Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Patient Rose

Other than Shel Silverstein, Bruce Springsteen and the immortal Gary Rosen/Bill Shontz combo Rosenshontz (if we're counting lyricists), Rilke was the first poet I fell in love with. It was late summer, 1998. After a high school career spent rigorously disguising myself, I was off to Moscow to spend three months marinating in the resultant loneliness - but not before my parents brought me to that heaven of adolescent book-buying, the Harvard Coop. Up to that point, my favorite author  had been Tim Robbins and my favorite book Microserfs; when I got back three months later I was reading Hemingway and Faulkner and Eliot. But for those three months in between I was nowhere, in Niemendsland, and Rilke was there with me:

Rose, oh pure contradiction, joy
of being No-one's sleep under so many

The letters, of course, had a lot to do with this. Though not technically addressed to me, they spoke so directly to my needs as a sensitive, ambitious, book-loving adolescent that I claimed them immediately. Within a few nights of landing in Russia they had assumed a regular spot under my pillow, from which they permeated my dreams with the cloying reek of incense and rosewater - a scent that became insufferable but in Moscow fit perfectly with the dishwater twilight of the room my host family had outfitted for me. My favorite item from this room? Difficult to say - for in the mixture of these two colors (and then isn't all of Rilke a similar tincture of pink and grey?) the dreary little cube was transformed into a shuffling, jingling tram-car. Books, mugs, pencils, shoes - even the slightly-ripped poster of a mid-scream Freddy Mercury all seemed to have their story to tell. Patient as a sage (like his fellow Czech Franz Kafka, he worshipped patience), Rilke showed me how I could place my loneliness against these objects like the bell of a stethoscope. Your loneliness is your gift, he said, twirling his mustache in a way that somehow seemed more earnest than creepy. Which was wonderful to hear since, at that point, loneliness was pretty much the only thing I felt. 

Almost fifteen years later, I should probably know better than to revisit this feeling. I've watched The Neverending Story (most of it, anyway) and returned to Microserfs - certain passages of which I can practically repeat verbatim. Time has ticked a heaven around the stars, and many of the things that I loved the most as a kid have not survived this. Those that have survived have been transformed, in a way that Rilke promised me they wouldn't, so that now I can't help but hear a strange under-note in his own great obsessions, Rodin and Cezanne. On a term used by the first of these maistres he observes:

Le modelé...I know what that means: it is the science of planes as distinct from contours, that which fills out all contours. It is the law governing the relationships between these planes. You see, for him there is only the modelé... on all things, on all bodies, he detaches it from them, and after he has learnt it from them he makes of it an independent entity, that is, a work of sculpture, a work of plastic art. (7)

"An independent entity"; which was what Rilke wanted to be, of course, not in literature (where it was harder) so much as in life. Free, empty; "to be unnoticed, unseesn, invisible" (58) And the reward? "Then you lose yourself no more" (12) (so different from Hart Crane's wonderful admonition to the young poet, that he "spends out himself again"). So the sly German secretary learned from his Balzacian host how the new aesthetics - the aesthetics of the impressionists and cubists, in which an object was not represented as in a photograph, but broken down into its component planes, colors, shapes, and then built back up in the second world of the painting - could be used to free oneself from, for example, a wife and child. One (or rather No-one) could make one's life into a painting of sorts, an aesthetic object.

Is this true? As Reverend Lovejoy might say, Short answer yes, with an if; long answer no, with a but. I've noted Rilke's interest in the Prodigal Son story before; and then, keeping this in mind, I find it hard to read the letters as anything less than a diary of guilty prodigality. "If only it could go on," he writes to his wife, Clara, "This being known by no-one." (54) Which means he knows that it can't - that it shouldn't, maybe. Similarly the poetry - itself a paragon of lyrical self-containedness - is shot through with images of fracture. Things are always breaking in Rilke - for example in the poem of his that everybody remembers, as they should, The Archaic Torso of Apollo. It ends:

                      :for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

These lines! They find you, don't they - catch you like mirrors and hold you like prongs, until you've seen that thing that's been following you all these years. Like all utterly unforgiving things, they are invigorating to read as a young person and perhaps slightly annoying to read as an older one - because jesus, I don't want to change my life! It's hard, and besides who are you who have nothing and are nothing to tell me that I'm not perfect? No shit I'm not, and you're not either, and this puritanical transcendentalist bullshit has gone far enough already. Life isn't about seeing imperfections; it's about accepting them. The country to which you journey may shame you initially; but within a few weeks, it'll just be your life. 

Reading Rilke now, I can see better than ever that there is something deeply insufferable about him. He rewrites the story, refusing to come home, but producing in his suffering music so beautiful that it makes us doubt our concessions to the world. It's like he knew the game in advance. But how did he know? Jonah leaves the whale because he thinks God is going to keep his side of the promise in exactly the way Jonah wants him to - but Rilke never makes this mistake. He speaks out of himself, perfect, unsuffering, insufferable. 

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