‘The Joy and Misery of Solitude’ – Paul Stubbs reviews ‘Rilke in Paris’ by Maurice Betz



The Joy and Misery of Solitude



Maurice Betz

Translated from the French by Will Stone, Hesperus Press, 2012



Rilke, on earth, lived a life akin to a pre-natal being, one whose sensations in existence remained as homogenous and pure as his time spent in the womb. He rejected birth and death as a consequence for existence, determining that this paradox was the reason behind which he would discover the absolute, i.e. through his own modifications of reality. Jean-Paul Sartre writing of Kierkegaard said ‘The beginning of the thinker’s existence is analogous to a birth. This is not a rejection but a displacement of the beginning. Before birth there was non-being; then comes the leap…’. Every morning in Paris, amid the ash-heaps of dreams, Rilke awoke to the metaphysical and limbless stump of his own still absent body. He saw the world as if between the parenthesis of each new death, whether one of his own or that of another human being. Later on, in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, he would explain the great existential anxiety at the heart of his work, the praxis that escaped him even in the process of finding a certitude for it:

‘And when I think about the others I have seen or heard of: it is always the same. They all had a death of their own. Those men who carried it in their armour, inside themselves, like a prisoner; those women who grew very old and small, and then on an enormous bed, as if on the stage of a theatre, in front of the whole family and the assembled servants and dogs, discreetly and with the greatest dignity passed away. The children too, even the very small ones, didn’t have just any child’s death; they gathered themselves and died what they already were and what they would have become. (…) And what a melancholy beauty this gave to women when they were pregnant and stood there, with their slender hands instinctively resting on their large bellies, in which there were two fruits: a child and a death. Didn’t the dense, almost nourishing smile on their emptied faces come from their sometimes feeling that both were growing inside them?’

Rilke in Paris, written by Maurice Betz (1898-1946) and published in July 1941, is as translator Will Stone points out the ‘summing up of his reflections on Rilke, both a tribute and a farewell.’ The book is akin to a graph of Rilke’s mind moving through letters to his wife Clara, Rodin and Lou Andreas-Salomé and, in many ways, through letters to himself. A record of what this poet experienced while living on the left bank, oscillating between his first lodgings in rue Toullier in the 5th arrondissement and rue Cassette in the 6th arrondissement. Betz’s book is ostensibly about the disqualification of the knowledge of ‘self’ and, for a poet like Rilke, about being alive in death, registering in letters and in his notebook only what he borrowed from daily life, as if everything were merely a non-object held by the phantom of his own hands. When in and around the Luxembourg Gardens this poet would walk and see death winning, leaving him with no other choice then but to create from the world a theology of temporalization, that which occurred to him freely, and of which he suffered in only the one sacrificial body: his own.

Between his first visit to Paris in August 1902 and his last in 1925, Rilke drew through the syringe of his pen the blood of a humanity of which only his own pulse could be felt. Each day along the boulevards, in the parks, in the museums and cafés, he witnessed the diaspora and disintegration of his own interior races, those forgotten by the genealogy of man’s soul, but which, in the there and then, existed because of Rilke’s birth, and thus only in that way, to him, seemed related. In this fine book published by Hesperus Press we are witness to the birth of not just a great poet but also of a great book, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. And alongside these achievements sits the importance of his friendship with Rodin and his time as the sculptor’s secretary. When writing to Rodin, Rilke explained his earliest post-mortem of the imagination, seeing in the sculptor’s work a template, a superior realm in which to reach the speechless core of metaphysics, of ‘form’: he now understood that for the artist, work could be merely ‘space, time, dream, windows, eternity…’ Therefore allowing the poet the necessary freedom to explore his own sense of death-in-life reality, that which had begun to grow and grow like a refrain inside his mind. Betz’s book charts the negative logic of a reality undiscovered throughout the writing of The Notebooks, the search for the ‘totality of truth’, or that which the French mystic Simone Weil discovered could be found, if not necessarily inside a superior being, but then maybe at least inside the ‘village idiot in the literal sense of the word,’ he who if he ‘really loves truth, is infinitely superior to Aristotle in his thought, even though he never utters anything but the inarticulate murmurs’—something Rilke himself had begun to discover in his early poetry, such as in ‘The Idiot’s Song’:

‘How very strange the world can appear,

Blending and breaking, far and near:

Friendly, a little bit unclear.

How good.’

Maurice Betz informs us that this is it ‘how Rodin does it. He disengages from a too-centered existence, giving an impression of sovereign calm, of assurance against the blows of fate, which may perhaps be a kind of joy’. Concussed by the tectonic shifts of time within his soul, Rilke heard the gong of the human atom ringing out each moment with ‘death’; for he quickly found out that the ‘truth’ of existence was not in a lived experience, but was in no experience at all, resigning himself to the fact that only the dialectical interior of a ‘subject’ could be made exterior by verbal alliance. It is what Wallace Stevens talked of in his essay ‘Imagination as Value’—‘To regard the imagination as metaphysics is to think of it as part of life, and to think of it as part of life is to realize the extent of artifice. We live in the mind.’ Rilke himself admits: ‘It was crucial that the artistic vision was first overcome, to the point where could be perceived, in both the horrific and the sense of hostility, an existence as valuable as any other’. For this poet, the spaces of Paris seen between its buildings are akin to living out the thaw of an ice-age of architecture, for everything dissolves, melts and spills onto the pavements at his feet. In the local hospitals and cemeteries Rilke is perplexed by what he has already described in his earlier Florence Diaries, death being ‘a storm that rips what is unripe from the branches’, the dead belonging to any ‘generation born in fear’ which ‘comes into this world in exile and never finds its way home’—meaning of course in fear of themselves rather than in anything holier than man.

‘Hell is a sensation of space, Heaven much the same. / Two kinds of space’, wrote the Hungarian poet Janos Pilinszky. Rilke, a pseudo-Christian more than an absolute humanist, walked the streets of the French capital with a thorn pricking his heart, but of a no-rose, the ‘one absent from every bouquet.’ (Mallarmé). He sought out the eternal moment of annulment. Waiting for the day the clocks chimed zero. He wrote:

‘every being in Paris bears a unique expression—a sign of their personality that they do not seek to hide either. All the nuances of joy, of misery or solitude, only in them, and the French vitality expresses itself in the multiplicity of their myriad apparitions…’

Rilke sought out not the explosions of life, colour, forms etc., but rather only the illusion of such things. At a café table he would sit as if submerged under a never-changing screen of ice, watching embryos of still unborn people, blurred shapes dissolving and reappearing into the nothingness beyond the thickness of his gaze. It is the same ‘feeling’ that forced Mallarmé to seek out absence behind the curtains above the bed and not presence. Rilke was naturally a poet who, every time he picked up his pen, signed afresh the birth-certificate of a new superabundant being, breathing back the objects of the world into their universal sacs; he who animalized angels by creating his own reciprocal heavens and whose only vocation was beauty itself, the one categorical imperative of his own mind. If any ‘order’ then existed in Rilke’s imagination it was to disguise the indeterminate region he called ‘life’. That, or believe in God, which he could never fully do. ‘We are solitude. We can, it is true, grant ourselves change… But that is all. How much better it would be for us to understand that we are solitude. Yes, and to depart with this truth!’ Rilke believed that no one had understood the secret of personality, of the individual. Only he had seen the giant sundial of the imagination that overlaps with the shadows of each of our unborn selves, those ideological species that refresh history with every breath. He was mistaken of course, but that doesn’t prevent us from revelling in his ‘belief’. Subsequently—and maybe because of this continual subtraction of the herd, the everyman from those ‘races’ inside his head—, he could only see the crowd as: ‘Marionettes, broken by life, who slowly drag themselves, like so many turtles, along the pavements of the city and make one think of strewn wreckage.’

He saw, as Baudelaire did, the ‘debris of humanity’—the flotsam of the street that this poet nurtured as the unwanted spawn of his own loins, helping him create a religion in which salvation was unable to be deciphered by the theologian or the priest, and which only the poet could give birth to as a ‘people’ emancipated from both history and the contingency of logical selfhood. ‘These beings, men and women, engaged in some metamorphosis, passing perhaps from mental disorder to recovery, perhaps to insanity as well’; thus for Rilke the city was not constructed of concrete, steel or metal, but of something ‘like a forest without end’, forcing himself to wonder: ‘why is there no one in these great cities?’—which of course should be rephrased as ‘why is there no one like me in these great cities’. In letters to the likes of Lou Andreas-Salomé he continued to ache with such unanswerable questions, crystallizing his own inner project through the negative and positive reaction of others. Every day compelling himself to confront the ultimate sacrifice of the artist, writing in one letter: ‘one or the other, happiness or art. The life of the great man is a road bristling with thorns, for they are utterly dedicated to their art. Their own life is like an atrophied organ of which they have no further use.’

Betz succinctly points out what Rilke’s real experience of Paris was: ‘The history of the exterior relationship Rilke enjoyed with France is however not the most crucial. These exchanges, however distant their consequences might be, were situated only at the surface of his life. The most crucial discoveries Rilke owed not so much to his French friendships, as to the fateful chance that led him into a solitary confrontation with the faces and atmospheres of an unknown city, the fundamental problems of life and the most painful mysteries of being’. Throughout this book, Betz informs us of the subcutaneous language piercing the flesh of this poet, of the still formless infinities inside his mind, which possessed cobwebbed proclivities for wings over objects, shadows over shapes. In order to write and to illuminate God, Rilke had first to become words, to induce their movement over matter. The Homo sapiens is nothing but an undulating illusion skimming over the veneer of matter, therefore language must, for this poet, overcome this actual matter. Such theological invention though required something more than just his own humanistic impotence, he had to change life; create a new existence for those ‘puppets’ strolling through the Luxembourg gardens who, in his mind, had already abolished their one eternal chance for salvation, those who ‘have spent long hours on a distant bench, as if waiting—and the drum tolls in their head that they have nothing more to hope for’.

Although every English-speaking reader may have his battered copy of Rilke’s ‘Selected’ on his shelf, many are still ignorant of the true recesses of this poet’s soul, that which this book will probe further. Rilke in Paris, previously a loophole in the generally staid and unadventurous English library of great European literature can now be added to the Rilke ‘wing’. For so far barely a scraping of the icy surface of the ‘true’ mind of this poet has occurred. Will Stone at least, by proposing this translation into English alongside a clarifying introduction, has begun to puncture a deeper hole into this ‘surface’, allowing us, via Betz, a brief though authentic glimpse of Rilke’s most unexcavated depths. Despite the fact that this poet’s mind—even after the completion of his great prose work ‘The Notebooks’— remained, like Paris, an unknown city: one populated only by the ghosts of his own soul and by those interior ‘beings’ that no census alone could ever number.

Paul Stubbs, October 2012


(other book reviews & essays)






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