Paul Celan, “I hear the axe has flowered”

I hear the axe has flowered is quite a sentence. It combines an instrument of violence, an axe, with a vision of growth. In case one feels tempted to say an axe merely prunes or cultivates—maybe imagining an axe only felling dead trees or providing firewood—Celan’s fourth line speaks of “the hanged man.”

The references to an executioner lead beyond the horrors the state inflicts on individuals, as “flowered” signals an almost absurd belief in progress. How do any of us reconcile the terror and dehumanization indulged by state and society with hope for the future?

I hear the axe has flowered (from Guernica)
Paul Celan (tr. Ian Fairley)

I hear the axe has flowered,
I hear the place can't be named,
I hear the bread that looks on him
heals the hanged man,
the bread his wife baked him,
I hear they call life
the only refuge.

Celan hints that we do not aim for any sincere reconciliation. An axe deconstructs itself and simply flowers; “the place can’t be named” as many object to investigating lynchings or mass graves. He hears these awful excuses as we all do, silently marveling at one in particular: I hear the bread that looks on him heals the hanged man. How could it be possible to believe bread that alone heals? Holy Communion can be perverted in the public mind, in this case serving to justify the summary execution of dissidents and undesirables. The totality of state and society acting this way compounds horror: I hear the bread that looks on him heals the hanged man, the bread his wife baked him.

At this point I have to pause. Celan envisions a sort of person who can see those executed as indispensable to others. And that sort of person can just shrug off their lives, the fact they’re loved and needed. This is readily identifiable by us as a contemporary political phenomenon. The glorification and over-romanticization of violence-workers such as police and soldiers has built a culture of dehumanization and death, machinery tailored to serve non-democratic ends. Some people, we believe, are useful. They serve. Their lives and the lives of those who support them are “worthy” ones. Others don’t deserve anything, not even their own lives. Note that what counts as useful or as service is entirely made up. A small, trivial example. According to our society, Donald Trump, Jr.—not the President, but the President’s son—has had a job longer than I’ve ever had, and has contributed significantly to the economy. A recent poll said that 17% of Republicans would vote for him as President in 2024.

I sound like I’m getting off-topic, but most of you listening are understanding that some the ways we dehumanize can be imperceptible. The most insidious ways hide within our notions of right and wrong. We don’t even realize how fervently we pursue evil until we’re impacted directly. Even then, we have an incredible capacity to lie to ourselves. It’s against this backdrop I believe Celan’s last line hits hardest. I hear they call life the only refuge. Refuge from what? Life?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.