Reading Rilke in a Difficult Time
(An edited version of this piece was first published in Hindustan Times on 8th April 2020.)
I love the hours after midnight because everything at home is still and silent. I can hear my thoughts with absolute clarity. This is unthinkable in the daytime when the house is abuzz with activity, the television is on, and I find myself pulled into inane conversations. The night is worth waiting for. When things quieten down, I can enjoy my own company.
“Going into yourself and meeting no one for hours on end — that is what you must be able to attain…Your inmost happening is worth your whole love, that is what you must somehow work at, and not lose too much time and too much courage in explaining your attitude to people,” writes Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke in his book Letters to a Young Poet (1929), which I received as a present last year but began reading only during this pandemic-induced lockdown.
The timing could not have been more apt. This collection of the ten letters Rilke wrote to Franz Xaver Kappus — a young man trying to choose between a literary career and a life of service in the army — is a plea to embrace the inner life. Instead of dispensing advice about rhyme and meter, Rilke encourages him to explore the depths of his own being. He says, “Your solitude will be your home and haven even in the midst of very strange conditions, and from there you will discover all your paths.”
Working from home is not new to me as a freelance writer but the lockdown has closed off opportunities to go for walks, read quietly at coffee shops, attend cultural events, and meet the occasional friend for a leisurely rendezvous. I am slowly adjusting to the new normal but noise continues to be a difficult negotiation. My perspective shifts when I remember that a house to live in, and food on my plate, are luxuries to be grateful for.
Rilke reminds me to be patient amidst discomfort, not expect an idyllic writing residency with flowers smiling in my face and hot cups of ginger-tea warming up my body to produce words. He remarks, “People have (with the help of convention) found the solution of everything in ease and the easiest side of ease; but it is clear that we must hold to the difficult…the fact that a thing is difficult must be one more reason for our doing it.”
Rilke engaged with Kappus in a lively correspondence from 1902 to 1908, and ten of these letters got published three years after Rilke died of leukemia. For a young poet like Kappus, receiving letters of such extraordinary beauty and wisdom from a celebrated figure like Rilke must have felt like sheer good fortune. The tone of these letters is kind, not patronizing; they carry the voice of an elder who cares deeply.
It is startling to notice how immediate these letters sound though they were written ninety years ago. Rilke says, “Why do you want to exclude any disturbance, any pain, any melancholy from your life, since you do not know what these conditions are working upon you? Why do you want to plague yourself with the question where it has all come from and whither it is tending? Since you know that you are in a state of transition and would wish nothing so dearly as to transform yourself.”
This might be triggering for people for whom the lockdown has brought on mental health challenges, either because they are forced to live with an abusive partner or because their family does not approve of their sexual orientation or because they are cut off from the people who bring joy into their lives. They cannot afford to romanticize solitude, something that Rilke can be accused of. That said, Rilke’s book is a serious invitation to accept all that we come across when we confront our fundamental aloneness.
He writes, “I would like to beg you…to have patience with everything that is unsolved in your heart and to try to cherish the questions themselves, like closed rooms and like books written in a very strange tongue. Do not search now for the answers which cannot be given you because you could not live them…Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, one distant day live right into the answer.”
Clearly, Rilke lived in a world without online search engines, virtual dating, and social media notifications. His relationship to instant gratification certainly seems less fraught than ours. Moreover, he did not have to put up with the shenanigans of the fake news industry that invades our inboxes each day. Despite the vast differences that separate us from his time and place, the message he conveys is timeless. Is it a prison if we do not feel imprisoned?