On Celan’s “Meridian”

A review of Paul Celan’s The Meridian just in via the British This Space blog. Below the opening paras. You can read the complete piece here.

Poetry, ladies and gentleman: an expression of infinitude, an expression of vain death and of mere Nothing.

These were the first words I read from The Meridian, a speech given by Paul Celan on October 22nd 1960 in the German city of Darmstadt on reception of the Georg-Büchner-Prize, as quoted by Maurice Blanchot in The Writing of the Disaster, translated by Ann Smock. The excess of specification is deliberate. On a provincial train twenty years ago I read the words in the dizziness of discovery and recognition. At that time it was fragment of a speech not readily available in full – at least not available to me – found in amongst the dizzying fragments deconstituting Blanchot’s own work. Blanchot understands this enigmatic juxtaposition to mean that “the final nothingness … occupies the same plane as the expression which comes from the infinite, wherein the infinite gives itself and resounds infinitely.” This would then afford poetry an extraordinary lightness as its social weight evaporates.

The same dizziness occurred with the line of Rene Char’s that Blanchot also quotes: The poem is the realized love of desire stilldesiring. Years of familiarity may have calmed the dizziness, and the sediment of acquired understanding buried recognition, but each time I read these sentences, the vertigo of those moments returns like a jolt of a train and a green light from the countryside.

Does it have to be these words precisely? In Carcanet’s Collected Prose, until this year as far as I know the only English version of speech available, Rosmarie Waldrop translates the line as: Poetry, ladies and gentleman: what an externalization of nothing but mortality, and in vain. James K. Lyon, in his study of Celan’s dialogue with Heidegger, translates it in passing as: this endless speaking of nothing but mortality and gratuitousness, and inPierre Joris’ extraordinary new edition entirely dedicated to the speech – not only a new translation of the speech but of its drafts and materials, based on theGerman critical edition – the line is: Poetry, ladies and gentleman: this infinity-speaking full of mortality and to no purpose!

When I read these new translations, the experience is one of distance. It is certainly not a problem of translation; the fidelity of each is not in question – try putting Die Dichtung, meine Damen und Herren -: diese Unendlichsprechung von lauter Sterblichkeit und Umsonst! into Google Translate. It happens with Char’s line too: both Kevin Hart and Susan Hanson translate Le poème est l’amour réalisé du désir demeuré désir as The poem is the realized love of desire that has remained desire. Nor is it a problem of amended meaning: the lines that moved me do not necessarily assert a demonstrable, objective truth that any fair translation or paraphrase can repeat with ease. So why this distance? Is it anything other than the melancholy romance of nostalgia?  

The Meridian itself may offer an answer in that it addresses specific people on a specific date and in a specific place. What follows then is an attempt to summarise the speech in all recognition of the violence of such an attempt.

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