PROTOCOL OF AN ENCOUNTER
[I was privileged to speak once in person with Paul Celan, on August 4, 1969. Some incidents from that conversation are recounted in "Love Calls You By Your Name," which follows an unpublished account, written down in 1973, of those moments in the interview when I had felt that the poet meant to convey something to me personally. In 1980, in Jerusalem, I wrote down a longer account, as the central portion of a memoir, c, or the Autoanalysis of a Golem. This work, which eventually appeared in Hebrew translation, attempted to portray the refraction of Celan’s work in the world of one reader.
The conversation in c is reconstructed entirely from memory; I did not have access to my papers at the time. The notes from the interview are lost, but a few years ago I found again a letter written from Paris the day after the interview to two acquaintances in Berlin, but not sent. There are also a few pages of notes which seem to have been written soon afterward, evidently with the aim of salvaging from the interview those bits of information that might have some scholarly interest. These accounts, and the 1973 notes, deviate only in a few details from what I remembered in 1980, and I have made use of them to correct these details. I am more confident about the details of the account than about the order in which things occurred; but again (as, of course, in many other reports of encounters with Celan), all the usual reservations about the accuracy of human memory apply; I hope nevertheless that the reader will recognize him in the following pages.]
August 4, 1969: from the first everything went wrong. I had made plane reservations with a German travel agency, but when I arrived at the Berlin airport, early in the morning, the reservations were not on hand. The travel agency would not open until after the flight had left. Fortunately there was still space on the flight and I had enough money to buy an extra ticket. We took off; fifteen minutes later the plane turned back to Berlin for repairs. It looked as though I would miss the connection at Stuttgart, and the interview; we must made it. On finally arriving at Paris, I went to the hotel which the German travel agency had booked for me. It was a very old hotel. The rooms and the staircases were covered with a deep blood-red carpeting, whose surface was threaded with gray dust, and which did not conceal the unevennesses in the floor. There was no elevator; my room was on the sixth floor. Dismayed, I nevertheless went up to the room, opened my suitcase, took out a few things. But when I went downstairs to pay, it was too much. The proprietress turned out to be an old woman with dyed black hair, gypsyish dress, and a small gold Star of David round her neck. In a shaking voice I told her that the stairs were too much for me. She said that there were not other rooms in the hotel, but the family had another hotel a few streets away, more modern. She would send the young man up to repack my suitcase. In a short time I found myself transferred to the other hotel, which was much newer and cleaner, and where my room was only a short flight up from the street. But I didn’t escape the Star of David; they had gold-colored plastic ones hanging from the room keys. It was in connection with the appearance of that geometric figure at that moment that I later said to a psychiatrist: "God is an author with a heavyhanded sense of symbolism."
The interview was set for three P.M. he was packing in front of the college gate, looking at the ground, a rather short, stocky man in his late forties, wearing a dark suit, holding the copy of his book over his heart, with the title – Fadensonnen – displayed. After a moment’s hesitation, we shook hands. He led me into the building, to his office, a high-ceiled room lined with plain wooded shelves full of books; he put the book down on the desk and seated himself behind it. The interview began. After a question or two he knew that I was the one of whom Heinz Politzer had spoken to him the previous summer. (I had not mentioned Politzer to him, nor the dissertation, because Politzer had reported that their last meeting had not been pleasant and Celan had reacted without enthusiasm to the news of another dissertation in progress about him). "He’s not a bad man," he said, with a smile that might have been amusement at my attempted duplicity, or enjoyment of his own quickness in finding me out, or both. I had assumed that we would spend some time discussing my translations, bu the had sent them to a friend in America who knew English better than he did. Someone else had already translated a good deal of his work into English, including one entire book. Did I have any questions about the poems? My abysmal lack of preparedness was revealed to me. I did not have a list of questions, I had not even thought of one question to ask him, it was a wonder I had thought to bring a pad of paper. Hastily I tried to think of questions. I sought his confirmation of a poem or two from Fadensonnen. He smiled and shook his head, that was not what he meant. Still, he would look at it again. I received the impression that he regarded language as something very concrete and quickly became suspicious of abstract or symbolic interpretations. He had wanted that latest book to be something slightly contraband; he had wanted the poems to be opaque, to offer resistance, a "Gegenüber." He asked me whether I wrote poetry myself. "Yes," I answered, "but not enough." He said that English was a better language for poetry than German, it had more distinctive names for things like the word I had used to translate one of his compound (Napfschnecke): "limpet." He did not like his compound words, such as "Steindattel" to be treated as metaphors, although he admitted that such words as "Fruchtboden" are also metaphors. I said that English was frustrating because it lacked a certain syntactic tension, whereas German – "Das Griechische im Deutschen?" he supplied, referring perhaps, I thought, to the concept of the German language held by Hölderlin and Heidegger. He said that he wanted the compound terms in his work to be read as names, rather than analyzed, and then he spoke of something he called "Verwerfungen" – a geological term meaning fault or displacement – which he said was what interested him in poetry. I had noticed a certain geological metaphor in one of his poems – Kristall in der Tracht deines Schweigens – which he confirmed: "So you noticed that." "My father is a geologist," I said. There was an awkward pause. There had been one before that – or was it after? – when we were speaking of a poem I liked very much ("Matiere de Bretagne"), and he pointed out a reference in it to an earlier poem ("Bretonischer Strand") which happened (I remembered it, and the connection had occurred to me) to be of an exceedingly intimate nature. I could not say anything. We spoke of the cultural situation in Germany. I mentioned a book of poems by a younger writer [Peter Handke, Die Aussenwelt der Innenwelt der Aussenwelt] who I thought had been influenced by him; he looked pleased and said the book was amusing. He asked me about the latest play by a certain prominent German author. I said that the play was horrible. He noticed that I had something against the author and said, a little defensively, that they were close friends; didn’t I think that x’s first novel was a major work? "I don’t like him," I said, uncertain already whether I was saying it because it was true or because I didn’t want to back down. It touched me that he seemed concerned about my opinion. We also talked about literary criticism. I found myself saying, in the flat tone of a sullen child, "I don’t like philology." He protested, said I must read Maurice Blanchot and Vladimir Markov. It was at some point during this conversation in his office – I do not remember the exact order in which things were said – that he told me, "Every poem is the anti-computer, even the one the computer writes." I looked up, puzzled; he repeated, "Every poem is the anti-computer, even the one the computer writes. I wrote it down. We spoke briefly of rock poetry. I asked if he had heard any songs by Bob Dylan, he said no, I offered to send him some, they would certainly interest him, there was perhaps even a certain kinship. He said that I should not send him any records, as he did not own a record player, he did not listen to much music, and I said I would send him the lyrics to a few songs. I told him I was interested in folk songs, I myself sang and played guitar a little. He gave me a look that was hard to read, like the one I had caught after saying that my father was a geologist; probably he had caught a similar one after pointing out the connection between those two poems. If I had been moved by an impulse of offering, then in that look there was simultaneously acknowledgment and withdrawal. I felt mortified, wondered what had prompted me to say those things. I felt terribly stiff and lame. I could not think of anything to say to him and was afraid he would cut the interview short. Instead he suggested going for a walk. On the way out he said another thing to me, a propos of nothing: "There’s no cheating in poetry (In der Dichtung wird nicht gemogelt)" He repeated: "There’s no cheating in poetry." It was evident that he was pleased with these words and wanted me to remember them.
Close by the college he pointed out to me the house, very similar to the other houses in its block, where Malte Laurids Brigge had been written. He said that book was one of the major reasons for hi coming to Paris. I asked him who he felt had been his greatest literary influences, and he told me some names but added hastily, "But don’t publish that." What he had taken from one of the named masters was mainly "an ethic of writing." And, after a pause: "These things aren’t literary, you know that yourself." "Yes." (He also objected, as some point, to those who think that all literature derives from literature, like the critic who thought the title of one of his poem, "Ich weiss," was a quotation from Else Lasker-Schüler!)
He wanted to know whether people knew about him in America and said he had thought of visiting the country. He expressed disappointment in the reaction of some critics to his latest book. They had said the aesthetic construction was not as good as in his earlier work: "Aber ich schere mich zum Teufel um die aesthetische Konstruction!" He had, I noticed, changed one preposition in a common German idiom, and thereby radically altered the meaning. What he had meant to say, evidently, was, "I don’t give a damn for the aesthetic construction." It was one more warning. And yet: just then, I think, I noticed that from his form their radiated a kind of dark endurance, the words "a troglodytic strength" occurred to me.
We spoke of various critics who had written on him. Not many seemed to have found favor in his sight. He disliked especially the idea that once a poem is written anyone else can say as well as the poet what it means: "Das ist doch Besserwisserei!" (that is a know-it-all attitude). Yet he conceded that while the poem is a unique event, "when it stands in the void it again can mean many things (im Leeren stehend, wird es wieder vieldeutig). He was uncomfortable with the popularity of the "Todesfuge": "It has become an alibi-poem for many." He was not enthusiastic about the musical settings of his work, and denied that the "fugue" composition of the "Todesfuge" was intended: "Das habe ich einfach heruntergeschrieben." He also did not like it that someone had recently called him a "modern classic." One critic he mentioned favorably, whom I had not read yet; I looked up the work years later and could not understand why he had recommended it, unless perhaps for its absolute discretion; it told me very little. I began to feel desperate and finally exclaimed, "I shall never understand!" He said, "You mustn’t take it that way. You are attentive. I am only trying to give you some pointers (Ihnen einige Lichter aufzustecken)." I remember his voice especially well from that moment: it was not very deep, but full of nuances, he could imply a great deal with a slight change of inflection, his gestures were the same way. It seems to me that it was then that he gestured across the street and said, still in a tone of great kindness, "Do you see that blind girl? I often see her. She is attentive." And sure enough, there was a blind girl crossing the street opposite the café where we were now sitting, a girl of about the same height and coloring as myself. An eerie feeling took hold of me; the light around the café table turned cold. "This is not life," something in me said frantically. "This is a scene from Malte Laurids Brigge."
We spoke, again, of the cultural scene. He had been to London recently and found that the cultural level there had sunk greatly. What had gone on there, he said, seemed like a renewal at first, but it had turned out to be a leveling-down. There was a silence, in which I felt that he was afraid. I too was afraid, with part of my fear disguising itself as boredom: I had come all this way to talk to a great poet and he had merely echoed my own misgivings.
He was speaking now of contemporary French literature; it had not influenced him deeply. Certainly, on coming to Paris and admiring their literary technique he had said to himself, "You have to be able to do that too." But at that point something else was happening for him, besides the words he was saying to this visitor. He was looking slightly away from me, his hand making a nervous gesture as if left to itself. In my mind something said in a horrified whisper: He is insane.
From something I had said he knew that I knew Russian, and sometime later he mentioned that a good Russian translation of Dante had been made in Paris by a Russian emigre named Boris Zaitsev. he would write down the title for me. He took the pencil and paper and wrote, in Russian script, "Bozhestvennaja Tragedia" – Divine Tragedy.
It was like a knife falling through my brain from very high up, a flash that short-circuited all my means of expression. Several things occurred to me. One was that as the Divine Comedy was a poem of universal salvation, so the Divine Tragedy must be a poem of universal damnation. Another was that if an allusion to my name was intended, it was sadly mistaken; I had never made anyone happy. Another was that for a great poet, it was not a very original thing to say. And finally I thought, again: he is insane. Did he know, even, that he had written that? Should I point it out to him? Or would that make matters worse, like calling to a sleepwalker? Silence seemed the safest course, though I despised myself for my cowardice. But I was utterly unable to speak or make any motion. The unbearable moment lasted until he motioned to the waiter, paid, and said to me, "Gehn wir." The test was over. I had failed, but it was over.
It was – the comparison may have occurred to me even in the moment – like that moment in Lord Jim when the hero stands before the strained bulkhead on a ship full of sleeping steerage passengers and seees that it will give way, the ship will sink, and there are not enough lifeboats, and he breaks, his courage gives way, without waking anyone he heads for the lifeboats. He spends the rest of his life in futile acts of unnecessary heroism, trying to make up for the one moment in which he was weighed and found wanting.
We were walking along the street again. Whether I was silent or whether I answered mechanically to some questions he put, my mind was on the fact that the most significant moment of the most significant encounter of my life had just passed, and I had not been able to respond, I had failed. What was going to become of me now, what was I going to do for the rest of my existence? halfway down the block he said to me, "I wrote ‘tragedy’ instead of ‘comedy’ there, did you see it?" In his voice there was a note of hurt and disappointment. "Yes, I saw it," I admitted, feeling now in addition to everything else the shame of having assumed that he did not know what he was doing, when obviously he did. But again I was unable to speak further.
After that the worst was over; if memory serves me right, he seemed more at ease during the second part of the interview than during the first. We spoke again of literary matters. He said (then, or earlier) that the poem was "ein Sprechen" (a speaking). He said that he did not think one could use rhyme any more, unless thematically; what was my opinion? I thought of a poem partly inspired by him, and written in rhyme, but said only, "I don’t know." "No," he said, "I don’t think so." He did not sound happy about it. But it was clear that he enjoyed being a celebrated poet. It came out in the way he talked about someone who had published some English translations of his work in Japan: "I did not give my permission, because I think he is a bad translator, but I’m not going to prosecute." He seemed amused, as when he had detected my underhandedness before. I tried to describe the poetry scene in Berkeley, where all sorts of people were willing to get up and read the most terrible stuff, in order to think of themselves as poets. "It is something, after all!" he said, with (in the words of my letter the next day) "a smile that I am almost tempted to characterize as suffisant [smug])." I felt his enjoyment of the power he had which made such a gulf between us (though of course that very power had also attracted me): no, we could not laugh together at those amateurs!
We spoke of different authors, those he liked– Tvetayeva, Mandel’shtam, Michaux, his friend in America had recommended Laura Riding – and those he dismissed as "nicht gut," among them Pasternak, whom he resented especially for saying that the Jews should convert to Christianity. he mentioned with disfavor a Christian interpretation of one of his poems, and said I should not pay any attention to the quasi-Christian ending of Blok’s "The Twelve," which he had translated from the Russian. Yet he did not seem eager to be characterized as a religious Jew either. He had gone to Hebrew school at his father’s insistence, but it had not meant much to him: "Ich war Kommunist!" As for the Hasidic stories, he had seen them for the first time in Paris, in a bookseller’s window next to a work by Freud which had interested him. We agreed in our enthusiasm for Emily Dickinson.
At some point I started to say something about certain things – almost "signs" – which I had seen before the interview. I was surprised to find myself brining up the subject, and still more surprised at the listening alertness in his "Ja?" which encouraged me to continue. I was going to say something about the old woman at the hotel, but could not bring myself to mention the Star of David. Sensing, perhaps, that I was not being open, he changed the subject.
He led me into the courtyard of a grey stone house which was perhaps elegantly built, perhaps he simply wanted to show me something he found beautiful, although I was concentrating so hard on trying to understand his intention that I could not really look at it. And then we crossed a bridge onto the Île de la Cité and walked through some dark streets which he said were the North African Jewish quarter. I noticed some pro-Israel slogans chalked up on the walls. As we were crossing the bridge back from the Île de la Cité, he pointed toward a statue I could dimly perceive in the distance. "That is Ste. Geneviève," he said. "She saved the city from the Huns." "When was that?" "Damals" (then), he replied, with a smile that was pure Mozart.
The summer day had become twilight; we were returning toward our point of departure. He was walking a little ahead of me through the dusk, when a darkhaired young man, taller than he and not especially refined in appearance, came striding along and jostled him. Then, apologizing, the stranger laid his hand on the poet’s arm. The latter, without lifting his head, removed the hand from his arm as though it were something inanimate, a branch in the forest that had struck him, and walked on. My heart smote me: that was the gesture of one for whom the human was almost no longer human, for whom any apology from this world would come too late.
One of the last things he said to me was that I should not pay too much attention to his latest book; it was something that walked the edge (etwas Randgängerisches). In his look as he spoke these words, in the apologetic tone of his voice, I thought I read some acknowledgment of all that had horrified and humiliated me in that book, and that had placed so much between us that was impossible to speak of, and equally impossible not to feel. He said that I should write to him from America, and send him more translations; he would be glad to follow the progress of my work. A last untoward thing happened: we were standing at the entrance to the Metro, which he planned to take to where he lived, and he asked if I wanted to take the Metro also. In a voice that sounded hard and frivolous, I said that I was not in the mood for the Metro; I would take a taxi back to the hotel. It was the rebellion of fatigue; I had been ill recently, had spent several hours on my feet after a day of travel, had not had time for lunch before the interview; but this reminded me that there had doubtless been a time when he had walked much further with much less inclination; I felt like Marie Antoinette. Perhaps, also, the underground had some symbolism for me at the moment, or the emotional strain of the interview had been too much and I wanted to get out of his presence as fast as possible, though I still felt disappointed that he did not ask to see me again the second day of my stay in Paris. Were we to shake hands again? We were. At the last moment I told myself that after all perhaps it was not final, I could come back another year, he would still be there.
I took the taxi back to the hotel, went upstairs and shut the door behind me, and put my hands to my head while the floor tilted and, for a moment, a horror of great darkness descended.
[The letter written the next day seems to have been written partly in order to hold fast something of the experience, partly in order not to be alone with the things that had most affected me: these – except for the incident with the statute of Ste. Geneviève – I did not confide. The account concluded: "All in all, it was a strange day. I have the feeling as if all the preceding difficulties, and then that enigmatic hotel (and those stars!) had something to do with the interview, as if that ironical eye had been observing me the whole day." After 1971 I remembered the interview above as an occasion on which I had been appealed to, and had failed to find a response to the appeal; in the letter what predominates is the impression of the poet’s reserve, and of having been somewhat rebuffed.
Both interpretations of the encounter may, of course, be true. The more relentlessly poets reveal themselves in their works, the more they have to defend themselves in life. Hugo Huppert tells of an interview, late in 1966, in which Celan interpreted his poem "Speech-Grille" with the words: "I stand on a different spatial and temporal level from my reader, he can understand me only ‘remotely,’ I cannot get hold of me, but only grasp the bars of the grille between us." But in the poem itself the I and the You are after all on the same level, "close together," and I had heard the tone of the poem as one of longing: "If I were like you. If you were like me./ Did we not stand under one/ trade-wind?/ We are strangers." The reader is thus placed in the classic "double bind" of one both implored and forbidden to approach. The reader's dilemma is the mirror image of the poet's vulnerability in a society where the accomplishment of "art" is more often acknowledged than the human truth that the poem attempts to convey.)