Academic journal article German Quarterly

"Eine eigentliche Durchdringung": Literary and National Identity, Gender, and Body in Rilke's "Stifter Letter" to August Sauer1

Academic journal article German Quarterly

"Eine eigentliche Durchdringung": Literary and National Identity, Gender, and Body in Rilke's "Stifter Letter" to August Sauer1

Article excerpt

In a letter of 11 January 1914 sent by Rainer Maria Rilke to his friend and former Germanistik professor August Sauer of the Carl-Ferdinands-Universitat in Prague, anxieties about insufficient linguistic and literary power are figured in terms of gender, the body, the nation, and a discourse of Austria as abject, inner colonial space. The causal sequence implied by this opening formulation derives strictly from grammatical convenience: each component in the chain is figured in terms of the others, and I intend to suggest neither a chronology (which component "came first") nor an ontology (which component is "most essential"). Rather, I seek to freeze the letter's dynamic web of intersections and range across its nodal points, pausing where the implications seem most intriguing. This essay thus explores the signifying field of Rilke's text, tracing the workings of its composite rhetoric of literary and linguistic identity, the body and gender, nation and imperial-colonial discourse.2

On its most overt level, Rilke's letter comprises four broad sections: an account of the poet's experience of passionately reading his late countryman, the Austro-German Bohemian author Adalbert Stifter (1805-86), during the winter of 1912-13 in southern Spain; an autobiographical lament about the linguistic jumble of Rilke's childhood in the ethnically mixed Austrian border zone of Prague and its ostensibly negative effects upon his literary development; a positive evaluation of Stifter's writing; and a request for a complete Stifter edition produced by Sauer's ethnic-nationalist "Gesellschaft zur Forderung deutscher Wissenschaft, Kunst und Literatur in Bohmen." At the more subtle level of figural production of textual meaning, these sections unfold across a common semiotic space in which modes of figuring literary-linguistic identity, the nation and national desire, gender, and the body intersect and share the same tropology. By reading the multiple transpositions of the text's metaphoric field, I shall open a window not only onto the peculiarities and anxieties of Rilke's own rhetoric, but also onto those of overlapping socio-historical discursive frameworks of his day.

Rilke's figuration of his troubled literary-linguistic identity resonates uncannily with the rhetoric of Austrian imperial power, inner colonialism, and ethnic (German) nationalism-a heterogeneous "inner colonial" imaginary that informs late 19th- and early 20th-century modes of Austrian self-perception and sheds light on both the letter's signifying repertoire and its strategic inscription of its Austro-German subject (Stifter) and recipient (Sauer).3 Strikingly, this combined rhetorical strand of Rilkean literary-linguistic and national-colonial identity is articulated in conspicuously gendered and especially corporeal terms. In turn, this rhetoric of the body and its gendering cannot be separated from the larger discourses and contexts onto which it opens out. These include general patriarchal fears of male "feminization," enervation, and castration in the face of a threatening femininity-fears closely linked with widespread fin-desiecle Austrian and European discourses of (venereal) disease, degeneration, and impotence (and, like them, shaped by a patriarchal imaginary that necessarily invests its fantasy visions of the feminine with inimical power).4 Equally illuminating are historically specific modes of figuring Rilke's Bohemia as inner colonial space. These modes, which draw upon broader patriarchal European overseas colonial discourse and its somatically focused dread of miscegenation and hybridity, were especially popular among Prague ethnic German nationalists of Rilke's youth and Sauer's sphere.

In its configurations of national, gender, and literary identity, Rilke's letter remains suspended between father figures (Stifter, Sauer) and the maternally coded Prague; between oedipal and abject paradigms. The text evokes simultaneous images of a wounded Rilke whose superimposed body, masculinity, and literary production are menaced by a "feminine" and feminizing Austria and an abject Rilke whom an alltoo-fluid maternal Austria has trapped in a state of even more radical debility. …

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