Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Rilke: "Letters to a Young Poet," letters 7 and 8

"Why do you want to shut out of your life any agitation, any pain, any melancholy, since you really do not know what these states are working on you?"

Questions such as this one, from letter 8, reflect my lifelong discomfort with self-help enthusiasms: "Give rid of the negative in your life!" "You can be anything you want to be!" No, you can't. You will be sad because sadness is part of our deepest essence. You will fail because achieving the impossible is, without a Faustian covenant, impossible. The question, as Rilke knew, is "What are sadness and failure working on you? How are they intensifying your inner life and your comprehension of the world around you?"

Clearly poor Kappus was enduring some sort of love crisis. It was good to read his jolty little sonnet. Rilke's sweetness in copying it out reminds me, every time I read that description, of our own experiences with dictation at the Frost Place: a room full of quiet people, concentrating their love on each word, on each comma.

Now it's your turn to talk.


Ruth said...

Just to begin, it still comes down to "Use your stuff" and the paraphrased, you can make it up as long as it is the truth. Perhaps I'll have something more coherent to say later.

AMY said...

A couple of places in letters 7 and 8 gave me pause: "We know little, but that we should hew to what is difficult is a certainty that will not abandon us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; the fact that something is difficult must be one more reason for us to do it." I like this idea of embracing solitude. I think it ties to what Dawn said about sadness and that it is "part of our deepest essence." We must recognize and accept the intricacies of who we are as individuals, deal with them, allow them to mold us into becoming what we hope to become. In letter 7 Rilke states, " Were it possible for us to see further than the reach of our knowledge and even a little past the antechambers of our premonitions, then we would perhaps endure our sorrows with greater confidence than our joys. For those are the moments when something new enters into us, something unfamiliar; our feelings grow mute out of shy diffidence; everything in us pulls back, a stillness descends, and the new that no one knows stands mutely amidst all this." Beautiful. Don't you think that with the right mindset, that is the kind of 'becoming' that takes place when we allow ourselves to embrace solitude and truly live there for a bit?

Carlene said...

In Letter 7, the first subject of philosophical discourse is love. This is not the first time Kappus asked for advice about love; however, instead of giving Kappus practical solutions or platitudes, Rilke engages him in a deeply layered discussion about the nature of love and how young people do not understand it because they haven’t earned it yet. Rilke tells Kappus that learning how to love takes time, pain, sacrifice, and solitude, and even then we are hardly adequate to the task. Rilke’s position is that love is often mistaken for something that is rooted in physicality or a notion of sacrifice that is pretty self-serving. He calls young love a “hastily fused, turbid communion” (all I could think of is my high school students), and this is a shallow version of love, if it is love at all. For Rilke, love is serious work and we are all merely apprentices. The best part of this letter is what seems to be a pretty enlightened view of women: Rilke says “this humanity of woman, brought forth in pains and degradations, will come to light when she has shed the conventions of mere femininity in the alteration of her outward station...” Rilke goes on to say that someday, woman will mean so much more than the opposite to man, and that it will be “something in itself, something which makes us think of no complement or limitation…the feminine human being.” I liked this; Rilke tells Kappus that love, then, will not be based in male-female relations, but instead love will be between human beings, “which consists in the mutual guarding, bordering and saluting of two solitudes.” Instead of feeling entirely lonely, though, his vision seems more equal in that two people will come together not of necessity or of visceral passion, but instead will choose to be with one another, respecting each other’s “personhood,” if you will. Pretty darned enlightened, I think.
Letter 8 made me think of Donne’s Meditation XVII, in which he enjoins the reader to embrace troubles in order to be improved by them. Donne tells us that asking “for whom the bells tolls” is not a “begging …or borrowing of misery”; it is, instead, “an excusable covetousness if we did, for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by and made fit for God by that affliction.” Rilke’s point is that sorrow, if taken inwardly, improves us and changes us fundamentally: “…we have been changed, as a house is changed into which a guest has entered.” We need to be patient, to be quiet, to accept all of our experiences, especially the unfamiliar, the uncomfortable, and the things that make us unsure. Only in this way will we develop into what we must become; we can only become over time. Rilke says that “the future stands firm…but we move about in infinite space.” According to Rilke, to know we are solitary changes everything we think we understand; it shifts our perception of things around us and creates a sense of separateness, of essential distance, and only in this way can we truly grow. We need to accept the unfamiliar and not spend our efforts warding it off; Rilke tells Kappus that the only courage demanded of us is to “be brave in the face of the strangest, most singular and most inexplicable things that can befall us.” Later, he says that all of the challenges and joys of our lives—our “stuff”—are ours already; we need to accept that they and the experience gained improve us and make us who we are destined to be.
I found immense comfort in Rilke’s words: “…life has not forgotten you…it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall.” I tend to be a fearful person who over-plans and “what-ifs” herself into emotional distress. This is paralyzing to the soul and to the body, both. In a previous letter, Rilke tells Kappus to be more like a child, to enjoy the discovery and the not-understanding. I think that this letter picks up where that one left off, taking the subject to a deeper philosophical level. Once again, Rilke is telling me what I need to hear right now.

Teresa Carson said...

I, like Carlene, sometimes feel that Rilke "telling me what I need to hear right now." I keep returning to the following passage in L8: "And to speak of solitude again, it becomes always clearer that this is at bottom not something that we can take or leave. We are solitary. We may delude ourselves and act as though this were not so. That is all. But how much better it is to realize that we are so, yes, even to begin by assuming it."
I feel relieved when I read that passage because it reminds me that the "always-connected world." which I find difficult to participate in, is a facade. Or, more to the point, a defense against the very kind of solitude of which Rilke speaks. I'm reminded of an article in last week's NYT:
Can you imagine? People began self-administering electric shocks to avoid introspection. Self-adminstering electric shock because they so feared solitude.