PART ONE: THE DARK WOOD
CHAPTER I: PENUMBRA OF AN ENCOUNTER
One day in the fall of 1967 I walked into the office of the late Professor Heinz Politzer, of the German Department at Berkeley, and sat down in the chair beside his desk. He picked up a slender volume of verse in a black binding with the name of the author -- Paul Celan -- in gold script. He opened it to the first poem and handed it to me. Ich hörte sagen. I heard tell.
Elements of a world: water, stone, circle, word. Then a poplar tree with its arm in the water and its roots raised heavenward. Then someone is picking up a breadcrumb from the ground and placing it on a table, and laying round the edge of the table a chain of sayings taken from around the neck of the “you.” But the poplar does not return.
First impression: threads leading in different directions, something very delicate, just barely holding together.
I said, “It's beautiful. I don't understand it.”
Politzer leaned back in his chair and pronounced, in that booming, oracular voice that made his seminars such good theater: “You understand it.”
Did I? Certainly neither he nor I dreamt, in that moment, the lands I was to travel in, nor the scenes I was to play, in the quest to understand what it was I had understood.
That conversation took place after a summer in which I had supposedly been studying for my Ph.D. exams, having finished my course work in German at the University of California in Berkeley. The exams would take place in the fall, and then there would be the dissertation to write. In those days I had a writer’s block of glacial proportions, every seminar paper had been a last-minute miracle, and I figured the dissertation would finish me off. That may be fairly standard for Ph.D. students, but I felt at an impasse in my personal life too. I had come to Berkeley nearly three years earlier, hoping that in its experimental environment something would open up for me, I would find a way out of the solitude that had surrounded me since my early school years, and that therapy had failed to dissolve. Thus, while enrolled in the German Department and supposedly headed for a university teaching career, I had minored in counterculture, even though I was a few years too old, a shade too intellectual and judgmental, to blend in with the milieu. I'd found a “behavior” therapist who had encouraged me to try everything -- meditation, encounter groups, computer dating, even writing poetry --!, and with his encouragement I had gotten into a few affairs. But each of these had ended in a rejection; and though my own reservations were partly responsible, I had been involved enough each time to make the partings painful. After the third such experiment, which had ended late in the spring, an inner voice had said: no more of this.
At the beginning of the summer I had decided to move from the studio apartment I'd been renting in an old house on College Avenue. I needed to save money, and to escape the memories that clung to the walls and furniture. On my route to and from campus lay another old house, a bit more run-down, but attractive to me because the concrete front porch was flanked by two stone lions (bringing to mind the fact that my mother's parents had both had names meaning “lion.”) About the time I decided to move, a “Room for Rent” sign appeared on the front door. I knocked, and the door was opened by a tall, thin old man in seedy clothes. “Can I see the room?” I asked, and he corrected (think of the Caterpillar in Disney's Alice in Wonderland): “The question is not whether you can, but whether you may.” The room was small but clean. Only after I'd been there for a few days did I realize that the landlord, who lived in the back room (I remember stacks of magazines, a plaster reproduction of the Venus de Milo), kept bees in the back yard. I thought of my nickname – Bea – and felt as though the uncanny had just grazed my arm with a light but deliberate claw. I wrote a poem about it; the poem wasn’t very inventive, but then it did not have to invent.
I had resumed writing poetry a year earlier, after several years of blankness stemming from the beliefs that a) I hadn't enough talent to be a famous poet and b) the wish to write poetry was part of whatever stood between me and normal relationships, marriage, children, which I believed I wanted or ought to want. But exorcising the Muse had not made me more attractive or welcoming; instead my inner being froze in resentment. Probably my behavior therapist's permission to write poetry had helped to make those half-hearted yet heartrending affairs possible. In that time and place poetry was one path of self-exploration, part of the “psychedelic” era, like the encounter groups, like the search for “altered states of consciousness,” like the I Ching and the Tarot. It was common to write poetry, just as it was common to find “symbolic” meanings in everyday events.
My closest poet friend was a woman I'll call Nadine, who had dropped out of graduate school and was living from hand to mouth on odd jobs, as one could in those days; indeed, much of this story could have happened only in an affluent society where people were not too worried about what they would eat and what they would wear. Nadine was street-wise and sophisticated; her face and manner reminded me of Jeanne Moreau; in some ways she worried me, but at that point her attitude toward me and my poems was protective and encouraging. Her poems were small, solid, centered, and ominous, like well-thrown pots that might just house the odd serpent. She visited me in the house with the lions and the bees, and maybe that gave her the idea of lending me Sylvia Plath's Ariel (“God's lioness,” as Plath translates that name), a collection whose longest feature is a cycle of poems on beekeeping. The poems went through me like the sound of a gong.
A few years later Plath would become a symbol of feminist anger (and so, incidentally, would Nadine). But the poems Nadine had marked in the copy of Ariel which she let me that summer were not the long accusatory ones but shorter ones that struck a different note, plaintive and mysterious, poems that left me (as Celan's later would) with the feeling that I'd been told something, though I wasn't quite sure what. They stirred up my own unconscious, and I wrote a number of poems that rather spooked me, and that got burnt at the end of the summer, in the basement room to which I moved from the house of the lions. The longest of those poems was about a doll.
The doll, statue or mannequin in Plath's poems is always a creepy image. It stands for conformity and death, as many people have said. But not everyone has noticed that the doll image also expresses a hidden yearning -- for perfection, timeless being? -- and that was the side that my poem took up. The poem imagined a beautiful lady-doll (like my own childhood favorite from pre-Barbie days), standing in a store window looking out at an empty nocturnal street; it evoked the “wakeful shallow crystals” of her eyes; I think it ended “Somewhere in the night/ is an old toymaker/ and he is sleeping.” Thus the doll as creature led to thoughts about the doll's creator. God -- or Father. One thing Plath and I had in common is that our fathers were both scientists. Plath's father was an entomologist, and his specialty was bees (bumblebees actually, but close enough). My father was a geologist, and in my poems there was already a good deal of stone imagery. (Eventually I would write an epic called The Consciousness of Earth.) Identifying with the object of one's father's research is an obvious expression of the wish to be loved, for what does a scientist love more than the object he is studying? And then there are those myths of the artist or scientist who actually creates a human being -- Pygmalion, Rabbi Loew of Prague, Frankenstein. And that song “Paper Doll” which I’d first heard at age 5 when my father brought home the Mills Brothers record, the only hit record he ever bought as far as I know:
I’m gonna buy a paper doll that I can call my own,
A doll that other fellas cannot steal...
And then the flirty flirty guys with a flirty flirty eyes
Will have to flirt with dollies that are real.
When I come home at night she will be waiting,
She’ll be the truest doll in all this world –
I’d rather have a paper doll to call my own
Than any fickle-blooded real live girl.
Last year I started singing this song at a writer’s group, and they all knew it, they all joined in. In 1967 I probably was not aware of remembering it, but it was there, in my subconscious. What I’m trying to get at is that the doll-vision, I’ll call it that, represents a certain meeting-ground of desire. There are those who desire to create and control (two projects that seem related yet contradictory) and there are those who desire to be controlled or created (ditto). The image of the doll seems poised between the wish to be seen and known for what you are, and the fear of identifying with someone else's vision of you, to the point of losing your selfhood. At the end of the summer, as said, the negative side of the ambivalence prevailed and decreed the poem’s destruction; but its theme did not go away.
On the other hand I kept the poem for the younger of my two brothers, who was just then at a very appealing stage, very aware but not yet into adolescent rebellion:
for Don, 14
You were born in winter
before Advent, in gray
quiet November days.
Stars of the archer moved
over the fine
dryness of woods,
frost cracked crystals
in the veins of the branches.
You were the youngest in the year.
That is why you were always so grayly
pale-brown, your eyes
the color of winter bark,
that is why you can walk through the woods
and not look over your shoulder.
A shy patience is yours.
You were born at night
I and your brother huddled
apart in the dark house
listening. For your birth
among patient stars.
It seemed a harmless tribute, though with an oddly portentous ending. Only in retrospect does it seem that the “listening” was not only for my brother’s birth under the sign of Sagittarius, but for Paul Celan’s Atemwende (Breathturn), which would come out in the fall, and in which I would find a poem (“By the Hailstone”) that speaks of his own birth under “the late, the hard/November stars,” and of the Archer.
Celan’s poem is shadowed by blighted beginnings, by death and destruction he could not put behind him. A history so different from ours in America, secure, with nothing to disturb us but distant rumors. What could connect him and my younger brother, besides their sun sign (which, as astrologers will tell you, is not as important as the rising sign anyway?).
Perhaps the quality of being sharpshooters. In a later poem Celan would speak of the “midnight archer” driving his song through “the marrow of rot and betrayal,” while my brother Don is capable of quietly cutting through any pretense you might try to put up. And one further odd coincidence: Years later, at our parents’ home in Madison, while absorbing the impact of Celan’s death, I kept playing Satie’s haunting, plaintive “Gnossiennes” on the piano, and one day while I was playing it Don, in another room, sat down and typed out a poem which is really beautiful. His best, as far as I know; he hasn’t written many. And years after that, someone in Israel, who didn’t know about this, put together a radio program on Celan, and as background music used – Satie’s “Gnossiennes.” I do not know if there could be an “astrology” that would trace these delicate, seldom-perceived connections among souls. (“Show-threads, meaning-threads” – could this kind of thing be what Celan meant by that phrase?) They do not appear to be predictable or “reproducible,” as the scientists say. But there could be a way of attention to them. “The natural prayer of the soul,” as Celan quotes in “The Meridian.”
Among the poems and drafts that I destroyed that autumn, there were two other things I recall as premonitory. A fragment about listening to the breathing of a stranger on the other side of a partition. And a poem that ended with the image of a woman bending over a drowned man on the shore (“Why is she weeping?”). These images had floated up in a suspended state in which I was not writing about anything, but simply letting things happen, entering into the advancing penumbra of things to come. Of course memory creates a pattern, perhaps even invents. But the poem for Don, at least, is evidence.
What else did I do that summer? What I didn't do, was study for the examinations. At the beginning I went once or twice to the department library and opened a book that everyone was advised to read, Daten Deutscher Dichtung, a history of German literature from the beginnings the present, complete with summaries of the most important scholarly theories about each classic. Needless to say, this tome with the sternly alliterative title did not, itself, make fascinating reading. I got as far as the section on Hartmann von Aue, a writer of insipid verse romances I'd had to sample in the required Middle High German course. The text spoke of someone's “bahnbrechende Arbeit (pathbreaking study)” on Hartmann. “What kind of paths does this kind of thing break?” I muttered, stood up, closed the book and walked out of the department library. Of course there was also a reading list of literary works which I could have tackled. But I preferred reading contemporary poets and jotting down my own lines, hanging out, listening to music, singing folksongs (school of Joan Baez), and occasionally working as a reporter for the Berkeley Barb, which represented the counterculture at its most disreputable.
Another friend I hung out with that summer was a man I'll call Jason, whom I had met that spring at a meeting of Synanon in San Francisco. My behavior therapist had sent me to Synanon; it was another of his experiments. The style of the Synanon “games” (you were not supposed to call them encounter groups) was confrontational. People took turns being the target of criticism by others, and supposedly this helped them to face themselves and gain inner strength. It had started as a method of self-help developed by drug addicts, and the core was still a group of former drug addicts who lived in the Synanon communities. People like Jason and me, who just came in for a “game” once a week, were “squares.”
Jason was a Jew from Brooklyn or the Bronx, a small, dark, thin man whose face and body were almost contorted with intellectual intensity. I have since seen faces like that in the “black” religious neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Jason had been Orthodox until two or three years previously, when he and his then wife and another couple had taken leave of Orthodox practice, not gradually but formally and deliberately, by going to a seafood restaurant. Subsequently, his wife had left him, and he was still arguing with her in his mind. Jason was a Ph.D. student in economics and called himself a Marxist, but his actual thinking, it now seems to me, was more like that of some non-Marxist socialists, like Gustav Landauer. He was also into sociobiology, before that term became popular; he often mentioned Konrad Lorenz. Having turned his back on Orthodoxy, he wanted to combat the “anomie” of mass society through “intentional community.” It seemed to him that he could do this by organizing a network of small groups, each of which would carry on some small business. As a preparation for launching his own organization, he was studying as many “intentional communities” as possible, and that was why he came to Synanon. He was not Synanon's idea of a man, nor was I their idea of a woman, and we both got badly beaten up in the “games”; but whereas I tended to let the the hostile comments upset me, he received them with a pained patience. We soon dropped out of Synanon, but kept in touch with each other. He would take me to meetings of other communal groups, and we would have long conversations, philosophizing and analyzing our respective predicaments.
Jason and I were not romantically attracted to each other, though at first each was a bit piqued with the other for not being so. I might have warmed to him if he had written me a poem. He said he wrote poetry; but he never showed me any and indicated he did not think much of mine. He thought that both of us lacked the “mystique” of our respective genders, but that I ought to fall in love with him for his intellect. A few weeks after we met, this issue was clarified by the appearance of Marsha, who did fall in love with him, and whom he eventually married. Marsha was Jewish, likewise nonobservant at that point, and utterly devoted to him. She was warmhearted, funny, and overflowing with enthusiasms -- music, folk dancing, weaving, and, fortunately for us all, cooking. Jason was somewhat miffed at my unfeigned congratulations, but our friendship survived. At the least, I was potential material for the commune he was thinking of starting.
But the commune was still only a dim shape in the future, not enough to give substance to my immediate plans. If I was indeed dropping out of graduate school, what was I going to do? My mind was blank. I had left therapy, too; the therapist had nothing new to tell me. Since adolescence I had periodically contemplated suicide, but when it came to the point I would think of my parents and shrink from any self-inflicted pain. Doubtless that was part of Plath's appeal for me, as for other troubled post-adolescents: she had acted out the self-destructive fantasies which I had just sense enough, thank heaven, to stop short of putting into practice. On the other hand, I was doing nothing very active in order to survive. Others noticed, perhaps saw in me a representation of some alienation in themselves. A married grad student from the Midwest whose work was always conscientious and never exciting, the last person from whom I would have expected it, looked at me thoughtfully one day said, “Sometimes we overestimate experience.” A young Synanon “square” drove me home from one “game” and in the next week's “game” said, with an expression of actual terror on his face: “I realized as I was driving you home -- you're dead!” Then at a party on College Avenue, as I stared at a man who was dancing wildly and yet without real passion, I heard from the side a voice saying, “You have such a strange look on your face. It seems you see the end but still go on.” A small, compact young man with an odd brightness about him.At a costume party I wore a black dress spangled with gold stars: Queen of the Night.
One day the Berkeley Barb sent me to interview some people who were allegedly starting an alternate school. That enterprise, typically, was more posturing than substance, but through these people I met a woman named Barbara and started hanging out with her. Barbara was a divorcee with a ten-year-old daughter and a history of involvement with the wrong kind of man; she needed someone to help with the rent and I needed company, so I moved out of the house with the lions and into her basement. Barbara knew someone in an architect's office in San Francisco who was looking for a secretary. For the interview I wore a navy blue knit mini-dress with a bit of white smocking, which I had bought in a shop on Telegraph Avenue. The dress was too warm for the day, and not especially becoming. In that office with its high ceilings and starkly simple decor, the dress and I were all wrong. Every hair felt out of place. I went through the interview glassy-eyed, and of course nothing came of it. It was after this that I went to see Politzer.
Politzer was one of the senior professors of the Berkeley German department. He was a Viennese Jew who had come to this country as a refugee; his best-known work was on Kafka. Like Heine, he had let himself be baptized, but this did not prevent him from referring to his Jewish identity on occasion. It was also known in the department that he had published a slim volume of verse called Die Gläserne Kathedrale (The Glass Cathedral; and the following year I saw a German translation he had made of The Ancient Mariner. He was a large man, heavy and craggy and yet urbane, steeped in Old World culture and with a penchant for the slightly theatrical gesture that remained within the bounds of scholarly decorum. We students accorded him the respect that is given to something possibly dangerous, rather than to those who are wholly admired; he had been known to favor students and then drop them for no apparent reason. His colleague Andrew Jaszi was better liked. Jaszi was another refugee who had adopted Christianity, perhaps more wholeheartedly; there was in any event nothing theatrical about him. An atmosphere of philosophic seriousness reigned in his classes. But I had taken only one seminar with Jaszi, and two with Politzer; and it was Politzer who had appropriated me as his student.
In my first seminar with Politzer -- on Hölderlin -- I had made a presentation he found thin, then redeemed myself on the final paper. There's no doubt he was a good teacher, who knew how to get the best out of a student. The second seminar was on Goethe's Faust, Part II. There were eight or ten students in the class, and each one had to make a presentation on one episode. I had chosen the “Helena” episode in the third act. You may remember that in Marlowe's version of the Faust legend, Faust brings Helen of Troy back from the dead to be his “paramour.” In the second part of Goethe's Faust this episode is blown up to phantasmagoric proportions. He is able to summon her at the end of the first act, but only briefly. The second act is devoted to magical preparations for her reappearance. Then the third act opens with Helena walking on the beach, under the impression that she has just returned from Troy to her husband's house. Enter Mephisto disguised as an old woman, Phorkyas. Mephisto/Phorkyas first frightens Helena by telling her that her husband is going to put her to death for her infidelity. Then gradually, insidiously, he brings her to realize that she is not a living person at all but a literary image. Helena says, “I swoon away and become an idol unto myself,” and loses consciousness. As I read this, something in me said: This could happen. Mephisto/Phorkyas revives her and leads her to Faust. The consummation of their union is symbolized by Faust's teaching Helena to speak in rhyme. A version of the Pygmalion legend, in short. (Note: we had been told about Goethe’s romance with Marianne Willemer, in the course of which she wrote the only two poems of hers that are known.) I don't know what I said about all this -- the paper is one of the things I threw out a few years later, in the turmoil of running toward and away from something -- but everyone seemed impressed, and it was then that Politzer made me promise to write my dissertation for him. He also lent me a book at that time, and later said he didn't want it back: some translations of Mandel'shtam poems by Paul Celan. That had been in the spring of 1966. Since then I had taken no further courses from Politzer; but every now and then, when we met in the hallway, he would exclaim in his florid manner, “Ach, die Helena!” or “Ach, die Beatrice” -- giving the latter name the Italian pronunciation.
So now, toward the end of the summer of 1967, I went to see Politzer and, slumped in his office, told him I hadn't studied for the exam and was dropping out of graduate school.
Politzer exerted himself to coax me back. He pointed out to me what I already knew, that the counterculture had no place for me. He said that if I would read for a month he would talk with the other members of the orals committee so that they would ask questions I could answer (I don’t recall exactly how he put it, but that was the gist.) I had gotten a master's degree with distinction, mostly because I'd remembered a few odd things, like the last lines of Schiller's plays (he always has a good last line). I had some credit in the department, not as the most solid scholar but as one who could be counted on to make interesting connections; they felt, too, I think, my emotional involvement with the texts, and for experienced teachers it’s always refreshing to have a student to whom it all means something.
So Politzer became my rescuer and guide. In one of our meetings before the orals I brought him a few of my poems. The group I showed him included a free verse poem in German, tinged with Rilke, which he didn’t think much of, and one rhymed poem, which he did like. I had written it in the spring, after the end of that third affair; it had come to me between waking and sleep, the first lines in a voice distinct from my own, like a dictation, the only time that has happened to me:
when angels shall reseam these rags
warp of truth and weft of lies
then not until i will confess
that earth was less than motley skies
if god will swear the dog of time
shall not dig up the bones of love
then will i from vigil turn
move where crowds and rivers move
when perjury keeps its promise not
to pawn old kindness out to whores
then i will bid love abdicate
and for his consort take divorce
and i will kiss the stone stairs
of this consequent universe
(Note: the third stanza of this poem was the least “dictated,” and I’ve always felt a bit unsure about it.) Politzer said that this poem anticipated a restoration of poetic language, or words to that effect – a comment that may have come from some hidden frustration of his own. For Politzer’s own poems, well-crafted in a traditional style, had not received much attention in a literary milieu obsessed with stylistic innovation. Another teacher, Bluma Goldstein, to whom my friend Marion had shown the poem, had written to me, “You have a lot of talent and a lot of heart”; and I myself thought this poem presaged something. The last lines reminded me of my geologist father and of Dante. Those two had in common an overpowering sense of structure, into which an enormous quantity of information was fitted. A student of Dad’s once told me that he was the most organized lecturer she’d ever heard. I think Dad must have had a picture in his mind of all the rocks of the earth, like those legendary Talmud scholars who can tell you, if you stick a pin into a Talmud folio, which words the pin will pass through. On his Ph.D. exam someone had shown Dad a piece of rock, from an area he hadn’t studied particularly, and asked him, “Where does this come from?” As a colleague tells the story: “Gene imperturbably turned the specimen over and over, and murmured, mostly to himself, ‘Well, it’s a limestone. There are some fossils there that look like Permian – but I don’t think they are North American – (long silence with more scrutiny) – does this come from Gibraltar?’ Bingo!’” It was my father’s mother who had suggested the name Beatrice for me, a name from which I had already suffered much, as it was a rich source of nicknames and puns, all of which I had heard many times, believe me, while the name itself was a constant reminder of expectations I could never meet. Yet here I was giving notice of intent to claim some kind of inheritance from these colossi. Those last lines had brought me to a threshold. Throughout that summer, beneath everything else, I had been waiting to find out what they meant.
Once Politzer had shepherded me through the orals, although definitely not with distinction, the next question was the dissertation topic.
I had no ideas. Hölderlin, Goethe, Rilke, Kafka: how was I to say anything original about them, when an army of scholars had already been over the ground? I suggested Hans Henny Jahnn, an imaginative twentieth-century storyteller on whom not much had been written; but Politzer rumbled: “Hans Henny Jahnn is something to read on the airplane.” Politzer suggested Guenderode, an early nineteenth century poetess who committed suicide at twenty-six. (“He's always trying to get someone to write on Guenderode,” a fellow-student told me.) I read her poems but they did not speak to me. Then I thought that I might write about a play from Goethe’s classicist period, The Natural Daughter. Politzer said, “That’s not a bad idea.”
It was, I now think, a good idea. The Natural Daughter has to be one of the most overlooked masterpieces in world literature. When I think of it I seem to be looking into the depth of a great black diamond. Or think of Schubert’s late chamber music: the “Death and the Maiden” quartet, or the sustained poignancy of the D major string quintet. Supposedly The Natural Daughter was inspired by the French Revolution, partly based on the memoirs of one Stephanie Bourbon-Conti, but it’s highly stylized – more like a fairy-tale or Kafkaesque nightmare than what you think of as historic drama. Part of the Kafkaesque atmosphere comes from the fact that no one in the play except the title figure, Eugenie, has a personal name; the others are known by their functions, as Duke, King, Governess, etc. Eugenie is the illegitimate daughter of the Duke, who wants to legitimize her and present her at court. In a secret meeting, the King recognizes her and promises to fulfill this request. Eugenie, in anticipation of her recognition, is ecstatic; she writes an incandescent sonnet onstage, and when her father sends her a casket containing robes and ornaments for her presentation, she disregards his warning not to open it before the time comes. This was obviously a magical test, and on the practical level her lack of caution seems to trigger the intrigues against her that are spinning in the background. She is spirited away, condemned to exile on an island with a deadly climate. Before embarcation she is given a last chance of remaining: the Magistrate, a commoner, offers to marry her. As a commoner she will no longer have a claim to the disputed title and will be left in peace. At first she refuses; but as she stands pondering, a Monk appears, and tells her that she will be better off on the island, as the corrupt kingdom is about to collapse. At this, and on realizing that the commoner has a truly noble soul (as evidenced by his being willing to contract a marriage in name only in order to save her), she accepts his proposal, even eagerly, in the hope of remaining in her country and being of use to it at some future time. This ending is often said to typify the Goethean principle of “Entsagung,” or renunciation. The reader of The Natural Daughter is free to suspect that the marriage will not long remain fictional, and that Eugenie, like the Dorothea of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, will subside into private life as the wife and inspiratrix of a good, public-spirited man. Yet Goethe wasn’t content with this happy ending to a play which he called a tragedy. He wanted to write a sequel in which Eugenie would return to lead a revolution... There are all sorts of interesting angles and problems, and the thing is chock full of symbolism, and I felt the kind of personal connection to the work (a father-daughter drama, and my father’s name was Eugene!) that I seemed to need in order to heighten my perceptions. It’s possible that, had I indeed written about The Natural Daughter, I would have made a decent job of it, and in the process confronted some of my own conflicts in a quiet, unexplosive manner. I might then have been able to pursue an academic career, accepting a less-than-complete personal life for the sake of whatever good I might have been able to do as a teacher and interpreter of literature. And who knows, perhaps my Magistrate might have shown up one day after all.
If I had gravitated toward Jaszi rather than Politzer as a mentor, I might well have taken that road. Jaszi’s whole manner – restrained, refined, careful, not at all theatrical – radiated that kind of hard-won Goethean serenity, and perhaps he would have succeeded in passing some of it on to me. I had taken one seminar from Jaszi on another Goethe work – Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years – that has a similar renunciation theme. There, the hero and heroine are united in marriage at the beginning, only to be separated immediately after the ceremony in order to carry on, separately, the work of a fraternal order of world-reformers! That was in my first year at Berkeley – pre-behavior therapist, pre-Jason and his “intentional community” – and I thought I’d never heard such utter nonsense. Goethe’s pushing of Entsagung seemed phony, given that his biggest work, Faust, is about the diametric opposite – someone who acknowledges no limits whatever, and who doesn’t get punished either. And I was young, and hungry for experiences, and in Berkeley Entsagung was not exactly a leading cultural value. Berkeley, though it mostly had not read Faust, was distinctly Faustian.
A couple of days after I had suggested The Natural Daughter, Politzer said to me, “I have a topic for you. You should write about Paul Celan. If you’ll come to my office I will lend you his books.” And I knew that the problem was solved. As yet that poet was to me only a name and some translations of Mandel’shtam; but Celan’s voice, in those very individual translations, had been with me for a year.
During that year, in the winter of 1967-8, I had written certain short free verse poems, of which the following may be representative:
there is only time.
Love, the pale saxifrage
prizing past and future apart.
Without love, a sky
crushes the flowers
like a huge gray rock.
Without love the words come out thin
pressed between stone.
I share this with some trepidation, as I fear it may be found indeed pretty thin, but all the same it does sound some of Celan’s themes – the opposition to time, the sense of oppression in time – and it came back to me ten years later when I read Celan’s second-to-last poem, the one about the crocus. Someone to whom I showed these poems after Celan’s death said that they were “too much influenced by Celan.” Perhaps that is evidence of an underlying affinity, or perhaps it just demonstrates that a voice can convey something, even without words of its own.
By suggesting that I write on Celan instead of The Natural Daughter, Politzer may have helped divert the stream of my life from the relatively tranquil uplands of academia into the steep, rocky canyon down which it then had to plunge. Could I have wished it differently? Someone asked me that question a while ago and I responded that the question was meaningless, since I would not have been the same person had I not encountered Celan. But as I think back to this juncture I see the road not taken, and I think that a person does not have just one path, one call from destiny. There are alternate destinies, one could perhaps choose if one were conscious enough. Well, that is partly what I am writing these memoirs for, to get what happened down on paper and look at it again.
I would like to give Politzer, may he rest in peace, due credit for the events related in these pages, without exactly making him responsible. He was a poet after all, and in my experience we poets often do not let ourselves in on what we are doing. And we’d all been told that poetry makes nothing happen. Thus Politzer, when he opened that book to that poem and set it before me with a flourish, was surely just caught up in the play of it, wielding a power in which he did not believe. Moreover he was himself being wielded by another poet, he was acting under the suggestions of Celan’s poems which, as I’ll show, practically hang out a “Wanted” poster for a particular kind of susceptible reader. And Celan too, I rather suspect, did not always tell himself what he was doing, was just inching along, saying the next word that came to him.
In one of those folders of writings that I find unsatisfactory but can’t quite bring myself to throw out, there’s a sort of poem dated October 1967 that seems to reflect my relation to Politzer, as well as my first hesitant entry into Celan’s landscape. It also reflects a youthful penchant for decorating poems with foreign words; the German title means “Melancholia”, while the Latin epigraph means “Here is a god stronger than I.”
Ecce deus fortior me (sic, for mihi)
I walk where the whites of evening
gleam in their sleep,
on the points of trees softly
tears the antique mesh.
My feet step between depths
of the chill-steep sky.
You point to the brush
of dead branches
on the white hill’s side.
You warn me, and set round my feet
nets of shadow.
Under its ragged hem of snow
a stream stops cold;
to light this scene the sunset
comes back, reddening
like a mortician’s cosmetic.
I need not point out the rather fashionable eros-and-death morbidity of this poem (in which Plath’s encouragement can still be felt). Yet the epigraph comes from Dante’s Vita Nuova. And I do not think I would have followed Politzer, the Phorkyas or Virgil of this story, without the subdued, scarcely-dared hope that he was leading me through this landscape of death and ruin toward a new life.