“The Dark-houred Clock”: Embodiment and Abstraction in Celan’s Poetry

Celan’s poetry is replete with metaphors that function in various ways. This article looks at two opposed functions of metaphor there: embodiment and abstraction. The dual metaphorical functions will be studied as used in three themes of Celan’s language: (1) language as expression and as concealment, (2) interaction with the Other as a key to self-constitution, and (3) the drawing of the boundary between life and death. Because these themes make it difficult to understand the function of embodiment in Celan’s poetry, a systematic integration of common ideas in cognitive linguistics with Wittgensteinian concepts will be suggested with the aim of showing how Celan’s poetic language deals with these complexities.

1. The first aspect: Language as a system of expression and as a “ladder”

My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) (Wittgenstein, Tractatus, §6.54)

For Celan, poetry and language function like Wittgenstein’s ladder: they ostensibly lead in a concrete manner to an encounter, to a movement between two poles, as metaphor allows; but the concreteness is an illusion that soon dissipates. In fact, this is the internal movement that Celan refers to as a meridian. The movement begins in an inner language that is not material but is based on the speaker’s corporeality and his existence in the world. Celan describes this language as simultaneously abstract and rooted in existence. In order to understand how this movement is possible, I begin by looking at the standard definition of embodiment:

Embodiment in the field of cognitive science refers to understanding the role of an agent’s own body in its everyday, situated cognition. (Gibbs, Embodiment, 1)

The passage summarizes the revolution launched by Lakoff & Johnson in their 1980 book, Metaphors We Live By. Lakoff & Johnson showed the connection between thought, as a physical and neural activity, and language. Johnson (The meaning of the body, 273) stresses, that even the most abstract expression is derived from “sensorimotor interactions” and not from a “disembodied ego [or] an eternal soul.” Celan’s poetry challenges this explanation, because he sometimes employs an abstraction to describe an experience in the present, whose relation to embodiment is explicit and conscious. At the same time, though, it is difficult to locate the semantic fields of which the metaphors are composed.

2. The second aspect: Embodiment and abstraction between the first-person perspective and knowledge of the other

In Celan’s poetry, there is a central tension between the poem’s object of creating an encounter, by focusing on the addressee, and the difficulty in understanding the Other and encountering him or her. Celan uses the term “the mystery of encounter,” that reflects the experience in which, for Celan, an actual encounter remains in the realm of mystery and has not occurred in reality. The issue of “otherness” is particularly acute for the purpose of the discussion of abstraction and embodiment, because the Other is on the one hand an existing fact, present and concrete; but on the other hand, the possibility of meeting the Other is limited, especially if embodiment is the starting point.

3. The third aspect: Embodiment and abstraction in the dynamic between life and death

The poem “Speak, you too” binds together the three parts of this article. Its point of departure is the language act, which can be paradoxical: “No” is not disconnected from “Yes,” life awakens as a result of death, and the speaker describes the addressee as shriveling up until he turns into a thread upon which the star can descend to Earth. The language sustains paradox, simile, and direct contravention of reality. The poem creates meaning by turning to the addressee, but the meaning it constitutes is the tidings of looming death:

Speak, you too
Speak, you too,
speak as the last,
say out your say. […]

The embodiment finds expression in the fact that the speaker articulates the addressee’s death in an apparently concrete description that becomes abstract: the addressee becomes thinner and thinner until he is like a thread, and the thread connects between heaven and earth.

Embodiment is examined in the context of three central aspects of Celan’s work: In the first aspect, I show how language as a system both creates and reflects experience, so that is use makes it possible to have an experience of an incomprehensible reality. In the second aspect, I show how Celan constitutes an intersubjectivity that in practice demonstrates the experience of the first-person speaker and thereby acts to remake the self that fell apart in the Holocaust. In the third aspect, I demonstrate how Celan’s poetic language approaches the most abstract experience of all, death.

Dorit Lemberger

Dorit Lemberger

Senior lecturer at the Hermeneutics and Cultural Studies Programme, Bar Ilan University

Dorit Lemberger is a senior lecturer at the Hermeneutics and Cultural Studies Programme, Bar-Ilan University. She does research in Semantics, Psychoanalysis, literature and Pragmatics. Her current project is on the relationship between psychoanalytic thinkers, language, and literature.

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