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GREAT BOOKS 16: Paul Celan's Poetry, with Amir Eshel

Paul Celan's poetry marks the end of European modernism: he is the last poet of the era where the poetic "I" could center a subjective vision of the world through language. Celan bears witness to the Holocaust as the irredeemable rupture in European civilization, but he does so in German, the language of the perpetrators who murdered his parents along with millions of others. How do you bear witness to suffering, murder and loss in the language of the murderers? How can poetry account for the inhumanity of the Holocaust without aestheticizing it? How can language prevail when words fail to express what really happened to millions upon millions at the hands of a people who claimed to be the height of civilization? 

I spoke with Amir Eshel, a critic and poet who is also Edward Clark Crossett Professor of Humanistic Studies and Professor of German Studies and Comparative Literature at Stanford University. His books include: Poetic Thinking Today (forthcoming with Stanford University Press in 2019); Futurity: Contemporary Literature and the Quest for the Past (University of Chicago Press 2013); as editor, The German-Hebrew Dialogue: Studies of Encounter and Exchange (2018), and with Uli Baer, an edited book of essays on Hannah Arendt, Hannah Arendt: zwischen den Disziplinen. He's published several books on poetry after the Holocaust and on writings about the Palestinian expulsion. In 2018 Amir published a book with the artist Gerhard Richter, called Zeichnungen/רישומים, a book which brings together 25 drawings by Richter from the cycle 40 Tage and Eshel’s bi-lingual poetry in Hebrew and German.

Eshel first encountered Celan in Hebrew translations before learning German himself. I read Celan in (my native) German but not until I have moved to America and started writing and mostly speaking in English. Amir and I met, in a way, as an Israeli and a German, via Celan's poetry. We talked about the experience of reading Celan, how being estranged by language can come close to grasping another's experience that we will never know, and why poetry never quite lives only in a familiar idiom.