Monthly Archives: December 2018

Toward the end of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt provides an analysis of loneliness and solitude. Solitude, she says, is a state in which one withdraws from society in order to spend time with oneself. Though in one sense alone, in solitude one keeps oneself company, carrying on an internal dialogue of thought. Loneliness, by contrast, is as often (or more often) to be found in society as outside it. It is captured by the breakdown of connections with others, even if those others are physically near. Arendt’s aim in introducing this distinction is to make the case that totalitarianism preys on—and actively works to generate—loneliness, that it works to create a society of atomized individuals.

I am not competent to evaluate this as an analysis of totalitarian government, but I can’t help thinking about it as I am starting to read the poetry of Paul Celan (in the collection Breathturn into Timestead, translated by Pierre Joris). Celan is himself a product and survivor of the Nazi occupation of Romania. While I am only a few poems into Breathturn (Celan demands to be read with the utmost unhurriedness, and is hard to manage in large doses), already I am getting a sense of his work as an attempt to escape from loneliness into solitude.

Many of the poems, including each of the first five in the volume, capture an interaction between an unnamed “I” and an unnamed “you”, whose relations are variable. This might seem to be the dialogue of solitude, only—something in it is broken. Consider the following poem:

Paths in the shadow-break
of your hand.

From the four-finger-furrow
I root up the
petrified blessing.

The poem begins in fortune-telling, palm-reading, although the description of the paths as in the “shadow-break” of the hand indicates obscurity and uncertainty. The future is not clear; the “I” must go digging. So he does, and finds a “petrified blessing”. This rich phrase speaks volumes. It is a blessing, a sign of a real connection between the “I” and the “you”. But it is petrified. This signals, of course, that it is dead, a thing of the past. But it signals more than that. In the process of petrification, the original material of a living thing is gradually replaced by mineral deposits, so that what remains is a mere simulacrum of the original.

Almost the entire emotional weight of the poem rests in that one word, “petrified”, which points toward a past relationship that has vanished and cannot be rejuvenated. The company of solitude is lost—the poem’s “I” is lonely.

Signs of such disconnect are abundant in these poems. Take, for instance, the first poem in the volume:

You may confidently
serve me snow:
as often as shoulder to shoulder
with the mulberry tree I strode through summer,
its youngest leaf

This poem has the structure of cause and effect (or justification and action), only in reverse order. You may confidently serve me snow, because… Crucial to understanding this structure is the polysemous word “serve”. Is the “you” providing a service for the “I”? Or is the “I” being served with a sentence for a crime? This remains unsettled through the first four lines, as the “I” strides, apparently confidently, through summer. In the final two lines, however, we find that as he does so, “its youngest leaf / shrieked”. Something about his presence is a disturbance to the world around him, and for that reason it is right that he be “served” snow: the isolation and desolation of winter. The glut of life seen in summer does not belong to him. Once again, then we see the failure of an attempt to escape loneliness, even if only for solitude.

Not all of the poems indicate such an absolute disconnect. Consider this poem:

To stand, in the shadow
of the stigma in the air.

for you

With all that has room in it,
even without

Here we find the “I” standing “for you / alone”, which admits of at least some hope. To be sure, the “I” is standing “in the shadow / of the stigma in the air”. It is a connection that exists only in the aftermath of disgrace. And, too, the “I” is unrecognized—full connection, mutual recognition, has not yet occurred. But I cannot help but hear, in the final stanza, its “room”, that there might be space for such recognition. The search for solitude may not be easy, but it is not hopeless.

Similarly, consider this poem:

With masts sung earthward
the sky-wrecks drive.

Onto this woodsong
you hold fast with your teeth.

You are the songfast

The richness of the imagery hear requires unpacking. The “you” is understood as a “pennant” attached to the mast of a ship, albeit a ship in the sky, descending to earth (the journey of the soul to its body?). A “pennant”: meaning, a mark of identification, but not essential to the function of the ship. Thus the “you” is powerless to change the course of the ship, which is a “wreck”, is descending. And yet… the “you” is nonetheless shown clenching the mast with its teeth, a visceral image of doggedness. If the previous poem considered shows determination on the part of the “I”, a willingness to stand unrecognized in the shadow of a stigma before the “you”, this poem shows that same determination in the inverse direction.

These are very much first thoughts; I cannot say how I will look back on them after I have read more.