Independent in All Things, Neutral in Nothing

Literature Review: Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

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Today was a particularly nice day in the United Kingdom, the kind that does not come around often in this part of the world. The sun was fully out and the temperature in the high 60’s—a rarity this time of year—and in England of all places! With the fleetingness of this moment in mind, I decided to shirk my thesis writing and head outside for some pleasure reading. Once situated on the bank of the Thames, I brandished a copy of the Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Although I had read it before, I wanted to see what I could get out of it a second time. As all of Rilke’s writing does, The Notebooks keep on giving.

Rilke’s genius is truly unmatched in modern poetry. Ironically, however, Rilke is perhaps best known for his series of ten letters—Letters to a Young Poet—written to a young Franz Xaver Kappus, a student at the Military Academy in Vienna, which Rilke attended some years earlier. Kappus sent Rilke some sample poetry and asked for his comment and criticism. Instead, what ensued was a deeply intimate, profound, and heartfelt relationship, albeit these men never met in person. Rilke counsels Kappus on everything from artistic solitude to what it means to yearn, to wonder, and to love. He was instrumental in Kappus’ development—as both an artist and a man.

Although the Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge is another work of prose—indeed, Rilke’s only novel—this semi-autobiographical work is a nice change of pace from his demanding and complex poetry. However, The Notebooks are commensurately demanding in a different way, namely, the novel is a roman à clef. One must know a bit about Rilke and his life to get the most out of The Notebooks, for he interprets the facts of seminal events in his life quite liberally, and uses fictitious names for family members and friends.

The novel addresses topics of existentialism—the quest for radical individuality, the significance of death, and reflection on the experience of time as death approaches. Rilke shows his true influences through the novel, viz., Friedrich Nietzsche, as well as the French impressionistic artists such as Auguste Rodin and Paul Cézanne. Set in Paris, Rilke conjures up feelings of anxiety and alienation in the age of industrial revolution and scientific progress.

As he does in many of his poems and Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke also addresses the subject of love, which he previously called “that for which everything else is merely preparation.” Indeed, it is hard to imagine a Rilke that does not address or mention love in some way. The Notebooks hint at an important lesson: loving another does not entitle one to their love in return, but experiencing the love of another places one under an obligation. It is an obvious point, but an awful truth that the novel’s hero, Malte Laurids Brigge (Rilke), tries desperately to evade. In fact, this is very much the dilemma of modern man, for no matter how much we love God, our love will not necessarily influence Him, but His love for us places us under an obligation to Him. Of course, the easiest way out of this dilemma is simply to deny the existence of God, which has been the response of Modernity. Again, Rilke’s Nietzschean influence shows its true colors here.

Unfortunately, Nietzsche’s “Death of God” still leaves Rilke with the problem of fellow humans, and the obligations under which their love places him. Thus, Rilke, who wrote the book after running away from his wife and young child, says of Brigge: “He had decided never to love, in order not to put anyone in the terrible position of being loved.” (French existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre famously stated, “Hell is other people.”)

Brigge’s quote reflects an understanding that love ultimately places limits on human freedom, by creating interdependence. Brigge’s (Rilke’s) reaction, one that has been all-too-common in our age, is to turn inward and become self-absorbed, to disregard others. In the absence of God and other people, Brigge (Rilke) discovers another painful truth: the central fact of life is mortality. Thus, it is no surprise that the second half of the book exhibits a thoroughgoing and strange obsession with death.

Of course, the book is replete with discoveries that are more positive as well, from profound insights into what sometimes seem like the incomprehensible torments of intellectual artists, to the pabulum that inspired Rilke’s innermost thoughts and poems. Many of these nuggets cut to the heart of the very person that Rilke was. The Notebooks include moments of deep honesty and emotional vulnerability and insecurity. For instance, Rilke’s pervasive inferiority complex rears its head in many places. One of my favorites is the following passage:

“How ridiculous. I sit here in my little room, I, Brigge [Rilke], who am twenty-eight years old and completely unknown. I sit here and am nothing. And yes this nothing begins to think and thinks, five flights up, on a gray Paris afternoon, these thoughts: Is it possible, it thinks, that we have not yet seen, known, or said anything real or important? Is it possible that we have had thousands of years to look, meditate, and record, and that we have let these thousands of years slip away like a recess at school when there is just enough time to eat your sandwich and an apple? Yes, it is possible. Is it possible that despite our discoveries and advances, despite our culture, religion, and science, we have remained on the surface of life? Is it possible that even this surface, which might still have been something, has been covered with an incredibly tedious material, which makes it look like living room furniture during the summer vacation? Yes, it is possible. Is it possible that the whole history of the world has been misunderstood? …Yes, it is possible. Is it possible that we thought we had to retrieve what happened before we were born? …In the same way: Is it possible to believe we could have a God without using him? Yes, it is possible.”

After several pages of rhetorical and intellectual musing—I have abridged the quote here—Rilke finally concludes:

“But if all this is possible, if it has even a semblance of possibility,—then surely, for the sake of everything in the world, something must be done. The first comer, the one who has had these alarming thoughts, must begin to do some of the things that have been neglected; even though he is just anyone, certainly not the most suitable person: since there is no one else. This young, insignificant foreigner, Brigge [Rilke], will have to sit down in his room, five flights up, and keep writing, day and night. Yes, he will have to write; that is how it will end.”

These nuggets of brilliance are enough to make the reader grin from ear to ear, even in the silence of one’s own room. Rilke has an unmatched ability to make the familiar seem unfamiliar, to give poetic and prosaic brilliance to what it is that we have long felt to true. The Notebooks thus represent a must-read for anybody who knows Rilke’s power of expression and facility with words and for anybody seeking a break from stumbling over his complex and demanding poetry.

N.B. All quotes are from The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, translated by Stephen Mitchell, published by Vintage International Press, 1990.


Written by ryancberg

April 17, 2011 at 1:01 am

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  1. […] Rilke, the author of the Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus, numerous other poems, essays and one novel wrote 400 poems in French between 1922 and his death in 1926. A remarkable accomplishment by any […]

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