Gesang ist Dasein. Für den Gott ein Leichtes.
Since I was 17 I’ve been carrying around the Picador edition of Rainer Maria Rilke’s selected poetry. It’s black and white with a little cartoon face/typewriter crowned with the word ‘absence’.
I liked the idea of Rilke when I was a teenager. I liked the sound of the Duino Elegies with their striking opening.
Who if I cried out, would hear me among the angel’s
hierachies? and even if one of them pressed me
to 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 distains
to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying.
Even with ‘O’ level German, the original verse was impenetrable to me and seemed ugly and awkward. And when – ten years later – I was in a position to read Rilke in German, I had totally lost interest in poetry. And anyway, I was still in the grip of this strange habit of reading poetry as if it were a painting – never really connecting the words with any real meaning, and certainly nothing from my life. Poems were beautiful objects. Translating them into ‘meaning’ was far too bourgeois.
This winter I’ve been enjoying walking places. Walking down to Portobello through the frosty cold. Or walking from Notting Hill to Kensington High Street to do a little Christmas shopping. Whereas previously I’d found walking a bit annoying and time consuming, at the moment, I relish the chance to pound the pavement and listen to my iPod.
Walking back up the Harrow Road listening to Ajahn Amaro talking about relationships and sexuality, I was startled to hear him talking about Rilke.
I hadn’t thought about him and certainly not read him for about 10 years and suddenly here was one of my teachers quoting him to illustrate the Buddhist attitude towards relationships: what Amaro calls ‘relationships of separation’ can only be like a mirrors – reflecting back what you want the other person to be, and vice versa. ‘They are only the reflections/ upon the polished surface of our being.’
This led me to pick up that old book which has a slightly sweet, incensey odour in its pages, and take it with me to read on the Tube.
Although I’ve had this book a long time, I don’t want you to think that I’ve carried it around with me, learning and memorizing the poems and ingesting them. I’ve probably read a handful of them in that, above-mentioned, reading rictus which takes in only 10% of the meaning. So it was the first time for example, that I’d read Robert Hass’ amazing 42-page introduction ‘Looking for Rilke’.
Of course, you read these things when you’re meant to. Neither the 17-yr-old me nor the German-speaking, 27-yr-old me would have made sense of Rilke. But at 37, I was startled to see a resonant arc in RMR’s trajectory through life.
The first half, culmulating in the agonized first spurt of Elegies in the winter of 1912, focuses on the idea of absence, of a seemingly endless desire for something that is always beyond us. Something that is characterized for Rilke by those terrifying, annihilating angels. Not exactly transcendence – but utter completion, inhuman totality.
Talking about this longing, the Angel, Robert Hass writes the following striking paragraph:
The angels embody the sense of absence which had been at the centre of Rilke’s willed an 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 that feeling forever: only for 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, it were pure being.
The angel is ‘desire if it were not desire, if it were pure being.’ This longing for the angel is very Buddhist. It’s the idea of dukkha of the suffering for longing for perfection, for something other, for the complete, the pure. And the idea of the angel being ‘desire that is no longer desire’ is very like the idea of ‘mast’ in Krishna devotion. The desire that does not desire completion.
I’d never thought of Rilke in Eastern terms (though there’s an exquisite poem in Neue Gedichte called Buddha in Glory) but the first half of his career is seamed through with the painful black ore of dukkha, of painful longing for the angels.
Like dharma practitioners, he doesn’t get fooled by the idea that romantic love or religion or fame are going to paper over that chasm. But in the first half of his career he does think that death might. Over and again, Rilke sees death as a place where this ragged longing becomes beautifully quiescent.
There’s a stunning poem called ‘Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes’ from 1904 where he describes how disorientating it is for Eurydice to be called back from ‘her vast death’ by her husband Orpheus, who descends to the Underworld to ‘rescue’ her. For Rilke, rescuing someone from death is tearing them back into painful partiality. The climax of that poem is where he describes what Eurydice has become:
Sie war schon aufgelöst wie langes Haar
Und hingegeben wie gefallener Regen
Und ausgeteilt wie hunderfacher Vorrat.
Sie war schon Wurzel.
This is typical of Rilke’s rather ungainly images which then rocket through your mind and vanish into some deep, dark well of meaning. She has already become like a mass of long hair loosened in the wind, like rain showered down all over the earth, like supplies shared out to hundreds. ‘She had already become root.’
But it’s a death that suddenly changes Rilke. Aged 47, in the winter of 1922, he’s living alone in Muzot, Switzerland and in the space of a month he finishes the Duino Elegies and writes the fifty-nine Sonnets to Orpheus. This avalanche of poetry is set off by the death of a young girl, Vera Knoop, a talented musician.
But instead of concentrating on the absence, her death focuses Rilke’s mind on the simple fact of existence. Instead of obsessing about the angels of lack, he sees that the transitory gleam of the world and his action as an Orpheus, as a maker, a doer:
Song, as you have taught it,is not desire,
not wooing any grace that can be achieved;
song is reality. Simple, for a god.
But when can we simply exist? When does he pour
the earth, the stars, into us? Young man,
it is not your loving, even if your mouth
was forced wide open by your own voice – learn
to forget that passionate music. It will end.
True singing is a different breath, about
nothing. A gust inside the god. A wind.
This idea of simply singing is the perfect image. Not interpreting or translating the world, but singing it. Simply being without any conceptual apparatus is, of course, right at the heart of Eastern philosophy and I feel blessed to become much simpler in my life over the last few years. This partly because of meditation, partly because of ayahuasca. In essence it’s accepting that everything is always changing and that’s OK. Rilke expresses it most startlingly in a letter to his Polish translator:
Everywhere transience is plunging into the depths of Being… It is our task to imprint this temporary, perishable earth into ourselves so deeply, so painfully and passionately, that its essence can rise again, “invisibly”, inside us. We are the bees of the invisible. We wildly collect the honey of the visible, to store it in the great golden hive of the invisible.
“The bees of the invisible” is wonderfully evocative – but what is enriching about the thick, dark poetry of Rilke is how human and messy it seems. How comforting, how flawed. He talks in the Sonnets about his ‘makeshift hut to receive the music,/ a shelter nailed up out of darkest longing / with an entryway that shuddered in the wind.’ And the dark, slew of the Elegies is much more accurate – much more what most of us feel. Sometimes the bright certainty of Dharma is too bright.
There’s a telling story where the Buddha, following his enlightenment, finally decides to get up from the Bodhi tree and teach. He walks towards Benares and on the way meets a traveller who sees the Buddha’s shining, transfigured face and asks ‘Who are you traveller, and who is your teacher?’. The Buddha answers: ‘I am the fully awakened one, the enlightened one. I have no teacher.’
The man looks at the Buddha a while, shakes his head and says ‘Good for you, friend’ and walks on.
Perfection is not suitable or useful for humans. The Buddha immediately perceived this and went on to spend 40 years tailoring his message to his listeners and dropping all the grandiloquence. It’s the dark and messy ‘nightbed of the heart’ that we have to accept:
Fling the emptiness out of your arms
into the spaces we breathe; perhaps the birds
will feel the expanded air with more passionate flying.