Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Feng Dong reviews Thresholds, Encounters

Thresholds, Encounters: Paul Celan and the Claim of Philology. Ed. Kristina Mendicino and Dominik Zechner. Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 2023. 324 pp.

Review by Feng Dong

30 November 2023

Paul Celan’s poetry has attracted generations of readers and critics to reflect extensively on the text itself. His writing becomes troublingly elliptic and enigmatic after Atemwende (Breathturn, 1967), and so compels us all the more to think for and with him, to address oneself to him in various ways, and to thank him for this painful gift that is poetry—Jacques Derrida’s Schibboleth: Pour Paul Celan (1986) opens this “for” path. Reading Celan, we encounter poetic wounds that shame a critic’s calm gaze. Hence the averted gaze at the “proto and para,” the “‘pre-language of every language’” or “‘Vor-Sprache jeder Sprache,’” as Werner Hamacher puts regarding the inner distance of Celan’s poetic idioms and its pressure on the reading consciousness (pp. 236, 238).   

For Hamacher, the mentor of this volume of Celan studies, “Poetry is prima philologia.”[1] As it happens, the philologist seeks a relation to an unknown language, which poetic words such as Celan’s have shimmeringly revealed; rather than exhausting the poetic by formal hermeneutic procedures, the philologist maintains “a relation to a pending word and to a pending and perhaps impossible answer.”[2] The contributors of this book have paid particular attention to this unresolved “threshold-language that is the work of Paul Celan” (p. 5). Examining the phonetic patterns in Celan’s “Engführung,” Simone Stirner, for example, notices how a combination of k and a sounds as in “‘Kam, kam. / Kam ein Wort, kam, / kam durch die Nacht,’” Celan forces readers to “endure a tightening and restriction of breath” that transfers the experience of “toxic, lethal air” in the death camps to the present time (p. 47). Michael Auer and Naomi Waltham-Smith follow up on this sonic aspect in Celan that does not turn into music. Auer observes that Celan in Die Niemandsrose (No One’s Rose, 1963) excessively employs allophones, that is, repetition of sounds with variance, as in “Worten,” “weigern,” “Weiten,” and “Engen,” which brings his sonic figures toward “a dimension that, strictly speaking, always remains outside the text” since his “phonation of breath structurally escapes semantics and phonology” (pp. 118, 113, 121). This is how Celan compulsively ruins the German folk song tradition. In a transversal reading following Auer’s, Waltham-Smith detects echoes of Celan’s “Cello-Einsatz” in Hélène Cixous’s prose work Jours de l’an (1990) by focusing on the latter’s deconstructing of the word “chancelante” into chance and celante, which can be heard as a participle equivalent to Celaned or “‘Celaning’” (pp. 134, 137). Discovering the “Celan” hiding in “chancelante,” Cixous articulates all the risks of life and death ciphered in a proper name.

Other chapters in this book are marked by the same meticulousness, a rare devotion to poetic words so as to receive, almost impossibly, their full impact; meanwhile, the words or signs themselves are interpreted to shreds, “die Zeichen zuschanden- / gedeutet,” as Celan says.[3] Pulling apart the linguistic components of Celan’s lines, critics render visible the “individual signifying threads and the spaces between them,” remarks Michael Levine in his Derridean reading of the poem “Sprich auch du” (p. 28). Criticism thus seeks to speak and even become the infinite ripples caused by the word-stone. Although the book generally follows a philological approach, readers should keep in mind that thanks to Hamacher, philology is radicalized into a questioning of the otherness of language (and how otherness is constituted by language); philology has gone beyond any well-defined procedure and branches into many paths of association, divination, and speculation. Philological reading as such aims to excavate the place of Mitsprechen—or co-speaking—in the poem, where “the Other is instead carried by, carried within the host body of the speaking subject, carried by it without belonging to it,” and it is never genuinely distinct from a philosophical reading (p. 29). In “With—Paul Celan,” for instance, Pasqual Solass weaves together various meanings of mit, as in Miteinander (with one another), Mitwort (co-word), Mitklingen (resonance), and Mitlaut (consonant), arguing that Celan’s with-ness introduces an “unsublatable relation” that “opens the possibility of an encounter with that which remains counter to one, a counterpart” (p. 187). Sarah Stoll, in the following essay titled “Occupiability,” reads these counterparts, the positions of I and you, as open and occupiable sites. Yet she heeds the psychoanalytic connotation of Celan’s unbesetzbar as “uncathectable,” which refers to ideas or representations no longer reachable by consciousness (p. 210).

If Celan’s poetry has made the thresholds of thinking visible, it also makes the thresholds of being visible. In her comparative reading of Parmenides’s cosmic verse with Celan’s “With a Changing Key,” Kristina Mendicino elaborates how the “‘gates of the ways of night and day’” in Parmenides’s cosmology are reduced by Celan to “the house” of drifting snow of what is silenced (pp. 158, 164). Mendicino notes that although Celan’s poem “appears to drift off ad infinitum,” it “also does not leave the threshold” disclosed by Parmenides’s goddess as a “‘gaping chasm’” where being takes leave of and thereby sets a limit on itself (pp. 168, 161). As the book makes clear, many kinds of thresholds overlap in Celan’s oeuvre, and to add to these insights, Jan Mieszkowski and Natalie Lozinski-Veach treat the “floral self-determination” and “poetic involution” in Celan, respectively; Irina Kogan and Christine Frank look at how Celan lets himself be affected by Osip Mandelstam’s poetic language and how Celan reflects more widely on his relation with postwar German audiences (pp. 70, 94). Taken as a whole, this book stakes its “claim of philology” by estranging preexisting critical positions on Celan and fathoming his multivocal idioms as if for the first time.


[1] Werner Hamacher, “95 Theses on Philology,” Diacritics 39 (Spring 2009): 27.

[2] Hamacher, Minima Philologica, trans. Catharine Diehl and Jason Groves (New York, 2015), p. 119.

[3] Paul Celan, “Warum aus dem Ungeschöpften,” in vol. 2 of Gesammelte Werke in Sieben Banden, ed. Beda Allemann and Stefan Reichert, 7 vols. (Frankfurt am Main, 2000), p. 364.