Beauty Is Not for Us to Make

By Bennett, Kelsey L. | New Criterion, May 2012 | Go to article overview

Beauty Is Not for Us to Make


Bennett, Kelsey L., New Criterion


Wo ist zu diesem Innen ein Aussen?

--Rainer Maria Rilke, New Poems, II

Disturbed by what he saw, smelled, and heard from the city that was foreign to his ear and to his sensibilities, twenty-six-year-old Rainer Maria Rilke passed his nights in Paris among company well known for mixing wretchedness with exultation: Job and Baudelaire. In a letter to Lou Andreas-Salome, he describes the unlikely consolation the French poet provided him at the time:

    How far away from me [Baudelaire] was in
   everything, one of the most alien to me; often
   I can scarcely understand him, and yet sometimes
   deep in the night when I said his words
   after him like a child, then he was the person
   closest to me and lived beside me and stood
   pale behind the thin wall and listened to my
   voice falling. What a strange companionship
   was between us then, a sharing of everything,
   the same poverty and perhaps the same fear. 

A strange companionship indeed!--particularly when the feelings he describes are those one might experience with one's wife in the same setting: living together, listening, sharing, and fearing. The year was 1902, and in coming to Paris alone to write his first of two monographs on Rodin, Rilke regrettably left such possibilities behind in Germany, along with his infant daughter Ruth (who on later visits would simply call him "Man" or, if he was lucky, "Good Man"). Though he still preserved a refined intimacy with his wife through the medium of their ongoing correspondence, Rilke was already actively protecting himself from the perceived threat of creative dissolution that family life brings to the artist.

Beyond this too-ordinary fear, and others that arose from exposure to the poverty and helplessness of many of the people he encountered daily, and which made him feel his own poverty and strangeness all the more acutely, what further anxiety was Rilke indicating when he made his experience companion to Baudelaire's? Rilke found himself being pulled further into a new life by that pale figure who stood guard behind his wall through a need they held in common--to think and to write about art. This activity provided a vantage point, away from the poetry, on what they needed to see and know about most. Though lacking the ratiocinative panache of Baudelaire's art criticism, Rilke's art ruminations both reflect a seriousness and receptivity as though his own poetic development depended directly upon how well he could see and also metamorphose that vision into language.

Rilke was neither a deliberate scholar nor an art historian. The critical appraisal one artist gives to another differs from the work of an ordinary critic because each artist looks to the other for a model that is not merely aesthetic, cultural, or political, but existential. Again to Andreas-Salome:

    I must follow him, Rodin: not in a sculptural
   reshaping of my creative work, but in the inner
   disposition of the artistic process; I must learn
   from him not how to fashion but deep composure
   for the sake of the fashioning. I must learn
   to work, to work. 

The refrain of work-discipline is central to Rilke's thought of the period.

What comes through most clearly in Rilke's responses to Rodin, and what makes the poet's work in this area stand apart from others of its kind, is the intimation that a dynamic rediscovery of the original meaning for the word "poet"--in Greek, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], or maker--is taking place. What does a maker make? Things, of course, Rilke answers. The maker makes things. But how are we to understand this term that risks meaninglessness by meaning too much? Most writers on the subject agree that Rilke's encounter with Rodin's formidable oeuvre gave the younger poet a stronger sense of the concrete dimensions of "things" that would have a transitional effect on his poetry. It further seems unlikely that Rilke would have been able to experience the work of Cezanne as he did, had he not had his time with Rodin. …

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