Brain Pickings

Rilke on Body and Soul

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“I am not one of those who neglect the body in order to make of it a sacrificial offering for the soul, since my soul would thoroughly dislike being served in such a fashion.”

Modern science is only beginning to shed light on how our minds actually affect our bodies, but entrenched deep in our cultural mythology is a dangerous divide between the two, which are often pitted against one another as an either/or proposition. Even the starving artist trope — which, like a proper cliché, became a victim of its own semantic success — is predicated on the idea that one must sacrifice the body in order to manifest the mind and set free the creative soul, the mythic “spiritual electricity” of art.

Count on Rainer Maria Rilke — literary history’s high priest of metaphysics, a writer of breathtaking letters, and a wise advisor of the young — to bridge the two and compromise neither. In a 1921 letter to a young girl who had asked him for advice, found in the collection Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke: 1910–1926 (public library; public domain), 46-year-old Rilke writes:

I am not one of those who neglect the body in order to make of it a sacrificial offering for the soul, since my soul would thoroughly dislike being served in such a fashion. All the soarings of my mind begin in my blood, for which reason I precede my work, through a pure and simple way of life that is free from irritants and stimulants, as with an introductory prelude, so that I cannot be deceived over the true spiritual joy that consists in a concord, happy and as if transfigured, with the whole of Nature.

[…]

If I look into my conscience I see but one law, relentlessly commanding: to lock myself into myself and in one stretch to end this task that was dictated to me at the very center of my heart. I am obeying. . . . I have no right whatever to change the direction of my will before I have ended the act of my sacrifice and my obedience.

Channeling the philosophy of the main character in his only novel, the semi-autobiographical The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rilke goes on to reflect on the essence of art:

You must, in order that it shall speak to you, take a thing during a certain time as the only one that exists, as the only phenomenon which through your diligent and exclusive love finds itself set down in the center of the universe. . . . Don’t be frightened at the expression “fate” … I call fate all external events (illnesses, for example, included) which can inevitably step in to interrupt and annihilate a disposition of mind and training that is by nature solitary. . . .

That went through me like an arrow, when I learned it, but like a flaming arrow that, while it pierced my heart through, left it in a conflagration of clear sight. There are few artists in our day who grasp this stubbornness, this vehement obstinacy. But I believe that without it one remains always at the periphery of art, which is rich enough as it is to allow us pleasant discoveries, but at which, nevertheless, we halt only as a player at the green table who, while he now and again succeeds with a “coup”, remains none the less at the mercy of chance, which is nothing but the docile and dexterous ape of the law.

Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke: 1910–1926, which covers the period between the completion of Rilke’s novel and the writer’s death, offers a treasure trove of his timeless wisdom on love, life, and literature. Complement it with Rilke’s passionate love letters and his beloved posthumous volume Letters to a Young Poet, which moved generations and inspired a wealth of modern homages and reimaginings, from Anna Deavere Smith’s indispensable Letters to a Young Artist to Christopher Hitchens’s Letters to a Young Contrarian to James Harmon’s fantastic compendium of luminaries’ letters of advice to the young.

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