“Todtnauberg” was inspired by Celan’s single encounter with one of the most famous philosophers of the twentieth century, Martin Heidegger. It has been the center of a fierce debate, most of which has taken place in France among contemporary philosophers, but the poem has been discussed at length in Germany, England, the United States, and elsewhere. It is a difficult poem because of its compression and allusiveness; without knowing its background the reader may find it impenetrable.
Todtnauberg was the name of Heidegger’s home in the Black Mountains of Germany, and therefore this title cannot be translated, although the name’s components reflect some of Celan’s preoccupations: Tod (death) and Berg (mountain). In 1966, after giving a reading, Celan was taken to a meeting with Heidegger at Todtnauberg. The two went for a walk and talked, and Celan wrote in Heidegger’s guest book in his home. Then Celan went back to his hotel. That very week, he wrote the poem, identifying the time and place of composition.
Heidegger remains a major figure in contemporary theory. His reputation has been tainted by his association with Nazism, and rumors of this connection were already afloat when he met Celan. He was interested in Celan’s work and Celan in his; Heidegger went to hear Celan read his work. However, the issue of Heidegger’s politics remained a barrier between them.
In the poem, Celan describes his...
(The entire section is 568 words.)