March 3, 2011

Not Prisoners

The Bedroom, by Vincent van Gogh

If we imagine our being as a room of any size, it seems that most of us know only a single corner of that room, a spot by the window, a narrow strip on which we keep walking back and forth. That gives a kind of security. But isn't insecurity with all its dangers so much more human?

We are not prisoners of that room.

Borgeby gärd, Sweden, August 12, 1904
Letters to a Young Poet


  1. The 'walking back and forth' reminds us of Rilke's panther, doesn't it?

    Not only (for most of us) does our own being remain largely unexplored, but the world outside our being is also unknown. Though secure, we are stunted and dissatisfied in our narrow comfort zone - how much more human and fulfilling, if more dangerous, to break out of that room and 'bloom recklessly'!

    I found this liberating, exhilarating and intoxicating.

  2. What a great observation, Robert, to remember the panther. That's a great image to layer with this reading and your comment. The confinement itself can be an allurement, for its safety and comfort. Strange to envision the sense of security growing simultaneously with a sense of dissatisfaction and restlessness.

    This is a reminder to me to expose myself to experience, art, writing, music, and other things in the world that I don't "like" much. It's awfully easy to keep after the stuff that is very appealing to me, and that can become a cage of sorts because I become opinionated about the things outside my little room of "likes."

  3. This reminded me of a book I just finished reading - Room, by Emma Donoghue. Told from the perspective of a five year old who is held captive in an 11 x 11 foot room with his mother, it illuminates how we can confine ourselves in our thoughts, outlook, expectations, and experiences. It does give a kind of security, but at a very high cost.

  4. With Rilke, everything was in one sense poetry. He found Paris in the early years of the first decade of 1900 to be liberating in one way and confining in another. There was love with Clara, but middle-class mores of marriage he found suffocating. The city was Rodin, a hammer to break oneself open by, yet city life was also a warren of noisy neighbors and other intrusions upon solitude. And while his poetry was becoming was visionary - at least, filled with sights -- yet the Outside intruded upon his Inside. What he longed for most were wide-open spaces of verse, the Russian steppes he loved, cold winds off the Adriatic sea (where he first heard the Angel of the Elegies). So Rilke left Paris, beginning his long years of restless wandering.

    "Insecurity with all its human dangers" to Rilke was not the insecurity which comes with every human encounter, but rather abandonment to the sea-wilderness within. In 1914, he'd articulate this in "To Holderlin":

    ... To you, O majestic poet, to you the compelling image,
    O caster of spells, was a life, entire; . . .

    --- O wandering spirit, most wandering of all! How snugly
    the others live in their heated poems and stay,
    content, in their narrow similes. . . .

    . . . No one
    gave it away more sublimely, gave it back
    more fully to the universe, without any need to hold on.
    Thus for years that you no longer counted you played
    with infinite joy, as though it were not inside you,
    but lay, belonging to no one, all around
    on the gentle lawns of the earth, where the godlike children had left it.
    Ah, what the greatest have longed for: you built it, free of desire,
    stone upon stone, until it stood. And when it collapsed,
    even then you weren’t bewildered.

    Why, after such an eternal life, do we still
    mistrust the earthly? Instead of patiently learning from transience
    the emotion for what future
    slopes of the heart, in pure space?

    * * *

    For Rilke, it was death to "stay, content" in "heated poems" "with their narrow similes" -- such a small corner of the Great Room!

    - Brendan

  5. i wonder if fear is placed in us as the clearest picture of our true work. steven

  6. Oh yes this is just what I was circling this morning- (vis-a-vis the memoir format).All the unsaid, undone- outside the balloon flowers
    of actuality. Thanks for posting.

  7. to climb outside of the room is to enter a great foyer that leads out into gardens and beyond that through cities and beyond that to the Russian steppes Rilke loved and beyond that into the cold winds off the Adriatic sea and in each room passing breathes with fleshy lungs both life and death.

    i am liking Rilke more and more. and the confines of my room less and less.


  8. To Anonymous, that sounds like a chilling book.

    Brendan, so, as Rilke opened, his needs changed. We evolve, so what works one day may not work the next. That’s why each moment is new, and eternal at the same time . . . patiently learning from / transience / the emotion for what future / slopes of the heart, in pure space . . . Thank you.

    steven, I am not sure I understand, but maybe it’s what I’ve been thinking about sadness too, reflecting Rilke on his earlier post, that it’s from sadness that we learn the most, because something new comes.

    izzy and erin, outside . . . looking for actuality, experience, open air . . . it is what comes from outside that renews us. The things, the things of the world. But we have to transform them inside ourselves, and then re-express them back out to the world.

    Or something.

  9. "Oh the joy, ever new, out of loosened soil!"

    I've just discovered your blog ... Thank you so much! ... Rilke is my "first poet" --> I bought Stephen Mitchell's translations of Rilke back in 1984, and now it's tattered, scribbled in, dog-eared, falling apart, exploding with loosened pages every time I open it ...

    What a gift! :-)

  10. I like what Steven is getting at, that fear is both what keeps us stuck and a spur to action, to breaking out, because when we face fear we can transform it and use it.

    Fear is, as Margaret Wheatley has described it in her wonderful little book "Perseverance", "fundamental to being human". We all know what it's like to feel insecure, to feel fear. But how many of us retreat to the bedroom? As Wheatley remarks, "What's important is to decide is what we do with our fear. We can withdraw, flee, distract or numb ourselves. Or we can acknowledge that we're scared. And stay right here. We can stay where we are and bravely investigate our fear... Our investigation moves us closer and closer, and then the fear begins to change. Paradoxically, the more we engage directly with it, the less fearful it becomes...."

    I think that Steven's "clearest picture of our true work" is that embracing of the fear that causes us to not want to step off that "narrow strip . . . that gives a kind of security".

  11. think Rilke wrote away his fear in some of his poems where he's slowly expanding his space..feeling his way around and sometimes you can sense his heart beating with fear of what will await him when he takes the next step..

  12. Yes, the panther, the frustration, the stifling fear...But how to break out of the confines of a room, find one's own Adriatic?
    Interesting that one of the commenters chose "To Hölderlin" a guy who spent much of his life in a tower...
    Oh, Rilke, it is precisely the dangers of insecurity that keep so many of us hidden behind our windows!


"Everything is blooming most recklessly; if it were voices instead of colors, there would be an unbelievable shrieking into the heart of the night."

~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Go ahead, bloom recklessly!