by Robert Archambeau
(see http://samizdatblog.blogspot.com/2013/05/the-last-habsburg-poet-marjorie-perloff.html for the full essay)
At first, I was a little surprised by the direction she took: I’d been expecting Big Ideas, but what we were getting was a mixture of biography and geography. Marjorie talked about Celan’s birth in Czernowitz, an outpost of the West far, far from the German or French spheres, more oriented toward the Ottoman Empire than Paris or London, and about the polyglot, multiethnic nature of the place: Romanian but not Romanian, Christian, Jewish, with an endless number of languages, including a German quite different from the German of Berlin. She then talked in great detail about Celan’s poetry, but not the poetry most known to American readers. She described his early Surrealist poems, his Romanian poems, and, above all, his love poetry—something he wrote for many years, and used in his role as expert seducer, often presenting the same poems to different women, with generally successful results.
I wasn’t at all sure where this was all leading, but when Marjorie said it was a version of material that would form the epilogue to a book on Austro-Modernism it all began to come into focus. And, indeed, it all began to seem part of a very Big Idea indeed, and a good one. This wasn’t just a ramble in poetic biography: the point of all of the context and focus on Celan’s particular brand of Austrian German language was to recontextualize Celan entirely, and, in so doing, to propose not just a new way of understanding Celan, but a new way of understanding a whole branch of modern European literature.
We tend to see Celan almost exclusively in the context of Holocaust writing, with John Felstiner’s Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew as the great explanatory text. Celan certainly is a Holocaust poet—plausibly the greatest of Holocaust poets—but we are wrong to think that this exhausts his meaning and the range of his achievement. In focusing on Celan’s early life and his love poetry (which he continued to write after the war) Perloff showed us a fuller, less iconic, more humanized figure, a Celan who wasn’t just a Survivor, but a man, with all the foibles and idiosyncrasies one might expect in a somewhat coddled aesthete raised by adoring and indulgent parents.
Not only did Perloff reveal this Celan to us: in stressing the differences between his German and the German spoken in Frankfurt or Berlin (and, indeed, in stressing the vast geographic removal of Czernowitz from Germany proper) she showed us Celan as a representative of a culture quite distinct from that of Germany: the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the traditionally Habsburg (alternately Hapsburg) lands. The Empire’s German was distinct, and Marjorie was quite convincing in demonstrating that many of the legendary ‘difficulties’ of Celan’s poems are actually quite clear, at least to one hearing “with an Austrian ear.” And the Empire was by no means an Empire of German: it was a polyglot culture of many languages, and no one spoke just one. Indeed, the multicultural Imperial identity, in which many peoples felt equally enfranchised, was utterly different from German identity, and it showed in the culture: “There is no way Wittgenstein could have been a German writer,” Marjorie said, “and no way Heidegger could have been an Austro-Hungarian one.”
Celan the product of this multicultural and polyglot sphere, to which belong the works of Robert Musil, Elias Canetti, Sigmund Freud, Karl Kraus, Joseph Roth, and Franz Kafka—but he was the product of this world in a special way, because he was the product of that world’s dissolution. Born just two years after the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he came of age in the penumbra of loss, with a sense of the ghostliness of his own multicultural and polyglot identity.
In the end, Marjorie wasn’t just telling us that we would do well to think of Celan in the broad context of the dying Habsburg culture: she was telling us that we have a great deal of work ahead of us in reconstructing the lost Empire as a cultural field, and in finding the meaning of its writers not in some generalized Germanic tradition, but in the shadows and fragments of a dying polyglot state. We would be as wrong to discuss Musil or Kafka or Celan outside this context as we would to discuss William Carlos Williams without reference to his Americanness. This, I thought, is a big idea—it proposes not just a new understanding of Celan, but a new field of literary study.