Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)

In the April 1996 issue of The Atlantic, Lee Siegel reviewed Ralph Freedman’s new biography of Rilke, Life of a Poet: Rainer Maria Rilke:

“…Rilke’s diaries and letters, lively with tales of self-dislike and depression, seem to out-Kafka Kafka himself. Still, biographers should beware of making too much of these highly polished introspections. Rilke conceived of writing as a form of prayer, as Kafka did, and he made astringent self-examination a ritualistic prelude to work. Both writers magnified their inadequacies, sometimes to the point of a vaunting self-regard; it was an efficient way to wrest from their doubts a diligent beauty of creation.

Rilke lived on the brink of poverty for much of his life, dependent on the good graces of aristocratic and haute-bourgeois patrons in the twilight of the Hapsburg Empire. His shaky situation, much as he complained of it, suited his temperament as well as did the black clothes he liked to parade in during his dandyish younger days in Prague. Like the great German mystics, Rilke was a confirmed solitary. Thus he sought to form emotional bonds with people more ardently than do those who take their desire to be with others for granted. Wandering from person to person and from place to place like a pilgrim, he found that patrons offered him, among more practical things, a potential shrine of emotional fulfillment.

Rilke spent his life wandering. From an art colony in Germany he migrated to a position as Rodin’s secretary in Paris; the sculptor eventually claimed that the poet was answering letters without his permission and summarily dismissed him, as much to Rilke’s relief as to his chagrin. From Berlin he made two pilgrimages to Russia to meet Tolstoy, on one trip going nearly unacknowledged because of a titanic quarrel between the count and the countess. He traveled from Italy to Vienna to Spain to Tunisia to Cairo. His restless peregrinations had their origins in his epoch, and in a temperament forced painfully to choose perfection of the life or of the work. Rilke’s academic sponsor and friend was Georg Simmel, the celebrated German sociologist and philosopher of modernity…

Freedman, doggedly indifferent to the available evidence, makes Rilke’s lovers and women friends out to be helpless victims of a smooth seduction machine.

As for the centerpiece of Freedman’s argument for Rilke’s sexism–he “abandoned” Clara and their daughter, Ruth–here he portrays Clara, too, as if she were Tess of the D’Urbervilles. On the contrary. Clara enthusiastically seconded Rilke’s definition of two artists wedded as each, in Rilke’s cautiously ambiguous phrase, “the guardian of the other’s solitude.” After Rilke left for Paris, she placed Ruth with her wealthy and supportive parents and went on a pilgrimage to Egypt, among other places. Like Rilke, the adventurous Clara had a fascinating life–I don’t know why Freedman didn’t write her biography. Women artists suffered in Rilke’s society, but not because of Rilke.

We must understand one another or die. And we will never understand one another if we cannot understand the famous dead, those fragments of the past who sit half buried and gesturing to us on memory’s contested shores…”

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