Allow me after what I have to say next to leave you, as a means to emphasize that Heidegger’s irreparable fault lies in his silence concerning the Final Solution. This silence, or his refusal, when confronted by Paul Celan, to ask forgiveness for the unforgivable, was a denial that plunged Celan into despair and made him ill, for Celan knew that the Shoah was the revelation of the essence of the West. And he recognized that it was necessary to preserve this memory in common, even if it entailed the loss of any sense of peace, in order to safeguard the possibility for relationship with the other.

“Thinking the Apocalypse: A Letter from Maurice Blanchot to Catherine David” by Maurice Blanchot, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 15, No. 2, Winter 1989, pp. 475-480.

This letter is originally dated from November 10, 1987. It was first published as “Penser l’apocalypse” in 1988, in a special edition of Le Nouvel Observateur (January 22-28, p. 79). The special issue documented the impact of Víctor Farías’s book Heidegger et le nazisme published a few months earlier, in october 1987. Blanchot’s letter appeared one year later in English, in a special issue of Critical Inquiry on “Heidegger and Nazism”, alongside texts by Gadamer, Habermas, Derrida, Lacoue-Labarthe and Lévinas (many of those texts were also first published in the same special edition of Le Nouvel Observateur).

Paul Celan (1920-1970) was a renowned German-language poet of Jewish origin. Both his parents died in an internment camp during World War II. Celan himself was imprisoned in a work camp until his liberation in 1944. Heidegger on the other hand had joined the Nazi Party in 1933. Celan had read Being and Time, and Heidegger was appreciative of Celan’s poetry. The two men met only once, over a period of two days. First in public, on July 24, 1967, when Celan delivered a lecture at the University of Freiburg, and in private on the next day when Celan visited Heidegger at his “hut”, in Todtnauberg. The exact content of what was said –and not said– during this private meeting remains unknown. The meeting itself, as well as a poem Celan subsequently wrote about it (“Todtnauberg” dated from August 1st, 1967) , were and still are subject to many discussions.

One of the most detailed account of the meeting is provided by James K. Lyon in his book Paul Celan & Martin Heidegger. An Unresolved Conversation, 1951-1970 (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2006; see especially Chapter 14).

Lyon makes no mention of Blanchot’s letter in his book, and writes of the meeting between Celan and Heidegger:

Only in the 1990s did bits of information begin to emerge that present a somewhat fuller picture of what happened. (2006: 164)

The details he has to offer confirm Blanchot’s brief account on several points. Celan most likely confronted Heidegger on the subject of his political past, but the aging thinker did not provide the poet with a satisfying answer (if he answered at all). An important aspect omitted from Blanchot’s account is the fact that Celan visited Heidegger while on a “leave of absence from confinement in a psychiatric clinic”, as James K. Lyon explains, and that he was to return to the clinic immediately after meeting with Heidegger (Ibid.: 160).

Regarding the effect the meeting had on Celan, James K. Lyon provides a more nuanced interpretation. He also offers an explanation for the predominance of the “failed encounter” version, of which Blanchot’s letter is an exemplary expression. Lyon’s suggests that in the immediate aftermath of the encounter, Celan was not particularly distressed:

There is not a shred of documented biographical evidence from their entire time together to suggest that Celan condemned Heidegger, felt hostility toward him, or was disappointed with him. In fact the opposite seems true. Later attempts to portray this as a failed encounter and an enormous disappointment for Celan are based on considerations that arose more than a week after the visit. […] Temporarily, at least, the meeting with Heidegger had had an undeniable salutary effect on his mental state, which no one could have predicted and which most critics afterward have ignored. (Ibid.: 169-170)

According to this reading, the famous poem “Todtnauberg” was actually composed while Celan was not in a state of mental distress. As Lyon argues, the change in Celan’s attitude came later when he got back to France:

This all changed dramatically within a short time after he arrived back at his psychiatric clinic in Paris. The demons that had tormented him before his departure now returned and drew him back into the world of mental illness from which he was desperately seeking to escape. Among other things, he now sought relief by exploring alternative treatment without medication. In the process the irreconcilable conflict he had struggled with for years —his attraction to Heidegger’s thought and his repulsion at the thinker’s activities in the Third Reich— not only resurfaced, but the tormenting ambivalence that marked much of his thinking in the last years of his life in general also radically altered his perception of what had happened in Freiburg and Todtnauberg. (Ibid.: 173-174).

• • •

It is difficult to read Blanchot’s comment regarding Heidegger’s “irreparable fault” without thinking of the French writer’s own controversial compromission with the extreme Right in the 1930s (which has been documented since the late 70s and early 80s). This compromission is also the subject of many heated discussions. As a short, but more tempered introduction to the issue, I would recommend Jean-Luc Nancy’s recent essay Maurice Blanchot, passion politique (Paris: Galilée, 2011). The short book also contains a letter by Maurice Blanchot –which he calls a “récit”– where he offers his own thoughts on the problem (that is on his own compromission, and on the silence he kept about it).

In 2011, Jean-Luc Nancy also participated to a “radio essay” where he explored the meeting between Paul Celan and Martin Heidegger:

Paul Celan visited Heidegger in 1967, in Todtnauberg, where the philosopher worked, in the Black Forest. The poem written from this meeting and which actually has the name of Todtnauberg, was interpreted in a lot of manners: Celan noted a deception, or something else? What did he want, he, the Jewish German, from the one who clearly would have to denounce the Nazi enterprise but from whom the text about poetry was a major reference for Celan? Jean Luc Nancy thought about this meeting. He’s not looking for conclusions. He leaves his mind free to think, free to answer, free to be lost maybe. It is not only a speech but also a voice of restless resonance. (Soundwalk Collective: “La Rencontre”).

The radio essay was first broadcast in French on France Culture, on July 17, 2011, as “La Rencontre”. It is possible to listen to the recording either on Virginie Luc’s website or on YouTube. The radio creation was later translated both in English (in 2013) and in German (in 2014). Those recordings can be accessed online as well. “The Encounter” is hosted at the Clocktower community website, while “Die Begegnung” can be found at the Deutschlandradio Kultur website.

Paul Celan in Paris, by Lufti Özkök, 1963. © Lufti Özkök.
Paul Celan in Paris, by Lufti Özkök, 1963. © Lufti Özkök.

• • •

Another poet, but a somehow different encounter: Milan Kundera’s comments on the friendship between René Char, member of the French Resistance during World War II, and Martin Heidegger.

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