Sunday, March 1, 2009

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 49 (Martin Buber)


I and Thou
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Buber, Martin
I and Thou


Purchased at Talking Leaves, this book and several others fall under a special category in my library. That is, they are part of my Paul Celan Collection. Towards the end of the period in which I was working on To Be Sung (1999-2004, appx.), I fell under the spell of Paul Celan's poetry. As I did not and do not speak German, I read through a lot of the different translations of his work: by Pierre Joris, Michael Hamburger, John Felstiner, Ian Fairley, et al. I also read his Collected Prose, translated by Rosmarie Waldrop, Felstiner's critical biography, and Celan's correspondence with Nelly Sachs. I also read Nelly Sachs.

When I was reading Felstiner's biography, I also became interested in Celan's intellectual reading. I read some of Heidegger's Being and Time, Gershom Scholem's book on the Kabbalah, some of the plays and stories of Georg Büchner, and Buber's I and Thou. I am not sure that any of this ancillary reading helped me understand Paul Celan's poetry better, but it all fed the fire of my first book. There is something from all of these books in To Be Sung, and Paul Celan served as a sort of muse in the writing of it.

This reading also set off a cyclically recurring obsession with the Holocaust. We watched a lot of Holocaust films during this period, including the then-recently released DVD of Night and Fog, plus The Sorrow and the Pity, Hotel Terminus, and Downfall. We even drove to Toronto to watch the horrifically bad 7-hour Brechtian monstrosity Our Hitler: A Film From Germany (yes, we watched the whole thing, and Lori has never forgiven me). The Iraq War was in full swing at this point and served as the backdrop to all of this reading and writing.

Flipping through I and Thou, I can see that I even started a poem or two in the margins, none of which were ever used. At the bottom of pages 76-7 are scrawled the following notes:

"Inarticulate sounds
ring out"

"The soul of
red opens up
to their touch
Little"

"They come
To rest
Upon a red
Wallpaper
Arabesque"

"into
The empty
Air the soft
Hands reach"

"Between
Sleep and sleep
The lightning
The secret image
Of a wish."

I think that last one was a quote lifted from the page it is written on. At least, that's how it began. I feel like I did try to use this stuff at some point. I have a strong recollection of working and reworking this material. I guess I never worked it out, at least not in any form that resembles these notes.

Anyhow, here is a passage I underlined in this book:

This is the eternal origin of art that a human being confronts a form that wants to become a work through him. Not a figment of his soul but something that appears to the soul and demands the soul's creative power. What is required is a deed that a man does with his whole being: if he commits it and speaks with his being the basic word to the form that appears, then the creative power is released and the work comes into being.

The deed involves sacrifice and risk. The sacrifice: the infinite possibility is surrendered on the altar of the form; all that but a moment ago floated playfully through one's perspective has to be exterminated; none of it may penetrate into the work; the exclusiveness of such a confrontation demands this. The risk: the basic word can only be spoken with one's whole being; whoever commits himself may not hold back part of himself; and the work does not permit me, as a tree or man might, to seek relaxation in the It-world; it is imperious: if I do not serve it properly, it breaks, or it breaks me.

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