Earth! invisible!

What is your urgent command, if not transformation?

            Rilke, The Ninth Duino Elegy


            …a body for which illness can be foreseen, and which moreover shows no sign of

            ageing, as if the maturing process were replaced by an infirm hesitation and

            inability to keep step with the passage and development of time….The body itself

            has become “the other” for him.

            Lou Andreas-Salomé on Rilke(1)


Image, symbol, gleaned with such insistence,

            Are you sorry to have been within me?

            Rilke in a poem to Helene von Nostitz


As if these colors could heal one of indecision once and for all.

            Rilke, Letters on Cézanne(2)


Looking how long?

            For how long now, deeply deprived,

            Beseeching in the depths of his glance?


For there is a boundary to looking.

            And the world that is looked at so deeply

            wants to flourish in love.

            Rilke, Turning Point


Many modern poets have looked to visual art for inspiration—perhaps most note-worthily Baudelaire and Apollinaire—but none have made such demands on it, had such profound expectations from it as Rilke.  Baudelaire celebrated Delacroix as the last great subjective painter of tradition, that is, the last great “imaginative,” at odds with the new “positivists” (their ugly realism was “modern,” for it showed the world as it is, without the sugarcoating of beauty).  Apollinaire analyzed Picasso’s innovative Cubism, hailing him as the modernizer of painting, breathing dramatic new life into it, liberating it from what had become the prison of tradition.  Baudelaire wrote imaginative poems, and Apollinaire’s shaped poems have been thought to be Cubist in spirit—words used for exciting formal effect even as they were also used to compose a peculiar picture. 


Nonetheless, however much their own literary art was inspired by visual art, they maintained a calculated cognitive distance from the visual art they celebrated—their looking dissected rather than idolized, remained detached rather than blindly endorsing, experimentally curious rather than the stamp of pre-ordained approval.  Baudelaire and Apollinaire did not borrow the identity of the visual artists they admired.  They did not submit to them, as though overwhelmed and intimidated, but established an elective affinity with them, indicating not only that their poetry could hold its own with their visual art, but was independent of them.  It had its own authority, and however much it may have been informed by the attitudes and concerns of the visual artists they esteemed, it had its own inner form.  Baudelaire and Apollinaire did not look up to Delacroix and Picasso, nor down on them from the Parnassian poetic heights, but approached them as equals, sharing common emotional and esthetic ground, however different the mediums of poetry and painting. 


The quality of Rilke’s admiration, appreciation, and assessment of Rodin’s sculptures, and later of Cézanne’s landscape painting is altogether different:  it has an air of urgent dependence—anxious attachment if also hopeful clinging--about it.  It is as though looking at their works of visual art satisfied a deep, timeless need, however much the insatiable look—driven by Rilke’s ingrained sense of deprivation—abruptly turned away in disappointment, in the unexpected realization that their art, however visually wonderful in itself, was unsatisfactory and inadequate, for it was beside the point of life, which for Rilke was to love and be loved.  The visual works did not return his loving look, which is why it restlessly moved on, in Sisyphean search for new objects, human as well as artistic, to love and look at, and hopefully to return his adoring look.  But perhaps it was Rilke’s fault, not theirs:  perhaps he failed them, rather than they that failed him:  perhaps he didn’t know how to love, how to be through being in love.  Perhaps he only loved looking rather than the object looked at.


“Who’s equal to what love should be?,” he asked, suspecting that he was unequal to it, however many love affairs he had, above all with works of great visual art, “the grace of [such] great things” as Rodin’s sculptures, with their “vastness, movement, and depth.”(3)  “Stones asleep…stones which had nothing mortal about them,…embodying a movement, a gesture, which had retained such freshness that it seemed to be preserved here only until some passing child should receive it one day as a gift.”(4)  Rilke was implicitly that child, waiting for the gift of freshness that was the sign of “deep inner vitality…the rich and amazing restlessness of life.”(5) It was the feeling of freshness that came from being in love:  from falling in love at first happy sight, and from sustaining that love by long and intense looking, which is a form of caring, at the beloved, be it a work of visual art meant to be looked at seriously, or a woman, who also wants to be “taken” (seriously) by looking. 


But then there was second sight—the letdown of insight, the deadening effect of self-knowledge:  “gazing outward from myself” in search of love had “eaten him empty.”(6)  The exhausting oscillation between falling in and out of love had turned him inside out, exposing his emptiness, that is, his feeling of not being, or at least of being eternally unfulfilled.  Unable to find lasting love—an object he could commit himself to without hesitation, absorb himself in unequivocally and completely, cherish as an eternal keepsake of true love, an object that could be looked at again and again without disappointment--he found himself looking into the abyss inside himself, the abyss that was his unexpected core, that was the foundation of his depth.  Without the inward presence of a loved object, he was pure absence—abysmal emptiness. 


Rilke looked outward from himself at works of visual art and visually intriguing women, in the hope of ending the spell of what he acknowledged to be his hermetic narcissism:  his total absorption in his self in all its exclusivity, more precisely, his attraction to the “look” of the feelings he saw when he looked inward.  It was a first intuitive look of discovery that he wanted to re-enact, in all its spontaneity, in a poem.  He found his feelings so compelling, so astounding, so powerful—he was so in love with them, so convinced that they were magnificent in themselves, so certain that he could look at them without being turned into stone--that he monumentalized them in a poem, a sort of artistic mirror.  There they could be seen in the perspective of memory, and thus put in their place, in a way akin to the way Perseus put Medusa in her place by looking at her in the mirror of his shield.  The protective remove of her reflection permitted him to cut off her monstrous head—the snakes signified that she was a phallic woman—before it could mortify and petrify him with its indifference, which is what made it hideous. 


Poeticized and aestheticized, the idolized feelings could be contemplated and cherished in safety, for reflected in the mirror of art they were no longer intimidating and overpowering.  Indeed, the second reflective look of art paradoxically revealed their inner beauty—Rilke’s feelings were precious however monstrous and threatening, all the more narcissistically meaningful because of their mysterious contradictoriness.  The uncanny “duplicity” of the feelings made them all the more special, so that they became autonomous works of art for Rilke, the only durably satisfying and spontaneously generated ones.  His feelings were exotic flowers in full bloom, emanating a perfume at once seductive and sinister, perversely sensational yet peculiarly reassuring and innocent.  Rilke revered the “simple truthfulness” of their colors, as he said of Cézanne’s reds and blues, and their fluid lines, rhythmically metamorphosing into mysterious forms yet self-contained, for they had a strange constancy.  Rilke cultivated his feelings, however distressing many were, for their vainglorious vitality, and arranged them in bouquets in his poems, preserving them in the precious amber of words. 


Rilke’s self-fascination—his fascination with feelings rather than objects, feelings regarded as ornamental objects in their own right, as aesthetically sufficient unto themselves--has something feminine about it, if Freud’s understanding of woman’s narcissism can be trusted.  Rilke identified with women—perhaps because he had been dressed as a girl and raised as one by his mother.  He lived from woman to woman—all of them self-sensitive and self-chosen aristocrats—sharing his “woman’s intuition” (an “inward” way of looking) with them in numerous “heartfelt” letters.  If women feel and men act, then Rilke was more of a feeler than an actor, however relentlessly he enacted his feelings by writing them up.  Woman was not so much a separate object for Rilke as the intimate catalyst of his feelings and intuitions, and thus a symbol of his intense self-love and self-scrutiny:  an artistic mirror in which he found himself reflected—which enacted his feelings like a poem he himself wrote, a female poem that was a thing of perverse emotional beauty. 


If woman has a greater capacity for love than man by reason of her greater narcissistic inwardness—if she is more totally subject than man, who tends to be totally object (woman subjectifies, man objectifies)--then when she looks outward in mature love she invariably looks for a manly object that can fertilize her consciousness as well as complement and confirm her womanly nature.  Dialectic is immanent in narcissism, and the dialectical force of object-seeking love breaks the spell of self-seeking love, shifting attention from the feminine self adoring itself in a mirror to the masculine object who stands outside narcissistic self-mirroring.  Unconsciously and unexpectedly identifying with the masculine object—opening itself up to the masculine object, for mature love is the subject’s opening to and onto the object (it only fully blossoms or opens, showing its inner beauty, when it encounters an object that also opens to it in love, and thus blossoms as it does)--the feminine subject becomes subtly differentiated, and feels more alive, real, and consummate than it ever felt in a narcissistic state of being.  In that state the mirror of her self tells her she is the fairest of all:  she has to be, for she is the only object in her world, the only reality.  Lacking an inner relationship to another reality or object, she becomes all appearance, idealized into a certain look—the perfect look.  The mirror deludes her into believing she is self-sufficient—human being perfected by being mirrored.  


Rilke only fell in love with works of art that he experienced as consummately manly and objective.  For him Rodin and Cézanne were supremely masculine artists.  When he states that “the language of [Rodin’s] art was the body”—that Rodin had “uncovered” the body in a way that had not been done in art since “the Greeks,” and that Rodin’s naked bodies “possess even greater beauty,” show “the living soul” of the body, so that it was “transformed…become a different body,” a spiritual body not only a physical body, it is the mature male body that he is referring to.  But it is suffused with female feeling—inwardly feminine.  For Rodin’s sculpture “reveal[s] a thousand forms of expression for all that was new and nameless in [the body’s] development, and for all those ancient secrets which, emerging from the Unconscious, like strange river gods, lift their dripping heads from out of the wild current of blood.”(7)  Rodin’s male bodies are river gods that have female feelings and expressivity—resonate with unconscious meaning, for woman is more attuned to the Unconscious by nature than man (and thus more naturally intense and spontaneous), who is more Conscious and attuned and compliant to the outside world.  It is as though the female body is a Delphic pronouncement of ancient secrets, which is perhaps why male artists have lavished so much looking on it, as though struggling to decipher its ancient meaning—woman’s mystery. 


Certainly Rodin’s naked bodies, male and female, have what Blake called “the lineaments of satisfied desire,” giving them an orgasmic look.  It is through orgasm that man and woman become emotionally one, which is why Rodin’s male bodies seem uncannily female and his female bodies uncannily male.  Similarly, Cézanne’s paintings are masculine--Rilke “instinctively” aspired to their “anonymous…objectivity”—but also feminine by way of their content:  Mother Earth (Nature).  Rilke clearly identified with Cézanne, whom he described as eccentric and reclusive, that is, the victim of the “solitude” Rilke believed was necessary to write poetry.  It is the solitude of the womb:  the inner space—the female space—the unconscious space--where life and living art gestate.  (Whatever the pre-feminist character of Rilke’s myth of woman, it bespeaks a proverbial psychic truth:  woman seems more aware of her emotions—in active touch with her inner life-- than man, and more able to communicate and trust them:  they seem more creatively “knowing” than reason.  If the heart has its reasons that the mind does not know, as Pascal said, then woman is more able to know the heart’s poetic reasons than man, who tends to get mired in prosaic mind.)  


Rilke was in effect a highly emotional woman who had loving feelings for manly art.  He moved from manly art to manly art, perhaps because he was unable to produce a manly art of his own.  But his deep love for manly art and his looking to manly art for love were aesthetic compensation for the one human being in his life who never returned his loving look, the one outward object that never responded to his beseeching glance with a loving glance, the only woman whose love he truly needed and seriously wished for:  it alone could make him feel unhesitantly and unequivocally alive.  (Love is a transference of life from one human being to another, and back again when it is mutual, pregnant with fresh life when it is reciprocated.)  Without his mother’s love Rilke felt empty and dead.  She never loved him:  Rilke’s mother was incapable of love for another human being.  A grandiose actress, she was a consummate narcissist. 





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Poetry As An Enactment of Looking:  The Unhealable In Rilke by Donald Kuspit
© 2005 - 2008 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas.

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Donald Kuspit