On Reading Rilke: The Dark Interval
(for Doctrine and Life, Dublin, May 2019)
‘I know your sorrow and I know that for the likes of us there is no ease for the heart to be had from words or reason and that in the very assurance of sorrow's fading there is more sorrow. So I offer you only my deeply affectionate and compassionate thoughts and wish for you only that the strange thing may never fail you, whatever it is, that gives us the strength to live on and on with our wounds.’
These words were not written by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 – 1926), but by Samuel Beckett to his friend Alan Schneider on the death of his father. For neither writer did religious faith give direction to this life or the next. This fact alone makes it a matter of interest to believers to hear what they have to say – or rather, in these few pages, what Rilke has to say – in the presence of that ‘dark interval’. When our words of comfort to the bereaved sound shallow and ready-made even to ourselves, we sense that they have become degraded by inching away from the great question. Rilke’s letters drag us back to the raw experience and to ‘that strange thing… whatever it is,’ unnamed by Beckett, passionately addressed by Rilke, ‘that gives us the strength to live on and on with our wounds.’
Rilke’s parents separated when he was nine, and he soon abandoned the Catholic faith of his pious and complicated mother. Visiting Russia in his early twenties he was strangely moved by the spirituality of the ordinary people there, and on his return to Europe he wrote The Book of Hours: prayers written in the persona of a wandering monk. Hester Pickman commented that this book ‘might have fallen out of the writings of Christian contemplatives,’ except that ‘the essential pattern is an inversion of theirs. God is not light but darkness—not a father, but a son, not the creator but the created.’ This rejection of transcendence appeared to bring God nearer, certainly, down-sized and manageable, and these poems are often quoted without awareness of their intent.
What will you do, God, when I die?
When I, your pitcher, broken, lie?
When I, your drink, go stale or dry?
I am your garb, the trade you ply,
you lose your meaning, losing me.
But make no mistake, art is the redeemer, not Jesus, not God. ‘Religion is the art of those who are uncreative,’ he once said. It is a colouring-book, he might have added if such things existed in his time – with all the shapes already drawn, and nothing for the believer to do but keep within the lines. In stark contrast to this, Rilke is so intensely engaged with experience that he doesn’t want to ‘find’ a pre-existing God hiding there; he wants God to come to be through his experience.
My God is dark—like woven texture flowing,
A hundred drinking roots, all intertwined….
Augustine’s ‘beauty ever ancient, ever new’ is, for Rilke, a ‘bright beauty yet to come.’
He was devastated by the First World War and its aftermath. In 1912 he had begun a sequence of poems to be called The Duino Elegies, but soon abandoned the project as he sank into depression and an almost ten-year silence. The overwhelming sense of loss and disorientation following the war left people ‘spectators always, everywhere’: without having arrived, they seemed to ‘take the posture of one who is always departing.’ He saw no hope in the ideologies that appeared in the post-war years; and philosophy seemed to have nothing to offer. In the same year, 1921, that he re-emerged and began working again on The Duino Elegies, Wittgenstein published his Tractatus. Its propositions, fixed and finished, looking like a penny catechism, laid out in a decimal system, would have horrified Rilke: ‘1. The world is everything that is the case. 1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things….’ Near the end, if he could have brought himself to read that far, he would have seen the proposition: ‘6.41 The sense of the world must lie outside the world.’ His whole being would revolt against this. (In fact, so did Wittgenstein’s, later.) He would see it as the posture of the outsider, the observer, the discarnate mind. ‘And we: onlookers, always, everywhere, / always looking into, never out of, everything.’
For him, the ‘sense of the world’, despite all appearances to the contrary, was still to be found within the world. He celebrated the simple meaning of things in their ‘here-ness’, ‘simple things, fashioned in age after age, / that live close to hand and in sight.’ He believed also that we can reap a harvest even from our pain and loss. These we must not squander by trying to look beyond them. ‘We, squanderers of pain. / How we gaze beyond them into duration’s sadness, / to see if they have an end.’ He gives suffering a beautiful face, personifying Lament:
for girls and befriends them. She shows them gently
what she is wearing. Pearls of grief and the fine
veils of suffering.
Despite the desolation of the age, or rather through it, something rich and full is available to us, deserving nothing but praise. ‘Say, poet, what do you do? I praise.’ In the seventh elegy he wrote: ‘Vast reservoirs of power are created by the spirit of the age, / formless, like the tense yearning gained from all things.’
In 1922 his pent-up energy burst out, and in a matter of weeks he completed The Duino Elegies. With astonishing speed he also wrote the fifty-five Sonnets to Orpheus. These works are considered the pinnacle of his achievement. However, in his short life he also wrote a prodigious number of letters – fifteen thousand – which he considered to be as important as his poems. From this vast collection, Ulrich Baer selected twenty-three that were written to comfort friends in bereavement. Baer avows in his Introduction that these, read and re-read, lifted him out of his own depression after his father’s death.
Consistent with his general view, Rilke encourages his bereaved friends to try and make sense of life and death here on earth, rather than dream of a world beyond, where suffering is no more. Any fixed and finished views on the matter are only an evasion of our responsibility to engage with our experience; they are a pretext for living life on someone else’s terms. ‘Rilke aimed to bring the bereaved back into communication,’ wrote Baer, ‘to coax them back into the conversation that we call life, right at the moment when they felt most cut off from the world…. Stay with your pain, he told them, and instead of shrinking away from it, use it to forge another path back into life.’ He comforts his friends, in the original meaning of the word, which comes from ‘fortis’: he gives them strength. He comforts, he does not console: ‘Not wanting to be consoled,’ he wrote to a bereaved friend, ‘that should be our instinct. Instead we should make it our deep and searing curiosity to explore such loss completely and to experience the particular and singular nature of this loss and its impact on our life.’ The master-key of all these letters was his determination to look bravely at death, without euphemism; no passing away here, no slipping away from us, no resting in peace, no breathing one’s last, no faithful departing, no going home, no better place. His determination to look straight at death, not sidelong, insisting on making it a real path back to life, gave his friends courage to do the same. This following paragraph is from a letter written to a young woman whose brother had committed suicide; it conveys the sense of the entire collection. He was thirty-eight at the time, and she ten years younger.
‘Your letter really touches my heart…. [Your] experience of this new intensity… is a life experience and leads everything back again to life, like everything that reaches its greatest strength…. I am very concerned when I imagine how strangled and cut off you are at present, afraid of touching anything that is filled with memories…. You will freeze in place if you remain this way. You must not, dear. You have to move. You have to return to his things. You have to touch with your hands his things, which through their many associations and affinity are also yours. You must, Sidie, you must continue his life inside of yours insofar as it is unfinished; his life has now passed into yours. You, who quite truly knew him, can quite truly continue in his spirit and on his path. Make it the task of your mourning to explore what he had expected of you, had hoped for you, had wished to happen to you. If I could just convince you, my dear friend, that his influence has not vanished from your existence…. Don’t believe that something that belongs to our pure reality could drop away and simply cease…. If I could tell you how I know this, then deep within your mourning, a tiny kernel of dark joy would take shape….’
‘Have faith in what is most horrible,’ he wrote to another friend, ‘instead of fighting it off…. Death is only a relentless way of making us familiar and even intimate with the side of our existence that is turned away from us.’
What of us?
What are we to make of Rilke’s coming-into-being God? There would appear to be no possibility of reconciling this with Christian teaching. And yet, recall the Rhineland mystics and their central theme of the birth of God in the soul. To convey it in a simple image: when a child is born, a mother is born. The child, in a way, gives birth to the mother; the child makes the mother to be a mother. To say this is not at all to deny the mother’s independent existence. In this sense we can be said to give birth to God; through us, as we immerse ourselves in the mystery, God becomes God in a new way. Seen from this perspective, Christian teaching and practice could tap into Rilke’s intensity and be re-invigorated by it; our searching for God can be as intense and practical as his. Speaking almost in riddles (while saying nothing unusual for those times) Meister Eckhart declared, ‘God is in all things; the more he is in things, the more he is out of things; the more in the more out, and the more out, the more in.’ In plainer language (if it is), the more immanent (intimate) God is to every creature, the more transcendent, and vice versa. One would expect to hear the opposite: the more intimate, the less transcendent. Rilke felt he had to take God right out of existence in order to see him as intimate to each thing. Contrary to this, it would be a very small God who had to compete with creatures. Eckhart, like other mediaeval theologians, saw that only a transcendent God could be intimately present to everything. The more transcendent, the more intimate – ‘the more out, the more in.’ As there is no limit to God's transcendence, there is no limit to God's intimacy with the creature.
And what are we to make of Rilke’s letters? The purity of his condolence (like Beckett’s) is what strikes one first. It is deeply thoughtful, direct, and endlessly painstaking. We don’t put much into letter writing today; the social media favour brevity and levity. Besides, we don’t know very well, perhaps, what to say to the bereaved. There is the awkward stance, the muttered words, the urge to be somewhere else. We are uncultured, in the sense that our culture doesn’t know what to make of death; so we offer whatever spare coins of consolation we have in our pocket.
Put to it, what do we say about death and after? We have the message of eternal life, but it has been bleached out of this world. We translate ‘aionios’ as ‘everlasting’; and since nothing lasts here, it must be in ‘a better place’. But Jesus said, ‘this is eternal life: that they know you…’ (Jn 17:3). This makes no mention of a ‘beyond’ or time stretched out without end. If it points anywhere it points to the present: the present time and place. At the moment of death (or before it) we are plunged into the present: no sideways movement of evasion, no future time for postponement. It may be the most intimate moment of our whole life. ‘I saw God in a point,’ wrote Julian of Norwich. It was not, of course, the final moment of her life; it was a moment when her sight was clear, a contemplative instant. What if my last moment is the first real experience of contemplation in my life? It wouldn't matter; life would still be worth it. When they move towards each other, life and death, long kept poles apart, will make a new song.
I am the rest between two notes,
which are somehow always in discord
because death’s note wants to dominate—
but in the dark interval, reconciled,
they stay there trembling.
And the song goes on, beautiful.
The Dark Interval: Letters for the Grieving Heart, translated and edited by Ulrich Baer, London 1988