Archive for the ‘Ranier Maria Rilke’ Category


Solitude – Rainer Maria Rilke

October 14, 2013
On December 4, 1875, Rainer Maria Rilke was born in Prague, the only child of an unhappy marriage. Rilke's childhood was also unhappy; his parents placed him in military school with the desire that he become an officer—a position Rilke was not inclined to hold. With the help of his uncle, who realized that Rilke was a highly gifted child, Rilke left the military academy and entered a German preparatory school. By the time he enrolled in Charles University in Prague in 1895, he knew that he would pursue a literary career: he had already published his first volume of poetry, Leben und Lieder, the previous year. At the turn of 1895-96, Rilke published his second collection, Larenopfer (Sacrifice to the Lares). A third collection, Traumgekrönt (Dream-Crowned) followed in 1896. That same year, Rilke decided to leave the university for Munich, Germany, and later made his first trip to Italy.  In 1897, Rilke went to Russia, a trip that would prove to be a milestone in Rilke's life, and which marked the true beginning of his early serious works. While there the young poet met Tolstoy, whose influence is seen in Das Buch vom lieben Gott und anderes (Stories of God), and Leonid Pasternak, the nine-year-old Boris's father. At Worpswede, where Rilke lived for a time, he met and married Clara Westhoff, who had been a pupil of Rodin. In 1902 he became the friend, and for a time the secretary, of Rodin, and it was during his twelve-year Paris residence that Rilke enjoyed his greatest poetic activity. His first great work, Das Stunden Buch (The Book of Hours), appeared in 1905, followed in 1907 by Neue Gedichte (New Poems) and Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge). Rilke would continue to travel throughout his lifetime; to Italy, Spain and Egypt among many other places, but Paris would serve as the geographic center of his life, where he first began to develop a new style of lyrical poetry, influenced by the visual arts.  When World War I broke out, Rilke was obliged to leave France and during the war he lived in Munich. In 1919, he went to Switzerland where he spent the last years of his life. It was here that he wrote his last two works, the Duino Elegies (1923) and the Sonnets to Orpheus (1923). He died of leukemia on December 29, 1926. At the time of his death his work was intensely admired by many leading European artists, but was almost unknown to the general reading public. His reputation has grown steadily since his death, and he has come to be universally regarded as a master of verse.

On December 4, 1875, Rainer Maria Rilke was born in Prague, the only child of an unhappy marriage. Rilke’s childhood was also unhappy; his parents placed him in military school with the desire that he become an officer—a position Rilke was not inclined to hold. With the help of his uncle, who realized that Rilke was a highly gifted child, Rilke left the military academy and entered a German preparatory school. By the time he enrolled in Charles University in Prague in 1895, he knew that he would pursue a literary career: he had already published his first volume of poetry, Leben und Lieder, the previous year. At the turn of 1895-96, Rilke published his second collection, Larenopfer (Sacrifice to the Lares). A third collection, Traumgekrönt (Dream-Crowned) followed in 1896. That same year, Rilke decided to leave the university for Munich, Germany, and later made his first trip to Italy.
In 1897, Rilke went to Russia, a trip that would prove to be a milestone in Rilke’s life, and which marked the true beginning of his early serious works. While there the young poet met Tolstoy, whose influence is seen in Das Buch vom lieben Gott und anderes (Stories of God), and Leonid Pasternak, the nine-year-old Boris’s father. At Worpswede, where Rilke lived for a time, he met and married Clara Westhoff, who had been a pupil of Rodin. In 1902 he became the friend, and for a time the secretary, of Rodin, and it was during his twelve-year Paris residence that Rilke enjoyed his greatest poetic activity. His first great work, Das Stunden Buch (The Book of Hours), appeared in 1905, followed in 1907 by Neue Gedichte (New Poems) and Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge). Rilke would continue to travel throughout his lifetime; to Italy, Spain and Egypt among many other places, but Paris would serve as the geographic center of his life, where he first began to develop a new style of lyrical poetry, influenced by the visual arts.
When World War I broke out, Rilke was obliged to leave France and during the war he lived in Munich. In 1919, he went to Switzerland where he spent the last years of his life. It was here that he wrote his last two works, the Duino Elegies (1923) and the Sonnets to Orpheus (1923). He died of leukemia on December 29, 1926. At the time of his death his work was intensely admired by many leading European artists, but was almost unknown to the general reading public. His reputation has grown steadily since his death, and he has come to be universally regarded as a master of verse.

Rilke on Marriage…
The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.


Solitude is like a rain
That from the sea at dusk begins to rise;
It floats remote across the far-off plain
Upward into its dwelling-place, the skies,
Then o’er the town it slowly sinks again.
Like rain it softly falls at that dim hour
When ghostly lanes turn toward the shadowy morn;
When bodies weighed with satiate passion’s power
Sad, disappointed from each other turn;
When men with quiet hatred burning deep
Together in a common bed must sleep—
Through the gray, phantom shadows of the dawn
Lo! Solitude floats down the river…

2.  A Second Translation…

“Solitude is like a rain.
It rises from the sea toward evening;
from plains, which are distant and remote,
it goes to the sky, which always has it.
And only then it falls from the sky on the city.

It rains down in the in-between hours,
when all the crooked streets turn toward morning,
and when the bodies, which found nothing,
leave each other feeling sad and disappointed;
and when the people, who hate each other,
have to sleep together in one bed:

then solitude flows with the rivers…”

3. In the Original German:

Die Einsamkeit ist wie ein Regen.
Sie steigt vom Meer den Abenden entgegen;
von Ebenen, die fern sind und entlegen,
geht sie zum Himmel, der sie immer hat.
Und erst vom Himmel fällt sie auf die Stadt.

Regnet hernieder in den Zwitterstunden,
wenn sich nach Morgen wenden alle Gassen
und wenn die Leiber, welche nichts gefunden,
enttäuscht und traurig von einander lassen;
und wenn die Menschen, die einander hassen,
in einem Bett zusammen schlafen müssen:

dann geht die Einsamkeit mit den Flüssen…

3.  A Third Translation…


Solitude is like the rain
rising from the sea to meet the nightfall
from the dim far distant plain …
Solitude falls like rain in that gray doubtful hour
when the streets all turn into dawn …
When those who are hopeless and forlorn and sorrowfully alone,
When all men, who hate each other, creep
together into a common bed for sleep
while solitude flows onwards with the rivers.


From Letters to a Young Poet #6

December 23, 1903

My dear Mr. Kappus,

I don’t want you to be without a greeting from me when Christmas comes and when you, in the midst of the holiday, are bearing your solitude more heavily than usual. But when you notice that it is vast, you should be happy; for what (you should ask yourself) would a solitude be that was not vast; there is only one solitude, and it is vast, heavy, difficult to bear, and almost everyone has hours when he would gladly exchange it for any kind of sociability, however trivial or cheap, for the tiniest outward agreement with the first person who comes along, the most unworthy.

But perhaps these are the very hours during which solitude grows; for its growing is painful as the growing of boys and sad as the beginning of spring. But that must not confuse you. What is necessary, after all, is only this: solitude, vast inner solitude. To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours – that is what you must be able to attain. To be solitary as you were when you were a child, when the grownups walked around involved with matters that seemed large and important because they looked so busy and because you didn’t understand a thing about what they were doing.

And when you realize that their activities are shabby, that their vocations are petrified and no longer connected with life, why not then continue to look upon it all as a child would, as if you were looking at something unfamiliar, out of the depths of your own world, from the vastness of your own solitude, which is itself work and status and vocation? Why should you want to give up a child’s wise not-understanding in exchange for defensiveness and scorn, since not understanding is, after all, a way of being alone, whereas defensiveness and scorn are a participation in precisely what, by these means, you want to separate yourself from.

Think, dear Sir, of the world that you carry inside you, and call this thinking whatever you want to: a remembering of your own childhood or a yearning toward a future of your own – only be attentive to what is arising within you, and place that above everything you perceive around you.

What is happening in your innermost self is worthy of your entire love; somehow you must find a way to work at it, and not lose too much time or too much courage in clarifying your attitude toward people. Who says that you have any attitude at all? l know, your profession is hard and full of things that contradict you, and I foresaw your lament and knew that it would come.

Now that it has come, there is nothing I can say to reassure you, I can only suggest that perhaps all professions are like that, filled with demands, filled with hostility toward the individual, saturated as it were with the hatred of those who find themselves mute and sullen in an insipid duty. The situation you must live in now is not more heavily burdened with conventions, prejudices, and false ideas than all the other situations, and if there are some that pretend to offer a greater freedom, there is nevertheless none that is, in itself, vast and spacious and connected to the important Things that the truest kind of life consists of.

Only the individual who is solitary is placed under the deepest laws like a Thing, and when he walks out into the rising dawn or looks out into the event-filled evening and when he feels what is happening there, all situations drop from him as if from a dead man, though he stands in the midst of pure life.

What you, dear Mr. Kappus, now have to experience as an officer, you would have felt in just the same way in any of the established professions; yes, even if, outside any position, you had simply tried to find some easy and independent contact with society, this feeling of being hemmed in would not have been spared you. It is like this everywhere; but that is no cause for anxiety or sadness; if there is nothing you can share with other people, try to be close to Things; they will not abandon you; and the nights are still there, and the winds that move through the trees and across many lands; everything in the world of Things and animals is still filled with happening, which you can take part in; and children are still the way you were as a child, sad and happy in just the same way and if you think of your childhood, you once again live among them, among the solitary children, and the grownups are nothing, and their dignity has no value.

And if it frightens and torments you to think of childhood and of the simplicity and silence that accompanies it, because you can no longer believe in God, who appears in it everywhere, then ask yourself, dear Mr. Kappus, whether you have really lost God. Isn’t it much truer to say that you have never yet possessed him? For when could that have been? Do you think that a child can hold him, him whom grown men bear only with great effort and whose weight crushes the old? Do you suppose that someone who really has him could lose him like a little stone? Or don’t you think that someone who once had him could only be lost by him?

But if you realize that he did not exist in your childhood, and did not exist previously, if you suspect that Christ was deluded by his yearning and Muhammad deceived by his pride – and if you are terrified to feel that even now he does not exist, even at this moment when we are talking about him – what justifies you then, if he never existed, in missing him like someone who has passed away and in searching for him as though he were lost?

Why don’t you think of him as the one who is coming, who has been approaching from all eternity, the one who will someday arrive, the ultimate fruit of a tree whose leaves we are? What keeps you from projecting his birth into the ages that are coming into existence, and living your life as a painful and lovely day in the history of a great pregnancy? Don’t you see how everything that happens is again and again a beginning, and couldn’t it be His beginning, since, in itself, starting is always so beautiful?

If he is the most perfect one, must not what is less perfect precede him, so that he can choose himself out of fullness and superabundance? Must he not be the last one, so that he can include everything in himself, and what meaning would we have if he whom we are longing for has already existed?

As bees gather honey, so we collect what is sweetest out of all things and build Him. Even with the trivial, with the insignificant (as long as it is done out of love) we begin, with work and with the repose that comes afterward, with a silence or with a small solitary joy, with everything that we do alone, without anyone to join or help us, we start Him whom we will not live to see, just as our ancestors could not live to see us. And yet they, who passed away long ago, still exist in us, as predisposition, as burden upon our fate, as murmuring blood, and as gesture that rises up from the depths of time.

Is there anything that can deprive you of the hope that in this way you will someday exist in Him, who is the farthest, the outermost limit?

Dear Mr. Kappus, celebrate Christmas in this devout feeling, that perhaps He needs this very anguish of yours in order to begin; these very days of your transition are perhaps the time when everything in you is working at Him, as you once worked at Him in your childhood, breathlessly. Be patient and without bitterness, and realize that the least we can do is to make coming into existence no more difficult for Him than the earth does for spring when it wants to come.

And be glad and confident.


Rainer Maria Rilke


No One In Life Can Help Anyone Else In Life — Rilke
At bottom no one in life can help anyone else in life; this one experiences over and over in every conflict and every perplexity: that one is alone.

All companionship can consist only in the strengthening of two neighboring solitudes, whereas everything that one is wont to call giving oneself is by nature harmful to companionship: for when a person abandons himself, he is no longer anything, and when two people both give themselves up in order to come close to each other, there is no longer any ground beneath them and their being together is a continual falling.

There is scarcely anything more difficult than to love one another. Like so much else, people have also misunderstood the place of love in life, they have made it into play and pleasure because they thought that play and pleasure were more blissful than work; but there is nothing happier than work, and love, just because it is the extreme happiness, can be nothing else but work. — So whoever loves must try to act as if he had a great work: he must be much alone and go into himself and collect himself and hold fast to himself; he must work; he must become something!

For believe me, the more one is, the richer is all that one experiences. And whoever wants to have a deep love in his life must collect and save for it and gather honey.


Whoever Wants To Have A Deep Love In Their Life – Rainier Maria Rilke

July 15, 2013
Whoever loves must try to act as if he had a great work: he must be much alone and go into himself and collect himself and hold fast to himself; he must work; he must become something!... The more one is, the richer is all that one experiences. And whoever wants to have a deep love in his life must collect and save for it and gather honey.

Whoever loves must try to act as if he had a great work: he must be much alone and go into himself and collect himself and hold fast to himself; he must work; he must become something!… The more one is, the richer is all that one experiences. And whoever wants to have a deep love in his life must collect and save for it and gather honey.

Rilke wrote some of the greatest love poetry in literature. The following is a selection from one of his letters. It is so deep, so concentrated and filled to the brim with what appears to be sound advice. I have read and then reread, finally just rereading all the time now; so happy to have found it. Give it some of your best attention. And no matter what he says, remember that we are not really alone, those of us whose hearts rest in peace with the Lord. A reading selection from John Mood’s Rilke on Love and Other Difficulties.


At bottom no one in life can help anyone else in life; this one experiences over and over in every conflict and every perplexity: that one is alone.

All companionship can consist only in the strengthening of two neighboring solitudes, whereas everything that one is wont to call giving oneself is by nature harmful to companionship: for when a person abandons himself, he is no longer anything, and when two people both give themselves up in order to come close to each other, there is no longer any ground beneath them and their being together is a continual falling.

There is scarcely anything more difficult than to love one another. That it is work, day labor, day labor, God knows there is no other word for it. And look, added to this is the fact that young people are not prepared for such difficult loving; for convention has tried to make this most complicated and ultimate relationship into something easy and frivolous, has given it the appearance of everyone’s being able to do it. It is not so. Love is something difficult and it is more difficult than other things because in other conflicts nature herself enjoins men to collect themselves, to take themselves firmly in hand with all their strength, while in the heightening of love the impulse is to give oneself wholly away.

But just think, can that be anything beautiful, to give oneself away not as something whole and ordered, but haphazard rather, bit by bit, as it comes? Can such giving away, that looks so like a throwing away and dismemberment, be anything good, can it be happiness, joy, progress? No, it cannot…. When you give someone flowers, you arrange them beforehand, don’t you?

But young people who love each other fling themselves to each other in the impatience and haste of their passion, and they don’t notice at all what a lack of mutual esteem lies in this disordered giving of themselves; they notice it with astonishment and indignation only from the dissension that arises between them out of all this disorder. And once there is disunity between them, the confusion grows with every day; neither of the two has anything unbroken, pure, and unspoiled about him any longer, and amid the disconsolateness of a break they try to hold fast to the semblance of their happiness (for all that was really supposed to be for the sake of happiness).

Alas, they are scarcely able to recall any more what they meant by happiness. In his uncertainty each becomes more and more unjust toward the other, they who wanted to do each other good are now handling one another in an imperious and intolerant manner, and in the struggle somehow to get out of their untenable and unbearable state of confusion, they commit the greatest fault that can happen to human relationships: they become impatient.

They hurry to a conclusion; to come, as they believe, to a final decision, they try once and for all to establish their relationship, whose surprising changes have frightened them, in order to remain the same now and forever (as they say). That is only the last error in this long chain of errings linked fast to one another. What is dead cannot even be clung to (for it crumbles and changes its character); how much less can what is living and alive be treated definitively, once and for all.

Self-transformation is precisely what life is, and human relationships, which are an extract of life, are the most changeable of all, rising and falling from minute to minute, and lovers are those in whose relationship and contact no one moment resembles another. People between whom nothing accustomed, nothing that has already been present before ever takes place, but many new, unexpected, unprecedented things. There are such relationships which must be a very great, almost unbearable happiness, but they can occur only between very rich natures and between those who, each for himself, are richly ordered and composed; they can unite only two wide, deep, individual worlds.

Young people — it is obvious — cannot achieve such a relationship, but they can, if they understand their life properly, grow up slowly to such happiness and prepare themselves for it. They must not forget, when they love, that they are beginners, bunglers of life, apprentices in love, — must learn love, and that (like all learning) wants peace, patience, and composure!

To take love seriously and to bear and to learn it like a task, this it is that young people need. — Like so much else, people have also misunderstood the place of love in life, they have made it into play and pleasure because they thought that play and pleasure were more blissful than work; but there is nothing happier than work, and love, just because it is the extreme happiness, can be nothing else but work.So whoever loves must try to act as if he had a great work: he must be much alone and go into himself and collect himself and hold fast to himself; he must work; he must become something!

For believe me, the more one is, the richer is all that one experiences. And whoever wants to have a deep love in his life must collect and save for it and gather honey.


O Tell Us, Poet, What You Do — Rainer Maria Rilke

October 18, 2012

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) wrote some uncannily moving poems. The Duino Elegies are perhaps the greatest for meditative study, but he also wrote some hit singles like the gem below. It’s a vindication of the task of poetry, with an interrogator asking a sharp series of questions, to which the poet always gives the same, simple answer. “Ich rühme,” he says in Rilke’s original German, “I praise” or “I celebrate.” It’s interesting that the skeptic is so searching and eloquent in line after line, and the poet just stonewalls.
Fred Sanders, The Bible Institute of Los Angeles

O tell us, poet, what you do. –I praise.
Yes, but the deadly and the monstrous phase,
how do you take it, how resist? –I praise.
But the anonymous, the nameless maze,
how summon it, how call it, poet? –I praise.
What right is yours, in all these varied ways,
under a thousand masks yet true? –I praise.
And why do stillnesss and the roaring blaze,
both star and storm acknowledge you? –because I praise.

There are those who will tell you that Rilke is not a Christian poet or that he rejected Christianity. Many have rejected the Christianity that dominated their particular age. I rejected mine for the longest of time which is why I am understanding of Rilke and his rejection perhaps. There is too much in Rilke’s writings that move my Catholic heart for me to believe that he was not one of us if not for the simple reason his idea that poets, like the Christian man, the original homo adorans before the fall, praises. The poet revives this vestigal memory we all possess from the Garden.

Micah Mattix, an assistant professor of literature at Houston Baptist University wrote this review of Letters on God and Letter to a Young Woman By Rainer Maria Rilke was featured in the WSJ a few months ago. I don’t agree with a lot that he wrote but I appreciated his attempt to make a few sharp clarifications:


Death was central to Rilke’s view of life. To embrace death meant embracing the “incomprehensible,” another name for God.

It’s fair to say that the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke was bedeviled by God, or what the poet called God. In “Improvisations of the Caprisian Winter” (1906-07), God is a mountain, Rilke writes, in which “I climb / and descend all alone and lose the way.” In another early, uncollected poem (1909), he addresses God as “you, whom I cannot take hold of now, anywhere.”

For Rilke (1875-1926), God is difficult to grasp not because he is absent but because he has been pushed to the corners of our mind. “Could one not see the history of God,” Rilke writes in one of the “Letters on God” now being published in English for the first time, “as if it were the side of the human condition that was never visited, always put off, saved up for later, and eventually missed out on altogether?” The poet’s duty is to find him again.

Annemarie S. Kidder’s translations of these two essay-like letters show how central this search was to the poet. The first was written in Munich on Nov. 8, 1915, not long after the French blockade of the city during World War I. Writing to a female admirer of his only novel, “The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge” (1910), Rilke, perhaps with the war at the forefront of his mind, quickly turns to the question of how it is possible to live when life is so “incomprehensible.”

It isn’t, he answers, unless we embrace all that is beyond our control, including death. We wrongly treat death as unnatural, Rilke argues. We bracket it out when we should accept it as part of the cycle of life. “When a tree begins to bud,” Rilke writes, “both death and life spring up in it.” To embrace death is to embrace the “incomprehensible,” which, for the poet, is another name for God.

Rilke was raised a Catholic, and there are echoes in his work of Christ’s pronouncement that “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Yet he came to reject the Catholic church, due to what he saw as his mother’s superficial religiosity. Sophia Rilke (née Entz), who came from a well-to-do family in Prague, would often take the young Rilke on pilgrimages and to churches.

If the family could not be wealthy, they could at least be “spiritual,” she seems to have believed. While the poet was deeply attached to his mother in his youth, he came to despise her overbearing nature and what he called “her absent-minded piety.” In his poetic cycle “Visions of Christ” (1896-98), which he refused to publish in his lifetime, and in the second “letter on god” published here, Rilke rejects the principle tenet of the church — the divinity of Christ — fashioning instead his own sense of spirituality.

In this second letter, written in 1922 in the guise of a factory worker and addressed to the deceased poet Emile Verhaeren, Rilke asks: “Who is this Christ that is meddling in everything?” For Rilke, Christ is holy to the extent that he embraced death and, therefore, life. He is an example of a life fully lived. “I cannot believe,” the poet writes, “that the cross was meant to remain; rather, it was to mark the crossroads.” People who worship Christ, Rilke writes, are “like dogs that do not comprehend the meaning of an index finger and think they have to snap at the hand.”

For Rilke, “degraded Christianity” has wrongly disdained sex, which has resulted in its “distortion and repression.” His own version of Christianity celebrates boundless sex as a form of participating in the mystery of one’s own life. (This is a view, no doubt, that was at least a little convenient for a poet who, to put it delicately, maintained a number of complicated relationships with women.) He comically lauds in this letter the debauched popes “weighed down by illegitimate children, mistresses, and victims of murder.” “Was there not more Christianity in them,” Rilke asks, “than in the lightweight restorers of the Gospels; namely, something alive, unstoppable, transformed?”

As these letters show, Rilke’s search for God was really a search for self. In finding himself, the poet hopes to find what he calls God but what most Christians would call devilry. His rather strange definition of death as part of God helps to explain Rilke’s divine angel in his most powerful poetic sequence, “The Duino Elegies” (1923).

In his earlier poems, God had been our “neighbor” who hides in “lowly” places. The poet watches attentively for the divine being’s “groping hand.” But in “The Duino Elegies,” God is replaced by a powerful angel. While this angelic spirit is still associated with the everyday, it is also something to be feared. “Every Angel,” Rilke writes, “brings terror,” but in facing the angel, the poet faces death, “names” God and thus provides his life with a fullness of being.

This volume also collects several letters that Rilke wrote to Lisa Heise between 1919 and 1924. Rilke was in his 40s at the time of the first letter; Heise was 26 . Her husband of three years had left her and her 2-year-old son. She sensed a kinship with the poet after reading “Book of Images” (1902) and wrote him. Rilke generously responded.

If Rilke is sometimes self-absorbed, his letters to Heise show him to be a patient and well-intentioned correspondent who genuinely cares for his interlocutor. While he is often philosophical — Rilke attempts a definition of womanhood, addresses the relationship between the artist and his work, and again discusses death — he also labors to help Heise deal with her sense of solitude (a subject on which Rilke was an expert) and shows sincere concern regarding her living arrangements, her son and her health. He also opens up to Heise. “My internal gardening,” he writes in one letter, “was magnificent this winter.”

In his final letter to Heise, her situation much improved, Rilke writes: “And what does living mean but this courage to fully grow into a cast, which one day will be broken off from our new shoulders.” The result, he says, will be a joyful freedom. The poet would die two years later. Whether he himself experienced this joy only God knows.


Rilke and Rodin: Final Parting – William H. Gass

August 9, 2012

G. B. Shaw by Rodin 1906

October was filled with Rilke’s work on the essay, but now Clara had arrived in Paris and had her studio in the same apartment building as his, according to an arrangement he had finally worked out with his conscience. Their economic circumstances remained dire; the couple’s dislike of Paris, now shared, increased; they endured their separate loneliness through the gray city’s winter, living on roots and water, or so it seemed. The essay at last concluded, Rilke came down with the first of several bouts of flu and a gloom that obscured the upper half of the Eiffel Tower. By March, he was ready’ to return to his itinerant ways, and fled for Italy, the first of many` nations in which he would find refuge.

It would be three years to the month of his first meeting with Rodin before Rilke would return to Paris and Meudon, this time as an invited guest. The master had read Rilke’s monograph by this’ time, since it now extolled him in French, and he welcomed the poet as a trusted friend and fellow artist. The visitor was well’ housed, with a nice view of the valley. Rilke offered to help with some of Rodin’s overwhelming paperwork and was soon hired on, as it were, full-time. Often he, Rodin, and Rose Beuret would rise early’ to visit the city or enjoy Versailles, and once they dared Chartres in the dead of winter, where terrible winds, because they were envious of such grandeur, Rodin said, tormented the towers. (Some details; have been taken from Ruth Butler’s Rodin: The Shape of Genius. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.)

Rilke seeped into the role of Rodin’s secretary, a position he wanted because it cushioned him in Meudon, because he was paid, because the work was expected to be undemanding; yet a position he did not want because it confined him to Meudon, his French might be inadequate, because it put him below stairs in Rodin’s service when he had his own fish to hook and fry — the poet as ambitious as the sculptor.

Rilke planned a lecture tour on behalf of Rodin, a project that would take him to Dresden late in October (the talk becomes part 2 of the Rodin book), but the response to his first appearance disappointed him because, although there were “six hundred people,” they were “not the right ones.” Then in Prague he twice performed for a small crowd of mystified officials and sleepy old ladies whom he imagined were more concerned with the digestion of their dinners. When Rilke asks, a few paragraphs into his text, “Are you listening?” is the question entirely rhetorical? Worse than their inattention, his take wasn’t covering costs. In Berlin, there were visits and readings before he repeated his Rodin lecture a final time — on this occasion with some success. (Freedman, pp. 233, 242.)

Spring of 1906 would find him back in Meudon, where his work, fatter than he remembered, sat upon his shoes like a heavy dog. In one of his poems, he likened himself to a swan out of water, waddling his way “through things still undone.” The personal epistle was an art form at which Rilke excelled, but the business letter in French was boring, intractable, foreign, and frustrating. The poet had become dilatory and the sculptor impatient.

Moreover, Rilke had begun answering mail without taking the trouble to inform Rodin of the fact or the nature of the exchange, assuming an authority he did not have: once to Baron Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, a wealthy German patron, once to Sir William Rothenstein, an important English art administrator and academic painter. Upon learning of these presumptions, Rodin fired Rilke with a force that expelled him from his cottage and the grounds as well as from his secretarial position. He was soon back in his little Paris room, a spent shell. (Ibid., p. 245.)

The poet had recovered his perilous freedom, his personal space, a space, one suspects, that was very like the space he believed Rodin’s figures required, not only one that allowed you to inspect them “in the round” but a space that was theirs by right of uniqueness, that distinguished them somehow “from the other things, the ordinary things, which anyone could grasp.” A small statue could, therefore, seem large. Rilke, too, required such room as respect conferred, where he might stand “solitary and luminous” with “the face, of a visionary.” (Rainer Maria Rilke. Auguste Rodin)

Yet Rilke’s rhetoric, when he writes about Rodin’s work, is not simply a reflection of his need to enhance his own importance; it also expresses the, necessity for any work of art to lay claim to the appropriate arena of its enjoyment, hence the close placement of paintings in some’ museums above, below, or beside one another on the same wall or the squeezing of a bust into a corner or the dumping of a figure at the end of a narrow hall that leads to the johns, the elevators, or the shops is a sign of catastrophic overcrowding, a show of curatorial contempt, or evidence of feeble artistic force. Even a fragment; should stand in its space like Napoleon, and there is ample testimony to the imperial effect of Rodin’s sculptures whatever their size. In his essay collection Leonardo’.s Nephew, James Fenton quotes Aristide Maillol — as his talk is recollected by the ubiquitous Count Kessler:

When you view a Rodin from afar, it’s small, very small. But sculpture forms part of the air all around it. Rodin has a Buddha at his place, well placed on a socle, in his garden, in front of a circle of small shrubs. Well, it’s as big as that [showing it very small] and yet it’s as big as the sky. It’s immense. It fills everything.
(James Fenton, Leonardo’s Nephew)

Rilke was similarly taken with this piece.


As if he listened. Silence. Depth.
And we hold back our breath. Yet nothing yet.
And he is star. And other great stars ring him,
though we cannot see that far.

O he is fat. Do we suppose
he’ll see us? He has need of that?
Sink in any supplicating pose before him,
he’ll sit deep and idle as a cat.

For that which lures us to his feet
has circled in him now a million years.
He has forgotten all we must endure,
encloses all we would escape.

Rodin’s preeminent biographer, Ruth Butler, suggests that some additional factors were at work in Rilke’s dismissal. When Rilke returned from his leisurely lecture tour, Rodin was ill with what was called the grippe. Rose Beuret was in a foul mood, which didn’t improve his. So he asked George Bernard Shaw, whose bust he had been commissioned to sculpt, if he and his wife would take the train to Meudon to sit for it so that the ailing artist wouldn’t have to travel to his workshop in Paris.

At first, the Shaws came unencumbered, but when Shaw learned that Rodin didn’t mind being photographed (the playwright had tried his own hand), he asked permission for a friend, the American photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn, to visit, as well. Shaw, not easily impressed by anyone farther from himself than his beard, was aware that Rodin’s thumb was a greater imprimatur than the Pope’s seal, and told Coburn, “No photograph taken has touched him…. He is by a million chalks the biggest man you ever saw; all your other sitters are only fit to make gelatin to emulsify for his negative.” (Details of this meeting are from Butler, p. 390, and the quote is from Alvin Langdom Coburn Photographer: An Autobiography. New York: Dover Publications, 1978, p. 22.) Rodin couldn’t have been disappointed with Coburn’s customarily lyrical view him sporting a beard that resembled a river and a hat we now call pillbox.” There is a slight upward tilt to his head that resembles the heroic pose he fashioned for Balzac.

To watch him pose for his immortality, Shaw gathered a crowd also calling the curator of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Sydney Cocerell, to his side.

Rilke joined them, almost immediately impressed with Shaw as sitter — the entire squad eager to write brilliantly about a glittering constellation they underestimated even while trying to exaggerate it

In the newspaper Gil Bias for May 24, 1912, Shaw wrote:

Rodin worked laboriously. . . . When he was uncertain he measured me with an old iron compass and then measured the bust. If the nose was too long he cut off a section and pressed the end to close the wound with no more emotion or affectation than a glazier replacing a window. If the ear was not in its place he would cut it off and lay it on correctly, these mutilations being executed cold-bloodedly in the presence of my wife (who almost expected to see the already terribly animated clay begin to bleed) while remarking that it was quicker to do it thusly than to make a new ear. (Quoted in Elsen, p. 126.)

Rilke wrote to Shaw’s German publisher, Samuel Fischer:

Rodin has begun the portrait of one of your most remarkable authors; it promises to be exceptionally good. Rarely has a likeness in the making had so much help from the subject of it as this bust of Bernard Shaw’s. It is not only that he is excellent at standing (putting so much energy into standing still and giving himself so unconditionally to the sculptor’s hands), but he so collects and concentrates himself in that part of the body which, in the bust, will have … to represent the whole Shaw, that his whole personality seems to become concentrated essence. (Quoted in Butler, pp. 390-391.)

They all took a break to attend the celebration for the installation of The Thinker in front of the Pantheon. Shaw, not to be outdone (and as excellent at sitting as standing), persuaded Coburn to photograph him the very next day, naked following his morning bath, in the pose presently before the Pantheon. The photo exists for posterity’s wonder. Rilke was visibly taken with the English genius, who didn’t mind adulation even from callow unknowns. Apart from that, during Rodin’s week of work, and, worse, during his week of triumph, Shaw had clearly been competing for attention, if not glory, with a sundry that included Rodin’s secretary and Rodin’s statue. Butler says, “It was Rilke who paid the price for the mischievous Englishman’s visit.” (Butler, p. 191.)

Although Rilke would suggest to Rodin the purchase of the Hotel Biron, later the Musee Rodin, and for a time live in that building (as Cocteau would, who claimed to have a role in its preservation), his intimacy with Rodin was over. Two days after Shaw’s departure for London, on May 10, 1906, Rilke was “dismissed like a thieving servant.” We can pretend to know precisely.


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.


Rilke The Panther by William H. Gass

August 7, 2012

Much more on Rilke, whose religious sensibilities and poetic genius drew me to him in my early twenties (now some goddamned 40 years ago) is in the twelve posts that are part of the category Rainer Maria Rilke.  I love how Gass delves into Rilke’s history and comes up with the original impetus for The Panther. I have never stood in a zoo quite the same way after reading that poem and how would I love to hold that antique plaster cast (Rodin’s model below) in my hands. The contrast between sculptor and poet is precious here. Autumn demonstrates Rilke’s deep and abiding faith.


The Meudon (where Rodin’s studio is located and Rilke has found employment as the great man’s secretary) days begin to pass. Rilke reads Rodin’s press clippings in the villa’s little park and enjoys the garden’s postcard views, or he walks up the village slopes to a thick wood where he can brood., in a solitude free of Paris’s insistent presence or Rodin’s impalpable one. Among his wishes: that he could take the forest’s lofty fresh air back with him to the city, where the heat is oppressive, the atmosphere odiferous, stale, and heavy. He presses his face against the fence of the Luxembourg Gardens like one in jail, and even the flowers in their beds feel constrained to be there.

On September 11, Rilke does something so transparent, it almost ceases to be devious. He writes Rodin a letter. Like a lover, he explains that his poor French makes it difficult for him to express himself as he would like, and the care with which he prepares his questions make them seem contrived and inappropriate for the occasion; so he is sending on a few verses in French, with the hope that they will bring the two of them a little closer. After some customary fulsomeness, Rilke confesses, “It was not only to do a study that I came to be with you, — it was to ask you: how must one live?” The answer we’ve heard: `il faut travailler.’ However, Rilke says he has always waited for the beckon of the muse, waited for what he calls the creative hour, waited for inspiration. He has tried to form habits of diligence, but now he knows he must try again, try and succeed. Sadly .. .

… last year we had rather serious financial worries, and they haven’t yet been removed: but I think now that diligent work can disarm even the anxieties of poverty. My wife has to leave our little child, and yet she thinks more calmly and impartially of that necessity since I wrote her what you said: “Travail et patience.” I am very happy that she will be near you, near your great work…

I want to see if I can find a living in some form here in Paris, — (I need only a little for that). If it is possible, I shall stay. And it would be a great happiness for me. Otherwise, if I cannot succeed, I beg you to help my wife as you helped me by your work and by your word and by all the eternal forces of which you are the Master.
(Letter to Auguste Rodin, September 11, 1902. Letters, pp. 87-88.)

The verses in French Rilke wrote for Rodin have a German brother, because on the same day, doubtless after the same stroll through the same park, he also penned one of the two better-known autumn poems from The Book of Hours. His state of mind could be better represented.


The leaves are falling, falling from far away,
as though a distant garden died above us;
they fall, fall with denial in their wave.

And through the night the hard earth falls
farther than the stars in solitude.

We all are falling. Here, this hand falls.
And see — there goes another. It’s in us all.

And yet there’s One whose gently holding hands
let this falling fall and never land.

Despite his misery, his anxiety, Rilke is greedily gathering material. These months will be among his richest. Incidents of no apparent moment will crystallize and coalesce. Here is one. At the September, he writes to Clara:

Rodin has a tiny plaster cast, a tiger (antique), in his studio which he values very highly…And from this little plaster cast I saw what he means, what antiquity is and what links him to it. There, in this animal, is the same lively feeling in the modeling, this little thing (it is no higher than my hand is wide, and no longer than my hand) has hundreds of thousands of sides like a very big object, hundreds of thousands of sides which are all alive, animated, and different. And that in plaster! And with this the expression of the prowling stride is intensified to the highest degree, the powerful planting of the broad paws, and the same time, that caution in which all strength is wrapped that noiselessness …
(Letter to Clara Rilke, September 27, 1902. Letters, p. go. Rilke refers to the little tiger again in a letter to Lou Andreas Salome; August 15, 1903. Letters, p. 128.)

The panther Rilke will study in the Jardin des Plantes began to find its words, I suspect, as a tiny plaster tiger with a prowling stride and broad paws; the bars of his cage were borrowed from the Luxembourg Gardens, and his gaze from the poet’s own, as well as his sense of desperation. The abbreviated sonnet, J. B. Leishman suggests, was the earliest of the famous Dinge, or “thing,” poems, whose nature has been ascribed to Rilke’s Rodin experience. (J. B. Leishman, ed. and trans, Rainer Maria Rilke: Selected Works, vol. 2. Poetry. New York: New Directions, 1960, p. 178. These translations are from William H. Gass, Reading Rilke, New York: Knopf, 1999.)

The Panther

His gaze has grown so worn from the passing
of the bars that it sees nothing anymore.
There seem to be a thousand bars before him
and beyond that thousand nothing of the world.

The supple motion of his panther’s stride,
as he pads through a tightening circle,
is like the dance of strength around a point
on which an equal will stands stupefied.

Only rarely is an opening in the eyes enabled.
Then an image brims
which slides the quiet tension of the limbs
until the heart, wherein it dies.

Rodin’s surfaces are there to suggest a reality that can only be inferred, just as fingers or a face, by gesture or expression, disclose a consciousness that would otherwise be indiscernible. Sculptures are things: they start as stuff, stuff taken from stuff like rock or clay, and they stay stuff until the artist gives them a determinate form so that, through that form, they may have life.

The poet’s problem is precisely the opposite. Language is our most important sign of elevated awareness, but language has weak presence. Though often on paper, it possesses no weight. A poem is like a ghost seeking substantiality, a soul in search of a body more appealing than the bare bone mere verses rattle. It is consequently not the message in a bottle that Rilke previously thought it was, nor a young man’s feelings raise like a flag.

All of us have emotions urgently seeking release, an many of us have opinions we think would do the world some good, however, the poet must also be a maker, as the Greeks maintained, and, like the sculptor, like every other artist, should aim at adding real beings to the world, beings fully realized, not just things like tools and haberdashery that nature has neglected to provide, or memos and laws that society produces in abundance, but Ding an sich, as humans often fail to be, things in themselves.

In a strange way, Rilke’s new Rodin-induced resolve will unite the poet’s mostl primitive impulse — in this case, animism — with his most sophisticated inclination — art as an end, art that stands apart from nature; and in opposition to it, since nature does not and cannot produce it.


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).


Love Song by Rainer Maria Rilke

May 14, 2012

Rodin — The Eve. Edward Steichen, 1907
My Master,
… I wrote you from Haseldorf that in September I shall be in Paris to prepare myself for the book consecrated to your work. But what I have not yet told you is that for me, for my work (the work of a writer or rather of a poet), it will be a great event to come near you. Your art is such (I have felt it for a long time) that it knows how to give bread and gold to painters, to poets, to sculptors: to all artists who go their way of suffering, desiring nothing but that ray of eternity which is the supreme goal of the creative life.
Images from A Year with Rilke

Writer and poet, Rilke was considered one of the greatest lyric poets of modern Germany. He created the “object poem” as an attempt to describe with utmost clarity physical objects, the “silence of their concentrated reality.” He became famous with such works as Duineser Elegien and Die Sonette an Orpheus . They both appeared in 1923. After these books, Rilke had published his major works, believing that he had done his best as a writer.

Rainer Maria Rilke was born in Prague as the son of Josef Rilke, a railway official and the former Sophie Entz. A crucial fact in Rilke’s life was that his mother called him Sophia. She forced him to wear girl’s clothes until he was aged five – thus compensating for the earlier loss of a baby daughter. Rilke’s parents separated when he was nine. His militarily inclined Father sent him at ten yesrs old to the military academies of St. Pölten and Mahrisch-Weisskirchenn. At the military academy Rilke did not enjoy his stay, and was sent to a business school in Linz. He also worked in his uncle’s law firm. Rilke continued his studies at the universities of Prague, Munich, and Berlin.

As a poet Rilke made his debut at the age of nineteen with Leben und Lieder (1894), written in the conventional style of Heinrich Heine. In Munich he met the Russian intellectual Lou Andreas-Salome, an older woman, who influenced him deeply. In Florence, where he spent some months in 1898, Rilke wrote: “… I felt at first so confused that I could scarcely separate my impressions, and thought I was drowning in the breaking waves of some foreign splendor.”

With Lou Andreas-Salome and her husband Rilke travelled in Russia in 1899, visiting among others Leo Tolstoy . Rilke was deeply impressed by what he learned of Russian mysticism. During this period he started to write The Book of Hours: The Book of Monastic Life , which appeared in 1905. He spent some time in Italy, Sweden, and Denmark, and joined an artists’ colony at Worpswede in 1903. In his letters to a young would-be poet, which he wrote from 1903 to 1908, Rilke explained, that “nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you to write; find out whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write.” (in Letters to a Young Poet, 1929 )

In 1901 Rilke married the young sculptress, Klara Westhoff, one of Auguste Rodin’s pupils. They had a daughter, Ruth, but marriage lasted only one year. During this period Rilke composed in rhymed, metered verse, the second part of The Book of Hours . The work expressed his spiritual yearning. After Rilke had separated from Klara, he settled in Paris to write a book about Rodin and to work for his secretary (1905-06).

In the Spring of 1906 the overworked poet left Rodin abruptly. Rilke revised Das Buch der Bilder and published it in an enlarged edition. He also wrote The Tale of the Love and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke , which became a great popular success. During his Paris years Rilke developed a new style of lyrical poetry. After Neue Gedighte (1907-08, New Poems) he wrote a notebook named Die Aufzechnungen des Malte Laurdis Brigge (1910), his most important prose work. It took the form of a series of semiautobiographical spiritual confessions but written by a Danish expatriate in Paris.

Rilke kept silent as a poet for twelve years before writing Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus , which are concerned with “the identity of terror and bliss” and “the oneness of life and death”. Duino Elegies was born in two bursts of inspiration separated by ten years. According to a story, Rilke heard in the wind the first lines of his elegies when he was walking on the rocks above the sea – “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ hierarchies?

Rilke visited his friend Princess Marie von Thurnun Taxis in 1910 at Duino, her remote castle on the coast of the Adriatic, and returned again next year. There he started to compose the poems, but the work did proceed easily. After serving in the army, Rilke was afraid that he would never be able to finish it but finally in 1922 he completed Duineser Elegien (Duino Elegies) in a chateau in Muzot, Switzerland. He also wrote an addition, the Sonnets to Orpheus , which was a memorial for the young daughter of a friend.

In the philosophical poems Rilke meditated on time and eternity, life and death, art versus ordinary things. The tone was melancholic. Rilke believed in the coexistence of the material and spiritual realms, but human beings were for him only spectators of life, grasping its beauties momentarily only to lose them again. With the power of creativity an artist can try to build a bridge between two worlds, although the task is almost too great for a man. The work influenced deeply such poets as Sidney Keyes, Stephen Spender, Robert Bly, W.S. Merwin, John Ashbery, and W.H. Auden, who had Rilkean angels appear in the collection In Times of War (1939).

In 1913 Rilke returned to Paris, but he was forced to return to Germany because of the First World War. Duino Castle was bombarded to ruins and Rilke’s personal property was confiscated in France. He served in the Austrian army and found another patron, Werner Reinhart, who owned the Castle Muzot at Valais. After 1919 he lived in Switzerland, occupied by his work and roses in his little garden. For time to time he went to Paris for a few months or to Italy. Rilke’s companion during his last years was the artist Baladine (Elisabeth Dorothea Spiro), whose son, Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski), become also an artist. Rilke wrote a foreword to a book illustrated by Balthus’s drawings of cats. Rilke died on December 29, in 1926.


Love Song by Rainer Maria Rilke

How can I keep my soul in me, so that
it doesn’t touch your soul? How can I raise
it high enough, past you, to other things?
I would like to shelter it, among remote
lost objects, in some dark and silent place
that doesn’t resonate when your depths resound.
Yet everything that touches us, me and you,
takes us together like a violin’s bow,
which draws one voice out of two separate strings.
Upon what instrument are we two spanned?
And what musician holds us in his hand?
Oh sweetest song.


I don’t know if Rilke was Catholic or not but this is such a powerful image of how divine love touches us as a musician holds the strings of an instrument and plays a melody from two strings.  I guess if you are an atheist you have to reject the whole thing as nonsense but what a loss not to experience the overwhelming sense of a love that touches the divine.

I hope this is the kind of love you have found, Stella. God bless you.


What Losing Faith Really Means – Roger Scruton

December 20, 2011

Luis Buñuel has reputation as one of the most important surrealist filmmakers in history. He got his start by collaborating with Salvador Dali on the 16-minute short Un Chien Andalou. His long career in surrealist filmmaking and religious rabble-rousing had its share of peaks and valleys, as he traveled from Spain to France to America to Mexico and back again. Simon of the Desert, his last Mexican film, is certainly one of the peaks. Simon of the Desert is Luis Buñuel’s wicked and wild take on the life of devoted ascetic Saint Simeon Stylites, who waited atop a pillar surrounded by a barren landscape for six years, six months, and six days, in order to prove his devotion to God.

Religion, as Durkheim pointed out in his great study of its elementary forms, is a social fact. A religion is not something that occurs to you; nor does it emerge as the conclusion of an empirical investigation or an intellectual argument. It is something that you join, to which you are converted, or into which you are born. Losing the Christian faith is not merely a matter of doubting the existence of God, or the incarnation, or the redemption purchased on the Cross. It involves falling out of communion, ceasing to be `members in Christ’, losing a primary experience of home. All religions are alike in this, and it is why they are so harsh on heretics and unbelievers: for heretics and unbelievers pretend to the benefits of membership, while belonging to other communities in other ways.

This is not to say that there is nothing more to religion than the bond of membership. There is also doctrine, ritual, worship and prayer. There is the vision of God the creator, and the search for signs and revelations of the transcendental. There is the sense of the sacred, the sacrosanct, the sacramental and the sacrilegious. All those grow from the experience of social membership and also amend it, so that a religious community furnishes itself with an all-embracing Weltanschauung, together with rituals and ceremonies that affirm its existence as a social organism, and lay claim to its place in the world.

Faith is not therefore content with the cozy customs and necromantic rites of the household gods. It strides out towards a cosmic explanation and a final theodicy. In consequence it suffers challenge from the rival advance of science. Scientific thinking brought Christian doctrine to a sudden check. Although religion is a social fact, therefore, it is exposed to a purely intellectual refutation. And the defeat of the Church’s intellectual claims began the process of secularization, which was to end in the defeat of the Christian community — the final loss of that root experience of membership, which had shaped European civilization for two millennia, and which had caused it to be what it is.

The loss of faith may begin as an intellectual loss. But it does not end there. It is a loss of comfort, membership and home: it involves exile from the community that formed you, and for which you may always secretly yearn. Reading the great Victorian doubters — Matthew Arnold being pre-eminent among them — I am persuaded that they were not ready for this experience. Hence they attempted to patch up the social world while leaving the ecclesiastical crenellations intact on top of it. And the remarkable fact is that they were successful. Their loss of faith occurred against the background of a still perceivable religious community, whose customs they did nothing to disturb. They inhabited the same Lebenswelt as the believer, and saw the world as marked out by institutions and expectations that are the legacy of religion.

We witness this in the writings of nineteenth-century secularists such as John Stuart Mill, Jules Michelet or Henry Thoreau. Their world bears the stamp of a shared religion; the human form for them is still divine; the free individual still shines in their world with a more than earthly illumination, and the hidden goal of all their writings is to ennoble the human condition. Such writers did not experience their loss of faith as a loss, since in a very real sense they hadn’t lost religion. They had rejected various metaphysical ideas and doctrines, but still inhabited the world that faith had made — the world of secure commitments, of marriages, obsequies and christenings, of real presences in ordinary lives and exalted visions in art. Their world was a world where the concepts of the sacred, the sacrilegious and the sacramental were widely recognized and socially endorsed.

This condition found idealized expression in the Gothic Revival, and in the writings of its principal high Victorian advocate, John Ruskin. Nobody knows whether Ruskin was a vestigial Christian believer, a fellow-traveler or an atheist profoundly attached to the medieval vision of a society ordered by faith. His exhortations, however, are phrased in the diction of the Book of Common Prayer; his response to the science and art of his day is penetrated by the spirit of religious inquisition, and his recommendations to the architect are for the building of the Heavenly Jerusalem.

The Gothic style, as he described and commended it, was to recapture the sacred for a secular age. It was to offer visions of sacrifice and consecrated labor, and so counter the dispiriting products of the industrial machine. The Gothic would be, in the midst of our utilitarian madness, a window on to the transcendental, where once again we could pause and wonder, and where our souls would be filled with the light of another world. The Gothic Revival — both for Ruskin and for the atheist William Morris — was an attempt to reconsecrate the city as an earthly community united by real presences in sacred precincts.

Loss of faith involves a radical change to the Lebenswelt, as Husserl called it. The most ordinary things take on a new aspect, and concepts that inhabit the soul of believers and shape their most intimate experiences — concepts of the sacred and profane, of the forbidden, the sacramental and the holy — seem to make no contact with the world as it appears to the person who has lost hold of the transcendental.

In response to this we might strive as the Victorians did to maintain and repair the faith community, to hope that the process of re-consecration would continue, refurbishing the image of humanity as god-like and redeemed. In short, we could go on stealing from churches. But it doesn’t work — not now. More appropriate to our time is the response of Rilke and Eliot, the two poets over whom I stumbled when first I discovered books. They did not hope for that enduring simulacrum of a religious community, but instead wished to rediscover the real thing, only lying dormant within us.

Among the greatest religious poems of the twentieth century we must surely count The Duino Elegies of Rilke, and The Four Quartets of T. S. Eliot. In the first a private religion is created from the fragmentary offerings of intensely subjective experiences, which are gradually elaborated until they seem to contain the intimation of a personal redemption. In the second the poet is living in a world that refuses his religious yearning; he rediscovers, through a lost but imagined religious community, the experience of the sacramental from which he had been cut off. Both poets are restored in imagination to what they had lost in fact. There is a kind of belief there, but it is a belief that recreates the religious community out of memories, intimations and signs.

In The Duino Elegies the idea of the transcendental is embodied in the figure of the Angel, summoned into existence by the poet’s need, and representing the triumph of consciousness over the world of fact. In all of us, Rilke believes, there is the deep need to transform fact into thought, object into subject, Earth into the idea of Earth: the Angel is the being in whom this transubstantiation is complete. He is like the soul released into Brahma, who has translated matter to spirit so as to be co-terminous with his world.

We emulate this process of translation, but we must begin from the fragments of our earthly experience where the sacred can take root — the places of love, heroism, death and memory, in which Earth beseeches us to take conscious note of her, to ingest her into our own transcendental presence, which is also an absence. For Rilke the experience of the sacred is saturated with the image of community, with the full, conscious rejoicing of the tribe, now dormant in all of us, and resurrected in imagination in the tenderness of sexual love:

Look, we don’t love as flowers love, out of
a single year; there rises in us, when we love,
immemorial sap in the arms. O girl,
This — that we loved in ourselves, not one yet to be, but
the innumerable ferment; not a single child
but the fathers resting like ruined mountains
in our depths –; but the dry river-bed
of former mothers –; but the whole
soundless landscape under its clear
or cloudy destiny –, this, girl, came before you.

In that passage Rilke finds in the intense longing of erotic love the intimations of a religious community — one dedicated to its own reproduction. The transcendental is contained in the moment — the moment of desire that summons past and future generations as witnesses to the present passion. Angels live like this always; we only sometimes, in those moments when we recognize our own mortality and embrace it.

Eliot had another vision, one nearer to that of the Gothic Revival — though his is a Gothic Revival of the imagination, in which the effort of renewal takes place inwardly, in the subjective experience of the suffering poet. His pilgrimage to Little Gidding, once the home of an Anglican community dedicated to the life of prayer, leads him to the following thought:

     if you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

This is a very different vision from Rilke’s, of course. Not for Eliot that unvordenklicher Saft in die Arme: the erotic has been banished from his world; or rather, it never intruded there. Instead we have a search for the `timeless moment’ — and, stated thus briefly, it sounds like a chocolate-box platitude. But the context clarifies the thought. Eliot has found his way to a sacred place, and imagined himself into the community that made it holy. He is in communion with the dead, has passed over to them from the empirical world, and is kneeling beside them in that transcendental region. He has rediscovered the sacred, in a world that seemed to exclude it from view.

Eliot’s redemption at Little Gidding involves the imagined recovery of the old Christian community. Rilke’s self-made redemption through the society of Angels involves the invention of a community that is not of this world. Both are quintessentially modern responses to the loss of religion — attempts to recuperate the transcendental and the sacred from the raw experience of the solitary self. But they cannot compensate for that other and greater loss, which is that of the religious community itself. For that community contained a vital store of moral knowledge – knowledge collectively generated and collectively deployed.

The moral knowledge that I have in mind is manifest in our response to other people, in our social projects and in our sense of ourselves. It is also manifest in our ability spontaneously to understand and to act upon human realities. Moral knowledge is a practical, not a theoretical acquisition. It does not consist in the knowledge of truths. Nevertheless it may open the way to such knowledge. For there are certain truths about the human condition that are hard to formulate and hard to live up to, and which we therefore have a motive to deny. It may require moral discipline if we are to accept these truths and also to live by them.

For instance, there is the truth that we are self-conscious beings, and that this distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom. There is the truth that we are free, accountable and objects of judgment in our own eyes and in the eyes of others. There is the truth that we are motivated not only by desire and appetite, but by a conception of the good. There is the truth that we are not just objects in the world of objects, but also subjects, who relate to each other reciprocally. There are all the other vital truths that I have discovered through growing up with Sam. To the person with religious belief — whether Christian or Muslim, whether monotheist or polytheist, whether a believer in the afterlife or not — those truths are obvious, and their consequences immediately apparent.

Religious people may not express the truths as I have done, since I am adopting a secular idiom. Nor will they normally be aware of the philosophical reasoning that would defend those truths against modernist and postmodernist doubt. Nevertheless that is how they see the world. For them the `human form divine’, as Blake described it, is set apart from the rest of nature. Our form bears, for them, the marks of its peculiar destiny; it is capable of sanctity and liable to desecration, and in everything it is judged from a perspective that is not of this world. That way of seeing people enshrines the fundamental truth of our condition, as creatures suspended between the empirical and the transcendental, between being and judgment. But it deploys concepts that are given to us through religion, and to be obtained only with the greatest effort without it.

If you see things in that way you will find it difficult to share the view of Enlightenment thinkers that religious decline is no more than the loss of false beliefs; still less will you be able to accept the postmodernist vision of a world now liberated from absolutes, in which each of us constructs guidelines of his own, and that the only agreement that counts is the agreement to differ.

The decline of Christianity, I maintain, involves, for many people, not the freedom from religious need, but the loss of concepts that would enable them to assuage it and, by assuaging it, to open their knowledge and their will to the human reality. For them the loss of religion is an epistemological loss — a loss of knowledge. Losing that knowledge is not a liberation but a fall.

Loss is fundamental to the human condition. But civilizations differ in their way of accommodating it. The Upanishads exhort us to free ourselves of all attachments, to rise to that blissful state in which we can lose nothing because we possess nothing. And flowing from that exhortation is an art and a philosophy that make light of human suffering, and scorn the losses that oppress us in this world.

By contrast, Western civilization has dwelt upon loss and made it the principal theme of its art and literature. Scenes of mourning and sorrow abound in medieval painting and sculpture; our drama is rooted in tragedy and our lyric poetry takes the loss of love and the vanishing of its object as its principal theme. It is not Christianity that gave us this outlook. Virgil’s Aeneid, ostensibly an expression of Aeneas’s hope as he is god-guided to his great and world-transforming goal in Italy, is composed of losses. The terrible sack of Troy, the loss of his wife, the awful tale of Dido, the death of Anchises, the visit to the underworld, the ruinous conflict with Turnus — all these explore the parameters of loss, and show us that our highest hopes and loyalties lead of their own accord to tragedy.

For all that, the Aeneid is just as much a religious text as the Upanishads. The world of Aeneas is a world of rites and rituals, of sacred places and holy times. And Aeneas is judged by the gods, sometimes hounded by them, sometimes sustained, but at every moment accountable to them and aware of their real presence in the empirical world. It is for this reason that Aeneas can look his many losses in the face and also set them at the distance that enables him to gain from them. They come to him not as inexplicable accidents but as trials, ordeals and judgements. He wrestles with them and overcomes them as you might overcome an opponent. And each loss adds to his inner strength, without hardening his heart.

At the risk of sounding somewhat Spenglerian, I would suggest that the questing and self-critical spirit of Western civilization distinguishes it among civilizations and informs both the style of its losses and its way of coping with them. The Western response to loss is not to remove yourself from the world. It is to bear it as a loss, to mourn it, and to strive to overcome it by seeing it as a form of consecrated suffering. Religion lies at the root of that attitude.

 Religion enables us to bear our losses, not primarily because it promises to offset them with some compensating gain, but because it sees them from a transcendental perspective. Judged from that perspective they appear not as meaningless afflictions but as sacrifices. Loss, conceived as sacrifice, becomes consecrated to something higher than itself: and in this it follows a pattern explored by Rene Girard in his bold theory of the violent origins of the human disposition to recognize sacred things.[Rene Girard, La violence et le sacre, Paris, 1972]

I think that is how people can cope with the loss of children — to recognize in this loss a supreme example of the transition to another realm. Your dead child was a sacrificial offering, and is now an angel beckoning from that other sphere, sanctifying the life that you still lead in the material world. This thought is of course very crudely captured by my words. Fortunately, however, three great works of art exist that convey it completely — the medieval poem The Pearl from the Gawain manuscript, Mahler’s Kindertotenliederm, and Britten’s church parable Curlew River.

In our civilization, therefore, religion is the force that has enabled us to bear our losses and so to face them as truly ours. The loss of religion makes real loss difficult to bear; hence people begin to flee from loss, to make light of it, or to expel from themselves the feelings that make it inevitable. They do not do this in the way of the Upanishads, which exhort us to an immense spiritual labor, whereby we free ourselves from the weight of Dharma and slowly ascend to the blessed state of Brahma. The path of renunciation presupposes, after all, that there is something to renounce.

Modern people pursue not penitence but pleasure, in the hope of achieving a condition in which renunciation is pointless since there is nothing to renounce. Renunciation of love is possible only when you have learned to love. This is why we see emerging a kind of contagious hardness of heart, an assumption on every side that there is no tragedy, no grief, no mourning, for there is nothing to mourn. There is neither love nor happiness — only fun. For us, one might be tempted to suggest, the loss of religion is the loss of loss.


“The Children” from Visions of Christ by Ranier Maria Rilke

May 30, 2011

Let The Children Come Unto Me by Fritz von Uhde

“The Children” by Ranier Maria Rilke

There stood
amid the children of the neighborhood
a rnan. His garment was of modest wear,
and bright as home was his redeemer’s-hair.
And just as on a day in early spring
the blossoms, suddenly awakened, stare,
so had the children gathered, marveling
at him, whom none of the adults would dare to name.
But he is well-known to the young,
who crowd the gateway of the city’s poor.

One of the swarm — a pale one — murmurs: “You’re
the Mercy for whose sake my mother wrung
her hands.” The words are tender on her tongue:
Your home is in the sunset — am I right?..
there, where the mountain-peaks are proud and bright.
To you the tree-tops nod; to you are sung
the windsongs; and you visit — like a friend –
good children in their dreams.” At this they bend
like birches, all of them — the dark, the blonde –
before his smile — and the adults are stunned.
Unto his blessing, as if home were there,
come children scurrying from everywhere,
and all are listening. The word he brings
spreads over them the whiteness of its wings:
“Is there among you one who meditates
how hastily the soundless hours lead you,
how day by day and night by night they speed you
through thousand doorways and through thousand
And all the hinges move just as they need to, [gates?
and all the doors fall softly into place;
your conscience and your comrade I remain,
although the journey ripens past my reign.
I am not life, and life is what you're after;
the darkness is your portion -- I illume;
'Renounce!' I cry -- but you are lured by laughter;
you crave good fortune, and -- my voice is doom."
He ceased. The grownups listened from afar.
Then, sighing, he continued. "When we are
balked at the border, don't abandon me.
You'll be too young to take me where you go;
but as you travel, turn back once to see:
perhaps in a poor place where flowers grow,
or in the tender smile of her who's been
a long time yearning, or perhaps within
an expectation: I am Memory,
and Childhood. Go -- but as you seek strange lands,
turn back to offer me one final glance
already dipped in life from which the new
and never-prayed-to God holds out his hands.
Go on, then. There's a world awaiting you."
They hear, in haste, the promise he speaks;
warmer and warmer grow their cheeks:
"Shall we be pounding at the doors?!"
cries out a wild one in the throng
cries out and anxiously implores:
"Through forest and flood, come speed us along!
And is the greatest door, the last,
soon to be passed?"

Thus, for the future the Master has vowed,
the eyes of that youngster boldly ignite;
and he blooms in the midday light.
But one, of that hushed and hearkening crowd,
lifts himself now, one child alone;
dishevelled and wilted his hair, wind-blown,
as over a helmet's rage still flies
proudly the torn prize.
The voice of this one flutters and begs:
"You!" He anxiously clasps his legs
with poor, starved hands: "You never
warned us, You never said
it would end forever!
Let the ungrateful gallop ahead
to years that the swiftest cannot recover --
I am different, different from these!"
And in a convulsion he clasps his knees.--
The lips of the radiant one, they quiver,
and he bends toward the weeping lad:
"Does mother give you games and food?"
Then into his lap sobs the boy:
"I'm too old for a toy."
"Does she bring you broth, fresh-brewed,
mornings when you wake?"
The lad has begun to quake:
"Too poor; I go unfed."
"Don't her kisses make
your cheeks sometimes turn red?"
Then he confesses: "Mother
has been a long time dead."…
And the bright one's lips are unsteady
as leaves in autumn weather:
''Then you've been out in life already,
and now we can stay here together."

In the summer of 1897, Rainer wrote "Die Kinder.” '"The Children," a poem in which adoring youngsters, and adults in the periphery, crowd around the radiant iconographical figure of Christ, seeking his blessings. His sermon, however, contains some sobering paradigms:

I am not life, and life is what you're after;
the darkness is your portion -- I illume;
'Renounce!' I cry -- but you are lured by laughter;
you crave good fortune, and -- my voice is doom."

Rilke is touched by the simple faith of sheltered children but is aware that it will have to give way, as it did for him, when confronting life. Childhood illusions obviously serve up to a point in the natural development of the individual; beyond that point, Rilke seems to imply, each person must seek for himself the meaning of life and death. The way of Christ may not be the way for all men in that Christ's lonely mission was a despairing one even for himself.

Rilke's Christ is inspired by Matthew's portrayal which glows with affection for children: "Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me; for such is the Kingdom of heaven." Those who seek Christ, says Rilke, can find him metaphorically in scenes of child -- in a mother's smile, a moment of expectancy. In that sense can the following statement of Rilke's Christ be understood: "I am Memory and Childhood."

The theme of Christ and the children lends itself to pathos and tenderness rendered by the infinitely soft alliterations and gliding rhymes in the dreamlike lines.

Some of Rilke's poetic pictorializations of Christ scenes were inspired by and adapted from the paintings of the once well-known artist Fritz von Uhde (1848-1911). Today, Uhde's prolific and largely representational output seems passe. In one of Uhde's devotional portraits, Christ graphically illuminates the darkness and represents light as does the figure in Rilke's "The Children."

In Munich Rilke sporadically attended lectures on art history at the university. Yet his taste in art developed strongly only after he met Rodin, felt the impact of Cezanne and Picasso, and turned his attention from subject to form. Rilke was fascinated by the Christ themes in Uhde's work. Uhde went the gamut from realism, imitational baroque devotionalism, to impressionism -- sometimes expressing his own vision of life and sometimes acceding to public tastes.

Some of Uhde's Christ paintings departed from the tradition of pictorial splendor by bringing Christ close to contemporary surroundings, especially to the peasant folk, and by giving him simple dress descriptive of no single period. Undoubtedly, Uhde found precedent in the humanization of Biblical figures by Rubens and the stress on moral expression rather than physical beauty by Rembrandt. Greater than his finished and smoothed-out paintings, his sketches show Uhde to have been a painter who could have transcended his time had he the will and self-confidence that makes of art an absolute mission. Rilke thought that the best of Uhde's work was that in which children played a role and in which Uhde indirectly captured the Christ figure of love and faith and refuge as reflected in their eyes.

Rilke's deeply subjective description of Uhde's Christ picture called Let the Children Come unto Me holds particular interest because it shows the mood and portraiture which Rilke attempted in his poem "The Children:"

In "Let The Children Come Unto Me," it was the concern of the painter to give the wishes and dreams of these children a common focal point, to create a pair of rich and kind hands stretched out toward the hesitant questions and search of these helpless hands, lips which can give consolation and answer to the thousand boundless and bold questions of children, and to create an eye which is radiant enough to become a homeland to those who come out of the dark. He wanted to make the children a gift of a father without the worries, agedness, or anger of a father; in short, to fulfill the deepest and most mysterious longings of their tiny, awakening souls.'

Rilke prefers the Uhde paintings in which the onlookers reveal by their emotions the presence of Christ, to those in which Christ and the onlookers are grouped conventionally. Unfortunately Uhde was pliable when attacked by philistine demands for conventional renderings so that when his painting of the Holy Night (1888) was castigated for allegedly showing in his Madonna "the features of a prostitute who has brought her child into the world in a dive," he promptly beautified Mary's face, tidied up her surroundings, and added symbolical iconographic devices. Similar concessions were made when the influential Munich gallery, the Pinakothek, offered to purchase Uhde's painting "The Ascension of Christ" (1897) provided that he accent the Christ figure and its ascent. Rilke published a biting article about the stipulation, noting that Uhde's earlier redeeemer was "in no way acquainted with all the finesses of flight techniques. "

Rilke also mentioned in the article that he had visited Uhde's studio in November 1896 and that he had seen the preliminary painting—a superbly dynamic rendering on gray canvas with turbulent charcoal strokes and vast space over the heads of the crowd. The phenomenon of belief and its power attracted Rilke; apparently Uhde's preliminary sketch spoke to him in those terms:

Imagine if you will a group of people -- not of peasants and not of the educated but simply of people: the elderly, men, maiden, and women. And, imagine this group to be forcibly drawn together, united and commonly enthralled by one sensation. In fine shading on all the faces is the effect of something great and incredible: wonderment in the women, in the maiden: glorification in the children, trust . . . And then in their hands -- in that of the elderly, doubt; fear in those of men and women, longing in the hands of maiden; and the hands of children half-unconsciously imitate the gesture of the wondrous one…

Rilke scorned the officially sanctioned ascension which Uhde agreed to paint by touching up and changing his original work: "it proves that basically he no longer sees Christ very clearly." In the new version, the painter dissociates himself from the crowd and gives it the conventional "Jesus" rather than Christ, "the redeemer who humanly and modestly was on solid ground" in earlier Uhde paintings.
Siegfried Mandel, Visions of Christ

A little Jungian synchronicity at work as I sat down one day last week with my friend Priscilla to watch the film Seraphine. “A well done period piece and art history filled with fascinating historical detail and brilliantly acted by Yolande Moreau as Séraphine Louis, a poor French peasant, and Modern Primitive, self-taught, naïve, folk artist. Séraphine is the true story of a woman who was ecstatically inspired to paint her angels demanded it. Born in 1864, she walked a life-long fine line between divine inspiration and madness, and ended her life alone and penniless in an asylum in 1942. Séraphine is discovered  in 1912 by German art collector Wilhelm Uhde, who provides patronage and begins to get her work into exhibitions, until he is forced to leave France in 1914 due to war between Germany and France.

Uhde returns in 1927 and continues his patronage of the artist, who becomes quite successful for a short period of time (though completely unable to handle either the money or the fame, which, at least as depicted in the film, may have contributed to destabilizing her rather delicate mental balance) before she ultimately has a psychotic break in 1932, and spends the last decade of her life hospitalized and deprived of her painting (mercifully, this decade is mostly absent from the film.) This is not a particularly happy story, but it is a fascinating one, told with direct simplicity and wealth of detail. And Yolanda Moreau is totally mesmerizing.” [From a Netflick’s review]


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