In the poem Mandorla, Celan uses the image of the almond to create a sacred space of nothingness, where nothingness stands and the Jewish lock of hair never turns gray.
The image of the almond shell filled with nothingness is associated with the medieval Christian symbol of the mandorla.
Where Celan places nothingness, the medieval Christian artists placed sacred meaning. So what does his use of the image mean? I think nothingness expressed in the poem is sacred space. It is here that the “Judenlocke, wirst nicht grau.” On a literal level, it is in this sacred space of nothingness where his mother, killed by a German bullet to the back of the head in a work camp, resides, frozen in time by her disappearance in the winter of 1942.
Robert A. Johnson in Owning your Own Shadow, Harper San Francisco, 1991, defines a mandorla as “that almond shaped segment that is made when two circles partly overlap.”
In Christian symbolism, the mandorla signifies an overlap of heaven and earth and in Christian iconography Jesus and Mary are often depicted within the mandorla. Mandorla also means almond in Italian.
In discussing the mandorla in reference to the shadow, Johnson states that at an early age the shadow is discarded but later it returns with a vengeance and demands that its components be reconciled.
Imagine the shadow and the ego as two separate circles. Now see the two circles touching. Then visualize the two spheres overlapping, forming a rudimentary mandorla.
Inside that almond shaped space light and dark aspects collide. Through the collision, elements of the shadow are made conscious and reconciled.
Sometimes language forms a mandorla. For instance, Dr. Ronald Schenk in his book Dark Light: The Appearance of Death in Everyday Life (State University of New York Press, 2000) creates a linguistic mandorla through his juxtaposition of two opposing concepts in the same word “darklight.”
The German language, more than English, combines words to express new meanings. The language abounds with neologisms and Paul Celan is known for his unique word combinations. For instance, as we discussed previously, the title of Celan’s last collection of poems Lichtzwang is an example of this unusual but meaningful combination of words. Some translators translate the title as light/duress while others choose light/constraint. “Der Zwang” means constraint, pressure, compulsion or force. “Das Licht” means daylight or simply light. Pierre Joris chose to entitle his translation of the work as Lightduress, while Michael Hamburger chose Lightconstraint. The French edition of the work is entitled Contraint de Lumiere, which in some ways is more pedestrian and less numinous but it allows us to translate it as compulsion of light or light compulsion. No matter the meaning, these compound words create a mandorla, a special place, a temenos, where two concepts interact to form new meaning.