Archive for November 5th, 2017

Having a Rilke moment? The great poet on “the difficult work of love”

Sunday, November 5th, 2017
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A portrait of Rilke by Leonid Pasternak (Boris’s dad)

A dear friend referred recently to having “a Rilke moment.” That returned me to Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (trans. Stephen Mitchell), perhaps the most famous and most treasured letters of the last century. The ten letters were written to Franz Xaver Kappus, a 19-year-old cadet at the Theresian Military Academy. He was seeking advice from the young Rilke, who was less than a decade older, for guidance on writing his own poetry. He got advice on a lot more than that.

An excerpt from the seventh letter, written on May 14, 1904:

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. That is why young people, who are beginners in everything, are not yet capable of love: it is something they must learn. With their whole being, with all their forces, gathered around their solitary, anxious, upward-beating heart, they must learn to love. But learning-time is always a long, secluded time, and therefore loving, for a long time ahead and far on into life, is –: solitude, a heightened and deepened kind of aloneness for the person who loves. Loving does not at first mean merging, surrendering, and uniting with another person (for what would a union be of two people who are unclarified, unfinished, and still incoherent –?), it is a high inducement for the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world, to become world in himself for the sake of another person; it is a great demanding claim on him, something that chooses him and calls him to vast distances. Only in this sense, as the task of working on themselves (“to hearken and to hammer day and night”), may young people use the love that is given to them. Merging and surrendering and every kind of communion is not for them (who must still, for a long, long time, save and gather themselves); it is the ultimate, is perhaps that for which human lives are as yet barely large enough. …

Whoever looks seriously will find that neither for death, which is difficult, nor for difficult love has any clarification, any solution, any hint of a path been perceived; and for both these tasks, which we carry wrapped up and hand on without opening, there is no general, agreed-upon rule that can be discovered. But in the same measure in which we begin to test life as individuals, these great things will come to meet us, the individuals, with greater intimacy. The claims that the difficult work of love makes upon our development are greater than life, and we, as beginners, are not equal to them. But if we nevertheless endure and take this love upon us as a burden and apprenticeship, instead of losing ourselves in the whole easy and frivolous game behind which people have hidden from the most solemn solemnity of their being, – then a small advance and a lightening will perhaps be perceptible to those who come long after us. That would be much.