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.

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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

Posted in Translations

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