‘I Am Here, I’ve Come’: An Interpretation of Paul Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” – (Take 2)


We like to repeat ourselves.  And oftentimes we forget what we said before and are reminded by our friends that “we already said that.” Nonetheless, people being people, we forget and do it again.  The people most susceptible to this blindness are older people.  However, sometimes repetitions – which are seemingly absent-minded – are full of implication and meaning.  And one of the advantages of conversation is that these meanings can be teased out; given that the person you are conversing with is compelling enough to do so.

As a child, I was privy to such conversations.  My father and his best friend, David Kaplan (a Jew who went from the streets of Brooklyn to the leather mills of Gloversville New York), used to have such conversations.  They were very repetitive but they were filled with meaning and implication.  David told us that he came from a line of magidim (story-tellers) and this is how they would speak.  After David died, it hit me that his style of speaking, which my father picked up on and practiced daily with him, was not just the style of the story-teller.  It was also a Talmudic style.  His way of speaking was steeped in an ongoing conversation.  And it included moments of skepticism, play, and wit.

So when I read Paul Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” for the first time, I had tears in my eyes and a smile on face.  Since David had passed, my father stopped speaking this way.  He had no one to talk to in such a manner.  After David’s death, it seemed like such ways of speaking were now a thing of the past, a memory.  So when I read Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains,” it hit me that this kind of conversation could and in fact should find its way into the work of one of my favorite poets.  It should find its way into the work of a poet whose work was often full of mourning and loss not comedy.

One of the things I loved about each of David’s stories is that they always included an element of vision.  He would always preface his stories with the words of a street-smart visionary: “I can see it now! Get this….”  These repetitions made us all smile.  And my father would push him to tell more and to tell it better.  And David would always prompt my father to challenge him to do so and add to his story.

The key element of their conversations was the repetition and variation of this or that fragment of information that they claimed to have heard or witnessed.  And in the midst of this, David would often remind us that he had heard this or saw this, so as to assure us of the revelatory aspect of his words.  This way of speaking is something we can see at the outset of “Conversation in the Mountains.”

One evening, when the sun had set and not only the sun, the Jew – Jew and son of a Jew – went off, left his house and went off, and with him his name, his unpronounceable name, went and came, trotting along, made himself heard, came with a stick, came over stones, do you hear me, you do, it’s me, me, me and whom you hear, whom you think you hear, me and the other.

Notice that the Jew, for the speaker, is “a Jew and son of a Jew.”  This is not arbitrary.  There is a tradition of saying that one is ‘A the son of B’ (for me Menachem ben Mattityahu Zev).  And this traditional way of speaking has repetition built into it. Tradition requires that Jews speak of themselves or others in this way if they are being honored or remembered. And in this world, the Latinized world, it sounds comic; Especially to American ears which like to hear shortened names (like Matt, Greg, Bill, Bob, Jr. etc).

The thing about this name, and about being Jewish, is that it implies the speaker.  These Jewish names “come and go” and come “trotting along.”  They come and go, as it were, in ways that are beyond “our” control.  What I think Celan is saying is that the other Jew reminds me that I am a “Jew and son of a Jew” – just as much as he or she is a Jew with a name, so am I.   In response to this dialogical relation, the speaker says: “its me, me, me.”  But following this he notes: “whom you hear, whom you think you hear, me and the other.”  These lines remind the reader that he, the speaker, is not alone in saying me.  Me, so to speak, is not his conclusion.  His woes about being a Jew are shared with the other (Jew).

In Celan’s conversation there are four positions that are returned to constantly: him, me, you (the reader), and the other.  In the above passage, the I breaks through to the listener but then folds back into talking about him:

So he went off, you could hear it, went off one evening when various things had set, went under clouds, went under shadow, his own and not his own – because the Jew, you know, what does he have that is really his own, that is not borrowed, taken and not returned –

For anyone versed in German literature, this line about “him” and his “shadow” appear to be a reference to Peter Shlemihl; the influential and widely read novel of Adelbert von Chamisso’s which was published in 1814.  In the novel the main character ends up in a battle for his soul which originates over a deal with the devil to sell his shadow.  The schlemiel is, from time to time, associated with this novel.  But this is a mistake and, to be sure, this novel makes no mention of Jews let alone an association of the Jews with Peter Shlemihl.

In effect, Celan is bringing the schlemiel back to its source: in a Jewish-styled conversation.  This is where the schlemiel’s “shadow” belongs.  It is situated in relation to that conversation.  The shadow is something that is his and not his; like all things that a Jew “has.”  And this includes what a Jew says. And this is what might be missed.  “His” words, though repeated, are shared with the other.  And we are alerted of this when “he” meets “Gross”(large).

In fact, when “he” meets “Gross,” he becomes “Klein” (small).   And, as I have often pointed out in this blog, the schlemiel is oftentimes humble; that is, small.  And the less one “has” the “smaller” one is.  Nonetheless, Celan’s lesson is not about what the Jew has so much as what the Jew does: the Jew speaks with another Jew.  The Jew speaks repetitively in an effort to speak the truth or rather go toward the truth.  And going towards it, he becomes smaller and smaller.  But, on the other hand, Celan suggests that when he is in conversation, Gross comes along the way with Klein.  And together they go along the road towards the truth…and each other.

I say “go towards” since he, that is Klein, is on the road.  And on the road he meets up with Gross. And once they meet they walk and talk. Before that, “he” is not Klein (he has a shadow, a name, and he walks; but he can’t talk; when he meets Gross he can).

But when they first meet each other, there is a silence.  But, as Celan nicely points out, silence is not the way of the Jew.  Silence, as he well knew, is closer to the traditions of Christian mystics who see language and law as obstacles to communion.

The stones, too, were silent. And it was quiet in the mountains where they walked, one and the other.  So it was quiet, quiet up there in the mountains.  But it was not quiet for long, because when a Jew comes along and meets another, silence, cannot last, even in the mountains.

Celan pronounces silence in this passage, but he undoes it in the repetition.  After making this repetition and undoing silence, the speaker notes that the reason why Jews break silence is because the Jew and nature are not one:

Because the Jew and nature are strangers to each other, have always been and still are, even today, even here.

Besides pronouncing alterity and difference, this passage performs it by putting an accent on time and space when he notes that they are strangers: “have always been and still are, even today, even here.”  This accent, which is enhanced by repetition, brings us into the moment of the telling.  It also gives us an acute sense of the speaker’s words.  We hang on to his words and they open us up to a future that is beyond our grasp.  What will he say next?

In The Writing of the Disaster, Maurice Blanchot associates repetition with the fragment and the “destruction of the present.” What he implies by this destruction needs to be elaborated since it can help us to better understand what is at stake in this text’s emphasis on repetition, time, and space:

There cannot be a successful, a satisfactory fragment, or one indicating the end at last, the cessation of error, and this would be the case if for no other reason than that every fragment, though unique, repeats, and is undone by repetition.  Let us remember.  Repetition: nonreligious repetition….the ultimate over and over, general collapse, destruction of the present. (42)

Although Blanchot is correct in saying that repetition destroys the present, he gives it a negative valence that Celan does not.  By the destruction of the present, I would note that Emmanuel Levinas (a close friend of Blanchot) in his book Time and the Other has the right idea.  It is a destruction of the past-present and the future present and, for Levinas, this implies that a future beyond by control, which is not “present” opens up to me.

The “ultimate over and over” that Celan brings into the “conversation” opens us up, as we shall see in the next blog entry, to something messianic (and not messianic).  Blanchot’s notion of a “nonreligious repetition” finds an interesting counterpoint in Celan because Celan doesn’t open up to a mystical experience that eschews humor. He doesn’t mourn the loss of communion as Blanchot does.  To be sure, as I have been showing, this moment would have to happen within the structure of this conversation – a comic conversation. With all of its repetitions and clumsiness, Celan’s conversation is not only destructive.  It also opens us up to the future; to what is to come.

And this is what I would often hear when my father and David conversed.  In each of their conversations, with all of their repetitions and witty rejoinders, they pushed each other to enunciate the moment in which and the spatial angle from which they were speaking to each other.  And, though it was comic, each of them always enunciated the fact that they were speaking to each other here, in this space, and in this manner.  And in doing so, they enunciated that the words were their own words, yet, at the same time, they were not.  They were shared and replayed to each other.  And that’s were their words were also not their own.  This fact made their words and themselves vulnerable and oftentimes blind.  And this is was what made them schlemiels.  This is what made David and my father, for me, Klein and Gross.  After all, what does a Jew own that is really his own?

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