David Oswald (b. 1953) is finishing his training in analytical psychology at the C.G. Jung Institute in Zürich, Switzerland, where he has been living for the past eight years. Raised in Owatonna, Minnesota, he has degrees in German from the University of Kansas and Mathematics from the University of Minnesota. A selection from the introduction to his translation of the Duino Elegies.
The Duino Elegies (German: Duineser Elegien) are a collection of ten elegies written by the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926). Rilke, who is “widely recognized as one of the most lyrically intense German-language poets,”began writing the elegies in 1912 while a guest of Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis (1855–1934) at Duino Castle, near Trieste on the Adriatic Sea. The poems, 859 lines long in total, were dedicated to the Princess upon their publication in 1923.
During this ten-year period, the elegies languished incomplete for long stretches of time as Rilke suffered frequently from severe depression — some of which was caused by the events of World War I and being conscripted into military service. Aside from brief episodes of writing in 1913 and 1915, Rilke did not return to the work until a few years after the war ended. With a sudden, renewed inspiration — writing in a frantic pace he described as a “boundless storm, a hurricane of the spirit” — he completed the collection in February 1922 while staying at Château de Muzot in Veyras, in Switzerland’s Rhone Valley. After their publication in 1923 and Rilke’s death in 1926, the Duino Elegies were quickly recognized by critics and scholars as his most important work.
The word “elegy” derives from the Greek words “elegeia,” a lament for the dead, and “elegos,” a mournful song. What gives rise to the laments of the Duino Elegies is that our experience is always split by our human consciousness, which prevents us from reaching the open.
No matter what we do, we are always aware of ourselves, observing, comparing, interpreting, naming and judging our experience. Consciousness separates us from the rhythms of nature: “we’re not at home, not reliably, in the interpreted world” (First Elegy), “not informed like migratory birds” (Fourth Elegy), “never have before us the pure space into which flowers endlessly blossom” (Eighth Elegy). Yet consciousness is also what enables us to perceive “the whole silent landscape” (Third Elegy) beneath our outer existence, to overcome the “ill-bred fidelity of a habit” (First Elegy), to orient our lives according to values (“… evolved voice, let your cry’s nature no longer / be wooing.” (Seventh Elegy)) and to perceive and have a relationship to the divine realm (“[Angels,] Who are you ?” (Second Elegy)).
To aim for the open means first and foremost to accept the full experience of one’s earthly existence without longing for a different life and without the consolation of an afterlife. Rilke wants to find the ultimate meaning of life in this finite transient existence of ours, not in eternal life.
By itself, this is not an unusual idea today; existentialism, for example, has this basic attitude. But by acceptance Rilke means not just a grudging acknowledgment but an unconditional affirmation and active praise. And he means this in full awareness of man’s insignificance and imperfection in the face of transcendent experience.
The praise he is seeking is only possible when a new conscious relationship to the divine realm has been reached, a separation between human and divine measures of experience, and acceptance that we are the former and not the latter. This means affirming the pains and sufferings of human existence as well as the joys and happiness, the downward movements of life as well as the upward ones. Perhaps most difficult of all, it means accepting and affirming death as a necessary part of human existence.
What are we? The Elegies seek a measure of humanness that is positive in form, one that goes beyond the painful recognition that we are neither totally natural in the way that animals are, nor totally transcendent as angels are. The emphasis on “are” comes from the despair over the split of consciousness that hangs us “between current and stone,” between the flow of our inner experience and the rigidity of our interpreted world, thus making it impossible for us to be “something one” or something that remains constant. To be an “I” means to be constantly caught between the polarities of the night and the day world, of animal and angel, of man and woman, of sexuality and spirituality, of hero and lover, of inner and outer world, of life and death, and never to be at one with any of it.
The Duino Elegies do not overcome or eliminate this lament, but the cycle tries to give meaning to the split by giving consciousness a direction towards the open. What Rilke means by the open is difficult to express in words; it goes beyond words into non-interpreted experience, which can best be approached through the images that he uses. It is something that animals, lacking our kind of consciousness, can see; it resembles being in love without needing one’s lover; it is an openness that was experienced in childhood. It is a quality of consciousness that he is after, a quality of “being here,” a state of relationship with this world, without being possessed by performance.
This direction is expressed in the cycle as an assignment that “I” is trying to understand, one that the earth gives to us. It is most clearly stated in the Ninth Elegy, the culmination of the cycle, in which earthly existence is accepted for its own sake as a one-time experience: the outer world wants and needs us to experience it inwardly, to transform it into our inner world, letting it “arise invisible within us.” Our ability to give meaning is something that the physical world lacks: “things” need us so that they can experience eternity. And conversely, we can give meaning an earthly shape, which is something angels cannot do: we can use “things” to express and give shape to our inner world.
“Things, speak those to [the angel]“, saying them “as the things themselves never believed deeply to be.” They, rather than angels or animals or other people, are the medium through which we can “do humanness” and thereby approach the open. In other words, experiencing and shaping the symbolic dimension of one’s own reality is the ultimately human activity.
The lovers play an important role in maintaining this direction towards the open. They are in a sense a counterpoint to the hero, for their goal is to be in relationship rather than to overcome. It is their feeling which most profusely infuses things with meaning, indeed, even creates connections between them. The Elegies therefore urge us to preserve the direction of love towards the open, to recognize that eros seeks not only the person we love but also the inner state of openness that accompanies such love.
A final theme that needs to be mentioned is the struggle between consciousness and fate. The Duino Elegies hold out the hopeful possibility that fate itself can be overcome through the development of symbolic consciousness, that through symbolic understanding it can be transformed into part of our inner landscape that we move through rather than remaining something that dominates us. “This is called fate: finding oneself opposite / and only that and always opposite.” These lines from the Eighth Elegy do not only express the impossibility of overcoming the split of consciousness, they also maintain that nothing besides having consciousness should be called fate.
The reader familiar with Jungian psychology will recognize, (even though using psychological terms puts us squarely into the interpreted world), that the Duino Elegies are urging us to take back our projections from the world and recognize them as part of the experience of our own soul, not interpreting them away but transforming them into symbolic consciousness.
This means developing the ability to consciously let “things” from the outer world express our inner realities. This is different from the heroic expansion of consciousness that is always seeking new limits. It is the development of the ego-Self axis, the recognition through experience that there is a psychic totality greater than one’s ego and the subsequent necessity of shaping a relationship between the two. In this process our “imageless doing” outgrows the “crusts” of the interpreted world and “bounds itself differently,” with images of human boundaries that avoid the inflation of acting like gods. This work, and it is indeed work, is the process of becoming conscious of oneself. It is at the heart of Jungian analysis. The untangling of inner from outer world that goes on in analysis brings one’s experience of both closer to the open.