August 26, 2014

Rilke: Poet as Novelist

Rilke's Point of View: I, You, and He

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge was Rainer Maria Rilke's only novel. It was written while Rilke lived in Paris, and was published in 1910. Especially, I am captivated by his doubleness. He is both inside and outside himself, male and female, past and present, and seeing the world through his memory, and seeing memory as the world. Rilke accomplishes an interesting exploration of the writer's voice that is both the same and different than the person writing. His fluid use of pronouns--he is the I, and he is the you, and he is also the he; this expresses his vision of the artist. His work is novel in its structure, language and point of view, and it provides a fascinating exploration of the writer's process.

This begins with the moment he began to see. "I think that I should begin to do some work, now that I am learning to see." ...  The narrator Brigge struggles with his writing. A poem is not a feeling, he says, it is an experience. The poems should be written after one has lived a full life, experienced love and lost it, travelled, etc. This not the case for him, he says. His work does not measure up to the standards that he created. Not only that, he struggles with his vision. He sees cause for alarm on the street, in his apartment building, in his family, and in himself.

As a writer who blurs first and third person, I came to see in The Notebooks an acknowledgement and affirmation. Rilke shifting point of view actually expresses a very important aspect of the narrator's experience. They have a powerful effect. The narrator writes: far I wandered from the point. Was I an imitator or a fool, that I needed a third person in order to present the fate of two people who are making life difficult for each other? ...I should have known that this third person who passes through all lives and literatures, this ghost of a third one of the pretenses of Nature, which is always careful to divert men's attention from her deepest mysteries. He is the partition behind which the play is performed. He is the noise at the entryway to the voiceless silence of a true conflict. The third person.... The moment he appears, everything is all tedious when he's late. Absolutely nothing can happen without him: everything slows down, stops, waits.
Does the writer need to establish a correct distance from a story or an experience in order to write?  Does Rilke conceive of a muse that must arrive in order to complete the work?  William Wordsworth said, "Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility."  Rilke seems to be examining the writer's process with more depth--who is the I? he seems to ask. This is an interesting question. Keats answered it like this: "the poetical Character is not itself--it has no self--it is everything and nothing...."

This novel takes place in the mind of one character--it can be described as a first person narrative. When Rilke uses second and third person pronouns but these refer mostly to himself.  The character does best as a writer when he has forgotten himself and finds third person. As a writer, are we able to step out of ourselves? Is the one writing the same as the one who goes to the doctor or can't concentrate because of the noise on the street? Is the one who is distracted the same as the one who becomes totally absorbed? Rilke distinguishes these persona by shifting from I to you to he. The transitions are subtle and occur within a paragraph. As the pronouns shift, the reader experiences a magnification or greater distance. His vision is both disturbing and enchanting:
You knew (or perhaps you sensed it) that you had your death inside you as a fruit has its core. The children had a small one in them and the grownups a large one. The women had it in their womb and the men in their chest. You had it, and that gave you a strange dignity and quiet pride. (Rilke, 10) 
He explores memories as a young boy. His mother told him that when she was pregnant with him, she had a girl's name chosen, Sophie. He adopts a feminine persona, dresses as a girl, and holds conversations with his mother in a falsetto voice. They discuss Brigge, the narrator, as if he weren't there. Rilke enlarges the very concept of self in many scenes and episodes. Another instance is a time when he tried on various costumes he found in a locked wardrobe, and became caught in a mirror, caught by the fabric of another life experience and behind a mask and panicked.
Hot and furious, I rushed to the mirror and with difficulty watched, through the mask, the frantic movements of my hands. But the mirror had been waiting for just this. Its moment of revenge had come. While I, with a boundlessly growing anguish, kept trying to somehow squeeze out of my disguise, it forced me, I don't know how, to look up, and dictated to me an image, no a reality, a strange incomprehensible, monstrous reality that permeated me against my will: for now it was the stronger one, and I was in the mirror.
Others in the household laughed, but he experienced the horror of suddenly losing himself. The narrator continues to explore these vignettes or episodes from his life, from family stories, from tales of kings, from Biblical stories (the Prodigal Son). Rilke moves seamlessly from the real to the figurative, and the figurative becomes even more compellingly real. He gives himself full license to go forward into its spacious dimensions.

He writes about young girls examining and drawing the scenes of old tapestries of the Dame à la Licorne. As the girls draw, he writes:
They don't notice how in everything they draw they are merely suppressing inside themselves the unalterable life that in these woven pictures has radiantly opened in front of them, infinite and unsayable. They don't want to believe it. Now that so much is changing, they too want to change. They are on the verge of abandoning themselves and thinking about themselves as men might speak of them when they aren't there. This seems to them like progress. They are already almost convinced that you search out one pleasure and then another and then an even stronger one: that life consists in this, if you don't want to stupidly lose it.... That comes, I think, from their tiredness. Over the centuries they have taken upon themselves the entire task of love; they have always played the whole dialogue--both parts. For man has only repeated their words, and done it badly. And has made their learning difficult with his distractedness, his negligence, his jealousy. And despite that, they have persevered day and night, and have increase in love and misery. 
I notice the interesting blur. The use of the verb "open up" is evocative, meaning both eliciting their own unalterable life, infinite and unsayable, or the tapestries' stories. Mary Oliver defined poetry as writing that casts more than one shadow. Rilke's skill as a poet and a novelist was to create multiple meanings.  One interpretation obviously refers to his observation of women and men. In addition, other interpretations can be made. Brigge has already told the story of becoming Sophie. The pronoun "they" ostensibly refers to the women who are drawing--but we know that the narrator has a feminine persona--who have carried the whole weight. "They" might be writers as well as drawers.  Art or writing or any practice is a form of drawing from sources.  It is possible to substitute "art" or "the pursuit of writing" for the word love.
Couldn't we try to gradually develop and slowly take upon ourselves, little by little, our part in the great task of love? ... We have been spoiled by superficial masters. But what if we despised our successes? What if we started from the very outset to learn the task of love, which has always been done for us? What if we went ahead and became beginners, now that much is changing? 
The novel has a wonderful scene when as a young boy Brigge examines spindles of handmade lace with his mother. She handles the lace with reverence, and he is transfixed.
"The women who made these have certainly gone to heaven," I said, filled with awe. I remember it occurred to me that I hadn't asked about heaven for a long time. Maman took a deep breath; the laces once again lay rolled up together. After a while, when I had already forgotten my last words, she said, quite slowly, "To heaven? I think they are completely in these laces. Each one, looked at in the right way, can become an eternal bliss. We know so little about it." 
In this fluidity, Rilke grasps a truth about artistic work and selfhood and identity.  Perhaps the finest artist manages to escape the self, or to pour oneself completely into the art so that nothing is left. At the beginning of the process, the artist exists before the work in a restless and distracted state far from eternal bliss. At this stage, Brigges acknowledges his own inadequacies. He is not up to the task.
...for the sake of everything in the world, something must be done. The first comer, the one who has had these alarming thoughts, must begin to do some of the things that have been neglected; even though he is just anyone, certainly not the most suitable person: since there is no one else. This young insignificant foreigner, Brigge, will have to sit down in his room, five flights up, and keep writing, day and night. Yes, he will have to write; that is how it will end.  
At the end of this essay, I've placed a well known poem of Rilke's. The concept of self in this poem, soul, also blurs the boundaries between one soul and another, likened to two strings on a violin. "On what instrument are we played? What player has us in his hand?"  This question arises in his novel. Brigges the novelist act upon or enacts or re-enacts the act of seeing. From the biography of Rilke at the Poetry Foundation, I found this:
Hermann Hesse summed up Rilke's evolution as a poet in his book, My Belief: Essays on Life and Art: "Remarkable, this journey from the youthful music of Bohemian folk poetry . . . to Orpheus, remarkable how . . . his mastery of form increases, penetrates deeper and deeper into his problems! And at each stage now and again the miracle occurs, his delicate, hesitant, anxiety-prone person withdraws, and through him resounds the music of the universe; like the basin of a fountain he becomes at once instrument and ear." 
Rilke's novel might also be a compendium of fears, from childhood and through his life. He uses these fears in his work as an artist. The story also reads like a "Journal of My Other Self."  The story offers an amazing glimpse into the dark of an artist's life and it shows the raw materials in the process of transformation.

The lovely thing about this novel is how encouraging it is to writers and creators. We can learn to be beginners in our seeing--to see what we really see and not what others say is there. We can learn how to use our own darkness, and understand that we must see anew.  Perhaps vision--the individual, idiosyncratic seeing--is as much part of our core as death, and it also gives one a strange dignity and quiet pride.

A poem from Rilke:

Wie soll ich meine Seele halten, daß
sie nicht an deine rührt? Wie soll ich sie
hinheben über dich zu andern Dingen?
Ach gerne möcht ich sie bei irgendwas
Verlorenem im Dunkel unterbringen
an einer fremden stillen Stelle, die
nicht weiterschwingt, wenn deine Tiefen schwingen.
Doch alles, was uns anrührt, dich und mich,
nimmt uns zusammen wie ein Bogenstrich,
der aus zwei Saiten eine Stimme zieht.
Auf welches Instrument sind wir gespannt?
Und welcher Spieler hat uns in der Hand?
O süßes Lied!

And a translation:

Rilke, Ranier Maria. The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Translated by Stephen Mitchell. Copyright Stephen Mitchell, 1982 and 1983.  Random House, NY.

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