To Work is to Live Without Dying

At a time when numbing public discourse portrays the two sexes as though they were wearing numbered jerseys of different colors, Rainer Maria Rilke might be balm for exasperated souls. Or maybe not. More than any other modernist poet, Rilke gave ironic, tender, and sometimes despairing expression to the tumult between modern men and women.

Lovers. . . . when you raise yourselves and press
your mouths together--drink upon drink:
strange how each of you drinks your way past the other.

But whenever we mean one thing, wholeheartedly,
another is right there, tugging on ourfeelings. Strife
is our closest companion. Don't lovers
constantly tread over each other's boundaries,
after mumbled vows about space,sustenance, and home?

Isn't it time to free ourselves, with love,
--from the one we love, and,
trembling, endure . . . ?
For to stay is to be nowhere at all.

These verses are from his late masterpiece, the Duino Elegies, which Rilke completed in 1922, the literary annus mirabilis that saw the publication of Joyce's Ulysses and Eliot's The Waste Land. My stab at translation yields up, I hope, a little of Rilke's muscular delicacy, his quality of being at the same time supple and ethereal, of molding abstract ideas palpably, like clay. But his poetry is troubling (that last verse is a good example), and it's troubling to us in ways that a literary modernist like Rilke would not have counted on. Behind that lies a complicated tale.

Seventy years after Rilke's death, from leukemia in Switzerland, hastened when he pricked his finger on one of his beloved roses, we live in modernism's plastic aftermath. Once, the modernists deployed dark energies of nihilism and unreason against the hated bourgeoisie; now those same energies galvanize a commercial civilization that is voraciously accommodating to nihilism and unreason. We hear modernist leitmotifs casually whistled down all the highways and byways of everyday life: the defiant exaltation of violence (a theme of Gide and Malraux); salvation through sex (D. H. Lawrence); private aesthetic pleasure as the highest value (Woolf); an ironic nihilism (Mann). We go back and try to relish modernism's extremist nose-thumbing at a depersonalizing modernity, and soon we feel as though we were celebrating the most disturbing qualities of contemporary life.

So we can't really blame Ralph Freedman, Rilke's latest biographer, for writing about his subject as if Rilke were just another infuriating narcissist who kept turning up at parties. But this account, despite Freedman's heroic attempt to weave a narrative out of the voluminous material on Rilke, is pretty dismaying.

Rilke was one of the most gifted and conscientious artists who ever lived--his motto was "To work is to live without dying." His poetry, fiction, and prose embody a search for a way to be good without God, for transcendence in a hyper-rationalized world where even death--Rilke hated hospitals and the way dying had been stripped of its terrible intimacy--was dead. And beyond all that, he was fascinating.

rilke picture Born in 1875 in Prague, Rilke was until he was six or seven got up in skirts by his mother, who named him René and tried to console herself for the death of an infant daughter. By the time Rilke was ten, his disappointed romantic of a mother had left his father, a kindly but ineffectual minor railway official, who had spent some years in the Austrian army unsuccessfully seeking commission as an officer. Rilke's parents decided to send the young boy to military school, a prospect that stirred the father's hopes of turning his son into a soldier. Though he later claimed to have loathed military school, the young bohemian warmly absorbed the values of discipline, valor, and self-sacrifice into his ideal of the defiant artist-hero. He skillfully foiled his father's martial expectations, and lack of funds freed the aspiring poet from his family's next plans for him: law school. In fact, though he attended several universities, soaking up lectures on diverse subjects throughout his life, he never graduated from any of them. About such a practical matter as a sheepskin, the finest German lyricist since Goethe wrote as an adolescent, "And even if I never reach my Arts degree / I'm still a scholar, as I wished to be."

W. H. Auden once remarked that would-be poets had better learn a manual trade. But Rilke was cast more in the haughty Yeatsian mold that Auden, not exactly a day laborer himself, haughtily disdained. And unlike Rilke's contemporary Franz Kafka, who performed his tasks as an insurance executive with initiative and even enthusiasm, Rilke was too frail psychologically to balance his art with the demands of full-time employment. Even a desk job in the Austrian army during the First World War, when the forty-year-old literary celebrity was conscripted, proved too much for him. After three weeks of parade-ground training and living in barracks, which nearly killed him, Rilke was assigned to the propaganda section. There his literary powers deserted him, and his frustrated superiors transferred the stunned poet to the card-filing department, where he remained for six months, until his friends interceded and got him discharged. André Malraux he was not.

Rilke's diaries and letters, lively with tales of self-dislike and depression, seem to out-Kafka Kafka himself. Still, biographers should beware of making too much of these highly polished introspections. Rilke conceived of writing as a form of prayer, as Kafka did, and he made astringent self-examination a ritualistic prelude to work. Both writers magnified their inadequacies, sometimes to the point of a vaunting self-regard; it was an efficient way to wrest from their doubts a diligent beauty of creation.

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