The Stutter of the Time

Paul Celan’s poem “Tübingen, January,” a three-stanza poem, breaks down in the third stanza as it stutters into Friedrich Hölderlin’s nonsensical language, “Pallaksch.” Celan’s poem, which was written about Hölderlin, about the other, incorporates the voice of the other into the body of the text. This poem contains two voices, that of Celan and that of Hölderlin who is restricted to the parenthetical space concluding the poem. Here, the voice of the other is not only babble, it is also the voice that ends, that has the final word and the final wound. The stutter is operating here on multiple registers, as the language of the other and of the speaker, the language of memory, and the language of poetry. This poem stutters prior to its resurrection incorporating the voice of the dead other. The parentheses around Hölderlin’s voice, his babble, re-tombs the dead other marking an attempt at containment. This containment is both of the foreign body and of the babble or stutter injected by that body.

The title of the poem, “Tübingen, January,” is the location of Hölderlin’s last residence after his diagnosis of mental illness. The poem locates itself, and marks that it is speaking from and to the place of the other as well as the place of the mad, a place of slippage. This poem takes in the other as the speaker announces the other through the mouth and enters that other into the text. The mouth is the site from where the other is greeted and taken in, and it is also the site of destruction. Jacques Derrida distinguishes between what he identifies as the mouth and the maw in The Beast and the Sovereign.[1] The mouth is attributed to the human where the maw is attributed to the animal. The mouth is the space that disciplines, articulates and constitutes speech while the maw is what cries, devours and tears apart. Derrida writes,

And as for orality, between mouth and maw, we have already seen its                double carry [porteé], the double tongue, the carry of the tongue that speaks, carry as the carry of the voice that vociferates (to voci-ferates is to carry the voice) and the other carry, the other devouring one, the voracious carry of the maw and the teeth that lacerate and cut into pieces. Vociferation and devourment, we were saying, but let us not hasten to attribute speech to the mouth of man supposed to speak and voracity or even the vociferation of the cry to the animal’s maw (Derrida 65).

The mouth always threatens to expose its maw, the rumbling death drive lying in wait. Stuttering is this slippage between mouth and maw, the vociferation of speech that doesn’t fully articulate. This is a scene of struggle where the maw is pulling back on language as it escapes the mouth. The moment of “Pallaksh” in Celan’s poem is a moment of the maw, the disarticulated voice and lacerated speech that managed to escape the mouth without discipline, a foreign and fugitive voice. Derrida also notes that maw in its devouring or killing of the Other, is also internalizing and mourning that Other. Tübingen January is, in its fluctuating between mouth and maw, internalizing the voice of Hölderlin to mourn it, to mourn the poet and to mourn language as the graphe, the writing and archiving of the self, the becoming-sign of the writer.

Poetry is inscribed and ex-scribed, scribbled or stuttered out in this sovereign scene of mouth and maw, in the disruption of language, the tearing and re-constitution of voice. One can say that it is the site from where poetry is made possible, made imperative, the violent and traumatic birth of language from a mouth-at-war. The history of poetry is also the history of the writing of babble, nonsense, silence, stuttering, and glossolalia. Picking up on the noise of the body, a certain noise of the real, signifying a machinic breakdown of the body and the voice, this type of writing “knows that language, like the body, is a place of spacings and gaps. It nevertheless pursues, in its materiality, this divided and incomplete gestation that is the very work of being’ It is also the work of poetry” (Weiss 132).[2] Glossolalia reclaimed babble and nonsense as a language that is able to move meaning and constitute sense in a non-linear way. This poem is written and read on that dangerous edge between mouth and maw, the unstable ground from where Celan speaks, from where he must speak, the stutter of the time.


[1] the discussion of mouth and maw is similar to Agamben’s distinction of logos and phone, although Agamben’s reading of the human versus the animal-like doesn’t allow for the possibility that phone (or maw) can articulate.

[2] This short passage is found philosopher and sound theorist Allen S Weiss’s text Breathless where he examines Laurent Jenny‘s writing on Antonin Artaud and glossolalia

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