The Burning of the Word: Poetry, Memory, Life

At the Burning Abyss: Experiencing the Georg Trakl Poem by Franz Fühmann, translated by Isabel Fargo Cole (Calcutta: Seagull Books, October 2017)

For the poem does not stand outside time. True it claims the infinite and tries to reach across time — but across, not above — Paul Celan[1]

It has taken me a good deal of time to write about this book. After reading it a little over a year ago I made several attempts to ‘get my thoughts in order’ but each time I looked back over what I had written the meaning of the words remained cryptic. I was faced with a text oriented by allusive concepts reaching toward something they could not grasp. Each move toward precision soon turned cloudy. The book seemed to resist what I wished to take from it, whilst at the same time always holding itself frustratingly open to something further. Worse, the formal structure adopted by the book, one of continual tension between chronological linearity and poetic interruption, of moving forward and doubling back, had infected my efforts to respond. Moreover, in fact, this method appeared to be the only one adequate for trying to formulate a response at all. The reply I was writing unwound into a narrative, something personal that was at once too small and too large, at risk of losing the text in the mud of the everyday or else dissolving it in the great constellation of forces moving through the book but also out far beyond it: poetry, memory, life.

For several reasons then, Franz Fühmann’s At the Burning Abyss (translated by Isabel Fargo Cole), presents an unusual proposition. The book is ostensibly a memoir of Fühmann’s ‘experience’ of the poetry of Georg Trakl, taking the form of a blended narrative of: close textual analysis, direct autobiographical narration, poetic interruptions, and historical and political exegesis. As a result, Fühmann’s text presents a complex movement of transactional relations between modes of writing and modes of experience. In this regard, At the Burning Abyss is an attempt to elaborate the (auto) biographical experience of life from the interpretative position of poetry in a manner that also produces a new understanding of the poetic as an autobiographical force. That is, via the deeply-woven poetic force of Trakl’s work embedded within the historical events of the author’s life, and memory of them, Fühmann hopes to come to a new understanding of both poetry and life.

Fühmann was born in 1922 and in his youth was a member of the SA before being drafted into the Wehrmacht in 1941, serving in both Greece and in the Soviet Union. It was during his time as a soldier that Fühmann encountered Trakl’s poems, and it is this encounter which serves as the fulmination point for At the Burning Abyss. The book’s first chapter opens with this moment of ‘fire bursting through smoke’ drawing the following lines from Trakl’s 1913 poem ‘Downfall’:

Under vaults of thorns

O my brother we blind clock-hands climb

towards midnight.

They are lines that seem to chime with the end toward which Fühmann and his Wehrmacht compatriots are climbing in 1945. Here is the poem as ‘anticipatory mode of reality’ in Fühmann’s words: it appears to speak to a present that comes later than the ‘time of the poem’, the moment of its composition. This is not to suggest that the poem exposes the identity of the two conflicts, that Trakl was blessed with clairvoyance, or that it suggests the two wars were the same or even similar (despite the definitive historical connections between the two). Such assertions would be taxonomic and de-temporalising. Instead, something like a kind of ‘poetic time’ is alluded to, not of poetry as eternal, but of the poem as reaching across time, capable of interrupting the present and always already moving into the future. Poetry then remains in time but also and at the same time, escapes, leads beyond the time of its present.

However, this is not quite where the book begins. Before the reader is led down into the smoke and the fire there is a short introduction, beginning with a quote from Rilke which stresses the inadequacy of memory as a sufficient condition for poetry. In ancient times memory was the muse, the conduit through which the poets called up the heroic past. Poetry was a re-telling, the force that returned the dead to life, remembrance carried by the poet’s enchanting song. Here however that understanding is questioned on phenomenological grounds, memories are not enough: ‘poems are not feelings…they are experiences’. This sense of the poem being embodied is alluded to the in the anecdote which follows, where Fühmann describes a moment when he first saw a photograph of Trakl after ‘two decades of living with his poetry’. The initial shock it affected was induced not by the form of the figure in front of him but that there was a form at all. The idea that these words had dwelled inside a corporeal form seemed impossible, Fühmann strenuously avoided any image or biographical detail until he ‘began painfully to see that a poet is also a person and not a mouth alone.’

In seeking to expand on these initial temporal and phenomenological considerations Fühmann splits the German language in two. It is through this bifurcation that he then begins to articulate the poetic pathway brought to life by his own experience with Trakl. The lexical manoeuvre he performs pivots around the fact that the German noun ‘word’ [Wort] has two plurals: Worte and Wörter. From this bifurcation Fühmann posits a pair of homophonous singulars [Wort] and [Wort] each corresponding to one of the two plural forms. Where the latter [Wort/Wörter] refers to words as they are employed as instruments of scientific study, the former [Wort/Worte] belongs to the realm of the poem. This latter realm is one whose ‘essence is the contradictory unity of human experience’, a realm where poetic interpretation must seize one element of this contradiction whilst simultaneously relinquishing its claim to being the only correct interpretation. The poem cannot be given a complete interpretation; some part of it always remains dark, obscure, out of reach. As certain elements are clarified, others drift out of focus. Interpretation can only ever be both illumination and concealment.

Fühmann presents the reader with both an affirmation of plurality and a renunciation, a counter-word, to the possibility of an interpretation forged outside language, outside experience. The poem exists materially in time: its movement is itself moving in history. The suitability of Rilke’s words here presents itself most forcefully. The poem is not the manifestation of some interior feeling, the remnant, waste matter of some inner psycho-chemical state of being, but rather an external, material instance of language. The experience of time, the experience of poetry, requires a material body that is both fragile and transitory. The academic myth of objectivity, a romantic wish for the formation of an interpretation set apart from experience, is categorically rejected.

To continue to follow this path, we must then turn back to subjective experience, to Fühmann and to autobiography. The life Fühmann describes in At the Burning Abyss is one caught between two of modernity’s most powerful and troubling ideological forces, Nazism and Stalinism, and a great part of Fühmann’s own understanding comes from the ways in which Trakl (and by extension poetry) disrupted the power these forces held over him. Consequently, Fühmann’s analysis of the poems that so intimately form part of his identity enters into a continual struggle with the dominant historical and political situation that the author finds himself in.

The shadow of the Second World War looms large over Fühmann’s writing, just as the previous war had for Trakl. At its end Fühmann became a prisoner and was subsequently taken to a Soviet rehabilitation camp in Noginsk, learning the ‘socialist’ doctrine of Lenin and Stalin: dialectical and historical materialism. He eventually attended a school for prisoners of war from which he graduated in 1948, also becoming an alcoholic. The supersession of Nazism by the dogged adoption of a ‘class position’ displaced Trakl from Fühmann in a different manner, denouncing him as mystical and abstract, not concrete and directly related to the question of social determination. He is asked to let go this decadence, but proves unable to the task. No matter how hard he might try to adjust, poetry appears to be always leading, pointing to something beyond.

It would be easy in this regard, and no doubt correct to some extent, to align the poetic ‘third way’ for which Fühmann is searching, along with its corresponding poetic time, with a twofold rejection of the eschatological, teleological temporality of both vulgar historical materialism underlying Stalinism and the fascist millenarianism of Hitler’s ‘Third Reich’. However, one must be careful to avoid aligning the plurality Fühmann advocates with any kind of political pluralism congruent with, for instance, the illusory plurality of choice and flux characteristic of the neoliberal manifestation of capital. It is not that the poem is open to infinite interpretation, providing the ground for a dizzying accumulation of competing ‘readings’ all of equal worth/worthlessness, but rather that in the act of interpretation itself, something of the poem always escapes away into the dark. It’s time is not the instant of now but always moving outside it. The poem is not infinitely pliable but obdurately incomplete. In this way Fühmann’s understanding of poetry goes beyond a merely political-historical register. In his hands, poetry becomes part of an autobiographical force, a resistance against instrumentality, against the violence of reason and of dominating ideological structures whatever form they might take. This confluence of the temporal, political, and phenomenological, and the difficulty for writing precipitated by it, is given explicit attention by Fühmann in his description of his time as a prisoner of war:

I have tried again and again to put to paper that singular era of the POW… that moment of utter openness when past and future, no longer mere modes of physical time, begin to reveal themselves as historical forces, when their ever-fluid boundary gapes as a chasm so powerful that the I ruptures too, and to negotiate this rupture a process begins: transformation.

Here the articulation of a distinct experience of time mirrors the irruptive power of poetry. The openness to both the future and the past which tears the ‘I’ from its socket and leaps into history, a kind of now-time [Jetztzeit] brought about by catastrophe, a place where history has become the void, is the time of revolution and of poetry. It is a radical calling into question of the forces of the present, of language, and of the self.

Fühmann’s personal struggle with alcoholism occupies a difficult position within this context too. Its corrosive power, like poetry, is similarly hostile to ideological forces, and as a vice Fühmann shares with Trakl it binds them ever closer. It too entails a questioning, a potentially radical loss of self. However, where one is simply a mode of destructive negativity, a ‘making absent’ through intoxication, providing an alcove in which to shelter from the winds of history, the other opens up the abyss that lies beneath the winds themselves:

Alcohol clouded my gaze and drew a veil over daily life; but Trakl had opened my eyes to see night’s riddled brow […] he had lit up my consciousness, though with the fiery glow of Hell’

The cloudy, veiling power of alcohol is here contrasted with poetry’s opening of the night. The two methods of resistance operate (though in very different ways) through a kind of forgetting, of darkness. Memory, naturally, is bound up with forgetting. Forgetting is the essence from which the horizon of memory is shaped. Poetry and alcoholism both relate to memory through forgetting. Alcoholism is a practice of turning away from the world through which one elides trauma by the introduction of a dependency which replaces the world, resisting through a loss of self whose diminishing act of renewal only renews the strength of the dependency. As such its incompleteness is not multiple, a play of illumination and shadow, but a blind, singular darkness.

If alcoholism is merely destructive forgetting, a repetition of trauma on a more human, manageable scale, poetry is an active forgetting, a creative re-forging of the past which draws some elements to light even as others are cast into nothingness. In the case of poetry, the abyss is not a private, individual annihilation but an act of revelation, uncovering the historical nature of human being, an incompleteness that is crucially open to transformation. The uncovering of this universality is always partial; it comes through the individual poem. In a different way each time the infinite is momentarily claimed before returning to the ordinary flow of time. The poem lights up its corner of the abyss, illuminates its own moment of darkness, and through this we are able to glimpse the great gulf beneath, the chasm that is the ground of our own being. Poetry then is a movement through language and through life. Fühmann describes his relation to Trakl’s work as ‘living with his poetry’ emphasising the sense of dwelling, of the poem written into the structures of biological life. For Fühmann poetry must not be a retreat from life but must always lead back into it. The interruptive potential of the poem is an escape not out of time but into it, disrupting the chronological progression of vulgar lived time in order to give meaning to it, to allow us to see its potential, and the darkness from which it comes. Fühmann refers to this obscure element in the poem that always moves beyond reach directly when he writes of modern poetry that:

Their darkness stands before bright light, just as the midnight blue and black of a cathedral window glows forth as darkness only against the sun. — Otherwise it would not be recognisable as darkness.

In this way At the Burning Abyss bears some similarities to another attempt to read Trakl’s work, that of Martin Heidegger, and the two share an understanding of poetry as an act of uncovering the fundamental make-up of human existence. However where Heidegger’s difficult reading, and writing, enacts a coming together of philosophy and poetry (one which cannot ever be completed as the two disciplines ‘dwell on different mountains’), Fühmann’s own practice elaborates an encounter between poetry and life, one occurring on the terrain of autobiography. Where Heidegger’s materials of interpretation are the concepts of his philosophical project, Fühmann’s materials are the events of his own life.

The difficulty in responding to a text such as the one Fühmann has written stems from this mode of reflection. It is not merely that At the Burning Abyss causes the reader to examine the place of poetry in their own biography (though this is certainly one of the effects of reading the book and a powerful effect at that). Rather, for the reader who is also a writer, it elicits a self-questioning of one’s own interpretive methods. In the first instance, how the unresolved tension between interpretation and the biographical experience underlying it functions in one’s own critical method. Secondly, how this tension is functioning in one’s ability to interpret the text at hand, one whose content is an attempt to lay bare this very mechanism. This reflection serves as a reminder that the critic, in writing about the other, is always writing about their own self, discovering their own experience though another’s language. The personal nature of interpretation is something which cannot be ignored; instead its terms must be employed and then immediately questioned. The methods and preconceptions brought to the interpretation, by the interpreter, and that which is to be interpreted must remain forever in tension.

Fühmann’s autobiographical practice seeks to uncover the workings of the mechanism through which poetry and lived experience reveal and disrupt one another. He repeatedly stresses the difficulty of communication inherent in approaching the question of poetry in this way. As things are made clearer others are made dimmer. The attempt to interpret is ‘dominated by a sense of inadequacy’ but this, as we have seen, is the very wellspring of interpretation, the place from which it draws its power. Language’s inadequacy is what is revealed in uncovering the night’s riddled brow. My personal difficulties then were not entirely unfounded. The uncomfortable closeness and distance, the personal and conceptual, is not only a problem faced by the writer, critic or philosopher, but a problem which poetry addresses in its very existence. It is the practice by which this irresolvable tension reveals itself. A poem, as Fühmann writes, ‘meshes the fantastically precise and the inexhaustible to create a unique new form.’

Above all what one draws from At the Burning Abyss as a reader is a sense of the (both disruptive and curative) power of poetic imagination, of language beyond scientistic determinism. The bifurcation of the German language in the early part of the book aligns poetry with a contradictory, always incomplete, fluid language. It is a language devoid of the teleological directionality of scientific discourse. Poetry pays attention to the elements of language that lack this purposiveness: rhythm, meter, sound, but these elements are bearers of vital importance. Fühmann speaks of the word’s freightedness, the historical weight carried by sound and sense, which the poetic word taps into and puts to work alongside the words whose tonal associations lie close to its own. The poem’s revelation of the ambiguity embedded in the freight carried by the word, placing its voice before a background of silence, allows us to recognise the darkness. Poetry brings life to language and language to life and, though they dwell on two impassable peaks of the same mountain, draws them close enough that they might reveal the incompleteness, the inescapable finitude from which all meaning is derived. The sin of poetising instead of being, of relating to the good and the true through imagination rather than being, is the very sin by which we, as fallen beings, reach toward the divine.

[1] Celan, Paul, Waldrop, Rosemarie (trans.), ‘Speech on the Occasion of Receiving the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen’, Collected Prose, (Manchester: Carcanet, 1986), p.34

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