Gadamer’s hermeneutical exegesis of the first poem from Paul Celan’s Breath-turn

            Already here, in one’s first approach to the poem, one must understand as concretely as possible. This means correctly accounting for the poet’s awareness of language, since he not only uses words in their clear reference to objects, but also constantly plays with the meanings and associations that sound in them. One can thus ask whether the poet here is playing with the syllable “mouth” [Maul, from Maulbeerbaum] by referring to the loudmouth [Mauheld des Wortes], whose shouting he can no longer bear. Even so, our primary consideration remains precise coherence and must be met first. The plant name “mulberry tree” is quite common, and if one follows the poetic context in which the name occurs, it is clear that the poem refers neither to the mulberry nor to the mouth, but to the new verdure which sprouts tirelessly on the mulberry tree throughout the entire summer. Any further transposition must derive its direction of meaning from this fact. And we will see that this further transposition of what is said points ultimately to the sphere of silence, or the most austere speech. But evidently here the parallel with the mulberry tree points not to the mulberries, but to the sprouting lushness of the foliage. The double meaning of “mouth” is thus not supported by the context, but it is the scream of the leaf which grounds the movement of meaning. This is sharply accentuated in the text in the last word of the poem. It is thus the leaf and not the berry which conveys the transposition into what is actually said. In one level of the overtones one might then be led back from the scream to link the syllable “mouth” with speech. After all, there is indeed the loudmouth. And in this context, that might suggest all vain and empty speaking and writing of poetry. But that doesn’t change the fact that the word “mouth” does not occur as an independent semantic unit [Sinneinheit] but rather merely as the initial signification of mulberry tree. The berry of mouth [Beere des Maules], rather than the mouth’s flower [Blume des Mundes] does not appear to me to be the right path for undertaking the transition from the first level of saying to the transpositional movement of expression [die Transpositionsbewegung des Besagens] which such a multifaceted poem actuates.

            There is thus all the more reason to ask what the poem “expresses,” that is, toward what c of meaning the text aims. Let us consider a few details: “shoulder to shoulder.” To stride shoulder to shoulder with the mulberry tree apparently means not lagging behind, putting no stop to growth––which in this case would mean restful contemplation. Moreover, one must observe that it says “whenever” [so oft]. This emphasis on a repeated path suggests that the hope of the recurrently departing wanderer to be just once accompanied silently and mutely by the mulberry tree of life is never fulfilled. There was always new growth, insistent like the infant’s longing scream, refusing to allow any peace and quiet.

            Let us ask further who is addressed with the first You. Indeed, nothing more definite than what- or whoever next should welcome one after this summer of restless striding. Since a new scream of the thirst for life always accompanied the I, he is receptive to the contrast of the snow, that uniformity in which there is no longer any temptation or appeal. But this is precisely what a welcome should be, that is, the promise of a reception. Who can define what is at play here between desire and renunciation, between summer and winter, life and death, scream and stillness, word and silence? These verses express a readiness to accept what comes next, whatever it may be. Thus it seems to me completely possible to read this readiness ultimately as the readiness for death, that is, as the acceptance of the last, most extreme antithesis to too much life. The theme of death is constantly present in Celan, even in this cycle. At the same time, it is necessary to recall the special contextual function of this poem as proem to a cycle entitled “Breath-crystal.” The title points to the sphere of breath and thus to the event of language formed by it.

            So we ask again: what does snow mean here? It is the experience [Erfahrung] of writing poetry which is alluded to here? Is it perhaps the word of the poem itself which is pronounced here, inasmuch as this word, in its discretion, preserves the wintery stillness that has been offered like a gift? Or does it refer to all of us and the dumbness that comes after too many words, that dumbness we all know and which can appear to all of us as true charity? The question cannot be answered. It is futile to differentiate between me and you, between the I of the poet and all of us whom the poem reaches. The poem says to the poet, as well as to all of us, that the stillness is welcome. It is the same stillness heard in the turn of breath, the ever so quiet recurrence of the act of breathing. More than anything, this is the ‘breath-turn,’ the sensuous experience of the silent, calm moment between inhaling and exhaling. I do not want to deny that Celan does not only associate this moment of turning breath, this instant when breath returns, with calm self-restraint, but that he also allows the subdued hope bound up with every return [Umkehr] to resonate. As he says in “Meridian”: “Poetry: that can mean a breath-turn.”

But one ought not thereby diminish the meaning of the “quiet” breath which predominates in this sequence. This poem is a genuine proem, and as in musical composition, it establishes the key for the whole with the very first tone. The poems in this sequence are, in fact, as quiet and barely perceptible as the breath-turn. They offer witness to a last constriction of life and, simultaneously, represent anew its recurring resolution, or better, not its resolution, but its elevation to a secure linguistic form [Sprachgestalt]. One hears it the way one hears the deep stillness of winter that blankets everything. Something ever so quiet crystallizes, something every so small, so light, and yet so precise: the true word.

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