Your doubt may become a good quality if you train it. It must become knowing, it must become critical. Ask it, whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, test it, and you will find it perplexed and embarrassed perhaps, or perhaps rebellious. But don't give in, insist on arguments and act this way, watchful and consistent, every single time, and the day will arrive when from a destroyer it will become one of your best workers--perhaps the cleverest of all that are building at your life.This passage from letter 9 spoke to me intensely. I have struggled all my life with doubt, with second guessing, with ambivalence: it has taken me most of my years to begin to see this behavior as "one of [my] best workers--perhaps the cleverest of all that are building at [my] life." Rilke is right: it's been important to "train" doubt--to "demand proofs from it." In the sphere of writing, doubt is where revision comes from. In the sphere of being a plain aging human being, doubt is where empathy and patience come from, but also the ability to stand away from the tumbling crowd of assumptions and declarations and say, "Wait a minute. Something is wrong."
At the same time doubt is so debilitating, and pervasive, and endless. I never learn not to doubt--for instance, when Rilke writes, in letter 10, that "art . . . is only a way of living." Yes, I think, and then I read on, about unreal "half-artistic professions, which, while they pretend proximity to some art, in practice belie and assail the existence of all art, as for instance journalism does and almost all criticism and three-quarters of what is called and wants to be called literature." Is that me? Am I part of that "three-quarters of what is called and wants to be called literature"? Doubt here becomes a nearly unbearable burden. Though I am not at all suicidal (do not worry, do not worry), I feel the necrotic pang: why bother to exist if one is only in "pretend proximity" to the art one has been working so hard to live for and within?
Anyway, those are my thoughts. My edition of the Letters includes Kappus's reactions to each of them, which I have decided not to read. I'm not very interested in listening to him contextualize Rilke's words. For some reason, the idea reminds me of those poets who stand up in front of a microphone and read a poem and then afterwards waste time explaining what the poem was about, what really happened, etc., etc.--a readers' tic that drives me crazy because it distracts me from the poem into sideshow storytelling. But you should feel free to follow your own predilections.
By the way: a few new comments have appeared on previous Rilke posts. Scroll down and see what others are thinking, and keep the conversation going.