Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Rilke’

27 FEBRUARY, 2015

Rilke on Our Fear of the Unexplainable

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“Fear of the unexplainable has not only impoverished our inner lives, but also diminished relations between people.”

“If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from,” Carl Sagan wrote in his spectacular lecture-turned-book on science and spirituality, “we will have failed.” More than a decade earlier, in delivering the same annual Gifford Lecture, Hannah Arendt argued that our appetite for “unanswerable questions” is what defines our humanity. But it was another great mind, not a scientist but a poet, who delivered this message with the most luminous immediacy many decades earlier: Rainer Maria Rilke.

In an exquisite passage from his Letters to a Young Poet — a secular masterwork with the timeless resonance of scripture, and the source of Rilke’s wisdom on what love asks of us and how to live the questions — later included in Joanna Macy’s infinitely ennobling A Year with Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke (public library), the poet writes in 1904:

The tendency of people to be fearful of those experiences they call apparitions or assign to the “spirit world,” including death, has done infinite harm to life. All these things so naturally related to us have been driven away through our daily resistance to them, to the point where our capacity to sense them has atrophied… Fear of the unexplainable has not only impoverished our inner lives, but also diminished relations between people; these have been dragged, so to speak, from the river of infinite possibilities and stuck on the dry bank where nothing happens. For it is not only sluggishness that makes human relations so unspeakably monotonous, it is the aversion to any new, unforeseen experience we are not sure we can handle.

Nearly two decades later, he revisits this slippery subject from another angle in a letter to Countess Margot Sizzo-Noris-Crouy:

The person who has not, in a moment of firm resolve, accepted — yes, even rejoiced in — what has struck him with terror — he has never taken possession of the full, ineffable power of our existence. He withdraws to the edge; when things play out, he will be neither alive nor dead.

To discover the unity of dread and bliss, these two faces of the same divinity (indeed, they reveal themselves as a single face that presents itself differently according to the way in which we see it): that is the essential meaning…

Complement the magnificent A Year with Rilke — which spans from Rilke’s early poems to the last sonnet he wrote days before his death from leukemia, and includes fragments of his letters, diaries, and prose — with Rilke on how befriending death can help us live more fully and astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser on how to live with mystery in the age of knowledge.

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29 JANUARY, 2015

Rilke on What It Really Means to Love

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“For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks… the work for which all other work is but preparation.”

The human journey has always been marked by our quest to understand love in order to reap its fruits. We have captured that ever-shifting understanding in some breathtakingly beautiful definitions. There is Susan Sontag, who marveled in her diary: “Nothing is mysterious, no human relation. Except love.” There is Tom Stoppard, who captured its living substance in a most memorable soliloquy. There is Vladimir Nabokov, who defined it over and over in a lifetime of letters to his wife. But no formulation eclipses the luminous poetic precision of Rainer Maria Rilke in a passage from the classic Letters to a Young Poet (public library) — his correspondence with a 19-year-old cadet and budding poet named Franz Xaver Kappus, which also gave us Rilke on living the questions; a volume so iconic that it has sprouted a number of homages, from the poet’s own lesser-known Letters to a Young Woman to Anna Deavere Smith’s modern masterpiece Letters to a Young Artist.

In the seventh letter to his young friend, penned in May of 1904 and translated by M. D. Herter Norton, Rilke contemplates the true meaning of love and the particular blessings and burdens of young love:

To love is good, too: love being difficult. For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation. For this reason young people, who are beginners in everything, cannot yet know love: they have to learn it. With their whole being, with all their forces, gathered close about their lonely, timid, upward-beating heart, they must learn to love. But learning-time is always a long, secluded time, and so loving, for a long while ahead and far on into life, is — solitude, intensified and deepened loneness for him who loves. Love is at first not anything that means merging, giving over, and uniting with another (for what would a union be of something unclarified and unfinished, still subordinate — ?), it is a high inducement to the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world, to become world for himself for another’s sake, it is a great exacting claim upon him, something that chooses him out and calls him to vast things. Only in this sense, as the task of working at themselves (“to hearken and to hammer day and night”), might young people use the love that is given them. Merging and surrendering and every kind of communion is not for them (who must save and gather for a long, long time still), is the ultimate, is perhaps that for which human lives as yet scarcely suffice.

I consider Letters to a Young Poet a foundational text of our civilization and a life-necessity for every human being with a firing mind and a beating heart. Complement it with Rilke on the relationship between body and soul, how befriending our mortality can help us live more fully, and the resilience of the human spirit, then revisit his own youthful ripening of love in his love letters to Lou Andreas-Salomé.

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12 JANUARY, 2015

Rilke on What Winter Teaches Us about the Richness of Life and the Tenacity of the Human Spirit

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“What does living come down to but bringing about those changes in ourselves … which can free us to enjoy a richness and closeness with everyone?”

Rainer Maria Rilke is one of the most prolific and poetic letter writers in history, a great master of what Virginia Woolf called “the humane art,” with more than seven thousand of his epistles surviving today. In 1929, three years after his untimely death, the best known compendium of them was published — Letters to a Young Poet, the source of Rilke’s memorable meditation on living life’s questions. A year later, his Letters to a Young Woman (public library) was published — a lesser known but no less rewarding collection of his correspondence with a young admirer named Lisa Heise, who reached out to Rilke in 1919 after her husband abandoned her with their two-year-old son and she found sole consolation in Rilke’s Book of Images. They corresponded for five years and although they never met, the letters between them brim with the warm nectar of mutuality that flows between two souls willing to hold each other’s truth with tenderness.

Writing in 1922, Rilke sends Heise a short but infinitely emboldening reflection on what winter teaches us about life’s riches, translated here by William Needham:

Tending my inner garden went splendidly this winter. Suddenly to be healed again and aware that the very ground of my being — my mind and spirit — was given time and space in which to go on growing; and there came from my heart a radiance I had not felt so strongly for a long time… You tell me how you are able to feel fully alive every moment of the day and that your inner life is brimming over; you write in the knowledge that what you have, if one looks at it squarely, outweighs and cancels all possible privations and losses that may later come along. It is precisely this that was borne in upon me more conclusively than ever before as I worked away during the long Winter months: that the stages by which life has become impoverished correspond with those earlier times when excesses of wealth were the accustomed measure. What, then, is there to fear? Only forgetting! But you and I, around us and in us, we have so much in store to help us remember!

Philosopher Joanna Macy’s soul-gladdening A Year with Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke — which also gave us Rilke’s magnificent letters on how befriending death helps us live more fully — includes an excerpt of this letter, translated by Macy herself thusly:

You might notice that in some ways the effects of our winter experiences are similar. You write of a constant sense of fullness, an almost overabundance of inner being, which from the outset counterbalances and compensates all deprivations and losses that might possibly come. In the course of my work this last long winter, I have experienced a truth more completely than ever before: that life’s bestowal of riches already surpasses any subsequent impoverishment. What, then, remains to be feared? Only that we might forget this! But around and within us, how much it helps to remember!

In his final letter to Heise in February of 1924, by which point she had gotten back on her feet, Rilke echoes this faith in the tenacity of the human spirit and our resilient capacity for joy. Needham’s translation:

Do you not have an increasing sense that underlying one’s own preparedness to accept whatever fate may bring there is a warm, sincere, frightened yet daring unchangeability? And what does living come down to but bringing about those changes in ourselves which we have daringly attempted and which can free us to enjoy a richness and closeness with everyone? After so much honest progress you have now come thus far: that you can live humbly and with the clear expectation that nothing untrue will, nor indeed can, ever find its way in to your heart, for you have that voice within you which merits your safe trust, your utmost faithfulness, and your joy.

Complement Letters to a Young Woman with Rilke on how private struggle fuels great art and the relationship between body and soul, then treat yourself to Annie Dillard on winter and wonder.

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