Island Rügen, by Leonid Pasternak
A solitary sojourn in the country is, especially at this moment, only half real, because the sense of harmlessness in being with nature is lost to us. The influence on us of nature's quiet, insistent presence is, from the start, overwhelmed by our knowledge of the unspeakable human fate that, night and day, irrevocably unfolds.
Letter to Lou Andreas-Salomé
September 9, 1914
Indeed. We are the only creatures of nature that can ever be aware of that unspeakable fate - because we are human and have human consciousness.ReplyDelete
Though we can speak about it, name it, (praise it even?)
I wish I had a little more context... I assume he's referring albeit presciently to human degradation of the natural world when he mentions "the unspeakable human fate."ReplyDelete
Surely whales and dolphins have as much (and probably more) consciousness of death as humans.
Surely, Robert, our dear Solitary Walker, this quote was made for you (as well as for Rilke's beloved Louise Andreas-Salomé) and your solitary sojourns. The combination of being exalted by the beauty of nature and humbled by the unfolding unspeakable fate it always whispers to us strikes me as something at the heart of the religious impulse. We are all pilgrims in this sense.ReplyDelete
Do you think we are the only creatures aware of that 'unspeakable fate'? Or are we the only ones troubled by it or who believe it can be avoided, deferred or elsewhere survived?
Hi, Dan, it’s nice to see you on the blog. I am not sure about the context of this particular passage, but from other readings of Rilke I do not think he is speaking of human degradation of nature here. I think the key here may be to not take ‘unspeakable’ as implying its usual meaning of something horrible beyond words, but interpret it more in the sense of something that is not uttered, but is nonetheless keenly felt. Somewhere between ‘unspeakable’ and ‘ineffable’, which also means that which cannot be spoken, but is usally associated with great joy. Rilke tended to view death with neither joy nor horror, but as an ultimate ‘yea-sayer’, the only thing that could give life meaning of any kind; certainly not to be welcomed, but neither to be defeated by or terrified of.ReplyDelete
I was at first a bit more puzzled by his statement that a solitary journey in the country is only ‘half real’. This suggests to me that when he refers to the ‘unspeakable human fate’ he is speaking of a common fate, an unsolitary fate we share with all things in nature, which is forever blooming and decaying at the same time (as he says in other passages) and hence reminding us every moment of where we are going, with the accompanying call to appreciate and marvel at where each and every instant.
I think we must consider the world stage at the time of this letter to Rilke's dear friend. Just one month before, Germany had declared war on Russia. Rilke was writing from Munich, to Lou in Russia. He was not able to return to Paris, where his property was seized. Imagine then, the prospect of "a solitary sojourn in the country" in that new and terrible tumult. Rilke himself was called up to join the army two years later, but with friends' influence was mercifully assigned to a war office and was released from duty shortly thereafter.ReplyDelete
To imagine the beautiful, beloved countryside of Europe becoming a platform for unspeakable killing, misery, disease and terror, would rob him of imagining Nature as a "quiet, insistent presence." What a grief, what a loss!
Ruth, your comments enlighten considerably the reading of this passage. . . the sense that we can't escape from the horrors of war by fleeing to the countryside (nature) and that nature's "insistent presence", its beautiful, its ability usually to revitalize, to assuage pain, to let us recoup from our losses, can't withstand the assaults of humans on themselves.ReplyDelete
Maureen, I was so taken with the conversation among Robert, Dan and Lorenzo, that I was lost in reverie. It suddenly occurred to me to "take a walk in the country" and investigate what Rilke might actually have been thinking about, especially after Dan's wish for more context. When I pulled up the timeline of WWI, I was stunned to realize how fresh that scene was for him on September 9, 1914. Imagine too, being in the slower world of newspapers and snail mail, so foreign to us today.ReplyDelete
A very interesting statement by Rilke and equally interesting comments by others. My sense is that this is about consciousness. Rilke seems to be saying that something as simple as a solitary walk in the country, where we are surrounded by the harmlessness of "being in nature" (a questionable proposition), is never fully appreciated because we remain trapped in the knowledge of our "unspeakable human fate," which I take to mean deterioration and, ultimately, death. When I hear Rilke speak of humans being "overwhelmed by our knowledge," my mind reverts to three questions advanced by Eliot in "The Four Quartets:" "Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"ReplyDelete
Oh! So simple, really. I laugh. And yet we reel in the face of what is so obvious.ReplyDelete
My daughter, who is ten and struggles a great deal with her own essence and life, looked up at me this morning from the floor and said, mom, life is simple. I was dazed. She had a moment and everything made sense to her. When I recovered, I said to her, please, please remember that you said this, that you felt this. For it is. It is simple. And yet inside of this, the most reduced of truths, that nature reveals to us all around every second of every living day, that death will follow, that we own nothing, that we are small, our minds shriek to understand. It is almost as though our dough, our flesh and mechanics, electronics, and if there is oh god a soul, it is almost as though our animate beings cataclysmically clash with simple truths. It is so odd. But my ten year old daughter was right in her moment, life is simple. And so is Rilke here.
Thank you for your continuing investigations here.
Thanks, Ruth and Maureen for your insight on this. Yes, my mind took its own 'solitary sojourn' on this one. I think you are right that he is referring to the horrors of war as just then breaking out, and that unspeakable here is, indeed, in the sense of something too horrific to be uttered. Helpful in this sense is a different translation of the same passage:ReplyDelete
[O]ne lacks the innocence to be with Nature; her influence, her quiet insistent presence, is outweighed from the start by one's awareness of the nameless human doom that is grinding on day and night, unstoppably.
This version is from the book of the correspondence between Rilke and Lou, called Rilke and Andreas Salomé, which can be found click here.
Andreas-Salomé was a fascinating character, a Russian-born German novelist, critic, autobiographer, and psychotherapist, who, in addition to her relation with Rilke, was also very close at different times to Nietzsche, Freud and Wagner.
sorry, just a bit more after reading the comments~ReplyDelete
Rilke tended to view death with neither joy nor horror, but as an ultimate ‘yea-sayer’, the only thing that could give life meaning of any kind; certainly not to be welcomed, but neither to be defeated by or terrified of.
And to this I say, yes, Lorenzo. I rejoice in this view.
This is something I often wonder on and have since reading and studying in high school and then on into University, I wonder of the impact of the larger current conditions on writing? I think it could often reveal a great deal about the philosophy of any given writer, but then I wonder how much we assume in retrospect seeing the larger picture so much clearer and then how much we imprint upon the written word in retrospect? In other words, I am suspicious that we might take what we know of the world now and use it to dissect the man of then. Of course we can never know. Surely the world leaves impressions on someone so open as a poet, but I often wonder how often we get it wrong? And too, in this moment thinking about it, I wonder if there is a wrong? Or perhaps poetry is just as organic as the person who writes it. Perhaps it is born in a moment to forever become.
Beautiful. I am also really enjoying these wonderful paintings acommpanying the words! Lorenzo, this is like a course on Rilke--you should teach!ReplyDelete
that should have been "accompanying" ;)
Erin, I wholeheartedly agree that as we trolley along interpreting to our heart's content, how much we read in that was never intended. Certainly in these posts we are doing this very closely and intently (and intensely too). Would Rilke smile at our gatherings? I hope so. Ultimately it matters not whether we are "right" or "wrong" about an author's intentions, I feel (we aren't academics and scholars here, just day dreamers, though I take these thoughts we post very seriously). What matters is how we take in the words, and what we do with them in our heart and soul.ReplyDelete
While I agree with you that the world at large may have varying impacts on a writer, as upon any artist (my poetry mentor avoids political poems at all costs), I have my doubts that anyone of Rilke's sensitivities would not somehow have the Great War in mind when he wrote this letter to Lou. Could I be "wrong" ? Absolutely! And will we ever know.
I do like your daughter's Life is simple statement very, very much. Complex discussions are a blast! But then we must let them go . . .
I'd just like to say I'm loving this Rilke series - and the discussion it's provoking just as much. I think it's wonderful how just two sentences can stimulate so much interest, thought and speculation.ReplyDelete
Ruth, I was really excited by the historical context you developed, and feel it adds much to our understanding of Rilke's words.
And Lorenzo - yes, that notion of the 'unspeakable' coming close to the ineffable, undoubtedly true - but both meanings can resonate at the same time, can they not? Also, as I was trying to say inadequately in my comment: the glory is that Rilke is 'speaking' the unspeakable to great effect!
Finally, agreeing with what George said recently - I just love those Pasternak paintings.
The unfolding of day and night, love the poetry in that. I see there are extensive comments on this post, I will have to return & read.ReplyDelete
i'm glad to know the story behind this quote because at face value i would be happy, but now i know i've faced my solitary in other waysReplyDelete