'Making' sense with Celan - Guest post

Thanks to contributor Dirk Van Nouhuys for this stimulating and persuasive view of Celan, of meaning, and of language.

Paul Celan
One of the things Noam Chomsky did to revolutionize linguistics was to point out that you could make sentences that were grammatically correct but did not make sense. His observation freed linguists to devote their attention to grammar without worrying about meaning, as they had tended to do.  An example he used is this sentence: “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.”
 It seems to me that when Chomsky asserts this he is using ‘make’ in a narrow sense. The phrase “make sense” for him means something like ‘to harmonize rationally with the speaker’s notion of the world.’ But ‘make’ can also mean create, and ‘make sense’ can mean create meaning. 

I once had a teacher, Yosel Rogat, who suggested that any metaphor, as opposed to a simile, behind the scenes evokes a universe in which the metaphor is literally true. If you say, “life is like a nightmare,” you point to certain resemblances that you might be able to list. “If you say, “life is a nightmare”, you evoke a universe of darkness and suffering where sordid details struggle for realization.

So it is with Chomsky’s sentence. If you speak it from the narrow, Chomskian perspective, then you say nothing about ideas or about sleep or about fury. But if you take ‘make’ in the sense of create, you have a resonant image of ideas, some reified (because they might have color), but without color and at once somnambulant and raging. And it does seem relevant to me that Chomsky is himself a furious wielder of abstract ideas intended to rouse others from complacency time after time.

And so it is with Paul Celan. His poems for the most part do not make sense in the narrow Chomskian definition. But they make a great deal of sense by creating meaning. Of course I’m reading in translation, but I doubt knowing German would make any difference. In fact I think the German inclination to create new words by joining old ones freely lends it self to this sort of sense making. You can put two words together in a way that does not harmonize rationally with the world, as you know it, but does create a new sense, a new batch of meaning. 

This generation of meaning is one thing that makes Celan so exhilarating to read, and, in his context so moving. You re constantly involved in making sense. Reading this book is a long struggle in which you time after time are forced to make (create) sense based on the chimeric materials Celan provides you. Nourishing your mind in the background as you work is Celan’s tortured history, his upbringing as a German-speaking Jew in what had been part of Austria, was then Romania and is now the Ukraine; the death of his mother in a concentration camp; his tormented attempts to recreate his nationality and his identity; his deep involvement with the German language though he was a Jew suffering horrors enacted by Germans; his career in France, his eventual suicide. It is the history of a chimeric identity, and the poems are chimeric. That the evocation is mostly of tragedy and suffering does not make it less wonderful because it shows the capacity of the human mind to work with such dark material and come out richer in meaning.

Dirk van Nouhuys
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Berkeley CA, 94707