The Ruin at the Heart of Words


I knew a boy once. He was three years older than me when we met. Only a boy, I realize now. But young as I was then, he became an object of my admiration, someone I thought after, imitated even. He fascinated me. And an affection for him kindled in me rapidly, as sometimes happens in the opening juncture of friendship.

Within seven months of that first meeting his health had begun to deteriorate. He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. That next year, the night before Purim, despite care, he passed away. It was that first death of a friend. The death that buries itself behind your eyes. And it emptied me.

Over the next year-and-a-half there were no days he did not figure in my thoughts. I would wake up to the memory that he had died; lie down, and begin to dream, still thinking of that absence. I would fall asleep and rise always hollowed out afresh by the having-forgotten as I came to. To remember and remember—constantly. I still cannot parse the logic of it. (Why him? Why so much sadness and anxiety?) But for the first time I felt the processes of mourning.

Still, I can remember the day I sat in a car at the end of summer, the sky cloudless, and recalled that I had not recalled this lack, that it had slipped my mind a while. I turned towards the friend who sat beside me and told him. We spoke for a few moments, relating memories; Jacob taking inventory of the slow upheavals of grief. After that day, his death became something I knew, that had finally inhered in me, although its event will not cease to baffle, as all deaths baffle.

In a sense, his is the death that will not leave me. Nor would I want it to. His death wanders with me, the relic and reminder of a mourning in-complete, as I imagine all mourning to be.

What follows is an attempt to begin that work of essential mourning for the Shoah. It arises from an encounter with the inexplicable. I have no faith in the possibility of this task, only a sufficient doubt.


On November 23, 1920, two years almost exactly since the end of the Great War, and fourteen months after the signing of the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, which would, in the following year be ratified, transferring control of the Bukovina to the Kingdom of Romania, and forty-four days after Yom Kippur, Paul Antschel was born in Cernăuți, in the modern-day Ukraine, formerly of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but at that time the unofficial property of Romania: a crossroads of cultures and histories, literatures and peoples, cities and countrysides, modernities and antiquities. Antschel, known today by the name he published under, Paul Celan, is recognized as one of the leading German-language post-war writers, and is commonly thought to be among the world’s most elusive, troubling, and distinguished poets of the long 20th century. In reading him, I have come to the not-uncommon conclusion that to approach Paul Celan is to approach the Shoah.

I, as a writer or a critic or human being, must begin to come to terms with the Shoah if I want to come to terms with Celan. Their territories overleaf each other: historically, biographically, and by the abundance of what is terrifying and inexpressible in them. To speak of this Romanian-born, German-tongued, Jewish poet, means speaking of Transnistria, that strip of earth beyond the river Dnjester, where his father succumbed to typhus, where his mother was shot, where 185,000 Jewish inhabitants of Romania were sent to be murdered. Yet I, as a writer or a critic or human being, cannot—do not want to speak of ‘terms.’ And the work of German  philosopher Theodor Adorno reveals a thinker for whom there was also no ‘coming to terms.’

As it is distilled in his writings, often cited, Adorno’s inability to reconcile himself with or to fathom the viability of life after Auschwitz figures as one of the most radical and definitive statements on incomprehension and disgust. Infamously, he said that “[a]ll post-Auschwitz culture, including its urgent critique, is garbage”; and that “[w]riting poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” But we must turn away from these difficult sayings and seek another, though no less trenchant, Adorno if we are to be led anywhere.

Adorno wrote, in 1967, “The premier demand upon all education is that Auschwitz not happen again. Its priority before any other requirement is such that I believe I need not and should not justify it” (“Education After Auschwitz”). And yet, that is the reason for his essay; and in that contradictory demand – though we need not justify, nonetheless to justify – perhaps resides the dictum through which Celan, in his poetry, legitimately founds himself as a poet: to be undignified.


Retold by Elie Wiesel, in his tremendous account of Hasidism, Souls on Fire (1992), there is a tale concerning a tradition begun by the Baal Shem Tov, which I think must be presented in its entirety, if I am to discuss its import:

When the great Israel Baal Shem Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews, it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted.

Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Maggid of Mezeritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: ‘Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.’ And again the miracle would be accomplished.

Still later, Moshe-Leib of Sassov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say: ‘I don’t know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.’ It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished.

Then it fell to Israel of Rizhin to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: ‘I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story, and this must be sufficient.’ And it was sufficient.

Immediately afterwards, Wiesel reflects on what he has transmitted, writing: “It no longer is. The proof is that the threat has not been averted. Perhaps we are no longer able to tell the story. Could all of us be guilty? Even the survivors? Especially the survivors?” These questions point toward the profound unease of ‘survival,’ a subject that has been treated by scholars and authors like Primo Levi, Jean Améry, and Bruno Bettelheim (themselves victims of the camps in various ways). But it is to the English philosopher Gillian Rose that I turn to make an attempt at sense in this.

In Rose’s last completed philosophical work, Mourning Becomes the Law (1996), before her death at the age of 48 to ovarian cancer, she begins to formulate a response to those difficulties of ‘survival,’ which Wiesel summarized in the statement, “I live, therefore I am guilty.” Simultaneously a memorial for the murdered, those robbed of justice, her response is yet a scandal against the dead.

Commenting on Wiesel’s retelling of the Hasidic tale, Rose writes,

Not to tell the tale of perhaps not being able to tell the tale would make the loss of the tale and the occurrence of the catastrophe absolute: it would fix the catastrophe to meaning, or, rather, as the devastation, of meaning.… [A]re we guilty for surviving when six million died? God forbid! We would be guilty if we remain self-defined solely as survivors; ‘guilty’ because fixed in a counter-identification. To survive – to live again – demands a new tale: a new prayer to be found, a new polity to be founded….

What Rose begins to say concerns the relation of any individual, as writer, critic, human being, to the legacy of the dead, of those for whom we mourn. How to distinguish mourning from melancholia, as Freud would have it, when there seems to be no room for that distinction? How to address the spectral dilemmas of the Shoah?

When the burden of the dead is the burden of the ever-dying; when the dead are specters who clamp and make us speechless; when the wound of despair is an alcove for our own decay: I believe I must be undignified. I, as a writer or a critic or human being, must doubt that dying their deaths will put them to rest. It is incumbent on me to ritualize, sacralize, memorialize, the dead, but refuse them my own life. Not to survive, but to live again—even in a basin of ruin, on the foundation of doubt. And yet some are ripped so despicably from their lives that they will always partake in ours, and to live on past them is almost to pass by their broken headstones in silence, without a sign of recognition.

This is what Adorno spent his life grappling. Never a bedrock beneath him, never the knowledge that his “critique” was not, in fact, garbage; and still attempting, over and over, to live again, to live a livable life; for, to him, a “[w]rong life cannot be lived rightly.”

And that Paul Celan – who slaved for months in labor camps, who was gone from home the night his parents were heaved from sleep by shouts and rifle-butts, and hauled to idling trains, who threw himself into the River Seine at the age of 50 – that even he sought to sow the fields of Auschwitz, to bury seed in those chimney-littered acres, it convinces me that I am not without precedent, not without a cicerone in making something from the nothingness. As the German artist Anselm Kiefer has suggested about the GDR:

The remains of the Westwall (the so-called Siegfried Line) were razed. But the plugging-up and obliterating extended not only to obvious political symbols—such as the two temples in Munich blown up after the war—but also to almost all the wild corners in a village beautified in the course of the postwar years. The wounds were not bandaged; they were shamefully hidden instead. It was not only buildings that were hidden; it was everything the Nazis had touched.

…What one actually could have done, though, would have been to leave the space between both former states and systems empty, to regularly plough the so-called Todesstreifen (death strip) from then on, as you would a Zen garden. An empty space could have been preserved, a meditation room of history, into which people could have descended—descended into themselves.

This todesstreifen, the heart of ruin at the heart of Germany, the white rose in the dung-heap, it is something which Celan knew, by word and practice, at least by 1958.

In the “Bremen Speech” (1958), Celan proclaimed,

Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss. But it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, through the thousand darknesses of murdering speech. It went through. It gave me no words for what was happening, but went through it. Went through and could resurface, “enriched” by it all.

What more repellent, sickening phrase could Celan have ended on? “…‘[A]ngereichert’ von all dem”: “…‘enriched’ by it all.” As if we could be “enriched” by Auschwitz, as if it were a burnt thumb or bruised forehead, something by which to gain ‘knowledge’ or ‘experience’. As if those years – cattle-cars, cyanide, crematorium – were anything but loss. As if oblivion had not opened onto history for a moment.

And yet, he is right.

Along with Adorno, I see Auschwitz as the guide and warning of all education, if education is still to be a social function of value. And the Shoah is the focus of an academia whose scholarship has made profound contributions to the enactment of justice and personal memorial. It has been the locus of entire lives, like those who survived in order to be witnesses. I encounter, with Celan, the paradox of having been “enriched” in this deprivation. But in the very word, “enriched,” he reaches down and retrieves the ruin at the heart of his language: ‘angereichert,’ he writes.

This severe, playful poet, obsessed with etymologies and wracked by the indignity of words abuse (how Nazis throttled Gӧethe and Heine and Nietzsche), could have used no word that did not contain its own ruin: ‘angereichert,’ surrounded in the German by these same cautionary inverted commas. Sitting plainly in the middle, its root :  ‘ange – “reich” – ert’ : the State : the Reich that sent his tongue through “the thousand darknesses of death-bringing speech”; ‘king,’ ‘wealth’: the ‘empire’ of the German language naked in the rubble. No ‘enrichment’ without an acknowledgement of the destruction that engendered it.


The truth of Shoah poetry is that there is none. There is no song or melody or lyric flight. Celan put it clearly when he wrote:


They dug and dug, and so

their day went past, their night…


They dug and heard nothing more;

they did not grow wise, invented no song,

devised for themselves no sort of language.

They dug.


It is poetry that does not aim to be a poem. Instead it seeks to “go through” the “lack of answers” in language itself. As Celan writes later, “Where did it go then, making for nowhere? / O you dig and I dig, and I dig through to you, / and the ring on our finger awakens.” Celan’s work is a labor of mourning, a labor that develops no answers and that turns against itself: the poem that wants not to be poetry.

Celan writes elsewhere, “[T]he Invisible / summons the wind / into bounds, // you read, // the Open ones carry / the stone behind their eye…” These are motions of the impossible. What can bind the wind? how can they carry a “stone behind their eye”? And still, this is not a “magical realism”. These are images upon the deep of a wrecked and rotten world. How to speak through the impossible without being caught in impossible thought?

The “stone,” about which Celan writes, is a weight, curtain, facet, pane. As he put it in prose, it is the thing which leaves you “reality-wounded and Reality-seeking.” Celan’s reality is fragmented by his experience, and ours is too by the fact of Auschwitz. His poetry is a continual coming-to-terms with memory and guilt and life, endowed with the knowledge that these terms can never last, that they must be constantly re-centered.

In one of the most lucid moments of his entire body of work, Celan writes, in the poem “Wolfsbean”:

Far away, in Michailovka, in

the Ukraine, wherethey murdered my father and mother: what

blossomed there, what

blossoms there? Which

flower, mother,

hurt you there

with its name?


Here, too, Celan enacts the interrogation of his work.

“[W]hat blossomed there?” he asks. It is as if something grew outside his will. “[W]hat blossoms there?” he asks, as though it remains. “Which / flower, mother…” The flower of poetry, the blume of a Rilke or a George or a Hӧlderlin. In the German for “blossom,” blüte, should be heard the ring of blut: blood. This is an involuntary bloom, its roots in the trace of blood left by his mother in the Ukraine. He is distressed by the poems that force themselves from this wound, that rise from blood—from grief. Celan is distraught in the same manner as Adorno, who detested the life we go on with, that he too went on with, somehow surviving. “Blüh nicht mehr,” Celan wrote. “Bloom no more.” In the sounds of blood and bloom, in the symbol of poetry, he again drives himself through the ‘indignity of words abuse,’ undignified in what he makes in order to mourn.


Why all of this? Why do I need poets and philosophers to mourn?

I do not need them to mourn. This is a radical mourning.

I have spoken to rabbis’ daughters and Holocaust historians’ sons; Conservative, atheist, indifferent to God; medical students and nursing students and olim; epicure and hedonist, Talmudist and paytan; friends, acquaintances, strangers. There is no agreement among them. Some do not mourn, some remember. Others survive, others live.

I read Adorno and I wonder how he lived. I imagine him wiping tears from his eyes as he rises in the morning and as he bends over his mannered scrawl in the mid-afternoon. He reads me to myself and teaches me something of the shame I inhabit. That shame described by Giorgio Agamben in his study Fragments of Auschwitz (1998), where he writes: “To be conscious means: to be consigned to something that cannot be assumed.” To know you are here, in this world unique, only because this is the world we have: the world that exists and by existing acknowledges – requires – the event of the Shoah. This world that is because it is the world that has come to be from all that preceded it.

And in Celan, I see someone toiling in that labor of essential mourning: the mourning that is never complete. I witnessed the indignity of his labor that cried out from a shaming need to live. “His poetry,” Adorno wrote, “is permeated by the shame of art in the face of suffering that escapes both experience and sublimation.” Even Adorno, despite his injunctions, when confronted by the necessary barbarism of Celan’s “going through” language, was made to witness that “[p]erennial suffering has as much right to expression as the tortured have to scream…. Hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems.”

And in the thought of Gillian Rose, I see someone willing to be never-at-home, never-at-rest. She lived and struggled in what she termed, “the difficult middle,” a terrain of doubt always in an act of repositioning. Rose thought from out of deserts, pitilessly sere, devoid of oases: another kind of todesstreifen.

Of course, we have all long known an ancient todesstreifen—perhaps the archetype of all future ruins. This originary todesstreifen, no longer strange, rests, accepted, in our consciousness. HaKotel HaMa’aravi. The Wailing Wall. Its potency, tradition, dilapidate facade—it gives us a glimpse of what Auschwitz might be in five hundred years. A rift in the soil of this ruined place.

The todesstreifen may be found in all Celan’s true mourning: it is the “reich,” the ruin at the heart of words. This is an attempt at such a state.


 “Of course I talked about it at home … In the beginning, one friend knew about it. I used to get the creeps thinking about washing myself with it, Mother was disgusted, too. But it cleaned well, so she used it for laundry. I got used to it because it was good …”

A patient smile flickers across his thin, pale face.

“In Germany, you can say, people know how to make something—from nothing …”

            (from Medallions by Zofia Nałkowska)