Rilke, Europe, and the English-Speaking World

By Eudo C. Mason | Go to book overview

EXCURSUS I
RILKE AND THE GESTURE OF WITHDRAWAL

PARTICULARLY characteristic of Rilke is what may be called the gesture of withdrawal. It appears not only in his relationship to the English-speaking world, but again and again, under innumerable different guises, in his dealings with all things, both in his life and in his work, and presents one of the chief difficulties in all attempts to tie him down to any one set of convictions or beliefs, because he always withdraws himself from his own professions of faith -- which is something different from simply repudiating them. Indeed, this gesture of withdrawal tends itself to assume for him a quasi-doctrinal character, especially when he pronounces on love and on God. What really interests him most in all human relationships, particularly in those between man and woman and between children and parents is the question, 'why people who love one another separate before there is any need for them to do so.'1 The many women he loved, or tried to love, all of them had sooner or later in one way or another to see him withdraw himself from them, and to find it expected of them that they should accept this withdrawal as the natural, necessary and highest culmination of his love. One might even say of him that, in dismissing marriage as a mere conventional bourgeois contract, he assigns to divorce something of the sacramental sanctity usually associated with matrimony -- and on at least two occasions his friends are found exerting themselves to keep him out of the divorce court.2 With a curious fervour he congratulates Paula Modersohn3 in 1906 on leaving her husband and R. H, Junghanns in 1921 on leaving his wife, and he specially urges the latter not to relent out of pity in his step. Similarly in 1896 he is found urging Siegfried Trebitsch to break away from

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