“All art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further.”
Shortly before he began writing what would become the legendary Letters to a Young Poet, 26-year-old Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875–December 29, 1926) moved to Paris to write a monograph on the sculptor Rodin, but soon sank into profound spiritual anguish. Once he discovered modernism, Rilke found himself elevated by the art, invigorated by the vitality with which modernist artists approached their work. Chief among these pivotal encounters was the painter Paul Cézanne, whom Rilke would come to cite as his greatest creative influence. He was especially enchanted by the artist’s relationship with his art: “Only a saint could be as united with his God as Cézanne was with his work,” Rilke wrote.
In 1907, months after Cézanne’s death, Rilke saw and was deeply moved by a retrospective on the artist’s work. Every day, he would return to the gallery and contemplate these paintings that he found so bewitching, so beseeching of his own creative response. In a series of letters to his wife, the sculptor Clara Westhoff, Rilke began recording and examining his reverence for the painter. His missives to Clara — a woman he saw not only as an equal but also as someone at least as deeply invested in the project of art — were later published as the wholly addictive 1985 tome Letters on Cézanne (public library | IndieBound).
In one particularly radiant letter from June of 1907, Rilke echoes Nietzsche’s belief in the spiritual benefits of hardship and Van Gogh’s eloquently channeled belief in the creative power of suffering. Decades before Anaïs Nin’s unforgettable proclamation that “great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them,” Rilke writes:
Surely all art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further. The further one goes, the more private, the more personal, the more singular an experience becomes, and the thing one is making is, finally, the necessary, irrepressible, and, as nearly as possible, definitive utterance of the singularity… Therein lies the enormous aid the work of art brings to the life of the one who must make it — that it is his epitome, the knot in the rosary at which his life recites a prayer, the ever-returning proof to himself of his unity and genuineness, which presents itself only to him while appearing anonymous to the outside, nameless, existing merely as necessity, as reality, as existence—.
So we are most definitely called upon to test and try ourselves against the utmost, but probably we are also bound to keep silence regarding this utmost, to beware of sharing it, of parting with it in communication so long as we have not entered the work of art: for the utmost represent nothing other than the singularity in us which no one would or even should understand, and which must enter into the works as such, as our personal madness, so to speak, in order to find its justification in the work and show the law in it, like an inborn design that is invisible until it emerges in the transparency of the artistic.
With an eye to this deeply private nature of the utmost and its expression in art, Rilke makes an especially fiery admonition against feedback throughout the creative process:
There are two liberties of communication, and these seem to me to be the utmost possible ones: the one that occurs face-to-face with the accomplished thing, and the one that takes place within actual daily life, in showing one another what one has become through one’s work and thereby supporting and helping and (in the humble sense of the word) admiring one another. But in either case one must show results, and it is not lack of trust or withdrawal or rejection if one doesn’t present to another the tools of one’s progress, which have so much about them that is confusing and tortuous, and whose only value lies in the personal use one makes of them. I often think to myself what madness it would have been for van Gogh, and how destructive, if he had been forced to share the singularity of his vision with someone, to have someone join him in looking at his motifs before he had made his pictures out of them, these existences that justify him with all their being, that vouch for him, invoke his reality. He did seem to feel sometimes that he needed to do this in letters (although there, too, he’s usually talking of finished work), but no sooner did Gauguin, the comrade he’d longed for, the kindred spirit, arrive than he had to cut off his ear in despair, after they had both determined to hate one another and at the first opportunity get rid of each other for good.
In a letter written two days later, Rilke adds a remark that comes as an especially appropriate summation of the question of private suffering versus tangible results, in both art and life:
Basically it’s none of our business how somebody manages to grow, if only he does grow, if only we’re on the trail of the law of our own growth…
Letters on Cézanne is an altogether entrancing glimpse of Rilke’s mind at its sharpest and most creatively stimulated. Complement it with Rilke on living the questions, the relationship between body and soul, and his youthful love letters to Lou Andreas-Salomé, the Russian-born intellectual who had previously bewitched Nietzsche, then revisit Jeanette Winterson’s sublime meditation on art.