Rilke’s Legacy For Our Time
(transcription of a lecture given in September 1945)
There is a quote from Rilke from the war years of 1914-18 that reveals his full despair about the war, a despair he at times was barely able to master. At that time he was reputed to have said to a girlfriend: “Art has become superfluous; can art heal wounds? Can it take the bitterness out of death? It does not soothe despair, it does not feed the hungry. It does not clothe those who are freezing.”
In the mouth of a poet who has dedicated his whole life in utmost seriousness to art, these are terrible words. – But mustn’t we admit to ourselves that during the time of the terrible events that lie behind us we have ourselves been assailed by such doubts? That we asked what the point of poems could be during a time of hardly bearable duress, when we had to engage all strength to the utmost just to survive?
Yet then we surprised ourselves – perhaps exactly when danger breathed down our necks the most – by uttering verses we had absorbed through frequent reading: profane prayers whose sounds and connections of meaning conveyed a remarkable strength to us. A pensiveness turned toward memory and the future began to open room for reflection in us around these formed words, a silence of prayer, in which we and what was essential to us seemed sheltered against what threatened to destroy us.
This is no escape into a land of poetic fancy. Of course, such things exist as well, and some may experience such escape as a relief of tension, like a narcotic, and it may come as no surprise that the drug does them no good. The works of art through which strength flows are those which give voice to human distress and how to overcome it.
On a notepad from the year 1922 on which sketches of the later “Duino Elegies” are written, Rilke jotted the following words: “Art cannot be helpful through our desire to help and our special efforts on behalf of the needs of others. It can only be so to the extent that we experience our own needs more passionately, that we give at times perhaps a more definite meaning to survival, and develop the means of expressing suffering and the overcoming of it more clearly than is possible for those whose strengths must be turned to other tasks.” This is the meaning and content of Rilke’s mature work, that it bears witness that someone has passionately lived through his own suffering, and so was able to lend perhaps clearer sense to survival, to suffering and the overcoming of it, for us and our suffering as well.
Rilke’s own suffering, that is, the state of distress that is given form and expression through his work and poetry, is no private matter – it is a heroic verbalization of the cosmic shock known as “life”. In him both being and presence manifested the transience of earthly life processes, the endurance of having to be alive at all. Religions and philosophies are an escape from the unbearable heaviness and transitory character of the phenomenon of the living. Rilke takes a stand against such escape – and by this refusal to yield, his life became a profound wrestling for his essence, so that the turns of phrase in the poem open deep insights into what it means to be human. Taking Rilke at his word means: listening to the workings of life itself. His work is an attempt to give form to the experience of life itself, as a first step toward humanity becoming aware of itself as a humanity. – Thus the “Requiem from Kalkreuth” is like an actual first human voice out of the inferno: “Who speaks of victory. Surviving is everything.”
Rilke’s grandiose frankness is exemplary. For everyone who draws near his struggle, it offers cleansing and help toward commitment in meeting the countless uncertainties we are subject to in our lives.
This view of his work – not the beauty and the charm of individual poems, not the desire to enjoy this or that, but the willingness to be moved to commitment by his absolute earnestness – justifies placing Rilke’s work in the center of our consideration.
Out of an intuitive grasp of the world and an unerring candor, this work has created a powerful world of thought at the frontiers of utterance. It cannot be our goal in one short hour to gain overview of the whole, but we would like to attempt to find a path toward the inner center within the powerful circuit of abundant outward appearances, so as to discover which powers and forces, which central experiences determine the direction of all Rilke’s expression, and which vantage point we must view his work from if we are to grasp it.
Rainer Maria Rilke was born on the 4th of December 1875, and died at age 51 on the 26th of December 1926. Thus he belongs to the generation of those who are now (sic) in their 70’s. He published his first poems as an 18-year-old in 1894. After that, year by year, he continued to publish slender volumes of poetic juvenilia, short stories, and plays, until this first creative period came to a close in 1899 with the poems published as “Mir Zur Feier” (“Celebrating Me”).
Later he often emphasized how thoroughly he rejected these early productions. “External circumstances are at fault,” he once wrote, “for the fact that at the time I was neither able to attempt sincerity nor be truthful. Even in the books that now appear as the first and early poems, I find shamefully many traces of childish insincerity. – I was reminded of the reproach so explicitly made to me by Stefan George (in about 1899 in Florence at our only encounter) that I had published too soon. How very very right he was.” – We must keep in mind that it is just these “early” poems that Rilke’s fame and popularity is based on among large circles of his admirers. The novella “The Manner of Love and Death of the Cornet Christoph Rilke” also came out in 1899 and unexpectedly procured sudden popularity for him, so much so that for many people today it is the only one of his works they know. Later he would always emphasize that he did not care much for this work. – “Written in one night, an autumn night twenty-five years ago, this work displays little more than an improvisation; it would make a poor showing before my current judgment. – If one wanted to give it the benefit of the doubt, the ‘Cornet’ has its own singular agitation, an incessant rhythm of forward motion and passing on – : this may be its only merit . . . this impulse, this tugging, this one great flying breath from beginning to end.” At the time he wrote this letter in 1924, however, he was prepared to comply with a young girl’s request for him to inscribe a few lines of verse in a copy of the ‘Cornet’, though they give expression to the same distancing attitude that is in the letter:
“It must be that the momentum of youth
speaks to youth….Since in one night
(how long ago!) I burned so bright,
blown by the night wind, that this song of fight
and courage and downfall and lust and thirst
from my blood into its mold could burst –
how young was I in truth!
and now you are. Oh be it! Be it indeed.
Without regret, without greed.
I am still that way. Am still a child by far
Those who feel remain what they feel they are.”
By acknowledging the agelessness of everything that has ever been truly experienced, with the aid of the ‘Cornet’ he affirms his own youth and childhood as something always present, and thus it becomes a bridge to the girl’s request for him to dedicate the booklet to her.
During the war, when the ‘Cornet’ was frequently performed as melodrama, each time to enormous success, Rilke would occasionally go so far as to comically force out a sob about how the young cornet had managed to grow into such a saber-rattling sergeant.
In the spring of 1898 Rilke was in Florence, and in both 1899 and 1900 he spent many months in Russia. These were decisive events for his thorough transformation toward essence. In 1902 he came to Paris and there experienced the powerful influence of Rodin. In this friendship – one could almost say discipleship – by a remarkable paradox the poet learned to chisel verse and to forge prose. Rodin’s manly natural strength taught the oversensitive lyricist how to pull himself together and concentrate on essentials and in unerring focus on his handiwork to fully master his use of language. During the time he spent with Rodin, the youth matured into a man who took conscious responsibility for his task as an artist.
At that time the “Book of Pictures” came out (published in 1902), as well as the “Book of Hours” (written in 1899, 1902 and 1903, published in 1905), the “New Poems” which were published in 1907 and 1908, and finally the two requiems for Kalreuth and Paula Becker-Modersohn (published in 1909). – Parallel to this was the genesis of the prose composition “Sketches of Malte Laurids Brigge” – the outcome of his own inner history of development – which he began in the spring of 1904 and both completed and published in 1910. After “Malte Laurids Brigge” a period of silence set in. It lasted until 1922, for 12 years, just the time during which as a man of thirty-five to forty-seven years of age he should have stood at the peak of his strength and productive capacity.
This loss of voice at the peak of his life was something Rilke experienced as a terrible humiliation, as a barely tolerable emergency. Thus he once wrote: “With a kind of shame I think of my best time in Paris, the time of the “New Poems”, since I expected nothing and no one and the whole world flowed toward me more and more as a task and I answered clearly and securely with accomplishment . . . . How is it possible that despite being ready and trained to express, I remain actually without vocation, superfluous.”
Rilke probably never, even later, understood that this imposed silence that was so unbearable to him was a slow, difficult and lengthy process of maturing, deeply embedded in the protective layer of falling silent – a process in which what he was given to experience would only gradually become sayable.
The “Sketches of Malte Laurids Brigge” were a huge cut-off point in his life – they signified the closure of his youthful epoch while at the same time imposing by their contents a superhumanly large task that he would need the best strength of his best years of life to accomplish.
He characterized the hidden theme of the “Sketches” at the beginning of the book where it says: “I am learning to see. I don’t know what it depends on, but everything penetrates deeper into me, and I don’t stay put at the place where it always used to stop. I have an inner life that I didn’t know about. Everything now goes toward it. I don’t know what happens there.”
This prose composition is an attempt to reveal what took place in his experience in the deep layers of his awareness that had recently opened up to him.
Later, in the year 1921, he attempted in a letter to a Protestant clergyman to interpret “Malte Laurids Brigge”. There he wrote: “The “Sketches” contain in the person of a young Dane an exhibit of coming to terms with the actual insolubility of inner life. Paris – which heightens the visibility of all that can be experienced and that swears by heaven and earth where another environment would only have what is acceptable or burdensome to offer – Paris is the backdrop for this existence which tests every moment against one’s own demise . . . In this book too the piety will be incomprehensible to you and, as I must fear, even offensive. Thus I have no other choice but to assure you that – as much as I hope to gradually sum up my views for an audience beyond yourself – even today I can understand the states of mind of this solitary young person and with them the whole as yet persistent hopelessness of everything human.”
Another time, in November 1915, he wrote: “What was explicitly introduced in “Malte Laurids Brigge” is actually just this, by all means and always starting from the beginning and with all proofs this: This, how is it possible to live, if the elements of this life are completely incomprehensible to us? If we are continually inadequate in love, insecure in decision-making and incompetent in the face of death, how is it possible to be here? In this book that was completed out of deepest inner obligation I incapable of expressing the entirety of my astonishment about the fact that people have been dealing with life (not to even speak of God) for thousands of years and when faced with this first and most immediate, more precisely this sole task . . . have been such clueless amateurs, so caught between startle and excuse, so miserable.”
And another time he says about “Malte”: “What you say about your life, that its most painful event was also its greatest, is to some extent the hidden theme of these “Sketches”. Perhaps this innate belief even allowed them to be created, the certainty that what is greatest in our life, what makes it valuable and beyond utterance, makes use of our painful experiences so that it can penetrate into our soul . . . Blessed moment in our life, since we decide and commit ourselves unfailingly and with all our strength to love that which we fear the most, because – by our standards – it has brought us so much suffering. Believe me, once this decision has been made, the word “parting” – “loss” – will become a name stripped of all meaning – unless it becomes a delicious namelessness for an endless number of discoveries, indescribable harmonies, unimaginable breakthroughs.”
These interpretations that Rilke made of the “Sketches” indicate that ever since “Malte” had become the bearer of problems, all of Rilke’s previously held values had been altered. The security and the promise of salvation that had been offered to him by religions, philosophies, and wisdom had all become questionable to him. He had outgrown Christian notions, and both the philosophies and world views derived from Christianity and the conventions of middle class morality together with their moral justifications based on these views all lost their hold on him. His religious, spiritual and intellectual attitude was fundamentally revolutionary.
With a splendid lack of presupposition, he asked himself anew the basic questions of life, of uniquely human life, so as to discern, with immediacy and with readiness to accept fate, what life itself would make audible about its own laws that could commit people to value their human dignity, and in doing so render them unerringly capable of bearing their own experience with unlimited bravery and affirmation in the face of each and every danger. With no other protection than the dignity of being human, they would face the irrational forces of life responsibly.
In October of 1918, during the last month of World War I, he wrote the following as part of his congratulations to a wedding: “All these years I have to asked myself how much I still believe in the great, complete, and largely unexhausted possibilities of life, given all the sorrow, perplexity and distortion of the world. Your wedding may be the occasion to examine myself. And here I confess that I hold life to be a thing of the most inviolable preciousness, and that the entanglement of so many misfortunes and atrocities, the sacrifice of such countless fates, everything which over the last few years has irresistibly overtaken with ever increasing horror: cannot belie my trust in the fullness and goodness and benevolence of existence. There would be no point in offering you good wishes if every wish were not grounded in the conviction that the goods of life emerge from ruin and downfall still pure and unspoiled and most deeply desirable. “
Another time he wrote: “One cannot think inexhaustibly enough of the expanses and possibilities of life: no destiny, no refusal, no misery is simply hopeless; somehow the toughest thicket brings forth leaves, blossoms, a fruit. And somewhere in God’s furthest providence there will also be an insect that carries riches from this blossom, or a hunger which welcomes this fruit. And if the fruit is bitter, it will at least have astonished an eye and will have given it desire and curiosity about forms and colors and the produce of thickets; and should the fruit fall, it will fall into the fullness of what is to come and will contribute in its decay to making the thicket richer, more colorful, thicker and more full of growth.”
Such unerring affirmation of life that assents to all troubles, even the most difficult and awful ones of fate, and that despite them does not deny the fullness and goodness and benevolence of existence, is not something Rilke was granted easily. The years from 1910, when “Malte” was published, until 1922, when he succeeded through an unbelievable storm of work in crowning his achievements with the “Duino Elegies” and the “Sonnets to Orpheus”, were a battled passage through a terrible inferno. In offering his life he got to know every hell of human destiny, and in the awful misery he suffered he developed a fecund religiosity, a belief in life, in its meaning and its lawfulness above personal concern, which he assented to without qualification until he died.
In the previously quoted letter to the clergyman about “Malte”, he continued: “Never has religion abandoned its inner humility more, never has it been more presumptuous, than where it believes it can offer consolation. The insight into our inconsolability was exactly the point at which actual religious productivity could begin. While not leading to consolation, it does lead to the honest ability to do without it.” Life’s difficulty is experienced so powerfully that it granted him insight into our inconsolability, our comfortlessness; but in this insight the task that requires religious productivity becomes visible, the goal of which is not consolation, but the sincere ability to do without it.
This is the key to what he said again one year later immediately after finishing the “Elegies”: “This take of life’s difficulty is no melancholy . . . it is nothing other than taking a true measure of weight, is it not? It is a perception.” [Translator’s note: In German, “take of life’s difficulty” is literally “taking of heaviness”, while “melancholy” is literally “heaviness of mood”, and “perception” is literally “taking of truth” – so Rilke, besides making his point, is also playing on the parallels between the words.] And in another letter written the same day, he says that “this and that ‘terribleness’ and ‘comfort’ move closer and closer to each other in my more mature work, indeed in more than one Elegy both may have become one, a unity: an essence.” – Still quite under the spell of his work, he was pervaded by the necessity of grasping the inescapable distress of the living in all of its difficulty and impossibility of evasion, and grasping its essence as something to be affirmed as such. “No refusal, right?! No refusal: oh, on the contrary, how much endless affirmation and still more affirmation of being here!”
These are the prerequisites he refers to in his letter explaining the “Elegies” to his Polish translator, when he says of them that they were “assembled in conflict in “Malte”, defeated in life, and nearly taken to the conclusion that a life hung out over such a precipice is impossible. In the “Elegies”, life under the same circumstances becomes possible again, indeed it receives here just the conclusive affirmation that eluded the young Malte, despite his having been on the right path of “long study”. “ – The circumstances of the whole temporary continuance of hopelessness of everything human had not changed in the meanwhile; but the insight into our inconsolability arrived at during the religiously productive time of terrible distress that Rilke lived through prepared him to honestly do without all consolation, and thus the same circumstances which led to the conclusion that life is impossible are here conclusively assented to.
“Woe to those who are consoled!”, Rilke wrote in 1923 on Epiphany Day. “All consolation is tarnished.” – Here the complete and irreversible alienation from Christian notions becomes visible. – A letter written in Ronda to the Countess von Thurn und Taxis in the year 1912 demonstrates how far back such alienation goes in Rilke’s life: “You must know as well, Countess, that since I was in Cordoba I have been almost rabidly anti-Christian. I am reading the Koran, which in places takes on a voice for me that I am inside of with all my strength, like the wind inside an organ. One thinks one is in a Christian country here. Well, that was gotten over with long ago even here. . . Really, one shouldn’t keep sitting at this table where the food has already been eaten and keep serving the fingernails still lying around as if they were nutrition. The fruit has been sucked dry, and it is time, to put it crudely, to spit out the rinds. And here are Protestants and American Christians making drinks out of tea grits that have been steeping for two thousand years. Mohammed was in any case the next in line; he broke through to God like a river breaking through ancient mountains, a God with whom one can have splendid conversations every morning, without the telephone “Christ” into which one constantly has to yell: “Hello, anyone there?” – and nobody answers.” What Rilke had to say about Christianity never again reached the blasphemous vehemence that he allowed himself in this outburst; but whenever he addressed these questions, his attitude had the same absoluteness, which years later still literally accorded with this formulation.
In the year 1922, he basically said: “The Christian experience is increasingly not up for consideration.” – In the letter about the Elegies, he warns against interpreting the poems from a Christian perspective “from which I distance myself more and more passionately.” – “I do not love the Christian view of a hereafter,” he wrote on January 6, 1923, “I distance myself from it more and more, of course without thinking of attacking it . . . “
The Young Workman’s Letter, which was written in one big breath at the same time as the Elegies and the Sonnets, summarizes all the thoughts about Christianity that are hinted at here and there. It begins with the question: “Who is this – I can’t now express it any other way – who is this Christ who meddles himself into everything?” And he ends with the words: “I don’t want to make myself bad for the sake of Christ; I want to be good for God. I don’t want to be addressed from the outset as a sinner, maybe I am not one . . . I could speak with God, I don’t need anyone to help me draw up a letter to him.”
It is Christ’s role as intermediary – “No one can come to the Father except through me” – that Rilke’s religious attitude fundamentally contradicts. Thus he wrote to Reverend Zimmerman: “It appears to me that I neither could nor wanted to conceal that I feel and experience differently. From the distant future, the Christian attitude, the great Christian event, will certainly always appear as one of the most wonderful attempts to keep the path to God open. That it should be the most successful attempt is unfortunately not something we or our contemporaries are capable of proving, for Christianity is continually, before our own eyes, incapable of giving pure counterweight to the overwhelming weight of suffering . . . I am personally closer to all the religions in which the intermediary is less essential or appears to be almost excluded. It has become more and more the effort and accomplishment of the Christian mind, if I may express it this way, to “maintain its lead”; the difficult path becomes a resting place and many strengths that would gladly have been cast toward God are delayed and depleted along the way.”
The same theme crops up in the Young Workman’s Letter: “Once I attempted reading the Koran. I didn’t get far, but this much I understood, that in it too there is such a powerful pointing finger and God stands at the end of its direction, understood in eternal rising, in an east that never becomes all. Christ surely wanted the same thing. To point. But people here have been like dogs, who don’t understand pointing fingers and who think they should snap at the hand. Instead of leaving the crossroads, where the signpost was raised high into the night of sacrifice, instead of leaving the crossroads to go on, Christianity settled there and claims to live there in Christ . . . They have made a career out of Christianity, a middle class occupation . . . “
A letter from 1923 deals with the same subject: “The view that we are sinful and in need of redemption as a prerequisite for reaching God goes more and more against the grain of a heart that has comprehended the earth. It is not the sinfulness and error of what is earthly, on the contrary, it is its pure nature that is the essence of what one becomes aware of. Sin is surely the most wonderful detour to God – but why should those go wandering who have never left him? The strong internally quaking bridge of the intermediary only makes sense if we have conceded there to be a chasm between God and us – ; but exactly this chasm is full of the darkness of God, and where someone experiences this he should descend into it and weep down there (that is more necessary than crossing over).”
In being imbued with the rightness and purity of what is earthly there is no room for the view that we are sinful and in need of redemption through an intermediary, or for the basic Christian assumption that humans have original sin. Without original sin there is no need or even possibility of redemption. But redemption through Christ is the substance of the consolation offered by the Christian religion for suffering in life. Never, says Rilke, has religion abandoned its humility more, never has it been more presumptuous, than where it thinks it can console.
The presumption of being able to console, which exploits a person’s addiction to being consoled during the emergencies of life, presupposes that there is a chasm of suffering and emergency that separates people from God, as if suffering and emergency were due to their sinfulness and were something contrary to God in a world that God made. This chasm “is full of the darkness of God, and where someone experiences this, he should descend into it and weep down there. That is more necessary than crossing over.”
Later we hear about this chasm full of the darkness of God, about the fullness of suffering that is inseparable from the pure nature of the earth, that the god of completeness will make sure that beggars and dwarfs, the needy and the outcasts of life, will not die out. Thus he writes: “In a world that attempts to dissolve godliness into a kind of anonymity, a humanitarian overestimation that expects from human help what it could not give must grab space for itself. And divine benevolence is so tied to divine harshness that a time that attempts to dispense divine benevolence in anticipation of providence by the same token becomes a stockpile of human cruelty. (We have experienced this.)” – The Young Workman’s Letter says the same where it tells of the churches in southern France that he saw: “The prettiest sight was when a glass window was before us, one of these old picture windows with many sections, each completely filled with figures, large people and small towers and all possible events. Nothing was foreign to it . . . In the old churches there is really everything, no shying away from things, as there is in the new ones, where to some extent only the good examples show up. – Here there is also the wicked, the evil, and the horrid; the crippled, the needy or the ugly, that which is unjust; and one wants to say, that it is somehow all loved for God’s sake.” – “Life, and we don’t know anything beyond it – isn’t it terrible?” it says in another letter. – “The whole chasm of human suffering belongs to God. This is the whole temporary hopelessness of humanity, our inconsolability, over which no internally quaking bridge of an intermediary leads to a God on the other side, to an eternal blessedness. The point is to climb down into this chasm and to live in it. Only toward those who have inhabited the chasm will the promised heavens turn . . .” If this chasm belongs to the legitimate wholeness of the living, it makes sense that this would lead to the honest ability to do without all consolation. Such an achievement of the heart is a match for this chasm of suffering; it requires a religious productivity that can come to an immediate experience of God by recognizing reality, as it says in the Young Workman’s Letter: “When I say “God”, that is a large and never learned belief.
Rilke, who earlier constantly invoked the name of God and let it pass his lips with such enthusiasm, was now able to say: “That is what I called him then too, the God who had burst in on me, and I lived for a long time in the antechamber of his name, on my knees . . . Now you would hardly ever hear me mention him, there is a vast discretion between us . . . “ – Another letter says the same thing: “It was not necessary to mention God, it often gives me great satisfaction to spare him, to deal with something very moving and not to trouble him with it . . . His name in all languages has something inexpressibly worth passing over in silence.” – In this silence there is a kind of respect: “You should not take the name of your God in vain.”
Rilke did not formulate a concept of God any later than this. The last attempt at such a summing up is in “Malte”, in the passage where it says: “. . . that God is only a direction love goes in, not an object of love. Didn’t she know that she need not fear that he would reciprocate her love?” – This fact, that one need not fear reciprocal love from God and that there was no hope for it, led to Malte’s ruin. Since he never gave up the hope for it, his life was suspended over bottomlessly complete hopelessness about humanity. The fact of huge misery for which there is neither consolation nor hope was the source of the distress Rilke experienced in the time following “Malte”. But then, in the “Elegies”, life became possible in the same circumstances, indeed it experienced definitive affirmation in that the affirmation of life and the affirmation of death are shown to be one and the same.
To include the distress of the living in the wholeness of life, to recognize the abyss of suffering as full of the darkness of God, to realize that death, destruction, decay, deprivation and want are not what is contrary to God but are life itself, full of the immanence of God, whose goodness is so indescribably bound up with severity, – this is the insight into our inconsolability which actual religious productivity can apply itself to develop the mental means of coping with the completely unmasked cruelty of the processes of life. “To demonstrate the identity between dreadfulness and bliss, these two faces of the same godhead, indeed of the same face, that merely presents itself this way or that depending on the distance or the frame of mind from which we perceive it” – this is the process in which what consoles and what frightens become one in essence, and in which life can finally be affirmed.
In the “Elegies” that had just then been created, God is only mentioned a single time, in the Eighth Elegy, where is says: “The free animal has its demise constantly behind it and ahead of it is God, and when it walks, it walks in eternity, the way fountains proceed.”
On the 22nd of February 1923, Rilke wrote: “Where once there was closeness and interpenetration, now new distances stretch out, just like in the atom, which modern science conceives of as a miniature universe. What is tangible eludes and transforms itself, and rather than ownership one learns relationship and a namelessness arises that must begin with God if it is to be complete and without excuse.” –
Rather than the closeness and interpenetration that dominated the “Book of Hours”, to which the female letter recipient referred, there are now new distances that stretch out in endless interrelation. Now the only thing that is said of God is that the free animal has him in view; but it doesn’t move towards God; – when it walks, it does so in an eternity of its own space – . “The life of feeling recedes behind an endless desire for everything that can be felt . . .”, the letter continues, “qualities drop away from God, the no longer effable, and fall back into creation, into love and death . . . “
He makes neither portrait nor likeness of God, from whom, as that which is no longer effable, all qualities have been removed. Without qualities, God is no longer made in human image; he has neither a human face nor human feeling; he is no longer the father figure who out of caring or angry love keeps watch over creation so that his will should be done. The life of feeling recedes. God is no longer the direction love goes in, he is immanent in the far distances that stretch across the universe. He is not the god of a somehow acquired pantheism, who reveals himself in the living beings of creation. – “All creation, it seems to me, says this word (God) without reflection, even though often out of deep meditation,” it says in the Young Workman’s Letter. The creation that says this word is in endless connection with God, is not identical with God. So it is not Spinoza’s “dues sive natura,” – where once there was closeness and permeation, wide distances now extend.
This God is so without attributes, without form, portrait or likeness and is yet great never learned belief, that he is an expression of pure non-anthropomorphic monotheism, the essence and meaningfulness of all creatures and their destinies, the God of abundance who holds sway throughout what is in the world, without worry, without consolation for the hopes of human imagination for the fateful distress of what has been created, – the content of meaning of cosmic events in rhythm with what is alive.
Thus it says in the last letter to the Reverend Zimmermann: “I have in me when all is said and done a quite indescribable manner and passion in which to experience God, which definitely is closer to the Old Testament than to the Gospels; indeed if I am to speak both truthfully and in general, then I would have to admit that all my life I have wanted to do nothing else than to discover and enliven the place in my heart that would enable me to pray in all the temples of the earth with equal justification and with the same access to the greatest being in each.”
The experience of the immanence of God becomes actual through God’s homecoming to what is local, to the world in which he holds sway, back from the hereafter of distant heavens that modern religions have driven him to for him to become a consolation to the hopeless in an earth forsaken by God, back from being a hope for redemption from the sufferings of the earth and for bliss in the beyond. – “What insanity to distract us toward the hereafter when we are surrounded here by tasks and expectations and futures. What betrayal to steal pictures of earthly delight from us so as to sell them to heaven behind our backs!” Thus he writes in the Young Workman’s Letter; in the draft copy of it (Remembrance in Verhaeren) it says: “. . . to destroy the prejudice that the earth is bad, since all of our pictures of heaven are derived from it.” – “this increasing exploitation of life, isn’t it a consequence of centuries of devaluing what belongs here,” he writes in the Workman.
Since the driving out of God transplanted all the so-called higher values, the eternal ones, to over there, sold off to heaven, life itself had to be experienced through this eternal perspective, in which it was devalued as merely terrestrial, merely transitory, by comparison to the heavenly and the eternal there. The real and given world was compared to a more valuable reality that was not given but was an illusory wish. In the draft of the Young Workman’s Letter, it says: “The harm of Christianity, by making the world suspect and bad, – until the cleverest must say to themselves: well, if it is that bad, it must at least be good for us to exploit . . . what is bad is the use people make of it. And why do they use it this way? Because they have always been told that what is here is at most better – what is good is elsewhere and altogether magnificent!”
The poor use of the earth that God has left is the consolation market of the Tenth Elegy, its gilded noise, its bursting monument, the ghostly annual fair with its freedom swings, the jugglers and divers of zeal, the booths of every curiosity, – this ghastly vision of the modern drive of civilization trimmed with humans. “The glorious excesses hurtle past and only as haste now out of a level yellow day into night overblown by dazzling light.” This is conduct in a god-forsaken earth that has been devalued for the sake of heaven – , “even though”, the Workman continues, “(I cannot think of it otherwise) it must come down to an offence against God not to see what has been granted and guaranteed to us here, if we just use it rightly, completely able to render us happy out to the edges of our senses! The proper use, that is it. To properly take what is here into our hands, with heartfelt love and astonishment as temporarily ours, unique: this, to put it in ordinary language, is God’s great instruction manual . . .”
In “Malte” it had already been said: “Oh really, is it possible to believe one could have a God without making use of him?” It is not a matter of a belief in God, in a relatedness of the mind to something higher and on the far side, something above and beyond the earth that lends what is here its value and meaning – , it is about the proper use. What is eternal about worldly occurrences experiences its uniqueness in the here and now, in what is local, in the temporariness and singularity of what is ours, if we only take hold of it properly. “Belief! There is none, I almost said. There is only – love. Forcing the heart to hold this or that to be true, which is what one ordinarily calls belief, is pointless. First one must find God somewhere, and experience him as so infinite, so exceeding, so enormously present – , then whether it is fear or astonishment or breathlessness or in the end love that one experiences toward him, it hardly matters . . . “ – “The felt experience recedes behind an endless desire for what can be felt,” he said a year later. Creation represents the polarity of the living that dominates everything; to experience it, understand it, and be its inner experience is the essence of human reality.
On slips of paper from previous years that Rilke had kept in a notebook with the first notes for the Orpheus sonnets, there is an astonishing admission: “…thus I sometimes had the idea to do the same thing with God, to be in the middle of God, to become a saint. As if I had not precluded it from the outset, since I don’t want it out of love, but rather out of intensity . . . My passion is not for love but for insight. . . Even my patience is not the patience of love but that of insight.” Whether this intensity, this passion for insight is fear, is astonishment, is breathlessness, or is in the end love hardly matters; in the end it is a quite prodigious passion and way of experiencing God, of taking hold of what is here as the only thing we have for now: to always be aware of the meaning and essence of what is happening in the world as it uniquely manifests and is fleetingly experienced by people, to do so through all events, all doing and suffering, in the eternal puzzle of the living, – this is the continually experienced content of a deep reverence; not of a reverence that tastes and enjoys itself as a stretch of feeling into the hereafter, but that constantly becomes real through attitude and action in daily reality.
An expression of this reverence that is endlessly devoted to the earthly world is the ecstatic confession: “Being here is magnificent” (Seventh Elegy). The fact of experiencing life as a living being, of understanding with full ardor the enormous stretch between its glorious heights and the terrible chasms – “not the praise of the good – the whole! And this: to no longer have opinions about what to admire!” (Remembrance in Verhaeren).
This dedication to being here gets its weight and is held in balance by the internalization of a powerful responsibility: “to have been this once, even though only once: to have been earthly seems beyond possibility of repeal” (Ninth Elegy). – The unique process of life on earth in its passage into continual decay nevertheless becomes indelible reality and impossible to repeal, it becomes imbued with eternal content in that a person living consciously bases his life on a responsibility toward it that goes far beyond it. The consciousness of this unique and never repeated possibility of becoming real in the eternal stream of events in the world, which can only be put in play this one time in the flash of an instant by this single being, is understood to be the task of the earth: “so we press on and seek to carry it out.” (Ninth Elegy).
In a late poem from the year 1924 it is said with even more immediacy and relentlessness; “Let us grip change between our teeth, so that by its gazing head we should fully be comprehended.” – This poem, entitled “Transience”, deals with the transient nature of the phenomenon of life, so difficult for people to endure, the continual disappearance of everything, even that which is steadily present on earth that a person is included in, despite his being aware of the immanence of what is eternal if life. Thus it includes his own disappearance that manifests in changes in himself and his environment as he attempts to grasp the kernel of immortality in his own essence that he is certain of:
“Quicksand of the hours. Quiet persistent decline
even of buildings that are happily blessed.
Life always drifts. The pillars are already out of line,
And no longer bear any weight on their crest.
But decay: is it sadder than the return beneath
of fountain spray to pool, which shimmers as it’s blended?
Let us grip change between our teeth,
so by its gazing head we should fully be comprehended.”
The Orpheus sonnets “Want transformation” and “Be ahead of all parting” expressed the same theme. Moreover, the venture of existing in the face of all danger is experienced as transitive action that occurs by way of inspiration of collaborating events. The later poem is slightly more daring in the immediacy of its unrelenting sacrifice in the attempt to test what will happen to him if he takes hold of change between his teeth so that he fully understands its gazing head.
There is another poem from around the same time that Rilke inscribed as a dedication in a copy of “Malte”:
“As nature leaves creatures
to venture their dull desire
and gives none special protection amid branches and land features
so we are beloved neither more nor higher
by our being’s deep original source;
it wagers us. Only more than plants or animals there
we join up with this wager’s course,
we want it, at times are more willing to dare
(and not for selfish ends) than life itself, slightly
The venture of conscious life in the face of all and every danger is the unreserved sacrifice of self to the incomparable conditions set by our being’s source, the willingness to take this risk.
“….Besides protection, this gives us rightly,
in the place where gravity works, a surety
of the pure forces; what finally gives us security
is that we lack protection and so expose our sense
toward what we saw turning, toward openness,
so that somewhere within the widest circumference,
where law touches us, we can say yes.”
Thus humans are granted a surety through their awareness right in the middle of their lack of protection – through their wanting risk more daring than life itself. This gives possible shelter within one’s own gravitational weight, in the place where the pure force of gravity works, so that when the law touches us we are able to affirm it.
Years ago, Rilke jotted in is notebook: “The offering is in the world! What is the offering? I think it is nothing other than a person’s unbounded and unlimited commitment to his purest inner possibilities.” – the irrevocability of having once been, to have been oneself in the face of any and every danger, to have been aware of one’s own weight within the interplay of pure forces. The words that he wrote at that time were clairvoyant; “My passion is not in love but in insight. Even my patience is not the patience of love but that of insight.”
It was an enormous accomplishment of the years between “Malte” and the “Elegies” for him to live through the whole of human misfortune while in his own distress, and to understand with such surrender that he would have to get into the widest ambit, where the gravity of pure forces takes effect, so that he could become aware of his own gravity which allows him to maintain uprightness completely without protection. In this way in the face of every need and danger he could say yes to law where it touched him.
Other verses from the year 1924 give a retrospective accounting of what happened:
“From what our spirit extracts from perplexity
at some point the living will benefit;
even if at times only thoughts they be,
into the great bloodstream they too will fit
and will dissolve and flow on . . .
And if it is feeling, who knows how far its reach will extend,
and what it will yield in space pure and far
in which a small excess of heavy and light will tend
to move worlds and to displace a star.”
He was conscious of his task as a poet to express what he had experienced and suffered, and he was full of confidence that what our spirit extracts from perplexity will at some point benefit the living. It was not his concern what would become of it in pure space where gravity of pure forces takes effect. The offering was made within the world. Where someone attempts to realize his commitment to his pure inner possibilities within the fate of life’s events, the effects of this are completely incalculable. Here endless trust in life’s processes held sway, a trust that helped realities of spirit and soul to have effect. This trust was the fruit of many years of patience, of which he wrote in between drafts of manuscript during the “Elegy” days: “How wonderful the secret forces of life are when they are at work. The only thing that really belongs to us is patience. But what a true capacity that is and what dividends it yields in its time.”