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The Field of Being

The Field of Being

Georges de La Tour’s Magdelen and the Smoking Flame. 1640
Georges de La Tour’s Magdelen and the Smoking Flame. 1640

William Barrett, in his Irrational Man, introduces us to Existentialism and summarizes the development of Western Thought in the process. The book came out in 1958, but can be read fruitfully and applied productively to the problems we face today.

In the section on Heidegger, whom I haven’t read in years but should return to, Barrett discusses Heidegger’s Field Theory of Being, and places it in historical context.

The Greeks were the first to remove objects from their surroundings, their background, their context, so they could study them in isolation. In a sense, atomize them. This was necessary for the creation of Science. But the Greeks still lived in Nature, not in opposition to it, so this process wasn’t truly disruptive, much less fatal. Fast forward to Descartes, and we are sundered from Nature and our minds are split from our bodies. Subject and object. Mind and matter. Doubting all things but the source of doubt and working back from there. This made the conquest of Nature the next natural step in our development. We saw things, not Beings in time, so conquest and suppression were easier. Things lack a sense of autonomy, when the subject/object split is in place. I would add that this also made it easier for humans to see each other in that light, or that darkness. Subject and object. Me versus the things around me. Opposition, rather than the recognition of mutual autonomy or subjectivity.

Heidegger counters this with his concept of Being in the world, and our existence in the form of a field. Barrett, through Heidegger, provokes much thought, when he adds that our field is like light, and truth (aletheia) is revelation. Our field is light, our light a field, and as we move forward in the darkness of time and space we experience revelation, because we make what was hidden to us unhidden. We gain truth to the degree that we shine our light field on more of the world.

Humans look forward to the future, which we face in various moods. Not mentioned in the discussion is the obvious fact of our biology. Humans, like most animals, look forward, not backward. We stand facing not only our future, but see in one direction at a time.

Where our field is not, is untruth. We carry untruth within us as well as truth, and time passed can become untruth, as the light leaves one place and moves on to the next. Darkness returns in our absence. It fills in the space we depart from — the boat and its wake. Heidegger, like most of the Existentialists, believes we also carry our deaths within us. Within our Being is non-Being, and it is from the realization of our finiteness in space and time that we become truly whole. Without an authentic encounter with our mortality, we never fully achieve the human and remain mere fragments of Being.

Nietzsche crossed over (from Existentialism) into essentialism when he tried to reduce our fundamental drives to one: The Will to Power. Our most basic drive is to radically expand our field of power and influence, not just survive, according to the author of Thus Spake Zarathustra. Evolutionary biologists have come to similar conclusions, though with more complexities and ambiguities thrown in, but the debate rages on. Our genes don’t just want to continue through time; they want to increase and expand their influence.

Heidegger’s philosophy presents the potential for an end to this will to power for power’s sake. Though he didn’t take heed of the obvious implications of his own views, when it came to his political affiliations, he did present to the world a beautiful, poetic way out of that dead end. There is no need to conquer and subdue our surroundings to extend and expand our fields of light. In fact, the destruction of our surroundings sends things back into darkness and untruth. The implications for this philosophy are clear, at least to me:

Discovery is truth. The embrace of one’s own mortality is truth. The recognition and acknowledgment of the radical subjectivity of all things is truth, and we can’t know anything until we understand this. Understanding is impossible as long as we objectify our surroundings and impose our subjectivity on all things, keeping those things from their (their own) natural autonomy as Beings in the world. If we keep the wall between ourselves and the rest of the world, stay within the mind/matter duality, we can never understand the world, find truth, or become real selves.

Let it be. Or as Wallace Stevens wrote, Let be be the finale of seem.

 

The Divine Invention

The Divine Invention

The Beguiling of Merlin, by Edward Coley Burne-Jones. 1874
The Beguiling of Merlin, by Edward Coley Burne-Jones. 1874

 The truly divine thing is invention, creation, imagination. All religions were created by novelists and poets. That has been on my mind and under my thoughts for decades. It reached the surface again tonight, like the creative process itself. In a rush, a burst, a light coming on against nuanced black. We tell stories. Some of us make stories. Some repeat them. But novelists invent, poets invent. Song-writers invent. They take things from nature and their own lives and think again. They expand from kernels and images they can’t escape. They weave and add new people and make stories for them, too. A world. They build up a world and try to make it cohere.

All religions were created by human beings seeking to tell stories. All religions are beautiful fictions, attempts to get at truths, perhaps higher truths. But the only truths are here, now, on earth. We gaze beyond this planet and this life and wonder about the future when we’re dead. We invent a story for that, too, because we don’t want the novel to end. The song can’t die, the poem runs off the page but does not find completion.

No gods or goddesses exist beyond our own minds. Once invented, we threw them out into the air for all to see. But outside of us, outside of our minds, they don’t exist. Have never existed. And that’s beautiful, that we would do that, that we would make novels and poems and songs and paintings about things that never existed.

The brilliance of that enterprise, its incredible journey of success and domination, humbles me. That humans created god is something truly astonishing. That we built those creations into cities of scripture, nation-states of devotion, empires of scholarly exegesis, and worlds of worshipers, leaves me in wonder.

We are merely passing through, and we go to all of that trouble. Thousands and thousands of years of that endeavor. We pass this way just once, and we make sure we never forget our religious novels, our heavenly poetry. Based on something that does not exist in the same way as the page, like fictional characters in Hardy, Murakami, Austen, Camus. We create. The creation makes us divine. Makes us deities. The reception of those beautiful fictions makes us one with god. The reception is like sitting at the same table, eating the same food, drinking ambrosia with the heavenly hosts.

Few things have inspired humans as much as the invention of deities. Our music, our art, our literature, our philosophy have been infinitely enriched by that invention. Would it be wise to ever stop believing in fictions? Will they always be necessary? Nietzsche and Wallace Stevens and thousands of others have asked those questions and I have no new answers. But I want the inventions to go on and I want people to believe in themselves and each other enough to let the fictions go. A stage. A further step in our journey, our evolutionary process.

Realizing it’s all been a beautiful, incredibly brilliant invention, does not have to stop the show. We invented the deities as stepping stones, as ladders. Perhaps we don’t need them now. Perhaps we can pull that ladder up after ourselves and say our dignified last goodbyes.

 

Meaningful Searches, Exits and Traps

Meaningful Searches, Exits and Traps

 

The (Post-)Modern Search for Meaning:

Tolstoy’s Escape from the Trap

 

A Reflection by Sean Howard

 

For the last few years, a close friend has been complaining, with light touch but increasingly heavy heart, of a deep-seated creative malaise, an impasse in his search for an authentic voice and message. Among other sources, his depression can be traced to his intense and academically accomplished engagement with Wittgenstein, whose humbling exposé of the ‘language game’ – and, therewith, what my friend calls “capital-P Philosophy” – leaves him both full of admiration and “with everything – and nothing – to say”. Or, rather, with a desire to say ‘something true’ thwarted by sensitivity to the unrealizable nature of any such (language-based) project. Behind this blockage, we both suspect, lurks the Nietzschean dissolution of, indisseverably, our union with God and God’s with the Word. ‘The Word is dead, long live words’; Nietzsche was trying to open a door to ourselves, roll the stone from the tomb we’re inside, yet for many of his ‘last men’ (and women), the desire for self-expression still rubs (itself out) against the paradoxically definitive absence of modernity.

 

The vital clues to my own solution of ‘The Problem’ (the challenge set so bravely to us all (and himself) by Nietzsche) were provided by Carl Jung, whose work posits an entirely different kind of Grand Source – The Self – for both personal and transpersonal meaning. At the core of Jung’s own life-work was a struggle to shape a new ‘myth for our time,’{{1}}the resurrection from the ‘God’-grave not of a Creator transcending humanity but the self-transcending creativity of the psyche. For Jung, Nietzsche’s error, the ominous turn from depression to inflation, was to search for the new hero in the sphere of the ego: ‘God is Dead, Long Live Superman.’ Yet, I would guess, for every ‘Jungian’ – everyone, that is, who sees in the psyche the implication of a guiding, healing power – there are many more ‘Nietzscheans,’ or ‘last-landers,’ dismissing such ideas merely as metaphysics revamped, new clothes for a dead emperor.

 

In 1879, when Jung was an infant, the 51-year-old Leo Tolstoy stood at the dizzy summit of his life: a prolific and world-famous writer, a happy husband and father, in excellent health, immensely wealthy. From which height he fell, almost overnight, into the Nietzschean pit. Everything he had hitherto believed, or assumed he did, he wrote, could be summed up in one word, the most pervasive and pernicious of his age, ‘Progress’: “Like any individual, I was tormented by questions of how to live better. I still had not understood that in answering that one must live according to progress, I was talking just like a person being carried along in a boat by the waves and the wind; without really answering, such a person replies to the only important question – ‘Where are we to steer?’ – by saying, ‘We are being carried somewhere.’”{{2}}

 

As a “literary teacher” suddenly without faith in his secular god, Tolstoy was confronted with an “insoluble problem”: “how to teach without knowing what I was teaching.”{{3}} Whether writing, reading, managing his estate, spending time with his family – “I had to know,” he said, “why I was doing these things,” and “I could find absolutely no reply” except the insufferable “truth…that life is meaningless.”{{4}} This truth he found confirmed in the profoundest philosophical and spiritual works he knew. For Socrates, meaning is something “we move closer to…only to the extent that we move further from life”: “The wise man seeks death all his life”. For Schopenhauer, “this universe of ours” which seems “so real, with all its suns and galaxies, is itself nothingness.” “Vanity of vanities,” the Book of Solomon cries, “all is vanity.” And the Buddha: “We must free ourselves from life and from all possibility of life.”{{5}} There have been ‘last men’ around for a very long time, it seems, and their worst and most ironic torment has always been the pointlessness of knowledge. We “cannot cease to know what we know,”{{6}} Tolstoy wrote – yet the one thing we need to know, how to live in meaning, can never be known. In art, too, irrespective of form or medium, only the unnecessary is expressible; and yet, like Tantalus, we can no more stop thirsting, wetting our lips to say more, than we can ever hope to find relief.

 

There are “for the people of my class,” Tolstoy noted, “four means of escaping” this “terrible situation”. The first is “ignorance,” mercifully “failing to…understand that life is evil and meaningless.” The second, “fully aware of the hopelessness of life,” is “epicureanism”, “enjoying for the present the blessings that we do have” – gifts provided, as Tolstoy concedes, by the hard labour and suffering of others. The third ‘escape’ is suicide, or “strength and energy” as Tolstoy calls it, “destroying life once one has realized…the stupidity of the joke that is being played on us.” And the fourth is “weakness,” “continuing to drag out a life,” knowing “beforehand that nothing can come of it.”{{7}}

 

From this tempting menu, Tolstoy ordered ‘No. 3’, suicide, only to be served, again and again, with what he took to be the perennial house-special, cowardice. In retrospect, however, he saw “that if I did not kill myself, it was because I had some vague notion that my ideas were all wrong. However convincing and unquestionable the train of my thoughts and the thoughts of the wise seemed to me, the ideas that had led us to affirm the meaninglessness of life, I still had some obscure doubt about the point of departure of my reflections.”{{8}} Sociologically, this ‘point of departure’ was his class, an utterly atypical and profoundly parasitic position of privilege and excess. And in reflecting on this artificial, constructed aspect of his crisis, Tolstoy began to meditate on its opposite, the still-natural (‘unprogressive’) ways of being human in the world:

 

I would not be speaking the truth if I were to say that it was through reason that I had arrived at this point without killing myself. Reason was at work, but there was something else at work too, something I can only call a consciousness of life… This force led me to focus my attention on the fact that like…others of my class I was not the whole of humanity, and that I still did not know what the life of humanity was.{{9}}

 

The question of meaning, recast in this way, invites an ethical – that is, a lived – response, a participatory mode of inquiry far broader than the compass of philosophic investigation. “My straying,” he now saw, “had resulted not so much from wrong thinking as from bad living. I realized that the truth had been hidden from me not so much because my thoughts were in error as because my life had been squandered in the satisfaction of lusts, spent under the exceptional conditions of epicureanism. I realized that in asking, ‘What is my life?’ and then answering, ‘An evil,’ I was entirely correct. The error lay in the fact that I had taken an answer that applied only to myself and applied it to life in general…”{{10}}

 

What, then, was this ‘hidden’ truth? For three years, Tolstoy sought it in the strict ritual observance of the Russian Orthodox faith, keeping any doubts he had even from himself. “At that time,” he wrote, “I found it so necessary to believe in order to live that I unconsciously hid from myself the contradictions and the obscurities in the religious teachings.”{{11}} It took a moral absurdity, the Church’s support for the Czarist state in the Russo-Turkish War, to break the spell and open the road to the radical political stance of the last thirty years of his life; an advocacy, in word and deed, of pacifist communalism, or ‘Christian anarchism,’ as it became known. The Church, he acknowledged, contained a real “knowledge of the truth”, but “in these teachings there was also a lie,” and even among the most devout believers this “lie was mixed with the truth.”{{12}} To see this blend, Tolstoy realized, to acknowledge both shadow and sun, the light of reason was required; just as the severe limits of reason require illumination from outside, the ‘other worlds’ of heart, faith, spirit and dream. Here is his conclusion:

 

I shall not seek an explanation of all things. I know that the explanation of all things, like the origin of all things, must remain hidden in infinity. But I do want to understand in order that I might be brought to the inevitably incomprehensible; I want all that is incomprehensible to be such not because the demands of the intellect are not sound (they are sound, and apart from them I understand nothing) but because I perceive the limits of the intellect. I want to understand, so that any instance of the incomprehensible occurs as a necessity of reason and not as an obligation to believe.{{13}}

 

This position, I think, resonates powerfully with Jung’s view of the conscious ego, the rational self, as a ‘storm lantern,’ the “little light”{{14}} of consciousness assisting human passage through a fiercely beautiful, far more than meaningful, world. It also accords with a defence of philosophy by the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges. We “are not enriched,” Borges said, by the “solutions” of philosophy, its metaphysical claims to truth, as “these solutions” are unavoidably “doubtful” and necessarily “arbitrary”: “But philosophy does enrich us by demonstrating that the world is more mysterious than we thought.” Philosophy as an interface between reason and mystery, the demonstrable and the ineffable; and is this not also the liminal ‘home’, the porous border, of poetry? Borges thinks it is, that philosophy “is exactly the same as poetry, although the syntax is from two distinct places,” and that “philosophy deserves a place in the order of aesthetics.”{{15}}

 

In exploring this comparative syntax, as he intends to, I hope and believe that my friend will trace his own way back to what Borges’ calls ‘The Sea’{{16}} – Jung’s ‘Self’, perhaps – that both answers and transcends our calling:

 

Before our human dream (or terror) wove

Mythologies, cosmogonies, and love,

Before time coined its substance into days,

The sea, the always sea, existed: was.

Who is the sea? Who is that violent being,

Violent and ancient, who gnaws the foundations

Of earth? He is both one and many oceans;

He is abyss and splendor, chance and wind.

Who looks on the sea, sees it the first time,

Every time, with the wonder distilled

From elementary things – from beautiful

Evenings, the moon, the leap of a bonfire.

Who is the sea, and who am I? The day

That follows my last agony shall say.

 

The Choice

The Choice

I watched Doctor Zhivago tonight. Keira Knightley as Lara. Hans Matheson as Yuri Zhivago. It’s a well done TV miniseries from 2002. Moving, especially at the end. It’s not David Lean. But it works in its own way. Expanded, because of the extra time. And updated to allow for more modern depictions of the love affair.

Many things jumped out at me. But especially this: brief, ecstatic joy in the middle of a sea of sorrow. The embrace of that joy. Being consumed by it, perhaps because it is so brief. As is life. Especially life in the middle of revolution and civil war.

Some might respond: all life is brief. Yes. True. But in relative terms, which is all we really know, it is shorter and has fewer moments of joy in the midst of violence–violence surrounding you, taking away your loved ones, your friends, your freedom. And those brief moments are all the sweeter because of that contrast. As if the word “contrast” really could convey the extremes between dancing with your lover in a snow-covered house, away from the war and the murderers and the tyrants. Away from the slaughter and the irrational hatred between human beings. Compared with, say, watching a DVD and enjoying it, in the midst of a peaceful night, in a peaceful town, and state, and nation. Relatively speaking.

Which brings me back to another form of high contrast. Another field of extremes, and choices, and decisions. As mentioned in my last post, mystics were and are the Olympian athletes of spirituality. They do things we mere mortals don’t generally attempt. Ever. And they do these things daily. On their Way, through their gateway of choice, to find, embrace and hold on to their vision of God, Nature, the Universe.

Most mystics, simply by way of the process, because of its dynamic, go beyond names and histories and scripture. They have passed through all the gateways most of us stop in front of. They pass through. They don’t accept the name on that gateway or the gateway itself as the end, the definition, the only way. They know “everything” exists beyond that human-made definition of the divine and their goal is to move beyond all goals and become one with everything.

 

Casper David Friedrich's The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. 1818
Casper David Friedrich’s The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. 1818

Nietzsche said that one rewards a teacher poorly by forever remaining a pupil. To me, when it comes to mysticism, the teacher is not just the man with the bamboo stick. It is the sum total of all culture, all sacred and profane writings, art and music, and all worldly matters. Nietzsche’s aphorism is a call to surpass the teacher. It could also mean to transcend everything worldly, though I doubt he meant it in that way.

It is possible that some mystics wanted union with a god, or a goddess, or some other hand-me-down definition of divinity. It is possible that in the past and present and future this did occur and will occur. But, I think, it is impossible for a true spiritual athlete to accept his or her resting place on this side of the gateway, instead of going beyond every name or symbol or sacred book.

If someone seeks union with a god or goddess who is more or less a tyrant, more or less like human tyrants, with the same hideous behavior and history of destruction and imperialism, then that goal is not a higher thing, or a noble thing, or something to bless or admire. Seeking to be at one with a tyrant is the opposite of the sacred. It is the embrace of ugliness and the profane.

So we have choices. If we must choose to be at one with . . . . at one with someone . . . we automatically remain on this side of the gateway . . . We can claim for ourselves a level of spiritual athleticism that few can attain . . . but we can not claim to have gone beyond earthly, even pedestrian definitions of the sacred. Which means they aren’t really sacred at all. To achieve that, we must embrace the full kit and caboodle. The center without locale. The circumference without beginning. The radius without a center or circumference to tie it down to anything. We must embrace the paradox of nothing and everything being one and the same.

Choosing to bond with that, making the decision to leap into everything and nothing simultaneously, gives us the moment when the lovers dance in the middle of a war zone, in their snow-covered house, away . . . for just a moment . . . from the partisans and the Whites and the Reds. But, unlike our vision of Lara and Yuri from afar, that dance lasts throughout eternity. Nothing but that dance. In a sense, in the mind of Pasternak, he must have thought, at least for a flash of time, that Yuri and Lara saw the dance as eternal too.

 

Break on Through!

Break on Through!

(For Roy)
 

Jim Morrison

I always find it interesting to discover mergings, connections, and cross-fertilization across the arts. Fusions, juxtaposition, new combinations. And one of the most interesting of these, for me, is when Rock stars are influenced heavily by great novelists, poets and philosophers. Especially if the range is wide, and influence is not just on the surface. One such case was Jim Morrison of The Doors.

Morrison lived the life of a nomad, growing up with a father in the military who eventually became an admiral. They moved frequently. Perhaps that nomadic existence pushed Morrison into the philosophy of Nietzsche, another wanderer, and into the poetry of Rimbaud, who may have set records along those lines.

Morrison was an alumnus of UCLA, completing his degree in Film. Antonin Artaud (1896-1948), the actor, poet and dramatist, was an early influence. Morrison and his bandmates (including Ray Manzarek, a fellow UCLA student) got the name for their band from William Blake, by way of Aldous Huxley. Celine was another big influence, especially his Journey to the End of the Night. There are obvious echoes in an early song, “End of the Night.” Morrison wrote often about dramatic endings to long journeys. He was also intrigued by The Beats, by the Jack Kerouac of On the Road, who also drew from Rimbaud and Nietzsche.

 

Joseph Campbell was another major influence on his song writing and poetry. Morrison had the same love of mythology, symbol and allegory that seems almost a requirement for artists in the 20th century. Frazer’s Golden Bough was foundational, as it was for Campbell. He was especially drawn to Native American mythology, which was one of Campbell’s focal points and a part of the zeitgeist in the 60s.
I think of Hemingway when I read about how Morrison often referred to a traumatic event in his childhood, describing the tragic highway accident of Native Americans he and his family had seen from the road. His family remembered the accident quite differently. Hemingway often exaggerated incidents from his life and created an auto-mythology he continuously drew upon for inspiration. Morrison recaptured the event in song and poetry and it became of part of his own myth.

In 1971, Morrison moved to Paris. He wanted to be a poet, perhaps a French poet like Baudelaire and Rimbaud. He wanted to live the Left Bank life he encountered in books, the ex-pat heaven of the 20s and 30s. Morrison died some four months later, probably of an overdose of heroin, though the details are not fully known. The best possible witness, his common-law wife, Pamela Courson, died some three years later. We may never know the truth.

Morrison was only twenty-seven.

It’s too obvious a point to make that he lived hard and died all too young. The meteoric rise and fall. The choice of the hero, perhaps. Cuchulain’s choice. But a less obvious point is to think of that parallel life he may have lived. Connecting his influences, going over his literary and philosophical background and his life experiences . . . I think of the literature he could have created had he lived. Easy to dismiss all of that . . . . some might say. Because he was, after all, a Rock star. But not so easy if we consider his reported IQ of 149, and his artistic precursors. His elective affinities. At twenty-seven, many great writers were still using training wheels. What would Morrison have done given time to throw his away?
 

Camus and the Absurd

Camus and the Absurd

Albert Camus
Albert Camus

There was a lot of absurdity in Camus’s life. When he published The Stranger in 1942, France was occupied by the Germans. Even though it was a rebuke of the Vichy government, among many other things, the German censors let it go. Camus had his Goya and Velasquez mojo working, so Vichy and the Nazis didn’t see what he was up to. Nor did they know about his work for the Resistance, and Combat, until it was too late.

It was absurd that Camus died in a car crash at the age of forty-six, just three years after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature. It was absurd that the manuscript of his last novel, The First Man, was found in the mud near the wreck and published in 1995 by his daughter. I wrote a review of the book when it first came out, for an absurdly small newspaper in the mountains of North Carolina. I imagined then that the act of writing it, given the size of the audience, was an absurd gesture which somehow gave the whole thing some fleeting dignity.

What was far from absurd about Camus was the fact that he changed with the times, with the evidence on the ground. He was almost invariably ahead of the curve, knowing when a movement, a philosophy, a school of thought had lost its authenticity, its independence, its vital core. And he loved the sun. He loved women. He loved living in the present, in the body of the moment, next to another body.

Camus said:

“We have exiled beauty; the Greeks took up arms for her.”  

And:

“We turn our backs on nature; we are ashamed of beauty. Our wretched tragedies have a smell of the office clinging to them, and the blood that trickles from them is the color of printer’s ink.”

He warned about relying too much on the theory of the absurd:

“Accepting the absurdity of everything around us is one step, a necessary experience: it should not become a dead end. It arouses a revolt that can become fruitful.”

Camus did his thesis work on Plotinus and Augustine. But here, I think he sounds like Spinoza and a bit like Pascal:

“I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I cannot know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it. What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me? I can understand only in human terms. What I touch, what resists me–that I understand. And these two certainties–my appetite for the absolute and for unity and the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle–I also know that I cannot reconcile them. What other truth can I admit without lying, without bringing in a hope I lack and which means nothing within the limits of my conditions?”

But, finally, I think, Camus preached acceptance, amor fati, like Nietzsche. Though, unlike Nietzsche, he could actually live out his Yes, seek pleasure in the sun and bodies and motion and time.

“Outside of that single fatality of death, everything, joy or happiness, is liberty.”

Is it absurd to think at least some of that difference comes from geography? Climate? Certainly, the different eras had much to do with it.

Is it also absurd to put Camus in my pantheon? To even have a pantheon?  Among the greats, the painters, poets, composers and philosophers of genius . . . A complex question for the self. And a complex and resounding No as answer.

 

Rilke: The Panther and the Writing Table

Rilke: The Panther and the Writing Table

Castle Duino, Italy. Photo by Johann Jaritz
Castle Duino, Italy. Photo by Johann Jaritz

Rainer Maria Rilke was a sublime poet, one of the greatest lyric poets of the 20th century, and quite possibly a lousy human being. His Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus rank among the finest works of art in any language, taking us softly, profoundly to the nexus between life and death, pain and redemption, mourning and new hope. Through his poetry and other writings, he conveyed a level of empathy and understanding toward women that may surpass any poet in the last 100 years. Though it seemed he rarely showed that insight and understanding in real life, at least if we are to believe several recent accounts about Rilke’s life and loves.

If those portraits of the real Rilke are accurate, it wouldn’t be the first time such an apparent contradiction occurred. Not the first time a great artist, poet, novelist, musician, or philosopher led a less than exemplary life. Perhaps there is a dynamic that rears up as a near-impossible obstacle to overcome, in the case of artistic genius. Perhaps in order to make great art, one has to be selfish in ways that all too often hurt loved ones and friends, shock them, abuse and exploit them–at times. Perhaps another part of the drama and dynamic is the abuse and exploitation the artist suffers, especially when young. Though there can never be any hard and fast rule regarding this, it seems a common strain among the best artists that their own family drama was sordid, sickly and filled with pain.

In Rilke’s case, his childhood was turned upside down by the fact that his mother, Sophie, so mourned the loss of a week-old daughter that she dressed little Rene in girls’ clothes and tried to replace her with him. To make the impact even more violent on his psyche, his father, Josef, later tried to reverse course by sending him to a very harsh military school. I’m guessing it didn’t help his anxiety levels much when he, six years later, fell in love with Lou Andreas-Salome, Nietzche’s ideal disciple and fantasy lover, and a married woman at the time of Rilke’s fall. From 1912-1913, she trained with Freud to become a psychoanalist. She shared her insights with Rilke until his death in 1926, outliving him by eleven years. Lou is generally credited with getting Rilke to change his name from Rene to Rainer.

Rilke’s life remained fascinating until the end. He traveled widely, had several affairs with brilliant women and created great poetry. I’ll explore that in future posts. Will end this one with my translation of The Panther. A translation in the tradition of Ezra Pound. I do not read German, as he did not read Chinese. So I translate a translation already made. Stephen Mitchell’s, in this case . . . .

I mourn the fact that I do not live in a castle as I write this, especially one that overlooks the sea. And that I lack a stand-up writing desk, the kind Rilke used in that castle, with the wind coming through the medieval windows and the candles flickering, the smell of the sea, the song of the gulls, the moonlight across the floor. I mourn the fact that Rodin did not teach me how to craft poems like a sculptor, and that I was never a welcome guest of royalty. Then again, Rilke never heard the Beatles, or read Murakami or Kundera, or saw a film by Wong Kar-wai . . . .

 

The Panther

 

His worldview from the constantly moving bars
Has become predictable, boring and cannot hold
Anything more. The black cat sees a
Thousand bars, and beyond the bars, nothingness.

As he paces again and again in cramped circles,       
The movement of his powerful, athletic strides
Is like a ritual dance circling a core
In which a mighty will is engulfed in stone.

Only now and then the curtains of each pupil
Lift, slowly–. An image, a sound enters in,
Rushes down through the tensed, locked and waiting
Muscles, plunges straight into the heart and disappears.

 

 

–by Rainer Maria Rilke. Translation by Douglas Pinson, after Stephen Mitchell.

 

 

— by Douglas Pinson

 

Copyright ©2009, by Douglas Pinson and Spinozablue. All Rights Reserved.