Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Rilke’

07 AUGUST, 2014

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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06 JUNE, 2012

Rilke’s Love Letters

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“Now I come to you full of future. And from habit we begin to live our past.”

As a lover of famous correspondence, especially extraordinary love letters, and of Rilke, I was instantly enamored with Rilke and Andreas-Salomé: A Love Story in Letters (public library) — a magnificent collection of letters exchanged between Rilke and the Russian-born writer, intellectual, psychoanalyst, and “muse of Europe’s fin-de-siècle thinkers and artists” Lou Andreas-Salomé, fifteen years his senior.

The relationship, which began when 21-year-old Rilke met the 36-year-old and married Salomé, commenced with the all-too-familiar pattern of one besotted lover, Rilke, flooding the resistant object of his desire with romantic revelations, only to be faced with repeated, composed rejection as Salomé claimed to wish she could make him “go completely away.” But Rilke’s love didn’t flinch and the two eventually developed a passionate bond which, over the thirty-five-year course of their correspondence that followed, we see change shape and morph from friends to mentor and protégé to lovers to literary allies — a kaleidoscope of love that irradiates across the romantic, the platonic, the creative, the spiritual, the intellectual, and just about everything in between.

Rilke with Lou Andreas-Salomé (1897) On the balcony of the summer house of the family Andreas near Munich. Left to right: Professor Andreas, August Endell, Rilke, and Lou Andreas-Salomé.

In a letter dated May 13, 1897, at the very onset of the relationship, Rilke writes:

You see, gracious lady, through the unsparing severity, through the uncompromising strength of your words, I felt that my own work was receiving a blessing, a sanction. I was like someone for whom great dreams, with all their good and evil, were coming true; for your essay was to my poems as reality is to a dream, as fulfillment is to a desire.

[…]

I always feel: when one person is indebted to another for something very special, that indebtedness should remain a secret between just the two of them.

On May 31 and June 1, 1897, Rilke and Salomé took a two-day trip to a small village south of Munich and it was during that trip that the two first became lovers. In a letter dated June 3rd, Rilke writes:

Songs of longing!

And they will resound in my letters, just as they always have, sometimes loudly and sometimes secretly so that you alone can hear them… But they will also be different — different from how they used to be, these songs. For I have turned and found longing at my side, and I have looked into her eyes, and now she leads me with a steady hand.

In a lengthy letter dated July 6, 1898:

Now I come to you full of future. And from habit we begin to live our past.

Rilke and Andreas-Salomé: A Love Story in Letters is remarkably rich and dimensional in its entirety, each of the 200 letters revealing a different facet of Rilke’s exceptional heart and mind, and of the universal commonalities of love itself.

Thanks, Michael

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01 JUNE, 2012

Rilke on Embracing Uncertainty and Living the Questions

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“Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves.”

Jacqueline Novogratz’s wonderful commencement address reminded me of a favorite excerpt from the Rainer Maria Rilke classic Letters to a Young Poet (public library) — a beautifully articulated case for the importance of living the questions, embracing uncertainty, and allowing for intuition.

I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Letters to a Young Poet is exquisite and timeless in its entirety, and inspired Christopher Hitchens’s Letters to a Young Contrarian.

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