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


In the midst of a difficult situation, when pressed hard, we speak truly.  We speak from the heart.  And when I say “we,” I am not excluding anyone.  Schlemiels like Klein and Gross (who the narrator of “Conversation in the Mountains” calls “windbags”) are included.  What Celan wants to tell us is that the schlemiel, as he understands him, is not simply a “babbling” fool.  He has some wisdom to offer. But Celan teaches us that to get to this wisdom, we must carefully listen to all of their repetitions and noise for the right moment – what I have called, in previous blog entries, a messianic moment.  This moment is the moment where we come face to face with the possibility of revelation.  And at this moment, when Klein says “I have come,” the schlemiel doesn’t babble; he speaks.  These words, I would argue, are preparatory and they prompt us to ask the messianic question: Why have you come?   

Celan doesn’t want to eliminate the schlemiel’s “noise,” which is the preface to the announcement of his “coming.” Rather, Celan wants Klein and Gross to speak through the noise (which we hear throughout their repetitions and stuttering).  Through this noise we hear a distinct voice; the voice of Klein (the small one) which resounds that of Gross (the big one).   The theme of speaking through noise, which is a comical affair, echoes what we learned from the Meridian Speech

As I noted, in that speech the announcement of truth is prompted and made by the Barker of a Circus.  He looks for your hearing which implies that we – the readers/listeners – are, so to speak, watching a circus when we listen for true speech.   Hence, in addressing “you” the barker includes us in the joke.  And as in any joke, there is an element of truth that the listeners are privy.

In “Conversation in the Mountains,” it is Klein who is the first to speak in the imperative.  Like the Barker of the Meridian Speech, Klein is addressing “you” (and not simply Gross).  Like Celan in the Meridian Speech, Klein is looking for the breathturn (the atemwende).  He begs, repeatedly, to be heard.  And this “desperate” conversation, lest we not forget, is inspired not only by the muteness of nature; it is also inspired by God.  Klein calls him Nobody.  And he claims that Nobody speaks to him through His silence.  And this speech evinces a desperate conversation between Klein and Nobody.  (This, I would add, as Celan does, is a Jewish conversation.) 

Klein takes this desperate conversation into himself and translates it into his conversation with Gross.  This is done not only by describing what Nobody says but also by addressing this question (“Do you hear me?) to Gross.  This question is spoken through all the noise.  And it emerges out of the Messianic moment when Klein announces that he has “come”:

‘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).

This translation extends messianic moment.  It explains what it means to come or arrive: God has come and so has Klein.  God has summoned him with his “do you hear me.”  (As Abraham, Moses, etc are summoned by God to listen, so is Klein.)  But Klein, in turn, summons Gross (and the reader).  He, that is Klein, “comes” with all of his suffering.  He is like a leper Messiah who has “come.”  But this Schlemiel Messiah hasn’t come to redeem so much as testify.

He has come with his “hour,” his “undeserved hour.”  Klein also comes with his wounds and testifies that he has “been hit.” But, at the same time, he says he has not been hit (as if he is afraid of admitting to his trauma for fear of being punished).  Klein also says he comes with his “memory” and with his “lack of memory.”  This confusion, of coming and not coming with this or that thing, is the noise through which he, as a Schlemiel Messiah, speaks.  And through this noise, we hear the testimony of who he has come, in this moment in time, to speak to: Gross and you, the reader/listener.  Speaking is testifying to the other.  And, in a sense, it is Messianic.

His last words, spoken to himself, are given to Gross and the reader.  We bear witness to his suffering and his attempt to understand “how” he has come and what he has to say to us, now.  Here we have a person who has been hit and who hits himself.  The word that delimits his trauma and his mission is the word “me.”  The repetition of this word puts the accent on the present and it is not selfish; it is relational: “me, me, me.”

Each “me” indicates the singularity of the schlemiel’s pain and his Jewishness.  But it also indicates that he doesn’t know what to do with his, so to speak, election.  He is deeply affected by this “hit,” this election, which comes from Nobody.  But he translates it differently: Nobody wants to be heard and so does Klein! But both, it seems, are afraid that they may not be heard and that they will not be loved.

This is frustrating.  It makes Klein react.  We see this in the fact that, in a rebellious act of sorts, Klein tells Gross that “Do-you-hear-me” is “one with the glaciers.”  This call to be heard by Nobody is one with all things that are silent and opaque. This declaration, in the face of Nobody’s opaque calling, forces Klein to turns back on himself.  And all Klein can note is what he has said from the beginning: he is here with his shadow – his and not his own.  In other words, all he can note is that he is Jewish. 

But this is not all.  For the first time in the text, Klein gives an account that draws on memory and, to be sure, this is clearest reflection his own condition in the entire piece.  It is, so to speak, a prophetic kind of reflection.   In addition to being “here,” speaking to Gross, we now learn that Klein “was” with “many” people who were “different yet like me.”  Like schlemiels, these people “dream and don’t dream,” “sleep and don’t sleep.”  But here’s the point: Klein notes that, though he “lay with them,” he did not “love them” because he did not think they could love him.   In other words, the most important thing for him is their love. 

The only thing he “loved” was the burning down of “his candle.”  This candle was special because 1) it was “his” and 2) it was the same candle “he” gave to “our mother’s father.”  In other words, Klein recalls the tradition that was given from “him” (that is, God) to “our mother’s father” (who, if we are to take Klein as Paul Celan, was as Felstiner tells us, a Hasid).  To clarify what this candle is, Klein notes that it was the Sabbath Candle that was given on the seventh day. 

After describing the tradition in such a loving way, Klein admits that he “didn’t love it”: “I did not love it, I loved its burning down and, you know, I haven’t loved anything since” (21).  And this is where the schlemiel bespeaks his lament, which was hidden throughout the piece.  He repeats the fact that he loved nothing since the candle burned down.  And this implies that he loves the end of this tradition, which he seemingly hasn’t taken on (since there is no longer a candle).   What he loves most, now, is his memory of the end of tradition, not tradition itself (which, apparently, is gone).

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