Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Thoughts on a Young Rilke

You are so young, so before all beginning, and I want to beg you, as much as I can, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in our heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. —RMR, "Letters to a Young Poet"
Rainer Maria Rilke was, as a young man, intellectually gifted, sensitive, and an appalling sentimentalist. He was concerned with cataloguing moments, with creating pristine frames for the scenes his eyes witnessed, with drifting through nature appreciating natural beauty, even as his sharp critic's mind analyzed the avant-garde in arts and letters. He studied Russian, met (and was cowed by) Tolstoy. Rilke was enthusiastic, and sometimes a nuisance to himself and others, who respected his persistent insights but sometimes wanted him to go away. His enthusiasm could get in the way of their work — he craved connection and worshipped at the temples where he found it. His adoration threw off at least one friend's writing schedule - as she wrote chapters of a novel, Lou Andreas-Salome fought Rainer for the time to pursue her own ideas. On at least one occasion she asked her maid to pretend she was not at home when he came to call, so she might spend time with the characters she was creating, rather than being drawn into the forests around her home, walking barefoot with Rilke. These details I have learned by reading some of the letters they shared.
Rainer's early indiscretions comfort me. This must be how he knows, for certain, that "young people are not prepared for such difficult loving... Young people who love each other fling themselves to each other... They don't notice at all what a lack of mutual esteem lies in this disordered giving of themselves... They must not forget, when they love, that they are beginners, bunglers of life, apprentices in love - must learn love." Rilke's abiding friendship with Andreas-Salome, as they grew older and left behind the sexual nature of their relationship, is also a comfort. Their love affair shifts into a deep friendship, of which intellectual support and friendly interest between them are key components. Their genuine interest in each other, their dedication to hearing and sharing ideas, their mutual hope for health and growth, all these qualities remain strong, though the sexual element of their relationship had gone.
I can imagine Lou, married, intellectually mature and curious, diving into the pool of this hot-blooded young man fourteen years her junior. I can imagine her calm, world-wise countenance as he vents his spleen, perhaps gentle amusement as he tries feverishly to capture moments she sees with a more seasoned eye, as she pets this boy genius she must have contemplated the blurring of the line between mother and lover. Perhaps she was more comfortable in one role than in the other - perhaps she saw the roles knit together into a sensual, intimate, forbidden, primal mantle. Perhaps this is why Rilke's early letters rail against her patience, her wisdom. He doesn't want her to be a mother figure, but an equal.
I love Rilke's assertion that love is difficult and requires substantial study beforehand. "Whoever wants to have a deep love in his life must collect and save for it and gather honey." To make one's life sweeter, to increase the depth and breadth of one's experience, to order one's life, these are such pleasures, and I happen to believe (as does Rilke) that they make us better lovers of other people and better lovers of ourselves.