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by Michael Heller



A friend writes: "If you can find a positive way in Rilke, please let me know what it is--I see him leading to orphic silence, luxurious melancholy and a kind of stellar voice that few are capable of." I take up my friend's word, "positive," and bobble it before me in amusement. How much we want our ironies (Rilke claimed no civilization could be built on irony!), and how little we want them to cost us. In the last twenty years, we've built our ironies around discourse and "language," on their duplicity and on their power to impose, and that, I presume, is what makes for something "positive." During this time, we've thought little or at best, indelicately, about the word as emanating from a carnal being though perhaps with the appearance of Bakhtin's work and with Elaine Scarry's The Body of Pain a balance is being restored. In this new atmosphere, Rilke's work ought to be reconsidered, and I can think of no better place to begin than in this collection, Letters on Cezanne. The volume consists of letters and extracts of letters written from Paris mainly in the fall of 1907 to Rilke's wife, the painter, Clara Westhoff.

Rilke, it is true--to respond to my friend's comments--in the quest for Western art's sense of presence, its quest for "being," walked the last linguistic mile, so to speak. He imagined, against any situation in which a verbal act, let alone the poem, took place, a world of silences, of muted existence. It is this orphism, with its seemingly abstracted pain, its metaphysical hunger, that we tend to dismiss in Rilke's enterprise. Further, Rilke's admixture of extremis and care- fulness, the exactitude with which these marked his poetic trail, appeals neither to dionysians nor apollonians. Finally, that he is not easy, not "humorous," not frameable by theory, leads,as well, to the charge that he is not positive.

Still, as I have written elsewhere, Rilke represents a fruitful direction, one which since Pound we have been reluctant to take up. Thus, my reading here is an attempt to understand Rilke not as a historical figure but as a potentiating force for contemporary poetry.


In late May of 1907, after a ten-months' absence, Rilke returned to Paris in a curious and feverishly receptive state of mind, a state which continued into the fall. In October, the annual Salon d'Automne exhibition opened with two rooms dedicated to the paintings of Cezanne, who had died only the year before. Rilke's letters to his wife of this period show not only the agitations of his mind but testify also to an atmosphere of psychological vulnerability where, as he put it, seeing and working were "almost one and the same." Before his eyes, the world seemed to be reforming itself as a kind of benison: "All the things of the past rearrange themselves, line up in rows, as if someone were standing there giving out orders; and whatever is present is utterly and urgently present, as if prostrate on its knees and praying for you." (LOC 3) These words are not fanciful, especially if we consider that they issue from one of Europe's great workers in homelessness, a poet whose reputation in large measure was built on rootlessness and alienated consciousness. What they suggest is an unusual psychological climate in Rilke, an alteration of his characteristic dis-ease with surroundings.

For Rilke, artistic creation was less a matter of learning than of unlearning, of foreswearing intellectual or psychological certainty by making some sort of radical leap. "Surely," he writes a month after his return to Paris, "all art is the result of one's having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further..." "Therein," he continues, "lies the enormous aid the work of art brings to the life of the one who must make it,--: that it is his epitome; the knot in the rosary at which his life recites a prayer." (LOC 4) The religious tone is instructive. Homelessness, Rilke's artistic donnée, is set aside, and the world is perceived as animated and, more importantly for Rilke, uncharacteristically welcoming and beneficent. Suddenly, the work of art is not so much an alienated jewel in the world's crown but a tutelary device, a way for entering and participating.

For Rilke, the encounter with Cezanne's paintings in the months immediately after his arrival, marked, what he called, "a turning point." In part, the drama of the Cezanne encounter, a muted subtext throughout the letters, is the difficulty of "assimilating" Cezanne's work which, as it turns out, becomes the most useful demand ever placed upon the poet.

Rilke through the course of his life sensed himself a kind of laborer in beginnings, in unending preparations for work still to come. This attitude was an essential part of his openness and receptivity; it colored his life and work with a certain tentativeness. And yet, it also brought with it a thirst for great precision. Heinrich Petzet, in his introduction to the Letters on Cezanne, writes about Rilke's concern for "the smallest units of language" by which entire areas of experience could be illuminated. Rilke scoured the moment-- the very point at which something caught his attention-- for every detail and nuance, for every psychological, historical or aesthetic implication. One finds, despite its metaphysical vastness, little dreaminess or vagueness to Rilke's work. Its much criticized "incompleteness" may be, all things considered, less the product of the work than testimony that the human psyche itself, which the poetry so completely investigates, operates by virtue of an active incompleteness. This incompleteness (an inadequate word) is, in Rilke, the very basis for exchange and dialogue, for change and growth. And, in a very powerful sense, Cezanne does not give to Rilke something which might complete the poet. The painter's life and work are instead a kind of pressure: to contemplate the radical nature of Cezanne's work, to view the paintings, is to put oneself "in danger." This is the supreme value one artist has for another.

Rilke's work, the poems and prose, the entire corpus of his letters, are best seen as way-stations toward some unfinished and unfinishable project. The all-pervasive sense of incompleteness is a tidal swell on which the texts float, which at times bouys them up, at times pulls them under. For Rilke, the poem records at best only a momentary feeling of completeness, a simultaneous if fleeting instant when the work of art and the life are mutually realized. For that moment, a kind of totality is achieved, but it always seems to point forward to an ideal goal or condition. The poem never acquires the status of a thing, nor does it degenerate into an ornament and thereby become a bourgeois object in the usual sense. For Rilke, the artist's function is to catch this moment of being/non-being. One of his best-known poems of the period, "The Panther," is nearly a textbook example of this moment. In it, the poet and the object of the poem seem so completely interanimated that "An image enters/ and pierces the long restrained limbs/ and stops being within the heart." (TRMR 158) The aim of the poem can hardly be to paint a picture of the panther. Rather, the ambiguity of the passage, especially the way "being" can be read as both verb and noun, recreates the dissolution of the border between the poet and the object of his attention. Rilke calls such a work a "thing-poem," but the poem deconstructs even as it constructs. The poetics here are indirectly related to those of the imagist and objectivist poetry of American and English poets who came later.

Rilke believed himself able at last to see Cezanne's paintings because, as he put it, "I had just reached it [the turning point] in my own work or had at least come close to it somehow, after having been ready for a long time, for the one thing which so much depends upon." (LOC 164) What caught Rilke up was that he could sense in Cezanne things he most earnestly desired to do himself. There was first, as Petzet's introduction relates, a desire to resolve an "inner war" against representation, against the all too sentimental and easy stylization of the visible which had become the artistic coin of the day. What Rilke admired in the painter was the difficulties he had set for himself. "Cezanne," Rilke noted, "had to start over again, from the bottom." (LOC 43)

Still, Rilke could not envision poetic form without closure. For Rilke, the act of closure has a formal structure: it is that which signals the death of an older form as the very ground of new creation. (One finds a similar parallel concerning closure in Bakhtin's notions of "the limits of utterance," limits which are deeply connected to semantic interaction, communal awareness and the dictates of genre.) Rilke could not conceive of any break in artistic tradition which did not somehow value that which it had broken from. Tradition, writ large, was not to be abolished but conserved, particularly at the very moment when its latest instancing was about to be surpassed. Thus, form and closure are nearly always spoken of in Rilke, through the metaphor of death. And yet the poem, like the death of an actual person or thing, always leaves a residue of memories and of its marks upon the earth. The new form is best viewed as a kind of resurrection, a rebirth of the old but secreted within the new.

Rilke, as one of the important letters show, mused on the fact that Cezanne's favorite poem was Baudelaire's "La Charogne" ("Carrion"), where dead flesh is made beautiful, not in the conventional sense, but in Baudelaire's ability to raise carrion out of the conventional formats and value structures which had left its beauty unarticulated. If, in Cezanne, painting allows that which was formerly unseen to be seen, "La Charogne" allows that which was formerly inarticulate to be heard. The completion of the poem is the moment of truth because it is the point where the poet surrenders mind, ego, world-view, to the necessities of the perception. At this point, he is no longer a maker but an element in the equation of the poem. The perception, the poem-work, like the countryside around Cezanne's house or the face before the painter, is an otherness which imposes its demand. Closure recognizes the other as other by carrying the art work to it but never fully arriving there. Someone writes a poem about the moon but the moon is still in the sky when the act of poetic "defamiliarization" ends, and she will have to take up the moon again. Thus, for Rilke, learning from Cezanne, poetic "defamiliarization" was not in itself sufficient to create great art. What would be necessary--instead of novelty erasing novelty--would be "the wrestling with, rather than abolishing, of memory."

Modern and contemporary poetry's concern for "the new" has perhaps obscured the revolutionary nature of the challenge Cezanne posed to Rilke. In these letters, the "wrestling" between memory and the present is no simple thing, for it does not take place at the level of convention or morality but at the much deeper level of the nature of psycho-physical reality. And yet, because of that depth, it cannot help but irradiate the social and cultural realms as well. Let me try to explain this challenge by referring to one of the most evocative works ever written about the painter, Merleau-Ponty's magnificent essay, "Cezanne's Doubt." (MP 9-25) Merleau-Ponty writes that "Cezanne makes a basic distinction not between 'the senses' and 'the understanding' but rather between the spontaneous organization of the things we perceive and the human organization of Ideas and Sciences." (my emphasis) Cezanne, as Merleau-Ponty views him, prompts in the viewer a way of perceiving and being that are initially alien to him. The paintings thrust the viewer, as they did Rilke, into the terra incognita of artistic creation where biases, ideologies and methodologies lose their hold. Echoing Rilke's comment about having to "start over," Merleau-Ponty tells us that "Cezanne's difficulties are those of the first word." They are difficulties, however, precisely because they must come to terms with memory, particularly that aspect of memory exemplified by tradition.

For Rilke--and this is the heart of the transmittal from Cezanne--"reality" is a habit of the mind, a "tradition" deeper than all the other traditions, neither true nor false, but an anchor by which one holds fast against the new or the troubling. A break with the "real" can never be merely a matter of technique or even philosophical stance, since the stance itself is already a form of conceptualization. Technique and stance by themselves are but aspects of the rigor mortis we name reality. What Cezanne could teach Rilke, in Merleau-Ponty's words, was the example of one who "abandons himself to the chaos of sensations," not that sensations themselves are more 'real' but that by the central act of abandonment one also drives a wedge into one's own propensities for methodologies and the seeking after pre-determined effects. In this regard, the Cezanne letters articulate a kind of Dantean passage from confusion to knowledge. For Rilke, Cezanne was a way of crossing Limbo, a way of preparing himself for the late work of the Sonnets to Orpheus and of completing the Elegies already begun in this period. Cezanne's work is, among other things, a personal quarrel with the Enlightenment tendencies of craftsmanship, with the Old Masters who, he wrote, "replaced reality by imagination and by the abstraction which accompanies it." It was necessary to return to the real, but not as to an object which would then be put back into the work where it would lose its potency (as a controlled act of representation, for example). The 'real' would have to exist en face before the artist and the artwork, where, as Rilke noted of Cezanne's blues, they would no longer have any "secondary significance." Craftsmanship here is redirected away from producing effects or knowingly manipulating the viewer or reader of the poem and towards making possible and articulating discoveries.

Still, as Rilke remarks, "memory must be wrestled with," not merely abolished. What Cezanne gives to Rilke is a way to use the past. Rilke's letters speak of our usual relationship to the past as one of comfort, of sentimentality and nostalgia; our identity, our sense of the world is all part and parcel with the 'real.' His metaphors and personifications of the past all carry with them the warmth of familiarity. Struggling with his own bourgeois heritage, Rilke, in the Cezanne letters, attempts to see into the past with the same clarity he would bring to the present. The problems are co-terminous. The past is a "palace" rich in decor and memories. Yet, he remarks in a memorable passage, "even someone who had such palaces to utter would have to approach them innocently and in poverty, and not as someone who could be seduced by them." Elsewhere he writes that one must reject "the interpretative bias even of vague emotional memories, prejudices and predilections transmitted as part of one's heritage, taking instead whatever strength, admiration or desire emerges with them and applying it, nameless and new, to one's own tasks. One has to be poor unto the tenth generation." (LOC 73)

The hold the past has on Rilke is likened to an old "grand' mère" whom one visits partly out of duty and partly out of genuine affection. The decisive moment for him, half-real and half imagined, comes as he wanders past some noble houses on his way to the Salon. A servant at one of them, about to close the gate, turns and gazes at Rilke "carefully and thoughtfully." Rilke meditates "at the same moment it seemed to me that it would have taken only a very slight shift in the pattern of things at some time in order for him to recognize me and step back and hold open the door." Within dwells the "grand' mère" who would receive him, and there, walking about such a house with its beautiful furnishings, Rilke would "feel the presence of all the interrelated things: the gaze of portraits, the dials of musical clocks and the contents of mirrors in which the clear essence of twilight is preserved." (LOC 25-27)

The image is marvelous for both its richness and ability to signify the poet's relationship to the past, that "clear essence of twilight" which has had such a nostalgic hold on him. The grand' mère, "the old lady in violet and white," is described in enigmatic terms, very much as Pater described the Mona Lisa, in that she can barely be pictured in the mind's eye "from one time to the next because she is made up of so many things..." This old woman has great but unbending dignity, and he wonders what he could tell her of the exhibit he is going to see. One thing is clear: "Cezanne is no longer possible for the old lady." (LOC 27) The passage is full of claustrophobia and secreted ambivalences, for in it the poet is striving to break into open ground, to acknowledge, as Merleau-Ponty says of Cezanne, that "the meaning of what the artist is going to say does not exist anywhere." (MP 19)

Rilke found himself in deep affinity with Cezanne precisely on the above point. An art which could dispel the "essence of twilight" would be an art of perceptual faith, of bringing to the fore not conception but the act of attention. Thus Rilke was delighted when the painter Matilde Vollmoeller, accompanying him to the Cezanne exhibit, remarked that Cezanne was "like a dog, he sat there in front of it [the thing to be painted] and simply looked, without any nervousness or irrelevant speculations." (LOC 46)

Cezanne moved Rilke in a way the Impressionists could not. He saw in Impressionist work a struggle to convince the viewer of how much "they loved" what they painted. Their paintings, he wrote, "judged instead of saying." Cezanne had shown him how to move beyond such considerations, even "beyond love," to what the thing itself revealed.

Cezanne's work was the painterly form of the "thing-poem," and the ambiguities it gave rise to--the kind Rilke felt were essential to his own poetry--were psychological and ethical: to return the world to the possibility of a not-as-yet conditioned response. On this level, Cezanne and Rilke seem involved in rescuing the world from the mechanistic scientism of their day. To rescue an object in art does not mean to give it scientific or objective status, but to break it free of its role as part of some prescribed conceptual scheme. A like moment can be discerned in contemporary poetics, in, for example, that of the Objectivist poets, whose aim was never to make the poem scientifically "objective," but to free the poem from the claims of scientism and so re-animate it by refusing the reductions which science and philosophy would impose on our perceptions of the world. Such a search for freedom in the act of poetic composition necessarily began with the break from Imagism and its strategies, which were, by the time of Zukofsky, a literary version of scientistic principles.

Rilke sought to keep the question of existence open. The ambiguous flavor which steeps his work is in no way the result of some procedural indeterminacy. Rather, what he learned from Cezanne was that there was a way of attending to the world which can apply pressure and so expose to the looker the bias and ideology with which his or her gaze is infected. Rilke could then go beyond the simple-minded poetry of rendering or representation toward a poetry in which precision and uncertainty were inextricably united. It was this unity which for Rilke demonstrated that consciousness is never co-terminous with either world or language. Not only other's words but silences surrounded the poetic act; therefore, he sensed that being a poet only incidentally involved the production of texts. Much deeper was a "devotion" to perception which "without ever boasting of it, approaches everything, unaccompanied, inconspicuous, wordless." (LOC 68) Without this devotion, he noted, everything said or written was only "hearsay." In some regards, his work stands, not with, but against many of the 'experiments' of the twentieth-century modernists, and by implication, against many tendencies in the Anglo-American line of Pound and Lewis, and even Eliot. The great danger in reading Rilke is that the uncertainty will be taken as vagueness, sentimentality or existential ennui. The letters on Cezanne show us how ill-founded is that charge. But they are also about less understood matters: utterance and voice. Rilke sought a nearly impossible goal, but a noble and liberating one. As he put it after studying Cezanne: "One has to be able at every moment to place one's hand on the earth like the first human being."


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