The Surplus of the Between, Paul Celan and Joyce


Translated by Susan H. Gillespie. Corona: Selected Poems of Paul Celan (2013)

Celan hated to be called a ‘hermetic’ poet. This late poem leaves no doubt of the source of difficulty: world and word are not transparent to each other but doubled. Or rather: everything in the world is doubled, which makes it illegible.

To paraphrase not once but twice.

Even time is doubled. The word time is rooted in the concept of splitting or cutting. Then there’s AM and PM. Is there something jarring about the sounding of the hour, dividing or cutting the flow of time?

The human self resists, rooted in its very selfhood, yet shakes free or is shaken free of its own-ness, dividing from its oneness in breaking (free) of the moment to leave itself once for all.

This narrative is a narrative of betweenness. The desire to understand is frustrated first by the illegibility then by the doubleness. Even time, which we may imagine as a unifying element, is doubled in consciousness, the ‘moment’ being understood on second thought as movement.

Finally, even the self splits up. Up is the good news. Forever is a sign of difference as an ontological principle.

Rather than hermetic perhaps Celan is a poet of the between. Commenting on Joyce’s Ulysses, Desmond addresses the problem of ‘surplus immediacy.’ Thinking and immediacy are opposed like the banks of a river. Joyce’s art tries to render the surplus immediacy of one day in Dublin. Affirming the occasion AND the surplus. (Between System and Poetics, 26 f).

Joyce and Celan, improbable doubles in the surplus immediacy of the between.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

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