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Study the Panther!

Philadelphia Museum of Art/Bridgeman Art Library
Drawing by Auguste Rodin from The Mastbaum Album, a collection of his early sketches, circa 1860–1880

For Rilke, too, the Ding now became paramount. For him, “the history of endless generations of things could be sensed beneath the history of mankind,” and his ambition was “to be a real person among real things” and thus cure himself of what he wonderfully called his “breathing difficulties of the soul.” It was Rodin, so the story goes, who urged Rilke to take himself to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris and pick one of the animals in the zoo there and study it in all its movements and moods until he knew it as thoroughly as a creature or thing could be known, and then write about it. The result was “The Panther,” one of Rilke’s early masterpieces and as revolutionary in its way as anything by Eliot or Pound.

Despite what he had learned at the marble knee of Rodin, however, Rilke had no illusions about the solitariness of the artistic project, or its difficulty—“we must hew to what is difficult; everything that lives hews to it”—and was determined to impress his young correspondent with the hard facts of the creative life:

Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody. There’s only one way to proceed. Go inside yourself. Explore the reason that compels you to write; test whether it stretches its roots into the deepest part of your heart, admit to yourself whether you would have to die if the opportunity to write were withheld from you. Above all, ask yourself at your most silent hour of night: must I write?

Thus we see, behind this admonition, the journey into the self that Rilke had ventured on, and the complex aesthetic of inwardness that would find its comprehensive and triumphant expression in the Duino Elegies. The world of things is there, ineluctable, irrefutable, yet waiting on us and our transformative powers to help it achieve its ultimate apotheosis:

Erde, ist es nicht dies, was du willst: unsichtbar
in uns erstehn?—Ist es dein Traum nicht,
einmal unsichtbar zu sein?—Erde! unsichtbar!

Earth, isn’t that what you want: to arise within us,
invisible? Isn’t it your dream
to be wholly invisible someday?—O Earth: invisible!

For Rilke, life and the world are all potential. In an extraordinary passage in a letter to Kappus from Rome in December 1903, the poet responds to what must have been an expression of religious doubt by the young man,8 chiding him for saying that he had lost God—“Is it rather,” he asks, “that you never possessed him?” The God Rilke speaks of is “one who has been coming, the one imminent for an eternity,” and therefore we must live our lives “as a painful and beautiful day in the history of a great pregnancy.”

If he is the most perfect one, must not lesser things come before him so that he himself can choose from this fullness and profusion—Must not he be the last in order to embrace everything within himself, and what significance would we have if he, for whom we long, had already been?

In a similar vein he inverts our idea of carnal love, denying that it is, as we imagine, “a merging, surrendering and uniting with another person,” but on the contrary “a sublime occasion for the individual to mature, to become something in himself.” This notion of love as consisting of “two solitudes which protect, border, and greet each other” leads him on to a radical reassessment of the destiny of woman, who eventually will cease merely to “imitate male conduct, bad and good,” and become her true self, free of the “distorting influences of the other sex.” His thoughts here merit extended quotation:

Women, in whom life abides and dwells more immediately, fruitfully and confidently, must indeed have become in essence more mature human beings, more human humans than men, who being light and lacking the weight of bodily fruit pulling him down below life’s surface, undervalues in his arrogance and rashness what he claims to love. Carried to term in pain and humiliation, this humanity of woman will—once she has shed the conventions of the solely feminine through these changes in her external status—become evident, and those men who cannot feel this coming today will end up being taken by surprise and vanquished.

Hearken, o Mensch!

Heidegger once remarked that he was only trying to do in philosophy what Rilke had already achieved in poetry. On page after page of these masterly letters we are given ample instances of the depth of Rilke’s thinking and the philosophical reach of his imagination. In The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics Heidegger dwells at length—how else?—on the central function of boredom as a spur to human action, as a state of purest potential, a kind of affectless waiting as the spirit gathers itself for the leap into deed.

Rilke, anticipating the philosopher by some decades, writes from Borgeby Gård, his refuge in rural Sweden, in a letter to Kappus in August 1904, of the importance of being “solitary and attentive” because “the seemingly uneventful and static moment when our future enters into us is so much closer to life than that other noisy and fortuitous moment when the future happens to us, as if from outside.” In another passage, that could be from Emerson or William James, he urges Kappus, should he feel there is something sickly in his nature, to consider that “sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself from foreign matter,” and the organism, instead of being treated with curatives, should be helped to be sick, “to experience its illness fully and to erupt….”

Above all, these letters give the lie to the idea of Rilke as hopelessly self-regarding and cut off from authentic, “ordinary” life. His tone may be elevated and his manner at times that of a dandy—he was elevated, he was a dandy—but the advice purveyed in these letters, and the observations and aperçus that they throw off, contain true wisdom, and are anything but platitudinous. Franz Kappus was a fortunate young man to have found such a correspondent, and we are fortunate in his good fortune. Despite all the moaning and complaining; despite the lists of illnesses, mental and physical; despite his constant urge toward transcendence, Rilke was thoroughly of our world. In the ninth and perhaps greatest of the Duino Elegies he asks why we should persist in our humanness, and offers this beautiful answer:

…weil Hiersein viel ist, und weil uns scheinbar
alles das Hiesige braucht, dieses Schwindende, das
seltsam uns angeht. Uns, die Schwindendsten.

…because truly being here is so much; because everything here
apparently needs us, this fleeting world, which in some strange way
keeps calling to us. Us, the most fleeting of all.
  1. 7

    The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell (Random House, 1982), pp. 200–203. Mitchell’s are the most satisfactory Rilke translations, although Edward Snow’s The Poetry of Rilke (North Point, 2009) is indispensable also. 

  2. 8

    It is a misfortune that Kappus’s side of the correspondence has been lost, for there are numerous places where it would be illuminating to know what exactly were the questions and observations that Rilke is responding to. 

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