I mentioned yesterday, Ellis Sharp's article The Complicity of Paul Celan. Ellis is a fine, high-minded writer whose blogging is always intelligent, often excoriatingly so, and well-argued. I'm not sure that he quite right, however, to direct his ire towards Celan. Or, better, I'm not sure whether Celan's poetry can be read as instrumentally as Ellis reads it, taking the lead from Celan biographer John Felstiner, as an endorsement of the state of Israel and thus as direct evidence of what Ellis calls Celan's "complicity in oppression and injustice."

Ellis cites Denk dir ("It’s a cryptic, elusive poem, like most of Celan’s verse," he rightly cautions). Introducing it, he says it "appears to be a direct response to the Six Day War" [my emphasis]. He follows Felstiner's (biographically reductive) reading throughout despite saying, later in his piece, something which I would agree with: "Felstiner’s book is both classically orientalist and Zionist in its attitudes."

At the beginning his essay, Ellis retells the famous anecdote, one which exemplfies an archetypical moment of misinterpration, whereby, after Celan's meeting with Heidegger (recently so disatrously dramatised by John Banville), Heidegger thrills at the poem (Todtnauberg) that Celan has left him. Heidegger, who knows how willfully, how blindly, sees no rebuke in Celan's ambiguous, yet sad, pointed, accusatory poem.

Certainly, as Steve says, "Celan has a critical aura of protection about him" and one "cannot read his long account of the poet's brief relationship to Israel without unease." And I'm grateful to Ellis for this essay. That the author of such an exceptional oeuvre made mistaken political judgements is indeed "worthy of discussion", but that Celan remained in Paris, writing recondite, intricate works should further caution us against condemning him as a mouthpiece for Zionism. Celan did support Israel; regardless, it is exceedingly difficult to drag his poetry into unambiguous support for anything: I don't think even Celan can be allowed to do that. Certainly, his biographer's politics shouldn't be allowed to flatten his opaque, cryptic, beautiful words.

Readers Comments

  1. "Paul Celan happily accepted the privilege of travelling to Israel, because of his identity as a privileged member of the master religion."

    Not cool. I'm not well-read on Celan, but the rhetoric is offputting to the not-already-converted.

  2. This Sharp is an interesting character. He can't seem to mention Israel without reminding his readers how "evil", "racist" and "sectarian" it is. The posts on his blog say more about him than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His review for Spielberg's film Munich ( is less a review than an opportunity to compare Israel to Nazi Germany, Jews to Aryans and Palestinian kidnappers to Jewish activists (despite the fact that nothing remotely like Jews taking German atheletes hostage ever happened).

    Also, he allows no comments on his blog (can't handle dissent, eh, Sharp?).

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