Category Archives: rilke


I am lying in my bed five flights up, and my day, which nothing interrupts, is like a clock-face without hands. As something that has been lost for a long time reappears one morning in its old place, safe and sound, almost newer than when it vanished, just as if someone had been taking care of it–: so, here and there on my blanket, lost feelings out of my childhood lie and are like new. All the lost fears are there again.
I prayed to rediscover my childhood, and it has come back, and I feel that it is just as difficult as it used to be, and that growing older has served no purpose at all.

— Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (tr. S. Mitchell)

They know

I am sitting and reading a poet. There are many people in the hall, but one doesn’t feel them. They are in their books. Sometimes they move in the pages, like people who are sleeping and who turn over between two dreams. Ah, how good it is to be among people reading. Why are they not always so? You can go up to one and touch him gently: he feels nothing. And if you gently bump into your neighbour as you stand up, and excuse yourself, he nods towards the side on which he hears your voice, his face turns to you and does not see you, and his hair is like the hair of a person asleep. How good it feels. And I sit and have a poet. What a destiny. There are now perhaps three hundred people in the hall who are reading; but it is impossible for every single one of them to have a poet. (God knows what they have.) There aren’t three hundred poets. But look, what a destiny. I, perhaps the most the most wretched among these readers, a foreigner: I have a poet. Although I am poor. Although my suit, which I wear every day, is beginning to show through in certain places, although this or that objection might be made against my shoes. Of course my collar is clean, my shirt too, and as I am I could go into any café, possibly even on the grand boulevards, and confidently thrust my hand out to a plate of cakes and take something. No one would take this amiss or scold me or throw me out, for it is still a hand of the better classes, a hand that is washed four or five times a day – there is nothing under the nails, the index finger has no inkstain, and the wrists especially are spotless. Poor people don’t wash up that far, that’s a well-known fact. So one can draw certain conclusions from their cleanliness. One does, too. In shops one draws them. But there are a few lives, on the Boulevard Saint-Michel for instance and in the rue Racine, that don’t let themselves be put off, that don’t give a damn about their wrists. They look at me and know. They know that I am really one of them, that I am only playing a little comedy. It is, after all, carnival time. And they don’t want to spoil my fun; they just grin a little and wink. No one sees it. Otherwise, they treat me like a gentleman. But if somebody happens to be near, then they even grovel, act as if I were wearing a fur coat and my car were following along behind me. Sometimes I give them two sous and tremble lest they refuse them, but they take them. And everything would be in order if they didn’t grin and wink a little again. Who are these people? What do they want from me? Are they waiting for me? How do they recognise me? It’s true my beard looks somewhat neglected, and it is vaguely reminiscent of their sick, old, faded beards that always impressed me. But don’t I have the right to neglect my beard? Many busy people do, and it would never occur to anyone to immediately lump them together with the outcasts on that account. For it is clear to me that these people are outcasts, not just beggars. No, they’re really not beggars; one must discriminate. They are trash, husks of people spat out by fate. Damp from the saliva of fate they stick to a wall, to a lamppost, to an advertising pillar, or they slowly ooze down the street, leaving a dark, dirty trace behind. What in the world did that old woman want from me who, carrying the drawer of a night table in which a few buttons and needles were rolling around, had crept out from some hole or other? Why did she always walk beside me and look at me? As if she were trying to recognise me with her watery eye that looked as if some sick person had spat green slime onto her bleeding lids? And how, that other time, did that small grey woman come to stand for a quarter of an hour beside me before a shop window while showing me an old, long pencil that protruded with infinite slowness from her filthy, closed hands? I acted as if I were looking at the goods displayed and didn’t notice anything. But she knew I had seen her, she knew I was standing there and wondering what she was really doing. For I understood quite well that it could not be a question of the pencil: I felt that it was a sign, a sign for the initiated, a sign that the outcasts recognise; I felt that she was indicating to me that I had to go somewhere or do something. And the oddest thing was that I could not shake off the feeling that there really was a certain appointment to which this sign belonged, and that this scene was something I ought to have expected.

— Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (trans. B. Pike)

Death is our chance

Death is what Rilke calls ‘the pure relation’ — a purified relation which leaps beyond consciousness. Through death it is possible to achieve a new intimacy with things, replacing the imperious desire to master the world, the purposive activity which allows us to be content only with results. To save things is to turn towards the invisible, to allow death to affirm itself. What is this death? An enlarged consciousness — the broadening which reinstates a lost unity, a larger understanding. It reassures our faith in the oneness of things. Would this be the experience which would lead us into the profound intimacy we seek?

Death is our chance. Yet Rilke will say the animal that lives in the Open is ‘free of death’. We are not free; our perspective is limited and this is the point: ‘Death, we see only death; the free animal always has its decline behind it, and before it God, and when it moves, it moves in Eternity, as springs flow’. But then what chance does death offer us?


The first human listeners

… WHEN WILL, when will, when will they let it suffice,
the complaining, explaining? Have we not had masters to splice
human words, compose them? Why all this new endeavour?

Do not, do not, do not books for ever
hammer at people like perpetual bells?
When, between two books, silent sky appears: be glad…
or a patch of plain earth in the evening.

Louder than gale, louder than sea swell, men
have roared and yelled… what preponderance of stillness
must reside in the cosmic spaces, when
the cricket is audible still to yelling mankind.
When stars, the silent, shine for us in the yelled-at heavens!

Oh, if they spoke to us, the remotest, ancient, most ancient forbears!
And we: listeners at last. The first human listeners.

— Rilke (trans. M. Hamburger)

Abandoned bare on the heart’s mountains

Abandoned bare on the heart’s mountains. Look, how small there,
look: the last little village of words, and higher,
but also how small, a last
homestead of feeling. Familiar to you?
Abandoned bare on the heart’s mountains. Rock base
under your hands. True, something blossoms
here; from silent erosion
an unknowing herb breaks into blossom, singing.
But the knowing man? He who began to know
and is silent now, abandoned bare on the heart’s mountains.
True, with awareness intact many a creature
moves about, many a mountain animal lives secure,
changes and stays. And the great bird at home here
circles the pure negation of peaks. — But
homeless here on the heart’s mountains…

— Rilke (trans. M. Hamburger)

David Foster Wallace on Kafka

‘Alas’, said the mouse, ‘the world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when at last I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into’. ‘You only need to change your direction’, said the cat, and ate it up.

— Kafka


What Kafka’s stories have is a grotesque and gorgeous and thoroughly modern complexity. Kafka’s humour — not only not neurotic, but anti-neurotic, heroically sane — is, finally, a religious humour, but religious in the manner of Kierkegaard and Rilke and the Psalms, a harrowing spirituality against which even Ms. O’Connor’s bloody grace seems a little bit easy, the souls at stake pre-made.
   And it is this, I think, that makes Kafka’s wit inaccessible to children whom our culture has trained to see jokes as entertainment and entertainment as reassurance. It’s not that students don’t ‘get’ Kafka’s humour but that we’ve taught them to see humour as something you get — the same way we’ve taught them that a self is something you just have. No wonder they cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke — that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home. It’s hard to put into words up at the blackboard, believe me. You can tell them that maybe it’s good that they don’t ‘get’ Kafka. You can ask them to imagine his art as a kind of door. To envision us readers coming up and pounding, not just wanting admission but needing it, we don’t know what it is but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and pushing and kicking, etc. That, finally, the door opens… and it opens outward: we’ve been inside what we wanted all along. Das ist komisch.

David Foster Wallace

Fictitious biography

At first a childhood, boundless, with no aim,
no self-denial. O unconscious bliss.
Then sudden terror, school and rules and shame,
constraint, temptation, fall into otherness.

Defiance. Now the bent becomes the bender,
makes others pay in kind for his defeat.
Loved, feared, a champion, friend, defender,
bully and conqueror, to beat and beat.

Then on his own in the cold, wide, weightless air.
Yet deep within the second self’s redoubt
a taking breath for what at first was there…

When from His ambush God came rushing out.

— Rilke (trans. M. Hamburger)