Wo ist zu diesem Innen
—Rainer Maria Rilke, New Poems, II
Disturbed by what he saw, smelled, and heard from the city that was foreign to his ear and to his sensibilities, twenty-six-year-old Rainer Maria Rilke passed his nights in Paris among company well known for mixing wretchedness with exultation: Job and Baudelaire. In a letter to Lou Andreas-
Salomé, he describes the unlikely consolation the French poet provided him at the time:
How far away from me [Baudelaire] was in everything, one of the most alien to me; often I can scarcely understand him, and yet sometimes deep in the night when I said his words after him like a child, then he was the person closest to me and lived beside me and stood pale behind the thin wall and listened to my voice falling. What a strange companionship was between us then, a sharing of everything, the same poverty and perhaps the same fear.
A strange companionship indeed!—particularly when the feelings he describes are those one might experience with one’s wife in the same setting: living together, listening, sharing, and fearing. The year was 1902, and in coming to Paris alone to write his first of two monographs on Rodin, Rilke regrettably left such possibilities behind in Germany, along with his infant daughter Ruth (who on later visits would simply call him “Man,” or, if he was lucky, “Good Man”). Though he still preserved a refined intimacy with his wife through the medium of their ongoing correspondence, Rilke was already actively protecting himself from the perceived threat of creative dissolution that family life brings to the artist.
Beyond this too-ordinary fear, and others that arose from exposure to the poverty and helplessness of many of the people he encountered daily, and which made him feel his own poverty and strangeness all the more acutely, what further anxiety was Rilke indicating when he made his experience companion to Baudelaire’s? Rilke found himself being pulled further into a new life by that pale figure who stood guard behind his wall through a need they held in common—to think and to write about art. This activity provided a vantage point, away from the poetry, on what they needed to see and know about most. Though lacking the ratiocinative panache of Baudelaire’s art criticism, Rilke’s art ruminations both reflect a seriousness and receptivity as though his own poetic development depended directly upon how well he could see and also metamorphose that vision into language.
Rilke was neither a deliberate scholar nor an art historian. The critical appraisal one artist gives to another differs from the work of an ordinary critic because each artist looks to the other for a model that is not merely aesthetic, cultural, or political, but existential. Again to Andreas-Salomé:
I must follow him, Rodin: not in a sculptural reshaping of my creative work, but in the inner disposition of the artistic process; I must learn from him not how to fashion but deep composure for the sake of the fashioning. I must learn to work, to work.
The refrain of work-discipline is central to Rilke’s thought of the period.
What comes through most clearly in Rilke’s responses to Rodin, and what makes the poet’s work in this area stand apart from others of its kind, is the intimation that a dynamic rediscovery of the original meaning for the word “poet”—in Greek, ποιητ?ς, or maker—is taking place. What does a maker make? Things, of course, Rilke answers. The maker makes things. But how are we to understand this term that risks meaninglessness by meaning too much? Most writers on the subject agree that Rilke’s encounter with Rodin’s formidable oeuvre gave the younger poet a stronger sense of the concrete dimensions of “things” that would have a transitional effect on his poetry. It further seems unlikely that Rilke would have been able to experience the work of Cézanne as he did, had he not had his time with Rodin.
What makes a poet write about a fellow maker? For one, Rodin’s fame and notoriety were both well established by the turn of the century: he did not need the promotion of another monograph. In comparison, the virtually unknown Rilke had much to gain from writing one himself. To link his name with the established artist would raise his own literary stature in ways that writing about comparatively obscure art colonies in Germany would never do. In one of his earliest letters to the sculptor, whom he already addressed as “my Master,” Rilke took no trouble to conceal this fact: “Your art is such that it knows how to give bread and gold to painters, to poets, to sculptors: to all artists who go their way of suffering, desiring nothing but that ray of eternity which is the supreme goal of the creative life.” In accord with most of Rilke’s biographers, William Gass’s introduction to Auguste Rodin emphasizes the bread and gold of this and other letters in order to show that this period for the poet was one of hazy career options and pecuniary difficulties. Rilke lived in a world, in Gass’s words, yet to be filled with “fancy estates occupied by susceptible titled ladies,” one in which virtually any income-producing commission would be welcome.
Just nine days after his first meeting with the elder artist, Rilke wrote him a letter in an effort better to express his intentions beyond the limitations of his conversational French. He announces: “It was not only to do a study that I came to be with you—it was to ask you: how must one live? And you replied: by working.”
Rilke continues on to describe his own creative process that had, to date, depended too intensely on inspiration to descend upon him, a method which left him with “a life full of abysses.” His fault, he perceives, is that “I didn’t have the courage to bring back the distant inspirations by working. Now I know that it is the only way of keeping them.—And it is the great rebirth of my life and of my hope you have given me.” These observations would find themselves again, in altered form, in the 1907 monograph in which he imagines a man repeatedly asking Rodin “What was your life like?” This question is a particularization of its general form in the letter, and Rilke’s criticism seeks to address both as much as possible.
A remarkable feature of both the 1902 and 1907 monographs is that they are largely dilations on the intuitions and observations Rilke made about Rodin and his work during those early September days after their first meeting. These initial observations appear, not surprisingly, in letters to his wife, Clara. They reveal a consciousness in a state of extraordinary receptivity and are animated by his bearing witness to what it actually looks like to be a successful maker. Rilke says to his wife, “That is the principal thing—not to remain with the dream, with the intention, with the being-in-the-mood, but always forcibly to convert it all into things. As Rodin did . . . to make, to make is the thing.” The artist, he continues, makes the very ground whereupon he will take his stand.
It is clear how unfashionable the idea of an artist seeking that one thing upon which to build artistic identity has become. But in both monographs, Rilke deems it the essential and indeed the most freeing part of the artist’s development. In 1902, he associates the moment with the artist’s discovery of “the fundamental element of his art” and “the germ of his world.” It is the central point from which all works radiate with the beauty of self-generated centrifugal force. For Rodin, it is the discovery of what Rilke alternately calls the “plane” and “surface” (Rodin called it “le modelé”). The world itself and everything in it arises from this ground and offers endlessly vital gestures for the making. Paradoxically, it is clear that the art objects taken together are all of the same stuff, made from the same sensibility, and yet each one is invested with the inviolate reality of its own individual existence. The surface is still distinct from the heart of the thing; it is the difference between the corporeal and the immaterial. And yet as the artist commits to the tactile medium, it is “the life of the spirit” that appears at one with it.
Though the tone of the 1907 monograph is more philosophical compared with the first—it was based on a series of lectures he gave in the capacity of Rodin’s secretary—they hold certain elements in common. In both, Rilke variously shifts his gaze from sketchy historical backgrounds, to impressionistic biography, to the sculptor’s transformative discoveries, and finally to discussions of particular pieces. Rilke is wisely selective in these and uses the works themselves to mark Rodin’s biography, with the implication that it is the works that govern the artist’s development more than experience per se. The portrait bust of L’Homme au nez cassé (The Man with a Broken Nose), rejected by the 1864 Salon, already evidenced the sculptor’s early maturity. This alongside L’Homme des premiers âges (Age of Bronze), the gesture for which he splendidly describes as “the repose enclosed in a hard bud,” constitutes Rodin’s initial and comprehensive apprehension of the integrity of the human body.
As for literary influences, Rilke finds another point in common with Rodin: reenter Baudelaire, this time alongside Dante. Those poets provided stimulating images for an artist’s imagination, but moreover, taken together, they created an intelligible sense of history within which Rodin might carve his own place. The latter gave the sculptor a feeling for timeless suffering and judgment who in turn applied it to works such as the Gates of Hell. Baudelaire showed him that tradition need not exclude the present, but that the present provides suffering of a certain caliber that amplifies and transforms that tradition. Rilke further perceives a sculptural quality in Baudelaire’s works, “passages that seemed to be formed more than written” and “lines like reliefs to the touch, and sonnets like columns with twisted capitals, bearing the weight of troubled thoughts.” This affinity later manifested itself in the drawings Rodin created to illustrate Les Fleurs du mal for “a tasteful collector.”
Accordingly, Rilke takes some trouble to highlight Rodin’s extensive collection of two-dimensional works, from watercolor to dry-point etchings. Apart from the details of the works, Rilke emphasizes the layers upon which Rodin had come to build his sculptures. The drawings hover invisibly about the figures but charge them with a greater robustness—a better way to practice seeing than if he had worked only in three dimensions. Further in line with Rilke’s own intense feelings of assimilation and development, the two-dimensional works were preparation for the weightier pieces yet to come.
In 1907 Rilke was finally able to put his finger upon what, for him, was at stake in Rodin’s work. What the poet wanted to find was something that could apply not only to the discipline of sculpture, but to poets in the original sense of the term. Beauty: it was still something valuable (even if this was the same year, incidentally, that Picasso’s masked prostitutes stalked into the same city). But, as Rilke explains, beauty is never something an artist “makes.” This transitional insight he uses to flesh out for himself that ever-elusive idea of the artist’s calling:
The artist who is guided by this knowledge does not need to think of beauty; in fact, he knows no better than any one else what it consists of. Directed by an urge to fulfill a purpose far beyond himself, he knows only that there are certain conditions under which beauty may come to the things he makes. And his calling consists of getting to know these conditions, and gaining the ability to produce them.
To illustrate this point we might look to Rilke’s own concurrent project of New Poems (1907–8). Significantly, he dedicated the second part A mon grand Ami Auguste Rodin, but both volumes reveal how Rilke was able to put his reflection and insight to work in his poetry. For instance, the poem “Früher Apollo” (“Early Apollo”) of volume one reveals a building upon, if not a direct response to, the poet’s own description of Rodin’s L’Homme des premiers âges. The way the two works, one in bronze, the other on blue paper, interrelate shows how far Rilke had internalized the idea of preparation and work—in other words, the conditions necessary for the spontaneous appearance of beauty. In the 1902 monograph, Rilke reads the youth’s expression as the pain and longing of a “difficult awakening” and that “every part was a mouth giving voice to it in some way.” He becomes “the silhouette of a tree facing spring storms, fearful because the fruit and fullness of its summer no longer lives in the roots, but rather is rising slowly, up through the trunk buffeted by great winds.” The hand resting on the crown of his head readies itself for the work to come, and the right foot is poised to take the first step. In “Früher Apollo” (here in M. D. Herter Norton’s translation), he opens the poem with a strikingly similar image:
Wie manchesmal durch das noch unbelaubte
Gezwieg ein Morgen durchsieht, der schon ganz
im Frühling ist: so ist in seinem Haupte
nichts, was verhindern könnte, das der Glanz
aller Gedichte uns fast tödlich träfe
[As many a time through the yet unleaved
branches a morn looks through that is already all in spring: so is there in his head
naught that could hinder the glory of all poems
from falling almost fatally upon us]
It is not so much that Rilke is sculpting out an image, but the lines run over and across each other with the peculiar fluidity of a Rodin sculpture. But whereas the inspiration of Rilke’s Apollo still comes from on high, as suitable for the god, Rodin’s modern figure draws his sap from the earth. And Rilke had come to see that both forces are required to create the conditions for something to happen in the work of art that makes the difference between what expires and what lives.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 9, on page 53
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