Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Timely Message from Rainer Maria Rilke

Phoenix Park again a few days ago
I suppose I have sung encomiums or encomia (if you are more fastidiously tied to purist Latinisms) to the nth power with respect to the great poet, writer and critic, Rainer Maria Rilke.  However, as we approach one of the greatest international festivals of humankind, namely Christmas, it is appropriate to slow down, meditate and contemplate or "take stock" of our lives.  Persistent and obstinate snow have appropriately and in a timely manner slowed us all down here in Ireland for most of the last month.  Such persistence by the elements have raised our minds to more important things than the depression that hangs over our little country, now bankrupted by greedy speculators, corrupt bankers and corrupt politicians who would seem to have been in league or in conspiracy with the former.  Such timely climatic input into our communal and individual psyches is good for our well being.  With this in mind, I will offer any readers of this blog a timely message from Rainer Maria Rilke on the Human Condition and its innate fears.  He is arguing in a very philosophical/spiritual/existential/psychological way that we have nothing to fear except fear itself - as F. D Roosevelt said in his first inaugural speech as President of the USA.  (see this link, where you can read his speech and also listen to a recording of it: FDR  )

Here below are the words of Rilke which in places on the web have been wrongly quoted as a poem.  It is, I believe, an edited version of one of his letters to the young aspiring poet, Mr. Kappus, which I have quoted from before in this blog.  Read, reflect, meditate and contemplate the following words, which I will comment on later when I return from having braved the elements to do my Christmas shopping:

But fear of the inexplicable has not alone impoverished the existence of the individual; the relationship between one human being and another has also been cramped by it, as though it had been lifted out of the riverbed of endless possibilities and set down in a fallow spot on the bank, to which nothing happens.  For it is not inertia alone that is responsible for human relationships repeating themselves from case to case, indescribably monotonous and unrenewed: it is shyness before any sort of new, unforeseeable experience with which one does not think oneself able to cope.

But only someone who is ready for everything, who excludes nothing, not even the most enigmatical, will live the relation to another as something alive and will himself draw exhaustively from his own existence. For if we think of this existence of the individual as a larger or smaller room, it appears evident that most people learn to know only a corner of their room, a place by the window, a strip of floor on which they walk up and down.  Thus they have a certain security.  And yet that dangerous insecurity is so much more human which drives the prisoners in Poe’s stories to feel out the shapes of their horrible dungeons and not be strangers to the unspeakable terror of their abode.

We, however, are not prisoners.  No traps or snares are set about us, and there is nothing which should intimidate or worry us.  We are set down in life as in the element to which we best correspond, and over and above this we have through thousands of years of accommodation become so like this life, that when we hold still we are, through a happy mimicry, scarcely to be distinguished from all that surrounds us.  We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us. It has it terrors, they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abysses belong to us; if there are dangers at hand, we must try to love them.  And if only we arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us that we must always hold to the difficult, then that which now still seems to us the most alien will become what we most trust and find most faithful.   How should we be able to forget those ancient myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave.  Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.

Rainer Maria Rilke  (See this link here: Rilke's Wisdom )


Even the deer outside my mother's window know no fear!
As I said with respect to Rainer Maria Rilke's poems, a paraphrase is the ultimate insult.  Likewise, with regard to his letters or other writings.  The commentary I will give here is only by way of associations, connotations and resonances with my own thoughts and feelings on similar matters.  I seek to explore what he has said above not by explaining or elucidating, but by enlarging in the most expansive way possible, posing more questions and letting the piece speak for itself by stating that these comments were sparked off in my head and heart by this piece of writing.

It would seem to me that humankind drives itself crazy if it seeks to understand everything. In this regard, I am reminded of Albert Camus' introduction to his depressingly negative but serious philosophical book The Myth of Sisyphos wherein I remember he stated that he sought clarity, almost absolute clarity in anything he had ever done. Then I remember reading the great 19th century theologian and famous convert to Roman Catholicism, John Henry Cardinal Newman who believed that ultimately clarity could never exist on a rational level alone. On the one hand Newman, the nineteenth century Victorian, who was still intoxicated by the Romantic vision, while very much a rational being, also saw the importance of the non-rational side of humankind and he took refuge in the mystery and mystique of Religion. On the other hand, Camus became depressingly atheistic rather than positively agnostic, the lack of clarity just convincing him of the absolute absurdity of the enterprise we call human life.

I agree with Rilke, there is much in life that is inexplicable, and indeed, despite our best efforts, there will always be much in life that will remain so.  For a positive, spiritual and agnostic Buddhist that I am, I believe in the essentially mysterious nature of life, whether that can be explained with or even without the intervention of a being called God.  I rule nothing in and I rule nothing out.  Openness to all reasonable suggested answers is the order of the day to my mind, and indeeed to my heart.  Rilke's comments suggest no less, I feel. 

The inexplicable lies all around us.  Last night I had a wonderful dream where I was co-pilot of a small light aircraft and the captain said to me that we were about to approach the abyss or the vortex.  In fact, he called it the vortex in the dream.  He told me that we were going to guide our small light aircraft into the vortex and let ourselves be carried down, down, down into it.  He swithched off the engine and we were swallowed up in the vortex, but the sense of the dream was that we would be safely carried downward and inward into that "centre of centres," almost into what I have termed The Still Point at the very centre of existence.  The sense of the dream was quite like some of Edgar Allan Poe's stories of vortices and maelstroms, but without the absolute terror.  Somehow the terror was gone.  I must admit that I have been meditating on Rilke's piece above not long before I fell asleep, and I allude to my dream here by way of commenatry on his beautiful piece of writing.  That's why I believe that Rilke is right.  The fear of the inexplicable can become our ultimate nightmare like all those vortices in Poe, or it can become the energizing, exciting and ecstatic feeling of "sky-diving" into the abyss.  It is also interesting that Rilke refers directly to the sense of terror in Poe's gothic tales and stories.

Rilke is asking us to expand our horizons.  He asks us to consider our human experience as a larger or smaller room depending on our native openness to wonder, inspiration and imagination.  Indeed, he sees us as not even being open to knowing that room, big or small in any substantial way; as groping around in the dark of one corner of that room alone, never mind the full room; as being in a way prisoners of our very limited insight into our potential and very much captives of our own fears of the unknown.  No, he argues, oh so poetically in this letter to the would-be poet, Mr. Kappus, that we must look our fears in the eye and let ourselves fall into the abyss.  Hence, my mentioning my dream above, which I believe was sparked off by my meditating on the above piece of writing yesterday evening.

I especially love the following lines of insight from the magisterial Rilke above, and I'll repeat them here for emphasis:

We have no reason to mistrust our world,  for it is not against us.  It has it terrors, they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abysses belong to us; if there are dangers at hand, we must try to love them.  And if only we arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us that we must always hold to the difficult, then that which now still seems to us the most alien will become what we most trust and find most faithful.

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