Creation Ex Nihilo in the Works of Paul Celan and Lev Shestov

Jan Terence Peters, Northwestern University

Paul Celan’s encounter with the work of Russian-Jewish proto-existentialist thinker Lev Shestov (1866-1938) merits serious and sustained scholarly consideration. However, to date, little or no attention has been paid to the potential importance of Shestov for Celan’s work. Such an oversight is all the more surprising, since Christine Ivanovic strongly suggests that Celan engaged in close readings of Shestov’s works between 1959 and 1963, a pivotal period in Celan‘s poetic career. Moreover, Ivanovic notes that these readings perhaps became the touchstone of Celan’s intense and well-documented engagement with Russia’s cultural and intellectual legacy as a whole.

This paper focuses on the ways in which Celan’s poetry, particularly of the Niemandsrose (“No-One’s Rose”) period, reflects and reworks certain vital existential and religious tropes within Shestov‘s worldview, most notably his concept of tvorchestvo iz nichego (or creation ex nihilo) derived largely from his 1905 essay of the same name. For Shestov, the individual’s effort to venture outside the perfect unity of the absolute or the universal to embrace the concrete and particular is matched by the living God’s participation in the individual human essence of open-ended existence, as the Deus Homo. This process of emancipation finds its apotheosis in Shestov’s notion of creation ex nihilo, which deals with the “absurd” possibility of creation from the void.

In a parallel move, Celan’s poetry seeks to rework the Kabbalistic principle of Tzimtzum, the process of divine contraction or negation that precedes creation. Poems of the Niemandsrose period often depict a transposition of this process from the divine to the human realm. Celan’s version of Tzimtzum thus comes to resemble Shestov‘s assertion that the individual subject has to stripped of their rational certainties, so that they can re-emerge as an “eternal” individual in communion with the Deus Homo. In other words, the individual’s self-conception as a “rational subject” must be annihilated, or reduced to a state of nothingness, before creation ex nihilo can occur

Both Shestov and Celan experience an encounter with the universal that paradoxically allows them to rehabilitate the individual and particular. Employing selected passages from Shestov’s Na Vesakh Iova and Tvorchestvo iz Nichego, as well as close readings of three Celan poems from the Niemandsrose period (Psalm, Mandorla and Speak, You Also), this study will thus seek to illuminate the ways in which this ambivalence towards the universal is refracted both through Shestov’s idiosyncratic conception of creation ex nihilo and Celan’s efforts to fashion a novel poetic idiom from Judeo-Christian mystical sources.