Sunday, May 15, 2005

Paul Celan - Death Fugue

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at nightfall
we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night
drink it and drink it
we shovel a grave in the air there you won't lie too cramped
A man in the house he plays with the serpents he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair
he writes it and walks from the house the stars glitter he whistles his dogs up
he whistles his Jews out and orders a grave to be dug in the ground
he orders us strike up and play for the dance.

TODESFUGE von Paul Celan

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken sie abends
wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts
wir trinken und trinken
wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng
Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt
der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland dein goldenes Haar
er schreibt es und tritt vor das Haus und es blitzen die Sterne er pfeift seine Rüden herbei
er pfeift seine Juden hervor läßt schaufeln ein Grab in der Erde
er befiehlt uns spielt nun zum Tanz.

That's the first stanza. This poem speaks volumes. To Primo Levi, the German language itself was ugly because he associated it with torture, orders, Auschwitz. It was the language of THEM. After the war, Celan, writing in his grief, reclaims the language. It is not only the language of a barked order or bureaucracy.

German is an awesome language. The following is one of my favourite poems, not only for its imagery but because it is a pleasure to speak it:
Herbst (Autumn)- by Rainer Maria Rilke.
Die Blätter fallen, fallen wie von weit,
als welkten in den Himmeln ferne Gärten;
sie fallen mit verneinender Gebärde.
Und in den Nächten fällt die schwere Erde
aus allen Sternen in die Einsamkeit.
Wir alle fallen. Diese Hand da fällt.
Und sieh dir andre an: es ist in allen.
Und doch ist Einer, welcher dieses Fallen
unendlich sanft in seinen Händen hält.'s a good English trans of the last 2 stanzas (don't know who to credit for it)...
We are all falling. This hand's falling too.
All have this falling sickness none withstands.
And still there's always One whose gentle hands
This universal falling can't fall through.

I wonder if Primo Levi ever heard Rainer Maria Rilke's poetry?

I am a little bit obsessed with the Holocaust, because (although it was certainly a unique phenomenon in terms of the way it happened) it could happen again. Not in the same way (and certainly not in Germany...?) but in a place like Australia for instance. Here we have a similar praise for bullies, similar absurd meaningless political language, dramatic changes in the form of nationalism being used by the state over the last decade, and several small groups (ethnic and linguistic) which the media thrives on demonising. We have strong links to the US and UK(which can be to some extent attributed to the language we share, and the media and our history) and the current government is supporting their view of the world unhesitantly. I feel like I'm living in a colonial, antipodean outpost of some larger unstated empire. I'm not an America-basher.

So the question is, if Hitler got going by making life fun for all the German kiddies doing role plays in youth groups, telling them they were the future and encouraging toughness, how far off is our own culture? I'm not saying that's exactly where we are right now, but I do think our culture is compatible with the kind of thinking that got the NAZI party into power.

I don't hope anyone reads this and thinks I'm trying to say that all anyone needs to do to heal their wounds is read poetry. (Or maybe I am. There could be just a little bit of truth in that. For me at least.) But then, didn't I also read that Celan took suicide? So there goes that theory. I suppose once you've lost your family through war, feel like no one really gets it and they aren't listening, all you see is the world keeping on turning, and you lose your faith in humanity, then a little bit of comfort from some sublime poetry isn't going to be sufficient to keep you from killing yourself.


Blogger Geir Lyngstad said...

I was googling for the English translation of Rilke, which I once read in Greene's The Heart of the Matter, and ended up here.

Interesting soul, this is. May the Light be with you.

11:27 am  
Blogger Justine said...

Takk så mykje, Geir.

6:24 am  

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