From Ahasverus to Orpheus: Transformations of Christ in Rainer Maria Rilke

By Wich-Schwarz, Johannes | Christianity and Literature, Autumn 2007 | Go to article overview

From Ahasverus to Orpheus: Transformations of Christ in Rainer Maria Rilke


Wich-Schwarz, Johannes, Christianity and Literature


The Prague-born poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) provides an important case study for the ambivalent appropriation of Christian discourse in modernist literature. His crowning poetic achievements of the Duino Elegies (1912-22) and the Sonnets to Orpheus (1922) are milestones in twentieth-century attempts to create a mythology that no longer relies on the philosophical and religious framework of Christianity. Yet in contrast to many other modernist writers, Rilke is still deeply involved in an (albeit discarded) Christian heritage. In this essay, I want to demonstrate that--paradoxically--he crucially draws on Christ imagery to express a post-Christian worldview. I offer an interpretation of two Rilke texts neglected by previous scholarship: Visions of Christ (1896-98) and The Letter of the Young Worker (1922). These texts, despite their status as "minor works," play a key role in Rilke's oeuvre. In the following, I present these two texts and show how they demonstrate Rilke's literary re-imagining and transformation of Christian tropes and narratives. (1)

Much has been made of Rilke's intense Catholic upbringing. Critics have frequently admonished his mother, Sophie Rilke (1851-1931), for her alleged religious fanaticism in raising her only child. Various anecdotes have provided material for those who want to explain Rilke's "almost excessive anti-Christian attitude" (2) (letter to Marie von Thurn und Taxis, December 17, 1912 [Rilke Briefe 379]) by referring to harrowing childhood experiences. (3) But regardless of the possible biographical roots for Rilke's rejection of Christianity, his mother's efforts at providing a religious education did bear fruit in one respect: the ubiquitous presence of Christian imagery and narratives during his upbringing furnished Rilke with a point of reference against which he could develop his personal notions of the spiritual life.

Visions of Christ

Arguably, Visions of Christ represents Rilke's first substantial literary work. The eleven pieces that make up the cycle of narrative poems certainly do not possess the poetic finesse of the later New Poems, but in terms of original thought they are more compelling than the majority of the juvenilia written before the Book of Hours. This originality may be a result of the personal urgency with which the topic of religion presented itself to Rilke.

From a biographical perspective, the cycle is of special significance because it provided Rilke with the occasion to come into initial contact with Lou Andreas-Salome (1861-1937), who for a brief time would become his lover and who remained a close friend and confidante throughout his life. In 1897, in his first letter to her, he praises her essay "Jesus the Jew," published the previous year. Two aspects of the essay may have particularly resonated with him. (4) Andreas-Salome places Jesus into the context of the this-worldliness of Judaism, which stands in stark contrast to the focus on the afterlife common to other religious traditions (Andreas-Salome 347). A similar rejection of a hereafter would become a recurring topic in Rilke's critique of Christianity. Furthermore, Andreas-Salome's essay conflates the religious and the aesthetic spheres:

   But it may happen that what a religious genius internally
   experiences on an individual and hidden level ... produces an
   absolutely appropriate articulation in words and images, so that,
   as in the work of a poet the highest artistic dream appears, the
   highest religious dream of humankind appears before us in complete
   perfection as if it were graspable and shaped [plastisch]. (344)

In his response to Andreas-Salome, Rilke relates the essay to his work in progress, the Visions of Christ:

   Dr. Conrad sent me the April 96 issue of the Neue Deutsche
   Rundschau. A letter of Conrad pointed me to an essay in it, Jesus
   the Jew. Why? At the time, Dr. Conrad had read a few parts of my
   Christ-Visions (five are supposed to be published shortly in the
   "Gesellschaft") and assumed that sparkling essay would be of
   interest to me. … 

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