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.