The Poetical And Religious In Rilke’s Animism – William H. Gass

August 8, 2012

Rodin, The Old Courtesan

If we look at She Who Was Once the Helmet-Maker’s Beautiful Wife (sometimes called The Old Courtesan), we shall have to pass, through several necessary shifts in point of view. The woman Rodin depicts is old, bent, clinging to a rock as if the river of life were about to sweep her away, skinny and scarred, all bone and tendon, her dugs pendulous, shrunken, and flat, her belly bunchy like a wrinkled bag;, whereas once, we are asked to believe, her skin was smooth, her body lithe, strong, bearing breasts that were perfect bowls and boasting hair that fell across her back like lines of music; but the body’s beauty, the sculpture unoriginally says, comes to this: the, condition of the prune, a figure formed from suffering and age, alive only to wonder why.

Facile feelings of pity and regret are available from this site as, stamps from a post office, yet what is piercing about the piece is its beauty, a beauty that we could sentimentalize by thinking, for a moment, that even decrepit whores in this wonderful world are lovely, when, of course, they are not; abuse takes its toll, hard living too, and the body is our first grave. It is the bronze that is glorious; it is the bronze that reminds us that age and dying, death itself, have their own life, their own stages of fulfillment, their own value and measures of success.

Baudelaire’s poem “A Carrion,” for which Rodin and Rilke shared an admiration, is of the same genre as Villon’s snows of yesteryear, Rochester’s dust that has closed Helen’s eyes, and Yorick’s dug-up skull, whose chaps are now quite fallen. It begins:

Remember now, my Love, what piteous thing
We saw on a summer’s gracious day:
By the roadside a hideous carrion, quivering
On a clean bed of pebbly clay,

Her legs flexed in the air like a courtesan,
Burning and sweating venomously,
Calmly exposed its belly, ironic and wan,
Clamorous with foul ecstasy.

Rilke’s animism is poetical, of course, but is also, in its way, religious, for it requires respect for all things equal to the respect we tend to show now for only a few, since we prize so little even in the things we prize. It gives value, as Rodin did, to every part of our anatomy, to each muscle movement — stretch, twitch, and fidget; our physical features — a silk soft earlobe, tawny limb, or crooked linger; or facial expressions — grimace, smile, or howl; as well as the very clay we come from (at least in his workshop) — wood block, slab, and plaster pot.

Moreover, it endows even the accidental encounter of different parts — my hand on your shoulder — with its own dignity as a legitimate state of affairs. Gestures, expressions, postures, snoods, thoughts, sudden urges merely change more rapidly than habits, attitudes, convictions, dispositions do, and can be slowed by stone to suit our scrutiny throughout a homemade eternity.

The flies swarmed on the putrid vulva,
then A black tumbling rout would seethe
Of maggots, thick like a torrent in a glen,
Over those rags that lived and seemed to breathe.
(Allen Tate’s wonderful translation. Charles Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil)

It was not simply in the shop, among the fragments and the figures, that Rilke saw this willful independence and fullness of life. He encountered it on the streets of Paris. That thin pencil that rose slowly out of an old crone’s fist was alive, as were the rusty pins that ran from side to side in their proffered drawer as if to escape your eye when you looked down on them. In the early morning, the water, from the water wagons “sprang young and light out of their pipes,” the hoofs of the horses struck the street “like a hundred hammers,” and the cries of the vendors echoed while “the vegetables on their handcarts were stirring like a little field.”

But his most indelible encounter was with the man suffering from Saint Vitus’ dance whose gyrations and frantic coping strategies he vividly describes in a letter to Lou Andreas-Salome (another rehearsal for passages that Rilke includes in Malte Laurids Brigge). Rilke follows the man for several’ blocks as the poor fellow’s shoulders twitch, his arms fly about, and his legs jig. (Letter of July 18, 1903. Letters, pp. 112-115.) The man’s will is at odds with his limbs, each of which has its own plans, and all four would hop off by themselves if they had their way like the fragments in Rodin’s cases.

So the surfaces of Rodin’s work, which his studio light makes lively, implicitly rely upon a philosophical principle of great age and’ respectability — one that has been seriously entertained by Galileo, Hobbes, and Spinoza, through Freud up to the present. Since the effect in question is one of animation, it may seem odd that the principle involved is that of inertia.

A body at rest will remain at rest — a body in motion will remain in motion — unless something else hectors or hinders it. When that interference occurs, the stone or the ball or the dog at the door will resist; it will attempt to restore the status quo, strive to save its situation, maintain its equilibrium, preserve its life. Spinoza called the tendency to stay the same the object’s conatus. It is popularly thought of as the principle of self-preservation.

All things would be self-sufficient, as windowless as Leibniz’s monads, if they could. The condition of the fetus, which is automatically fed, protected from every outside shock, surrounded by an embalming ocean, growing as it has been programmed to grow, is ideal. We are pushed out into the world; we are forced by circumstances both inside us (hunger and thirst) and outside (sensation and harm) to cope, and, as Freud argued, we are repeatedly compelled to reduce the unsettling demands of our desires to zero.

A limp that tells the world we are compensating for an injury becomes a habit hard to break even when its cause has healed and here is no longer any “reason” for it. Except that the limp wishes to remain. Our stutter wants to stay. Our fall from a ladder would be forever like a cast-out angel if we didn’t fetch up in a lake of fire or at least on a floor. The fire, moreover, eats its way through every fuel it’s offered only because it is eager to stay burning like that bright gem of quotation fame. As the naked models move about Rodin’s studio, he observes the participating parts of their bodies until he can catch, in the middle of an action, the very will of the gesture, its own integrity and wholeness.

The consciousness that inhabits us (and, as Rilke likes to imagine, inhabits even the so-called least thing) refuses to age. As we all have surely noticed, only the body gets old, and does so reluctantly, while each creak, each ache and pain, comes to stay if it can, as vigorous as a virus, youthful as our death will be, buoyant and hopeful. Dying does not want to die. Dying would make dying a career. And death has its own designs.

We can call it war if we like — Hobbes did — we can call it competition, but unities create their own momentum, complex states of affairs resist disenabling influence (what are bureaucrats for?), and all of the figures that make up a sculpture like The Burghers of Calais, each eloquent in its own way, must feel the influence of so powerful a composition.

The man with Saint Vitus’ dance had lost control of his Commonwealth. Which is what happens when parts of the body politic no longer feel safe to pursue their own plans and the grip of the state police grows weak. The group must ensure the safety of its members if it wishes to survive. Otherwise, it will explode or choke itself to death. Similarly, the elements of a work of art must form a community which allows each element its own validity while pursuing the interest of the whole. A word, if it could have had a choice, must feel it would have chosen just the companions it has been given, so that when it glows with satisfaction, it also makes its line shine.

Moreover, the unity of a sculptural fragment, when imagined alongside a correspondingly severed limb, insists upon its own superiority, for it can flourish quite apart from any body, whereas both amputation and amputee are damaged possibly beyond repair.

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One comment

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

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