally different. By way of the stomach. The fasting man tells his dream as if he were talking in his sleep.”

Walter Benjamin, Breakfast Room from One-Way Street, translated by Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter

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.