"To Work Is to Live Without Dying"
What women found irresistible about Rilke was not the
effect he had on them but the effect they had on him
by Lee Siegel
Life of a Poet: by Ralph Freedman.
Rainer Maria Rilke
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 600
Read the first chapter of
Life of a Poet
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
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
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.
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.
Rilke lived on the brink of poverty for much of his life, dependent on the
good graces of aristocratic and haute-bourgeois patrons in the twilight of
the Hapsburg Empire. His shaky situation, much as he complained of it,
suited his temperament as well as did the black clothes he liked to parade
in during his dandyish younger days in Prague. Like the great German
mystics, Rilke was a confirmed solitary. Thus he sought to form emotional
bonds with people more ardently than do those who take their desire to be
with others for granted. Wandering from person to person and from place to
place like a pilgrim, he found that patrons offered him, among more
practical things, a potential shrine of emotional fulfillment.
Rilke spent his life wandering. From an art colony in Germany he migrated
to a position as Rodin's secretary in Paris; the sculptor eventually
claimed that the poet was answering letters without his permission and
summarily dismissed him, as much to Rilke's relief as to his chagrin. From
Berlin he made two pilgrimages to Russia to meet Tolstoy, on one trip
going nearly unacknowledged because of a titanic quarrel between the count
and the countess. He traveled from Italy to Vienna to Spain to Tunisia to
Cairo. His restless peregrinations had their origins in his epoch, and in
a temperament forced painfully to choose perfection of the life or of the
work. Rilke's academic sponsor and friend was Georg Simmel, the celebrated
German sociologist and philosopher of modernity. In "The Adventurer," one
of his most famous essays, Simmel argued that only the experience of art
or adventure could invest time with the significance once lent it by
religious ritual. The work of both art and adventure had a beginning and
an end; they were each an "island in life" that briefly imparted a
transcendent wholeness to experience. And of all possible modern
adventures, Simmel concluded, the one that most completely combined the
profoundest elements of life with a momentary apprehension of what lay
beyond life was the love affair.
Augustine journeyed (unhurriedly) from the fleshpots of Carthage, from
being in love with love, to the love of God. Rilke, along with other
adventurers on the threshold of the twentieth century, traveled from God
to a conviction that the only transcendent principle left was the love,
erotic and spiritual, between men and women. Rilke's experience as a young
boy with a feminine persona seems in this sense to have been a great boon.
First of all, it provided him with an uncanny empathy for women. His two
most potent and obsessive literary images were the unrequited female lover
and the woman artist struggling to find freedom and space for her work.
But Rilke's liberated feminine side also gave him the gift of unabashed
openness to his need and desire for the opposite sex. He recalls
Kierkegaard's description of Mozart's Don Giovanni, who did not
calculatedly seduce, according to Kierkegaard, but desired seductively.
What women found irresistible about Rilke was not the effect he had on
them but the effect they had on him.
Yet to put the burden of salvation solely on relations between men and
women is to make a life between stumbling, imperfect men and women
impossible. Rilke had no illusions about the nature of his erotic and
romantic ideal. It flowed out from and quickly ebbed back into an
unappeasable inward intensity. Rilke could not love or be loved for long,
except in the absence of the beloved. After a passionate affair with the
brilliant and beautiful Lou Andreas-Salomé, Rilke's muse and
cicerone on his Russian trips, he suffered pangs of rejection and then
happily settled into a lifelong correspondence with her. He married the
sculptress Clara Westhoff when he was twenty-five, lived with her and
their child for a year, and then by agreement left to take up his
pilgrimage again. Through periodic reunions, but mostly through a
voluminous and extraordinary correspondence, they maintained what Rilke
called an "interior marriage," until emotional reality banged louder and
louder on their youthful experiment and they eventually grew estranged.
Rilke seems to have passed with relief from the all-consuming rites of
romance to the half communion, half self-examination of writing letters,
an activity that also served as a calm precursor of his art. Not
surprisingly, he was one of the greatest--and most
self-conscious--letter writers who ever lived. He composed missives
with a devotional purposiveness. He once wrote a poem about the
Annunciation in which the angel forgets what he has come to announce
because he is overwhelmed by Mary's beauty. The implication seems to be
that communicating through the mail would have been a more fruitful
Rilke loved absolutely, not strenuously or patiently, and therefore his
love always froze up into a mirror of itself. His condition might have
been tormented and tormenting--it might appear wearily obnoxious. But
for Rilke the poet, modern men and women as lovers--their exalted
expectations and their comi-tragic desperation--came to symbolize
complex human fate in a world where vertiginous possibilities have
replaced God and nature. In Rilke's Elegies especially, lovers
encounter animals, trees, flowers, works of art, puppets, and
angels--all images, for Rilke, of the absolute fulfillment of desire,
alongside which the poet placed the tender vaudeville of imperfect human
wanting. Rilke the man might have presented a painful obstruction to
himself. But true ardor often springs from an essential deprivation.
Ralph Freedman gives a remarkably purposeful account of Rilke's
deprivation. But he describes none of Rilke's ardor--or his honest
avowals, or all the discipline and strength and health he needed to draw
his life's work out of depressions, blocks, and fears, out of his
contemporary-sounding struggle between a Faustian ego and an endangered
self. In this biography we don't get Rilke's poetic transformations. We
get only the modern condition--his and his society's--that he
poetically transformed and that we've inherited.
Freedman's Rilke, oddly enough, dwells on the dark underside of
contemporary American life. Behind the mingled, multicolored yarn of his
passions, obsessions, powerful yearnings, and
self-interest--all wisely balanced in Donald Prater's majestic and
definitive 1986 biography--Freedman sees only self-interest. Rilke is
"hucksterish." His carefully cultivated literary success Freedman
characterizes as a "relentless career." He refers to Rilke's "careerist
standards." The places Rilke settles in for a time are not homes but
At moments Rilke's awareness of his self-interest amid modern anxieties
appears uncannily precocious: "The pressures even in the preschooler's
life were often suffocating. He longed for change." How does Freedman know
that? I presume he got it from one of the mature Rilke's self-dramatizing
letters, letters that Freedman paraphrases tendentiously throughout the
book. That approach has the effect of turning Rilke's harsh and vain
self-explorations into evidence of the "traumas" that Rilke spent a life
riddled with "failure" denying. Indeed, Freedman writes enigmatically
about "Rilke's pattern of living through failure as part of a process that
turns denial into poetic art." I'm not sure what that means, but it sounds
like success to me.
But no--if, for Freedman, Rilke is a slick little engine of
self-advancement, he is also "thin-skinned," "fragile," "depressed,"
"thwarted," "troubled," "distraught," "schizophrenic," and "almost
suicidal," and he suffered from "hysteria," "anxiety," and "insecurity."
This poet seems so tightly shackled to his inner condition that we wonder
how he found the freedom to make his art. Freedman himself only
occasionally glances at Rilke's art, and then with considerable lack of
charm, not to say comprehension ("Still addressing the woman's genitals in
confrontation with the man's, Rilke weighed in with his most devastating
critique of death's dialectic").
Freedman's Rilke is an almost wholly psychologized being. He has little
existence outside his leaden states of mind. We rarely hear about the rich
medley of artistic and intellectual influences on him--amazingly,
Simmel's "The Adventurer" never comes up. This is an extreme approach to
the telling of a poet's life, but Freedman has a method to his extremism.
As in a rash of recent despoiling biographies--John Fuegi's life of
Brecht, Michael Shelden's of Graham Greene, Ronald Hayman's of Thomas
Mann, to name just three--the author shortly puts his cards on the
table: in this case we are going to meet Rilke the anti-Semite, Rilke the
secret homosexual, Rilke the sexist.
The first strut of biographical art to buckle under such an avenging
mission is language. "Death emasculates," Freedman reports
dishearteningly. He describes one doubly unlucky fellow as being "fatally
electrocuted." We find Rilke seeking the "panacea of a cure." Women almost
never give birth--they just "birth." Clara, Rilke's wife, "was the
messenger but also the transparent glass and reflecting mirror of Rilke's
depression." And what a shame that a sentence like this should appear in a
book about a poet's life: "Like garden flowers opening their petals early
only to wither quickly, Italy's current art avoided the hard surface
required for effective poetry." It's as if, somewhere in the deeper
regions of his writing self, Freedman knows that Rilke wasn't any of the
bad things his biographer says he was.
One ugly phrase in a personal letter, for instance (out of a vast personal
correspondence), referring to Franz Werfel as a "Jew-boy," and some murky
generalities about Werfel's "Jewish attitude toward his work," do not an
anti-Semite make. Rilke cherished the many Jews he knew, including Simmel;
he enjoyed reading the Hasidic philosopher Martin Buber and steeped
himself in Jewish Scripture, claiming that Judaism was closer than
Christianity to God. He also remained a lifelong champion of Werfel's
work. And a reader discovers buried deep in Freedman's footnotes that
Rilke wrote the offending letter to the poet Hugo von Hoffmannsthal, a
good friend and an important patron. Hoffmannsthal was also Jewish, and he
shared Rilke's negative views on the superambitious Werfel, who emigrated
to America and, in 1941, published The Song of Bernadette, a novel
about a miracle at Lourdes. Freedman doesn't mention that about five
months after Rilke wrote the letter to Hoffmannsthal, along with a nearly
identical letter to his patron Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis, Rilke
again wrote similar letters to the two of them praising Werfel's poetry so
exuberantly that they almost sound like retractions of his first
Why would an anti-Semite extol a Jewish poet to two of the most powerful
and influential figures in Central European literary culture--to
his own patrons? To paraphrase that great Jewish philosopher Thomas
Aquinas, When you meet a contradiction, make a distinction. But Freedman
builds from the surface contradiction. For Rilke, he writes, "a cultural
and sometimes even a social anti-Semitism was part of daily existence."
Yet aside from the letter to Hoffmannsthal, he offers no evidence for that
litigable assumption, though he does inform us, with a smug and bizarre
knowingness, that one of Rilke's Jewish lovers later died at Auschwitz.
With similarly blind zeal Freedman bases his insinuation that Rilke was
secretly gay on two pieces of evidence: the poet's idealistic adolescent
pact with another boy at military school, "sealed by a handshake and a
kiss," as Rilke put it in a letter; and a fictional letter meant for
publication, which brought Rilke, in Freedman's weasel words, "close to a
disguised rendering of homosexuality with personal overtones." That's all
the proof Freedman has.
Well, so what if Rilke happened to be homosexual? I don't see what
Freedman thinks he is gaining by making a near-assertion and then failing
to prove it. If there are readers who might be obscurely benefited by the
revelation of Rilke's homosexuality, they'll be disappointed. If there are
readers whose identity rests on the affirmation of Rilke's
heterosexuality, they will be shaken and then cheered. If there are
readers who couldn't care less about the whole matter, they'll be bored.
Meanwhile, Rilke's ghost drums its fingers on some eternal windowsill,
waiting patiently to be evoked.
This is formidable revisionism. The cumulative effect of such a distortion
of truth to an admirable, if sadly misplaced, idea of redemption and
redress is to make Freedman's biography read like a forced confession. But
the beating heart of Freedman's interminable deconstruction is Rilke the
sexist. Rilke's extraordinary sensitivity to women, his admiration and
need for strong and intelligent women, women's love for Rilke--these
facts Freedman brusquely mentions only to knock down. What he wants is to
prove that Rilke was a spirited accomplice in European society's
subjugation of women. He writes,
The women Rainer chose . . . were themselves practicing artists whose work
he respected, from Clara to Loulou and now to Baladine-Merline. But they
were given no choice to remove themselves for the sake of their
art. . . . Rilke's love imposed a nonreciprocal discipline: in the
end, it worked only for him and his poetry.
Throughout 600 pages Freedman gives us encounter after encounter between
Rilke and the women in his life, in which the women are flawless angels
and Rilke a consummate villain. If Rilke's dear friend the great German
painter Paula Modersohn-Becker found herself trapped in a stifling
marriage, Rilke was a traitor for not extricating her. If Lou
Andreas-Salomé told the young Rilke to go off somewhere because one
of her other lovers was coming to visit, Rilke's anger was the symptom of
an unbalanced psyche. If the adolescent Rilke broke up with his adolescent
girlfriend, Valerie von David-Rhônfeld, he was a treacherous
seducer. Freedman quotes copiously from David-Rhônfeld's embittered
memoirs--published shortly after Rilke's death--to posit a pattern
in Rilke's personality. "I came to love that poor unfortunate creature,"
David-Rhônfeld recalls about her teenage sweetheart, "whom everyone
avoided like a mangy dog." For Freedman, this vindictive picture of Rilke
provides the "clue" to Rilke's "isolation."
This is all ludicrously unfair. It's certainly unfair to say that Rilke
didn't give the women he loved and who loved him the "choice to remove
themselves for the sake of their art." He was in no position to
give or deny freedom to his independent-minded wife, let alone to any
woman of whom he was merely a lover. Only their passion, or admiration, or
use for Rilke bound these women to the famous poet. Often ambitious
artists themselves, Rilke's lovers expected him to introduce them into his
heady artistic and intellectual circles and to help them with their
careers. This he unfailingly did; in one case he helped the careers of a
former lover's children by her husband. And he offered emotional succor
long after the amorous flame had waned--not to mention demanding the
same support for himself.
Rilke's most benevolent patron, Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis, was
wise enough both to nurture Rilke's gift and to keep her distance from her
complicated protégé. An unblinking observer of Rilke's life,
she was able to see his liaisons for what they were. And she knew how
Rilke's acute sensitivity to his own condition, combined with his talent
for self-pity, often landed him in the arms of the wrong people: "You must
always be seeking out such weeping willows, who are by no means so weepy
in reality, believe me--you find your own reflection in
those eyes." But Freedman, doggedly indifferent to the available evidence,
makes Rilke's lovers and women friends out to be helpless victims of a
smooth seduction machine.
As for the centerpiece of Freedman's argument for Rilke's sexism--he
"abandoned" Clara and their daughter, Ruth--here he portrays Clara,
too, as if she were Tess of the D'Urbervilles. On the contrary. Clara
enthusiastically seconded Rilke's definition of two artists wedded as
each, in Rilke's cautiously ambiguous phrase, "the guardian of the other's
solitude." After Rilke left for Paris, she placed Ruth with her wealthy
and supportive parents and went on a pilgrimage to Egypt, among other
places. Like Rilke, the adventurous Clara had a fascinating life--I
don't know why Freedman didn't write her biography. Women artists suffered
in Rilke's society, but not because of Rilke.
We must understand one another or die. And we will never understand one
another if we cannot understand the famous dead, those fragments of the
past who sit half buried and gesturing to us on memory's contested shores.
But Rilke, as a poet, should have the last word (in Stephen Mitchell's
Archaic Torso of Apollo
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights
The Atlantic Monthly; April 1996;
"To Work Is to Live Without Dying"; Volume 277, No. 4;