Category Archives: rilke

Life and work

Part of the reason why Kafka struggled against the world of the senses – the world of family, sex, marriage and community – is that he saw writing as his supreme spiritual vocation, for which all else had to be sacrificed:

‘It is easy to recognize a concentration in me of all my forces on writing. When it became clear in my organism that writing was the most productive direction for my being to take, everything rushed in that direction and left empty all those abilities which were directed towards the joy of sex, eating, drinking, philosophical reflection and above all music. I atrophied in all these directions.’

In a letter to Felice’s father explaining why he couldn’t marry her, he wrote:

‘My whole being is directed towards literature; I have followed this direction unswervingly until my thirtieth year, and the moment I abandon it I cease to live. Everything I am, and am not, is a result of this. I am taciturn, unsociable, morose, selfish, a hypochondriac, and actually in poor health. Fundamentally I deplore none of this: it is the earthly reflection of a higher necessity … I live within my family, among the kindest, most affectionate people – and am more strange than a stranger … I lack all sense of family life.’

Like Kafka, Rilke often felt caught between writing and life, but moved more naturally towards unifying them. He saw his writing as springing from daily life, inseparable from it. In a letter, he wrote that:

‘Ultimately, each of us experiences only one conflict in life which constantly reappears under a different guise – mine is to reconcile life with work, in the purest sense; and where it is a question of the infinitely incommensurable work of the artist, the two directions stand opposed. Many people have helped themselves by taking life easily, by snatching what they needed from it apart from the conflict, or by turning life’s values into an intoxication whose wretched enthusiasms they hurriedly flung into art; others have no alternative but to withdraw from life – asceticism – and this way is of course much cleaner and truer than that rapacious cheating of life for the sake of art. But for me even asceticism cannot be considered. Since in the last analysis my productivity proceeds from the plainest adoration of life, from the daily, inexhaustible wonder of it (how could I have been productive otherwise?), I would see it as a lie to reject any one of the currents that flow towards me; in the end every such rejection must express itself in your art – however much art may gain potentially from it – as a certain hardness, and there take its revenge: for who can be open and affirmative on such sensitive ground if he has a mistrustful, restrictive and anxious attitude towards life!’

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Strange illusion

Strange illusion, the sense of splitting in two, into actor and watcher – the one who lives and the ghostly double watching as if from beyond the grave. Strange since there’s no separation in nature – no isolated organisms, no ghosts looking on at the living. In nature life and death are inseparable. Animals don’t put the dying in hospices, they die where they lived, open to death. Everywhere out here death mingles with life, as any farmer knows. On the beech tree in the garden, last year’s dead leaves mingle with the new, which push them out and renew the cycle: in the same budding tree, both winter and summer, life and death. The trees across the field communicate and send nutrients to each other through underground webs of fungi that feed on dead plants and animals. ‘Everywhere around us, death is at home’, wrote Rilke. ‘When a tree blossoms, death as well as life blossoms in it, and the field is full of death, which from its reclining face sends forth a rich expression of life.’ It’s only we who attempt the impossible movement of pushing death away from ourselves and so split ourselves in two.

For Rilke, death is deep inside us, inescapable, and therefore can’t be tricked. But it only haunts us when we guard the boundaries of ourselves against it, only seems hostile when we turn our faces away from it.

In the Open, there’s no separation. The Open says yes to both life and death, affirms both presence and absence. And it’s here, Rilke says, that we have the chance to draw death back into us; not in order to turn away from life and seek to die, but to live more truly, to be returned to the world as if in a second grace. We have the chance to draw the ghostly, hostile outside into what he calls the Weltinnenraum, the inner space of the world:

Through all beings stretches the one space:
the world’s inner space. The birds fly quietly
through us. Oh, I who wish to grow,
I look out, and inside me the tree grows.

I care, and the house stands inside me.
I take refuge, and refuge is inside me.

In the Weltinnenraum the outside is in and the inside out, but not as in Beckett’s and Blanchot’s dispersals, and not like the daily distractions that are forced on us and that we willingly subject ourselves to. Here, says Rilke,

it appears that everything

makes us at home. See, the trees are; the houses

that we dwell in are still here.

The event of being

Extensive as the ‘external’ world is, with all its sidereal distances it hardly bears comparison with the dimensions, the depth dimensions, of our inner being, which does not even need the spaciousness of the universe to be, in itself, almost unlimited… It seems to me more and more as though our ordinary consciousness inhabits the apex of a pyramid whose base in us (and, as it were, beneath us) broadens out to such an extent that the further we are able to let ourselves down into it, the more completely do we appear to be included in the realities of earthly and, in the widest sense, worldy, existence, which are not dependent on time and space. From my earliest youth I have felt the intuition that at some deeper cross-section of this pyramid of consciousness, mere being could become an event, the inviolable presence and simultaneity of everything that we, on the upper, ‘normal’, apex of self-consciousness, are permitted to experience only as entropy.

– Rilke, letter (tr. Mitchell)

Call me to the one among your moments
that stands against you, ineluctably:
intimate as a dog’s imploring glance
but, again, forever, turned away

when you think you’ve captured it at last.
What seems so far from you is most your own.

– Rilke, from The Sonnets to Orpheus (tr. Mitchell)

In these gaps is the darkness

What guarantee is there that the five senses, taken together, do cover the whole of possible experience? They cover simply our actual experience, our human knowledge of facts or events. There are gaps between the fingers; there are gaps between the senses. In these gaps is the darkness which hides the connection between things…. This darkness is the source of our vague fears and anxieties, but also the home of the gods. They alone see the connections, the total relevance of everything that happens; that which now comes to us in bits and pieces, the ‘accidents’ which exist only in our heads, in our limited perceptions.

— Idris Parry, Kafka, Rilke, and Rumpelstiltskin (via here)

Writing now means somehow prevailing over oneself

Writing now means somehow prevailing over oneself, for what to write when everything one touches is unspeakable, unrecognizable, when nothing belongs to one, no feeling, no hope; when an enormous provision, got I know not where, of suffering, despair, sacrifice and misery is used up in large amounts, as though everybody were somewhere in the whole mass, and the single person nowhere; nowhere any longer is the measure of the individual heart applicable which used to be the unit of the earth and the heavens and all expanses and abysses.

— Rilke, letter (via here)

Now, from America, empty indifferent things are pouring across, sham things, dummy life…. A house, in the American sense, an American apple or a grapevine over there, has nothing in common with the house, the fruit, the grape into which went the hopes and reflections of our forefathers … Live things, things that are alive — that are conscious of us — are running out and can no longer be replaced. We are perhaps the last to have known such things.

–- Rilke (via here)