Do you Hear Me? A Schlemiel’s Stuttering Elaboration of the Messianic in “Conversation in the Mountains” – Part I


The great thing about conversation is that, from time to time, we stumble across things that are transformational.  In the midst of all our babbling, something comes through.  The point is to listen closely for these moments.  And to find the moment we need to, so to speak, follow the movement.

In my last blog entry, I traced these movements which are, in Celan’s prose piece, repetitive.  In a Talmudic sense, all things must be repeated so as to understand where the lacunae (gaps) are in this or that phrase or expression.  For in looking at it again, we can see something or hear something we may have missed “at first glance.”  And, as I noted with respect to Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains,” these repetitions are situated in conversation.

Between Klein and Gross, between the narrator and you, and between he and them, we hear many different voices.  Of the voices, the most important was the voice that distinguished the Jew from nature.  This voice points out a heterogeneity between them.  It also points out a difference between the Jew and the mystic who yearns for communion.  Celan is acutely aware of the fact that the mystic destroys language to arrive at some form of communion.  Celan, however, puts a limit on this by way of the stuttering between Klein and Gross.  And, nodding toward Jewishness, Celan points out when a Jew meets another Jew they can’t keep “quiet for long.”

After pointing out their acute relation to time as it relates to Klein and Gross’s alienation from nature (“have been and still are, even today, even here”), the narrator describes how things are simply next-to- each-other.  This description, itself, is repetitive and shows us a lack of one-ness between them and nature.  And this teaches us that the narrator errs on the side of Jewishness:

So there they are, the cousins.  ON the left, the turk’s-cap lily blooms, blooms wild, blooms, like nowhere else.  And on the right, corn-salad, and dianthus superbus, the maiden-pink, not far off.  But, they, those cousins, have no eyes, alas.  Or, more exactly: they have, even they have eyes, but with a veil hanging in front of them, no, not in front, behind them, a moveable veil.  (18)

But, more importantly, the narrator notes their blindness, which is a key feature of the schlemiel.  Everything they see is mediated by “the veil”; it spins “itself around the image and begets a child, half image, half veil.”  In other words, everything they see and say is childish (“half image, half veil”).

The narrator gives us a sense of how the reader may look at these schlemiels.  He likens them to these oddly named flowers: “poor lily, poor corn salad”(19).  He then goes on to note their language as, in some way, lacking:

No word has come to an end and no phrase, it is nothing but a pause, an empty space between words, a blank – you see the syllables stand around, waiting.  They are all tongue and mouth…(19)

It seems as if the narrator has a very negative reading of the way schlemiels “babble.”  He exclaims: “The windbags!  Even now, when their tongues scramble dumbly against their teeth.”  However, he notes that “they have something to say to each other.”  In other words, in the midst of all their babble, these schlemiels can show us or direct us toward something meaningful.  And that “something” is messianic.

The first words we hear from them work on two levels.  On the one hand, they are what we would expect of two Jews meeting in the mountains; on the other hand, it hints at something messianic:

‘You’ve come a long way, have come all the way here….’  

‘I have. I’ve come, like you.’

‘I know’

They have both come, in a messianic sense.  As is well known, the Messianic begins with the announcement of the Messiahs’s arrival.  It is announced by Eliyahu the Prophet.  The language used to describe the Messianic include much mention of his “coming” and “arrival.” Read in this sense, Celan seems to telling us that these are Schlemiels who announce themselves as Messiahs. But, in a veiled manner, they don’t quite understand what their “arrival” means.

What Celan does with this arrival is fascinating.  As I pointed out in the last blog, the conversation between Klein and Gross is characterized as repetitive in a Talmudic manner.  This is exactly what we see here.  Klein recounts to Gross what he sees of the earth and where he and Gross are at this moment and concludes that the earth is not for either he or Gross (it speaks an “alien” language) ; rather, they are for each other:

You know.  You know and see. The earth folded up here, folded once and twice and three times, and opened in the middle, and in the middle there is water, and the water is green…that this is the language that counts here…a language not for you or me – because, I ask you, for whom is it meant, the earth, not for you, I say, it meant, and not for me – a language, well, without I and without You, nothing but He, nothing but It, you understand…(20).

After saying this, something has been acknowledged and now the next step can be taken – a step toward the messianic coming (yet, within the context of alienated language and nature).  And, like many Jewish things, this comes in the form of a question:

‘I understand, I do.  After all, I’ve come a long way, I’ve come like you.’

‘I know.’

“You know and want to ask: And even so you’ve come all the way, come here, even so – why, and what for?’

To be sure, this question and its answer can and do serve as a marker distinguishing between Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Atheists.   But, for Celan, it distinguishes a Jewish poet; it is the mark of the schlemiel.

Why, and what for…Because I had to talk, maybe, to myself or to you, talk with my mouth and tongue, not just with my stick. Because to whom does it talk, my stick?  It talks to the stones, and the stones – to whom do they talk? (20).

The stones talk to “no-one” (niemand).  And this is a language that the Jewish poet doesn’t speak.  The schlemiel must speak with the other. This is the crux of the matter.  And this speech must recur over and over gain.  And the reason it must speak is because it gives the schlemiel a sense of who he or she is, what he or she is doing, and who she is speaking to.  Though seemingly simple, this gesture shows the deeply ethical and relational aspect of the schlemiel.  And this comes out in Klein’s words about God and hearing.

As we learn, the stick talks to “nobody and Nobody.” The latter Nobody troubles Klein the former (nature) does not.  He, that is Nobody, says: “Do you hear me?”  As a schlemiel, Klein responds to this voice and takes it on as his own.  And this brings us to the messianic moment, repeated and nuanced:

‘Do you hear me: he says – I know, cousin, I know… Do you hear me, he says, I’m here. I am here, I’ve come.  I’ve come with my stick, me and no other, me and not him, me with my hour, my undeserved hour, me who have been hit, who have not been hit, me with my memory, with my lack of memory, me, me, me’(20).

These lines are the testimony of a schlemiel who has come, but who can only say that he has come; and like Him, the schlemiel wants to be heard.  He echoes the “Do you hear me?” and he communicates it to Gross.

And this is the point.  He bears witness to the Gross (big) Other (with a big “O”), and to the (Klien) other (with the little “o”).  And he’s trying to figure out his relations to these others by way of repetition.  In this form, Celan gives a dignity to the schlemiel that the narrator notes, in the middle of the piece, is lacking.  He shows that the schlemiel is situated in an encounter with the other; and by putting the schlemiel in relation to the other, he, so to speak, revises the Messianic moment and the schlemiel.

In the next blog entry, I will look into Gross’s response to this testimony, this echo.  It repeats the messianic moment of coming which, for Celan, must be elaborated and re-elaborated.  And, here, this re-elaboration is unique for many reasons: it is not in poetry, it is tinged with the comic, and it is between schlemiels.

“Do you hear me?”

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