Tuesday, 31 July 2012
Paul Celan, Ursula Le Guin, and the Rose
This work of art is by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the Scottish Art Nouveau designer and artist who was known for his stylised depictions of roses.
For some time, my subconscious mind has been working on a connection between Ursula Le Guin, the great American writer of science fiction and fantasy, and Paul Celan, who needs little introduction on this poetry blog. The connection came through a short story by Le Guin from the 1970s called 'The Diary of the Rose', which appears in a collection titled The Compass Rose. The story is about a totalitarian society where an obedient and repressed "psychoscopist" named Rosa works on patients who are apparently mentally ill, but who are plainly just considered a liberal or democratic threat by the government. She is assigned to a patient named Flores Sorde, which may be transliterated as "deaf flowers", or perhaps more accurately in the context of the story, "muffled" or "voiceless" flowers.
In the world of this story, psychoscopists are able to use sophisticated equipment to literally see the innermost workings of a patient's mind, as visual images. In the complex, multi-layered mind of Flores Sorde, she sees a vivid image of a rose.
I have never seen any psychoscopic realisation, not even a drug-induced hallucination, so fine and vivid as that rose. The shadows of one petal on another, the velvety damp texture of the petals, the pink color full of sunlight, the yellow central crown - I am sure the scent was there if the apparatus had olfactory pickup - it wasn't like a mentifact but a real thing rooted in the earth, alive and growing, the strong thorny stem beneath it. (from 'The Diary of the Rose')
Flores Sorde is showing something to Rosa that she vitally needs to know. She sees it, but the breakthrough is not enough to save either of them.
In the poems of Paul Celan, images of plants and growing things recur, and especially the rose. One of his most famous collections is called Die Niemandsrose, or The No-One's Rose. This title is taken from a poem called 'Psalm', which may be found (among others) in translation by John Felstiner, on this link (scroll down almost to the bottom to find this poem in particular):
PSALM (Paul Celan)
(The link is on the New York Times website and seems to be giving some trouble: if you can't access it, I suggest doing a search for "Paul Celan", "Psalm" and "John Felstiner" and you should be able to find the link and access it that way.)
Through this story by Ursula Le Guin, I understood something about what Celan was doing. His poems are abstract and surreal, so often, but what we are "seeing" when we read his poems is a direct projection, from his tortured mind, of the rose. Which is, of course, much more than a rose.
Poetry is so often about access: more direct than in so many other art forms, and that is why it takes us closer to the truth. Le Guin's 'The Diary of the Rose', and Celan's 'Psalm', and other of Celan's poems, are in part about access to the mind and heart - its dangers and its revelatory blessings. I don't know if Le Guin (who is also a poet) has read Celan, but it doesn't even matter. The connection is there and is entirely real, in any case.