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.


  1. I found this post fascinating. Poetry as access, for one thing, is something I'll be reflecting on because of what you've said here. The work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh: I'll be exploring that. But I was most struck by the story collection title, 'The Compass Rose'. That's also the name of a house we rented last summer on a bluff overlooking the Pacific. Since I ever since have associated that house with our beloved dog, who stayed there with us on our last vacation together with her before she died, the memory of it constitutes a kind of lens into another world which I frequently consider. My inner workings, as it were, represented by the image of a house. Access to an inner world. Perhaps the house is actually a poem.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I was a little worried that this entry wouldn't make any sense to anyone except me. I had been reflecting for some time on how Celan's often abstract (but precise) images could rouse such intense emotions. It was like a direct metaphorical projection. I am not sure which direction this train of thought went in, but I found my way to the mental image of the rose on the screen, which came from the Le Guin story. It was a strange process.

      Seeing through a certain lens: that's quite accurate. With a poet like Celan, particularly, I feel like you have to get the lens adjusted a certain way, or perhaps try different lenses, and when you get it right it will all start to make sense. That's what happened to me, but it took a long time. I agree that places have a similar effect - I feel similarly about my grandmother's house in Finland, which was recently sold. I think of it and from that starting image I find my way into a world which is a past part of my life, and all its associations.

      Regarding "access" - I started reading Celan in my late teens and I remember writing a poem around then which in retrospect seems Celanian (it may or may not have been.) Not so much in style, but in the thoughts it raises. If I remember right, it started with the lines "It's not a place you can write./You just go there." I was trying to say something about how language can be both barrier and doorway. If you don't get it quite right, it can be so frustrating because you try to write about an experience or certain emotions and the words just seem to be blocking access. But if you get it right, it's like the words (or whatever form of art you are using - but poetry particularly) become a door that swings open, and you cross the threshold.

      Celan also had a lot to say about poetry as dialogue and exchange. A message in a bottle, a handshake. All of that was in the background of what I tried to say in this entry.

  2. Thanks for filling in some of the background to your excellent post. I read a book not long ago, when I was experiencing loss, by Joan Didion, the essayist and fiction writer, entitled 'The Year of Magical Thinking'. In it she describes how, after losing both husband and only daughter in less than a year, she found poetry one of the few things that helped her at all. I think that for her, too, it was a kind of lens into something she could not focus on in any other way. I am fascinated by this concept. Now you've given me more to consider. So thanks.