Rilke, examined.

A guide to 20th-century culture.
March 23 2007 1:22 PM

Rainer Maria Rilke

What his career—taken along with Bertolt Brecht's—tells us about fame.

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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

Rainer Maria Rilke. Click image to expand.
Rainer Maria Rilke 
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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.

Rilke's fame, however, was based on the assumption that he embodied art for art's sake. Since the evidence for the assumption was overwhelming, his fame was impregnable. He had no other allegiance, and certainly no political one, to distract him from his pursuit of the exquisite. Everything in his life had to match up to the refinement of his wife, and if his wife didn't fit the picture, she had to go. His notepaper was as beautiful as his handwriting. He was as careful in his dress as Beau Brummell. The various settings in which he wrote poems were chosen from a catalog of the great houses of Europe. Titled women who owned the houses found themselves in receipt of his finely judged letters, delicately suggesting that if hospitality should be extended to him when the wind was in the right direction, masterpieces would ensue. The famous Schloss Duino, where he wrote the elegies, was not the castle that its name implies, but an Italianate palazzo with suitably comfortable quarters in which elegies could be written in lieu of rent. Rilke's perfect taste accompanied him beyond death. Volumes of Rilke correspondence are still coming out from the publishing house Insel Verlag, all of them in the same prettily proportioned format. By now I have a 5-foot shelf of books just by Rilke himself, let alone of books about him; and still there is no end in sight. I could never throw the stuff away. It looks too good.

And somewhere in the middle of it all is the relatively thin sheaf of poetry that justifies the bustle. Poets in English continue to line up for the inevitable failure of translating his short lyrics. The best translations I have seen are from Babette Deutsch, but everyone falls short, even J. B. Leishmann, who devoted his life to translating Rilke poems both big and small. Though reading Rilke would be a bad reason to learn German, if you have done so, he rewards you by proving, especially in such short lyrics as "Das Karrussel," that he really was a wonderful poet. But you can't chase up all the ancillary stuff without getting as precious as he was, and there is a dangerous moment when, in the elegies, "the tear trees, the fields of flowering sadness" start sounding like fine shades of meaning instead of forced exercises in sentimentality. Rilke had too much civilization, just as Brecht had too little: Their matching deviations from normality make both of them toxic company. Take the two together and you barely end up with one man you would want to have a drink with. You also get a pretty fair idea of just how important it is to estimate a writer through his own language and not through the language that gathers around him. Hannah Arendt has been much criticized for "Forbidden to Jove," her essay about Brecht collected in her book Men in Dark Times. John Willett, one of Brecht's principal devotees and translators, vilified Arendt for that essay. At first glance, there is indeed something absolutist in the way Arendt assures us that Brecht ruined himself as a poet by praising Stalin.

But a second glance is advisable. Even as a poet, as a master of lyric forms in which he could say anything, Brecht was inhibited by all that he could not bring himself to say about real life in the East. If his poetry is a tree, there is a whole side of its trunk missing. But we would hardly care if it were not for the sky-filling majesty of what is left. For most of his readers in English-speaking countries, the way to his poetic achievement was not open until the great parallel text came out in 1987. His use of German had always been colloquial, compressed, innovative, and street-smart ("in der Asphaltstadt bin ich daheim"—"I am at home in the city of asphalt"). In other words, there were no other words: Even Rilke is easier to translate. Thanks to the devotion of his translators to social minutiae, Rilke's relentless preciosity of diction was something that a non-German reader could get a handle on, whereas Brecht's tap-room argot remained strictly a foreign language. In the long view of history, Brecht's fame as a creep will prevail, as it ought to. Brecht's fame as a poet will depend on a wide appreciation of what he could do with language, and there lies the drawback: Because the more you appreciate what he could do with language, the more you realize how clearly he could see, and so the more you are faced with how he left things out. You are faced, that is, with what he did not do with language.

Talent usually earns forgiveness, but there are good reasons that linguistic talent earns it least. Auden was right to pardon Kipling and Claudel (as his rhyme had it, he pardoned them "for writing well"), and eventually Orwell would have pardoned Auden for so glibly sanctioning "the necessary murder." But nobody would have forgotten what anybody said. There is something about words that sticks. Painters are usually given the benefit of the doubt by writers: i.e., writers patronize painters. Picasso, for his backing of communism, is seldom given the same bad marks that we give to Brecht. In that respect, Rilke's statement needs to be amplified. Fame is not only the sum of the misunderstandings that can grow around a name, it also depends on the understandings that do not grow around it. Somehow Picasso's domestic behavior and political allegiance have not adhered to his central reputation. We are probably not wrong to be thus lulled. When a noxious idea turns up in a painting, it is more likely to make us smile than retch. Like painters but even more so, musical performers are issued at birth with a get-out-of-jail-free card. At Covent Garden and the Festival Hall during my first years in London, you could hear German conductors who had been forced to flee and others who had chosen to stay: I heard, among others, Rudolf Kempe, Karl Böhm, Hans Knappertsbusch.

There is a marvelous piece by James Thurber about a heroic solo aviator who earns the worship of America before anybody realizes that he is a prejudiced buffoon who will be a public relations disaster if sent abroad to represent his country. Finally, he has to be pushed out of a window. Clearly Thurber meant Lindbergh. In real life, Lindbergh could never be maneuvered close enough to a suitable window, but in the long run something more drastic happened. When his baby was kidnapped and killed, he showed a kind of courage that the media didn't like: reticence. The way was prepared for his reputation to collapse when the isolationism he favored (the America First movement) was discredited by the attack on Pearl Harbor. Understanding, it seemed, had gathered around his name, and certainly, on close scrutiny, there was nothing noble about his fondness for the dictators. (Gore Vidal, while making a good case for Lindbergh's isolationism, neglects to explain why anti-Semitism had to be part of the package.)

But there was a later phase, less known, that ought to be part of the picture. Lindbergh tested high-performance aircraft, probably shot down a Japanese aircraft in combat, pioneered long-distance routes for Pan Am, and generally lived out a productive life. His fame is in two parts, like Brecht's: He is the hero and the villain. For the thoughtful, it is in three parts: He is also one of the first victims of the celebrity culture. (There would have been no kidnapping if he had not been so publicized.) But it ought to be in at least four, because behind all the personae determined by events there was a personality that remained constant. He valued self-reliance, possibly too much: It made him hate collectivism so blindly that he thought fascism was the opposite, instead of the same thing in a dark shirt. Yet there is something magnificent about a man who could make a success out of any task he tackled. To complete Rilke's observation—and it is an observation, because it answers visible facts—we must accept this much: To measure the distortion of life we call fame, it is not enough to weigh the misunderstandings against the understandings. We have to see through to the actual man and decide whether, like so many artists, he is mainly what he does, or whether he has an individual and perhaps even inexpressible self, like the lonely flyer.

Clive James, the author of numerous books of criticism, autobiography, and poetry, writes for the New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker. He lives in London.