A Jewish poet who wrote in German, Paul Celan (1920-1970) was born in Chernivitsi in a remote region of the former Habsburg Empire. The city was a Romanian territory after World War I, before World War II when it fell into Soviet hands. Afterwards the city fell under the control of Romania, allied with Nazi Germany. After the war, Chernivitsi was incorporated into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union, became part of the Republic of Ukraine close to the Romanian border.
Today, the city is called “Celan’s Chernivitsi” echoing the phrase “Kafka’s Prague.” Celan is known as a Holocaust poet who wrote profoundly esoteric works at the end of modernism. After living in post-war Bucharest for nearly three years and illegally escaping to Vienna where he spent about six months, he eventually lived in Paris from 1948 until he committed suicide.
Memories of war, memories of the dead
Darkness is omnipresent in Celan’s poetry. Various things rise up from this darkness, but the first to emerge are World War Two and images of the war dead.
Although he had no combat experience as a soldier, he was exposed to persecution as a Jew and constantly aware of the threat to his life. Still a young student, he survived after being forced to work in a labor camp, despite the tragedy of his mother being shot at a concentration camp and his father dieing of an illness. Becoming the only one to make it through, he carried within himself a deep sense of guilt for the rest of his life, which is common to survivors.
A witness to the genocide, he was deeply psychologically scarred by the fact that humans were living beings who could justify killing in the name of a nation, and that these living beings, under the guise of ideology, discriminated against and violated others to the point of merciless murder. Moreover, the nation concerned was made up of a race that produced many poets and writers who shaped the literary and spiritual world that he adored, a race that spoke his native German tongue.
In the language of the killers
Celan therefore expressed his inner thoughts in the language of the people who had killed his parents and other Jews. Able to communicate in seven other languages, he also spoke French in his daily life, having married a Frenchwoman. Despite his ability to write in French, he believed that “poems can only be written in one’s mother tongue.” German being his mother tongue, Celan was consequently writing poems in the language of the enemy, as it were, poems that reached the readers of the language of his enemy. What a paradox, what a contradiction this was. But Celan's stance was writing poetry to “shake hands with” and not not to kill the readers.
Shijon Kim, a poet who lived in Japan
Celan’s poetry was harshly critical of Germans. So how did the German people feel when they read his poems? When I try to picture someone from Germany reading Celan's poetry, what comes to mind is an image of myself, a Japanese reading Shijon Kim's poetry.
Shijon Kim was a young boy in the era of the Japanese empire. Under Japan’s policy of forced assimilation, he was robbed of his Korean mother tongue and educated in Japanese so that Japanese became his first language. The colonial oppression he faced under imperialism and the ethnic discrimination he suffered before and after the war were historical realities that revealed the same human egoism and cruelty of war.
Reading his poetry makes me feel somehow uncomfortable. And that discomfort stems from the fact that I am Japanese. Being Japanese and having Japanese ancestry, I am aware that the country took advantage of the Korean War during the Cold War to achieve economic recovery and become a major economic power. Having reaped the benefits of wealth amid Japan’s postwar economic prosperity, it is natural that I feel uncomfortable when faced with the poems of Shijon Kim. His poetry functions almost like a mirror.
In the same way, the poetry of Celan must have acted as a mirror for the Germans.
Literature within the individual’s mind
But Celan did not necessarily try to write poems that functioned as a mirror for the German people. He simply assigned words to the irreplaceable inner landscape of the individual, or the self. If we stop and look more carefully behind the words of his poems, his memories appear. There we also see the victims of war, that is to say, the figures of the dead. Celan’s poetry lures his readers into accepting the reality of history, whether they want to or not, and stimulates their feelings and imagination. That is the power of darkness contained in his poems. As Celan himself said, he wrote poetry in order to intensify darkness.
The pain from the things he cherishes taken away is what lurks at the heart of Celan’s poetry.
Literature that sifts through language
A look at the literary language of Celan’s poetry, which is based firmly on his individual mind and personal experience, produces a strong feeling of unease today, such as the terms “patriotism,” “right to collective self-defense,” and “active pacifism.”
What exactly does a country mean to the individual? The affection that everyone has for their homeland, family and national culture should be clearly distinguished from the state, which is a political apparatus.
War is an extremely cruel act and one of the greatest evils perpetrated by humankind. It also inflicts psychological damage to the survivors, of which Celan is an example.
Supposing that a nation wanted to go to war, the logical outcome would be the enforcement of a system in which all the nation’s people must bear arms and fight, under military conscription. Thinking in perspective, asking if we can leave the fighting to America is equivalent to asking, “Can we leave the fighting to the Self-Defense Forces?” If the Self-Defense Forces went in fighting, does that mean we need to participate? This will begin a big debate.
Enforcing a conscription law under which our children and grandchildren of the Cabinet, Diet members, and central government chiefs or higher were the first to be conscripted and sent to the most dangerous combat zones—that would be the desired logical outcome from a literary context.
How many of those national leaders who speak out bravely would be resolute enough to enforce such a law? Some are eager for their sons to become prime minister or members of the Diet, but never soldiers.
These are my thoughts as I read Celan in 2014.