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Postcards from Alsace, passed through Georg Büchner and Paul Celan.



“Towards evening he reached the crest of the mountains, the snowfields that led down again to the westward plain, he sat a while at the top. It had turned calmer towards evening; the clouds lay solid and motionless in the sky, nothing so far as the eye could see but mountain peaks from which broad slopes descended, and everything so quiet, grey, increasingly faint; he felt a terrible loneliness, he was all alone, completely alone, he wanted to talk to himself, but he couldn’t, he scarcely dared breathe, his footfall rang like thunder beneath him, he had to sit down; a nameless fear took hold of him in this nothing, he was in empty space, he leapt to his feet and flew down the slope. Darkness had fallen, heaven and earth had melted into one. It was as though something were following him, as though something terrible would catch up with him, something no human can bear, as though madness were chasing him on mighty horses. At last he heard voices, saw lights, he felt a little easier, he was told it was another half-hour to Waldbach.” (Georg Büchner, Lenz)

“. . . stepping out of what is human, betaking oneself to a realm that is uncanny yet turned towards what’s human—the same realm where the monkey, the robots and thereby . . . alas, art too seems to be at home. This is not the historical Lenz speaking, but Büchner’s, here, it’s Büchner’s voice we’ve heard, here too: art for him retains something uncanny.” (Paul Celan, “Speech on the Occasion of the Award of the Georg Büchner Prize.”)





“The next morning he came down, he told Oberlin quite calmly how his mother had appeared to him during the night: she had stepped from the darkness of the churchyard wall, dressed all in white and with roses at her chest, one white, one red; then she had sunk down in a corner and slowly the roses had grown up above her, she was surely dead; but he felt quite calm. Oberlin then told him how at the time of his father’s death he had been alone in the fields and had heard a voice and knew at once that his father was dead, and so it proved when he came back home. This led them further. Oberlin talked of the people up in the mountains, of girls divining water and metals beneath the earth, of men sighting spirits that seized them on mountain-tops; he told him too how once in the mountains he had been put into a kind of sleepwalker’s trance by gazing into the fathomless void of a mountain pool. Lenz said that the spirit of the water had come over him and in consequence he had felt something of his essential being. He continued: the simplest, purest kind of human nature was most closely connected to elemental nature; the more refined the mental life and emotions of a person become, the more this elemental sense was blunted; it was no very elevated state in his view, it was insufficiently independent, but he thought it must give a feeling of infinite bliss to be touched by the essential life in each form of nature, to have a soul receptive to stone, metal, water and plants, to be able as though in a dream to take into oneself each being within nature as flowers take in air with the waxing and waning of the moon.” (Georg Büchner, Lenz)

“Whoever keeps art before his eyes and in his mind—here I’m thinking of Lenz—has forgotten himself. Art creates I-distantness. Art in a certain direction demands a certain distance, a certain path.” (Paul Celan, “Speech on the Occasion of the Award of the Georg Büchner Prize.”)





“Meanwhile his condition had grown ever more hopeless. The peace he had derived from the proximity of Oberlin and the tranquillity of the valley had gone completely; the world that he had wanted to enjoy was irredeemably fractured. He had no love, no hate, no hope, just a terrible emptiness and the frantic, agonizing urge to fill it. He had nothing. Whatever he did, he did quite consciously, and yet he was driven by an inner compulsion. When he was on his own, he felt such terrifying loneliness that he continually talked out oud to himself, then his fear redoubled and he imagined he was hearing the voice of a stranger. In conversation he often stumbled, seized by indescribable fear, he had lost the end of his sentence; he then felt obliged to hang on to the last word he had spoken and repeat it again and again, only with great difficulty could he suppress such impulses. The good people were deeply troubled when sometimes in calm moments he would be sitting with them talking quite normally, then suddenly stop with a look of unspeakable fear on his face, grip the arm of whoever was nearest to him, and only slowly come to himself again. When he was alone, or reading by himself, it was even worse, his entire mind would become stuck on a single thought; if he began thinking of someone else, or saw them vividly in his imagination, he felt as if he was becoming them himself, he became utterly confused, at the same time he had a boundless urge to make free in his mind with everything around him – nature, people (except for Oberlin), and all quite coldly, as if in a dream; it amused him to up-end houses and stand them on their roofs, to take people’s clothes off and put them back on, to dream up the craziest pranks. Sometimes he felt an irresistible urge to enact whatever fantasy he happened to have in mind, then his face would twist into terrible grimaces.” (Georg Büchner, Lenz.)

“The poem is lonely. It is lonely and underway. Whoever writes one stays mated with it. But in just this way doesn’t the poem stand, right here, in an encounter—in the mystery of an encounter.” (Paul Celan, “Speech on the Occasion of the Award of the Georg Büchner Prize.”)





“The following morning, in dull, rainy weather, he arrived in Strasbourg. He seemed quite rational, he talked to people; he did everything as others did, but there was a terrible emptiness within him, he felt no fear, no longing any more; he saw his existence as a necessary burden. – Thus he lived for the rest of his days.” (Georg Büchner, Lenz.)

“Ladies and gentlemen, I find something that comforts me a little at having taken, in your presence, this imposible path, this path of the impossible. I find something that binds and that leads to encounter, like a poem. I find something—like language—immaterial yet earthly, terrestrial, something circular, returning upon itself by way of both poles and thereby—happily—even crossing the tropics (and tropes): I find . . . a meridian.” (Paul Celan, “Speech on the Occasion of the Award of the Georg Büchner Prize.”)

4 thoughts on “Postcards from Alsace, passed through Georg Büchner and Paul Celan.

  1. This is great — I’m a tremendous fan of Celan but am sorry to say I haven’t read any Büchner…I’m glad to have seen these excerpts at least.

  2. Thanks, Michael, I’m also a Celan faithful. I was thinking about him a lot, and then upon entering a church in Strasbourg, I ran into an unmarked exhibit that heavily featured his poetry… which felt appropriately uncanny. I love Büchner and think he’s really singular; his early death, his radical left-wing politics (the reason for his exile from Germany to Alsace), his anti-rationalism. His influence isn’t all that heavily-discussed, but he would probably be interesting to read alongside Thomas Bernhard, for example; what with the hallucinatory rhythms (and characters’ visions), the bourgeois terror, the death-obsession, all the doctors (Büchner was a medical student)… And like Celan, Bernhard won the Georg Büchner prize, too. So, correspondences…

  3. Yes, correspondences…

    “La Nature est un temple où de vivants piliers / Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles…”

    (A student of mine was just writing about that poem.)

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