'Live the questions now': Reading Rilke in a time of uncertainty, grief and solitude
Austrian writer Rainer Maria Rilke urged us to embrace the questions instead of searching for answers
*Originally published on May 13, 2021.
In his letters and poetry, Austrian writer Rainer Maria Rilke urged us to "love the questions" instead of searching for answers, and to "sing out" with pain solitude causes them.
His writing seems tailor-made for our own era: a dark interval of solitude, grief and uncertainty.
"Our lives are filled with big questions right now," said Ulrich Baer, a Rilke scholar and translator.
"Every day you wake up and think, when is this [pandemic] going to be over? The other question would be, what am I going to do with my life when it's over? Because you won't even know anymore."
There is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.- Rainer Maria Rilke
For Rilke, uncertainty was something to linger in, because it opened up new possibilities.
"Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves, as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language," Rilke wrote in Letters to a Young Poet.
"Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you, because then you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now."
According to Baer, "If you embrace those questions, you may actually get to a point where you intuit what you really want versus what you should want."
That distinction is one of the reasons he thinks Rike's poetry is "strangely resonant" today.
"We are thinking we're going to be redeemed from this [pandemic] from the outside. Something is going to happen, and then it's going to be lifted. And then you're going to step out into the sunshine, and then you're saddled with Rilke's question, what do I do with my life now?" Baer said.
"Rilke would say, it leaves you exactly in the same spot, but you may have been pushed to a place where you think, OK, after this, I'm changing my life. This is the very famous line from one of his poems, "The Archaic Torso of Apollo". In the last line of that poem, he says, you must change your life."
'Permission for solitude'
When writer Dina Nayeri first heard that poem, she was a student at the renowned Iowa Writers' Workshop. One night at a party, someone recited the whole poem from memory.
"I didn't know what to expect. Here is this beautiful description of this torso, this statue," she said.
"And suddenly it takes this 180 degree turn. The two last lines are this just powerful gong: 'For here, there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.'"
Nayeri was in the middle of doing exactly that. She had studied economics and business, then made a turn into creative writing. At Iowa, she felt like an outsider. "I had felt that not only had I been lucky to get in, but that it was a giant mistake, like a wind blew the application from one pile to another pile," she said.
"I was in this place that was telling me what poetry is, what art is, what is good enough. And I felt so judged."
In Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, she found consolation. The letters in that book are addressed to Francis Xavier Kappus, a student at Rilke's old school who wrote to him asking whether his poems were any good.
"You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you — no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself," Rilke replied.
"It was just this permission for solitude, which I needed so desperately," said Nayeri.
Rilke offers an unusually positive vision of solitude. Solitude, in his words, can be "a support and a home … in the midst of very unfamiliar circumstances."
"He says at one point in the very first letter, 'descend into yourself and into your solitude, your life will find its own paths from there,'" said Toronto poet laureate and University of Toronto professor A. F. Moritz.
"It's like you go into the dark forest of Dante in the middle of your life. And once you're in there and you look around, lo and behold, you see a path or a guide comes and takes you on the path and that's your path. But unless you decided to descend into that darkness, you wouldn't know it's there."
Rilke urged the young poet to become a "world for himself."
"You realize, with his help, that inside that you are a world and you have to explore and make it … you begin to realize, well, you know what, my hometown is within me. It's as if I'm there. So your world expands and there's a whole geography within you," said Moritz.
'Two solitudes that border, greet and protect each other'
For Rilke, solitude was also an essential part of learning how to love. He admonished young people for "flinging themselves at each other … in all their messiness, disorder, confusion" instead of first developing fully as individuals.
When Nayeri was first introduced to Rilke's work at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, she was going through a divorce.
"I realized that in my previous life I had not given myself much over to solitude at all. And in that sense, my love for my ex-husband had died. My love for myself had died. My ability to see art had died," she said.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.- Rainer Maria Rilke
In love, partners should strive to be "two solitudes that border, greet and protect each other," wrote Rilke.
That passage inspired the title for Hugh Maclennan's famous 1945 novel Two Solitudes. He used the phrase to describe the relationship between French and English Canada.
'The dark interval'
While Rilke viewed solitude as an essential part of a meaningful life, he also acknowledged the pain that can come with it. In Letters to a Young Poet, he wrote, "Love your solitude, and try to sing out with the pain it causes you."
Rilke viewed the most difficult and painful experiences in life as potentially transformative.
In one of his most famous poems, "Go to the Limits of Your Longing," he wrote: "Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final."
"The point is to feel everything," said B.C. poet and novelist, Aislinn Hunter. "Terror is not an end result. It's a station of transit."
Rilke was the first poet I fell in love with. The book was a gift. <br><br>Giving a book of poetry to someone -at any age- can change their life. Look at me- here at Duino castle all these years later, scribbling in my notebook. <br><br>(And Rilke’s letters on grief- a balm. Seek it out.) <a href="https://t.co/xuL5U0HKYY">pic.twitter.com/xuL5U0HKYY</a>—@AislinnHunter
Rilke paid special attention to the transformative power of grief. "He talks about [how] grief pulls you, weirdly enough, out of your everyday routines … but it pulls you very deeply into the world," said Ulrich Baer.
In 2001, Baer's father died of cancer in Germany. He read a letter by Rilke at his father's funeral.
In that 1918 letter, Rilke wrote: "In recent years, I had to live through so many close experiences of death, but not one person has been taken from me without my having found the tasks around me increased. The weight of this unexplained and perhaps greatest event ... presses us, I think, increasingly more evenly and more deeply into life."
At first, Baer was confused by that passage.
"I did not feel very awake to life. I didn't want to feel any real joy or any real pain because I really thought if I start crying, I will not stop … So this idea that it presses you more deeply into life made no sense to me because I thought, I'm not in life," he said.
"But I really wanted to be back in life, so I thought: how does this work?"
As Ulrich Baer struggled with what those words meant, he kept translating letters that Rilke had written to people who'd also lost loved ones. He eventually assembled them in a collection called The Dark Interval: Letters on Loss, Grief and Transformation.
Aislinn Hunter found that book a few months after her husband Glenn died of brain cancer.
"I read those letters when I was in deep, dark, tarry, black grief," she said. "I read a letter a night and I cried and cried … Having this voice right in my ear every night, it was like a pull to live."
She was especially drawn to a passage where Rilke wrote: "Not wanting to be consoled for such a loss: that should be our instinct. Instead, we should make it our deep and searing curiosity to explore such loss completely and to experience the particular and singular nature of this loss and its impact within our life … This is active pain that works on the inside. The only kind that has any meaning and is worthy of us."
"It was to me at the time, and still is, this incredible gift to think, 'oh, this state is a becoming. It's not a [death] sentence.' And that when loss is the cloak that you're wearing, that there's a gift in it," she said.
"That feels like a betrayal of the person you love who died. But I think it's true. What else should we do with this life that we have then allowed the dark parts to transform us somehow?"
'Look how alive we are'
In 2016, Ulrich Baer met Peter Stern, who had advanced Parkinson's and couldn't speak. Baer visited Stern every two weeks to read Rilke's poetry out loud to him in German.
"As a child in Germany before his family fled from the Nazis to America, he loved Rilke and loved poetry," said Baer. "He could not speak … but he could tap the rhythm with his fingers."
"[I told my son], look how little we can do to make up for what happened. This man had to flee Nazi Germany. I'm German. I cannot make up for any of this. But I can read to him for an hour. It apparently made him feel better," Baer said.
"Then I said, look how lucky we are. We can walk down the stairs, get into the subway.
It's hard, it's crowded, it's annoying, it smells, it's New York."
"Look how alive we are."
Guests in this episode:
Aislinn Hunter is a Canadian novelist and poet, and the author of eight books. Her most recent novel is The Certainties. She teaches creative writing at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, B.C.
Ulrich Baer is Professor of German and Comparative Literature at New York University. He is the author of The Rilke Alphabet, and the translator and editor of Rainer Maria Rilke: Letters on Life and The Dark Interval: Letters on Loss, Grief, and Transformation.
Dina Nayeri is an Iranian-American novelist, short story writer and nonfiction writer. She is the author of the novels Refuge and A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea, and a memoir called The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You.
A.F. Moritz is a Canadian poet and the author of more than 15 books of poetry. He is the Poet Laureate of Toronto, and won the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2009. He also teaches literature at the University of Toronto.
*This episode was produced by Pauline Holdsworth. It includes excerpts from Rilke's poetry and letters translated by Ulrich Baer, Stephen Mitchell, Joanna Macy, A. S. Kline and M. D. Herter. Readings by actor Michelle Giroux.