Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 567

“Tenebrae” is a poem of shadows, of multiple meanings eclipsing one another. This juxtaposition of meaning using single images provides it with layers of context. Beyond the Christian facade are Jewish underpinnings. Likewise, behind the symbolism of normative Judaism one finds reference to the Kabbala, the Jewish mystical and esoteric tradition. Finally, both Surrealism and existentialism play important roles.

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The poem reads like a strange, surreal prayer. Anger and loss predominate in describing the relationship with God. The use of the pronoun “we” flows naturally in Jewish thought and practice, in which regulations strictly mandate communal prayer. Ashamnu, literally “we have sinned,” is the prayer that runs alphabetically through the list of transgressions asking for forgiveness on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The use of “we” establishes the importance and culpability of all people in the face of God.

It is not clear that the condition described is the result of any specific sin. In fact, the angry tone of the poem implies that an injustice has been done against humanity. As the poem proceeds, it seems that “we” have acted out of obedience to God. “We” are near, and “we” went to the trough like cattle, bent over, submitted to be watered, and drank as directed. Yet this violation continued. The Lord, the shepherd, shed the blood of his own flock. “We” even drank it in obedience to God. The drinking of blood is an important allusion because it carries radically different significances for Judaism and Christianity. In Christian doctrine the blood of Christ gives life, while in Judaism the consuming of blood is strictly forbidden. Thus in a Jewish context, to drink blood at the crater is to violate one of God’s commandments.

Thus not only is God’s covenant with Jews eclipsed by the revelation of Christ, but also the Christian notion is eclipsed by the overriding existentialist tone realizing the absence of God. For the existentialist, this absence is a point of departure not toward nihilism but toward constructing new meaning. The poem reads: “your image into our eyes, Lord.” The image of God and the faces of those staring into the pool become one. Likewise, when the eyes and mouth appear empty, God too is drained of life—another eclipse. Finally, the people depicted in the poem drink not only the blood but also the image in the blood, their own image, which in the poem inverts creation back to humanity as it sees itself and the God it created.

The multiple eclipses of “Tenebrae” are found not only in the juxtaposition of imagery but also in the language of the poem used to construct it. While in Christianity Christ is the incarnation of the Word in the flesh, within Judaism (accentuated in the Kabbala), words, the letters that form them, and even the spaces between them are thought literally to make up creation and the mystery behind it. The construction of the poem, Celan’s use of a minimal number of words, and, more important, the use of a single vocabulary to describe seemingly contrary explanations all reflect a deep sense of distance from the dominant notion of God. If the central eclipse evokes the Passion of Christ, in Celan’s poem it is the mythic Passion that is eclipsed—not only by a seemingly Godless reality but also by the realization of humanity’s role in constructing it.

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