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Duineser Elegien

Rainer Maria Rilke


By the cliffs of Duino - existence and ecstasy

IN THE BRITANNICA ONLINE, you may search for answers to whole questions instead of just looking up single words and phrases. The editors show us one example of such an advanced query: "What is the meaning of life?" This question generates lots of hits, mostly from different articles on philosophy, philosophers etc. Maybe the meaning of life is philosophy. Or maybe the philosophy of life is meaning   - our urge to find patterns.
  Cut to Rilke:
  Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) reached beyond that. Certainly, life is all change  - as Heraclitus or the I Ching claimed. Transformation approached as development, however, means ego, and this hides true existence from ourselves. Existence in itself is of course valid  - because it's there. And validity is enough  - maybe meaning is unnecessary. How appropriate then to get a call, a revelation: a pre-Christian, pre-Mosaic, pre-Everything angel to dictate a few lines about this truly terrifying subject, giving the lost poet both license and direction.
  Such an event took place around the 20th or 21st of January 1912, when Rilke visited the princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe at the castle Duino just outside Trieste. He was in a crisis and even considered psychoanalytical treatment. However, during a walk alongside the cliffs, sloping some 200 feet down to the sea, words suddenly came to him: "Wer, wenn ich schriee, höre mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen?" Rilke was actually contemplating his bookkeeping at the time, and he knew immediately that this impulse was the beginning of something remarkable. He took notes of the words, and during the rest of his stay at Duino, Rilke wrote the beginnings of most of his ten elegies.
  In a letter dated January 23rd to author Annette Kolb, Rilke wrote:

That which speaks to me about the humane, the overwhelming, and with an authorative calm that gets my full attention, are the figures of the young dead, and even more necessary, clean, inexhaustible: the loving. Through both those figures, the humaneness is blended into my heart, whether I want it or not. They appear within me, both with the clarity of a marionette (which is a cover assigned for the mission of conviction) and as completed types, so impossible to go beyond, that one could have written the natural history of their souls.

  The elegies were not finished, however, until long after the war. Rilke suffered from depression and could hardly write anything at all, the exception being the fourth elegy, which he wrote in 1915. The whole cycle of elegies was completed in February 1922 when Rilke visited the Château de Muzot in the Rhône Valley. Here he also wrote many of the sonnets of the cycle "Die Sonette an Orpheus." Rilke was of mature age when he wrote about the young dead and the lovers and the angels. He once said that poetry is not emotion, it is experience.
  And I still remember what a shaking experience it was to read the closing lines of the tenth elegy for the first time:

Und wir, die an steigendes  Glück
denken, empfänden die Rührung,
die uns beinah bestürzt,
wenn ein Glückliches fällt.

  In my quick and prosaic translation this would read "And we, who would think of happiness as something ascending,  would be moved, almost perplexed, if something happy fell."
  There is another German text that shook me as much. Wittgenstein's "Tractatus Logico-Filosoficus". And when I come to think of it: There is a similarity between the closing lines of the tenth Rilke elegy and the closing of Tractatus, where one is supposed to throw away the ladder after having climbed it. In this light the famous words, to keep quiet about that which we cannot speak of, are not really cynical or tragic, but suggesting the ecstasy of gravity  - and grace.

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