The Meaning of Obscurity

Like monsoons in March, I am writing again. Happily out of season.

I remember reading Celan’s Deathfugue for the first time many years ago. I did not know what to do with it. Like a  funeral procession passing by my window on a monochrome evening, I watched it go by. I looked up from the book to reassure myself that everything was alright. Black Milk of daybreak. I’d never heard anything of the likes of this before. I did not even understand it fully. But understanding was the last thing on my mind. I quietly sat, listening to the dark rhythms of death sloshing around.

Later I would read about the Romanian Paul Antschel who changed his name to Paul Ancel and then into Paul Celan, an anagram of the French form of his name. The man who had to live through the horrors of the holocaust and make sense and senselessness of it in German, the language of the torturers which had become his own. The man whose parents perished in a Nazi concentration camp. The man who toiled in many camps himself before leaving for Paris after the war. The man who, one particularly ordinary day, drowned himself in the Seine leaving behind a little note that said ‘Paul departs.’

Thinking of obscurity and hermeticism, I think of Celan and his struggle with language. Trying to comprehend the bewildering enormity of torture, suffering and mass murders, he went on to create a language in which meaninglessness played as important a role as meaning itself. In the 50s, Celan broke apart conventional syntax and settled into an almost inscrutable minimalism that made him one of the most difficult poets of our time.

Coetzee, in one of his characteristically incisive essays simply titled ‘Paul Celan’ looks closely at the accusations of difficulty leveled against Celan’s poems. Coetzee shows us how some of the foremost translators of Celan like Michael Hamburger and John Felstiner had already figured out that the difficulty of Celan is an integral part of his message. “Though scholars have certainly illumined Celan’s poetry for him, Hamburger says, he is not sure he ‘understands’ in the normal sense of the word, even those poems he translated, or all of them”. Felstiner says that Celan often asks too much of the reader, yet he goes on to ask ‘what is too much, given this history?’ ” Given the enormity of anti-Semitic persecutions in the twentieth century, given the all too human need of Germans, and of the Christian West in General to escape from a monstrous historical incubus, what memory, what knowledge is too much to demand? Even if Celan’s poems were totally incomprehensible, they would nevertheless stand in our way like a tomb built by a ‘Poet , Survivor, Jew’ insisting by its looming presence that we remember, even though the words inscribed on it may seem to belong to an undecipherable tongue.”

In these times, obscurity seems to be as essential a tool as clarity for a writer to come to terms with life. Which brings us to the age old criticism leveled at poetry-its deliberate inaccessibility. Geoffrey Hill famously said that “public toilets have a duty to be accessible, but poetry does not.” He perhaps did push it a bit far, but it is quite obvious that if the good poems of our times are stripped of their difficulty - if they are made reader friendly - they would simply lose their relevance as poems at all. To communicate clearly, they need to sustain their obscurity. Obviously we aren’t talking about the obscurity born out of lack of knowledge, craft, experience or sensibility but about an obscurity that is painstakingly interwoven with meaning to create a tapestry of overwhelming intricacy.

Poetry somehow seems to me as a suitable  medium for seeking such uncompromising authenticity in expression. Firstly because - fortunately or unfortunately - it is one of the least commercially viable genres in contemporary art and literature. Thus safe from the dictates of accessibility and commercial concerns, the poet can afford to set out on a fanatical quest to get it right. Secondly, writing a poem, unlike making a movie or creating an art project does not require extensive technical and financial support from the outer world. If Celan had to express these in movies, we would perhaps have had some highly strung cinematographers and terribly worried producers. Thankfully, poetry is more or less an individual pursuit where the cost is often an intense investment of one’s whole self. So however successful or unsuccessful the result is, it still gives the writer the freedom to go completely berserk if he thinks it will help him make a completely different kind of sense.

Such intensity is perhaps difficult to sustain. But thankfully, poetry is not all intensity and struggle. Like Whitman, it  contains multitudes. Just as the playfulness of Ogden Nash, the distilled clarity of Ko Un and the understated irony of Brodsky perfectly validate each other, obscurity too seems to have a clear reason to exist in poetry.

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