by Paul Celan
Deathfugue Theme of Art and Culture
People nowadays like to use the word "meta," but "Deathfugue" really is meta: it is a work of art that comments on itself as a work of art. Celan was brought up to appreciate the highlights of German high culture: its glorious music, poetry, and storytelling. It is easy to think that culture brings morality along with it, but Nazism demonstrated once and for all that this is not the case. The Nazi guard is the most obviously "cultured" person in the poem, and he has a love of nineteenth century German Romanticism in particular. But he sees no disconnect in being a poetry- and nature-lover by night and a murderer by day. As readers, we might be tempted to think that reading a poem like "Deathfugue" helps us to understand events like the Holocaust so that they do not happen again. But does art really have this effect, or does art have no effect on morality at all?
Questions About Art and Culture
- Do you agree with the philosopher Theodor Adorno's quote that writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric? What was he trying to say?
- Does the poem condemn German art and culture, and if not, why does Celan portray the Nazi guard as such an art-lover?
- Nazism made it pretty clear that appreciation for art doesn't necessarily make you a good person. But can art ever contribute to making someone better, ethically speaking?
- Why write a poem about the Holocaust at all? What might have been some of Celan's reasons for writing "Deathfugue"?
Chew on This
Celan believes that art can help to give a voice to victims of events like the Holocaust.
The poem uses art to demonstrate the futility and hopelessness of art. Our position as readers of "Deathfugue" is no different than the camp guard's admiration from Goethe's Faust.