Place de la Révolution: Void as Origin
in Paul Celan and Anselm Kiefer
The field is ordinary-- a few acres of wheat surrounded by woods in rural Pennsylvania. It's ordinary, which is to say sweet and brutal. One always enters this field at great risk: the latest gossip of cougar or bear, the smell of sewage dumped into a nearby stream, the hobo-bag of ashes from the farmer who shot himself, and so many angles of sunlight, all of them God. This is the landscape of my childhood-- the hunted and the hunter-- and always in my life I am searching for its explanation. Oh, beautiful deer hanging from the maple. Oh, raspberries plump with summer blood.
And what, exactly, was that first explanation? To say that it came in the form of a painting is much too simple. In "The Meridian," Paul Celan writes of "a sending oneself ahead toward oneself, in search of oneself." Art exists in the terror of moving beyond oneself in order to become ultimately more human. That art comes across as a landscape or a poem or a song is not the point. Art is the communal meeting of the self at the not-yet-self. Between this distance-- and this is a great distance-- there is a void that must be stepped out into.
Stepped out into, as one steps out into a field-- alone, on an ordinary day, with no expectations. Regardless of our world, the field exists (and does not exist) in and of its own. Before the metaphor of the field, there was the child's dream of the field: God's hands stretched out over midnight, lifting her higher and higher towards sleep...then, suddenly, light-through-the-finger-cracks, a letting go-- below, and at great speed, there is only the field, only her. In the dream, the field becomes a sort of void-- it opens up into a deeper, more bottomless terror. The field is both the beginning and the end, but, like numbers, one never really reaches that point. Nor does the field ever regain the shape of hands. No. The dream always ends in waking: a sweaty, heart-thumping jolt of sleeplessness.
When I saw Anselm Kiefer's work (and later read Paul Celan), the immediate human tragedy, while obviously there, was not first in my mind. What I saw instead was my field, innocent at first, then pulsing wildly into a larger and larger question. Without knowing it, I was being sent out ahead toward myself, in search of myself-- stepping out, as Paul Celan saw it, into a Place de la Révolution: our time, our origin, our meridian.
Or perhaps not. It has taken me six years to look up the meaning of the word ZimZum, the title of the painting that I claim changed my life. Six years. A life less and less changing, tied down to alarm clocks and calendars-- a life tied down to itself. Six years, less and less-- and in walks Paul Celan, riding God like a horse, riding God (I remember!) over my field, mumbling "ich ritt durch den Schnee, hörst du,/ ich ritt Gott in die Ferne-- die Nähe..." And in walks Paul Celan: "O einer, o keiner, o niemand, o du:/ (O one, o none, o no one, o you)." And in walks Paul Celan: "Remember me-- among the almonds."
And in walks Paul Celan, it seems, right through the center of the painting-- right through the center of God. The painting, a wall-sized mural, is a leap of perspective. It's an abstract landscape framed, perhaps, by a window, by nothingness or even by a sparser, more threatening nature. The colors are earthy and dark and heaped upon one another. One is drawn immediately to the brighter center, which, it seems, might be water or light or God. The center leads toward what could be a human shape, perhaps a crucifixion, something with great knowledge and great need. One is drawn there, but, walking closer, realizes that it is an optical illusion: the center is more dead than any other part of the painting. One turns away, walks back to the distance of hope, walks forward, walks back, with and without God, or in Paul Celan's words, between "its Now-no-more back into its Ever-yet."
There is a moment (there are many moments) when God drops us, turns away. For Paul Celan, this moment began on January 20, 1942 and lasted (more like pulsed, flickered) throughout the Holocaust and his lifelong exile from his homeland. All our lives come down to this: a moment when we believe it is not God that holds us up, but something much more visceral. It is in this terror of Now-no-more that we look deepest into ourselves and find our own light, our own rendering forth into Ever-yet. This is ZimZum: the idea that God must turn from us in order to create. In the painting, we are drawn to the light that surrounds a great void. We understand that this light that surrounds Nothing is, indeed, Something. Something real and urgent, something very Godlike, a lingering of God after God. Even if it is only in our imagination: ZimZum. God Was. God Is. God Will Be.
In the beginning, there was a field and the field took the shape of hands. The field was the word. The word and the silence. The word and the wound. Breath-turn. Light-compulsion. A contraction. A pulse. A centering. Sex. The distance between No and Yes. A stepping-out-into. This impossible path, a kind of homecoming. As if, throughout it all, it is only the angle of sunlight that we share.