Is living for art the only true life?

Is living for art the only true life?
Is living for art the only true life?

“If the essence of indifference and the masses is that they do not recognize loneliness, then love and friendship exist because they constantly give opportunity for solitude.” It is one of the many ambiguous quotes by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) that are immediately thought provoking. If only because Rilke almost all his work, from the world famous The elegies of Duino until The Notes of Malte Laurids Briggewrote in total solitude.

In his book Staying is nowhere. Rilke .’s Europe follows the poet and philosopher Florian Jacobs Rilke, finds his whereabouts and searches for shadows of one of the most elusive poets and thinkers of the twentieth century. Through this shadow play, Jacobs takes the reader from Prague to Germany, via Russia to Paris and from Italy to Spain and Switzerland. He describes how Rilke never stays in one place for more than a few months and is rarely in possession of his own furniture or peace of mind. This is noticeable in the developments in his poetry, which changes in tone, symbolism and content based on the places where he lives.

Rilke’s poems are often a direct reflection of his state of mind, of his ‘inner world space’, a term coined by Rilke himself. When it comes to war, his tone is rigid and stuffy, or his voice is even muted for years. If there is domesticity with wife and child, his work is about the joys of solitude for the creation of art. Whether there is wanderlust or passionate love, as with the famous Lou Andreas-Salomé (who also captured the hearts of Nietzsche and Freud), you suddenly understand why Rilke is among the most important lyrical poets ever. Not surprising, of course, because who is not influenced by the vagaries of time, place and situation?

Rilke, however, takes that credo to a higher level: he sees change and transience as what makes our existence valuable. This prompts Jacobs to rightly point out that ‘whoever studies the art of Rilke’ […] is like the traveler who faces the change.’

Rilke as guru

In the meantime, the traveler has quite a few things to choose from: according to Rilke, we have to approach the entire human existence aesthetically. Creating art is an assignment, almost a commandment, the only way to find meaning, according to Jacobs’ analysis of Rilke’s life. Rilke professes a ruthless art religion which he nourishes by travelling, by gaining new impressions and experiences and by attempting to elevate them to art. Because a good poem does not consist of expressed feelings, “but of experiences captured in language”, according to Rilke. Living for art, creating experiences, catching change in language, that is his mission and gives a human life value. In Jacobs’ words: “As long as we create and sing, we promote human ability to something that can be justified in the light of the cosmos.” Stand on it.

Most people will know Rilke from his Letters to a Young Poet, still one of the most famous books full of advice for budding artists. Rilke as a guru, as a teacher, widely known for his flawless handwriting and perfectly stylized sentences. In Staying is nowhere Jacobs lovingly takes him off that pedestal. Besides being a genius artist, Rilke turns out to be a (himself) searching man. Erratic, complaining, sickly and restless, averse to political and social contact.

Based on Rilke’s countless letters and poems (which Jacobs translates himself), Jacobs nuances, criticizes and deepens Rilke’s character. Thus the teacher appears to prefer a student, the brilliant poet often remains silent for years and the loneliness so fervently desired also breaks down Rilke: “Then I felt as if I would not recognize anyone who would visit me, and as if I too were a stranger to everyone. .”

Inner world space

Jacobs has written an at times compelling book that exudes the same atmosphere as a novel. However, the book gradually loses momentum. Although it fits well with the often solemn verses of Rilke, Jacobs’ language sometimes comes across as swollen. Like when he’s over The elegies of Duino writes, Rilke’s magnum opus that he began in 1912 in the castle of Duino on the Adriatic coast and wrote off in a creative burst of several weeks in 1922. A time frame that not entirely coincidentally spans the First World War – a period that changes Rilke’s inner world space, causing his poems focus more on ‘this world no longer seen by men but seen by angels.’ Rilke’s religious, bombastic language tempts Jacobs to adopt the same tone. Unfortunately, it often works less with him than with his great example: ‘Simply put, we can say that where Rilke condenses aspects of human existence in other works, in other works he The elegies of Duino the human condition in poetry at all.” You get used to it, but it’s slow to read.

In addition, that somewhat pompous tone is scant against his reporting passages. Although Jacobs manages to make the reader dream away at Rilke’s Europe, the book loses power when Jacobs makes observations through clinchers such as ‘It is good to be at the De’ Medici fountain in Luxembourg Gardens.’ This makes the overall tone of the book quite inconsistent in relation to his aesthetic philosophical expositions and analyzes of Rilke’s work. The reading experience feels like a journey: both heavy and confused as well as surprising and innovative.

While travelling, Jacobs does offer us tools to think about the obviousness with which we travel across our continent. In times of flight shame, corona measures and a new war on the European continent, Jacobs’ words about Rilke’s Europe after the First World War resonate. The poet then lived in a changed world in which ‘the guileless, self-indulgent, somewhat aimless attitude’ of the traveler ‘can no longer be sustained’.

With Rilke, Jacobs impresses upon us that only art and philosophy serve the search for meaning in a fragmented world. ‘It is the art that reminds us of our common background.’

The article is in Dutch

Tags: living art true life

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