Montclair State University
I will compare Paul Celan's personification of death in "Death Fugue" with Sylvia Plath's "Little Fugue." Celan's influence on Plath, psychologically, historically, and poetically will be analyzed with an examination of rhythm, allusions, imagery, and personification. How Plath's poem derives its approach to death in terms of World War II will be compared to Celan's experience in the concentration camps. Questions to be raised are: can authenticity of voice and feeling in Plath's "Little Fugue" be accepted if she did not experience the Holocaust? Does Plath borrow Celan's collective imagery and his rhythms to put forth her own individual suffering? How does the father figure, as death, represent individual vs. collective oppression and suffering in each poem? What is the relation of the father to evil?
In this paper I will compare Plath's "Little Fugue" with Celan's "Death Fugue" as poems of mourning and attempts at restitution that describe a primary scene of loss. Both poets use metaphors of the Holocaust, an event so unspeakable in its horror that they must retreat into surreal symbolism to confront absence. It's difficult to talk about Holocaust imagery in Plath without reference to "Daddy." I will refer to that poem, but my primary focus will be on "Little Fugue."
Celan's parents came from Galicia and Bukovina the most eastern part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Born in 1920, he was brought up as a Jew, albeit not a particularly religious one. At the insistence of his mother, High German was spoken in his home but he spoke Romanian at school and later learned Yiddish, Hebrew, and French. He lost both of his parents, his father dying of typhus in a camp and his mother shot by the Germans. Sent to a labor camp, he was forced to shovel and to build roads. After
Escaping, he returned to Czernowitz where "Death Fugue" was first published in Romanian at the end of the war with the title, "Death Tango." In 1947 the poem was published in a collection in German.
From this brief personal history it can be seen that Celan's poem, written at a time when the losses and devastation he experienced were still very fresh, can be described as a poem of witness as well as a poem of mourning. Mourning exists on several levels, personal, the loss of his parents; cultural, the loss of country; linguistic, loss of his mother tongue, German; and collective, those lost in the Holocaust. Such specific claims of loss cannot be made for Plath's "Little Fugue." Yet, there is, I think, a political context in which she bears witness and a personal one, the loss of her father. So it is not surprising that the two poems have much in common.
Celan's poem, written in 1944 is based on direct reports of the death camps from returning survivors his parents' deaths, while Nazi imagery in Plath's poem, written in October, 1962, is derived from second-hand post-war sources. But both poems are elegies that express melancholy through metaphorical surreal discontinuities. Additionally, both poets use the elegaic form against a background of German culture that they love and despise. In both poems an authoritarian figure represents German cruelty, as personified Celan's camp commandant and Plath's father. Each poet voices despair and anger over cultural and personal abandonment.
The two poems most obvious link is the word "fugue" in the poems' titles. According to Webster's, "The musical term refers to a contrapuntal musical composition in which one or two melodic themes are repeated or imitated by the successively entering voices and developed in a continuous interweaving of the voice parts into a well defined single structure." Another meaning, from the Italian fuga is a running away, flight. And finally "a fugue is a pathological disturbance of consciousness during which the patient forms acts of which he appears to be conscious but of which on recovery he has no recollection" (WID 918). A discussion of the different ways in which "fugue" applies to each poem will reveal how "Little Fugue" and "Death Fugue" are attempts at mourning by Celan for his parents and by Plath for her lost father.
Celan's "Death Fugue" begins with a seductive rhythm that he prolongs in a repetitive refrain: "Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening/we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night/we drink and we drink" (F 31). The "we" of the poem is the voice of the victims whose horrors are hidden beneath the musicality of the opening phrases. Felstiner sees this metaphor as "bittersweet, nullifying the nourishment vital to humankind "but suggests also that black milk may not be a metaphor at all but a liquid camp inmates were given (F33). A more real association is of black milk as ash from the crematorium. So perhaps Celan is describing a real place where "reality overtook the surreal (F33). The lack of nourishment of the "we" forms the crux of the poem's fugal form as Celan repeats it at the beginning of the second, third and fifth stanzas. Celan's deprivation is also voiced through the inmates. Like them, he has been deprived of "mother's milk."
Celan was very close to his mother and felt guilty that he did not protect her from deportation and her subsequently being shot as unfit for work. He wrote several elegies for his mother, "Winter" and "Black Flakes" a few years before "Death Fugue." These poems are tender. In the line, "I sought out my heart so it might weep" his grief is evident (F19). In "Death Fugue" tenderness turns into bitterness because mother's milk has not only dried up but been poisoned. Celan is angry at himself for abandoning her. We might say that the poem's deceptively lyric and romantic cadences are Celan's fugue-like attempt to repress his feelings about how his mother died, the mother he desperately misses and wants to remember in her pre-war identity. As Leonard Olschner has observed, "The poem Todesfuge represents an attempt to order the unorderable, to grasp the perfidy of the murder machinery, and also to define a mode of expression to exorcise the language-German, the language of his mother and his mother's murderers" (Olschner 80 in Friedlander). It could be argued as well that the poem as a psychological fugue laments the German amnesia or lack of mourning for the many mothers who were murdered by the Nazis.
Eric L.Santner has argued that the 'Final Solution' need to be theorized under the sign of massive trauma, meaning that these events must be confronted and analyzed in their capacity to endanger and overwhelm the composition and coherence of individual and collective identities that enter into their deadly field of force (Santner in Friedlander 151). Robert J. Lifton sees the survivor's task as "that of formulation, evolving new inner forms that include the traumatic event (Lifton in Friedlander 152).
We describe as traumatic any excitations from outside which are powerful enough to break through the protective shield (Reizschutz). ..It seems to me that the concept of trauma necessarily implies a connection of this kind with a breach in an otherwise efficacious barrier against stimuli. Such an event as an external trauma is bound to provoke a disturbance on a large scale in the functioning of the organism's energy and to set in motion every possible defense measure. At the same time, the pleasure principle is for the moment put out of action (Freud PP 29-30).
Thus we can look at Celan's representation of evil in "Death Fugue" as originating in massive trauma and the poem as an attempt to integrate this trauma into the psyche and repair the damage. The poem reflects Freud's notion of the work of mourning which is the way "human beings restore the regime of the pleasure principle in the wake of trauma or loss" (Santner in Friedlander 146). The repetition in the poem of "we drink and we drink" and "black milk of day break" embodies Freud's repetition compulsion, the necessity for the trauma to be repeated (MM Freud). Celan repeats, "We shovel a grave in the air" three times and a fourth again with the variation of "a grave in the clouds." Here the trauma is addressed through metaphor that disguises the terrible reality that the graves in the air as well as the clouds are ashes rising from the crematorium. The repetition underscores Thanatos as the instinctual force of the poem.
The murderers are symbolized by the camp commandant who "lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes/he writes when it grows dark to Deutschsland your golden hair Margareta " He is a sadist who "grabs for the rod in his belt he swings it his eyes are blue." Here we have the cold Nordic eye that Plath will use in her description of her German father. The commandant also "whistles his hounds to come close," a reminder that Germans frequently called Jews dogs and the dogs, men. "He whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground" and "he orders us strike up and play for the dance. This is a metaphorical reconstruction of the fact that "the condemned were forced to sing sad music while others dug graves" (Jewish Black Book Committee 308-09). The trauma of the entire Jewish people is reenacted in Celan's description of the "master." And yet, despite the harsh depiction, the rhythm of the lines reduces the barbarity to a nursery rhyme, especially, "He shouts jab at the earth deeper you there you others sing up and play. He shoots you with shot made of lead shoots you level and true." These lines bear the nursery rhyme rhythm of lines in Plath's "Daddy," "The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna/Are not very pure or true" (CP 223). Felstiner says that in translating Celan the icy Nordic eye called for a folksy idiom and a hackneyed rhyme (Felsteiner in Freidlander252). Folksy suggests Grimm's fairy tales, the thrill and fear in their being read to you as a child, the "volk" of German culture and with the repetition of drinking, the German beer halls. Here's where I think Celan's language, like Plath's, tries to evoke the primitive, the id, in confronting the terrible father, the "master" and the trauma of his cruelty. Of course in Plath it's fantasy or imagined sadism but that doesn't negate the feeling.
Both "Daddy" and "Death Fugue" are incantations as if both poets are trying to exorcise their dead. For the camp commandant is death, and in Celan's poem more than the camp commander 's murders are represented, all of German culture is indicted. The poem's title evokes Bach's Art of the Fugue; its rhythms emulate it. Felstiner points out that the title also "sets this poem within, although desperately against the grain of, a profound tradition in German culture: the association of music with death, as in Wagner's Liebestod, Schubert's Erlkonig and Bach's Komm Susser Tod. "Spielt susser Tod, says the "master" in Celan's Todesfuge, "play death more sweetly" (Felsteiner in Friedlander 241). Thus the work of overcoming trauma is collective and individual. The cruelty of mass murder must be faced by Celan whose parents died at Nazi hands and who was made to do forced labor, but the events described in the poem were experienced by millions.
Before moving on to "Little Fugue," two more points about "Death Fugue" that I see as part of the mourning process embedded in the poem's rhythms and speech. First the commandant is seen in the action of writing to his wife or girlfriend, Margareta, and these lines are repeated three times "he writes/he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margareta/he writes it." Deutschland, rather than Germany, evokes "Deutschland Uber Alles," a song that will forever connote the Third Reich. Its music is the subtext of the `poem as the setting of the camp symbolizes the most heinous crime of the Nazis, genocide. Dennis Schmidt notes, "German remained always the language of his confrontation with death, the language of real annihilation" (Schmidt in Fiorettos 115). But what is the camp commander writing? Would he be relating the terrible acts he is committing? I think not. Celan's act of writing the poem becomes an act of witness to disclose murder that cannot be made by the Jews who shortly will be in the graves they are digging. To bear witness is to mourn.
Secondly, the closure of the last couplet of the poem when Celan invokes the golden haired Teutonic Margareta alongside the dark-haired Sulamith, the beloved in the "Song of Songs," may or may not be a preliminary return to the pleasure principle in rejoining Jewish and German identities. But Margareta reminds us of Faust's heroine and signals the bargain that the camp commandant has made with the devil. Celan is again representing his mother tongue as debased. Could there be some restitution in the figure of two women who represent reconciliation thus making it possible for him to speak German without being reminded of Hitler rather than Goethe? Felstiner thinks otherwise saying, "Paul Celan's Death Fugue still ends purely, by doing what Nazism attempted to forbid, naming the other. Archaic, inalienable, truly Shulamith has the last word, not to mention the silence resounding after." (254) Or is the last couplet the final irony of the poem, namely that the German past and language is forever tainted? This is why the Hebrew woman, Sulamith, has the last word. This may suggest a moving on from the loss of his mother and the desecration of his mother tongue to a less painful identity. Celan moved to Bucharest in 1945, Vienna in 1947 and Paris in 1948 where he wrote exclusively in German. As a permanent exile, the meaning of fugue as flight in "Death Fugue" takes on a new resonance. In the final year of his life Celan visited Israel, possibly a last effort to master grief and reconstruct a new self, where the Hebrew language would become the mother tongue. With a new symbolic mother he might complete the mourning process. Paul Celan committed suicide in Paris in 1970.
Plath's poems describe a horrendous historical event that she did not personally participate in, as Celan did. In fact, Plath's use of Holocaust imagery has been unacceptable to many early critics of her work such as Irving Howe, George Steiner and M.L. Rosenthal since the loss of her father at the age of eight was an individual loss. Therefore, how can she appropriate images of mass murder and Nazism for her personal mourning? Susan Gubar has suggested about what such readers feel, "Plath's non-Jewishness as well as her lack of a personal stake in the disaster made her speaking on behalf of the victims appear a desecration" (Gubar 178). Elie Wiesel has said, "no one has the right to speak on their behalf" (FKM 194) But critics like Terrence de Pres have asserted of those who write about the Holocaust who have not experienced it "We cannot not imagine" (PD 228).
I would say that Plath made use of Nazi barbarity to express her personal suffering, most notably her father's death when she was eight, but in doing so she also described the victims of Nazism's experience of terror. Furthermore, there is ample evidence of Plath's awareness of and sensitivity to the Holocaust as a woman born in America in 1932 whose childhood years were the years of Hitler's rise to power and World War II. As the granddaughter of Austrians, she grew up in a German-speaking household with a father who was a German immigrant and a mother of Austrian descent. She explained in an interview that because of her origins "my concern with concentration camps and so on is uniquely intense" (Orr 169). At the time she attended high school in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and Smith College, many books and films about the Holocaust were being produced such as The Diary of Anne Frank. Furthermore, Plath associated her father's death in 1940 with World War II. Therefore, I think it is unfair to see her use of Holocaust imagery as primarily voyeuristic and narcissistic. She was aware of, and perhaps, because of her background, even felt guilt about the extermination of the Jews. Her imaginative expression of mourning arises from this historical context.
In "Little Fugue" Plath tries to open up communication with the dead. Whereas Celan's elegy is speaking for the dead, Plath's elegy is an attempt to speak to the dead. The yew as Plath knew from her study of Robert Graves The White Goddess is "the death-tree in all European countries."(Graves 193). With the yew tree as a channel to death, and the poem's contrapuntal structure of images of black and white, and its repetition of "Yew" and "You," the poem, like Celan's, is a death fugue. As Celan repeated "We drink and we drink," thereby becoming one of the soon to be dead with "graves in the air," Like the black boot of Plath's "Daddy," the black images throughout "Little Fugue," crystallized in the black yew tree, can connote the death-bringing black shirted Fascists. The second line "Cold clouds go over" is the image of white, a blankness or "death in life" state that counterpoints the black images of death.
"Plath plays on and repeats the word "yew, "interchanging images of the yew tree and the pronoun "you" to address the dead father. As Tim Kendall observes, "His voice is the voice speaking through the yew hedge, 'black and leafy'"(Kendall 76). It seems to me there is an implicit wish in the poem to join the father in death, as in Celan's poem there is his latent desire to join the dead mother in the image of "black milk. "Recalling the 'you" that she repeats in "Daddy, in a rhyming pattern, "You do not do," I have had to kill you," "I used to pray to recover you," and her use of the German familiar form du, it is clear that she is trying to recover her father. The poem is about the impossibility of communicating with him through any of the senses. As Jahan Ramazini points out, "Whereas the dead could often be seen, heard, and spoken to in traditional elegies, this elegy opens with an oblique representation of the deafness, dumbness and blindness of both mourner and mourned" (Ramazini 273).
If we trace the varied forms of address as embodied in the "yew" we see in the opening line that the father is making a recriminatory gesture, "The yew's black fingers wag." An earlier draft used "agitate" rather than "wag," suggesting the speaker's troubled state of mind. In the seventh stanza the poet sees the father's voice, a confusion of the senses, which is like the tree's "Black and leafy," and "A yew hedge of orders." Reading "yew" as "you" we note the father's dictatorial control over the daughter. The yew's wagging black fingers become increasingly accusatory as the yew becomes more threatening.
The line that follows "Gothic and barbarous, pure German," makes the father's characteristics like those of the Germans in World War II, as Plath repudiates the uncivilized elements of the Nazis through her own particular dead. In the next line, "Dead men cry from it," we can see the most direct correlation with Celan's "Death Fugue" and the Holocaust. I agree with Susan Gibar that while "Plath undoubtedly used the disaster to express her personal suffering, in the process she also illuminated the experiences of civilians persecuted under the Nazi's genocidal rule" (Gubar 182).
In the seventh stanza Plath conflates the yew and Christ, "The yew, my Christ then,/Is it not as tortured?' Linda Bundtzen views this Christ image as "an unconscious pattern of guilt" (Bundtzen 192). Tim Kendall argues that,"Christ, like the yew, is an intermediary, sacrificing himself so that the sinful might be spared the wrath of God, the Father.
Implicitly, the yew plays a similar role, protecting the speaker from another kind of patriarchal cruelty" (Kendall 77). Or could it be that the yew ( father) and Christ, (daughter) are equally implicated in this scenario of "black statements" with the father as death and the daughter as perpetual mourner? To return for a moment to "Death Fugue" this can be compared to the sacrificed Jews and the death-wielding commandant joined together in the dance of death. In both cases for each speaker, therapeutic mourning becomes impossible.
According to Melanie Klein, "In normal mourning the individual reintrojects and reinstates…his loved parents who are felt to be his 'good' inner objects. His inner world, the one he has built up from his earliest days onwards in his phantasy was destroyed when the actual loss occurred. The rebuilding of this inner world characterizes the successful work of mourning.' (Klein 354). In "Little Fugue" the daughter cannot connect with the father and her anger in not being able to reconstitute him means she has to try to reach him over and over and therefore continually mourn. The "Gothic" as a description of him refers not only to him as a German but also to the text of Plath's poems as a form of writing to him over and over. Freud termed this "repetition compulsion" when the mourner must relive the original trauma. In Celan's "Death Fugue" the act of remembering his dead mother and the circumstances of her death is so painful that Celan wrote, as Peter Szondi said on "the terrain of death and mourning" Szondi 388). The unresolved mourning meant that after "Death Fugue,"he tried to write poems in a language that gives no words for what is happening. (Fynsk 162).
Plath's failure to introject an idealized image of her father has her imagining him as a butcher during the Great War in a California delicatessen lopping sausages that are "Red mottled, like cut necks." In an earlier draft she wrote "like cut throats" followed by "The throats of Jews," which she crossed out. Clearly she identified with the victims of Nazi brutality showing striving for some insight into its horror. Plath's father was a scientist with a Ph.D. and this memory might have led Plath to recreate him as a figure like Dr. Menegle who experimented on camp inmates.
The "you" in stanza ten that follows describes the father who has disappeared in "Great silence of another order" that is his death. "I was seven, I knew nothing," a parody of the Germans' defensive "I didn't know about the camps," is a denial of her inheritance from her father. Melanie Klein writes "When hatred of the loved lost object…gets the upper hand in the mourner, this not only turns the loved lost person into a persecutor, but shakes the mourner's belief in his good inner objects as well. The shaken belief in the good objects disturbs most painfully the process of idealization, which alone can save the ego from anxieties that it will destroy itself and the loved dead person through its sadism" (Klein, Mourning 355). The speaker recalls, "You had one leg, and a Prussian mind." "Prussian mind" associates him with militarism, autocracy and order. The one leg refers to the amputated gangrenous leg of Plath's father, a result of undiagnosed diabetes. Unable to remember her father, she declares, "I am lame in the memory," and projects his maiming and his sadism onto herself.
The poem fits the musical definition of fugue through its repetitive "you" and "yew" with an additional musical component. Celan evokes Bach for his indictment of German culture that can contain both genocide and Bach's fugues; Plath condemns German culture through a blind pianist who plays Beethoven. "He could hear Beethoven: Black yew, white cloud," repeating the white and black contrast of the second line, and reinforcing the poem's contrapuntal structure of the fugue. The pianist's playing has "horrific complications./Fingertraps- a tumult of keys." The horror behind the blind pianist's playing (Is he blind to the horror of the culture the music represents?) is revealed in stanza ten as the German father with whom she is trying to communicate, "the yew hedge of the Grosse Fuge." The "Grosse Fuge," her dead father's commanding shadow with the weight of authoritarian Germany behind it, contrasts with "The Little Fugue" that is her fragmented poem.
All she remembers of him is his "blue eyes" a reminder of the Aryan "master race" and "a briefcase of tangerines" an image of color that might negate the "black statements" of the poem. For the line is followed by the statement "This was a man, then!" with its suggestion of Shakespeare and a heroic figure. But this leads her nowhere except backwards to her father's death, "opened, like a tree blackly." Judith Kroll points out, "The final lines of the poem suggest that she has survived a catastrophe (Kroll 114). The speaker becomes an amnesiac, going through the motions of living the roles of wife and mother:
I survive the while,
Arranging my morning,
These are my fingers, this, my baby.
The clouds are a marriage dress, of that pallor.
She becomes psychologically deaf and dumb in a fugue like amnesiac state living the half-life of the Musselmanner or "non men," the "Moslems" of the camps who no longer feel (Levi SA 90), and who Des Pres says "could be called neither living nor dead but rather seemed to be like the living dead" (Des Pres, S 88-9). Punning on morning, she arranges her own "mourning" that, to cite the OED definition of fugue is "a dissociative reaction to shock or emotional stress in a neurotic, during which all awareness of personal identity is lost, though the person's outward behavior may appear rational." Plath committed suicide on February 11, 1963.
Though "Little Fugue" is not directly about the Holocaust, but primarily about unsuccessful mourning for a lost father, the poem exhibits empathic imagination for the most cataclysmic event of the Twentieth Century, central to when Plath grew up. She might have said what Adrienne Rich, a member of Plath's generation, writes, "we were trying to live a personal life. However, "the great dark birds of history" flew "into our personal weather." As a post-Holocaust poem, "Little Fugue" may lack the first-hand witness intensity of Celan's "Death Fugue." Nevertheless both poets ask us to confront loss and raise the issue of how we overcome devastating trauma. I think we can learn much about mourning and recovery or lack of it from both poems.
Bundtzen, Linda. Plath's Incarnations: Women and the Creative Process.. Ann Arbor:University of Michigan Press, 1983.
Celan, Paul. Collected Poems. trans. Michael Hamburger. New York: Persea Books, 1988.
Des Pres, Terrence. Praises and Dispraises: Poetry and Politics, the Twentieth Century. New York:Viking, 1988.
Des Pres, Terrence. The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Felstiner, John. Paul Celan Poet, Survivor, Jew. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.
Fioretos, Aris, ed. Word Traces Readings of Paul Celan. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1994.
Friedlander, Saul, Ed. Probing the Limits of Representation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.
Freud, Sigmund. Mourning and Melancholia (1914-1916). The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. ed. James Strachey, 14:243-58. London: Hogarth Press, 1957.
Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle, ed. J. Strachey. London: Hogarth Press, 1961.
Gubar, Susan. Poetry After Auschwitz. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003.
Klein, Melanie. Love, Guilt and Reparation and other Works (1921-1945). ed. Masud R. Khan. London: Hogarth Press, 1981.
Kroll, Judith. Chapters in A Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.
Orr, Peter. The Poet Speaks: Interviews with Contemporary Poets. Conducted by Hilary Moorish, Peter orr, John Press, and Ian Scott-Kilvert. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1966.
Plath, Sylvia. The Collected Poems. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1981.
Ramazani, Jahan. Poetry of Mourning: The Modern Elegy from Hardy to Heaney. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
Kendall, Tim. Sylvia Plath: A Critical Study. London: Faber & Faber, 2001.
Rich, Adrienne. Adrienne Rich's Poetry and Prose. Ed. Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi. New York: W.W. Norton, 1993.
Wiesel, Elie. From the Kingdom of Memory: Reminisces. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990.