POPPY AND MEM­ORY

A love story framed by ide­ol­ogy and (in­evitable) atroc­ity. Is love the drug?

Esquire (Malaysia) - - CULTURE - Words by pauline fan

we gaze at each other we say dark things we love one an­other like poppy and mem­ory —Paul Ce­lan

It was an im­prob­a­ble love born in the un­named spa­ces be­tween si­lence and shadow. It was a pas­sion that de­fied the ter­ri­ble bur­den of their ori­gins.

He had grown up in a Jewish Ger­man-speak­ing en­clave in Cz­er­nowitz, Bukoniva, a cos­mopoli­tan cen­tre known as the “Vi­enna of the East” dur­ing the Hab­s­burg Em­pire. Both of his par­ents had perished in the Holo­caust—his fa-

ther had died of ty­phus, his mother had been shot af­ter suf­fer­ing ex­haus­tion from forced labour. She had grown up in a town in the south­ern­most prov­ince of Aus­tria, the daugh­ter of a head­mas­ter who sub­scribed to Na­tional So­cial­ist ide­ol­ogy.

Paul Ce­lan and Inge­borg Bach­mann, two of the most out­stand­ing post-world War Two po­ets of the Ger­man lan­guage, first met in Vi­enna in May 1948. The 27-year-old Ce­lan had re­cently ar­rived in Vi­enna and was en route to Paris. He had al­ready achieved ac­claim for his land­mark poem, Todesfuge (Death Fugue), in which his in­can­ta­tory lines evoked the cruel Nazi sport of forc­ing Jews in con­cen­tra­tion camps to dig their own graves while on­look­ers were made to play the tango on the fid­dle. Bach­mann was com­plet­ing her doc­toral dis­ser­ta­tion on Mar­tin Hei­deg­ger while mak­ing her name in Vi­en­nese lit­er­ary cir­cles as a promis­ing young poet. It was a meet­ing of minds as much as a meet­ing of hearts.

Soon af­ter their first en­counter, Bach­mann de­scribed her room as a “field of pop­pies”, en­gulfed by the blood red flow­ers Ce­lan had sent her. Their con­ver­sa­tions in ink be­gan in 1948 on Bach­mann’s 22nd birth­day, when Ce­lan sent her a poem, in­scribed, “For Inge­borg. To one who is painfully pre­cise, 22 years af­ter her birth, from one who is painfully im­pre­cise.” The poem, In Ägypten (In Egypt), re­mains one of Ce­lan’s most mem­o­rable, and re­veals the lay­ers of guilt and con­tra­dic­tion Ce­lan grap­pled with as a Jew in love with an Aus­trian in the wake of the Holo­caust: “Adorn the stranger be­side you most beau­ti­fully. Adorn her with the pain for Ruth, for Mir­jam and Noemie”. Ce­lan ut­ters the names of Jewish women, ca­ress­ing his Gen­tile lover with their sor­row. For Ce­lan, the beauty of love could never be com­pletely free of the shadow of pain and grief he car­ried with him.

Years later, in a let­ter dated Ocober 31, 1957—the year their love af­fair re­sumed—ce­lan re­mem­bers this poem and in­vokes Bach­mann’s pres­ence: “Think of In Ägypten. Ev­ery time I read it, I see you step into this poem: you are the rea­son for liv­ing, not least be­cause you are, and will re­main, the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for my speak­ing… But that alone, my speak­ing, is not even the point; I wanted to be si­lent with you too.” This sus­pen­sion be­tween speech and si­lence is a defining char­ac­ter­is­tic of Ce­lan’s life and po­etry. That he saw Bach­mann as a rea­son and in­spi­ra­tion for both tes­ti­fies to the in­ten­sity of their con­nec­tion.

Ce­lan per­haps sensed a deep em­pa­thy from Bach­mann. She was, af­ter all, no stranger to the vi­o­lence of the Nazis. At age 12, she had watched Nazi troops march through her town, an ex­pe­ri­ence of which she later wrote: “The pain came too early and was per­haps stronger than any­thing since… the mon­strous bru­tal­ity, one could feel it, the yelling, singing and march­ing, an at­tack, the first, of deathly anx­i­ety.”

Bach­mann re­mained a source of strength for Ce­lan, even af­ter his mar­riage to the French graphic artist Gisèle Les­trange in 1952. While strug­gling with her own bouts of de­pres­sion, Bach­mann reached out to Ce­lan, try­ing to dis­pel the dark­ness that lay in wait, ready to de­vour him. In one of her let­ters to Ce­lan, she wrote: “You are al­ways my con­cern, I pon­der a great deal on it and speak to you and take your strange, dark head be­tween my hands and want to push the stones off your chest, free your hand with the car­na­tions and hear you sing.” In her poem, Dun­kles zu sagen (Dark­ness Spo­ken), Bach­mann iden­ti­fies with the fig­ure of the mu­si­cian-poet Or­pheus, who descends to the un­der­world to bring his lover Eury­dice back to the land of the liv­ing. Bach­mann re­verses the gen­der roles, lament­ing the loss of her lover, now for­ever be­yond reach: But like Or­pheus I know life on the side of death, and the deep­ing blue of your for­ever-closed eye. The ti­tle of Bach­mann’s poem is bor­rowed from one of Ce­lan’s most fa­mous po­ems, Corona, writ­ten for Bach­mann not long be­fore. While Bach­mann’s pres­ence in Ce­lan’s po­ems pri­mar­ily takes the form of a muse, Ce­lan’s in­flu­ence on Bach­mann’s work is ev­i­dent in the lan­guage it­self, with Bach­mann at times di­rectly re­spond­ing to Ce­lan’s words and im­agery. In Corona, Ce­lan com­pares their love as “poppy and mem­ory”—the for­get­ting of the self brought about by the opi­ate of love, the re­mem­ber­ing of a more es­sen­tial self re­flected in the eyes of the lover.

Yet for all the pas­sion that drew them to­gether, rup­ture seemed in­evitable. Spells of ex­hil­a­ra­tion were of­ten fol­lowed by pe­ri­ods of dis­tance and doubt, each with­draw­ing fur­ther into their own cave of si­lence. On Au­gust 20, 1949, Ce­lan wrote: “Per­haps I am mis­taken, per­haps we are evad­ing each other in the very place where we would so like to meet, maybe we are both to blame. Ex­cept that I some­times tell my­self that my si­lence is per­haps more un­der­stand­able than yours, for the dark­ness that im­poses it upon me is older.” Grief at the death of his new­born son François in 1953 and false charges of pla­gia­rism by the wife of the poet Yvan Goll, com­pounded Ce­lan’s trou­bles and plunged him into the depths of a de­spair he never re­cov­ered from.

In the spring of 1970, Bach­mann re­ceived a let­ter from Gisèle Les­trange, Ce­lan’s wife: “In the night from Mon­day to Tues­day, 19 to 20 April, he left his apart­ment, never to re­turn…” Ce­lan had taken his own life by drown­ing him­self in the River Seine. Three years later, at the age of 47, Bach­mann died af­ter a fire broke out in her bed­room, sparked by a lit cig­a­rette. While it is tempt­ing to read the Ger­man mo­tif of Liebestod (love and death) into Ce­lan’s and Bach­mann’s in­tense yet im­pos­si­ble re­la­tion­ship, noth­ing en­cap­su­lates the dev­as­tat­ing power and tragedy of their love more aptly than a sim­ple line Bach­mann once wrote to Ce­lan: “I love you and I do not want to love you, it is too much and too dif­fi­cult.”

The dra­matic postal ex­change be­tween Inge­borg Bach­mann and Paul Ce­lan is the ba­sis of Ruth Beck­er­mann’s 2016 film Die Geträumten (The Dreamed Ones). In the film, two young ac­tors meet in a record­ing stu­dio to read the let­ters, blur­ring the lines be­tween old loves and new, the past and the present.

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