In an era when the self-actualization opportunities for women of genius amounted to little more than becoming wives of geniuses, the Russian-born writer and intellectual Lou Andreas-Salomé (February 12, 1861–February 5, 1937) realized a life commensurate with her brilliance. At the age of fifty, already an established poet and philosopher, she trained with Freud and became the world’s first female psychoanalyst. Her extraordinary intellectual gravity and creative grace made her a muse to some of Europe’s most celebrated minds. Nietzsche, whose masterwork Thus Spoke Zarathustra was largely inspired by Andreas-Salomé, set down his ten rules for writers in a letter to her. Young Rilke became besotted with her, wrote her exquisite love letters, and dedicated his Book of Hours to her. It was at her urging that he changed his first name from “René” to “Rainer,” which she found more virile and Germanic. Even after their romance ended in 1900, she remained Rilke’s closest confidante and, in many ways, his most important influence.
Nowhere does Andreas-Salomé’s uncommon insight into the human spirit come more fully abloom than in their prolific correspondence, published as Rilke and Andreas-Salomé: A Love Story in Letters (public library) and spanning a quarter century of intellectual intercourse well after the end of their affair.
In June of 1914, shortly after her correspondence with Freud about human nature, she writes to assuage Rilke’s frustration with the creative block that had befallen him:
[When] a creative period [is] about to begin in response to [one’s] new human experiences … a terrible danger is as close as a great victory. Life is easy for those people who are granted a very small portion of creativity to go along with their strong experiences and can expend the former entirely on the latter; and now and then those others, the ones who are creative by nature, succeed the other way around; but much more often the two as it were meet somewhere in the middle and die there, since they collide on their one path rather than proceed along it together.
A few days later, Rilke breaks through his creative block and sends her a newly written poem titled “Turning,” containing the following verse:
For gazing, you see, has its limits.
And the more gazed-upon world
wants to prosper in love.
Work of the eyes is done,
begin heart-work now
on those images in you, those captive ones;
for you conquered them: but you still don’t know them.
In her response, poured out of her dual identity of muse and analyst, Andreas-Salomé offers a beautiful testament to the embodied experience of creative revelation and to what John Dewey would later term the vital “live creature” aspect of the artist. She writes of Rilke’s creative breakthrough:
It has been on its way for so long, has been prepared for, indeed has already almost arrived. Your body knew of its coming, as it were, before you yourself did, yet in the way that only bodies know of things, — with such infinite innocence and directness that in the end this knowledge could temporarily create for it a new misunderstanding with the mind. Do you know by what sign this revealed itself? By the eyes, — those gazing ones… But they, these eyes, left only to themselves in their arduous searchings, beyond the bounds of that which, in their normal function, they needed only to convey to the mind, — they could in their gazing only become ever more corporeal and — confusing, as it were, the more subterranean processes with those consummated at the visibly open and observable body surface — lead only to strange forms of torment; for the “heart-work” to be done on what had previously been only artistically gazed upon would have to occur in some innermost region were it to succeed.
That success, she argues, hinges on “the great love that transforms outside and inside into a completely new,” of which she writes:
What love does in this union is dark and difficult and glorious — and stands on the side of life; who would dare or even want to guess more about it than that; and indeed, you will experience it. Certainly not without interruptions and doubts.
Three days later, having lived with the poem and let it work its slow-burning magic, Andreas-Salomé writes to Rilke again, further reflecting on the poem’s power. Embedded in her words is a meditation on what all transcendent works of art accomplish in our interiority:
There is something in it as of a newly conquered domain, one whose boundaries are still out beyond one’s ken, its compass extending farther than one could walk: one senses more terrain; senses many trails and long wanderings along paths that until now had always been shrouded in fog. And adding a little daylight, just enough so that one can see where to take the next step, would be, from one poem to the next poem, like a real advance of footsteps, one never as yet achieved, on grounds where (in contrast to “mere” art) illumination and action are still as one; this domain can indeed only be made into poetry insofar and to the extent that one has conquered it and thus made it part of a new experience. Somewhere in this realm, deep down, all art begins again with renewed force, arises as from its primordial origin, where it was magic formula, incantation, — a calling forth of life in its still concealed mysteriousness, — yes, where it was at once prayer and the most intense breaking-forth of power.
The calling forth of life that is art, Andreas-Salomé points out, happens not only in the mind but also in the body, the integration of the two being the seedbed of our selfhood and the supreme mark of the creative person:
This running up against our body … is yet the outermost outside in its most intimate sense, the first partition that differentiates us from ourselves, makes us the “inner being” lodged in it like the face in a hedgehog; and yet: our very body, with its hands, feet, eyes, ears, all the parts we enumerate as “us”; this perplexing tangle generally unfurls only in response to the loving comportment of an other, who alone legitimates, in a manner we can bear, our body as “us.” In a “creative person,” though, these components perpetually loosen and renew their ties: which is why, instead of repetition, new reality emanates from him.
Rilke and Andreas-Salomé is an immeasurably rich read in its entirety. Complement it with Georgia O’Keeffe’s magnificent letter to Sherwood Anderson on what it really means to be an artist and pioneering psychologist Jerome Bruner on the six essential conditions for creativity, then revisit Rilke on how difficulty can fuel creativity and the symbiosis between the body and the soul.