Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Rilke in Paris: 105 Years Ago

On this day in 1902 Rainer Maria Rilke arrived for the first time in Paris. He was twenty-six. He and Clara Westhoff had been married for a year and a half. Their daughter Ruth was 10 months old.

Rilke came to Paris alone, and Clara planned to join him after an indefinite period. Little Ruth would be cared for by Clara's parents. Rilke and Clara didn't know how long they would remain in the city, but they knew their quaint household in Westerwede, in the north of Germany, would be dissolved.

Rilke's main purpose in journeying to Paris was to make the acquaintance of Auguste Rodin and write a monograph about the great sculptor. The monograph had been commissioned by the Berlin publisher Richard Muther.

Paris proved an immediate shock to the poet. His accomodations were shabby, and he found the Latin Quarter claustrophobic and bristling with squalor. Paris generally seemed to him a city of the dead. His arrival there marked a major turning point in his life and his art -- and thus would prove a landmark moment for modern literature.

Out of Rilke's experiences in Paris came the remarkable book on Rodin, and -- eventually -- a magnificent novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, as well as the New Poems (which include "The Panther," "The Archaic Torso of Apollo," and many other famous works).

At the beginning of Lost Son, Rilke has just made this signicant arrival, and the city quickly sends him reeling:

'The City was against me. It rose up before my life and was like an examination I could not pass.'

Three long days alone with Paris. It seems a lifetime of sorts. Rainer walks about in a troubled thrall. The dim crevasses of the Quartier Latin digest him and even for his Baedeker he is lost. He must widen his stride to overstep lank piles of trash heaped in the streets, pockets of dross and litter amongst the cobblestones. Rag pickers trundle toward him steering their rude and wobbling carts and he must stop and turn himself flat to a wall to let them by. In the grim fissures of lanes or alleyways sallow people stand amidst the puddles in sagging clothes, back between the houses where the huge worms of the pipes droop from the walls like vermin killed and curing. He sees small children peering up from sullied basement windows: pale hairless wastrels like moles. And just as the gutters along every street bear the sluglike flow of fluids, so does a strange and abounding fear coagulate in the very air, hardening into sound till it seems some discarnate voice is spluttering the name of this place with malfeasant insistence: ParisssParisssParisss! A name somehow reptilian, infernal in its pop and hiss: Parisssss. Fork-tongued city. It's fast becoming his private capital of fear.

And yet it is a great city, and not without beauty, certainly not -- and isn't that natural: for such dread to be bedfellow to such beauty? At the end of this momentous apprenticeship beginning now in Paris, Rainer Maria Rilke will write:

'The beautiful is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we still unguardedly endure, / and we admire it so because it spurns us, stopping short of our destruction.'

But these streets. These streets engulf the poet as they have long since engulfed the gaunt gray man he sees daily guarding the door of Saint Etienne du Mont: the man's rheumatic hand cupped in front of him, his dumb mouth contorted in an effort toward words. The man tries and tries, but never speaks. And it seems he means to utter some inexpressible gratitude, with never a thought of whether a single charitable coin has fallen to his big-knuckled hand.

Rainer sees at once how easily he himself could go under in that manner, this city's sea of anonymity churning him down and his every word snared fast in its greasy undertow.

He's to meet Rodin on first September, when the sculptor expects him in his Paris atelier. Till then, in his sordid fifth-story silence, the poet wrestles with the need inside him. Need that incessantly makes itself felt but cowers when he gives it leave to come forth as work. He sits at the broken desk, the window open at his side, and the need is a confused shudder; he cannot tell its meaning. He waits at the desk, full of readiness. The need won't slacken, and neither will it bring anything forth. But Rainer does not move from the desk, for this time spent at the desk is the reason he's come to this city. For this he's abandoned everything, in order, perhaps, that everything might return to him somehow.

Outside, far below in the street, people are laughing. Laughing and running. Feet tromping by in breathless clatter. And it's the laughter of something big and profoundly contemptuous. The clatter of everything within him: running away....

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