In Heidegger’s Hut

On January 8, 2011 by admin

Amlan Dasgupta 

In 1966 or 1967 (the year is variously reported)  the poet Paul Celan journeyed to a place called Todtnauberg , in the Black Mountains in Germany. He was visiting the mountain cabin, or as it is famously known, the hutte or hut, of the philosopher Martin Heidegger. Little is known of what transpired between the two that day.  Heidegger had – albeit idiosyncratically – supported the Nazi regime, and had abandoned his major work on the Pre-Socratics to take up the rectorship of Freiberg in 1933. During the denazification years, he had increasingly withdrawn to his mountain retreat. Celan, survivor of the Nazi labour camp, was an unlikely guest, but there is no doubt that the two were drawn to each other intellectually, Heidegger to the poetry, Celan to the philosophy of language, which he commented favourably on several times and incorporated into his poetry. On this enigmatic occasion, Celan signed his name in the visitor’s book, and apparently went on a walk with his host.

There are many reconstructions of this day’s events, some based on the poet’s later comments on the experience. More to the point is the poem that emanated from the encounter: one of Celan’s richest and most puzzling poems, one that teases the imagination and challenges hermeneutic skill.


                        Arnica, eyebright, the

                        draft from the well with the

                        star-die on top,

                        in the


                        written in the book

                        – whose name did it record

                        before mine – ?

                        in this book

                        the line about

                        a hope, today,

                        for a thinker’s


                        to come,

                        in the heart,

                        forest sward, unleveled,

                        orchis and orchis, singly,

                        crudeness, later, while driving,


                        he who drives us, the man,

                        he who also hears it,

                        the half-

                        trod log-

                        trails on the highmoor,



Did then Celan first refresh himself with water from the well, washing the dust from his eyes, the water itself like the old remedies for failing eyesight, arnica and eyebright? But was he also struck by the star engraved on wood (star-die) on the top of the well: the star that must have reminded him of the yellow star worn by Jews in Nazi Germany. Heidegger is said to have commented on Celan’s knowledge of botany, and perhaps the two conversed on the flora of the mountain.  Celan speaks of “a hope, today for a thinker’s word”; that word never came, the begegnung, encounter, remaining unproductive. The word encounter was favoured both by the poet and the philosopher, and Celan was later hurt at Adorno’s judgement that the word had been impossibly corrupted by its use by the Nazis. The two seemed to have walked casually and separately, (“orchis and orchis/singly”), the walk itself being interrupted and half finished.

The thinker’s word does not come: Celan may have hoped for some formal word of apology or expression of grief from the philosopher, heute, today, on that day itself:  a word bearing burning force in the poem. The moment of encounter – or failed encounter – remains uneasily in the relationship. For a relationship it was: Celan, retaining his interest in Heidegger’s thought, and the latter continuing to value the poet’s work openly.  In a letter of 1971 to his friend Klaus Demus the old philosopher wrote warmly about a gift of an original manuscript poem by Celan that he had received. Demus had written that Celan had remembered Heidegger in one of their last encounters (Begegnungen). This had emboldened Demus to send him the poem. Heidegger responded with generosity and enthusiasm:

When I opened your letter of Easter Sunday, my glance fell first on the sheet with the familiar handwriting of the “untranslatable” poem by Paul Celan that I know by memory, or more elegantly, par coeur. I don’t know how to thank you both for this valuable gift. After my death, it and your latter, as part of my posthumous manuscript papers, will go to the German Literary Archives in Marbach am Neckar.

But even a detailed enquiry into the circumstances of the relationship between Heidegger and Celan, does not further clarify the event on Todtnauberg, the grimly and suggestively named location – Todt is death in German.  What happened in the hut, and on the mountain, it remains in some sense unrepresentable, beyond representation.  So much of Celan’s poetry grapples with the unrepresentable, and this is certainly a place where his engagement with Heidegger becomes particularly important. Two major valuations of Celan have come from two writers themselves deeply marked by Heidegger’s thought, Jacques Derrida and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe. I will not detain you with summaries of these richly suggestive readings, beyond drawing attention to a place in the essay “ Shibboleth for Paul Celan” in which Derrida meditates on the word shibboleth, the word of life and death in the OT with which the inhabitants of Gilead tested the Ephraimites:

Gilead then cut Ephraim off from the fords of the Jordan, and whenever Ephraimite fugitives said, ‘Let me cross,’ the men of Gilead would ask, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ If he said, ‘No,’ they then said, ‘Very well, say “Shibboleth”.’ If anyone said, “Sibboleth”, because he could not pronounce it, then they would seize him and kill him by the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites fell on this occasion. (Judges, 12)

Derrida speculates on how the word (if it is one) names in the broadest sense the most insignificant and arbitrary mark – like the phonemic difference between Shi and Si – that becomes discriminative, decisive and divisive. For Derrida the difference, meaningless in itself becomes that essential property that one needs to inhabit a place – a hut, a mountain, a poem, a place of death – to be within, to be enclosed by the border, to have the right of asylum, the legitimacy of habitation. It is not enough to know the difference: one must be able to speak it too, or risk death and annihilation. It is no secret, this word, but simply it calls upon us at the right moment, to be able to articulate it perfectly.

What happened that fateful afternoon on the mountain of death remains something of a secret however. Perhaps nothing happened at all: no angry exchange, no words of recrimination. The two men conversed quietly about plants and flowers, and the meeting may have broken up sooner than anticipated. In retrospect, too, one must admit little altered between the two, who seemed to have retained respect for each other. But the poem, so much greater than the event itself, holds the key to understanding the nature of this silence. As Lacoue-Labarthe suggests, the poem succeeds in pinpointing the failure, the unrealizability, of the word, so deeply and critically needed at the moment, – today, heute –  that might have made possible a profound rapprochement between the two.

The poem’s urgent evocation of an abbreviated time, the heute, the here-and-now, may strike one as particularly significant. For like the language that resides in it, time itself becomes in Celan afflicted by its inability to endure. In the state of exception, time does not become one that is empty and homogenous, even as it ceases to be capable of messianic redemption. The survivor of the camp as it were carries this time with him or her: it just waits to erupt into the normal processes of time. Any moment may take on the figure of the crisis. In the hut too: what is not now, is never: as the moment of speech vanishes. The walkers return to the car, and in the car there is talk – not the word that might have been, but something crude, common, slightly obscene, heard also by the man who drives the car. This is not the word that might have been transformative and lifegiving, the word hoped for in the heart.

Celan’s longing for “the thinker’s word/ to come/in the heart” may seem idealistic in the extreme. After such knowledge as that of the Shoah, what forgiveness? How could the most abject of apologies make the slightest change to the singularity of the concentration camp? But one must see here that the breaking of the silence itself might have been a redemptive moment, a redemption of a sense of the human that till the end, in spite of gestures of amity between the two,  remained untransacted. Both Lacoue-Labarthe and Derrida may have been influenced by Celan in thinking that it was possible only for a man like Heidegger to engage in the most profound critique of the Nazi horror. As Steven Schroeder writes in a review of Lacoue-Labarthe’s book on Heidegger:

What is so scandalous about Heidegger’s reading is the extent to which it makes him think National Socialism precisely in the process of thinking the unthought of it. And Lacoue-Labarthe’s singular contribution in these essays is his account of it as a withdrawal from National Socialism that, like every withdrawal, “traces and draws out that from which it withdraws” (84). “Political disavowal,” he writes, “is the touchstone of fascism.” But this does not make Heidegger apolitical or anti-political. Lacoue-Labarthe maintains that “The disavowal of the political in Heidegger is made in the name of the essence or origin of the political” (84). It is a stepping back from the unreflective practice of politics to its ontological underpinning. Withdrawing from the explicit practice of politics, Heidegger turns to its mythological ground in the Poem (particularly the Poem of Hölderlin), to what Lacoue-Labarthe calls “archi-fascism” (84). This is scandalous not simply because it is Heidegger but because the turn Heidegger makes exposes National Socialism as “the fulfillment of the Western history of techne” (85). And Heidegger never repudiated National Socialism. He said he was “disappointed” by it.

That, for Lacoue-Labarthe, as for Celan, is staggering.

I have some spent some time with this single instance of failure of communication, the failed encounter in Celan. I find it valuable in suggesting that at the heart of Celan’s art there is a constant engagement with the inexpressible, that which lies beyond representation, beyond re-imagining and recasting. The larger question which it might help us formulate is that of what precisely is that which lies beyond the technai of representational mechanisms that have sustained the notion of the human through its history? The problem is hardly a new one: wherever time shrinks in its attempt to comprehend the profound darkness of the act of horror, we often encounter precisely this faltering of the representational mechanism. That does not, one must hasten to say, make the encounter itself less valuable or less critical for our purpose. The example of Celan is particularly interesting in that here is a poet who was born in a German speaking Jewish family in Bukovina, then part of Romania (currently part of Ukraine), was educated in France and Romania and wrote all his life in a language he passionately regarded as his own – German.  But had not the language of his artistic endeavour itself become complicit in the horror of the Holocaust? Celan’s most eminent English translator writes: his “mother tongue, turned overnight into his mother’s murderers’ tongue in 1941, was literally all he had left after the war: no parents, no possessions, no homeland, no cultural or Jewish ambience.” (John Felstiner, “‘The One and Only Circle’: Translating Celan”. American Poetry Review, Nov/Dec 2000).

 But Celan’s answer is not silence. He rather forces himself to embrace the crisis. In his celebrated Bremen address he said: “Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language. 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 murderous 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.” Could language be set free from the fetters of history?

What engages us in the encounter in Heidegger’s hut is therefore not merely a question of a word of solace or comfort. Important as that might be in being the symbolic token of atonement and disavowal, it is only in its search for the life-giving and redemptive word that language must strive to work around the inexpressible, the search for a word that may be used but cannot represent. The title of the poem that we looked at, “Todtnauberg”, refers us back cryptically to his own masterpiece “Todesfuge”: the early poem that squarely addresses a question that has haunted the European imagination since the War: is there a representation possible of the Holocaust? Can the concentration camp be described, or does it forever elude representation, being available only to acts of memorialization and at most, a gesture of direction, a pointing-towards?

Steiner famously and perhaps inaccurately, suggested that German is the only language that allows (us?) to penetrate the horror of Auschwitz, to describe death from within. The claim is, theoretically, questionable, but there is no denying that a poem that comes close to achieving this near- impossible act of reference is Celan’s “Todesfuge”, the Death Song. Lacoue-Labarthe captures the impossible nature of the poem when he says,“at the height of singularity, singularity itself vanishes and saying suddenly appears—the poem is possible”.

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening
we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night
we drink and we drink
we shovel a grave in the air where you won’t lie too cramped
A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margareta
he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling he whistles his hounds to stay close
he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground
he commands us play up for the dance

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at morning and midday we drink you at evening
we drink and we drink
A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margareta
Your ashen hair Shulamith we shovel a grave in the air where you won’t lie too cramped

He shouts dig this earth deeper you lot there you others sing up and play
he grabs for the rod in his belt he swings it his eyes are so blue
stick your spades deeper you lot there you others play on for the dancing

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at midday and morning we drink you at evening
we drink and we drink
a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margareta
your aschenes Haar Shulamith he plays with his vipers

He shouts play death more sweetly this Death is a master from Deutschland
he shouts scrape your strings darker you’ll rise up as smoke to the sky
you’ll then have a grave in the clouds where you won’t lie too cramped

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at midday Death is a master aus Deutschland
we drink you at evening and morning we drink and we drink
this Death is ein Meister aus Deutschland his eye it is blue
he shoots you with shot made of lead shoots you level and true
a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margarete
he looses his hounds on us grants us a grave in the air
he plays with his vipers and daydreams der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland

dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Sulamith (Tr. John Felstiner)

I can do no more than to leave you with this magnificent translation by Felstiner, which I suspect you will find, as I certainly did, some getting used to. Most troublingly, it comes closer and closer to its source text as it progresses, distancing itself from the task of the translator, and forcing the reader to focus on the repetitive rhythms of the poem itself. Felstiner himself confessed his fascination with Celan’s voice: his infinite care in speaking the last line leaves us with the final and irreducible trace of the body after much of it has been translated to the skies: the ashy hair, the hair that has become ash. But the supreme mastery of the last line of the poem is that it brings us to meditate on precisely this: the final substrate of being, the “subsistent presence of a remainder, even if there should be scarcely an ash of what we thus still date, celebrate, commemorate or bless”.

Amlan Dasgupta is Professor, Department of English, Jadavpur University, Kolkata

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