In his 1947 Letter on Humanism, German philosopher Martin Heidegger makes the famous claim that language “is the house of Being.” What he means by this is, as with nearly everything Heidegger wrote, a topic of debate. The letter itself produces a distinctly defiant, not to say polemical effect, reflective of those turbulent postwar years in Europe. Its target is the group of French intellectuals known as existentialists, lead by Jean-Paul Sartre, whom Heidegger feels has misinterpreted the philosophical project in his landmark Being and Time by using some of its claims as a foundation for a new metaphysics. He goes on to say that the “reversal of a metaphysical statement remains a metaphysical statement . . . [Sartre] stays with metaphysics in oblivion of the truth of Being.”
But, then, there are many other points at which Heidegger says essentially the same thing about Being and Time itself, and so the criticism of Sartre is equally a self-criticism. Following what scholars refer to as his “turn,” Heidegger will even stop referring to his own work as philosophy, instead preferring terms like “reflection,” and “deep thinking.” This turn is characterized by a deep engagement with poetry, particularly the German lyric poet Hölderlin. The cause for this turn is disputed, but it is undoubtedly connected to the thinker’s disillusionment with National Socialism, and that movement’s later collapse, an event which precipitated Heidegger’s brief but profound ostracization from the German philosophical community. The priority Heidegger placed on rootedness and authenticity in his early work (which, not incidentally, probably led him to embrace Nazism) underwent a shift in emphasis and he became focused on “dwelling.” It is in language, he writes in the Letter, that a human being dwells.
This later work helped to expand the thinker’s sphere of influence beyond academic philosophy and into all areas of humanistic inquiry, from the visual arts, to psychoanalysis, to the study of poetry itself. Many of those engaged in these fields even went to visit Heidegger in his secluded cabin in Todtnauberg, deep in the Black Forest. One such visitor was the poet and, shockingly, Nazi work-camp survivor, Paul Celan. Only one poem, titled simply “Todtnauberg,” deals with this encounter directly, but the deep, metaphysical anxiety that drove Celan to meet the philosopher in many respects animated his entire career.
Celan as a poet and as a man was, perhaps above all others, deeply engaged with the disaster of the mid-twentieth century, and with poetry as both the highest expression of that disaster and the possibility of a way forward. Fitting, then, he should have undergone a turn similar to Heidegger’s midway through his writing life, abandoning a great deal of what could be seen as the traditional elements of his poetic style and experimenting in dark, often strange tones, vocabularies, and structures as a means of pushing up against what he—and Europe as a whole—had witnessed. The results of this effort make up Breathturn Into Timestead, an extraordinary, bilingual edition of Celan’s books from the finals years of his brief, yet highly productive life.
Paul Celan was born Paul Antschel in Czernowitz, Romania (now Chernivsti, Ukraine) in 1920. Deeply aware of the collapse of the Habsburg Empire as an epochal shift in European history, Celan was from a young age fascinated with the continent’s traditions as embodied in its literatures. Apart from the High German spoken at home and what translator Pierre Joris calls in his introduction to Breathturn Into Timestead the “usual Czernowitz languages” of Romanian, Ukranian, and Yiddish, Celan studied Latin, Ancient Greek, French, English, Italian, Russian, and (until he stopped after his bar mitzvah to distance himself from his father’s Zionism) Hebrew. This extraordinary linguistic ability allowed Celan to complete a number of important translations throughout his life.
At eighteen years old, while travelling through Austria and Germany on his way to study medicine in France, the young poet witnessed the first major effects of the Anschluss on Germany and Austria’s Jews. It was not by any means his first experience with anti-Semitism, but it certainly marked a change, to say the least. One has a hard time imagining even a young Celan being possessed of wide-eyed idealism, but it is not unlikely that for a person so invested in language and literature, chief among the Nazi crimes was that they gave their orders for slaughter in the tongue of Goethe, Schiller, and Hölderlin.
Following a year in medical school, he went back to Czernowitz, and, unable to travel back to France due to the war, enrolled in his local university to continue his studies, not in medicine, but in Romance languages. It is from this time that his thirty-one years of surviving poetry begin, though none from this time was published until after his death in 1970. Two years later, following the Soviet occupation and subsequent Nazi invasion of his homeland, Celan’s parents were taken in the night and deported to concentration camps. The guilt at not having been there with them—he had been in a hideout which a friend had secured for him, and to which his parents refused to go, not wishing to abandon their home—haunted the poet for the rest of his life. The next year, while working in a labor camp, he discovered that Nazi guards had shot both his mother and his father. He spent the remainder of the Nazi occupation in the work camp and, in 1944, the Soviet re-invasion secured his freedom.
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