Thoughts about Boars and Paul Celan

Lawrence Norfolk

To anyone attacked by a wild boar the advice from ancient and modern authorities is unanimous: do not run. Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scout Movement, estimated that a horse and rider would need three-quarters of a mile to catch a boar with a 50-yard head start. In 1914, Malcolm Crawford, ‘the Bengal hog hunter’, remarked on the boar’s skill in ‘jinking’, or making sudden changes of direction, even ramming his snout into the ground at full speed and using it as a fulcrum on which to spin. Pindar in his Third Nemean Ode records an instance of a man outpacing a wild boar, but his example – Achilles – is not typical.

Around the turn of the fifth century BC, Xenophon noted that the boar is designed to attack animals taller than himself. Boars have been known to knock over camels, attack elephants and charge bullock carts and motorised trucks. In the late 1980s, two young boars attacked an F16 fighter plane attempting to land at Jacksonville International Airport in Florida, causing its destruction. Xenophon advised the spearless huntsman faced with such an adversary to ‘fall on his face and clutch the undergrowth beneath him for, if the beast attacks him in this position, he is unable to lift the man’s body owing to the upward curve of his tusks.’ Against this advice one might note the fate of the beater employed by the Nagpur Hunt in 1912, who was knocked to the ground and, despite adopting precisely the attitude prescribed above, was gored so badly that his lungs were exposed. Another unfortunate, in the following year, was gored in a similar way and with similarly fatal results, the tusks of the boar becoming so entangled in his victim’s ribcage that they could be removed only by killing the beast and cutting off his head. Xenophon also mentions the possibility of being trampled to death.

Tusks appear at nine months and grow outward from between the fourth pre-molar (or wolf-tooth) and the corner incisor in the lower jaw. They may reach a foot in length, although eight inches is more common. Xenophon warns of their heat: the angrier the boar the hotter they become. The tusks of the boar of Kalydon, displayed first in the temple of Athene at Tegea in Arcadia and later in Rome, were reported by Pausanias in the second century AD to be the size of a man’s leg, which implies the boar was the height of a giraffe. Tusks, being bone, grow brittle with age. They may snap and regenerate imperfectly. A downward curve is possible, enabling boars to attack creatures below them as well as above.

A boar may survive the loss of a leg, punctures of the lung and, according to the records of the Ahmedabad Tent Club for 1888, a fall down a 50-foot well. The nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1986 resulted in several herds of radioactive boars in eastern Germany. They are effectively inedible. Amputations and spearings appear not to trouble the boar overmuch. Tusk-breakage and irradiation may even strengthen him. A tenth-century diegetical commentary on the 96th Aetion of Callimachus relates the tale of the hunter who, having caught and decapitated his boar, hung the head in a tree and lay down to rest in its shade. The head fell down and killed him while he slept. The boar is formidable even when dead.

Allied to his armament is the boar’s bulk. Sus scrofa, as Linnaeus dubbed him, favours all terrain south of the 57th parallel. Wild boars are possible in Romania, France and Germany, for instance, but not in Estonia or Finland. The more northerly boars tend to be larger than their southern cousins; a Czech boar will outweigh a Spanish one. All favour deciduous forests, where they grow up to two metres long and 200 kg in weight. The size of the boar and his environment are intimately connected. An early 20th-century huntsman advises: ‘Do not confuse cover with food. The latter comes first every time … In a sugarcane country as long as the cane is up all the pig will be in it; there may be beautiful jungles in the vicinity, but they will not hold pig.’ Baden-Powell records a wild boar killed by a Mr J. M’Leod which measured 44 inches to the shoulder and probably weighed more than 450 lbs. Rowland Ward’s ‘Siberian Boar’ measured more than 42 inches to the shoulder. The largest boar killed by the Nagpur Hunt (the first spear was Captain R.D. Burlton of the second Madras Lancers) was 38 inches high and weighed 358 lbs. These are impressive statistics.

Behind the boar’s bulk lies his appetite; he grows according to the food supply, and Sus scrofa is a glutton. The history of his domestication proceeds from this fact. Boars fattened by the Romans reached weights of up to 1000 lbs. Such leviathans were the means to ever more conspicuous feats of consumption, a tradition which achieved its apotheosis in the serving of wild boar à la Troyenne at a banquet given by Servilius Rullus for Marcus Tullius Cicero after the latter’s victory over Catiline in 63 BC.

A young Sicilian cook prepared the dish, which was carried in by four Ethiopian slaves. Baskets of dates were suspended from the boar’s tusks. Piglets in pastry surrounded it. When the boar was cut open, a second animal was discovered within it, and a third, and a fourth. The sequence was finally terminated by a fig-pecker. (‘If a figpecker could grow as big as a pheasant, it would be worth the price of an acre of land,’ Brillat-Savarin adjudged 19 centuries later, before divulging Canon Charcot’s method of consumption: pull out the gizzard and swallow the bird whole. M.F.K. Fisher calls this recipe ‘brutishly refined’ but admits puzzlement as to what the canon did with the feathers.)

By the time of Petronius the dish was already an absurdity. Decapitated at the table, live thrushes (the poor man’s fig-pecker) fluttered out of the boar’s open neck to be recaptured by slaves acting the parts of huntsmen. A second slash of the sabre and sausages tumbled out in place of gut. The boar’s vital organs were blood puddings. ‘Let a wild boar fed on acorns make your table bend under its weight,’ Horace enjoined. The tables bent, but the boar was no longer wild.

The boar is one of the few animals which humans eat that will, in turn, eat humans. It and we are interchangeably predator and prey. Stuffing ourselves with a 1000 lb boar stuffed with all the animals that omnivores may eat is a primal but ambivalent drama. Whose appetite is being celebrated by such a banquet?

The domestic pig is a wild boar deprived of all characteristics save one: his size. The gradual breeding out of the boar’s characteristics can be traced in the records of domesticated herds and their surpassing individuals. William Pitt’s report to the Board of Agriculture on the state of pig-breeding in Staffordshire in 1796 includes an engraving of an anonymous painting of a pig belonging to Mr Dyott of Freeford Manor, Lichfield. The pig’s coat is dark, the snout long – characteristics of a wild animal – but he is very nearly spherical and is said to have weighed 800 lbs at two and a half years. The Yorkshire Hog, belonging to Colonel Thomas Beaumont MP, was bred for exhibition only. He was just over three metres long and weighed 1344 lbs. Miraculously, he could still walk.

Such useless growth led to the judgment in Morton’s Cyclopedia of 1855 that Yorkshire pigs comprised ‘one of the largest breeds in the kingdom and probably one of the worst’. After cross-breeding they would eventually become the Large White and Landrace of modern herds. Among these ‘middle-breed’ pigs we may notice Lord of the Wassail, the first middle-breed boar to take a prize at the Royal Smithfield Show. The bristles of his coat were eight and a half inches long (his breeder, a keen angler, used them to tie fishing flies) and his hide so thick it was fit only to be made into blacksmith’s aprons. Two of these were fashioned and the remainder of the skin hung as a partition wall in a public house in Keighley. Barely edible, often immobile, these were not so much animals as living monuments to man’s will to domesticate.

But even within such bloated, breathing carcases, the wild boar remains. The differences between domesticated and wild boar are physiological and temperamental, not genetic. Wild boars are longer, darker-haired, prick-eared not lop-eared, and have straight, not curly, tails. But they and their domesticated cousins alike have diploid chromosome numbers of 38 or 36. Phenotype, in the boar, does not necessarily follow genotype.

Thus, for example, although the appetites and digestive systems of wild and domesticated boars differ in extent (M. Heuzé, the inspector-general of agriculture in France in the 1880s and author of Le Porc, offers intestinal lengths of 17 and 211/2 yards respectively), they are identical in operation. Physiological differences exist, but their accentuation is cultural. While the wild boar is voracious, the pig is merely a glutton. While the domestic pig grows larger, more expansive, more obvious, the wild boar grows secretive, darker, less and less visible. He conceals himself in the standing corn or the ‘bourrh gungas’ (old riverbeds). He lies up in the reedbeds of Lake Trichonis or rests in Homeric thickets where ‘the rays of the sun never penetrate.’ Only in the depths of the forest are what Major Maxwell of the Second Lancers called ‘the real old grey (almost white) monsters’.

But even in the wild boar’s retreat, his cultural trace remains.

‘Ich habe mich also gefragt, wo ich meinen “Eber” herhaben mag,’ the Romanian-Jewish German-speaking poet Paul Celan wrote in a letter to the classicist Walter Jens in May 1961. ‘I’ve asked myself where I might have got my boar from.’ His query concerned the provenance of an image that had appeared in a poem published seven years earlier. Here, from Celan’s 1955 collection, Von Schwelle zu Schwelle, is the boar in question, in Joachim Neugroschel’s translation:

In the shape of a boar
your dream tramples through the woods on the edges of evening.
Glittering white
like the ice from which it erupted
are its razors.

It rakes up a bitter nut
from under the leaves
that its shadow tore from the trees,
a nut
black as the heart that your foot kicked along
when you walked here yourself.

It gores the nut
and fills the thicket with grunting fate,
>then strikes off
down towards the coast,
there where the sea
holds its darkest of feasts
on the crags:

a fruit like its own
will delight the festive eye
that has wept such stones.

Wherever this poem is going, it is going there with great insistence. Wherever it has come from it has come from there with great force. In transit from one to the other of these notional places, just as insistent and forceful as the poem which reaches between them, there is a seeming-boar. A dream-boar, or the furrow left by his passage: the shape of a boar. The poem happens within the animal even while describing him. But the boar is not here.

‘I’ve asked myself where I might have got my boar from.’ By the time of Celan’s letter to Walter Jens, there had already been one answer to that question. Following his escape from Bucharest in 1947, the 27-year-old Paul Celan had spent more than a year in Vienna. His first collection, Der Sand aus den Urnen, was published there in April 1948. Two months later, he left for Paris, carrying with him an introduction from Alfred Margul-Sperber to Yvan Goll, an Alsatian-Jewish poet, a surrealist and an early translator of Joyce’s Ulysses into German. By 1949 Goll was dying of leukaemia. Celan visited him often and gave the poet and his wife, Claire, a copy of Der Sand aus den Urnen. It is pointless to speculate on the precise relationship between the three, but Celan’s relative isolation in Paris, the age gap between him and the Golls and his loss of both parents in Transnistrian labour camps during the German occupation of Bukovina may all be relevant. Just before his death in February 1950, Goll began writing again in German and asked Celan to translate some of his French poetry into that language. Celan agreed and honoured this promise, working on the translations in 1950-51. Claire Goll was unable to find a publisher for them.

Celan published Mohn und Gedächtnis, the collection which made his reputation, in 1952. It contained most of the work published in Der Sand aus den Urnen four years earlier, including ‘Todesfuge’, the most famous of all Celan’s poems. In August 1953 an American scholar called Richard Exner pointed out to Claire Goll certain similarities between Yvan Goll’s posthumous collection Traumkraut (1951) and Celan’s Mohn und Gedächtnis. Claire Goll wrote an open letter alleging plagiarism and at least one journalist supported and repeated these charges. Despite the conclusive evidence of Celan’s own prior publication of the poems in question in Der Sand aus den Urnen five years earlier, this allegation drew no public reaction from the poet, who went on to publish Von Schwelle zu Schwelle in 1955 and Sprachgitter in 1959.

In 1959 an obscure Munich literary magazine, Baubudenpoet, carried an attack on the critical welcome afforded Sprachgitter. Then, in its March-April 1960 issue, a letter from Claire Goll appeared. She made three points. First, she recalled how moved she and her dying husband had been in 1949 by Celan’s ‘sorrowful legend’ of how his parents had been killed by the Nazis. Second, she condemned as ‘cursory and inept’ Celan’s translations of Yvan Goll’s poems into German. Lastly, she again alleged that Celan had plagiarised her husband’s work.

Again, she cited poems that had been published first in 1948, and misquoted to create similarities where there were none. Among the supposedly stolen work was the image of the boar. Celan’s reaction to the charges, this time, veered between legitimate outrage and a paranoia that has been called excessive. But Claire Goll’s questioning of the provenance of Celan’s poems opened a deeper abyss than she knew. The boar had emerged from a profound darkness. His spectral presence can be glimpsed in Celan’s later work.

‘I could tell it wasn’t foxes or badgers from the way the ground was churned up,’ the sheep farmer Richard Ashby commented after six of his lambs were killed in Kent in 1996. English has no term for this ‘churning up’ but German does. Die Gebräch is ground broken up by wild boars. This is from a later poem in Atemwende (1967); the English translation is by Pierre Joris.

deiner Hand.

Aus der Vier-Finger-Furche
wühl ich mir den
versteinerten Segen

of your hand.

From the four-finger-furrow
I root up the
petrified blessing.

If not the whole boar, at least his parts penetrated the text of the earlier poem: his tusks and taste for bitter nuts, weight and gait, his grunt. That poem swerves and accelerates. It jinks. Here the boar is long gone. Only his mark and a scattering of the earlier poem’s materials remain. The ‘bitter nut’ which was raked up and became a ‘wept’ stone reappears: the petrified tear is disinterred now as a ‘petrified blessing’. The ground in which the speaker must dig for it is a grave. The ‘four-finger-furrow’ derives from an image sometimes carved into headstones in Jewish cemeteries. The question of what this poem means is superseded by when it means it. We are very late on the scene.

A friend of the German poet Nelly Sachs recalled a meeting with Celan in 1960:

Paul said his heaviest guilt was a betrayal. He broke into tears. He told how one day the Nazis came and arrested him and his parents. That was in 1942. They were put into a concentration camp. A barbed wire fence separated them. Then Paul stretched his hand through the barbed wire and grasped his father’s hand. A guard saw it and bit Paul’s hand very hard: ‘And I let Papi’s hand go – just think, I let go of his hand and ran away!’

‘Your hand’, the poem says. Although this account cannot be literally true, one may note that the ‘four-finger-furrow’ is formed from two hands, not one, and that Furche derives from Furchung, ‘forking’, or ‘division’ in the biological sense. This poem might be an elegy for Celan’s father, or a gesture aimed at recovering him, or a commemoration of the animal whose rooting might draw that gesture’s sign. We are too late, or the poem’s shadows are too dark for us to know. But the obligation to what happened remains.

Behind us lies a vast hinterland of lost histories: events, objects and lives which have passed unrecorded, or unwitnessed, or whose witnesses have been consumed. The perfect crime is, by definition, an untellable event. But it is not unimaginable. The historian must stop where the evidence gives out, but stories can be told beyond the evidential limits, of pasts too distant or too close. The ‘Once upon a time’ boar and the ‘Not yet’ boar can be hunted and pursued to the dark and silent spaces which are their lairs. A cave, a chamber, a silent apartment overlooking the Pont Mirabeau. Here is such a place (from Fadensonnen, 1968, translated by Joris).

Kleide die Worthöhlen aus
mit Pantherhäuten,
erweitere sie, fellhin und fellher

Line the word-caves
with panther-skins,
widen them, pelt-to and pelt-fro

These words have accreted meanings. The image of the panther appeared in a prose poem written by Celan in Bucharest in 1947. A German translation of the original Romanian (‘und der silberne Panther zerfleischte die Morgenröte, die auf mich lauerte’) offers a ‘silver panther’ and a punning ‘syllable panther’. Whether Celan’s Germanic mother tongue operates with sufficient insistence beneath the poem’s Romanian surface to allow this fleeting play on words to be claimed is questionable, although ‘cette belle saison de calembours’ was how Celan later characterised his time in Bucharest (‘what a wonderful time for puns’). Perhaps one can hear the distant echo of Celan’s between-ness and encavedness in Paris, his ‘entre’ and ‘antre’, in ‘Panther’. Here, it is the lair rather than its creature which is worded. Rilke’s famous panther, observed in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris in 1903, has bequeathed only his fur and the motion which seemed to animate him: ‘pelt-to and pelt-fro’. Some of the word-cave’s darkness is Rilke’s too, from ‘Schwarze Katze’.

aber da, an diesem schwarzen Felle
wird dein stärkstes Schauen aufgelöst

but there, in this dark pelt
Your most piercing gaze will be lost

Nothing and no one is visible here. The imperative mood conjures no dramatic situation. No one is asking anyone else to ‘widen’ the confines of the poem; the verb uncoils relations within the image rather than drawing them together. The particular space and time invoked in these lines is sprung between outward dissolution and inward collapse. The imperative has no tense. There isn’t anywhere this image can happen. There isn’t any ‘when’ either.

Rilke’s negatively capable leap into the dark pelt of the panther is, for Celan, the point of departure. Celan’s word-cave is built – impossibly – from the inside. Why should he choose to construct about himself a contracting darkness? Why should he write his poem at the very point of its collapse? The answer begins in a recognition that Celan chose neither the straitened confines of the word-cave nor the belated entanglement of its history. He was there, and then, of necessity.

Celan gave various accounts of the events which took place in Czernowitz, the town of his birth, on 27 June 1942. That summer, a series of deportations ordered by SS Commander Otto Ohlendorf had targeted the town’s Jewish population. These took place regularly on Saturday nights. On the last Saturday of June, Paul took shelter in a deserted factory, or possibly at the home of a friend. His parents did not. When he went home the next day, he found his mother and father gone and the house sealed. His father died of typhus in a work camp that autumn. His mother was shot as unfit for work some months later. Celan learned this only the following year. We do not know how. Nothing more of their fates is known.

die Schlüsselgewalt.
Der Stosszahn regiert

power of the keys.
The tusk governs

The poem is called ‘Eingedunkelt’ and is from a collection intended to have the same name, begun and abandoned in 1966.

The benighted horizon over which they and so many others passed marks a perceptual limit. To cross it was to share the fate of the lost. To stop short was to abandon the lost to their fate. Celan’s poetry typically aligns itself along boundaries: on margins and thresholds, in (not inside, but in) the skin of an animal, pressed within the pelt. All these boundaries are analogous to that perceptual and moral one, which he could neither cross nor retreat from. ‘In the Shape of a Boar’ does not necessarily share the consciousness of the animal which has trampled its landscape, nor identify with its form. The line left to the poet may be as thin as an outline wavering in the dusk, ‘on the edges of evening’.

Stranded between the obligations to witness and to survive, Celan’s poetry takes place on the narrow line between the two. Images of straitening, of being pressed, are frequent. ‘Sehr eng’ was how one inmate summed up life in the Czernowitz ghetto: ‘Very cramped.’ These narrowings are matched and countered by metaphors of excavation, outfoldings of the vanishing line on which Celan found himself. ‘Shovelling!’ was how he once summed up the remainder of his war years. He never stopped. The ‘word-cave’ from which his poetry issues is dug out of a space which has no dimensions: ‘Eine Sehne, von der/deine Pfeilschrift schwirrt’ (‘Beim Hagelkorn’, from Atemwende). ‘A bowstring, from which/ your arrowscript whirrs.’ Celan’s poetry frames a reality which cannot be encompassed otherwise. The impossible space he opens within its margins is his only possible destination. He finds dimension in a dimensionless line.

‘Ich habe mich also gefragt, wo ich meinen “Eber” herhaben mag,’ Celan wrote to Walter Jens. Then he supplied the answer: ‘Eber, lieber Walter Jens – das gibt es eben.’ ‘Boars, my dear Walter Jens – such things do exist.’