Ironically, she was the emotional model for Rilke’s all consuming defensive narcissism:  only by identifying with her narcissism—inwardly becoming like her (for she was the first object he ever knew, the first object he ever looked at, the object on which his existence depended)--could he receive the love he hungered for, the love he tried to extract from her by looking at her.  She laid the foundations of the narcissism on which he built his poetry—a poetry in which every woman and landscape he looked at became an extension of his narcissism, a so-called narcissistic object.  Rilke could not help but internalize her narcissism—her emotional way of being—because there was no object to challenge and contradict it.  Whenever he fell back on his narcissism because of the failure of a relationship with a woman, be became the one woman he understood thoroughly.  She was always proven right:  self-love is the only worthwhile, durable love. 


Rilke wrote the following amazing insightful poem about his mother.  It angrily erupted from his unconscious near the end of his life, when he was physically and emotionally sick unto death, as he realized.


Alas, my mother will demolish me!

Stone after stone upon myself I’d lay,

and stood already like a little house round which the day

rolls boundlessly.

Now mother’s coming to demolish me:


demolish me by simply being there.

That building’s going on she’s unaware.


In lighter flight the birds encircle me.

The strange dogs already know:  this is he.

            It’s hidden only from my mother’s glance.


            No warm wind ever blew to me from her.

            She’s not at home where breezes are astir.

            In some heart-attic she’s tucked away,

            and Christ comes there to wash her every day.(8)



Rilke’s mother clearly did not care for him as Christ cared for her.  She in effect emasculated him with her indifference, confirming her dislike of men.  Her lack of love, not to say emotional neglect—her coldness--undid his development.  More particularly it made it impossible for him to ever feel comfortable in his own body—to make it a home for his soul—which is why he remained susceptible to bodily and emotional illness throughout his life.  His various illnesses involved regression to the childhood moment when his mother’s lack of love arrested his development.  Mother’s love is the primary facilitator of a child’s development or maturation, that is, transformation into an autonomous and separate adult, and without his mother’s love Rilke remained a child at heart, hesitating to ask for her love if always asking for it with his glance.  But he remained invisible to his mother, however visible she was to him.  Lack of his mother’s visible love soul murdered Rilke, that is, demolished the little house of life he had made for himself out of nuggets of feeling:  she undid his existence, gradually built up, precious stone by precious stone, precious poem by precious poem.  (In one Greek  myth the gods transformed stones into human bodies, a poetic story of creation that suggests the gods were Rodinesque sculptors.)


The full import of Rilke’s poem about his loveless mother can only be grasped by setting it alongside Rilke’s astute remarks about Cézanne’s “using up of love” in the making of a painting.  “Love is so thoroughly used up in the action of making that there is no residue.”  Cézanne “would certainly not have shown this love to another human being” (read:  a woman).  This not showing of love to a particular person allowed it to generalize into love of nature, emblematic of life per se, a cornucopia of the particulars of visible aliveness.  Not giving love to another human being gave Cézanne the ability to “swallow back his love for every apple and put it to rest in the painted apple for ever.”  In short, Cézanne’s art-making—creativity--was contingent upon his withholding of love for another human being and narcissistically hoarding it for himself, until he projected it to the apples by painting them.  They in effect became surrogates for the individuals--the human beings he lived among--Cézanne was incapable of love. 


I venture to say that Cézanne’s apples are transference objects for his mother’s unnourishing breasts, in the infant’s mind implying her lack of love and inner deadness.  It is no accident that Cézanne’s apples are “nature morte,” that is, “still[ed] life.”  They are the wax fruit of art rather than the delicious fruit of Mother Nature.  Cézanne’s landscape paintings show Mother Nature as a disintegrating body; his so-called taches are meant to enliven her, but they become cosmetic flourishes on her corpse.  It is the paradoxical withholding of love that we experience in Cézanne’s “masculine objectivity.”  Was Cézanne like Rilke’s mother, in that he was incapable of loving another human being?  Are his painted apples the memento mori of his inability to love anything but painting, much as Rilke’s mother only loved the art of acting, which involves pretending to be someone that one not really is, and thus becoming an imposter human being, just as she was an imposter mother?


Cézanne’s paintings convey the unconscious relationship between the inability to love another human being and the ability to make art.  For Cézanne—and Rilke—works of art were more alive, lovable, mysterious, and valuable than human beings (there was more to see in art, more to look for), all the more so because the artist’s love for human beings was used up in their making, suggesting that human beings were not worth loving in the first place.  After all, we do not love Cézanne and Rilke for their human failings, however much we may empathize with their deprivation and feel a similar all-too-human hesitancy about love, but for their ability to make pure art.


Cézanne’s painted apples are “pure things,” Rilke proclaims, with a certain elation.  That is, they are pure art.  It is made by using up the love one is unable to show another human being.  It is thus peculiarly sick:  pure art is sick love.  Narcissistic purity signals relational deprivation, leading to withdrawal from human relationships and the withholding of love for human beings--depriving others as one was deprived.  It is a serious failure of humanness, allowing one to feel “pure,” that is, uncontaminated by life.  Purity gives one the illusion of having no needs—transcending the human condition.  Deprived of his mother’s love, Rilke could not help deprive other women of his love, however many loving overtures he made to them.  Reading his letters, it is clear that his love for art--symptom/symbol of his self-love--is greater than his love for the human beings he writes to. 


Like Cézanne Rilke hoped to fill the emptiness his deprivation left in its wake by making art.  But also like Cézanne Rilke never eliminated his feeling of emptiness—never fulfilled himself through art and poetry.  Cézanne’s paintings become increasingly empty—unrealized, unfulfilled--as he demolishes the landscape of nature, all the more aggressively as he approaches death.  Cézanne’s destructiveness was let loose by his deprivation—he destroyed Nature, the surrogate mother he loved, for it turned out to be as withholding of love as he had to be to make art--just as Rilke, deprived of love by his mother, felt destroyed.  Mother Nature had no love to show, however much one showed her one’s love.  A work of art is a poor substitute for a human being; a loving relationship with art is not as emotionally enriching and cognitively rewarding as a loving relationship with another human being.  Aesthetic intimacy with Cèzanne’s apples is a deceptive and finally unsatisfying substitute for human intimacy. 


Cézanne’s apple is no longer Eve’s  apple—no longer a symbol of sexual temptation as well as human intimacy, of care and curiosity as well as blind passion.  Eve’s gift of the apple to Adam was, after all, a loving gesture—how would she know that the snake had evil intentions, for it too was a creature in paradise, and made by God, and thus as innocent and guileless as she was.  Eve’s apple acknowledged Adam’s existence, and affirmed their intimacy, their shared existence—whatever the unfortunate consequences of the gift.  Cézanne’s apples are neither sinful nor lovable; transformed into art, they have been purified, which means they have been devitalized—objectified so that they are no longer inwardly alive.  Pure art is living death—a paradoxical triumph of psychic death—a way of falling in love with death, in the form of art, when one is unable to love anything alive.  Even the bodies of Cèzanne’s dead apples were not resurrected by his art, as his hesitant “vibrating sensations”—that is, anxious sensations (as Picasso realized)--indicate.  Time stands still in art, but timelessness is arrested development, and thus death in disguise.  One needs time to develop, and the dead—those deadened (demolished) by deprivation--have run out of time.   


Nonetheless, Rilke thought that pure art had something to give that no mother could ever give:  immortality.  For Rilke, used up mortal love became eternal love in art—the ultimate mystery of transformation.  It thus became the perfect narcissistic object.  The “supernumerous existence” of pure art—art based on deprivation--“wells up in my heart,” Rilke writes, while women evoke “friendly death,” as the final stanza of the Ninth Duino Elegy suggests.  Art truly contained love, in whatever impacted form, not women.  Rilke’s great artist does not so much renounce love as use it to fuel creativity:  he uses it to make pure art rather than love life, always symbolized by woman (or Nature, her surrogate), who invariably disappoints, as his mother did.  She could never be purified, however transformed into a pure poem. 


For Rilke using up love in making art—purifying life—is a masculine achievement, for it involves a certain realism about life:  the recognition that love is unlikely to last--human love is not eternal love. “The best—love—stays outside the work, does not enter it, is left aside, untranslated,” Rilke writes.  But this is why his love for art and poetry never healed his body and soul.  Nor could he heal his mother, as he dreamed of doing in his poem.  He reverses the mother-infant relationship:  he becomes Christ mothering his infantile mother—for her emotional growth was also stunted by narcissism—who is tucked away, that is, abandoned, in his heart’s attic, just as he was neglected and ignored in her heart’s attic.  To wash her would be to wash away her sins against him—to heal her, that is, to transform her in an act of tender love and self-sacrifice.  It would show that he was good however bad she was, and hopefully lead her to act in the same loving, caring, good way as Christ.  Rilke admired Christ’s self-sacrifice, but could not emulate it, nor could his mother.  He remained alone in the attic of her heart without any Christ to care for him.  She in fact had no heart—he inhabited the emptiness where it should have been.  


Rilke’s mother was not exactly what John Bowlby called a “secure base” on which to build one’s existence.  It is clear that Rilke did not feel he existed in her eyes, which is why he looked into nature’s eyes:  the birds of the sky and the dogs on the ground acknowledged his existence, and accepted him as one of them.  The high birds and low dogs were Rilke’s “selfobjects,” to use Heinz Kohut’s term—they are as necessary for life as oxygen, he said—just as apples were Cézanne’s self-objects.  Dare one say Mont St. Victoire is the archetypal mother’s breast, an unfathomable mystery however repeatedly painted, impenetrable however devoured by Cézanne’s look, eager to be nourished by the abundant breast of the mountain, to transform it into narcissistic art, internalize it as a permanent, good, “objec-tive” part of himself?  But Mother Nature was incapable of transforming Cézanne and Rilke into mature loving adults, however deeply bonded to her they were.  They suspected that there was something unthinkable about her, which they thought in their unconscious:  she was empty, as the fact that she was peculiarly indifferent to their presence—oddly estranged and unbearable--implied. 


“Being loved brings a woman to fulfillment,” Rilke wrote, but however much he filled his mother with his love she remained unfulfilled.  Rilke once remarked that a “shocked young girl” said to him that Madame Rodin had “an unloved look”:  the observation “hit me like a reproach,” he stated,(9) for it brought to mind his wife (Clara Westhoff, a member of the Worpswede artistic colony).  Her unloved look—the look Rilke probably had as an unloved child, when he realized that it was futile to beseech her for love—made him realize that he had become as unloving as his mother. He was using the power not returning the look of someone who looks at one with love gives one over them—the power of deprivation.  Depriving another gave one the feeling of omnipotence necessary to make narcissistically satisfying art.  It was the basic lesson in life that his mother’s uncompromising narcissism had taught him.  Rilke’s marriage ended in alienation.  He separated from his wife, in effect re-enacting his feeling of separateness from his mother.  What he called his need to “protect his solitude” was his self-love in thin disguise.  Solitude was narcissism perfected.          



            (1)Quoted in Donald Prater, A Ringing Glass:  The Life of Rainer Maria Rilke (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1986), 229

            (2)Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters on Cézanne (New York:  North Point Press, 2002), 45.  All quotations from Rilke are from these letters unless otherwise noted.

            (3)Rainer Maria Rilke, “The Rodin-Book,” Selected Works (New York:  New Directions, 1967), I, 95

            (4)Ibid., 96


            (6)Prater, 248-49

            (7)Rilke, “The Rodin-Book,” 99

            (8)Quoted in Prater, 268

(9)Prater, 209





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Donald Kuspit

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Poetry As An Enactment of Looking:  The Unhealable In Rilke by Donald Kuspit
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