January 27, 2011

The Solitude We Are

To speak again of solitude, it becomes ever clearer that in truth there is nothing we can choose or avoid. We are solitary. We can delude ourselves and act as if this were not so. That is all we can do. How much better to realize from the start that that is what we are, and to proceed from there. It can, of course, make us dizzy, for everything our eyes rest upon will be taken from us, no longer is anything near, and what is far is endlessly far.

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

Note about Rodin's hand sculpture, "Cathedral," found here:

Rodin was a highly original sculptural genius but he openly acknowledged his indebtedness to the artists who had preceded him; the masters of ancient Greece and The Renaissance; Phidias, Donatello, Michelangelo. He was also intensely interested in Gothic art, the cathedrals of France. After viewing and studying the Magnificent cathedral at Amiens he felt that the basic inspiration came from the voices of nature, from the trees with their strong limbs reaching upward. In the two right hands with fingers arching together he probably thought that he had discovered the source and inspiration for the gothic arch, that arch which with repetition and expansion led to the creation of the superb gothic cathedrals. The hands are obviously those of separate individuals. A spiritual communication between the two is expressed but the fingers and hands remain slightly separated. Could he, through that separation, have been expressing the aloneness of all human beings, the desire for a complete unification which is never realized?


  1. I believe this is my favorite sculpture so far. Fingertips are so sensitive, and holding a hand so intimate ( at least to me it is). Of course, I'm not talking about a hand shake! Yes, I agree with Rilke here. Even in a crowded room, one can be painfully aware that we are solitary beings. Although I don't agree with his comment about not being able to choose. Did he believe things were pre-destined?

  2. Rodin’s Cathedral hands is a stunning and moving work of art. When I first saw it in person I gasped and seemingly held the gasp for a good long time. And it makes for a magnificent pairing with Rilke’s discussion of solitude, here and elsewhere. I do not want to anticipate future daily readings in which we will see the importance Rilke placed on solitude and on the need to experience it as good whenever it comes to us, but I will include below some quotes:

    my loneliness first has to be firm and secure again like a forest where no one ever set foot and which has no fear of steps. It must lose all emphasis, exceptionality, and obligation. It must become routine, completely natural and quotidian. The thoughts that enter, even the most fleeting ones, must find me all alone; then they will decide to trust me again.

    And in this sculpture there is an exquisite tension between the tender closeness of the two hands and their separation; they caress, yet they are not intertwined, and they seem to form the arched nave of a cathedral. If they were to interlock, the nave would disappear; were they to separate, the cathedral would collapse. I can think of no better illustration of the role Rilke assigns to solitude in love:

    I consider the following to be the highest task in the relation between two people: for one to stand guard over the other’s solitude. If the essential nature of both indifference and the crowd consists in the nonrecognition of solitude, then love and friendship exist in order to continually furnish new opportunities for solitude. And only those commonalities are true that rhythmically interrupt deep states of loneliness . . .

    To “stand guard over the other’s solitude”; how many of us are truly prepared to do this in our relationships? This notion reminds me of something Khalil Gibran wrote in when he likened love to a river and observed that the river disappears if the banks merge.

    Rilke visited cathedrals with Rodin and credits the latter with helping to see them more fully. In one letter to his wife Clara, he describes such a visit:

    But when we arrived at the cathedral, around the angel's corner a wind came suddenly, like some very large person, and went pitilessly right through us, sharp and cutting. "Oh," I said, "here's a storm suddenly coming up." "But don't you know," said the Master, "there is always a wind, that wind about big cathedrals. They are always surrounded by an evil, restless wind, tormented by their grandeur. It is the air falling down along the buttresses, falling from that height and wandering about the church…". Something like that the Master said it, briefer, somewhat less elaborate, more Gothic too. But something of the sort was the sense of what he meant. And in this vent errant we stood like damned souls compared with the angel holding out his dial so blissfully to a sun that he always saw...

  3. The wind around cathedrals remind me of the winds around universities, places of learning.

    Thanks for this most generous post, Lorenzo and Rilke posthumousy. It gives me a whole new appreciation of the nexus between solitude and intimacy.

  4. Yes, thank you, Lorenzo, for such a tremendous addition to the post, making it almost heartbreakingly powerful. The truth of what I feel in these quotes you've shared is painful. Rilke certainly guarded his solitude powerfully, not even living in the same country as his wife Clara, knowing his writing required solitude, ferociously. And how was this, for her? I should read some of her letters, if they are available.

    The final quote, of what Rodin said outside the cathedral, is full of so much energy, I feel I am there, standing in the winds. I also think of the film about winds, The English Patient, when Katharine's life is ebbing, and she writes in the cave about "this palace of winds." The truth is, we do die alone, but we also live alone. "for everything our eyes rest upon will be taken from us, no longer is anything near, and what is far is endlessly far." This final reality is the daily death we live with, the impermanence we face. Accepting it is the beginning of mercy.

  5. Hi, Margaret and Elisabeth. I am glad you enjoyed this. The image of the hands and the idea of lovers protecting one another's solitude are so simple, yet so redolent with possibilities. I should have mentioned that it was Ruth's keen and sentient eye that paired this photograph with this quote. This is a shared project between us. On this particular post, I typed up the Rilke, Ruth added the note and then had the masterful crowning touch to find and insert this particular image.

  6. What a magnificent pairing, Ruth and Lorenzo. Solitude is sacred and the only way we can truly commune with the universe. The Rodin sculpture is a profound illustration that though solitary we can reach out, we can touch, we can meet, but it is best done as a sort of pulsation. A coming together and a letting go. An inhalation leading to an exhalation. Touch, release. And then, there is the 'nave' space created by the moments of connection.

    I was particularly captivated when you, Lorenzo compared the space between Rodin's hands as a nave. We so often fall in love with the form and neglect to appreciate the space created by the form. The space between is sacred, electric, bathed in warmth, pulsing with information, energized, creative - like a womb.

    Rilke has been pivotal in my coming to appreciate solitude, emptiness, death, what is. It is wonderful that you give him this platform here. For those of us who already love him, your fine art pairings with his work offer the opportunity for a fresh look at passages that are old, familiar friends.

  7. I adore that sculpture and, most of all, it's name. Beautiful.

  8. Bonnie, comparing the space between Rodin's hands to a nave only seems like a logical corollary to the name of the sculpture, Cathedral, but to see it as a 'womb' as you do, in your beautiful words "The space between is sacred, electric, bathed in warmth, pulsing with information, energized, creative - like a womb" is simply inspired. The kind of wonderful inspiration that makes one see for the first time what thenceforth becomes very obvious.

    Full disclosure: as I have said before in comments, I make no pretence of being a Rilke expert. Quite the contrary, I have only begun reading him recently thanks in no small part to seeing him quoted by you and other bloggers. To a large extent I credit you, George of Transit Notes, Robert of Solitary Walker, and, of course, Ruth, as persons who have helped steer me to Rilke.

  9. Significant quote from Rilke, and wonderful comments. Yes - despite friends, family, society - at ground we are all solitary. That can indeed be a painful awareness, even a frightening one. But I have found it's an awareness that, if we work through it, can give us strength.

  10. I find it very comforting to hear Rilke declare unequivocally what I have long believed, specifically, that we are solitary by nature. In my own life, I have found that resistance to solitude leads to loneliness and despair. Embracing solitude, however, can be very liberating, and can often be a gateway to unprecedented creativity. When we accept solitude as an unavoidable condition of individual life, we stop focusing on social solutions to our problems and begin focusing on both the present moment and the infinite possibilities of living life creatively.

    As always on this site, I find the insightful comments of others to be just as enlightening as the words of Rilke. As to the Rilke quotes you added, Lorenzo, I have long believed that the test of any good relationship is whether it can meet the Rilke test, i.e., that each person "stand guard over the other's solitude."

  11. wow... endlessly far. strong image. love the photo

  12. Genius pairing of image and writing. Glorious comments.

    Like you, Lorenzo, I am a relative newcomer to Rilke coming to him from a Buddhist perspective.

    There are times when Rilke speaks tellingly to me. I'd like to throw this Buddhist seasoning into our stew:

    "The way we define and delimit the self is arbitrary. We can place it between our ears and have it look out from our eyes, or we can widen it to include the aire we breathe, or at other moments we can cast its boundaries farther to include the oxygen-giving trees and plankton, our external lungs, and beyond them the web of life in which they are sustained."

    --Joanna Macy in World as lover, World as Self (and translator of our Rilke book)

    How can we be so solitary when we're not really quite sure that we're actually selfed apart? (Sorry for using self as a verb.)

  13. I'm going to jump in , or rather, sit quietly at the back for a bit,
    as I have many notes to go over I see....

    I am a little too fond of solitude I've always thought, and see it in direct contrast to how entwined my husband and I , and my children when they were babies, in that "where do I end and you begin " way.

    The sculpture is alive .

  14. Beautiful sculpture, how it plays off the paired quote.

    Happy weekend to you both, Lorenzo & Ruth.

  15. I began to fully come to this realization a few years ago. I mistook my awareness of aloneness as something amiss. Over time I came to see that it is part of life to be alone. As we all are unique in the most intricate places of who we are and how we feel and think. I love this. Thank you, Lorenzo for the introduction.


"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!