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Notes on Silence, Witness and (self-)Possession

May 14, 2015

I recently read Cathy Park Hong’s piece in Poetry, Against Witness, Paul Celan, Doris Salcedo and memory in the Internet age, in which she asserts, among other more central things, that in this age where everything can be documented, to use poetry and art as a form of witness is outdated; in much the same way the photography made the oil painting’s representation of real scenes obsolete (Walter Benjamin strikes again).  She uses Paul Celan’s “Deathfuge”, it’s appropriation by the mainstream —that  sort of boxed Celan in as a “Holocaust writer”, which may really have been, understandably if a little too narcisistic-controlling for my taste, the reason for Celan’s refusal to allow the poem in anthologies— as an example.  It is now treated like a commemorative poem in Germany.  Commemoration she suggests is an inherent reduction of truth and meaning, and a gesture to not ask the tough questions, of an event.   “When a poem becomes commemorative, it dies”, she writes.

As simple as the point seems, I found myself asking the question, “does she just mean that it doesn’t enable the reader to action and or thought?  Might she also be referring to the commemorative poem no longer belonging to the world, the institution, of poetry? She is speaking as a writer and reader who has some measure of authority of what it’s like to be both.  We could zoom in on the classic aspects of her question, i.e., is the truth value of poetry as witness just lost on us as those who can experience injustices in much more real (present) time-accessible ways?  But, speaking for myself, one without Ms. Hong’s privilege of a completed higher education and the social network and economic security that comes with it, I’m interested in the self image that poetry, if you’ll forgive my figure of speech, must now inquire and/or have of itself.  Which is at bottom the result of some sort of interplay with the seeking of recognition from “The Other”, er, really others.  I can’t help but smell a bit of elitism in her point, or at least a desire to insulate poetry from being given over and appropriated (“misinterpreted”) for broader popular means.  And at some level I admire that position.

The unpopularity of poetry is well known and is not worth going into with respect to Hong’s apparent intent with this essay but it is ultimately inextricable from the concern for the polis that much of the best poetry addresses (even if inadvertently), the concern that goes without saying for Hong.  Because of the violence done to works that act as witness, the reappropriation of works to serve narrow or thoughtless interests, causing general interpretations of works, give impetus to work that is anti-monumental*, like that of installation artist Doris Salcedo, that presents quotidian domestic objects in a way that evokes a home that has been abandoned or attacked.  It is a way of expositing or portraying victimhood without being preachy or exploitive, mostly because of the open-endedness and restraint of the display—the lack of any bodies in pain, as Hong points out.   More pointedly, Hong quotes Salcedo:

“‘I have constructed the work as invisibility, because I regard the non-visual as representing a lack of power. To see is to have power; it’s a way of possessing.’”

Celan is also very restrained in his description of human suffering (I highly recommend both translated collections, Michael Hamburger’s and John Felstiener’s.  And the excerpts I’ve read of Pierre Joris’s newer translation of Celan’s later works seems excellent as well), and is also caught up in its own acts of perception, stretching out and condensing language and ontology, or placement in the world.  Celan’s poetry, Hong is right to point out is much more than bearing witness.  His verse is ruled often by bitterness that is seemingly left no choice but to use language in a way that renders it strange and uninviting, that alludes to a kind of other world that is built on silences and deaths, the so-called gnomic poetry that he developed after “Death Fugue” even at times seems to deny the possibility of a testimony. “To give form to memory, one must also forget”, Hong writes.  But perhaps more explicitly we should say that we must be aware of our ignorance, the limits of our understanding of others.  Always going to back to the incentive to empathize and how relates to the body and our limits and possibilities within it.

And that we are not free from having ourselves and our work, to the extent that is out there/displayed, to be interpreted in unexpected and often unfavorable ways.  Hence the silence, the need for the absences to speak.

Which brings me back to Enduring Puberty Press’s flirtation with the throwing out with the trash the whole would-be commercial institutions of respective art mediums—but certainly not the art mediums themselves.   It’s time stop trying to load the “great western cannon” and get right into the polis with as many or few formal restraints as we want.  I want us to do for interpersonal communication what everything else in the professional realm has failed to do.  We know that bearing witness is not enough, but we also know that our desire for one and to honor those that do is ever present within us. That a shared consensus has its limits, but the anticipation or reaching for it is itself a potential for many tellings.  Which in my risk-free unambitious-so therefore socially naive view, all the more reason to accept that our image of ourselves, in all our atomistic fronting is beautifully, recklessly out of our hands.

It is to be sure disconcerting to think of so many post-war German readers using “Todesfuge” as a way to put some artificial closure to the horrors that they or their parents and other guardians were complicit in.  But ultimately its an arrogant delusion to think it matters in the long scheme of things.  Let the message in the bottle (as Celan likened poetry) go its way and see that the billions of people on this planet who do not read or write poetry have their own narrativizing going on in their heads, with or without something  called poetry, or something called [visual] art.  There’s a fit-for-humans ecosystem to save from the forces of crony capitalism!  If, as the naive teleology goes,  more people are being empowered to tell their own stories it would be at most the effect of an aberration if some of them were poems as great as Celan’s –by the way, Celan has at least a dozen poems better than “Death fugue”– we spend all this privileged time writing about.  People who make the effort to listen more, to look longer and take in Salcedo’s installations may be rewarded.  People who don’t may be rewarded as well. But as the lines go, that Hong quotes:

No one
bears witness for the
*If you’ve been paying attention to this blog, it should come as no surprise to you that I love the idea of “anti monumental” art and am withholding complete judgement till I get to see Salcedo’s works in person.

From → Poetics

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