February 22, 2011

Knots of Our Own Making

Girl in White in the Woods, by Vincent van Gogh

How surely gravity's law,
strong as an ocean current,
takes hold of even the smallest thing
and pulls it toward the heart of the world.

Each thing—
each stone, blossom, child—
is held in place.
Only we, in our arrogance,
push out beyond what we each belong to
for some empty freedom.

If we surrendered
to earth's intelligence
we could rise up rooted, like trees.

Instead we entangle ourselves
in knots of our own making
and struggle, lonely and confused.

So, like children, we begin again
to learn from the things,
because they are in God's heart;
they have never left him.

The Book of Hours II, 16


  1. I really like this. The idea that 'we, in our arrogance' think we can transcend gravity and nature, be like gods. But this overweaning arrogance does not bring us the freedom we think we want - the freedom is 'empty'. I like the phrase 'earth's intelligence' - a natural, intuitive intelligence. The intelligence we had before tasting of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

    Trees. And children. How much we can learn from them.

  2. The Rumi reading today (the poem is a bit long, but I’ll copy it anyway) has a very similar, and helpful, theme. He speaks of wind and spirit in much the same way Rilke speaks of gravity, the earth’s core, and God’s heart. It’s remarkable, really, how they speak to the same concept, in tandem. For Rumi, the wind and the ocean’s current are the symbols of what we surrender to; for Rilke, gravity’s law, the ocean’s current, the earth’s intelligence. They are both saying There is no reality but God. Like children, like the grasses, we grow, young and fresh, flexible, yet rooted like trees that bend (giant trees bend!) in the wind. But the wind is so powerful, it can uproot those trees too!

    The same wind that uproots trees
    makes the grasses shine.

    The lordly wind loves the weakness
    and the lowness of grasses.

    The axe doesn't worry how thick the branches are.
    It cuts them to pieces. But not the leaves.
    It leaves the leaves alone.

    The motion of the body, the inhaling-exhaling,
    comes from the spirit, now angry, now peaceful.
    Wind destroys, and wind protects.

    There is no reality but God,
    says the completely surrendered sheikh,
    who is an ocean for all beings.
    The levels of creation are straws in that ocean.

    The movement of the straws comes from an agitation
    in the water. When the ocean wants the straws calm,
    it sends them close to shore. When it wants them
    back in the deep surge, it does with them
    as the wind does with the grasses.

  3. oh yes, i believe most of what i struggle with is only knots of my own making

  4. Oh, yes we do entangle ourselves in knots of our own making. However, having had a life of constraint imposed upon me as a child, I cannot agree with Rilke's description of freedom as 'empty'. It was one of my greatest accomplishments to push out beyond what I belonged to ... to finally experience freedom of thought, creativity and action.

    I hope that we do not fall into an implicit norm of only accepting and praising Rilke's insights. Don't get me wrong, I adore Rilke and my life has been opened and enriched by his wisdom. But he projected some of his inner neurosis out and into his writings. It is my hope that the discussions here can include some queries and even dissent.

  5. Dissent is the best thing, Bonnie! As we've been seeing day-by-day in the Arabic world.

    And Rilke certainly did project his inner neuroses into his writings, that is clear.

    But, in this case, I don't believe Rilke is talking about our human need to think, do and create - all which things I'm sure Rilke would have approved of. Indeed, these are things he practised himself.

    No, here he's perhaps talking of the vain and selfish arrogance of human beings to think they can contradict nature, to think they can control nature, to be higher than or apart from nature. And we can see all around us where that attitude has taken us...

    This 'freedom' may indeed be empty, as it may in fact lead to a post-nuclear or post-rainforest world of utter emptiness...

    Rilke says that we are pushing out 'beyond what we each belong to', ie tearing our relationship with trees, the natural world, each other?

  6. Great points Robert. I do see how surrendering to the Earth's intelligence is freeing and essential.

  7. Oooh! I do like it if these brief blog comment things get into a discussion! Perhaps the failing of the blogosphere is that comments tend (I know, I know, there's no time, we're reading so many blogs, doing so much else etc) to hang in the air sometimes, without continuation and furtheration... (Now, is that a Lorenzo-woid, or is there really a word 'furtheration'?)

  8. I hope this blog will never be empty of dissent if it arises or woiding if it is needed!

  9. Thanks for the futheration, Ruth! Woid on!

  10. Despite my silence, I am greatly enjoying this conversation. Without entering into the substance of the points discussed, I did just want to repeat a point that I have made in comments on previous posts, that one of the joys of this blog is seeing how each Rilke reader interprets and responds to his words in their own way. This is not a Rilke fan club and we espouse no hard and fast Rilke gospel. Rilke, after all, was a poet, not a philospher. Though we delight in his words, part of making them our own is to challenge them and what they mean to and for us.

    As for dissent, I am reminded of the words of the father of my good friend Dominique (a Belgian-French friend of mine in Spain, for whom I am sick with worry as he is trying to get out of Libya where he was assigned to work just two weeks ago or so). Apparently, his father always told him that "son, there are always two sides of every issue, two opinions and two ways of looking at everything: my way and the wrong way".

    Now, aren't you sorry I broke my contented silence?

  11. Hi Lorenzo! Though your question is meant rhetorically, my friend ... I'm sure none of us mind you broke your contented, uncontentious silence!

    The joy of this blog is indeed its encouragement of open-ended interpretation, its freedom of thought and feeling, its reckless blooming of ideas and insights.

    I hope your friend is safe.


"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!