More Austrian literature. Robert Musil is well known for his fiction and Rainer Maria Rilke his poetry, so I thought I would have a look at something a little out of the ordinary for each of these writers, a public address by Musil and a prose essay by Rilke.
After Rainer Maria Rilke’s death on 29 December 1926, there was a debate as to whether there should be a memorial service in his honour. Among those involved in the debate, Robert Musil was for and Bertolt Brecht was against the proposal. On 16 January 1927, the ceremony took place at the Renaissance Theatre in Berlin, where Musil spoke. His ‘Address at the Memorial Service for Rilke in Berlin’ appears in the book ‘Robert Musil Precision and Soul’ (edited and translated by Burton Pike and David S. Luft).
Musil’s address covers a raft of material, the affect of a Rilke poem, lyric affect, motifs, metaphors, similes and tropes to name just a few, and it is worth reading the whole address to understand Musil’s passion for Rilke’s work. However I am only going to look at a few highlights here.
There are some wonderful explanations of Rilke’s place in “German” literature laced with social commentary;
This period [the transition from the Classical to the present] was the cradle of the German belief that form could ennoble content, that elevated diction was superior to plain, that to glue the plaster ornament of verse onto a shallow thought was something special. I think I may say that the formlessness of our own time is the natural reaction to this, although of course in abandoning beauty of form our age has also abandoned, in part, beauty of content. Here I cannot permit myself to go into detail, but I think almost all of you know the feeling of aversion that this poetry, with few exceptions, leaves in the young reader who is forced to admire in it the cultural history of his people.
Rilke raising the German poem to perfection;
When I spoke of the perfection to which Rilke has raised the German poem, what I had in mind was at first only an external characteristic. I can describe it to you if I may remind you of the extremely distinctive impression one has on first reading Rilke’s works. Not only hardly a poem, but hardly a line or a word sinks below the level of the others, and one has the same experience through the entire sequence of his books. There arises from this an almost painful tension, like a daring presumption, which in addition is achieved not with any large orchestral display but as if it were quite natural, accompanied only by the simple sound of the verse’s flute.
Neither before not after him has this high and sustained tension of impression, this jewellike stillness within a movement that never pauses, been attained. Neither the older German poem not George not Borchardt possess this free burning of the fire, without flickering or darkness. The German lyric genius carves a furrow like a stroke of lightning, but piles up the soil around it carefully or carelessly; it ignites like lightning, but only scratches surfaces like lightning; it leads up the mountain, but only in order to lead up the mountain one must first always be down below. Compared with this, Rilke’s poem has an expansive openness: its condition endures like an elevated pause.
The address opens with a lament on fame and the lack of public recognition of Rilke’s death;
When the news of the death of the great poet Rainer Maria Rilke arrived in Germany, and on the following days, when one consulted the newspapers to see how this message was being received by German literary history – for, let us not deceive ourselves, today the process of fame is decided at this low level since, as far as literature is concerned, there is hardly any intellectual level above it – one found what I would characterize as an honorable second-class public funeral.
The address continues;
When I perceived how trifling the loss of Rilke was valued in the public reckoning – it hardly counted as much as a movie premiere – I confess that my first thought was to answer the question why we have come together today by saying : Because we wish to honor the greatest lyric poet the Germans have seen since the Middle Ages.
It would be permissible to say something like this, but at the same time it is not permissible.
Sculptor Auguste Rodin was fortunate enough to have as his secretary Rainer Maria Rilke. Two essays written in 1902 and 1907, were translated by Daniel Slager and released in 2004 by Archipelago Books, with the book also featuring an extensive introduction by William Gass (‘The Tunnel’, ‘Omensetter’s Luck’ and ‘Reading Rilke’) and stunning photographs of Rodin’s sculptures taken by Michael Eastman.
Rilke’s opening to the first essay (1902) also mentions ”fame”, as Musil was later to do at Rilke’s memorial.
Rodin was solitary before he was famous. And fame, when it arrived, made him perhaps even more solitary. For in the end fame is no more than the sum of all the misunderstandings that gather around a new name.
There are many of these around Rodin, and clarifying them would be a long, arduous, and ultimately unnecessary task. They surround the name, but not the work, which far exceed the resonance of the name, and which has become nameless, as a great plain is nameless, or a sea, which may bear a name in maps, in books, and among people, but which is in reality just vastness, movement, and depth.
The two essays by Rilke are beautiful to read, not a word “sinks below the level of the others”, a captivating and moving read, capturing the art of sculpture, the individuality of rocks, using an imagined biography of Rodin Rilke is able to sculpt a vision of a genius through his words on the page. I could quote any paragraph to demonstrate Rilke’s masterful approach. Here’s one about Rodin’s reading habits;
From Dante he came to Baudelaire. This was no tribunal of judgement, no poet ascending on the hand of a shadow to heaven. Here, rather, was a simple human being, a mere mortal who suffered like everyone, lifting his voice high above the divine, as if to save us all from destruction. And there were sections of these lyrics that stood out from the rest, passages that seemed to be formed more than written, words and groups of words that were molded in the hot hands of the poet, lines like reliefs to the touch, and sonnets like columns with twisted capitals, bearing the weight of troubled thoughts. He felt dimly that the abrupt ruptures of this art ran up against the beginnings of another art, and that it longed for this other art. He came to think of Baudelaire as a predecessor, an artist who refused to be led astray by faces but sought bodies instead, in which life was greater, more gruesome and more restless.
A thoroughly beautiful book that is worth adding to any collection and one that I will be revisiting, Rilke masterfully creating a vision of the genius sculptor, and a short twenty-five years later Musil was to deliver a heartfelt address at the memorial to such a writer.
More Musil is coming here, I know I promised something on his two novellas which appeared as ‘Unions’, I’ve just read another captivating essay by Musil where his brain is arguing with him about the structure, subject and form of ‘Unions’, so possibly that will come next on my Musil posting spree.