To the Touch: Emmanuel Levinas’s ‘Dark Light’ in the Poetry of Paul Celan

There can likely be no un-historical reading of Paul Celan’s poetry. He is often recognized as the greatest European poet of the second half of the twentieth century, and it is hard to separate the recognition of his poetic achievement from that temporal break in the century. He is writing after the Holocaust, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He is writing through a period in which conceptions of the human subject were dramatically altered. Bodies were atomized, evaporated instantly. Bodies were fused to the ground, grafted to one another. Bodies were systematically starved and beaten, worked to skeletons, then incinerated and used as fertilizer. If the modern era is identified by the violent speed of industrialization and the fracturing of the subjective experience, then these are the peak events of that dissolution. As a Jew and native German speaker who lost both parents to the Nazi genocide, and who was interned in labor camps, Celan confronted these limit-experiences of being. Human as animal, human as mineral, elemental, human as ghost—what boundaries does the human form offer or impose? How are interiority and exteriority differentiated, and where is an inscribable surface located?

Celan encountered language as something that surpasses subjectivity. Marjorie Perloff suggests that this is a notion typical of late Modernist poetry. Poetry of this era, she says, “is characterized by such condensation and reduction of its symbolist base, its dissolution of the speaking subject into the fragmented world it inhabits.” Certainly for Celan the task of moving behind language’s symbolist base, of moving beyond the signifying tendencies of his German language, was amplified by its degradation into Nazi rhetoric. Nazi sensibility occupied the language, a language that Germany had already worked to territorialize, excluding Jews linguistically well before it began to physically eliminate them from the citizenry (Seeba). The German narrative arranged history as a foreground for the destined ascendance of the Third Reich. Even after Hitler’s regime, the values governing this proposed ascension still haunted the language.

Though Celan was a polyglot he had no interest in abandoning what he considered his mother tongue. He wanted to reckon with German, to dispel Nazism from the language. This wrestling with language was crucial to the country’s cultural recovery, but, to Celan’s understanding, perfunctorily addressed. In his account of Celan’s life and poetry John Felstiner writes, “Celan felt used within Germany’s cultural recovery after the Third Reich. With a nascent vocation in the early 1950’s, but sensitive to the costs of recognition, he forged his poetry partly in response to an audience that threatened to skew the past” (Felstiner, 79). For Celan, language that continued beholden to a subjective orientation inevitably retained traces of the Nazi project. Re-presenting those violent expressions and, equally, failing to account for them would be, as Theodor Adorno suggested, barbaric.

This equation would seem to impose silence. And while silence may allow for a thing to mostly die away, or for grief to exhaust itself, it does not necessarily answer for bitterness or resentment. Or if one is so abundant of perspective as to be immune from those appeals, then silence does not necessarily answer for the assertion of survival. Celan’s speech is predicated on the gravity of these historical circumstances. Celan cannot otherwise be but in his time. However, his immersion into language (as opposed to sensibility) can be studied with some release from its historical conditioning. By extracting the human subjectivity he has, in some sense, also removed the temporality inscribed by human action. “[T]he poem does speak! It remains mindful of its dates—but it speaks,” wrote Celan (Fóti). While mindful of dates, I would like to examine the materiality of Celan’s language. How does his poetry ‘free’ the language? And what does it mean to ‘approach’ speech? In a medium of its own, what does language look like, how does it behave?


In 1954, two years after publishing his first full collection, Poppy And Memory, Celan wrote in a letter that a poet can only hope “to overhear the word becoming free, to catch it in the act…yet the word lays claim to uniqueness, lives and sometimes evens feeds off this claim, this arrogance, still believing it can represent the whole of language, can give check to the whole of reality” (Felstiner, 78, 79). For Celan, the word is not fixed to signification and language does not signify for all of reality; it, the word, can exist without its signifying functions. Celan’s conception of language is companionable with the idea of art forwarded by Emmanuel Levinas, who emerged as a leading European intellectual in the 1950s.

Levinas claimed that in art the image substitutes for the object. The image cuts off the relationship between the object and its concept. In this gap, sensation is instantiated, or resides. “Instead of arriving at the object, the intention gets lost in the sensation itself… . Sensation is not the way that leads to an object but the obstacle that keeps one from it… . In art, sensation figures as a new element. Or better, it returns to the impersonality of elements” (Levinas, Existence 47).  For Levinas, modern art disrupts the distinctions between a ‘within’ and a ‘without’. It eliminates surfaces—or, it scuttles the dimensional references that a surface is expected to imply. This “world of the elemental,” explains Edith Wyschogrod in her essay, “Language and alterity in the thought of Levinas,” “is that of the faceless gods who do not speak.” Modern art is established by this opening, by its intervalence and not by its visibility. The images, like words for Celan, exist in “a terrain that is fundamentally non-possessable, ‘nobody’s,’ earth, sea, light, city,” describes Levinas (Wyschogrod, 198).

An easy way to misunderstand Celan’s relationship to language would be to respond as many early critics did, construing his poems as surviving on metaphor, somehow subjectless. Reviewers frequently pointed to the dream-like quality of his work. Felstiner provides us with several responses to Poppy and Memory from German reviewers. Poet Heinz Piontek wrote: “His lyrics are poésie pure, magical montage, comparable to Marc Chagall’s paintings. They have French sheen and Balkan glitter, the suggestiveness of the chanson and the modulations of melancholy. They exist wholly on metaphor.” Piontek ventured to suggest that Celan publish only when “he has something to say that is really pressing him—but not his études and finger exercises” (Felstiner, 71). Poppy and Memory includes “Todesfugue,” a poem that has become one of Celan’s most noted, and a poem that is generally considered one of the most haunting renditions of Holocaust memory. One reviewer particularly cited “Todesfugue” for its “removal of everything concrete” (Felstiner, 71).

But it is not that Celan’s poems survive on metaphor, or are somehow subjectless. This would make for vapid poetry indeed. We could say he is allusive, that his language is figurative (perhaps we will say that for now), but “Todesfugue,” for instance, is full of the concrete. In “Deathfugue,” as Felstiner translates it, the German commander is alluded to by description as “[a] man who lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes/ he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margareta/ he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling he whistles his hounds to stay close/ he whistles his Jews into rows…” (Celan, 30). When shovels dig into the earth the commander demands a song. He grabs for his rod and demands others play on for the dancing. There is plenty that is concrete here.

Certainly, however, a reader might not expect something like graves dug in the air (“we shovel a grave in the air where you won’t lie too cramped”) to be literal. And “Todesfugue”’s famous refrain, “[b]lack milk of daybreak” (“we drink it at evening/ we drink it at midday and morning/ we drink it at night/ we drink and we drink”), must of course be figurative? But these moments which seem impossible can also be read more literally. Where a body, its bones, has become ash rising from the incinerators, inhaled, imbibed. Where the ash discolors the skies, the days overcast as evening, as night. Where graves are particulate matter suspended in the air—and, especially because cremation is disallowed by Jewish tradition, we might read Celan as pulling the ground up around these bodies, providing burial. While reading black milk as a provocateur of exhaustion and spoilage would be justified, Celan is describing a very actual event. If there is metaphor, it may also be seen as inherent to the metamorphic reality of his subject, bodies performing as other than bodies.

Felstiner wonders how audible a poem like “Todesfugue” was in 1953. Celan, by his own account, moved away from metaphor in 1957. No one thing is like another thing, he was certain—and there is no inseparable union, not between people. His words gained another increment of autonomy. The language was not as intent on affecting the reader, or at least in transmitting an affect that originated in Celan. Rather, the reader’s experience becomes of the words emerging into the world and their responses to the material atmosphere. Language does not provide closure; it is not determinate. Celan conveyed in a letter that he wanted to render “at least excerpts from the spectrum-analysis of things, to show them, as it were, simultaneously in several aspects and interpenetrations […] because unfortunately I am unable to show the things from all sides” (Fóti).

It would be reductive to imply that Celan entertains a poetics of indeterminancy. Celan experimented with and absorbed Surrealist principles, but he does not abandon the physicality of the world, just as he does not abandon the German language. He establishes a register of language that operates in a realm of silence. But here silence does not mean ‘not speaking’. His becomes a voice speaking, but away from language. For Adorno, Celan provided a model for language’s renewal, a language always burning at its core—and we might suspect that there was no choice for Celan, nowhere to retreat to, as his own language had been mobilized against him. It had gone through “muting” and “darkness” and, in order to speak, Celan was meeting the language where it still had life, or a memory of life, or the possibility of life.

In his collection From Threshold to Threshold, in the poem “Speak You Too,” Celan addresses a positionality residing in this muteness:


Speak you too,

speak as the last,

say out your say.



But don’t split off No from Yes.

Give your say this meaning too:

give it the shadow.


Give it shadow enough,

give it as much

as you see spread round you from

midnight to midday and midnight.


Look around:

see how things all come alive—

By death! Alive!

Speaks true who speaks shadows.

(Celan, 76)


I say that Celan ‘addresses’ the positionality that resides in this muteness, rather than saying that he ‘inhabits’ the positionality because it seems that his speakers do not reside in this muteness—how could they as speakers?—yet somehow that silence is dislodged for them, their prompting comes from within the silence.

Let us dispense with explanations of Celan’s language as figurative, or even disfiguring. Figuration implies that meaning arrives by stating a resemblance. And for Celan each word exists autonomously in a realm of silence, of alterity (“speech given shadow”). This shadow that Celan invokes, this flooding, overflowing shadow (“as much/ as you see spread round you from / midnight to midday and midnight. // Look around: / see how things all come alive—”), may find description in what Levinas calls a ‘dark light’. Wyschogrod, speaking of this alterity, explains that


[i]f there is a content whose excessiveness overflows the capacity of consciousness to contain it, one that cannot become the aim of cognitive intention…this must be the object of a desire that precludes satiety. Such an excess is the human face whose exposure is prior to thematization. Although beyond discursive formulation, the face discloses itself as language. (Wyschogrod, 191)


The shadow is a contiguous multiplicity, a grid, traceable to, but not revealing of, an origin. The words, residing in alterity, in a dark light, are the premonition of otherness, of a relationship from which the self will be introduced. These words are what Jacques Derrida calls ‘revenants’, kin perhaps to the “faceless gods who do not speak” in that “non-possessable terrain.” These revenants allow for a human experience to be illuminated; in their autonomous existence these revenants stimulate a screen of consciousness, a contrast against which Being can authenticate itself.

In this material darkness, there is the recognition of the un-vocalized—it is, in fact, the un-vocalized that makes the darkness material. Here, there is longing, a burgeoning awareness of forthcoming distinction. This is an urge, a pulse. The pulse identifies, as it defines, a singularity. Which is to say, also, that an awareness of a beyond is created. And this is to say, an awareness of the distance from which otherness streams. In that interval, from within that openness—that is where Paul Celan’s poetry is aroused.

Celan apprehends language “in that sphere which a being is able to traverse, but in which its shadow is immobilized,” as Levinas observes this place of encounter (Bruns, The concepts of art 216). Across the distance, the face comes into view as speech whose first word implies obligation to the other. The dark light obscures the self that an “I” might assume to stand in for. Levinas explains Celan’s poetry as a solicitation to the other, situated “at the moment of pure touching, pure contact, grasping, squeezing—which is perhaps a way of giving, right up to and including the hand that gives” (Wyschogrod, 200).

Levinas describes the face as something that does not destroy what it signifies. We also may say this of Celan’s poems. Celan performs a darkening. We do not know, specifically, what his poems refer to. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we do not know what his words refer to. For we have been describing what his poems refer to—to the Holocaust, “that which happened,” as he named it, and quite directly to the boundary of Being, where language is shot through with light and the self thematizes. Perhaps most obviously we would say that we do not know what Celan’s images represent, because he is not, after all, making a visible poetry.


The consciousness in Celan’s poetry is like a reconvening instrument, able to draw its encounter across otherness back into singularity, back into silence, yet it leaves evidence of the encounter. Celan sends back words that are still emanating their desire to signify. In this way, he manages to confront otherness without the violence that confrontation implies. “[W]hichever word you speak— you owe to / destruction,” writes Celan in “Whichever Stone You Lift” (Celan, 70). Speech is a risk; to signify is to initiate and to hasten mortality. Could the self be summoned from the otherness, in relation to an other, without violating the silence of its originary, unintentional being? If the attending language can be issued without authority, then, yes, Celan seems to indicate.

Derrida describes Celan’s poetic language as a “ciphered singularity: irreducible to any concept, to any knowledge,” a “singularity which gathers a multiplicity in eins, and through whose grid a poem remains readable…. The poem speaks, even should none of its references be intelligible, none other than the Other, the one to whom it addresses itself…. Even if it does not reach and leave its mark on, at least it calls to, the Other. Address takes place.” (Perloff).

Address takes place in this “existence without existents,” as Levinas titled an early work theorizing this site of encounter). As an audience, we might wonder, what is our role? Are we merely witnesses, trespassing, even, on some ritual of language? Yet through our interactions with the poems, we are moved, informed, vexed, absorbed—they mean something to us. They speak to us. “Though the British and American versions lacked a fine ear for Celan’s rhythm and tone,” Felstiner reports about an initial English translation, “the poem’s uncanny force came through” (Felstiner, 95). “Speak You Too” concludes with this stanza.



But now the place shrinks, where you stand:

Where now, shadow-stripped, where?

Climb. Grope upwards.

Thinner you grow, less knowable, finer!

Finer: a thread

the star wants to descend on:

so as to swim down below, down here

where it sees itself shimmer: in the swell

of wandering words.

(Celan, 76)


Adorno said that the language in Celan’s poems is “beneath all organic language: It is that of the dead speaking of stones and stars” (Perloff). Indeed, objects are subterranean and astral, elemental. We are estranged from them, yet they are familiar; Celan lifts us into their terrain, holds us near his encounter with otherness, within feeling distance of its radiance, “where sensation figures as a new element” (Levinas, Existence 47).

Celan kept copious notebooks, beginning in his youth, of plant names, even across several languages during his relocations. I am tempted to say he understood plants themselves as translations of light, “speaking” from the same realm of silence where language designs its edges and begins to flicker. “Your leaves glance white into the dark,” he writes in “Aspen Tree” (Celan, 20). His language often feels like minerals shuffling their properties. Marjorie Perloff writes that “the difficulty of Celan’s lyric has less to do with word choice or even word order than with the absence of any and all connective tissue, whether causal, temporal, or even paratactic, in his poetic discourse. What is missing, for starters, are the pronouns.” This is always a fundamental question around Celan’s poetry, attribution. But if we are reading Celan as constructing a poetics that is non-subjective, pre-thematized, then this act of effacement follows naturally.

The objects, elemental and what might often be categorized as inanimate, are not inert. They acquire the qualities of lightness and darkness, speech and silence. In the poem, “The bright stones,” look how the stones are unearthed, lightened, and levitated toward the “you”:


The bright

stones ride through the air, bright

white, the light-



They want to

not sink, not fall,

not collide. They rise


like slender

dog roses they break open,

they float

toward you, my gentle one,

you, my true one—:

(Celan, 176)


Emblematic of mass and matter, stones begin to refuse their own properties. Celan resets the laws of gravity, of grave-ness. “Stone in the air” Celan writes in “Blume” (written about his son’s first word, fleur, which Celan translated to the German), and “Todesfugue”’s grave in the air—again and again, mass is lightened, matter is made less material, able to be passed through. “There was earth inside them, and they dug” Celan begins a poem in 1963’s The No-One’s Rose (Celan, 134). Perhaps this work of lofting is reflexive, muscle memory from his internment in Romanian labor camps. It was the only explanation he gave to friends who had asked what he did during that period: he shoveled rocks.

And just as objects shed their weight or disregard their materiality, words thicken. They become as much an object as stones can be. Stones can be “light-bringers” and stars shimmer in “the swell of wandering words.” A word inherits a physical role, as it must if it is to be rehabilitated, if it is to rehabilitate German language. The word must grow from the extra-territorial encounter, from within that pre-thematized space, in order to dispossess any clinging metaphors. “Word” itself appears more often than any noun except “eye” in Celan’s work (Zobel). It acquires attributes of action and intention.

The stone, the word, the eye—Celan’s objects are brought into a mid-air conversation. The darkness of the perceived underground, that which buries, is really just a viscosity; the darkness is not a lack, but a congestion of light. In “I Heard It Said” Celan writes, “I heard it said, there is / a stone in the water and a circle / and over the water a word / that lays around the stone. / […] I picked from the soil that crumb / which has your eye’s shape and stature…” (Celan, 52). Writing for “The California Journal of Poetics,” Monika Zobel offers that “[t]he eyes and perception are a recurrent theme in Celan’s poetry, which is not surprising considering that Celan is attempting to open up language.” His objects cooperate with the syntax to keep us suspended. He keeps the textual substrate from congealing. His neologisms, the rhythm of his repetitions, his lines with only a single word, with even a single word hung, hyphenated and enjambed, across lines—we never settle into a relationship with referents. “[O]verpunctuation becomes a Celan signature,” says Perloff. Celan keeps us in the substrate, in the pulsing mesh of ‘to-be’. The reader is absorbed as one more anonymous object in the terrain of “pure exteriority of being without appearance” (Bruns, The concept of art, 211). And in this intermittence, everything is vulnerable to rhythm.

Rhythm, like image, Levinas claims,


represents a unique situation where we cannot speak of consent, assumption, initiative or freedom, because the subject is caught up and carried away by it…. It is a mode of being to which applies neither the form of consciousness, since the I is there stripped of its prerogative to assume, …nor the form of unconsciousness, since the whole situation and all its articulations are in a dark light, present. (Bruns, The concepts of art 214)


Celan conspires to sustain that vulnerability, the responsible encounter with the other. “Whichever stone you lift—/ you lay bare / those who need the protection of stones” (Celan, 70). Sheathed in shadow, cushioned by silence, the language that Celan discovers preserves the anonymity of those who need the protection. One might venture that Celan’s genius was to traverse “that sphere which a being is able to traverse, but in which its shadow is immobilized” without his shadow becoming immobilized. Levinas famously diagnosed Celan with “insomnia in the bed of Being.” Though perhaps Celan was always seeing, his poetry is not for the sighted; it is received by contact.


Away from Celan’s poetry, when I am with it from memory, there is so much shining and flickering in the poems, as if they will have dissolved from their pages before I return. The poems’ language seems to shimmer up. Or the words appear so precisely as to be razor-thin flecks that, if turned sideways, might become imperceptible. Celan maintains that while one must not be mute in response to atrocity, one must be intimate with muteness. The “black milk of daybreak” is the rupturing of an Enlightenment epistemology. It is a spillage of the ink that has bureaucratized modernity, that has, a-morally at best, ordered our ‘civilizing’ agencies. Celan recruits poetry to a mission beyond aesthetic contemplation. He makes us consider where the words will be felt—what of the language will leave marks? He makes us consider the weight of inscription. His own language is a pressed shadow that could also be used to pare away or scrape down the screen of its registry.














Works Consulted:


Bruns, Gerald L. “The concepts of art and poetry in Emmanuel Levinas’s writings,” The

Cambridge Companion to Levinas. Ed. Simon Critchley and Robert Bernasconi. UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 206-233. Print.

—. “On Difficulty: Steiner, Heidegger, and Paul Celan,” Reading George Steiner. Ed.

Nathan A. Scott, Jr. and Ronald A. Sharp. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. 134-150. Print.

Carson, Anne. Economy of the Unlost. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press,

  1. Print.

Celan, Paul. Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan. Trans. John Felstiner. New York

and London: W.W. Norton, 2001. Print.

Felstiner, John. Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew. New Haven and London: Yale

University Press, 1995. Print.

Fóti, Véronique M. “‘Speak, you also’: On Derrida’s Readings of Paul Celan,” Mosaic: A

Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, 39.3, 2006. 77-90. Online.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Basic Philosophical Writings. Ed. Adrian Peperzak, Simon

Critchley, and Robert Bernasconi. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996. Print.

—. Existence & Existents. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburg: Duquesne University Press,

  1. Print.

Lippit, Akira Mizuta. Atomic Light (Shadow Optics). Minneapolis and London:

University of Minnesota Press, 2005. Print.

Perloff, Marjorie. “Sound Scraps, Vision Scraps: Paul Celan’s Poetic Practice,” Reading

for Form. Ed. Susan J. Wolfson and Marshall Brown. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006. 177-202. Web.

Seeba, Hinrich C. “The Rhetoric of Origin: Language and Exclusion in Historical

Perspective,” TRANSIT, 1.1, 2004. Web.

Sherwood, Jonathan. “Otherwise Than Testimony,” The Journal of the Society for

Textual Reasoning, Vol. 9, 2000. Web.

Steiner, George. “Silence and the Poet,” Language & Silence: Essays on Language,

Literature and the Inhuman. New York: Atheneum. 36-54. Print.

Wyschogrod, Edith. “Language and alterity in the thought of Levinas,” The Cambridge

Companion to Levinas. Ed. Simon Critchley and Robert Bernasconi. UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 188-205.  Print.

Zobel, Monika. “Paul Celan Revisited: Moving from Silence to Speech.” The California

Journal of Poetics. 16 May 2011. Web. 20 April 2012.







One comment

  1. Pingback: Issue Ten, January 2015 | Matter

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s