The Art of Reading: From Homer to Paul Celan

  Bollack, Jean. 2016. The Art of Reading: From Homer to Paul Celan. Trans. C. Porter and S. Tarrow with B. King. Edited by C. Koenig, L. Muellner, G. Nagy, and S. Pollock. Hellenic Studies Series 73. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

27. The Mountain of Death: The Meaning of Celan’s Meeting with Heidegger*


The poem

Nouns speak volumes if we can understand what they say, and if, from words, we make “names.” The place, named in the title, heralds the opening that will be brought about through language. The mountain (-berg) guards, it generates and hides, protects and preserves the “meadow of the dead,” the site of a descent into hell (Todtnau, Totenau), the place of an inescapable destiny, that of a modern katabasis, a plunge into the underworld. It is into this infernal place that the owner of the cottage will be led by his visitor, who will unlock the secret of the swamps. The visitor has the necessary credentials for taking him there. All is ready, right up to the ferryman, the guide and witness appointed to take them there together. That was the purpose of the ride in a car.

The entry

The mountain has revealed its secret to the visitor, emitting its signs from the very first words. The flowers are the messengers of the chthonian depths: first, on the side of history, the yellow star, the visitor’s history, the history of the Jews; and then, on the side of death, the euphrasy (eyebright), beneficial for the eye, where poetry is revitalized in the light of a new gaze. It can say what this history has been. The mark of a color, the yellow flower, has as its counterweight the benefits the word implies. The eye clears, far from the inherited hymns and in their embrace, the senses, which have been adjusted to the stain of infamy. The balm of another light, rising from the funereal meadows, Totenau, turns into “eyebright” (Augentrost). Language seizes the topography, it remakes the site, recovers it, shows that it covers and uncovers it, leaving it covered also in its initial opacity.

The water that flows and that we drink is made of words. The poem draws on another source. The gesture can be interpreted; it lends itself to interpretation: “What you see me doing has its own meaning, which perhaps escapes you; however, what I come to ask, by agreeing to drink from this fountain, your fountain, is clear. The expected reply will no doubt be denied me. One can fear so. But let there be no mistake: I shall already have obtained it, during this visit. I shall have turned the denial to my advantage.” Interpreters have been mistaken or have been unwilling to read it this way; they have not wanted to make this visit such a funereal occasion, the response to a denial of murder.

As in the other poems, the relation of the linguistic organization to the external reality to which it refers, a reality less reproduced than reconstituted, is problematic. The well near Heidegger’s cottage exists, and the figure carved in the wood above the fountain is that of a star etched in a cube. No precision in the evocation of objects impedes the complete reworking. The second scene takes place in the house: we are in the cottage, the “hut” (Hütte). The prepositional phrase has a particularly expressive force in a purely substantive setting, throughout the eight stanzas of the candelabra. [5] The stress of the repeated two-syllable line: in der / Hütte (“in the / hut”), envelops the whole prologue in its own ambience, and means that Celan, with the language—his language—that he has introduced into this place, has taken over the interior of the home. He has a magic lever that allows him to bring up vast distances. The powers named in the prologue are all ensconced in this place, in the nocturnal domain of the cottage.

the line
—whose name did the book
register before mine?—,
the line inscribed
in that book about
a hope, today,
of a thinking man’s
in the heart {373|374}

The inner sphere of the dwelling can, for this reason, be represented by a book. And first of all it is a book as such, as a place and as an object where what is written is received, as one speaks of the Bible, as Mallarmé speaks of his impossible project. [
6] But in a second stage, which becomes clear in the parenthesis, the book turns into another book, a very distinctive one that is opened only in this poem. In reality, as conveyed anecdotally, it is an album in which Celan has written his name. The sentence inscribed in it is known. [7] Celan makes a distinction between the lines he has written and those of other houseguests: in other circumstances he would not have agreed to leave his signature next to theirs. In this place, its presence was important and significant; it defined an intellectual and political horizon.

The poetic text to be analyzed is clearly written, without equivocation or ambiguity, without any possible means of escape. Hope, at the moment of writing (“today”), lives on thanks to an expectation. In the course of a journey that has already been mapped out, thought becomes what it should never have refused to be. Like the book, the guide driving the car doubles as a witness, in a role that the context assigns him. Driver when it is time for a drive, he becomes the involuntary guide on an infernal journey. The punning on Namen / nahms (“names” / “registered”) does not stress the reality of the signatures, but refers to the transfer of the world of those inscribed in the book, the brigades of the persecutors, into the register of the Last Judgment that is now being compiled. The names must appear before Celan’s, because the poet, through the meaning given to the inscription of his name, provides a counterweight. An act of real resistance is connected to a person. The name: “mine” (next to what others?) implies an incriminating neighborhood. The question addressed to the book also designates the very place of poetry, a habitual and constant place, a component of liberation. The cohabitation is experienced as something always imposed—impossible but imposed.

The lines that follow (stanza 3, lines 8–10) reproduce, with some significant differences, the sentence in the book, which was written a week later. It is evasive and revelatory. At first glance, a superficial reader would read it as a friendly compliment to his host. This is how it has often been interpreted. But this kind of reading takes no account of the meaning of the words. In fact, the relation between the two levels of language is comparable to the relation that might exist between the sculptured cube with the star and the function it assumes in its context. Thus, the term “thinking man” (Denkenden) might make one think of Heidegger the thinker; however, in his work Celan uses it only in reference to recollection and commemoration; in the same way, the word “heart” (Herz) is commonly conceived as an organ of memory, and this semantic orientation determines the meaning of the other words. Hope, if one stays close to the moment as reconstituted, relies on a distancing from all that the names in the album represent; it remains attached to the present day; in turn, the present boils down to what the book has become in this text: a book that writes, and re-writes.

Finally, the epithet “coming” (kommendes) concerns less the speech of the future than a declaration that will be actualized, will “happen,” and will go to its addressee. The expectation formulated by Celan will not come to pass, but it is no less important for the understanding of the whole to consider the fact that {375|376} it has been expressed. This is the way the poet retains the fault: the philosopher will not say what the poet may have come to ask him to say, that he suggests he say, but the poet already knows that the philosopher will not comply. In response to this absence, the second part of the text confirms the reasons that keep him from doing so. Speech is actualized in an open acknowledgement, revealing the continuity of an attachment to the past.

woodland sward, unlevelled,
orchid and orchid, single,

coarse stuff, later, clear
in passing,

he who drives us, the man,
who listens in,

the half-
trodden wretched
tracks through the high moors,


The five stations of the excursion construct a descent into Hell. The first visit is to the torture sites, and their victims’ graves, in the middle of the Black Forest. The confession wrenched from the thinker comes after the visitors turn back. They go first to the realm of the dead. They need a witness to hear the confession of the unthinkable, the thing that the poet succeeds in making the thinker say. After the judgment of the underworld, they return to the surface of the earth, and the confession is made as an offering to the victims of the extermination camps. All that remains is to display the ritual scene of mourning in the shedding of tears.

The initiatory rite of saturation under pressure (stanzas 5 and 6) entails a movement of departure and a fit of anger, like a whirlwind, perhaps. The {376|377} circles open onto the abyss. The stage is surrounded by two other more horizontal visions, along similarly stagnant lines. The opening (stanza 4) prepares for the journey. The summoned victims are there: the soul of each one of the dead blooms by itself, individually, with its own little candelabra. Each one has its own power of resistance, a virile force concentrated in the tubers of the orchis (“the boys’ plant,” Knabenkraut), in the form of testicles. A legion rises up, uncountable; each blossom has its genitals. Domination seems irrepressible. So the journey will take place, and it has some chance of succeeding.

The content of the text would justify the hypothesis of a transposition of the title of Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain into Celan’s title, at least through the word “mountain” (-berg): it could well be a subverted form of a Zauberberg, of the dark site of an “unveiling,” for the workings of black magic—as black as the Forest so praised by Heidegger. We know people who never went back there.

The tribunal of the dead

The remembered dialogue is reconstituted, taking on the aspect of a tragic revolt. Celan rereads the words, his own notes, in his Goethe. He discovers them in the mouth of the young scholar, a well-read jurist, defending the cemetery: first of all, the term “no one,” which we know from “The Meridian” and which allowed Celan to re-interpret in a similar way a “himself” (er selbst) from Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, and then, too, the “presence” (Gegenwart) of the dead. That presence is transferred into the order of language. In Goethe, the survivors gather together “as if around a boundary stone” (the German is very eloquent: “wie um einem Markstein”); they keep the enemies away from this rallying sign. If we needed a proof of the legitimacy (or necessity) of the connection, it is provided by the importance attributed to the enclosure that is distinguished, and repeated, in the first version of the poem, by the adjective ungesäumt (without a border). [14] Celan’s reader passes spontaneously from the sense of “incessant” to that of “without a border.” [15] Reading the Affinities where the word is used in conversation by the architect (ungesäumt vergleiche, [16] a comparison of equality and non-distinction) offers the possibility of fitting it in with the core of the nihilistic erasure in the philosopher’s speech. In any case, Goethe is presented as a forefather of this depersonalization. One can imagine the interest and the irony of the interlocutor, who knew how to “make people speak,” faced with the Goethean professions of faith from the Freiburg Germanist. [17]

The descent

If this text were describing concrete facts, “the person who is driving us” would be that person, the car’s driver, the guide whose identity we know. Obviously, we cannot settle for this. The real point of departure has been maintained and, transferred into another domain, opens up in the dimension of speech. As journeys go, this one quickly takes them far from the plateaus of the Forest. The occupant of the cottage has been drawn by his guest into the kingdom of darkness. Both are escorted in their descent or voyage (“journey in Hades,” Hadesfahrt, or “journey into the Underworld,” Unterweltsfahrt, and so on) and in their exploration by a being who has a man’s name. Neither priest nor God nor poet, but a man, a figure of ordinary humanity, showing the way among the victims of inhumanity.

The transitive use of fährt (“drives,” “leads”) does not describe the actual situation of the car driven by Gerhard Neumann, but rather the journey, according to the terms of poetic transposition. The difference between Fahrer (driver) and der uns fährt (who drives us), following im Fahren (in passing) in the preceding verse, is important. Stress is placed on the load that is being transported (compare the noun die Fuhre, “cart load”), the cargo carried off by a coachman or a wondrous boatman. Celan explained to André du Bouchet that “to convey” (voiturer) would be an equivalent; [24] the meaning and the orientation of this information become clear. The conveyer is responsible for carrying far away, right to the point where it is borne, the burden produced by the conversation between the two passengers. At the same time, he maintains contact with the other shore: he is a man. His role is to remain human in the domain of the inhuman. The pronoun “we” is detached in this adventure, producing a “him” and a “me” who are just as irreconcilably separated as the orchids (einzeln, “separate”). Celan speaks from his side: he hears what his interlocutor says to {380|381} him, from the side where he is sitting and where he has chosen to be (Celan did the same thing with Martin Buber in 1960, when we visited him together in a Paris hotel, and again with Nelly Sachs, the same year). [25] The same process is repeated three times. One speaks bluntly, to induce and record the response. This needed to be said, by Heidegger.

Now, the magician was Celan; he worked on assignment, his own. He set himself the project, and with a magician’s artistry he produced the confirmation he was expecting.

Return to the visions of memory

Now the mountain’s peat bogs take the place of the wooded meadows. This is where the killing took place. In the circular composition of the second part of the poem (stanzas 4 to 8), the poet, following the infernal discussion, recovers his own language; the “paths” (Pfade) are the passages that open up in his own poems. They lead to the paths of cudgels; here, the prisoners were beaten with those clubs. We remain within the framework of the constitution of the idiom. The words bear traces of the blows.

Once down on this lower level, one stops at a point that leads not to the world of the dead, but further back, to the sites of suffering and torture, to the swamps where the camps had been set up. The clubs one walks on to avoid sinking in the mud recall the brutality of the treatment the prisoners endured. One steps on their suffering, “half-treading,” so as to leave the weight of that suffering there, like a flag at half-mast (auf Halbmast). To do this is to abandon time, to leave it to the truth of tears (stanza 8). {381|382}

The dossier [33]

I note here with some emotion the content of the dossier of photocopies about this poem that Gisèle Celan was kind enough to put together for me in 1981, and then to complete, after a conversation on the improper appropriations of the text that I had discovered. This took place as I was starting work on Paul Celan (cover letters from Gisèle Celan from January 14 and 23, 1981):

An aporia pointing toward its solution

I did well to wait some fifteen years before publishing my own interpretation. It was not that I had failed to see immediately that I needed to interpret the elements of the background and to capture their intellectual significance, and I certainly knew how to go about it. But before the late 1980s, I had been convinced that Celan, as he more or less allowed us to believe or state, expected Heidegger to express an opinion. To better understand the situation, I needed to penetrate to the core of an analysis of the constitution and the power of language. The text that follows, revised in 1991, was presented in Gerald Stieg’s seminar at the Austrian Institute in Paris, on January 8, 1992.

The circumstances of the meeting

The witness

In the first of the letters he sent to Celan more than two months after the meeting, Gerhard Neumann recalls, in a rather conventional way, the conversations that took place in his presence in the car (letter of October 17, 1967). In the meantime, Celan had spoken with him on the telephone. He apparently mentioned the poem he had written, and thus indirectly the role he had made Neumann play in the infernal scenario; it was a distinction the meaning of which the young Neumann could not have understood. He responds emphatically: “I will never forget this conversation; without doubt something like it can occur only once in several decades.” But he adds a more precise reference to the events of the past, even though it remains particularly vague—or perhaps confused: “I did some soul searching, in view of the fact that I was able to be present during this conversation; believe me, I try to continue this search, in my own mind.” He must have been acting by way of a transference, interposing {387|388} himself, as if Celan had asked him to take responsibility for the accusation himself. Later, when he receives the Vaduz book with the poem, his reaction is in some ways even more uneasy: “I was bowled over (literally), and I realize that the appeal formulated in the poem is also addressed to me [which is not the case, not in that way]; I have reasons to fear that I am not equal to the appeal [which was the case]. I beg your indulgence; please continue to think kindly of me.” He seems to be asking permission to withdraw, and to escape the consequences of an affair in which he had no desire to be involved. [48]

In his memoir, [49] Baumann reports that during a meeting with Celan that took place on May 24, 1970, shortly before his death, the poet regretted that he had not received Neumann’s article on the “absolute metaphor.” [50] His curiosity must have been aroused. We can understand how Celan, later in the evening, flew into a towering rage when he found out about it. He learned that the metaphorical decomposition in his poetry did not succeed in capturing the real. The author was thinking about such a depraved reality that it evaded the possibility of any meaningful apprehension. The verbal explosion translated the decomposition of the world. Neumann thought this was an example, in one of its various manifestations, of the doctrine of technological degradation that figured so frequently in Heidegger’s work, and he thought he could base his argument on that premise. It featured prominently in a whole section of the interpretations he put forward of Celan’s work. Relations between Celan and Neumann were thus irreparably damaged. The lack of comprehension revealed a lack of solidarity. “The man” in the poem was not a man; he was not the incarnation of the non-human. Baumann, in recounting the incident, sides implicitly with his young assistant: in his study, he had put his finger on the unintelligible character of an art to which the poor poet remained attached. The decomposition that he re-translated was the expression of his absurd destiny. This is still another trend in the history of the reception accorded to Celan’s work. He had tried to utter the unutterable with more or less success. His illness bears witness to a transgression. The mystery cannot be denied. {388|389}


The sentence Inscribed in the book and its recomposition in the poem

Memory takes care of the rest. The heart remembers. It has the strength for it. Hope rests on it; it cannot cut itself off from continuity. The word rises, it springs up at the horizon of its language, “in the hope of the heart”; it has the virtue of opening up to what is to come (ein kommendes Wort). If one confines oneself to this logic, it cannot be the case of awaiting a declaration, or of some kind of justification on the part of the host. Rather it anticipates the confession that will be wrung out of the host. The survival of the past, of the initial act, evokes an implicit contradiction, by the mere fact of being uttered. The confession-­confirmation will serve as a lever for the production of a terrible denial. Nothing is merely described. Everything is transferred. The descriptions involve a passage to the interior of language, preventing the negation of the values that are associated with it at this site. The cottage and its well are spoken again like the book, the heart that remembers.

In the poem, the phases are apportioned, distinct: first the well, outside, then the indoor space of the cottage, which is organized around the book, to the extent of being confused with it, and with the line of writing traced in this book. The inscription written in it now gives way, with the narrative distance of the poem, to the gesture of a presentation and a doubling. The book, still his, is written from one poem to another, from one note to another; but it is enriched once more, in enemy territory, with the names and the language of the adversary, on the tracks of an incursion, always already programmed. To slip under the skin of the beast; the book will be that book, with all the names of the Nazis. {390|391}

The repetition of the sentence from the guest book—a form of auto-interpretive intertextuality—introduces the present tense of a recollection. It is the present of this day, “today,” highlighted. This day (heute), the story of the encounter will be inscribed; it has been extended to the murderers in the book, in the land of death, so much so that the “philosopher” of the Black Forest has begun, against his will, to think about the memory he rejects. The more he rejects, the less he renounces, and the more his thought is led to draw from itself the power to turn against itself. The “philosopher” in the counter-language has become an other. Nihilism has changed into memory of the annihilation. The future will open up if it is the depositary of that history.


My friend Kostas Axelos, whose thought was greatly influenced by Heidegger (he was one of the recipients of the Vaduz edition), was at the Austrian Institute in 1992 when the interpretation proposed here was presented. He admitted to me that it was extremely coherent, but he still wondered if others just as coherent might exist. The future is open. One should maintain the possibility in principle. In this case, the construction would not have the same necessity or, {391|392} more precisely, it would be merely one “construction” that was stronger than another. Herein lies the problem. Reading opens up; it is in search of a meaning that can always be made more precise and profound, but not exchanged for another, unless it is an erroneous one. Otherwise, this would just be a game; it is conceivable that some play it.

Certain readers speak of the poet’s expectation as if it were a condition of the inevitable experience of failure. They cannot deny the existence of an appeal, and one cannot find a direct expression of the homage one would like to see, without the detour of an unfulfilled wish. So they read in it a confession “that tears apart the horizon of the world.” [65] One can understand the sorrow {392|393} of the Jew—the word “Jew” is scarcely uttered; it is avoided, or replaced by “foreigner” or “someone from far away.” The Jew cannot understand that the German philosopher was determined to remain loyal to his origin and to his fatherland, [66] to bear the weight of his past commitment all by himself, without having to account for himself to anyone, [67] and to protect the logic of his work, which could not be called into question on account of his personal conduct. In light of this mission, the Jews did not count for much. Heidegger had not acted in his own name, but on an official mission, for a higher and thus trans-historical reason. [68] The question Celan posed could not find an answer. Perhaps he had a vague suspicion of this himself. The question concerns neither the past nor the future; it is focused on an opening; by its very essence, it cannot be answered. [69] Heidegger’s silence bears witness to an essentially higher experience embodied in German thought. It is a truth of another order. We have to admit that the celebrated encounter did not take place. Because of a fundamental divergence, which determines the status of history and memory, interpretations will remain condemned to operate in a vacuum. In this confrontation, Celan bears witness to his own weakness.

Peace of the soul

We are bathed here in the light of reconciliation. Of the two flowers seen on arrival, one is for bodily health, the other for healing the soul. It is the “soothing” that the sick poet hoped to find; he went there seeking it. The roles are reversed. The cottage is Mecca: he wanted to “reconcile himself with his own past.” He found in the water of the fountain this other “thou,” whom he addresses so often. It is the terrible testimony of a necessary reading, dialogical and internalized. Remorse leads to forgiveness, forgiveness to salvation; but the attempt failed.

The poet was thought to have come with good intentions, to make peace. It was fruitless. In the car, Heidegger is relaxed, talking cheerfully. He obliterates an earlier, more serious conversation that had taken place in the cottage (the poem, however, does not mention this). In the second part of the journey, Celan notes some impressions of the Black Forest, making use of an antidote to overcome his disgust in the face of such nonchalance. These impressions will remain fixed and will serve as a refuge, by virtue of their consoling function. The poet’s good will has been abused. He had come to make peace.

This is perhaps the right moment to point out that Heidegger, according to his son, was unaware that Celan was Jewish. This seems hardly credible, but possible nonetheless, and it provides real evidence of insensitivity, of non-recognition and a denial of identity: “According to my mother’s account, it was only after [Celan’s] death that my father learned that your friend was Jewish, and of the fate he had suffered in his family” (… welches Familienschicksal er erlitten hatte, in his letter to Gisèle Celan, cited above).

The school of hardness

The idea of reconciliation was quite alien to Celan’s mentality. At least the project preserves a moment, and in the offense he felt one can see the passage of the shadow of a failure, without elevating it, as Baumann does, to the level of an inevitable necessity. So many others have rehabilitated the man and the pilgrimage.

According to Otto Pöggeler—and to Lacoue-Labarthe, as well—Celan merely developed or explicated Heidegger’s assertions. Thus Pöggeler hypothesizes, through a projection that is easy to analyze but incomprehensible in itself, that the trails made of logs—which are actually cudgels—mark the path laid out by the philosopher. Celan follows him. Heidegger taught him how to walk on these paths, to seek danger and to hold fast. In 1980, the doctrine is very much alive: to “seek out” danger, but how? “Where danger lies, therein lies the remedy” (“Wo aber Gefahr ist, wächst das Rettende auch”: this Hölderlin reads like Ernst Jünger). I quote: “it is to this end, to prepare this resistance, that Heidegger’s {394|395} thought had chosen its path.” It is true that the meeting was interrupted halfway through. Here the reason given is that the poet did not have the strength to endure the philosopher’s language, which was too raw and too coarse for his sorrow. In the same way, Pöggeler hears Heidegger give a powerful lesson in existential philosophy: “During the walk, which is at the same time (etymologically) a shared experience [one can hardly believe one’s eyes], a well-known coarseness takes shape”; the pupil hears the master. [71] “The life-giving water,” after all, brings to mind the swamps, and the tonality of the word Moor has “a deadly and menacing” feel to it. [72] This would be the same danger to which Heidegger had taught us to expose ourselves fearlessly.

Everything must be swathed in the desired atmosphere; everything must fit back into the German order. The flowers are part of the philosopher’s retreat. They exist in the meadows. If the orchids are separated, it is because botanical observation is precise (why would it not be?). If we hear shocking words in the philosopher’s mouth, it is the usual coarseness of his writings—which Celan, during the conversation in the car, “must have experienced,” as had many others among his readers and interlocutors. Nothing is allowed to take on a different meaning. Nothing remains to be found. We know everything “hermeneutically”: the plants and the thoughts of the time and of all times.

The cube-star above the fountain “unites the opposites,” Pöggeler reminds us. Depth is controlled. It does not occur to him that the figure guiding Celan in his poems might recall the star of David or the yellow star the Jews were obliged to wear; no, in this place, they did not exist; these heights had no desire for them. It was true nearby, where the Jews lived. The idea that the yellow flower evokes this reality, or that the cube might be something else, has no place here. The word Würfel refers, of course, to a cube where we find Mallarmé’s die that is thrown and that indicates a number.

Works Cited

Allemann, B. 1977. “Heidegger und die Poesie.” Neue Zürcher Zeitung, April 15.

Baumann, G. 1986. Erinnerungen an Paul Celan. Frankfurt. Expanded edition with epilogue, 1992.

Bogumil. S. 1988. “Totnauberg.” Celan-Jahrbuch 2:37–51.

Bollack, J. 1958. “Styx et serments.” Revue des études grecques 71:1–35.

———. 1966. “La pointe en hébreu.” Dédale 3-4:533–555.

———. 1985. “Eden, encore.” In L’Acte critique: un colloque sur l’oeuvre de Peter Szondi, Paris, 21-23 juin 1979, ed. M. Bollack, 267–290. Lille.

———. 1997. La Grèce de personne. Paris.

Celan, P. 1978. Poèmes de Paul Celan. Trans. A. du Bouchet. Paris.

———. 1989. The Poems of Paul Celan. Trans. M. Hamburger. New York.

———. 1997. Lichtzwang: historische kritische Ausgabe. Frankfurt.

———. 2000. Gesammelte Werke. 7 vols. Frankfurt.

———. 2001. Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan. Trans. J. Felstiner. New York.

Chalfen, I. 1991. Paul Celan, a Biography of his Youth. Trans. M. Bleyleben, intro. J. Felstiner. New York. Orig. pub. 1983.

Gadamer, H.-G. 1983. “Le Rayonnement de Heidegger.” In Martin Heidegger, ed. M. Haar, 138–144. Paris.

Goethe, J. W. von. 1982. Goethes Werke. Ed. E. Trunz. Munich.

———. 1994. Elective Affinities. Trans. D. Constantine. Oxford. Orig. pub. 1809.

Grimm, J., and W. Grimm. 1922. Dictionary of the German Language. Leipzig.

Heidegger, M. 1983. “Die Herkunft der Kunst und die Bestimmung des Denkens.” In Distanz und Nähe. Reflexionen und Analysen zur Kunst der Gegenwart, ed. P. Jaeger and R. Lüthe, 11–22. Würzburg.

Lacoue-Labarthe, P. 1999. Poetry as Experience. Trans. A. Tarnowski. Stanford. Orig. pub. 1986.

Martin, B., ed. 1989. Martin Heidegger und das ‘Dritte Reich’: ein Kompendium. Darmstadt.

Neumann, G. 1970. “Die ‘absolute’ Metapher. Ein Abgrenzungsversuch am Beispiel Stephane Mallarmés und Paul Celans.” Poetica 3:188–225.

Nietzsche, F. 1980. Jenseits von Gut und Böse. In Sämtliche Werke: kritische Studienausgaben. Ed. G. Colli and M. Montinari. 15 vols. Munich.

Pöggeler, O. 1980. “Kontroverses zur Ästhetik Paul Celans (1920-1970).” Zeitschrift für Ästhetik und Allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft 25.2 (1980):202–243.

———. 1986. Spur des Worts. Zur Lyrik Paul Celans. Freiburg.

———. 1988. “Der Gang ins Moor. Celans Begegnung mit Heidegger.” Literatur und Kunst, supplement, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, December 2.

Schwerin, C. 1981. “Bittere Brunnen des Herzens. Erinnerungen an Paul Celan.” Der Monat 279 (April-June) :73–81.

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[ back ] * Originally published as “Le mont de la mort: le sens d’une rencontre entre Celan et Heidegger,” in: Jean Bollack, La Grèce de personne: les mots sous le mythe (Paris, 1997), pp. 349–376.

[ back ] 1. Celan 2000, Gesammelte Werke (hereafter GW) 2:255. The English translation below is by Michael Hamburger (Celan 1989:292–293):

Arnica, eyebright, the
draft from the well with the
starred die above it

in the

the line
—whose name did the book
register before mine?—,
the line inscribed
in that book about
a hope, today,
of a thinking man’s
in the heart

woodland sward, unlevelled,
orchid and orchid, single,

coarse stuff, later, clear
in passing,

he who drives us, the man,
who listens in,

the half-
trodden wretched
tracks through the high moors,


[ back ] 2. Named for its founder Fritz Todt (1891–1942), who was then the Reich’s Minister of Armaments, the “Organisation Todt” was responsible in particular for the civil engineering works of strategic importance in the countries occupied by the Germans; see also Chalfen 1991:151.

[ back ] 3. The French translator François Turner (cited in Bollack 1997:351–355) translates Augentrost as luminet, a word that connotes light (lumen, lumière). Bertrand Badiou’s more literal rendering of the common German botanical name, délice des yeux (“delight for the eyes”) illustrates a general problem in translation. The work of reconstructing meaning—in many cases quite subtle work, which the distance between two levels of precision requires of the reader—does not survive. [TN: The English common name for the plant, “eyebright,” is another illustration of the problem; as with Badiou’s choice, the sense of solace is lost.]

[ back ] 4. “… rauscht der Brunnen” (GW 1:237) (“… splashes the fountain” [Celan 1989:183]).

[ back ] 5. [TN: The candelabra refers implicitly to the menorah, with its eight branches for eight candles plus the central shamas, which lights all the others.]

[ back ] 6. [TN: Mallarmé dreamed of producing a Book that would encompass all literature, even all reality.]

[ back ] 7. The inscription has been reprinted with the poem in the work of Bernd Martin (1989:143–144). [TN: “In the book in the cottage, with a view of the well star, with the hope of a word to come in the heart. July 25, 1967, Paul Celan.”]

[ back ] 8. Nevertheless, it appears that one should not translate it as hutte in French.

[ back ] 9. [TN: Georg Büchner’s radical pamphlet “Friede den Hütten, Krieg den Palästen” (“Peace to the cottages! War on the palaces!”) was published in July 1834 in Der Hessische Landbote, calling on the peasants to revolt against the ruling classes.]

[ back ] 10. Translators (passim) have not linked “in the heart” to “hope,” as both the meaning and the syntax require: von einer Hoffnung… im Herzen form, despite the separation, a single unitary expression, opening up to the object of an expectation (auf). Bad syntactic analysis is not, however, limited to translators; it is also evident in Germany, for example in Otto Pöggeler (1986:264–265), who discusses the two possibilities of syntactic construction, and invokes as the principal argument in favor of his solution the place that in the theological tradition belongs to the “word in the heart.” According to him, Heidegger transferred this expression to his own philosophy, and Celan followed him out of respect. But Celan wrote in his own language and with his own words. Besides, the over-determination of Wort at the end seems implausible, in comparison with the loop that the reader naturally establishes between “hope” and “heart.”

[ back ] 11. He later became a professor of German literature in Munich.

[ back ] 12. The sense of a mortuary is attested in Grimm and Grimm 1922, vol. 13, col. 2282.

[ back ] 13. Goethe 1994:118 (“Der übrige Raum war geebnet” [Goethe 1982, 6:361]).

[ back ] 14. Goethe 1982:363. See the presentation of the variants below, p. 389. Moreover, in Elective Affinities the word Augentrost is applied to Ottilie, providing further confirmation: Dadurch ward sie den Männern … ein wahrer Augentrost (Goethe 1982:283: “she thus became to the men … what we can properly call a solace to the eye” [Goethe 1994:41]).

[ back ] 15. [TN: See Turner’s French translation, based on the first version of the poem:

une attente, aujourd’hui,
de qui méditera (à
venir, in-
cessament venir)
un mot
du cœur]

[ back ] 16. Goethe 1982:36. [TN: In one English translation, “levelled without delay” (Goethe 1994:120).]

[ back ] 17. See Baumann 1986:102.

[ back ] 18. “Blume,” GW 1:164.

[ back ] 19. Cf. “Später Pfeil, der von der Seele schnellte” (“Late arrow that the soul released”) in the poem “Unter ein Bild” (“Under a Picture”), GW 1:155.

[ back ] 20. I am thinking for example of bläulich (“bluish”) in the poem “Einiges Handähnliche” (“Hand-like”), GW 1:236.

[ back ] 21. Cf. König– / liche, (“Re- / gal one”) in the poem “Chymisch” (“Alchemical”), GW 1:227–228.

[ back ] 22. “Kristall” (“Crystal”) GW, 1:52.

[ back ] 23. Revealing the perjury of the gods. See the episode in Hesiod’s Theogony, lines 775–806; see Bollack 1958.

[ back ] 24. According to a note at the end of the collection of poems translated by du Bouchet (Celan 1978): “The translation of ‘Todtnauberg’ was based on the first version of the poem, dated Frankfurt am Main, August 1, 1967.”

[ back ] 25. See “Histoire d’une lutte, Celan et Nelly Sachs,” Bollack 2000:45-56.

[ back ] 26. The word Fahren indeed has this value and this ecstatic tonality, as in “Flimmerbaum” (“Glimmering Tree”): “Offen / lagst du mir vor / der fahrenden Seele” (GW 1:234), or in “Kolon” (“Colony”): “für / wieviel Vonsammengeschiedenes / rüstest du’s wieder zur Fahrt” (GW 1:265).

[ back ] 27. Gadamer 1983:138–144, esp. p. 143.

[ back ] 28. Baumann 1986:70.

[ back ] 29. See Bollack 1985, and above, Chapter 26, p. 368.

[ back ] 30. Pöggeler 1980:255 (“Hintergrundwissen” [“Background Knowledge”]).

[ back ] 31. See Bollack 1996. [TN: Meister Eckhart was a medieval German theologian; Celan cites him, referring to Isaiah (Celan 2000:419).]

[ back ] 32. This is also the role attributed to the waters of the Neckar River in “Tübingen, Jänner” (“Tübingen, January”), analyzed in a study of this poem, which is another key element in Heideggerian interpretations in France and in Germany (see above, Chapter 23); similarly vitalist representation guides Sieghild Bogumil’s interpretation (1988). The author casually dispenses with the constraints of verbal logic to move to a properly metaphysical conception of water, the symbol of an undifferentiated origin that makes it possible to resolve all contradictions. The indistinct is not distinguishable, thus neither are history and nature. The choice of unlimited opening allows one—almost obliges one—to recognize Celan’s commitment on the side of memory and to rather slyly abolish the consequences in a contrary ontological structure. Something is said and not said.

[ back ] 33. [TN: In this section Jean Bollack interrupted his reading in order to set forth the new material that he had been able to consult before publishing his own interpretation of the poem some fifteen years after Celan’s visit to Heidegger.]

[ back ] 34. See Celan 1997, the volume Lichtzwang (Lightduress) in the critical edition of Bonn, which contains variants of the poem.

[ back ] 35. Liechtensteinisches Volksblatt; also published in Lacoue-Labarthe 1999:108–110.

[ back ] 36. Renate Böschenstein-Schäfer reminded me (October 10, 1994) that she first met Celan soon after this visit. She remembered that she had expressed her surprise when she saw how merciless he was in general about people’s behavior during Nazism. Celan, in response to her astonishment and even indignation, added: “I simply wanted to see how he would respond [Ich wollte ja nur sehen, wie er so redet]—in fact, I wrote a poem on the subject; I’ll send it to you” (and he did). This was naturally not a sentence that toned down the importance of his visit: quite the opposite, appearances notwithstanding: the response was in perfect harmony with his strategy.

[ back ] 37. Baumann 1986:73: “Lesen Sie bitte bald, Sie werden überrascht sein!”

[ back ] 38. Baumann 1986:76: “… liegt darin immer ein Verdienst?”

[ back ] 39. Baumann 1986:69: “Die Vorbehalter, die er gegenüber Heidegger erhob, blieben unüberwindlich.”

[ back ] 40. Baumann 1986:68 : “Es falle ihm schwer, mit einem Manne zusammenzukommen, dessen Vergangenheit er nicht vergessen könne.”

[ back ] 41. Baumann 1986:79: “Argwohn und Vorbehalte.”

[ back ] 42. Baumann 1986:71–72.

[ back ] 43. Baumann 1986:79: “Den schmerzlichen Weg von der ‘Todesfuge’ zu ‘Todtnauberg’—wie oft wohl hat ihn Celan zurückgelegt, ohne ein Ziel zu erreichen?” We have very few such explicit comments on the way Celan’s work was really read in Germany. The Iron Curtain came down and cut off access to all opinions.

[ back ] 44. Baumann 1986:70.

[ back ] 45. Baumann 1986:70, “Lichtarmes Grau und langgeschwänzte Wolkenschwaden.”

[ back ] 46. Baumann 1986:70, “Von Celan war alle Schwere gewichen.”

[ back ] 47. Baumann 1986:72. Another person found him in despair (see Lacoue-Labarthe 1999:94). Celan sometimes revealed the true darkness of the depths, sometimes focused on the poetic and political achievement, depending on the occasion or the interlocutor.

[ back ] 48. He had been present during the whole scene, representing “man” as such (der Mensch). The word thus assumes a strong qualitative value, unsurpassable in a way. For Sieghild Bogumil (1988:51), it refers to the anonymous recipient, on the horizon of an open meaning. For Celan, what was at stake was a demand that, he thought, the person present and targeted could not evade.

[ back ] 49. Baumann 1986:85–86.

[ back ] 50. Neumann 1970.

[ back ] 51. “Der Stein, / schläfennah einst, tut sich hier auf,” “Erratisch” (GW 1:235).

[ back ] 52. [TN: “A coming, / (un- / delayed coming)” (Felstiner 2001:315).]

[ back ] 53. Baumann 1986:75, 77, 78.

[ back ] 54. See Turner’s translation in note 15, above. The syntax raises some problems: the heart is the site of expectation on the part of the recipient—and the variant ungesäumt must be understood as an involuntary confession that will brook no delay and will have no border. [TN: see Felstiner 2001:15: “for a thinker’s / (un- / delayed coming) / word / in the heart.”]

[ back ] 55. “Ins Hüttenbuch, mit dem Blick auf den Brunnenstern, mit einer Hoffnung auf ein Kommendes Wort im Herzen. Am 25. Juli 1967 / Paul Celan.” The text is reproduced from Hermann Heidegger’s letter of December 10, 1980, to Gisèle Celan.

[ back ] 56. See the end of the poem “In One” (“In eins”), in The No One’s Rose (Die Niemandsrose, GW 1:270). The quotation from Büchner, indicated as such, makes up the entire fourth stanza.

[ back ] 57. Allemann 1977.

[ back ] 58. Liechtensteinisches Volksblatt; see above, n. 35.

[ back ] 59. Lacoue-Labarthe maintains a similar position (1999:38).

[ back ] 60. [TN: A reference to Celan’s speech at the award ceremony for the Bremen literary prize in 1958. “A poem … can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the—not always greatly hopeful—belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps” (Celan 2001:396).]

[ back ] 61. “Und meine Wünsche? Daß sie zur gegebenen Stunde die Sprache hören, in der sich Ihnen das zu Dichtende zusagt” (first published in an article by Stephan Krass in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Jan. 3-4, 1998).

[ back ] 62. Heidegger 1983:11–22; see p. 17.

[ back ] 63. “… daß der Mensch das noch nicht festgestellte Thier ist” (Nietzsche 1980, 5:81).

[ back ] 64. 1999:109. It ought to be possible to agree on what is “decisive.” From essence (Wesen) one moves on to the meadow (Wasen), to Waldwasen—to the forest dampness, which speaks of what the invocation of the spirits of the Baden forest has led to. Likewise, Andrea Zanzotto (1992) assumes that the conversation was about poetry. Perhaps, on the contrary, Celan avoided this subject—especially if his interlocutor had clammed up, “almost on the verge of autism,” as Zanzotto believes (1992). Celan’s text refuses to speak of his personal “torture,” and even more so of “uncertainty.” His determination was absolute.

[ back ] 65. This sentence comes from Baumann (“Ein Bekenntnis, welche einen Welthorizon aufreisst” [1986:74]). The general appreciation of the poem on this page offers a specimen of just how vague and hollow a Germanist’s dithyramb can be.

[ back ] 66. “Forever attached to the landscape of his country of origin” (mit der Landschaft seines Herkommens bleibend verknüpft [Baumann 1986:75]). One has to know what the word “landscape” (and even more so Landschaft) implies in the eyes of conservative historians.

[ back ] 67. “Ohne darüber ein wort zu verlieren” (“Without saying a word about it” [Baumann 1986:75]).

[ back ] 68. Baumann 1986:74. The credo is rooted there, in the mission that excuses everything. Altmann’s more naïve indulgence is not far removed from it. I learned of the supplement to Baumann’s book of recollections, Erinnerungen, published in paperback (1992) only after finishing this article in 1996, thanks to Stephen Krass’s radio program in May 1997. Baumann corrects his description, but his interpretation of Celan’s silence remains, in my opinion, inadequate and perhaps even inappropriate. It bears witness to a considerable distance. In this supplement, I also discovered Heidegger’s postscript, his “last word” written in verse, titled “Preface” (“Vorwort”)—perhaps for his own benefit, to situate his thought on a higher plane and to cover Celan’s text. These lines themselves deserve critical commentary.

[ back ] 69. “… eine Frage, die ins Offene weist” (Baumann 1986:74).

[ back ] 70. Schwerin 1981:73–81; see p. 80.

[ back ] 71. “Im Fahren, das zugleich ein gemeinsames Erfahren ist, wird ‘Krudes’ (wie es aus Heideggers Veröffentlichungen bekannt ist) deutlich” (Pöggeler 1980:224–225).

[ back ] 72. “… in dunkler und tödlicher Bedrohung” (Pöggeler 1980:235).

[ back ] 73. “Der Gang ins Moor. Celans Begegnung mit Heidegger” (Pöggeler 1988).

[ back ] 74. [TN: In the French term non-recèlement, the noun recèlement is based on the verb receler, meaning to receive, harbor, or conceal stolen goods.]

[ back ] 75. “Du liegst” (GW 2:334).

[ back ] 76. The expression “yellow tide” (Gelbflut) is taken from a poem in Atemwende (Breathturn) “Ruh aus in deinen Wunden” (“Rest in your wounds” [GW 2:103]). Elsewhere, (Spur des Worts [Pöggeler 1986:235]), Pöggeler quite rightly relates it to the yellow star that Jews wore during the Nazi regime. I should add the yellow of betrayal, which for Celan represented the non-recognition of the events that took place.