Thursday, December 09, 2010

Letters from a Poet's Soul 6

Signposts in Santry Park

That Rainer Maria Rilke straddled the period between Romanticism and Modernism there can be no doubt.  That he was a most deep and intense man, like most poets, can never either be in doubt.  That he prized such intensity or depth or passion of feeling as being important to the poet's craft there can never be a doubt in any way at all.  In Letter 9 to the young poet Mr Kappus,  he writes in this regard the following lines:

And about feelings: All feelings that concentrate you and lift you up are pure; only that feeling is impure which grasps just one side of your being and thus distorts you. Everything you can think of as you face your childhood, is good. Everything that makes more of you than you have ever been, even in your best hours, is right. Every intensification is good, if it is in your entire blood, if it isn't intoxication or muddiness, but joy which you can see into, clear to the bottom. Do you understand what I mean?  (See this link: RMR Letters )
Art is about Living

Art is never anything airy-fairy for Rilke.  It must be part of life, and in that sense be very real indeed.  In this last letter to the young poet, Mr Kappus, he declares:

Art too is just a way of living, and however one lives, one can, without knowing, prepare for it; in everything real one is closer to it, more its neighbour, than in the unreal half-artistic professions, which, while they pretend to be close to art, in practice deny and attack the existence of all art - as, for example, all of journalism does and almost all criticism and three quarters of what is called (and wants to be called) literature. I am glad, in a word, that you have overcome the danger of landing in one of those professions, and are solitary and courageous, somewhere in a rugged reality. May the coming year support and strengthen you in that. (See the above link!)

Quite clearly Rilke believed that the career of a military man or soldier was far more real and authentic than being a journalist, critic or some so-called expert in art.  Those professions were far too safe, far too pedestrian, far too lacking in courage.  Instead, being a military man was quite literally a way of being real or authentic or true to self.  Instead Mr Kappus was "solitary and courageous, somewhere in rugged reality."  This last letter was written in 1908 when Rilke was a young man of 33.  He died december 1926 aged 51.

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. 

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Letters from a Poet's Soul 4

Santry Wood,  December 2010
Letter seven is perhaps the most profound of Rainer maria Rilke's letters.  The most profound I say because it deals with the most important subject for humankind, namely the love of one human being for another.  We are all well acquainted with the truly famous quotation  from St Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians Chapter 13: 1-13.  Many years ago I remember having to learn it off by heart in Greek for postgraduate Scriptural purposes.  It is a singularly beautiful passage in all languages, and I sometimes return to my Greek parallel text New Testament to reacquaint myself with Paul's melodious Greek.  However, having read this passage in numerous English versions, I love most of all both the Kings James and Jerusalem Bibles' versions.  Anyway read this passage in whatever version of the NT you can get your hands on even if it were only for the poetry of the piece.  Here I'll give the final few lines only:

When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things.
At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.
So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
(I Cor 13: 11-13)
Indeed the greatest reality in the world is that of love, and I choose my words carefully here.  As I pointed out before this, only inter-relating or communicating beings can determine what reality is, for really and truly all reality is shared, and it is in the context of the mutual acceptance of that sharing that reality is defined.  This I will call my philosophico-psychological or psycho-philosophical appraisal of reality for me.  It is only in this context of inter-relating and communicating beings that love can be shared and can become real. 

However, having said this, I have previously in these posts referred to the fact that oftentimes the modern world overvalues some things (or indeed realities) while undervaluing other things (or realities).  I heartily agree with the late great psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Dr. Anthony Storr, who with Drs. Carl Gustave Jung and Ronnie Laing have long been personal heroes, when he said that the modern world has vastly overrated the significance of relationships in the personal development and indeed in the growth of creativity of the human being.  While they all recognise such relationships as being of a high order of importance, they are not necessarily of the highest importance in a human being's sense of self, feeling of well-being, self-image, self-concept or in the healthy formation of personal identity.  Storr underlines the critical importance of interests and hobbies and things as well as of relationships.  He also argues solidly for the the role of a healthy solitude.   See my posts on Storr's wonderful book Solitude.

Two swans in solitude in Santry Woods
Most interesting and very unsurprising, especially to this reader, is the fact that when Rilke examines the topic of love here he is at one with Storr and others who see the importance of solitude and creativity as well as relationships in the healthy mental development of the individual.  Rilke suggests that very often young lovers rush into relationships far too quickly and are simply not able for their profundity and end up tasting of their mutual brokenness only, simply because neither individual has had the sense or the patience to plumb or explore their very own depths in solitude.  Modern psychologists and psychotherapists speak about "intrapersonal" as well as "interpersonal" relationships.  The first person I read in this regard was Dr. Howard Gardner's theory of Multiple Intelligences in Frames of Mind wherein he speaks of "intrapersonal" as well  as "interpersonal" intelligence.  By the former intelligence he means how much any individual knows and appreciates his or her own depths.  When we have learned to accept ourselves "warts and all" and when we have descended into and ascended anew from those deep internal pits of self, as it were, then and only then can we enter into true and real relations with another human being.  Then and only then my encounter with the other becomes my depth (solitude/soul/profundity) meeting dynamically with with the other's depth (solitude/soul/profundity).  I am well aware, dear reader, that this may be an over-simplification, but it is one I must make by way of underlining its import, and happily make it indeed for emphasis.  I readily admit that another human being can help me descend to some extent into the depths of my own soul and even lend a helping hand to me as I ascend the slippery upward slopes of the self-cavern.  However, "lend a helping hand" is the operative phrase, while most of this soul-journey to personal authenticity and to personal identity can only be done alone.

With these few remarks, I will now quote rather fully from this beautifully crafted and deeply rich letter:

It is also good to love: because love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation. That is why young people, who are beginners in everything, are not yet capable of love: it is something they must learn. With their whole being, with all their forces, gathered around their solitary, anxious, upward-beating heart, they must learn to love. But learning-time is always a long, secluded time ahead and far on into life, is - ; solitude, a heightened and deepened kind of aloneness for the person who loves. Loving does not at first mean merging, surrendering, and uniting with another person (for what would a union be of two people who are unclarified, unfinished, and still incoherent - ?), it is a high inducement for the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world, to become world in himself for the sake of another person; it is a great, demanding claim on him, something that chooses him and calls him to vast distances. Only in this sense, as the task of working on themselves ("to hearken and to hammer day and night"), may young people use the love that is given to them. Merging and surrendering and every kind of communion is not for them (who must still, for a long, long time, save and gather themselves); it is the ultimate, is perhaps that for which human lives are as yet barely large enough.

But this is what young people are so often and so disastrously wrong in doing they (who by their very nature are impatient) fling themselves at each other when love takes hold of them, they scatter themselves, just as they are, in all their messiness, disorder, bewilderment. . . . : And what can happen then? What can life do with this heap of half-broken things that they call their communion and that they would like to call their happiness, if that were possible, and their future? And so each of them loses himself for the sake of the other person, and loses the other, and many others who still wanted to come. And loses the vast distances and possibilities, gives up the approaching and fleeing of gentle, prescient Things in exchange for an unfruitful confusion, out of which nothing more can come; nothing but a bit of disgust, disappointment, and poverty, and the escape into one of the many conventions that have been put up in great numbers like public shelters on this most dangerous road. No area of human experience is so extensively provided with conventions as this one is: there are life-preservers of the most varied invention, boats and water wings; society has been able to create refuges of every sort, for since it preferred to take love-life as an amusement, it also had to give it an easy form, cheap, safe, and sure, as public amusements are.  (See this link here: RMR Letters )

To be continued.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Letters from a Poet's Soul 3

Boy in Snow: Santry Wood
At this point as I am reading Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, I am reminded of other great-souled (if I may coin a word!) poets like John Keats, Patrick Kavanagh and, of course, the inimitable Portuguese Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) who was poet, writer, literary critic and translator, and one of the most significant literary figures of the 20th century.  Interestinly he was trilingual in Portuguese, English, and in French.

Pessoa shares a deep intensity with these other poets I've named and read.  All these poets burned with the intensity of magnesium, which once set alight literally becomes sun-like.  Perhaps as an intense person myself, I am burning with too much enthusiasm and passion here, but that is the seminal condition of any committed writer or composer.  So before, I turn back to Rilke's Letters, I'd like to begin with a small quotation from Pessoa:

My soul is a hidden orchestra; I know not what instruments, what fiddlestrings and harps, drums and tamboura I sound and clash inside myself. All I hear is the symphony.
If any type of creative art is about anything it is about translating the orchestra played by the soul into all and every art form.  Philosophically I could argue that even sciences can share in the genius of the arts, especially as regards creativity, but that is a topic for another post indeed. 

In his fifth letter to the young would-be poet, Rilke says nothing whatsoever on the craft of writing, be that of poems or prose.  Rather, it is a short personal letter dealing with how he had not received a certain book from his correspondent by mail , and describing how his labours to seek a comfortable and suitable place to live and write, far away from the fret of city life.  However, being myself a frequent visitor to Rome and a lover of that particularly ancient (yet always new) city I was taken by Rilke's beautiful description of it, so I will repeat them here for the reader:

- but there is much beauty here, because everywhere there is much beauty. Waters infinitely full of life move along the ancient aqueducts into the great city and dance in the many city squares over white basins of stone and spread out in large, spacious pools and murmur by day and lift up their murmuring to the night, which is vast here and starry and soft with winds. And there are gardens here, unforgettable boulevards, and staircases designed by Michelangelo, staircases constructed on the pattern of downward-gliding waters and, as they descend, widely giving birth to step out of wave. Through such impressions one gathers oneself, wins oneself back from the exacting multiplicity, which speaks and chatters there (and how talkative it is!), and one slowly learns to recognize the very few Things in which something eternal endures that one can love and something solitary that one can gently take part in. (see this link here for all quotations from Rilke's letters: RMR Letters )

This is one of the themes that Rainer Maria Rilke returns to again and again in his letters.  He saw solitude as one of the essential conditions that could and would inspire the creative arts.  He needed that silence for his inspiration to enrapture him and pour itself out on paper.  Here are his words to the young poet Mr Kappus in his sixth letter to the young man.

"I've got a lovely bunch of snowballs," Child, Santry Wood, Dublin
What is necessary, after all, is only this: solitude, vast inner solitude. To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours - that is what you must be able to attain. To be solitary as you were when you were a child, when the grown-ups walked around involved with matters that seemed large and important because they looked so busy and because you didn't understand a thing about what they were doing. (See above link)
He goes on to remind the young poet that it is essential for the creative writer or poet to re-capture not so much the innocence, but rather the wonder of childhood.  Patrick Kavanagh, out own rural Irish poet certainly managed to recapture the wonder of his childhood in many of his poems.  This is essentially what Rilke is recommending to Mr Kappus, viz., RECAPTURE THE WONDER OF YOUR CHILDHOOD!  Hence he continues:

Think, dear Sir, of the world that you carry inside you, and call this thinking whatever you want to: a remembering of your own childhood or a yearning toward a future of your own - only be attentive to what is arising within you, and place that above everything you perceive around you. What is happening on your innermost self is worthy of your entire love; somehow you must find a way to work at it, and not lose too much time or too much courage in clarifying your attitude toward people....

It is like this everywhere; but that is no cause for anxiety or sadness; if there is nothing you can share with other people, try to be close to Things; they will not abandon you; and the nights are still there, and the winds that move through the trees and across many lands; everything in the world of Things and animals is still filled with happening, which you can take part in; and children are still the way you were as a child, sad and happy in just the same way - and if you think of your childhood, you once again live among them, and the grown-ups are nothing, and their dignity has no value. (See above link yet again)
This letter is also one wherein Rilke argues the case for the existence of God as Mr Kappus had told him in a previous letter that he had somehow lost his faith.  Perhaps I will return to Rilke's arguments in another post when sometime in the future I wish to discuss the mystery of God from a philosophical point of view, with not a little theology and literature thrown in to spice up the recipe.  Dawkins' book and Alistair McGrath's response thereto both come to mind, both of which lie on my shelves awaiting my perusal, if not assault!  But that is for another day and another post.  Here I wish to confine myself to the arrts and to inspiration and to soul-building as I am most profoundly interested in things of the psyche and the spirit.

So there is a very deep world within us.  This is the world of the soul which Pessoa called a veritable orchestra, which we must seek to listen to and explore - see if we can hear a clarinet, a violin, a viola, a flute, perchance a triangle note blending, nay melding, nay compounding almost - what an appalling mix of metaphors - together.  Pessoa and many other creative artists are at one with Rilke on the depths of the soul which the artist seeks to harness.

And, then, of course, Rilke was famous for his great Thing poems.  Here he mentions the astonishing wonder of the sheer otherness of things, the sheer difference or thinginess of things which in their sheeer indifference (my word) or otherness are not subject to human despair.  However, this whole letter is tinged with a sadness, the sadness of how lost most adults in the world are to the mystery and wonder of their very being.  One can't help but think, if Rilke were still alive today he would be a psychotherapist of the Expressive Arts variety heralded by Professor Levine of whom I have written at large in recent poets.  Rilke, I should imagine in this personal fantasy as being a psychotherapist who would encourage the parenting of the young child within us.  Indeed, truly ther is nothing new under the sun.