Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Death of the "Other" in Paul Celan (First After-Thought on the Ark)

"Todesfuge", 1944

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 Margarete
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

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
wir trinken dich morgens und mittags wir trinken dich abends
wir trinken und trinken
Ein Mann wohnt im Haus und spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt
der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland dein goldenes Haar Margarete
Dein aschenes Haar Sulamith wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng
Er ruft stecht tiefer ins Erdreich ihr einen ihr anderen singet und spielt
er greift nach dem Eisen im Gurt er schwingts seine Augen sind blau
stecht tiefer die Spaten ihr einen ihr andern spielt weiter zum Tanz auf

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
wir trinken dich morgens und mittags wir trinken dich abends
wir trinken und trinken
ein Mann wohnt im Haus dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Sulamith er spielt mit den Schlangen

Er ruft spielt süßer den Tod der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
er ruft streicht dunkler die Geigen dann steigt ihr als Rauch in die Luft
dann habt ihr ein Grab in den Wolken da liegt man nicht eng
Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
wir trinken dich mittags der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
wir trinken dich abends und morgens wir trinken und trinken
der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland sein Auge ist blau
er trifft dich mit bleierner Kugel er trifft dich genau
ein Mann wohnt im Haus dein goldenes Haar Margarete
er hetzt seine Rüden auf uns er schenkt uns ein Grab in der Luft
er spielt mit den Schlangen und träumet der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Sulamith


It is not simple to write musings on Celan under the present circumstances, for one would like after all, to subscribe to that philosophical consolation of old; yet the bridges have been broken, and with them Hegel and all possible "polis envy" have disappeared from sight as though they clouded in the snow and became faintly dim. Elsehow there's that primal need for an interlocutor, to summon Socratic conversations in which it is still possible to love the world unconditionally, it is a dialogue without partners and I cannot even rely on myself too much risking a certain touch of banality that has become a cluster in the everyday speech of our generation. Yet this everyday speech doesn't mean the language of everyday life, a distinction we owe to Rosenzweig and Rosenstock-Huessy in that language is distinct from world, even though by speaking we engage in a sort of world-building process, that altogether seems to be greatly hindered firstly since our expulsion from Paradise in the beginning of mankind, and followed by a deathly blow at a time when the world had been destroyed just as we knew it; despite everything things returned to normality, but this is only the surface... Hegel and Heidegger are very enlightening at this point when one says that as soon as you remove the "Grund" (foundation) of our freedom in community, which is communicability, we are immediately facing the "Abgrund" (abyss); because the freedom itself couldn't be the whole foundation for the world. The Jewish sages often said that the world was based on three pillars; in one account it is told they meant the Law, the Sacrifices (in the Temple) and Love (they actually meant "Charity", but this hardly holds the same meaning in the tradition of Christian thought that furnished us with the word "Charity", from the Augustinian "caritas" that in its alleged worldlessness comes rather far from the Biblical "Love Thy neighbour like yourself", beautifully expounded by Hillel, who was seemly uninterested in the ontology of beings and was perhaps in quoting this text, relating the life of the mind to the life of the community[1] - in a way similar to that of Hannah Arendt and Eveline Goodman-Thau).

Of course our tradition of continental philosophy (which I openly hold onto as my own, in the spirit of Karl Jaspers) since Plato (not Socrates or Jesus) emphasized the two-in-one (an innermost duality) causing a dichotomy in man's way of thinking (I shall not say mankind, for this is in itself a term as abstract as "everyday life" has been for Marxism) that set forth an incurable entimity between politics and philosophy, or between action and thought to establish a paradigm of generalization necessary for the sake of discourse. From the story of Plato's Cave and Diotima through Augustine and in our days with Gillian Rose's "Love's Work" and the Aesthetics of Lukacs, love has been mind-informed by philosophy whenever an adequate concept must be arrived at, whereas politics, namely the practical politics, has remained preposterously adrift from the philosophical conversations of our times; odd fact whose consequences can be seen clearly in the outcome of Western history for the last hundred years at least, the philosophical "error" that Hermann Cohen set to mend and that many others after him have followed, with a crucial junction in Hannah Arendt and her beautifully phrased "Politics is love applied to life". Such concepts which sprang from the "philosophical revolution of the 1920's" (to use Cassirer's wording) would have been entirely alien to the long centuries of Christian thought on the background of Aristotle, all the way down to Leibniz, Hegel and Fichte.

This is a particular mode of thought which still puzzles most of us today, specially in the light of our present circumstances under which nothing could pose more of a threat to the actual live of denizens in democratic states than the making of actual politics; altogether Arendt also wrote to Scholem in the 1960's (as well as in different articles addressing issues of the Blacks in the USA) that love is something that must be kept for the private, because the love of people is usually an oppresive affection on the basis of qualities which are akin only to oppressed peoples indeed, and that do not survive the momentum of their liberation even for five minutes. But this is not a simple riddle, as Kafka in "The Castle" is keen in letting us see how in his expulsion from Paradise, man has lost his name (his characters go mainly by initials), his language (there's no real communication) and his love (only sex remains); only to be reinforced by Foucault, who speaking the language of modernity says that in our times the clusters of judgement have become rather blurry, therefore good-bad-evil has been replaced by normal-abnormal-pathologic. It doesn't come willy-nilly of course, but as Arendt and Heller have expounded, it is the result of "science" becoming the winner "world-view" of our times, and religion (altogether with the traditions bound with it) the defeated one. In the light of this loss, which is experienced in its raw form by modern men and women, it is no longer possible to seek alternative refugee in a metaphysical sort of existence, neither to destroy the space for reflexion altogether; for in doing so one would do away with both reality and essence, which is actually what has happened in the last phase of "modernity", which I would dare to call "modern postmodernity". Yet in this very age, the concern with both "exile" ontologies and the realities of reality, has never been greater. Paradoxically enough, it is all within the discourse of a quest for meaning, which for Gavriel Motzkin is in fact, a denial of human freedom. It seems that the death of the "subject" preached by some of our "postmodern" philosophers sounds indeed like a hoax, for concern with "Selves" and "Beings" couldn't be any greater, both of which fail to address the actual needs of modern men and women, that can only be addressed through a "modification" of the conditions under which the yoke of everyday life is lived, so that eventually a social change could be effectuated under non-totalitarian means, namely without the secularization of old myths and their messianic elements that have promised heaven on earth, of course on condition of the elimitation of certain "others" that are not Selves or Beings but people of flesh and bones. Stalinism, Nazism and Islamism are only the modern ambassadors of such threats that have visited Western mankind since the earliest beginning, not to mention Anti-Semitism, which demands a much more intrincate discussion of religious, political, social and cultural concepts. "Interesting times are always a curse", so goes the Chinese adage, favourite to Arendt.
Beings and Selves have not actually sprung out of these interesting times (despite Heidegger and his followers magicians), but have remained at the backbone of our historical memory. Beings are actually a Platonic cul-de-sac and the philosophical beginning; one can see for example no such a concept existed in Judaism until the Hellenistic age and the Rabbis seemed to have been more interested in practical politics than in metaphysical divagations, in fact the Romantic idea of this unphilosophical religious canon was the strongest motif behind Harvey Cox's "The Secular City". Some scholars have argued that the "Self" is a cultural invention as old as the Biblical and Classical canons, and "Being" a more contemporary philosophical heritage; in my humble opinion they're utterly wrong, for philosophically speaking I cannot locate the "Self" (not in the context of "Beings" but of "Individuals") earlier than Kierkegaard, who in fact was responding to Hegel's totalized view of man that continues the monistic tradition that to holds so little interest for philosophers concerned with the issues of the day, those I shall refer to as "existential phenomenologists of politics". By this I mean thinkers concerned with concrete worldly artifacts whose description entails such a complex interweaving of concepts (genealogy) that eventually leads them to develop fragments of philosophy, there're actually, let me say, existential epistemologists of politics as well. As much as they differ in opinions I would place Arendt, Goodman-Thau and Jonas with the former, and Heller, MacIntyre and Bloch with the latter. Juncture at which I am again able (despite myself) to turn to Goodman-Thau and Heller, in my musing about Paul Celan's poem. Not without saying that the foundations of hermeneutic philosophy as it stands today with its major thinkers has an underlying motif at the core, in exercising a radical critique of Hegel in particular and of Historicism in general; namely the divorce of philology and the cultural sciences from philosophy, which has in fact turned philosophy into a rather sterile discipline and at the same time has left the cultural sciences bereft of any philosophical heritage that could prove itself fruitful in the quest for enabling political action through thinking, once again relating the life of the mind to the life of the community.

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