February 27, 2011

The Secret of Death

Skull, by Paul Cézanne

The great secret of death, and perhaps its deeper connection with us, is this: that, in taking from us a being we have loved and venerated, death does not wound us without, at the same time, lifting us toward a more perfect understanding of this being and of ourselves.

Letter to Countess Margo Sizzo-Noris-Crouy
January 23, 1924


  1. I've been working on Rilke's concept of death in a few of these posts. Others seem to be more attune to it. But this one helps me get it a bit more today. For me it implies the attitude to have while still having the being we love and venerate in life, to be ever aware what their presence means, what grows in me as a result of it. Of course what grows in me as a result of another being does not end when they die. In fact, their death can bring more clarity, and consequently, more understanding.

  2. wow! in my own experience this is very much the painful and illuminating case! steven

  3. Yes, I agree with you, Ruth and Steven, about the importance of this lesson and yet how difficult and painful its learning. Unfortunately, we tend to share this knowledge at cemeteries more than at kitchen tables. Rilke wrote much on death and all of it is quite challenging, I find, if not in theory, certainly in the practice of it. He insisted that life and death are two parts of the whole and that we needed to “be intimately at home in both”, yet death is something man “despises and denies before his own blood that courses in sweet and intimate agreement with it”. As he did with sorrow and loneliness, Rilke saw death as something to be learned from, not feared, but this did not mean giving ourselves over to such distraught states and to death, embracing death and renouncing life. Quite the contrary: “There is no task as urgent for us as to learn daily how to die, but our knowledge of death is not increased by the renunciation of life; only the ripe fruit of the here and now that has been seized and bitten into will spread its indescribable taste in us.”

  4. I'm wondering if it isn't our whole of experience that is ego based, like this. Is it not for learning that we surround ourselves with people? Through love, through day to day, through conversation, relationship, and finally, loss, we learn. Perhaps we're not always aware of this drive to learn. Perhaps it is subconscious, perhaps lower and deeper into our genetics and being than that even, but isn't that the crux of our journeys? I'm not sure what that implies in the larger question of life and god but here it is: we are here in our short time, with our peculiar synapses, do something with it, form yourself.

    This Rilke quote is a little cold to me actually. Death does not wound us without but leaves us the opportunity to grow and understand ourselves. Ugh. Ourselves. Again, Rilke is directed inward into his personal ego. Perhaps this is why he has the fortitude and steadfastnest to live away from Clara. He recognizes his personal journey as the most important, the development of his intellect and being as primary. Oh, I don't know, and I don't even know if this isn't true of me, however, these few words do sit as though on stone. If they've heat it is from the connection they once had to a living being, but even his grief seems cold here. That's not to say I don't agree with him. But sometimes the selfish drive of humans is tiresome.


  5. Lorenzo those quotes are deliciously helpful. . . . only the ripe fruit of the here and now that has been seized and bitten into will spread its indescribable taste in us.” Wow.

    Erin, your first paragraph is beautiful and brilliant. Thank you. I wonder if in the second you might have misunderstood Rilke, as I did, when I first read that word "without"? I took it to mean, Death does not wound us on the outside (without). But as I read and reread it, he is saying, Death doesn't wound us without also taking us to a place of understanding ourselves and the one we have lost. I may have misread your response, but I wanted to say that I misunderstood it the first time I read it.

    I, too, struggle with his relationship with Clara, with his decision to live away from her and their daughter Ruth. Yet when I read their letters, and the beautiful relationship they had at a distance, who can say that it is not a model that worked? Not knowing how she felt about it, per se, it's easy to suppose. But their letters (in the book on Cézanne) are warm and lovely.

    I have to say, there are as many kinds of love as there are people. It's complicated, no?

  6. I'm puzzled and irritated by the quote. Yes, I want to shout, it wounds us, it makes us tremble and feel so much void and emptiness. Without those feelings, there is no understanding, no narrative closing, no larger truth to reflect on.

    He is way too distant here.

  7. I've enjoyed reading the comments to this Rilke quote.

    I appreciate Rilke's thoughts on death. Macy and Barrows, have in fact, edited another book entitled, "In Praise of Mortality" which is also filled with only selected pieces of Rilke's works. I find it strangely comforting to read 'his take' on death for my mind so needs to acquire an 'understanding' of it ...

    As Erin suggests Rilke is primarily identified with his mind. He strives always, it seems, to 'understand' which indicates a strong identification with mind - as opposed to an identification with his feelings/emotions or bodily sensations.

    For those of us more identified our feelings and sensations Rilke can, at times, seem cold, distant, one step removed from experience. Even when he addresses feelings he often does it from the perspective of 'mind'. His quest it seems is to understand and to help us understand. He seems to process life, learn, teach, share, wonder, etc., mainly from from the perspective of intellect, of 'mind' (not necessarily ego - although sometimes ego). Note in past and future readings how often he uses the word 'understand'.

    This could perhaps explain what Ruth describes as her difficulty with 'attunement' to Rilke on the topic of death. The use of the word attunement would indicate that you, Ruth, process the world from a different place than Rilke. Attunement - would speak to feelings and sensations rather than understanding which stems from the needs of the mind.

    As an aside, if you really want to make someone feel heard, understood, in sync, resonated with, listen to the simple words they use to describe their experience. Then, if you can use similar words as you speak with them. Do they say after listening to an explanation of something:

    "I hear you."
    "I see what you mean."
    "I really get that."
    "That really resonates with me."
    "I could not feel more attuned to you than now."

    The words one uses to describe experience indicate a bit of how they process life and how they best learn new information. A teacher would do well to adjust their teaching with individuals by presenting information and assignments in the same way that the person expresses themself.

    "hear" - they may best learn and process information with auditory input.

    "see" - they may best learn and process life and information with visual input.

    "get" - they like to have a felt sense (hands-on) of something to be able to 'process' it

    "resonate", "attune" - could speak to a combination of processing information through feeling and a felt bodily sense

    All that to say - when you have difficulty attuning yourself to what someone says it may just mean that you are processing the same information in a different way, from a different part of your being. And it is my take that Rilke, though he speaks much of feeling, of transcendence, etc. - he speaks and seeks to understand mainly from the mind.

    Well - that's my two cents - for what it's worth. :)

  8. i see this as his struggle with death...the wounding, the hoping that moving towards the unknown that is is peaceful and transcendent. and at last, in a life time of examining and wondering the vast unknown of "me" (or him), at last it is clearer.

  9. yes, ruth, i have to admit, i am having difficult reading this passage without reading without as from the outside. erg. i'll have to practice to see what comes of that.

    and as to relationships, oh my god, what do i know? but it is a bit of a thorn for me that i haven't been able to quite get past. perhaps i'm envious of his abilities to choose and live by his choices too. and see, i've not read any of the correspondance between he and Clara and so i really should learn to be a bit more quiet:)

    (i laugh, if i read it very quietly and slowly i almost grasp it. his words are very strange to me in this one, but hey, perhaps this is translation problem, as well. but now i do see a little clearer.)


  10. Bonnie! Your comment is such a revelation. It will be profoundly helpful to me, not only with listening in general (and I had been thinking about writing on listening . . . ), but particularly for "listening" to Rilke. Thank you abundantly. Indeed, I will try to listen to his words the way he wrote them (I almost said the way he "felt" them). Maybe my parenthetical there is a clue to my eye on Rilke, though. I am not so sure I can separate his mind from his heart, much as I can't quite seem to do that for myself and refer to this as mind-heart.

    I also think, in response to Erin, that I have to completely put myself in Rilke's shoes to not find his lifestyle somewhat annoying. He did see his work as the most important thing, and he accepted support from those who chose to meet his needs. It's always a question, isn't it, how to filter (or whether to) an artist's work when their personal lifestyle is somewhat grating?

  11. Bonnie!!!!! when you have difficulty attuning yourself to what someone says it may just mean that you are processing the same information in a different way, from a different part of your being.

    In life and in reading/listening! Thank you for this.


  12. Fascinating. I read it to mean we are wounded by the death but at the same time a deeper understanding of that love will (can) transpire. Kind of gives love a truly eternal feel and maybe life more purpose. Yes, in a heartbeat one would trade and have a loved one back in one's embrace, but... A new kind of fullness is possible if one allows it. Bitterness and anger often get in the way, though, I think. ...death is not supposed to be the enemy...


"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!