Friday, August 24, 2007

    "I'd Like to Be His Brother:"
Hermann Hesse on Rilke

Thoughts by the wonderful Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) on the occasion of Rainer Maria Rilke's death:

"When the poet Rilke died a few months ago one could tell clearly enough from the attitude of the intellectual world —- partly from its silence but even more from what was said —- how in our time the poet as the purest type of the inspired human being, caught between the mechanical world and the world of intellectual industriousness, is forced as it were into an airless room and condemned to suffocate.

We have no right to denounce the times on this account. These times are no worse and no better than other times. They are heaven for him who shares their goals and ideals, and hell for him who rebels against them. Now the poet, if he wishes to be true to his heritage and calling, dare not commit himself either to the success-mad world where lives are dominated by industry and organization, or to the world of rationalized spirituality which seems on the whole to dominate our universities, but since it is the poet's single duty and mission to be the servant, knight, and advocate of the soul, he sees himself at the present world-instant condemned to a loneliness and suffering that is not every man's affair. We all guard ourselves against suffering, each of us would like to receive a little kindness and warmth from the world and would like to see himself understood and supported by those around him. So we observe the majority of our present-day poets (their number is small in any case) in one way or another adapting themselves to the time and its spirit, and it is just these poets who meet with the greatest superficial success. On the other hand, others fall silent and come to destruction in the airless space of this hell.

Still others, however —- Rilke belongs amongst them -— take the suffering upon themselves, subject themselves to fate, and do not rebel when they see that the crown that other times bestowed on poets has today become a crown of thorns. My love belongs to these poets, I honor them, I would like to be their brother. We suffer but not in order to protest or to curse. We suffocate in the, for us, unbreathable air of the world of machines and barbaric necessities that surround us, but we do not separate ourselves from the whole, we accept this suffering and suffocation as our part of the world fate, as our mission, as our trial.

We believe in none of the ideals of this time, not that of the dictators, nor that of the bolsheviks, not that of the professors, nor that of industrialists. But we believe that man is immortal and that his image can emerge again, healed of every distortion, freed from every hell. We believe in the soul whose rights and needs, however long and harshly suppressed can never die. We do not seek to enlighten our time, or to improve it, or to instruct it, but by revealing to it our own suffering and our own dreams we try to open to it again and again the world of images, the world of the soul, the world of experience. These dreams are in part evil dreams of anxiety, these images are in part cruel horror pictures—we dare not embellish them, we dare not disown them. We dare not hide the fact that the soul of mankind is in danger and close to the abyss. But we dare not conceal either that we believe in its immortality."
—Hermann Hesse, 1927

This passage is found in the Hesse collection, My Belief, Essays on Life & Art, translated by Denver Lindley.


  1. Hermann Hesse is one of my favorite authors...Part of the quote reminds me a bit of what the theologian, Paul Tillich, had to say regarding the role of artists: "The creators of modern art have been able to see the meaninglessness of our existence; they participated in its despair. At the same time they have had the courage to face it and to express it in their pictures and sculptures." (Courage to Be, 147-148) Tillich writes at length about such existential matters best expressed by writers such a Rilke, TS Eliot, and the like...Thanks for the great quotation.

  2. Thank you for the Tillich, Allison. Yes, in his Ninth Duino Elegy Rilke puts it this way (this is David Young's beautiful translation) :

    "Between the hammer strokes / our hearts survive / like the tongue / that between the teeth / and in spite of everything / goes on praising."

    Best wishes in your reading.