Language and Communication

Paul Celan: Poetry and the Language of the Oppressor

Paul Celan was a German-Jewish poet who moved to Paris in light of the Holocaust. He wrote as one who was oppressed, yet he wrote in the language of the oppressor. This paradox is the cradle of Celan’s poetry, which comes out as language that tears at itself, and as image under immense pressure. Could Celan be a model for our language of lament in the light of American violence and oppression? Michael Hamburger, one of Celan’s most prominent English translators, writes:

“What is certain is that he both loved and mistrusted words to a degree that has to do with his anomalous position as a poet born in a German-speaking enclave that had been destroyed by Germans. His German could not and must not be the German of his destroyers. That is one reason why he had to make a new language for himself, a language at once probing and groping, critical and innovative.”[1]

His poetry does violence to language, chopping and dislocating it, because this violence was Celan’s reality. Anything different would have been to use language as a silk sheet to cover spilled blood and broken bones. This was a feat that Nazi Germany was particularly good at. Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe has argued that this kind of aestheticization of a whole country was precisely the program that led to the Holocaust.[2] Violence and death were the dark underbelly of an attempt to render the country a Grecian statue – pure and smooth. To use language in the way of typical poetry would have made Celan’s language complicit with this program.

And so, Celan’s poetry had to resist meaning, resist interpretation. It forbids attempts to smooth the rips and ridges of reality by covering it with meaning. Its function is to uncover violence. This is evident in many of his poems, but I want to point out one poem that achieves this specifically through theological imagery by uncovering violence in the sacred space of worship.


We are near, Lord,

near and at hand.


Handled already, Lord,

clawed and clawing as though

the body of each of us were

your body, Lord.


Pray, Lord,

pray to us,

we are near.


Askew we went there,

went there to bend

down to the trough, to the crater.


To be watered

we went there, Lord.


It was blood, it was

what you shed, Lord.


It gleamed.


It cast your image into our eyes, Lord.

Our eyes and our mouths are so open and empty, Lord.

We have drunk, Lord.

The blood and the image that was in the blood, Lord.


Pray, Lord.

We are near.

A Tenebrae service is a service held on Good Friday, in which all the lights go out and the congregation is left in darkness. However, this reference to Christ’s crucifixion is not straightforward, especially bearing in mind that Celan is Jewish.

Almost everything about this poem destabilizes meaning by doubling it. The frequent repetition of “Lord” sounds both like panic, and like parody – like someone who habitually repeats it but does not mean it. There is of course hubris in asking the “Lord” to pray to us since we are near (though the request is itself a prayer). We have set ourselves up as gods to whom the “Lord” appeals. One hears echoes here of tower of Babel, the attempt to touch heaven through a single, unified language. Celan frequently makes eyes and mouth interchangeable in his poetry, as if sight and language are in close, mutual relationship. In this case eyes and mouth are both open and empty – available yet powerless, or perhaps powerful but nihilist.

The difficulty, of course, is that in coming near to the “Lord,” one has also come near to death, whether in killing or dying, because the Christian God is the crucified God. To come near to God is always to come near to the crucified “Lord” and this is a source of comfort for those who are suffering. But that other sort of nearness, that desire to be like God, also does not escape death; it perpetuates it. The difficulty is that both sides are calling on the same “Lord.”

And this is precisely the significance of this poem, that it contains the voice of both oppressed and oppressor, irresolvable. They cannot quite be pulled apart. Human language is the same language used by both.

Which brings me to my purpose in considering Celan. Do we perhaps live in a time when English is both the language of the oppressed and of the oppressor? Is it the language used to dismiss violence, to silence pain with meaning, to maintain our innocence, to bend reality into a smoother shape? If so, Paul Celan is an example of what it might mean to break the language that is put to these uses into pieces that can perhaps be used by the oppressed to haltingly construct a new language that doesn’t dismiss their experience but communicates it.


[1] Introduction by Michael Hamburger to Poems of Paul Celan, xxix.

[2] Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, The Aestheticization of Politics.”

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