JUXTAPOSITIONS Celan “The Trumpet Place”

deep in the glowing
at torch height,
in the timehole:
hear deep in
with your mouth.

John Felstiner, “Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew” 1995, 271

Augustine’s “other famous words that describe the double itinerary of his quest (ab extoribus ad interiora, ab inferioribus ad superiora) ((from the outer to the inner, from the lower to the higher)) can be read as thought thinking its other. To see here only the closed circle of the ‘metaphysics of presence’ is to be mislead by spatial metaphors of ‘in-here’ / ‘out-there.’ When Augustine says that God is more intimate to the soul than the soul is to itself (‘intimior intima mea’), an otherness is implied more recalcitrant than the recalcitrant inward otherness of the self. There can be no univocal ‘metaphysics of presence’; we cannot master our own otherness, much less God’s.”
William Desmond, Philosophy and its Others, 1990, p 362, fn. 25.

Felstiner’s commentary on these verses begins where most lyric commentaries begin: what place do the first lines locate? He cites a common answer, a place cited in Revelation 8:10. Then he offers an answer he prefers, a real not-merely textual place in the Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans and discovered by archeologists in 1969. He adds a third dimension, Luther’s translation of the text about the giving of the Ten Commandments in Exodus. Then there’s a related text in the Revelation of Saint John.

The search for the place of the Shofar, where the ram’s horn was blown to announce the beginning and end of the Sabbath, matters to Celan as a ‘moment in time’ for the existence of Judaism. The ambiguity of the rest of the poem is crucial to the meaning of the poem. Felstiner’s translation —-“hear deep in / with your mouth”—- transfigures the space sought for from historical space to metaxic space, the space between our blank ignorance of the origin and the radiant promise of just such a place in being. Given the ongoing threat to Judaism in the 20th century, the poem becomes an existential occasion from which the reader can not be freed.

I believe that this poem and others by Celan are crucial to the refiguration of the lyric in our time. The lyric is not ultimately about the poet’s self in the idealist sense. As the text from Desmond puts it, we cannot master our own otherness, much less God’s.

Is there a theological turn in postmodern poetics? So it has been argued. I reject those arguments as reductive. What’s at stake is our very capacity to read a poem in its full dimensionality. I have called this “the narrative of lyric,” and that too is reductive, for it reduces the topic to yet another occasion for traditional poetics. So what gives?

Closer to the desired answer is a figure from Augustine through phenomenology. Augustine’s double itinerary, interpreted phenomenologically, opens the form of the lyric to the plural dimensions of consciousness ultimately shaped by “what can’t be thought,” but which the poem illuminates. The inadequacy of the light metaphor is exposed by Celan’s polyvalent existential image “hear deep in / with your mouth.”

The lyric form is an urgent movement from solid place through searching “deep in the text-void,” then rising “at torch height.” I refer you to Augustine’s double itinerary: from outer to inner, from lower to higher. This is no mere idealistic transcendence. It is double: the first movement from outside to inside is repeated differently. Simultaneously, in the between of passage from mortal nothingness to finite Somethingness. But only in the space of hearing/speaking. Not dualistically, not either-or, but both-and.

The final word in Desmond’s footnote about inwardness is not a return to Romanticism, egoism, any shadow of Emerson perfectibility. It is about the irreducible otherness that sets out in its singularity the other-than-can-be-thought as the End of the search for truth that is the lyric narrative or form.

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 tom.develyn@comcast.net. 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 http://tdevelyn.com and other sites.

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