Under the Dome: Walks with Paul Celan
Burning Deck, 2009
Soon after the death of his son, Anatole, the poet Stéphane Mallarmé began composing fragments with the aim of fashioning a poetic tomb. While Mallarmé never completed the work, over 200 such fragments survive. Standing somewhere between idea and first draft, these pieces are often so personal and incomplete as to be inscrutable. Yet they also succeed at conveying a crippling grief, a sorrow that made completion not only impossible but also undesirable. One fragment reads:
you can, with your little
hands, drag me
into your grave — you
have the right —
who follow you, I
let myself go —
— but if you
wish, the two
of us, let us make.
(tr. Paul Auster)
Only the thought of a shared undertaking between the living poet and his dead son keeps the speaker alive; and yet the fragment trails off at precisely the moment such collaboration becomes articulable. Is it possible, Mallarmé’s fragments ask, to survive and (then) to make? Are wounds and words incommensurable?
Like Mallarmé’s “tombeau”, Jean Daive’s Under the Dome: Walks with Paul Celan is a memoir of fragments written under the sign of mourning. Published in French in 1996 but newly translated by Rosmarie Waldrop, Under the Dome is Daive’s attempt to come to grips with the trauma of Celan’s 1970 suicide, which cut short a five-year friendship of walks and meals, conversations and explanations. The book is a menagerie of genres in miniature; Daive marshals stylistic elements of biography, autobiography, memoir, prose poem, and elegy to present the celebrated German poet as both a tender companion and a wincing, searing mystery, an interlocutor in past conversations and present grief. Ultimately, Under the Dome is a tribute to Celan and an exploration of his greatest concern, the conflict—and possible commerce—between language and loss.
Daive’s fragmentary style is not a problem of memory but an act of resistance to coherent narrative. Under the Dome takes seriously both the demand that form correspond to content and the notion that coherence seals off an enigmatic subject’s silence in the crypt of a single perspective. Accordingly, its fragmentariness, refusal to reckon with chronology, language games, and poetic improvisation will turn away readers looking for a succinct biographical account of Celan’s final years. (They should consult, instead, the closing chapters of John Felstiner’s sensitive, exhaustive, and rightly acclaimed biography, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew.) On the other hand, intrepid and familiar readers will be prepared for the difficulty, and an experience of Daive’s language, which follows in the stylistic wake of Celan’s, may be the best introduction to both poets’ work.
Fortunately, Daive is a poet in his own right—Celan translated his first book, Décimale Blanche, into German—and Under the Dome benefits from his artistry. The conversations Daive records with Celan are not far from poetic collaboration in their associative leaps and improvised experimentation. As a result, his work voices a plea as desperate as Mallarmé’s for an impossible collaboration: “the two / of us, let us make”. If Celan is named in the book’s subtitle, he is—posthumously—its author as well.
This seems fitting, for it was not until after his death that Celan gained a wide audience, in large part due to the efforts of his numerous translators and critics. Born Jewish in Romania as Paul Antschel, Celan shortened his surname to Ancel after the war (which claimed the lives of both of his parents). Then in 1947, presaging his experiments with the contours and contortions of individual words, he inverted its syllables to become Celan.
Celan studied languages and literature at university before settling in Paris in 1948, where he taught, wrote nine volumes of poetry, and translated French, English, and Russian literature into German. Although he grew up speaking Romanian and lived most of his adult life in France, Celan explicitly chose to write in German, the language spoken by his mother and, of course, by those responsible for her murder. The ebullient reception of his early poem, “Death Fugue”, still widely anthologized and taught in nearly every course on the literature of the Holocaust, disturbed Celan, who told Daive that it seemed “Germany’s bad conscience had finally found someone to talk to”.
Nevertheless, Celan continued to address the German literary world—and indeed, identified language as the sole survivor of the Nazi era. Upon receipt of a literary prize in Bremen, Celan discussed the role of language in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Complicating Theodor Adorno’s famous dictum “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”, Celan argued:
It, the language, remained, not lost, yet in spite of everything. But it had to pass through its own answerlessness, pass through frightful muting, pass through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech. It passed through and gave back no words for that which happened; yet it passed through this happening. Passed through and could come to light again, “enriched” by all this. (Tr. John Felstiner)
After the Holocaust, poetry became Celan’s medium both for revealing language as the victim of “frightful muting” and as the instrument for its “com[ing] to light again”. (At one point, Daive recalls him saying, “The world always remembers poetry. Sooner or later”.)
This vision of poetry is evident in one posthumously published (and particularly Rilkean) poem, written during Celan’s friendship with Daive:
Do not work ahead,
do not send forth,
into it, enter:
transfounded by nothingness,
unburdened of all,
microstructured in heeding
I miss you at home,
instead of all
Here, in Celan’s signature neologisms, the speaker’s assertions outpace his scars and convey the effects of friendship forged through wounds. Celan casts home as a place without rest, suggesting that he sought friendship that would heighten and even privilege tension rather than provide refuge from it. This vision comes across at all levels of Under the Dome; Daive details the tension of his friendship with Celan, but also devotes a number of fragments to musings on the central vehicle of this tension, poetry.
The two mens’ conversations about unclassifiable poetic technique, in particular Celan’s characteristic substitution of neologistic compounds like “Windgalle” [Wind gall] and “Treckschutenzeit” [Bargetrekking time] for verbs, are especially interesting in this light. Daive’s explanation of his friend’s work—that “the verb is absorbed into the energy of the composite noun”—simultaneously justifies his own fragmentary method in Under the Dome, for it is through such unclassifiable fragments that we can best understand Celan’s life: “Paul Celan chews a word like stone. All day long. It produces word-energy. It all goes into the energy of his composite words. Here we have his biography”.
Sadly, Celan’s assertions about the longevity of poetry stand in stark contrast to his early death. Despite his commitment to the contrary, the possibility that language could pass through and eventually overcome unspeakable harm was one that Celan himself never realized. He was reclusive, sometimes paranoid, and, in a word, tormented. During the nearly five years Daive knew him, Celan was briefly institutionalized, spoke often of anxiety and of survivor’s guilt, and underwent a painful separation from his wife. “Sometimes I dream I’m dead and looking for my grave”, Daive recalls him saying.
Such intensity of observation and concern characterized much of Daive’s and Celan’s time together, and constitute much of Daive’s recollection in this piece. In one particularly unsettling scene, for instance, Daive remembers when a breakfast of omelets prompted a discussion on the limits of friendship. Daive offers to exchange his omelet for Celan’s burnt one; Celan, serious to the point of farce, replies, “Impossible. What is burned cannot be changed or exchanged…it is a sign”. Daive’s naïveté appalls Celan, for whom the burdens and wounds of the past cannot simply be transmitted to an other. But the audacity of Daive’s offer to “exchange…a sign” also opens a door: for the first time in their friendship, the intensely private Celan asks to visit Daive in his apartment. When he does, Celan compares the language of his poetry to the shrimp Daive serves him: stripped down, boiled, unadorned.
Celan’s unyielding gaze can be unnerving in moments like these. More often, though, the man who called attentiveness “the natural prayer of the soul” articulates his reflections with a stunning lyricism. Daive is attentive, too, and his mentor’s influence shines through as he commingles the project of Under the Dome with Celan’s thesis:
He holds out his hand, and a golden light falls on our approaching fingers. The light disturbs the distance about to decrease to zero, a handshake, golden yellow. He goes on: — As soon as we talk the world seems to lose some of its solidity, and it’s this move toward loss that interests us. But we cannot always face it. It requires an availability that is scorching. What do you think, Jean Daive?
Daive’s desire to account for Celan’s effect on his life resonates with Celan’s own drive to be faithful to a trauma—”that which happened”, as he calls it in the Bremen address—an event so overwhelming that it can never really be said to have been experienced, much less named or narrated, by an individual. Writing the disaster that such a trauma unleashes inevitably comes at the expense of accessibility and, perhaps, the accepted uses of language, but Daive’s willingness to transgress the boundaries of genre is his work’s most salient and valuable legacy.
In the final paragraphs of Under the Dome, Daive questions his work and his duty as a survivor of Paul Celan, asking, “What does being touched by fire allow you to write?” Paul Celan once spoke to Jean Daive about poetry’s relationship with suffering, generously include Daive in a shared project: “We write with luminous wounds that illuminate our hands”. Daive’s memoir is an attempt to reciprocate his friend’s gesture. Its generosity and expansiveness make Daive’s achievement worthy of the loss that underwrites it.
John Steen is a PhD candidate in comparative literature at Emory University.