Academic journal article Philosophy Today

The Aesthetic and the Poetic Image: Beyond the Ekphrasic Divide with Rilke and Cézanne

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

The Aesthetic and the Poetic Image: Beyond the Ekphrasic Divide with Rilke and Cézanne

Article excerpt

An object of many scholars' fascination, and my own here, is that of a poet's fascination with paintings, and in particular, Rainer Marie Rilke's fascination with Paul Cézanne. Rilke wrote extensively about Cézanne in a series of letters to Clara Rilke from Paris in 1907, which he wished to have published.1 That was the year of a memorial exhibition of Cezanne's paintings which Rilke visited over and over-sometimes spending hours in front of a single painting (B, 413)-and during which Rilke continued work on Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge, a novel intensely descriptive of the seen world and influenced by Rilke's viewing of the paintings. (LC, 68-69). A plethora of phenomenological questions about images, verbal and visual, arises from this contact; I would like to consider them in the context of a brief account of the extent and depth of Rilke's fascination.

Rilke is more fascinated with visual images than almost any other modern poet. By 1907, he had been for years enthralled with the plastic arts through his associations with artists, most prominently Rodin, but also the painters Clara (Westhoff) Rilke and Paula Modersohn; he had long been preparing a book about Rodin, for whom he had worked; and he had spent the summer perusing a portfolio of prints of van Gogh paintings which moved him considerably. Yet upon his repeated visits to the Cézanne exhibition, and in the midst of his attempts to write about the effect on him, Rilke is no less than astonished; he claims that, in coming to understand Cézanne, one is transformed-"suddenly one has the right eyes." Rilke experiences a kind of visual awakening in front of the Cézanne paintings; correlate to this visuality, however, are metaphysical and, more precisely, phenomenological implications. The transformation Rilke experiences through Cézanne is one that involves his own writing, for, as one scholar claims, "the altered horizon of insight involves . . . a reclamation of language, an extension of its former boundaries which is never lost again"(Petzet, xviii). Rilke learns through Cézanne that a certain kind of abstraction gets closer to the real, that in order to do so it is necessary to break away from what Bergson might call our prosaic, practically-oriented metaphysics that conditions our relationship to objects. Rilke recognizes that Cezanne's departure from the ordinary ways of conceiving spatial relationships might lead the poet, too, to other kinds of verbal images, to "unusual word formations which leave behind the rules of speech sanctioned by everyday use and [thus to] venture into utterly new territory" (Petzet, xviii). Rilke's description of a visit to the Cézanne exhibition is worth quoting, for it renders experiential evidence for the kind of transformation occurring in his aesthetic perceptions:

Today I went to see his pictures again; it's remarkable what an environment they create. Without looking at a particular one . . . one feels their presence drawing together into a colossal reality. As if these colors could heal one of indecision once and for all. . . . [Their] simple truthfulness, it educates you. . . . [Cézanne] knew how to swallow back his love for every apple and put it to rest in the painted apple forever. Can you imagine what that is like, and what it's like to experience this through him? (LC, 50-51)

What Rilke learns for his poetry is Cezanne's same task as Rilke understands it: "to achieve the conviction and substantiality of things, a reality intensified and potentiated to the point of indestructibility by his experience of the object" (LC, 34). According to Cezanne's own articulations, a grasp of reality is not given to immediate perception, which is made up of "confused sensations"; aesthetic concentration and "research" is needed to get closer to nature.2 Rilke finds common to Cezanne's work and his own poetry a grasp of the real, what he calls "instinctive beginnings toward a similar objectivity" (LC, 51), wherein images become "thinglike and real . …

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