Monday, August 27, 2007

Rainer Maria Rilke: Myths, Masks,
    & the Literature of a Life

Louis Menand's discussion of "the biography business" in his August 6 New Yorker article, "Lives of Others," contains several observations that interest me greatly in light of my own biographical adventures researching and composing my novel about Rainer Maria Rilke, Lost Son.

Menand emphasizes that the task of biographical objectivity is a fundamentally impossible one, because "people lie in letters all the time, and they use diaries to moan and to vent. These are rarely sites for balanced and considered reflection. They are sites for gossip, flattery, and self-deception. But diaries and letters are the materials with which biographies are built, generally in the belief that the 'real' person is the private person, and the public person is mostly a performance."

Laying Menand's comments into the context of Rainer Maria Rilke's life, we find this gauntlet of public-versus-private assuming a new and compelling intensity.

If ever a life demanded a biographer rely upon letters and diaries, it was Rilke's. For biographical fodder we have his poetic corpus and published prose works, a few journals, some remarkable accounts by friends and contemporaries, and Rilke's more than 11,000 letters. Astonishingly, all the material, at every juncture, presents an image of Man and Work unified—in other words, we find a figure who lived in a state of ceaseless poetic disposition.
For Rilke the line between public and private did not exist. He presented to the world the persona of the unadulterated artist (committed wholly and exclusively, at every private hour, to his work) and he seems to have embodied this persona in all his private moments as well.

But biography demands that the biographer bifurcate his subject. As Menand notes, the actual person must be isolated from the public persona. It's an art of balanced scrutiny into the particulars of a life, in search of the peculiarly 'real' figure behind the familiar public performer. The expert on a famous life works in sympathy to the reader's desire to see the masks of the famous dead pulled away. Indeed, at their most cynical, biographers are sophisticated iconoclasts, presenting a biographical logic of reduction (often in the form of psychoanalysis). For example, it was Henry David Thoreau's latent homosexuality that provoked his fierce espousal of solitude (rather than Thoreau's natural inclination to be alone with nature and the whim of his thought).

Certainly, though, the wish to de-mask the famous dead can be understood on a very human level. With the passing of time our great ones become more legend, less human. The loftier their exaltation, the more their power to inspire us pales. Conversely, if our famous foregoers were evil they become hyperboles of infamy. We find it impossible to draw morals from their stories. How to learn from human failures of the heart if the failers had no hearts to begin with? Demigods, be they evil or beneficent, are little use to posterity. We want to preserve the humanity of our famous dead. As Menand puts it, "Biographies of the powerful and famous that humanize their subjects may play some kind of egalitarian social role."

In his remarkable study, Rainer Maria Rilke: Masks & the Man, H.F. Peters addresses the special challenge confronting a Rilke biographer: "The true poet is both a man transformed and a transformer. He has no other function. Outside his work he may be a philistine, a fool, or a criminal. What he is does not matter provided he turns it into poetry. The crux of the Rilke problem is that he turned his whole life into poetry. That is why it is so difficult to isolate the man." (p.33—my emphasis).

Rilke's mask never dropped. So can it be called a mask at all? "He willed to be an artist," Peters writes, "even if it meant the death of the man: that is the real meaning of the Rilke myth." (p.46)

The "Rilke myth" is exactly what so fascinates the poet's biographers: the paradox of a life that is thoroughly documented and yet simultaneously traceless. We cannot separate the man from his image. Rilke consciously managed to make himself into art. Mythmaker and hero were one in the same.

The poet's 11,000 letters were written tirelessly over a 35-year period. He took immense pains with each of them, composing page after page in his gorgeous, calligraphic script. Frequently he re-wrote whole sheaves rather than stand for ink blotches or unsightly deletions. Most letters he copied by hand and neatly filed for his own records. His letters make him one of the greatest self-chroniclers of the 20th-century, and at every phase it seems he was intently constructing his own persona. In his final days, Rilke expressly approved the publication of his correspondence, saying it constituted an important element of his work.

The letters rehearse the story of his life, from his very unpromising beginnings, through his ongoing tribulations of homelessness and alienation, adoration and heartbreak, his incapacity to be loved, his brushes with incandescent beauty—all experienced in the name of art. Finally, he even records his pains while lying at the threshold of death from leukemia at age 51.

Writing to Magda von Hattingberg on February 8, 1914, Rilke uses an image of construction when speaking of his own existence: "My loving friend, you see, my life was never given a foundation, no one was able to imagine what it would want to become. In Venice there stands the so-called Ca del Duca, a princely foundation, on which later the most wretched tenement came to be built. With me it's the opposite: the beautiful arched elevations of my spirit rest on the most tentative beginning; a wooden scaffolding, a few boards....Is that why I feel inhibited in raising the nave, the tower to which the weight of the great bells is to be hoisted (by angels, who else could do it)?"▫

A later revealing letter, written in December 1922 to a young admirer, shows Rilke explicitly acknowledging his lifelong labor of constructing, through his art (in Rilke's case this term includes personal letters), his own valid and meaningful myth. He points his correspondent directly to the persona he's fashioned: "I direct you further, out beyond me, to the figure I am building for myself, outside, more validly and more lastingly. Hold on to that, if it seems big and significant to you. Who knows who I am? I change and change. But it is the boundary of my transformation, its pure rim: if it radiates love to you, deeply, good: then let us both believe in it."**

Louis Menand wonders "whether the bits and pieces on which biographical narratives are often strung are not a little arbitrary...Once these 'pivotal moments' or primal episodes get established in the literature, they acquire an unstoppable explanatory force." Indeed, in Rilke's case, it's the biographical subject himself who established the pivotal moments—and given that a literary master outlined the events, it's no wonder their 'explanatory force' has proven unstoppable.

Rilke strung his life-narrative onto an armature of a few very key episodes, obsessively and repeatedly testifying to their importance. They include: being raised as a girl by his mother following the loss of an infant daughter prior to his birth; suffering, as a young and sickly boy, five miserable years of military school; having a superstitious spirituality instilled by his mother early on, accounting for his lifelong sensitivity to ghosts and the subharmonic vibrations of the spiritual; his artistic coming-of-age under the influence of Lou Andreas-Salomé, mother-figure and muse; his reverence before the Master Rodin, who became father and idol in one.

Menand observes, "All any biographer can hope, and all any reasonably skeptical reader can expect, is that the necessarily somewhat fictional character in [a biography] bears some resemblance to the person who actually lived and died, and whose achievements (and disgraces) we care to learn more about. A biography is a tool for imagining another person, to be used along with other tools. It is not a window or a mirror."

In Rilke's case, the "necessarily somewhat fictional character" is all we have. Even reports by his friends corroborate the image he projected in every moment of his personal life—a poet's image.

Stefan Zweig's remarks upon Rilke's death appropriately invoke the metaphor of construction: "No one has fully known his inner life...devout stonemason on the never-to-be-completed cathedral of the language. [He toiled softly,] silently as with all great work, remote from the world like all that is perfect."

"One felt him," said Edmond Jaloux, "without interests on earth, his face ever turned towards those verities which are never expressed."

Rudolf Kassner commented famously, "Rilke was poet and personality even when simply washing his hands."

Paul Valéry called him "a man who more than anyone else possessed all the wonderful anguish and secrets of the spirit."

And Lou Andreas-Salomé, who enjoyed a greater, longer intimacy with Rilke than anybody, said: "Deep in the heart of anyone who saw it happen, a realization remains of how little could be done to alleviate Rainer's final loneliness, which his hand blocked from vision for a moment only, on the mountain's peak, shielding him from the abyss into which he sprang. Those who saw it happen could only let it happen. Powerless and reverent."* And in another place, Lou wrote: "Were this loner, who was isolated in death, still with us, I believe he would feel most immediately at home in the deepest anonymity of his work's effects."†

Rilke's "necessarily somewhat fictional character" and his poetic work existed in a powerful symbiosis. He could not produce art except within the personal cosmogony he'd created—and that cosmogony itself could not endure without the body of work to express it and sustain it. In this sense, Rilke did no "pretending" or "performing" that might enable a biographer to sever the man from the work. Is he who devotes every waking hour to pretending really a pretender? Sometimes, perhaps, authenticity is more than a matrix of involuntary attributes; sometimes it's produced by a matter of pure will. Rilke's ghost continues to demand that his life be studied in whole—man and work as one.

Donald Prater concludes his remarkable biography, A Ringing Glass: The Life of Rainer Maria Rilke, with these cogent observations: "He reached out toward experience of the senses in the real life he praised, but constantly drew back again into an essentially unreal existence, 'ahead of all departure', to transform into the language peculiarly his own the 'glorious tapestry' of the world and of human emotion. In the process he transformed himself. The Rilke that emerges from the poetry and the letters is a construct, an ideal self...The friends who were so eager to help him were probably as far from knowing the real person as many who are beguiled by his words today or who add another stone of interpretation to the mounting edifice of Rilke scholarship."(p.411)

Given the imperviousness of the Rilke myth and the Rilkean demands it continues to place on the researcher, given the fascinating circumstances in which the poet worked to establish the myth (for himself and the sake of his art more than anything), I believe the "necessarily somewhat fictional character" of Rainer Maria Rilke is marvelously suited for exploration in a novel. He fictionalized himself, made himself into a work of literature—something essentially dreamt-up.

Rilke's self-created literature of a life continues (as all great literature does) to resonate the human, the true. I hope Lost Son resonates too.

▫p.27 of Rilke & Benvenuta: An Intimate Correspondence; translator Joel Agee (Fromm, 1987)
**p.312 of Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke 1910-1926; translators Jane B. Greene & M.D. Herter Norton (W.W. Norton, 1972)
*p.84 of Looking Back by Lou Andreas-Salomé; translator: Breon Mitchell (Paragon House, 1991)
†p.127 of You Alone Are Real to Me by Lou Andreas-Salomé; translator: Angela von der Lippe (BOA Editions, 2003)