Rilke as Writer of Self-Help Books

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The back end to my edition of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet is a list by the editor of other proto self-help books that the reader might enjoy. I find this scandalous, in most cases, even though I can't seem to stop myself from reading such publications. It already feels voyeuristic enough to browse through the cannibalized bits of juicy correspondence between men and women who never had any intention of others reading it (but my guilt was relieved once I discovered that Rilke, in his last will, offered the rights to his letters to be published since he considered them part of his life's work). Not every artistic career can boast of the sexual candidness that Henry Miller and Anias Nin shared—thus, it is difficult to imagine them being too embarrassed about their love-letters seeing the light of day.

There is something quite vulgar, however, about As a Man Thinketh being changed to As You Think for the sake of gender neutrality. One wonders if they thought that keth was too exclusive to men as well? This alteration, along with the deliberate abundance of white-space per page, graduates works like this to their place in the bookstore on the ‘Quotable’ shelf next to collections of hallmark trivialities and other sentimental easier-said-than-done platitudes of pseudo-Confucian aridity.

Other suggestions include such banal titles as Life—A User’s Manual (not to be confused with the Oulipo masterpiece by Goerges Perec), Passionate Hearts, Simple Truths and Small Graces. It seems that there are a few stock tricks for coming up with a boring title. Always anthropomorphize the heart. Always apply a word that denotes a sense of quality or spatial/temporal measurement to abstract concepts like ‘truth’ and ‘grace.’

It would certainly be a misapproximation to liken a piece of writing by Rilke, to the encouragement-platitudes of an Eckhart Tolle or the capital good-luck charms of a Joel Osteen. But then, no book can be blamed for its proximity to the book's on the shelf next to it—certainly not books by dead people and certainly not books made up of texts never intended for publication.

Rilke’s ‘advice’ to the young poet of the title, Franz Xaver Kappus, is perhaps too challenging to be swallowed over a cup of coffee. It is not a piece of advice to relieve stress, or even to deal with life, necessarily. It is a message to an artist, and a very particular artist in need of a very particular kind of life, at that.

This edition doesn’t give us Mr. Kappus’s side of the correspondence, so one is left to wonder about the origin of certain themes that keep popping up. Given Rainier’s responses, Mr. Kappus seems to be concerned about his sexuality, but that could mean anything. One reoccurring subject that keeps creeping up is loneliness. Loneliness, to Rilke, is seen as a blessing. Just as loneliness is the reoccurring preoccupation, a sort of fati amor is Rilke’s answer to every struggle and the suggested object of every quest. One of the most quoted passages from the correspondence reads as follows:

I would like to beg of you, dear friend, as well as I can, to have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot not be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.

It sounds nice in theory, but it’s quite a committal remedy. One can expect this from a man who waited for all of his works to present themselves to him before bouts of inspired dictation. It’s not very immediately satisfying or stress-relieving when paired next to breathing exorcises, positive mantras, and other medicines and remedies of the now.

It is precisely comfort and easiness that Rilke seems to mind as a set of bad words. It is imperative that an artist uses absolutely every experience and every perception that passes through his being, including pain and suffering.

A piece of Rilke advice wouldn’t be anything without a heterodoxical remedy for loss of religious faith. When, in context, we come to understand that Mr. Kappus no longer believes in God but reminisces about his lovely childhood belief, Rilke offers him a sort of Bergsonian, pantheistic eschatology as a thought-exercise:

Why don’t you think of him as the coming one, who has been at hand since eternity, the future one, the final fruit of a tree, with us as its leaves? What is keeping you from hurling his birth into evolving times and from living your life as though it were one painful beautiful day in the history of a great pregnancy?

It seems to be a rule that teleology isn’t much of a factor in what poets believe (though in other writers, Rilke has expressed disenchantment with belief itself as a guiding intellectual course). It’s more a matter of taste. Nor do they care much about the finitude of science to explain concepts like ‘love,’—that would only give us some biological stat chart. Rilke shows little reserve in speculating about such lofty concepts as the future evolution of love itself. For Rilke, love is something that one can only acquire properly after years of education. Marriage is largely a convention in which the slower, more subtle features of love mimic public forms of entertainment.

Often bizarre as they are sometimes insightful, the depth of these letters was surely achieved by much thought beforehand. Surely Rilke had these things floating around in his mind, waiting for some young artist to ask him the right questions. If the advice given in these letters is read more often than followed, it comes as little shock. There is very little white space on the pages of these letters. It is much easier to invest in white space.

A whimsical definition of the writer: An enemy of the white space. 

Read about the walking writers here