The work of Paul Celan is profound and complex. It draws on many sources, responds to many questions. Celan stands at a crossroads of Jewish and Western culture; he wrote as an interim survivor of their most terrible encounter, but also as an heir to the riches of both. But for all the immensity of the background that the reader senses in his work, the voice of the poems speaks to the reader with a personal urgency that seems in strange contradiction to the poems’ surface "obscurity." That is part of the anxiety these poems arouse: we sense that the decipherment of this important message is taking too much time.

It is a work of mourning, of protest, and of radical prayer – the prayer of one who cannot accept the direction of history; who cannot, literally, live with it; whose despair reaches beyond calculation to embrace wild hopes. Rabbi Loew, the legendary golem-maker of Prague, is invoked in several poems. One of these, "In Prague" (Breathturn, 1967) ends with the words:

... the hourglass

we swam through, two dreams now, ringing

against time, in the plazas.


That phrase "against time" (wider die Zeit) can be read in more than one way. It can be read as "against this time," the evils of this particular era. Or it can be read as a protest against time itself, the protest of one who recapitulates with some wistfulness the "flight to Paradise," the breaking of all clocks, at the end of Büchner’s Leonce and Lena. Certainly it is not a call for return to some status quo ante; as he says in "The Meridian," one who "grew up with the writings of Kropotkin and Landauer" cannot pay tribute to an "ancien régime." It is more like the concept of teshuvah – a Hebrew word which is often translated "repentance," but means literally "return." This return is not to a past but to some "radical innocence" (in Yeats’ phrase) from which new beginnings can be imagined.


In his two prize-acceptance speeches, the 1958 Bremen speech and the "Meridian" speech of 1960, Celan said some things that seem intended as guideposts for his interpreters. In Bremen he spoke of having written poetry "in order to speak, in order to orient myself, in order to learn where I was and where it wanted to go with me, in order to project reality for myself."  Poetry, then, is the instrument of a "search for meaning," in Victor Frankl’s phrase. In "The Meridian" he speaks of the poem as "solitary and on the way," but suggests that the poem may stands, for this very reason, "in the encounter – in the mystery of the encounter?"

Perhaps the interpretation, too, stands in the "mystery of the encounter." To speak of Celan’s work is to be drawn into his quest – and to experience, in speaking of it, a discomfort similar to that which one senses in every line of those two speeches. One is "on the spot," one is called on not only to analyze but to bear witness.

The "locus" of the encounter between poet and reader cannot be fixed in timespace; it is, rather, the uncanny coincidence of the moment of composition with the moment of comprehension. It is a place that is no place, a time that is no time, a utopia. Celan uses the word "Utopia," twice in "The Meridian," the first time hyphenated, when he challenges scholars to do their "topos research" "in the light of U-topia"; and then, at the end, unhyphenated: "we are in the neighborhood of Utopia."

This dual use of "Utopia" raises the question whether, from the "no-place" of the encounter, we are being asked to project a different social reality. As noted, the "Meridian" pointedly mentions Peter Kropotkin, an anarchist whose Mutual Aid A Factor of Evolution was an early riposte to "social Darwinism," and Gustav Landauer, a secular Jewish prophet and non-Marxian socialist whose vision of "Utopia" was a free association of individuals.


I first came to Celan’s work, in 1967, as an apprentice in several senses. Celan was introduced to me as a possible dissertation subject by the late Prof. Heinz Politzer, a Kafka scholar and a poet in his own right (Die Gläserne Kathedrale). At the time I was also a beginning poet, and in the poems I was writing a subliminal dialogue with him immediately began. The place was Berkeley, a scene of intense experimentation, in some ways comparable to the Czernowitz of the ‘30's; among other things I belonged to an organization – the Lund Association – that aimed at setting up a network of Utopian communes. The ill-foundedness of all our revolutionary or Utopian hopes, the lack of any method that could assure even incremental progress toward their realization, did not escape me; part of what I heard in Celan’s work was a commitment that could find no present channels of outward action, but that was still stubbornly insisting upon itself and seeking a way. Finally, my involvement with Celan’s work resulted in a further apprenticeship: following a suggestion from Prof. Politzer, I read Buber’s Hasidic Tales, Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. In April 1972, on Yom HaShoah, I attended my first Jewish service, and in the same year began learning Hebrew; I came to know the Sabbath ritual, the Jewish way of study; I eventually became a convert and spent the years 1979-1990 in Jerusalem, in a community deeply divided between the secular and the religious, a division that appears every year more tragic and life-threatening. I would still like to hope that the radicalism of Celan’s inquiry – an inquiry as free as it is rigorous and profoundly responsible – might yet form a common ground for those who seek a way out of this impasse; perhaps even for those in this country to whom the rebuilding of community has become a focus of concern. In recent years, too, the formulations of "The Meridian" have recurred to me in connection with the problematics of human existence in the computer age. In short, Celan’s work has been for me a signpost to several different domains, calling me to explore each but also to try to bring them back together, to synthesize. ("Gather yourself,/ stand.") In this sense, too, perhaps, Celan’s work is "against time."

The essays in this collection represent my attempts to speak, in different times and places, of what Celan’s work has said to me. I have felt, but for the most part resisted, the urge to edit these essays from my present perspective. Only in one case – the 1980 account of a personal interview with Celan in 1969 – I have corrected a few details with the help of some earlier notes which I did not have at hand in 1980. At a distance from the immediate encounter, perhaps a wider view is gained, perhaps one becomes capable of making more careful distinctions. But – the immediacy of response is lost. And, it still seems to me, this immediacy is something the poems are trying to evoke.

The interpretation, like the poem ("The Meridian" bridges these two genres), has its moment in time, as the expression of "one unique animate being who with his/her speech and silence is seeking a way," in the language of Celan’s 1961 letter to Hans Bender. But just as the poet seeks to create the "absolute" poem, impossible though this is, so the interpreter strives to express a "common truth," in the phrase of Celan’s next-to-last poem – to say what may be true for any reader who has felt the force of these poems. To attempt to articulate these things is also to express a hope of meeting "in that light."

I would like to express my gratitude to at least some of those who in various conversations, by sharing their memories of Paul Celan and his early world and/or their insights into his work, have helped me along the path of this inquiry: Dr. Politzer, Prof. Jerry Glenn, Dr. David Seidmann, Manfred Winkler, Dr. Israel Chalfen, Dr. Emanuel and Dr. Martha Singer, Gisèle Celan-Lestrange, Ilana Shmueli, Hersh Segal, Mary Zilzer, Magali Zibaso, Eva Avi-Yonah, Eli Pinter. To their assistance and fellowship, among many others, the possibility of uttering these thoughts is due.


Esther Cameron

Madison, Wisconsin

August 2001