“If the essence of indifference and the masses is that they do not recognize loneliness, then love and friendship exist because they constantly allow for loneliness.” It is one of the many ambiguous quotes by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) that is immediately thought-provoking. If only because Rilke almost all of his work, from the world famous Duino’s Elegies until The Notes of Malte Laurids Briggewrote in total solitude.
In his book To stay is nowhere. Rilke .’s Europe follows the poet and philosopher Florian Jacobs Rilke, finds his whereabouts and looks for shadows of one of the twentieth century’s most elusive poets and thinkers. Through this shadow play, Jacobs takes the reader from Prague to Germany, via Russia to Paris and from Italy to Spain and Switzerland. He describes how Rilke never stays in one place for more than a few months and rarely has his own furniture or peace of mind. This can be felt in the development of his poetry, which changes in tone, symbolism and content based on the places where he lives.
Rilke’s poems are often a direct reflection of his state of mind, of his ‘inner world space’, a term that Rilke himself invented. When it comes to war, his tone is stiff and reserved, or his voice is even muffled for years. If there is domesticity with wife and child, his work is about the joys of solitude to create art. Whether there is wanderlust or passionate love, as with the famous Lou Andreas-Salomé (who also captured the hearts of Nietzsche and Freud), one suddenly understands why Rilke is among the most important lyric poets of all time. Not surprising, because who isn’t influenced by the vagaries of time, place and situation?
Rilke, however, takes that credo to a higher level: he sees change and impermanence as what makes our existence valuable. This leads Jacobs to rightly point out that ‘he who studies Rilke’s art’ […] is like the traveler facing the change.’
Rilke as guru
In the meantime, the traveler has quite a few things to choose from: According to Rilke, we must relate aesthetically to the whole of human existence. Creating art is a task, almost a commandment, the only way to find meaning, according to Jacobs’ analysis of Rilke’s life. Rilke professes a ruthless religion of art, which he nourishes by traveling, by gaining new impressions and experiences and by trying to elevate them to art. For a good poem does not consist of expressed feelings, “but of experiences captured in language”, according to Rilke. Living for art, creating experiences, capturing change in language, that is his mission and gives a human life value. In Jacobs’s words: “As long as we create and sing, we advance human abilities into something that can be justified in the light of the cosmos.” Stand on it.
Most people know Rilke from his Letters to a Young Poet, still one of the most famous books full of advice for budding artists. Rilke as guru, as teacher, known for his flawless handwriting and perfectly stylized sentences. IN To stay is nowhere Jacobs lovingly takes him off that pedestal. In addition to being a brilliant artist, Rilke turns out to be a (self) searching man. Irregular, complaining, ill and restless, averse to political and social contact.
Based on Rilke’s countless letters and poems (which Jacobs himself translates), Jacobs nuances, criticizes and deepens Rilke’s character. Thus, the teacher seems to prefer a student, the brilliant poet often remains silent for years, and the solitude so dearly desired also breaks Rilke down: “Then I felt as if I could not recognize anyone who wanted to visit me , and as if I were too. stranger to all…”
Jacobs has written a sometimes convincing book that exudes the same atmosphere as a novel. However, the book gradually loses momentum. Although well suited to Rilke’s often solemn verse, Jacob’s language comes across as bloated at times. Like when he’s over Duino’s Elegies writes, Rilke’s magnum opus, that he began in 1912 at the castle of Duino on the Adriatic coast and wrote in a creative burst of several weeks in 1922. A time frame that not entirely coincidentally spans the First World War – a period that changes Rilke’s inner world space, which makes his poems focus more on “this world no longer seen by men, but seen by angels.” Rilke’s religious, bombastic language tempts Jacobs to adopt the same tone. Unfortunately, it often works less with him than with his great example: ‘Simply put, we can say that where Rilke condenses aspects of human existence in other works, in other works Duino’s Elegies the human condition in poetry at all.” You get used to it, but it’s slow reading.
In addition, the slightly pompous tone is sparse against his reporting passages. Although Jacobs manages to make the reader dream away at Rilke’s Europe, the book loses its power when Jacobs makes observations through clinchers such as ‘It is good to be by the De’ Medici fountain in the Luxembourg Gardens.’ This makes the overall tone of the book rather inconsistent in relation to his aesthetically philosophical expositions and analyzes of Rilke’s work. The reading experience feels like a journey: both heavy and confused as well as surprising and innovative.
As we travel, Jacobs offers us tools to think about the naturalness with which we travel across our continent. In times of flying shame, corona measures and a new war on the European continent, Jacob’s words about Rilke’s Europe after the First World War resonate. The poet then lived in a changed world where ‘the faithless, self-indulgent, somewhat aimless attitude of the traveller’ ‘can no longer be maintained’.
With Rilke, Jacobs instills in us that only art and philosophy serve the search for meaning in a fragmented world. ‘It is art that reminds us of our common background.’
Also read: In Rilke’s letters you will find wonderful reflections and silly passages
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper on 23 September 2022