Rilke Meets Rodin – William H. Gass

August 6, 2012

William H. Gass at 88.

William Howard Gass  is an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, and former philosophy professor. He has written two novels, three collections of short stories, a collection of novellas, and seven volumes of essays, three of which have won National Book Critics Circle Award prizes and one of which, A Temple of Texts (2006), won the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism. His 1995 novel The Tunnel received the American Book Award.

His book, Reading Rilke, published in 1999, was subtitled Reflections on the Problems of Translation, so while it was not focused on Rilke per se, it did double duty in a certain sense as it concerned itself not only with its subject on translation but also with Rilke as its example. As critic, Gass shows his genius as a reader in that work and when he returned to his roots as a Rilke scholar in Temple of Texts we get some amazing research and great stories. This first selection from his essay Rilke’s Rodin features Rilke’s arrival at the Paris studio of the great sculptor Rodin.


We can pretend to know precisely. At three o’clock on the Monday afternoon of September 1, 1902, bearing the appropriate petitions of entry, although he had arranged his visit in advance, the twenty-six year-old poet Rainer Maria Rilke appeared on the stoop of August Rodin’s Paris studio and was given an uncustomarily gentle and courteous reception.

Of course, Rilke had written Rodin a month before to warn of his impending arrival. It was a letter baited with the sort of fulsome praise you believe only when it is said of yourself and it must have been an additional pleasure for Rodin to be admired not only by a stranger so young but one with a commission to write of the sculptor and the sculptor’s work as handsomely as, in his correspondence, he already had. Rilke was enthusiasm: in shabby suit, but Rodin, who paid little mind to social appearance except when he was mixing with potential clients, was willing to set aside some time for a chat, while suffering the foreigner’s fledgling French without complaint.

He could not have realized that he was going to be the victim of a role reversal, because it was the artist who would play the sitter for a change. Rilke had arrived with an anticipatory portrait well advanced, and his tireless pen immediate began making mental corrections. “… it seemed to me that I had always known him,” he wrote his wife, Clara, the following day. “I was only seeing him again; I found him smaller, and yet more powerful, more kindly, and more noble. That forehead, the relationship it hears to his nose which rides out of it like a ship out of harbor .. that is very remarkable. Character of stone is in that forehead and hat nose. And his mouth has a speech whose ring is good, intimate, find full of youth. So also is his laugh, that embarrassed and at the same time joyful laugh of a child that has been given lovely presents.” (Letter to Clara Rilke, Tuesday, September 2, 1902. Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke, vol. 1, 1892-1910. Hereafter, Letters in any given citation refers to this work.)

Released to explore the studio and its holy objects, Rilke discovers, almost immediately, a hand: “C’est une main comine-ça,” Rodin says, gesturing so impressively with his own broad, blunt peasant hands with their plaster white fingers and blackened nails that Rilke fancies he sees things and creatures growing out of them. In Rilke’s steamy state of mind, Rodin’s every word rises in the air, so that when he points to two entwined figures and says, “c’est une creation,ça une creation …” the poet believes, he reports to Clara, that the word creation “had loosed itself, redeemed itself from all language.. . was alone in the world.” (Ibid. p.78.) Everything small has so much bigness in it, he exclaims to his page.

Rilke tries to take everything in, as if there will not be a next day, but there is a next day, and at nine he is on the train to Meudon, a twenty-minute ride to transformation, The town clings to a hillside from whose crest the Seine can be seen snaking its way to Paris. He walks up a “steep dirty village street” to Rodin’s home, Villa des Brillants, which the sculptor had bought in 1895. Rilke describes the journey to Clara with the sort of detail one saves for wonders of the world: over a bridge — no voila yet — down a road — no voila yet — past a modest inn — no voila yet — now through a door in the villa wall that opens on a gravel path lined with chestnut trees — still no voila — until he rounds a corner of the “little red-yellow house and stands” — voila now! — “before a miracle — before a garden of stone and plaster figures.”

Rodin  had transported the pavilion from the Place de l’Alma where he had exhibited his work in Paris in 1900, to the small park surrounding his house, where there were already several studios aside for cutting stone and firing clay.

Rodin The Gates of Hell

The pavilion was a heavily glassed, light-filled hall full of plaster figures in ghostly confabulation, and it also contained huge glass cases crammed with fragments from the design of The Gates of Hell. “There it lies,” Rilke writes, already composing his monograph, “yard upon yard, only fragment one beside the other. Figures the size of my hand and larger. . but only pieces, hardly one that is whole: often only a piece of arm, a piece of leg, as they happen to go along beside each other, and the piece of body that belongs right near them…. Each of these bits of such an eminent, striking units; so possible by itself, so not at all needing completion, that one forgets they are only parts, and often parts of different bodies that cling to each other so passionately  there.” (Ibid., p. 79.)

Rilke had brought a sheaf of his poems, which Rodin dutifully fingered, although he could only admire (as Rilke imagines) their poseupon the page; otherwise, he left Rilke to roam about the place, examining its treasures. The poet poured out upon these figurine” and fragments a bladderful of enthusiasm, as was his pre-Paris habit (“each a feeling, each a bit of love, devotion, kindness”); but the city’s unyielding and indifferent face and the sculptor’s dedicated work habits would teach the poet to see his surroundings as they were in themselves and not simply allow his glance to fall like sunshine on surfaces where it could admire its own reflection and its glitter.

Then it was lunchtime. And the first lesson, en plein air. They sat five at a trestle. No one was introduced. There was a tired-looking, nervous, and distracted lady, whom – Rilke assumed was Madame Rodin. There was a Frenchman notable for a red nose, and “a very sweet little girl of about ten” who sat just across from him. Rodin, dressed for the city, is impatient for his meal. Madame replies with a torrent of apparent grievance. Rilke begins to observe — Regarde! Regarde! is the new command — and sees Madame giving forks, plates, glasses little pushes that disarray the table as if the meal were already over. “

The scene was not painful, only sad,” he writes. The master continues to complain as calmly as a lawyer until a rather dirty person arrives to distribute the food and insist that Rilke partake of dishes he did not desire. The poet should have been hungry — he was on his uppers, but he was also finicky to a fault, a vegan of a sort, a fancied sign of his ethereal nature. Rodin rattled on agreeably. Rilke spoke of his art-colony days in Worpswede and of the painters he met there, few of whom Rodin had heard of, although that would not have surprised the poet had he realized that his acquaintances, his friends, were nobodies. And as a poet, he was invisible in this space.

Because it was full of blazing plaster casts in a pavilion that gathered light as if it were fruit. “My eyes are hurting me, my hands too,” he wrote to his wife. Madame Rodin was gracious after lunch, inviting him back, as we say, “anytime you’re in the neighborhood,” little realizing, I imagine, that for Rilke that would be tomorrow.

And so ended the second day.

Nothing is more fragile than adoration, yet Rilke’s adulation might have remained that intense, agreeably decorating a dirty pane like a window’s curtain, had he not sunk into an outcast’s life. Poor, alone, he sought refuge from the friendless Paris streets in the Bibliotheque Nationale, often from ten to five; or he fled by train to Meudon and its sheltering plasters, kinder to his eye, though they blinded him, than the beggars who would offer him their misfortunes for a franc; while evenings he passed in the squeeze of his room, writing letters to his wife as forlornly beautiful as letters get.

The poet was, among other things, an inadequately educated youth who would play the poet even on those days he wasn’t one, and who sought to unite his spirit with the spirit of his poems, so as to live several feet above the ground. Yet the great sculptor would eventually prove to be a crude, rude clown, a satyr in a smock, who was losing his strut, caught in the curves of female connivance and flattery, only to be led around eventually (in Sir Kenneth Clark’s estimation) like a dancing bear. (Kenneth Clark, The Romantic Rebellion. New York: Harper & Row, 1973, p. 353.) So loyalty would demand that Rilke separate the man from his art, a split easier for a Solomon to decree than a babe to endure, and an act at odds with his inclinations.

Moreover, the fragments he so admired in Rodin’s workshops, alive in every brief line that defined them, were confronted by the ugly realities of the avenues, poor creatures who every day looked more and more like himself.

They were living, living on nothing, on dust, on soot, and filth on their surfaces, on what falls from the teeth of dogs, on any senselessly broken thing that anyone might still buy for some inexplicable purpose. Oh what kind of world is that! Pieces, pieces of people, parts of animals, leftovers of things that have been, and everything still agitated, as though driven about helter-skelter in an eerie wind, carried and carrying, falling and overtaking each other as they fall.
(Letter Andreas-Salome, July18, 1903. Letters, p. 109.)

In these lines, written in Worpswede during the following summer, he relived for his former mistress’s benefit his Paris suffering. Rilke was also rehearsing what would become the magical pages of his novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. It is worth quoting a bit more in order to demonstrate the psychologically stressful difference between the euphoric celebrational style of the first Rodin monograph and its author’s daily state of mind.

There were old women who set down a heavy basket on the ledge of some wall (very little women whose eyes were drying up like puddles), and when they wanted to grasp it again out of their sleeves shoved forth slowly and ceremoniously a long rusty hook instead of a hand, and it went straight and surely to the handle of the basket. And there were other old women who went about with the drawers of an old night stand in their hands, showing everyone that twenty rusty pins were around inside which they must sell. And once of an evening late in the fall, a little old woman stood next to me in the light of a store window.

She stood very still, and I thought that like me she was busy looking at the objects displayed and hardly noticed her. Finally, however, her proximity made me uneasy, and I don’t know why, I suddenly looked at her peculiarly clasped, worn-out hands. Very, very slowly an old, long, thin pencil rose out of those hands, it grew and grew, and it took a very long time until it was entirely visible, visible in all its wretchedness. I cannot say what produced such a terrible effect in this scene, but it seemed to me as if a whole destiny were being played out before me, a long destiny, a catastrophe that was working up frightfully to the moment when the pencil no longer grew and, slightly trembling, jutted out of the loneliness of those empty hands. I understood at last that I was supposed to buy it. (Ibid., pp. 109-110)

In the novel, Malte eventually realizes with horror that he has become an accomplice … another shabby person of the street.

… when I noticed how my clothes were becoming worse and heavier from week to week, and saw how they were slit in many places, I was frightened and felt that I would belong irretrievably to the lost if some passer-by merely looked at me and half unconsciously counted me with them. (Ibid., p. 111.)

Perhaps, when you beg only from the best families and the finest foundations, you can call yourself a development officer, but where Rilke was living at the time, there were no banks, no fancy estates occupied by susceptible titled ladies, just aisles de nuit, the Hotel Dieu, and hospices de la maternite.

The path to Paris had been a circuitous one, the result of flailing more than plan. At Christmas, two years before, Rilke had returned to Prague to visit his mother, always a trying time for him, although Santa brought him a new briefcase, and on his way home he stopped in Breslau to visit an art historian, Richard Muther, who he hoped might agree to tutor him in this vast field, since Rilke was now considering a career as an art critic. He thought that perhaps Muther might help him combine this fresh but desperate interest with a trip to Russia that Rilke was planning. It would be his second. (Ralph Freedman, Life of a Poet: Rainer Maria Rilke, New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1996, p. 108.) Muther was presently the editor, of’ some pages on art for a Viennese weekly called Zeit, and he suggested that Rilke write something on Russian art for its pages. Rilke promptly did so and composed another article after he had com pleted his trip.

When they met again, it was at the newly married couple’s cottage near the art colony of Worpswede, outside Bremen. Rilke’s second essay was about to appear. Muther had just completed a monograph on Lucas Cranach and sent a copy in advance of his arrival. His hosts showed him studios and introduced him to painters as a part of their mutual cultivation. A few months later, Muther would get his review and Rilke receive the Rodin commission. In that regard, he had an edge his youth and inexperience could not dull: His wife: Clara, was herself a sculptor and had studied with the master, and for that reason they had initially planned to do the piece together. Clara’s previous relationship might be expected to make entrée easier.

Rilke was eager to get out of his honeymoon house, a cute thatch that had lost a good deal of its charm after Clara had given birth,” Babies often allow wives to feel they have done their sexual duty and husbands to feel they have been warned: What the house now holds will hold them. Housebroken is the customary word. Clara was also anxious to return to work and would eventually join Rilke in his Paris penury after she had dumped little Ruth with her grandmother. (The word join suggests more intimacy than was sought, since they maintained separate lodgings.) The commission was urgent because the couple’s funds were nearly exhausted, and, although Clara insisted on paying her own way, Rilke’s sources of charity were drying up.

Rilke was learning on the run. He had no scholarly skills. Confronted by a mass of materials, he tended to freeze. “Instead of taking notes on a text with concentration and efficiency, he was forever tempted to copy the entire book.” (Wolfgang Leppmann, Rilke: A Life trans. Russell Stockman. New York: Fromm International, 1984, p. 174).

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  1. [...] selections from “Rilke’s Rodin”, an essay by William H. Gass, click here, here, here, and here  Tweet !function(d,s,id){var [...]

  2. [...] also toured and gave lectures but was dismissed by Rodin after 4 years. according to William Gass. (Rilke meets Rodin – William [...]

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