“R-Files” (short for “Review-Files”) is a new monthly feature of The Philosophical Salon. Under this heading, philosophers Frank Ruda and Agon Hamza look at what is happening in the world from the perspective of philosophical texts that matter to them, worry them, angers them, or arouses their enthusiasm.


Part I. F. Ruda on Osip Mandelstam, Gedichte, translated into German by Paul Celan

Sometimes, real miracles happen. They might appear small and marginal, but they are nevertheless real.[1] Recently, I re-read Paul Celan’s German translation of an anthology of poems published by the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, the last one Mandelstam authorized for publication in 1928 before his death in a Gulag in 1938. I could not help but think that this somewhat slim volume attests to or is the actual trace of such a wonder, the wonder that does not require any religious reading, but that rather demands a very attentive material interpretation.

This wonderful book contains around sixty pages of Russian poetry in German translation – with the first poems being written in 1908 and the last in 1924 – and a brief one-page long note about the translation, written by Celan, at the end. In its pages, we encounter one of the greatest Russian poets of the twentieth century translated by one of the greatest German poets of the same century. We ourselves become witnesses of a historical encounter of two poets, two languages, and two destinies at the intersection of the two great nightmares of the twentieth century, namely the Russian disaster and the German crime. The encounter, of which the German book is a material trace, took place at a spatial and temporal distance. Celan and Mandelstam have never met, which is why the encounter is as much virtual as it is material. It was first published in German in 1959, when Mandelstam had been already dead for over twenty years. He was deported in 1934, after previously having been put under house arrest following a direct intervention by Stalin himself,[2] and died in 1938 in Kolyma, one of the Russian labor camps where he was imprisoned for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.”[3]

Celan was born as Paul Antschel (one should read ‘Ancel’ to identify the anagram) in Romania in 1920 and killed himself in Paris in 1970. He was not only the “poet of the impossible,”[4] but he also worked a translator of other literary writers (beside being a factory worker: this was for some time his day job) as diverse as Apollinaire, Artaud, Char, Dickinson, Yesenin, Mallarmé, Chekhov or Valéry, to name just a few. But Celan’s wonderful translation from Mandelstam’s Russian into a Celanian German is more than just a commissioned work. It seeks to stand up for Mandelstam, attempts eine Lanze für ihn zu brechen, literally: to break a lance for him. This is a crucial element of Celan’s translation, “lance” being an anagram of his name. The translation is an attempt to launch (lancieren) Mandelstam, as if he were a missile, maybe less in Marx’s famous sense than that of a rocket exploring space; to rocket-launch his work into German language-space.

Celan’s launch attempt, breaking a lance for Mandelstam, consists in defending him not so much against some already existing criticism but against oblivion. Celan’s translation launches an attack that lances and pierces the veil of ignorance, which covered Mandelstam’s work in the German-speaking world, of all European languages at that time. With Celan’s translation this began to change, and after the publication of the autobiographical accounts of Mandelstam’s wife Nadezhda Mandelstam’s (Hope Against Hope: A Memoir was published in German in 1971 and Hope Abandoned in 1975) the posthumous fate was even more massively transformed.

In his brief note, Celan remarks about Mandelstam’s poetry is unlike that of any of his poetic Russian contemporaries, to whom Celan refers with Jakobson’s eerie expression of the “wasted” generation. For Mandelstam, “the poem is the place (Ort) where that which can be perceived and achieved through language (das über die Sprache Wahrnehmbare und Erreichbare) is gathered around that center (Mitte) from which it gains its shape and truth: around the Dasein of the individual who interrogates time (die Stunde), one’s own and that of the world, of the heartbeat and of the eon. With this, it is said to what degree the Mandelstamian poem, the poem of the fallen reemerging from its downfall (das aus seinem Untergang wieder zutage tretende Gedicht eines Untergegangenen), concerns us today (uns Heutige angeht).”[5]

This extremely dense diagnosis needs unpacking. Mandelstam’s poetry, Celan claims, concerns us today, because it the poetry of a revenant, of a fallen being, who returns to the light of day after his decline, ruin, and demise. It, therefore, concerns us living today, who are its contemporaries, Celan indicates, because we are also the fallen ones, the destroyed, the demised, the ruined (Recall, that this is an account written after the Second World War). Mandelstam’s poetry is thus a poetry that speaks the language of downfall and destruction, in which one reads “the deep and therefore tragic acquiescence with the time.”[6] But because it still speaks, it returns from its own destruction. Not like a phoenix, but closer to what Hegel once stated about philosophy when he described it as “the reconciliation following upon the destruction of that real world which thought has begun.”[7]

For Hegel, philosophy is not the reconciliation that overcomes destruction, but reconciliation with destruction. Philosophy’s task is, then, to think the inner necessity and rationality of destruction – confronted with the horrifying events of the twentieth century, Hegel’s claim shows its radicality[8] – i.e., why this (particular form of) destruction was necessary and, say, the unavoidable part of a political system, or why the destruction of a system was a consequence of its own principles. This necessity is constitutively post factum, retroactively. It is not only invisible from the present, but it even does not exist as such. For philosophy to think its time is to think the emergence of the necessity of its time’s destruction.

Mandelstam’s poetry, for Celan, also has a singular relation to its time, to the time of destruction and downfall. It speaks of its time in the singular language of one individual Dasein, which reconnoiters and explores the potential and expressive capacities of language. It seeks to detect what language allows one to articulate one’s time; what it allows literally to put and form into words and what it thereby allows one to perceive. It makes its time perceivable by forming it into words. Poetry is its own time grasped in words, in word form. The poetically organized word (Wort), i.e., the poem, is the place (Ort) where the truth of one’s time, of a time of destruction, can become the center (Mitte) out of which thought orients itself. It is whence time can be mediated (ver-mitte-lt), not only with other generations, but also with thought. By means of a poetic-formal invention, the destruction that is at the heart of Mandelstam’s time is localized and located (verortet) by being put into words (verwortet). The poem does not speak of destruction in general, but of a singular type of destruction that is specific to this time (the Russia of the early first half of the twentieth century). Poetry speaks in a singular way of its time and, therefore, in Mandelstam’s case, of the disaster that manifests in Stalin’s Russia. But this does not mean that his poetry would remain untouched and at a distance to what it puts into words. In his case, neither the poetry nor Mandelstam himself would remain unwounded. To be able to put time into words means to grasp it, to hold it, to affiliate oneself with it, with the destruction that it is.

Mandelstam’s poetry speaks a language of destruction, because this language itself has undergone the destruction it speaks of, despite continuing to speak of it. Because destruction is the truth of its time, his poetry, which is destruction localized and put into words, is unavoidably more than just destruction. It speaks to us, those whom it addresses as its contemporaries, because it speaks to us of the downfall (Untergang) of its time, which concerns us and matters to us (uns Heutige angeht). Mandelstam’s poetry matter to us, because it enables us to think why its own downfall affects us and matters to us: why, to put it in German: uns der Untergang angeht. It does not become a new beginning (Anfang), but something that approaches us (Angang), orients us in such a way that we are forced to think it. This is Mandelstam’s achievement: to translate downfall into something that matters, like a destructive vanishing that matters, becomes materialized, converted into matter, the matter for thought. What does that matter look like when created in Russian and transmitted into German (and written about in English)?

The German volume brings together Mandelstam’s first collection “Stone” (first published in 1913), which already made Mandelstam well-known in Russia, the later “Tristia” and his final collection, simply called “Poems.” The latter contains inter alias the famous poem “My time”, in which he poetically thinks through his time and ends – in contrast to many English editions – with the equally famous “I am no one’s contemporary.” That is the final poem, not only of the collection but of the entire German book, a poem which in its German version includes the powerful imperative “so laßt uns zeiten mit der Zeit,”[9] which might be rendered in English as “let us time (with) time,” indicating that we need to elapse with the time to be present with it and address, or maybe even create, a future.

But there is only one poem in the entire collection that literally has a time-shaped title, its name expressing time grasped in words. It is called “Der erste Januar 1924” (“January 1, 1924” in English[10]). This is not the place to offer a systematic reading of it, but I’d like to refer to its first stanzas alone. Here they are:

“Whoever has kissed time on its tormented temple

will remember later with a son’s tenderness

how time lay down to sleep

in a snowdrift of wheat outside the window.

Whoever has lifted up the sickly eyelids of the age

– two large and sleepy apples –

will hear eternally the noise made by the rivers

of hollow and deceitful times.”[11]


In Celan’s German this reads as follows:


“Die Zeit, wer ihr die Stirn geküßt, die wundgequälte,

Er denkt, ein Sohn, noch oft in Zärtlichkeit,

Wie sie, die Zeit, sich draußen schlafen legte

Im hochgehäuften Weizen, im Getreide.

Wer des Jahrhunderts Lider je emporgehoben

– die beiden Schlummeräpfel schwer und groß –

Der hört Geräusch, der hört die Ströme tosen

Der lügenhaften Zeiten, pausenlos.”[12]

A son of his time, Celan’s Mandelstam states, thinks (denkt) with tenderness how this time came to a halt. Time stopped. It stopped being time, being timely, historical, when it went to sleep, as it had to rest. To think one’s time is in this case to think, as a son of one’s time, the saturation of time, its disappearance, its (ar-)resting. This means that one can live in a time that loses its time-ness, its historicity proper. A time, in which (the timeliness of) time passed.

The poem speaks of a time that is exhausted by what it had to endure and bear. To think poetically as a son of one’s time means to use one’s lips, less to form words, than to form a kissing mouth, a mouth that tenderly approaches the sufferings of one’s time. It means to think tenderly the wound that created time’s arrested-ness, its rest. Time needs to rest because it is “sore-tormented”, soremented (wundgequält): time is tortured by a wound, saturated by what happened in it. To think tenderly one’s soremented time is, thus, to seek to lift the eyelids of a century and see what it hears in its exhausted slumber. It means to lift the shut eyes, but not to see through them. The age’s eyes are slumber-apples (Schlummeräpfel) that suspend all clear vision; they are, in many respects, the opposite of the paradisiac apple. To lift one’s time’s eyelids means to place oneself in its position and tenderly listen to what it hears in its sleep, to listen to the sound of its nightmares, the returns of that by which it is exhausted by. The ceaseless noise of the “fraudulent” (lügenhaft) times.

Even when time rests, it dreams of what it is so exhausted by – the times, and currents, and noise that make up and destroy (the timeliness of) time. We see the reason for its exhaustion: the ceaselessness and incessant roar of noise (as if the opposite of the carefully formed and invented poetic word) made of currents, times, lies. Celan’s Mandelstam enables us to think what we witness when the heavy eyelids of the twentieth century are lifted: an endlessly exhausting detemporalization of time. Time has fallen asleep, seeks to rest, but is ceaselessly haunted even in its own slumber by the lying and noisy occurrences of the historical days that exhausted it in the first place. It may have happened first as tragedy and then as farce, but, for Celan’s Mandelstam, after the farce comes exhaustion. How does one reawaken an exhausted history? How to return from its demise? Is this not a question that could hardly matter more to us today?


Part II. A. Hamza on the function of violence

In light of the recent events in the USA, the question of violence emerges once again as a point of reflection. I am thinking of Slavoj Žižek’s Violence[13] as the foundation for reading not only the overtly violent outbursts, such as those on Capitol Hill, but also the invisible violence, comparable to “dark matter” in physics. This is systemic violence.

Although it is accurate to compare the US to the “dark matter” of civilizations, measured by the standards it proclaims to uphold, one has to refrain from falling into the all-too-usual leftist America-bashing. Employing all the existing (and other) labels in order to make sense of a political, ideological, or cultural phenomenon is, in a sense, comparable to the function of social media in political debates. No matter how (un)informed debates online are, they have nothing to do with actual political work. This doesn’t mean that political opinions are bad, but that we have them for the sake of pleasure and to relieve anguish. They are all very legitimate reasons, but it is important not to confuse them with politics. The same holds for the labels in politics: they have a clinical function (apart from bearing witness to intellectual laziness). In fact, if one wants to push this line of thinking further, it is not much of an exaggeration to argue that the functioning of labels in politics and theory is that of a lure which prevents us from thinking.

The exemplary case here is again Trump’s alleged fascism. Designating Trump’s presidency and political position as fascist misses the point. Looking for fascism or its traces in the contemporary far-right ideology is quite absurd, because fascism is the name of a certain politics including specific political and economic functions, the base of which cannot be provided by contemporary capitalism. Another dimension of the phenomenon in question is that fascists always make a deal with big businesses. Today, it is big capital which is calling for Trump’s impeachment, as well as calling for cutting financial support to the senators and congressmen who created favorable conditions for the riots at Capitol Hill. Portraying a dark picture of a phenomenon is insufficient; self-righteousness is cheap moralization. The way out of this is to start thinking politically and engaging with politics proper.

My first thesis is: there are no “victims” in the violence of Capitol. The democrats are not victims because their politics and ideological positions in economics and other spheres paved the way for the presidency of Donald Trump. He is not (just a) madman, as some senators and congressmen have called him; at one level of analysis, Trump has rendered visible the inherent inconsistences and the rootedness of the American system. This was perhaps the traumatic part for most of us: secretly (or not so secretly) we believed that the American system, especially its checks and balances, would not allow President Trump to go completely against the “system.” After his presidency, however, there cannot be a return to normality, either politically or institutionally. Every such endeavor is doomed to fail, and 2024 will likely mark the return of Trumpism with a vengeance. That is, the return of a far more “consistent” and radical Trump.

If the global constellation is analyzed in cold blood, we will see that there is no “practical” solution to the deadlocks of contemporary capitalism. But, in this text, I am concerned with something else, namely with the function of violence in capitalism as such.

The interesting thing about capitalism is that nobody refers to it by its proper name. In the work of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, “capitalism” is never mentioned as a mode of social production (although, capital is the central object of inquiry). Further, in Capital, Marx mentions the term only five times. This curiosity is quite telling, precisely because today, capitalism prefers to be called an economy.[14] Such a position is inherent to capitalism, which tries to present itself as a readymade product or as complementary to human nature (which clearly was not Marx’s intention; on the contrary, his entire work is a testament to the very opposite idea). How, then, are we to conceptualize politics proper in conditions where human nature has been reconciled with itself – in capitalism?

In Capital, Marx makes a very convincing point about the violent nature of the emergence of capitalism:

Tantae molis erat, to establish the “eternal laws of Nature” of the capitalist mode of production, to complete the process of separation between labourers and conditions of labour, to transform, at one pole, the social means of production and subsistence into capital, at the opposite pole, the mass of the population into wage labourers, into “free labouring poor,” that artificial product of modern society. If money, according to Augier, “comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek,” capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.[15]

Marx’s statement gives us a perspective onto the inconsistency of a liberal utopia. To begin with, liberalism – in many of its forms – considers every claim to a universal ethic to be a degeneration of the democratic process and of democracy itself. What is very interesting to note is that, while liberalism is slowly losing its status as a hegemonic ideological force, its philosophical supplement, so to speak, remains quite powerful, at least in academia. There is always-already something hypocritical in the liberal enjoyment of the defense of the existing order, which is caught up in an irreversible process of destruction. The liberals know very well the current system is corrupt, exploitative, and has inequality as its immanent condition, but they, nevertheless, denounce every attempt to change it as evil.

There is something equally problematic in the positions of the contemporary left, which, like western liberalism, maintains the mask of the left and its critique. The leftist position can be said to be an obsessional concern with defending the truth, in order to prevent it from turning into evil. In their protective mood, they dismiss all the alternatives even as a possibility. The paradox of our epoch is that, while we are plunged deeper and deeper into political, ethical, and national madness, global capital is thriving. However, the signs of an imminent crisis are transparent and visible.

Marx called his project the critique of political economy, not merely another elucidation of it. But a critique is not a sufficient notion for understanding his project. In one of his letters, he qualified his work, not quite modestly, as “without question the most terrible missile that has yet been hurled at the heads of the bourgeoisie (landowners included).”[16] How should we read this characterization, which in itself is very complex, with all the transcendental implications and dimensions that the capitalist mode of production entails?[17]

There are those Marxists who read Capital in the light of the famous line from the Manifesto, “capitalism produces its own gravediggers.” For them, a crisis in capitalism is a crisis of capitalism, in the sense that it produces the tools for overcoming itself. For others, Capital is read in the light of another statement from the Manifesto, the one about the permanent social revolution triggered by the bourgeoisie. For them, a crisis is the moment of an internal revolution against capitalism, part of capitalism’s own form of self-reproduction. Which option is correct? Perhaps neither: the far more frightening realization we have come to is that capitalism does reproduce its own logic, indefinitely, even as it meets an immanent limit. Yet, this limit is neither socialism nor communis, but barbarism: the utter destruction of natural and social substance in a “downward spiral” that does not recognize any “reality testing” in this destruction. So, the “gravediggers” that capitalism produces are gravediggers both of capitalism and communism, which is why no emancipatory project should count, using the immanent logic of capitalism, on pointing to a way out. Nor should it wait for the collapse of capitalism in the hope that we would not be dragged down along with it.

Relatedly, there is the violence unleashed by capital itself. We can distinguish six types of violence associated with capitalism.

(a) The violence of primitive accumulation: connected to the processes of dispossession, colonial expansion and the appropriation of land and means of production by dominant forces; it is the violence of establishing a private property regime and creating the “fictional commodities” needed for a market to be capitalist, which means that land, labour and money must become private property.

(b) The violence of safeguarding private property: connected to the juridical system that preserves and maintains property in the hands of those who have it (and keeps it out of the hands of those who don’t); police repression, laws, etc.

(c) The violence of value as such: the abstract movements of capital that determine the destiny of millions of people, their displacement, choice of profession, living conditions, and so on, with the essential aspect here being that these determinations carry no agent behind them; so, to suffer this violence is also to suffer the violence of having no entity to blame nor any way of mapping what has taken place.

(d) The violence of the impotence of tradition: as capitalism advances and establishes a social synthesis based on value, all forms of traditional institutions lose their synthetic power; this means that previous forms of authority continue to exist, but lose their capacity to organize life as a master-signifier, so that the only way to remain in a position of exception is to enact an exceptional force; the very impotence of tradition to remain a socially synthetic force expresses itself through its authoritative power—the violence that expresses the impotence of patriarchy and other values in order to sustain themselves as the horizon of social organization.

(e) The violence of surviving: with the inversion of means and ends, through which capital is constituted as the engine of social organization, not only is the accumulation of money an end in itself, and human inventiveness a means, but one’s cultural life becomes a means and one’s animal life an end, that is, surviving; even high cultural activities become informed by the structure of survival, through which everything must have a function in the cycle of natural reproduction; in other words, we are increasingly deprived of the experience of things that serve no purpose.

(f) The violence of resentment: the early Marx accurately described the process of alienation, through which workers are separated from both nature and the means and product of their work, but he was wrong to “deduce” from this formulation the notion that if workers do not enjoy what they produce, then the capitalist does; as his late theory of crisis shows, the overproduction of goods meets no gluttonous capitalist on the other side—instead it is consumed by no one; this “other who consumes what I am alienated from,” however, is structurally written into the alienation of work in capitalism, so that the problem of “the theft of enjoyment” is structurally part of the system’s reproduction.

The Marx of the manuscripts of 1844 deduced that such alienation could explain the relation between the “worker” and the “nonworker,” that is to say, the capitalist. One loses what the other gains. But now, with the horizon of full employment increasingly distant, it is becoming clear that this analysis describes rather well the relation between the worker and the other “non-worker,” the unemployed or underemployed, who is the true “subject that is supposed to enjoy” what the worker loses. Hence, the structural role of resentment within the working class, especially in the case of immigrants and people who require or depend on assistance from the state.

What are we to do then, in a situation, in which the act of doing something most likely has the potential of becoming equal to some kind of an obsessional neurotic gesture? Since, again, in our situation there are no “practical” solutions to the contradictions of capitalism, in principle, engagement without thinking (critical analysis) does nothing to help the system function more smoothly. We should recall Marx’s panic expressed in a letter to Engels in 1870s: faced with a fake urgency, when there was an impression that the European revolution was almost a fact, Marx, who at that time still hadn’t finished Capital, was almost ready to call upon the revolutionaries to postpone the revolution for a couple of years. Therefore, in times when adversaries are engaged in a struggle which is not our own, nor can we benefit from it in any form, the proper political act is to sit back and “do nothing,” that is to say, to sit back and think. There will come a time for proper violence.


[1] I would also add that there are certainly also wonders on a more massive scale. But this is another story.

[2] Alain Badiou, The Century (London: Polity 2007), p. 11.

[3] Instructive for this part of Mandelstam’s life, for all readers who are able to read German, is: Ralph Dutli, Mandelstam (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Verlag 2005), cf. pp. 514f.

[4] Peter E. Gordon, „Poet of the Impossible: Paul Celan at 100“, at: Poet of the Impossible: Paul Celan at 100 | Boston Review

[5] Paul Celan, “Notiz“, in: Ossip Mandelstam, Gedichte (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Verlag 1983), p. 67.

[6] Ibid.

[7] G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy: Greek Philosophy to Plato, trans. E. S. Haldane (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), p. 52

[8] This led thinkers like Adorno to claim that this task of philosophy sees meaning where there is only the destruction of meaning, attempts to think by means of reason the eclipse of reason and ends up justifying what cannot be justified. But is this really the case that one must therefore prohibit what is impossible anyhow? Must one not precisely defend thought in face of that which seems to explode and exceed it? I am here leaving aside here Adorno’s much-discussed claim about the impossibility of poetry after Auschwitz. An instructive discussion of it, can be found in: Alain Badiou, Five Lessons on Wagner (London / New York: Verso 2010), pp. 40f.

[9] Mandelstam, Gedichte, p. 63.

[10] For the English version, I refer to Osip Mandelstam, Selected Poems. A Bilingual Edition, translated by David McDuff (New York: Rivers Press 1973), pp. 89f.

[11] Ibid., p. 89.

[12] Mandelstam, Gedichte, p. 60.

[13] Slavoj Žižek, Violence, New York: Picador, 2008

[14] Incidentally, the furtherst I could trace back is that capitalism was first used by William Thackeray.

[15] Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1, London: Penguin,  1990 p.925

[16] Karl Marx, Letter to Johann Philip Becker, 17 April 1867, available online at: https://marxists.architexturez.net/archive/marx/works/1867/letters/67_04_17.htm

[17] In a letter to Ferdinand Lassalle in early 1858, Marx declared that ‘The work I am presently concerned with is a Critique of Economic Categories or, if you like, a critical exposé of the system of the bourgeois economy. It is at once an exposé and, by the same token, a critique of the system’, available online at: http://hiaw.org/defcon6/works/1858/letters/58_02_22.html