As always with titles which have a specific meaning, the title “Tenebrae” gives rise to a preconception. One must obviously recognize that Tenebrae means not only eclipse, but a specific eclipse, namely, the one which, according to the Gospel, took place when Jesus expelled his last breath on the cross. In Catholic ritual this is celebrated as the Passion-matin, or Good Friday matin, so as to ritually repeat the event of the heavenly eclipse at the moment of Jesus’ death. This rite of the Passion-matin also includes a reading of the “Lamentations of Jeremiah.” The words of Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me,” is itself a quotation from the Old Testament. In this way Catholic ritual already conjoins the God-forsakenness that was the fate of the Jewish people in their Babylonian exile with the God-forsakenness of Jesus on the cross. But doesn’t the evocation of his heavenly eclipse by the contemporary poet extend further? Shouldn’t one think about the suffering and dying of the Jews in Hitler’s concentration camps? Or ultimately about the universal human fear of death? About God’s rage, how in the Jewish history of the Old Testament he punishes his chosen people? Or about the impiousness that has emerged in this age of the slackening of the Christian traditions? All of this resonates in the single word “Tenebrae” and permits us to listen.
In what sense then does the poem connect up to these “Tenebrae”? One thing is certain: the poem is not called “Tenebrae” without evoking the entire tradition of the passion story––from the Old Testament lamentations through the passion story on up to the passion of human beings under the darkened heaven of our present time. This is a preliminary orientation point which must attain a more precise exposition grounded in the poem itself.
The poem is provocation. Should it be understood as a blasphemous poem or as a Christian poem? Is it not blasphemous for the poem to say unequivocally to the dying Jesus: you should pray not to God, who has forsaken you, but to us? The meaning of this opposition is unmistakable: because God does not know death; at the hour of death He is unreachable. But because we do know death, know about it and its inescapability, we understand this last cry of forsakenness all too well. Obviously Jesus’ last words were not meant to express doubts about his God, but rather to attest to the overwhelming power of suffering and of death. Therein lies a last commonality [Gemeinigkeit] between the son of man and the children of man: both endure death.
But what does it mean that Jesus should prefer to pray to us? Is that an extreme mockery and rejection of faith in God and prayer to God, not to mention a brazen, impious distortion of the entire passion story and the forsakenness of Jesus on the cross?––And yet is this last forsakenness not a crucial moment in the Christian doctrine of incarnation itself, so that the poet so to speak approaches the actual sense of Christian doctrine in its concept of Jesus’ representative suffering and dying? I do not intent to try answering this question, since it cannot be answered. It is not the poet’s opinion that matters, but rather what is expressed in the poem. And that has been left open by the poet. As with all the language configurations created by the poet, it is necessary for us to decide for ourselves. We cannot rely on him.
In any case, Jesus is exhorted to pray to us. What does it mean here ‘to pray?” What does praying mean? The poem begins unambiguously with the provocation: “Pray to us, Lord.” This alludes to Jesus’ last words on the cross: “My God, my god, why hast thou forsaken me?” Is that even a prayer? Certainly it is an appeal to God. And perhaps it really can be said that making such an appeal is precisely what constitutes the only possible content of a prayer. for “we do not know what we should pray” (as suggested in the Epistle to the Romans and Bach’s famous motet). In fact, praying cannot mean asking for something. As if we could even know by ourselves what is right for us. Rather the granting of the prayer appears to precede any fulfillment of possible wishes. The granting of the prayer is itself the prayer’s being-heard, the existence [Dasein] of he to whom on he calls in the prayer. That he hears and that one is thereby not forsaken–-this is the granting. So understood, the content of Jesus’ last words is prayer itself, the last cry imploring to be by me, imploring not to leave me alone.
Yet for every person the hour of death, this last rebellion of Nature in us, is the hour of one’s utmost forsakenness. The brazen turn taken by the poem consists precisely in the fact that it concerns not only God’s forsakenness, but the forsakenness of all other human beings. What does it mean to pray to these human beings? As if human beings could offer any assistance here! However if “praying” means calling in such a way that the other hears, then a deeper meaning emerges: since human beings know death, since they stand under the law of death, they are in unique solidarity with the dying. This is what the dying should ascertain by praying to us, this last commonality.
This commonality is established in the poem’s introduction, and stands at the beginning and the end of this introduction, as well as the poem’s conclusion: we are near. “We are near, Lord, near and graspable.” To my mind, the “we” has a soft tone. Not you are near, but we. This is anything but an imitation of Hölderlin. The same sound with which the “Patmos” hymn begins: “God is near, but difficult to hold” [“Nah ist, doch schwer zufassen, der Gott], goes in the complete opposite direction. It is not that God is near for us, but that we are near for the Lord. The transition from “graspable” to “already grasped” sets up a climax leading to “clutched and clutching” together. It negates the distance between the grasper and the grasped, the separateness of the dying from those still alive.
For what are we grasped b? Certainly not by you, Lord, for whom we are named graspable. What we are grasped by can only be the “absolute Lord”––death––to whom human beings belong. He is indeed our lord to such a degree that before him we are all equal. “Clutching one another,” we hold ourselves as if groping around in the throes of death. Such despair is so much our true commonality that human beings, clutching one another, seek aid and salvation in every one else: “as if the body of each of us were your body, Lord.”
As the poem continues it becomes completely lear that “your body” refers here unambiguously to the body of the dying and dead Jesus. Yet the phrase also refers to something else. It seems significant to me that it says “the body of each of us” and not “our body,” the body of us all. Eachof us is for each other a fellow creature [der Nächste] whom we nevertheless cannot reach. For in dying each of us is as alone and forsaken as Jesus dying on the cross. The experience of death is isolation, as Heidegger suggests in his concept of the Jemeingkeit of death, or as Rilke speaks about it in well-known poems. Clearly the suggestion is that death, which is so horribly isolating, unites everyone with each, as well as with the dying Jesus. It is being clutched in the inescapability of death itself. This is certainly the conclusion pronounced by the poem: “Pray, Lord, pray to us, we are near.” One with you in the Jemeingkeit of dying, this being-one also reperesents unity and closeness even in the most extreme forsakenness.
This commonality between Jesus and us, that we belong to death, is not simply pronounced. Indeed, it is told as a story, and if I am right, at the end we see not only the inescapability of death, but also an acceptance of death. That is not to say that anything even hints at the Christian overcoming of death through the Resurection and the belief in it. There is no word of that here. The acceptance of death consists rather in drinking your blood and “the image in your blood.” This is again a thoroughly un-Christian “communion.” it sounds as if he had died “ahead” of us, and that when we die after him, we will accept the same forsakenness, the same darkness of God. In this sense he appears to have died for us.
The poem unfolds the meaning of this fearful closeness and paradoxical unity in that it seemingly goes back in time––not into a historical time, but into an eternally recurring time, the time of any given human existence [Dasein]. The story reports the way in which we became aware of our unity with the dying Jesus. The imperfect tense already shows that our prehistory is also being told, a prehistory that always already lies behind us. “Wind-awry we went there.” The expression “wind-awry” suggests a lack of orientation, a lack of direction. The hopelessness of human life, the path of which is the desire to avoid dying, is therein compressed into a single word. “Wind-awry we went there, we went there, to bend over hollow and ditch.” The repetition of “we went there” makes vivid the permanence, the stubborn persistence of those who go here, in other words, the stubbornness of our will to live. “Hollow and ditch” naturally evoke moisture, water, which might quench the thirst that drives us, thereby evoking thirst itself. Quenching the thirst for life could almost be the formal structure of life as such. This is indeed how the words “ we go to the watering-hole, Lord” are to be understood. It is the animal-natural element of our will to live which drives us as it does the animals––hence “to the watering-hole.” But the meaning of these words immediately lapses into paradox.
For what is described here? Ultimately, the path in which the living hope to live away from death. The paradox is this: the only drink we find is blood, and that means the path itself leads us now to confront the very thing it drives us away from, namely death. Once again an emphatic utterance is employed. “It was blood, it was…” suggests above all the sheer horror. Instead of water it is blood––and yet that is what the “watering-hole” becomes when first we have learned to recognize and acknowledge in Jesus’ death on the cross the inescapability of death.
The first step toward this knowledge is pronounced in the verses “it was,/what you poured out, Lord./It glistened.” These verses have tremendous sensory power. They evoke the peculiar glistening of spilled blood, which contains something ghastly about it. This is not the glistening of transfiguration. Much more remarkable is the fact that no promise is tied up in it; it does not say “poured out for us.” of course what is in this way not said is not simply absent. it does resonate and thereby acquires a new presence: namely that of withdrawal and refusal. Thus it “means” us, but in a seemingly completely different sense than that of representative suffering. For this blood mirrors nothing but death itself, Jesus’ corpse. That is why the poem further intensifies the horrifying reality which this death holds for those driven by the thirst for life: “it casts your image into our eyes, Lord,/Eyes and mouth stand so open and empty, Lord.” This is the utter uncanniness of death, the horrifying strangeness that for the living cuts off the dying into utter oblivion, the strangeness that here confronts those driven by the thirst for life, who are on the lookout for a drink. The theme of the Pietà can be heard.
But the fact that this image we are bending over is in blood tells us still more. What confronts us as the crucified man mirrored in blood is indeed our own condition of being marked by death. In it we encounter ourselves, shudder at our own self-forgetting, take fright at ourselves. “As if/the body of each of us were/your body, Lord.” Indeed the blood and the image contained in it is the drink itself. That is the great affirmative conclusion with which the poem completes its argument: “We have drunk, Lord./The blood and the image that was in the blood, Lord.” In other words: although it was blood, the blood in which the dead Jesus was mirrored, we have drunk it. We have accepted it and not rejected it in fright. We have accepted that we must die. That is what gives us the right to say: “Pray, Lord, we are near.”
With that the poem is complete. Observing ourselves in the certainty of our death, we experience a last unity with the dying Jesus, who feels abandoned by God. In concluding, one must thus again observe that in the tradition of the evangelists, Jesus’ outcry of forsakenness is not meant to express a slackening of his readiness for sacrifice or any doubt about his God. The “Yet not as I will, but as Thou wilt” is in no way contradicted by this last outcry. To the contrary. What firsts completes God’s transformation into man is that the dying Jesus feels God has forsaken him. That is truly human And it confirms that dying is not in any way easier for Jesus. Even if the Christ believes that Jesus is God, it does not mean that he has not really suffered death. The biblical account suggests rather that Jesus has borne his martyrdom until the very last moment, and it is precisely this martyrdom upon which our unity with him and our closeness to him rests.
Thus I raise anew our opening question. is this blasphemy? Even if one must guard against ascribing to the poetic statement a false unambiguousness one still must admit that the aspect of the blasphemous presented by the whole is nonetheless transformed into its virtual opposite. It is indeed truly a decisive departure from Christian tradition when it says: “Pray not to God, but pray to us.” But it remains an act of piety––having to pray––to which Jesus is exhorted. What the poem articulates is an admission of human helplessness and hopelessness with respect to the incomprehensibility of death. Christian elements thus resonate even in withdrawal and absence. In the continually repeated “Lord” the voice which speaks for us formally acknowledges that the dying Jesus on the cross remains our Lord, as on who suffers and who is forsaken, if not as the Christ of the Resurrection.
Thus while Celan’s invocation of the Tenebrae is not simply a reiteration or acceptance of Christianity’s message, it is even less a mockery or derision of faith. It is an affirmation of distress. By taking death seriously and accepting it as the destiny of human beings beyond all hope and comfort, the poem approaches the ultimate intension of the Christin doctrine of the incarnation, with which Christianity rises above the other known world religions: no God who is not human, no God who does not bear dying upon himself, can provide hope and redemption for the faithful. The poem does not articulate the overcoming of death as it is promised in Christianity, and yet Jesus, bearing death upon himself, remains the “Lord.”
At the end of this interpretive effort it may be possible to specify more precisely the nature of the concealment of meaning inherent in this kind of poetry. Our reading of the poem has demonstrated that it is not a deliberate concealment and obfuscation of a given meaning which might be clearly and unambigiously stated. The poet here has entered into a sphere which possesses its own distinguishing constellations. The extreme moment of “suffering and dying of our Lord Jesus,” his lasy breath on the cross, is fused together with the fear of death and the certainty of death, a power both hidden and present in each of us, and it is this mysterious unity to which the poem attests through its own compelling endurance.
Obviously, the framework of these verses, which must withstand such tensions, cannot be viewed from the perspective of the stylistic ideal characteristic of our literary tradition since Goethe, namely Goethe’s “naturalness” [Natürlichkeit]. As if by themselves, Goethe’s rhymes and verses are ordered by an incomparable naturalness and simplicity. They flash up like brilliantly wrought jewelry, and yet seem utterly natural. This is the standard by which we continue to measure poetic craft and art, but so doing ignores the fact that the sitatuon of the German language Goethe inherited was completely different. At the time German had yet to wrest its versatility and expressibility from the opposing forces of Latin-humanistic ornateness and French-orentied linguistic norms. The incredible impact of Goethe’s early work founded on his ability to achieve this with an ease we find incomprehensible. But inth econtext of his time what Goethe dared was an often astonishing poetic boldness, especially with works such as “Pandora’s Return” or even the “West-Eastern Divan,” which by no means found immediate acceptance.
Even more sginficiant in this regard is the example of Hölderlin, who founded a completely new kind of lyric for a compltelye new message. He stands at the dawn of the twentieth century, and indeed was recognized only then. During his own time, Hölderlin’s great hymns were not even regarded as the poetic creations of a sane mind, but rather as the product of the insanity that later befell him. His romantic allies deared to publish only portions of these writing, though to be sure, only because they themselves had never dared such bold poetic expression. Thus Hölderlin’s poems were brought to contemporary readers only in fragmented form, and remained so through the early part of this century. In 1914 the definitve volume of Hellingrath’s Hölferlin edition appeared in which for the first timt Hölderlin’s lat hymns were presented to the public so fully decoded and critically reiewed that contemporaries suddenly recognized them as great poetry. The discovery of Hölderlin’s late work in our own century was epoch-making because it enable subsequent innovations in language and poetic risks in the manner of Trakl, the late Rilke, or even the Celan we are considering here. For Hölderin’s late poetry, this blocklike utterance derived from the style of Pindar’s odes, suddenly emerged as a remarkably calculated, conscious, and demanding poetic form. To ascribe it to the dissolution of language brought on by Hölderlin’s madness was an error we cannot even comprehend today; even among the very latest of the poems from the period of his madness, we observe today a form of indescribable beauty. It simply demonstrates that poetic language often makes impossible demands. All modes of pseaking are not poetically conceivable at all times.
Today there is also the experience that poetry is no longer “welcome,” since the conventions of language of our time demand other stimuli. This is important to bear in mind in evaluating the poetic style of our age. As the Russian formalists already recognized,s there are laws for the diminishment as well as the intensification of stimulus through contrast. Thus the new mass rhetoric, which has made inroads in our society through the mass media, has contributed to the affinity of poetic and especially lyric language for the hermeticism that characterizes our epoch. How can language configurations be stabilized today so that we can return to them, and so that the more we do so, the more meaningful they become and the more they can respond to our questions? To stabilize language configurations today so as to prevent them from vanishing into the floods of informational chatter that wash over us clearly requires entirely different, sharper provocations and forms of resistsnace that were needed in, say, Goethe’s time. Thus hermetic poetry’s concealment of meaning may come across as an artificial encumbrance. Yet it also serves as a bulwak against dispersion into the faint oscillation of the tuned-in loudspeaker. It is a matter of summoning up something to show the poetic configuration in action and to withdraw from the prosification that is levelling everything.
Celan gave it his utmost. And so he demands nothing less, and often more than we can muster.