52 SONGS

...the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life...

Sunday, October 19, 2014

William Gass

     Rilke was, like most men and women, many men...and women. How to describe this crude and jostling crowd of parvenus and office seekers without becoming fascinated or especially repelled by one or other of them, turning into a sycophant or hanging judge, as Rilke's spiritual mumbo jumbo charms, or his presumably snobby politics jars? He is passion's spokesman. He's a cold and calculating egotist, covering his selfishness with the royal robes of art. He's a poseur, a courtier, a migrant, a loner. He hates the United States for reactionary reasons: because he hates machines and commerce, and equality too. He is charming and sensitive and given to shows of concern that melt the heart. His soul is a knot of childhood resentments. He is a trifler. He is too continuously serious--he thinks of himself as a creature of myth. He has all the moth-eaten arrogance of the self-taught, and sports a learning, both quirky and full of holes, which he is as proud of as a pup just trained to paper. Put on airs? An Eskimo has not so many layers of fuss and show. A priest of the poet's art, he takes the European lyric to new levels of achievement--forming, with Valéry and Yeats perhaps, a true triune god--and creates the texts of a worthy religion at last, one which we may wholeheartedly admire, in part because we are not required to believe in it or pay it tithes.
     Doctor Serafico, the princess von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe called him. More appropriately, Doctor Dodge...as we follow this summary full of repetitions of repetition:
     In Linz, it is Olga, in Prague, it is Valley who helps him publish; then Rilke meets Lou, his lover/mother, in Munich, follows her to Berlin, accompanies her to Danzig, St. Petersburg, and back to Berlin again; he vacations in Viareggio, where he meets Elena; enjoys the company of Paula and Clara at Worpswede; marries Clara when bounced by Lou, although he does so against Lou's good advice, and rolls to Westerwede, where these is a charming little cottage soon too full of child cries and other obnoxious duties; consequently he's shortly off to Paris, where Rodin (and not a woman) is the lure, but it is no fun being poor in Paris, even if the parks are pretty; so with Clara (who has parked the kid with her parents), Rilke escapes to Rome, then volleys north to visit Ellen Key in Scandinavia, where he's handsomely taken care of by her friends, until it is time to return to Bremen, Göttingen (one of Lou Salomé's haunts), and Berlin again; but not for long, because it's Rilke's luck to enjoy a few more elegant estates--the Countess von Schwerin's, the Baron von der Heydt's, the beginning of a pleasant habit--before trudging back to Paris and a crankier Rodin.
     Such summations are forms of exaggeration, yet so are maps and travel tables and those figures in the carpet.
- Reading Rilke (1999), 33-34.

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