The following essay is adapted from Clive James' Cultural Amnesia, a re-examination of intellectuals, artists, and thinkers who helped shape the 20th century. Slate is publishing an exclusive selection of these essays, going roughly from A to Z.
Fame is finally only the sum total of all the misunderstandings that can gather around a new name.
—Rainer Maria Rilke, Gesammelte Werke
For those who look on the arts as a kind of celestial sports competition, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926) is up there with Bertolt Brecht for the title of German Poet of the 20th Century. The standard view of the contending couple is that Brecht's poetic art was dedicated to social revolution, whereas Rilke's poetic art was dedicated to art. There is a lot to be said for that view as it applies to Rilke, because few writers who died so young have covered so much aesthetic ground. Born in Prague, he studied art history there and also in Munich and Berlin. The personalized melancholy of his early verse gave way to an overt quest for God after he made two trips to Russia, where he met Tolstoy and the Pasternak family. (Lou Andreas-Salomé, a recurring figure in his life, as she was in the lives of many other famous men of his time, was along for the ride up the Volga.) In Paris, he got himself appointed secretary to Rodin.
An ideal aestheticism took over from mystic revelation in the poems of Neue Gedichte (1907). Some would say that his strongest and least self-consciously ethereal verse was to be found in that volume. Showing signs of believing that he had arrived at the apotheosis of art, he ascended to the empyrean in his annus mirabilis of 1923, when he wrote all of The Sonnets to Orpheus and all of The Duino Elegies: works in which the poet is elected (some might say self-elected) as the only shaping force capable of dealing with natural energy. Rilke's verse is hard to translate, but some of the middle-period verse comes across in parts. The prose is a better bet, especially the deliberately approachable Letters to a Young Poet. When he actually had enough to say that he wanted to be understood, Rilke turned out sentences that you could write a book about.
The above quote is the most often quoted thing Rilke ever said in prose. He said it, of course, in German, where it sounded even more stately; neat as it is in either language, however, here is a good example of a sentence begging to be misunderstood. The idea behind it is at least half right, although it would have no force unless it was partly wrong.
Fame can be polarized between two contrary distortions and leave its true human subject untouched in the middle. Brecht is a classic case. As the poet and playwright of the international left, he was revered by the progressive intelligentsia across the world. After Stalinism at long last became questionable, the international left was only reinforced in its fashionable authority, and Brecht's reputation along with it: He was thought to represent what had been permanently valuable in the socialist worldview. Apart from the operas, whose value was seldom challenged (only Lotte Lenya ever dared to say that Brecht would have been nothing without Kurt Weill), the plays were thought to be profound analyses of world capitalism in crisis. In my time as a student in Sydney in the late 1950s, The Good Woman of Setzuan was mounted with reverence and greeted with awe. The amateur actors concerned with the production, many of them my friends, had no idea that the body count of Mao's Great Leap Forward was still mounting even as they fretted over trying to remember their lifeless, hectoring lines about the difficulty of jolting Chinese peasants out of their selfish ways.
In the long run, there was no reversing the erosion of Brecht's shamanic prestige as the personification of radical theater. It had been apparent since The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui that Brecht had never had any intention of telling the truth about the central facts of politics in his own time. He knew what the truth was: Nobody knew better, he just wasn't going to bring it in, even by implication. Above all, the main truth was left out. According to his dramatic works, Nazism, not just at the beginning but throughout its career, existed because capitalism willed it so, and communism was the soul of freedom. In the end, there was no considerable audience left anywhere, West or East, for such a fantastic interpretation, and Brecht's reputation as a seer melted away in good time to be replaced by a contrary reputation based on the repellent details of his real-life biography.
He emerged as an ice-cold, ruthless, self-serving egomaniac contemptuous of all decencies, and especially pitiless to the women who made the mistake of paying him allegiance. Even people who admired his work have given pen-portraits that turn the stomach. Yet somewhere in between the thoroughgoing con man Brecht was in real life and the hollow prophet he was as a man of the didactic theatre, Brecht was a great poet. In the 20th-century annals of German poetry, he shares pre-eminence with Rilke, who was no paragon of humanity either.