Wednesday, 1 September 2010

you must change your life

So I planned to write a little something about Rilke, but after reading Robert Hass' incredible introduction to Stephen Mitchell's translation, it seemed rather a waste of words to attempt an explanation of my feelings when Hass does it so beautifully, so eloquently:
I don't think Rilke ever made a plainer statement of what he wanted art to be: a cessation of desire; a place where our inner emptiness stops generating that need for things which mutilates the world and turns it into badly handled objects, where it becomes instead a pure, active, becalmed absence.
The angels [in the Duino Elegies] embody the sense of absence which had been absent at the center of Rilke's willed and difficult life. They are absolute fulfillment. Or rather, absolute fulfillment if it existed, without any diminishment of intensity, completely outside us. You feel a sunset open up an emptiness inside you which keeps growing and growing and you want to hold on to that feeling forever; only, you want it to be a feeling of power, of completeness and repose: that is longing for the angel. You feel a passion for someone so intense that the memory of their smell makes you dizzy and you would gladly throw yourself down the well of that other person, if the long hurtle in the darkness would then be perfect inside you: that is the same longing. The angel is desire, if it were not desire, if it were pure being. Lived close to long enough, it turns every experience into desolation, because beauty is not what we want at those moments, death is what we want, an end to limit, and end to time. And - it is hard to think of Rilke as ironic, as anything but passionately earnest, but the Elegies glint with dark, comic irony - death doesn't even want us; it doesn't want us or not want us. All of this has come clear suddenly in Rilke's immensely supple syntax. He has defined and relinquished the source of a longing and regret so pure, it has sickened the roots of his life. It seems to me an act of great courage. And it enacts a spiritual loneliness so deep, so lacking in consolation, that there is nothing in modern writing that can touch it.
Such wonderful, insightful writing. Hass perfectly captures the essence of much of Rilke's poetry. He also touches on of one of the fundamental qualities of human existence: the pure, agonising, intensity of desire and longing. Not just desire and longing in the sense of wanting physical completeness with another person (sex, love: easy stuff), but in something altogether more profound: a longing for a sense of completeness within one's own self. 

I love Hass' description of the feeling of a sunset opening inside you, the beauty of which results in an unbearable longing for this impossible completeness. I found it interesting, though, that Hass ties these ideas to the argument that Rilke wanted art to be a cessation of desire. If anything, Rilke's poetry glorifies the agony of desire. For me Rilke's poetry, indeed all great art, only contributes to such feelings of incompleteness, the melancholic longing for something unknown and undefined. Great art pushes emotional buttons: it's a mirror in which we see the limits of our own existence. Maybe that's too heavy, but it doesn't seem so unlikely when faced with a last line like, 'you must change your life.' The shock of reading such a statement acts as a catalyst for an inescapable bout of introspection. Whether you want to think about the state of your life or not, a line like that won't let you get away so easily. Art that provokes such a reaction can never be about the cessation of desire, for it only heightens feelings of desire. Desire for a cessation of desire is still desire. Rilke's poems hint at the uncomfortable truth that perhaps the best we can hope for is to find a kind of completeness in endless longing.

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. 

the beginning of the First Elegy

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels'
hierarchies? and even if one of them pressed me
suddenly against his heart: I would be consumed
in that overwhelming existence. For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains
to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying.
     And so I hold myself back and swallow the call-note
of my dark sobbing. Ah, whom can we ever turn to
in our need? Not angels, not humans,
and already the knowing animals are aware
that we are not really at home in
our interpreted world. Perhaps there remains for us
some tree on a hillside, which every day we can take
into our vision; there remains for us yesterday's street
and the loyalty of a habit so much at ease
when it stayed with us that it moved in and never left.
     Oh and night: there is night, when a wind full of infinite space
gnaws at our faces. Whom would it not remain for--that longed-after,
mildly disillusioning presence, which the solitary heart
so painfully meets. Is it any less difficult for lovers?
But they keep on using each other to hide their own fate.
     Don't you know yet? Fling the emptiness out of your arms
into the spaces we breathe; perhaps the birds
will feel the expanded air with more passionate flying.

All translations by Stephen Mitchell

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