Thursday, January 12, 2012

Letters To a Young Poet (Rainer Rilke)

My motivation for reading this book—the only reason it was ever on my radar—was the impact a single quote from the book made on me. I was researching the subject of the importance of unanswered questions concerning one’s existence, and I purchased the book after I read the following words, “Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” That was enough…he had me at have.

Rilke’s view of life being “always right” and using the questioning process—not merely to find answers, but to usher him into the wider unknown—is a theme that plays out continually in poetry and philosophy. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant believed one’s questioning to be a dead-end if it is ‘denatured’ into objective certainty and not personal growth. He believed philosophy to be a pursuit in which an answer may not even be a possible end, “With all this, we gain no knowledge of an object, but our consciousness of being is transformed.” Rilke balanced his life with this tension of question and growth in a profound way, and his adeptness at it must have become an incredible anchor for young people who felt troubled by the discordant questions gnawing inside them.

Two of the larger themes of Letters is coping with one’s sexuality and feelings of aloneness. He believes these features of human development form the axis of much of our thought and emotions, and if we are to progress in our search for identity, our time alone must be befriended. He calls this utter resignation to solitude a ‘pact with aloneness’ by which we may become reconciled to nature and fully realize oneself. This can help to establish freedom from absolute dependence on others so that one can clarify and return to the fundamental roots of their simple needs as a human being.

There is something mortifying about Rilke’s unfazed honesty and point-blank range. I became increasingly apprehensive about what was written on the next page because I wasn’t sure what ideological limb I would lose when I smacked into it. Like this: “Whoever will seriously consider the question of love will find that, as with the question of death, difficult as it is, there is no enlightened answer, no solution, not the hint of a [purely rational] path has yet been found.” Subtly poetic to be sure, but bullets are no less devastating for being wrapped in cotton. The premise of his courage is a paradox: he believes we are “unutterably alone, essentially, especially in the things most intimate and most important to us”, and yet this admission of existential dereliction he finds to be a strength as it is still a choice, and choice is power and significance. He considers his deepest joys to be bound up in the mysterious sorrow of aloneness, and the self-affirmation of courageous being is his victory.

The book is rich with wisdom, though maybe in spots a little too rich. Rilke apparently was a very sensitive plant, a tender poet whose rhapsody of his ‘betrothal to nature’ starts feeling maudlin and downright sleazy (get a room!). At times I even wondered if his boldness masked mere melancholy, or even passivity cloaked as grit. That is to say, could his courageous questioning of life simply be murmured grievances, and whining against hardship? In the end, I didn’t think so, but the question surfaced often while reading the book. It always concerns me when inner peace is touted as inurement to outer conflict. Although this is an improvement over trying to create inner peace by eliminating outer discomfort (that would lead to inner ‘sleep’ instead), inner peace can be best experienced through right conduct in the very heart of strife or woe. I think, in general, this is what Rilke would say as well, although he was vague on this in some parts. To be fair, he did start the Letters with a concession to complexity: “[Works of art] are not as easily understood nor as expressible as people usually would like us to believe. Most happenings are beyond expression; they exist where a word has never intruded…Even the best writers can err in their expressions when they are asked to interpret the faintest of impulses and that which is beyond words… [If you want to write well,] draw near to nature. Pretend you are the very first man and then write what you see and experience, what you love and lose.” Smells like a bargain to me: honesty and beauty in lieu of certainty and knowledge.

Traditionally this book has been a gift idea for graduates, but I’m not sure who I’d recommend this book to. I would have loved its style in my college days, but I’m not sure that someone who isn’t a reflective, melancholy, poet-type would be able to keep their lunch down. Rilke, we love you, but let’s keep that lust for life to a romantic-but-not-smutty PG-13, shall we?

“Chris, was it really that bad?”

Chris’ answer:
“Of course not. What are you, some kind of idjut?”

Sidebar: Christopher Hitchens humorously derived the title of one of his books from this same work and called it “Letters To a Young Contrarian.” In an often haughty and even vitriolic tone, he sportingly spews consolation for those young people who are trying to do the right thing, but are feeling discouraged by conflict or pressure to conform. His mockery of his enemies, and his light-hearted deprecation of his own self and his compadres who take themselves too seriously, is the scathing hallmark of his style that is the polar opposite of Rilke’s. Yet, although Hitchens’ book may not be nearly as kind or florid as Rilke’s, it rings as true, and has probably done as much good in the world.

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