Theses Doctoral

Missed Encounters: Paul Celan at the Edge of Philosophy

Parks, Evan

This dissertation examines the writings of three seminal twentieth century thinkers, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Theodor W. Adorno, and Jacques Derrida, through the lens of their encounter with the post-Shoah poetry of Paul Celan. These thinkers are associated with influential, competing movements in twentieth century literary theory: philosophical hermeneutics, critical theory, and deconstruction. The three philosophers have disparate biographies and political orientations, yet each championed the ambiguity of literary language as a bulwark against the problematic, even violent, certainties of quotidian language. Additionally, each of them regarded Celan as an exemplar of a salutary literary ambivalence. This project clarifies how the critics’ approaches to literature, honed through consideration of a survivor-poet, represent an attempt to come to terms with the catastrophic violence of the Holocaust.

While perceptive in their readings of Celan’s poetry, each sought to secure trans-historical insights into the nature of human language, a task that risks effacing the ‘real’ historical and experiential specificity of Celan’s writing. Celan readings are thus a case study for understanding philosophical contemporaries’ treatment of literary texts and their relationship to contemporaneous history. By looking at these varied theorists in tandem and by showing how Celan’s poetry both informs and resists their ideas, this dissertation cultivates a method of reading that is adaptable and not beholden to one tradition. Treating what the thinkers neglect, new readings emerge that explore Celan’s allusions to the Hebrew Bible, Jewish ritual, and antisemitism. Celan’s poetry animates multiple, conflicting interpretive traditions, yet questions, in its testimonial character, the adequacy of a theoretical approach to literature.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Germanic Languages
Thesis Advisors
Simons, Oliver
Boulouque, Clemence C.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 2, 2021