Brief Written Response to Lacoue-Labarthe's Poetry As Experience

[This was written for the Theories of the Lyric class I took at Brown under the wonderful and brilliant Susan Bernstein. The class, mostly, was well above me and I'm not sure I did the course any service by being there. That said, I'm posting this because it was a response I gave in the course to Phillippe Lacoue-Labarthe's Poetry As Experience, which we read. It was a work I really latched on to, which may be evident if you've been reading this blog at all. I'm also sharing this because it has nowhere to go, may be totally wrong but is still interesting to me and something I'd like to explore further. As President Obama says, this is "above my pay-grade" but hopefully won't be forever. The crossed-out passages were left because, well, no one is grading me here.]

Phillippe Lacoue-Labarthe begins with a reading of two poems by Celan, starting off by telling us about some of the translation and publication history. Immediately he suggests that while the titles of both poems are towns, most likely commemorating visits, they really stand in for Hölderlin (Tubingen) and Heidegger (Todtnauberg, where Heidegger famously worked). As the two poems are linked by theme and the word heute, so are Hölderlin and Heidegger, though the connection between those two is thoroughly through Heidegger. On page 18, Lacoue-Labarthe discusses experience as something that differs from living because rather than simply describing events, poetry tasks itself with working in memory and the sensations of a moment. “A visit in memory of that experience,” Lacoue-Labarthe writes, which is also in the non-form of pure non-event.” In the last paragraph on page 20, Lacoue-Labarthe states that there basically is no “poetic experience” because calling something an experience necessarily deviates from something that has been lived. This I believe is the crux of both halves of the book: how do we experience the events that give the sections their titles and how does poetry aide us in that experience, vs the recounting of events? On page 14, Lacoue-Labarthe asks “What is the work of poetry that, forswearing the repetition of disastrous, deadly, already –said, makes itself absolutely singular? What should we think of poetry (or what of thought is left in poetry) that must refuse, sometimes with great stubbornness, to signify?” I think this leads to a discussion that is still going on in poetry, which is one of difficulty and levels of “coding.” At what point does poetry go too far and become so difficult and so abstract that it allows no real reading? It’s a complaint I’ve heard all too often, so many apologies for harping on this one point.

Before I begin to discuss the second three-quarters of the book, I believe it is impossible to know what’s going on without knowing about Celan’s interaction with Heidegger. Apparently, Heidegger was a fan of Celan’s and though Celan was naturally skeptical of Heidegger due to his affiliation with National Socialism, met with Heidegger in Totenburg, Heidegger’s retreat in the Black Forrest. There is the suggestion in the poem (and of course in Lacoue-Labarthe) that the meeting and their mutual respect for each other’s work (Celan’s being influenced by Heidegger and vice versa) had the potential to create a milestone in their relationship. The poem is not, however, the recounting of these events, but is the experience of them.

The section titles of “Remembering the Dates” ask us to define the words for ourselves before showing us how poetry helps us with these issues. We begin at “Catastrophe,” of course, which goes beyond trauma and signals an ending of some kind, usually one involving tragedy. (Page 67) For Lacoue-Labarthe, it is the poetic act which is “catastrophic” because poetry questions that which are, in a sense, expected or understood. To phrase it more simply, poetry can be and often is, a tool for dismantling the information we thought we had. Specific to Celan, on page 68 no, Lacoue-Labarthe says that he believes poetry is the “interruption of the ‘poetic’”, the intertitles to a silent film, as it were. Poetry, on page 51, pushes existence to be “released at the height of catastrophe,” (to page 55) an act of which “allows the human to take ‘place’ within” Perhaps this is all to say that while we are free to act as our true selves in the midst of a catastrophic event, so too is poetry there to explore the experience, not merely as a list, but as a set of sensations.

In thinking of the word “Prayer,” the first thing that comes to my mind is a request- but something beyond that. A prayer is meant to ask some divine being whether or not they will intercede into the events of humans and fix them in the manner the person praying prescribes. The poem that Lacoue-Labarthe talks about here beginning at page 71 is something more of a “negative prayer” because it does not invoke a being and in fact is to “no one” at all. There is the absence of an addressee, which is indeed the opposite of a prayer in the common sense. One rarely invokes no ‘thing’ at all to beg of it that which human intervention cannot seemingly provide. This falls into a discussion by Lacoue-Labarthe about the word God, especially in that it is not a name, though it is to stand in for one. The paragraph discussing Hölderlin’s “’withdrawal’ of the divine” is interesting in that it wants to give an example of an experience with which any experience seems impossible or that we would perhaps be skeptical of. By removing oneself from the direct contact of a divine being- by “retreating”- is where experience seems to begin. The conclusion that Lacoue-Labarthe eventually comes to is that a poem that seems so prayer-like because it hopes to evoke the sensations and experiences of praying without having to invoke the elements necessary to call it a “prayer”: “The poem arrives in the prayer’s stead,” Lacoue-Labarthe writes on 86, and “the poem is…uttered by the ‘deposed’ or ‘fallen’.” The poem is “unburdened” where the prayer only brings burden along.

In “Sublime” it seems that Lacoue-Labarthe really accepts the idea that poetry is what gives us a place free of fear. And though it is art and wants to unsettle us, harkening back to a previous essay’s use of unheimliche, art “suspends” and “produces” pleasure. It seems that Celan, according to Lacoue-Labarthe is somehow against this sentiment: Celan perhaps does not feel that art should create a delusion but it rather it is the job of art to show up that which is unsuspended and reflective. However, this may have less to do with the true nature of art broadly and more of Celan’s experiences. However, it seems that Lacoue-Labarthe tends to agree with Celan further along: modern art is an art in which nothing can go wrong (because it is sublime), perhaps because it is already anti-beauty and it “shows the pain of presentation” before questioning the nature of presentation as standard.

Upon first seeing “hagiography,” I would imagine that most of us would know the older meaning, which basically the biography of a holy person. Here, Lacoue-Labarthe equates “Todtnauberg” with hagiography, perhaps because he believe Celan nearly turned Heidegger and his visit to him into a religious pilgrimage, a word used by Gadamer on page 92. I must admit I am confused a bit as to how Lacoue-Labarthe sees it this way when Celan is describe as being in despair after the meeting, perhaps because he had expected some kind of apology. However, if “Todtnauberg” is to be a reverential piece, is it the experience of it rather than the direct effect that gives it its hagiographic qualities?

It is in the act of self- and other identification that human beings express their sense of existence; therefore, as to reword Lacoue-Labarthe, language is existence. The only way to summarize such a short piece is to quote what is most relevant to us directly: “When poetry accomplishes its task, which is to push itself to the origin of language…it encounters…the naked possibilities of address, reminding us of the address issues in “Prayer.”

On page 98, the “Pain” section, Lacoue-Labarthe gives us Heidegger’s definition of experience as something obtained “along the way” but pain of course is then that which “tears asunder…yet draws everything to itself.” Pain is something we’re all familiar with, but in poetry, pain is something that divides, conquers, and reassembles. Lacoue-Labarthe equates pain with lyricism, which is an interesting definition of something which speaks to the self. Is the self pained and is it something that creates an identity in being objectified? At the end he talks about blindness and lucidity- a clear-headedness that comes from a lack of sight, I suppose. On page 101, I’m fascinated by where Lacoue-Labarthe talks about sight being associated with movement because of course, it is the movement and reflection of light which gives those of us who can see vision.

In “Ecstacy,” which is of course very short, Rousseau’s excitement as his “rebirth” seems to be an experience within the realm of poetry, most likely alone. While Rousseau can tell us what happened, only poetry can give us the sensation of so nearly missing death.

Vertigo, which is the experience of motion while completely stationary, is contrasted with Celan’s statement in “The Meridian,” translated several times over (I wonder if we can have one more from the room, even). Poetry, in my best judgment, is the experience of speaking into an infinite space while become mortal and ultimately in a void.

Blindness is love. I think that experience is probably clear to most of us and is so far the clearest equation with poetry.

“Lied” is the act of betrayal in a sense, because absence is really missing something that should be there, so in the case of the relationship between Heidegger and Celan, because the apology is missing, what is left is the lie.

“Sky” comes back to “God,” but at a new angle. I am reminded of the question of karma in the Bhagavad Gita, where Krishna ultimately explains to Arjun that the question of karma is not up to him, so there is no point in dwelling on it. In another sense, quoting Dylan, “All you can do is do what you must.” Really we are back into discussions of measurement and for Hölderlin kindness is an example of “divine goodness” Near his conclusion, referring back to “Lied,” Lacoue-Labarthe states that for Hölderlin, God is not really “absent” and that his kindnesses (such as death) are examples of his interaction with humans.

I feel that “The Unforgivable” gives us yet another sense of betrayal: why is someone whose work informs Celan’s so well in such opposition to him personally? Obviously this is such a huge question for Celan (like writing in a language which has just promoted the extermination of his people, for example) that really what comes through as betrayal is that Heidegger never recants his statements, never questions his own judgment. For Celan, this act seems to signify something so dark in humanity: “thought will never recover from such silence.”

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