Last week Lorelle issued a challenge to bloggers to write about the person who had changed your life, and inspired by bloglily, who rose to the challenge admirably with her description of her writing class, I decided to do the same. My life was changed forever in January 1989 when, in the second year of my undergraduate modern languages course, I started to read the work of the German poet and writer, Rainer Maria Rilke. I began with The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), the story of an impoverished Danish poet and nobleman who has come to Paris to write and who is overwhelmed by the intense experience of city life. In his notebooks he records his impressions of daily life among the poor and the marginal of the city, and he remembers his childhood in a failed attempt to keep himself calm. Stephen Spender said the novel should have been subtitled Portrait of the Artist as a Young Neurotic, as the desperate necessity to find some way to live that transcends his fear and insecurity is explored through his relationship to writing; there has to be a form of narrative that will express his suffering in a way that makes it meaningful and therefore bearable. When I read this I was literally and simply bowled over by it. I had never read anything so strange that spoke to me so directly. Malte Laurids Brigge’s problem is that he does not know how to manage his own porosity, and yet it becomes clear that it is the source of his art: ‘The electric street cars rage through my room with ringing fury. Automobiles race over me. A door slams. Somewhere a window-pane falls clattering. I can hear the big splinters laughing and the smaller one sniggering […] I am learning to see. I do not know why it is, but everything penetrates more deeply within me and no longer stops at the place, where until now, it always used to finish. I possess an inner self of which I was ignorant.’ And you know, I understood him, I empathised with him. I knew just what it was to experience things with such violence and accuracy that they seemed to be happening on the inside, not the outside where they ought to belong.
If I was half in love with Rilke after Malte Laurids Brigge, reading his best-known poems, the Duino Elegies, meant the die was cast.
Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angel’
hierarchies? And even if one of them suddenly
pressed me against his heart, I would perish
in the embrace of his stronger existence.
For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror
which we are barely able to endure and are awed
because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
Each single angel is terrifying.
I dug out the old essay I wrote about these poems and was instantly returned to my nineteen-year-old self, enthusiastic if somewhat incoherent, juggling ideas and concepts that were far too big for me. Rilke understands humanity to be caught between the animals, who are comfortably in the world, lacking the understanding which paradoxically would separate them from it, and the angels, whose perfection is aspirational but anxiety-inducing. Who will help us when we cry out in pain and suffering and uncertainty? What can be done to mitigate our awkward and disquieting human condition? How to live, then, in this state of impossibility? Rilke is a wonderful writer for young people who stand on the threshold of transition. He talks about intolerable limitations, the mysterious but idealised force of transformation (where might it take us, what might we become?) and of the primal power of pure emotion – love, terror, longing. And what was particularly intoxicating for me at that moment in time, he spoke of art as salvation. Not a perfect form of salvation – only angels know about those – but the only tool available for us to turn the unspeakable nightmare of intensely lived experience into something beautiful and strange and true.
But the point of this story is that I didn’t understand any of this at the time. I just read Rilke and marvelled at him. He made me feel, and I couldn’t put words to it. Even now, seventeen years of literary analysis later, Rilke threatens me with my own incoherence, and I am tempted to put aside the tool of my trade and cry out: I don’t understand! I don’t understand! But I know it’s wonderful! You see I’d fallen into my degree course the way most people do, by choosing something I’d been good at in school. To begin with, that was what studying meant to me – the possibility of being good at something and thus earning external approval. But Rilke cut a blazing trail through such meagre and petty preoccupations. I fell in love with Rilke – or rather with what his words represented, and like Malte Laurids Brigge I began to learn ‘to penetrate the beloved object with the rays of his passion, instead of consuming it in them.’ I lost sight of myself except as a dim reflection in the dark glass of his prose, and it didn’t matter what mark I received for the essay I wrote. It just mattered terribly that I should somehow get to grips with what he was saying and align his vision with my own. Reading Rilke brought about an important transformation in my understanding of myself and the work I wanted to do. I left my ego behind me, and I focussed on a task that was far greater than filling in the thinly-drawn outlines of my self. At that point, and I didn’t realise it until many years later, I took the first steps on the road to becoming an academic because at that point, I fell in love with the reason why we still read and think about literature, and it seemed imperative I should continue to do so, for as long as anyone would let me, because there was nothing more sensible I could do with my life.