A Meridian of Suffering and Solace
The correspondence of Nelly Sachs and Paul Celan
One can only beg and pray that
the pursued never become pursuers.
In the spring of 1970, a quarter of a century after the fall of the Third Reich and the opening of the extermination camps, Paul Celan and Nelly Sachs died as late victims of the Holocaust. It may seem ironic that the two most important German-language poets of the postwar era were among the assimilated Jews whose Jewish consciousness was first awoken by Nazism. On more careful consideration, however, it is logical that it was precisely the survivors among that people which was threatened by the final solution who should, out of a profoundly felt suffering, resurrect the misused language which was just as much their mother tongue as the Nazis’. Who could more legitimately cleanse the defiled language of the realm of death and destruction than the poets of the victims? (‘Black Pudding Language’, was the Yiddish poet Yankev Glatshteyn (Jacob Glatstein)’s graphic name for German).
“A poet doesn’t want to give up writing for anything in the world, not even when he’s a Jew and the language of his poems is German,” Celan wrote in a letter in 1948. His pen friend of many years, the Bohemian poet Franz Wurm, stressed that Celan sought “unburdened” words, and therefore used words from botany, geology, and glaciology.
In defiance of Theodor W. Adorno’s pronouncement of 1949 regarding the barbarity of writing poetry after Auschwitz (which Celan reacted to with blunt refutation — and which Adorno retracted in 1966), Hans Magnus Enzensberger wrote with great precision in 1959 that Nelly Sachs’s language contained something “redemptive”: “With her speech she gives us back, sentence by sentence, that which we were in danger of losing: language.” Her poetry, he added, is forgiving by nature, and speaks of the victims with an “enigmatic purity”. In her Droste Prize acceptance speech in 1960, Nelly Sachs redeployed, in this spirit, the belligerent word “conquest” in the civilising sense of “uniting force,” that of peace. Precisely the spirit of reconciliation in the work of Sachs was in Adenauer’s Germany sometimes met with open arms, as an easy shortcut via forgiving or forgetting that avoided facing up to the past. Her willingness to reconcile therefore met with criticism. The poet Peter Rühmkorf dismissed her poems as “gehobener Wiedergutmachungsfall”, a pretentious attempt at mending shards. Her late friend the painter Lenke Rothmann, who had experienced the most terrible deeds in a concentration camp, found Sachs’s idea of reconciliation repulsive. Presumably the idea was easier to entertain for someone who had not herself endured the physical hell of the camp.
In her exile in Stockholm, Sachs felt that she was constantly persecuted by Nazis, most seriously when Adolf Eichmann was tried in Jerusalem in 1961 and executed the following year: his avengers, she thought, might be after her. After a hospitalisation in 1963 Sachs had, according to her own notebooks, nearly five peaceful years, until Simon Wiesenthal’s visit to Stockholm in March 1968 provoked renewed feelings of persecution by suspicious sounds in her apartment. A harmless TV license inspector was made out to be a spy. The miraculous thing was that “As soon as someone visits me, even the woman next door these days, there is silence.” In other words it is doubtful whether Sachs really was pursued by forces outside of her own mind. It should be mentioned, however, that in Germany regrettable things did happen which Celan time and again had to endure, and as Ruth Dinesen accurately sums up, “The political spirit of reconciliation of the time was all too clearly accompanied by rising Neo-Nazism.”
According to Elias Canetti’s investigations, the ruler’s ultimate goal, and only certainty, is to become the last survivor. The vanquished dead are a crowd he can feed on. To survive in the cause of power is then to triumph over the dead who, when living, represent a constant threat. Hitler’s genocide created, however, a quite different kind of survivor, that of the enfeebled. In the irrational feelings of guilt which plagued those who escaped and the human skeletons who could still be brought back to life, survival turned — even for those who furnished the most penetratingly poetic answers to the barbarity — into a grim, posthumous victory for the executioners. “One lives, you see, in one’s language, I love my German — in spite of all evil,” Nelly Sachs said. Silence would have been the greater guilt. In a letter of November 1946, Sachs says of her poems Your Body in Smoke through the Air, which were to be published in Germany, “In this way they will now be allowed to speak, there, where the horrors began.” But the horrors persisted, of course, and were the perpetual backdrop.
Nelly Sachs rescued herself and her mother from Berlin as in a fairy tale, through the intercession of Prince Eugene (the dying Selma Lagerlöf’s much talked about efforts were in fact modest), in 1940, on the last civilian flight from Tempelhof. The monster had already moved into the wealthy family’s house, when they had to sublet an apartment to Paul Hoffmann, the later camp commander in Maidanek near Lublin. Had it not been for her mother, Sachs says a number of times, she would have stayed and undoubtedly perished. It came to feel presumptuous to have saved their lives in the face of the millions of the dead. The murdered masses became suffocating. Guilt ate at her to the last because she didn’t “have a grave in the air.” Instead the writing of poetry turned into epitaphs and a fragile defence against the pull of the abyss, the prayers of survival which in the long run couldn’t ward off the constant feeling of being pursued.
In the peaceful period, in 1965, after many years of feeling pursued and of hospitalisations in psychiatric hospitals, she noted:
And not being believed was hell. A long time passed before the proof came. But by then I was in the abyss. And all of this simply because I had written about the martyrdom of my people. All because of that. And because I hadn’t been gassed, the living death was made to drag on — for years.
The feeling of guilt at having escaped the collective, Israel’s, fate was heavy and prolonged, fertile ground for many torments with little basis in reality, but all the more power to spawn in the mind.
Guilt also plagued Paul Celan. The singer and reciter Eva-Lisa Lennartsson, who became Sachs’s confidante and companion, tells of a conversation with Paul Celan in Paris in 1960:
Paul said that his greatest guilt was a betrayal. He burst into tears. He said that one day the Nazis came to his house and seized him and his parents. This was in 1942. They were taken to a concentration camp. A barbed wire fence separated them. Then Paul puts his hand through the barbed wire and takes hold of his father’s hand. A guard sees it and bites Paul’s hand hard: ‘And I let go of father’s hand — can you imagine, I let go of his hand and ran!’
In tears, the forty-year-old Celan said that he had never recovered from his parents’ tragedy and his own negligence.
Everything points to this gripping image of helplessness and despair as being a figment of the imagination. For Celan was in fact never seized, and the work camps he was later commandeered to were not in Transnistria, to which his parents were deported. The story could be suspected of being a lie fishing for pity: it is rather more likely a case of poetic condensation of the guilt of the powerless. The episode isn’t mentioned in Israel Chalfen’s detailed biography of Celan’s childhood. Nor is John Felstiner, in his seminal dissertation, able to reconcile the story with the events, and concludes that it “embodies a significant trauma.”
Chalfen and Felstiner maintain that the young Paul Antschel couldn’t convince his parents to find a hiding place in order to avoid deportation, that his mother, in ignorance of what awaited them in the camps, is supposed to have said, “One can’t avoid one’s fate, many Jews already live in Transnistria.” From a nighttime hiding place at a friend’s, the 22-year-old Paul returned to a sealed up house, devoid of parents, and had to go underground. He later reported for voluntary labour and was thus protected. Sachs and Celan were both morally and juridically innocent, but felt guilty until their deaths.
Celan’s parents died in Transnistria as did the majority of Bukovina’s 150,000 Jews. “They didn’t use gas there. The prisoners lived in holes in the ground in the barren fields; without food and water, there were many who perished, and the rest were either shot or beaten to death,” Herta Müller writes regarding Celan’s parents in My Fatherland was an Apple Seed.
E.M. Cioran, who in his writings circles around the possibility of suicide, knew Celan in his early years in Paris when Celan was translating him into German. He writes that he wouldn’t have imagined Celan as suicidal, but that a later experience, on a rainy night in November, moved him deeply:
The street was empty, and I noticed that someone was walking towards us who was looking at the ground, gesticulating and talking to himself. It was Paul Celan. And when I saw him I got scared, frightened. I stopped and looked at him. He didn’t even see me. He didn’t see anyone, he was talking to himself. And it cut me to the quick because I realised that he wasn’t well. He was a man who was deeply scarred. He suffered far too much to be able to seek refuge in scepticism.
In his essay Paul Celan un zayne goyrl brider (Paul Celan and his Brothers in Fate), 1994, the Yiddish poet Chava Rosenfarb (1923-2011) who survived the ghetto in Łódź as well as Auschwitz, addresses the suicides of poets who survived the Holocaust, and finds a common denominator — that they wrote in a non-Jewish language. They lacked, she asserts, “the inner immunity which could have helped them live on and bear the existential illness of the survivor which can never be cured.” (quoted after Jan Schwarz). Those who wrote in Yiddish — a possibility which was not available to either Celan or Primo Levi — were heroes among their own people, while Celan was isolated and “at the mercy of his own inner demons.” The thesis seems to be supported by the fact that had Celan written in Yiddish, his poems would not have been met with the exhausting scepticism and aversion which certain German critics exerted.
Celan was hospitalised in psychiatric clinics several times in the mid-60s, and complained of increasing difficulties in facing up to life. In November 1969 he wrote to a friend, “I can’t stand the city of Paris any longer — to say nothing of this world and this age.” Paris, to which Celan had come in 1948, “mainly because of that book” [The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge], where he worked and married, remained foreign to him as it was to Malte, who experienced it as a city of death. Rilke’s novel was among Celan’s early, profound influences and, as late as in his Büchner Prize acceptance speech, he used Rilke’s word ‘existence-sketches’ about his own poems.
Around the 20th April 1970, Paul Celan is thought to have thrown himself into the Seine from the Pont Mirabeau, barely 50 years old. A month beforehand in Colmar, at the sight of the Isenheim Altarpiece’s wounded, green Christ he had exclaimed, quoting from Bach’s cantata, “Es ist genug!” Point Mirabeau was close to Celan’s home at the time, and features in the poem “Und mit dem Buch aus Tarussa” in Niemandsrose, 1963: “From the bridge’s / ashlars, from which / he stumbled over / into life, fledged / by scars, - from / Pont Mirabeau.” The poem is in dialogue with the similarly exiled Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, who committed suicide, while Ovid’s city of exile on the Black Sea coast, Ponto, should possibly be read into the poem (according to Garloff). Brigitta Eisenreich, Celan’s lover throughout the 1950s, reads the place as a portent of his own suicide. Celan, who translated Apollinaire, also knew his poem about the bridge, “Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine,” which is rhymed with “La joie venait toujours après la peine,” joy always came after pain. Celan scarcely believed in happiness in an afterlife, but desired cessation of pain. He felt that psychiatry had only made his life worse.
An interpretive posterity’s accumulation of meaning can easily become over-interpretation. Nobody can with certainty know whether Celan, with great poetic assurance, chose Pont Mirabeau as his life’s last, knotty connotation of a poem, or whether he in his despair simply made use of the nearest bridge. That the confluence occurs is partly due to Celan interconnecting disparate meanings in his poetry with a kind of philological, semantic magnetism, partly that the paranoid mind avidly attracts signs to itself without discrimination or reason.
While poetry opens and expands towards ambiguous enigmas, a paranoid reading of everything as ominous signs always closes around one and the same answer. Nelly Sachs suffered from this mode of thought. On the 25th July 1960 she wrote to Celan:
A Nazi spiritist league is hunting me in such a terribly refined way with a radiotelegraph, they know everything about my movements. Tried with nerve gas when I was travelling. Have already secretly been in my house for years, listen through the walls using microphones.
On the day of Celan’s interment, the 12th May, Nelly Sachs died in a hospital in Stockholm. Naturally there is no causal relation between the the poets’ proximity in death, but it accentuates their proximity in life and poetry caused by history, and their common striving to go beyond “the dust.” Nelly Sachs was 78 years old and ill with cancer, debilitated by decades of anxiety and despair, and had long and often wished for deliverance from “the black net.”
History brought them together in a common fate, made them siblings in and of survival. History dragged them out of their respective families’ assimilation that suspected no evil and towards Jewish mysticism. History forced them away from their homelands and linguistic communities and came to determine their mature poetry from the 40s onwards. It seems unavoidable that these two voices with their “wounded words” (Edmond Jabès) should converse across ashes and abysses. Hermann Lenz observed of Celan, with an image that captures the unreality and fragility of survival, “He moved like someone who doesn’t trust the ground beneath his feet.”
Nelly Sachs’s last, short letter to Celan runs, “Paul Dear You, many happy wishes. All Your poems are with me in the time of suffering. Your Nelly.” There was a solace in the presence of Celan’s poems and a union on death’s doorstep. That he would go into the night before her, she couldn’t know. When on her deathbed, a good three months after this letter, she was told of Celan’s “Freitod”, she looked for a moment “almost quizzically at me”, the friend who told her remembers, “and uttered some fragmentary sentences about ‘going on ahead’ and ‘that he, before me’. Then this little run-up to horror passed, and her face became smooth and almost satisfied. It looked as though she found comfort in the thought that she would soon meet acquaintances on ‘the other side’.” Celan had in his youth written poems in Rumanian, but chose his mother’s language. Nelly Sachs did not have another language to seek refuge in and, in a language that isn’t a mother tongue, one is in any case forever foreign. Language was their home. Dispassionately, luminously, Celan portrayed his situation when he in 1958 accepted the city of Bremen’s literature prize:
In the midst of all the loss, this one thing was within reach, close and not lost: language. This, language, was and remained not lost, in spite of everything in fact, but now it had to go through its own lack of answers, go through terrible silencing, go through the thousand darknesses of death-bearing words. It went through and didn’t produce any words for what had happened: but it went through what had happened. It went through and could once more step into the light of day, enriched by all of this. In this language I tried, in those years and the subsequent years, to write poems: in order to speak, to orient myself, to find out where I found myself, to sketch reality for myself. This was, as you see, incident, movement, being on my way, it was the attempt to find a direction.
Also in 1958, Celan wrote in a bookseller’s almanac about German poetry that with “the most horrible things in its memory, and doubtfulness everywhere around it, it can no longer speak the language which an open ear would itself seem to expect. Its language has become more dispassionate, more objective, it distrusts ‘beauty’, it tries to be truthful. It is therefore (…) a greyer language, a language whose ‘musicality’ no longer has anything in common with that ‘euphony’ which more or less nonchalantly still danced melodiously along to the most horrific things.” (quoted after Felstiner).
With time, Celan himself rejected the euphony in the popular poem ‘Fugue of Death’ and refused to read it.
Sachs’s letters to Celan were not accessible on the publication of Briefe der Nelly Sachs. In a way this was fortunate, for Briefwechsel Paul Celan / Nelly Sachs makes available an almost complete correspondence with a meticulous commentary. The first contact was made by Celan, who in 1954 had his publisher send the collection of poems Mohn und Gedächtnis to Sachs. A first and possibly a second letter from him are thought to have been lost, and the first letter in the correspondence is therefore Sachs’s thank you, which immediately takes on the form of an embrace of the fellow sufferer she later calls “brother.”: “Also I must walk this inner path which precedes from ‘here’ after my people’s unprecedented suffering, and which gropes its way out of the pain.” She was born Jewish, but she had to learn her people’s faith and traditions at a mature age. Ruth Dinesen writes:
The Nazi rulers demanded of Germans of Jewish descent that they wipe the common German history from their memories and replace it with an alien one. They had to adopt a Jewish identity. This didn’t go exactly as the rulers wished. (…) The group of wealthy Jews to which Nelly Sachs’s family belonged were completely assimilated (…) and Nelly Sachs herself repeatedly distanced herself from Zionism, even in its early stages.
With passion and thin-skinned empathy she took Israel’s fate upon herself, “suffered through” it. The fairy tales she published in Berlin in her youth, their aestheticising innocence, stand in stark contrast to the late, true poetry which is entirely devoted to the sufferings of the Jews. Similarly, Celan was forced into the arms of Jewish mysticism and avidly studied the texts of Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem.
After a break in the correspondence, lasting two and half years, Celan asked Sachs in December 1957 for unpublished poems for the multilingual Italian journal Botteghe Oscure. He was later of the opinion that she wasn’t grateful to him for having made her well-known in the wider world. But in the first instance, the invitation heated up the correspondence — in 1958-59 it became substantial, culminating in 1960-61 before taking on a more sporadic and in part different character. Celan mentions that he has difficulty writing letters, and a note written to his wife Gisèle on 14 February 1961, which is quoted by Helmut Böttiger, establishes that Sachs was implicated in the suspicions on the most tenuous basis. Sachs seems to have been both more conscientious and more expansive, her need for epistolary contact clearly greater. After her mother’s death in 1950 she lived alone in her small apartment and felt lonely. She had lost the great love of her youth, a German who fought against the Nazis, who was arrested and executed in 1943. She never forgot this love and never again entered into a relationship, instead giving her love to her friends. She therefore saw the concept of the family in a exalted light; she calls Celan’s “the holy family.” When she, in letter no. 3, wished to express great joy at Celan’s empathy for her poetry, she writes “So habe ich Heimat”: in this way, I at least have a home.
That home, that homeland which history had stolen from her, she furnishes in her poetry. The two homeless poets meet in a geography of the mind: “The meridian of suffering and solace runs between Paris and Stockholm,” she writes in letter no. 19 from 1959. Celan quotes the image in an unsent letter of May 1960, in which he speaks of the suffering part because he feels constantly attacked with infamies — a word which specifically refers to Claire Goll and her longstanding accusations of plagiarism. Gisèle called Goll “l’infâme” in a letter of 1952, and he uses the same phrase in a letter of March 1954. The meridian was included in his reflections on poetry on the occasion of his acceptance speech at the Büchner Prize in October 1960. The feeling of persecution was permanent. In a letter to Gisèle in 1962, Celan called himself a “condemned poet” - poète maudit: “double, triple ‘Jew’.”
Suffering and solace are the essence of the correspondence. There is almost only happiness, joy, ease in connection with the planning of their only meeting, which took place in May-June 1960. Correspondingly, the language is often strongly charged and high-flown. They speak of difficult experiences and of their poetry striving beyond the dust, as in this credo from Sachs in a letter of May 1958:
With each breath is found, was found, and exists in me the belief in ‘suffering through’, in the total animation of the dust as an act we have accepted. I believe in an invisible universe in which we plot our obscure achievements. I feel the energy of the light that makes the stone break into music, and I suffer under the arrowhead of longing which, right from the beginning, strikes us and pushes us outside to seek where uncertainty begins to rush. From my own people, hasidic mysticism came to my aid which, in close connection with all mysticism, must make its home far from all dogmas and institutions, always with new birth pangs.
Celan’s answer could hardly have been more emphatic:
Dear by my heart honoured Nelly Sachs! When your letter arrived the day before yesterday, I would have preferred to have caught the train and come to Stockholm to tell you — with which words, what silence? — that you must not think that words such as yours could remain unheard.
Four and a half months now passed without a letter from Celan. Sachs sent poems that “quite suddenly sprang up like a bloodstream” and spoke of great unrest. Celan answered enigmatically, as though from within a crisis:
All the unanswered questions in these dark days. This ghost-like, even more silent No-more and Never-again, and between them the unpredictable, already tomorrow, already today.
In the light of later letters it is clear that Celan is here referring to the threat of antisemitism and other forms of persecution. Hereafter, he was silent for almost a year and a half while there are seven letters from Sachs. When he writes again, on 26th October 1959, he is incensed. The German critic Günter Blöcker had said, in his review of Sprachgitter, that Celan’s “greater freedom with the German language” was due to “his origins” — which Celan had immediately, with his sensibilities, read as antisemitism: “Oh, you have no idea how things look in Germany again.”
Blöcker’s text came to cast long shadows across Celan’s life. Peter Hamm, who as a young poet was Sachs’s ‘protege’ and furthermore a friend of both Celan and Blöcker, refutes in his review of the correspondence in Die Zeit that Celan’s suspicions were well-founded. For Celan, however, the remark had noticeable consequences. It could innocently have referred to the poet’s upbringing in multilingual Bukovina, far removed from Standard German. This interpretation is supported by Blöcker’s next sentence: “The communicative character of the language inhibits and burdens him less than others.” But Blöcker’s aim seems to have been another, to reduce the poems ‘Fugue of Death’ and ‘Stretto’ to “contrapuntal exercises on music paper”, just as he claims that Celan’s metaphors have no basis in reality and that he is “often seduced to operate in a vacuum.” Celan has often been suspected of unreasonable oversensitivity, for seeing ghosts in broad daylight. Blöcker’s observations and disapproval of the young poet’s technique and use of metaphors must be understood in their historical context. Celan wasn’t in doubt, he could only read the reservations as belittling and deriding the sufferings of his people, as yet another German executioner’s deed, though by more subtle means. His sense of being a victim found new sustenance, and the equation of ‘Fugue of Death’ with “a vacuum” had to be labelled a type of Holocaust denial.
While Celan thus had frequent cause to despair at insidious antisemitic sentiments in postwar Germany, he contacted Martin Heidegger, who was burdened with Nazi accusations, and visited him in Todtnauberg in 1967 following intensive reading of his writings: “I hoped I could convince Heidegger. (…) I wanted to forgive. I wanted him to find the words for my compassion. But he maintained his standpoints,” reports the Belgian poet Jean Daive, who often wandered and talked with Celan in Paris.
“You want to be the victim,” Ingeborg Bachmann wrote in an unsent letter of 1961, and had Celan read her words he would have been mortally wounded, as in an ambush. Barbara Wiedemann has, in an incisive essay, analysed Bachmann’s letter, clearly written in a state of affect, and its accusation of victimhood, which is paradigmatic of the supposition that the Jews were willing victims. According to this supposition, Celan would be a perverted, self-pitying descendent of the real victims. Bachmann thinks that Celan ought to pull himself together and ignore the unpleasantness. She underlines how she herself has received severe criticism for her poetry but has had the strength to believe in herself and reject it. Wiedemann establishes that Bachmann fatally fails to differentiate between those who were perpetrators (Bachmann’s father was a Nazi) and those against whom the perpetrators exercised violence, and that in contrast to Celan’s case, Bachmann’s empirical veracity was not being cast into doubt.
In February 1960 Celan again took up the daily malice in a letter to Sachs: “What still awaits we Jews?” and “You have no idea how many are among the beastly.” “Shall I name names for you? You would recoil. Among them are people you know, know well.” In May, to make matters worse, Claire Goll made renewed accusations against Celan of plagiarising the poems of her deceased husband the Alsacian poet Yvan Goll, which Celan had in his younger days translated from French to German. In this matter — extensive documentation has been published — Celan had, if he hadn’t before, good reason to feel persecuted. Nelly Sachs comforted him and said, “You are here, alive, Paul Celan, the unadulterated human being! Therefore the world cannot be entirely dark.” The whole period of Goll’s accusations made an already thin-skinned Celan paranoid. Eisenreich writes that in his mistrust, Celan saw “connections and breaches of allegiance which didn’t exist”, that his alleged loneliness was more imaginary than real. She mentions that Nelly Sachs also became the object of his bitter complaints, “as though she too were more one of the persecutors than the persecuted.” Celan came to doubt, as had others, the basis for Sachs’s martyrdom.
Following the despair over the actual or imagined expressions of antisemitism and vileness, light and the joy of expectation enter the letters when Nelly Sachs for the first time since her flight in 1940 left Sweden and stepped onto German soil in Meersburg on Lake Constance, where she was to receive a prize. Accompanied by Eva-Lisa Lennartsson, she was to fly to Zürich and hoped to convince Celan to meet there. But Nelly Sachs was already on German soil during a stopover at Düsseldorf. The 69-year-old ran from the plane to the terminal, scared out of her wits.
The poets’ meeting did in fact take place in May. Celan, Gisèle Lestrange, and Ingeborg Bachmann were waiting in Zürich airport and, after the prize ceremony, Bachmann, with her highly impaired vision and famously bad driving, took Sachs and Lennartsson back to Zürich. At a grand dinner in the evening, Bachmann’s then partner, Max Frisch, was also present. After a visit to Tessin to see her benefactor and admirer Alfred Andersch, Sachs flew on to Paris to repay the visit to the Celans.
In advance of the successful, intense meeting however, Celan had sent a letter which apparently hadn’t reached Sachs before her departure, in which he urgently told her that he had six or seven weeks earlier “found” her in the poem “Chor der Waisen” (The Orphans’ Choir) with its “Oh world / We accuse you!” He quotes the poem, and the letter ends there, unsigned. The sudden silence is a form of annihilation. Immediately on her return from Paris, Nelly Sachs wrote: “And I did everything as you wished Paul — I destroyed the letter with my eyes closed, in the dark radiation of pain.” Among Celan’s papers, an unsent letter has been found which sheds light on what was destroyed: Celan had implicated Andersch in the infamy.
During the visit, Celan insistently urged Sachs to see that those who celebrated her had a Nazi past, and by praising a Jewish poet wanted to create alibis for themselves. Not until the evening before the journey home did Lennartsson manage to meet Celan alone (as per the story about the parents’ deportation) and ask him to stop such slurs, which made Nelly afraid and endangered her mental composure. Celan despaired and understood that his own nerves had blinded and obsessed him, that an obsessive thought never lets its victim break the grinding circle. At their parting in Orly, he tried to convince Nelly Sachs, without much success, that his morbid suspicion had conjured up mental ghosts. “His eyes shone with a despairing hope and an eagerness to give back to Li [Nelly] her trust.” It is reasonable to conclude that Celan, following Lennartsson’s appeal, had demanded that Nelly Sachs destroy the sent, perilous letter.
A few months later, in August, Sachs had to be hospitalised, again with feelings of persecution. At the beginning of September Celan travelled along the meridian to Stockholm, but had to return with his mission unaccomplished — Nelly Sachs refused to let him in. Ruth Dinesen sees the refusal as Sachs wanting to spare Celan her anxiety, just as he in May, but too late, had wanted to spare her. Celan’s letters now changed character. He speaks of his son Eric, about daily life, visits to Brittany. He entreats, “You’re feeling better — I know it.” The reminder in Paris had been heard.
Their correspondence gradually lost its intensity without ever coming to an end. Nelly Sachs began to send poems more often, as epistolary salutations. 1967 is a lean year, three letters: a stilted greeting from Celan in January, nine months later a letter from Sachs following a heart attack and a lengthy hospitalisation, “Those days with you two that time were the last bright ones, thereafter three years of darkness.” Finally a birthday greeting from Celan in September.
This is a point in the correspondence where the unspoken says most: not a word does Celan write about his serious breakdown, no doubt once again to spare Nelly. Olof Lagercrantz once told me in a letter about one of his life’s most rewarding conversations:
An evening in December 1967 I was sitting with Birgitta and Ulf Trotzig at the Dôme in Paris, and the conversation turned to Celan. Suddenly he was standing there in front of us. It almost frightened us, and we remembered that he had recently been hospitalised in a mental institution. He sat down with us and we spoke for several hours under the influence of wine. Among other things of Nelly Sachs and the fate of the Jews.
Indirectly, however, Celan signalled a caesura in his life in that he asked Sachs to begin addressing her letters to 45, rue d’Ulm, École Normale Supérieure, his place of work. Due to his psychological state he had left his family’s home, but didn’t let Nelly know the truth. Her “holy family” could endure.
The Swedish historian of ideas Karin Johannisson has addressed Nelly Sachs in a study of the psychological fates of three female artists, Den sårade divan (The Wounded Diva) and published substantial excerpts from her journals. A list of the persecutions includes: radiation, electrical apparatus and electrical charging of doorways, voices, recording and filming, Nazi and spiritualist gangs, black cats, spying neighbours.
Sachs was plagued by a fragile mind long before Hitler’s persecution of the Jews and other vulnerable groups. The unanimous diagnosis is paranoia. But her language didn’t collapse, and with light medication she conscientiously and grandly wrote her way to a Nobel Prize, while hospitalised in an almost private single room at Beckomberga, which became a retreat for her: “to think that — incredible — I have found my salvation — love and peace — in a hospital for the insane,” she wrote as early as 1962. Like Robert Walser she found her most lasting comfort behind the walls of the asylum.
The hospital became Sachs’s refuge from the manifold feelings of persecution, of which several can’t immediately be dismissed as ‘crazy.’ Lennartsson testifies that most often there was a grain of truth in the phenomena that pushed Nelly Sachs over the edge. Paranoid thoughts exist in many degrees from that which we experience as normal to that which we label as insane. Johannisson lists three possible versions of Sachs’s condition. The first is clinical illness, including age-related dementia. The more likely analysis seems to be that she sought a “sufferer’s identity” with the help of highly-strung empathy with “the Jewish drama”: “Unconsciously she tried to produce evidence — also psychological — that she belonged to the persecuted. Paul Celan also perceived, as mentioned, this empathy as excessive and pretentious.” The empathy seems to culminate in a statement quoted by Celan, which according to him was also heard by others: “Those in Auschwitz didn’t suffer what I suffer.” Sachs’s almost blasphemous thought was expressed in a letter of June 1962: “I have thought — the gas chambers lasted for about 20 minutes — but this for so many years.” Celan asks himself in a sketch for a poem, an encrypted confrontation with hibernating antisemitic opinions, from January 1965 (Correspondence no. 212): “Who and what / drove Nelly Sachs into madness? / Who / taught her / betrayal and presumption?” Sachs is exempted of accusation.
Johannisson’s third explanation considers the possibility that self-suggestion brought about psychosis-like conditions which could be exploited poetically. “Suffering became both a role, an identity, and a method.” There is no contradiction between the three explanations.
In April 1962 Nelly Sachs saw her existence dispassionately: “With this interminable suffering, which no longer lets me live a dignified life, I serve no one — cannot help anyone — save anyone … I feel like I’m caught in a trap.” These words seem to approach a frightening insight: that her ‘suffering through’ is the vicarious drama of someone who is herself wounded by sufferings of those murdered in the camps. Though it may be existentially so, it does not deprive the poems of their power.
Copyright © Karsten Sand Iversen and the translator.