Mesocosm

"Segne den Becher, welcher überfließen will, daß das Wasser golden aus ihm fließe und überallhin den Abglanz deiner Wonne trage!" – Nietzsche

Archive for the ‘Translations’ Category

Todtnauberg, by Paul Celan

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Marc Chagall

Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law
Marc Chagall, 1931

My friend Hugh Behm-Steinberg, author of the outstanding poetry collection The Opposite of Work, tagged me in an online game, so now I must write a brief comment on the poet Paul Celan, and refer interested readers to a representative poem. I decided to take the opportunity to do an original translation of Celan’s difficult poem “Todtnauberg,” which is presented below.

This autobiographical work refers to the poet’s visit to the cabin retreat owned by the great philosopher Martin Heidegger. Now, Paul Celan was a Romanian Jew whose parents were killed in an internment camp during World War II. Heidegger, on the other hand, was an outspoken advocate of the Nazi party, who wrote in the early 40s about Germany’s “special destiny” and urged his students to think in service of the Nazi state.

After the war, Heidegger said nothing in public about his involvement with the Nazis for the rest of his career, with the exception of giving a long interview with the premier German news magazine Der Spiegel in 1966, which he gave on the condition that it be published posthumously.

The truth is, it is not at all clear how to take Heidegger’s silence, and this has posed a serious problem for many important Jewish and non-Jewish intellectuals, including not only Paul Celan, but the noted psychologist Viktor Frankl as well, who is best remembered for his account of his own interment at Auschwitz in the book Man’s Search for Meaning.

Celan was impressed by Heidegger’s philosophy, which, like Celan’s poetry, is deeply concerned with history, knowledge, anxiety, death, and the darkness which surrounds the ground of our being. It is by virtue of his fluency with these very themes that Celan was uniquely able to express in the ineffable horror of the Holocaust in much of his work.

This poem describes his one personal encounter with Heidegger, who invited Celan to visit his forest retreat, and to sign his famous guest book. Celan, a student of botany, sets the scene for us by identifying two herbaceous flowering plants they saw on their walk, arnica and eyebright.

Like its subject, the poem speaks in evocative fragments that defy attempts to synthesize them into a unified image. Vivid impressions flash from out of the darkness, and end with a sense of … what? Disjunction? Futility? Defiance? It is difficult to formulate a clear response, and I get the sense that no particular meaning was intended. Perhaps, as with Heidegger’s silence, he believed there was nothing to say.
 

Todtnauberg

Arnica, eyebright, the
draught from the well with the
star dice above,

in the
hut,

in the book
(whose name is recorded
before mine?)
the written line
in the book
speaks of hope, today,
about a thinker
arriving
word
in the heart,

forest grass, unlevelled,
orchid and orchid, separate,

crude things, later, in passing,
clear,

he who drives us, the man,
he who overhears,

the half-
trodden beaten
paths in the high moor,

moist,
much.

Now that the prayer benches burn,
I eat the book
with all its
regalia.

Written by Mesocosm

January 4, 2014 at 8:16 am

Posted in Translations

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Mnemosyne, by Friedrich Hölderlin

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Castle Near the River, K. F. Schinkel

Completed around 1803, Hölderlin’s “Mnemosyne” anticipates many of the themes of Modernism by over a century. I’ve given my translation below, but as with all translations of great poems, much is lost. Hölderlin possessed an acute sensitivity to nuance, and many of his wonderful devices can’t be duplicated in English.

For example, the key line “Zweifellos / Ist aber Einer,” literally means “Undoubtedly / Though, there is one”. Zwei, the root of Zweifellos, means two, and the contrast between multiplicity and unity echoes the movement of the mind from a condition of primordial unity into the diversity of the phenomenal world, which constitutes one of the primary themes of the poem.

Also lost is the repetition of nemlich, which highlights various images in the poem in the sense of “that is” or “for example.” But it literally means “namely,” and carries the suggestion of naming or reference, enhancing the sense that objects of experience are signs or names of a sort, meaningful in themselves, and our world is saturated with an intertextual significance.

The title of the poem refers to the Greek goddess of memory, mother of the Nine Muses who inspire and exemplify the great arts of music, history, tragic poetry, astronomy, and so forth. Mnemosyne was an important figure in the mystical traditions of Orpheus, in which she stood as a counterpart to Lethe, goddess of forgetfulness. In this esoteric sense, the memory exemplified by Mnemosyne is the act of bringing forth eternal truths.

This idea is closely related to Plato’s theory of anamnesis or recollection, discussed in his dialogs Meno and Phaedo. Plato argued that our knowledge of subjects such as math and metaphysics is a kind of remembering. The soul can relate the particular objects that it perceives to universal truths, and in so doing the soul makes contact with the timeless realm of abstract relationships from which it came.

The Orphic mystics believed that the soul’s condition in life is one of forgetting its divine origins. Through mystical practice or contemplation, it is possible to recollect and reconnect with the timeless realm.

Hölderlin represents the world in an Orphic light – as a flux made sensible by the mind’s power to relate objects of experience to ideas, memories, or stories. This process is symbolically depicted as the actions of the gods. Memory serves as an image of mystical union with an object out of reach, a vanished memory or lost age.

Perhaps he had the story of Orpheus and Euridyce in mind when he wrote “…mortals almost / Reach into the abyss. Thus it turns, the echo, / With them.” Orpheus, you may recall, pursued his dead love into the underworld, and tried to bring her back into the light of day. But when he reached the mouth of Hades, he turned around to look at her, and she vanished. Perhaps with memory, in a similar fashion, the sought-after object disappears in the dark underworld when we try to grasp it.

Depending on your perspective, Hölderlin’s immortals are metaphors for workings of the mind, or vice versa. The poem is filled with images of signs and reference, but the sign and its object stand in an ambiguous relationship. The poet wavers between two reference points; either the mind knows its object, or the mind and its object are one.

Which is primary – the myth of the flower, or the narcissus that I see? The history or the land? The word or the flesh? Is there a Greece without Achilles? Is the world brought forth by mind, as Buddha taught in The Sutra of the Ten Grounds? Are we ourselves ideas in the Universal Mind?

Now the poem.
Mnemosyne

We are a sign, meaningless
We are painless and have almost
Forgotten speech in exile.
But if there is strife in heaven over mankind
And the moon travels in force, so the sea
Will speak and the rivers must
Find their way. Undoubtedly, though,
There is one, who
Can bring forth change daily. He scarcely needs
The law. And it sounds the leaves and rings the oak trees
By the glaciers. As not everything is possible for
The heavenly ones. That is, mortals almost
Reach into the abyss. Thus it turns, the echo,
With them. Time is
Long, but the truth
Will come to pass.

But what of love? We see
Sunshine on the ground and burnished dust.
And deep with the forest shadow and it blooms
Smoke from the rooftops, in the old crowns
Of towers, peaceful – the signs of day are good, that is,
If an immortal wounds
The soul in answer.
For snow, the abundant,
like flowers, stands signified where
It may, glistening off the green
Alpine meadow, half
There, speaking of crosses, the
Law is the dead at one stage
Along the way, on higher paths
A wanderer moves in wrath,
Knowing from a distance with
The other one, but what is this?

At the fig tree my
Achilles died to me,
And Ajax lies
In the grottoes of the sea,
At the brooks bordering Skamander.
Following the fixed, constant tradition of
Salamis, Ajax died of the temple’s fury
in strange lands.
Yet Patroclus in the king’s armor. And
Many others also died. At Kithairon
Lay Eleutherae, the city of Mnemosyne. There, too, when
God’s mantel was cast off, the one like night then parted
Her locks. Celestials, that is, are
Unwilling, if one had not gathered
His soul together in healing, but he must; in the same way
Suffers the mourner.

Written by Mesocosm

June 6, 2012 at 2:19 pm

Ophelia

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The Melancholy Spring, Wilhelm Lachnit
photo (C) Barnaby Thieme

by Georg Heym, translated by Mesocosm

I

A nest of young water rats in her hair,
And ringed hands like fins
In the flood, so she pushes through the shadows
of the great forests that come to rest in water.

The last sun that stumbled into shadow
Sinks deep into the sanctuary of her brain.
Why did she die? Why does she drive,
so alone, in the waters that fern and leaf confound?

The wind stands in the deep reeds. It drives
The bats off like a hand.
With dark pinions, wet from water,
They stand like smoke in the dark waterway

Like clouds of night. A longer, wiser eel
Slips over her breast. A glowworm shines
From her brow. And a willow weeps
foliage on her silent agony.

II.

Grain. Seeds. And noon’s red sweat.
The field yellow wind sleeps quietly.
She comes, a bird who wants to sleep.
The swan’s wing covers her white.

The blue lids shadow gently down.
And by the scythes naked melodies
She dreams of a crimson kiss
The eternal dream in her eternal grave.

Gone, gone. Where the river bank roars
The sound of cities. Where the white river
is forced through dams. The reverberation is heard
With distant echoes. Where sounds below

Echo full of streets. Bells and chimes.
Screams of machines. Struggle. Where westward threatens
dull sunset in blind panes.
In which a crane with giant arms,

With black brow, a mighty tyrant
A juggernaut, so the black slaves kneel.
Burden heavy bridges, which draw above
like chains on the river, and hard spell.

Invisible she swims in the escort flood.
But where she drives past, the swarms of people pursue
With great wings of a dark grief,
Which cast shadows over both banks.

Gone, gone. As the darkness inaugurates
The westerly high summer day late,
Where in the dark green of the meadows stands
The distant evening’s delicate exhaustion.

The river carries them far away, the submerged,
Through some mourning port of winter.
Down from time. On through eternity,
which the horizon smokes like fire.

 
Georg Heym was an early Expressionist poet who spent much of his short life in Berlin. In 1912, he drowned in icy waters at the age of 24, while attempting to save a friend who had fallen through the ice.

Written by Mesocosm

May 27, 2012 at 7:55 pm

Heidelberg

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by Hölderlin, translated by Mesocosm

Heidelberg Castle

Long have I loved you – wanted, for my own delight,
  To call you mother, and to offer you an artless song,
    You, the loveliest town that I have seen
        in the fatherland.

As the bird of the wild flying over the summit
  Swings past the river where it glistens above you,
    So the bridges, light and strong,
       From which wagons and people resound.

As if sent by the gods, a spell on the bridge
  once held me where I went over,
    and the beautiful distances shone
      to me here, in the mountains,

And the child-river moves off the plain,
  Bittersweet, like a heart overcome
    by its own beauty, downfall-loving,
      casting itself into the flood of time.

To the fugitive, you gave wellsprings
  and cool shadows, and all the shores
    watched after him, and the scene
      Quivered from her image’s waves.

But hard in the valley hung the gigantic
  destiny-knowing castle, down to the ground
    Torn apart by the weather;
      Yet the eternal sun poured

Her rejuvenating light on the aging,
  Colossal image, and around the green,
    vital ivy, friendly forests
      rustled down over the castle.

Bushes were blooming down, to the edges where
  the serene valley leaned on the hills or held the bank
    Your friendly streets
      Rest below the fragrant gardens.
 
All images (c) Barnaby Thieme. Click any to enlarge.
 

Heidelberg Castle

Heidelberg

Written by Mesocosm

May 22, 2012 at 1:52 pm

Epigram for Poetry

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by Heiner Müller, translated by Mesocosm

Pegasus served the brave and honest of the poets of old
Carried them wingedly away over the terrestrial dust.
Today, busy with making the earth more palatable,
we need poets who are earthly and mechanized.
But our poets – what do they do? Drag out the old,
reliable horse from the stable, where he fed on charity.
Before the fragile one, they span the fast-driving
                                                                    tractor,
The lame horse behind the fast vehicle.
And it does not bother them, if he stumbles and breaks a
                                                                    bone
Spending old moans for new songs.

For J. K.
Dogs value lamp posts as much as birches.
Not so, the poet — he holds to birches alone.

To be permitted, it is allowed, one must only be capable, wrote one who was able.
Could the gods do nothing, because they could not?

 
Comments

I looked at this poem in particular because I’ve been reading Heidegger’s rather profound interpretation of Hölderlin’s hymns recently. Hölderlin perhaps represents the pinnacle of the German nostalgia for classical Greek culture, which he depicted in his poems as a distant realm of the absolute spirit, a place where gods walked the earth.

Hölderlin contrasted Greece with the materialistic and systematic character of his own culture, and interpreted Greece’s power to inspire the German imagination as the pull of the dialectical contrary or antithesis. In a sense, he believed, the spiritual vitality of Greece belonged more to the people of Germany, who, in making the journey outside of their home to the place where spirit made unveiled, encountered that realm in a way that the Greeks could not.

It is interesting to compare that view of of classical Greece with another great German poet, Heiner Müller, who worked a century and a half later. If Hölderlin’s Germany was animated by questions implied by the dialectical idealism of his close friend Hegel, then Müller’s DDR was structured by its antithesis, Marx’s dialectical materialism.

In Müller’s poem we have a much more ambivalent and tragic view of Germany’s use of classical Greece. Instead of the acme of immortality, the lyricism classical culture embodies is intensely fragile, and its message is perhaps no longer audible over the roar of the engines.

Müller’s own work is very much involved with reconceptualizing Europe’s relationship to its own heritage – please see my post on his masterpiece The Hamlet Machine for more on that subject.

Written by Mesocosm

May 18, 2012 at 10:13 am

I am, unquiet one.

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I’m preparing a translation of Rilke’s Das Buch vom Mönchischen Leben – here is “Ich bin, du Ängstlicher. Hörst du mich nicht”.

I am, unquiet one. Do you not hear me,
with all my senses hurtling toward you?
My feelings, which found wings,
whitely orbit your countenance.
Do you not see how near to you
my soul stands cloaked in silence?
Does my Maytime prayer not ripen
before your eyes, like a tree?

If you are the dreamer, then I am your dream.
But when you wish to keep watch, yes,
I am your will, and make all holiness great,
and ring myself around with a star’s silence
above the wondrous city of time.

 
Image (C) Barnaby Thieme.

Written by Mesocosm

February 8, 2012 at 9:09 am

As the hour bows down to touch me

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Cologne Cathedral

My translation of Rilke’s first poem from The Book of Monastic Life. The original may be found here.
 

As the hour bows down to touch me
with a clear, metallic toll,
shaken by my senses, I feel, I can —
and I grasp the malleable day.

Nothing was complete before I saw it;
a particular, fixed becoming.
My glances are ripe, and to each,
like a bride, comes that for which he longs.

Nothing is too small for me, I love it nonetheless,
and paint it great and against a golden field,
and hold it high, and I do not know from whom
the soul is set free…

Image: Cologne Cathedral, by Barnaby Thieme.

Written by Mesocosm

January 25, 2012 at 12:15 pm

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Mary’s Child

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This is my translation of “Marienkind”, a remarkable fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm. The original can be seen here. I took minor liberties with the translation in the service of readability.

Dürer's MadonnaBefore a great forest lived a woodcutter with his wife. They had but one child, a girl of three years. They were so poor that they had no more daily bread, and did not know what they could give their child to eat.

One morning, the woodcarver, full of cares, went to the forest to work. As he cut wood there appeared a tall and beautiful woman before him. She had a crown of shining stars on her head, and she said to him “I am the Virgin Mary, mother of the Christ Child. You are poor and needy. Bring me your child, and I will take her with me to be her mother and to care for her.”

The woodcutter obeyed. He took his child and gave her over to the Virgin Mary, who took the child with her up to Heaven. There all was well for the child; she ate sweet bread and drank sweet milk, and her clothes were of gold, and the angels were her playmates.

Now one day when she was fourteen years old, the Virgin Mary called to her and said “Beloved child, I am planning a great journey. Here, take the keys to the thirteen doors of the Kingdom of Heaven into your keeping. Twelve of them you may unlock and see the wonders therein, but the thirteenth, to which this little key belongs, this is forbidden. Beware that you do not unlock it, lest you find sorrow.” The maiden promised to be obedient.

Once the Virgin Mary was on her way, the child beheld the chambers of the Kingdom of Heaven. Each day she unlocked one door, until she had opened the twelve. Behind each door she saw an Apostle, and was enveloped by a glorious light, and she rejoiced in the splendor and holiness, and the angels who were her constant companions rejoiced with her too.

Now the forbidden door alone remained, and she felt a great yearning to know what should be hidden behind it. She said to the angels “Of course I do not want to open it, nor will I go within, but I will unlock it, so that we peer through the crack.”

“No,” said the angels, “that is no good. The Virgin Mary has forbidden it, and it can bring you only unhappiness.”

Then she fell silent, but the yearning in her heart did not fall silent, but gnawed and chewed and left her no peace. And when the angels had all gone up, she said  “Now I am alone and can look in, for no one shall know what I do.” She straightaway sought the key, and when she had it in her hand, she stuck it in the lock and turned it within.

Thus the door sprang open, and there she saw the Holy Trinity set in fire and glory. She lingered a brief moment and considered with amazement, and set her finger toward the radiant light, and her finger then became all golden. Immediately she felt a tremendous dread, violently slammed the door and and ran away.  But her fear would not yield and her heart pounded on and on, and would not be still. And the gold remained on her finger and would not come off, wash and rub as she would.

Not long after, the Virgin Mary came back from her journey. She called the maiden to her and demanded back from her the Keys of Heaven. When the lot had been given, she looked the young woman in the eye and said “Did you open the thirteenth door as well?”

“No,” she answered, and laid her hand on her heart and felt how it pounded and pounded, and noted well that it betrayed her transgression. Then the Virgin asked again “Are you certain you have not done this?”

“No,” the maiden said a second time.

Then the Virgin caught sight of her finger, that by contact with the heavenly fire had been made golden, and saw that she had sinned. She said a third time “Have you not done this?”

“No,” said the maiden a third time.

Then the Virgin said “You have not obeyed me and have lied as well, you are no longer worthy to be in Heaven.” The maiden sank into a deep sleep, and when she awoke, she lay below upon the earth in the midst of a wilderness. She wanted to call out, but she could bring forth no sound. She sprang up and wanted to run away, but whither she went dense brambles turned her back.

In the waste land in which she was ensnared stood a tall, old tree, that must serve as her dwelling place. When night came she crawled inside and slept within, and when it stormed and rained she found protection inside. But this was a miserable life, and when she thought upon how lovely it was in Heaven, and how the angels had played with her then, she would cry bitterly. Roots and wild berries were her only food, and she sought those as she could. In autumn she collected fallen nuts and leaves and put them in a hole. In winter the nuts were her food, and if it snowed, she crept like a poor little animal in the leaves so she wouldn’t freeze. Soon her clothes were in tatters and fell in pieces from her body. As soon as the sun shone warmly once more, she went out and sat before the tree, and her hair bedecked her on all sides like a mantle. Thus she sat one year after another, and felt the pain and misery of the world.

One day, when the trees stood fresh and green once more, the king of the land chased into the woods following a deer, and because it fled into the underbrush of the wild places, he rose from the horse and tore the bushes asunder, and cut himself a path with his sword. When he finally penetrated the thicket, he saw a wondrously beautiful maiden sitting beneath the tree, bedecked with her golden hair to the toes of her feet. He stood still and stared in amazement. Then he spoke to her, saying “Who are you? Why do you sit here in the waste land?” But she gave no answer, for she could not open her mouth.

The king said again “Will you go with me to my castle?” and she nodded her head a little. The king took her by the arm, set her on his horse and rode with her home, and when he came to the kingly castle, he put her in beautiful clothes and gave her everything in abundance. And if still she could not speak, yet she was beautiful and gracious and won his heart in love, and it was not long before he married her.

When about a year had passed, the queen brought a son into the world. And there in the night where she slept alone, the Virgin Mary appeared and spoke, “Will you confess and speak the truth, that you opened the forbidden door, that I should open your mouth and you again should speak? If you persist in sin and stubbornly deny it, I will take your newborn child with me.” The queen gave answer, but was obdurate and said “No, I did not open the forbidden door.” And the Virgin took the child in her arms away into Heaven. The next morning, when the child had disappeared, the people cried out loudly that the queen was an ogress and had devoured her own child. She heard all this and could say nothing against it, but the king would not believe it, for he loved her.

After a year the queen bore another son. In the night the Virgin Mary came again and said “Will you confess that you opened the forbidden door? Then I will return your child to you and set your tongue loose. But if you persist and remain in sin, I will take your newborn with me too.” Then the queen said “No, I did not open the forbidden door,” and the Virgin Mary took her child in her arms away into Heaven. The next morning, when it was learned the child had also disappeared, the people cried out loudly that the queen had devoured it, and the King’s councilors demanded that she should be examined. But the king would not believe it, for he loved her, and ordered the councilors on pain of life or life imprisonment to never speak of it again.

In the next year the queen bore a lovely daughter. The Virgin Mary came to her on the third night and said “Follow me.” She took her by the hand and led her to Heaven, and showed her then her oldest child, who laughed and played with the globe of the world. When the queen was joyous at the sight, the Virgin Mary asked “Is your heart not yet softened? When you confess that you opened the forbidden door, I will return your son to you.” But the queen answered a third time “No, I did not open the forbidden door.” Then the Virgin set her down once more to sink to the Earth, and took the third child.

The next morning when the rumor spread, all the people cried out “The queen is an ogre, she must be sentenced!” and the king could no longer reject his councilors. A trial was held, and because she could say nothing to defend herself, she was sentenced to die at the stake. The wood was gathered together, and when she was tied to the stake and the fire began to burn around her, the hard ice of pride melted and her heart was moved by remorse. She thought “If I could only confess before my death that I opened the door….” And so her voice returned, and she cried out loudly “Yes, Mary, I did it!”

And just then the heavens began to rain and erased the fires, and a light broke forth above her. Mary came down, with both little sons by her side, and the newborn daughter in her arms. She said kindly “When your sin it is confessed, it is forgiven,” and gave her the three children, and loosened her tongue, and gave her happiness for all her life.

Written by Mesocosm

August 19, 2011 at 9:05 pm

Posted in Translations

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