Thursday, September 25, 2008

The kindred smile on our lips

Rainer Maria Rilke and Louise Andreas-Salomé shared a love story, or something like it.

My day also wishes me to tell you: it is poor because you are not near it; it is rich because your goodness spreads light over all its things. I talk to you often and speak of you with all that is mine. Live, sad to say, among people who interrupt my dreams with their loudness, and know, of course, not a single one of them. They are people who talk about trips, rainy days, and raising children, who bow deeply to each other, smiling and rubbing their hands, and greet each other with "Good Morning" ten times a day in loud, disagreeable voices." And so I associate only with Stauffer-Bern, who, though unpleasant in many respects, still seems an interesting and remarkable man. I look forward to telling you about this strange Bernbeurger, who is a mixture of daring and cowardice, of quiet, pellucid feeling and brutal, callous assertion, and who seems to express these inner contradictions (always magnifying them awkwardly) whenever he is in the presence of a woman. But the real tragedy of Stauffer's life lies not in the self-doubt that again and again subjects his hope to bitterness and leads him away from one branch of art off toward some other, before he can ever really flourish in any one: but rather in the fact that neither he nor Frau Escher recognized early enough (or wished to recognize?) what really attracted them to each other; and that then, when such recognition did belatedly arrive, in the sacred day of their having at last found each other, such violent storms erupted that all the young sprouting seeds could not but be destroyed. It is not enough for two people to find each other, it is also very important that they find each other at the right moment and hold deep, quiet festivals in which their desires merge so that they can fight as one against storms. How many people have parted ways because they did not find the time slowly to grow close to each other? Before two people can experience unhappiness together, they have to have been blissful together and possess a sacred memory of that time, which evokes a kindred smile on their lips and a kindred longing in their souls. They become like children who have lived through the festivities of a Christmas night together; when they find a few minutes to catch their breath during the pale, drawn-out days, they will sit down together and tell each other with glowing cheeks about that pin-tree-scented nighttime full of sparkling lights . . .

Such people will weather all storms together.


— Rainer Maria Rilke to Lou Andreas-Salomé, September 5, 1897, from Rilke and Andreas-Salomé: A Love Story in Letters.

This is a remarkable book. I've read it slowly, very slowly, over months, which I think is the only way, really. It's been my summer book, from first flush to cool comfort. This summer has been bracketed — set off from the rest of my life — between its covers.

And it is a love story, or so the subtitle claims. The love is difficult to disentangle sometimes from the writer's block, the writer's despair, the treatises on art, the plans, the endless plans for visits, travels, studies, work, plans many of which never came to fruition.

They are each of them in love with their work, but their love for each other remains something of a mystery.

The first of the letters is from Rilke, following their first meeting, an afternoon tea with a mutual friend, in 1897. They became lovers shortly thereafter, and spent a good part of the next couple years together, though this I learn from the notes, the exact nature of their relationship being rather difficult to discern from the letters themselves.

Their correspondence continued until Rilke's death in 1926.

Rilke's letters are at times effusive and nostalgic for the the time they spent together. Above all, they are poetic. Even while he despairs of not being able to produce anything worthwhile of his own, he grasps for life — passionately — in the work of Rodin and Baudelaire. He is excited to discover, and share, Proust and Rabindranath Tagore. Later, he is a fervent admirer of, and feels a deep affinity for, the poetry of Paul Valéry and throws himself into the task of its translation.

One of the most interesting letters, one which excites discussion throughout the ensuing exchanges, concerns Rilke's impressions of Rodin — both the sculptor-artist and the person. Rodin is clearly not just an artist, but a craftsman, as well as being of a disposition that includes the focus and discipline that his art-craft demands; these are characteristics Rilke strives for (virtually to the end of his days), but it's apparent that his chosen medium — words — doesn't allow for the same tangibility of effect.

Nothing he chooses to sculpt has for him even the slightest hint of vagueness: it is a region where thousands of tiny surface elements have been fitted into space, and his task, when he creates an artwork after it, is to fit the thing even more tightly, even more passionately, a thousand times more adroitly than before, into the breadth of space around it — so that it wouldn't move even if one shook it. The thing is definite; the art-thing must be more definite; removed from all accident, torn away from every uncertainty, lifted out of time and given to space, it has become enduring, capable of eternity. The model seems, the art-thing is. Thus the latter is that inexpressible advance over the former, the calm and mounting realization for the desire to be that emanates from everything in nature. By this is banished that error which would view art as the vainest and most capricious of vocations; art is the humblest service and founded absolutely on law. But all artists and all the arts are infected by this error, and so a very powerful man had to rise up against it; and he had to be someone whose pronouncements are deeds, someone who doesn't talk and incessantly creates things. From the beginning art for Rodin was realization (and such the very opposite of music, which transforms the seeming realities of the everyday world, and de-realized them even further by absorbing them into the easy glissando of appearances. Which is why this opposite of the art-work, this vague act of non-condensing, this temptation toward diffuseness, has so many friends and advocates and addicts, so many who are unfree, who are chained to pleasure, who have no inner powers of intensification and must be enraptured from without. . . .).


As entrancing as the words and ideas are, let us not forget that Rilke writes all this to one woman in particular (though it is easy to forget — a great portion of Andreas-Salomé's letters did not survive).

The big question: Who is this woman who could so engage the bright minds of Europe? It's rumored Nietzsche proposed to her (though biographers dispute this). Though married, she seemed to have enjoyed intense correspondences and relationships with many intellectuals, Freud also among them.

Her writing is cold and clinical. She offers encouragement to Rilke by way of analyzing, explicating, his letters to her and the state of his mind behind them, highlighting his artistic and emotional progress. It is only in the later years that she herself shows any glimmer of real feeling:

And I am looking forward more than words can say to my rooms and woods; to the wanderings and exploratory side-trips one undertakes so deep within oneself while trees, tiny animals, clouds, mountaintops look on in silent sympathy. It is almost divinely beautiful that life knows and can embrace this alternation from the outside to the inside and vice versa. Often, often, often I am with you in all my thoughts and discover there again and again such fullness, which I ever so gradually relive, since in the actual moment of our being together there was not nearly enough time to experience it.


— Lou Andreas-Salomé to Rainer Maria Rilke, October 28, 1913, from Rilke and Andreas-Salomé: A Love Story in Letters.

(I'm struck also by how correspondence has changed. I write dozens of emails a day, for work, but some personal, too; they are instantaneous, and then they vanish. They are sometimes just a sentence, or even a word. Some are wordless — a punctuation mark, or an emoticon, will do. Yet these are full conversations, relationships. It seems to me, however, that we lack the time, and indeed often the interest, to explore an idea with any vigour of more than a soundbite. There is an irony, too, that with those people with whom I communicate more sporadically I also enjoy perhaps a richer exchange, full of stories, analysis, progress, reflection. Meanwhile, those relationships of my everyday lack this communicative depth; we are in a position to "observe" each other living and feel (wrongly) that explication is no longer deemed required; exchange is spread thin, made superficial, stretched into the fabric of banality. Ah, for a proper letter!)

See also:
July 25, 1903
October 19, 1904
September 9, 1914
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