Poetic Faith and Stupidity in the Face of Disaster – On Paul Celan’s “Twelve Years”


I am a(n) (c)academic (as the post-Holocaust writer Raymond Federman used to quip).

One of the things that I am astonished by is the pride some of my colleagues take in showing how intelligent they are. Few of them will admit to “becoming” or “being” stupid. But I would suggest that with people like NYU professor Avital Ronell there is hope. Her study of stupidity is brilliant and opens up a whole new field.  She subtly performs stupidity, while academically discussing it:

As Pierre Bordieu might say, religion is a habitus, a way of life that defines the world. But the Enlightenment takes a different kind of habitus. In the spirit of Spinoza, the enlightened must always seem intelligent…and not stupid.

This is not theory. To be sure, humility and stupiduty are not norms for the more enlightented. Intelligence is. And still, for many, stupidity is often synonymous with “religion.” Bill Maher rides on the claim:

Religion is neither necessary nor possible unless it is the worship of intelligence. But, perhaps, that’s what makes poetry unique. Reading it, sometimes, we can experience something that is religious and dumb, yet, in a way that isn’t stupid but possibly transformational and even redemptive.

humility and stupiduty are not a norm. And still, for many, stupidity is synonymous with “religion.”

Speaking of intelligence and stupidity, the poet Paul Celan comes to mind. He brings his readers to think of language in relationship to the schlemiel and the “ascription” of the “line” – which “remains” – to the other.

One of the most overlooked things I have seen in the reception of Paul Celan is that there us little attention to how his poetry is sometimes concerned with becoming “dumb.” Many of my colleagues who read him think of him and themselves as intelligent and have not, as Celan would have wished, been or are not capable of being transformed by what Lacoue-Labarthe calls the “experience of language.” That is because many of them look at language and faith as may Enlighteners do: as arbitrary and unncesarry.

Poetry teaches us that language can expose a close reader to the “experience of language” as the “experience of stupidity.”

Celan’s poems are stupid in the sense that they are obsessed with the question of salvation and experience of truth. Celan, to be sure, situates stupidity at the heart of many of his poems and this can take on many different shades of meaning.

The worst kind of stupidity happens, for him, when people hurt themselves and others.

The best kind of stupidity is experienced in the face of the incomprehensible.

And the experience of stupidity can be found in his poetry. We may undergo an experience of language as an experience. But if we are too smart, if we are too academic, we may not.

Poetry teaches us that language can expose a close reader to the “experience of language” as the “experience of stupidity.”

In Paul Celan’s Die Niemandrose (the Nobody’s Rose, 1963) there is a poem entitled, “Twelve Years.” It gets to the heart of the matter and shows us the internal tension between stupidity and intelligence. It shows us the way of poetic faith in the wake of disaster. And, as John Felstiner suggests, Celan was thinking about “luftmenshen.” There is a mix of faith and comedy:

The eye, dark:

As tabernacle window. It gathers

What was world, remains world: the wanders –

East, the

Hovering ones, the


The people-of-the-clouds

Writing on this, Felstiner avers: “Yiddish speaks benignly of luftmenschen, job drifters with their heads in the clouds”(192). Yet he juxtoposes it with a entirely different idea:

Writing to Margul-Sperber at the time, Celan recollected how Mensch “(human being”) during Nazi-time seemed “a rhymeless word calling for rhyme.”

What is the meaning of this? Felstiner’s third sentence gives the answer:

His compound “humans-and-Jews” provides the rhyme (192).

In other words naming the schlemiel, the lumtentsch, “humans-and-Jews,” the word mensch is redeemed! The problem with what Felstinter says is not that it is improperly described. Rather, Felstiner’s work lacks insights into these moments of redemption because they are not directly named or described by the critic.

I will give it a try: for Celan the word “humans-and-Jews” is a remnant of the luftmensche, schelmiel. It gives the schlemiel new life through a kind of stupidity that comes with survival but is rooted in the holy fool.

And the holy fool is rooted in “an experience of language which is…an “experience of stupidity.”

In the first stanza, the narrator makes the case for the truth of language, the line. It survives, it remains…after the Holocaust:

The line

That remained, that

Became true:…your

House in Paris – become

The altarpiece of your hands. (165, Paul Celan: Collected Poems)

The words Celan chooses are his own. But they are also from a surreal image of the Christian tradition of faith and mysticism. The alterpiece of one’s hands. It makes sense to note that, for at least one thread of the Kabblastic tradition, the hands are read as a spiritual channel of the soul.

naming the schlemiel, the lumtentsch: “humans-and-Jews,” the word mensch is redeemed!

According to the Zohar, he soul leaves the body when one sleeps and returns to the soul every day. And this is tied to the first blessing of the day: “modeh ani’ lefanecha” (“I admit before you”) melachai v’kayam (“my living king”) sh’chezartah b’ee nishmat’ee (“who has returned my soul to me”).

Celan tells us that the return of the soul is to the hands and language (which is kabbalistic). But he grafts it with  a Christian tradition by using the word, “thrice”…in two rhythmic lines:

Breathed through thrice,

Shone through thrice. (165)

The mysticism of three. There is nothing stupid in these lines save for foolish belief in language, mysticism, and history because it is all that remains: “the line that remained.”

Is that “remaining line” “human-Jews” or some other word?

But the next lines tell us that we are losing vision, become dumb. We are losing trust in language and its power:

It’s turning dumb, turning deaf

Behind our eyes.

I see the poison flower.

It all manner of words and shapes.

The line has not just become “dumb” and “deaf”; it has seen in terms of a “poison flower” which the voice sees in “in all manner of words and shapes.”

In other words, the poison has its language, its form.

This suggests that there is no word, but the last lines tell us, or rather, command us to turn away from this turning by turning to the other:

Go. Come.

Love blots out its name: to

You it ascribes itself.

The last lines shows us that this is not the name of love is the name of redemption; it tell us to “Go. Come” It commands us. Yet, in the process it “blots out its name.” It effaces itself.

But when it is blotted out, it doesn’t go nowhere, it goes to you: “to you it ascribes itself.”

It is a religious kind of ascription.

But it also makes you in to a luftmensch, that is a “human-Jew.” That line “remains” (survives). Its stupid because its doesn’t rhyme and its looking…to the other…to rhyme.

That might be when the “the experience of language” is the experience of a certain kind of stupidity that we find in the name that survives. Since “to you it ascribes itself.” “Human-Jew” is your word. It returns…to “you.”


No one kneads us again out of earth and clay,

no one incants our dust.

No one.


Blessèd art thou, No One.

In thy sight would

we bloom.

In thy



A Nothing

we were, are now, and ever

shall be, blooming:

the Nothing-, the




our pistil soul-bright,

our stamen heaven-waste,

our corona red

from the purpleword we sang

over, O over

the thorn.

5 thoughts on “Poetic Faith and Stupidity in the Face of Disaster – On Paul Celan’s “Twelve Years”

  1. Wonderful entry, Menachem. Celan’s poetry persistently stutters and stumbles, teeters on unmeaning only to teeter into some shabby, whispered, saving word, and this is not only a trope to be commented upon by scholars in fluid and fluent discourse. The triumph of interpretation over the stupidity of our condition is not tenable. Rather we must suffer the inarticulate and not too articulately. Not a thing many can do well/unwell. Certainly not this writer.

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