An Analysis Of Paul Celan

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Paradox, in individual assertions and the structure as a whole, pervades the descriptions of mourning in Paul Celan's poem "In Praise of Distance." For Celan, mourning reveals not only a personal dilemma but also a metaphysical crisis in the relationship between an "I" and a "you." Through paradox, Celan describes a space of mourning that alters the significance of violence and the death of another and that calls into question the logic of identity whose basic notion posits personal identity as autonomous, radically individuated subjectivity.

The first stanza reveals the poem's paradoxical structure and this structure's relationship with the two conceptions of identity treated in the poem.

In the wellspring of your eyes lives the snares of the fishermen of the labyrinth sea.

In the wellspring of your eyes the sea holds its promise (1-4).

The two bodies of water, the "wellspring of your eyes" and the "labyrinth sea," symbolize two conceptions of identity.

In the "labyrinth sea," identity is a matter of individuated, isolated entities floating separately. As the fishermen are an image for this idea of subjectivity, their snares represent a desire of the isolated subjectivities for a coming together. However, even if this singular purpose of catching each other unites the fishermen in a shared goal, this is only possible if one presupposes a fundamental rift between people. The labyrinthine difficulty is how subjectivities, which are in essence isolated, could ever come together. In the "labyrinth sea," mourning would be a means, through empathy, for people to relate to one another, a means to bridge the rift, yet for Celan, in the introduction of the alternative of the "wellspring," mourning as a means of relating what is essentially isolated is inadequate. The "promise" of the "labyrinth sea" is the promise of a relation or bond between subjectivities, but this promise is realizable only in the "wellspring of your eyes." I will examine the aspects of this subjectivity below, but here I note that the idea of subjectivity in "the wellspring of your eyes" seeks to take a different presupposition concerning identity, one that does not begin with the presupposition of separation.

However, this other idea of subjectivity is unable to free itself completely from the logic of isolated subjectivity. That logic of identity is the ever-present background against which the paradoxes of the poem take their sense. Thus, Celan employs a paradoxical structure to open a minimal space of critique within that logic. The structure of "In Praise of Distance" is paradoxical in that the poem is a description of the teary, mournful gaze of another. As a description of "the wellspring of your eyes," the poem seeks to do what is impossible within the logic of identity, which posits identity to be isolated and impenetrable. A fundamental bond between subjectivities is necessarily presupposed for the possibility of Celan's description. Celan offers mourning, the "wellspring of your eyes," as the site of reversal and paradox that reveals this fundamental bond between people. The relation between this paradoxical structure and the two conceptions of identity can be witnessed in the relation between the "wellspring" and the "sea." With the logic of identity as represented by the "sea," the basic notion is the individuation of subjectivity. However, by naming the capacity for mourning a "wellspring," Celan asserts that the origin or fountainhead of subjectivity is not isolation and individuation but a fundamental bond where there can only be an "I" in relation to a "you." Within the paradoxical structure launched in the first stanza, the following stanzas offer a series of paradoxical assertions that describe aspects of the different idea of subjectivity. These paradoxical assertions must be read for their dual significance in the logic of isolated subjectivity and in Celan's straining of this logic in paradox. In the second stanza, Celan uses absolute terms and hyperbole to characterize subjectivity as conceived in the space of mourning.

Blacker in black, I am more naked.

Unfaithful I am true.

I am you when I am I (5-7).

Against the logic of identity, where naked, true, unfaithful, I, and you are absolute or exclusive of their opposites, Celan uses the terms to assert that the basis of subjectivity is not its exclusivity, but a seemingly impossible originary bond with it counterpart. For the logic of identity, being more than naked is not achievable; there, being naked is subjectivity stripped of all relations and social qualifications, the pure self. But in the "wellspring of your eyes," subjectivity is more than naked, more than a pure self in isolation, in that, here, nakedness is a fundamental exposure to and contact with the gaze of another, a "you." Furthermore, this being "more naked" takes place within the space of mourning and also represents not an autonomous self but an indigent and suffering one. Similarly, to be true to oneself requires that one be unfaithful to that very idea of a true self, if that true self is conceived as isolated from "you." The final paradox of the stanza, "I am you when I am I" (7), emphasizes that this is not an easy paradox. For these claims to be intelligible, one must affirm the traditional logic of identity where "I" and "you" have a legitimate place and meaning, yet one must also affirm the radical paradox that opens a way to the relation of the terms. As a simple reflection on indexical reference the line can be rewritten: I am a "you" to you when I am an "I" to me. In this, "I" and "you" only have meaning and reference in a concrete situation of discourse, and the terms can relate subjectivities in their replacability through pronouns and their connection in discourse. However, this does not account for the dense formulation of the paradox, which risks nonsense in the conflation of an "I" and a "you." There, the paradox manifests a mutual identity between "I" and "you," such that the bare naked truth of subjectivity is a paradoxical wellspring or origin of subjectivity where the identities and fates of "I" and "you" wax and wane together. The "wellspring of your eyes" is the space of mourning that reveals this conflation of "I" and "you" in a fundamental and original bond. It is a capacity for mourning so deep as to experience the suffering and death of another as one's own.

Stanzas three and four continue this paradoxical reflection on subjectivity. Stanza three reads: "In the wellspring of your eyes/ I drift and dream by robbery" (8-9). Here the "I" of the logic of identity, the individuated "I," manifests some of its main moments as characterized in the poem: drifting, like the boat of a fisherman, in itself, separated from others and dreaming, another reference to what one should only be able to do alone, what can only later be related to another. These, for the logic of identity, epitomize what is the exclusive state and province of the individual in isolation. However, in the space of mourning, the individuality of these terms are said to be robbery. That is, the claim that one's self is one's exclusive and fundamental possession is a wrongful taking-possession of property that is not one's own. Here, Celan introduces the issue of violence in his reflection on subjectivity. The claim for individuated subjectivity is not an innocent affair but is seen as an act of violence. If "I am you when I am I" (7), if "I" and "you" are fundamentally together, then the assertion of subjective autonomy and individuation, the basic move of the logic of identity, proceeds from an origin of violence, a rending of the mutual identity of "I" and "you." Stanza four revisits the imagery of fishermen and snares and recasts the most worthy desire of the logic of identity they represent, the desire for connection, in a mold that connotes the inevitable violence of the presupposition of separation. It reads: "a snare captures a snare/ we part entwined" (10-11). The image of snares capturing each other, an image of forceful conquest, evidences that even the best intentions of the logic of identity are condemned to cast every relation between subjectivities as, in essence, a form of war. The image of fishermen who wield the snares represents the subjectivities in question. Their encounter is not the meeting of a hunter and his prey but of two hunters, so that, in the logic of identity, even the empathy of mourning that relates isolated subjectivities is a competition and a violence, in that it subordinates the sufferer to the noble character of the mourner. The space of this mourning is under the control of the mourner and is doubly violent in this subordination, as well as in the original violence of the assumption of the separation, actually a rending, of isolated identities.

The final stanza reads: "In the wellspring of your eyes/ a hanged man strangles the rope" (12-13). These lines reveal what is at stake in Celan's reflections on subjectivity, the possibility of an alternation in the significance of violence and the death of another. In this final repetition of the phrase "In the wellspring of your eyes," Celan highlights the necessity of an alternative perspective on identity to cope with and understand violence. As we have seen, the conception of subjectivity in the logic of identity is predicated upon an original act of violence. Thus, with such a violent aegis, the logic of identity is incapable of coping with or understanding violence in a non-violent manner. Consistent with this logic, the image of the hanged man represents every "I" and "you" as posited by that logic, isolated, alone, and suffocating under these conditions. With this logic, subsequent to its violent assumption of individuation, the suffering of another would be fundamentally removed from the mourner and an optional affective disposition. In this conception of mourning, even if "I" choose to be concerned with "your" suffering, this does not alter the original violent presupposition of "your" status as a hanged man or individual, so that even the empathy of this mourning perpetuates a violence similar to that which it mourns. With this, a hanged man begins and is destined to remain a hanged man. However, "in the wellspring of your eyes," in the space of mourning that Celan describes, there is a reversal in the status of the hanged man, which follows from a reversal in the conception of subjectivity. If, as Celan has asserted previously in the poem, subjectivity is not originary individuation, but a being more than naked as exposure to suffering and death in an originary bond and mutual identity between "I" and "you," then the suffering and death of the hanged man and every "you" is the suffering and death of every "I," in that "I" and "you" are necessarily entwined. "In the wellspring of your eyes," in this mourning, Celan finds a testimony to such a fundamental bond. Here, the hanged man is not fulfilling a destiny of being hanged, and the mourning of his death is neither optional nor sentimental but necessary, as the fate of "I" and "you" is a shared fate, as "I am you when I am I" (7). This mourning, in itself, does not change the violence inflicted, but it does allow it to be seen from a non-violent perspective and in doing so does not permit one to be indifferent to it.