Some things are better the second time around. I first read this the year I turned eighteen: the book was a birthday present from Gica. I have absolutely no recollection of that initial reading, except that I did not understand anything. The book left no impression on me. Now, at the brink of twenty-one, and almost graduating, I want to believe that I am better equipped for it, that in three years I have matured enough as a writer and a person to undertake a second reading.
Ten letters make up this slim volume. The “young poet” they address is Franz Xaver Kappus, who had written to Rilke in 1903 in the hopes of finding an artistic adviser or, at the very least, a confidant. He proved to be much more. In his replies, Rilke examines the complications of human experience as well as burdens peculiar to the artist. One can only imagine Kappus asking him: What does it mean to be an artist? to be human?
Rilke begins with an image of the artist as a solitary creature. He characterizes artistic work as an exploration of one’s inner self, a cultivation of the “vast space” surrounding each individual: a lifelong development of poetics. “Everything is gestation and then birthing,” he says, comparing the creative process to sexual union, creation, fruition (the word appeals to the senses). On humanity, he advises openness to life: everything is tied to mystery, and the experiences we are unable to explain must be surrendered to something greater than us.
I could not finish Letters in one sitting. Though written with simple words, the text requires so much from the reader. I found the content heavy, suffused with insights too profound to be swallowed all at once, insights that can only have come from a life deeply and fully lived: “Don’t think that the person who is trying to comfort you now lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words that sometimes give you much pleasure. His life has much trouble and sadness, and remains far behind yours. If it were otherwise, he would never have been able to find those words.”
Some reviews back I said that I believed no book is worth reading thrice. Now I am forced to recant that statement. A few years down the line, I would probably be up for a third reading of Rilke’s Letters.
Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism: they always result in more or less fortunate misunderstandings. Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existence, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life.
No one can advise or help you—no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.
A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it.
…for ultimately, and precisely in the deepest and most important matters, we are unspeakably alone; and many things must happen, many things must go right, a whole constellation of events must be fulfilled, for one human being to successfully advise or help another.
Everything is gestation and then birthing. To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own understanding, and with deep humility and patience to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born: this alone is what it means to live as an artist: in understanding as in creating.
And in fact the artist’s experience lies so unbelievably close to the sexual, to its pain and its pleasure, that the two phenomena are really just different forms of one and the same longing and bliss.
Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and…love the questions themselves… Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything.
What is necessary, after all, is only this: solitude, vast inner solitude. To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours—that is what you must be able to attain.
…ask yourself…whether you have really lost God. Isn’t it much truer to say that you have never yet possessed him? …and if you are terrified to feel that even now he does not exist…what justifies you then, if he never existed, in missing him like someone who has passed away and in searching for him as though he were lost?
It is also good to love: because love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation.
The future stands still…but we move in infinite space. How could it not be difficult for us?