Thursday, December 09, 2010

Letters from a Poet's Soul 5

Rilke the Existentialist

Santry Woods once again, December 2010
Solitude is one of the many themes that feature frequently in existentialist literature.  However, as I have pointed out in the many posts I have written with respect to the nature of solitude, it cannot be equated with loneliness or social isolation.  In the thought of Karl Theodor Jaspers (1883 – 1969), who was a German psychiatrist and philosopher who had a strong influence on modern theology, psychiatry and philosophy, solitude refers to a sense of readiness a person has for engagement with his everyday existence.  For him such solitude is all about risking the adventure of self-contemplation and self-reflection.  This very dignity of solitude is inextricably linked to personal freedom.  I have only read very little of Jaspers and I allude to my memory of the above ideas from his philosophy to back up my understanding of the importance of solitude, not alone for our more creative engagements with life but also for providing us with some resilience for our poor sore souls at times of need.

Now back to Rilke's Letters To a Young Poet and his dealing with the theme of solitude therein.  Let me quote from Letter 8 with regard to this theme and keep in mind what I have said about Jaspers' take on solitude:

And to speak of solitude again, it becomes clearer and clearer that fundamentally this is nothing that one can choose or refrain from. We are solitary. We can delude ourselves about this and act as if it were not true. That is all. But how much better it is to recognize that we are alone; yes, even to begin from this realization. It will, of course, make us dizzy; for all points that our eyes used to rest on are taken away from us, there is no longer anything near us, and everything far away is infinitely far. A man taken out of his room and, almost without preparation or transition, placed on the heights of a great mountain range, would feel something like that: an unequalled insecurity, an abandonment to the nameless, would almost annihilate him. He would feel he was falling or think he was being catapulted out into space or exploded into a thousand pieces: what a colossal lie his brain would have to invent in order to catch up with and explain the situation of his senses. That is how all distances, all measures, change for the person who becomes solitary; many of these changes occur suddenly and then, as with the man on the mountaintop, unusual fantasies and strange feelings arise, which seem to grow out beyond all that is bearable. But it is necessary for us to experience that too. We must accept our reality as vastly as we possibly can; everything, even the unprecedented, must be possible within it. This is in the end the only kind of courage that is required of us: the courage to face the strangest, most unusual, most inexplicable experiences that can meet us. The fact that people have in this sense been cowardly has done infinite harm to life; the experiences that are called "apparitions," the whole so-called "spirit world," death, all these Things that are so closely related to us, have through our daily defensiveness been so entirely pushed out of life that the senses with which we might have been able to grasp them have atrophied. To say nothing of God. But the fear of the inexplicable has not only impoverished the reality of the individual; it has also narrowed the relationship between one human being and another, which has as it were been lifted out of the riverbed of infinite possibilities and set down in a fallow place on the bank, where nothing happens. For it is not only indolence that causes human relationships to be repeated from case to case with such unspeakable monotony and boredom; it is timidity before any new, inconceivable experience, which we don't think we can deal with. But only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn't exclude any experience, even the most incomprehensible, will live the relationship with another person as something alive and will himself sound the depths of his own being. for if we imagine this being of the individual as a larger or smaller room, it is obvious that most people come to know only one corner of their room, one spot near the window, one narrow strip on which they keep walking back and forth. In this way they have a certain security. And yet how much more human is the dangerous insecurity that drives those prisoners in Poe's stories to feel out the shapes of their horrible dungeons and not be strangers to the unspeakable terror of their cells. We, however, are not prisoners. No traps or snares have been set around us, and there is nothing that should frighten or upset us. We have been put into life as into the element we most accord with, and we have, moreover, through thousands of years of adaptation, come to resemble this life so greatly that when we hold still, through a fortunate mimicry we can hardly be differentiated from everything around us. We have no reason to harbour any mistrust against our world, for it is not against us. If it has terrors, they are our terrors; if it has abysses, these abysses belong to us; if there are dangers, we must try to love them. And if only we arrange our life in accordance with the principle which tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us as the most alien will become our most intimate and trusted experience. How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races, the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses? Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.
The tenor and import of the above rather long quotation are nothing short of existential. Rilke is arguing that in our solitude we confront the heights and depths of the self/soul/psyche, call it by whatever term you wish. One can literally feel the angst of the author through his use of most apt and precise words. What Samuel Taylor Coleridge said as regards good poetry being "the right words in the right places" or "the best words in the best order" could also be said of the selection of words Rilke uses to describe the solitude at the heart of the human condition. The image he uses above of anyman or everyman literally taken out of his small room [after all, it is in the privacy of our own homes, or upon our own very hearths, or in our very own sitting rooms or studies or dens that we truly encounter some sense of our personal indentity because it is there that we are most at home with our self/soul/psyche] and placed on the side of a lonely mountain and who is then forced to look down into the chasm below him is a truly amazing and chilling one. This image to my mind is on a par with the mountain image from Gerard Manley Hopkins' great lines from one of the desperate sonnets:
(No Worst, There Is None)



O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed O my dear...

 The Vastness Within Us

Rilke is also profoundly aware of the vastness of our minds or souls.  While he mentions neither the conscious nor unconscious mind as categories here, he clearly appreciates the very mystery that the vastness of our minds presents us with.  If the mind has mountains as clearly both Hopkins and Rilke imagine, then clearly it also has valleys or depths.  In this sense these poets were, quite unawares, speaking of depth or even height psychologies.  Now obviously this latter term is not used though I remember Victor Frankl using the term simply because it is the corresponding and complementary term to depth.  It depends indeed on one's perspective - whether one is looking upwards or downwards.  All of this vastness is contained in the above lines.  Rilke also seems to be open to experiences both human, spiritual and divine in the human being, and suggests that he/she might shut such out because of fear of the unknown.  In this sense also we get the distinct feeling here that Rilke has the idea of what Freud meant by "repression" in his mind here.  This is all contained in the few lines quoted above : "We must accept our reality as vastly as we possibly can; everything, even the unprecedented, must be possible within it. This is in the end the only kind of courage that is required of us: the courage to face the strangest, most unusual, most inexplicable experiences that can meet us."

What does not Kill us will make us Stronger

Clearly this subtitle is a quotation from the great Friedrich Nietzsche and quite simply this precept is also expressed in the above letter.  While, as far as I know, Rilke never personally met Freud or Nietzsche he had a sexual relationship with Louise von Salomé (1861 – 1937) the Russian-born psychoanalyst who had known both men as well as Wagner.  Hence, Rilke would have learned all about psychoanalysis and about these other men from his lover.  Here our great poet and literary critic expresses his belief in Nietzsche's statement or aphorism which he does not quote directly, but the above passage quite clearly echoes the great philosopher's sentiments completely.  Hence Rilke's wonderfully strong metaphor in these words quoted above:   "Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love."  How profound. 

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