Earliest Traces of Heidegger in Celan’s Works

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(4.Earliest Traces of Heidegger in Celan’s Works, 1953‒1954)

A few days after completing his reading of Wrong Paths Celan turned to a 1947 edition of the thinker’s Letter on Humanism and, according to dates he entered in the text, read it on August 21 and 23, 1953. Probably this was the edition he mentioned to his wife as having purchased on August 18. 1 His markings suggest that, with one notable exception, he did not engage it with quite the same intensity evident in Wrong Paths. The copy in his posthumous library is devoid of comments, though some passages have marginal markings and underlines. Most marked passages contain ideas with which he seems to have agreed or identified himself. One continues an assertion similar to what he had read in Wrong Paths when it noted that the poet lives in “namelessness,” a formulation that must have resonated with the isolated Jewish exile in Paris who was struggling to articulate his existence generally and the unspeakability of the Holocaust specifically:

If man is once again to come into the vicinity of Being, he must first learn to exist in namelessness. He must recognize equally the seduction of the public and the powerlessness of the private. Before he speaks, he must allow himself again to be spoken to by Being and risk the danger that in being spoken to he will have little or rarely have something to say.

[Soll aber der Mensch noch einmal in die Nähe des Seins finden, dann muss er zuvor lernen, im Namenlosen zu existieren. Er muss in gleicher Weise sowohl die Verführung durch die Öffentlichkeit als auch die Ohnmacht des Privaten erkennen. Der Mensch muss, bevor er spricht, erst vom Sein sich wieder ansprechen lassen auf die Gefahr, dass er unter diesem Anspruch wenig oder selten etwas zu sagen hat.] (G 9:319)

Elsewhere Celan underlined sentences relating to Heidegger’s use and explication of “the ec-static” of “ex-istence” and of Being, forgetfulness of Being, the clearing (Lichtung), and silence (Schweigen), but he leaves them without commentary.

He also noted Heidegger’s claim that the thinker’s Saying brings the unspoken word or truth of Being to language, and his markings suggest that he was taken with Heidegger’s notion that thinkers and poets engage in the same fundamental task of recovering this truth. He underlined Heidegger’s concurrence with Aristotle’s claim that poetry is truer than history: “But the inadequately considered word of Aristotle in his Poetics is still valid, viz. that Poetry is truer than the exploration of that which is” (Aber immer noch gilt das kaum bedachte Wort des Aristoteles in seiner Poetik, dass das Dichten wahrer sei als das Erkunden von Seiendem, G 9:363). In marking two passages in which the thinker excoriates modern technology, the poet seemed to suggest that he shared those views. But Heidegger’s arguments on the bankruptcy of humanism in our age and the apparent loss of traditional values, which he attributes to other philosophers’ unwillingness to confront the question of Being, elicited almost no reaction from Celan at this time, though Celan was not far from Heidegger in his views that poetry had suffered a similar fate in the contemporary world.

Language as the House of Being

During his intense reading of Wrong Paths in 1953, a passage on the nature of poetic language in the essay “What Are Poets For?” prompted Celan to enter double lines and write the word language[Sprache] in the margin. The passage reads, “Being, as itself, marks off its domain, which is measured (temnein, tempus) by Being’s being present in the word. Language is the domain (templum), viz. the house of Being . . . [the] temple of Being” (Das Sein durchmisst es selbst als seinen Bezirk, der dadurch bezirkt wird [temnein, tempus], dass es im Wort west. Die Sprache ist der Bezirk [templum], d.h. das Haus des Seins . . . [der] Tempel des Seins, G 5:310). In connecting humankind’s dwelling in the temple of Being with the poet’s role as a seer in that temple, Heidegger made an allegorical move that must have appealed to Celan’s belief in writing poetry as a higher calling.

Only a few days after finishing Wrong Paths, Celan again encountered the image of language as the temple or house of Being in Heidegger’s Letter on Humanism, where it occurs in at least nine passages. His underlining of several of those passages suggests that they caught the poet’s attention and probably left a trace in a poem he wrote soon after reading A Letter on Humanism.

In these passages Heidegger either mentions briefly or expands on his assertion that humans dwell in a house of language. This metaphoric “house” provides shelter, for by dwelling therein, humans are closest to, and in a sense protected by, “the truth of Being” (der Wahrheit des Seins, G 9:318, 333). Repeatedly in his writings after this period Heidegger would use this image of language as a house or shelter for humankind, though the trope was not original with him. Celan could have known it, for example, from the Austrian poet Karl Kraus, who used it in a 1917 poem entitled “Confession” (“Bekenntnis”), where the poetic voice speaks of itself as “one of the epigones, / who dwells in the old house of language” (Ich bin nur einer von den Epigonen, / die in dem alten Haus der Sprache wohnen).2 But its role as the central image in the poem “With a Changing Key,” which Celan wrote in the fall of 1953, soon after encountering it repeatedly and emphatically in Heidegger’s Wrong Paths and A Letter on Humanism in August of the same year, seems more than coincidental. The poem identifies the poet’s word as the key with which to unlock this apparently desolate house of language:

With a Changing Key

With a changing key

you unlock the house where

the snow of what’s silenced is driven.

Just like the blood that flows from

your eye or mouth or ear,

so your key changes.

Your key changes, the word changes

that may drive with the flakes

Just like the wind that rebuffs you,

the snow is packed round your word


[Mit Wechselndem Schlüssel


Mit wechselndem Schlüssel

schließt du das Haus auf, darin

der Schnee des Verschwiegenen treibt

Je nach dem Blut, das dir quillt

aus Aug oder Mund oder Ohr,

wechselt dein Schlüssel.

Wechselt dein Schlüssel, wechselt dein Wort,

das treiben darf mit den Flocken.

Je nach dem Wind, der dich fortstößt,

ballt um das Wort sich der Schnee.] (GW 1:112)


To say that Heidegger “inspired” this poem would not be totally accurate. Celan had taken its title and what one critic has seen as some of its ideas from a book he read in 1953 about pre-Socratic thinkers that speaks of a large gate separating day and night to which the goddess Dike holds the “changing keys.”3 But that source does not deal with the poem’s central image, which is the house that the poet attempts to unlock, apparently unsuccessfully, in the midst of wind and driving snow. Language, the house of Being, still stands, and apparently the poet seeks refuge in this house by varying uses of his key, which is his poetry. But apparently the house no longer offers the protection it did in Heidegger’s thought, for “the snow of what’s silenced” is blowing through it.

This image of something that has been silenced also might have had its origins in Heidegger. While reading Wrong Paths,shortly before he wrote the poem, Celan came across a passage in which Heidegger speaks of a poem by Hölderlin, where, according to Heidegger’s reading, the three dots of an ellipsis represent “that which is silenced” (das Verschwiegene, G 5:318)—the same word that Celan uses in his poem. It appears to be more than coincidence that each cites the same infrequently used noun denoting something that has been silenced. Celan intensifies the image by engulfing whatever it is that has been silenced with a blanket of cold and snow.

If this “snow of what’s silenced” is associated with suppressed or silenced language, it has several possible meanings. It might be read, for example, as Germany’s general refusal to discuss the events of its recent past. It also might reflect the poet’s own exposure and isolation in a world that has left him engulfed in a speech crisis. Probably both meanings, and no doubt others, are at work. The poet still possesses the word as the key to his house of language—his poetic word—but as rapidly as he attempts to open the door to his house through poetic speech, his key is again enshrouded in inarticulation. If Heidegger was, in fact, the source for these basic images, this desperate figurative act of poetic survival in an adverse climate is only one of several examples of Celan’s ability to borrow words, images, or concepts he found in the thinker, to translate them into his own poetic world, and to obscure or conceal his sources.


The Poet as Ferryman: Celan’s Direct “Translation” from Heidegger

While reading Wrong Paths in August 1953, Celan marked two passages where the author played on the different meanings produced by two ways of accenting the verb übersetzen. The more common usage with the accent on the third syllable means “to translate.” The less frequent meaning, which accents the first syllable and turns it into a separable verb prefix, means roughly “to transport or transfer” something from one point to another. Its most common usage refers to ferrying humans, animals, or goods across a river, strait, or other body of water. To distinguish the two meanings in English, I will render the second usage with “transferal” or “transport.”

Early in Wrong Paths Celan read: “Beneath the seemingly literal and thus faithful translation there is concealed, rather, a transferal of Greek experience into a different mode of thinking. Roman thought takes over the Greek words without a corresponding, equally equiprimordial experience of what they say, without the Greek word” (Vielmehr verbirgt sich hinter der anscheinend wörtlichen und somit bewahrenden Übersetzung eine Übersetzen griechischer Erfahrung in eine andere Denkungsart. Das römische Denken übernimmt die griechischen Wörter ohne die entsprechende gleichursprüngliche Erfahrung dessen, was sie sagen, ohne das griechische Wort, G 5:8). The second passage he read begins: “Perhaps we should learn to consider what can happen in translating. The actual fateful encounter of historical languages is a quiet event. But in it the destiny of Being speaks” (Doch vielleicht lernen wir bedenken, was sich im Übersetzen ereignen kann. Die eigentliche geschickliche Begegnung der geschichtlichen Sprachen ist ein stilles Ereignis. In ihm spricht aber das Geschick des Seins, G5:371). Celan then underlined the following sentences, which use the word in its second meaning, and he made two pencil slashes in the margin next to them: “Into what language does the Occident transfer?” (In welche Sprache setzt das Abend-Land über? G 5:371).

A few months after reading this, Celan made it unambiguously clear that he took the second meaning of transferal or transport directly from this and later readings in Heidegger. Besides incorporating this meaning into his thinking, he poeticized it by creating the metaphoric figure of the ferryman to represent the poet and the act of transporting or carrying something across a body of water as a representation of transferring a poem into language. In a letter of May 1, 1954, to Peter Schifferli, a Zurich publisher for whom he was translating Picasso’s play Le désir attrapé par la queue, he wrote:

A first draft is now finished. A first draft, for the Picasso text doesn’t just want to be translated. It also—if I may misuse a term from Heidegger—wants to be transferred. You see: occasionally for me it is a question of performing a ferryman’s service. May I hope that in remuneration for my work not only the lines, but also the number of oar strokes are counted?

[Eine erste Fassung ist nun beendet. Eine erste Fassung: der Text will nämlich nicht nur ubersetzt, sondern auch-wenn ich ein Heidegger-Wort missbrauchen darf-übergesetzt sein. Sie sehen: es handelt sich für mich-mitunter—um eine Art Fergendienst. Darf ich also hoffen, dass bei der Honorierung meiner Arbeit nicht nur die Zeilen, sondern auch die Ruderschläge gezählt werden?]4

A few months after this use of the metaphor of a ferryman carrying one language across into another, Celan took the same image he had created from Heidegger’s use of the word übersetzen to represent transferal from one shore to another and assimilated it into one of his poems, the first of several to do so. Few metaphors or concepts he borrowed from the thinker would prove so rich. Celan wrote the following poem on December 5, 1954:


From Darkness to Darkness

You opened your eyes—I see my darkness live.

I see to its foundation:

There too it’s mine and lives.

Does that ferry across? And awakens while doing so?

Whose light follows at my heels

For a ferryman to appear?


[Von Dunkel zu Dunkel

Du schlugst die Augen auf—ich seh mein Dunkel leben

Ich seh ihm auf den Grund:

auch da ists mein und lebt.

Setzt solches über? Und erwacht dabei?

Wes Licht folgt auf dem Fuß mir,

dass sich ein Ferge fand?] (GW 1:97)


Perhaps no concept he found in Heidegger played a more important role in helping him articulate his poetic theory than this one. A passage from On the Way to Language that Celan read and marked in 1954 shortly before writing “From Darkness to Darkness” elaborates on it and its meaning. There Heidegger used the metaphor of a river to ask if this “stream of silence” were not the “saying” that connects the bank of primordial speech with the bank of ordinary speech: “Or is Saying the stream of silence which, in forming them, joins its own two banks—the Saying and our saying after it?” (Oder ist die Sage der Strom der Stille, der selbst seine Ufer, das Sagen und unser Nachsagen, verbindet, indem er sie bildet? G 12:244).

Celan’s creation of the metaphor of the poet as a ferryman allows for a num ber of readings, all of which were consonant with his emerging poetic theories. Heidegger’s metaphor of the river suggests that the poet-ferryman is the rare individual who transfers unspoken primordial language across this gulf of silence into a poetic language. This would explain his admitted admiration for and attraction to Celan’s poetry after he first began reading it shortly after this poem was written. The poet-ferryman might also be seen as one who crosses the general barrier of silence that separates the unspeakable or unspoken from the spoken language. In reference to Celan’s personal life, it might be read as his transporting his Otherness as a non-German Jew into the realm of contemporary German speech.5 It could also be read as a metaphor for his effort to transport the muted voices of Holocaust victims from silence into speech. Celan himself raises yet another possibility. In a letter to Werner Weber (March 26, 1960) about a recently completed translation of Valéry’s La jeune Parque, he insisted that languages, for all their similarities, are not only different but are separated by “abysses” (Abgründe). Figuratively, he says, the ferryman’s task is to transport his language over this abyss, while retaining awareness of the two shores.6 Gellhaus sees the poet’s efforts to write in a German that had been dehumanized and almost destroyed by the Third Reich as an attempt to cross the abyss that separated the poetic voice within him from contemporary German.7 The multiple but overlapping readings of this concept might be summarized by George Steiner’s assertion: “All of Celan’s own poetry is translated into German.”8

Occurrences of the poet’s figurative “ferryman’s service” inherent in various uses of the term übersetzen, or slightly altered versions of that transferal metaphor, run like a red thread through subsequent poems. “Forested” (“Waldig”), written soon after “From Darkness to Darkness,” speaks of the Word being “crowded” or “flocked around” by the world until it has become “cursed,” presumably with the curse of silence. The addressee in the poem, who represents the poet, saves what has been “cursed” by an act of transferal akin to that of a ferryman, though this act occurs in a forest:

You cradle it down through the fire line,

Which, deep in the tree-glow, yearns for snow

You cradle it over to the Word

Which there names what is white on you.

 [Du wiegst es hinab durch die Schneise

die tief in der Baumglut nach Schnee giert,

du wiegst es hinüber zum Wort,

das dort nennt, was schon weiß ist an dir.] (GW 1:116)


The closing stanza of the 1960 poem “The Sluice” (“Die Schleuse”) again makes this poetic act explicit by describing how the word is saved by its being ferried across a narrow channel into a “salt flood”:


the sluice I had to go

to salvage the word back into

and out of and across the salt flood:



die Schleuse musst ich,

das Wort in die Salzflut zurück

und hinaus-und hinüberzuretten:

Jizkor] (GW 1:222)


The 1963 poem “Your Dream” (“Dein vom Wachen stößiger Traum”) uses the word übersetzen in its second meaning and makes explicit the image of a ferryboat that transfers something of the speaker’s suffering to another realm:

In the ver-

tical narrow

dayravine, the upward

poling ferry:


It carries

painful readings across.

[Die in der senk-

rechten, schmalen

Tagschlucht nach oben

stakende Fähre:


sie setzt

Wundgelesenes über.] (GW 2:24)

Another1963 poem, “In the Snake Wagon” (“Im Schlangenwagen”), perhaps a reference to a boat, repeats the image of the “flood” (Flut) and portrays someone crossing the water past a white cypress tree, in antiquity a symbol of the river Lethe:

In the Snake Wagon, past

the white cypress tree,

through the flood

they carried you.

[Im Schlangenwagen, an

der weißen Zypresse vorbei,

durch die Flut

Fuhren sie dich.] (GW 2:27)

In the 1965 poem “Easter Smoke” (“Osterqualm”) Celan again turned to this metaphor, though partially obscuring it through catachrestic usage. The opening stanza’s reference to the wake or keel track of a boat and the fifth stanza’s mention of nets suggest a figurative crossing of water connected with language. The image in stanza 3 of a group that joyfully anticipates passage from one point to another (“überfahrtsfroh”) extends the theme, except that the group appears to be located in a desert, a possible allusion to the children of Israel. The boat (“Kahn”) in the final stanza that is to transport this “guest people” again evokes the image Celan derived from Heidegger of poetry as an act of transferal from one realm to another. Three stanzas will illustrate:

Eastersmoke, flooding, with the letter-like wake in the midst. ....... We here, we, joyfully awaiting passage before the tent where you baked desert bread out of camp-following language ........... the guest people with us in the boat. [Osterqualm, flutend, mit der buchstabenähnlichen Kielspur inmitten. ....... Wir hier, wir, überfahrtsfroh, vor dem Zelt wo du Wüstenbrot bukst aus mitgewanderter Sprache .......... das Gastvolk, mit uns im Kahn.] (GW 2:85)

A 1967 poem entitled “Hush” or, in another reading, “Silence” (“Stille”) also draws on this familiar form of poetic utterance as a transferal, except that the ferryman is now an old hag, and the crossing does not traverse a calm river but rapids: “HUSH, you ferrying hag, and transport me across the rapids. / Eyelid fire, flame ahead” (STILLE, Fergenvettel, fahr mich durch die Schnellen. / Wimpernfeuer, leucht voraus, GW 2:170). The rendering of the lead metaphor is misleading, since the first word contains an untranslatable ambiguity. Read as an imperative, which the second line appears to be, the first word seems to denote a command to the ferryman to be still and carry the poetic voice into speech. Equally possible is that this first word is not used as a command but a form of address and that the hag being addressed is a personification of silence itself. A rough translation might read, “Silence, you hag; ferry me across the rapids.” Either way, the metaphor clearly reveals signs of its origin in Heidegger.

Another poem the same year, entitled “Out There” (“Draußen,” GW 2:223), extends this metaphor by describing some sort of sea voyage in a sailing ship. It also coins a nonexistent word that resides somewhere between a “traveling man” and a ferryman: Fahrensmann. Finally, an allusion to the ferryman’s role in transporting the unspeakable into language is evident in a stanza of “Near, in the Aorta’s Arch” (“Nah, im Aortenbogen, GW 2:202).

Mother Rachel weeps no more Carried across now all of the weeping. [Mutter Rahel weint nicht mehr. Rübergetragen Alles Geweinte.] (Felstiner, Selected Poems and Prose, 303)

Felstiner, who identified the Yiddish song from which Celan adapted this stanza, points out that the original text contained the word aribertrogen, which means “to endure.”9 Celan’s rendering with the colloquial term Rübergetragen endows the word with the German meaning “to carry across.” Though phonetic echoes of the original still remain, this new lexical meaning places it in the vicin ity of Heidegger’s double sense of the word übersetzen in its reference to both “transporting” and “translating.”

In spoken German the past participle of the verb übertragen functions like and is synonymous with the term übersetzen. When accented on the third syllable, it means to “translate” or “transcribe.” Accented on the first, that syllable becomes a separable prefix, and the word means “to carry over, transport, or transfer.” Also written in 1967, this poem and those cited above all illustrate the power that a single concept, which Celan discovered in Heidegger in 1953 and “translated” into his own poetic world, continued to exert on his writing over the course of fourteen years.

In September 1953, a month after finishing his reading of A Letter on Humanism, Celan turned to Heidegger’s work On the Essence of Truth (Vom Wesen der Wahrheit), a copy of which he acquired and read in September 1953. The edition he owned is missing from his posthumous library in Marbach, but according to Stefan Reichert, who catalogued the poet’s library in the years following his death, he entered the date of acquisition (or reading?) on page 2, and the opening lines of his poem “Forested” (“Waldig” GW 1:116) on the inside back cover.10 Without access to the text he read, however, any attempt to establish specific sources for or connections to his poetry from this particular treatise remains speculative. A similar information gap applies to another work he probably read sometime between 1952 and 1954 but that also has disappeared from his posthumous library: Heidegger’s On the Essence of Reason (Vom Wesen des Grundes). In 1952 Celan had sent a dedicated copy of it to Ingeborg Bachmann, which is in her posthumous library.11 This suggests that he already might have read it by that time. Concrete evidence that he did know it surfaces in 1960, when he was working on notes for a theory of poetry. By this time he had read at least fourteen works by Heidegger, but he lists only two titles that apparently were especially important to his current project—Being and Time and On the Essence of Reason.12 But without access to the copy he read, his response to and possible indebtedness to the latter work also remain a matter of conjecture. If, however, one assumes that he engaged either of these works with the intensity that he brought to his other readings of Heidegger between 1952 and 1954, they, too, must have left lasting, though no longer clearly identifiable, marks on Celan’s developing ideas about poetry.

James K. Lyon

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