“Speak, You Also” – Remembering Paul Celan’s Birth


As Jacques Derrida noted several times in his celebrated essay on Paul Celan entitled “Shibboleth,” Paul Celan wrote several poems dedicated to anniversaries.  For Derrida, these repetitions of important dates operate to have us think about the tension between a date’s unique character and how, through its repetition, a date can also be effaced.  This tension speaks directly to the dates that Celan was most familiar; namely, the dates of the Holocaust in which he experienced unique loss.  This loss found its way to language.  And this, in a way, breaks the tragic silence that Celan, as a poet, was often at odds with.  And although his poetry clings to silence, it is not destroyed by it.

As Celan says in his poem “Speak, You Also,” one who speaks truly “speaks the shade.”

Speak, you also

Speak at the last,

Have your say.


Speak –

But keep yes and no unsplit.

And give you say this meaning:

Give it the shade.


Give it shade enough,

Give it as much

As you know has been dealt out between

Midnight and midday and midnight


Look around:

Look how it all leaps alive –

Where death is! Alive!

He speaks truly who speaks the shade.

The spirit of this poem recurs and is reborn throughout his poetry, which travels along the unspoken and the unsaid giving it voice by way of allusion, relation, and constant repetition.

But there is another repetition that we don’t often hear about: a comic repetition found in his comic piece (dedicated to Theodor Adorno) called “Conversation in the Mountains.”  It also walks with the shadow.  But in this piece, the shadow has lot’s of company and comic variation:

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 with his name, his unpronounceable name, went and cam, came trotting along…went under clouds, went in 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.

Schlemiel-in-theory has addressed several blog-entries to “Conversation in the Mountains” and shows how the subjects of this piece, Klein and Gross, are schlemiels.  And it is through them that we see another kind of repetition.  And through their “conversation” we can see another kind of silence which is effaced by two schlemiels talking: two schlemiels on their way, somehow, to themselves.  These two schlemiels, in the spirit of his poem, have their “say,” and they leave “yes and no unsplit.”  Unbeknownst to them, they both “speak the shade” by speaking in the shade of their names and comic repetitions.

Here are the hyperlinked posts – enjoy!

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


Klein reevaluates his life in light of his testimony that the only thing he loved was the burning down of tradition.  Lest we not forget, this testimony came through a conversation with another schlemiel, Gross.  This moment, it seems, is Klein’s breathturn (it is his Atemwende).  What he recounts, in light of this, is that he is “here” and – like a schlemiel – he sees and doesn’t see things around him.

As opposed to what Felstiner claims in Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew, we can see that, regardless of his ‘serious’ testimony, he still sees himself as a windbag, that is, as a schlemiel. He shares this with his fellow Jewish schlemiel, Gross.  Who is also, still, a windbag :

And I know, I know cousin, I know I’ve met you here, and we talked, a lot…you Gross and me Klein, you, the windbag, and me, the windbag…me here and you here – (22)

In other words, what remains after the burning down of the tradition, is one schlemiel in conversation with another.   But there is more.  Although he has lost his tradition and although his love is focused on the memory of its burning down, Klein realizes that he wants to be loved by those he did not love!

Klein prays that now, after saying this, he is “accompanied by the love of those I didn’t love, me on the way to myself, up here”(22).  By saying this Klein admits that, as a schlemiel, he may be blind to many things he sees but what he hopes, most of all, is that now, somehow, he has done something that has earned the love of those he didn’t love; the love of the dead.  They are, so to speak, his tradition.

This is an impossible hope and this is what makes him a schlemiel – albeit of a different sort.  He didn’t love them.  But he hopes that somehow they, who are no longer alive, will love him.

Klein finishes by saying that he is on the way to himself; yet, from this we can see that he is not (and will not be) able to complete in his journey.  How, after all, can they be with him?  This can have only one sense for him; namely, the sense of redeeming the dead by way of remembrance.  Celan, in this sense, is following Walter Benjamin’s lead who writes in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” that the historian can fan the “spark of hope” by remembering the dead and saving them from those who “win” in history.  But although the historian may save them, so to speak, they cannot love him.  That is categorically impossible and is, so to speak, wishful thinking (an “as if” – its “as if” the dead will love him not that they will).

Regardless of whether or not it is possible, Klein realizes that his journey to himself must include the love of those he didn’t love.  And this teaches us that, for Celan, his drama, the drama of the schlemiel, is about suffering, love, and conversation with the other.  To be sure, the schlemiel may be charming to the reader but what makes his charm so fascinating is the fact that, as a result of his absent-mindedness, he is not loved and his love is oftentimes misunderstood.

As in many schlemiel stories from Eastern Europe, the main character is mistreated and misunderstood by others.  For all their laughter at the schlemiel, we can see that they do not love him.  With a schlemiel like Gimpel, we can see that he, a schlemiel, does love them; he trusts them, regardless of how much they lie to him and trick him.

Nonetheless, as Ruth Wisse points out, it seems that even Gimpel knows that they are lying to him.  Nonetheless, Gimpel keeps on foolishly trying to find trust and love.  Like Klein and all the people he didn’t love, Gimpel is half asleep and half-dreaming.  The Messianic moment is annunciated in the fact that, even though he knows this, Gimpel still comes back to them.  And this is the lament we see with Klein.  He is small; that is, he is (like Gimpel and most traditional schlemiels) a simpleton.  But this humility comes out in a different way.  It comes out in the fact that, even though he is here, alive, and talking to Gross, he is still small insofar as he feels he didn’t love them when he probably did.  He, too, is a half-dreamer and is half-asleep since he thinks that they will now love him and come with him or that he didn’t truly love them.  These are half-truths.  The effect of his half-blindness and his half-dreaming is that he literally can’t look at himself as Gross (big) because he is Klein (small).

(An irony that arises from this fact is that Paul Celan told Theodor Adorno, for whom he wrote this piece, in part, that he saw Adorno as Gross; but Adorno said that he was not Jewish and that the Gross Celan was looking for was Gershom Scholem.  This would imply that Scholem was not the schlemiel; but, as we saw above, Celan ends the piece by saying that both Klein and Gross are still “windbags.”  That said, Klein still thinks of himself as Klein while we’re not sure what Gross thinks.  His response to Klein’s words is not recorded in “Conversation in the Mountains.”)

Nonetheless, Klein foolishly believes that his words will now win the love of those he did not love.  And this is where he is a schlemiel.  He hopes that they – the dead (who appear, as it were, in a dream-like vision of lying with him half-asleep/half-dreaming) – can hear him.  Like Nobody who asks “Can-you-hear-Me,” Klein asks the same question.  Gross can hear him.  But they cannot.

In the end, he is still a “windbag” – but this windbag, this schlemiel, has a big heart.  And his journey is not simply forwards it is also backwards, toward the dead.  And in this journey, he will always be “on-the-way” to himself…and the other.  His dream of love and trust is the dream of every traditional schlemiel.  And it is out of a conversation with another schlemiel that he becomes aware of it.  It is through this conversation that he has a breathturn which turns him toward Nobody, others, and another windbag named Gross.  It also turns him toward us.

Klein is a schlemiel only insofar as his heart can turn, through all of this noise, to finding or securing love.  And even if this love may be impossible to earn, it is the very thing that give Klein his humanity.  His blindness (or rather half-blindness) in pursuit of this love should give us pause.  For even if he is half blind, he can still hear Nobody say and can hear himself ask Gross the same question – a question that can lead to a rejoinder or solitude.

Do you hear me?

And, in a messianic fashion, Klein has “come” to ask this question and receive an answer which is, in effect, just another question:

Why and what for? 

These questions, though troubling, are in search of an answer. But the take-away from all this is that the schlemiel doesn’t want an answer so much as someone to speak to.  Underlying it all is the risk that the schlemiel takes when he or she speaks to the other.  This is the risk of being or not being loved, heard, and understood.  Every comedienne or comedian who takes on an audience knows this.  And, in this piece, the schlemiel’s charm is based on his vulnerability upon being exposed to this risk.  And what we, as readers, realize is that though he desires the love of those he didn’t love, and though he feels his conversation with Gross may have earned it, his feelings are, like those he “lay with,” half-dream and half-reality.  Like any schlemiel, his love is caught up in dreams.

And this is what Klein came to tell Gross and us.  We, strangely enough, share this conversation.  Like Klein and Gross, we, too, have come to speak; we have come with the shadow and our hour; we have been hit.  And we must speak.  But what we say, regardless of whether we want to admit it, is half-dream/half-reality.  And though we may not have loved them, those other half-dreamers, we hope they will love us if we speak the truth.  And perhaps this is the most foolish hope of all. But Celan suggests that we entertain it as we converse with fellow-schlemiels.

Perhaps we will be loved.  Perhaps we will not.  We just hope they will accompany us as we walk down that road – the same road Kafka walked with a bunch of nobodies.  Perhaps, on the road, someone will ask us “Why did you come?”  And we will say, like Klein, “because I had to talk, maybe, to myself or to you, talk with my mouth and tongue, not just with my stick.”

“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).

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?”

‘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?

‘I Am Here, I’ve Come’: An Interpretation of Paul Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” – (Take 1)


At the very least, John Felstiner – in Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew – acknowledges that Paul Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” has a comic aspect to it:

“Conversation in the Mountains,” brief yet gabby, humorous yet fateful, reflects on selfhood, language, perception, God, and nature by way of a journey into the mountains.  What Celan wrote resembles, if anything, a cross between Ingmar Bergman and Samuel Beckett (14).

However, as I have been pointing out in a few of my previous blog entries, John Felstiner doesn’t look at Celan by way of Beckett; instead, he interprets the comic, repetitive way of speaking in this piece as Mausheln (a German term for an odd sounding German dialect; the speech of mice, little people).  He then goes on to argue that Celan was looking to leave this way of speaking behind.   In contrast, I have been calling for reading this comic mode of speaking as a way of relating to the other.

Paul Celan’s poetry teaches the reader that he or she should listen closely.  Given that the voice in many of his poems and prose pieces is very serious, when he writes in a comic mode our ears should perk up.  Something special is being conveyed through this manner of speaking.

To be sure, in Paul Celan’s body of work, “Conversation in the Mountains” is unique for this very reason.  Besides his “Meridian Speech,” given in honor of his receiving the Georg Buchner Prize in October 22, 1960, it is the only prose piece that employs a comic mode of address.  (However, as I will show in another blog entry, some of his poetry also employs comical modalities.)  This comic mode discloses two schlemiels who are involved in a serious encounter with the other.  These schlemiels, in conversation, are on their way toward the other.  Each step of their comic conversation, repetitions and all, gives them a sense that they are “here” – at the moment – and are going “toward” the other.

The best way to read the comic mode in “Conversation in the Mountains” is by way of his comic reflections on poetry, conversation, and the other in the “Meridian Speech.” To be sure, it is unique in its comic mode and what better way to read the comic in Celan than by way of his own directives and performances of the comic.

I would like to suggest, as I did in my last blog entry on Paul Celan’s “Meridian” speech, that Celan explicitly draws on the comic mode via a circus barker in Buchner’s play Danton’s Death.   The circus barker presents art.

Here, in very different times, art comes presented by a carnival barker and has no longer, as in that conversation, anything to do with ‘glowing’, ‘roaring’, ‘radiant’ creation, but is put next to the ‘creature as God made it’ and the ‘nothing’ this creature is ‘wearing’.  This time, art comes in the shape of a monkey.  But it is art all right. We recognize it by its ‘coat and trousers’. (38)

In other words, art comes as a monkey-man-clown: in the “shape of a monkey” who is wearing its “coat and trousers.”   Celan notes that the circus barker returns in Buchner’s third play Leonce and Lena.   There, Celan points out that “we” are “fleeing towards paradise,” to a place where ‘all clocks and calendars” will be “forbidden.”  Just before this Messianic moment, however, we see two “world-famous automatons” and a circus barker:

A man who claims to be the ‘third and perhaps strangest of the two’ invites us, ‘with a rattling voice’, to admire what we see: “Nothing but art and mechanics, nothing but cardboard and springs.”(38)

Celan reminds us that Valerio, who presents this comedy of art before one enters into the messianic, “is only another name for the barker.”  Immediately following this, Celan, himself, takes on the comic mode of the barker by repetitively calling out to the “Ladies and Gentleman” of the audience to pay attention to something they have never seen before.

This comic mode puts the audience into the position of circus goers and who expect some kind of unimaginable feat.  Namely, art.  The comic conceit in “The Meridian” speech is that the feat is quite simple.  Instead of presenting art in the traditional sense or as an automaton of sorts, Celan, like Lucille in Danton’s Death, says his own “Long Live the King” before she gets her head chopped off.  Celan calls Lucile’s words on the platform of the guillotine a “word against the grain.”

The “long live the king” is not an homage to monarchy, says Celan.  It is an “homage to the majesty of the absurd that bespeaks the presence of human beings”(40).  But this description of homage is not enough.

Celan, later in his talk, calls this counter word a “breathturn” (atemwende).   And this breathturn “turns” toward the other.  And this turn is transformative; taking the turn, or the “step” (as Celan) says, will estrange the “I” and “set if free” as it goes toward the other. This turn, says Celan, is given to us by Lenz by way of a comic request:

Can we perhaps now locate the stangeness, the place where the person was able to set himself free as an – estranged – I? Can we locate this place, this step?  ‘…only, it sometimes bothered him that he could not walk on his head.’  This is Lenz. This is, I believe, his ‘Long live the king.’(46)

In a Talmudic manner, Celan repeats this expression and in the line following explains how, like the examples mentioned above, relate the comic to estrangement:

“…only, it sometimes bothered him that he could not walk on his head.  A man who walks on his head, ladies and gentlemen, a man who walks on his head sees the sky below, as an abyss. (46)

Celan, as the circus barker, addresses you (“ladies and gentleman”) with two comic performances or “breathruns”: the first comes by way of Lucille who says “Long live the King!” and the second comes by way Lenz who wants to walk on his head.  Both of these evince the way of poetry.  But this is not the end of it.

This comic breathturn prompts us to go toward the other.  Celan notes that the breathrun has a critical function, too: it is a way (or manner) of “sorting the strange from the strange.”  Musing on this, Celan wonders what has been “set free” in this gesture: “Perhaps, along with the I, estranged and freed here, in this manner, some other thing is also set free.”  By putting the words “here” and “in this manner” in italics, Celan is calling attention to the comic as a modality that one must notice as it happens.

The other thing that is “freed” – here, in this moment – is the other.  The poem, says Celan, speaks to what is “wholly other.”  It is a “conversation” which is often “desparate”(50).  And the poem not only keeps track of this conversation; it also is mindful of its “dates.”  It goes over things and is, for this reason, often repetitive.

Although one may find it comic to repeat things over and over before saying something new, this is actually a procedure used a lot in Jewish humor and it may derive from the Talmud.  Like a Talmudist who has a keen eye for the peculiar and the comic, Celan notes that, perhaps, if we listen “not without fear” and with “rabbit’s ears,” we can see a “smile through invisible quotation marks.”

Celan ends this thought, and his Meridian Speech, with a meditation on the origin of it all.  What would spur him to listen for such a smile?  Celan answers by noting his childish way of looking:

I am looking for all this with my imprecise, but nervous finger on a map – a child’s map, I must admit.  None of these places can be found. They do not exist.  But I know where they ought to exist especially now, and…I find something else. (54)

What he finds on his “child’s map” is that which connects him to the other: the Meridian (55).  And this is the point. The place of origin – on his child’s map (the map of a man-child, a schlemiel) – is that which relates one to the other (the Meridian).  Most importantly, one finds the Meridian by way of comic repetitions, a comic address (or the circus barker), and a comic breathturn (Lucile’s counter-word and Lenz’s walking on his head).  All of these comic modalities relate to what Celan calls a “desperate conversation.”

And by noting these comic aspects in his “Meridian Speech,” we now have a framework for understanding the conversation that goes on in “Conversation in the Mountains.”  As we shall see in the next blog entry, this conversation has its fair share of comic addresses, repetitions, and breath-turns.  And all of these comic modalities are for the sake of having a conversation with the other which can be brought to bear on us.  And, like the Meridian, it seems as if we are watching a circus act when we see its two main characters – Klein and Gross – speak.

“Ladies and Gentlemen!” A Preface to Paul Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains”


As a Jew, I can assure you that Jews love to talk.  In their work on the schlemiel, Ruth Wisse and Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi see the schlemiel’s speech as a kind of “substitute” sovereignty.   Ezrahi tells us that before Israel, speech, not action, was the best defense.  And for centuries there was a historical principle at work: in the world, Jews lose; but in the world of speech, they win. For this reason, the schlemiel is, for Wisse, the “modern hero.” He is the modern hero who wins a comic victory.

But, to be sure, any fool can see that this victory is incomplete.  We all know that it is not real.  We are all reminded, by way of the schlemiel’s act of substitution, that the world is unkind.  But rather than suffer quietly and tragically, Jews speak.  And they speak (or have spoken) comically.

Listening in to the conversation of schlemiels, we can (as John Felstiner suggests with “Conversation in the Mountains”) hear the shrug.  We can also hear a voice that wants to figure things out by way of indirection: whether by text, a relation, an event, etc.  This act of (or rather attempt at) comprehension is where schlemiel comedy starts.  If that comically intent voice is shared with another schlemiel, we can see the comic ordeal that the schlemiel must go though in order to get anything (even the simplest tasks) done.

As we see with The Three Stooges, its easy for a schlemiel to talk of and promise things.  But, for the schlemiel, it seems, it’s hard to do anything :

But schlemiels do more than just fail at figuring out how to do this or that thing.  Isn’t the schlemiel keying us into the comic relationship that is created by way of conversation?  As Kafka notes in “Excursion in the Mountains,” the freest conversations happen when the “wind blows” between schlemiels.  For Kafka, this wind blowing is conversation; it is what Felstiner calls “babbling.”   But with Celan and Kafka, this babbling has a relationship that is, literally, going in some direction.

This is what Paul Celan teaches in his “Conversation in the Mountains” by way of a Jew named Klein (little):

So he went off, you could hear it, went off one evening when various things had set, went under clouds, went in the 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. (17)

But where is this Klein-the-schlemiel taking us? And why do we have to know where he is or where he is going?  To be sure, he’s looking to meet up with his friend, Gross (Big).  And both of them are looking for a conversation.  They’re going toward each other and, once they find each other, they move on toward something “wholly other.”

In “Conversation in the Mountains,” Paul Celan teaches us that the schlemiel is not simply involved in a “substitute sovereigny”; rather, he is always orienting him or herself with a place where he or she is or where he or she may be going.   And this orientation and speech are repetitive in their address to the other.  Paul Celan conveys this in his “Meridian Speech” by saying, over and over again, the words: “Ladies and Gentleman.”

Celan proposes a kind of comic, repetitive movement that addresses the other.  And, since this is a movement that is never final, it must be replayed in a schlemiel-like fashion.

Each movement is an address.

Ladies and Gentlemen!

It’s another way of saying: “Hello, I’m here! Where are you? I’m waiting for you to come.”  The comic effect is in the fact that we are asked where we are when we are already there before the schlemiel.  But this is a serious matter in the sense that this repetitive address suggests that the other is being called on to hear, and be here, once again.

These are the words of Celan’s Klein to Gross and these are words that he speaks to his audience in “Conversation in the Mountains.”  These words not a “substitute sovereignty” so much as a spur to comically relate Klein to Gross and me to you.  Comedy’s main mode, Celan seems to be telling us, is relational

Each comic address is meant for a rejoinder, a response, in which we come to speak.  Strangely enough, it is the voice of a schlemiel named Klein that calls us to join him/her to speak – on this comical journey toward the other.

Ladies and Gentleman: This should serve as a preface….

A Note on Paul Celan’s Minor Language in “Conversation in the Mountains”


Although Celan’s “major” language was German (a language he was raised with and wrote his poetry in), Celan’s work was also influenced by “minor” languages.  The contrast between major and minor languages comes from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s book Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature.    In the book, the proposal is made that we rethink the writing of authors who, like Kafka, live in a Milleu where more than one language is spoken.  And this background enables (and enabled) authors to “deterritorialize” and “reteritorialize” the major language (in the case of Kafka and Celan, German).  To be sure, both Kafka and Celan lived on the fringe of the German empire.  And both of them played around with different German dialects and styles in their work; this had the advantage of introducing nuance into the major language.

But there is more to the story.  Deleuze and Guitarri are not simply interested in what it means to write as a bilingual author.  They are also interested in looking at the textual alterations of Kafka (and other writers) in terms of new combinations, relations, and speeds, that these writers introduce (what they call the “machinic”).  In other words, they’re writing affects the way the major language speaks by altering textual rhythms and relations.

This is what I see and hear in Paul Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” (although it can be heard throughout his poetry but not in such a pronounced manner as in this text).  The way this alteration is effected in that text is by way of the repetitive “babbling” and “shrugging” of the schlemiels Klein and Gross.  Their conversation introduces a speed that is alien to the German way of conversation.  But, unlike Felstiner (whose reading I discussed in my last blog entry) I would say that this alteration has a positive valance.  For Celan, it’s strange rhythm opens up a new way for Celan to relate to German, himself, the other, and Jewishness.

After the Holocaust, Celan seeks out a new relationship which takes into account what has been lost and what must survive.  But unlike many of his other texts, this one is explicitly comic and was not to be repeated again.  Its style is singular.  And for that reason it is more powerful.  Unlike other writers, performers, and actors, Celan didn’t make the style and rhythms in “Conversation in the Mountains” his “schtick.”

Nonetheless, it stands as a unique moment in his work which calls on his readers to seriously consider how this text was, for him, a milestone.   It helped him to deterritorialize and reterritorialize Mausheln (Yiddish dialect German) and German.  And he did this in a conversation between two schlemiels, on the one hand, and a minor and a major language, on the other.

I’ll end this entry with the first meeting of schlemiels (what Kakfa in “Excursion in the Mountains” called the meeting of “nobodies”) that “Conversation in the Mountains” records.  When Klein meets Gross, there is silence, but as I will show in the next entry, this doesn’t last long:

And who do you think came to meet him?  His cousin came to meet him, his first cousin, a quarter of a Jew’s life older, tall he came, came, he too, in a shadow, borrowed of course – because I ask you and ask you, how could he come with his own when God made him a Jew – came, tall, came to meet the other, Gross approached Klein, and Klein, the Jew, silenced his stick before the stick of the Jew Gross.

Conversations in the Mountains between Franz Kafka and Paul Celan – Part II


I ended the last blog entry by drawing a limit or threshold between Kafka’s conversation and Nietzsche’s singing.   To be sure, Kafka, at the end of his piece, wonders why his group of nobodies isn’t singing.  Their conversation in the mountains is “free” like the winds but it doesn’t break into song, while Nietzsche’s speech fuses with the “wind” and becomes song.  It is joyous song and approximates Zarathustra’s laughter in Thus Spoke Zarathustra – a laughter that laughs at – and elevates itself beyond – all suffering and tragedy “real or imagined.”

Kafka, however, sticks close to conversation and can’t take the leap because, as I suggested, Kafka’s comedy, the comedy of the schlemiel evinces a sad kind of laugther.  And, unlike Nietzsche, whose lover and companion is the wind, Kafka envisions several “nobodies” (several schlemiels) as companions.

The interesting thing about Kafka’s excursion in the mountains is that the speaker “envisions” his meeting with these schlemiels.  He doesn’t actually have such a meeting.  Taking on, so to speak, the schlemiel tradition from Kafka, Paul Celan – who translated Kafka’s “Excursion into the Mountains” into Romanian – has this conversation in his prose piece “Conversation in the Mountains.”

John Felstiner, in his book Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew, suggests that Paul Celan may have been inspired by Kafka’s piece.  But he also suggests a few other “influences.”  I’d like to follow up all of his suggestions because, of them, Felstener follows only one thread which deals solely with the type of language used in this conversation.   And it is this reading which is in need of critique.

For Felstener, the way the Jews speak in Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” is thought of as evincing a kind of falleness and shame which eschews the comic in the name of the tragic.   While it is important to mention the possibility that Celan thought of a certain way of speaking as “fallen” and shameful, the fact of that matter is that this displaces the comic aspect of the conversation and misses the schlemiel that is at the core of it.

Before I address this reading, I’d like to lay out the influences brought together by Felstiner.  They are suggestive and can help us to understand his reading.

To begin with, Celan dedicated the text to a missed encounter with the thinker Theodor Adorno.  After reading Adorno’s Notes on Literature, Celan wanted to meet him.  But, as Felstener notes, Celan thought he was addressing Adorno as a Jew in the story (by the name of “Gross” – big – while Celan played the other Jew, “Klein” – small.  Upon hearing this, Adorno noted he was not Jewish; he had changed his name from his father’s Jewish name to his mother’s name.  And he was raised as a Catholic, not as a Jew.  Instead, Adorno suggested the Jew Celan was looking for was Gershom Scholem.   The point made by Felstener, which is his basic theme, is that Celan, when he originally wrote the piece, believed that since Adonro was a Jew, he would understand the character’s way of talking; namely, the Yiddish dialect.  (We will return to this below.)

Another influence may have been the bastardization of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch (overman) by the Nazis.  He correctly notes that Celan wrote “Conversation in the Mountains” in Sils Maria where Nietzsche wrote must of his work (including the poem I cited in the last blog entry).  As evidence, he points out that Celan inscribed a copy of his story: “In memory of Sils Maria and Friedrich Nietzsche, who – as you know – wanted to have anti-Semites shot”(140)  Although he points this out, he takes it no further.

But was Celan looking to redeem the overman, as Felstiner suggests?  Do we see an overman in “Conversation in the Mountains?”  To the contrary, following the contrast I put forth above and in the last blog entry, I would argue that there is nothing resembling the overman in not just Kafka’s “Excursion in the Mountains” but in Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” as well.   In fact, while Celan may respect Nietzsche’s anti anti-Semitism, he didn’t respect his overman.  The schlemiels he features in “Conversation in the Mountains” are the anti-thesis of the overman.  They are humble, comic, and their talk is not that of song.  Without a doubt, their speech doesn’t transcend suffering and tragedy as the laugh of Zarathustra does.  As I noted above and as I will note with Celan, it is speech that they share, not song.  Speech is the limit.

Another influence comes from Georg Buchner (1813-37).  Namely, his novella entitled Lenz.  According to Felstiner, the line that grabs Celan is “On the 20th of January Lenz went walking through the mountains.”  He gathers this from Celan’s “Meridian” speech where Celan notes that Lenz and his own “’little story’ with its ‘roundabout paths form thou to thou…paths on which language gets a voice, these are encounters.’”(140).

Building on the “thou” that he cites above, Felstiner brings in Martin Buber as another possible influence: “Above all, “Gesprach im Gebrig” owes to Martin Buber, whose philosophical writings and retellings of Hasidic tales Celan was reading during the late 1950s.”  Buber actually wrote a piece with a similar title: “Buber’s “Gesprach in den Bergen” (“Conversation in the Mountains,” 1913) expounds the I-thou encounter that concerned Celan”(140).

Felstiner goes on to say that the  “principles that underpin” Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” can be found in two lines he wrote on Buber’s I-Thou relation:

On his birthday in 1959, Celan bought a book about Buber and underscored his speech philosophy: “Creatures stand within the secret of Creation, of Speech…We can say thou, because thou is said to us.” And this: “Spirit is not in the I, but between I and Thou”(140).

The final influence Felstener names is the poet Osip Mandelshtam.  He notes that in Mandelshtam’s essay “On the Interlocutor,” Celan found the notion that poetry is the “search for an other and oneself”(141).  Citing, once again, the “Meridian” speech Felstener argues that Celan took Mandelshtam seriously since Celan says that, through language, he was “on the way” to himself.

The point of all of Felstiner’s notes on what may or may not have influenced Celan’s can be found in this last influence; namely, that Celan was looking to go through language “on the way” to himself.  And this is the point.  The language Celan wanted to go through, according to Felstiner, is Mausheln (the German Yiddish dialect that was thought, by cultured Germans and German Jews, to be shameful and, as the German word suggests, Mouselike).

In other words, by speaking in this manner, Celan was looking to leave it behind for real lanaguage.  To be sure, Felstiner likens the talk of the two main characters in “Conversation in the Mountains” to “babble” and says it is a “comedown’.  Citing Heidegger and Walter Benjamin’s words on pure language and inauthentic language (“everyday talk” as Heidegger says in Being and Time) Felstiner argues that Celan saw the two main characters as speaking inauthentically and in a “fallen” language (144-145):

The “babbling” of Celan’s Jews is a comedown – via the cataclysm that ruined Benjamin – from God Given speech.  This talk of theirs, its halting double back, dividing and divided against itself, like the self it speaks…Sometimes in the dialogue you catch the shrug behind it, elusive yet vital.  Celan said the “Gesprach” was “actually a Mauscheln” between him and Adorno – that is, a sort of jabber that Germans overhear between Jews, Mauscheln being an old slur coined from Moishe, Moses.

This elusive “shrug,” I would suggest, is the shrug of the schlemiel. For Felstiner, it has a negative valance.  To be sure, in the footnote to this passage Felstiner cites the work of Sander Gilman; namely, Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews.  In this book, as in his book on Franz Kafka (Franz Kafka, The Jewish Patient), Gilman points out how Jews were ashamed of themselves and internalized hatred because of what the Germans regarded as their “secret language” (Yiddish).  The Yiddish dialect was, for many German Jews, a source of shame.  Taking this reading to heart, Felstiner argues that Celan was no different from many assimilated Jews who looked to eliminate all traces of Mausheln from their speech.  Therefore, for Felstiner, “Conversation in the Mountains,” is an attempt to move through Mausheln – a fallen language – to a pure language.

By making this reading, Felstiner gives Celan’s comic dialogue between two schlemiels a negative valence.  What I would like to suggest is that we read the comic dialogue in a less negative manner.  In fact, Celan, like Kafka, deeply identifies with this conversation not in the sense that he wants to leave it behind but in the sense that it is a way of relating to alterity.  Without this language, without this comic relationship between schlemiels, Jews would not know the limit (threshold) between conversation and song.

Why, after all, would Yiddish writers continually return to the schlemiel and his comic way of conversing? Did they do this because they despised Mausheln? What I would like to suggest is that, in a piece like “Conversation in the Mountains,” Celan didn’t despise his Yiddish roots as much as Felstiner would have us believe.

Fesltiner is correct to note that German was the preferred language in Romania.  And that it was Celan’s “mother tongue.”   However, Felstiner also notes that Celan knew Yiddish, Yiddish folklore, and humor as a child.  And notes that at one time he even defended Yiddish to classmates when they made fun of it saying that the classics were translated into Yiddish.  But, ultimately, Felstiner goes with the historical and cultural reading of the relationship of the German Jew to the Ostjude (Eastern European Jew) as informing the dialect play in Conversation.

Contrary to this, I’d suggest, as Julian Semilan and Sanda Agalidi do in the introduction to their translation to Paul Celan’s Romanian Poems that Celan looked to alter German with a “minor” language (for them his translation work in Romanian).  This, they claim, had some influence on his nuanced treatment of German.  And, most importantly, we should note that Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” was written after his stay in Romania following the Holocaust.

We can see from “Conversation in the Mountains,” that he respected and understood the foolish and wise ways of Yiddish folklore and that he used them to introduce a Jewish element into the German.  This comic play had a positive valance and puts an emphasis on Jewish particularity.  He had a sense of Yiddish ways of speaking and in “Conversation in the Mountains,” he spoke through them.  But he spoke not in order to transcend these ways but to, on the contrary, retain the limit between speech and song.  This limit is something that the schlemiel’s ways of speaking and gesturing marked.  The fact that speak and don’t sing, as in Kafka’s “Excursion in the Mountains,” marks this Jewish particularity which is acutely aware of suffering, history, and difference.

It is this kind of speech that lives on for Celan after the Holocaust.  It survives on the way to himself and the other.  It is not totally destroyed.  His way to himself and to the other, at least in “Conversation in the Mountains,” is by way of these two schlemiels: Klein and Gross.   In other words, the schlemiel and his ways of conversation are not things Celan wants to leave behind.  The schlemiel remains…speaking…of this…and of that….with a shrug that is, as Felstiner correctly notes “elusive and vital.”  But unlike Felstiner, I’d like to say that this “elusive and vital” shrug, this gesture, has a positive valence and works as much to preserve something Jewish while, at the same time, altering the German language.

(In the next blog entry, I will be making a close reading of Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” so as to show how it is a conversation of schlemiels – a conversation that carries on what Kafka had originally initiated in his “Excursion in the Mountains.”)