4.42. Paul Celan, poem ‘The Shofar Place’ (1969)

In the Six-Day War of June, 1967, already discussed in the preceding chapters on Shemer and Amichai, Israel conquered the Old City of Jerusalem. As a result, the direct neighborhood of the Temple Mount became accessible to archaeologists. In 1969, a team led by Benjamin Mazar found a piece of limestone measuring 1 x 2,5 meters near the southwest corner of the Mount. Judging from its form, it was a corner stone from the wall of the Temple Mount, which could have come down at the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. As Celan translator John Felstiner puts it, the finding excited interest “because it marked the Temple’s flourishing as well as its destruction.” *Felstiner, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew 272. The most interesting point was the Hebrew inscription l’veit ha-tekiʿah, “to the house of the tekiʿah” or, in other words, “to the place of the shofar blowing.” Most researchers interpreted the inscription as a signpost for the shofar blower, who had to announce the beginning and the end of sabbaths, rituals and festivals. The most important source for this assumption was the 1st-century historian Flavius Josephus, who in Book 4 of The Jewish War mentions the priest on one of the four towers on the Temple Mount, who

gave a signal beforehand, with a trumpet at the beginning of every seventh day, in the evening twilight, as also at the evening when that day was finished, as giving notice to the people when they were to leave off work, and when they were to go to work again. *Flavius Josephus, “The Jewish War” 836.

In October 1969, the Romanian, Paris-based poet Paul Celan (1920-1970) visited Israel for the first and the last time—he would drown himself in April 1970. He spoke to the writers’ union, read from his poems, gave a radio interview, got acquainted with the poet Yehuda Amichai and the philosopher Gershom Scholem, and met old friends and relatives from Bukovina, his birth region. Between him and his childhood friend Ilana Shmueli a love affair arose, that was crucial for the cycle of poems about Jerusalem he was to write, poems dominated by his Jewish identity, the city, and the beloved, without a strictly descriptive or autobiographical character. *The so-called “Jerusalem cycle” includes twenty poems of the posthumous collection Zeitgehöft (“Timestead”).

His poem Die Posaunenstelle (“The shofar place”) was inspired by the archaeological find of the stone, and thus the Present of the poem on the shofar was inspired by the Past of the ancient inscription l’veit ha-tekiʿah. Die Posaunenstelle was written on November 16, 1969, a month after Celan’s return to Paris, and Ilana Shmueli got to read it first, in a letter.

Die Posaunenstelle
tief im glühenden
in Fackelhöhe,
im Zeitloch:

hör dich ein
mit dem Mund.

*The translation by John Felstiner reads: “The shofar place / deep in the glowing / empty-text, / at torch height, / in the timehole: // hear deep in / with your mouth.” Reproduced by permission of Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin, W.W. Norton & Company, and John Felstiner. In his first translation of Celan’s poem (1995), Felstiner translated Die Posaunenstelle as “The trumpet place;” in Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan (2001): 360, however, he changed the first line to “The shofar place,” in order to avoid New Testament connotations. Felstiner, e-mail to the author, May 6, 2013. The hermetic character of this concise, almost haiku-like poem has led to many different interpretations and the literary critic Geoffrey Hartman goes so far as to say that “the interpretation industry has him [Celan] well in hand, yet no consensus exists about the meaning of his words.” *Hartman, The Longest Shadow: In the Aftermath of the Holocaust 161. Cf. Chapter 4.46 for a poem by Hartman. Celan himself wrote to a reader who had difficulty understanding his poems: “For the time being, don’t bother to understand, read and read again and again, immerse yourself in it, the understanding comes as a matter of course.” *“Bemühen Sie sich vorerst gar nicht um das Verstehen, lesen Sie und lesen Sie immer wieder, fühlen Sie sich ein, das Verständnis kommt von selbst.” Chalfen, “Paul Celan in Jerusalem.” In Celan and Shmueli, Briefwechsel 150. Quotation translated from the German by KvH. Many critics have of course ignored Celan’s first advice of not bothering to understand, following his second advice of reading again and again, and waiting for the fulfillment of his prediction that “the understanding comes as a matter of course.” The composer Luciano Berio, however, who set Die Posaunenstelle to music, followed Celan’s advice by immersing the hearer in overwhelming and complicated music, which does not explain any details, but instead reveals the numinous character of the poem. *Chapter 4.54.

Stanza 1 defines the chronotope of the poem: Die Posaunenstelle. The German word Stelle can be a place in a territory or a passage in a book, while the word Posaune—in almost all Jewish and Christian Bible translations—denotes the Hebrew shofar or Greek salpinx. Aside from the Hebrew preposition l’ (“to”), Celan’s first verse corresponds to the inscription on the stone from the Temple Mount, l’veit ha-tekiʿah, “to the place of the shofar blowing,” and thus the Present of the poem is directed by the Past of the Stelle on the stone as well as in Scripture.

The shofar blast, in combination with the glühenden / Leertext (“glowing / empty-text”) seems an allusion to God’s great shofar in Exod. 19:16 and particularly in Deut. 4:12: “The LORD spoke to you out of the fire; you heard the sound of words but perceived no shape—nothing but a voice.” The fire corresponds to glühenden (“glowing”) in the poem, and the qualification “the sound of words but . . . no shape—nothing but a voice” to Leertext (“empty-text”). [I]n Fackelhöhe, (“at torch height”) could pertain to the same biblical event of the theophany in Exod. 20:15, when after the giving of the Ten Commandments, “All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking[.]” The Hebrew ha-lapidim, “the lightning,” can also mean “the torches,” while kol ha-shofar, “the blare of the horn,” can also be translated as “the sound of the shofar.” The literary historians Stéphane Moses *“Patterns of Negativity in Paul Celan’s ‘The Trumpet Place’” 214 and John Felstiner correlate Moses’ ascent of Mount Sinai in Exod. 19:3, 19:20, and 20:18 and his descent in Exod. 19:14, 19:25, and 24:3, with the vertical dimension in Celan’s Die Posaunenstelle, and this dimension “finally does seat itself in time as well as space, thereby grounding the poem in originative events from Genesis and Exodus.” *Felstiner, “Translating Late Celan” 183. Another example of verticality connected to the shofar occurs in Celan’s poem Everything’s different: “a ram’s horn lifts you / —Tekiah!— / like a trumpet blast over nights into day[.]” Cf. Chapter 4.41.

Some critics, among whom John Felstiner *”Translating Late Celan” 179* and Charles Bambach, *Thinking the Poetic Measure of Justice 246 connect the structure of the poem with its seven lines to the chronotope of Jericho in Josh. 6, where seven priests bear seven shofars before the ark of the covenant. They march around the city of Jericho seven times, which eventually culminates in Josh. 6:20: “When the people heard the sound of the horns [kol ha-shofar], the people raised a mighty shout [teruʿah gedolah, a “mighty shout” or “blast”] and the wall collapsed.”

Given the mystic elements in many of Celan’s poems, *Cf. Idel, Old Worlds, New Mirrors: On Jewish Mysticism and Twentieth-century Thought 193-9 stanza 1 of Die Posaunenstelle could express the kabbalistic concept of ẓimẓum, the process whereby God contracts Himself temporarily, “so as to leave a kind of primordial space or nondivine vacuum within which creation can take place. . . . Yet even the space vacated by God during the act of tsimtsum is not devoid of the divine light.” *The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion 707. In that case, the Leertext (“empty text”) and Zeitloch (“timehole”) would concern this nondivine vacuum, while the glowing of the Leertext would express the remaining divine light.

The blank line after stanza 1 of Die Posaunenstelle could be a typographical representation of the “timehole” and the “empty-text,” while the colon at the end of stanza 1 could mean that stanza 2 is the conclusion from the first. As a result of its hermetic character, this poem has become the object of wildly divergent interpretations. Charles Bambach, for example, suggests two possibilities: first, the poem can be read as “a love poem with erotic references to ‘depth’-‘void’-‘hole’-‘mouth;’” *Thinking the Poetic Measure of Justice 246 second, it can be read as

an expression of an apocalyptic nihilism that hears in the trumpeting of the ram’s horn the signs of a hollow tradition that has been emptied of meaning, the abyssal time of a coming conflagration. . . . On this reading, we can think of the ‘empty text’ (Leertext, v. 3) as the Hebrew Book whose meaning has been voided in the ‘timehole’ that signals the caesura of historical time brought on by the ‘glowing’ (v. 2) fires of the Shoah. *Ibid. 246.

While the first erotic and the second apocalyptic interpretations exclude each other, the second interpretation is contradictory in itself, referring to conflagrations in the future as well as in the past. The “hollow tradition” might be the tradition emptied of meaning after the Shoah or after secularization; Bambach does not, however, explain the character of the coming “abyssal time.” While staying closer to the text, John Felstiner’s interpretation of stanza 2 seems more plausible as an imperative related to stanza 1; *Felstiner, Translating Late Celan 183. Cf. also Räsänen, Counter-figures 332. Felstiner points to the similarity in both rhythm and speech sounds between hör dich ein (“hear deep in”) and the shofar blast “te-ki-ah,” and moreover, to the meaning of the imperative Her dikh ayn in Yiddish, a language Celan was familiar with: “Attention please!” or “Listen!” Building on this interpretation, it would be possible to read the sentence “hör dich ein / mit dem Mund” as an even stronger authoritative discourse, related to the miẓvah of shofar hearing and blowing, which are considered each other’s complement.

A comparison of The Shofar Place with Someone Blew the Shofar *Chapter 4.26 by Nelly Sachs, a poem which also connects the shofar with the Temple Mount and has a no less concise form, reveals a chronotopic difference. Narrative time and narrated time vary greatly: whereas Sachs’ poem describes the extremely long time of two and a half millennia, Celan’s poem describes an extremely short time; whereas Sachs’ poem proceeds from period to period by a leap or by cyclical movement, Celan’s poem concentrates on the moment, indicated by the word “timehole;” and whereas the shofar and the Temple Mount in Sachs’ poem expand to cosmic dimensions, Celan’s “shofar place” contracts to a point like a black hole in the cosmos, or as astrophysicists put it, a breakdown in the geometrical structure of space and time. *Cf. for example Maudlin, Philosophy of Physics: Space and Time 141.


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