Saturday, February 03, 2007

Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe (1940-2007)

I was saddened to learn of the death last weekend of Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, and interested to find Bob Archambeau remembering him today on the Samizdat Blog. Especially, that is, in connection with a reading of late Celan, which reminded me of working my way thru Poetry as Experience with a graduate seminar last spring, & working thru some knotty questions of poetry, interpretation, & biography. (Somewhere among last spring’s Culture Industry posts, I think, is a meditation on what I see as Lacoue-Labarthe’s misreading of “Todtnauberg.”)
As someone who’s rather invested in biography, I guess I’m perennially fascinated by how biographical “knowledge” – or hearsay – can torque our reading of literary & philosophical texts. (What, for instance, does the biographical record show us Celan really thought about his meeting with Heidegger during the period he was composing “Todtnauberg”?) I think the listserv post Bob quotes from Clifford Duffy in re/ the roots of Celan’s late, dense style is a example of spectacularly sloppy biographical thinking (I’ll quote in Bob’s edited version; the full text is here):
In the early 50's Paul Celan published his poem ** Death Fugue ** . This poem became very widely read and universally accepted as a powerful statement 'about' the death camps of Europe. The poem is exacting, intense entrancing, and excruciating. It pushes to an extreme an emotional response that the reader undergoes while reading it…. Sadly by the early 60's the poem became so widely antholgized in Germany and had become a standard part of the learning of German children in Western German education. I say sadly because of this. The poem by sheer dint of repetition had lost some of its intensity and had (through the abuse it has been subjected to, and as the biographer of Celan infers, Guilt on the part of the generation of teachers and educators 'teaching ' this poem to their children) had become a standard' tool of analysis. …. It got to the point where school children in Germany used it to analyze metrics effectively undermining its meaning and its impact. …It has its place. -- But the Poem was diverted from its path...When ** Death Fugue** was published Adorno read it and said in a written statement. This is too beautiful One cannot write Beautiful poems about the Holocaust. One can only be silent in the face of what happened there. …. The effect on Paul Celan from what I have read was very strong, if not close to devastating.
It's hard to know what to do with a string of statements like this, except to untangle what's accurate or plausible from what's misremembered or simply wrong. The business about the readerly success & the the school adoption of Celan's "Todesfuge" is pretty much right, & for me was one of the real revelations of John Felstiner's Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew.

On the other hand, Adorno never made any such pronouncement ("This is too beautiful") about "Death Fugue." I suspect Duffy is thinking about the statement from Adorno's 1949 essay "Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft," "After Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric." It's unclear whether Adorno knew "Death Fugue" when he wrote this (Felstiner thinks he probably didn't; Adorno biographer Lorenz Jäger thinks he "may not have"). But Celan did indeed read this statement, & responded to it in a manner that showed a pretty keen grasp of what Adorno was up to in a note around the time of Atemwende (1967):
No poem after Auschwitz (Adorno): what sort of an idea of a "poem" is being implied here? The arrogance of the man who hypothetically and speculatively has the audacity to observe or report on Auschwitz from the perspective of nightingales and song thrushes. (quoted in Jäger, Adorno: A Political Biography 187)
Duffy's reading of the curve of Celan's career authorizes a simple shortcut, an explaining (away?) of Celan's late hermeticism as an apotropaic reaction to Adorno's attack on the "lyricism" of "Todesfuge."

If there were any evidence that Adorno had "Todesfuge" in mind when he wrote about poetry after Auschwitz – if there were any evidence that Celan was "devastated" by Adorno's statement – then I'd be inclined to take this biographical thesis seriously. As the evidence now stands, I think one is forced to pursue a more purely Adornian road: to try to analyze the increasing density of the Celanian text as a development of the immanent logic of his poetics. A parallel argument can be made with the hermeticism of late Zukofsky, which some have tried to explain (away) as an effect of his public isolation.

Bob, you gotta open up the comment box!

1 comment:

Archambeau said...


Good lookin' out! I'll retrofit the post with a link here.

Comment box, eh? Hmm....