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?
… 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. 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)
‘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.
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
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)
Now it is time that gods came walking out
of lived-in Things…
Time that they came and knocked down every wall
inside my house. New page. Only the wind
from such a turning could be strong enough
to toss the air as a shovel tosses dirt:
a fresh-turned field of breath. O gods, gods!
who used to come so often and are still
asleep in the Things around us, who serenely
rise and at wells that we can only guess at
splash icy water on your necks and faces,
and lightly add your restedness to what seems
already filled to bursting: our full lives.
Once again let it be your morning, gods.
We keep repeating. You alone are source.
With you the world arises, and your dawn
gleams on each crack and crevice of our failure…
— Rilke (trans. Stephen Mitchell)
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 failure 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! So one learns, oh how slowly, that life travels over endless starting-points — to what end, finally, can one apply one’s little abilities?
Rodin often brooded on this in his old age. Sometimes, at five in the morning, I found him standing in the garden, lost in contemplation of the slopes of Sèvres and St. Cloud which slowly rose out of the wonderful autumn mists of the Seine, as though they were coming into the world faultlessly fashioned, — there he stood, the old one, and pondered: “What end can I serve when I gaze in wonder at the richness of it all, this morning…?” A year later, and he did not understand even this, simply could not understand it, had long been unable to, for an influence, a fatality far inferior to him had wrapped him round and swallowed him up in darkness and confusion from which no ray of splendour shone!
— Rilke, letter to the Countess M. (trans. R.F.C. Hull)