A Blessed Revision

Understanding and Applying Leonard Olschner to Celan’s “Benedicta”

Celan imbues his poetry with depth and diversity. Using a singular lens to analyze Celan’s poetry provides a starting point to delve into Celan’s style of murky meanings. Olschner elects a historicist lens – a lens that places Celan’s works in a broader context – as well as the author’s intentions to interpret Celan’s poetry.

Olschner analyzes the titles “Todesfuge” and “Engfuhrung” to see their relations to the poem. Olschner investigates fugues’ musical implications to see their application to a literary source where the word “fugue” does not appear. Additionally, Olschner integrates exile into “Todesfugue” by analyzing fugues’ etymological root “fuga” meaning flight. Olschner also uses metathesis — the rotation of sounds and letters — to imbue juxtaposed meanings into Celan’s work . When Olschner encounters the word “Gras,”[1] “grass” in English, he initially recognizes connotations of life and growth, but he then reverses the word “Gras” into “Sarg” which means death. For Olschner, these opposing meanings combine to depict a more nuanced understanding of the antagonism between life and death – a message made available by deconstructing individual words. Olschner further contextualizes Celan’s poetry in the greater European literary scene to connect “Todesfuge” to larger societal trends. Olschner suggests the revival of rigidly formatted arts – like sonnets and fugues – intend to counterbalance the upheaval in modern life. This upheaval includes the Holocaust which provokes the question of human’s fundamental evil, and the post-Holocaust reconstruction of Europe. Olschner again contextualizes Celan’s poetry in the Holocaust to understand the blank space preceding the text of “Ehnfuhrung,” by breaking traditional format Celan suggests the pervasiveness of the pain. Olschner argues the blank space indicates a missing story about the Holocaust and the use of atomic weapons. Turning an empty page into an open canvas bursting with significance exemplifies Olschner’s historicist lens.

Olschner writes, “[Celan] designed ‘Ehnfuhrung’ so it could not be appropriated and abused as, in his opinion, ‘Todesfuge’ had been.”[2] This quotation situates “Ehnfuhrung” among a larger body of works by referencing its contrapuntal purpose as well as showing Olschner’s attention to the author’s intended meaning. Olschner once again incorporates Celan’s intent to discuss the “aestheticization of the Holocaust.”[3] In “Todesfuge,” Celan does not depict graphic murder but instead removes mentions of Sulamith, a Jewish woman in the poem, from the penultimate stanza to symbolize her death. Rather than aestheticize the Holocaust, Olschner concludes that Celan does not detail suffering in his poetry because language cannot represent the violence experienced – especially not the German language which was complicit in the Shoah. This approach considers Celan’s personal suffering from his mother’s murder. The discussion of language’s impotency illustrates Olschner’s style of connecting small details to broader themes whether it be in comparison to Celan’s other poems, the arts or society at large.

Olschner’s historicist lens applies equally well to Celan’s poem “Benedicta.” The word “benedicta” translates from Latin to blessed or, if translated as a substantive, blessed thing. Although the word Benedicta does not appear in the poem, its German equivalent “Gesegnet”[4] does. One must question Celan’s choice of a Latin title rather than a German or a Yiddish title – the two other languages that appear in the poem. One interpretation connects to another Latin word in the poem, “Tenebrae.”[5] Tenebrae, a Christian holy period, connotes resurrection and renewal because it takes place in the week leading into Easter. A benediction – the English version of benedicta – is a farewell blessing and shares the connotation of ending and purification with Tenebrae. These words of cleansing contrast the treatment of Yiddish in the poem. The poem isolates the Yiddish language in a song in the top right corner of the page, and thereby differentiates it from the German text on the left side of the page. Celan again others Yiddish by putting Yiddish words in italics. In addition to commenting on Latin and Yiddish, Celan indicates a fracturing of the German language beginning with the first German word of the poem “Ge-/trunken.”[6] Celan breaks the word into two pieces and separates it across two lines to show the depth of destruction the German  language has suffered. Using an injured language shows Celan’s refusal to abandon the German language. Furthermore, the use of multiple languages could represent an attempt to heal the German language and its people by fusing it with other languages.

Benedictions are prayers at the end of a service that bless and preserve the congregants. Psalm 121:7 “The lord shall preserve thee from all evil he shall preserve thy soul,” like many other benedictions, reaffirms the power of God to prevent catastrophe and ensure justice. “Benedicta” parallels a real Christian benediction. The first stanza follows the structure of a Christian service with the words “thou hast drunken”[7]. Drinking invokes the practice of communion where Christians drink wine which they believe to be the blood of Christ. However, it also contains connotations of excessive alcohol consumption through the word “drunken,” so it contrasts the purity of religious rituals with the ugly nature of excess and alcohol. Olschner’s attention to the multiplicity of meanings suggests that these are not opposing ideas but rather two comingled strands of the same truth. The truth that people take religion, just like substances, to excess and this excess damages everyone. The poem also evokes benedictions by mentioning blessings and alluding to God as the shepherd of mankind with a reference to “pastures,”[8] yet “Benedicta” contrasts these traditional themes as well. One stanza in particular juxtaposes benedictions and suffering: “be thou blessed, from afar, from / beyond my / guttering fingers.”[9] One, generally expects a blessing to be positive but the inclusion of “from afar” creates an ambivalence to the blessing. Does love drive the blessing or is the blessing the last hope of a powerless being? “Beyond” implies an aura of unattainability while the word “erloschenen,” translated by Felstiner as guttering, also translates as extinct and dead which further reinforces the sense of futility in the blessing. The concept of extinction continues with the theme of benedictions as an act of closing which contradicts the preservative powers of God that other benedictions continuously extol. Celan subverts the traditional empowering meaning of benedictions to show the failure of religious morals in the post-Holocaust world.

The emptiness of Christian ritual appears strongly in the final stanza. Celan writes, “Ge-/ trunken./ Ge-/ segnet./ Ge-/ bentscht.”[10] Felstiner translates the first two German words as drunken and blessed while he leaves Yiddish word meaning bitten untranslated. The repeated separation of “Ge” – a sound all three words begin with – from the rest of the word shows how each word starts the same but ends differently. The German words finish as they began while the Yiddish word becomes italicized. Additionally, the German means blessed, and the Yiddish means bitten indicating that one person’s safety can come at another’s expense. If one cannot read Yiddish, the last word they understand is blessed which makes “Benedicta” seem more traditional. However, if one can speak Yiddish, they will understand the dark implications of the final stanza. Thus, one’s cultural identity dictates one’s interpretation of the poem’s ending. Furthermore, “Benedicta” does not end Die Niemandsrose as one might expect a benediction to do. In fact, it comes in the middle of the book of poetry suggesting that words cannot provide closure over a horror like the Holocaust. The effects of the Holocaust endure even though the event itself has ended. Celan ironically alludes to the purification of a benediction to suggest that humans can no longer lay claim to purity.

Bibliography

Felstiner, John. Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan Translated by John Felstiner. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001.

Olschner, Leonard. Fugal Provocation in Paul Celan’s ‘Todesfuge’ and ‘Engfuhrung’. German Life and Letters, October 1989.

[1] Leonard Olschner, Fugal Provocation in Paul Celan’s ‘Todesfuge’ and ‘Engfuhrung’, German Life and Letters October 1989, 87.

[2] Olschner, 84.

[3] Olschner, 83.

[4] John Felstiner, Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan Translated by John Felstiner (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001), 175.

[5] Felstiner, 175.

[6] Felstiner, 175.

[7] Felstiner, 175.

[8] Felstiner, 175.

[9] Felstiner, 175.

[10] Felstiner, 175.

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