by Paul Antschel

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Themes and Meanings

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Celan—an East European Jewish poet whose parents and close friends were killed by the Nazis—never recovered entirely from the tragedy he experienced when barely twenty years old. He repeatedly expressed his utmost grief in his poetry and searched for a solution or answer to the extreme suffering of his people.

In “Psalm,” Celan addresses the universally valid question of the relationship of the world and an infinitely absent God. Twentieth century European nihilism, frequently attributed to the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), who declared that God was dead, also affected Celan, who, because of his traumatic wartime experiences, faced a spiritual crisis. Eventually, however, Celan came to use the resources of Jewish mysticism for probing questions raised by the suffering he witnessed and experienced. Celan nevertheless differs from mystic poets, because the mystical symbolic significance of his imagery hangs in balance with an all-but-unresolvable bitterness and despair. In “Psalm,” he juxtaposes a sense of nihilism with tenets of his religion and raises a question that is hidden beneath a twentieth century convergence of cultures and tragic historical events: Can God be redeemed from the void of his infinite absence and indifference?

The poet approaches this question by fusing in the image of “no one” two different religious traditions of Judaism. In the biblical tradition, God is envisioned as being personally involved in the creation of human beings and a committed part of a covenant with Israel. For Celan, this God has disappeared. In the Judaic mystical tradition, which influenced rabbinical Judaism and was transmitted through the Cabala, the creator of the universe is an infinitely distant, nameless entity—a nonbeing who projected the chain of powers from which the world ensued. This God, envisioned as male, frequently is experienced as infinitely distant, but He repeatedly is sought out and courted by mystics, who have asserted that He is discoverable in the midst of emotional intensity. The skillful fusion of these two concepts in the image of “no one” renders “Psalm” poignant and touching: It is extremely painful to register the absence of God, and it is overwhelming to witness the immense effort of the congregation to personalize and beautify this apparently indifferent, absent nonbeing. The suggestion of the discoverability of God is nevertheless hidden in the image of the rose. As David Brierley points out in “Der Meridian” (1984), Gershom Scholem, Celan’s primary source of Jewish mystical imagery, also traces the rose to its identity with the Shechinah, the mediator between humans and God in Jewish mythology, the anima of the world.

Ultimately, as the poem concludes with the image of the thorn, the song of the congregation remains a monologue, and the pain from which the poem derives both is transcended by vision and remains historical and real.

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