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