Academic journal article German Quarterly

Immanent Transcendence in Rilke and Stevens

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Immanent Transcendence in Rilke and Stevens

Article excerpt

Rainer Maria Rilke and Wallace Stevens, near-contemporaries born in the 1870s, evoke in their poetry the question of transcendence, and this serves as the focus of the only comparative study of these poets to date. ' Both poets understand the task of poetry within the post-Romantic context of the eclipse of the divine. Yet rather than simply give up on transcendence, Rilke and Stevens both innovate on and transform its momentum, and this innovation may be seen as a central achievement of their respective poetics, and a core of their configurations of modernism. The present study aims to show that in the context of modern poetry, transcendence, or "crossing beyond," must be understood in two distinct senses, as vertical and horizontal projections, and it is the usurpation of one by the other or the transfer between them that distinguishes the poetry of Rilke and Stevens and makes a comparative reading particularly illuminating. The fact that Rilke and Stevens are two of the most widely invoked poets in the phenomenological tradition will help to establish a modern sense of transcendence distinct from a traditional or Romantic longing for a realm above and beyond earthly existence.2 This second sense would be an "immanent" transcendence, a crossing of horizons between perception and imagination or imagination and reality, by the disclosures and inventions of which, it is argued here, the more traditional notion of transcendence is usurped in distinct ways.

Introduction: Vertical and Horizontal Transcendence in Rilke and Stevens

The two senses of transcendence relevant to the poetry of Rilke and Stevens might be characterized as "other-worldly" transcendence and "thisworldly" transcendence, or a transcendence immanent to a world we can experience or imagine. Transcendence can be understood, first of all, as a crossing or vertical projection from the realm of earthly, human limitation and finitude, to a realm metaphorically above and beyond.3 Rilke and Stevens both present the angel and the angelic consciousness as emblems of such transcendence with which the modern poet must contend, even if to reverse its trajectory. Transcendence is also evoked in a quite different range oí horizontal or horizonal senses - that is, as a virtual line in the distance against which what is experienced or known can be projectively interpreted - in European philosophy contemporaneous with literary modernism and often invoked in interpretations of both Rilke and Stevens. Phenomenologically, "transcendence" is a term used to indicate the intentionality of consciousness which is always beyond itself (Husserl), as a surpassing of the given, through the imaginary, in order to make a world of it (Sartre), as the structure of in-der-Welt-sein, or as that of poetic language itself bringing forth from concealment to appearance in disclosure (Heidegger) . Without adhering to any of these particular formulations of phenomenology, poetic transformations invoked by the poetics of Rilke and Stevens can be placed within the horizonal range of senses of "transcendence" that they contextualize. When Kathleen Komar argues that these poets abandon courting the angelic beyond (Stevens from the outset and Rilke only gradually), this view not only understates the force of their inversions of other-worldly transcendence - Stevens for instance writes of a "necessary angel of earth"4 - this view also overlooks their inventions of poetic methods which provoke horizontal kinds of transcendence to take its place.

Both Rilke and Stevens aim to "cross beyond" horizons within ordinary experience in their attempts to transform our sense of human existence and its reality. These transformations would be achieved in crossing horizons conceived as within the human realm (in Rilke between inner and external experience and space, in the notion of Weltinnenraum, and for Stevens between imaginative experience and reality). A comparative account of Rilke and Stevens, and perhaps any thorough study of either poet's idiosyncratic configuration of modernism, must show how the shift from a consideration of "otherworldly" transcendence to "this-worldly" transcendence is explicitly engaged, and how the horizontal transcendence bears within it traces of the abandoned vertical longing, in the form of registrations of the void, of nothingness, or of death. …

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