OMNI ESSE DEO DVBITANDVM
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In the German speaking world, Ranier Maria Rilke (1875-1926) is oft touted as the greatest poet after Goethe and many a Deutsche would also say that he must bow before Heine as well. Being that my mother tongue is English, I will not issue any conjecture on this contention for that would be unforgivably impertinent let alone superfluous. Be that as it may, for me the unfailing sign of a great writer is when their work retains all of its resplendence when translated into other languages and this quality Rilke’s writing most definitely possesses.
But beyond pure literary pulchritude, the themes interned within Rilke’s poetry and prose often assures that he is grouped in with the early twentieth century existentialists. He shares this tendency with a contemporary of his (who like Rilke, was also born and lived in Prague), that being Franz Kafka (1883-1924). I am not going to critique the validity of their inclusion within this intellectual sphere; an action which has been so rife within the environs of analytical philosophy. I instead wish to share with you some of the qualities of Rilke’s writing of which I find so portentous in their influence and in their provision of philosophic viand.
In the English speaking world, Rilke is best known for his collection of poems entitled Duineser Elegien and Sonette an Orpheus along with his only prose work, The Notes of Malte Laurdis Brigge. Beyond these literary efforts there is his collection of missives entitled Letters to a Young Poet. While being correspondences with a rather lugubrious young man, these letters nonetheless are quite affecting in their beauty and insight which were on offer to this rather disaffected youth. With these examples in mind and duly concentrated on, one can easily glean the major themes interred within Rilke’s work. He consistently wrote about the vertiginous pathways which one must traverse in order to find authentic existence. He also brooded on the inherent corollary to this quest, that being the danger of falling into an indolent chasm of inauthentic essentialism when failing to attempt this existential endeavor. Rilke firmly saw the rather ironic reality that death is the great arbiter of our lives, and the way in which an individual confronts and meets this inevitability defines their life in every aspect.
This realization led him to a great and often unacknowledged understanding of the human predicament of existence; that situation consisting of the fact that we are ostensibly the only animal on the planet which is aware of our eventual death and nullity of being. To understand this is to understand a crucial predicator to all human realities—that which makes our existence truly human. In this obsession with death, he comes close in poetry to explicating the themes explored by Martin Heidegger in his master work, Sein und Zeit. The main one being that time always surrounds and informs on the great human dilemma of existence as it is time which unceasingly drags us towards oblivion.
I do not entirely agree with these existential findings in that it is quite plain to me that the fear of death is a psychological neurosis; one that must be transcended in order to be able to give meaning and purpose to one’s existence. Yet it is the questioning of these eternal human quandaries where Rilke showed his literary effulgence most acutely. No matter to what degree he was a theist, his questions on human existence eclipse any such weakness or criticism. He was in reaction as the whole of the German speaking world was with Nietzsche’s warnings of the impending death of god by the hand of man with the ensuing acquiescence into nihilism. He felt the fear and worry of how to give life meaning within the lacuna of being that we call the universe. Ultimately, it was his skill and genius with words which gave him the power to find such beauty in despair.
At this point, the only way to test this assertion is to let the man speak for himself and to allow you the reader to decide on the veracity of what has thus far been said. It will also be possible to see if indeed the four chosen passages exemplify Rilke’s quintessence to any degree.
We discover that we do not know our role; we look for a mirror; we want to remove our make-up and take off what is false and be real. But somewhere a piece of disguise that we forgot still sticks to us. A trace of exaggeration remains in our eyebrows; we do not notice that the corners of our mouth are bent. And so we walk around, a mockery and a mere half: neither having achieved being nor actors.
–The Notes of Malte Laurdis Brigge
So you must not be frightened, dear Mr. Kappus, if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloud-shadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any agitation, any pain, any melancholy, since you really do not know what these states are working on you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question whence all this may be coming and whither it is bound? Since you know that you are in the midst of transitions and wished for nothing so much as to change. If there is anything morbid in your processes, just remember that sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself of foreign matter; so one must just help it to be sick, to have its whole sickness and break out with it, for that is its progress.
–Letters to a Young Poet (eight)
Did consciousness such as we have exist in the sure animal that moves towards us upon a different course, the brute would drag us round in its wake. But its own being for it is infinite, inapprehensible, unintrospective, pure, like its outward gaze. Where we see Future, it sees Everything, itself in Everything, for ever healed…. And we, spectators always, everywhere, looking at, never out of, everything! It fills us. We arrange it. It decays. We re-arrange it, and decay ourselves.
Who’s turned us round like this, so that we always, do what we may, retain attitude of someone who’s departing? Just as he, on the last hill, that shows him all his valley for the last time, will return and stop and linger, we live our lives, for ever taking leave.
–Duineser Elegien (67-71)
What will you do, god, when I die? When I, your pitcher, broken lie? When I, your drink, go stale or dry? I am your garb, the trade you ply, you lose your meaning, losing me.
Homeless without me, you will be robbed of your welcome, warm and sweet. I am your sandals: your tired feet will wander bare for want of me.
Your mighty cloak will fall away. Your glance that on my cheek was laid and pillowed warm, will seek, dismayed, the comfort that I offered once– to lie, as sunset colors fade in the cold lap of alien stones.
What will you do god? I am afraid.
– The Book of Hours (29)
Rose, oh pure contradiction, Joy of being No-one’s sleep,
under so many