Can Rilke Change Your Life?

But Kappus’ loneliness was not the typical anxiety of teenagers; it had brought him to the brink of self-annihilation. In moments of despair, he writes to Rilke: “All my steps make me feel like I’m walking in quicksand, I feel like I’m suffocating every moment. I am so alone that it is as if death can suddenly overwhelm me. He confessed to having been “tempted twice” to end his life.

In Rilke’s first letter, when he asked Kappus to wonder if he would die if he couldn’t write, it sounded like a thought experiment. Nine months later, Kappus told Rilke that self-destruction was a very literal possibility. Knowing this, Rilke’s advice can seem surprisingly callous, if not reckless, in its dogmatic insistence. “Almost everyone has times when they would so much prefer to exchange [loneliness] for a sense of community, ”he wrote. “But maybe these are precisely the times when loneliness grows, for its growth is painful, like a boy’s, and sad, like the onset of spring. Don’t be fooled. What we need, after all, is only: loneliness, a vast inner loneliness.

Rilke wrote this letter at the end of 1903, from a cottage in Villa Strohl-Fern, an artists’ colony on the outskirts of Rome. There, according to his biographer Ralph Freedman, “Rilke became more and more of a recluse. His wife, sculptor Clara Westhoff, had her own chalet at the villa; the two maintained their distance. The “vast inner loneliness” that Rilke urged in Kappus was not, in other words, something he had resigned himself to but rather a life he had carefully cultivated. It was among the preconditions that enabled Rilke to break free from a brief period of artistic stagnation and write “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes. ”The hero of this poem, as in the ovid myth, is granted passage, by the beauty of his song, to the underworld to retrieve his dead lover. Watching her back on their rise – giving in to her desire for companionship “Would make it disappear. Worse yet, Rilke seems to imply, it would spoil his song.”

Kappus wasn’t sure if he really was a poet, but his correspondence with Rilke could make his lonely life feel like poetry. Receiving these letters, Kappus wrote, felt like being summoned to another world: “When I think that all these unspeakable, wonderful and beautiful things that you have entrusted to me are meant only for me – that you find it worthy to share these riches. , intended only for a few, the lonely – I feel very proud. There’s a sort of magical logic at work here, where Rilke’s attention also kind of lends the glowing light to his art. To be included within the scope of someone else’s fame was to reconsider the limits of the self: Kappus’ future may have been unknown, but he no longer was.

Did Rilke and Kappus’ correspondence really create such a connection? “Writing letters,” Franz Kafka once complained (in a letter) to Milena Jesenská, his Czech translator and the object of his tortured love, “is in fact sexual intercourse with ghosts and by no means only with the ghost of the recipient but also with its own ghost, which secretly evolves inside the letter that we write. In a letter, a version of yourself needs to be pinned to the paper, turned into something that can fit in an envelope. Because of the inevitable delays of the mail, the ego which finally reaches its addressee will have only a spectral relation with the ego which you have become in the meantime. And when their letter arrives, in response to yours, the compound shifts. The ghosts mingle in the mail, and all the while, the real pen pals remain painfully disconnected.

For Kafka, this doomed the immediacy project – “How did people come up with the idea of ​​communicating by letter!” – but for Rilke and Kappus, it was an essential feature of occult letter writing technology. “So much has to happen,” warned Rilke Kappus, in his second letter, “has to be fine, a whole constellation of circumstances has to be in place, so that anyone can actually advise, let alone help, another person. ” They were in many ways out of sync, out of alignment. But, precisely because their letters produced so many ghostly egos, they made it possible for Rilke and Kappus to meet in a higher realm. The constellations we see in the night sky were, after all, formed by light sent from very distant points in space and time.

In his introduction to the 1929 edition of the Letters, Kappus recounted how he came to write Rilke in the first place. One autumn day he was reading Rilke’s poems in the garden of his military academy, when the chaplain came by and noticed the volume; It turned out that Rilke had also been a cadet. When Kappus wrote to him, the older poet might have imagined he was being contacted by the self he had left behind. Kappus, for his part, found the story of the transformation of a “pale and skinny boy” into the man whose poems he revere as some sort of miracle – and which portends a similar transformation for himself.

“What we call fate,” writes Rilke to Kappus, “emerges from out of the person, it does not encroach on the outside person. Was he offering advice or was he just describing a future he was already living – and one that Kappus, if he could answer yes, might be related? “The future is stationary,” Rilke wrote. “It is we who move in an infinite space.” There is something scary about being approached this way, about being told that your future is hidden within you, but that you will have become a different person once it has appeared. It’s a strange way to imagine the passage of time – and the new edition of the letters helps to make its mess visible. In his translation, Damion Searls decided not to interlace the correspondence. Instead, it prints Kappus’ letters on the spine of the book, as if they were an appendix. A curious effect of this editorial decision is to make the letters of the young poet feels like he was added after the fact – almost as if the letters of Kappus were fabricated to complement the constellation begun by Rilke’s responses.

In a way, I think they were. What Kappus was learning was not how to be like Rilke but rather how to be like the person Rilke was addressing: how to recognize the recipient of Rilke’s letters as the man he could become. In May 1904, Kappus’ twenty-first birthday, he received his seventh letter from Rilke. Surrounded by family and friends – people whose company could not fill the void he felt – the envelope arrived like from another world. It contained a surprise. Kappus had sent Rilke another poem, a sonnet full of teenage nostalgia – and this time Rilke had responded. He told her it was the best poem Kappus had shared so far. Then he copied it verbatim and sent it back. Why? “Because I know it’s important, it’s a new experience, to rediscover your own work with someone else’s writing,” Rilke wrote. “Read the lines as if they belong to someone else and you will feel deeply how much they are yours.”

Rilke’s act of transcription captures something crucial about the nature of letters. When we correspond by mail, the words we keep are each other’s words, not ours. Towards the end of his life, Kappus added a new explanation as to why his own letters were superfluous: “The reader learns more about the recipient of Rilke’s letters than from the letters he wrote himself. These were the letters Kappus had clung to for decades; for him, they were the most enduring archives of his inner life. We might find something distressing in this voluntary assumption of someone else’s account of our lives. And yet, Kappus’ correspondence has something else to teach us, something fundamental and unnerving about what self-creation often entails: To change your life, you may need to invite its destruction.

A decade after receiving Kappus’ first letter, Rilke began writing the poems generally considered his greatest, “The Duino Elegies”. (A new translation, by Alfred Corn, was published in April.) These are the poems, even more than the letters to Kappus, that I remember reading when I was seventeen. I was, of course, in love. I had written him a letter and in the quiet summer hours, waiting for what looked more and more like an answer that did not come, I found that Rilke’s poems, in Translations of Stephen Mitchell, answered me. By this I mean not only that the lines offered wisdom that was related to my (all too common) situation, but rather that, as I read, my ordinary, inconsistent life seemed artfully arranged over there on the front page. me, point by point suddenly bright. The poems read my mind and reflected it like someone else’s poetry. Has been I that someone else? My edition is full of scared pencil underlines from this summer. I remember waking up from a dream one night and feeling like the space around me was electric, loaded with weird new words.

These words came out of nowhere to Rilke. In January 1912, he was approaching a crisis in his mental life, cut off from his ability to write poetry and considering entering psychoanalysis. He had been invited by Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis to stay in his castle in Duino, Italy, overlooking the Adriatic Sea. According to his memoir, Rilke was pacing the house during a severe storm one day, thinking about a letter he had to write. As if from the wind himself, Rilke heard the lines that began his “First Elegy”: “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels / hierarchies?” It is a strange story, even if the myths of poetic origin disappear. The wind spoke to Rilke, but he also spoke for him, throwing his voice into his body.

When Kappus wrote to Rilke, he may also have asked the same question. Who, if he cried, would hear him? From where Kappus received his letters, Rilke seemed to be an angel, a messenger with divine power. To allow himself to be written by Rilke, to be told that he was something, he would first have to submit to a kind of erasure.

In “The First Elegy” Rilke describes a similar crisis. He would have to, he realized, risk his life in order to continue living:

Because beauty is nothing
but the beginning of the terror, which we are still able to
and we are so amazed because he serenely disdains
to destroy us. Every angel is terrifying.

To Duino, when the wind started to scream, Rilke whispered aloud, “What is this? What’s coming up? The answer was one he had already written to Kappus. It was the future he was heading towards; it was coming from inside him; he held in his days both his life and his death.

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