Saturday, December 15, 2007


Something I've been doing for the past several semesters is offering excerpts of my academic work here at the end of the semester. When I'm not writing here--which is happening more and more frequently--I'm most likely working on papers such as these. The work I did this term just about did me in altogether: I started working on the first paper in May, but I was able to write the second paper in just a few weeks. It seems I always shoot my load on one project (usually the one for my major professor and mentor) and then do a second quickie. (And yes, all academic metaphors must be sexual; otherwise, you're not doing it right.) By the way, my first essay earned me a "gifted," and the second one was termed "brilliant." (I'm not braggin'; I'm just saying....)

In die Fremde der Heimat:
Celan’s “Schibboleth” and the Ethics of Translation

Mem’ry, in addition to being short, is also (always already) a matter of convenience. A covenant both enjoins and excludes. Our inclusion in a community is a function of how we enact our communal memory—which flags we pledge allegiance to, which political slogans we cry out, which language community we find ourselves born into—in short, how we embody our covenant. Memory is the shibboleth we use to segregate: it either allows passage or cuts off the return passage home. This scar—this syllable pain, this wounded word, this death sentence—bears the memory of our covenant, a circle of forgetting, bereft of a center. Memory, therefore, is what must be transversed, transported, crossed over, and translated; it is the liminal border between the alien and the homeland, the superliminal space where the blood of the Passover sacrifice demarcates between the Chosen People and the(ir) other. Memory is the shibboleth—mispronounced, death-bringing, inarticulate; the unsayable that demands utterance, performance, invocation. The promise—the sign of the promise—the promised covenantal sign scars the human body. This scar—a genital, genitive scar—wounded by the past, is passed on to future generations, to those also born of the wound, born of disaster.

The half-mastness on both sides of mem’ry bisects “Schibboleth” with a reference to a political act: commemoration of the dead, of national heroes. Yet this flag at half-mast (from the fourth strophe) is not (necessarily) the same flag to which the poet has sworn no allegiance (from the second strophe). Instead of being unfurled in the market square, demanding allegiance, this flag at half-mast signifies the presence of death. Yet Celan’s dead remain doubly absent: not only are they no longer present (having been murdered and reduced to ash) but neither have they been properly buried and mourned for. No national flag had been set at half-mast to commemorate them. They are absented in both language as well as cultural memory, and it is an inherent characteristic of Celan’s poetological project to call those absent dead back into presence through language and to rescue them from forgetting/forgetfulness.

But just as Heidegger wants us to think being as some thing other than beings, so we too are called to think the other as some thing wholly other, as something more than the sum of all others—uncoordinatable and incalculable, unbounded and aporetic, unmappable and undateable. The wholly other exceeds all Cartesian coordinates as well as any Cartesian cogito: all that I can know of the other is that I do not know.

Initiation into Redon’s Initiation to Study

The fifth and final work in Redon’s two-woman sequence is his circa 1905 Initiation to Study. This oil painting is marked by a flattening of the pictorial space as well as by a sharp delineation of line of the two figures. The priestess is clothed entirely in blue; the novice wears white. Instead of holding a red branch as in the 1896 oil painting, the novice casually holds a scroll that has been partially unrolled. It seems that the natural element from the first painting has been replaced with a cultural artifact; the mysteries of nature have given way to the mysteries of a secret society whose knowledge is written down on the scroll. But no text is exposed; to the viewer, the scroll is empty and blank.

Though the novice’s eyes are still downcast, we get no sense of her emotional state from her otherwise expressionless face. The priestess, however, appears somewhat sterner than in previous depictions: she is clearly frowning, and the severe profile line only accentuates her one visible eye. Redon’s noirs were often populated by round, globe-like eyes, but in this series, the women’s eyes are almost always closed, further resisting the viewer’s gaze.

The women appear within a space defined by heavy brown lines to the pair’s left and right as well as beneath their feet. The light brown floor recedes a short distance before ending at what looks to be a white plaster or stucco wall behind the figures. The pictorial plane, nevertheless, is further flattened with blotches of paint that transgress across all three strong defining lines. No shadow or shading interrupts this compression to give the viewer any impression of dimensionalized space. Redon flattens the vertical as well by repeating the light brown of the floor in the upper right. Moreover, the illusory depth is shortened by the dark pink tones of the oil paint: Redon uses the same tone for his signature and the dominant background behind the priestess. In this way, the surface and the background are the same color, disrupting any sense of depth and preventing any penetration beyond the work’s surface.

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